Buddhism Without Beliefs

My highlights and notes from Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.


“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”
—Marcel Proust


Religious interpretations invariably reduce complexity to uniformity while elevating matter-of-factness to holiness.


Instead of presenting himself as a savior, the Buddha saw himself as a healer. He presented his truths in the form of a medical diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. If you have a pain in your chest, you first need to acknowledge it. Then you will go to a doctor for an examination. His diagnosis will both identify the cause of pain and tell you if it is curable. If it is curable, he will advise you to follow a course of treatment.


While “Buddhism” suggests another belief system, “dharma practice” suggests a course of action. The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.


Awakening is no longer seen as something to attain in the distant future, for it is not a thing but a process—and this process is the path itself.


The actions that accompany the four truths describe the trajectory of dharma practice: understanding anguish leads to letting go of craving, which leads to realizing its cessation, which leads to cultivating the path. These are not four separate activities but four phases within the process of awakening itself. Understanding matures into letting go; letting go culminates in realization; realization impels cultivation.

This trajectory is no linear sequence of “stages” through which we “progress.” We do not leave behind an earlier stage in order to advance to the next rung of some hierarchy. All four activities are part of a single continuum of action. Dharma practice cannot be reduced to any one of them; it is configured from them all. As soon as understanding is isolated from letting go, it degrades into mere intellectuality. As soon as letting go is isolated from understanding, it declines into spiritual posturing. The fabric of dharma practice is woven from the threads of these interrelated activities, each of which is defined through its relation to the others.


Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: I will not let the surgeon pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed.”

All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say: I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,” that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.
—The Buddha


The force of the term “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.

For T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as: “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it the “agnostic faith.”

First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice“) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”


The dharma is not a belief by which you will be miraculously saved. It is a method to be investigated and tried out.


Normally we are unaware of the extent to which we are distracted, for the simple reason that distraction is a state of unawareness.


Evasion of the unadorned immediacy of life is as deepseated as it is relentless. Even with the ardent desire to be aware and alert in the present moment, the mind flings us into tawdry and tiresome elaborations of past and future. This craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere, permeates the body, feelings, perceptions, will—consciousness itself. It is like the background radiation from the big bang of birth, the aftershock of having erupted into existence.


When we stop fleeing birth and death, the grip of anguish is loosened and existence reveals itself as a question. […]

Such a question is a mystery, not a problem. It cannot be “solved” by meditation techniques, through the authority of a text, upon submission to the will of a guru. Such strategies merely replace the question with beliefs in an answer.

As this kind of question becomes clearer it becomes more puzzling too. The understanding it generates does not provide consoling facts about the nature of life. This questioning probes ever deeper into what is still unknown.


Dharma practice can never be in contradiction with science: not because it provides some mystical validation of scientific findings but because it simply is not concerned with either validating or invalidating them. Its concern lies entirely with the nature of existential experience.


Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.


Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.

For life to make sense it needs purpose. Even if our aim in life is to be totally in the here and now, free from past conditioning and any idea of a goal to be reached, we still have a clear purpose—without which life would be meaningless. A purpose is formed of words and images. And we can no more step out of language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies.


Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. In the face of a changing world, such craving seeks consolation in something permanent and reliable, in a self that is in control of things, in a God who is in charge of destiny. The irony of this strategy is that it turns out to be the cause of what it seeks to dispel. In yearning for anguish to be assuaged in such ways, we reinforce what creates anguish in the first place: the craving for life to be other than it is. We find ourselves spinning in a vicious circle. The more acute the anguish, the more we want to be rid of it, but the more we want to be rid of it, the more acute it gets.


Dharma practice is founded on resolve. This is not an emotional conversion, a devastating realization of the error of our ways, a desperate urge to be good, but an ongoing, heartfelt reflection on priorities, values, and purpose. We need to keep taking stock of our life in an unsentimental, uncompromising way.


Treading the path of awakening can embrace a range of purposes. At times we may concentrate on the specifics of material existence: creating a livelihood that is in accord with our deepest values and aspirations. At times we may retreat: disentangling ourselves from social and psychological pressures in order to reconsider our life in a quiet and supportive setting. At times we may engage with the world: responding empathetically and creatively to the anguish of others.

There is no hierarchy among these purposes; one is not ‘better” than the other; we do not “progress” from one to the next.


Self-confidence is not a form of arrogance. It is trust in our capacity to awaken. It is both the courage to face whatever life throws at us without losing equanimity, and the humility to treat every situation we encounter as one from which we can learn.


