"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.
In this wonderful, concise introduction, Batchelor has captured the essence of the Buddha's teachings . By going directly to the source and peeling away the accumulated dogma of various traditions, he makes Buddhism relevant for our time. He shows how, despite the Buddha's wishes, over time Buddhism became a religion and an institution unto itself. Of course, rigid doctrinaire thinkers like Bob Thurman will see red when they read Batchelor's simple wisdom, which eliminates the need for hocus-pocus and a priestly class. Batchelor even questions the need for belief in karma and reincarnation, long accepted as essential Buddhist beliefs.
Batchelor presents his ideas in simple, but not simplistic, prose, with easy-to-grasp examples. His credentials as a Buddhist and a scholar are beyond reproach, and while others may disagree, no one can question his seriousness and authority. Unlike self-styled gurus and flim-flam artists like "Lama Surya Das" (Jeffrey Miller), Batchelor is not interested in self-aggrandizement; merely in conveying his ideas.
He succeeds admirably in this book.