Eastern religions have always had a certain appeal to me, a way of getting a fresh take on the big questions, something I lost growing up in a fundamentalist church. I had to break away from that, but the big questions remained. I studied Eastern religions only to find them equally laden with dogma. Many years later, I visited a Quaker meeting hall, where friends worshiped in silence. No one preached. No one spoke for an hour of worship. To be honest, I cried a little. I was home. When the talking stopped, there was truth. I am not a Quaker by membership but they have it right with silent worship, and it is a good fit with Buddhism, especially when Buddhism is relieved of the weight of its dogma. It was with some excitement that I discovered the title, Buddhism Without Beliefs. I was not disappointed.
Batchelor goes back to the source, to the teaching of Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha. Buddha grew up sheltered from suffering, then left home to become an ascetic. After living those two extremes, he sat under a tree, and awoke. The truth Buddha taught was fairly simple: desire is the cause of suffering, and desire is caused by a belief in an unchanging self or soul. Giving up this belief awakens one to the reality in front of one’s nose — the ordinary is extraordinary. Buddha was not interested in elaborate systems of theology; he never appointed a successor. Much of what has become Buddhism was developed by followers over the centuries, often motivated by a desire to maintain power.
Batchelor revives the authentic spirit of Buddhism, asserting that the more fantastic claims about reincarnation and karma can be unloaded for greater insight. Reincarnation is the belief that after life, a person comes back to live another life. Karma is the belief that one’s actions in past lives affect one’s present life. Both ideas assume a connection between lives, a soul. Personally, I can accept a variant of reincarnation. There was a time I did not exist. For the moment, there is this being that has this sense of me-ness. After that being has gone to fertilize the earth, a time could come again, where there is a being with that same sense of me-ness. But there is no connection between the two. As for karma, clearly my past actions in this life affect my present, but I do not believe there is a connection with future lives. Like Batchelor, I will not insist that the traditional Buddhist beliefs are wrong, I just don’t have anything to corroborate them. As Wittgenstein said of metaphysics, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Relieved of its theology, Buddhism provides a simple compelling truth that fits well with my Quaker views.
The intellectually compelling aspects of Batchelor’s book — that of Buddhism without reincarnation and karma — tap out fairly early, and rightly so. Most of the book is a refreshing retake on Buddhism, free of jargon and ideology. The text is a meditation that I enjoyed reading in small, thoughtful portions over several days, a highlight of this summer.