On behalf of several friends who have expressed interest in Buddhism but are skeptical about anything supernatural, I’ve been questing for a pithy, functional description of practice that was 99.9% Woo-free. On the recommendation of Vasa, I picked up Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor from Half-Price Books, and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. Quite thin, it nevertheless delivers, providing the basic historical and, more importantly, functional framework for what Batchelor calls Awakening. Awakening, for those unfamiliar, is, at its root, a different way of interacting with our own brains and experience of reality. The specific term was probably chosen because the feeling of getting better at maintaining this mental state does, indeed, feel like waking up from a confused, bewildered, and unconscious place one didn’t know one was in until something else was available for comparison. Batchelor reminds us of and calls us back to the original definition of agnosticism, meaning a seeking into the unknown.
Buddhism Without Beliefs is actually one of the best primers on Buddhism practice (called dharma) I’ve read. Even going through it once without taking notes has already induced both several Eureka! moments and also subtle, longer-term changes in my experience of reality. It really helped me escape the grip of some particularly pernicious personal demons that have been plaguing me recently. I had this angry moment where I got really pissed off that bullshit that happened most of a lifetime ago was really interfering with my ability to connect with someone I care about. At that moment, the psychic monkey that had been on my back for most of my life and really badly for about a year just sort of fell off. I think one big reason it happened was because reading the book loosened my own association with the idea of the self I had been carrying around forever. I was still there, but this false past-self I had been identifying with faded enough for the monkey to lose it’s grip. I also had the revelation that part of what I was seeking in a romantic partner was a replacement for the love of my mother, and I saw how flawed that entire idea was. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that no one will probably *ever* love or be willing to sacrifice as much for me as my mother, and expecting anyone else to do so is setting myself up for a Massive Emotional Fail. There was sadness in that realization, a deeper appreciation of my mother, and also the revelation that she won’t be around forever, and, at some point, that love will be gone. This is not trivial shit.
While naturally your mileage may vary, I highly recommend Buddhism Without Beliefs to anyone interested in getting a handle on why Buddhist tools are useful, particularly those who need that information free of the dressing of religion or faith to give it their full attention.