Batchelor. Buddhism Without Beliefs

Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakeningStephen Batchelor; Riverheads Books 1998WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

This is the 7th book in the 12 Books, 12 Months Challenge that I have finished. For another view, see my list at Open Library.

I began this back on 22 March and got halfway before stopping back in April or so due to wedding and move planning/prep. I started again from the beginning on 11 December and finished it on 18 December 2010.

I am a real neophyte when it comes to Buddhism.  I read Siddhartha in high school and I re-read it last year; no I am not claiming Hesse wrote a Buddhist text, just that it introduced the idea to me long ago.

I have also read a bit about mindfulness (2 books, I think) and one or two books by Thich Nhat Hanh.  This, though, is my first serious attempt at learning more about Buddhism.  I am not sure where or how I came across this book, although I think it was from a book review of the author’s more recent Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.  But where the book review came from I do not know; I failed to find it in my delicious bookmarks.  It seems I ordered both books at the same time from amazon this past March.

The book is reasonably short and reads well.  I liked that it rejects the religion of Buddhism, founded on historically institutionalized beliefs, in favor of the actions of Buddhism.  It also remains agnostic on the more metaphysical aspects, such as karma and rebirth, for instance.


  • Ground
  • Path
  • Fruition


The author claims that the four ennobling truths — anguish, its origins, its cessation, and the path — have become “propositions of fact to be believed.”  Thus, Buddhism becomes a religion (5).

Instead, he claims that the four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act (7).

Some quotes and ideas that I liked:


“The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered swiftly reasserted itself–-usually by subsuming the rebellious ideas into the canons of a revised orthodoxy” (16).

“The very term “Buddhism” (an invention of Western scholars) reinforces the idea that it is a creed to be lined up alongside other creeds” (16).

“This transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion” (17).


“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” (37).


“Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given 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” (39).

“The problem is not that we lack resolve, but that it so often turns out to be misplaced” (40).

“A purpose may be no more than a set of images and words, but we can still be totally committed to it. Such resolve entails aspiration, appreciation, and conviction: I aspire to waken, I appreciates its value, and I am convinced it is possible. This is a focused act that encompasses the whole person. Aspiration is as much a bodily longing as an intellectual desire; appreciation is as much a passion as a preference; conviction as much an intuition as a rational conclusion. Irrespective of the purpose to which we are committed, when such feelings are aroused, life is infused with meaning” (40).

“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” (41).


“Freedom is never absolute; it is always relative to something else: freedom from constraints, freedom to act, freedom for others” (93).

“The questioning that emerges from unknowing differs from conventional inquiry in that it has no interest in finding an answer. This questioning starts at the point where descriptions and explanations end. It has already let go of the constraints and limitations of conceptual categories. It recognizes that mysteries are not solved as though they were problems and then forgotten. The deeper we penetrate a mystery, the more mysterious it becomes.

This perplexed questioning is the central path itself” (98).


All in all I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, although, without having yet read it, I will say that I prefer the agnosticism of this book. I also look forward to re-reading this one and engaging more fully with some if its ideas.

6 thoughts on “Batchelor. Buddhism Without Beliefs

  1. Ah, then perhaps I came across it via your review. If so, then a definite thanks!

    When I was trying to remember where I came across it I did think of you but then something made me consider that it would have been from a review of the newer one.

  2. I later reviewed Batchelor’s Living with the Devil. Not especially recommended. IMHO, Batchelor is not a compelling _writer_ about Buddhism, but his Buddhism without Beliefs was a very compelling idea. I have since observed a trend toward stripped down Buddhism in North America. Chogyam Trungpa, an early ambassador of Buddhism in the west was more interested in establishing a secular ethics than pushing traditional Buddhism. Examples: Chogyam Trunga’s Shambhala books, e.g., Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. This idea makes a lot of sense to me for the West, and I plan to research and write about it more in time. If you decide to write more about Buddhism, I’ll be interested.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations, John. I’ll look forward to your reviews and I’ll try to comment on anything further I come across.

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