Confession of a Buddhist Atheist: A Review

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist: A Review July 10, 2011

Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist came out in 2010. I didn’t order it in advance of publication, but did acquire it soon after. It went right on top of my pile of bedside books. And then I ignored it. Too much on my plate, or book pile. Finally, a month ago I picked it up and started reading.

Interestingly as I started reading it I was attending a Buddhist teachers conference and so found myself during the day seeing and occasionally speaking with Stephen (a major regret was how I saw but never got a chance to actually speak beyond, hello, with Martine who wrote perhaps my all time favorite brief introduction to Zen) and then in the evening reading a few pages of this book.

I’ve just finished it. And my short response is: buy it and read it. It is a good book. It is at times deeply moving.
It is also challenging through and through.
Also, while not pretending to his stature in the public conversation about Buddhism in the West, as I believe we both stand in a range of what I call “liberal Buddhism,” I think it important to note some of the areas that I found myself in conflict with Stephen (hey, I met him, we took a picture together, I figure I can call him Stephen…).
Liberal Buddhism as I see it is a modernist expression of the Buddhadharma that can claim roots back to the nineteenth century. It shares many characteristics. One is bringing a critical eye particularly as it has evolved within Western religious and philosophical circles to the project. Here assertions of any sort are measured against the insights of other traditions, particularly scientific analysis, but also sociology, history and, very significantly, textual criticism. Among the more attractive elements of liberal Buddhism, as I understand it, is the trending toward egalitarianism with particular attention to raising the place of lay practice and practitioners, the assumption of equality among women and men, and a turning away from the historic scapegoating of homosexuality and homosexual persons. “Liberal” as in open and generous.
Within liberal Buddhism there are many places to stand. One can be a pretty consistent liberal Buddhist and remain pretty obviously within the “mainstream” of Buddhism. And, one can stand at a place where few others would agree that one remains a Buddhist. And there are various spots in between. In my view Stephen’s journey has been taking him ever more to the far edge of this spectrum. And I’m certainly aware others have said something similar about me…
This book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist contains many things.

One is his autobiography, or at least a memoir. It is a compelling story and one which many of my generation can identify with, in actual reality or perhaps within the dreamscape. As a youth he traveled East and became a Tibetan monk. His descriptions of that tradition are pretty clear eyed, particularly around the authoritarian aspects of the religion.

Then he moved to Korea becoming a Zen monk. Here I thought it interesting that he consciously rejected a more “liberal” possibility in going to Japan, which might have been more congenial to his growing discomforts with vinaya Buddhism, in favor of continuing the monastic emphasis taught in Korean Son. There are many reasons why he might decide one way or the other, but he really doesn’t explore that in the book, beyond what seemed to me a casual dismissal of Japanese monasticism as a seminary program for married clergy.
What he does acknowledge about this time is a growing ironic distance between his own inner life and his religious tradition.
I have to admit I didn’t feel he gave Zen a real chance – a difficult assertion about someone who lived fully within a Zen monastic community for three years. But his descriptions of his inner life suggest this is so. Here we find the deeper formation of his profoundly analytical approach and his deepening concern with finding the historical Buddha as a major project.
From where I stand the most important part of this time in his life is this is where he would meet Martine who would become his life partner. And that is nothing to be disparaged.
He goes on to describe how he and Martine moved first back to England living in a community for a number of years and eventually settling into a private home life in France as well as his publishing history and gradual taking of his place as a public Buddhist intellectual.

Now Stephen is famous for his critical analysis of karma and rebirth. In his seminal study Buddhism Without Beliefs he took a radical agnostic stance in regard to what many consider to be pillars of the Buddhist message.
Here we stand together. I do not consider the classic doctrines of karma and rebirth, that is karma flows out of our intentions and lead to new lives, as particularly likely. In that older book Stephen articulated my agnostic stance regarding these doctrines. And I remain grateful. Also, I’ve noticed that agnostics tend to lean, one toward belief and the other away. In this particular area, I admit while I am agnostic, I lean away from belief in its likelihood.