We are participatory beings who inhabit a participatory reality, seeking relationships that enhance our sense of what it means to be alive. In terms of dharma practice, a true friend is more than just someone with whom we share common values and who accepts us for what we are. Such a friend is someone whom we can trust to refine our understanding of what it means to live, who can guide us when we’re lost and help us find the way along a path, who can assuage our anguish through the reassurance of his or her presence.


Life becomes A succession of minibirths and minideaths. When I achieve what I want, I feel reborn. But no sooner have I settled into this feeling than the old anxieties resurface. The new possession swiftly ages as it is diminished by the allure of something more desirable that I do not have. What seemed perfect is abruptly compromised by alarming glimpses of its imperfections. Instead of solving my problems, this new situation replaces them with others I had never suspected. Yet rather than accepting this as the nature of living in an unreliable world, rather than learning to be content with success and joy and not to be overwhelmed by failure and pain, rather than appreciating life’s poignant, tragic, and sad beauty, I grit my teeth and struggle on in thrall to that quiet, seductive voice that whispers: “If only …


So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative.

As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.


The ideas need to be translated through meditation into the wordless language of feeling in order to loosen those emotional knots that keep us locked in a spasm of self-preoccupation.


Freedom is never absolute; it is always relative to something else: freedom from constraints, freedom to act, freedom for others.


As long as you are unmindful of the breath, it carries on in its own way. But as soon as you start paying attention to it, you tend to constrain it. Even if you tell yourself: “Just observe it as it is,” the very act of self-conscious observation makes it stilted and controlled. You might have the sense that ‘I am breathing” rather than “it breathes.”

Try this: at the end of the next out-breath, just wait for the following in-breath to occur—as though you were a cat waiting for a mouse to emerge from its hole. You know that the next in-breath will come, but you have no idea precisely when. So while your attention remains as alert and poised in the present as that of a cat’s, it is free from any intention to control what will happen next. Without expectation, just wait. Then suddenly it happens and you catch “it” breathing.

It is strangely exhilarating (even unnerving) to be aware of the breath in this way. As a focus for mindfulness, the breath is the one bodily function that can be both autonomous and volitional (unlike, for example, the heartbeat). While the breath may initially serve as an object of concentration, by letting go of any urge to control it we can witness in its rhythmic motions the intrinsic freedom of reality itself.


As an experience of freedom, awakening does not provide us with a set of ready-made ideas or images—let alone philosophical or religious doctrines. By its very nature it is the constraints of preconceived ideas, images, and doctrines. It offers no answers, only the possibility of new beginnings. In expressing it we no more translate concealed esoteric knowledge into wise utterances than a writer transposes fully formed sentences hidden in his mind onto paper.

Ideas and words emerge through the very process of expressing them to an actual or implied audience. They might come as a surprise, a shock—even to the person who articulates them. They do not arrive fully formed any more than a daffodil arrives fully formed from a sprouting bulb. They arise from an unrepeatable matrix of contingencies: the authenticity of our own vision and compassion in that moment, the needs of others in a particular time and place, our skill in using available technical and cultural resources.


Dharma practice is more akin to artistic creation than technical problem solving. The technical dimension of dharma practice (such as training to be more mindful and focused) is comparable to the technical skills a potter must learn in order to become proficient in his craft. Both may require many years of discipline and hard work. Yet for both such expertise is only a means, not an end in itself. Just as technical proficiency in pottery is no guarantee of beautiful pots, so technical proficiency in meditation is no guarantee of a wise or compassionate response to anguish.

The art of dharma practice requires commitment, technical accomplishment, and imagination. As with all arts, we will fail to realize its full potential if any of these three is lacking. The raw material of dharma practice is our self and our world, which are to be understood and transformed according to the vision and values of the dharma itself. This is not a process of self- or world-transcendence, but one of self and world-creation.


Self-creation entails imagining ourself in other ways. Instead of thinking of ourself as a fixed nugget in a shifting current of mental and physical processes, we might consider ourself as a narrative that transforms these processes into an unfolding story. Life becomes less of a defensive stance to preserve an immutable self and more of an ongoing task to complete an unfinished tale. As a coherent narrative, our identity’s integrity is maintained without having to assume an unmoving metaphysical center around which everything else turns. Grounded in awareness of transiency, ambiguity, and contingency, such a person values lightness of touch, flexibility and adaptability, a sense of humor and adventure, appreciation of other viewpoints, a celebration of difference.