Monthly Archives: September 2020

Stephen Batchelor’s Confession

[This review of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was originally published at in 2011.]

The Buddha said, Though a fool may associate with a wise man, he no more understands dhamma than a spoon tastes the soup. I don’t think Stephen Batchelor is a fool, but I admit I’ve been tempted to title this review of Confession of a Buddhist Athiest “A Tale Told by a Spoon.”

The book is an autobiographical account of Batchelor’s experiences in Buddhism, which are considerable. Along the way, there grew in him a desire to liberate Buddhism from its Asian strictures and “rearticulate the core Buddhist ideas in a contemporary language that spoke directly to the concerns of men and women living in twentieth-century Europe and America.” He enlarges on these ideas in the latter part of Confessions.

Batchelor’s ideas are not without value, and many people will find Batchelor’s version of Buddhism more palatable than “traditional” Buddhism, and that’s fine. But it wouldn’t satisfy me, and in any event a great many remarkable teachers already have established the foundations of Buddhism in the West, Buddhism that already is “rearticulated,” accessible and meaningful for westerners without being watered down or artificially “westernized.”

For the record, I agree with Batchelor that over the centuries Buddhism became cluttered with considerable cultural claptrap that doesn’t relate to the West; we have our own claptrap, thank you very much. However, Batchelor’s version of Buddhism is too severely truncated. He’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Batchelor as a Monk

The book begins with the 19-year-old Batchelor tramping about Asia in the early 1970s and eventually arriving at Dharamsala, India, center of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. He took up the study of vajrayana in Dharamsala and received monk’s ordination in 1974, when he was 21.

The credulity of youth still lingers in Batchelor’s account of that time. At first, he plunged into vajrayana with some enthusiasm. However, the Buddhism he found in Dharamsala was encrusted with centuries of arcana, all deeply bound to Tibetan culture and alien to a westerner. The lamas did not relate to what he was experiencing and didn’t seem to give him the guidance he needed at that point in his practice.

I don’t blame Batchelor for eventually rebelling against, in his words, visualizing himself “as the bull-headed Yamantaka or the blood-drinking Vajrayogini in their celestial mansions of light.” Frankly, I think I would have bailed a lot sooner than Batchelor. Old-school vajrayana isn’t for everyone.

The more troubling part of this account is that Batchelor’s understanding of dharma remained anchored to cognitive knowledge and intellectual concepts, as it seems to do to this day. Whatever doesn’t make intellectual sense to him, he rejects. And all too often, there goes the baby.

For example, on page 34 of Confessions Batchelor writes about the 7th-century philosopher Dharmakirti — “His philosophy gave me an excellent conceptual framework for interpreting my practice of mindfulness as well as the other experiences I had had in Dharamsala.” However, “Emptiness of inherent existence, by contrast, is just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction.”

“Emptiness of inherent existence” — shunyata — is the key to understanding Mahayana Buddhism. Without some appreciation for shunyata, you will misunderstand everything else. Realization of shunyata is the perfection of great wisdom evoked by the Heart Sutra. And it’s a “conceptual and intellectual abstraction” only until one learns how to reach beyond the limits of conceptual thought to understand it.

But notice that Batchelor sets up a contrast between “conceptual frameworks” that he can grasp intellectually (Dharmakirti, who proposed an atomistic explanation of reality) and those he can’t — emptiness, shunyata (and, for the record, Dharmakirti’s proposals do not countermand shunyata). And there is the brick wall he built around his understanding of Buddhism.

When I say “reaching beyond conceptual thought” I am not talking about merely “believing in” doctrine. And yes, here is the Zen student talking, but I think ultimately most schools of Buddhism provide a path beyond concept and belief, one way or another.

Buddhism and Belief

I realize that Stephen Batchelor’s most well-known book is titled Buddhism Without Beliefs. But he seems to think that to have a Buddhism Without Beliefs requires some bold reconfiguration of Buddhism. I agree belief is not the point of Buddhism; I disagree that Buddhism has to be reconfigured.

You could define many Buddhist doctrines as descriptions of how an enlightened being perceives reality. But developing an intellectual understanding of or “believing in” a doctrine is not enlightenment. Intimate perception, direct realization, waking up to a transformed perception of reality — is enlightenment.

Whether the thing believed in is factual or not, beliefs are not reality. But neither are concepts or ideas.

In some schools — and I understand this is how Tibetan Buddhism works, on the whole — accepting doctrine becomes a foundation of practice. But as the student matures spiritually, beliefs and concepts should fall away and be replaced by direct, personal realization.

Zen takes a somewhat different approach. At the very beginning Zen students are encouraged to release beliefs — including disbeliefs — assumptions, and expectations, and develop “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind,” which Batchelor calls “deep agnosticism.” Some Zen teachers don’t introduce much in the way of doctrine to a student until the student is well into this process. Then the student can study doctrines without turning them into a mere belief system.

