Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

by Stephen Batchelor


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Does Buddhism require faith? Can an atheist or agnostic follow the Buddha’s teachings without believing in reincarnation or organized religion?
This is one man’s confession.

In his classic Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor offered a profound, secular approach to the teachings of the Buddha that struck an emotional chord with Western readers. Now, with the same brilliance and boldness of thought, he paints a groundbreaking portrait of the historical Buddha—told from the author’s unique perspective as a former Buddhist monk and modern seeker. Drawing from the original Pali Canon, the seminal collection of Buddhist discourses compiled after the Buddha’s death by his followers, Batchelor shows us the Buddha as a flesh-and-blood man who looked at life in a radically new way. Batchelor also reveals the everyday challenges and doubts of his own devotional journey—from meeting the Dalai Lama in India, to training as a Zen monk in Korea, to finding his path as a lay teacher of Buddhism living in France. Both controversial and deeply personal, Stephen Batchelor’s refreshingly doctrine-free, life-informed account is essential reading for anyone interested in Buddhism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385527071
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2011
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 158,037
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stephen Batchelor is a former monk in the Tibetan and Zen traditions and the author of books including Alone with Others, The Faith to Doubt, The Awakening of the West, Buddhism Without Beliefs, and Living with the Devil. He lives with his wife, Martine, in southwestern France and lectures and conducts meditation retreats throughout the world.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


(I)   MARCH 10, 1973. I remember the date because it marked the fourteenth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1959, which triggered the flight of the Dalai Lama into the exile from which he has yet to return. I was studying Buddhism in Dharamsala,the Tibetan capital in exile, a former British hill-station in the Himalayas. The sky that morning was dark, damp, and foreboding. Earlier, the clouds had unleashed hailstones the size of miniature golf balls that now lay fused in white clusters along the roadsidethat led from the village of McLeod Ganj down to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, where the anniversary was to be commemorated.

   A white canvas awning, straining and flapping in the wind, was strung in front of the Library. Beneath it sat a huddle of senior monks in burgundy robes, aristocrats in long gray chubas, and the Indian superintendent of police from Kotwali Bazaar. I joineda crowd gathered on a large terrace below and waited for the proceedings to begin. The Dalai Lama, a spry, shaven-headed man of thirty-eight, strode onto an impromptu stage. The audience spontaneously prostrated itself as one onto the muddy ground. He reada speech, which was barely audible above the wind, delivered in rapid-fire Tibetan, a language I did not yet understand, at a velocity I would never master. Every now and then a drop of rain would descend from the lowering sky.  

I was distracted from my thoughts about the plight of Tibet by the harsh shriek of what sounded like a trumpet. Perched on a ledge on the steep hillside beside the Library, next to a smoking fire, stood a bespectacled lama, legs akimbo, blowing into athighbone and ringing a bell. His disheveled hair was tied in a topknot. A white robe, trimmed in red, was slung carelessly across his left shoulder. When he wasn't blowing his horn, he would mutter what seemed like imprecations at the grumbling clouds, hisright hand extended in the threatening mudra, a ritual gesture used to ward off danger. From time to time he would put down his thighbone and fling an arc of mustard seeds against the ominous mists.  

Then there was an almighty crash. Rain hammered down on the corrugated iron roofs of the residential buildings on the far side of the Library, obliterating the Dalai Lama's words. This noise went on for several minutes. The lama on the hillside stampedhis feet, blew his thighbone, and rang his bell with increased urgency. The heavy drops of rain that had started falling on the dignitaries and the crowd abruptly stopped.   After the Dalai Lama left and the crowd dispersed, I joined a small group of fellow Injis. In reverential tones, we discussed how the lama on the hill—whose name was Yeshe Dorje—had prevented the storm from soaking us. I heard myself say: "And you couldhear the rain still falling all around us: over there by the Library and on those government buildings behind as well." The others nodded and smiled in awed agreement.  

Even as I was speaking, I knew I was not telling the truth. I had heard no rain on the roofs behind me. Not a drop. Yet to be convinced that the lama had prevented the rain with his ritual and spells, I had to believe that he had created a magical umbrellato shield the crowd from the storm. Otherwise, what had happened would not have been that remarkable. Who has not witnessed rain falling a short distance away from where one is standing on dry ground? Perhaps it was nothing more than a brief mountain showeron the nearby hillside. None of us would have dared to admit this possibility. That would have brought us perilously close to questioning the lama's prowess and, by implication, the whole elaborate belief system of Tibetan Buddhism.  

