Stephen Batchelor, author of "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist"
Stephen Batchelor is definitely one of the more popular contemporary authors on Buddhism. He has lived as a monk and worked as a chaplain for many years, but he is mostly known for his books: "Buddhism without Beliefs," and his latest writing, "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist."
The idea of a "Buddhist Atheist," is very appealing to our contemporary, secular culture. One might consider Batchelor the leading "authority" on translating Buddhist practice in an entirely secular, agnostic or atheistic way. He was recently featured on Buddhist Geeks to talk about his latest book, so I thought I'd give a listen.
Like a true modern skeptic, he questions the validity of many of Buddhism's metaphysical claims, such as karma and reincarnation. While more favorable to karma, he sees no reasonable evidence or necessity in adopting the belief in reincarnation or higher planes of reality.
During the interview he was admittedly gentler in discussing the subject. At most, he believes an agnostic approach towards these metaphysical matters is the safest bet. Not to mention, he doesn't believe that reincarnation or any other metaphysical suggestions have any relevance to the Buddha's teaching:
Reincarnation and the existence of an afterlife, let alone a soul, were distractions from the central practice of cultivating insight in the present. He later comments that he finds the adoption of reincarnation in Buddhist lineages puzzling. After all, doesn't that create a mind-body duality? If something exists beyond the death of our form, that would imply a duality in which we have a separate "soul" that exists beyond and before the body--or so the description goes. But this seems counter-intuitive to me. Isn't there a non-dual relationship between form and formlessness?
At any rate, Batchelor is definitely worth checking out. He presents a sophisticated view that walks a delicate fence between skepticism and spirituality.
There is a missing element in his work that I would like to hear him address. The idea that these metaphysical claims are "dogma" is misconstrued. Metaphysics are often the result of "gnosis," which is the direct perceiving of an aspect of reality that isn't based on speculation or the reasoning mind.
In Western Esotericism, this is often called the "Divine Intellect."
Silencing the mind in contemplative practice opens us up to experiencing these "higher realities" directly. When the contemplative and esoteric practice is destroyed in a culture, the metaphysical claims degrade into dogma, but they did not start out that way.
The reason the Buddha, and many other spiritual masters do not emphasize these spiritual realms is that they can distract the practitioner. They become dogmatic baggage for the initiate who has not yet experienced them.
They also become distractions from the central path, which is mystical union with the ultimate (you are "That"). In short, it's not so much that these metaphysical claims are invalid, as they are not the central point of practice.
That being said, I'd love to hear Batchelor's thoughts on gnosis. He might go into it more in his book, so I'll certainly be checking out Confessions at the bookstore.