Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (2010)

The title intrigued and appealed to me from the first instant I saw it, yet it took me several months to read this book from cover to cover, because it is also a Buddhist primer and a memoir of Batchelor’s long “career” in Buddhism, as well as a travelogue on the sites where Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) lived… It’s so rich that I can’t pretend I have absorbed everything this book has to offer, nor can I really take a stand on the challenges that Batchelor addresses to the traditional interpretation of Buddhism.

What is obvious is that putting Buddhism and Atheism in a single clause is highly controversial, as is his glaring denial of all the non-rational parts of the Buddhist credo, like rebirth, supernatural abilities of the masters, and even of the divine nature of the man Siddhartha Gautama. Batchelor respectfully but drastically challenges his masters (he’s been a monk in India and Korea) and goes back to the fundamental texts to try to separate the basic teachings of Siddharta Gautama from all the rest, i.e. the Asian cultural and traditional background and centuries and centuries of priests in various organized communities with their own doctrines and rules.

Batchelor’s view of Buddhism makes a lot of sense (to me at least), but perhaps too much so, as if the doctrine and religion had been adapted for a Western audience… I’m aware that purists will say he has watered it down or even distorted it in trying to simplify it, but I don’t know enough to take sides. All I know is that the book is highly readable, bold and rich. Quite enough for me, for the time being, before I venture further into Buddhist terra incognita.

It’s not the first Buddhist book I’ve read, but it’s really the first to approach matter of faith and theology (if this word ever applies). It’s definitely not a book about applying Buddhist philosophy to your daily life, like the one by Karen Maezen Miller I’d enjoyed before, although you can tell Batchelor is living a quiet and simple life devoted to learning and teaching about Buddhism.


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