Review of Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist Part II

Written by 

stephen batchelor

Second Part of my review of Stephen Batchelor's Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist.

In Part One of this review I tried to follow Batchelor’s writing style (a collage of related ideas, stories, teachings). In this post I will do the same.

On the Use of the Term Atheism

“The rejection of God is not a mainstay of his [The Buddha’s] teaching and he did not get worked up about it. Such passages have the flavor of a diversion, a light entertainment, in which another of humanity’s irrational opinions is gently ridiculed and then put aside. This approach is in contrast to the aggressive atheism that periodically erupts in the modern West [think Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.]. Advocates of such atheism are outraged that educated and intelligent people still insist in holding what, to them, are patently false and scarily dangerous ideas. Their position is premised on a denial of God every bit as fervent as the believer’s affirmation of Him. It would be more accurate to call this ‘anti-theism’. Then ‘atheism’ would be free to recover its original meaning of simply ‘not-theism’. Gotama was not a theist but nor was he an anti-theist. ‘God’ is simply not a part of his vocabulary. He was an ‘atheist’ in the literal sense of the term.” p. 179 [brackets mine].

The title of Batchelor’s book is Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist and this passage importantly defines how atheism is to be understood and practiced within Buddhism.

The word atheism comes from a (without) theos (god/gods). The Buddha did not premise his teaching on belief or non-belief (what Batchelor wisely calls anti-theism) in god or gods. The God question is simply irrelevant in The Buddha’s teaching. Neither for nor against. The Buddha was “without” the gods of ancient Indian religion so he was in that sense an “a-theist”.

The use of the term “Atheist” in the title of the book also points to the ways in which Batchelor thinks later forms of Buddhism (particularly Mahayana and Vajrayana) essentially pick up theistic or mythic belief elements from traditional Indian religion. Issues like karma, reincarnation, magical powers (siddhis), and the like are in Batchelor’s understanding to be jettisoned (or at least allowed to held in an agnostic position). One need not hold such positions in order to be a true practicing Buddhist in Batchelor’s terms.

The Realistic Praxis of Buddhism

The heart of Buddha’s teaching was the Four Noble Truths described by Batchelor thusly (p.153):

1. fully knowing suffering
2. letting go of craving
3. experiencing cessation [of craving]
4. cultivating an eightfold noble path

    The eightfold path consists of right forms of: view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

    Batchelor writes,

    “The Four Truths are suggestions to act in certain ways under particular circumstances…The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. They suggest a course of action to be followed rather than a set of dogmas to be believed. The four truths are prescriptions for behavior rather than descriptions of reality. The Buddha compared himself to a doctor who offers a course of therapeutic treatment to heal one’s ills (pp. 153-154).”

    It is helpful therefore I think to call The Buddha’s path and teaching realistic as opposed to idealistic. By idealism I do not mean here the commonplace (mis)understanding of “optimistic”. I mean it in the more precise philosophical, even theological sense, of basing one’s view of the world in an underlying Reality (or Idea). Essentially most (if not all) of the world’s great religions (certainly Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism if not also Taoism and Confucianism) are based in idealism.

    The later forms of Buddhism generally adopt various idealist (or possibly theistic) positions: e.g. Pure Land Buddhism, cosmologies, and so forth.

    But early Buddhism as Batchelor points out is really unique in that it is not built upon an idealistic (or God) ground.

    Because (in part), the idealistic-based teachings and practice of ancient Indian religion were what The Buddha criticized. The Buddha taught in an ancient India saturated in the teachings of Atman, The Pure Self.   In that tradition—taught first in The Vedas, then The Upanishads, and later in Advaita—one equated one’s True Self (Atman) with The Self of All (Brahman). Therefore the primary practice was to invert one’s attention within, excluding the outside world, in order to gain access to the deepest inner self that then “exploded out” to be The Self of All and all.

    For The Buddha, however, there was no need to follow this self into itself. In fact, as The Buddha recognized, what we call “the self” is as much (if not more) a series of “no-selves” or various events occurring and causing chains of reactions—the elements of which we humans tend to categorize as and identify with as a self.

    The Buddha (as he said) was a realist and interested in teaching about this moment and this life as compared to speculative and esoteric ventures into higher states of consciousness—which would be simply another set of painful caused reactions. Meditating within on the self (by excluding the outside world) would (for the Buddha) simply be extending the painful “self that is really no self” and its momentum of suffering deeper within.

    This is the famous Buddhist teaching of no-self (anatta): a-theistic (without God) and a-self (an-atman). This teaching (as Batchelor correctly notes) does not mean there literally is no self. It is not anti-self in the manner Batchelor calls thinkers like Dawkins anti-theists. It is a-self or rather without a permanent self, allowing a self (or rather selves) to arise and fall like all other elements of creation.

