Book by Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
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Those with an interest in Buddhism will welcome this new book by Stephen Batchelor, former monk and author of Alone With Others and The Awakening of the West. But those who are just discovering this increasingly popular practice will have much to gain as well-for Buddhism Without Beliefs serves as a solid, straightforward introduction that demystifies Buddhism and explains simply and plainly how its practice can enrich our lives. Avoiding jargon and theory, Batchelor concentrates on the concrete, making Buddhism accessible and compelling and showing how anyone can embark on this path-regardless of their religious background.
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.