Monday, February 21, 2011

"Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening"

I wanted to post a little something here about Buddhism Without Beliefs by British author, teacher, and self-proclaimed "secular Buddhist," Stephen Batchelor, because the book always seems to become relevant in my life when I least expect it. I bring it up now, for instance, only because mention of the book had to be edited out of my current manuscript for reasons of extraneous detail. But there it is again, on my mind, and here it needs to spill.

I first came across the book about ten years ago while working at Barnes & Noble during a semi-lucid morning shift, shelving books in the "Eastern Religions" section. The mere appearance of the book caught my attention -- a light yellow sliver of a volume shoved between the other books like a forced card. I grabbed it and started flipping through, and hours later, I had bought my own copy and was making notes in the margins, notes on Batchelor's stripped-down overview of Buddhism that set me on a course of study for the next couple of months.

For the writer in me, the Buddhist idea of the reorganization of perception was akin to both the English Romantics of the nineteenth century, and the writers of the Beat Generation in twentieth century New York, both literary movements having been a tremendous inspiration on my own writing then and now. I thought, Something had to have set Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg off on their spiritual journeys, right? Now it was my turn.

Granted, I never went so far as to proclaim myself a practicing Buddhist (although I did experiment with Batchelor's process of mediation), but I cannot deny that the easy-to-understand explanations of a religious system that, according to Batchelor (strictly from his agnostic perspective and in no way meant to insult traditional Buddhism), is more of an internalized modification method than a religion, and it has stayed with me to this very day. A particular highlight for me was the section on "Compassion," and how mastery of this emotion through basic and solid reasoning (Batchelor's walk-through of how to understand a perceived "enemy" is nothing short of revelatory) is not only essential to the human condition, but is a common thread of all religious systems to which most of the Western world adheres. Want to understand why you should love your enemy instead of just doing it because a man named Jesus said so? It's all there.