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A sheep in wolf's clothing
on 5 April 2012
This book was a total shock for me. I knew it was influential and controversial, but as I read on, my initial curiosity gave way to increasing disbelief. This is a serious misrepresentation of the Buddha's teachings -inept and misleading at best, dishonest and self-serving at worst. I'm giving it the lowest possible score and would give it five negative stars if I could, since by peddling his wares as a self-styled "Buddhist teacher" Stephen Batchelor is not only diverting readers who might otherwise find the real Dharma but is also debasing Buddhism from within, like a veritable fifth-columnist.
From what I have read, the author was trained as a Buddhist monk in the Vajrayana and Son (Korean Zen) traditions. After several years he recanted, disrobed, concocted his own brew of teachings and is now active leading meditation retreats and seminars worldwide. Buddhism Without Beliefs is his manifesto for an agnostic Buddhism made palatable to progressive Western sensibilities.
In a nutshell, I would contend this book does not reflect Buddha Dharma at all but only an ill-conceived reaction to the kind of religious Buddhism the author probably met during his training in Asia. Batchelor subjects this fossilized doctrine to the Procrustean bed of his own cultural conditioning, hacks off whatever doesn't fit (most notably, the teachings on karma and rebirth, but also the central role of awakening), stretches out of proportion the importance of side effects such as the increased mindfulness and focus that result from meditation, and then applies cosmetic surgery to what's left, in the form of a psychotherapeutic emphasis on self-identity and a Judaeo-Christian inclination for social engagement. Quite unsurprisingly, true Dharma is mangled beyond recognition in the process.
In the Ayacana Sutta, the Buddha is portrayed as saying, "This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise." Therefore, it is entirely possible that even people who have gone through all the motions of the Buddhist monastic life may not have grasped its deep and subtle essence; likewise, it is entirely possible that Batchelor's teachers themselves were not awakened, had not deeply understood the Dharma or somehow failed to convey its full meaning; finally, it is entirely possible that Batchelor's response to their perceived shortcomings may be similarly flawed by incomplete understanding and/or conveniently tailored to suit the presumed preferences of lay Western audiences.
As the Buddha said in the Dhammapada, "Few cross over the river. Most are stranded on this side. On the river bank they run up and down. But the wise person, following the way, crosses over, beyond the reach of death." Just this line, with its mention of a death that can be avoided, should be enough to show that one must always look beyond the literal meaning of words. We know that Buddha died, as did all the eminent masters that followed him; what on earth was he talking about, then? Naturally, the same question applies to rebirth and karma, which Batchelor simply dismisses as quaint cultural relics.
Personally, I find Buddha Dharma deep and subtle indeed, involving aspects of the mind beyond consciousness and cognition, dignified and frugal yet true to life, full of wisdom and unsentimental compassion. In contrast, Batchelor's Buddhism comes across as merely cognitive and therefore shallow, propped by superfluous affective and aesthetic appeals, finely honed yet often straining to seduce and persuade. I can think of many passages where the Buddha's recorded teachings flatly give the lie to what he says about suffering, awakening, meditation or the place Dharma should occupy in our lives, among other fundamental topics.
But don't take my word for it. Read the book if you will and then go to the sources and see for yourself what the Buddha taught and many later masters further developed; there are plenty of English translations available. Don't accept food that others have chewed for you -including what I'm saying here.
If you want to glimpse just how profound and subtle the Dharma can be and how words fail to convey its essence, read the Diamond Sutra. If you want a contemporary view of Dharma that genuinely embodies the Buddha's message without superstition, dogma or ritual, read Shanjian Dashi's Daily Dharma. Better still, if you can (and are lucky), find yourself a master, not one who "ironically admits his/her own ignorance," in Batchelor's words, but somebody who has tapped the sources of wisdom and compassion in the human creature and is willing to act as your guide. The Dharma is nobody's personal or institutional possession, to be doled out in recompense for uncritical submission; it is all yours for the taking, if only you can find it. Experience the Dharma first-hand, taste its subtlety and depth, and then judge for yourself.
As the Chinese proverb goes, "He/she who drinks it knows whether the water is hot or cold."