Book Review: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor (2010), Randomhouse

Reviewed by Mary O’Callaghan

As mindfulness finds its way into mainstream medicine, psychology and psychotherapy there is a growing interest in understanding the Buddhist background from which mindfulness emerges. Many mindfulness courses are now incorporating modules of Buddhist psychology into their curriculum. This is in contrast to what was happening a few years ago when there seemed to be an interest in distancing mindfulness from its roots in Buddhism. This was with the aim of making Buddhist psychology more accessible to contemporary cultures without taking on the trappings of the ‘religiosity’ that is often associated with Buddhism. Of course as Buddhism is absorbed into various cultures it tends to take on the flavour of the host culture. This is what makes Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor, a renowned English writer on Buddhism, such a compelling read. This latest book of his captures the essential elements of Buddhist psychology and presents them in a way that is complementary to our own existential and phenomenological traditions.

This relatively recent absorption of Buddhist psychology into western thought and culture has come about much more slowly than was first expected. As early as 1908 the well known psychologist William James predicted that within 25 years Buddhism would be the psychology that everybody would be studying while the historian Arnold Toynbee suggested that Buddhism’s arrival in the west would be the “most important event of the 20th century”. Batchelor’s book, coming from a thoroughly western thinker, has the capacity to deepen our understanding of the matrix from which Buddhist thought and practice emerge. Batchelor’s account of Buddhism confronts us squarely with the vulnerability of the human heart, yet does so with refreshing vitality and spaciousness. By retrieving the fundamentals of what the Buddha taught and by dispensing with all of the metaphysical speculations that typically characterise Buddhist beliefs such as karma and rebirth – all ideas that predated the Buddha – Batchelor focuses on what he suggests are the distinctive and original teachings of the Buddha as opposed to those other elements that got written into the canonical texts as accretions to what the Buddha taught. What emerges is a body of teaching by a human being, as opposed to the mythical god-like figure so often presented to us, who is deeply committed to an approach to life that is “therapeutic and pragmatic rather than speculative and metaphysical”.

As well as this scholarly, yet thoroughly readable, exploration of the core elements of Buddhism and Buddhist psychology, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist offers us a fascinating reconstruction of the mortal life in Northern India 2500 years ago of Siddhattha Gotama, the historical Buddha. Far from the popular depiction of the Buddha as a pampered prince in his palaces who renounces his kingdom, realises enlightenment, establishes his doctrine and community and then dies, becoming thereafter the venerated god-like figure revered throughout the world, the reality, insofar as Batchelor has been able to piece it together, tells the less idealistic tale of a young man from an influential, but by no means royal, family who, faced with the raw reality of suffering in life, gained at the age of 35 a radical insight into the conditioned nature of suffering and the path that leads to its cessation and who then spent the remaining 45 years of his life expounding that vision and creating a community that would uphold it both during his life and after his death. This was by no means an easy task for Gotama. He had to face opposition from the religious establishment of the time as well as other non-orthodox traditions; he had to be circumspect with provincial kings in Northern India on whose support he depended; he risked being seriously compromised by the ambitious actions of some of his relatives; and as his death approached, he had to deal not only with disputes and some dissension among his own followers but also with grave uncertainty, given the fractious environment of his time, as to whether his community or his teachings would survive. Despite all these vicissitudes, Gotama emerges as an inspirational and steadfast teacher and leader working tirelessly to embody and transmit his vision of human liberation and not, as some of the canonical texts would suggest, as a miracle worker endowed with supernatural powers.

The book also gives us a breathtakingly honest account of Stephen Batchelor’s own 37 year journey through Buddhism, from his post-war childhood in England in a home that was free from any religious indoctrination, through his journey eastwards in the ’60s via Pakistan and Afghanistan to India where he was seduced by the metaphysical, magical and transcendent allurements of Tibetan Buddhism. By the age of 21 Batchelor is ordained a Buddhist monk, has learned Tibetan and for the next seven years undergoes intensive training in Buddhist disciplines. Within a few short years Batchelor would use the refined scalpel of Buddhist logic to deconstruct the system that he had so eagerly embraced, resulting in a painful parting from his Tibetan monastery in order to pursue in Korea his burgeoning interest in Zen Buddhism. Later on, on the death of his Korean teacher, he returns to England, gets married and becomes involved in the establishment of a lay Buddhist community in Devon. For the last 10 years Stephen and his wife Martine share a home in rural France where they seek to lead a life that embodies Buddhist values within the context of secularism and modernity.

For me, both as a mindfulness trainer and a psychotherapist, one of the most valuable features of this book is Batchelor’s ability to describe the core of the Buddha’s teachings in a way that resonates so readily with the insights of psychotherapy. For Batchelor, the heart of the Buddha’s message rests on his unequivocal embrace of contingency which requires a radical orientation away from any notions of solidity or fixity. He suggests that what the Buddha saw was “how both he and the world in which he lived were fluid, contingent events that sprang from other contingent events, but that need not have happened. Had he made other choices things would have turned out differently”. Freedom was to be found by waking up to this contingent ground of being and freeing oneself from the fetters of greed, hatred and confusion. Moreover, “such freedom (nirvana) was to be found not by turning away from the world but by penetrating deep into its contingent heart”. According to the Buddha, mindfulness is “the one way” to achieve this penetrating insight and nothing, either within or outside of us and however disturbing or painful, should be excluded, as psychotherapists well know, from our mindful embrace.

Whatever faults his Buddhist critics may find with this book, Batchelor certainly cannot be faulted for his faithfulness to the Buddha’s own  oft-cited advice to his followers: “Just as a goldsmith assays gold by rubbing, cutting and burning, so should you examine my words. Do not accept them just out of faith in me”.

Mary O’Calllaghan MIAHIP is a psychotherapist, supervisor and mindfulness trainer. Mary can be contacted at