Western Buddhist Review

Review: Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor

On Wed, 22 August, 2012 - 20:28
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor, Spiegel & Grau: New York, 2010, 302 pages, ISBN 978-0-385-52706-4, UK £19-99hb/£10pb.

review by Dhivan Thomas Jones

Stephen Batchelor is perhaps best known for his 1998 book Buddhism Without Beliefs. There he argued for a Buddhist agnosticism, that is, for saying ‘I do not know’ rather than believing in the dogmas and assertions of lamas and gurus. The book triggered heated discussion on whether Buddhists need to believe in karma and rebirth. It turned out that some western converts to Buddhism were just as fervent in their beliefs as religious devotees of other faiths. Batchelor, unlike post-Christian thinkers like Don Cupitt, who have abandoned traditional religious language, did not abandon the label ‘Buddhism’. Instead he attempted to re-negotiate what being a Buddhist should involve – not beliefs, but enquiry; not propositions, but awareness. Hence his book was something of a manifesto for Buddhism as a form of secular humanism, in which beliefs like karma and rebirth, even the belief in ‘enlightenment’ as an escape from samsara, were jettisoned as the cultural form, not the essence, of the Buddha’s liberating teaching.

The book attracted criticism. Sangharakshita, for instance, reviewing it for Western Buddhist Review, volume 2, having found much to enjoy in the book, nevertheless objected to Batchelor’s rhetorical style, which put across his agnosticism in as authoritarian a way as the believers in metaphysical absolutes he was getting the reader to question. Batchelor’s follow-up of 2004 was Living with the Devil, a study of the figure of Mara. The conclusions Batchelor draws were in fact profound and far-reaching, but were not presented in such a polemical form. Now, in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor again presents his radical, liberal, existentialist version of the Buddha’s teachings in a direct way, but here his approach is highly personal.

The title is clever. It plays on two senses of the word ‘confession’: an intimate revelation, and a declaration of faith. The book is both a memoir of how Batchelor became a Buddhist atheist, and an exposition of what kind of Buddhism he now professes. In fact, it is two books partly interwoven: a book of memoirs giving way to a book about the Buddha and his original teaching, with a bit of shifting between the two as the book progresses. The effect is a kind of collage, and towards the end of his book, Batchelor explains how he writes his books in a completely unsystematic way, collecting ideas, assembling them later, trying to maintain the illusion of some orderly narrative, knowing that his books exist in the tension between imposed order and the arbitrariness of the content. He then draws an extraordinary moral:

‘To practice the Dharma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else’s idea of what “Buddhism” is or should be.’ (p.229)

This ‘confession’ is quite a revelation. First, it suggests that Batchelor’s book, like his writing style and his Buddhism, is profoundly individualistic: it’s just his take on things. Second, his attitude to Buddhism is completely pragmatic – he treats it as ‘true’ only insofar as ‘it works’ and is useful. The ‘memoir’ part of his Confession is thus an account of how he became an individualist pragmatic kind of Buddhist, and the ‘declaration of faith’ part of his Confession is an attempt to read this kind of Buddhism back into the life and teaching of the Buddha.

First, then, the life-story. In telling the reader about his own Buddhist journey, Batchelor is neither apologising nor recommending, but just telling us about his particular unsystematic collage-like Dharma-life. What comes across, quietly but insistently, is an attitude of great dedication to living a Dharma life, as a westerner, seeking an authentic western expression of the Dharma. Born and raised in London, he became a 1960s existentially-challenged ‘pastoral (rather than cosmic) hippie’ (p.11). He wandered to India, and in 1972 encountered Buddhism in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, and of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. He became a sincere, devoted monk in the Geluk tradition, eventually returning to Europe to assist Geshe Rabten in establishing a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Switzerland. However, he realized that he did not believe in karma and rebirth, which are fundamental assumptions in the Tibetan Buddhist worldview, much as belief in God is for Christianity. He became, in his own words, a ‘Buddhist failure’, unable to faithfully continue the Tibetan Buddhist traditions of his teachers. Happily, he discovered existential philosophy, and in it a way back towards an intellectual context for his Buddhism.

He went to Korea to practise Zen. But after four years he found himself unable to continue the monastic practice of his teacher, and once again he became, in the eyes of tradition, a ‘Buddhist failure’, though there is of course some irony in this self-deprecation. In the light of his long monastic experience Batchelor concludes that celibacy is no longer necessary for committed Dharma students. While the monastic life will always attract some, social and economic changes plus the availability of effective contraception mean that it is no longer necessary to become a monk to practice Buddhism. Batchelor thus implicitly aligns himself with Buddhist movements like the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly FWBO) that have also dropped the monastic/lay split, which though traditional, does not seem so relevant in the modern west. Batchelor married Martine, whom he had met in the Zen monastery, and they lived in Devon, UK, in a Buddhist community near Gaia House retreat centre. He continued to write books on Buddhism, and teach meditation when asked. He finally moved to his wife’s home in France, where he now lives, continuing to write and teach.

