Filed in Theravada, History

Starting from Scratch

A talk with Stephen Batchelor

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Stephen Batchelor never planned to be controversial. He began as a young and earnest practitioner, leaving his native Britain in 1972, at age eighteen, to study with some of the most revered Asian Buddhist teachers around at that time. He ordained first as a Tibetan monk, and then, later, as a monk in the Korean Zen tradition. Yet although he adopted his root teachers' languages, philosophies, and customs, he eventually found himself ill-suited to monastic life. In 1985, he returned to England, where he settled down with his wife, Martine, a former nun in the Korean Zen tradition.

Back at home, Batchelor began to formulate a distinctly Western approach to the Buddha's teachings, and in his best-selling book Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997), he openly acknowledged his deep skepticism toward the doctrines of karma and rebirth. The firestorm of protest that followed—from traditional and even not-so-traditional Buddhists—surprised Batchelor. (He was characterized at the time as Buddhism's bad boy at best and anti-dharma at worst.)

In his new, autobiographical book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor has arrived at what he considers to be the bare bones of Buddhism, upon which, he argues, an entirely new practice and understanding of dharma can be built. As always, Batchelor is as articulate as he is frank. No doubt many will cry foul.


steven batchelor

You were a Tibetan and later a Korean Buddhist monk. Then you disrobed. Can you say something about that?  As a monk, I had to play a certain role in society; I was obliged to follow the precepts and injunctions that were necessary for a representative of the Buddhist traditions in which I was ordained. As much as I valued my monastic training, I also found myself frequently in social situations where I didn’t feel entirely comfortable playing the role of a Buddhist monk. This was particularly true in the West, where my robes alone declared that I belonged to a particular Asian tradition. But when I found myself trying to have a serious conversation with someone in Germany or Switzerland, I often felt a strong conflict between what I felt I was obliged to say as a Buddhist monk and what I actually felt to be the case on a particular issue. And so in that sense I felt that I was a bit of a fake—particularly when I began to have serious doubts about certain elements of Buddhist orthodoxy: the belief in rebirth, different realms of existence, and so forth.

 What do you hope to accomplish with “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”? I think dogma has become a problem in Buddhism. Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be superimposed upon the dharma as we find it presented in the earliest known sources— for example, the Pali canon—just as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed upon the historical fragments of his life that one likewise finds scattered throughout the canon. What I’ve done is to try to strip away the myths about Siddhattha Gotama, to try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of the Buddha as a human being. I’ve also tried to remove some of the dogmas that have developed subsequent to the material we find in the Pali canon, which are now entrenched as Buddhist doctrine.

How do you do that?  The methodology I used was to ask myself, What is there within the Pali canon that is distinctively and steven batchelor monkoriginally a Buddhist idea? If I find a doctrine or teaching that talks of past or future lives, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death, I put that to one side as something that was already widely believed at the Buddha’s time. And by this process of subtraction—by removing things that are either found in the Upanishads or in other earlier Indian teachings (and things that have a blatantly supernatural quality to them)—I can begin to isolate those teachings that are distinctive to what the Buddha was teaching in the fifth century BCE.

What, then, did you conclude were distinctly Buddhist ideas?  Four things stand out. One is the principle of dependent origination, or “conditioned arising,” as I call it; the second is the practice of mindful awareness—being focused upon the totality of what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience; the third is the process of the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Eightfold Path; and fourth, the principle of self-reliance—how the Buddha really wanted his students to become autonomous in their understanding of the dharma, and not to generate dependencies upon either the memory of him or upon some authority figure within the monastic community.

By getting down to the bare bones of what the Buddha was teaching, one is then perhaps in a position to begin to rethink Buddhism from the ground up. And I feel the four points that I listed are entirely adequate for constructing a new vision of the dharma, both as a worldview and as a form of spiritual and ethical practice, which speaks to our condition here and now.

