My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I started this book, but I’m glad I did. This is a confession of someone trying to find himself and his way in the larger world. From his Western upbringing, to his commitment to becoming a Buddhist monk, to his eventual disrobing and continued research into the historical Siddhattha Gotama and the historical context within which his life was lived.
The first half of the book focuses on Mr. Batchelor’s initiation as a Buddhist monk and his continual existential conflicts he tries to resolve while being a Buddhist monk. He finds his natural skepticism in conflict with several different Buddhist traditions, from Tibetan to Zen, and struggles deeply with how to resolve the conflict. I found this a deeply moving portion of his story and felt some affinity to his experiences.
The second half of the book focuses on his research and coming to terms with the conflicts through a thorough examination of the Pali Canon (the original texts and discourses of the Buddha) and his attempt to reconstruct the life of the historical Buddha, the pieces of which seems to be nested throughout the Pali Canon; it seems it took him some effort to put the pieces back together. Out of this comes a very human image of Siddhattha Gotama, so not like the god-like version in many Buddhist sects. Mr. Batchelor peals away the layers and gets right to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings and finds that Gotama was really trying to teach people a way to live in this world, to create a new civilization. He clearly shows how Gotama was a truly human character as he tried to accomplish his goals and work with the kings and princes of the land.
I found this book to be a refreshing look at the core tenets of the Buddhist religion, stripped from the nonsense about past lives and spirits. There is a good bibliography included in the book, as well as several appendixes helping to shine more light into the core documents and research.
I’m hooked now and I am planning on reading more of Stephen Batchelor’s writings, particularly his ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs.’