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Chapter One


(I)   MARCH 10, 1973. I remember the date because it marked the fourteenth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1959, which triggered the flight of the Dalai Lama into the exile from which he has yet to return. I was studying Buddhism in Dharamsala,the Tibetan capital in exile, a former British hill-station in the Himalayas. The sky that morning was dark, damp, and foreboding. Earlier, the clouds had unleashed hailstones the size of miniature golf balls that now lay fused in white clusters along the roadsidethat led from the village of McLeod Ganj down to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, where the anniversary was to be commemorated.

   A white canvas awning, straining and flapping in the wind, was strung in front of the Library. Beneath it sat a huddle of senior monks in burgundy robes, aristocrats in long gray chubas, and the Indian superintendent of police from Kotwali Bazaar. I joineda crowd gathered on a large terrace below and waited for the proceedings to begin. The Dalai Lama, a spry, shaven-headed man of thirty-eight, strode onto an impromptu stage. The audience spontaneously prostrated itself as one onto the muddy ground. He reada speech, which was barely audible above the wind, delivered in rapid-fire Tibetan, a language I did not yet understand, at a velocity I would never master. Every now and then a drop of rain would descend from the lowering sky.  

I was distracted from my thoughts about the plight of Tibet by the harsh shriek of what sounded like a trumpet. Perched on a ledge on the steep hillside beside the Library, next to a smoking fire, stood a bespectacled lama, legs akimbo, blowing into athighbone and ringing a bell. His disheveled hair was tied in a topknot. A white robe, trimmed in red, was slung carelessly across his left shoulder. When he wasn't blowing his horn, he would mutter what seemed like imprecations at the grumbling clouds, hisright hand extended in the threatening mudra, a ritual gesture used to ward off danger. From time to time he would put down his thighbone and fling an arc of mustard seeds against the ominous mists.  

Then there was an almighty crash. Rain hammered down on the corrugated iron roofs of the residential buildings on the far side of the Library, obliterating the Dalai Lama's words. This noise went on for several minutes. The lama on the hillside stampedhis feet, blew his thighbone, and rang his bell with increased urgency. The heavy drops of rain that had started falling on the dignitaries and the crowd abruptly stopped.   After the Dalai Lama left and the crowd dispersed, I joined a small group of fellow Injis. In reverential tones, we discussed how the lama on the hill--whose name was Yeshe Dorje--had prevented the storm from soaking us. I heard myself say: "And you couldhear the rain still falling all around us: over there by the Library and on those government buildings behind as well." The others nodded and smiled in awed agreement.  

Even as I was speaking, I knew I was not telling the truth. I had heard no rain on the roofs behind me. Not a drop. Yet to be convinced that the lama had prevented the rain with his ritual and spells, I had to believe that he had created a magical umbrellato shield the crowd from the storm. Otherwise, what had happened would not have been that remarkable. Who has not witnessed rain falling a short distance away from where one is standing on dry ground? Perhaps it was nothing more than a brief mountain showeron the nearby hillside. None of us would have dared to admit this possibility. That would have brought us perilously close to questioning the lama's prowess and, by implication, the whole elaborate belief system of Tibetan Buddhism.  

For several years, I continued to peddle this lie. It was my favorite (and only) example of my firsthand experience of the supernatural powers of Tibetan lamas. But, strangely, whenever I told it, it didn't feel like a lie. I had taken the lay Buddhistprecepts and would soon take monastic vows. I took the moral injunction against lying very seriously. In other circumstances, I would scrupulously, even neurotically, avoid telling the slightest falsehood. Yet, somehow, this one did not count. At times, I triedto persuade myself that perhaps it was true: the rain had fallen behind me, but I had not noticed. The others--albeit at my prompting--had confirmed what I said. But such logical gymnastics failed to convince me for very long.  