Why do you think we need a new Buddhism? Don’t you risk arrogance here?  I would be the first to acknowledge that in undertaking such an endeavor one risks falling prey to one’s own conceits and confusions. If a particular traditional practice works well for a certain person, then I would only encourage that person to continue with it. But in my own case—as well as that of numerous others—it is clear that traditional Asian Buddhist approaches do not seem to work so well. Yet the great strength of Buddhism throughout its history is that it has succeeded many times in reinventing itself according to the needs of its new host culture. What is happening today in the West is no different. Historically, we can see that priestly Buddhist elites have tended to assume increasing authority over the majority of lay practitioners, and to some extent have lost sight of the aim that practitioners should become autonomous in their practice. Instead we often find a culture that is quite deferential, even dependent upon, devotion to a particular group of experts—be they lamas or roshis or ajahns. Such devotion certainly has its place in Buddhist training, but if we are to articulate the dharma in our own language, in the context of our own time, at a certain point I feel we need to respectfully detach ourselves from priestly and dogmatic authority in order to find our own authentic voice.

Where does that leave you in relation to traditional Buddhist cultures and teachers?  In my own case, I feel no great need to go and sit any longer at the feet of traditional Asian teachers. But it may be that something will come up in my life or in my understanding that will necessitate further study and dialogue with Asian traditions. I don’t know. It should not be forgotten that over the last forty or so years we’ve produced a generation of teachers and scholars and writers who have had a long-standing, full-time engagement with the dharma, comparable to that of many Asian teachers. That is, we now have a generation of Westerners with a considerable amount of experience and insight, which, I would hope, should enable them to stand pretty much on their own two feet. Such independence is, as I said before, something I believe the Buddha encouraged.

 Your book takes an autobiographical turn; it’s not just about your beliefs, but how they evolved. Why?  I find I am less and less comfortable with assuming you can make such a clear-cut distinction between the ideas that you hold and the life that you have lived. I don’t think the two are really separable, especially if you see Buddhism as a practice rather than just an object of academic interest. None of these texts and practices can be understood apart from their impact on your own subjective experience as a human being living in a particular place, being of a certain age, being in a particular situation. Buddhism has never flourished in a vacuum.

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williamftyler's picture

Buddhism Without Beliefs seems very similar to Stoicism.
Just finished The Inner Citadel" by Pierre Hadot.
Have you written about that connection?
Pyrrho the skeptic went to India with Alexander.

mralexander99's picture

WoW.....after reading all the comments from above --- it is very clear how we get thoroughly entangled with our arguments of for and against and how it binds us --- preventing clarity. Who cares about being right or wrong about some sophisticated analysis of rebirth, karma and all the schools of Buddhism --- it's all like what happened to Alice when she followed the rabbit down the hole. For me it comes down to what is our experience of life --- right NOW --- and Stephen Batchelor makes me own up to what I actually know and to question life, Buddha and the whole catastrophe --- because it leads to --- living our life with an authentic quality and with more vigor!

rami's picture

Thank you!

rami's picture

Thank you all for your thoughts, experience, arguments.

I find Stephen Batchelor's writing so refreshing – and this seems to me to be the salient point:
"I had proposed in the book that one could hold an agnostic position on these points, [karma, rebirth] i.e., keep an open mind without either affirming or denying them."

I feel the same way about God, or gods, and any belief system that has resonance without being "provable". There is no proof, and no disproof is possible either, so keep an open mind. This is hard to do, we are so attached to story and beliefs, scientific and otherwise. And our minds, no matter how open, are not wired to understand nor even perceive EVERYTHING, far from it. So be it. If our imperfect understanding helps us to be well, happy, and free, and to wish that for all beings, it's all good. Myself, I do not need god(s), afterlife, rebirth, nor karma to KNOW interconnectedness and dependent origination. My sense of ethics does not rest upon those concepts, but in compassion and love. This is the same thing I say to the Jehovah's Witnesses who come to my door. It's hard for them to take God out of the equation, and that's ok too.

whatalifefull's picture

A breath of clean air...I just drank from a glacier stream in Alaska....your comment reminded me of the same feeling....thank u

myers_lloyd's picture

I'm relieved that my Zen teacher has said that the "jury is out on karma." At the same time, in a teisho, and again privately, he did speak of karma. I, however, remain resistant to any overarching notion to which I need to subscribe, preferring the Buddha's experimental spirit. The Nicene Creed did me in for good on anything with an odour of dogma.

