Sunday, 28 October 2007

Buddhism without Beliefs

For many western Buddhists, Stephen Batchelor's 'Buddhism without Beliefs' is a sort of manifesto. Subtitled, 'A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,' the book explains dharma practice, unbound by the fetters of cultural and religious tradition. To me, this book expresses Buddhism in its purest form, and is one of the books that has been pivotal to me on my current path.

Here are a few striking quotations from the book.

On the Buddha:

The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more of a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening.


When asked what he was doing, the Buddha replied that he taught, "Anguish and the ending of anguish." When asked about metaphysics (the origin and end of the universe, the identity or difference of body and mind, his existence or nonexistence after death), he remained silent. he said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as 'God'.


First and foremost, the Buddha taught a method ('dharma practice') rather than another '-ism'. The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realise its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable.

On Worry:

To understand worry is to know it calmly and clearly for what it is: transient, contingent, and devoid of intrinsic identity.

On Rebirth:

It may seem there are two options: to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty, I do not know. We neither have to adopt the literal versions of rebirth presented by religious tradition nor fall into the extreme of regarding death as annihilation. Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.

On the concept of an afterlife:

Dharma practice requires the courage to confront what it means to be human. All the pictures we entertain of heaven and hell or cycles of rebirth serve to replace the unknown with an image of what is already known.

When I first became interested in dharma practice and began reading about Buddhism in earnest, I was a bit taken aback by some of its religious forms. Particularly, Tibetan Buddhism struck me as foreign to my mind, and was not something I could embrace. As I learned more about various Buddhist beliefs, I became more and more confused and doubtful about the whole thing. Long ago I had come to the conclusion that I did not need a saviour and I was not a sinner. I knew that life was merely life; that it was neither meaningful nor meaningless. The Buddha's Wheel of Darma teachings supported these beliefs. When I read the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, and saw in them my secret beliefs reflected back to me like an echo of my own thoughts, from a man who had passed them on centuries before Jesus was even born, I had felt such a sense of being freed. But my further research was troubling. I knew I could not worship the Buddha any more than I could worship the Christ. I knew I could not believe in karmic rebirth any more than I could believe in a heaven or hell. I could not believe in devas and hungry ghosts any more than I could believe in angels and demons. I knew I could not reject one mystic and esoteric religion only to embrace an alternate one. The Four Noble Truths had led me to dharma practice, but Buddhist religiosity nearly repelled me from it. Then I read Stephen Batchelor's book, and realised it was okay for me to accept some things and to reject others (something I had been warned against as a Christian). It was okay for me to get to the heart of Gautama Sakyamuni's teachings and bypass the religious traditions that have grown up around them. I couldn't do this with Christian teachings. No matter how you strip it down, Christianity is a dualistic belief system: mind/body, God/man, good/evil. No. But Stephen Batchelor's book helped me realise that I could strip down Buddhism to its essence and find something that I could embrace with joy. I sure do thank him for that.

1 comment:

Morandia said...

our library doesn't have this book, but I'm going to inter-library loan it.