Confession of Buddhist Atheist
A Review of Stephen Batchelor’s Book
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
While at Ein dor in northern Israel in April 2010, Eran Harpaz, one of our Dharma teachers in Israel, kindly gave me a copy of the newly published Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor that became available in bookshops the previous month. Phew. It is gripping reading as Stephen relates his first hand experiences of Buddhism during his 10 years as a Buddhist monk, five years in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, mostly in India and Switzerland, and five years of practise in Zen, mostly in Korea, and subsequent to those years.
It an intimate, warts and all, account of his personal anxieties, doubts and conflicts with Buddhism, especially the orthodoxy of Tibetan Buddhism, their view of the world and the taking for granted beliefs in rebirth.
There are no fresh revelations about Stephen’s inner life. I have the privilege of knowing Stephen since 1974 when we were monks together in Elysium House, McLeod Ganj, Dharamasala, where the Tibetan community set up its headquarters with the Dalai Lama after fleeing China in 1959. Stephen’s doubts, struggles and questions about Buddhism have been his ongoing theme ever since I have known him.
His new book is the latest exploration of this struggle. Titles of some of his previous books indicate Stephen’s angst around Buddhism – Alone with Others, The Faith to Doubt, Buddhism without Beliefs and Living with the Devil (about the Buddha and Mara). He has used agnostic@ at his email address since he opened his first email account in the 1990s. Chapter titles in his new book convey his doubts and perplexities- Buddhist Failure. Eel Wriggling, Great Doubt and A Secular Buddhist.
Nevertheless, his anxieties and personal torments have not prevented him making a very valuable contribution to our understanding of the Buddhist tradition, past and present, such as the award winning The Tibet Guide, Awakening of the West and Verses from the Centre, as well as his translation of the much beloved text of Shantideva “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.”
In his current book, he tells readers upon the publication of the book in 1975: “The paperback (of Shantideva’s book) gave me a sense of self-worth and fulfilment that meditation alone had so far failed to provide.”(Page 56).
Stephen’s concerns and doubts are never far away in his personal and public reflections on Buddhism. He has concentrated on his relationship to Buddhism throughout his adult life. He has used his doubts to valuable effect in terms of his insights and honest appraisal of numerous expressions of blind faith and unquestioning obedience to authority found in Buddhism.
Articulate, perceptive and an enormously gifted writer, I regard Stephen as probably the foremost champion of agnosticism in the Buddhist world. I suspect though the orthodox followers of Tibetan Buddhism, Asians and Westerners, will regard Confession of a Buddhist Atheist as a diatribe against their faith as much as an autobiographical account of Stephen’s soul searching (if I can use such a metaphor in the Buddhist context) in terms of what his Buddhist masters expected him to believe, if not swallow.
The Dalai Lama and his staff do not escape criticism (page 205). The Western teachers met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in 1999 over several days. The Dalai Lama declined to sign a letter that he had originally endorsed, prepared by Stephen on behalf of 22 Western Buddhist teachers, to what amounted to a “name and shame” policy on certain Buddhist teachers if a teacher “shows no sign of reform” in terms of any sexual involvement with their students.
A Book of Two Halves
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist falls primarily into two halves with some ebb and flow between both sections. The first half explore his spiritual journey starting with his upbringing, mostly from his mother, and his journey to north India, where he engaged in Buddhist meditation practices and then took full ordination. Stephen then shifts over to the second half of his book where he reveals his reflections and research on the life of the Buddha looking at the Buddha in humanist terms rather than as a religious icon of absolute enlightenment.
Stephen’s impassioned and thoughtful voice with his agnostic views on religious authority permeates both halves of the book. It is important for readers to bear in mind that the book is a highly personalised view of Buddhism and the Buddha – as Stephen, himself, acknowledges.
You can get the sense of Stephen’s struggles in his various perceptions about himself over the years from childhood and adulthood.
“My insincerity kept nagging away at me. By the lights of my Tibetan teachers I was a Buddhist failure.” Page 7
“From an early age. I was troubled by how rarely I experienced genuine contentment .Page 10.
“Vacillation and doubt seemed locked in a perennial struggle with faith and conviction. Page 28
“I would be waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat agonising.” Page 36
“I am struck how much time I spent wallowing in anxiety, doubt, insecurity and unrequited longing.” Page 40
“I resolved the dilemma by adopting an agnostic position on rebirth.” Page 41.