    To use the Buddha’s example of the man wounded by arrows. His job, he said, was to pluck out the arrows and heal the wounds, not to have the man meditate into a state of total absorption so he can no longer feel the pain while he bleeds to death.

    At the heart of this realistic path of The Four Truths lies the practice of mindfulness.

    Batchelor writes:

    “The aim of mindfulness is to know suffering fully. It entails paying calm, unflinching attention, to whatever impacts the organism, be it the song of a lark or the scream of a child, the bubbling of a playful idea or a twinge in the lower back. You attend not just to the outward stimuli themselves, but equally to your inward reactions to them. You do not condemn what you see as your failings or applaud what you regard as success. You notice things come, you notice them go. Over time, the practice becomes less a self-conscious exercise in meditation done at fixed periods each day and more a sensibility that infuses one’s awareness at all times (p. 157).”

    Mindfulness teaches the conditional nature of all existence:

    “The heart of Gotama’s awakening lay in his unequivocal embrace of contingency (p.131).”

    This embrace of contingency and suffering allowed one to live with compassion toward all beings:

    “Moreover, such freedom (nirvana) was to be found not by turning away from the world but by penetrating deep into its contingent heart (p.131).”

    Batchelor makes a very important point that though later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana and Vajrayana) emphasize compassion and embrace of the world that embrace does not go far enough:

    “Even the Mahayana Buddhism propounded by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan and Zen teachers, with all its talk of compassion and love, still has as its ultimate goal the ending of rebirth and thus of life as we know it. The only difference is that for the bodhisattva—one who has vowed to attain awakening for the sake of others—the aspiration to end the cycle of repeated birth and death extends to all sentient beings rather than him or herself alone (p. 147).”

    I think the reason for this “flaw” in traditional Buddhist teaching is that in an era prior to the understanding of the evolution of form (i.e. the world of becoming as moving in a direction) there was no other real way to frame and understand such experience. In its own ancient context, I think notions of transcendence were perfectly valid. Now they are in need of updating given later information but were not (to my mind) flawed in their own original context.

    Batchelor’s secular modern Western attitude allows a greater embrace of this world than the previous incarnations of Buddhism (for which he ought to be loudly applauded), but in the end it doesn’t really go anywhere I think.

    The Buddha stood courageously against the caste system and his religious critique of Brahminism was as much a social critique as a religious one. Batchelor focuses on the contemporary scene of Buddhism throughout the world: e.g. the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, Korean Zen monasteries, and Western Buddhism. His critique of the authoritarian pre-modern nature of much of that world is a very valid one and hopefully will help to open up Buddhist lifeworlds to this-existence. But to be fair Buddhism’s mythic dogmatic level of existence was overcome largely through the imposition of Western-oriented modern forms of life: e.g. the rise of Christianity in South Korea, Communism (and now capitalism) in China, and secularism in Japan.

    Given his specific critique of authoritarian Buddhism, however, Batchelor takes I believe a largely non-dialectical and non-critical stance relative to Western secularism. While I have specific criticisms relative to the portrayal of theological and religious traditions in the text (which others may or may not share), I find this lack of a critical edge towards secularism in the book a major lacuna. I would have like to see a more Buddha-like prophetic critique of the castes systems of our own modern and postmodern worlds (and not just Buddhist premodern cultures).

    Disagreements With the Text (Or Partial Defense of Idealism)

    As a sympathetic outside observer (I’m Christian after all), I find a great deal of wisdom in The Buddha’s teaching. I deeply appreciate his social criticism of the caste system, his critique on the reliance of metaphysical, unargued theological beliefs within the religion of his day as well as his realistic and practical sense of spiritual life.

    But here I disagree with Batchelor:

    “I had been coming to a similar conclusion myself: that the practice of Buddhist meditation was not a quest for mystical experience (p.137, italics in original).”


    “Siddhattha Gotama rejected the idea that freedom or salvation lay in gaining privileged access to an eternal, non-contingent source of ground, whether it be called Atman or God, Pure Consciousness or the Absolute. Freedom for Gotama meant freedom from greed, from hatred, and from confusion.” (p. 131)


    Gotama’s awakening involved a radical shift of perspective rather than gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth. He did 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.” (p.129)

    Batchelor leaves largely undefined what exactly constitutes mystical experience (and what doesn’t). But I suppose we can assume he means things like deep dreams, visions, altered states (e.g. those induced by drugs), and the rest. Those things (as Batchelor notes) do occur. But they are (from within this Buddhist philosophy) to be understood as simply another in a series of conditioned responses. Again I find this to be a wise response.