I suspect my lie did not feel like a lie because it served to affirm what I believed to be a greater truth. My words were a heartfelt and spontaneous utterance of our passionately shared convictions. In a weirdly unnerving way, I did not feel that "I"had said them. It was as though something far larger than all of us had caused them to issue from my lips. Moreover, the greater truth, in whose service my lie was employed, was imparted to us by men of unimpeachable moral and intellectual character. Thesekind, learned, enlightened monks would not deceive us. They repeatedly said to accept what they taught only after testing it as carefully as a goldsmith would assay a piece of gold. Since they themselves must have subjected these teachings to that kind of rigorousscrutiny during their years of study and meditation, then surely they were not speaking out of blind conviction, but from their own direct knowledge and experience? Ergo: Yeshe Dorje stopped the rain with his thighbone, bell, mustard seeds, and incantations.  

The next morning, someone asked the teacher at the Library, Geshe Dhargyey, to say something about the practices involved in controlling the weather. Geshe-la (as we called him) belonged to the scholarly Geluk school, in which the Dalai Lama had been trained.Not only did he possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Geluk orthodoxy, he radiated a joyous well-being that bubbled forth in mirthful chuckles. The question seemed to disturb him. He frowned, then said in a disapproving voice: "That was not good. No compassion.It hurts the devas." The devas in question belonged to a minor class of gods who manage the weather. To zap them with mantras, mudras, and mustard seeds were acts of violence. As an advocate of universal compassion, this was not something Geshe-la was preparedto condone. I was surprised by his willingness to criticize Yeshe Dorje, a lama from the Nyingma (Ancient) school of Tibetan Buddhism. And why, I wondered, would the Dalai Lama--the living embodiment of compassion--tolerate the performance of a ritual if itinjured devas? 

  Tibetan lamas held a view of the world that was deeply at odds with the one in which I had been raised. Educated in the monasteries of old Tibet, they were ignorant of the findings of the natural sciences. They knew nothing of the modern disciplines ofcosmology, physics, or biology. Nor did they have any knowledge of the literary, philosophical, and religious traditions that flourished outside their homeland. For them, all that human beings needed to know had been worked out centuries before by the Buddhaand his followers and was preserved in the Kangyur and Tengyur (the Tibetan Buddhist canon). There you would learn that the earth was a triangular continent in a vast ocean dominated by the mighty Mount Sumeru, around which the sun, moon, and planets revolved.Driven by the force of good and bad deeds committed over beginningless former lifetimes, beings were repeatedly reborn as gods, titans, humans, animals, ghosts, and denizens of hell until they had the good fortune to encounter and put into practice the Buddha'steaching, which would enable them to escape the cycle of rebirth forever. Moreover, as followers of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), Tibetan Buddhists vowed to keep taking birth out of compassion for all sentient beings until every last one of them was freed.Of the world's religions, they believed that Buddhism alone was capable of bringing suffering to an end. And of the various kinds of Buddhism, the most effective, rapid, and complete of them all was the form of the religion as preserved in Tibet. 

  I believed all this. Or, more accurately: I wanted to believe all this. Never before had I encountered a truth I was willing to lie for. Yet, as I see it now, my lie did not spring from conviction but from a lack of conviction. It was prompted by my cravingto believe. Unlike some of my contemporaries, whom I envied, I would never achieve unwavering faith in the traditional Buddhist view of the world. Nor would I ever succeed in replacing my own judgments with uncritical surrender to the authority of a "root"lama, which was indispensable for the practice of the highest tantras, the only way, so it was claimed, to achieve complete enlightenment in this lifetime. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it or rationalize it away, my insincerity kept nagging at me ina dark, closed recess of my mind. By the lights of my Tibetan teachers, I was a Buddhist failure.        

Chapter Two


FROM THE MONK'S cell, hewn out of the sandstone cliff centuries earlier, where I spent my days idly smoking a potent blend of marijuana, hashish, and tobacco, a narrow passage led to a dark inner staircase that I would illuminate by striking matches. Thesteep rock steps climbed to an opening that brought me out, via a narrow ledge, onto the smooth dome of the giant Buddha's head, which fell away dizzily on all sides to the ground one hundred and eighty feet below. On the ceiling of the niche above were fadedfragments of painted Buddhas and bodhisattvas. I feared looking up at them for too long lest I lose my balance, slip, and plummet earthward. As my eyes became used to the fierce sunlight, I would gaze out onto the fertile valley of Bamiyan, a patchwork of fieldsinterspersed with low, flat-roofed farmhouses, which lay stretched before me. It was the summer of 1972. This was my first encounter with ... --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

