Stephen Batchelor - “Buddhism Without Beliefs”

Since death alone is certain and the time of death is uncertain - what should I do? What does it mean to lead a life that will stop? In this book Stephen argues that Dharma practice is the courage to confront what it means to be human. What follows is less of a review and more of a digest, or synopsis.

Four Ennobling Truths

  1. (Understand) Anguish
  2. (Let go of its) Origins: Craving
  3. (Realize its) Cessation
  4. (Cultivate the) Path

Authentic awakening requires acting upon it. Each truth requires acting in specific ways. Enlightenment is not a uniform absolute event, it’s not a super-natural shattering insight.

The Dharma practice is founded on authentic vision born from experience. It is grounded in integrity and creative autonomy. The Buddha was not a mystic. Forgetting about the action required on the Four Ennobling Truths causes them to become religious dogma. They are not a belief system but a challenge to act. The Buddha didn’t see himself as a messiah, but as a healer presenting a diagnosis and prescribing treatment. He “taught anguish and the end of anguish”.

The central question of Buddhism is the following. Is awakening close by or far away? Is it readily accessible or requires supreme effort? It’s both. Awakening is not a thing but a process, the path itself. It encompasses everything we do. It provides the ethical ground for mindful and focused awareness.

Buddhism is the culture of awakening. It’s an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animate all aspects of human life. Buddhism doesn’t provide answers to metaphysical questions like “Where are we from?”, “Where are we going?”, or “What happens after death?”. It’s focused on existential confrontation, not consolation. It is also not concerned with validating or invalidating scientific findings. It’s never in contradiction with science. Its concern lies fully in the nature of existential experience. Dharma practice is concerned not with proving or disproving theories of self, but with understanding and easing the grip of self-centeredness. Unawareness is the state of being distracted by your mind, reliving a heavily edited version of the past, planning for an uncertain future, or indulging, running on auto-pilot without consciousness. This creates an illusion of a coherent self.

Historically, Buddhism lost its original agnostic nature and became institutionalized as a religion (a belief system controlled by priests). In fact there’s more common ground between the Dharma practice and rigorous agnosticism, than with any religion. Agnosticism in its strict sense was not a creed but a method of following reason as far as it will take you and not pretending conclusions are certain unless they’re demonstrated or demonstrable. Orthodoxy should not stand in the way of our own understanding. Religions are united not by a belief in god but afterlife. Buddha himself believed in rebirth which was reflecting the worldview of his time. That’s inconsistent with the idea that no coherent self can be found by analysis or realized by meditation. If so, what is it that is reborn? How does it traverse time and space between a corpse and an ovum? The goal of the idea of rebirth is to explain karma, e.g. intention. It’s of psychological, not cosmological, importance. Intentions lead to habits.

Awakened presence is dignified and noble. Act on anguish before habits incapacitate your ability to see it as transient and isolated. Let go of craving to stop it growing into anguish. Practise being in the now, observing actions from the centered stillness of emptiness. Emptiness is the clearing in the center of becoming. In its poignant tranquility, it is the door to compassion. The relative constancy of centered attention is steady adjustment to the flux of what is observed. No conditions are permanent or reliable. Therefore, craving for a predictable, stable world is absurd. Craving is the loss of direction appearing as an illusion of a purposeful life. “If only” is the mantra of unconsumated desire, a process of compulsive becoming.

Emptiness is a confusing term.  It’s devoid of intrinsic being. It is the track on which the centered person moves. It’s not something we realize in a moment of insight. Things don’t arise from emptiness or dissolve into it again. This is a distortion used in the service of longings for consolation, the very anti-thesis of what it was supposed to mean. Understanding it often falls into the same trap which it was supposed to the habit of mind it was intended to undermine.

The denial of self challenges only the notion of a static self, independent of the body and mind, not the ordinary sense of self, distinct from everybody else. Self-creation entails imagining our self in other ways. Instead of thinking of our self as a fixed nugget in a shifting current of mental and physical processes we might consider our self as a narrative that transforms those processes into an unfolding story.

Probability is no certainty. There are no guarantees. Life is accident-prone. Nothing is permanent. Meditating on death makes you conscious of life. It is extraordinary to be here at all, a very non-probable event.

Great art achieves its resolution not by consoling or romantic images whereby anguish is transcended, they accept anguish without being overwhelmed by it. They reveal anguish as that which gives beauty its dignity and depth. The four ennobling truths provide a template for aesthetic vision, as well as a paradigm for cognitive and affective freedom. Any work of art that deepens our understanding of anguish, moves us to relax the constrictions of self-centered craving.

Errors: postponing, compromising, not knowing that our reason-to-be is. Hostility, affliction, anxiety.

Agnosticism is a catalyst to action because it shifts focus from a future life with fear/hope undertones into the present life with empathy. As empathetic beings we can’t without losing our integrity hurt others. But empathy alone will not free us from making mistakes. By those we can learn to be more ethically intelligent and act accordingly. Knowledge and meditation alone don’t change the world, a single deed can. Consistently with the rigor of agnosticism, ethical integrity is not moral certainty.

To counter anguish we need a lot of serious resolve, an ongoing heartfelt reflection on priorities, values and purpose. Life is neither meaningful or meaningless. Life requires purpose and that gives it meaning. A purpose is a set of images and words, to which we may still be committed to. What counts is not the destination but the resolve to take the next step. That literally creates the path for others to use.

To embrace hatred does not mean to indulge it but just accept it for what it is: a disruptive and transient state of mind. The task of awareness is to catch the impulse at its inception. This requires a focused mind. Clarity is clouded by boredom, calmness is prevented by distraction. Instead of fighting it, embrace it, accept things as they are right now. That might lead to understanding what it is that we’re running from. Such restlessness and lethargy are not mental or physical lapses but reflexes of an existential condition. They are ways of evading the discomfort of the contradiction of who we are and who we want to be.