    Then there would be types of awakening more associated with figures like Ramana Maharshi, Meister Eckhart, and Isaac Luria. These are the types of awakening to what the experiencers claim is an unconditioned Ground. Typically I would not call such people mystics but rather realizers.

    The problem I have with interpreting The Buddha’s description of nirvana as “this-conditionality, conditioned arising” is that it can reify (make into a thing, make real) the objects of existence. In traditional Theravadin Buddhism this notion is called the skandhas (the five aggregates). The central insight of the great Buddhist wisdom teacher Nagarjuna (2nd/3rd century C.E.) was that the skandhas themselves are ultimately empty (shunya)—as of course is the “self” that is a conditioned response to the skandhas.

    The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism begin with a problem (suffering) and then proceed to a solution (nirvana or the cessation of suffering). To my mind this is a real, er….problem. Truthfully I have the same basic difficulty with my own religion of Christianity starting as it does with sin and looking for redemption.

    My sense is that it is much better to begin in Grace (my idealism roots show themselves here). In that sense, I think the later Buddhist developments of the teachings of Emptiness and Dzogchen (“The Natural Primordial State”) are a legitimate development of The Buddha’s teaching. This way of viewing the issue allows Buddhism to be a separate and truly unique and distinct path that winds back around (from the opposite direction of idealism) to roughly the same point. My contention is that both spiritual idealism and realism end up in a post-idealism/post-realist position of Awakening.

    I think The Buddha’s (understandable) reticence to talk about and/or formalize Nirvana beyond simple negative language (“snuffing out of the candle”) was not a formal philosophical-religious theory but rather a teaching method. I think the failure of Theravadin Buddhism is to miss The Buddha’s contingent teaching method for a permanent religious doctrine (or non-doctrine we might say).

    Contrary to the notion that such an state of emptiness (what Eckhart called in Christian terms Godhead) is something one “attains” in a kind of one shot deal, like Batchelor’s description of mindfulness practice, it simply more and more pervades the experience of being alive (cf pp.25-26).

    Batchelor knows The Pali Canon in far greater depth than I, but nevertheless I thought The Buddha did speak (albeit hesitantly) of a nirvanic ground. But even if The Buddha didn’t speak of such a thing, in a post-postmodern (or post-metaphysical) understanding this view does not constitute the only true reality of things.

    What is revealed in the spiritual life depends on how one practices, what one experiences, and the way in which that experience is interpreted—that is the heart of post-metaphysical spirituality. I’m not denying the validity of this Buddhist path only its own boundaries (true but partial, like any spiritual path). I'll be writing much more about this point later but sufficed it to say here if one undertakes a practice based in a belief in God then one will experience God.  Just as if one (as in Buddhism) begins with a practice like mindfulness that prescinds from the question of God, then one will not experience God.  The integral post-metaphysical frame allows us to hold both seemingly opposite points of view in creative tension (each true but partial).  

    Related items

    Join the Discussion

    Commenting Policy

    Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


    • Comment Link Travis Monday, 12 July 2010 19:48 posted by Travis

      I hope it's not too late to comment on this but I was hoping you could clarify a few things for me. Different people seem to emphasize different things when speaking about Idealism so by saying the Buddha's teachings are realist do you mean they are pragmatic in the sense that they are meant specifically to address problems of personal suffering and nothing more as opposed to an idealist perspective that places practice within some overarching narrative? Christian practice for example being set within the narrative of God's salvific actions in history.

      "The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism begin with a problem (suffering) and then proceed to a solution (nirvana or the cessation of suffering)."

      Would it be correct to summarize your point by saying that Batchelor's secular Buddhism ends up locking itself into a perspective that narrowly focuses on the individual because it starts with the problem of individual suffering and by doing so “this-conditionality, conditioned arising” can potentially become reified into a subtle form of self because ones overall values are still being guided by the desire ease suffering? Starting with grace (or enlightenment, salvation) then would allow the context or problems to change depending on the situation and I guess would also mean that enlightenment would be defined differently based on those changing situations - the post-realist, post-idealist space you mentioned?

      If that's the case in a Christian context what would starting with Grace look like? If both realism and idealism end up in a post-metaphysical space is there any reason other than personal preference to begin with one or the other?

    • Comment Link Travis Monday, 12 July 2010 19:58 posted by Travis

      Sorry, everything jumbled together when I pasted it in the browser. Your sentence: "The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism begin with a problem (suffering) and then proceed to a solution (nirvana or the cessation of suffering)." is your comment followed by a second paragraph.

    Login to post comments

    Search Beams

    Most Popular Discussions