Monday, June 1, 2009

Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs": Book Review

(Reborn Post!) This merits attention given Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett's neo-atheism. (I reviewed them all here.) Yet they, with the possible exception of Harris, denigrate Buddhism as another "organized religion" under what neo-atheists dismiss as ossified ritual or as the Dalai Lama's feudal mindset. As a former Zen as well as Tibetan monk, Batchelor's agnostic, secular, and democratic form of a non-theistic Buddhism may fill the "god-shaped hole" that Sartre lamented opens within our existential plight. He may find an audience that may overlap with many humanists.

Existentialism, Batchelor bravely reasons, demands confrontations rather than consolations. Buddhism, an "-ism," expects belief; the dharma-teaching requires practice. (This may be why many secular Jews find Buddhism so attractive; it allows a disciplined form of intense self-analysis allied to ethical action and social transformation that fits with Western democratic engagement through liberal precepts.)

Awakening, he notes, for the early listeners to the Buddha often came quickly. Why, for followers since, is it mired within lifetimes of karmic sludge and nearly endless rebirths? (Regarding Tibetan interpretations, I have found that they can be very discouraging, so rarified their doctrine and relentless their expectations that one may likely never for eons free one's misguided self from "samsara" and the karmic wheel.) Batchelor argues that the Buddha had to preach what his Hindu listeners understood, so he had to use their own concepts of cosmology, biology, and consciousness. Now, these have been replaced by science, and dharma should align with knowledge derived from today.

We can't expect an afterlife, but we can't deny it. We must, as Gautama reminded his listeners, admit that we cannot answer such questions as eternity's finite or infinite duration, the soul's connection with the body, and existence after death that were "undeclared by the Buddha" (qtd. 14). Therefore, Batchelor boldly shifts away from karma and rebirth as antiquated concepts. Better, he thinks, to try for awakening that then cycles back to the Four Noble Truths of "understanding anguish," "letting go" of it, "realizing" that craving can end, and "embarking on the path to be cultivated." Don't trust in a guru or a method that requires obeisance and observance of fossilized patterns of repetition, he advises.

Forget antiquated, pre-scientific world-views, even within Buddhism. Instead, promote the ethics of empathy rather than "a metaphysics of fear and hope." Decentralized, non-hierarchical, autonomous "communities of awakening" may, he idealistically concludes, show an alternative for secularized Westerners-- and modern Easterners? We need to retrofit our understanding of Buddhism into an individual, small-scale, and liberating culture. No more temple, no more institutions that threaten to freeze Buddhism into a synonym for ritual or water it down into only meditation, but a fluid setting "where creative imagination and social engagement are valued as highly as philosophic reflection and meditative attainment." (114)

As if in a narrative we keep rewriting, our selves better fit this ongoing revision rather than a fixed concept of ourselves starring in our own egotistical movie. As if in a boat floating along, thinking we'll live always in comfort, we fail to perceive we never know when or where the waterfall will carry us off to sudden death. Batchelor's treatise remains rather severe. Like the Buddha, he wants to shock us into awareness of our dream-like state, and its consequences for our self.

"The craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere, permeates the body, feelings, perceptions, will-- consciousness itself. It is like the background radiation from the big bang of birth, the aftershock of having erupted into existence." (25) Batchelor forces the reader towards resolve, commitment, integrity, friendship, and to put into practice by the non-theistic, mantra-free meditation situations he shares. Not as a way out of our existential anguish, but as in great literature and enduring art, an exposure to the Big Questions that does not promise rote responses.

By staring the universe within and without us directly on, we may not be calmed by preached pablum. But, it's a bold move that snaps us out of reverie into the beauty of our short life. This is the awakening, Batchelor finds, that the Buddha showed his followers. Not a god, not a priest, but we ourselves must liberate ourselves. Freer of the intensity that loses our identity within what we buy and sell, watch and wallow in, the lessons of the dharma-practice are those even neo-atheists might find congenial. For, they turn away from idols and incense, structures and stupas.

It's very brief; a lifetime of thought distilled and concentrated into short chapters where you can hear him think. This may not be an ideal starter, but it should be read early on by one curious about Buddhist frameworks anybody can comprehend. The middle chapters seemed despite their brevity to wander around topics, and the mood shifts into more of a psychological analysis midway, but this may be the nature of an author so immersed in this harrowing, uncertain, fleeting inner world that he explores unflinchingly and confidently. Not in the assurance of ready-made solutions, but of the necessity of the interior quest itself and its exterior manifestations that extend goodness and integrity towards everyone else.

"The more we become conscious of the mysterious unfolding of life, the clearer it becomes that its purpose is not to fulfill the expectations of our ego. We can put into words only the question it poses. And then let go, listen, and wait." (99) This reminds me of moments in Shakespeare or Beckett, this bold staring down of "shunyata," "emptiness" that we cannot define satisfactorily for its own notion "falls prey to the very habit of mind it was intended to undermine." (81)

(Posted 5-18-09 to Amazon US. Accidentally sent into nirvana away from this blog, so here reincarnated! P.S. "What Makes You Not a Buddhist" by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, reviewed by me last month on Amazon and my blog, fits well Batchelor's revisionist and reductive call for a simplified system to replace calcified "religion"-- they both use the sandcastle image, and snake that's not a snake analogies!)

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