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on July 30, 2017
Thanks to his books, what Stephen Batchelor has found, we can find.

I had kept delaying to read this early book by Batchelor, on the theory that this early Batchelor book has been superseded in content by his more recent books.

My mistake.

In this book, Batchelor observes that we really know nothing about the Buddha's education, and how the Buddha came to arrive at the basis for his enlightenment. I have also always been conscious of this fact - but for me, this had never been a sine qua non for my attraction to and appreciation of the Buddhadharma..

Ironically, as a counterpoint, Batchelor's book provides us with the nature of Batchelor's own unique education and quest, of the Buddhadharma, which is compelling and very edifying.

In retrospect, I feel that Batchelor was very lucky to have been exposed to and ordained as a monk in Tibetan Buddhism, as his initial exposure to "Buddhism." GREAT DOUBT, GREAT AWAKENING! It's uncanny how "right view" Batchelor's instincts have been, during his quest.

One great revelation for me was this book's information about the Pali canon, and the unique biographical information contained therein about the Buddha, which is significantly different from the standard biographical information about the Buddha's early life that is universally publicized. This biographical information may be one reason why certain Buddhist scholars attach such significance to the Pali canon, in addition to the actual Pali texts containing the Buddhadharma.
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on February 3, 2018
From Culadasa's website:
"The autobiographical musings of a Westerner who first became a Tibetan monk, then a Korean Zen monk, and ended up as a secular Buddhist. This book is a very useful critique of the shortcomings of institutional and religious Buddhism. It, and his “Buddhism Without Beliefs,” enunciate an agnostic alternative to Buddhist religiosity that is well worth adopting. The author’s re-interpretation of the traditional story of the Buddha’s life is especially fascinating and helpful. There are many good reasons to read this book. It is an important work, and is very strongly recommended. But there is one important caveat: Batchelor’s disappointment and lack of personal fulfillment have led him to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because he has not been able to achieve the ultimate goals of the Buddhadharma himself, he has seriously underestimated the validity and attainability of those goals. It does not occur to him that, not only have the Dharma teachings been grossly distorted through time, but so have the meditation practices that once led uncountable numbers to personal transformation and Awakening. A “Christian Atheist” is someone who accepts and values the teachings of Jesus, but doesn’t believe that Jesus is God or has the power of salvation. As a “Buddhist Atheist,” the author sees Buddha’s teachings as a valuable path to better living and social change, but not as a means to personal spiritual transformation or any transcendent Awakening. In the end, his disillusionment and cynicism show through quite clearly. This is a valuable, informative, entertaining and highly readable book, but despite the author’s seeming credentials, it is NOT authoritative on the subject of Buddhadharma."
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on June 21, 2010
"To practice the Dharma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else's idea of what "Buddhism" is or should be." P229

So ends Stephen Batchelor's _Confession of a Buddhist Atheist_, a manuscript-as-collage made up of equal parts autobiography, a reconstruction of the life of the Buddha, and the search for "true" Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha shorn of the ideas of his age (and those that have followed). Holding Batchelor's raft together is his quest for a Buddhist Third Way, a path for an educated laity with leisure time to study and meditate.

Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the book is the story of the Buddha. Typically presented as an enlightened being above the fray of worldly affairs, Batchelor puts the Buddha back into the political and economic milieu of his day. As the son of a highly placed member of the ruling class, it is likely Gotama held some administrative or military post. He may have even attended college at Taxila. Either possibility might explain why he married and fathered late in life; the latter may explain why as soon as he began teaching he seemed to speak in such a confident and unique voice. In either case, the story of the four sights is most likely a later addition (and one that appears in the original cannon only in reference to a previous incarnation of the Buddha).

Following his enlightenment and his decision to teach, the Buddha soon realized he needed more than disciples, especially if he was to create more than just another religion. To make a new way of being and living, to make a new civilization, required protectors and benefactors. He enlisted in quick succession the kings of Magadha and Kosala, as well as a banker to finance the construction of a monastic center. And so began his life work. The whole thing came undone several decades later when the King of Kosala found the wife sent by the Buddha's tribe, the Sakyans, to be of slave blood rather than royal. Batchelor contends that even if the Buddha was not part of the conspiracy, there is no way he could not have known about it. The King's son by the slave girl returned the insult by sending an army to wipe out the Sakyans, leaving the Buddha without a home or relatives. With all of his benefactors having passed away, replaced by younger men eager to expand their empires, the Buddha spent his final years wandering alone with just a few of his remaining students and aides, left to die of food poisoning (perhaps a plot by the Jains) in the dusty hamlet of Kusinara.