Here’s a small example: Once I saw a group of Zen newbies ask the late John Daido Loori, Roshi, a question about reincarnation, which they were imagining as souls reborn in new bodies. “There is no such thing as reincarnation,” he said, flatly. But at another retreat — a formal sesshin attended only by Zen students — he said, “There is reincarnation, but it isn’t what you think it is.” Whatever we think rebirth is, is not what it is. Conceptual understanding won’t cut it.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s go back and pick up Batchelor’s years with Zen.

In 1980, after his break with Tibetan Buddhism, Batchelor chose to work with the Korean Zen Master Kusan Sunim. However, it’s clear from his own account that he refused to look at much of what Master Kusan was trying to show him.

“I maintained an ironic but respectful distance from Korean Zen orthodoxy,” he said. “I put Kusan Sunim’s instructions into practice, but in a way that corresponded to my own interests and needs” (p. 66). This is stunning. It’s like taking cooking lessons from Wolfgang Puck but refusing to touch food. And this is not “deep agnosticism.”

He was advised to abandon any notion of a goal or resolution. Yet he writes (p. 68), “Despite the constant emphasis on questioning and doubt, I was again being primed to arrive at an insight that would confirm the foregone conclusions of an orthodoxy.” I’d say this is “deep distrust,” not “deep agnosticism.” Big difference.

Master Kusan (page 68) tried to explain kensho, through use of koan-like questioning — “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.”

Unfortunately, Batchelor interpreted “your original nature will appear before you” in the most drearily literal way: “Once again, I found myself confronted by the specter of a disembodied spirit,” Batchelor writes. “The logic of Kusan Sunim’s argument failed to convince me.”

Had Batchelor no experience with Zen I could forgive him for that, but he “studied” with Master Kusan for three years. What a wasted opportunity!

“Original self” is a common metaphor for Buddha-nature, which might be thought of as the fundamental unity beneath all existence. Buddha-nature is vital to Zen, but merely believing in a doctrine of Buddha-nature has no function. This original self must be intimately experience to be transformative.

As explained in the “Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” Zen uses language in a way that is not intended to make literal sense, but is rather a presentation of understanding beyond words and concepts. The practice can enable a direct experience that is not sensory — no visions, no voices, no disembodied spirits — but instead is pure realization without the duality of “observer” and “the thing observed.”

In the Rinzai school, kensho (usually triggered by koan study) is considered the “gateless gate,” the point at which the student is ready to begin serious training. In this light, Master Kusan was not making a “logical” argument at all. He was asking Batchelor to stop clinging to concepts and ideas, to crush the dualities, to directly experience not-self. He was urging Batchelor to step through the gateless gate.

Much later in the book, Batchelor expresses some understanding that there’s something to “know” beyond cognition:

“Gotama’s awakening involved a radical shift in perspective rather than the gaining of some special knowledge into some higher truth. He did not use the words know and truth to describe it. He spoke only of waking up to a contingent ground — “this conditionality, conditioned arising” — that until then had been obscured by his attachment to a fixed position. While such an awakening itself is not primarily a cognitive act. It is an existential readjustment, a seismic shift in the core of oneself and one’s relation to the world. Rather than providing Gotama with a set of ready-made answers to life’s big questions, it allowed him to respond to those questions from an entirely new perspective.” [p. 129]

Exactly. Yet in spite of Master Kusan’s patient coaxing, Batchelor refused to wake up to his own radical shift in perspective. And then he decided the enlightenment thing was silly, anyway. He wrote (page 73):

“As a Western convert, I saw Buddhism as a set of philosophical doctrines, ethical precepts, and meditation practices. For me, to be a Buddhist simply meant to accord one’s life with the core values of the tradition: wisdom, compassion, nonviolence, tolerance, calm, and so on.”

That’s very nice, but for that Bodhidharma needn’t have come from the West. He could have just sent a Hallmark card.

Buddhism in the West

The shame of it is that at the very time Batchelor was frustrating himself with unvarnished vajrayana in Dharamsala, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, had already established the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland and had begun teaching in the U.S. The Rinpoche had a genius for making vajrayana “work” for westerners, including lay westerners. Although he died in 1987, he remains a major influence in western Buddhism.

As for Zen — Batchelor chose not to train in Japan, calling Japanese Zen monasteries “essentially training seminaries for married priests.” In other words, he rejected Japanese Buddhism because it wasn’t traditional enough; it no longer follows many of the rules of the Vinaya. Batchelor has a pattern of seeking out the most tradition-crusted forms of Buddhism he can find and then rejecting them, which is something he ought to ask a therapist about.

