My rather faint and dilettantish interest in Buddhism has in recent years grown more serious, inspired in part by being seriously ill and unable to practice yoga as I used to, forcing me to turn to meditation instead. So I guess the people who believe that yoga is a gateway practice to Satanism are not entirely wrong.
Anyway, a regular meditation practice has led to an increasing interest in the philosophy and ethics of Buddhism, which, inasmuch as I knew anything of them, seemed more aligned with my own beliefs than anything from the Middle Eastern monotheistic tradition. However, I still had and have a key problem with Buddhism, just as I do with any other religion; namely, that while on the one, instinctual, level, I *do* kind of believe in magic (I write fantasy, after all), and experience the world as being a sort of semi-magical, semi-mystical place where I encounter signs and portents, have prophetic dreams, and frequently turn on the radio just as that song I’ve been thinking about all morning comes on (all true things), I try not to get too caught up in believing that magic, conspiracy theories, and aliens have much impact on how I should live my day-to-day life. After all, when it comes right down to it, I never got my letter from Hogwarts.
Which is to say that I’ve always been skeptical of the supernatural, “religious” side of religion. Plus, it’s *so funny* how religious doctrine handed down for millennia tends to be deeply sexist and uphold the social conditions of, say, 1st century Judea or 4th century India. I just can’t throw myself wholeheartedly behind any belief system that declares I must wear a sign of authority on my head (which, for the record, is not empowering, no matter what brainwashed apologists might claim), walk x number of paces behind my (non-existent) husband, avoid holy sites while menstruating, or only buy slaves from certain countries.
All of which means that organized religion, even Buddhism, has never been for me. Which has not stopped me from reading up on it and thinking fairly seriously about what I might glean from it and how I might incorporate select teachings into my day-to-day life.
It is to just such people that Stephen Batchelor’s “After Buddhism” is aimed. Dense and well informed from close readings of some of the foundational discourses, the book attempts to illuminate what Batchelor believes to be the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, teasing out their historical and cultural bases from their eternal truths.
Although Batchelor might argue with my use of the word “truth” there, especially yoked to the word “eternal,” because one of the points he makes repeatedly is that the teachings of the Buddha and the dharma as envisioned by Gotama were not supposed to provide timeless, ungrounded truths, but rather a pragmatic way of living that reduced suffering in the here-and-now. Rather than arguing over metaphysics, the Buddha as Batchelor describes him was primarily concerned with teaching his followers to let go of reactivity, break their repetitive patterns of negative behavior, and act according to the wisdom and compassion of the concrete situation, rather than abstract concepts of right and wrong.
Batchelor refers to modern science, particularly evolutionary biology, as he constructs his arguments, but he does so, he explains, because that is the lens through which Western readers are best able to understand the world, just as the people of the Ganges basin 2500 years ago understood the world through the concepts of reincarnation and karma. For the practicing Buddhist, Batchelor says, what matters is not so much whether “karma is real” or evolutionary biology is “true,” but that both of these concepts point to the fact that sentient beings live in a here-and-now conditioned by the actions of others and events in the past, and affect the lives of others and the events in the future in turn.
“After Buddhism” is not a quick read, and assumes a certain base knowledge of Buddhism and the dharma, but it still accessible to the lay reader who is willing to engage actively with the text. Strongly recommended for Western Buddhists or Westerners interested in Buddhism, especially those who may be struggling with some of the more supernatural or archaic aspects of traditional practice.
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