Less dramatic than the Buddha's life is that of the author, which in its main themes accords with the experience of many European and North American Buddhists. In search of a dharma for a post-modern age, Batchelor finds himself at loggerheads with orthodoxy, forced to build his own theology out of experience and study. Along the way he discovers some odd things about himself. He reflexively bows to Buddha images and enjoys circumambulating stupas. Many of the aspects of traditional practice he thought superfluous have in fact become essential to his being and to his happiness.

Others are less so, including "belief" in rebirth or karma beyond this life. In doing away with core tenets a bit of tinkering and rethinking is required, for which Batchelor has gone back to the Pali sources to find evidence and justification. As someone from a similar background and of like mind, I appreciate Batchelor's willingness to question his experience, to question his understanding of experience, and to question the traditional interpretations of experience. He is correct in observing that all schools of Buddhism have been selective in their presentations, and that his own is no more objective than any other. But in at least one instance he seems deliberately dishonest, reinterpreting the Buddha's words to create a meaning that is not intended.

He quotes the Mahasihanada Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar) as supporting a kind of "belief-free" Buddhism. The sutta begins with a critic denouncing the Buddha as a teacher who "does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him, and when he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering." To which the Buddha says to his disciple Sariputta, "the misguided man Sunakkhatta is angry, and his words are spoken out of anger. Thinking to discredit the Tathagata [the Buddha], he actually praises him..." Batchelor ends the quote prematurely to draw the conclusion he desires, that a Dhamma hammered out by reason is praiseworthy. The remainder of the Buddha's remark points to something different, that what is of value is the effectiveness of the teaching. "It is a praise of the Tathagata to say of him: 'When he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering.'"

In the same sutta, the Buddha goes on to expound his many supernormal powers and concludes with a warning to all who claim his Dhamma is nothing more than a Dhamma of reason: "Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him' -- unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell."

Clearly the Buddha saw himself as something more than just an ordinary human. He was someone who experienced the equivalent of a revelation, an extraordinary event that conferred superhuman powers of understanding and insight. But as much as he spoke of himself in this way, he did not, as Batchelor observes, discourse on metaphysics - a first cause, a creator, the soul, the eternal - except when such issues were forced, on which occasions he replied as something of an "ironic atheist," poking fun at those who persist in debating the improvable and unknowable.

Perhaps this has encouraged Batchelor to ignore the Buddha's superhuman qualities to see instead something of Iron Age psychologist, a man concerned solely with the suffering of here and now, in which all experience is of equal ontological value. Contrary to Buddhist orthodoxy, Batchelor says the Buddha did not speak of relative and ultimate truth. He did not privilege mind over matter, consciousness over form. He was not just another Indian sage infatuated with Brahma or Atman, which is much of what Buddhism has since become, with its worship of the Undivided, the Ground of Being, or Original Mind.

For Batchelor Buddhism becomes a tool for exploring existential groundlessness, a call for action in the Four Noble Truths: Embrace (suffering), Let Go (of craving), Stop (and experience cessation of craving), and Act (to cultivate the path). While emphasizing the absence of "belief" and reliance on the power of the self, at the same time he recognizes the need to find a way to live "ironically" with dogmas, orthodoxies and institutions, "to appreciate them for what they are - the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning - rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed."

"If 'secular' religion were not considered a contradiction in terms," he concludes, "I would happily endorse such a concept."

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on May 21, 2016
Very interesting read. This was actually recommended by James Altucher (on one of his podcasts) so I was curious to read it. It had a great deal of detail and historical facts that were well recounted. It was a very deep look at the journey of the author and in the end, I found his conclusion to be one that I aligned with as well. It was a great account of how he found his way into (and somewhat out of) Buddhism.
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on September 7, 2017
Stephen's journey includes becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk, disrobing, and studying Zen Buddhism in Korea then eventually, logically, discards orthodoxy, rites, rituals, traditions & scripture, gods, & spirits as unhelpful or believable. Rather reality as it is in the natural world.