The transition to his book’s being a Confession in the sense of a ‘declaration of faith’ is abrupt and begins with an account of Batchelor’s discovery of the Pali Canon and subsequently of the historical Buddha. He seeks to reconstruct the life and teaching of the Buddha independently of those aspects of Indian religious metaphysics that were merely the intellectual context for the Buddha’s teaching. About the reconstruction process, he writes:

‘I realize that everything I discover about this distant historical person will also reveal something about myself. I cannot claim that my version of the Buddha is somehow more true or correct than yours. All I can say is that the materials buried in the Pali canon and elsewhere have not yet exhausted their capacity to generate more stories about Gotama and what he taught.’ (p.110)

This is an acknowledgement that what Batchelor discovers about the Buddha and his teaching is admittedly partly just his individualistic version of things. His version emphasises the Buddha as an educated visionary on the Indian political scene of the 5th c. bce. He speculates (there is no evidence, let alone proof) that the Buddha studied in Taxila, in the north-west of India, a Persian city famous for its centres of learning (p.117), and that he knew all the movers and shakers of his day from his childhood. Yet he became a teacher of a profound spiritual discipline based on mindfulness, by which one wakes up and adjusts to ‘the contingent, transient, ambiguous, unpredictable, fascinating, and terrifying ground called “life”.’ (p.128)

Batchelor takes the Buddha’s four noble truths to be four challenges to our ordinary way of approaching life. They boil down to a template for life: Embrace, Let go, Stop: Act!

‘Rather than shying away from or ignoring what is happening, embrace it with mindful attention; rather than craving to seize it or get rid of it, relax one’s grip; rather than getting caught up in a cascade of reactivity, stop and stay calm; rather than repeat what you have said and done a thousand times before, act in an empathetic and imaginative way.’ (p.161)

This is what is important for Batchelor in the Buddha’s teaching: it has become ‘a philosophy of action and responsibility’ (p.181), a set of values that enable him to ‘create a path in life’ (ibid.). Batchelor calls this a kind of Buddhist ‘theology’ – an interpretation of the living spirit of Buddhism, not an objective study. Of course, this is theology without the ‘theos’: Batchelor embraces an ‘ironic atheism’ (p.179), rejecting religious and metaphysical ideas in a light-hearted way, because they are not relevant.

I should think western readers, this reviewer included, will rejoice in Batchelor’s efforts to present the Buddha’s life and teaching in ways totally relevant to modern, secular concerns. I also greatly appreciated his chapter about Clearing the Path, by Ñāṇavīra Thera, a ground-breaking book that presents the Buddha’s teaching of paṭicca-samuppāda independently of rebirth, as a form of existential phenomenology (p.136ff). This chapter puts Batchelor’s efforts of interpretation into a broader context of authentically modern western interpretation of the Dharma. However, as a scholar, I feel that Batchelor’s work is compromised by a cavalier attitude to the Pali canon and to the life of the Buddha. As we have seen, Batchelor is quite honest about presenting his ideas very much as his own. However, he also presents himself as rediscovering the historical Buddha and his teaching through bona fide research into the Pali sources. Unfortunately, Batchelor is not a reliable scholar, and readers should take his ideas as his interpretation rather than a guide to what the early discourses actually say.

I think there are two main issues. Firstly, Batchelor wishes to suggest that the Buddha himself did not positively teach rebirth; this is, however, wrong, and Batchelor’s argument is perverse. Batchelor rightly says that the Buddha refused to answer a number of metaphysical questions. These are the ten ‘unanswered’ questions: whether the world is eternal or non eternal; whether it is finite or infinite; whether the soul and the body are the same or different; and whether the tathāgata exists after death, does not exist, both or neither. Batchelor, however, takes tathāgata to mean ‘anyone’, and hence the unanswered question to be ‘Does one continue to exist after death or not?’ (p.99). Batchelor goes on to say ‘By refusing to address… whether one exists after death or not, he undermines the possibility of constructing a theory of reincarnation’ (p.100). Hence Batchelor would have his reader believe that the historical Buddha did not positively teach rebirth.