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"The human thirst for the transcendent, the numinous—even the ecstatic—is too universal and too important to be entrusted to the cultish and the archaic and the superstitious. In this honest and serious book of self-examination and critical scrutiny, Stephen Batchelor adds the universe of Buddhism to the many fields in which received truth and blind faith are now giving way to ethical and scientific humanism, in which lies our only real hope."—Christopher Hitchens --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

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Format: Broché Achat vérifié
This book is going to be very surprising to many readers because it more or less tells the true story of millions of young people of the Baby Boom who got tired of western narrow morality and hierarchical alienating if not frustrating and castrating society in the West up to 1968 when the Hippie movement, Bob Dylan and a few others broke the mould and left these young people without a model. So they moved out. You have to understand most of these movers were from the middle class, and even at times the upper middle class. The poor did not even have the idea, certainly not the opportunity, of moving out. The chains were too heavy.

The most surprising fact concerning these emigrants out of the west is that they looked for both exotic cultures and practices and at the same time the most esoteric beliefs they could think of, in fact not think at all, they could let themselves be captured by. Being from that generation but from the working class, under the lower middle class, I could not move out that easily; So I went to Africa on a cooperation program, then I went to the USA on a personal working program, and then to the USA again on an exchange university program. My freewheeling experiences remained in Europe, including some working summer camps in East Germany, after ten or twelve summers spent on farms, working day after day, especially Sundays. It is only more recently that I moved to the vast Orient, Sri Lanka, to Buddhism and a three months placement in a Buddhist temple.

My experience makes me understand Stephen Batchelor’s enterprise at that time and also makes me understand that some time along the way his quest will have to make him scream “Fake! Sham!
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313 internautes sur 327 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A surprising book 4 mars 2010
Par Richard Blumberg - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
At the end of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist", Stephen Batchelor speaks briefly of the collage art he creates from found materials. This book is something of a collage, pieced together with three major themes, the whole forming a work that is complete and beautiful, with a wholly admirable integrity.

The first theme is expressed as a memoir. Batchelor tells us, with just enough detail to bring the story to vivid life without distracting us from its narrative course, how he journeyed from a childhood in provincial England, raised without religious indoctrination by a single mother, through a classic '60s-style road trip, with plenty of drugs, little money and no clear end in mind, Eastward through Afghanistan and Pakistan to Daramsala, where the young Dalai Lama had recently settled with his community of exiled Tibetans, and where Batchelor first encountered the Buddhist thinking that would inform his life. He learned Tibetan, ordained as a monk in the Dalai Lama's Gelug tradition, and discovered the first of a series of teachers who would, through the next 30 years, conspire, albeit unknowingly, to form the person who has emerged as Stephen Batchelor, a very different person than any of them sought to form, but a person whose goodness and honesty would compel their admiration, being themselves good and honest people.

In addition to Geshe Rabten, with whom Batchelor studied in India and later in Switzerland, those teachers included S.N. Goenta, from whom he learned the technique of mindfulness meditation (the fundamental practice of the Theravadin school of Buddhism), and Kusan Sunim, the Korean Zen master under whom Stephen practiced for seven years as a monk when his emerging doubts about the dogmatism of the Tibetan schools no longer allowed him, in good conscience, to stay with Geshe Rabten. Kusan Sunim, like Geshe Rabten, and like the Dalai Lama himself, with whom Batchelor was privileged to have close contact several times through those years, turned out to be attached to the rituals and texts of his particular tradition with an intensity that did not allow him to understand or accept the validity of the Dharma as Batchelor was increasingly coming to experience it.

That first part of Batchelor's life ends with his decision to disrobe. He married Martine, a French woman whom he had met and come to love as the nun Songil at the monastery in Songgwangsa, and the two have been creating, ever since, a new way of being Buddhist teachers, without the protective authority of either a traditional sangha or an academic institution, but working from their continually deepening understanding of Buddhism, informed by meditative practice and far-ranging scholarship.

