Last Updated 28 May 2020

Buddhism without Beliefs

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It is a well-known fact that Buddhism religion is distinguished from all Asian religions due to its three innovative and original sifts: equal position of women; emergence of Buddhism as social transformation; replacement of monastery and building lay community “as the principal arena of Buddhist practice”. The book “Buddhism without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor describes the significance of three elements and their application to future development of the world. (Batchelor 1997)

It is possible to suggest that the book is an intelligent effort to provide better understanding to the Buddhism religion and to make clear the attribute of “dharma practice”. Apparently, the book contains author’s personal reflections and suggestions how to apply Buddhism studies to contemporary era o skepticism. It is necessary to outline that the book contains three main parts called “Ground”, “Path”, “Fruition” and the last section devoted to culture and imagination. The author is rather persuasive, because he uses logical arguments, conclusions, facts and viewpoints to defend his position.

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Batchelor has managed to affect readers and to make them think about the issue. Therefore the book leads through abundant data presented to persuade readers that Buddhism is worth attention. Therefore, the apparent strength of the book is abundant data and evidence used to support the main idea. (Batchelor 1997) The first part of the book “Ground” involves theoretical framework of Buddhism religion and explains its core issues. The author begins with explaining differences between two entities – “dharma practice” and “religious Buddhism” - intertwined into the history of Buddhism theory.

According to Batchelor those entities are closely related and thus are inseparable. Furthermore, they have to be preserved for discovering their contemporary significance. The first and the most significant entity for Batchelor is “dharma practice”, because it teaches and trains how to awaken and to feel freedom from “anguish”. The second entity “religious Buddhism” is a system of belief aims at ensuring social stability as well as providing religious consolation. (p. 16)

Nevertheless, the author admits that world view and religious expression has little to do with core Buddha’s teachings, because they “pertain solely to the Asian cultural soil within which Buddhism took root”. Batchelor agrees that those entities have had significant purpose in ancient time, though they are hardly applicable to contemporary society. The author argues that if the dharma practice offers alternative approach to interpretation of core values and virtues, it has to be deprived of “its religious apparel and recast in a purely secular mode”.

It would result in agnostic style of dharma practicing. (Batchelor 1997) Moreover, Batchelor believes that dharma practice would aim at social and personal freedom and liberation meaning that people have to escape from “suffering created by egocentric clinging”. According to Batchelor the positive moment of Buddhism is that the religion provides answers to great questions concerning place of humans in the “grand scheme of things”. The author seems to provide agnostic vision of the thinks stating that “the dharma is not something to believe in but something to do”.

(p. 17) However, Buddha didn’t have answers to metaphysical questions of his day. The only known fact is that Buddha was teaching followers about sufferings and cessation. Thus the author makes a conclusion that Buddha’s teachings are therapeutic, existential and may be referred to liberating agnosticism. For example, Batchelor makes an attempt to escape from metaphysical questions of his day by arguing that Buddha “was merely adopting the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world”. (p. 17)

Nevertheless, Later Batchelor suggests that Buddha “accepted the ideas of rebirth and kamma”, though he considers them “odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to adopt ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus accept as an article of faith that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of brain function”. (p. 37) However, Batchelor seems not to approve Buddha’s metaphysical theories, although he doesn’t completely reject the idea of reincarnation or rebirth.

Instead the author thinks that honest approach has to be taken in understanding life after death, because existing knowledge isn’t enough to state anything. Buddha accepts the ideas of reincarnation and kamms indicating a “failure to summon forth the courage to risk a non-dogmatic and non-evasive stance on such crucial existential matters”. (p. 38) It is apparent that the author tends to use a variety of logical arguments to approve his interpretation of Dhamma. Batchelor’s arguments succeed in gaining cogency due to oversimplification, selective relevant citations and rationalization.

For example the author discuses “four ennobling truths” and finds put that these truths aren’t “propositions to believe [but] challenges to act”. (p. 7) Nevertheless, such statement is hardly truthful, because the author fails to admit that “tasks imposed by the truths acquire their meaning from a specific context, namely, the quest for liberation from the vicious round of rebirths”. The dichotomy between “religious Buddhism” and “dharma practice” is hardly endorsable. The author calls to “recognize a spectrum of Buddhist practices, ranging from simple devotional and ethical observances to more advanced contemplative and philosophical ones”.

