Review: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

By Stephen Batchelor

New York, Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks, 2011
303 pp., with 4 appendices, notes, glossary, bibliography, and index. $16.

Review by William Page

Why should Vedantists want to read a book by a self-proclaimed Buddhist atheist? In this case, the answer is that Stephen Batchelor has encountered challenges similar to those sometimes experienced by other Westerners who embrace Eastern religions. We can learn from him.

This provocatively titled book traces Batchelor’s religious odyssey from a basically non-religious background, through a youthful commitment to Tibetan Buddhism, through a transition to Korean Zen, to a final transition to what he calls secular Buddhism. It questions several Buddhist doctrines, manages to achieve a synthesis between Buddhist and Western thought, and illustrates a problem that often confronts Westerners who turn to Eastern religions.

A child of the 1960s, Batchelor followed the hippie trail through Asia till he reached Dharamsala, where he met the Dalai Lama, embraced Tibetan Buddhism, studied the Tibetan language, and was ordained as a Tibetan monk at the age of 21. Eventually he became a well-known translator of Tibetan texts and an authority on Tibetan Buddhism.

Disillusionment began to creep in when he found himself doubting the doctrine of rebirth. If, as Buddhism maintains, there is no self, then what is reborn? The explanation that “an impermanent, non-physical mental process” accounts for rebirth failed to satisfy him.

His doubts were exacerbated when they met with incomprehension and opposition from his Tibetan teachers. He had been expecting sympathy, understanding, and help in resolving his doubts. But he was beginning to discover that Eastern religions, like their Western counterparts, sometimes have doctrines that do not respond kindly to questioning.

A transfer to a Tibetan monastery in Switzerland enabled him to undergo Jungian psychotherapy and to study Western philosophy, especially Heidegger. By this time Batchelor was describing himself as “a late-20th-century post-Christian existentialist.” But his commitment to Buddhism was still strong, and he was attracted by the fluidity and flexibility of Zen.

He joined a Zen monastery in Korea, but his teacher eventually revealed that the cryptic Zen koans (“What was your original face before you were born?”) all aim at identifying a transcendent Mind as the ground of existence and the ultimate reality. This idea derives from the Chitta-Matra (Mind-Only) or Yogachara school of Buddhism, and sounded to Batchelor suspiciously like the Atman doctrine of Hinduism.

That doctrine is anathema to Buddhism, which denies the existence of any sort of permanent soul-substance whatsoever. To Batchelor it must have looked as if the Atman doctrine was trying to sneak into Buddhism through the back door.

One school of Tibetan Buddhism has a practice which aims at realizing something it translates as the Clear Light Mind.

But the problem is more subtle than it looks. The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism has a practice called Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, which aims at realizing something it translates as the Clear Light Mind. When I asked an American friend who follows Tibetan Buddhism why they call it that, he said, “Because it appears to shine.”

“Well,” I said, “that sounds like the Atman. It also shines.” He was surprised. He’d never heard of the famous Upanishadic verse, “That shining, everything shines.” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.10, Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6.14, Katha Upanishad 2.2.15)

While I am hardly an expert on the topic, it looks to me as if ancient Hindu and Buddhist sages experienced the same noumenon, but conceptualized it in different terms. The Hindu sages didn’t do us struggling Westerners any favors by calling it the Atman, because that word translates literally as Self or Soul. The Atman has hardly anything in common with the Western concept of a self or soul. In Western thought, the self/soul is always individual, always encased in and limited by a single body, and is never universal. Calling it “Universal Soul” or “Universal Spirit” helps a little, but not much. In Western thinking, that sounds like a contradiction in terms. Sri Ramakrishna wasn’t kidding when he said nobody has ever been able to say what Brahman is. That goes double for the Atman.

But I digress. Batchelor’s earlier disillusionment was compounded by his discovery that Korean Zen harbors the notion of a transcendent Mind as the ultimate reality. It was compounded further by the realization that he couldn’t accept the existence of the gods, spirits, and demons that Buddhists believe in. And it wasn’t helped by his realization that, in seeking to end the cycle of rebirth, Buddhism ultimately aims at personal extinction.

Batchelor disrobed at age 31, married a French nun and joined a Buddhist community in England.

Batchelor disrobed at the age of 31, married a French nun (a fellow monastic from the temple in Korea), and joined a Buddhist community in England. Fifteen years later, he and his wife moved to France. They are still active in international Buddhist affairs, leading retreats, attending conferences, writing and teaching.
How, you may ask, can Batchelor still consider himself a Buddhist when he has so many doubts? He says that he retains “an abiding passion for the ideas and practices of the Dhamma,” but is reluctant to describe himself as religious. While rejecting some of the major beliefs of orthodox Buddhism, he has fused elements of Buddhist and Western thought into what might be called a Buddhist existentialism.

Traditional Buddhism says the world is a seedbed of suffering — insubstantial, unsatisfactory, transitory.

Traditional Buddhism tends to denigrate the empirical world as a seedbed of suffering—insubstantial, unsatisfactory, and transitory. Batchelor finds a more positive outlook in the Buddha’s doctrine of conditioned arising, also called conditioned genesis or dependent origination. Here he envisions a dynamic, kaleidoscopic world that is rich in possibilities and constantly changing. He wants to experience it in all its richness and variety—its pain and pleasure, its squalor and splendor, its meanness and magnificence. The tool he uses to do this is the Buddhist technique of mindfulness. Presumably mindfulness blunts the pain, sublimates the squalor, mitigates the meanness. Whether it does that or not, one would assume that it must at least make those nasty aspects of life more bearable.

Batchelor’s saga should interest other Westerners who embrace Eastern faiths, because we often share his dilemma. Because of our cultural conditioning, sooner or later we’re bound to encounter beliefs and practices that put us off. I recall my first visit to the Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, where the severed heads of sacrificed goats were lined up neatly in the courtyard. I found myself wondering what kind of religion I’d got myself into.

At times like that, we have to decide whether to jump ship or stay on board. I stayed on board, reasoning that the goats’ heads were merely a peripheral aspect of popular Hinduism. They were like microscopic specks of dust set against the vastness of the shining Vedantic sun. Was I going to reject the sun’s shining because of a few dust-specks?

There are, of course, other beliefs and practices that go against the Western grain, and most readers will know what they are. We each have to work out our own way of dealing with them.

No doubt it is hubristic to try to improve on what the Buddha gave us. But in the true Buddhist spirit, Batchelor has forged a middle way that seems to work for him. Whether the Buddha would have endorsed it is something only the Buddha can say.

WILLIAM PAGE is a retired teacher of English who has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is currently a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand.

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