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.