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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.
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on 18 August 2010
This is an honest and revealing account of the author's quest to understand his existential dilemma as a young man by heading east and becoming a monk, immersing himself in various alien cultures that followed different interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha. He reveals how his thinking evolved and changed as he came across beliefs and practices that he found hard to accept. He goes on to investigate the original teachings of the Buddha, which he declares are untainted by any metaphysical beliefs which developed as Buddhism evolved into a religion, and comes to the conclusion that rather than relying on some nebulous form of ultimate reality, that "one embrace this world in all its contingency and the midst of strife and confusion to pay precise attention to what is happening".
Any reader with an open and critical mind and acquainted with the teachings of the Buddha will find this well written book both absorbing and challenging.
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on 9 May 2010
This man seems to be a humanist with a spiritual heart, but not spiritual in the traditional dualistic sense of that term, that carves the world up into natural and super-natural, sacred and profane. Rather he is spiritual in terms of valuing the lived experience of the individual, one's loves and longings, one's aspirations and fears, one's confrontation with profound questions at a personal and immediate level. This is not the abstract, intellectual humanism of ethical or political debate, it is an authentic engagement with one's very own life, informed and permeated by meditation and reflection. He shares this vision by describing how he has arrived at it in an autobiographical account which is candid and courageous. In addition to Buddhist practices, part of Batchelor's engagement with his own life has involved a quest for the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama. Thus the book flows seamlessly into a biographical account of Gotama and his teachings, which is well supported with historical scholarship and reasoning. I have resonated with every page from cover to cover. I'd recommend it to anyone who prefers an authentic engagement with the astonishing fact of their own existence, beyond consoling beliefs and religious platitudes or dogma. It is inspirational.
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VINE VOICEon 5 April 2010
Stephen Batchelor weaves together the tales of two lives to present a new - or possibly very old - form of Buddhism.

The first life is his own, a suburban London teenager who took the hippy trail to the Dalai Lama's exile in Dharamsala where he studied Buddhism and became a monk. From there he goes to Switzerland, and Korea where he joins a Zen monastery. Eventually he abandons the theologies of both, marries and disrobes, to concentrate on applying Buddhist practice and philosophy to the existential challenges that lurk beneath the surfaces of our everyday lives. In common with some (but not all) existentialists, Stephen Batchelor appears to appreciate the ridiculous side of life's essential absurdity - his memoirs are lively and occasionally, in a straight-faced way, laugh-out-loud funny.

The second life is that of the Buddha. By restricting his sources to the Pali canon (those scriptures written in the language the Buddha spoke) and by ignoring everything from the pre-existing Brahminical spiritual culture, Batchelor re-creates a set of teachings and a context which are, if not actually atheist, at least supportive of his own existential Buddhism.

The two stories work together. One of the existential themes running through the book is the contingency of life - the uncomfortable randomness that brings us into being (as illustrated by the moment his mother shows a teenage Stephen a war-time photo of a soldier, saying that if things had turned out differently this man "would have been your father"), and that dictates the course and duration of our lives. By highlighting the contingency in both his life and the Buddha's, Batchelor uses the structure of his book to demonstrate the deep acceptance of contingency that he advocates.

As an atheist with an interest both in existentialism and in mindfulness meditation, this book might have been written for me. I find it obvious that meditation should be about more than stress reduction, but like many in our age, I cannot use a "more" which relies on the supernatural. By re-engaging meditation with the well-developed ethics and philosophy of Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor has, I believe, found a way that will help many.
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on 15 August 2012
As an atheist who admires much about Buddhism, I hoped that this book might throw more light on how one can be a Buddhist atheist. It did not do so. There is no detailed discussion about how traditional Buddhism is altered by taking an atheist approach. Instead of such a discussion we go off on several diversions, some interesting, some not so interesting.

I found the account of the author's journey, through Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, "British College" Buddhism, ending in freelance Buddhism, quite interesting. But it was an ultimately disappointing account because it didn't inspire any confidence that the author had got anything much out of this long journey.

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths suggest there is an end to suffering through the cessation of craving. But the author explicitly concedes to craving, and pursuing, many things -- women, fame as an author, admiration from others, a farmhouse in France, a wife, extended family involvements. He now spends half of the year jetting round the world giving talks, the other half writing books and seeking to make money from them. There isn't much sign of humility or tranquillity here, or much sign of a desire to reform. He glories in his accomplishments and fame, and even in the fact that his mother glories in them. This all seems very far from Buddhism, atheist or not.

Another, rather boring, diversion was a lengthy account of the life and times of the Buddha. This doesn't concentrate on how the Buddha might have been an atheist, which might have been interesting, but focuses on the tedious political machinations of various aristocrats who helped or hindered the Buddha's progress in the world. This account might be of interest to specialist historians, but is a totally inappropriate and misleading diversion here. I wanted to know how the philosophy of Buddhism could be applied without believing in karma or rebirth. But this book didn't provide much advice in this direction.

