Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
January 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Stephen Batchelor
Total Pages: 
Riverhead Books

Stephen Batchelor has written several books about Buddhism. He lectures and conducts meditation retreats worldwide. He is a contributing editor of Tricycle and is director of studies of the Sharpton College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry, Devon, England. This book was a national bestseller.

I bought the paperback edition but give here the website for the Kindle edition:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary. There are four quotes of praise further down the home page under the heading Reviews. Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option has two longer words of praise. After the Contents page is the 2-pp Preface, which is not included in Amazon’s paperback edition. The Contents consists of three Parts: GROUND (8 chapters), PATH (4 chapters), and FRUITION (3 chapters). The Kindle preview has the Preface, the heading page for GROUND and the first four (and one-third) pages of the chapter Awakening. Since the Kindle preview ends just before Stephen Batchelor mentions the four ennobling truths (an awkward place for Kindle preview to end), I summarize them here. [Comments by me are in square brackets.]

The first truth is ‘anguish’ (also translated as ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’): “The first truth challenges our habitual relationship to anguish. In the broadest sense, it challenges how we relate to our existence as such: sickness, aging and death.” …”Anguish maintains its power only as long as we allow it to intimidate us. By habitually regarding it as fearful and threatening, we fail to see the words etched on it by the Buddha: ‘Understand me’.” …”The challenge of the first truth is to act before human reactions incapacitate us.”

“… Just as the presence of anguish is an opportunity for understanding, so the presence of the self-centered craving [the second noble truth] that underlies it is an opportunity for letting go. Such craving is manifest in a variety of ways: it extends from the simple egoism and selfishness to the deep-seated, anxious longing for security to fear of rejection by those we love to compulsion to have a cigarette. Wherever such feelings arise, the habitual reaction is either to indulge them or to deny them. Which again blinds us to the phrase stamped on them by the Buddha: ‘Let Go!’

“Letting go is not a euphemism for stamping out craving by other means. As with anguish, letting go begins with understanding: a calm and clear acceptance of what is happening. While craving (the second truth) may be the origin or cause of anguish (the first truth), this does not mean they are two separate things – any more than the sprout is separate from the daffodil that emerges from it. Just as craving crystallizes into anguish, so does understanding flower into letting go.” [So far, this understanding is but a partial, albeit a very important, glimpse of the Buddha’s way.]

The third noble truth is that cessation of such craving is possible. “By letting go of craving it will finally cease. This cessation allows us to realize, if only momentarily, the freedom, openness, and ease of the central path. This sudden gap in the rush of self-centered compulsion and fear allows us to see with unambiguous immediacy and clarity the transient, unreliable, and contingent nature of reality. Dharma practice [living by the ‘Way’ of the Buddha] at this moment has relinquished the last traces of belief; it is founded on authentic vision born from experience. It no longer requires the support of moralistic rules and religious ritual; it is grounded in integrity and creative autonomy. In revealing life in all its vulnerability, it becomes the doorway to compassion.

“In the cessation of craving, we touch that dimension of experience that is timeless: the playful, unimpeded contingency only to become condition for something else. This is emptiness: not a cosmic vacuum but the unborn, undying, infinitely creative dimension of life. It is known as ‘the womb of awakening’; it is the clearing in the still center of becoming, the track on which the centered person moves. And it whispers: ‘Realize Me.’

“We realize that until this point we have not really been on the path at all. We have been following hunches, heeding the words of those we respect, exploring blind alleys, stumbling and guessing. No matter how strong our resolve and conviction, all along the way we didn’t really know where we were going. …

“Henceforth, resolve to cultivate this path [the fourth noble truth: the eight-fold way] becomes unwavering yet entirely natural. It is simply what we do [on the path]. There is no longer any sense of self-consciousness, contrivance, awkwardness, or hesitation. Awakening is no longer seen as something to obtain in the distant future, for it is not a thing but a process – and this process is the path itself. But neither does this render us in any way perfect and infallible. We are quite capable of subverting this process to the interests of our far-from-extinct desires, ambitions, hatreds, jealousies, and fears. We have not yet been elevated to the lofty heights of awakening; awakening has been knocked off its pedestal into the turmoil and ambiguity of everyday life.

“There is nothing particularly religious or spiritual about this path. It encompasses everything we do. It is an authentic way of being in the world. It begins with how we understand the kind of reality we inhabit and the kind of beings we are that inhabit such a reality. Such a vision underpins the values that inform our ideas, the choices we make, the words we utter, the deeds we perform, the work we do. It provides the ethical ground for mindful and focused awareness, which in turn further deepens our understanding of the kinds of beings we are that inhabit such reality. And so on.” [His goal was to critique early Buddhism (around the time of the first Buddha) that made it a wise philosophy instead of a religion – to make Buddhism a philosophy of how to live, exclusive of beliefs, thus wise orthopraxy (the ‘right’ way to live), not orthodoxy (a ‘right’ way to believe). He accomplished this goal for me, as a philosophy, he explained quite well the Dharma Path.]

The following is not from this book, but is my understanding of The Dharma Path: the eight-fold way that consists of four mental states (how to think) and, in the middle of them, four words of human activity. Thus, they are (as most commonly translated): View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration. [View here means one's world view, which can be very different for different religions.] All eight words are often given with either the modifier ‘right’ or ‘complete’. The acronym is VISALEMC that is not to be spoken but to be realized in your activity. Here is a simple, albeit silly, way to remember these eight letters in order. The middle four words of human activity are SALE. The first four words are VISA and the last two words are MC. This silly but simple mnemonic relates a SALE with the VISA or MC credit cards.

However, the letters VI here imply that your own world ‘View’ and your own ‘Intention’ must be self-consistent and self-affirming for the path of Dharma. And your reflections on your Mindfulness and Concentration must also be self-consistent and self-affirming. Being the two letters in last place infers that your two words MC should examine and critique your VI. I had much earlier learned that the activities of SALE must also be self-consistent. The Golden Rule is one powerful way to critique your specific activities inherent in SALE. I have also learned earlier that a right or complete VISALEMC can and should apply to all of the world’s major religions. Perhaps understood but not stated explicitly, and often not the orthopraxy of the lay members or even of the clergy. All too often the clergy establish ‘rules’ and ‘roles’, codify them, and call them sacred, but seldom stressed as appropriate orthopraxy to live by. I feel strongly that when rules and roles replace the eight-fold way, such a religious activity does its members more harm than good.

One of the main purposes of this book was to propose that the eight-fold way of VISALEMC is a valid philosophy for secular persons or humanists who claim to be agnostic. The author’s title was well chosen to draw the attention of people who say they are secular, humanistic, agnostic or atheistic. I also suspect that the brevity of this book by Stephen Batchelor may have contributed to it becoming a national bestseller.

I rate this book at four stars, for it left me with some unanswered questions. However, I am now reading a more recent book by Stephen Batchelor that examines many sources on the history of Buddhism over the ages. With what I’ve read of it so far, I expect it will end up at five stars.