“By the end of my stay in England, my inner turmoil was no more resolved than when I arrived. If anything, it had increased.” Page 44.
“Throughout my years as a monk, I had often suffered the quietening suspicion that I was an imposter.” Page 90.
When Stephen told Geshe Rabten, his Tibetan master, he was leaving, Stephen wrote: “in an agony of guilt and remorse, I mumbled something about only staying (in a Zen monastery) for a year or so.”
I must say I squirmed a little at the title of the book. Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. It’s the sort of title used by those desperately seeking public attention to confess his or her behaviour or a big front-page headline from a tabloid newspaper. Go to Amazon and see the list of book titles starting with “Confessions of…”At the back of the book, Christopher Hitchens, a neo conservative, English writer and lecturer endorses the book. Hitchens is well known in Britain for being a vociferous supporter of the war against Iraq, and speaks of Islam as Islamofascist while rubbishing the concept of God. He proclaims that we “are now giving way to ethical and scientific humanism in which lies our only real hope.”
Really, Mr Hitchens. Are you asking us to put hope in your views?
I have not heard of Stephen’s conversion to humanism since Stephen continues to write lucidly and thoughtfully on the Buddhist tradition and offer invaluable Buddhist retreats on Buddhist meditation practices. Stephen continues to be a very important voice in the Sangha, and, I believe, has the intellectual integrity to move out of the Buddha-Dharma-Sangha to become a humanist if he felt so disillusioned with the Triple Gem.
The title of the book and Hitchen’s endorsement fails to convey the serious, insightful and perceptive recollections of Stephen. Despite the cheap title, there is no hint of sensationalism in its pages but a personal account of one’s man ongoing doubts.
It appears that Stephen, always charming and consistently warm hearted, has changed his view from agnostic about rebirth to becoming a firm disbeliever in rebirth. He offers readers the usual scientific analysis for disproving rebirth. (Page 38).
I would part company with Stephen here who appears to assert we have only one life. I cannot even see the evidence for the self having even one life, let alone numerous lifetimes. There is no evidence to show the self has anything at all, or is anything whatsoever. To believe the self has one life or many lives misses the whole point of understanding the nature of dependent arising.
Stephen wrote: “I realized then to pursue my vocation as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, belief in rebirth was not optional but obligatory. …I could not, without being a hypocrite, present myself in public as a Buddhist monk.” Page 39
As a former Buddhist monk, I felt that Stephen would have been far more at home in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, for all of its flaws, than Tibetan Buddhism. For example, I asked my teacher, Ajahn Buddhadasa, the foremost Dharma teacher in Thailand of the 20th century, about rebirth. The heart of my questions to Ajahn Buddhadasa boiled down to the following.
CT. “Is there rebirth?”
CT.“Is it important to believe in rebirth?”
CT“Do you believe in the end of rebirth?”
CT.What is reborn?”
CT.How do I know there is rebirth?
AB.“Through your own experience”
CT.What do you mean?
AB.“The Buddha teaches the end of rebirth of the ego when it arises in the here and now.
CT. So you are not talking about belief in future lives?
AB. No. Talk of future lives is for simple minded Buddhists. There is one priority. End the rebirth of the ego. It will keep being reborn in nama/rupa (mind/body) in your daily life until there is the realization of the emptiness of “I” and “my.”
I also cannot recall my other teacher, Ajahn Dhammadharo, Thailand’s foremost vipassana teacher, showing the slightest interest in rebirth. He had next to no interest in the past or future of this life, let alone past or future lives.
If Stephen had met with my teachers in southern Thailand in the early 1970’s, I suspect he would not have had to write this book or feel he was an “imposter” in Buddhism. My two venerable teachers may not have eliminated Stephen’s ongoing doubts in rebirth but they would consider holding to any views of future lives, for or against, a distraction to practice and liberation.
In the early 1980’s Stephen, Alan Wallace, Roger Wheeler (all three ordained in the Mahayana tradition) and myself engaged in lengthy correspondence about the application of the Dharma in the West. At this time, Stephen and his future wife, Martine, practised in Zen Master Kusan Sunim’s monastery at Songgwangsa in Korean.
