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Book Review: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor

I was very excited to finally get around to reading this book. I have listened to many Batchelor talks over the last two years and his “Buddhism without Beliefs” was the second book I ever read on Buddhism. I was very lucky to have been introduced to Stephen Batchelor’s agnostic understanding of Buddhism so early on my path. The first book I read was by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama and I have always found some of the rituals and beliefs of the Tibetan tradition to be a bit off putting. Additionally, my introduction to Buddhism came directly from my rejection of anything remotely religious and I wasn’t looking to replace one supernatural tradition with another. Batchelor’s deep commitment to the teachings of the Buddha and an agnostic approach to Karma, Rebirth and Divinity is a refreshing example of the Middle Way that I find admirable, philosophically sound and fundamentally reasonable.

The book is less of a spiritual autobiography than I was anticipating. The details of his life are sketched out briefly in the first quarter of the book and they provide some illumination on his spiritual evolution. A disenfranchised English teen who drops out of school, travels across Europe, into Turkey and through Iran, Batchelor eventually ends up in India becoming a Tibetan Monk. After 7 years he decides to explore Zen, moves to South Korea on what appears mostly to be a whim, meets his wife, practices rigorously for 3 years and then returns to England where he engages in writing and teaching.

Batchelor’s story is an intimate account of a spiritual seeker who deals openly and honestly with the taboo religious subject of doubt. As he struggled with the authority structure and reliance on rebirth as the philosophical under pinning of Tibetan Buddhism, Batchelor’s commitment to and gratitude for the path Buddhism had laid out for him shows through as he makes the painful decision to leave his monastic order. His three year stint in a South Korean monastery seemed oddly disconnected. Clearly wounded from his decision to leave the Tibetan tradition, he doesn’t seem able to fully immerse himself in the Zen tradition.

His story ends abruptly and he launches into a detailed reexamination of the life of the historic Buddha. Batchelor paints the picture of a spiritual leader who is in constant struggle with an ambitious family, warring kings and competing religious/philosophical movements of the time. Most interesting aside from this new take on Siddartha’s life is Stephen Batchelor’s self aware approach. Conscious of his attempt to find a more agnostic, revolutionary figure, Batchelor utilizes his language skills to focus on different Pali Canon texts than traditionally sited. While striving for constant transparency in his personal motives, Batchelor is successful in creating a credible, alternative life story for the Buddha.  I am enamored with the image of a counter-cultural Buddha who was aiming for the formation of a new, enlightened civilization.

I highly recommend this book for any serious student of Buddhism. Batchelor’s intellect is rivaled by few, his story telling is enthralling and this tome is a refreshing read for reasonable, atheist Buddhists who are deeply committed to the teachings of the Buddha.

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