The Core of Buddhism (a Review of “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” by Stephen Batchelor)

This we may term the fundamental posture of the Buddhist mind. The serious commitment of the Occidental mind to the concerns and value of the living person is fundamentally dismissed, as it is in Jainism, and in the Sankhya too. However, the usual Oriental concern for the monad also is dismissed. There is no reincarnating hero-monad to be saved, released, or found. All life is sorrowful, and yet, there is no self, no being, no entity, in sorrow. There is no reason, consequently, to feel loathing, shock, or nausea, before the spectacle of the world: but, on the contrary, the only feeling appropriate is compassion (karuna), which is immediately felt, in fact, when the paradoxical, incommunicable truth is realized that all these suffering beings are in reality – no beings.

The main point of the doctrine is clear enough, however, which is, namely, that, since all things are without a self, no one has to attain extinction; everyone is, in fact, already extinct and has always been so. Ignorance, however, leads to the notion and therefore the experience of an entity in pain. And not disdain or loathing, but compassion is to be felt for all those suffering beings who, if they were only quit of their ego-notion, would know-and experience the fact-that there is no suffering person anywhere at all.

  • Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. III – Oriental Mythology

The above quote from Joseph Campbell (especially the highlighted portion) delineates the core concept of the philosophy propounded by Gautama Buddha – the non-existence of the soul. Here is where the Buddha takes off from the philosophies extant in India until that point of time, and takes the radical step of the killing off of the soul. Traditional Hindu thought posits the Atman, or individual soul, as an expression of the Brahman, the World Soul: the self and the Self. The aim of enlightenment is to realise that worldly existence is illusory: the “real” existence begins when one’s ego is extinguished and the oneness with the Brahman is known. This frees the soul from the cycle of karma, birth, rebirth and worldly existence.

The Buddha took this philosophy and stood it on its head. He agreed that suffering arises because of the attachment of the ego to the world – the basic illusory nature of the ego is to be understood, and let go. However, after this event, there is no unveiling of a beatific existence in an everlasting garden of the eternal bliss of oneness with the Brahman – because it doesn’t exist. In fact, nothing exists other than this fleeting moment, this here and the now. This is the liberation, the Nirvana.

On the practical front, the Hindu philosophies reinforced the existing political system. If one’s existence on this earth is illusory, it does not matter whether one is a Kshatriya king enjoying all the palace delights or a lowly untouchable scavenger carting away human excrement – the souls of both these people are parts of the same Brahman. In another life with different karma, they can be reversed until ultimately they merge with the world soul. The duty of the individual was to realise this and be a faithful cog in the machine, all the time trying to attain a higher plane of existence.

The Buddha did not question the fact that one is only a cog in the machine – however, by denying the existence of the soul, he proposed a different solution for the ending of pain: that of the cog to stop functioning as a cog. This was revolutionary in the sense that it threatened the existence of Indian society as one knew it at that point of time.

However, as Buddhism grew and spread as a religion, Gautama’s teachings were coloured and corrupted by the local beliefs wherever it reached. It seems that man’s need for transcendence proved stronger than his need for an earthly nirvana – the result is the religion which the world knows today as “Buddhism”, which is ridden with rituals and superstitions, and the very beliefs in karma and rebirth which the Buddha rejected. And in its birthplace in India, Buddhism was assimilated into Hinduism and the Buddha was transformed into an incarnation of Lord Vishnu!

In Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, internationally reputed Buddhist scholar and former monk Stephen Batchelor analyses this transformation. He does it as he recounts his career transformation from monk to layman; from his initiation into Buddhism under the Dalai Lama, to his loss of faith in its polytheistic worldview and subsequent shift to Zen Buddhism in Korea; his disenchantment with its worship of emptiness and hollow rituals which led to his eventual disrobing and marriage to a fellow bhikhuni (nun); his retracing of Siddhartha’s life journey geographically and historically while researching the Buddha’s discourses at the same time; and his ultimate realisation of its essential atheism.

***

Like others on the hippie trail to India, I thought of myself as a traveller rather than a mere tourist, someone on an indeterminate quest rather than a journey with a prescribed beginning and an end. Had I been asked what I was seeking, I doubt my answer would have been very coherent. I had no destination, either of the geographical or spiritual kind.

So writes Stephen Batchelor of the beginning of his journey.

In the early seventies, Western youth disenchanted with materialistic philosophies and moralising religions fell in love with the Mystic East, a country which existed mostly in their imagination. They trekked to India in hundreds, enduring unbelievable privation, filth and diseases, searching for a salvation which they could barely define. Many of them fell prey to debilitating diseases and death: many fell into the clutches of unscrupulous “Guru”s: a fortunate few found their real spiritual or temporal calling. Batchelor was one of the lucky few.

Batchelor started his spiritual journey as a monk under the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in India. Under the guru Geshe Dhargyey, he soon picked up the basic teachings of Mahayana Buddhism: of the karmic wheel of existence, of the cycle of birth and rebirth which had to be extinguished, the bodhisattva who reincarnates to save the world, and the multitude of benevolent and malevolent deities. At that point of time, Batchelor did not know that this was only one school of Buddhism and rather removed from the teachings of the original Siddhartha Gautama – it was rather a mix of the mythical Buddha and the local Tibetan religion.

