Buddhism Without Beliefs, Chapters 13 – 15

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, finishing with the “Fruition” section

We hope these summaries of each chapter from Batchelor’s very thoughtful and insightful book, written, as he says in the Preface, “in ordinary English,” has been an inspiration for some to check out this very liberating practice offered to the world by Siddhartha Gautama some 2500 years ago.

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

Chapter 13: Freedom

Not recognizing our situation, not understanding that by holding on to an inherently existent self we imprison ourselves, “we are our own jailers.” Denying our own experience, seeking solace in denial and the fiction of independence, we alienate ourselves from others and our own experience. We step back and admire our work, but we are only decorating our own cages. Only through practice can we see the true nature of things, that all is “dynamic, precarious, and selfless”, that we are already completely free to be in harmony with that, to see what we know as “self” is also this way. Letting go of our opinions, we find that we truly don’t know, that even our next in–breath is only a conjecture. If we can only wait for that breath, without controlling or forcing it, without expectation, we can suddenly “catch ‘it’ breathing” without the usual baggage of a sense of “I am breathing”, and we are filled with the exhilaration of freedom. Immersed in reality. If we respond by dropping our need to know, to only question “What is this?”, that freedom becomes sustainable. The quote from the Sixth Zen Patriarch that begins the chapter restates the Zen story of the Buddha’s awakening: Wonder of wonders, he said, looking at the Morning Star. All beings are enlightened, even as am I. They only do not see it. –Robert Lockridge

Chapter 14: Imagination

Batchelor begins the chapter with a quote from Richard Rorty: “A talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.”

Batchelor draws an analogy between dharma practice and the art of shaping a pot. Both are creative arts that require imagination. Both hover between exhilaration and dread. Just as potters or writers can be paralyzed by the endless possibilities before them and go for another cup of coffee, the meditator may escape into memories or fantasies. Or we go the way of the mystic and can decide to simply remain absorbed in the mysterious, unformed, free–play of reality. But such self–abnegation denies the central element of our humanity: the need to share our experience with others.

He also exams the responsibility that freedom entails. Our freedom from self–centered craving is freedom to creatively realize the possibilities of the world for others. Awakening does not provide us with a set of ready–made ideas and dogmas. It is free from such restraints. Awakening does not offer answers, only the possibilities of new beginnings. The ideas and images that emerge as we seek to explain our experiences on the cushion to others arise from an unrepeatable matrix of contingencies, the authenticity of our own vision, the needs of others in a particular time and place, and our skill in using the available technical and cultural resources.

Dharma practice is more akin to artistic creation than technical problem solving. The raw materials of this creative endeavor are ourselves and our world which are to be understood according to the vision and values of the dharma. It is not a practice of self or world–transcendence, but self and world–creation. The primary obstacles to this creation are the notions of the self as a static entity and the world as a static and alien reality composed of stubborn and discrete things. We dissolved the notion of a static self through a centered vision of transiency, ambiguity and contingency of experience and become free to create ourselves anew. Similarly we need to create a vision of a world that is a dynamic and related whole of which we are a part. Such visions require imagination. Without this imagination, we cannot respond with creative participation, we can only repeat the clichés and dogmas of past generations.

The activation of the imagination in the process of awakening recovers the aesthetic of beauty. This focused awareness is not only a cognitive and affective transformation, but also an awareness of beauty. When the turmoil of consciousness subsides, we can appreciate the beauty of all that surrounds us. The natural world is enhanced, a line of poetry, a painting, a symphony, the wings of a butterfly, the beauty of the human eye are vividly enhanced. Great works of art capture both the pathos of anguish and a vision of its resolution. Any work of art that deepens our own understanding of anguish, that moves us to relax our constrictions of self–centered craving, that reveals the dynamic play of emptiness and form, and that inspires a way conducive to such ends, bears the hallmark of authentic beauty. The 4 ennobling truths of the Buddha challenge us to act with this creative and aesthetic awareness. Our lives leave an impression on others and the world in the same way a great artist’s creation does.

After the awakening, the Buddha hovered between the rapture of freedom and the “vexation” of engagement. The appearance of an idea (in the language of ancient India “a god”) forced him to realize his responsibility to others and activated his imagination. He then relinquished the mystical idea of transcendent absorption and set out to engage others. The genius of his imagination, allowed him to succeed in translating his vision into language that not only could be understood by his contemporaries, but has survived through many generations and cultures until the present day. The wheel of the dharma continues to turn generating every new and starting cultures of awakening.

Batchelor ends the chapter with a prophetic warning. In following subsequent generations following the Buddha’s death, the dharma has often crystallized in the genius of a single person or a group of people. The genius of this person or group also lay in the skill of their imagination. They had the ability to express an authentic vision of the dharma in a way that creatively expressed the needs of their particular situation. After this group or person’s death, their followers founded powerful religious institutions to preserve the orthodoxy of their teachings. These institutions, paradoxically, sought to control the imagination as a means of maintaining authority. The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it required conformity.

This suppression of imagination will cut the dharma at its source. These institutions will fail when they no longer have the imagination to respond creatively to new situations–Judy Douglas

Chapter 15: Culture

The chapter addresses this important issue: “While Buddhist traditions have consistently affirmed freedom from craving and anguish as the raison d’être of a culture of awakening, they have been less consistent in affirming the freedom to respond creatively to the anguish of the world.”

Batchelor speaks to how:

  • “Buddhist traditions have inclined towards political conservatism.”
  • The opportunity in “today’s liberal democracies” to exercise autonomous individual freedom has in many ways resulted in “…a dizzying loss of meaning and direction.”
  • The convergence of the Buddhist and contemporary visions of freedom seem to offer a culture of awakening “in which dharma practice is becoming individuated, on the one hand, and socially engaged, on the other.”
  • Individuated dharma practice is where “priority is given to the resolution of a personal existential dilemma over the need to conform to the doctrines of a Buddhist orthodoxy.”
  • “A socially engaged vision of dharma practice recognizes that each practitioner is obliged by an ethics of empathy to respond to the anguish of a globalized, interdependent world.”
  • “The self–creation of individuation and the world–creation of social engagement cannot exist apart from each other”, that they are indeed “two poles of a culture of awakening.”
  • “A culture of awakening cannot exist independently of the specific social, religious, artistic, and ethnic cultures in which it is embedded.”
  • “How to create an authentic community, which provides a sound basis for the emergence of a culture while optimizing individual freedom, may be the single most important question facing those practicing the dharma today.”
  • “The democratic and agnostic imperatives of the secular world demand not another Buddhist Church, but an individuated community, where creative imagination and social engagement are valued as highly as philosophic reflection and meditative attainment.”
  • “Instead of authoritarian, monolithic institutions, (an agnostic Buddhist vision of a culture of awakening) could imagine a decentralized tapestry of small–scale, autonomous communities of awakening. Instead of a mystical religious movement ruled by autocratic leaders, it would foresee a deep agnostic, secular culture founded on friendships and governed by collaboration.” –Mitch Sullen