David Loy's definition of karma makes sense to me. But I'd rather sit and find out for myself than debate karma. As for caring whether belief in karma gives me Buddhist credentials- Buddha wasn't a Buddhist, so why should I fret about a title?

Steve Kohn's picture

Thanks myers_lloyd:
I contend that the contents of all these contentions are contentious. In other words, practice mindful awareness moment-by-moment and recognize that my comments and all of the previous comments, including Stephen's are dependently originated opinions, based on more or less familiarity with scholarship. Appreciate these ephemera and keep up with the next moment of practice.

I have read Stephen's books and have traveled with him and Martine, and I deeply appreciate and respect those times. I have also read many articles on the shape and shaping of WESTERN BUDDHISM. So what?

Not being a fully enlightened person, I have not a clue as to the absolute TRUTH of the teachings as I currently misunderstand them. I can, however, attest to their efficacy as I practice them. I experience less suffering in direct relation to the maturing of "my" practice---and so does everyone I meet.

May you and all beings you are aware of be well, happy, and free, and all the others, too.

Stephen Shogaku Zenshin Echard Musgrave Roshi's picture

Let me quote from a book, Mad Scientism And the Cults of Intellect
.“Science is a multi-layered complex system involving a community of scientists engaged in research using scientific methods in order to produce new knowledge. Thus, the notion of science may refer to a social institution, the researchers, the research process, the method of inquiry, and scientific knowledge”
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-progress/#2

“Scientism is the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning—much the most valuable part because it is much the most authoritative, or serious, or beneficial.”
“Sorell, T. (1991) Scientism; Philosophy and infatuation with Science.
Science as it is used by Scientist advocates is an abstraction; Science obviously is not a thing like a table. The favorite refrain of scienctisms advocates, I will refer to them simply as Scientistic (for simplicity purposes throughout the rest of the book) is that “Science Tells Us”
When they speak of Science in this way, they are speaking of an abstraction. Abstractions can refer indirectly to groups of individuals or a process. They create in the mind a synthetic unity that does not physically exist but can be a container for self-identity, idolization, or its opposite, vilification. One cannot construct an argument about something based on the abstraction “Science “. You can argue a point based on a particular branch of science, a particular theory, or even paradigm. However, when an appeal is made or a claim registered for Science as an authority without specificity, that claim is specious.
. .

wtompepper's picture

Oldroshi,

I think you've hit on the core of the problem here:

"Now with that being said I do not mean karma and rebirth in the way it's ordinarily used. Interdependent origination denies the the view of substance ontology. So the conditions that arise that cause consciousness to be selected as self cannot be separated from the totality of the whole."

Most people don't seem to understand Karma in this way, and so they want to dismiss it. They cannot get outside of the belief in a "self," the notion that rebirth means that "I" will be reborn, instead of all sentient beings. As a result, they can only think that karma must mean that this very specific human body will be punished or rewarded for what I do in this life; it is quite sad that so many people can see no reason to work for the awakening of all beings unless this very small self is going to get a reward for it.

I don't see how this connects to science, however. Certainly science is a social practice, not an abstract entity; nevertheless, it still does produce some knowledge about reality. The polio vaccine works, and so does my computer. I think this concept of "scientism" is misdirected--the critique should be of "methodolotry," the attachment to a particular method as being true "science," which tends to prevent real scientific progress.