This is misleading and tendentious. Whether or not one believes in rebirth, an honest reader of the Pali sources has to admit that the Buddha very clearly taught rebirth according to karma. This may have been the Buddha’s ‘skilful means’ in a society in which most people believed in rebirth, but it equally possible that the Buddha actually did believe in it. In a note (p.263), Batchelor argues for his claim that tathāgata in the unanswered questions can mean ‘anyone’. The idea comes from the Pali commentaries, which sometimes take tathāgata that way. Unfortunately for Batchelor, however, the commentaries indisputably teach karma and rebirth. He does not seem to realise that the word tathāgata is not a specifically Buddhist term, but nevertheless refers to a liberated person. Thus the last four ‘unanswered questions’ concern whether a liberated person exists after death, having broken out of samsara. The question does not refer to non-liberated people, who, the Buddha explains over and again, are trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth according to karma. Had Batchelor said that rebirth was not necessarily literally the case, but could be taken as a metaphor, a story about the mysteries of existence, he would not have needed to distort the Buddha’s teaching to suit his own conclusions.

The second issue concerns the sources for his reconstruction of the Buddha’s life (which is constructed around the entertaining story of his own pilgrimage around north India, and shows off his considerable gifts as a writer). To fill out the Buddha’s life as an exemplification of the ideas Batchelor has described, he looks for stories in the Pali canon that tell of a man seeking to promulgate not a new religion but a civilization based on awakening. However, as he admits, the Pali canon does not tell us very much about the Buddha. What biographical information it contains is usually in the service of the Dharma. In a way, the person of the Buddha has disappeared behind his teaching. Batchelor fills out the details with stories from the later Pali commentaries, especially the Dhammapada commentary. This allows him to reconstruct the ‘failure’ of the Buddha’s mission to infuse the kingdoms of his day with his teaching. His patron King Pasenadi lost his throne, and Pasenadi’s successor destroyed the Buddha’s homeland of Sakya. However, Batchelor’s method here is inconsistent. The Pali commentaries, which are the sole source for the stories he relies on, date from centuries after the time of the Buddha, and are certainly not historical sources. Batchelor’s reconstruction of the Buddha’s life should be regarded as a fictional biography, not as a plausible historical narrative.

Stephen Batchelor has long left behind any organised form of Buddhism. His pragmatic, individualistic version of the Buddha and his teaching is just something useful that makes sense to him. So how is this going to be of service to other seekers of the Buddha’s wisdom? Batchelor admits that institutional forms of organised Buddhism (like monasteries) have provided him with an essential basis of training and education, without which he would not be able to write about the Dharma: ‘Whether I like it or not, the animating spirit of religious life and its formal organization appear – like the Buddha and Māra – to be inextricably entwined with each other’ (p.236). His ‘Confession’ shows him aware of the need for religious institutions but committed to doing without them. He has identified the core of the Buddha’s message as living with contingency, but cannot admit that the Buddha also taught karma and rebirth. He wants to tell the story of the Buddha in a secular way, but does so by picking out stories from the Buddhist tradition that fit his view. Much as one can entirely respect his life’s commitment and integrity, I wonder if in this book he isn’t in danger of setting Buddhist atheism on one or two wrong tracks.

Dhivan Thomas Jones has a PhD in philosophy from Lancaster University, and more recently gained an MPhil in Pali and Sanskrit from Cambridge University. He was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 2004.

How to cite this review: Jones, Dhivan Thomas. 2012. ‘Review. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor’. Western Buddhist Review [online], www.thebuddhistcentre.com/westernbuddhistreview

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samachitta's picture
I really appreciated this review, Dhivan! Thank you very much!
Costa Rica Chris's picture
Thank you for this review. I am just a lay Buddhist and not well versed in the teachings, have no Pali and have read relatively little.most of “Buddhism without Belief”, awakened the possibility of Buddhism for me. In Dwarkin’s scale of Atheism I was and still am more atheistic than Dwarkin. There are reasons why the review of this book seems a little harsh.

1. Given that Buddha was a real person and lived in a place and time where reincarnation was accepted as normal, it seems entirely possible that he both believed in it and taught it. If this is the case, it does not necessarily negate Batchelor’s ideas, unless you believe that the Buddha knew everything past present and future. If so what is the basis for such a belief?

2. For some years, I attended a Sangha in NY, which I would describe as Therevada with western psychology and neuro science elements. The teacher said that the Buddha said words to the effect that, “Do not take my word for the dahma, discover it for yourself”. If this is really in the teachings, then surely this offers some lattitude for Batchelor to have a different point of view on reincarnation, the soul etc.

3. All the Buddhists that I have met so far have agreed that there was an oral tradition of several hundred years before the Dahma appeared in Pali. Comparison of the histories of more recent Christianity and Islam and Buddhism, shows how, even over a shorter period and with written language already existing, there can be disputes and schisms around what really occured and what did not. Belief systems/religions are prone to addaptation as they pass through different countries and cultures. My travels in Asia and indeed the New York experience indicate that this is as true of Buddhism. Oral traditions were likely modified and interpreted in the time since the Buddha’s passing. Why then are the New York ideas or Batchelor’s ideas a problem?

