Beyond Belief

Updated: Oct 29

A question often asked is whether Buddhism is a religion or whether one can practice its methods in the absence of any belief in doctrine.

Stephen Batchelor addressed this question in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997).

He has an interesting take on belief, and what it means not to believe. The latter is typically described as agnosticism, usually thought of as ‘not knowing’. Yet Batchelor defines agnosticism not as ‘not knowing’ but as ‘not wanting to know’, and the difference between the two approaches he says can be crucial to one’s practice.

He points out that agnosticism has a long history in the western tradition, from thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Ancient Greece, to those of the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, through to the empirical sciences of our own era. All of these examples of the tradition insist on following reason and evidence as far as it will take you, but not beyond that point. They accept that there are simply some things which the human mind may never be able to understand.

The term ‘agnosticism’ was first coined in the nineteenth century by T H Huxley. He even referred to it as ‘the agnostic faith’. As well as meaning, ‘I don’t want or need to know what is unknowable’, it implies exercising one’s rational and critical faculties in order to learn new things.

The Buddha is often said to have explained something similar in the parable of the man wounded with an arrow. If, before the surgeon operated, the man insisted on first knowing the name and clan of the archer, whether the bow was a longbow or a crossbow or whether the arrow-head was curved or barred, he might well die before his quest for knowledge was satisfied. In the same way, the Buddha said that he did not teach whether the world was finite or eternal, whether the soul is immortal, or the same as or different from the body. These things were unknowable, even to him. He simply taught how to end suffering in this ‘fathom-length carcass’.

In this way, argues Batchelor, the dharma is a practice much as the scientific method is a practice; neither are ‘isms’, and indeed ‘Buddhism’, the term we use so much today, is itself a relatively modern western coinage. The word ‘dharma’, though probably untranslatable into English, is a better term.

In such an approach, not knowing is not a weakness nor even primarily an acknowledgement of our fundamental ignorance but is rather a passionate recognition that ‘I do not know’, that the mind can never rest in certainty. Such an approach echoes that of Krishnamurti examined here in previous blogs. Truth is a living thing and when you think you have ‘found it’, ‘understood it’ or ‘grasped it’ you have very likely missed the point.

But then what of the four noble truths? Are they not truths, certainties, ideas that we seek to grasp? Not according to the radical account that Stephen Batchelor outlines. Rather they are a method.

The first noble truth is described as the fact of suffering. Its challenge is to detect suffering before habitual reactions incapacitate us- for example, experiencing anxiety and then immediately turning away from it or immediately being overcome by it. The first truth is therefore not primarily a piece of knowledge or information but an action which involves seeing anxiety for what it is- transient, contingent and devoid of intrinsic identity.

Awareness of anxiety typically leads to desire or craving to be free of it. The second noble truth, the ending of suffering, points out how the presence of such a craving provides an opportunity to let it go. Letting go (or letting be) is the alternative to denying the craving or indulging in it. Letting go requires accepting what is happening. It is grounded in individual creative autonomy, and made possible by means of that autonomy, by the fact that we are agents that can initiate action. Awakening then is not an ‘achievement’ or ‘realisation’ of some transcendental truth, but a process, a path. Batchelor says, ‘It begins with understanding the kind of reality we inhabit and the kind of beings we are that inhabit such a reality.’ (p.10).

Seen in this light the dharma is a culture, a series of practices, values, approaches, arts, morals, laws, customs; it is a culture of awakening.

The possibility of awakening arises from the nature of our experience, of our moment-to-moment life. As Batchelor observes, ‘The present moment hovers between past and future just as life hovers between birth and death.’ (p.24). We typically evade both the present moment, particularly the uncomfortable ones, and the fact of our future death, by entering into a fantasy world. Something in us insists that there is a static continuing self, and that we can genuinely recognise a fixed image of what we are. But to do so is to ignore or shy away from the reality of our ever-changing experience. ‘Evasion of the unadorned immediacy of life is as deep-seated as it is relentless.’ (p.25). The craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere, to achieve a stasis, a fixed identity, permeates the body and our consciousness of all that we encounter.

