Stephen Batchelor never planned to be controversial. He began as a young and earnest practitioner, leaving his native Britain in 1972, at age eighteen, to study with some of the most revered Asian Buddhist teachers around at that time. He ordained first as a Tibetan monk, and then, later, as a monk in the Korean Zen tradition. Yet although he adopted his root teachers’ languages, philosophies, and customs, he eventually found himself ill-suited to monastic life. In 1985, he returned to England, where he settled down with his wife, Martine, a former nun in the Korean Zen tradition.

Back at home, Batchelor began to formulate a distinctly Western approach to the Buddha’s teachings, and in his best-selling book Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997), he openly acknowledged his deep skepticism toward the doctrines of karma and rebirth. The firestorm of protest that followed—from traditional and even not-so-traditional Buddhists—surprised Batchelor. (He was characterized at the time as Buddhism’s bad boy at best and anti-dharma at worst.)

In his new, autobiographical book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor has arrived at what he considers to be the bare bones of Buddhism, upon which, he argues, an entirely new practice and understanding of dharma can be built. As always, Batchelor is as articulate as he is frank. No doubt many will cry foul.

Stephen Batchelor during his time as a Korean monk, circa 1981.
Stephen Batchelor during his time as a Korean monk, circa 1981.

You were a Tibetan and later a Korean Buddhist monk. Then you disrobed. Can you say something about that?  As a monk, I had to play a certain role in society; I was obliged to follow the precepts and injunctions that were necessary for a representative of the Buddhist traditions in which I was ordained. As much as I valued my monastic training, I also found myself frequently in social situations where I didn’t feel entirely comfortable playing the role of a Buddhist monk. This was particularly true in the West, where my robes alone declared that I belonged to a particular Asian tradition. But when I found myself trying to have a serious conversation with someone in Germany or Switzerland, I often felt a strong conflict between what I felt I was obliged to say as a Buddhist monk and what I actually felt to be the case on a particular issue. And so in that sense I felt that I was a bit of a fake—particularly when I began to have serious doubts about certain elements of Buddhist orthodoxy: the belief in rebirth, different realms of existence, and so forth.

 What do you hope to accomplish with “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”? I think dogma has become a problem in Buddhism. Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be superimposed upon the dharma as we find it presented in the earliest known sources— for example, the Pali canon—just as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed upon the historical fragments of his life that one likewise finds scattered throughout the canon. What I’ve done is to try to strip away the myths about Siddhattha Gotama, to try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of the Buddha as a human being. I’ve also tried to remove some of the dogmas that have developed subsequent to the material we find in the Pali canon, which are now entrenched as Buddhist doctrine.

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