Buddhism Without Beliefs: Chapters 9 – 12

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

Below, OIMG Book Club members offer reflections on the insights they are experiencing from our weekly reviews of each chapter.

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

Chapter 9: Awareness

Batchelor points out that much of the time we have no idea what we are doing, acting reactively out of habitual patterns of thought and behavior. Paying attention to what is happening now, he says, helps us snap out of this automatic state. But it is not a matter of critiquing our mind’s tendency to fall into ignorance and delusion. Rather, it is an embracing and accepting of whatever is present in our experience. And how do we do this? Sit quietly, follow the breath, pay attention to every detail. Then let that focused attention expand to embrace every aspect of experience: body, feelings, mental states, the mind itself. In this way we see our true nature: suffering, impermanent, without anything we can rely on as “self”. Just this, right now. The tree is green, the sky is blue. In that state all of nature’s opportunities are open. —Robert Lockridge

Chapter 10: Becoming

The chapter starts with this quote attributed to the Buddha: ”Confusion conditions activity, which conditions consciousness, which conditions embodied personality, which conditions sensory experience, which conditions impact, which conditions mood, which conditions craving, which conditions clinging, which conditions becoming, which conditions birth, which conditions aging and death.”

My summary on how Batchelor clarifies the quote is as follows:

  •  “I am born into a life with no ‘book’ on how to deal adequately in my confusion with “the sheer irrationality, ambiguity, and abundance of things coming into being…”
  • “My confusion is not due to total blindness, but from not ‘seeing’ very well, resulting in me misconstruing a lot about people, places and things.”
  •  So, I’ve just done the best I can “at configuring myself from the spinning clay of my existence, creating a personality, a home, friendships, children, ideas.”
  • But I “disfigure” a lot in my confusion and turmoil, which leads me to “try to create a perfect situation, one in which I have everything I want and nothing I don’t want.”
  • This fixating on the “me” and “mine” and “you” and “yours” that I name as such, results in my own self-centered creation of “the drudgery of an anguished existence.”
  • But with persistent practice, a look closer shows “instead of a fixed nugget of ‘me,’ [I] find [myself]  experiencing a medley of sensations, moods, perceptions, and intentions, working together like a crew of a boat, steered by the skipper of attention.”
  • “But how easily this vision of fluctuating, interactive processes switches back into the habitual image of an isolated ego.”
  • “The speed at which the world impacts upon my senses, together with my habit of treating it as either an ally or a threat, leads to confusion about the origin of my moods.” “Impact and mood trigger my habitual patterns of perception and reaction.”
  • “But these seemingly irresistible feelings, perceptions, and impulses are not the only options. For in the immediacy of (any) experience lies the freedom to see more clearly. I can stop, pay attention to the breath, feel my beating heart, and remember to be aware. Then I may respond with care and intelligence” to any given life experience.
  • “Moods dictate my behavior. If something makes me feel good, I want to have it; if it makes me feel bad, I want to get rid of it; if it leaves me indifferent, I ignore it.”
  • Underpinning this emotional push and pull is craving for “a life removed from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence.” “In my metaphorical blindness, I reach out desperately for something to cling to…that might assuage the sense of loss, anguish, isolation, aimlessness.”
  • “When driven by craving, I am convinced that if only I were to achieve this goal, all would be well. While creating the illusion of a purposeful life, craving is really a loss of direction. It is a process of compulsive becoming.”
  • Life becomes a succession of minibirths and minideaths. When I achieve what I want, I feel reborn. But no sooner have I settled into this feeling than the old anxieties resurface. The new possession swiftly ages as it is diminished by the allure of something more desirable that I do not have.”
  • Yet rather than accepting this as the nature of living in an unreliable world, rather than learning to be content with success and joy and not to be overwhelmed by failure and pain, rather than appreciating life’s poignant, tragic, and sad beauty, I grit my teeth and struggle on in thrall to that quiet, seductive voice that whispers: “If only…” —Mitch Sullen

Chapter 11: Emptiness

Objects have no beginning, no end. They emerge from a matrix of conditions and in turn become part of another matrix of conditions from which something else emerges. By regarding things as absolutely separate and as desirable or fearful in themselves, we set ourselves the task of possessing something we can never have or eradicating something that was never there in the first place. When we notice that things emerge from and fade back into an unbroken flow of conditions, we see that nothing has any intrinsic value. In other words, things are empty. Dharma practice is not concerned with theories of self, but with understanding and easing the grip of self-centeredness that constricts body feelings, and emotions.

I, too, have emerged from causes and am composed of diverse, changing features and traits. There is no essential me that exist apart from this unique configuration of biological and cultural processes. The self may not be something, but neither is it nothing. It is simply ungraspable, unfindable. I am who I am, not because of an essential self hidden away in the core of my being, but because of the unprecedented and unrepeatable matrix of conditions that formed me. Searching for yourself is like trying to catch your shadow. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit.

Emptiness is not an abstract noun. It is not a mystical insight, not a mysterious place from which things “arise” and “dissolve” back into formlessness. Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves. Emptiness is a path because it is an impression left by the regular tread of feet. We are not alone on this path and this path implies indebtedness to those who came before and responsibility for those who follow. When we realize this we can assume greater responsibility for the course of our own lives. We realize we are free to create who we are. —Judy Douglas

Chapter 12: Compassion

Stephen Batchelor begins his chapter on Compassion by asking us to study how we perceive all people: friends, enemies and strangers. He challenges us to notice how “the way you perceive people reinforces your feelings about them, and how the way you feel about them reinforces your perceptions of them.” This creates a scenario in which it’s extremely difficult to clearly see others; we have created images of others based on our own “desires and fears.” The only way to change this pattern is to pause, to remember to be mindful and to consciously look at others from a new perspective.

While compassion may come naturally in certain situations and with those whom we care about, Batchelor warns of an “invisible barrier” of “us” and “them” that we often construct and how it leads to further difficulties in extending compassion to all. He notes that while we’re in this state of “self-centeredness, compassion remains restricted to those we feel to be on our side”. He goes further and beautifully describes this selectivity as “a spasm that seizes body, emotions, and soul. Yet so familiar is it that we fail to notice it or [we] regard it as ‘normal.'” Yet when our self-centeredness is even temporarily suspended, we see the world transformed and we experience warmth and expansion. The key to this non self-centered perspective is meditation and “looking closer,” as Peter Carlson says. This combination allows us to extricate ourselves from our patterned perceptions of ourselves and others and eventually allows us to catch ourselves before these judgments take place and harden.

Meditation provides us with the spaciousness and capacity to feel, not just think, so the “emotional knots that keep us locked in a spasm of self-preoccupation” are loosened. As we open to this and become more proficient, we experience the suffering of others and of the world. We are guided on this middle path by wisdom “and nurtured by compassion.” Through mindful awareness we can resist slipping back to our once common narratives and emotions and keep our hearts open. I find it useful to remember Batchelor’s words that a “compassionate heart still feels anger, greed, jealousy and other such emotions but it accepts them for what they are with equanimity, and cultivates the strength of mind to let them arise and pass without identifying with or acting upon them.” Compassion is to be cultivated so that it naturally encompasses all. —Pam Suzio