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38 of 47 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A sheep in wolf's clothing, 5 April 2012
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This review is from: Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (Paperback)
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."
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Apr 2012 04:19:38 BDT
I am a former Christian, who finally rejected Christianity for all of the junk that other people had added to it --Paul being the worst offender -- and was quite happy with just the words of Jesus, until I at last decided that the supernatural baggage was too great. For years, I was attracted to Buddhism, largely because it contained no supernatural nonsense. However, every time that I looked closer, I was dismayed to find the same toxic accretion. That's why Batchelor is appealing; he attempts to return Buddhism to its essence, before others coated it with a bunch of crud.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Apr 2012 11:39:44 BDT
arkebra says:
Hi Chas,

Thanks for your reply. I understand what you say and where you're coming from. I also feel the supernatural accretions draw the message away from our common humanity and play into the hands of religious hierarchies. We can do better without them.

Problem is, we don't really know what Jesus or the Buddha said. All our sources are secondary, were recorded after their death, and sometimes offer conflicting accounts and ideas. What to do, then?

One way is to do what Batchelor does: apply our mind to clip and tweak the teachings according to our own notions of what they should say. This is a very slippery path, since the cognitive mind is an unreliable guide in this terrain, but Batchelor throws all caution to the wind and ends up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The core of what he dismisses as mere superstition (the doctrines of rebirth and karma) is well attested in many of the oldest sutras and has great internal coherence with his overall message when understood not in terms of future lives (reincarnation) but as the constant rebirth of identity in this very life; then it makes perfect sense, without any supernatural overtones.

In my view, Batchelor first misunderstands the teaching and then amends it without need; his alternative I find shallow and uninspiring. I suspect his exposure to Tibetan Buddhism -especially the Gelug school, which is the most scholastic of all four- wasn't a great help here. His legitimacy in selling this as Buddhism (instead of "Batchelorism," for example) is highly questionable as well.

The other way is to find a guide who, metaphorically speaking, has completed the Buddhist journey across the river and has come back to teach others. This is surely a matter of luck, and I realize there are many people who have searched long and hard without ever finding one. If and when you do find such a person (and I hope you do), you might appreciate how different his/her wisdom and compassion feel from Batchelor's cognitively doctored interpretation.

Don't ever believe that you can get the essence of Buddha Dharma from a book, just by using your mind. It is a living thing, an intimate experience, to be handed over from teacher or master to student, even if nobody can do the work for us except ourselves.

Kind regards,

Posted on 21 May 2012 20:57:22 BDT
J Payne says:
I agree totally. Batchelor seems to esteem such 'luminaries' as Heidegger and the currently fashionable materialist philosophers of science as ultimate authorities, as if their (very transitory) formulations represent some final peak of knowledge. He apparently feels that Buddhism might have some small slivers of insight and ethical guidance to add, thus completing the West's triumph over ignorance and superstition. I'm no fan of 'politically correct' devaluations of the Western paradigm and its undoubted successes, but this book stinks of a condescending Eurocentrism that will surely date very quickly.

In reply to an earlier post on 22 May 2012 10:55:36 BDT
arkebra says:
Dear J Payne:

Thanks for your reply. I've read similar criticisms of Batchelor's philosophical allegiances in reviews of his other books, none of which appeal to me, really.

For me, the main problem with Batchelor's approach is not that he champions this thinker or that school so much as that he cheapens the Dharma by treating it as just another religious system composed of words and concepts, disregarding its core, which is the direct experience of the mind's nature. I don't sense that Batchelor has touched that experience, or even believes that it is possible or necessary.

That being said, there's an awful lot in today's "official" Buddhism that reeks of dogma, ceremony and ritual, without enough critical thinking or understanding. So, yes, I think there are plenty of things to correct in how the Buddha's teachings are generally presented, but this has to be done from a very different place.

The cognitive mind is a fabulous tool, but a very tricky and self-interested guide. Better let your own nature do the driving.

Posted on 4 Jun 2012 06:45:54 BDT
Ian says:
Dear Arkebra,

Thanks for your post on this. I was tempted, but wondered how he could simplify the dharma to 127 pages. Considering too, that just the motivations of the three vehicles are completely different, which further expresses itself in the learning methods and practice expressions throughout.

As my teacher recently said: You can't generalise Buddhism, it only works for the individual.

But the book is out and it is obviously inspiring people to ask questions. One of the deepest teachings of the Buddha's story, is that his path was not based on wanting to find enlightenment or founding a world religion, but on wanting to find answers. First to the nature of suffering, then to the nature of reality and lastly to the nature of truth. We considered him enlightened when he found the answers, but he never stopped asking fundamental questions. The problem in our modern world, is that we do love our full-stops. Like thinking that reading a book like this will bring people to a grinding halt on their paths.

But if the book inspires people to keep asking questions, to keep seeking the truth of our existence here, then it is more valuable for that. If it does offer a glimpse of the depths and dynamics of our true nature - and the true nature of our mind, then there is merit in reading and working with it.

You are a great writer by the way. I can only imagine how beautiful your prayers and blessings are that all beings my reach liberation and happiness.

Warm regards,
Ian

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Jun 2012 13:55:34 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Jun 2012 00:01:51 BDT
arkebra says:
Dear Ian,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

If the book is inspiring people to ask questions, fine; if it is offering people somebody else's ready-made answers to their own questions, that is another matter. As you say, we love the idea that reading a book will do the trick for us and everything will be plain sailing afterwards. Of course everyone is responsible for their choices, but books won't get us there and nobody can step in and travel this path for us.

In many ways, the Dharma is a paradoxical balancing act. As an early Chan poem says, "The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences (...). Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart." So words, which are full of distinctions, will never get us to the Dharma; but unless we use words, how can it be communicated? The trick is to use words without being trapped by them. This is the first of the Dharma doors.

More and more I feel Buddha Dharma as if it was a sort of code -not because it is intricate and hermetic but because unless you have the proper key you'll get it completely wrong.

It's not an enigma to be cracked by means of clever cogitations.
It's not an academic subject to be mastered through scholarship.
It's not a privilege reserved to traditional lineages and transmissions.
It is a matter of understanding and experience -not mundane but subliminal meditative experience.

Trying to pin the Dharma with words is like trying to catch live trout with your bare hands: even if you get a hold on it, it will slip right through your fingers again.

Batchelor claims to have stripped Buddhism down to its bare essentials, but when he produces a dead and dried (and, to me, rather smelly) red herring instead, which is then acclaimed as "perfect", "spot on", etc., by a chorus of reviewers, I can't help reacting with disbelief to this "Buddhism without beliefs." But that's just me and these too are only words, after all.

Anyway, best wishes to you and your Dharma path. And as for prayers, here is a pertinent one from the Lankavatara Sutra:

"To the Dharma treasury of the self-existent mind
free from defilement or belief in a self
may the Buddha teach us the path
to the knowledge found within ourselves."

So be it.
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