Quite fortuitously, Batchelor had the chance to attend a ten-day course on Vipassana meditation provided by the Indian teacher S. N. Goenka, and this proved to be his introduction to Hinayana Buddhism, which relied on the concentration on the here and the now rather than a celestial existence elsewhere. The Vipassana meditation consisted of breathing techniques which was aimed at making the meditator aware of his body and self and how it connected with the world as a whole. Batchelor was entranced and explored further, and soon found that the so-called “canonical” Tibetan school left out many of the teachings of the Buddha. In his own words, this retreat “opened up the first crack in the edifice of my faith in Tibetan Buddhism”.

Batchelor followed Geshe Rabten to Switzerland to set up a mission there, but his disenchantment with Tibetan Buddhism continued, the more so because it was intellectual in nature and did not include the mystical experience as such. Soon he migrated to Korea to study Zen Buddhism under the teacher Kusan Sunim: however, there also he was dissatisfied. Zen Buddhism was wholly experiential in nature without any metaphysics to explain the concept of Nirvana. To paraphrase Batchelor, he was using the meditative practice of a religious school with whose philosophy he disagreed, to realise the philosophy of a school with whose practices he disagreed!

After Kusan Sunim’s death, the inevitable happened: Batchelor disrobed. He married the Buddhist nun Songil (Martine, a Frenchwoman) and settled at Sharpham House in Devon, a centre for alternate living. Then he got a chance to travel across India as a photographer, recording the Buddhist pilgrimage spots. This journey became a spiritual and historical trek, as Batchelor tried to disengage Siddhartha Gautama the man from the Buddha of myth – and came up with some surprising revelations.

This is the heart of this memoir.

***

Buddhist myth tries to project the Buddha as a perfect human being who could do no wrong. According to legend, after his enlightenment he wandered across India, spreading the sweetness and light of this exhilarating new religion, converting whoever he came into contact by the sheer magnetism of his personality. As all legends go, this is more myth than truth. Batchelor’s careful analysis of the Pali Canon shows the Buddha also to have been very much a human being with all the attendant faults and flaws: and very much a product his age, when a wandering sage had to depend mainly upon the largesse of whimsical kings, so had to keep always on their right side. It seems that Gautama also did this (his largely indulgent view of the court intrigues of King Pasenadi, his patron, bears witness to this fact). The Buddha’s actions were as full of political savvy as well as spiritual fervour.

Batchelor’s memoir draws a picture of Siddhartha Gautama as a driven man in search of a solution to the world’s ills, rather than as a loner in search of enlightenment: I was struck by the resemblance to the deconstruction of Jesus Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ. He sees the parable cited by the Buddha, of an ancient city which had been buried under the forest being rediscovered, as a temporal solution to the problem of suffering, rather than spiritual – as a new civilisation which has to develop based on the Four Noble Truths, which are outlined below.

  1. Suffering, which is to be fully known.
  2. Craving, the root of suffering, which is to be let go.
  3. Cessation of suffering which is to be experienced.
  4. The eightfold path which will lead to a full life.

Where Batchelor differs from the traditional view is in the nature of “enlightenment” that the Buddha received: rather than as a spiritual experience, he sees it as the discovery of a practical way out of the eternal cycle of suffering. He substitutes secular realisation for mystic insight. And the way lies not in the hereafter, and is not attained by withdrawal inwards to realise some mystic union with the world soul. It lies in the world, among the people. In the Here and the Now.

Batchelor cites the eightfold path as evidence of the secular nature of the Buddha’s teaching:

In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration…I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death…Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers…

The Buddha eschews both extremes of gratification and mortification – his is the middle way. The mind will succumb to desires; the trick is to be aware of the same, and let go. This letting go is a continuous process – there is no “still centre of existence” (to borrow from Joseph Campbell) to which one withdraws. The art of meditation is one of being continuously aware of oneself in this world. Thus, Batchelor places Buddhism at a corner diametrically opposite to Hinduism, where withdrawal from life and union with the absolute is seen as the ideal.

Batchelor’s view is not unique – a group of Neo-Buddhists in India, mostly from the Dalits (former “untouchables”) see Siddhartha Gautama as a social reformer who fought against Brahmin hegemony. Naturally, social reform is a natural outcome, since a man who preached universal compassion and rejected the idea of reincarnation would have necessarily rejected caste.

Do I agree with Batchelor? Partly. I also believe that Buddhism is essentially atheistic, and that the emphasis is on the Here and the Now rather than eternity. However, there is a major difference – I see Buddhism as a natural outgrowth of Indian thought. I have no doubt that the Buddha’s enlightenment was very much a mystic experience – only thing is, he tended to place nothingness in the place of infinity.

From Isa Upanishad

Om poornamadah poornamidam
Poornaat poornamudachyate

Poornasya poornamaadaya
Poornamevaavashishyate

[That is full (perfect); this is full. This fullness has been projected from that fullness. When this fullness merges in that fullness, all that remains is fullness.]

If x – x = x, then x can only be zero or infinity!

Hinduism posited that the temporal world is unreal (Maya): for the Buddha, it was not unreal but ephemeral. The Nirvana the Buddha preached existed at the very centre of life, in the eye of the storm. It is to act in the world, without being of it.

When it comes to the crunch, are zero and infinity all that different?

 

***

This is a thought-provoking book with some good insights into the historical Buddha, but the style is rambling and not very exciting. The constant shifts across time and space in the narrative are also jarring. However, it is worth a read.

 

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