In any event, in the year 1980, when Batchelor went to Korea, a great many strong Zen masters already were teaching in the West. Taizan Maezumi Roshi was teaching in Los Angeles; Philip Kapleau Roshi had long been teaching in Rochester, New York; Robert Aitken Roshi had established the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu (where he teaches still); Chan master Cheng-yen was in Queens, New York; the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn had founded the Kwan Um school, headquartered in Rhode Island. I could go on.

Of course, Master Kusan also was a highly respected teacher, and if he couldn’t get through to Batchelor it’s possible no one else could have done it, either. But my larger point is that these lineages are flourishing in the West today, along with Theravada, Pure Land, Nichiren, and other schools of Buddhism. And, as Buddhism has always done when it moves into a new culture, it is adapting to the new culture.

Yes, it’s still an uphill slog. Yes, there’s still much flailing around trying to make monastic practices fit into contemporary lay life. But westerners don’t have to settle for Buddhism Lite.

In the second half of the book, Batchelor describes how he withdrew from Buddhist “orthodoxy” and studied the Pali Canon to come to his own conclusions about what the Buddha taught. As he worked through this process, he was influenced by western philosophers and western commentary on Buddhism. By his own account he did not bother with Asian scholarship and commentary on Buddhism.

In a nutshell — Batchelor strongly implies that Buddhism was just fine until the historical Buddha died, at which time ignorant and superstitious Asians got hold of it and mucked it up. But never fear; now rational and enlightened westerners are riding to the rescue, and they will lift it out of the muck and make it all sparkly and fat-free.

To purify Buddhism from the corruption of being metaphysical — a word Batchelor uses as a synonym for “supernatural” — he combed through the Pali Canon looking for what he judged was authentic —

“I also came to recognize that what spoke to me most directly in the Buddha’s teaching were precisely those ideas that could not be derived from the matrix of classical Indian thought. What I needed to do, therefore, was to go carefully through the Pali Canon and extract all those passages that had the stamp of Siddhattha Gotama’s own distinctive voice. Anything attributed to him that could just as well have been said in the classical Indian texts of the Upanishads or Vedas, I would bracket off and put to one side. Having done this, I would then have to see whether what I had sifted out as the Buddha’s word provided an adequate foundation for formulating a coherent vision for leading a contemporary lay Buddhist life.” [pp. 100-101]

Now, this is certainly an interesting thing to do, although I’m not sure what it proves. There is no logical reason to assume that Siddhartha Gotama didn’t incorporate some classical Indian thought into his teachings. The culture in which he lived his life was saturated with classical Indian thought, after all.

This exercise is the basis for Batchelor’s rejection of doctrines such as rebirth and karma. But Buddhist teachings about rebirth (about which I am agnostic, for the record) and karma differ in several ways from what’s presented in the Upanishads. It is logical to infer from this that Siddhartha Gotama did not reject classical Indian thought wholesale, but instead built upon it.

(Note: For a brief explanation of how the historical Buddha’s teachings on karma, as derived from the Pali Canon, differed from that of other Indian schools of his day, see “Karma” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.)

It also strikes me as odd that Batchelor feels a need to defend his own interpretation of Buddhism with scripture, albeit juryrigged scripture. If you disagree with Buddhism, just disagree with Buddhism. Maybe the scriptures are wrong. Maybe the Buddha was wrong. He wasn’t a god, after all.

For someone who celebrates “Buddhism without beliefs,” Batchelor seems awfully eager to create and defend beliefs about the Buddha and Buddhism.

What’s Left Out

In his sifting through the Pali texts, Batchelor came up with “four core elements of the Dhamma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time” (p. 237). These are:

  • The principle of “this conditionality, conditioned arising” [also called dependent origination].
  • The process of the Four Noble Truths.
  • The practice of mindful awareness.
  • The power of self-reliance.

I can’t quarrel with any of that, although I’m sure I have read scholarly commentary on the Four Noble Truths that say some part of it really isn’t a huge departure from other Indian thought of the time. But let’s go on.

Batchelor has some appreciation of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, not-self, which is the most basic and critical distinction between Buddhism and HInduism. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate that anatta (or its Mahayana variation, shunyata) is inseparable from all other doctrine. By all accounts the Buddha’s realization of anatta is at the center of the “radical shift in perspective” that was his enlightenment.

Perhaps Batchelor just isn’t expressing himself well, but through all of his explanations of the Buddha’s teaching there seems to be no hint of anatta. And time and time again, he makes offhand remarks that leave out the perspective of anatta.

For example, he writes why he rejects the doctrine of rebirth — “It made me realize that belief in rebirth was a denial of death. And by removing death’s finality, you deprive it of its greatest power to affect your life here and now.” That’s all right as far as it goes, but it speaks from the perspective of assuming there is one permanent “self” that begins at birth and ends at death. But all schools of Buddhism teach that this permanent “self” is an illusion.

The Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikshu, every moment you are born, decay, and die.” He meant that, every moment, the illusion of “me” renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next. “I” am just a series of thought moments. And birth and death are events in time with no “self” attached to them.

Work with that. Realize it. That’s the path. Without anatta, Buddhism is just a sweet little philosophy. And if that’s all it is, you can have it.

Batchelor complains that Buddhism has been smothered by a rigid orthodoxy. “As I had discovered with my Tibetan and Zen teachers, the body of opinion that constitutes their respective orthodoxies is neither flexible nor negotiable,” he writes (p. 145).

I have no doubt that, over the years, a great many people have argued with Batchelor about his “understanding.” Given his obstinate closed-mindedness, it would take great restraint to do otherwise. In fact, several times while reading this book I manifested as the blood-drinking Vajrayogini, waving a great mystical flaming vajra engraved with the mantra oh, puh-leeze.

But the truth is that across the many schools is a vast diversity of understanding. Take rebirth, for example. I know of a few Zen masters who are publicly agnostic about it. Some teachers say only the effects of a life go forward into a future life, not consciousness. Others do speak of a subtle consciousness or even a “spirit” (but not a “soul,” and don’t ask me what the difference is) that moves into a new life. Sometimes it is explained not as a “passing” of anything, but as nirmanakaya emanations of the dharmakaya.

All I can say is that rebirth isn’t what I think it is. But disbelief closes one off from the possibility of realizing, beyond thought, what it is.

There is also great diversity of opinion on the nature of karma. Batchelor objects to karma as a supernatural justice system that rewards the good and punishes the bad. However, within Soto Zen, I was taught always that karma must not be thought of as a justice system. Karma itself has no more moral sense than gravity, and the harmful or beneficial effects it might create depend on the degree to which the action is conditioned by greed, anger, and ignorance.

I’ve got the book What the Buddha Taught by the late Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin scholar, in front of me — “The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment” (p. 32). So there.

And since karma is an observable phenomenon — on its most mundane level, karma is willful action that creates an effect — I don’t see what’s “supernatural” about it. There are a great many beliefs about karma that seem superstitious even to me, but not karma itself. (And once you start paying attention to it, you notice that at least 80 percent of your waking life amounts to being jerked around by karma. Once you learn to recognize what it is, it’s very useful to work with that.)

However, I am aware that in some schools karma is thought of as a kind of cosmic justice system. I also recently read an essay by a teacher that said one’s individual karma (hello? anatta?) sticks together and moves as one lump into a next life, which seems silly to me. But there is no one orthodoxy.

Getting to Know the Buddha

At some point in his Dharamsala years Batchelor began to study the Pali Canon, the sutras and the Vinaya in particular. He was eager to learn as much as he could about the historical Buddha. What biographical information he found in the Pali texts did not always agree with the Buddha’s standard biography, which I believe is taken mostly from the Buddhacarita, an epic poem written early in the 1st millennium CE by Asvaghosa.

Much of the last half of the book is taken up with Batchelor’s reconstruction of the Buddha’s biography. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the book. Of course, anything we say about the historical Buddha’s life is speculative. His story was not written down by anyone who knew him personally, and his life has been so mythologized it’s hard to know how much factuality, if any, remains.

However, the Pali texts pre-date the Buddhacarita and are supposed to be the recording of an oral tradition begun by the historical Buddha’s disciples after his death. Batchelor’s reconstruction, I would think, is as likely to be accurate as anything else. Batchelor’s argument that the poisoning that caused the Buddha’s death was deliberate is plausible, even though it’s patched together with speculation. I’d like to hear commentary from other historians about this.

Take What You Need, Make It Your Own

I said at the beginning of this review, “Batchelor’s ideas are not without value, and many people will find his version of Buddhism more palatable than ‘traditional’ Buddhism, and that’s fine.” Now that I’ve spent more than three thousand words criticizing Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, you may wonder what I think is “fine” about it.

I don’t think Buddhism is for everyone. But these days many people with no particular interest in Buddhism itself are borrowing bits and pieces of it — such as meditation and mindfulness — and using them, without adopting the whole program.

So there are Catholic nuns sitting zazen and atheist psychologists using mindfulness training as therapy. And if this borrowing helps people somehow, I’m happy. And if people who, for whatever reason, cannot abide traditional Buddhism but find something in Batchelor’s Buddhism Lite that sweetens their lives, I have no problem with that.

However, Batchelor’s perspectives are being touted as a template for some generic Western Buddhism that should supplant all the traditional forms. I object to that, strongly.

This is not to say that he is utterly without insight or that he hasn’t had some profound experiences in practice. But the sad fact is Batchelor is not practicing a Buddhism without beliefs. He has simply jettisoned doctrines that don’t make intellectual sense to him and replaced them with his own ideas about what Buddhism ought to be — in a sense, just another set of beliefs.