1998-04-26: Buddhism Without Beliefs

Buddhism Without Beliefs

A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (1997)

by Stephen Batchelor (1953-)

This is a non-religious book about the essence of the teaching of the Buddha. Batchelor has avoided the use of jargon or foreign words, with the exception of “dharma” and “dharma practice”. Unfortunately these are poorly defined:

Broadly speaking, “dharma” refers to the teachings of the Buddha as well as to those aspects of reality and experience with which his teachings are concerned. “Dharma practice” refers to the way of life undertaken by someone who is inspired by such teachings.

A definition like this begs a few questions; apparently Batchelor expected the meanings to become clear in his exposition of the teachings.

The book is in three parts: Ground, Path, and Fruition; it includes a bibliography. Batchelor’s experience as a monk in the Zen and Tibetan traditions give him some authority as he attempts to separate traditions from essence. Like all good books, it has interesting epigrams, like this quote from the Buddha that opens Ground.

Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought “The monk is our teacher.” When you know in yourselves: “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them.

Batchelor sums up the Buddha’s first discourse to his five companions.

… He then describes four ennobling truths: those of anguish, its origins, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. Anguish, he says, is to be understood, its origins to be let go of, its cessation to be realized, and the path to be cultivated. And this is precisely what he himself has done: he has understood anguish, let go of its origins, realized its cessation, and cultivated the path.

Batchelor then goes on to describe how these simple truths have come to be enwrapped in traditions as they have been introduced into various cultures and promoted by various communities. He says

And the crucial distinction that each truth requires being acted upon in its own particular way (understanding anguish, letting go of its origins, realizing its cessation, and cultivating the path) has been relegated to the margins of specialized doctrinal knowledge. Few Buddhists today are probably even aware of the distinction.

Yet in failing to make this distinction, four ennobling truths to be acted upon are neatly turned into four propositions of fact to be believed. The first truth becomes: “Life is Suffering”; the second: “The Cause of Suffering is Craving” – and so on. At precisely this juncture, Buddhism becomes a religion. A Buddhist is someone who believes these four propositions.

Batchelor uses most of the rest of the book to describe how to act on these truths, and whittles away at their proposition-nature. He argues for discarding most of the metaphysical baggage the Buddha shared with his place and time, such as reincarnation and karma. His view of dharma practice is a basis for ethics without religion.

Near the end of the book, Batchelor discusses the relation of dharma practice and the concept of Freedom, and how more people in the world ‘enjoy’ freedom than at any time in history. This part of the book has many memetic possibilities. One epigram is particularly apt:

[A] talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.  – Richard Rorty

Some references:

Rick Fields: How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Shambhala, 1981)

Stephen Batchelor: The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture (Parallax, 1994)

Nanamoli Thera (Osbert Moore): The Life of the Buddha

Richard Rorty: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Thich Nhat Hanh: Being Peace (Parallax, 1987)

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