Buddhism without beliefs

My son has been reading the existentialists, starting with Camus (of course, The Plague is quite relevant for more than one reason now). He recently moved on to Kierkegaard, who took a form of Christianity as a solution to existential angst. I was reminded of a book I read probably 15 years ago, by Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism Without Beliefs (London: Bloomsbury 1997) which argued that the Buddha was concerned with addressing the existential issue of suffering not with metaphysics and beliefs.  I couldn’t find my copy of this, and bought another, which I enjoyed reading even more than the first time.

Batchelor argues that the Buddha’s original teachings were not things to be believed as matters of faith, but rather suggested a course of action. . As he describes it, the Buddha woke up to the nature of the human dilemma and a way to its resolution. These are the so-called four noble truths. The first two truths (anguish and its origin) describe the dilemma, the second two (cessation and the path) its resolution.  The four noble truths are a challenge to act.

But he points out that “if you go to Asia and visit a temple you will see people doing things that look very much like revering icons and worshipping, and holding views that appear very much like a belief system, revealed a long time ago by someone who is revered like a god”. So is Buddhism a religion? My son recently visited a number of churches and temples with his school, and was quite disconcerted by the Buddhist temple which appeared to him exactly like a place of worship of supernatural mythical beings.

In an early Pali Sutta, the Buddha explains to the Kalamas that they should take responsibility to test things for themselves and not simply accept the beliefs of others:

Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought “The monk is our teacher.” When you know in yourselves: “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them…..(Kalama Sutta)

Batchelor argues persuasively to my mind that the Buddha primarily taught a method, rather than a set of beliefs. He describes how, historically, Buddhism has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as religion (ie. a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests). At times this process has been challenged and even reversed (I am most familiar with various iconoclastic Zen masters in China and Japan who ignored tradition and rank in favour of direct pointing to the nature of reality). But in traditional Asian societies this never lasted long. The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered swiftly reasserted itself – usually by subsuming the rebellious ideas into the canons of a revised orthodoxy.

Batchelor proposes that “agnostic” Buddhism is not only the most appropriate understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, but is also a much more appropriate fit for the modern agnostic mind that prioritizes evidence and experience over beliefs. An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious”.

Buddhism Without Beliefs then goes on to examine a number of key Buddhist insights and also some common Buddhist “religious” beliefs from the perspective of agnostic Buddhism. In these various chapters, he suggests some meditative exercises to explore and get a taste of these issues.

Thirteen years after Buddhism without Beliefs, Batchelor wrote a more biographical book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist” which describes his journey through Buddhism to arrive at a secular Buddhism and a new understanding of the historical Buddha. When I first read it, soon after it was published, I found the lengthy descriptions of his earlier lengthy involvement with Vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism of only marginal interest, I’ve never really found these forms of Buddhism appealing, involving too much metaphysics and “worship”. But I will read it again now, focusing more on his development of an agnostic secular approach to Buddhism, which very much matches where I have got to in my engagement with Zen practice.

Flipping through “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist” just now, I came across a passage describing reactions to the publication of Buddhism Without Beliefs. To Batchelor’s surprise, the book caused a lot of controversy about whether it was necessary for Buddhists to believe in karma and rebirth. This was described as a “civil but ferociously felt argument” by Time Magazine, in its cover issue on Buddhism in America (Oct 1997). In Buddhism Without Beliefs, he had argued that rebirth was incompatible with the fundamental Buddhist insight of “no enduring self”, and that different Buddhist schools have come up with different answers to this question, which in itself suggests that their views are based on speculation.

Batchelor comments “The ensuing controversy showed that Buddhists could be as fervent and irrational in their views about karma and rebirth as Christians and Muslims could be in their convictions about the existence of God. For some Western converts, Buddhism became a substitute religion every bit as inflexible and intolerant as the religions they rejected before becoming Buddhists.

Batchelor said he had hoped that Buddhism Without Beliefs would stimulate more public debate and enquiry about these issues, but it did not happen. Instead it revealed a fault line in the Western Buddhist community between traditionalists, for whom such doctrines are non-negotiable truths, and liberals, like Batchelor, who tend to see them as more contingent products of historical circumstance. I would also see this as an illustration of Ken Wilber’s point that non-ordinary states of consciousness such as an enlightenment experience will be interpreted and described in the terms of the individual and cultural stage of consciousness of the individual. So for someone who is at a magical or mythic stage of interpreting reality and human experience, the awakening will be perceived in magical or mythic terms, ie. as an encounter with gods or God. For people such as me, who have grown up in the modern era and seek to understand reality based on evidence and direct experience, and to test others claims against those, my reaction to the religious traditionalists is the same as Batchelor’s:

Like me, he asks “What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted?” He then goes on to point to reasons such as the fear of death, the fear of not knowing or having answers to fundamental questions, the belief that ethics requires some form of reward/punishment to operate. Theists have said all the same thing about abandoning belief in God, and to my mind they are simply as illogical as justifications for Buddhist beliefs as for Christian beliefs.

Some secular Buddhists, particularly in the West, argue that Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion. I think Buddhism Without Beliefs does a good job of explaining why this is not correct. The Buddhist path is not just a theoretical understanding of reality but more importantly a set of prescriptions for action and assessment by each person: to confront reality, as a phenomenological direct experience, and to seek existential solutions for existential suffering.

8 thoughts on “Buddhism without beliefs

  1. What an excellent article. I read and much enjoyedthe first Batchelor book many years ago and would consider myself, if anything, a form of secular Buddhist. But with a wish that consciousness becomes vastly expanded over the coming millennia. So that whatever intelligent life surviving at that date would become what the ancients would describe as gods. The ability to choose our hedonic set point and to rearrange the phyiscal universe as we see fit. Plenty for all and an end to the endless Darwinian struggle.

    • Yes I would see myself as a form of secular Buddhist also, though I am increasingly exploring other approaches to expanding my consciousness as well. I also have a somewhat tribal hope that it is us that survives as intelligent godlike life, rather than just the descendants of the AI systems we are starting to create.

      • I’ll think about writing something on other approaches i’ve explored. Like you, I have a friend who is exploring psilocybin. I’ve done quite a bit with self-hypnosis in the past, with the occasional deep dives into visionary states, also some lucid dreaming and breath-work. With self-isolation, I decided to practice the energizing breathing taught by Wim Hof (the Iceman) each morning when I wake up. Who knows, it might even pep up my immune system. Not sure whether I will take the next steps to ice baths! And I’ve recently learned how to do transformational breathing (similar to the holotropic breathing developed by Stan Grof as an alternative to LSD).

      • I have briefly tried the holotropic breathing but found it very exhausting and gave up. I too have done much self hyonosis in the past and read very widely on the topic. I have also received hypnotherapy but have never really “felt” hypnotized nor to be honest have I ever felt much benefit from the process. Meditation has sometimes had profound effects but I have never really been rigorous or disciplined enough. You might enjoy the Qualia Research Institute and Qualia Computing. Both kind of mentored by Abolitionist philosopher David Pearce. If you have not read those guys you may well find them of interest.

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