A welcome contribution to Buddhist studies, joining essential modern books such as Rick Fields’s How the Swans Came to the...

CONFESSION OF A BUDDHIST ATHEIST

Religious scholar and former monk Batchelor (Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, 2004, etc.) chronicles his four-decade journey through varieties of Buddhism.

The notion that a Buddhist can be an agnostic or atheist is not oxymoronic, of course. Buddhism requires no formal belief in a god or gods. It does, however, require other leaps of faith, including one that Batchelor admits to having had trouble grasping—namely, the acceptance of reincarnation, for “the entire edifice of traditional Buddhist thought stands or falls on the belief in rebirth.” The author arrives at his discussion of reincarnation through a hard tour of duty in a highly intellectual school of Tibetan Buddhism that prizes the study of formal logic and debate, providing tools for a rationally based, constantly inquiring approach to religion. As the Buddha said, “Just as a goldsmith assays gold, by rubbing, cutting, and burning…so should you examine my words. Do not accept them just out of faith in me.” Elsewhere Batchelor writes of his encounters with the Dalai Lama, who has been waging a quiet war against the Tibetan belief in evil spirits, but who has also long been engaged in schools of Tibetan Buddhist thought other than his own in a kind of ecumenical spirit. Batchelor provides smart commentary on various aspects of Buddhist belief of whatever school, including the well-known eightfold path guiding appropriate behavior, “a complex feedback loop that constantly needs to be renewed and restored.” Seekers of truths large and small, no matter what their inclinations, will find that commentary valuable, especially the author’s exhortation that belief is not enough—one also has to act and act in the right way.

A welcome contribution to Buddhist studies, joining essential modern books such as Rick Fields’s How the Swans Came to the Lake (1980) and Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen (1982).

Pub Date: March 2, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-385-52706-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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