The continuity of the memoir theme pretty much ends with Stephen and Martine's move back to the West. We learn some details of their life, the friends they've made, the work they do, and the influences they've felt, but the thrust of the book turns to the second and third themes: first Stephen's cogent articulation of what he has come to understand as the fundamental message of Buddhism and the urgent relevance of that message to our lives; and, second, his long and perceptive attempt to recreate the biography of Siddhattha Gotama, the wealthy and privileged son of a Sakiyan nobleman who Awakened as the Buddha. Each theme--memoir, Dharma teaching, and historical biography--is present from the beginning and throughout, but, as in a collage, as the book proceeds, each theme, in turn, assumes a dominance that completes it as a theme and gives the whole book structure and thrust.

In "Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening", Stephen Batchelor explained the Buddha's Dharma so simply, so persuasively, in such an approachable idiom, that it evoked my recognition that I was, in fact, a Buddhist, and no longer simply someone "interested in Buddhism" or "studying Buddhism". Now, in this book, the explanation is very much deeper, very much more tied to the phenomena we experience in the course of our noisy and surprising lives, but still clear, still free of jargon, even more persuasive. As the first book invited me to adopt it, this book invites me to reject the label "Buddhist", even as I realize that there is nothing to do, as each new surprise arrives and death comes every minute closer, but follow the Dharma that the Buddha elaborated with lively detail and remarkable subtlety in the teachings we find in the Pali Canon.

In elaborating the theme within which his understanding of the Dharma is clarified, Batchelor explains his method for creating that understanding, which involves examining the canonical texts for elements which were part of Siddhattha Gotama's cultural environment, and those other elements, standing out from the rest of the texts, that could have been inserted later to justify the various orthodoxies that formed after the Buddha's death. Then, without necessarily rejecting those elements, we set them aside; what is left must be considered new and original, even radical. That is the Buddhadharma.

Batchelor's method leads directly to the third major theme of the book, the author's story of the Buddha's life as an individual human being. Without understanding that, one cannot separate the extraordinary experience that the Buddha awakened to after deep examination from the experience that all other human beings of his time saw as ordinary, needing no examination. Recreating the Buddha's life is no simple task; much of what's been handed down is clearly myth, and the community of monks who remembered the Buddha's teachings with such deliberate effort, in such remarkable detail, and with such probable fidelity, were simply not interested either in the parts of the story that presented fairly the views of those with whom the Buddha held debate, or in any narration of events that we today would identify as "historical". So Batchelor is left to tease a plausible story from brief segments found here and there in the texts, from what we know about the men and women with whom the Buddha associated and whose way of life he shared, and from uncommonly well-informed guessing. The figure that Batchelor sculpts of the man Siddhattha Gotama looks real to me; that figure could very well be the man who delivered the teachings that have come to inform my life. It is certainly truer to that man than the fat happy Buddhas in Chinatown gift shops or the austere Hellenic statues in museum galleries. Beyond that, who can know?

And that brings us to the essential message of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist": the impossibility of knowing, and the freedom we gain from that impossibility--the freedom to trust our experience and follow that to an understanding of the Dharma that works on our lives, the freedom to create those lives, the freedom to cultivate a path that allows me to awake tomorrow morning (barring the inevitable surprises) a better person than the person who woke this morning.

This is an important book. Batchelor's writing style is the very model of "right speech", articulating the most subtle and difficult notions with wit and clarity. For those who think they know Buddhism, the book will illuminate that knowledge. For those who are coming fresh to the study of the Buddha and his teachings, this is a wonderful introduction, requiring no pre-requisite study, demanding nothing of the reader but diligent attention.
176 internautes sur 184 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 I Think Anyone Interested in Buddhism Should Read This Book 7 mars 2010
Par L. Erickson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
I actually finished this book a week ago, and at the time was unsure how I was going to rate it. Batchelor's conclusions re: Buddhism are very different from my own. I enjoy the magic, the mystic, expressions present in some lineages of Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, and with connecting with Buddha as an eternal force, not only a human being. So I was faintly dissatisfied with where the author's own journey and research led him, and almost docked a star because of it.

