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Buddhism Without Beliefs

Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs is a fascinating, nonlinear, nonreligious interpretation of a major world religion—"not something to believe in but something to do" as the author describes the subject. In the chapter titled "Agnosticism" Batchelor lays out his skeptical vision:

An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. For to deny either God or meaning is simply the antithesis of affirming them. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. ...

This is quite reminiscent of some aspects of Cardinal Newman's description of the proper gentleman's attitude toward religion. Batchelor also echoes Daniel Dennett's "Multiple Drafts" metaphor for the mind from Consciousness Explained. In the chapter "Anguish", for example:

Normally we are unaware of the extent to which we are distracted, for the simple reason that distraction is a state of unawareness. This kind of exercise can force us to recognize that for much of the time we fail to register what is happening here and now. We are reliving an edited version of the past, ...

The theme recurs when Batchelor touches upon something that sounds like Dennett's model of Self as "narrative center of gravity" (in "Imagination"):

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 turns. Grounded in an 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.

In its conclusions, Buddhism Without Beliefs resonates with Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire analysis of Greek philosophy, and with Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations. In his final chapter, "Culture", Batchelor paints a utopian vision:

An agnostic Buddhist vision of a culture of awakening will inevitably challenge many of the time-honored roles of religious Buddhism. No longer will it see the role of Buddhism as providing pseudoscientific authority on subjects such as cosmology, biology, and consciousness as it did in prescientific Asian cultures. Nor will it see its role as offering consoling assurances of a better afterlife by living in accord with the worldview of karma and rebirth. Rather than the pessimistic Indian doctrine of temporal degeneration, it will emphasize the freedom and responsibility to create a more awakened and compassionate society on this earth. Instead of authoritarian, monolithic institutions, it could imagine a decentralized tapestry of small-scale, autonomous communities of awakening. Instead of a mystical religious movement ruled by autocratic leaders, it would foresee a deep agnostic, secular culture founded on friendships and governed by collaboration.

(many thanks to friend Mary Ewell for lending me this provocative book! cf. OppositeThinking (2000-03-16), ThoughtfulMetaphors (2000-11-08), Cardinal Newman (2001-10-04), UniversalFlourishing (2001-12-25), ...) - ^z - 2008-09-19


(correlates: BitsPerLife, ThoughtfulMetaphors, IntellectualHeimlichManeuver, ...)

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