I had encouraged Roger Wheeler, who I met at IMS, Barre, MA, USA, before and after he disrobed, to come to live in Sharpham House community that Maurice Ash, the owner of this large Palladium House, and I started to set up in 1982. This impressive historic building is about 50 minutes walk along a country pathway from my home in Totnes. I was equally pleased when Stephen and Martine agreed to join the community in 1985(see page 77) Guy Armstrong and Sally Clough, two senior Dharma teachers at Sprit Rock meditation centre in Marin County, California, USA, were two of the first residents in the community.
Gaia House opened in 1983 and The Barn Community opened in 1984, More and more dedicated Dharma practitioners worldwide came to live in and around Totnes. We set up a variety of programmes including an annual yatra along the coast, workshops, evening talks, peace vigils and non-violent protests. A number of Dharma friends gave me immense support when I stood for Parliament for the Green Party in Totnes in April 1986. We probably knocked on every door in Totnes and surrounds in the months before the election. Isabel opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Totnes.
We became a network of post Buddhist monastics, plus Western practitioners returning from India, Thailand and Burma and others from the UK and worldwide who we knew through our international teaching programme. Stephen and Martine were pillars in the Dharma community around Totnes living at nearby Sharpham House for about 15 years until they moved to France. in 2000 (Page 238)
Those of us who had a contented and happy childhood, remained free from fears and anxieties in adulthood, and not bothered too much about the weird and bizarre view of others, especially religious and secular authority, may find Stephen’s personal account a little hard to relate to. We draw upon the wisdom, ignore the whacky and endeavour to practice and live the Dharma. I had two or three meetings with Geshe Rabten, Stephen’s teacher, in Mc Leod Ganj. I left the room shaking my head, and it wasn’t up and down rather like Stephen. Nevertheless, I never gave these meetings, and numerous meetings with senior Asian teachers, a second thought.
Writing about Gotama, Stephen explained “As my familiarity with the Pali Canon (collected discourses of the Buddha) grew, not only did my understanding of Buddhism begin to change but also my understanding of what kind of person Siddhartha Gotama was.”
In his fascinating analysis of the Buddha’s life (page 167), Stephen comments on the Buddha’s residence of 19 vassas (three months retreats during the monsoon) at Savatthi, a city, during his 45 years of teachings.”
During this period, King Pasenadi, the violent, manipulative and unpredictable ruler of Savatthi, had married a slave girl sent by the Governor of the Sakyan kingdom. Pasenadi thought she was a member of the royal family. It became a complex royal soap opera. Stephen concluded that the “survival of his (Gotama’s) community depended on the acting skills of a slave girl.” (Page 171).
Stephen also claimed that Gotama did not criticise the king. He wrote “Gotama found his position compromised by the ambitions, lies and pride of his relatives in Sakya and “the success of Gotama’s work depended on his maintaining cordial relations with the churlish King Pasenadi.” These are suppositions.
Gotama gave 844 discourses in Savatthi examining such themes as ethics, virtue, caste, violence, greed, hypocrisy, egotism, selfishness, mood swings and unresolved personality issues. In a very small city like Savatthi, citizens would have known whom Gotama referred to, directly or indirectly. Besides, Gotama knew intimately from his upbringing the politics of royal families. Stephen’s muses whether the Buddha compromised his teachings over the royal scandal. Frankly, I doubt if the Buddha cared one iota about pleasing King Pasenadi . Is Stephen telling us a little about his own relationship to authority?
Throughout the closing chapters, Stephen explores some of the religious politics of Tibetan Buddhism, his views of the Buddha’s lifelong struggles with Mara (if this is such a nightmare for the Buddha as Stephen implies, be grateful you are not the Buddha) and Stephen’s view of himself as a secular Buddhist.
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist goes along at a breathtaking pace. A totally absorbing read. Thoroughly recommended to one and all. Somehow, I don’t think we have heard the last of Stephen’s struggles.
We look forward to the day when Stephen writes a Dharma book unrelated to his agnostic/atheist/religious/secular Buddhist issues. He has a wealth of experience to share outside of his ongoing struggles with Buddhism, past, present and future.
Note to readers. Title of Stephen’s latest book (2015) is ‘After Buddhism’