21 December 2007

Buddhism without jargon

Buddhism Without Beliefs
Stephen Batchelor
Riverhead Trade, 1998

After reading most of the other reviews for this book, I'm wondering if maybe I read a different edition than everyone else. The 1-star folks claim that this book throws away such venerable Buddhist ideas as karma and rebirth, that author Batchelor asserts his view of a "Buddhist agnosticism" as the "original, pure, true" Buddhism, and that this book is tantamount to heresy and should be reviled. Most of the 5-star reviews view this book as something akin to the Fourth Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. From where I'm sitting, this book is significantly less offensive and dismissive than the 1-star people would have you believe, while also being slightly less earth-shattering than most other 5-star reviewers assert.

Basically, Buddhism Without Beliefs boils down to Buddhism without jargon. Batchelor discusses a good deal of traditional Buddhist ideas, but he does so without using the Pali and Sanskrit terminology and threadbare traditional examples that can hinder clear communication. In fact, it is this judicious reframing and masterful retranslation of many received Buddhist teachings that makes this book so powerful. For example, instead of discussing the Four Noble Truths (always written with initial caps), he talks about "four ennobling truths." While this might seem to be a mere exercise in semantics, he makes it clear that it is not: "Yet in failing to make this distinction [i.e., that each truth requires a particular action on the part of the practitioner], four ennobling truths to be acted upon are neatly turned into four propositions of life to be believed" (p.5) Right out of the gate, Batchelor's point is clear. If Buddhadharma is to be a lived reality, a practice with efficacy in one's life, then for many of us it cannot be approached like an ossified belief system.

The rest of the book is equally powerful and lucid. "We discover that we have been thrown, apparently without choice, into a world not of our making" (p. 22). How much more succinctly and clearly can one summarize the existential dilemma---dukkha in Pali---intuited by the Buddha? And using language that also invokes Western thinkers like Heidegger and Ortega y Gasset in the bargain! "Evasion of the unadorned immediacy of life is as deep-seated as it is relentless" (p. 25) Breathtaking and to the point! He discusses Buddhism's unique approach to ethics (shila) in his chapter on integrity--"Dharma practice cannot be abstracted from the way we interact with the world. Our deeds, words, and intentions create an ethical ambience that either supports or weakens resolve. If we behave in a way that harms either others or ourselves, the capacity to focus on the task will be weakened" (p. 45). Spiritual friends and gurus, like the Socratic ideal, "are like midwives, who draw forth what is waiting to be born. Their task is not to make themselves indispensable but redundant" (p. 51).

About awareness and mindfulness he says, "one of the most difficult things to remember is to remember to remember" (p. 58) That is one of the craziest things I've ever read, precisely because it captures my own often absurd experiences on the zafu so vividly! Commenting that "focused awareness is difficult not because we are inept at some spiritual technology but because it threatens our sense of who we are," Batchelor could be accused of channeling Trungpa Rinpoche (p.62), hardly the model heretic.

And in his most provocative chapter, he does not dismiss the possiblity of rebirth out of hand, as many reviewers have alleged: rather, as he says quite clearly, "it may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge, in all honesty, I do not know....Dharma practice requires the courage to confront what it means to be human....To cling to the idea of rebirth can deaden questioning" (p. 38) Again and again and again, in cogent chapter after chapter, Batchelor explores what it means to practice Buddhadharma without necessarily clinging to a religious orthodoxy that can numb as easily as it can awaken.

Does someone who gets a good deal out of this book have to then chuck any tendencies toward Buddhist religiosity that naturally arise within them? Of course not. Readers also, if they are like me, don't have to get rid of any tendencies toward Christian religiosity that naturally arise within them either. That's the beauty to me of Batchelor's Buddhist agnosticism. It is about experiencing what arises without prejudice and just seeing what happens. In that sense, this book echoes all the other meaningful dharma books I've read. What it adds is an openness to doctrinal uncertainty and ambiguity that is refreshing for those of us looking to awaken while taking refuge from dogmatic religiosity.

(This review was written on July 13, 2007.)

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