In the end, though, I didn't, because the book is so well-written and well-researched, and I have found myself thinking about it and discussing it frequently with people I know. I read and review a lot of books, many of them Buddhist, and few of them stay with me for this long. So that to me is a sign of a five-star book, whether I personally agree and relate to all the author's points or not.

My favorite parts of the book were his stories regarding his own experiences as a young Tibetan Buddhist monk, and then studying in Korea with a Zen teacher, while grappling with existential questions and increasingly exploring Western philosophy as well. What a profound seeker! As I said, my own personal experiences have led me to a more mystic orientation, and I kept feeling like the author's intellect was getting in his way. But that is not for me to say. In the end, I admired his integrity and dedication to seeking truth. It is rare that someone is willing to throw away everything they have known, all that has made them comfortable, over and over again as their searching brings them to new conclusions. And that is what Mr. Batchelor did - first by becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk, then by leaving his Lama teacher to study with a Zen monk, and then by leaving his monastic vows behind entirely, marrying, and continuing to practice as a layperson.

As a married person with a family myself, I also appreciated his analysis of the social forces that made celibacy a necessary choice for serious seekers in ages past, and his conclusions that in today's world, a lay life may actually be the ideal way to practice what the Buddha really taught. And his analysis of the latter - what the Buddha taught - is fascinating. He is focused on Buddha as a real person with real struggles, and within the social and cultural context of his time. Whether or not this is the 'true Buddha', I have no idea. The suttas are like the Bible in that way, as far as I am concerned - anyone can find something to support their view.

What can't be disputed though, is the thoroughness and intensity of Batchelor's research and presentation. I think all Buddhists should read this book to put their own beliefs to the test. And I think anyone interested in Buddhism, but wary of 'religion', should read it as their number one guide.

So five stars it is!
115 internautes sur 128 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Exquisite 6 mars 2010
Par DALwrites - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
"Consciousness is an emergent, contingent, and impermanent phenomenon. It has no magical capacity to break free from the field of events out of which it springs.

There are no wormholes in this intricate and fluid field through which one can wriggle out, either to reach union with God or move on to another existence after death. This is a field in which one is challenged to act: it is your actions alone that define you. There is no point in praying for divine guidance or assistance. That, as Gotama told Vasettha, would be like someone who wishes to cross the Aciravati River by calling out to the far bank: "Come here, other bank, come here!" No amount of "calling, begging, requesting or wheedling" will have any effect at all."

I was first introduced to Mr. Batchelor through his book "Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening," which radically changed my perception of the religion. Mr. Batchelor continues to forge new ground with his newest release "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist."

The book is an exquisitely woven tapestry, threaded via a seamless combination of personal narrative, historical tracing, and dissection of canon. Mr. Batchelor doesn't simply deconstruct the milieu of Buddhist dogma (karma, reincarnation, et. al.), he presents how they are the antithesis of what Gotama intended, and how they are unnecessary (and often hindrances) in the application of his message.

Based on the title, in combination with the jacket blurb from Christopher Hitchens, one may be inclined to foresee the book as a complete disemembering of the Buddhist religion. However, this book is more of a "decluttering", sweeping away thousands of years of dust that have accumulated on The Buddha's declaration.

Whether you are a practicing Buddhist, a staunch atheist, a purveyor of Eastern thought, or simply looking for an innovative perspective, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" will not disappoint. Thrilling in its revelation, breathtaking in its artistry, and erudite in its reasoning, this book is destined to become a classic.

Highly recommended, and thoroughly encouraged. An 11 out of 10.
62 internautes sur 70 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Disorganized and unconvincing, but thought-provoking 5 juillet 2010
Par Truth Seeker "Stephanie" - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
This book should have been at least two books, if not three. One, a memoir, another, a re-examination of the Buddha's life and his doctrines. As a reader, I never quite understood why I was being presented with the author's life and the Buddha's life in the same book. If there was supposed to be some parallel, it didn't come across well.

