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Stephen Batchelor's Confession

A Review of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist


The Buddha said, Though a fool may associate with a wise man, he no more understands dhamma than a spoon tastes the soup. I don't think Stephen Batchelor is a fool, but I admit I've been tempted to title this review of Confession of a Buddhist Athiest "A Tale Told by a Spoon."

The book is an autobiographical account of Batchelor's experiences in Buddhism, which are considerable. Along the way, there grew in him a desire to liberate Buddhism from its Asian strictures and "rearticulate the core Buddhist ideas in a contemporary language that spoke directly to the concerns of men and women living in twentieth-century Europe and America." He enlarges on these ideas in the latter part of Confessions.

Batchelor's ideas are not without value, and many people will find Batchelor's version of Buddhism more palatable than "traditional" Buddhism, and that's fine. But it wouldn't satisfy me, and in any event a great many remarkable teachers already have established the foundations of Buddhism in the West, Buddhism that already is "rearticulated," accessible and meaningful for westerners without being watered down or artificially "westernized."

For the record, I agree with Batchelor that over the centuries Buddhism became cluttered with considerable cultural claptrap that doesn't relate to the West; we have our own claptrap, thank you very much. However, Batchelor's version of Buddhism is too severely truncated. He's thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Batchelor as a Monk

The book begins with the 19-year-old Batchelor tramping about Asia in the early 1970s and eventually arriving at Dharamsala, India, center of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. He took up the study of vajrayana in Dharamsala and received monk's ordination in 1974, when he was 21.

The credulity of youth still lingers in Batchelor's account of that time. At first, he plunged into vajrayana with some enthusiasm. However, the Buddhism he found in Dharamsala was encrusted with centuries of arcana, all deeply bound to Tibetan culture and alien to a westerner. The lamas did not relate to what he was experiencing and didn't seem to give him the guidance he needed at that point in his practice.

I don't blame Batchelor for eventually rebelling against, in his words, visualizing himself "as the bull-headed Yamantaka or the blood-drinking Vajrayogini in their celestial mansions of light." Frankly, I think I would have bailed a lot sooner than Batchelor. Old-school vajrayana isn't for everyone.

The more troubling part of this account is that Batchelor's understanding of dharma remained anchored to cognitive knowledge and intellectual concepts, as it seems to do to this day. Whatever doesn't make intellectual sense to him, he rejects. And all too often, there goes the baby.

For example, on page 34 of Confessions Batchelor writes about the 7th-century philosopher Dharmakirti -- "His philosophy gave me an excellent conceptual framework for interpreting my practice of mindfulness as well as the other experiences I had had in Dharamsala." However, "Emptiness of inherent existence, by contrast, is just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction."

"Emptiness of inherent existence" -- shunyata -- is the key to understanding Mahayana Buddhism. Without some appreciation for shunyata, you will misunderstand everything else. Realization of shunyata is the perfection of great wisdom evoked by the Heart Sutra. And it's a "conceptual and intellectual abstraction" only until one learns how to reach beyond the limits of conceptual thought to understand it.

But notice that Batchelor sets up a contrast between "conceptual frameworks" that he can grasp intellectually (Dharmakirti, who proposed an atomistic explanation of reality) and those he can't -- emptiness, shunyata (and, for the record, Dharmakirti's proposals do not countermand shunyata). And there is the brick wall he built around his understanding of Buddhism.

When I say "reaching beyond conceptual thought" I am not talking about merely "believing in" doctrine. And yes, here is the Zen student talking, but I think ultimately most schools of Buddhism provide a path beyond concept and belief, one way or another.

Buddhism and Belief

I realize that Stephen Batchelor's most well-known book is titled Buddhism Without Beliefs. But he seems to think that to have a Buddhism Without Beliefs requires some bold reconfiguration of Buddhism. I agree belief is not the point of Buddhism; I disagree that Buddhism has to be reconfigured.

You could define many Buddhist doctrines as descriptions of how an enlightened being perceives reality. But developing an intellectual understanding of or "believing in" a doctrine is not enlightenment. Intimate perception, direct realization, waking up to a transformed perception of reality -- is enlightenment.

Whether the thing believed in is factual or not, beliefs are not reality. But neither are concepts or ideas.

In some schools -- and I understand this is how Tibetan Buddhism works, on the whole -- accepting doctrine becomes a foundation of practice. But as the student matures spiritually, beliefs and concepts should fall away and be replaced by direct, personal realization.

Zen takes a somewhat different approach. At the very beginning Zen students are encouraged to release beliefs -- including disbeliefs -- assumptions, and expectations, and develop "beginner's mind" or "don't know mind," which Batchelor calls "deep agnosticism." Some Zen teachers don't introduce much in the way of doctrine to a student until the student is well into this process. Then the student can study doctrines without turning them into a mere belief system.

Here's a small example: Once I saw a group of Zen newbies ask the late John Daido Loori, Roshi, a question about reincarnation, which they were imagining as souls reborn in new bodies. "There is no such thing as reincarnation," he said, flatly. But at another retreat -- a formal sesshin attended only by Zen students -- he said, "There is reincarnation, but it isn't what you think it is." Whatever we think rebirth is, is not what it is. Conceptual understanding won't cut it.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. Let's go back and pick up Batchelor's years with Zen.

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