4. The reviewer makes the point that the Buddha refused to discuss various questions. These may well have included references to the soul and reincarnation. Our NY teacher opined that this was because there was no point in discussing things that were as unknowable.

It would be very helpful to me if those more versed in the Dahma could respond to these points.
jane.easton@blueyonder.co.uk's picture
Thanks, Dhivan. Really good to read such an even-handed review of this book. I’ve long been an admirer of Batchelor after reading ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’. It really spoke to me. I am a ‘sort-of mitra’, love my Triratna friends/family and think the movement is awesome - but not one size fits all, even this open-minded movement and while I don’t want to dismiss more traditional teachings and teachers and while I try to keep an open mind, I long ago decided that I wasn’t going to accept anything on ‘faith’ or just because someone told me so, however well-meaning/knowledgeable/skilful they were. I sit on various chairs as it were. My thinking about rebirth and such is that we simply don’t know. Or that we don’t as yet have a scientific explanation for these ideas.Yet perhaps string theory, with its suggestion that there are many dimensions of time might give a scientific framework for these cultural and historical expressions? I take your point that Batchelor might be cherry picking somewhat yet perhaps it’s important to consider that just because the Buddha believed in some things we don’t need to? Sorry if that sounds a bit crass - it’s just that I hear echoes re people trying to justify certain actions: ‘well, the Dalai Lama says/does this…’. Surely we need to find truth for ourselves rather than feel the need to take on a whole ready-made package?
Anyhow, a couple of questions. Can you recommend other Buddhist atheist writers/teachers? And secondly, is Batchelor really so removed from any organised form of Buddhism - I thought he had a connection with Gaia House et al?
Thanks again for the review.
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Thanks Costa Rica Chris and Jane for your comments. Chris - if you’d like to have a dialogue, please contact me on editor [at] westernbuddhistreview.com. I say this because I struggled to follow your points so I am not so keen on trying to respond to them directly. Jane - thanks for your appreciative comments. One thing I should perhaps say is that I would count myself as a kind of ‘Buddhist atheist’. I think what Stephen Batchelor is doing is really important. My criticism of him was not that he was ‘cherry picking’ things in the Pali canon, but that he was misrepresenting what the Pali scriptures actually say. I think it would be a better idea to admit that the Buddha really did teach rebirth. The question then arises how we then try to make sense of that belief, if we want to try to do so. As for other ‘atheist buddhists’, there is a ‘secular buddhist’ website with lots of links and ideas at www.thesecularbuddhist.com. As for Batchelor, when I wrote that he isn’t involved with organized Buddhism, I was just paraphrasing what he writes in his book. It’s true that he continues to teach at various retreat centres, and that he used to be involved with Gaia House (and Sharpham College). What he means probably is that he has no institutional affiliation. By the way, it was good to meet you at the Buddhafield Festival!
james laing smith's picture

A bit late to the party, was busy with another life.

It is clear that change is the only constant, so rebirth is a fact.

​How this manifest in the post-mortem experience is a moot point and will no doubt remain so; at least as long as we attempt to define it in the narrow constraints of an unenlightened mind.
Beyond that, and really just as a thought experiment, for talking sake, what if we are literally reborn, a butcher and baker and candlestick maker; though the last is something we may all agree is unlikely. None-the-less, here we are.
Do we know our past lives, well no. But let’s say we have a vague intuition; as an aside it is interesting to reflect most people who say they do, have exotic narratives, I was a prince, a lady in waiting, etc, it is rare to hear, “Me? I just lived, and died.”; which itself speaks volumes.
Still here we are, with a vague awareness that we were before.
Even so, even if we did and are aware to a limited extent, still all this intellectual, and frankly academic debate, amounts to simply nothing. Why?
Because we are still subject to sickness, old age, and death in this life, and if we want to reduce our suffering and have a meaningful existence in this life what do we need to do?

​We need to practice, ethics, meditation, and cultivate the wisdom of action, cause if we don’t and there is a literal rebirth we have to vaguely do it all again, and again and…
All this chatter about past and future lives is just a distraction, even if we could (and we can’t) prove it.
Now I am not saying that constructive criticism of scientific materialism or dogmatic monastic literal eternalism does not have a place, but to make it the refuge? Well, that is a loop, and loops, just loop.
The only thing I can say for sure, from experience, is those who debate the post-mortem experience are proportionally those least likely to practice consistently and wholeheartedly, plagued with academic intellectual distraction and the need to convince others; as if somehow to convince another is to convince themselves; I know because I was one of them. Or they are professional Buddhists who make a living out of the chatter, or both.
For me, now, I just do my best to get on with it, (even this feels like a habitual indulgence) cause people, time, time is running out in this life, right here, right now.

​So get a grip, be kind, and let go into practice.