Today he's happiest incorporating the Dhamma into his daily life as Gotama taught. Wonderful!
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on January 10, 2018
Stephen Batchelor has gone to the most original sources available to sort out the real message from the man who is now known as the original Buddha. It is surprising and rewarding to learn that concepts such as karma and reincarnation are not a part of Buddha's message! The book demands your attention and reads like a textbook in some sections, but the overall experience will illuminate both those with prior Buddhist exposure and those approaching Buddhism for the first time. Rewarding read and a life changer for those who can leave behind the misconceptions that are too prevalent in modern Buddhist theory and practice.
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on April 20, 2017
An interesting documentation on why a highly respected Buddhist monk became an atheist. The knowledge, reasoning and logic displayed through out the book is a joy to read. Stephen Batchelor provides convincing arguments that there is no need for adding supernatural beliefs and religious propositions to the basic teaching of S. Gautama.
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on March 4, 2010
At the end of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist", Stephen Batchelor speaks briefly of the collage art he creates from found materials. This book is something of a collage, pieced together with three major themes, the whole forming a work that is complete and beautiful, with a wholly admirable integrity.

The first theme is expressed as a memoir. Batchelor tells us, with just enough detail to bring the story to vivid life without distracting us from its narrative course, how he journeyed from a childhood in provincial England, raised without religious indoctrination by a single mother, through a classic '60s-style road trip, with plenty of drugs, little money and no clear end in mind, Eastward through Afghanistan and Pakistan to Daramsala, where the young Dalai Lama had recently settled with his community of exiled Tibetans, and where Batchelor first encountered the Buddhist thinking that would inform his life. He learned Tibetan, ordained as a monk in the Dalai Lama's Gelug tradition, and discovered the first of a series of teachers who would, through the next 30 years, conspire, albeit unknowingly, to form the person who has emerged as Stephen Batchelor, a very different person than any of them sought to form, but a person whose goodness and honesty would compel their admiration, being themselves good and honest people.

In addition to Geshe Rabten, with whom Batchelor studied in India and later in Switzerland, those teachers included S.N. Goenka, from whom he learned the technique of mindfulness meditation (the fundamental practice of the Theravadin school of Buddhism), and Kusan Sunim, the Korean Zen master under whom Stephen practiced for seven years as a monk when his emerging doubts about the dogmatism of the Tibetan schools no longer allowed him, in good conscience, to stay with Geshe Rabten. Kusan Sunim, like Geshe Rabten, and like the Dalai Lama himself, with whom Batchelor was privileged to have close contact several times through those years, turned out to be attached to the rituals and texts of his particular tradition with an intensity that did not allow him to understand or accept the validity of the Dharma as Batchelor was increasingly coming to experience it.

That first part of Batchelor's life ends with his decision to disrobe. He married Martine, a French woman whom he had met and come to love as the nun Songil at the monastery in Songgwangsa, and the two have been creating, ever since, a new way of being Buddhist teachers, without the protective authority of either a traditional sangha or an academic institution, but working from their continually deepening understanding of Buddhism, informed by meditative practice and far-ranging scholarship.

The continuity of the memoir theme pretty much ends with Stephen and Martine's move back to the West. We learn some details of their life, the friends they've made, the work they do, and the influences they've felt, but the thrust of the book turns to the second and third themes: first Stephen's cogent articulation of what he has come to understand as the fundamental message of Buddhism and the urgent relevance of that message to our lives; and, second, his long and perceptive attempt to recreate the biography of Siddhattha Gotama, the wealthy and privileged son of a Sakiyan nobleman who Awakened as the Buddha. Each theme--memoir, Dharma teaching, and historical biography--is present from the beginning and throughout, but, as in a collage, as the book proceeds, each theme, in turn, assumes a dominance that completes it as a theme and gives the whole book structure and thrust.

In "Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening", Stephen Batchelor explained the Buddha's Dharma so simply, so persuasively, in such an approachable idiom, that it evoked my recognition that I was, in fact, a Buddhist, and no longer simply someone "interested in Buddhism" or "studying Buddhism". Now, in this book, the explanation is very much deeper, very much more tied to the phenomena we experience in the course of our noisy and surprising lives, but still clear, still free of jargon, even more persuasive. As the first book invited me to adopt it, this book invites me to reject the label "Buddhist", even as I realize that there is nothing to do, as each new surprise arrives and death comes every minute closer, but follow the Dharma that the Buddha elaborated with lively detail and remarkable subtlety in the teachings we find in the Pali Canon.

In elaborating the theme within which his understanding of the Dharma is clarified, Batchelor explains his method for creating that understanding, which involves examining the canonical texts for elements which were part of Siddhattha Gotama's cultural environment, and those other elements, standing out from the rest of the texts, that could have been inserted later to justify the various orthodoxies that formed after the Buddha's death. Then, without necessarily rejecting those elements, we set them aside; what is left must be considered new and original, even radical. That is the Buddhadharma.