I find the word karma a very good term for causality, that everything exists in causal relationships. And as far as future lives go, I find I’m reborn with every breath. Not as a throw away line, but as a deep truth. But I am more than wary of attaching moral content to these terms as is commonly the case. Or, for that matter, needing future lives to close various moral quandaries we find if we claim a universe where everything gets put right eventually. If there are future lives I think there needs to be a mechanism and as nothing so far has presented in a way I find even vaguely satisfactory (including the numerous accounts of people who allege memories of past lives), the classic and popular understandings of karma and rebirth will likely remain on my highly unlikely list.

Now, the Buddha posited how within our conditioned existence, clinging to any part as if it were permanent is ipso facto suffering. I see that. I believe that. I lead much of my life from that understanding. And I do not find it necessary to believe in some postmortem reanimation of the bundle of conditions and circumstances that I call James in order to have a life-transforming encounter with this teaching.

In his Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen also stated that this view was pretty much what the Buddha thought, as well. Here we begin to part company. I just don’t see it this way. I see no compelling reason to think the Buddha did not think the project turned on an assumption of a wheel of birth and death and rebirth that was ultimately unsatisfactory and that the enterprise turned on how to stop it.

I also see no reason to think the Buddha didn’t believe in something along the lines of a postmortem reanimation. But that the Buddha didn’t believe this either seems very important to Stephen. And he goes a long way, devotes a lot of energy to trying to establish this as a fact on the ground. And despite some very good efforts he doesn’t convince me.
That said I found among the most moving parts of Confessions was his reconstruction of Gautama Siddhartha’s life. I especially enjoyed, perhaps perversely, his droll description of Mahakassapa, who in Zen myth is the successor to the Buddha, as a climber and institutionalist. His life of the Buddha was perhaps my favorite part of the book. It reminded me of Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament, where he simply clipped out the parts he didn’t like, particularly miracles. Stephen’s Buddha is similar, if more theological.
Now, in his defense Stephen acknowledges the challenges to his construction, and defends his position noting that a certain amount of picking and choosing is how history is written. “I am fully aware that the passages to which I am drawn in the Canon are those that best fit my own views and biases as a secular Westerner. Critics have accused me of ‘cherry picking’ Buddhist sources, of extracting only those citations that support my position while either ignoring or explaining away everything else. To this objection, I can only point out that it has ever been thus.

True enough. And, I felt Stephen’s story of the Buddha as wonderful and compelling as I found it, was also a pretty consistent exercise in retrojection – a projection of his values onto the life and teachings and person of the Buddha.

It seems pretty clear that Stephen believes in his bones that we do arise as conditioned creatures, the four Noble Truths are invaluable, and that mindfulness is a worthy discipline. He also puts a lot of energy into the idea of self-reliance. Stephen outlines the Buddha’s teaching as embrace, let go, stop, act.
And that appears to be his Buddhism.
He writes “There are no wormholes in this intricate and fluid field through which one can wriggle out, either to reach union with God or move on to another existence after death. This is a field in which one is challenged to act; it is your actions alone that define you. There is no point in praying for divine guidance or assistance. That, as Gotoma told Vasettha, 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.’”
He says, “Buddhism has become for me a philosophy of action and responsibility.”
Stephen deeply admires the Existentialist tradition, as I hasten to add, do I.
This is no shallow religion he has found. It has nobility to it.

And up  to this point, much of this works for me. If something claims an objective reality or a super reality, it still leaves traces. If it cannot be observed or experienced in a reliable way, I’m pretty suspicious of it. Call me a critical Buddhist.

