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I’m still reading Stephen Batchelor’s book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and it’s really interesting, I’m finding a lot to sympathise with. It’s the whole story of his hippy young adulthood, early days as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, later time spent as a Korean Zen monk, his disrobing and beyond. In a way I feel that by writing this book he has saved me the time spent undertaking a similar journey.
One of the key questions that caused him to leave the Tibetan tradition was this: in various places the Buddha says you should test his teachings “as a goldsmith tests gold on the marketplace”. But he found he was being given books to study with the comment that the author was fully enlightened and thus incapable of making mistakes. What then happens to testing the truth against one’s own experience? Similarly he found it difficult to reconcile ideas around rebirth and karma. In those situations he kept coming up against recommendations to ‘trust his teachers’.
I also agree with him that the Pali Cannon sometimes seems as if several different people are speaking out of the mouth of the Buddha, it doesn’t always seem coherent and I’ve heard in places it contradicts itself. The two-speed system of Buddhism, of monastics who learn orthodoxy and laity who are encouraged to offer prayers and dana also seems strange.
These questions very much parallel my own thinking about Buddhism, and I feel a certain affinity with much of the rest of his thinking. I’ve bought one of his other books, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, it seemed too intriguing to pass it up because in it he examines who the Buddha might have really been historically.