We are not to believe the four noble truths, says Stephen Batchelor; we are to act on them. Blind belief has turned the Buddha’s teachings into a religion that can lead to sleep rather than awakening. Only our own seeing into the truths the Buddha awoke to can give us authority over our lives and over the path that opens to us.
This takes work: to understand fear and craving, to contemplate the one who fears and craves, to discover directly the transient nature of identity. And the work is on-going. But so, of course, is awakening.
Stephen Batchelor was a monk for ten years in the Tibetan and Zen traditions. He currently lives in a nondenominational Buddhist community in England and is Director of Studies at Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry. Ensconced though he may be in dharma settings, he is quite conscious of the dangers of religious form, of even the notion of Buddhism. He points out that Western scholars invented the term and that it has fostered a habit of finding a religion, an “ism,” rather than a method, in the Buddha’s words.
The three sections of this book—Ground, Path and Fruition—contain clear meditation instructions and serious interpretations of such topics as awareness and engagement. Batchelor articulates the necessity for an agnostic attitude; for an ethical integrity that eschews the authority of techniques, texts and gurus; for compassion; and for embodied freedom.
He integrates two visions of freedom—that of the Buddha’s freedom from craving and anguish and that of the contemporary individual’s freedom to realize his or her capacity for personal and social fulfillment. Batchelor says that the process of individuation is one of “recovering personal authority through freeing ourselves from the constraints of collectively held belief systems.” If we embrace uncertainty, the anguish that comes from wishing life to be other than it is can give way to an ever-deeper probing into our priorities, values and purpose. Agnosticism becomes a call to action as it shifts our attention to the present and “demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.”
Using a clear and elegant style, Batchelor describes how awakening includes the discovery that self-centered cravings manifest themselves not only in our own psyches but also in economic, political and military structures that affect every form of life. To understand emptiness is to take one’s place in an interdependent world. Compassion is the soul of awakening, and through imagination we can envision how to follow the Buddha’s example in transforming the rapture of insight into a path of responsible words and action.
Batchelor points out that the path we tread has been created for us by others and that we maintain it for those who come after. Collaboration and friendship make the path possible. With generosity and integrity, Stephen Batchelor helps us see it more clearly.