Annotated Bibliography

Annotated Bibliography

Batchelor, Stephen (1998). Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening (London: Bloomsbury)
The author is the leading exponent of secular Buddhism internationally. This user-friendly little book came out before the term gained currency, but still presents the ethos of what would become known as secular Buddhism with extraordinary simplicity and lucidity. Buddhism comes across an immediately available ethical and spiritual path for any westerner, even – or especially – those who don’t want a guide to living in religious guise or with the trappings of exotic, orientalist self-indulgence. The Buddha’s teaching points to a meaningful and dignified way of life in anyone’s home culture. Don’t be put off by the book’s comparative age: it remains one of the best and most accessible statements of what Buddhism is about at its heart, as an ethic and as a path to becoming a more fulfilled person. In making this statement, it consummately makes the point that none of us has to accept alien (or indeed any) beliefs, or rituals from other times and places, in order to benefit from Buddhism’s explanatory matrix, practice, and ‘culture of awakening’.

Batchelor, Stephen (2010), Confession of a Buddhist atheist. (New York: Spiegel & Grau)
This most recent book from Stephen Batchelor strikes a more overtly personal note than Buddhism without beliefs. And by this time, secular Buddhism had ‘come out’ in name, not just in the way its adherents practise and come together in no-frills egalitarian and inclusive practice communities. In this book, Batchelor tells his own story, from his years as a monk (first in a Tibetan tradition, later a Korean Zen one), then as a layman. But inside this narrative is another – the Buddha’s own. Here we meet the Buddha not as a demi-god from deep space but as a human being, born into a certain family, in a certain place and region, during a period of great social and political upheaval. We can see how his teaching grew out of his own grappling with the formidable real-world contingencies he confronted. In this way the book gives us a compelling sense of the powerful practice we inherit if we look back directly to the Buddha without the distractions and dilutions of the religious repackaging of his teachings after his death. This way of telling the Buddha’s story is quintessentially modern: over the preceding centuries people have told it in the opposite vein, as laced with magic and divinity. Among his other virtues, Batchelor is a fine wordsmith. This is a book to learn from, but also to enjoy.

Bubna-Litic, David and Higgins, Winton (2007). ‘The rise of secular insight practice in Australia.’ Journal of Global Buddhism 8, pp. 157-173. (This is a free online journal: go to
This article relates a paradigmatic history of how lay insight-meditation practice gradually emerged on the Australian east coast within established religious Buddhist institutions, only to find its position within them untenable because of clashing values around spiritual renewal, gender equality and democratic forms of association. Abruptly thrown out of the nest in 2005, the proto-secular Buddhists had to build entirely independent practice communities and organisations on democratic, inclusive lines. Since they no longer had to compromise with ancestral dogmas, beliefs and oligarches, many of these practitioners rapidly evolved willy-nilly into exemplars of the new secular Buddhism. Slightly updated, this article also appears in Cristina Rocha and Michelle Barker (eds) Buddhism in Australia: traditions in change (London: Routledge, 2010).

Faure, Bernard (2009). Unmasking Buddhism (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell)
The Buddha taught in the fifth century BCE, but no-one had ever heard of ‘Buddhism’ before European travellers and colonisers ‘discovered’ it in the early nineteenth century CE. They minted the concept to throw together a grab-bag of diverse Asian religious, spiritual and cultural practices and beliefs that seemed to have some connection, however remote, with a legendary figure called the Buddha. The European inventors of ‘Buddhism’ imbued it with a fictive coherence and unity, in spite of its diversity, and it came to make sense to many interests (such as resistors to colonisation, Asian religious and political elites, and leaders of Asian diasporic communities in the west) to prop up this idea. Faure’s short book ‘unmasks’ the cultural specificity and incongruity of ‘Buddhism’s’ component parts, and the lack of fit among them. He rightly frowns on western examples of expropriated and commodified ‘Buddhist’ practices. But he fails to draw the inference that, if Buddhism is to put down roots in the west, it is going to have to sink them into the deep soil of the western tradition rather than remain a collection of Asian exotics in pots.

