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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. A Book Review.

I know some people find him controversial in Buddhist circles but I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Stephen Batchelor's books. So, it was with excitement that I opened the envelope from his office containing the new book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist."

The beginning is the story of his journey East on the "Hippie Trail" toward India and Asia where he studied Buddhism as a monk in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama. Then, later, studying Zen in Korea.

Of course a lot of the conclusions reflect an atheistic view but rather than give away the juicy parts I'll let you discover those for yourself. I highly recommend this book to the contemporary Buddhist. To quote the book jacket, "A stunning and groundbreaking recovery of the historical Buddha and his message." Sounds interesting, huh? If so, read on.

The parts that caught my interest most were the chapters on getting back to the basics of Buddhism as found in the Pali cannon. One example that comes to mind is Mr. Batchelor emphasizing a teaching from Buddha that has been lost on some over the years, and is the idea that doubt is not only acceptable in Buddhism but essential to waking up. Batchelor underlines this with the Zen aphorism, "When there is great doubt, there is great awakening."

Batchelor explains:

This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of the conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to superficial consolations of eternity.
This is unknowing is in part why some Zen teachers purpose seemingly illogical questions for the conditioned mind, known as koans. They often confound the "logical mind" which "resets" things allowing for awareness to arise and enlighten in that open space--that open moment. Hagen's Koren Zen teacher, Kusan Sunim explains further, "If you continue inquiring in this way, the questioning will become more intense. Finally, when this mass of questioning enlarges to a critical point, it will suddenly burst. The entire universe will be shattered and only your original nature will appear before you. In this way you will awaken."

I also appreciated the author's quoting the Buddha in regards to the use of prayer. "There is no point in praying for divine guidance or assistance. That, as Gotama told Viasettha, would be like someone who wishes to cross the Aciravati River by calling out to the far bank: 'Come here, other bank, come here!' No amount of 'calling, begging, requesting, or wheedling' will have any effect at all."

Finally, I'll wrap this up with some good, old fashioned, cold, water of Buddhism being splashed on the heat of our ego-minds. "In other words: when the chips are down, the only thing you can rely on is whatever values and practices you have managed to intergrate into your own life. Neither the Buddha nor the Sangha (community) will be of any help. You are on your own." We like to flower our lives with wonderfully vivid stories of the metaphysical, and of Bodhisattvas interceding on our behalf but hard truth found in the suttas/sutras is that we're on our own. We are our own Bodhisattvas and our own saviors.

It is somewhat terrifying at first but upon further reflection it is honest, realistic, compassionate, truth. Buddhism isn't for sissies--that's for sure. If you're looking for someone to save you then you probably will find Buddhism to be a bit too honest and harsh. However, if you're looking to cut through the bullshit and the fluff then Buddhism and this book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" mind be helpful along your journey. All in all I enjoyed this book as a dog savors a good bone. I couldn't put it down and read through it like a saw cuts through a forest. It was a great read. I give it a 9 out of 10 -- 10 being best. Go get it and read it.

---End of Transmission---

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Theresa said...

This clinches it - I'm going to have to get this book! I've listened to a podcast over at by Stephen Batchelor where he talks about this book and also watched the online retreat videos by him at the Tricycle website, and I do very much like these basic, rock bottom teachings. Thanks so much for this review!

Mumon said...

Thanks for the post. This is one of those books I probably won't buy or read, mostly because I suspect I already agree with 96% of it. Maybe more.

And finding where that position sits within the wider Buddhist canon is more interesting & challenging.

原秋 said...

I love readding, and thanks for your artical. ........................................

Matt Stone said...

I have to say I'm generally skeptical of people who call themselves Buddhist Atheists. Much as I'm skeptical of people who call themselves ChristoPagans. When asked if they ascribe to karma, reincarnation or nirvana the deeper reality comes out one way or another. Either they're genuinely Buddhist but a bit muddled about Atheist or genuinely Atheist but a bit muddled about Buddhism.

Uku said...

I think it's impossible to be a Buddhist atheist. Atheism is also kind of a religion, very strict ideology and it's quite impossible to mix Buddhism and Atheism. I think it's quite absurd that Atheists are claiming that they're not religious persons etc. although their claims and ideologically is quite fundamentally religious and they're quite strict believers in their own cause. Buddhist Atheist? Quite impossible, I think. Secular Buddhist? That's possible.

婉耿賢耿賢亞 said...


They call him James Ure said...


I think you'll enjoy it then.


Yeah, I found myself nodding in agreement me with a lot of it. I was underlining parts and then about 100 pages in I realized that i might as well underline the whole book!! It's that interesting.

It's not just about atheistic thinking--actually it has less atheism to it than the title suggests.

Matt Stone and Uku:

I wouldn't disagree with what you're saying. Personally I am only atheist in the sense that I deny a Creator, Universal, God. Nor any other gods, etc.

Dylan said...

We do not know if the Pali Canon is a reflection of "early Buddhism" or the historical Buddha's teachings. I would recommend reading any of Gregory Schopen's scholarship. He uses archeological evidence to find out what actual Buddhists were doing in India. It doesn't match up with the Pali Canon.

Perhaps Batchelor's book should not be looked at as a logical, rational, myth-free approach to the Buddha's teachings, but rather him participating in the long tradition of myth-making regarding the historical Buddha. Like other portrayals in the past, the historical Buddha he constructs is a reflection of his values.

doug said...

I am not a religious man. I like the teaching of the Buddha.I am a man living in this life, trying to be good to myself and others. I meditate because it keeps me calm and centered. It makes me feel compassion. It helps me stay disciplined. I am practicing some aspects of Buddhism, but I don't believe in gods. Buddha was not a god, he was an enlightened man.
I guess that I could be considered a Secular Buddhist.

They call him James Ure said...

@Dylan: Thanks for the suggestion. I'll be looking into those books. Being a historian by education I am always curious about what the historical aspects of early Buddhism.

@Doug: I think you're approach sounds very rational and logical. We're all on different parts of the path but can all relate to the Dharma in one way or another. That's the beauty and greatness in Buddhism.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. This one should be called Side Board and Cupboard and Drawers. heh.
Law School | Online Natural sciences degree

Dr. Jim Roche said...

Exactly why are atheists really religious? People here complain and say this, but offer no reason. They say they are is that religious? an atheist is someone who does not believe in an external cause or force that has some sort of "being" to it. They usually simply think that when we make claims, they need to be supported by facts and data, while those who are religious make claims that are supported by feelings, hunches and ideas. You can argue these differences and say religion is based upon facts and science, but that is getting silly and moving away from the common acceptance of what religion is. Religion, to 99% of the world. including most Buddhists, is a belief in someone or thing having influence on the cause and actions of existence. Atheists don't, they believe that meaning, if there is any, needs to be created. Camus was an atheist, but a deeply spiritual person. And for the past 40 years many western Buddhists I have know have been atheists, and spiritual.

Paul said...

Hi Dylan,

Have a look here for a review on Schopen.

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