Those most likely to read Stephen Batchelor's new memoir, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, might find the title redundant. The deity-free character of Buddhism is fairly common knowledge among its enthusiasts in the English-speaking world. The Gautama they have encountered in their various modes of countercultural rebellion comes filtered through the sensibilities of writers such as Hermann Hesse, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Pirsig. To the crowds drawn to "Eastern" philosophies because "Western" traditions are kind of a drag, the Buddha offers religion without the baggage.
But of course the Buddha has baggage all his own. This was news to the Scottish-born Batchelor, who in the early 1970s launched a decade-long vocation as a Tibetan monk. In recounting how he made the trek into Tibetan piety and just what happened after his arrival in East Asia, Batchelor gives readers a tour of Buddhism as it is lived and as it is imagined. His chief revelation is that traveling the distance between those two realms is perhaps the hardest kind of pilgrimage.
Batchelor today is a respected Buddhist teacher, but his spiritual biography begins far from the monastery. Having spent his school days perplexed by "the bewildering, stomach-churning insecurity of being alive," young Batchelor took refuge in LSD, Aldous Huxley, and all-night liquid light shows, where he grew his hair long to the strains of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. At eighteen, he failed his college entrance exams, lost an offer of admission to a technical school, and found himself suddenly free—free from the drudgery of middle-class expectation, free from the requirements of institutional education, free from any reason to remain in the parochial British Isles, "which I then regarded as the exclusive source of my discontent."
He set off from the UK first to Europe and then into near Asia, where "the retreat from my homeland became a flight into the past, as though the past were a place where nothing could ever go wrong." After a few misadventures, Batchelor landed in Dharamsala, the Indian seat of the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government in exile. There he spent his days, naively projecting "all the virtues that my own culture seemed to lack" onto everyone he met. For all the difficulty of their lives, he thought, the Tibetans "radiated an extraordinary warmth, lucidity, and joie de vivre." Whatever the monks and laypeople of this Himalayan hideout had, he wanted it. "For the first time in my life," he writes, "I had encountered a path."
No sooner had he set out on this exotic new path, however, than he discovered that Tibetans were not immune to the drudgery, parochialism, and educational conformity he had traveled so far to leave behind. With head freshly shaved, draped in robes, Batchelor spent five years studying Tibetan texts he found nonsensical even after he'd learned the language. One such text, recited every morning, had him imagine his transformation into a tantric god: "I devour human blood, fat, marrow, and lymph. My head is crowned with five frightful dried skulls and I am adorned with a garland of fifty moist human heads."
Drawn to the Buddha as a teacher of reason, he became dismayed that the lessons of monastic life required suspension of all logic. He lost sleep over the doctrine of reincarnation, which to him was an all but total impossibility despite his lama's insistence that it was the foundation of the faith. Competing schools of Buddhism offered roads to enlightenment with fewer speed bumps, but no matter where he went, he encountered differences between the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhism as it was lived.
"As a Western convert, I saw Buddhism as a set of philosophical doctrines, ethical precepts, and meditation practices," he writes. "For me, to be a Buddhist simply meant to accord one's life with the core values of the tradition: wisdom, compassion, non-violence, tolerance, calm, and so on." Yet for his teachers and fellow students, he realized, being a Buddhist was entwined with being Tibetan; it was culture as well as religion. Though he had happily converted to the latter, the former was a bridge too far.
When he finally left monastic life, Batchelor set out to separate what he regarded as essential to Buddhism—the words of the Buddha himself—from the accretions of tradition. Like Thomas Jefferson taking a blade to his Bible, Batchelor approached the scriptures of his adopted faith with an eye toward excising anything that smacked of mumbo jumbo. Though Batchelor's book is presented as his own confession, a full third of it is devoted to this editorial surgery: a reconstruction of who the Buddha was, as redacted by "a late-twentieth century post-Christian secular existentialist."
Batchelor is equal parts European-bred intellectual and Asian-trained contemplative, but still it comes as a surprise that the most intriguing words he cites come not from the Buddha, but from the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who supplies one of the book's epigraphs. "Stories are impossible but it's impossible to live without them," Wenders said. "That's the mess I'm in."
That's the mess Batchelor's in as well; indeed, it's the plight of all seekers after sturdy spiritual truth in a world simultaneously shaped and restricted by institutional religion. What's to be done with the ancient, absurd stories on which the world has been built? Batchelor's "Buddhist atheist" answer is different from those offered by atheists of the derisive Richard Dawkins stripe. Rather than simply rejecting the stories of faith, he retells them to make them his own.
Peter Manseau studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University.