Can one be a Buddhist without believing in karma, the gods, and the cycle of death and rebirth? That is the question that Stephen Batchelor sets out to answer. His book is part memoir (covering his life as a Buddhist monk and then an ex-Buddhist monk), part history of the life of Buddha, and part essay on secular Buddhism. Unsurprisingly, his answer is that, yes, one can be a Buddhist Atheist.
The memoir section of the book felt at times stilted and often unnecessary. What he was trying to say could have been said with much less personal detail. It often felt like this was a form of catharsis for him – like he really just wanted to get his story down on paper. I guess I should have expected a lot of memoir since the book is titled “Confession” but for whatever reason I expected mostly essay. But some of the memoir was indeed interesting. His experience as a Westerner going East and becoming a Buddhist monk is of course uncommon and it gives a personal feel to his explanations of various sects of Buddhism and the ideas that they propound. And his decision to disrobe and become a lay Buddhist sheds light on his arguments about secular Buddhism.
The history of the Buddha’s life was fascinating. I imagine Batchelor’s approach is somewhat controversial, but after he gave his reasoning it made sense to me. Batchelor believes that much of the history of the Buddha’s life and much of his teachings have been supplemented or colored with ideas that were already present in Brahmanic India at the time the Buddha lived. Belief in karma, gods and demons, and reincarnation were all part of the general mindset of the time. If the Buddha had taught these things it would have been nothing new. But he obviously did teach something new or he would not have had such a powerful impact. Batchelor therefore argues that discussion of these pre-Buddha ideas should be stripped from the texts to reveal what the Buddha really did teach: The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. He gives quite a bit of primary source evidence to support his theory that the Buddha’s teachings were concerned with the here and now rather than attainment of Nirvana and release from the cycle of rebirth.
As an atheist (or at least an agnostic) who is profoundly drawn to the mindfulness teachings of Buddhism, I find this argument very appealing. Every time I start to look more deeply into Buddhism I’m always turned off by talk of gods and demons and rebirth. (I have less of a problem with the idea of karma, but as an objective fact-in-the-world and as it relate to rebirth it also seems implausible to me.) And really, when you consider the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, Batchelor’s argument seems almost obvious. The Buddha described his awakening in terms of four tasks: 1. fully knowing suffering, 2. letting go of craving, 3. experiencing cessation of craving, and 4. cultivating an eightfold path. He described the eightfold path as “appropriate vision, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.” All four tasks and all eight parts of the path are ways to live your life here, now, in this moment. As Batchelor describes it, the Buddha’s awakening and his teaching are about finding a way to live an “ethically committed, practically realized, and intellectually coherent” life.
I’ve been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, but fully came to mindfulness a few years ago when I joined a weekly mindfulness-centered group. I began a regular practice of breath-focused mindfulness and also began to incorporate mindfulness into my moment-to-moment life. Coming to mindfulness really did feel like an “awakening” to me. There were many changes happening in my life at that time, and the feeling of waking up to my life began several months earlier when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But when I began to practice mindfulness the sense of living present and aware exploded upon my life. I literally saw my surroundings differently. I felt that for much of my previous life I had been walking around with a blindfold on, only seeing things unclearly, if at all.
Mindfulness can be practiced as meditation, but more importantly it should be practiced at all times. As meditation, mindfulness helps to clear the debris from a scattered mind. Buddhists often say that the mind of one who does not practice mindfulness is “like an untrained monkey.” Thoughts come and go, flitting upon the surface of our awareness and streaming along below the surface – not fully thought out but still impacting our mood and actions. When I first started practicing mindfulness meditation, I found it nearly impossible to stop the thoughts. My mind really was like that untrained monkey – no matter how much I tried to clear my mind, thoughts continued to crop up out of nowhere. Of course, that’s ok – the point of mindfulness meditation is merely to notice the thoughts, be mindful of them, and time and again bring the attention back to the breath. With practice, I could sometimes find a quiet place after a few minutes of mindfulness. When I reach that quiet place, my mind is like a large white space, limitless and bright and open. Thoughts are like dark shadows that cut across the light. Coming back to a normal mind state always feels a little disappointing. But, of course, we must live most of our lives in a normal mind state, and that is where mindfulness is truly most important.
Most of us spend most of our time thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Or we’re not thinking at all. As Batchelor puts it, “Mindfulness is to be aware of what is happening, as opposed to either letting things drift by in a semiconscious haze or being assailed by events with such intensity that one reacts before one has even had time to think.” It was this sense of living in each moment that made me feel so much more “awake” to my life than I had ever been before. Of course, I still do my share of mind-wandering and reactive living. But the ability to even occasionally come to the present makes life better, and the more you practice, the more you live mindfully.
To me, mindfulness is the easy part. What I struggle with most is letting go of the desire to end suffering; letting go of the vain hope that if I could get things just right, I would be totally happy with no suffering. Life doesn’t work that way, and intellectually I know that. But as the Buddha recognized, humans seem to be emotionally wired to constantly crave an end to suffering. To a certain extent that is useful – we make improvements in our personal lives and advancements as a society because of the desire to stop suffering. No one is saying that you should simply live with bad circumstances when positive changes are possible. But some things can’t be changed, and some things we do have to learn to live with.
Another Buddhist text I read described the underlying basis of all human suffering as the fact that we will eventually die. If Buddhism were concerned with rebirth or any kind of afterlife, the suffering that results from knowing you will die would be relieved by the thought of rebirth or afterlife. But instead, Buddhism teaches how to let go of that suffering by awakening to a fully realized life here and now. I went to a Catholic school as a child and a fellow student once asked how I could stand to live if I thought there was nothing after this life. I told him that my life was richer and more complete because I had to live each day knowing that it was all I had. I was about 10 years old. I have tried to live by that idea since then.