Hanson, Rick, & Mendius, Richard (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom (Oakland CA: New Harbinger)
In recent years neuroscience has unquestionably produced a lot more information about how our brains and nervous systems work. New insights into how our neurons fire and network, how neurotransmitters work, and the possibilities of brain plasticity, have excited a lot of speculation about our inner lives. Some neuroscientists have shown how certain forms of Buddhist meditation correspond to certain changes in brain function. The shadow side of all this consists of overdrawn inferences and a tendency to rush (for the umpteenth time since Darwin) to biologically reductionist conceptions of humanity. And in parts of the Buddhist world, neuroscientific flattery breeds triumphalism: modern science ‘proves‘ the Buddha was right on the money. Century-old dreams of Buddhism as ‘the scientific religion’ are thus revived. Rick Hanson’s book lucidly conveys the essentials (as well as the excitement) of neuroscientific discovery, and its link to Buddhist practice, without going completely overboard. But like much of the literature in this field, it needs to be read with caution. Most secular Buddhists would probably agree that the brain is the condition of possibility of the mind: no brain, no mind (so keep taking those omega 3 supplements). But that by no means makes our mind – the unique product of our individual genetic structure and our idiosyncratic life experiences – reducible to the fairly uniform grey matter between our ears. Brain science is no substitute for the other discourses we draw on (including the Buddha’s original teachings, philosophy and psychoanalytic theory), but it can usefully add to them. Science aims to generate knowledge; wisdom is another matter.

Magid, Barry (2008). Ending the pursuit of happiness: a Zen guide (Boston: Wisdom)
Meditation can serve either of two antithetical purposes – mind-training to bring forth a supposedly perfect and untroubled ‘true self’, or introspection to deepen our self-understanding and enlarge our life as complex beings unconstrained by any standardised ideal of perfection. In the west, Magid argues, the former approach rests on a ‘curative fantasy’: we believe we’re somehow sick or deficient, and meditation will cure us. After many years, if we follow this ‘secret practice’, we’ll find we’re not the least bit ‘cured’, and either give up meditating, or much better, realise we weren’t sick in the first place, and that all we need is a deeper sense of what meditation is for. At that point we’re ready to give up formulaic meditation practices and opt instead for non-formulaic ones that facilitate exploratory introspection: the mind is simply invited to ‘display its contents’ rather than rehearse prescribed true-self experiences. Magid is both a veteran Zen teacher and psychoanalyst, and he melds two powerful wisdom traditions in this superbly written book. What it says about Zen practice applies equally to other secular Buddhist meditation practices, not least insight meditation. If you’re a post-beginner meditator, don’t neglect this book – it’s a gem.

McMahan, David (2008). The Making of Buddhist modernism (New York: Oxford University Press)
‘Modernity’ is generally understood to be an intensifying western cultural development beginning in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among other things, it promotes rationality, ‘disenchantment’ (scepticism about the supernatural in particular), and ‘progress’, while modernity’s internal opposition, Romanticism, also promotes expressive individualism. Modernity has impinged on Buddhism in the latter’s homelands through colonisation and western hegemony, and whenever Buddhism has ‘landed’ in the west as an option for westerners, it has usually had to drape itself in modernist forms. So what we have naively taken to be Buddhism as such is in fact Buddhist modernism. In this impressive and accessible piece of scholarship, David MacMahan explores the incongruities and compromises that lie beneath this Buddhist modernism – its mixture of magic with science, of traditional dogma, patriarchy and hierarchy with sweet modernist rhetoric. This is an important source book for secular Buddhism because it describes the scrambled cultural and institutional milieux that secular Buddhism seeks to put behind it. Secular Buddhism arises out of, but in opposition to, the Buddhist modernism that MacMahan surveys.

Mishra, Pankaj (2004). An end to suffering: the Buddha in the world (London: Picador, 2004)
These days Pankaj Mishra is an established literary figure on the international writers’-festival circuit. He began life in Indiaas the son of a reasonably orthodox Brahman family, and first heard of the Buddha as a minor divinity in the Hindu pantheon. When in his teens Mishra took up a study of western thought, he was surprised to find references to the Buddha as an ordinary mortal called Siddhattha Gotama. If the Buddha was a flesh-and-blood man, he must have been an Indian one – an extremely significant one at that – and for good patriotic reasons should be investigated by a curious young Indian like Mishra himself. So begins the author’s wonderfully idiosyncratic odyssey in search of Siddhattha, starting at his birthplace, Lumbini. The search takes him not only to important sites in Siddhattha’s story, but into the Pali canon, looking for the man’s formative ideas, the personality they express, and the fate of his teaching after his death. Mishra’s narrative covers some of the same territory one finds in the second part of Stephen Batchelor’s Confession (listed and glossed above), but in a somewhat more whimsical vein. This book is good bedtime reading, and will leave you with warm feelings for Siddhattha, in spite of his irritating self-assuredness and ‘the brusqueness of a busy doctor’.