Karma, like properly understood science, is description of how the world works. We can deny it by setting up a straw man version, but then why be a Buddhist at all?

katy.yelland's picture

Whatalifefull - I enjoyed reading your post - thank you :-)

whatalifefull's picture

Thank you

Dharma Bum's picture

The popular notion of Karma is no better than the new age Law of Attraction or other such gibberish. Practice with right intentions and karma will work itself out.

whatalifefull's picture

I turned 60 this year. Eight years ago I was introduced to " The Power of Now " and it changed my life. About that same time I met a man who had studied in Tibet fo twenty years an he gently led me into Buddhism. At first it seemed to be like Christianity with many different styles and avenues to follow and being new my opinions were flying and judgements clouded my mind. I went to a dharma center and there were three chairs positioned on a platform above the floor where we were to meditate and lots of very ornate wall hangings. The people chanted and I knew that this was not for me. But something wonderful happen. For once in my life I wasn't saying this is wrong...I was saying this is not for me. What a wonderful difference. Being more or less on my own I have sought out the basic simple ideas that attracted me to Buddhism an bring them to my heart and out of my head. Words seem to get in the way of that process and I've discovered this is not an academic exercise for me. A vision of the nature of existence and the transformation to a place of peace and compassion seems to be what the Buddha experienced and what he lovingly shared so that if we want we can give it a try. The four noble truths and the eightfold noble path keep me very busy as I attempt to " cease to do evil, learn to be good and purify the heart" . I understand that as people we want to put our own stamp on things. And when others agree with us it seems to allow us the belief we are " right" and my mind translates that to mean you are " wrong". Buddhism has helped me with that. For the first time in my life I am not at odds with the world. I exist with and in partnership with people and all things. I have discovered I actuarially know nothing...and it's a wonderful relief. Oh, and about kharma...maybe...maybe not.

halcyondays703's picture

I am only beginning on my journey, so I read but don't fully comprehend these different ideas of what is and isn't, but I must say, yours is the most encouraging reply I have yet read. A feeling of choosing what you need from the teachings and leaving what you don't. This is forbidden in the Catholic word of my youth, and what appealed to me the most as an aspiring learner. I too, desire to not be at odds with the world. Thank you for posting this. As a neophyte, this helped me a great deal.

racemonkey's picture

Great post. I have only begun my practice this year at the age of 45. Your words have helped inspire me despite the disagreement in most of the responses here. I live way out in the country where everyone is a Christian or at least claims to be, so I work on my own middle way through meditation, books, and the net. Hopefully I can continue and someday achieve as much enlightenment as you. Thanks again.

halcyondays703's picture

I am in much the same situation. 10 years older in age, but behind you in knowledge. Good luck on your journey.

whatalifefull's picture

I was a little full of myself it seems, thank you for your comment

mrmcgown's picture

I love Stephen's books and he has had a huge influence on my practice but I still believe in Karma. Some things just make sense and don't need to be explained by science. I don't believe in blind faith and I pick apart everything I read and hear but karma is a intertwined with Dharma. The two cannot exist without each other. Without Karma, Dharma loses much of its meaning.

mrmcgown's picture

wtompepper, Sah-rb points out many things about Karma that my teachers have taught me. I have studied with Tibetan Rinpoches and southeast asia monks and Laypeople in a few differerent centers (KTD, IMS, Padmasambhava center.... What surprises me (but not really) is the arrogance of your comments. Your speech/thinking is very unskillful and you seem to have a very strong attachment to your ego (self) and more specifically the idea that you are the authority of what is right and what is wrong. The comments you have been posting are not consistent with compassion, kindness, or a skillful disciplined mind. You might want to think about hitting the cushion more (meditating) or taking in a teaching or two.

wtompepper's picture

What surprises me (but not really) is that you see my discussion of the correct definition of terms and poor reasoning as unskillful and lacking in compassion, while your ad hominem attack on me, which does not address the argument at all, is apparently the skillful and compassionate approach.

