Book Review: Buddhism Without Beliefs
I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, though I admit I’ve had a long fascination with it, as well as an affinity for many of its tenets. Mostly, I’m impressed with it because it provides for a “spiritual” (for lack of a batter word) path that can be free of dogma, supernaturalism, and other negative features that often accompany religious traditions.
This isn’t to say that all flavors of Buddhism are reasonable. When I lived in Singapore, I watched many of the Buddhists there celebrating “ghost month” by placing food offerings in shrines, or burning money for the sake of the “spirits” of dead relatives. While this is not a practice that originated in Buddhism, it is an example of how other mystical beliefs have been incorporated into it for assorted sects.
But stripped down to its core, the essence of what the Buddha taught isn’t about adhering to a set of convictions about the world (and especially not about placating one’s deceased ancestors), according to Stephen Batchelor, in his concise and thoughtful book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. As he writes, “The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.”
Batchelor details how the origins of Buddhist thought are unlike the typical genesis of a religion: “The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.” He goes on to suggest that Buddhism focus only on the simple and profound considerations that it was born from, and eschew the concepts of rebirth and karma that are not only not needed, but detrimental to it.
What I particularly liked about his approach is the notion that our “spiritual” lives revolve not around answers, but questions. Or as the author says, “An agnostic Buddhist looks… for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation.”
An example of this kind of “existential confrontation” comes in the form of a query that Batchelor suggests we ask ourselves regularly: “Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” It is one thing to treat this question superficially or rhetorically, responding with a “make the most of every day” cliche. To actually meditate or think upon it deeply for a length of time, I have found, is both troubling and invigorating. If one is concerned with living an examined life, and every advocate of rationality should be, it is the key question to ask, as often as possible.
There are some nontheists that will not find anything to like in any tradition even remotely associated with “spirituality.” But the fact remains that most people desire a systematic worldview that can provide meaning and structure, and this fact isn’t going to change anytime soon. The eradication of all religion is not a realistic goal, but the gradual growth of more humanistic sects such as Unitarianism, or the kind of Buddhism that Batchelor describes, is. Even if you find none of them of any value personally, if they can help displace fundamentalist thinking at large, they are invaluable.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing a version of Buddhism that is totally free of supernatural or mystical elements. If you are not familiar with the core ideas, this is a great way to be introduced to them sans the religious baggage. If you already know a lot about Buddhism, it provides a fresh perspective that will only increase your appreciation for the genius of Siddharta Guatama.