Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor is a relatively slim volume, but it packs a mighty punch. The author (who has been a monk in the traditions of both Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism) strips away much of the religiosity that has been added to the teachings of the Buddha and presents a clean, straightforward and refreshingly practical guide to applying those teaching to our lives.
First published in 1997, it is fair to say that Buddhism Without Beliefs is a key work in what has come to be known as Secular Buddhism, and because it has no particular tradition to promote, it is one that can be appreciated by anyone. That said, the people who will get the most out of it are probably those who are keen on Buddhism (or at least interested in the subject) but are not so keen on religiosity.
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The first section of this book, Ground, opens with a quote taken from the Kalama Sutta, where the Buddha warned his followers against accepting things purely because of hearsay, tradition or scriptures. The first chapter then discusses the Awakening of the Buddha and explains that it has taken on mystical connotations that weren’t originally there. Batchelor stresses that the four noble truths were – and still are – truths to be acted on rather than simply believed in. By reclaiming this practical perspective we can get back to pursuing awakening rather than simply believing in it as a remote possibility.
In the second chapter of this book the author looks at the important topic of Agnosticism. He explains that agnosticism isn’t a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude but a perfectly honest ‘I don’t know’ attitude that can serve us much better than blind faith. Of course, this agnostic stance also makes the Buddhist path much more appealing to modern seekers who quiver at the very thought of ‘getting some religion’, and it is good to remember that the Buddha himself refused to be drawn by questions that called for any kind of pointless speculation. If silence on such questions was good enough for the Buddha, it should certainly be good enough for us.
The next few chapters discuss Anguish, Death and Rebirth – all very big subjects that the author is happy to address head-on. Rather than argue for or against rebirth, Batchelor points out that there is also a middle way that allows you to admit ‘I don’t know’. This agnostic position is liberating because it enables us to continue on the path without wasting time pondering questions that are unanswerable. The fact is that Buddhism can benefit us in this life regardless of whether or not there is any kind of continuation after death, and that should be sufficient reason to practice.
Resolve, Integrity and Friendship are the titles of the next three chapters, and these discuss the resolve to awaken, having the integrity not to hurt anyone in the process and the cultivation of friendships.
This takes us nicely into the second main section of the book, where the author discusses the Path. This section comprises four chapters on Awareness, Becoming, Emptiness and Compassion, and we won’t summarise any of them because they are written to be experienced, not simply read. Each chapter contains at least one exercise that will enable you to make your own discoveries as you consider the topics concerned, and for many readers this will be a part of the book that they will return to again and again.
The third section of the book, Fruition, talks about Freedom, Imagination and Culture. Here the author shows us where the Path leads, not in terms of religious fairy stories but in terms of real-world benefits for both individuals and society at large. At this point the jigsaw pieces are snapped together and we see how a Buddhism Without Beliefs can positively shape the world we live in as well as deliver personal liberation from suffering.
In conclusion, Buddhism Without Beliefs is a book that everyone should read at least once. Approach it with sincerity and you will get a great deal from it, regardless of whether you belong to a particular tradition or to no tradition at all.