You should know that to conflate the term "ego" in the popular sense with the Buddhist term atman is completely incorrect. One can be absolutely sure of the ideas one is discussing, and have no attachment to atman at all. I'm sorry if my pointing our your error upsets you, but I consider correcting error to be a kindness. If you're getting upset by being corrected, and can only think of a personal insult as a response, perhaps you should stop to consider what is really upsetting you.

SAH-RB's picture

Wonderwheel argues that denying that Karma is real is the equivalent of denying that electricity or light waves exist because we cannot detect them directly. This is a misleading and unsound argument. Scientists use tools of all sorts to detect real-world phenomena that we cannot sense unaided; scientific theories must be proven with objective evidence to stand the test of time. The scientific theory of ether in space, for example, was abandoned. But Karma is an idealistic theory of human experience that has no material basis and cannot be directly tested. Right now, the entire body of scientific knowledge makes a very convincing case that Karma across lifetimes is a fantasy. Science can also explain why it is virtually impossible that there could be an as-yet unknown, undetected force of nature powerful enough to result in Karma. Will true believers in Karma change their minds because of this body of scientific evidence? Very few of them will. So why do some true believers enlist pseudo-scientific arguments in support of dogma, when they will not accept actual scientific arguments against dogma? It’s a common fallacy in the modern world. It is very hard to prove to believers that some invented "thing" or phenomena (like ghosts, ESP, or Karma over multiple lives) does not exist, no matter how convincing the theoretical foundations or careful or frequent the experiments. Read Michael Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things” for more explanation.

wtompepper's picture

Again, your idea of Karma is the "My Name is Earl" variety, and is not what Karma has usually meant to Buddhists (although it has clearly sometimes meant exactly this, in some schools of Buddhism). It would be silly to believe in the kind of Karma that somebody like Shermer argues against--yet, undoubtedly many people do, and this is delusion, and needs to be corrected, because it can only lead to suffering.

Karma is not some secret mystic power, and is as observable as gravity if it is understood correctly--that is, is observable only in its effects. I wonder if you could give me some reference for a "body of scientific knowledge" that "makes a very convincing case that Karma" could not exist. I don't mean this sarcastically, but seriously; I have no doubt that any such case is simply disproving an INCORRECT notion of Karma, and so would not disagree with what wonderwheel says at all. It is perfectly possible to see the working of Karma, but not in some silly mystical pop-culture way, and in this sense wonderwheel's analogy is perfectly good.

SAH-RB's picture

I agree that Karma is a meaningful concept when interpreted scientifically. So it is not my idea of Karma that I referred to. It is also not pop-culture, but is very common in mainstream Buddhism. For example, the Ven. Mahasi Sayadow says on Buddhanet that “In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve… In other words, [Karma] is the result of our own past actions [inherited in the course of previous lives] and our own present doings.” There are three claims about this common definition of Karma that are unscientific. The first is that virtually nothing happens by chance or accident, that everything has personal significance, and that one bears responsibility for everything. (Buddhism acknowledges free will but that is a different point.) Let’s say that a teenager leans over to pick up her cell phone while driving her car and hits you walking in the crosswalk; you become paralyzed, and this is due to your Karma! The second is what Takashi Tsuji refers to mysteriously as the “the law of the conservation of moral energy.” This idea requires that there be a storage memory or awareness of all my actions and intentions from all my lives, associated with some power or force that is capable of effecting consequences for me at every moment of my current life. The third unscientific claim is reincarnation. Some Buddhists interpret reincarnation as a parable or as a recycling of chemical elements in the river of life. But many take it literally. The Dalai Lama said in The Art of Happiness that “If people believe in rebirth…[t]hey can take consolation in the fact that their [deceased] loved one will be reborn” (page 145 hardback). If you are not aware of the science that would counter these unscientific claims, you need biology and physics. Read Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestors Tale to better understand what life is. Professor of Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics Sean M. Carroll gave a talk at the California Institute of Technology titled, “From Particles to People: The Laws of Nature and the Meaning of Life” in which he explains why science has sufficient understanding of all the major forces of nature to strongly debunk fantastic claims for, eg, telekinesis, astrology, or life after death. This argument is equally able to debunk the first and second claims about Karma. Check out his website at http://preposterousuniverse.com/ where he has posted some of his talks and papers.

