Thursday, 1 April 2010

Book Review: ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor is a Scottish born writer and lecturer who calls himself an ‘atheist Buddhist’. According to Batchelor, what Buddhists practice in various parts of the world is a mix of what the Buddha taught and beliefs held by the local culture before Buddhism arrived. Thus he feels that belief in karma and rebirth, which are considered by many Buddhists to be intrinsic to Buddhist faith, is not something Siddhattha Gotama (sic) taught, but are features of Indian culture which predate Buddhism.

In Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor attempts to do various things. He tells us how while on the hippie (and pot) trail to India, he ‘discovered’ Buddhism while trying to find ‘answers’ to his questions, his experiences in learning Buddhism in Dharmasala (India) and later in a Korean monastery, his relationships with Lamas of various schools of Buddhism and with the Dalai Lama. Batchelor also tries to tell us of his efforts to strip Buddha’s teaching of local cultural distortions in his effort to find out what exactly Siddhattha Gotama (sic) preached. While doing all this, Batchelor creates an extraordinary piece of writing which tells the readers as much about Batchelor as its does about Siddhattha Gotama (sic) and his teachings. For someone not much familiar with Buddhism, as I was when I started reading this book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist also serves as an excellent basic primer on Buddhism, as it is practised in various parts of the world and the various schools of Buddhism.

Just as a goldsmith assays gold, by rubbing, cutting and burning, so should you examine my words. Do not accept them just out of faith in me,’ Batchelor quotes a saying attributed to the Buddha. This principle forms the backbone of Batchelor’s research into what the Buddha actually taught. Batchelor questions everything that he is taught and when he does not find answers, moves on to find them. Batchelor is unhappy that though Buddhist philosophy encourages questions, in practice the Lamas are unwilling to question deeply held beliefs of their respective schools.

Questioning is encouraged, provided the student ultimately arrives at the pre-fixed destination. Thus there is consternation when Batchelor tells his teacher that he is unable to believe in rebirth. In one of the best scenes in this book, at a meeting held in Dharmasala to commemorate the fourteenth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama addresses a group of monks and lay persons under a canvas awning. It starts raining. A Lama perches on a ledge on a far away hillside and with the help of a thighbone, bell and mustard seeds, he chants mantras and chases away the rain from the venue, though it rains elsewhere. After the meeting, a small group of European (i.e. White) Buddhists reverentially discuss how the lone Lama chased away the rain. Batchelor knows that they are not speaking the truth. It is not uncommon for rain to fall a short distance from dry ground. Though Batchelor does not believe in the Lama’s spells, he too joins in the general appreciation of that Lama’s work.

Unlike Christians, Buddhists do not seem to be particularly interested in Buddha’s life and the culture in which he grew up. For example, nothing is known of Buddha’s life between his adolescence till he was in his late twenties. Batchelor speculates that being a nobleman, Gotama might have gone to Takkasila (Taxila in modern day Pakistan) then capital of Gandhara and a centre of learning. Or Gotama might have served the King in an administrative capacity. Batchelor feels that not knowing more about Buddha’s life is a mistake and prevents one from understanding his teachings, though he also concedes that his own approach to Buddhism is very much influenced by his European/Christian background.

Buddha was a nobleman from Sakiya who owed allegiance to Pasenadi, the King of Kosala. Pasenadi was not a nice human being. He was, as were most kings of that age, ruthless and cruel as he suppressed his enemies to retain his hold on power. Buddha managed to win his patronage and get perks from him, which allowed him to spread his ‘message’ of dharma. When Pasendi had his own army chief Bandula killed (on the basis of falsehoods spread by Bandula’s enemies), Gotama does not rebuke Pasenadi, because he can't afford to anger his King and patron. Gotama is no saint and has several blemishes. When Pasenadi is desperately trying to have a male heir (and bedding a few women in the process), one of Gotama’s cousins gets his daughter (born to him of a slave) married to Pasenadi without disclosing the girl’s lineage. Gotama knows of this deceit, but he keeps quiet. A male heir is born to Pasenadi out of this marriage. Much later, the truth comes out and there is carnage as a result. Gotama feels guilty as hell, according to Batchelor who is very keen to show Siddhattha Gotama (sic) as a human being with a few frailties rather than as the perfect Sakyamuni. Gotama has his share of enemies, especially because he preaches contrary to various fondly held beliefs of that day and age. Towards the end, Gotama is denounced by one of his own disciples and dies after a meal of tenderised pork, which was most probably poisoned.

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book (for me) are the conflicts between various schools of Buddhism. It is not just that Mahayana and Hinayana (or Theravada) are so very different. Many important Buddhist writings in Pali (the vernacular form of Sanskrit spoken in Buddha’s time) are not even known to or acknowledged by the Tibetan school of Buddhism. Even within Tibetan Buddhism, there are four major schools and thousands of deities. Batchelor’s initial exposure to Buddhism is from the Geluk School, to which the Dalai Lama himself belongs. Batchelor has a ringside view of the conflicts involving adherents of ‘Dorje Shugden’ and practitioners of ‘Dzogchen’. Dorje Shugden is a deity revered by many in the Geluk and Sakya schools, believed to guard the purity of the teachings of Tsongkhpa, the founder of the Geluk School. ‘Dzogchen’ on the other hand is a contemplative practice found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and is based on acquiring a ‘pristine awareness’ with help from an experienced Lama. The Geluk School doesn’t like ‘Dzogchen’ on the ground that it is a remnant of the Zen doctrine and also that it is possibly a thinly veiled version of the Brahmanic belief in 'Atman'. In order to promote unity among Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama suppresses public worship of Dorje Shugden. Though a part of the Geluk School, the Dalai Lama also received instruction in ‘Dzogchen’ from an eminent Nyingma Lama.

