Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor


Stephen Batchelor was formerly a Tibetan monk, a monk in the Korean Zen tradition, a respected translator (of Shantideva’s “Guide to the Buddhist Path”), and a student of existentialist philosophy. He’s now a determinedly freelance Buddhist practitioner and thinker, and “Buddhism Without Beliefs” is an uncompromising guide to his existentialist, stripped-to-the-basics, agnostic Buddhist practice.

As such I found the book both irritating and deeply inspiring, although on balance I was more inspired than annoyed. Batchelor got me thinking — which is very much his aim — about the way in which a well-lived life should be conducted and, if this doesn’t sound too grand, about the nature of reality.

Batchelor is a deep thinker, and he guides us step-by-step into an appreciation of “emptiness”, the Buddhist teaching that all things are “interactive processes rather than aggregates of discrete things”, and how an experience of emptiness necessarily results in the experience of compassion. It’s hard to convey in writing the effect this has, but ordinary things cease to look so ordinary, and begin to have an aura or wonder. It’s the depths of experience to which Batchelor leads us that I found particularly inspiring, as well as the freshness of his thinking and of his writing.

The irritability? Well, on occasion I got the impression that Batchelor thinks he has “got” what the Buddha taught, while just about everyone else is just “doing religion” — saying the words without understanding or practicing them. In fact he comes across as being rather dismissive (and unfairly so) of traditional Buddhism. Does this mar an otherwise excellent book? To me it does, and yet I found it worthwhile to breathe deeply and to let go of my irritation and delve joyfully into the many insights that Batchelor presents.

On balance, I found this to be a deeply satisfying and practice-provoking book.

Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for your review Bodhipaksa. I think Wildmind is becoming a kind of Wikipedia of the Buddhist world.

    I didn’t experience the tone that he thinks he gets it while others don’t in this book.

    I’m more irritated at the consolation approach to spirituality. He clearly articulates the benefit of the confrontation approach in spirituality–to confront the big questions. He is warning about the dangers of established religion that has gone stale, that offers consolation. That is what I find irritating.

    It’s a hard thing to assert our independence of thought from tradition without seeming to trivialize or knock the tradition. Maybe not here, but in other writings he is grateful for the tradition, and wants to enliven and make relevant to our times. To me that is not dismissive, it’s honest and respectful.

    I do find the dismissive tone more in his book on eastern teachers who have brought Buddhism to the west, but I’m scratching my head at some of the movements as well. Perhaps that is a flaw of mine. I appreciate your kindness towards others Bodhipaksa. I think you’re onto something.

    One of Sangharakshita’s points, as I understand it, in his review of Buddhism Without Belief, is that there exists no tradition that doesn’t have rebirth, and in a way it’s kind of pointing to the fact that Batchelor hasn’t started a tradition, maybe he is too contrary to create a movement.

    I find Batchelor’s books very challenging, integrating and appropriately provocative. I highly recommend them.

  • Wikipedia? I’d settle for being some degree of replacement for the late lamented Dharma Life.

    I think you’re talking about the same thing when you mention “the consolation approach” as I am when I’m talking about Batchelor giving the impression that other people don’t get “it” — that is, what Buddhism’s really about.

    On the whole though I do really admire Batchelor’s project of taking an existential approach to Buddhism. I recommend his books as well, including this one.

    All the best,

  • I recommend Batchelor’s books, along with Steve Hagen’s, to a lot of folks who have questions about Buddhism, in person and on the Web. Since I frequently do so on sites such as Wiki-answers, as well as my own blog, I get a lot of remarks.

    I’ve noticed an interesting thing about their critics: they seem to be the same general group of folks who love to discuss the intricacies of Dharma, argue and preach about sutras, and generally behave as though they never heard about there being more than one path to enlightenment. Rather like the folks I escaped when I left the Christian faith. On the other hand, those who seem to appreciate the back-to-basics approach — albeit, perhaps, not agree entirely — seem cut from a different cloth.

    I was attracted to Buddhism back in the ’80’s because of the lack of dogma, and the Buddha’s statement that we should believe no one, not even him, unless it made sense to us. I can understand why someone who has spent years studying the sutras should be taken aback by those who attempt to cut through two millennia of fog and distill the Dharma down to its essence. I fail to see, however, how anyone following a Middle Path can disparage two practitioners who have done so much to attract people to the sangha. Doubtless, however, that is my unskillful comprehension at work again.

  • Hi Bill,

    I’m not in a position to generalize about Batchelor’s critics, and therefore in even less of a position to know whether your assessment of them is accurate. I’ve certainly noticed a phenomenon I’d call “Buddhist fundamentalism” where people seem to assume that the way they practice, or the meditation practice they do, is the only valid one or the best one for all people. I think those positions are highly contradictory to the spirit of the Dharma.

    I’m also unclear whether you think I’m one of these people who “loves to discuss the intricacies of Dharma, argue and preach about sutras,” etc. I certainly love discussing the intricacies of Dharma, I sometimes like to discuss sutras, but I wouldn’t describe anything I do as “preaching” and I’m certainly well aware there are many paths to enlightenment.

    I’m unclear too from what you write whether you think I’m disparaging Batchelor. I think I give him credit where credit is due, but I also take issue with some of what he says, and also with how he says it. We should all allow each other that freedom, surely.

    Incidentally, I was having dinner with the CEO of Sounds True a few months back and he said I reminded him of Batchelor. I took it as a compliment!

    Al the best,


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