Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Stephen Bachelor's Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist

Classes are canceled this week for spring break, and I was planning on getting a bunch of work done on my research and other writing projects. Unfortunately, I have been sick the past two days with a cold, and while I have gotten some work done, the pace is a lot slower than I had planned. On the other hand, I have been able to do some "light reading," namely Stephen Batchelor's latest, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Batchelor is widely known in Buddhist circles; I was first introduced to him by my former dissertation advisor (and meditation teacher) Marvin Belzer, who directed me to Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs.

Batchelor interweaves three strands of narrative in his latest work: (1) the story of his own disovery of and ever-changing relationship with traditional Buddhism, from his ordination as a Tibetan monk in northern India in the late 1960s, to his intensive study of Zen meditation at a monastery in Korea, to his exit from ordained life and marriage to a former Buddhist nun (whom he had met at the very same monastery in Korea); (2) the story of the life of the Buddha, as revealed through scattered passages from throughout the Pali Canon and traditional commentaries, with a particular focus on the Buddha's often tumultuous relations with secular rulers and members of his family; (3) the story of Bachelor's continuing attempt to develop a secular form of Buddhism, which forges a "middle way" between a rigid and excessively subjective orthodoxy on the one hand and sterile academic objectivity on the other. Batchelor's re-telling of the Buddha's life is fresh and reveals new insights into the political, social, and economic milieu in which the Buddha operated. Batchelor ties his re-telling of the life of the Buddha into a tale of his own journey along the Buddhist pilgrim route in north India, where he hits the most important places in the life and career of the Buddha, and makes by turns droll and tender observations about the colorful people he inevitably meets along the way.

I have yet to finish reading Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, but so far my impression is quite favorable, with one important caveat. Batchelor, it seems to me, is trying to do too much in one book. I would have preferred to have read his reconstructed life of the Buddha, together with the relevant (and genuinely thought-provoking) philosophical commentary he provides, as a separate, self-contained work; as it is, his narrative is constantly interrupted by tales from his earlier life as a Buddhist monk, and by the story of his more recent photo-essay-inspired pilgrimage through north India. So too, the autobiorgraphical material, and the material related to his re-thinking of the core principles of Buddhism in order to combine a genuinely spiritual practice with a secular worldview, are well worth reading, but would have been more compelling and easier to absorb had they been presented separately. Nevertheless, I can recommend this book without hesitation to anyone interested in Buddhism, meditation, atheism, and the relationship between secularism and spirituality.
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