This self-styled “confession” by Stephen Batchelor succeeds brilliantly in three distinct literary genres. First and foremost, it’s an articulate and passionate exposition of Buddhism from this gifted, world-renowned scholar and teacher. Second, it’s a poignant memoir of a lifetime’s journey along the dhamma path, dating all the way back to some of the author’s earliest childhood memories. And third, it’s a vivid travelogue, as Batchelor recounts, in the last half of the book, a series of visits he recently made to various historic sites where the Buddha is known to have taught, re-imagines how these places would have appeared to the Buddha twenty-five hundred years ago, reports on their current appearance (sadly, in most cases, partially or completely in ruins), and re-creates in his own words the essence of what the Buddha is reputed to have spoken about at these sites.
The heart of the book, and coming almost exactly at its midpoint, is a chapter entitled “Embrace Suffering”, in which Batchelor discusses the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, the Four Noble Truths. It would be impossible (and presumptuous) for me to attempt to summarize or paraphrase any part of this crucial chapter, which demands to be read attentively from its first sentence to its last, but here are three brief excerpts, a mere sampler of the riches it contains:
“Each truth is the condition that gives rise to the next: fully knowing suffering leads to letting go of craving; letting go of craving leads to experiencing its cessation; and those moments of cessation open up the free and purposive space of the eightfold path itself.”
“To know, deep in your bones, how everything you experience is fleeting, poignant, and unreliable undermines the rationale for trying to grasp hold of, possess, and control it. To fully know suffering begins to affect how you relate to the world, how you respond to others, how you manage your own life.”
“To experience the cessation of craving, even momentarily, is to gain a glimpse of what the Buddha called ‘nirvana’. In this sense, nirvana is not the goal of the eightfold path, but its starting point.”
Since I opened this review with a reference to the first word in the book’s title, “confession”, let me close it by referring to the last word in its title, “atheist”. Batchelor devotes an entire, albeit short, chapter to his notion of the Buddha as “an ironic atheist”, meaning that he simply wasn’t interested in questions regarding the existence or non-existence of an other-worldly God, because he was so completely absorbed by the question of what to do in the face of the suffering present in this world. Batchelor then takes to task the militant brand of atheism currently in vogue with some notable contemporary authors, claiming that “their position is premised on a denial of God every bit as fervent as the believer’s affirmation of Him.” These aggressive atheists, in his view, should more correctly be called “anti-theists”, while the Buddha’s – and presumably Batchelor’s – atheism is more attuned to the correct meaning of the word, “non-theism”. For me, this was a welcome clarification, one that is much needed in these polarized political times we find ourselves living in.
Batchelor concludes this, his most autobiographical book, by defining himself as “a secular Buddhist”, someone for whom ….
“Buddhism has become … a philosophy of action and responsibility. It provides a framework of values, ideas, and practices that nurture my ability to create a path in life, to define myself as a person, to act, to take risks, to imagine things differently, to make art.”
With this book, he has, indeed, made art.