The strange and jarring jump from one chapter to the next between parts that felt like they should have been in two different books is unfortunate, and left me wishing Batchelor had written a stand-alone book with only the material about the Buddha. The examination of the Buddha's life in its historical and sociopolitical contexts is well researched, compelling, and enjoyable to read; I would have loved to have had more of it. I also found the critical examination of the Buddha's teaching and whether it advocated any metaphysical views thought-provoking.

That said, I was not convinced by the author's theses. Batchelor takes pains to remind the reader multiple times that he cherry picks what parts of the Pali Canon support his argument and focuses on them, while setting aside the parts he finds disagreeable. This is admirable for its honesty--because it's exactly what he does--but doesn't do much by way of convincing the reader that his interpretation of the Buddha's teaching should be given more weight than anyone else's. Which undermines the entire point of writing such a book, because most people reading it aren't reading it simply to find out what Stephen Batchelor's intellectual predilections are.

I liked the portrait of the Buddha that Batchelor painted, and think it is a Buddha many modern readers will find relatable, but I wasn't convinced this was the 'real Buddha,' any more than Thomas Jefferson's Jesus was necessarily the 'real Jesus.' There are many passages in the Pali Canon that quite clearly and directly contradict the portrait of the Buddha that Batchelor paints. So the book amounts to a bit of slight of hand--if you go along with what the author wants you to see, it's because it's what you want to see as well, not because it's what actually is there.

As a Buddhist, my primary interest is in what is true. As a Zen practitioner, I've learned that most of the time when I believe or think I know something, I really don't. As for rebirth, it's not something that has bothered me too much because I have no way of really knowing if it's true or not, and it wouldn't change how I lived my life anyway. It is pretty clear to me that the Buddha taught rebirth, and I think it's lazy and condescending to just wave this off as a 'cultural thing.' The Buddha, as Batchelor points out in this book, ignored and went against many cultural givens of his time, so he wouldn't have just taught rebirth because it was a common belief.

So the main thrust of this book, an argument that the Buddha was a skeptic and a materialist, falls flat and does not convince, especially as the Buddha directly refuted materialism as a philosophical position (something that Batchelor, of course, fails to mention). The historical portrait of the Buddha is nice but clearly comes across as incomplete. And the memoir part of the book gives insight into the motives of the narrator, but it's also very dry. Batchelor ignores what could have been a compelling narrative turn by failing to give the reader the story of how his romance with Martine developed. This is but one of many examples of moments when Batchelor could have gone into more personal and emotional detail, but neglects 'personal growth' or 'human interest' moments in favor of intellectual points. The dry tone leaves the reader following the life story of a narrator with no charisma or interest at all other than as a thinker, but as a thinker, he's problematic because he ignores a lot of evidence that the educated Buddhist reader knows challenges his arguments.

In the end, I think this book is worth reading and considering, but advise taking it with a few grains of salt. It would have been much better had it been two books--one fuller and more strongly argued account of the Buddha's life and teaching, with more excellent historical research, and one memoir, with more focus and attention given to other aspects of the narrator's life besides his ideas, especially the story of his relationship with his wife, which I suspect is interesting.
21 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Secular Buddhism 19 octobre 2010
Par Robin Friedman - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
One of the attractions that Buddhism has offered to Westerners is the opportunity to pursue a nontheistic spiritual life outside the contours of traditional Judaism or Christianity. Thus, the title of Stephen Batchelor's recent book, "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist" (2010) is provocative and surprising on the surface in that Batchelor is "confessing" his "atheism" as if it were inconsistent with "Buddhism". But Batchelor understands the teachings of various traditional Buddhist schools well. In addition to rejecting Western theism, Batchelor also seriously questions Buddhist teachings such as rebirth and Karma in favor of an outlook which is secular and scientific. Thus, his book deserves the title of the "confession" of a Western Buddhist seeker.

