on March 23, 2000
"Buddhism Without Beliefs" is an important work for a number of reasons; it might also be a helpful book, or a dangerous book, depending on one's point of view. Certainly Batchelor's agnostic stance is problematic for a traditionalist believer; one need only read the virulent comments here (and also at jeweldakini.com) to see that this is so.
I do not share Batchelor's views on reincarnation; I admit to being a believer. However, in all honesty, I must also declare myself an agnostic, as does Batchelor, for precisely the reason that I do not know from direct experience whether the Buddha's teaching of past and future births is true, or not. To the extent that few (if any) human beings really *know* whether rebirth is a fact, we must all--in the interest of intellectual honesty--admit to being agnostics, even if we are not ideologically comitted to agnosticism (as Batchelor seems to be).
Batchelor's practical advice on the "existential" approach to Buddhism at turns rings both true and hollow. It rings true to the extent that a "metaphysics of hope and fear" is certainly a less viable template for meaningful human experience than an "ethics of empathy" grounded in a nitty-gritty confrontation of the basic facts of existence. Batchelor's discourse rings false to the extent that he has, in effect, elevated agnosticism to the status of a dogma. It is *good* not to know, he seems to say; it is good, because it is an honest assessment of one's condition.
Granted, we do not know everything, and to his credit Batchelor is the first to admit it. On the other hand, all schools of Buddhist thought maintain that one *can* know the truth, the ineffable and unchangeable root of samsara and nirvana, and that one should become certain in one's realization of it.
Batchelor argues--and not without good reason--that striving for certainty ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, because it reinforces the dichotomy between who we are, and who we wish to become, or who we *think* we are. I think he makes a subtle but significant omission in not affirming more strongly that earnest confrontation with oneself and one's human frailty is the first step toward to achieving certainty -- certainty that none of our self-imposed limitations truly exist. Though Batchelor does speak about emptiness, his discussions of emptiness do not, in my estimation, convey a sense of certainty.
This book left me with the impression that, in the final analysis, Batchelor is more inclined to believe that one cannot know the truth with complete certainty, and that he is rather less inclined to believe in the possibility of full enlightenment (which is total certainty; cf. my book, Mipham's Beacon of Certainty).
All the same Batchelor speaks coherently of awakening as a *process*, not a goal -- and for the very reason that goals easily become obstacles in the study of the self, this way of speaking is meaningful and appropriate. It is also not without traditional precedent, e.g., in the writings of Chogyam Trungpa and in Dzogchen philosophy. Batchelor is a pragmatist, and thus prefers to dwell on the verifiable certainties of human mortality and doubt, rather than on the abstract and immediately unverifiable ideals of enlightenment and omniscience. This emphasis on the here and now is both instructive and limiting; it draws attention to the most pressing issues of being human, but it also detracts from the immense possibilities which obtain from changing one's conception of what it means to be human.
Batchelor's book is important, then, if not as an ideological reformulation of Buddhism for the West (and in that it may yet prove most important), then at least as an eloquent expression of the western psyche at the dawn of a new millenium, and as a record of how western minds are struggling to realize the prospect of freedom to which the Buddha exhorts us.
on July 22, 2002
I ordered this book based on the review here by "Dr. of Buddhology and author of 6 books on Buddhism; Dr. S. A." His attack on it it, and the reasons he gave for that, were more persuasive than any of the positive reviews in convincing me that I should read this book. Whenever anyone says, in effect, "Don't think for yourself--just follow Scripture," I've usually found it a good idea to do the opposite. And as usual, I'm very glad I did.
Buddhism has taken on radically different forms in every culture in which it has taken root. Is Agnostic Buddhism one of the forms it will take in the West? I think it's likely. Many Westerners who are turning to Buddhism are agnostic, and stripped of the non-essentials (most of which were added long after the Buddha's death), Buddhism is a very appealing path. But so far, I have encountered little but New Age dilletantes and guru/student fundamentalists, two extremes that do not appeal to me at all. Here in Japan, I've met some very nice priests and monks, but practice has so far seemed quite ossified and heirarchical, something that really seems, well, very un-Buddhist to me.
