Commentary on “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”

Book Authored by Stephen Batchelor

Today is the day of Buddha Purnima or Vesak. This day is for the commemoration of Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha. Coincidentally, today I finished reading the book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor. This post is a review of the book along with some of my thoughts on its contents.

The first thing one notices while reading this book is the style of narration; one almost feels as though they know the author personally. The author effortlessly recounts the story of his adventure to the fabled East, his learning experiences across various centres of Buddhist studies and a series of critical moments in his life that collectively shaped his world view and his understanding of the message of Buddha.

This book uniquely contributes, to the world of western literature on Buddhism, its own sincere effort to piece together the life and times of Gautama Buddha from various sources and historical accounts. One such prominent source being the Pali Canon, the first known collection of early Buddhist scriptures. It was transmitted orally until nearly 450 years after the death of Buddha, and was finally recorded in writing at the Fourth Buddhist Council which was held in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE. These scriptures and other ancient sources remained focused primarily on the message of the Buddha. Any other information about his life, even a description of how he was as a person, was considered a light topic or deviation from the purpose of the scripture.

Therefore, Batchelor observed that such descriptions about the Buddha were hard to come by. Even when encountered, they would be brief and difficult to follow for the lack of context. Thus, glancing back into his life and trying to form a complete picture of his persona was a difficult task.

Buddha — The Human

Wherever we find narratives about the story of Buddha, they begin with his princely life in the capital city of Kapilavasthu and then continue to detail the turn of events which led him to become a renunciant and begin his quest for truth. However, the concluding narrative invariably remains to be that of his enlightenment. It is a challenge to find more about the way he lived after that, the sequence of events in his life thereafter or other tangential topics such as his virtues contrasted against his flaws as a mortal being. Most texts from Buddhist literature singularly describe the Buddha as the perfect being, an ideal towards which the others must progress.

Yes, we know that the Buddha was a superior awakened being. But, what about the Buddha as a person? Batchelor assumes that there is more than one side to him. And if we learn anything at all from the Buddha’s teachings, we must refrain from elevating him to the status of a god and remain focused on his message. It is because of the respect I have for the Buddha that I insist on such an approach, one that is also central to the views of Stephen Batchelor as he tries his hand at filling this gap in the Buddhist narrative through extensive research and reconstruction.

Buddha — The Rebel

Based on his research and studies, Batchelor believes that the Buddha was as much a social revolutionary as he was a religious rebel. He challenged dogma and the resultant practices prevalent during his time. Through his enlightenment he discovered the truth of Conditional Arising, that everything in this world has a fundamental characteristic of impermanence. This, he said, applied to not just physical objects but also to non-physical entities such as one’s consciousness. This was a radical thought for that era, to think that there will be an end to consciousness of a being.

In Buddha’s approach we see a sense of pragmatism. His argument is that it is not a worthy pursuit to debate or dispute claims which cannot be substantiated. He uses this principle like a philosophical razor to discard the need for pondering about gods, the worlds beyond our own and other similar ideas. Batchelor explains that Buddha never rejected the existence of gods or the concepts of karma and rebirth. He simply refused to position them as questions of interest to him. The book explains why Buddha marginalised everything that was central to other religions and began to teach his own unique way of life. In doing so he was a true atheist, one who was not out there to disprove the others or clash with opposing ideas; instead he focused on his personal quest and similarly encouraged the others to embark on journeys of their own.

This is where the book becomes controversial. Predictably so. It goes against the beliefs of a good number of Buddhist schools that have survived to this day. But it is a fresh perspective on Buddha’s message. The book does seem factually accurate. If there is, however, any possibility of a dispute, it must pertain to the nuanced interpretation of the Buddha’s perspective of life. If only we could converse with the Buddha himself and seek his clarifications, this problem might be done away with.

Buddha and Religion

Despite his tendency to side against organised religion, Batchelor respects and outlines the value of organised religion and its role in preserving the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha did not wish to have a successor. He did not particularly like organised religion because he believed that it would restrict the access of his message to the common people and would give way to a system controlled by an elite few. There was no space for that future in his vision.

But Buddha realised the value of organisation for the preservation of any message or teaching. Without organisation of thoughts into a system of practices, the message would be lost to the future generations. Yet, the Buddha wanted his message to be encapsulated in a system that was simplistic and decentralised. Batchelor then describes the role of the Buddhist council, or the sangha, post the death of the Buddha. Indeed we all owe the good fortune of being able to access the message of the Buddha to the many generations of Buddhist monks and the various schools of Buddhism which have kept his teachings alive in letter and spirit.

Buddha‘s Message

So what is the message of the Buddha?

Batchelor says there are four core elements of Buddha’s Dharma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time:

  • Principle of Conditioned Arising
  • Process of Four Noble Truths
  • Practice of Mindful Awareness
  • Power of Self-reliance

The Principle of Conditioned Arising is the core of his teachings. Everything else stems from this concept. The Process of Four Noble Truths is the Buddha’s method for self improvement. It has four steps as below:

  • Fully knowing suffering
  • Letting go of craving
  • Experiencing cessation of craving
  • Cultivating an eight-fold path
The wheel of the Dharma represents the eight-fold path.

The eight-fold path is a practice. It includes right vision, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. These aspects are not in any particular order but they are interconnected.

Although we know of truth to be conditional or subjective, even according to the Buddha himself, Batchelor admits that these are indeed truths for the simple reason that they succeed in helping one realise the goal of improving his life. This process is deceptively simple, but I imagine it to be sufficiently difficult when put in practice. But this is the path shown by the Buddha. He said that the continued practice of the four noble truths will put one on to the path towards enlightenment.

Conclusion

This book by Stephen Batchelor is a great place for one to begin exploring Buddhist wisdom. He may be no final authority on the matter of Buddha’s teachings, but he manages to cover various aspect about the Buddha including a neat timeline of events in the life of Buddha and a nice summary of his teachings, along with his own commentary and opinions.