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.


9 Responses to “Book Review: Buddhism Without Beliefs”

  1. 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.

    Meaning and structure needn’t, and probably shouldn’t, come from your views about the nature of the world. That’s seems to be the whole point you were making. So we should probably not use the term “worldview” for what’s being talked about here. Philosophy of life (or something similar) would be better

    • francis ferrara Says:

      Dear David
      I got just the opposite idea from the review,which was that meaning and structure DID come from the view of the natural world of true reality(a world view), and I wouldn’t separate this from “a philosophy of life” or “spirituality” because we live in the physical world and Siddharthas goal was to stop the dukka(suffering) in life “as well as” in our spirit. He conquered boith dukka as well as samsara.
      A systematic worldview is not only provided by spirituality but also by science which does a pretty good job.

  2. Sounds like a fantastic book. Thanks for the recommendation. Since it’s me, I would also point out that the message of the historical Jesus (as opposed to the Institutional Jesus) was also a call to action, rather than a call to faith.

    Buddhism’s biggest asset is its dedication to an examined life through meditation and observation. The benefits of this are illustrated through one of Siddartha’s greatest observations – that everything is made of the same stuff. There is no difference between a tree and a human and a horse and a piece of dust. He understood that 2000 years before atomic theory was even dreamed of.

    This demonstrates, in my opinion, the value of an examined and meditative life on the progress of human knowledge and understanding.

  3. Francis Ferrara Says:

    Bikkhu Bodhi wrote a review of the same book which I found, and he says that without the background of Samsara, and Karma to be overcome(which is accomplished through the 4 Nobel Truths, these 4 Noble Truths would loose much of their essential strength.
    I am new to Buddhism and really do not like all their beliefs in “other worlds and realms”, celestial bodhsattvas, and other devotions and rituals. So I think I will enjoy Batchelors book.

  4. Francis Ferrara Says:

    I don’t see how Buddhism can eshew the beliefs in Samsara(re-birth) and Karma since these are the things that Siddharthas awakening overcomes and liberates us from. IF they are not considered then the four Noble truths loose their power and essential veracity. I would like to be able to do without the concepts of Samsara,Karma and even Nibanna aqnd I am looking foward to reading Mr. Batchelors book.
    I would feel good IF Siddharths Buddhism(his awakening) was only related to overcoming Dukkha in this ordinary world of our lives(one life). I think this would be an sufficiently adequate. no absolutely wonderful goal to attain in this life.

  5. My girlfriend wants I became a buddhist, but after growing up in country with orthodox christianity I dont want to believe in any tales

  6. francis ferrara Says:

    I like the review a lot, but I can not see how you can say that the concepts of rebirth and karma are NOT even needed in relation to Siddharthas enlightenment. I would agree with you that they are detrimental to the ideas of the Buddhas enlightenment, BUT that they are needed because these are what his liberation was from and what he overcame by his recognition that ALL existence,even our Self(Soul) is only a moment to moment flux of reality and of the 5 aggregates(which make up the personhood).
    I find total agreement with Bikkhu Bodi that without rebirth(samsara) and karma the 4 Noble truths loose most(if not all) of there power and vitality. However I can not agree with his view of the supernatural trappings(baggage) of the religion,but then again for him they may not be trappings as much as facts of reality(this I can not see),But then again I have not followed the 8 fold path of meditation very far.
    In regards to the idea of the “metaphore for exitential confrontation to Reality” as opposed to the “existential consolation with Reality” I do belive this questioning active mode IS best as the book proposes. But to me religion is NOT the only way we get a world view.I think science does a very good job too.
    But my basic question is “HOW did Siddhartha,through his own human effort, ever arrive at his liberation view from Dukka as a consequence of his actions”? What happened in his minds 5 aggregates as he sat under the tree and arrived at enlightenment?? The battle with the demon Mara is a nice story(parable) but its baggage.

  7. francis ferrara Says:

    I am looking foward to someone explaining how the consepts of samsara(dukka in the extreme) and karma are NOT necessary to Siddharthas enlightenment, since these very concepts are what his enlightment(awakening) overcame and it was from these concepts that he was liberated. His awakening dispelled the ignorance about the world from his personhood(how I don’t know), but his view that the world(and the Self included) is an impermanent moment to moment flux of change(and of the make up of the 5 aggregate processes of the personhood) leads to the practices of Buddhism action of the 4 Nobel Truths.
    This idea of “religious baggage” should be discarded I do feel is right but what is considered as “baggage” by one society(western science) may not be conceived in a negative light by one that is more spiritual.
    The Buddha changed the conceps of samsara(rebirth) and karma from which it was born by applying the idea of impermanence of ALL being(the Self included), and in so doing arrived at awakening(the practice of the 4 Nobel Truths).
    I have enjoyed the articles by Prof. Mark Muesse.

  8. francis ferrara Says:

    Is this BURNING flux of the egos which arahants have succeeded to “blow out” simply the egos relation(of clinging and desire) to reality which itself is a moment to moment flux which the egos relationship to it(reality) makes BURN?
    If so and the arahant has Blown Out the ego(and its relationship to reality,which BURNS).Then if the arahant has no relation(through the ego or any other way) th67en how does the arahant interact with reality?? IF the ego is not used to relate to the real world then how does the arahant relate to reality? Does he or doesn’t he?
    The Buddha never gave us a replacement relationship for the egos to the world of reality,or do we need one to experience reality?

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