Buddhism Without Beliefs: Chapters 1 – 4

Stephen Batchelor’s  Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening offers a practical, step-by-step tool for fostering/nurturing awakening now.

Below, individual OIMG Book Club members offer in their own words reflections on the insights they are experiencing from our weekly reviews of each chapter, starting with chapters 1-4.

The Book Club members encourage, and are ready to support, additional book review groups.

Chapter 1: Awakening

In this chapter, Batchelor helps me to see more clearly how the reality “I” exist in is transient, contingent, unreliable, and devoid of intrinsic identity. From birth, I developed habitual ways to make sense of this constant flow of stimuli.  I experience anguish (suffering) when my existing habits compel me to freeze any part of this “process emerging from a stream of contingencies” into “something fixed, separate, and independent.”

Batchelor uses an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland metaphor to simplify how awakening involves taking a course of action, “dharma practice,” for finding relief from these habitual patterns.  One has to understand anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and cultivate the path.

A regular dose of sitting meditation helps me to see and understand my tendency to often resist life being other than what it is.  I build increased capacity to let go of that resistance when I notice it in day to day life.  Each time I realize that cessation, I momentarily “touch that dimension of experience that is timeless: the playful, unimpeded contingency of things emerging from conditions only to become conditions for something else.” I cultivate this path of awakening by bringing this mindful and focused awareness into each moment, as best as I can. —Mitch Sullen

Chapter 2: Agnosticism

Batchelor sets forth the fundamental view of Buddhism as agnostic, or “not knowing.” He clearly sees this as a more honest and defensible point of departure than any sort of systematic belief system. Direct experience becomes the most important guideline for spiritual practice—do this… Now what?

This seems obviously derived from his 10 years of training as a monk in the Korean Chogye Order. The teaching of Korean Seon Buddhism—closely related to Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen—uses the hwadu, or great question practice, to probe the true nature of reality. “Who am I? Don’t know…”

This is an active enquiry, not a passive abdication of understanding. Knowledge becomes intuitive, based on direct experience which, when examined closely, reveals the uselessness of cognitive processes when approaching ultimate reality. It is an act of both courage and intelligence. —Robert Lockridge

Chapter 3: Anguish

King Suddhodana imprisoned his son and heir, Prince Siddhartha (The Buddha), in his luxurious palace to shield him from the knowledge that life contains pain and heartache. Despite the king’s best efforts to protect his son, the prince discovered that disease, crippling old age, death, and spiritual quests existed. The knowledge of this anguish sent the prince on a rigorous journey of discovery that lasted several years and ended in frustration under a bodhi tree. There he discovered the nature of this anguish, how to let go of its origins and how to realize its cessation. There he was awakened.

Stephen Batchelor tells us that the nature of the anguish is that our birth implies our death. Anguish emerges when craving for life to be something other than what it is. Anguish is the result of a flight from birth and death and a flight from the pulse of the present moment to tantalizing fantasies. Like the Buddha, we, too, are imprisoned in palaces to shield ourselves from this knowledge. Our palaces are the social, political, and religious institutions we create that help us pretend that death is a long way away and maybe isn’t going to happen after all. By the use of breath meditation, we can observe our breath and its constant mutations. It emerges, it changes, it disappears–just as our life does. We see the flux of our breath and our life. We know conditions are not permanent, nor reliable. We let go of our anguish with this realization for we see how absurd the assumptions underlying our anguish are. Craving dies and our restless minds are free to see what is unfolding around us, the familiar and the mysterious. It leads us to the realization that we have asked a question that has no answer, only an ever-deepening mystery. —Judy Douglas

Chapter 4: Death

In chapter 4, “Death,” Stephen Batchelor asks us to meditate on death not just on an intellectual level but on a much deeper, felt level.  He poses the question: Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do? And he asks us to first and foremost pay attention to any bodily response the question might elicit, reminding us to just sit with that until it dissipates.  The aim of the meditation is to open us to a more profound understanding of what it truly means to live for a finite period of time, something we all know on a conscious, intellectual level, but not necessarily on a deeply felt level.

Batchelor breaks his question down into three parts: Since death alone is certain 2) and the time of death uncertain 3)…what should I do?,  and offers “reflections” on each of these to “deepen the question.”   I found the “and the time of death uncertain” reflection very subtle but penetrating when he asks us to consider if we know anyone of our own age who has died and whether there was “anything about that person that made him a suitable candidate for a sudden or early death.” It reminds me in a new light that I just don’t know when.  As he continues with the final reflection on “what should I do?”  he offers some classic, probing questions regarding what we are here for and whether we are living a wholesome lifestyle, noting that this type of self questioning can force us “to seek again the impulse that moves [us] from the depths, and to turn aside from the shallows of habitual patterns.”

But for me the question “what should I do?” brought to mind more present moment options: have tea, sit, breathe, do exactly what you are doing, etc., not to mention bringing to mind a beautifully written and illustrated children’s book,  The Three Questions by Jon Muth (based on a Leo Tolstoy story of the same name).  In this delightful book a young boy seeks out a wise turtle to answer the (his) three questions, including “what is the right thing to do?”  His adventures lead him to the answers without his realizing it, so the turtle explains: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now.  The most important one is always the one you are with.  And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”  So now I have a few options regarding “what should I do?”

Bachelor is succinct and clear in his efficient examination of death through his reflections.  Through reflective meditation on death we are not only awakened to life, but we are helped along in valuing “more deeply our relationships with others, whom we come to regard as transient as ourselves.  It evokes the poignancy implicit in the transitoriness of all things.”  With such a worthy intentions, I’ll go ponder death now. —Pamela Suzio