One City

by Paul Griffin

In Buddhism, the three avenues to understanding are study, reflection, and meditation.  To study is to listen to the teachings and to read the texts.  To reflect is to think about the material and to make it your own.  In this DharmaWorm blog series, I want to discuss what I’m currently reading.  A quick search on for “dharma” books yields 21,717 options, while a search for “Buddhism” calls up 80,636 books (a search for “meditation” connects you to a mind-numbing 251,665 books–a quarter of a million books on meditation!).  In other words, the sea of dharma books in our culture is deep and treacherous.  I want to be a tenacious and steadfast swimmer of this sea–I’d like one day to reach the other side. 

Lastly, I’d like to note that the idea of this series is not to indulge in the marketplace of dharma, not to flit about from idea to idea searching for my foundation (full disclosure: I already have my teacher, Reggie Ray, and I highly recommend all his books, particularly Indestructible Truth).  Rather, my purpose in this series is to take the evolution of Buddhism in the West seriously, as a scholar and a devoted practitioner, and to try to bring insight and clarity to the myriad of discourses that any good book gives rise to.

Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor
The Dhammapada, translated by Ananda Maitreya, foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh
Buddhist Saints in India, by Reggie Ray
The Best Guide To Eastern Philosophy and Religion, Diane Morgan
Ken Wilber

Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor
Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon Ferguson

My friend Leslie sent me Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs in the mail the other day.  She also sent an hour long lecture of his on CD, which I especially enjoyed because of Batchelor’s fine English accent.  Batchelor, a former monk in both the Tibetan and Zen traditions, now a committed nondenominational Buddhist, teaches a pragmatic and agnostic form of Buddhism that would jettison much of traditional Buddhist beliefs, such as karma and reincarnation…

I’ve only read half of Batchelor’s controversial book.  I’ll finish it this week and blog about it again next week.  But what I’ve gathered so far is that Batchelor’s emphasis is on the pragmatic aspects of Buddhism.  He stresses that the Buddha himself spoke not of some mystical, transcendent experience known only by a privileged few, but rather of “having discovered complete freedom of the heart and mind from the compulsions of craving.”  Batchelor stresses practice, that Buddhism is something you do, not something you believe in. 

His language echoes that of modern science, psychology, and philosophy.  Instead of the word “suffering”, Batchelor resorts to the more existential word “anguish,” as in, the first noble truth “challenged people to understand the nature of anguish.”  Moreover, in his effort to express his agnosticism about metaphysical questions of karma and reincarnation (it’s not that Batchelor doesn’t believe in these things, it’s that he doesn’t know), he says, Buddhism’s “concern lies entirely with the nature of existential experience.”  Batchelor’s Buddhism is about living in this world here and now. 

In short, Batchelor, like other writes such as Reggie Ray (see his Buddhist Saints In India), abhors how the institutionalization of Buddhism obscures the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.  Furthermore, like other writers such as Ken Wilber, he sees Buddhism not as a religion offering the same consolations as other religions, but rather as a kind of empirical science of awakening wherein everything can be subjected to experimentation.  “These kinds of speculations [about rebirth, etc.] lead us far from the Buddha’s agnostic and pragmatic perspective and into a consideration of metaphysical views that cannot be demonstrated or refuted, proven or disproven.”  This fully empirical Buddhism–which includes no spurious speculations nor any preservation of unnecessary traditions–is, as Batchelor sees it, the heart of modern dharma.

Other writers have addressed Batchelor’s views.  Here are a few links:

Dark Zen
Monkey Mind
Marjorie L. Silverman

I am also reading the Dhammapada as a daily pre- or post-mediation reflection with Erin, my girlfriend (and mother of our child).  I picked up this slim volume because a student of mine was assigned to read it.  (He was also assigned Diane Morgan’s The Best Guide To Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Is anybody else familiar with this text?  Should it really be the textbook for a 9th grader at the much esteemed Horace Mann High School?)

And because I enjoyed Juan Carlos’s podcast on Gaylon Ferguson’s new book, Natural Wakefulness, I’ve ordered that text online. 

Okay, that’s all for now.  Tell me what you’re reading!