Batchelor's (b. 1954) best-known earlier work on Buddhism was his controversial 1997 study "Buddhism without Beliefs" Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening in which he articulated his secular understanding of Buddhism. His recent "Confessions" is an intruiging collage of autobiography, philosophy, and history. Raised in England without a formal religion by a single mother, Batchelor did not attend college. Instead, he left home as a hippy and traveled through Asia where he became an early Western student of the Dalai Lama in his Indian exile. In the first part of his book, Batchelor recounts how he learned Tibetan and became a monk in the Tibetan tradition even while entertaining serious doubts about the specifics of Tibetan teaching. During this time, Batchelor also read Western existential philosophy and was greatly influenced by Heidegger's "Being in Time" with its emphasis on "being-in-the world" and experientialism rather than rationality as the basis for understanding the human condition. As a young Tibetan monk, Batchelor also had his first exposure to earlier non-Tibetan Buddhist tradition when he attended a meditation retreat under the Burmese lay teacher S.N. Goenka.

Batchelor left his Tibetan teacher and became a Zen monk in Korea together with a group of other Westerners. His doubts about Zen teachings paralleled his doubts about Tibetan Buddhism. After ten years as a monk, Batchelor disrobed and returned to lay life. He married a former colleague, a nun named Songil (Martine); and he and Martine moved to England as Buddhist laypeople to participate in a newly founded Buddhist meditation center known as the Gaia House, founded by the Sharpham Trust. Steven and Martin Batchelor eventually left the Gaia House. They live in rural France, and both continue to teach and write.

The second part of the book continues Batchelor's autobiography combined with his more detailed reflections on Buddhism and on early Buddhist history. Both Tibetan and Zen Buddhism are part of what is generally referred to as Mahayana Buddhism which emphasizes the figure of the Bodhisattva -- an individual who delays his or her own full enlightenment to work towards the enlightenment of everyone -- and a philosophical, ahistorical understanding of the Buddha. Batchelor became interested in the earlier Theravada Buddhism, which is found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and elsewhere and in its texts which are known as the Pali canon. The Pali Canon is lengthy and diffuse, but is texts and Suttas show Gotama Buddha as a person and as a wanderer rather than as an abstraction. I have been fortunate to be part of a long-standing study group under the guidance of a capable teacher where I have had the opportunity to read and think about the Pali Suttas for the past 15 years.

Batchelor argues that Buddhism needs to be understood in its historical context as teased out of the Pali Suttas. In his book, he tries to show how Buddha was part of his times, how he may have studied, and how his teachings were the product of long reflection and engagement, rather than only of introspective meditation, that involved the rejection of much of the Hindu/Brahmanic teachings in which the Buddha was raised. While seeking the historical Buddha, Batchelor freely admits to "cherry-picking" the tradition by focusing on the teachings he can understand and accept. Batchelor's Buddha thus is a rationalist and something of a skeptic whose teachings focus on four distinctive elements: 1. the conditionality and changeable character of everything, 2. the process of the Four noble truths. 3, mindful awareness and 4. the power of self-reliance. (p. 237) The teachings are pragmatic, for Batchelor, and based upon ever-present change and groundlessness as opposed to dualism, transcendence, Nirvana, or fixity. These teachings, for Batchelor, rather than traditional Asian Buddhist teachings are those that speak to the "peculiar maladies of a late-twentieth century post-Christian secular existentialist like myself." (p.66)

Whether Batchelor offers a convincing portrayal of Buddhism or a highly sophisticated form of modern secularism is a subject for debate and disagreement which cannot be resolved in a short review. In addition to the many unusually detailed reviews of this book here on Amazon, there is an excellent review of Batchelor's book in the Fall 2010 issue of the Buddhist review, "Tricycle" called "Secular Buddhism?" by David Loy. But on all accounts, Batchelor's book is engagingly and thoughtfully written and challenging. It is full of digressions and discussions of people worth knowing in their own right, including Batchelor's own Buddhist teachers, Geshe Dhargyey, Geshe Babten, and Kusan Sunim, and Goenka. Other figures discussed in the book include the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the English theologian Don Cuppit, the Italian writer on Buddhism Julius Evola, and two early English Buddhist monks, Nanamoli and especially Nanavira who particularly influenced Batchelor. There is also a fascinating aside on one Leonard Cranke, a distant relation of Batchelor who designed a famous sculpture of a fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that I have visited and admired.

Batchelor has written a thoughtful, challenging book on his own spiritual journey, on Buddhism in the West, and on Buddhism and its possible relationship to Western secularism.

Robin Friedman
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