Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
Reading Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is likely to have an irreversible impact on your image of the historical Buddha. Far from a demi-god who woke up one day beneath the Bodhi tree and lived out his life in an alternate universe defined by bliss and ease, Batchelor’s earthy and forceful Siddhattha Gotama exists within a Shakespearean landscape defined by passionate treachery and high political intrigue. While Batchelor takes pains to present this figure as one of many legitimate pictures of the Buddha, the picture he paints couldn’t be more bracing.
Toward the end of Confession, for example, Batchelor tells of an old king who, when visiting Gotama, hands his sword and turban to his military commander and enters the sage’s hut alone. Inside, Gotama listens as the king laments his dwindling capacity to generate fear, let alone respect, in his subjects. Out loud the king wonders how Gotama has managed to preserve his own authority so successfully. At the end of the meeting the old king steps out of the hut and is dismayed to discover that his general has absconded with the insignia of royalty. Instantly, he sees that the visit was a diversion set up by his son, whom the general is now en route to coronate. As the defeated old monarch rides away, Gotama knows the new king will now attack his homeland, taking revenge on the population for a deep and long-simmering humiliation. He travels out and sits beneath a tree on the border of the country. When the new king approaches at the head of his army, Gotama persuades him to turn back. Before long, however, the troops return – the king has ordered them to invade the land and slaughter every man, woman and child.
The old monarch in the story is King Pasenadi, who ruled the kingdom of Kosala in the Ganges Plain of Central India some twenty-five hundred years ago. His son, the new king, is Vidhudaba, and the land he will invade with murder in his heart is Sakiya, home of Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha Sakyamuni. For forty years, Pasenadi has been Gotama’s main patron and protector, and because of his demise the remaining few years of Gotama’s life were marked by an elevated state of uncertainty. This is just one of many remarkable narratives Batchelor has patiently brought to light out of the vast archive of early Buddhist texts called the Pali Canon* (See Note), narratives that force a grounding reassessment of what it means to practice the dharma.
An iconoclast and polemicist, Batchelor has earned his authority on contemporary practice the hard way. A monk first in the Gelug lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and then in the tradition of Korean Zen (where he met his wife Martine, herself an accomplished practitioner), Batchelor’s understanding of the dharma stacks up against anyone’s. He also writes extremely well. His first book, Alone with Others, was rooted equally in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. The Awakening of the West came next, followed by the hugely influential Buddhism Without Belief.. Batchelor’s 1998 translation of Nagarjuna’s Verses from the Center presented the 5th century Mayahana teacher as a poet, while his Living with the Devil traced the parallels between the figure of Mara in Buddhism and that of Satan in the West. In addition to his work as an author, Batchelor is an accomplished photographer. He is, in short, a very impressive gentleman.
I heard Batchelor read from Confession recently. We were at Against the Stream, the dharma center on Melrose Avenue in East Hollywood founded by Dharma Punx author Noah Levine. Levine presents the dharma as a rebellion against the forces of greed, hatred and delusion, so Against the Stream felt like an appropriate setting for Batchelor. Seated on a small dais at the front of the room, he read a few passages from Confession and then took questions from the crowd. Batchelor almost visibly winced as these questions centered on issues of reincarnation and karma that he views as completely unfruitful avenues of inquiry. Batchelor is unflinching in his advocacy of an empirical approach to practice, stripped of belief. And the Confession is in part an effort to separate out those teachings that were unique to Gotama, such as “this-conditionality,” from the common cultural traditions of his day.
Reading Batchelor brought home how my own subtle idealizations of Shakyamuni Buddha have been driven by secret longings to become invulnerable to harm. It is through the space opened by admiration, I sense, that certain “gaining” ideas can infiltrate one’s practice. Instead of a total critique of normative modes of living, the dharma then begins to devolve into a smile button pinned to the lapel of a spurious identity, the vain self-image of being someone on the path to “enlightenment.” Reading Confession helps re-energize the practice of dharma as an effort to radically transform the ground of experience. Seeing Gotama so deeply engaged with the radical contingency of his time and place underscores how dogma will not help us – we must engage with experience breath by breath.
Confession also contains an extended meditation on the blessings and pitfalls of religious institutions. Without institutions, religions disappear…but institutions inevitably distort the insights and practices they exist to convey. On this level Confession does for Buddhism what Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels did for Christianity. Exploring recently unearthed gospels by renegade apostles such as Thomas and Phillip (and even Mary Magdalene herself), Pagels radically altered our sense of the actual teachings of Jesus. In a similar way Batchelor ponders the effects on Gotama’s teachings of the struggle after his death between the authoritarian Kassapa and the dreamy Ananda. While Kassapa may have compromised the subtleties of the teaching, he also helped to ensure we can experience the dharma today.
The tension between the dogma and practice is always challenging because language itself is part of the problem. The experience of presence is immediate and ephemeral; any attempt to depict it becomes distorted by the crudeness of words. The linguistic “forms” we deploy to describe the experience of dharma begin to do what all forms do, which is to persist and draw energy, replicate and spread taking, finally, institutional form. Seen in this way the issue of enduring institutions on the one hand versus the immediacy of practice on the other falls under the rubric of “the middle way.” The challenge is to hold both ends of this spectrum balanced in the mind at one time. Our problem can be viewed as a root imbalance or bias in the direction of the “form” end of the spectrum. Using the language of modern science, we tilt toward the left-brain, with its strong ego-based linearity, over the connective right brain. Gotama then becomes a pioneer in a necessary rebalancing, a forerunner of the kind of human being we must all become if the species is to continue to thrive.
If Batchelor at times seems overly harsh in his assessment of the traditions that formed his sensibility, it is perhaps to provoke an important question: where do the impulses of orthodoxy and hierarchy lurk within the emergent culture of Western dharma? Already, no doubt, such retrograde forces are exerting their distorting effects. And yet one of Batchelor’s themes is how elastic the dharma is, able to adapt to radically diverse cultural settings, and resistant over the long haul to all efforts to co-opt its transformative power. This elasticity is rooted, perhaps, in the dharma’s capacity to activate the remarkable gifts of practitioners like Mr. Batchelor himself.
*Note on Batchelor’s translation
For the confirmed dharma-geek, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist includes an account of how Batchelor managed to track small threads of biographical narrative hidden in the vast Pali Canon. Crucial to his ability to do this is A Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, first published in 1938. Running itself to 1,370 pages, this massive index allowed Batchelor to follow accounts, for example, of King Pasenadi, cross-referencing for accuracy and detail. Batchelor is translating this primary source material himself, giving even more weight to his portrait of the man Siddhattha Gotama.