B. Alan Wallace, a top Buddhist academic & practitioner reviewed this book in Mandala magazine. I just wish I'd contemplated his comments more thoroughly, then I might not have wasted my time with this book. His comments on Batchelor's lack of understanding of basic meditative accomplishments are especially worth reading. Certainly, from the book, I didn't get the impression that Batchelor had benefited much from meditation, not even as much as myself, and I'm not an accomplished meditator.

I haven't found another author who adopts an explicitly Buddhist atheist position, but I've read several non-Buddhist and Buddhist books that provide much better accounts of how to apply Buddhist principles to an atheist life. For instance, I would highlight Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill and Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation.
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on 6 April 2011
This is a most excellent and worthy book. Having read Stephen's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" I was very keen to read this one. I think the "controversial" issues that he confronts in this book could equally as well apply to other religions or dogmatic belief systems. In the context of Buddhism Stephen has stripped away the embroidery of belief that naturally accumulates around ideas over time. Yet, if you read even a competent translation of the Dhammapada you can see that much of what passes for Buddhism is little more than hearsay and superstition acquired from the host culture. Using the famous quote attributed to the Buddha that upon finding a man shot with an arrow is it better to tend his wound and save his life or waste time trying to find out the name, address and family history of the man who shot it Stephen gets to the experiential heart of what the Buddha taught. It all sounds rather Zen-like but even Zen with it's relatively uncluttered simplicity is still often afflicted with dogmatic belief in re-birth and blind obedience to one's teacher. There is a scene in Alejandro Amenabar's recent movie "Agora" in which Rachel Weisz, playing 4th century Greek philosopher/mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria is talking to a former pupil of hers. He has become a bishop in the newly legitimised Christian religion, having abandoned enquiry for dogmatic belief. Hypatia says to him, "You cannot, dare not, question what you believe. I must".
Well, Stephen Batchelor dares to question what he believes and it is this sound principle that is at the heart of this remarkable book. There is also contained within one of the most detailed and interesting accounts of the Buddha's life I have read. Excellent.
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on 13 March 2011
A book of three journeys: a reconstruction of Gotama's journey across India as he taught; a travelogue as the writer retraces those steps; a memoir of Batchelor's development as a Buddhist practitioner. Learned, insightful, honest and profound - this former monk, now lay-teacher - handles the complexity of the structure with considerable skill, and presents his personal philosophy with great compassion. Highly recommended if the development of religious thought interests you - whatever your faith. My only misgiving is the title: I can't help think that 'Athiest' was the publisher's idea, to ride the current Dawkins bandwagon and get a quote from Hitchens on the back cover. "Confession of a Secular Buddhist" would set a better tone.
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on 23 January 2011
Having read an earlier book by this author Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, I was intrigued but what I hoped would amount to a further explanation and possibly a justification for effectively jettisoning irrational religious beliefs (e.g. karma, rebirth, gods, the eternal self etc) that have become attached to Buddhism wherever it had spread, and simply focussing on the Buddha's core teaching that are widely held to be contained solely in the Pali Cannon. This book did not disappoint. In fact of all the books I have read on Buddhism, this is the most inspiring and the most clear explanation of what the Buddha actually meant by the 4 Noble Truths. I highly recommend this book which I believe is indispensable for all Buddhists. I hope it will get Buddhism back on track to being the civilisation-building philosophy that the Buddha originally intended. This book is also recommended reading for all atheists/humanists - yes, really. For absolute beginners to the subject, I recommend that the above earlier book is read first, because its sets out the basic proposition from an agnostic stand point, that is further explained and developed in this book. I also recommend The Heart of Buddhism: A Simple Introduction to Buddhist Practice: Practical Wisdom for an Agitated World because it is a basic introduction without exhorting the reader to believe unproven metaphysical theories. For a more detailed analysis on content, see the other 5 star reviews.
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on 5 May 2010
Stephen Batchelor has written a scintillating and gripping account of his search for the true Buddha within all the traditional customs and beliefs which have accumulated over the centuries. His knowledge of Pali has helped him strip away what appears inauthentic. And his travels in India, following the paths that Buddha took, enabled him to trace the life of the Buddha in a way which brings him alive in a very modern way. So we have the Buddha straight, with his own remarkable message and teaching of the marvel of this life in this world. Does this make Buddhism a religion? Hardly - and yet without the 'religious' aspect, which has convinced people down the centuries, would we ever have heard of Buddhism? This is a question posed by Batchelor, which he cannot answer. Can we?
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on 3 September 2011
I would agree with many of the other comments that this is an original and thought provoking book engagingly written. It will be of great interest to anybody interested in the idea of developing a secular Buddhism for the 21st century. However, it has a serious flaw. Rather than being satisfied with drawing on the Buddha' teachings and applying them to the present day, Stephen Batchelor projects his own beliefs onto the Buddha by implying that ideas like karma and rebirth were not at the very core of what the Buddha taught. I can understand why he was tempted to do this, but he must know very well that this view is not supported by the evidence, not least because he mentions Professor Richard Gombrich's book, What the Buddha Thought, which quite undermines this position.

For anyone interested in fuller review of this book there is an excellent one by David Loy published in Tricycle and available online.
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