Batchelor's method leads directly to the third major theme of the book, the author's story of the Buddha's life as an individual human being. Without understanding that, one cannot separate the extraordinary experience that the Buddha awakened to after deep examination from the experience that all other human beings of his time saw as ordinary, needing no examination. Recreating the Buddha's life is no simple task; much of what's been handed down is clearly myth, and the community of monks who remembered the Buddha's teachings with such deliberate effort, in such remarkable detail, and with such probable fidelity, were simply not interested either in the parts of the story that presented fairly the views of those with whom the Buddha held debate, or in any narration of events that we today would identify as "historical". So Batchelor is left to tease a plausible story from brief segments found here and there in the texts, from what we know about the men and women with whom the Buddha associated and whose way of life he shared, and from uncommonly well-informed guessing. The figure that Batchelor sculpts of the man Siddhattha Gotama looks real to me; that figure could very well be the man who delivered the teachings that have come to inform my life. It is certainly truer to that man than the fat happy Buddhas in Chinatown gift shops or the austere Hellenic statues in museum galleries. Beyond that, who can know?

And that brings us to the essential message of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist": the impossibility of knowing, and the freedom we gain from that impossibility--the freedom to trust our experience and follow that to an understanding of the Dharma that works on our lives, the freedom to create those lives, the freedom to cultivate a path that allows me to awake tomorrow morning (barring the inevitable surprises) a better person than the person who woke this morning.

This is an important book. Batchelor's writing style is the very model of "right speech", articulating the most subtle and difficult notions with wit and clarity. For those who think they know Buddhism, the book will illuminate that knowledge. For those who are coming fresh to the study of the Buddha and his teachings, this is a wonderful introduction, requiring no pre-requisite study, demanding nothing of the reader but diligent attention.
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on March 14, 2016
I think the author had a unique qualification to write a book detailing the story of Buddha and the evolution of Buddhism. He experienced the politics of the religion first hand and read widely to be able to make his own interpretation of what the Buddha taught.
This book took me to an era that I know little about and takes the mysticism out of Buddhism.
I did get confused by the contemporary Buddhist teachers and bored by their naivety.
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on September 26, 2012
I was introduced to Stephen Batchelor through his earlier book Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, finding in him a person who relates to Buddhism much as I relate to Christianity: that is, he digs out the core of the liberating discoveries of the Buddha (or the Christ) and eliminates from his religious practice anything magical. I also share with Batchelor a deep appreciation of the Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, and of S.N. Goenka, who introduced both of us to Vipassana meditation. I also relate to his title Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. I confess to becoming a Christian atheist when I was 34, and only later returning to theism when I realized that I could relate to God as the fullness of reality, not an anthropomorphic being, and could use the word "God" as a devotional expression of my relation to the All That Is.

So I read with fascination Batchelor's candid story of his journey: growing up in England; traveling to India at nineteen; meeting the Dalai Lama; becoming a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition; learning Tibetan; becoming a teacher; becoming disillusioned with the dogmatism of the tradition; traveling to Korea and studying Zen; deciding he could not in good conscience remain a monk and disrobing after ten years; marrying a French nun (she also left her life as a nun) whom he had met, worked with, and come to love at the Zen monastery; becoming, with wife Martine, Buddhist teachers and authors who are respected around the world and who have no traditional or institutional authority, only the authority of their own authentic practice, scholarship, and personal integrity.

So that is one part of this book. Another part, which might be called the quest for the historical Siddhartha Gotama, demythologizes the Buddha story. In telling the Buddha's story, Batchelor refers to the Pali Canon, the earliest writings of the Buddha's teaching, life, and the world he lived in. He thereby attempts to make the Buddha's story like Batchelor's own: seeing Gotama as an ordinary human being who, in this case, made an extraordinary discovery about living, put together understandings and practices around that new awareness, and led others in ways of living appropriately in this world.

The third part of the book is Batchelor's simple, clear explanation of the Buddha's teaching, the Dharma, free of jargon, in all its radicality: its unequivocal embrace of contingency, its freedom related to embracing this contingency, its passion for this moment with its anguish and pain, its unsentimental love for all beings. Batchelor exemplifies in his life and in this book the final teaching of the Buddha: to trust our experience and follow it to an understanding of the Dharma that works on our lives. I admire Batchelor's integrity and dedication to seeking truth, his willingness to, over and over again, walk away from everything he has known, all that has made him comfortable, as his searching brings him to new conclusions. May we do likewise.
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