wtompepper's picture

I apologize SAH-RB, but there are so many major flaws in your reasoning I couldn't hope to explain them to you on a discussion board. You have an absurdly limited concept of what "scientific" means, and a very naively positivist view of reality. If you want to email me, I'd be happy to try to explain the problems with what you've said.

Dharma Bum's picture

You said "this is delusion, and needs to be corrected", but you haven't done anything to correct it. So help me out- What is karma, how does it work, what are the physics of it, and by what means can we test or validate your definition? Can you give us a predictive understanding that we can test? Electricity and gravity are well understood and can be quantified and measured and tested with specific predictive results. I'd love the same understanding of karma. Otherwise I think you are wallowing in the same fallacy as those who have a subjective selection bias and misattribute random events to validate their religious beliefs

Kakuzen's picture

I think all of the above comments have value and most support Stephen Batchlor's works. It is difficult to argue his statements as he has spent quite a bit of time researching and analyzing his information. I love his work and thought process.
I believe that you can some up in one word what the Buddha taught - 'Causality'. And when you view the teachings from this perspective, you can't dismiss Karma but you don't necessarily have to believe in rebirth. Stephen's works absolutely go to Buddha's teaching of questioning everything and not taking his word or others on faith - examine and experience for yourself.

wonderwheel's picture

Take the following sentence for example: "One assumes the existence of hidden forces that lie deep beneath the surface of the contingent and untrustworthy world of day-to-day experience." This is supposed to mean something, but it doesn't work as a criticism of belief in karma as superstitious becasue it is exactly the case that electricity and gravity also work as "hidden forces" which people also called superstitious before they were adequately explained. In fact this kind of criticism based on the so-called trustworthiness of "day-to-day experience" is exactly analogous to the silly criticism made by backwards thinkers who deny that global warming is taking place because in their experience there was a blizzard last winter.

cyberprimate's picture

Your analogy doesn't work. We've never needed druids or wizzards to observe gravity or electricity before the advent of science, apples always fell from trees and lightnings happened. In order to consider the traditional notion of karma we'll probably always need someone to tell us that if a bird shits on our shoulder it's because "we" did something wrong centuries ago.

wtompepper's picture

YOUR analogy doesn't work. A bird shitting has nothing at all to do with karma. This simplistic notion is, I expect, the kind of "abuse" that wonderwheel is suggesting should be corrected. If we think karma means "I kick a puppy today, I get a flat tire tomorrow," then of course it's ridiculous and shouldn't be believed in. Karma is observable by all, once we understand what it means; there is no need for a mystic or seer to explain it to us.

