Jim's Reviews > Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor
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's review
Mar 20, 10

bookshelves: memoir, spirituality
Recommended for: fans of 1 star reviews
Read in March, 2010

"I am glad I belong to a religion that worships a tree." No, this is not Jake Sully saluting the Na'vi in Avatar – it's Stephen Batchelor explaining his "Buddhist atheism." But in this case, 3D means dull, dispiriting and diffuse.

I enjoy confessions, especially when they involve spiritual conturbation: Mark Matousek's Sex, Death, Enlightenment; Andrew Harvey's The Sun at Midnight; even Frank Schaeffer's half-cocked Crazy for God. I also (if rarely) appreciate oblique approaches to spirituality, as in Jacob Needleman's Lost Christianity or Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering. What I don't enjoy or appreciate is a book by someone whose journey is as entropic as my own.

Batchelor (who, I have to say, sounds like a genuinely pleasant fellow) wanders through his story like a beggar with his bowl. He aims to recover the genuine teaching of the historical Buddha, but the closest he can get is the jumble of Pali palm-leaf manuscripts, compiled in Siam hundreds of years after Gotama's death. (By comparison the Christian Gospels are terse documentary footage.) He wants to purge Buddhist religiosity of its "supernatural" Hindu elements, yet the Dhammic tenets he retains are as generic and insipid as a fortune cookie.

"I think of myself as a secular Buddhist who is concerned entirely with the demands of this age (saeculum) no matter how inadequate and insignificant my responses to these demands might be. And if in the end there does turn out to be a heaven or nirvana somewhere else, I can see no better way to prepare for it." Astringent radicalism or cutting critique this is not, even with that pointless pinch of Latin.

Batchelor admits he assembles his books like a collage – his Confession bears him out. It's composed of aleatoric autobiography, theological deconstruction, sectarian reconstruction, pilgrimage/travelogue, and tortured, puerile affirmations. One night as he steps into the courtyard of the Lotus Nikko Hotel in Kushinagar, he reflects, "I will never see what Gotama saw, but I can listen to the descendants of the same cicadas he would have heard when night fell in Kusinara all those years ago." Like the Christian hymn "I walked today where Jesus walked," this is kitsch on the verge of nonsense.




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