For several years, I continued to peddle this lie. It was my favorite (and only) example of my firsthand experience of the supernatural powers of Tibetan lamas. But, strangely, whenever I told it, it didn't feel like a lie. I had taken the lay Buddhistprecepts and would soon take monastic vows. I took the moral injunction against lying very seriously. In other circumstances, I would scrupulously, even neurotically, avoid telling the slightest falsehood. Yet, somehow, this one did not count. At times, I triedto persuade myself that perhaps it was true: the rain had fallen behind me, but I had not noticed. The others—albeit at my prompting—had confirmed what I said. But such logical gymnastics failed to convince me for very long.  

I suspect my lie did not feel like a lie because it served to affirm what I believed to be a greater truth. My words were a heartfelt and spontaneous utterance of our passionately shared convictions. In a weirdly unnerving way, I did not feel that "I"had said them. It was as though something far larger than all of us had caused them to issue from my lips. Moreover, the greater truth, in whose service my lie was employed, was imparted to us by men of unimpeachable moral and intellectual character. Thesekind, learned, enlightened monks would not deceive us. They repeatedly said to accept what they taught only after testing it as carefully as a goldsmith would assay a piece of gold. Since they themselves must have subjected these teachings to that kind of rigorousscrutiny during their years of study and meditation, then surely they were not speaking out of blind conviction, but from their own direct knowledge and experience? Ergo: Yeshe Dorje stopped the rain with his thighbone, bell, mustard seeds, and incantations.  

The next morning, someone asked the teacher at the Library, Geshe Dhargyey, to say something about the practices involved in controlling the weather. Geshe-la (as we called him) belonged to the scholarly Geluk school, in which the Dalai Lama had been trained.Not only did he possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Geluk orthodoxy, he radiated a joyous well-being that bubbled forth in mirthful chuckles. The question seemed to disturb him. He frowned, then said in a disapproving voice: "That was not good. No compassion.It hurts the devas." The devas in question belonged to a minor class of gods who manage the weather. To zap them with mantras, mudras, and mustard seeds were acts of violence. As an advocate of universal compassion, this was not something Geshe-la was preparedto condone. I was surprised by his willingness to criticize Yeshe Dorje, a lama from the Nyingma (Ancient) school of Tibetan Buddhism. And why, I wondered, would the Dalai Lama—the living embodiment of compassion—tolerate the performance of a ritual if itinjured devas? 

  Tibetan lamas held a view of the world that was deeply at odds with the one in which I had been raised. Educated in the monasteries of old Tibet, they were ignorant of the findings of the natural sciences. They knew nothing of the modern disciplines ofcosmology, physics, or biology. Nor did they have any knowledge of the literary, philosophical, and religious traditions that flourished outside their homeland. For them, all that human beings needed to know had been worked out centuries before by the Buddhaand his followers and was preserved in the Kangyur and Tengyur (the Tibetan Buddhist canon). There you would learn that the earth was a triangular continent in a vast ocean dominated by the mighty Mount Sumeru, around which the sun, moon, and planets revolved.Driven by the force of good and bad deeds committed over beginningless former lifetimes, beings were repeatedly reborn as gods, titans, humans, animals, ghosts, and denizens of hell until they had the good fortune to encounter and put into practice the Buddha'steaching, which would enable them to escape the cycle of rebirth forever. Moreover, as followers of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), Tibetan Buddhists vowed to keep taking birth out of compassion for all sentient beings until every last one of them was freed.Of the world's religions, they believed that Buddhism alone was capable of bringing suffering to an end. And of the various kinds of Buddhism, the most effective, rapid, and complete of them all was the form of the religion as preserved in Tibet. 

  I believed all this. Or, more accurately: I wanted to believe all this. Never before had I encountered a truth I was willing to lie for. Yet, as I see it now, my lie did not spring from conviction but from a lack of conviction. It was prompted by my cravingto believe. Unlike some of my contemporaries, whom I envied, I would never achieve unwavering faith in the traditional Buddhist view of the world. Nor would I ever succeed in replacing my own judgments with uncritical surrender to the authority of a "root"lama, which was indispensable for the practice of the highest tantras, the only way, so it was claimed, to achieve complete enlightenment in this lifetime. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it or rationalize it away, my insincerity kept nagging at me ina dark, closed recess of my mind. By the lights of my Tibetan teachers, I was a Buddhist failure.        