wonderwheel's picture

Batchelor is selling snake oil by the river. I can agree with some of his criticisms of Buddhist "elites" and such, but he makes them in a context that I can not agree with. Rejecting karma is like rejecting the idea of light waves because you can't see the peaks and troughs. Certainly so many people have said such simplistic things about karma that it makes one wonder. People all over have abused the idea of karma, but that is just like people abusing any idea, the abuse doesn't make the idea useless. It is like the people who abuse evolution by saying it means "survival of the strongest." Just abuse is to be pitied and corrected, it doesn't mean we throw out the very idea of evolution any more than the idea of karma. Batchelor's methodology of finding the "historical" Buddha is flawed from the outset. I agree with the importance of finding "our own authentic voice" if that means being able to speak from finding our own authentic nature or essential mind. Unfortunately "finding our own authentic voice" for many people just means finding a successful ego to display to the world while hiding behind it, like a singer finding that "authentic voice" that sells well. The voice may sound truly authentic but it doesn't mean the words that are sung are true.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Batchelor as a snake oil salesman!? Really? Are you saying, having read his books, that he is knowingly selling a nostrum to us gullible folk, well aware that it is all a sham? If that is your take on Stephen, it is very different from mine. We can disagree. However, I am hoping that you will agree that the larger point is to avoid, at least in places like Tricycle, the name calling that is so much a part of the vituperative forms of debate that otherwise engulfs us. Peace, WW.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Batchelor's books are all impressive in their honesty and clarity, but for me 'Confessions' was especially compelling in its mix of autobiography and the exploration of timeless ideas. He speaks in a direct way to many of us who are drawn to the existential and psychological dilemmas of the human condition, and the way Buddhism addresses these, but are dubious or turned off by the hierarchical and 'religious' aspects of belief, metaphysics, and sangha. The sexual exploitation of students is only the most repulsive misuse of power, and in my experience the more subtle forms of such abuse are more common, and have consistently undermined the motivation and steadfastness of practice for so many.

I have distributed copies of 'Confessions' as gifts to my friends, and strongly recommend it for those with a willingness to keep an open mind, but who are leery of handing over the direction of their path to someone who claims to know and be better. Batchelor does neither; he simply lays out his life, his thinking, his doubts, and his choices. Bravo Stephen.

jigme_phuntsog's picture

I've followed Tibetan Buddhism for more than 15 years, and many years ago I stopped believing in rebirth and karma from other lives. Buddhism over time fell prey to the same traps as other religions and philosophies: the human tendency to cling to dogmas in order to find security. I was reassured in my feelings when my teacher, the head of a Kagyu lineage, told me privately: "Life has no meaning, no meaning whatsoever. It is simply a process and you have to be in that process". And this came from someone who publicly says differently.When one has experienced pure awareness and the body/mind complex is no longer felt as the true identity, most beliefs completely crumble. Kudos to Stephen Batchelor!

Stephen Shogaku Zenshin Echard Musgrave Roshi's picture

This really is sorrowful. To understand meaning you must understand meaninglessness These are dualistic concepts which have no substance in reality.
Meaning is is connected to a linear causality. Co dependent origination denies linear causality and certainly has some parallels to quantum mechanics particularly in regards to non-locality and entanglement. If you follow Nagarjuna's argument which flows directly from interdependent origination it becomes impossible to extricate karma and rebirth from the Buddhist vision. Now with that being said I do not mean karma and rebirth in the way it's ordinarily used. Interdependent origination denies the the view of substance ontology. So the conditions that arise that cause consciousness to be selected as self cannot be separated from the totality of the whole.

Buddhism is after all a transcendental process philosophy you don't have to be in the process, there is no escape, you are in the process eternally. You are literally being reborn as his totality moment by moment but yet here is a non-spatial non-temporal continuity, once again paralleling thought in quantum physics. I don't suggest that they are the same thing, but I do suggest that if one is going to pick a particular scientific model they might as well choose one that is been the most successful one technologically in history, and not the 19th century mechanistic view that Stephen Batchelor holds.
Since no true individual self exists then there can be no individual,karma ,and no individual rebirth. Yet at the same time it's there is a continuity of being in process there still remains the perception of the individual through the very process itself.
I am now 65 years old am I the same person I was at six, every cell of my body has changed my mind has changed as often as the waves on the ocean but the ocean remains. Stephen Batchelor is jet just another Scientistic a Buddhist apostate trying to salvage all those years studying something he didn't believe in, and obviously had no real understanding of. Kudos to him for making a nice living out of it.
No, interdependent origination, no rebirth, no process. Stephen like Susan Blackwell and Sam Harris are Buddhist Zombies they are the invasion of the bodhi snatchers, don't get bitten

paul6316's picture

After reading this post, I really do understand meaninglessness.

rking4's picture

Hello. Very interesting notion your teacher had and how flattering that he shared it with you. So do you believe in karma during current lives then? And if not reborn, then what?; if you don't mind me asking. I'm sorry, I'm very new to Buddhism {about 5 mins.:-)} so am still trying to process so much. I'm also not sure if this is even the place to ask such questions. Any chance you'd care to share your thoughts on the reason(s) for showing gratitude? I understand the importance of feeling it but struggle a bit with the questions of why show it, to whom and the notion of "merit;" what little I know about that. Thank you for your time. Much appreciated!

