Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batcholor is not merely a spiritual memoir, although the author does share his personal journey from disaffected youth to secular Buddhist. Rather, the book also explores the roots of Buddhism, with an emphasis on the Pali Canon’s description of the Buddha’s teachings and life.
For those who romanticize Buddhism, this book is not going to come as a welcome addition to one’s library. Batchelor pulls no punches in stripping away the myth, gradually presenting a more down-to-earth version of Siddhattha Gotama’s life. No longer the sheltered prince of a mighty king, the man who would become the Buddha was a man who came from an ordinary family in extraordinary times. If there is a need to believe that there are no politics in contemporary Buddhism and no schism even within one school of Buddhism, then this book will rip the veil away and expose the truth.
Batchelor shares his own spiritual growth, taking vows to be a Buddhist monk, exploring different schools of Buddhism, and eventually choosing to leave his vows behind to become a married layman. His experiences as a scholar, encounters with the Dalai Lama before His Holiness had won the Nobel Peace Prize and become iconic to the rest of the world, and long before Buddhism was familiar in the west are presented first, laying a foundation for his later suppositions about the Buddha.
No doubt, some people will be offended. I can’t imagine why anyone who doesn’t want to hear something other than the conservative or traditional view would bother reading a book the title of which clearly declares that this is not going to be a believer’s look at Buddhism. The quality of this memoir should not be judged on the basis of how fundamental Batchelor is not–he isn’t and he makes no apologies for it. But his journey across India, scholarly and spiritual, is fascinating. I found it all quite enlightening and my faith, for what it is, has not been compromised for having read Batchelor’s proclamation of doubt. I appreciate his candor and even vulnerability in contextualizing his very personal experience in a way that is both honest and even familiar.