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Stephen Batchelor has been a monk in both Tibetan and Soto Zen traditions, and he admits to having absorbed both western mythologies: Science and Christianity. He writes from these multiple perspectives, and quotes various other sources including the Old Testament, the Talmud, Pascal and Montaigne. As usual his writting contains passages that are as simple and sharp as Majushri's sword.
In Batchelors view; God, nivana, the deathless, emptiness are all names for something that is best left unnamed: the perplexing and life altering experience at the heart of religious traditions. This experience is simply what happens when we unclench the mental fist with which we reflexifly grasp our illusions and defend our illusory self. Once we relax our grip we are free. Mara nature is inescapably present. It is built into our biology. It is that which causes the grasping and blocks our freedom. It is the root of rigidity, a dam in the stream of life, a locking into rigid patterns that cause suffering. Our Buddha nature dwells in freedom, but we need to make an effort to realise it. This effort culminates in letting go, in unclenching the mental fist. Letting go is a precise action, while grasping is a crude reflex that may be enacted in any number of ways, and is triggered by any number of things. Even an intent to "let go" can end in grasping and rigidity if we are unaware of the slipperiness of Mara. Bachelor suggests that naming Nirvana, even calling it emptiness, is devilish, tending to rigidity. Koans are a way of investigating while not naming, but even Zen Buddhism cannot escape the grip of Mara, it too tends to institutionalization and rigidity.
I found Batchelors parallels between the Christian Satan and Mara rather interesting. He says that for Buddha the price of Nirvana is a "pact with devil." Before anyone takes this too literally I should point out that Bachelor specifically says he no more believes in God than he believes in Hamlet, "but that does not mean that God or Hamlet have nothing important to say." Presumably the same applies to the Devil. In fact, the thesis that permeates this book is that Buddha and Mara, and Christ and Satan, are nothing more than aspects of our human condition. He also brings out the contrast between the Christian concept of Satan as the embodiment of evil in opposition to God, and the Old Testament concept of Satan as an angel of God. As a servant of God the Old Testament Satan seems closer to Mara, who is essential for Buddha. To put it simply, to let go, first you must grasp.
Bachelor addresses a central problems in any religion: how to consistently point the way to freedom while not grasping habitual patterns and thus blocking the path. The discussion he provides is useful, but he seems to contradict himself in the end. Batchelor concludes that "you can no more preserve a path than you can preserve a breeze." But in the beggining, and throughout the book he points out that a path is maintained by using it. He claims to find his path in the "gaps between religions", yet speaks with the authority of someone who has glimpsed Nirvana by following the beaten tracks of two Buddhist traditions.
Bachelor expresses frustration with the "repetitive" and constraining forms of religion. His observations about the workings of Mara in institutionalised religion are valid, but I would have been more impressed if his conclusion about the human condition, that it must always contain and tolerate both Buddha and Mara, had been extended more generously to formal religious institutions. As human constructs these institutions will always express both sides of our nature. Even were this not so, to truely let go we would need to let go of the institution and establish our own practice. This can be done without abandoning the useful aspects of formalised religion. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for most people to develop a spiritual practice without someone organising a roof, some food, and some guidance. The limits of this help are acknowledged in Zen when we are told, "don't attach to anything, including Buddhism." Far from being habitual, the behaviour of Zen masters is notoriously unpredictable, but I must grant that the behaviour expected of a Zen student is repetative and narrowly defined. Bachelor claims that he now finds his path in the "gaps" between religions, and seems to advocate that others do the same, but before setting off to blaze a fresh path Bachelor himself did plenty of training on well groomed trails.