Those observances are involved into faith and understanding, though they disappear when dharma practice is regarded on the basis of different suggestions. The author considers premises underling the traditional Buddhist practice as reincarnation and kamm, though he thinks they are only consolatory elements crept into the religion. (p. 18-19) The second part of the book is titled “Path” and aims at providing relevant sketches to agnostic conceptions based on the dharma practice. Furthermore, author provides clear and lively explanations of the issues displaying his creativity and literary gift.

The part is divided into subsections devoted to awareness, overview of emptiness and development of sympathy and compassion. Apparent strength of the part is simple examples introduced in every subsection. Most original examples involve practicing awareness and mindfulness, showing essence of emptiness, challenging the findings and reflecting on common sufferings of friends, enemies and acquaintances. The second part includes also twelve links of dependent origination interpreted rather originally and illustrated by mistaken perception.

(Batchelor 1997) Nevertheless, the conception of the path is absent in Batchelor’s interpretation, though it is considered the traditional foundation of Buddhist religion: “the Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels”. The author thinks that mentioning the path doesn’t have any sense in the frame pf agnostic conception, though omission of path seems rather significant. Furthermore, the author doesn’t mention either code of moral rules or the Five Precepts. However, Batchelor slightly talks about ethical framework and proposes integrity.

Despite the fact he speaks about impressive insights of integrity, the issues is still questionable as it has neither sufficient basis for ethic nor exact guidelines. (p. 48-50) The third part of the book “Fruition” is an exploration of consequences of dharma practice and explanation why dharma practice is called “passionate agnosticism”, Batchelor starts with accounting meditative path. The author explains the process of meditation stating that it consists of “radical, relentless questioning of every aspect of experience”.

Nevertheless, such beginning makes readers profoundly perplexed, though for author “this perplexed questioning is the central path itself”. (p. 98) It means that the path aims at finding no goals and answers. Such conception of dharma practice seems bizarre and strange. Further, the author returns to meditation stating that its goal to justify belief system and to approve using the raft of the dharma practice. According to author, Buddha stresses the insight meditation, because it is able to lead to thorough knowledge of true nature. Thus Batchelor shows once more “the bearing of one's starting point on one's destination”.

It is apparent that the author firstly starts from agnostic concept and then turns to excessive mystery and doubt. However, Batchelor believes that if a person trust dharma practice, he/she has to follow the right View and consequently to find Right Knowledge and Right Liberation. (p. 108) The last section is devoted to the concepts of culture and imagination. The author deals with correlations between contemporary world and Buddhist teachings and religion. In other words, Batchelor tries to find implications of Buddhism in modern world.

The author asserts that throughout the Buddhism history, “Dhamma has rejuvenated itself by continually altering its forms to respond to changing social and cultural conditions”. However, such statement may be considered the act of author’s imagination, his gift of talented thinker and his creative vision of things. (p. 107) Batchelor has given new and fresh approach to Buddhist teachings. Some critics find Batchelor’s vision of Buddhism too simplistic, though it is difficult to agree with them. Batchelor seems to present his original point of view, his understanding and his perception of Buddhism.

He succeeded in making viewers interested exactly by simple explanation of core Buddhist issues. Nevertheless, the author has failed to explain sufficiently the role played by orthodoxy in stimulating dharma practice. What is more important to mention is that Batchelor believes that Buddhism applied to contemporary world may rise the need to create meaning that dharma practice is able to stimulate creativity in followers. According to author, dharma practice is a “new culture of awakening that addresses the specific anguish of the contemporary world”.

(p. 109) It is necessary to conclude that Batchelor has created a new vision of Buddhism culture of awakening by stressing the integrity of Buddhist tradition and their responsibility to the present and the future. Despite the critique the book is rally worth reading, because it provides better understanding, advantages and disadvantages of not only of Buddhism religion, but also of agnostic concept. References Batchelor, Stephen. (1997). Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. New York: Revierhead Books.

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