Tuesdays are Ideas Day here at Taking it to the Streets
Just finished reading Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism without Beliefs” yesterday. The first sentence is “I have tried to write a book about Buddhism in ordinary English that avoids the use of foreign words, technical terms, lists and jargon.” I liked that about it right away!
For quite some time Buddhism has been one of the major streams flowing into the river of my spiritual path – a major tributary, to be sure. It’s the belief system I like – not any hierarchy. I’m not part of any sangha other than that of those who are nourished by the principles and tools I have found. So I was eager to read this book and the insights from one of the contributing editors of Tricycle magazine (a well-respected – and informative – Buddhist magazine).
The book was timely for me in that one of the central themes was this:
“Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?”
Really kind of sums it up, don’t you think?
Thinking not only of my young friend’s recent, sudden and shocking death, but now too the sudden, shocking earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, the traditional “first noble truth” of Buddhism – that life IS suffering, seems sort of self-evident. But I like Batchelor’s spin on it all: “While ‘Buddhism’ suggests another belief system, ‘dharma practice’ suggest a course of action. The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.”
I like that! In another of my spiritual tributaries, the 12-steps, people often balk at the 4th step “Taking a personal moral inventory” or the 5th – talking about said inventory with someone. I love those steps because you DO something, so this idea of what then shall we do is one I embrace.
He goes on to say “The first truth challenges our habitual relationship to anguish.” This is where my tributaries cross – both the 12-steps and Buddhism encourage acceptance, but I like Batchelor’s take on it – an active, thought-filled form of acceptance. One such spin is “How often do we embrace that worry, accept our situation, and try to understand it?”
The book is divided into sections – Ground, Path, and Fruition tackling within each some very common themes (for those of us who read Buddhist writing with any regularity) – awakening, death, integrity, awareness, becoming, emptiness and the like.
The very last chapter – on “Culture” got into some (for me, at least) arcane discourse on the form of Buddhism. But I found the rest of the book filled with fresh insights. I like the way he looks at very ancient truths from a contemporary Western perspective – getting to the heart of the matter, not its form. In a less contemporary pop way, to be sure, but analogous in its way, to what “Jesus Christ, Superstar” did with Christianity – keeping the soul, but making it accessible.
Another similarity with the 12-step community is the idea of “take what you like and leave the rest” – in this case, suggesting that perhaps concepts like reincarnation get in the way of contemporary Western Buddhism and are not, at least in the way originally posited, necessary for maintaining the integrity of what the Buddha was about.
I love his take on organized religion of any sort (one I share): “The power of organized religions to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered swiftly reasserted itself – usually by subsuming the rebellious ideas into the canons of a revised orthodoxy.” This was vis-a-vis the co-opting of Buddha’s ideas, but Jesus’s ideas got hijacked in the same way, if you ask me.
This was a well-written, thought-filled book. As my mother used to say to us kids, comparing us to Napoleon, “You’re small, but mighty!” – so too, this book.
I’ll leave you with this quote, that seems so apt to me amidst the chaos in the lives of those I love and in the entire nation of Japan right now.
“Life becomes an exercise in the management of specifics…..This approach works well enough until the unmanageable erupts again as sickness, aging, sorrow, pain, grief, despair. No matter how expertly we manage our lives, how convincing an image of well-being we project, we still find ourselves involved with what we hate and torn apart from what we love.”
This book answers the question of “how then shall we live” if that be true. Heartily recommended.