Reincarnation and karma are rejected as Indian accretions: his study of the historical Siddhartha Gautama – one element in the new book – suggests the Buddha himself was probably indifferent to these doctrines. What Batchelor believes the Buddha did preach were four essentials. First, the conditioned nature of existence, which is to say everything continually comes and goes. Second, the practice of mindfulness, as the way to be awake to what is and what is not. Third, the tasks of knowing suffering, letting go of craving, experiencing cessation and the “noble path”. Fourth, the self-reliance of the individual, so that nothing is taken on authority, and everything is found through experience.
This topic has, in the past and surely in the future, will bring up plenty of contention from those that insist upon an atheistic approach to Buddhist practice and those that prefer more transcendent schools. What it seems to me is a fantastic approach to introduce the Dharma to secular and rational minded individuals (although to assume that it is strictly a “western” approach needs to read more about B._R._Ambedkar or read my post).
Despite the movement of Buddhist practice towards a completely atheistic POV, Buddhism is generally painted with a very broad brush in that an approach to the Dharma can span from atheistic to non-theistic to theistic but two things remain true: (1) The is no creator God or direct salavation in Buddhist practice (2) The practice portrayed by the Buddha and expanded and applied by the many, many different sects is always meant to be pragmatic. (3) The difficulty of “pinning down” Buddhism into a cozy category is a strength and not a weakness.
Considering the arguments that scholars provide on whether Buddhism is theistic, atheistic or non-theistic, compatible explanations could be provided for all these three philosophical positions. Buddhism has been argued as perfectly theistic simply because it is based on the notion of nirvana and dharma and is thus guided by a moral law, and a focus on moral law is the basis of all religions. Morality is about doing what is right and ethical for the sake of spiritual evolution and in so far as Buddhism emphasizes attaining enlightenment and teaching the same to others…
… However the distinct and intentional avoidance of a creator God, perhaps to dodge the God related questions, brings out the more pragmatic and almost political approach of Buddhism. By denying or de-emphasizing the role of God, Buddha has managed to make religion less deterministic and infused a sense of responsibility in the karmic contribution of the individual. The no-God formula definitely makes Buddhism atheistic in a certain way and it is compatible with Buddha’s emphasis on individual striving for enlightenment by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold path of righteousness.
…many scholars try to maintain a balance and remain non-committal to either side of the debate suggesting that Buddhism is neither theistic nor atheistic but simply non-theistic. Non-theism is the in-between position between atheism and theism. It does not carry all the negative implications of atheism and yet carries with it the theistic emphasis on moral value.
Maybe, non-theism is a more moderate and better word to describe Buddhism yet it is also inadequate as Buddhism does embody not just a part of theism or atheism that non-theism would imply, but Buddhism seems to encompass nearly all or most of theism and atheism. This is the problem in trying to define, categorize or pin down Buddhism, it seems to be both theistic and atheistic at the same time. Of course, in a way, the different schools or divisions of Buddhism adds to this confusion as Mahayana is more theistic and Theravada is atheistic. Yet, it can be said that Buddhism is theistic in its essence and atheistic in its approach, theistic in theory and atheistic in practice and even theistic in its goal and atheistic in its philosophical position.
So the best I can honestly say about Stephen Batchelor’s working of the Dharma is:
- It is easily accessable to those with little or no Dharma experience. A good basics intro.
- The framing of practice as completely atheistic appeals to “rationalist” and provides a good base for growth.
- At this point in time, it is removed from dogmatic, ritualistic or political organizations, thus appeals to home-practitioners like myself.
- Is not “destroying Buddhism”, just opening a new door.
- Is boring and dull (I found Buddhism w/o Beliefs very bland)
- You can attach to an atheistic approach just as much as a dogmatic one.
- There is no “True Buddhism” just approaches to a path
What do you think?
As a post-script I will also recommend “Spiritual Atheism” by Steve Antinoff and leave with this quote by Richard DeMartino which formed the core of atheist spirituality…
It is not that the ego has a problem. The ego is the problem.
With words like that is it any surprise that some Buddhists are going in this direction or newbies discovering the Dharma through a completely atheistic presentation?