Chapter Two


FROM THE MONK'S cell, hewn out of the sandstone cliff centuries earlier, where I spent my days idly smoking a potent blend of marijuana, hashish, and tobacco, a narrow passage led to a dark inner staircase that I would illuminate by striking matches. Thesteep rock steps climbed to an opening that brought me out, via a narrow ledge, onto the smooth dome of the giant Buddha's head, which fell away dizzily on all sides to the ground one hundred and eighty feet below. On the ceiling of the niche above were fadedfragments of painted Buddhas and bodhisattvas. I feared looking up at them for too long lest I lose my balance, slip, and plummet earthward. As my eyes became used to the fierce sunlight, I would gaze out onto the fertile valley of Bamiyan, a patchwork of fieldsinterspersed with low, flat-roofed farmhouses, which lay stretched before me. It was the summer of 1972. This was my first encounter with the remains of a Buddhist civilization, one that had ended with Mahmud of Ghazni's conquest of Afghanistan in the eleventhcentury.   Like others on the hippie trail to India, I thought of myself as a traveler rather than a mere tourist, someone on an indeterminate quest rather than a journey with a prescribed beginning and end. Had I been asked what I was seeking, I doubt my answerwould have been very coherent. I had no destination, either of the geographical or spiritual kind. I was simply "on the road," in that anarchic and ecstatic sense celebrated by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other role models I revered at the time. 

  I enjoyed nothing more than simply being on the way to somewhere else. I was quite content to peer for hours through the grimy, grease-smeared windows of a rattling bus with cooped chickens in the aisle, observing farmers bent over as they toiled in fields,women carrying babies on their backs, barefoot children playing in the dust, old men seated in the shade smoking hookahs, and all the shabby little towns and villages at which we stopped for sweet tea and unleavened bread. Yet as soon as we entered the telltalesuburban sprawl of the city of our destination, my stomach would contract and I would feel anxious and restless again. I did not want to stop. My craving to keep moving was like an addiction.    

My first memory is that of sitting on my mother's lap, nestled in the folds of her fur coat while peering through an airplane window at the miniature houses and cars of Toronto. I was three years old. My parents had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in1957 in an attempt to save their marriage. They separated a year later and I returned to England with my mother and younger brother, David, where we grew up in Watford, a charmless suburb on the outer rim of London. My mother did not remarry and raised my brotherand me alone. I had no further contact with my father.   We were initially supported by my mother's father, Alfred Craske, a businessman who had a photoengraving firm in Covent Garden. Alfred had rejected the God-fearing atmosphere of his childhood and considered all religion humbug, while his wife, Mabel—mygrandmother—was the demure daughter of the local Wesleyan minister. My mother adopted her father's views on religion and considered herself a humanist. Emotionally she remained close to her mother and her mother's sister Sophie, a nurse who had served in theDardanelles and Flanders, never married, and faithfully attended chapel. In the background hovered the enigmatic shadow of Alfred's younger brother Leonard, who had renounced a promising medical career and a young wife to pursue his passion for theater andsculpture in the United States. The Craskes had nothing further to do with him. A weathered bronze statue of a dancing nymph called "Joy" in our back garden was the only evidence of Leonard's existence.  

As a child I did not attend church. I was exempted from "Scripture" classes at the schools I attended, so I did not receive the basic instruction in Christianity that was part of the British educational curriculum. When I was eight or nine, I rememberbeing struck by a BBC radio program that mentioned how Buddhist monks avoided walking on the grass in order not to kill any insects. I have often wondered whether this first positive impression of Buddhist monks played a role in my later adopting Buddhism,or whether I chose to remember it because in retrospect it helped me rationalize the unconventional decision I made to become a Buddhist monk myself.  

From an early age I was troubled by how rarely I experienced genuine contentment. I was conscious of how niggling worries were constantly present either in the center or at the periphery of my self-awareness. I remember lying awake at night trying to stopthe incessant outpouring of anxious thoughts. I was perplexed by the failure of teachers at school to address what seemed the most urgent matter of all: the bewildering, stomach-churning insecurity of being alive. The standard subjects of history, geography,mathematics, and English seemed perversely designed to ignore the questions that really mattered. As soon as I had some inkling of what "philosophy" meant, I was puzzled as to why we were not taught it. And my skepticism about religion only grew as I failedto see what the vicars and priests I encountered gained from their faith. They struck me either as insincere, pious, and aloof or just bumblingly good-natured.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Part 1 Monk

1 A Buddhist Failure (I) 3

2 On the Road 8

3 The Seminarian 19

4 Eel Wriggling 32

5 Being-in-the-World 45

6 Great Doubt 60

Part 2 Layman

7 A Buddhist Failure (II) 81

8 Siddhattha Gotama 97

9 The North Road 111

10 Against the Stream 125

11 Clearing the Path 136

12 Embrace Suffering 150

13 In Jeta's Grove 163

14 An Ironic Atheist 174

15 Vidudabha's Revenge 184

16 Gods and Demons 195

17 Tread the Path with Care 212

18 A Secular Buddhist 225


I The Pali Canon 241

II Was Siddhattha Gotama at Taxila? 245

III Turning the Wheel of Dhamma 253

IV Map: The Buddha's India 255

Notes 259

Glossary 275

Bibliography 281

Acknowledgments 287

Index 289

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