And then along comes Batchelor's book, a breath of fresh air. This is just what I've been looking for.
on April 15, 2004
I perhaps made the mistake of reading this book on Buddhism first, before any others. It resonated with me but I had difficuty grasping the complexity of the arguments without a more basic grounding in Buddhism. (For that I recommend any of the Tricyle's introductory books, John Snelling's 'Elements of Buddhism', and Jack Kornfield'd 'A Path with Heart'). I returned to book again with a more seasoned and educated mind and found it to be provocative and relevant to thinking afresh for oneself on the Buddhist Path. Batchelor reduces Buddhist principles to their essentials, sweeps away the accretions of 2,000 years of cultural dogma that have muddied the path, and shows a way for the contemporary Westernized Buddhist to proceed. An incdientally, whether on not you agree, if you appreciate good writing, this it is beautifully written book.
on June 27, 2004
I read other reviews before submitting mine and would like to say: This book is not an introduction to Buddhism, and I felt that Batchelor was clear that his own Western cultural influence was unavoidable.
I thought it was perhaps the best Buddhist book I have read in my meager 15+ years of practice. For such a small book, it was clear, complete, and provocative. Somehow Batchelor managed to distill his thoughts into a little over 100 pages. Each sentence builds on the last, and he was able to bring me face-to-face with some very real and deep-seated fears. From my experience as a Zen Buddhist, I found him walking side by side with me through familiar territory, and then he quickens the pace, leading me to brand-new and terrifying self-examination.
Had I followed my usual reading practice, I would have dog-eared this entire book. Every page invoked something fresh. But I did dog-ear one page, and went back to read it numerous times. He recommends this meditative question:
"Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?"
Hugs and bows.
on July 9, 2001
I read this book at the beginning of my Buddhist path, and found very little that connected for me. After a year of practice, though, I went back to it and found it full of wisdom and insight, and very helpful in allowing myself to maintain a "don't know" stance toward those culturally-conditioned aspects of Buddhism brought to us from the East.
Although the core of Buddhist dharma-transmission over the centuries has been wonderfully consistent, it seems obvious that barnacles of beliefs associated with the original feudal/tribal/animist/deist cultures through which it's passed would of course find their way onto the hull (excuse the clumsy metaphor!). The Buddha stressed over and over that we were to test *everything* against our own experience, to believe nothing until proved true for each of us. All Batchelor is up to here is saying this, clearly and from a modern Western perspective.
The vitriol evident above in some of the mini-reviews from dogmatized Buddhists is all the motivation I would think one needs to read Batchelor's book. It's partly about the non-compassionate controversies some kinds of "Buddhism *With* Beliefs" have side-tracked students and cultures in the past.
on June 28, 2001
Batchelor has written a gem of a book, and his title couldn't have been more appropriate, in that "Buddhism without Beliefs" is really a redundancy. The author reminds us that Buddhism at its core is about openmindedness, analysis, individual searching, and experimentation, and that to accept anything (even Buddhist teachings themselves) on blind faith is to miss the greater point. His most important observation, which he presents in straightforward and lucid language, shines through clearly: One can still follow the Buddhist path without blind allegiance to metaphysical speculation. If anything, he could have spent more time pointing out that many Buddhist scholars and practitioners alike already accept "rebirth" as metaphorical rather than literal, to drive the point home amidst Buddhist "fundamentalists" who, like their Christian counterparts, sometimes miss the subtler message their respective teachers conveyed and who, unfortunately, help to present Buddhism to the West not as the open-ended method of inquiry into existential experience that it really is, but rather as just another ready-made, rigid, superstitious dogma to be accepted on blind belief. Batchelor, however, regards the Buddha himself as being "far from agnostic" on issues of life after death, so the author's relative reticence in this area is understandable but unfortunate. After all, the Buddha tailored his message to match the needs and aptitudes of his audiences, so why not assume that he employed metaphysical/cosmological imagery familiar to his culture in order to get his message across, without automatically assuming it to be literal?