In this way, suffering emerges from the craving for life to be other than it is. It is the symptom of the flight from birth and death, from the pulse of the present. If life did not continually bring change it might be relied upon to provide lasting happiness. But because everything (including us) is in flux, we cannot achieve happiness or fulfilment by clinging to what arises in our minds. Rather, we need to develop a clear understanding of the fact that no conditions endure. In practicing this approach, craving is not repressed but over time ceases to hold our interest. Contentment is found by living in the present moment, whatever it brings. The dharma is a path we tread rather than a knowledge we might possess.

The desire to be free of anguish or of suffering is an ingrained habit, an addiction. In addiction, as ordinarily understood, it is not originally the substance nor object of the habit which is craved, but primarily it is the flight itself which is sought. This desire for flight persists even when we become aware of its destructive nature. What is capable of challenging this instinct to flee is the practice of abiding in the moment, whatever that moment brings. Of course, one cannot really ‘abide’ in a moment that is fleeting, so what is being practised here is an acceptance of the flow of experience, whatever it brings. (pp. 41-44).

Batchelor observes that we often don’t notice what we do, see and sense. When we take a walk, for example, we are lost in thought rather than attending to what we are doing. One of the most difficult things to do is to remember to remember. In this way, ‘Awareness begins with remembering what we tend to forget.’ (p.58). We forget that we live in a body with senses, feelings, thoughts, ideas and emotions. Instead we mull over our problems. ‘The world of colours and shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations becomes dull and remote.’ (p. 59). To stop and pay attention to what is happening in the moment is the remedy.

It is also a reasonable definition of meditation. Both awareness and meditation are processes of deepening self-acceptance. Whatever is observed is acknowledged. To acknowledge a negative emotion, say hatred, is to accept it for what it is; a disruptive but transient state of mind. It recognises that just as it arose it will pass away. But by identifying with it, and holding on to it, we fuel it. The task is to catch the impulse at its inception, and this requires a focused mind. (p.59).

Distraction drugs us into forgetfulness. Both restlessness and lethargy are not mental or physical lapses but reflexes of an existential condition. Focus on the present is difficult, not because we are inept at some spiritual technology, but because such focus seems to threaten our sense of who we are, our sense of being a continuing, permanent self. The act of just settling the mind exposes a contradiction between the sort of person we wish to be (the calm meditator) and the kind of person we are (the restless, grasping self). Restlessness and lethargy are ways of temporarily evading the discomfort of this contradiction, but they are imperfect solutions. Rather, we need to resolve to become wakeful, with each resolution enabling consciousness to be increasingly alert. By focusing on the detail of experience as it arises we begin to see how we are a part of this life and ‘that there is nothing within it that I can rely on, nothing I can hold on to as “me” or “mine”. (pp. 61-65).

My innate confusion in respect of my identity causes me to split the world in two, the bit that is mine and the bit that is not. Only my feelings really count. But in doing this I fail to realise that I am not a fixed essence but an interactive series of processes. Every experience (sensation, emotion, thoughts and ideas) has a tone, normally a jumble of tones as they arrive together in this place I call my mind. The tones have a range or spectrum between ecstasy and agony. But none of them is me, rather they are a crew steered by the skipper of attention. But then, even when I glimpse this, what it is that has the experience switches back into the habitual image of an isolated ego. Confusion has returned. Strangely, I habitually choose the confusion of self to the confusion of experience! (pp. 69-71).

Deep down I insist that a permanent, separate self is entitled to a life removed from the contingencies and uncertainty of existence. But craving is really a loss of direction, a compulsive becoming. Lived this way our lives are a process of mini-births and mini-deaths. (pp.73-4).

Perhaps like many people, when I first encountered Buddhism I thought of it as a body of knowledge with which I might become familiar, a series of ideas that might help me understand myself and my place in the world, a set of beliefs to which I might attach myself. But with the help of others I’m now beginning to see that the dharma is not a quest for knowledge but a practice. And one of the most beautiful aspects of such an approach is that it turns our practice into an enquiry about experience, and how to better manage what we experience. Such a practice turns every moment of waking experience into an opportunity for personal growth.

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