For me the problem with Stephen’s Buddhism turns on his apparent rejection of sunyata. Perhaps I misunderstood, but he seemed to suggest, actually he wrote of the insight that existence is empty, that it is merely a “conceptual and linguistic abstraction.” In asserting this he seemed to reject the possibility of awakening itself, of his, or for that matter for you or I, ever coming to a place of liberation. Instead he seems locked in a box where the mind is something that can somehow observe what’s going on, and our actions do have consequences, but that’s kind of the end of the deal.
Near the end of the book Stephen notes his admiration for the Anglican theologian Don Cupitt, of Sea of Faith fame, and someone I also admire. He goes a bit farther and says “I have a greater affinity with Don Cupitt than with any living Buddhist thinker.” My sense of Cupitt (I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, so I return to the more formal use in such things as a book review, of the Reverend Cupitt’s family name) beyond his rigorous thinking is a certain aridity in his actual religion. I find this in Stephen, as well…
In all his wonderful and relentless analysis I think Stephen misses something really important.
For a time in Korea Stephen relentlessly watched his heart and mind using the koan “What is this?”
Kusan Sunim, his Zen teacher explained where this was taking him, “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.”
Sadly, Stephen’s reaction was “Once again, I found myself confronted by the specter of a disembodied spirit. The logic of Kusan Sunim’s argument failed to convince me. I t rested on the assumption that there was ‘something’ (i.e. Mind) that rules the body, which was beyond the reach of concepts and language. At the same time, this ‘something’ was also my true nature, my face before I was born, which somehow animated me. This sounded suspiciously like the Atman (Self/God) of Indian tradition that the Buddha had rejected. I could not reconcile the Zen Buddhist love of snow on bamboo, cypress trees in the courtyard, or the plot! Of a frog jumping into the pond with the mystical experience of a transcendent Mind revealed once the universe of bamboo, cypresses, and frogs was ‘shattered.’”
He seems to think the grand language of Zen’s pointing is pointing to something outside. It isn’t. Rather it is a pointing to the wondrous fact that the whole mess and every individual part is one, or rather, is nondual. And the splendid, magic thing about our human consciousness, in the make up of who we are as we are, is that we can “know” this. Rather, it is a letting go of clinging. It is, in fact, a not knowing. It is a finding of openness, of our boundlessness that exists with our vary limitations, our boundedness… Not one. Not two.

Stephen was invited to this place. He stood in the doorway. He, I’m pretty sure, even stepped inside. But, he also quickly withdrew.

There is an old joke about Unitarians that should they be taking a walk in the country and come to a fork in the road with two signs, one pointing to “heaven” and the other to “a very good conversation about heaven” that they would invariably go for the conversation. Stephen is nowhere near so silly. But, he sees the word heaven and recoils at it. Also with God. Also with anything that might possibly be metaphysical, beyond the physical. He is a master of our English language, a beautiful writer. But when the metaphor is theological, he seems to withdraw and sometimes even becomes rigid. He seems to hear the word Mind and cannot extract himself from theological discourses or abstractions as he found in his studies of the Mind Only School. He relates the experiences to theological analysis, and safely put into a box, he seems able to walk away.

As best I understand the Zen way, the invitation that he turned from because he saw capital “M” Mind as something outside is in fact that it is identical with all the parts that are Stephen and me and the chair and the ants and the dirt and exploding stars. One thing.

This is the very heart of my Buddhism. My Zen.

It can be found many places, in many religions, and without any religion. And without any doubt for me this gift is to be found in Zen, which he seemed to just plain miss, was how this very life as it is, lived into fully, is liberation.
To open completely to our conditioned self and the conditioned world is to find liberation.
It is found when we let go of our separation, ironic or otherwise.
It is found when we truly embrace that only don’t know, that deepest agnosticism which is the way I’ve found within Zen.


In summary, no doubt there are many liberal Buddhisms. Stephen Batchelor clearly expounds upon one. And he is a thinker to listen to. I recommend his book, strongly.
But he has not, nor do I think he’d claim, to have written the last word on Buddhism, or liberal Buddhism.

Still, it is an important word.

And, as I said, I hope you’ll read it.

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