When Batchelor tells his Geluk Lama tutor that he wants to go to Korea to train in Zen Buddhism (which is also part of the Mahayana branch), he receives a stern response: ‘Dé Hoshang gi tawa, ma réwa?’ – ‘That’s the view of Hoshang isn’t it?’ Hoshang Mahayana was a Chinese Zen teacher who was roundly defeated in debate by Indian Pandit Kamalashila at a Lhasa monastery towards the end of the eight century and ever since then, Zen Buddhism has been banned in Tibet. Why on earth would Batchelor want to learn something that had been proved to be wrong many centuries ago?

In early 1985, Batchelor made a trip to Southern China and Tibet. Batchelor’s vivid description of the great loss suffered by Tibetans as a result of the Dalai Lama’s departure, the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist buildings and culture by the Chinese army and the imprisonment of anyone who dared to resist their freedom from feudal enslavement by the Chinese, is bound to evoke a pang of sorrow in every reader. However, Batchelor is brutally even handed. As he speaks with the Tibetans in Tibetan, a language he learnt in Dharmasala, he quotes a lone dissenter who says ‘it was not only the Chinese who destroyed things, you know. Tibetans did that too.

Equally interesting is Batchelor’s description of his tour of the northen Gangetic plain in 2003 when he travelled around the towns and villages where the Buddha, lived and preached in order to produce a photographic record of such places for a friend’s book. Thanks to continuous deposits of sediments from the Himalayas, the alluvial Gangetic plain is currently around eight feet higher than it was during Buddha’s time. There are no landmarks such as mountains or hills or valleys in this great plain which would make it possible to identify places. It is while telling his readers of this tour that Batchelor sketches Gotama Buddha’s life, the people he lived with and how he played politics to get his teachings across to the masses.

Batchelor's style of writing is factual and to the point, something I like a lot. Though the book is not very bulky (around 300 pages including notes, glossary and a very useful index) it is crammed with facts and historical titbits. For example, when Batchelor tells us of Takkasila (Taxila in modern day Pakistan) then capital of Gandhara, which was a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, we get to know that at the time of Gotama’s birth, Indian soldiers from Gandhara were fighting for the Persian army against the Greeks at the famous Battle of Thermopylae, a hundred miles north west of Athens.

Like the Catholics, Buddhist monks are expected to be celibate as a way of totally dedicating themselves to realise nirvana. Batchelor does not appear to be very keen on this practice and wonders why a married person can’t live a Buddhist way of life as much as a celibate monk.

Batchelor meets Songil, a French nun while at the Songgwangsa monastery in Korea. Songil’s real name is Martine and soon both of them decide to disrobe and get married. In case you are expecting some ‘exciting’ or ‘steamy’ stuff as two monks turn back from monkhood and get married (in Hong Kong), you will be disappointed (as I was). Despite this minor disappointment, ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ is a great piece of work. Please do read it.


Anonymous said...

strange, not available in any bookstore

Winnowed said...

Anonymous, I bought my copy from Amazon.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I agree that there is as hard a distinction between Christianity and Buddhism in terms of interest in their founders life. First, the example given of not knowing anything about Buddha in his teen years is a bad one because the exact same thing can be said about Jesus for whom the New testament gives no information between the age of 12 and 30. Also, stories about buddha's life are indeed revered especially by more of the 'folk practicioners'.

That being said, it is ultimately right in the sense that Jesus is believed to be God and the story of his life, the life of God, and it is that story that is pretty much the essense of the foundational christian texts. Buddha is not God (or uniquely God ly depending on how you understand him) and his philosophy is more important. The legends of his life are later than the original sacred scriptures.

Thanks for the review though. I read batchelor's earlier book on this topic (buddhism witout beliefs) and while parts of it were awesome, his writing annoyed me.

Winnowed said...

Anonymous, you are right that not much is known of Jesus's youth. However, what Batchelor is trying to say (I think so) is that Christians would very much like to know everything about Jesus's youth, whilst Buddhists aren't as keen. It is true that Buddha is not considered God and hence only his teachings matter, but I agree with Batchelor when he argues that to undersatnd Buddha's teachings or philosophy, one must know Gotama the man and the politics of the time he lived in.

niruK said...

the Buddha did not eat PORK! he was a Vegetarian, and he was not poisoned! he died a natural death. Good gods, why cant people actually RESEARCH before they publish what they write?!

Anonymous said...

Its well known that the Buddha was not a vegetarian. He would never allow an animal to be killed for his sake, but when begging, would eat whatever was given.

He ate it out of both respect to the animal that had given up it's life in order to nourish his body, and as a reminder that he would likewise one day provide nourishment to other living things with his own body.

Winnowed said...

Thanks Anonymous. niruK you are wrong and you know it.

Anonymous said...

The truth is, that Gautama the Buddha is not the founder of Buddhism, and he did not convert any one in to a Buddhist. And one has to live a life full of wisdom and commonsense, purifying ones mind from all the beliefs the world has given. So practicing purity of the mind will liberate one's mind from all the madness the world has put into the mind, and thus live a natural life which is intended by the nature, understanding the laws of the nature. Time is invaluable and precious and should not be wasted in all this kind of discussions. Be Awake and observe the truth of the present moment, is nothing there, and there is no way to find out. So Be Happy by being aware and awake.

Anonymous said...

He truly became a batchelor after deserting his Tibetan monkhood and by marrying a zen nun. Double disrobing awaits the confession of Martine. He did not need to believe in rebirth, he lived more than two lives in one short life. Stephen’s writings may delight some half hearted Christians but they are dangerous material for those who seek true spirituality. He lost his own way by disobeying his teacher and over questioning Buddhism as they say ‘ a burnt seed cannot grow’. What a pity!