Thursday, February 23, 2017

Buddhism Without Beliefs

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor (1997)

Last year I read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and the author included some recommended titles for people wanting to read more about meditation. I added "self-help/meditation" as a category for my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge and decided to read one of the titles recommended by Harris to fulfill that category.

Buddhism Without Beliefs is a very short book (115 pages) that is rather self-explanatory from the title. It's basically an introduction to Buddhism from a non-religious perspective. Batchelor presents the origins of Buddhism from the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his teachings and argues that he was never a mystic who claimed to have information about the universe or life after or death or any of the other things that would qualify his teachings as a religion. The book lays out some of his teachings, pointing out that they aren't things to believe in, but things to do. Short chapters cover various aspects of these teachings and provide some specific meditation instructions.

The only other thing I've read about Buddhism was also nonreligious (The Wise Heart) so I'm afraid I'm unsure what a religious version of Buddhism would look like. Batchelor goes into that a little bit here when he talks about the ways others have taught Buddhism, just to differentiate it from the way he sees it. But I am not at all a religious person, so I prefer to take the Buddha's teachings as a philosophy, a way to view and live in the world.

Despite how short it is, I found the book a bit difficult to get into. At the beginning there was a lot of abstract discussion, such as "In the cessation of craving, we touch that dimension of experience that is timeless: the playful, unimpeded contingency of things emerging from conditions only to become conditions for something else." Every sentence is pretty much like that, and I really need to be alert to read this sort of thing. But I got the gist of it, and the writing became more accessible to me later on.

I kind of feel like books about Buddhism and meditation should be read very slowly in order to contemplate it all fully. Unfortunately, that's not the way I read. I do take notes though, so I've gone back and re-read parts that resonated with me or that I wanted to remind myself of. It definitely covers some of the same ground as The Wise Heart, (i.e. feelings are fleeting, our unhappiness comes from craving what we do not have, etc.) but of course it always bears repeating and reminding. I just wish I could remember these things at times when I'm not reading a book about it. It would come in handy during my daily life, which I suppose is just reason to read more books like this.

I know there's a lot here but it felt unsubstantial and I couldn't remember much by the time I finished. This is no fault of the book, but of the way that I read and the sorts of books I enjoy. This is why nonfiction is a challenge to me. I do want to continue learning more about meditation though. If you have suggestions of other ways to do so (blogs? podcasts?) let me know in the comments!

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