During the last year I have been told several times that my take on Buddhism sounds much like Stephen Batchelor‘s take. So I finally bought one of his books: Buddhism without Beliefs. Below I quote four paragraphs (pgs 4-5) which illustrate our common insights — I suggest reading the whole thing.
Despite the Buddha’s own succinct account of his awakening, it has come to be represented (even by Buddhists) as something quite different. Awakening has become a mystical experience, a moment of transcendent revelation of the Truth. Religious interpretations invariably reduce complexity to uniformity while elevating matter-of-factness to holiness. Over time, increasing emphasis has been placed on a single Absolute Truth, such as “the Deathless,” “the Unconditioned,” “the Void,” “Nirvana,” “Buddha Nature,” etc., rather than on an interwoven complex of truths.
And the crucial distinction that each truth requires being acted upon in its own particular way (understanding anguish, letting go of it origins, realizing its cessation, and cultivating the path) has be relegated to the margins of specialist doctrinal knowledge. Few Buddhists today are probably even aware of the distinction.
Yet in failing to make this distinction, four ennobling truths to be acted upon are neatly turned into four propositions of fact to be believed. The first truth becomes: “Life Is suffering”; the second: “The Cause of Suffering is Craving”–and so on. At precisely this juncture, Buddhism becomes a religion. A Buddhist is someone who believes these four propositions. In leveling out these truths into propositions that claim to be true, Buddhists are distinguished from Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, who believe different sets of propositions. The four ennobling truths become principal dogmas of the belief system known as “Buddhism.”
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening. In describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of have discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom the taste of dharma.