Sanki's picture

I read "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and was impressed. I don't think one has to "believe" or have "faith" in Karma as traditionally presented or in rebirth to be a practicing Buddhist. I have resisted reading the "Atheist" book because it seems to me to be beside the point. In my (?) tradition of Zen, Buddha was a man and a teacher, not a God. I lack "belief" in an all-powerful, all-knowing, deity with whom one can have a personal relationship. However, I don't feel the need, as atheists seem to feel the need, to challenge the beliefs of those who believe in God. Certainly, belief in a deity is not required by (my?)Zen. The notion of Karma is interesting. I think it works when de-coupled from an individual self who is re-born. We are all related-connected, when we do harmful things we harm others and ourselves. The things we do for both good and ill, live on after us in shaping the lives of others, to whom we are also connected by the relationship created by our actions if nothing else. So I don't reject Karma--though I'd remove it from the rebirth thing and view it somewhat differently from a moral/ethical perspective. And rebirth has a certain validity when decoupled from physical death of the being. The way I look at it--I am reborn in every moment--as I am constantly changing. I like Stephen, but I think he's thrown out the baby with the bath water. See your (buddha) nature, believe in yourself--these are the verities.

nancykreml's picture

Thank you for articulating that. The contradiction between the karmic concept of an eternal self of some kind and what seems to me to be the very basic Buddhist belief in the the dependent, impermanent nature of the non-self has always been my biggest problem. Removing that concept of the self does leave the basic principles of karma (causality and interdependence) much clearer and more reasonable.

julian.henschke's picture

Thanks Albil. I've read Batchelor's book now and it was fantastic. Ironically his no-beliefs approach has given me confidence to consider some beliefs again!

I agree that the sex thing is a very complex area. I now think I got far too angry with my teacher, it also happened back at a time when I was more naive about women. I kind of feel like that song "Joey" by Concrete Blonde - not angry anymore.

julian.henschke's picture

I'd just like to change what I said in my last comment above. Sometimes I see-saw back to my religious conditioning. I am actually angry at what many teachers have done to their students. It is a gross breach of trust and rather ironic considering they are supposed to be the teacher. I am talking about sexual abuse, not consensual relationships. There are many different examples of this: June Campbell is well known, more traditional example. The American Buddha website is packed full of other examples.
Anyway I now have a similar view to Stephen Batchelor, a view that doesn't require meta-physical beliefs. I've read his book a second time and I think it's the best book he's ever written. An amazing work; 5 out of 5 stars!

julian.henschke's picture

I love Stephen Batchelor so refreshing and articulate. But what about broadening the debate to consciousness in general. Sometimes the obsession with only buddhist ideas is quite limiting. I was a buddhist until I realised that all the best teachers were having sex with their students - so much for avoiding desire.

albill's picture

While I think it is deplorable when teachers teach with students (I wouldn't say it is "all the best teachers" though), I think you are misunderstanding Buddhism unless you think we're talking about Theravadan monks.

Most teachers in the West, especially in Zen or Tibetan Vajrayana traditions, are householders. They aren't enuchs but people engaged in day to day lives. Most Tibetan lamas that I've known were not monastics and many of them had wives. The same goes for the Zen masters that I've known. Not clinging to desire does not mean wearing a hairshirt robe, never having sex, and never eating pleasent food or enjoying life.