“The way of the Buddha is to know yourself; To know yourself is to forget yourself; To forget yourself is to be awakened by all things.” –Dogen, Genjo Koan

Hey Dharma Friends!

In the spirit of passing along whatever I find good I wanted to let you know about Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Beliefs.” The day after I returned from blissful travels in Bodh Gaya a dear Sangha friend lent me this book and urged me to read it. It’s a quick (I “luckily” got sick and was forced to stay in last night and this morning and made my way through it) but worthwhile read and I’ve pasted some of my favorite excerpts below for all of you. I especially like his discussion of agnosticism as it relates to Buddhism and it reminded me a bit of Sharon Salzburg’s talk last March on “Faith” at the IIC.  The book is divided into three parts: “Ground,” “Path,” and “Fruition” and it consists of concise chapters on topics such as “Integrity,” “Becoming,” and “Culture.” I found the book to be extremely relevant for Westerners that have issues with karma theory and reincarnation and felt a lot of Thay’s philosophy in the book 🙂



Excerpts from Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism without Beliefs”

“An unawakened existence, in which we drift unaware on a surge of habitual impulses, is both ignoble and undignified. Instead of a natural and noncoercive authority, we impose our will on others either through manipulation and intimidation or by appealing to the opinions of those more powerful than ourselves. Authority becomes a question of force rather than of integrity.” (p. 6)

“While Buddhism suggests another belief system, “dharma practice” suggests a course of action. The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.” (p. 7)

“Just as a garden needs to be protected, tended, and cared for, so do ethical integrity, focused awareness, and understanding. No matter how deep our insight into the empty and contingent nature of things, that alone will do little to cultivate these qualities. Each of these areas in life becomes a challenge, an injunction to act. There is no room for complacency, for they all bear a tag that declares: “Cultivate Me.” (p. 11)

“The actions that accompany the four truths describe the trajectory of dharma practice: understanding anguish leads to letting go of craving, which leads to cultivating the path. These are not four separate activities but four phases within the process of awakening itself. Understanding matures into letting go; letting go culminates in realization; realization impels cultivation.” (p. 11)

“The challenge now is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of an agnostic and pluralistic world.” (p. 20)

“It might be that all I can trust in the end is my integrity to keep asking such questions as: Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do? And then to act on them. (p. 31)

“Where does this leave us? It may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge, in all honesty, I do not know. We neither have to adopt the literal visions of rebirth presented by religious tradition nor fall into the extreme of regarding death as annihilation. Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way. Dharma practice requires the courage to confront what it means to be human. All the pictures we entertain of heaven and hell or cycles of rebirth serve to replace the unknown with an image of what is already known. To cling to the idea of rebirth can deaden questioning. Failure to summon forth the courage to risk nondogmatic and nonevasive stance on such crucial existential matters can also blur our ethical vision. If our actions in the world are to stem from an encounter with what is central in life, they must be unclouded by either dogma or prevarication. Agnosticism is no excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a catalyst for action; for in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.” (p. 38)

“Self-confidence is not a form of arrogance. It is trust in our capacity to awaken. It is both the courage to face whatever life throws at us without losing equanimity, and the humility to treat every situation we encounter as one from which we can learn.” (p. 44)

“Ethical integrity requires both the intelligence to understand the present situation as the fruition of former choices, and the courage to engage with it as the arena for the creation of what is to come. It empowers us to embrace the ambiguity of a present that is simultaneously tied to an irrevocable past and free for an undetermined future.” (p. 47)

“We are participatory beings who inhabit a participatory reality, seeking relationships that enhance our sense of what it means to be alive. In terms of dharma practice, a true friend is more than just someone with whom we share common values and who accepts us for what we are. Such a friend is someone with whom we share common values and who accepts us for what we are. Such a friend is someone whom we can trust to refine our understanding of what it means to live, who can guide us when we’re lost and help us find the way along a path, who can assuage our anguish through the reassurance of his or her presence.” (p. 50)

“…the aim is to bring fresh awareness into everything we do. Whether walking or standing still, sitting or lying down…awareness is a process of deepening self-acceptance…whatever it observes it embraces. There is nothing unworthy of acceptance.” (p. 59)

“A world of contingency and change can offer only simulacra of perfection. 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 the loss of direction. It is a process of compulsive becoming. It spins me around in circles, covering the same ground again and again. Each time I think I have found a situation that solves all my problems, it suddenly turns out to be a reconfiguration of the very situation I thought I was escaping from. My sense of having a new lease on life turns out to be merely a repetition of the past. I realize I am running on the spot, frantically going nowhere.” (p. 74)

“And we too are impressions left by something that used to be here. We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us. From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred billion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had an choices we have ever made: these have conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call “me.” Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it. So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishment in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative. As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told quite in this way before.” (p. 82-83)

“Compassion is the very heart and soul of awakening. While meditation and reflection can make us more receptive to it, it cannot be contrived or manufactures. When it erupts within us, it feels as though we have stumbled across it by chance. And it can vanish just as suddenly as it appeared. It is glimpsed in those moments when the barrier of self is lifted and individual existence is surrendered to the wellbeing of existence as a whole. It becomes abundantly clear that we cannot attain awakening for ourselves: we can only participate in the awakening of life.” (p. 90)

 “The freedom of awakening is grounded in the cessation of craving. Such freedom is possible because the changing, contingent, ambiguous, and creative character of reality is by its very nature free.” (p. 94)

“The human world is like a vast musical instrument on which we simultaneously play our part while listening to the compositions of others. The creation of ourself in the image of awakening is not a subjective but an intersubjective process. We cannot choose whether to engage with the world, only how to. Our life is a story being continuously related to others through every detail of our being: facial expressions, body language, clothes, inflections of speech—whether we like it or not.” (p. 106)

“An agnostic Buddhist vision of a culture of awakening will inevitably challenge many of the time-honored roles of religious Buddhism…it will emphasize the freedom and responsibility to create a more awakened and compassionate society on this earth. Instead of authoritarian, monolithic institutions, it could imagine a decentralized tapestry of small-scale, autonomous communities of awakening. Instead of a mystical religious movement ruled by autocratic leaders, it would forsee a deep agnostic, secular culture founded on friendships and governed by collaboration.” (p. 114-115)