Nagapriya, (2004). Exploring karma and rebirth (Birmingham: Windhorse)
For most adherents of secular Buddhism, the doctrine of rebirth is too implausible to warrant discussion. But if you feel unsettled by assertions like ‘You can’t be a Buddhist if you don’t believe in rebirth,’ then here’s the book for you. Nagapriya is an English member of the rebirth-affirming Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order), but his book gives exhaustive reasons for entertaining deep scepticism towards this ancient Indian belief, one which persists in various forms of popular and ancestral Buddhism. En route the author offers a very useful account of the teaching of karma, showing how it has been coupled to rebirth, and how these two essentially stand-alone concepts can be uncoupled. The teaching of karma – the common wisdom, ‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap’ (to quote the Christian formulation) – is obvious to any mature human being with insight into her life experience, and it hardly needs the backup of a magical belief like rebirth. Nagapriya also firmly nails the fundamentalist version of the ‘law’ of karma (widespread in Hindu, New Age and ancestral-Buddhist circles) which holds that everything that befalls us is due to our past actions. As the book explains, the Buddha taught that karma is but one of several forms of causation that contribute to the stream of contingencies which make up our lives.

Safran, Jeremy ed. (2003). Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an unfolding dialogue (Boston: Wisdom)
Western intellectuals began to inquire into Buddhism in the late nineteenth century, at the same time as a range of psychological discourses started to appear. The cross-referencing has proceeded ever since, albeit usually on somewhat shallow terms in which such mythical beasts as ‘Buddhist psychology’ and ‘psychotherapy east and west’ join in the action. Jeremy Safran’s edited collection of essays by experienced meditation teachers from all three major traditions, ones who are also psychoanalysts, is a horse of an entirely different colour. Psychoanalysis brings philosophically well-grounded concepts to the table, as well as its signature concept, the unconscious – all based on profound clinical work. So it proves a worthy conversation partner for more hard-nosed Buddhist thought, as well as a salutary mirror in which one sees what has often gone wrong in western dharma circles, not least the cases of narcissistic destructiveness among supposedly ‘realised’ senior teachers. The collection includes valuable contributions from Barry Magid (see above), Jack Engler, and Jeremy Safran himself. It offers a more challenging read than most of the offerings on this list, but one that richly rewards the effort.

Siff, Jason (2010)., Unlearning meditation: what to do when the instructions get in the way (Boston & London: Shambala)
Jason Siff did time as a Therav?din monk in Sri Lanka, during which time he learned – and in turn taught – one of the foremost formulaic variants of vipassan? meditation, the ‘Mah?si method’. He became more and more dissatisfied with this approach, as it rejected a large part of students’ actual meditation experience as ‘not meditation’. Applying this approach left him in ignorance of his students’ actual meditative experiences and personalities. As a lay teacher over the last two decades he has developed his own non-formulaic (or ‘allowing’) approach, ‘recollective awareness’, which is based on the Buddha’s original teachings rather than later commentaries, and which bears comparison with the one Barry Magid (see above) advocates. Today recollective awareness is practised in the western states of theUS and the east coast ofAustralia. This approach is both much more user-friendly and capable of going deeper into the student’s psychodynamics, as it promotes introspection rather than regimented mind-training. In this book Siff explains and explores recollective awareness, and the meditative process in general. He manages to do so in clear, accessible terms that should appeal to both beginners and experienced meditators – not least those in the latter group who have come up against ‘impasses’, which receive special treatment in the book.

Wallis, Glenn (2007). Basic teachings of the Buddha (New York: the Modern Library)
As it has emerged in the west, the new movement of secular Buddhism has a strong orientation towards the Buddha’s original teaching (suttas and vinaya – the discourses and the monastic rule respectively) unmediated by later orthodox commentaries, as well as towards relevant aspects of the western tradition. While he is not himself part of this movement, Glenn Wallis has assisted it in putting together this selection of 16 key suttas, complete with a scholarly introduction, guide to reading the texts, and detailed notes on difficult terms. These 16 suttas are only a tiny fraction of the original material; as the author admits, any scholar of this material would make a different selection to any other scholar. Yet his own selection provides a reasonable and coherent account of the Buddha’s basic teaching in the latter’s own words, subject to the vagaries of translation. Especially towards the end, one might sense a Goenka-ish influence (and behind it, the orthodox commentary of the Abhidhamma), but it is not strong enough to undermine the integrity of the work. This book lends itself to personal study, but is also very useful as source material for group study in practice communities.

No comments:

Post a Comment