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The success of a Buddhist failure
on 26 May 2010
Stephen Batchelor's new book is much more than a memoir, and certainly a world removed from that of confessional tales with similar titles. In fact, it's more like two books: the story of Batchelor's early life as a Buddhist monk, starting when he barely out of his teens, and a de-romanticized life of Siddhatta Gotama, man and monk, not god or supernatural being.
And as interesting as Batchelor's progression of awakening to the realization that he is not meant to be a monk might be, it's his careful telling of Gotama's post-enlightenment wandering life, a man in a land just like ours, filled with politics, patronage, and compromise, that gives the book its true strength. Both tie together in Batchelor's theme and thesis: that Buddhism, stripped of its accretions of gods and rituals over the intervening centuries, is a powerful way of awakening to life's reality here and now.
Having landed in India in the early 1970s, a young British hippie wandering in search of a spiritual home -- even if he didn't recognize it as such at the time -- he fell under the sway of Tibetan Buddhist exiles in India, donning robes and shaving his head. Following his teacher, he moved to Switzerland, helping establishing a monastery there, but his doubts about the melange of gods and demons that the Tibetans revere and fear in the end pushed him to the more Spartan Korean Zen tradition. He took up residence in a temple there, innocently meeting his future wife, a French Zen nun. After the master dies, he disrobed -- a "Buddhist Failure", as he calls himself.
Later, as a layman, he was inspired by the writings of a British Buddhist monk from the early 1960s, who like Batchelor can't reconcile the supernatural beliefs of local (in this case Sri Lankan) Buddhists with his secular views. (That monk, though, preferred to kill himself than do the dishonor of disrobing, proving that secular doesn't equal sane.) Batchelor was soon intrigued by the Pali Canon, the first written record of the sayings of Gotama, and through fortuitous circumstances, starts traveling in northern India, Gotama's stomping grounds in the four-plus decades following his awakening. In the book, Batchelor tries to reconstruct life in those times, as Gotama gains followers and draws on patronage of local kings. It's a powerful narrative, all the more so for being so different from the standard hagiographies.
Batchelor has obviously been pondering Buddhist thought and beliefs for decades and the way he conveys his understanding is remarkably clear. "The heart of Gotama's awakening lay in his unequivocal embrace of contingency," he writes. "He recognized how both he and the world in which he lived were fluid, contingent events that sprang from other fluid, contingent events, but that need not have happened. Had he made other choices, things would have turned out differently." That sums it up neatly, and is just a small sample of Batchelor's explication of what he sees as Buddhism's core teachings. In the end, Batchelor jettisons everything in Buddhism save these core points -- leaving no room for rebirth, karma, gods, demons, prayer -- just this moment to awaken to.
He does this in a direct and simple writing style that is personal and deeply felt. I'd never gotten through earlier books of his -- they seemed too cerebral -- but Confession has the stamp of his personal voice. When I saw him, in early March 2010 reading at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., he had a dry and self-deprecating wit that was engaging; it comes through here vividly. And more than all these thoughts, there's this: I have already re-read passages in the book, a high compliment.