In the end, Batchelor doesn't demand that we either believe or disbelieve in literal rebirth but rather to approach the matter with a healthy skepticism, rather than as a requirement for living a good Buddhist life, following the path, and achieving full awakening. This approach does no more than remain on the Buddhist Middle Way, and, here in the skeptical West, it's an important statement to make that may even help to ensure Buddhism's survival here. If Western Buddhism loses its speculative add-ons in the process, nothing is lost, and possibly something is gained: an unclouded insight into the parts of Buddhism that actually can make a difference here and now, in the lives of ourselves and others. That is the kernel of Buddhism, and Batchelor has pointed directly to it. A fine job.
on March 31, 2004
This book was my first experience with Buddhist thought. I was very impressed, not only by the ideas, but by the way Batchelor writes. His use of words is peaceful and extremely interesting. I think that there is so much to be learned in this book, and it is a great place to start because the book is not very long. If you are interested in Buddhism I would suggest this book because it does not go into an extreme amount of detail. It is simply about another way of thinking about things and looking at the world. I feel that whatever beliefs a person holds has no relevance in choosing this book to read. It is not about believing in a specific religion, but as I said before, thinking about the world in a more peaceful, abstract and thoughtful way. One big thing I got out of this book was how people are so valuable, and in life it is easy to pass others off as less intelligent and less deserving of compassion, but this work helps one to understand that everyone has an important place in this world and everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
on August 5, 2002
This is not a book I would necessarily recommend as an introduction to Buddhism. There are a number of other books that would do this job better, most of them titled "An Introduction to Buddhism".
The people I would recommend it to are those who already know a bit about Buddhism, but have a few nagging doubts. Doubts such as "How can the use of prayer wheels be justified?" or "Aren't a lot of the mystical aspects of practice counter to Buddah's teachings?".
This book puts forward a form of Buddhism that sits more comfortably with a western "rationalist" viewpoint. It quite rightly points out that each time Buddhism has moved to another culture it has undergone change.
The book is not perfect, however. At times it is in danger of reducing Buddah to a self-help writer, and it does not convincingly address the description of Nirvana given by Buddah.
Taken on balance, this book provides a very good entry into what will hopefully be an ongoing debate within the Buddhist community.
on April 28, 2002
"Buddhism Without Beliefs" is an exceptional book for Buddhists, non-Buddhists and those who hover somewhere in between. Stephen Batchelor offers a wonderfully written narrative on Buddhism as it applies to the human condition, sans the bells and whistles that modern-era theology has thrust upon this culture (as Batchelor refers to it).
When stripped of the mysticism often surrounding the Eastern religions, and re-explored *not* as a religion but as a way of life, Buddhism emerges in its truest, *purest* form. In the very way many Christians argue that Jesus was not a supernatural deity but a gentle, wise and very mortal man, "Buddhism Without Beliefs" reminds us that Buddha, too, was of the mortal persuasian, and that he was a teacher, not a god. Keeping that in mind, we are once again able to understand Buddhism as it was meant to be understood: As a way of life, one that needn't be attached to elaborate ceremonies, ritual garb, mystical deities or elitest views to be genuine and authentic. Batchelor's book may or may not strike a controversial chord among some Sanghas, but it is one that must be heard either way. Highly suggested reading.
on December 20, 2001
Whether the criticisms of this book are warranted or not, I was profoundly grateful to see it published. As one who has paid a significant price in early adult life for indulging in metaphysical speculation, this title is a gem for those who wish to honor the tenets of critical thinking in all realms of life, including the "spiritual." I am obliged to accept Batchelor's argument that Buddhism is not a religion per se, but a very elegant and practical means of engaging life (even Huston Smith alludes to this notion).
Perhaps the only spiritual conviction I possess after 41 years on this earth is that the cultivation of mindfulness is the key to religious maturity. Here, Batchelor argues that this is possible without having to appeal to supernatural influence. Given humankind's predilection for conceiving the most monstrous of superstitions, an inquiry into what constitutes a rational and compassionate secularism should be welcomed by all. Sadly, its rejection by those of a more theistic bent is all but certain.