On meditation, the Buddhist path, the spiritual and the material – an interview with Stephen Batchelor
— Stephen Batchelor spoke with Ramsey Margolis in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, in December 2004
Ramsey Margolis : In the modern world, Buddhism often presents itself as the path of meditation, of being in this world with greater awareness. You’ve said that this misrepresents the richness of the Buddhist tradition. What kind of path would you recommend for people who are new to Buddhism or who have been meditating for a while and want to deepen their practice?
Stephen Batchelor : I think the problem with meditation becoming so central and in some ways defining Buddhist practice is that it fails to take account of how the Buddha presented meditation as an integral part of the eightfold path. And the eightfold path of course entails a lot more than just meditation: it entails for example the way you see the world, which we might call philosophy, the way we think about things, which again is to have a more critical, reflective approach to life, and also to be more attuned to the kinds of ethical choices that you arrive at and make, how you communicate, right speech, how you act in the world, how you earn your living. Only then does the Buddha see meditation as having an adequate foundation on which to be able to ground yourself deeply in your own personal experience and hopefully also thereby to feed back into your social existence.
He talks of the eightfold path as a totality, as something to be cultivated or to be practiced, and I think it’s important for us nowadays to recover that larger concept of practice so that when you’re asked ‘what is your practice?’ your default reaction is not to name a particular kind of meditation but it might be, for example, to say that my practice is about raising my children, or my practice is about skilful communication, or my practice is about how I work in an ethical way, or whatever it might be.
There’s a tendency though that Buddhists tend to think that these things are somehow sort of adjuncts or accessories that are tacked on to meditation. But I think that’s actually a mistake and for myself, for example, I would say that my core practice these days is that of writing, teaching, also doing art and things like that. Certainly it’s not reducible to certain spiritual exercises I may do at a particular point in my day.
Now, the other thing though is that the dangers of advancing this point of view is that we somehow lose touch with the importance of a deepening meditation practice. One way one might look at this is to acknowledge that meditation, let’s say mindfulness and concentration, are in fact the hub of the Buddhist wheel if you like, but to remember that a hub only has any function if it is connected with spokes to a rim.
I think for many Buddhists, unfortunately, their practice seems to resemble a hub in isolation, in other words they may be very proficient in doing certain spiritual techniques and exercises but it seem to make little qualitative difference or link into how you actually live your life in its totality.
So my call really would be to suggest expanding the notion of practice, recovering the notion of it being an ongoing way of life that embraces all parts of ourselves and at the same time recognising that that way of life is founded in a moment-to-moment exercise of mindfulness and awareness that somehow sustains it, enlivens it and grounds it.
Ramsey : You’ve said that monasticism, for you, presented the optimal conditions to complete Buddhist training. Where does that leave the rest of us?
Stephen : If I were to meet a young person today, someone just out of college, and that person were to say that they wanted to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to Buddhist training and practice and they had no other obligations or commitments then I would recommend that they go into Asia and they find a good traditional teacher and really go deeply into that sort of training as a monk or as a nun. I think that’s extraordinarily valuable.
But I realise of course that most people who would come to our retreats, who I meet in the course of my work, do not have either the inclination to do that or, in most cases, actually the possibility. It’s simply not feasible given their other commitments, their families, their jobs and so on. What that points to is I think one of the most difficult questions we face, and that is how do we structure a lifestyle or a practice style in the west that’s not monastic, and on the other hand neither is it identical to what in Asia would have been seen as lay practice.
Buddhism as we inherit it now is effectively a two-tier system: you either have the extreme specialisation of the monastics, both in terms of meditation practice, study and so on, or you have the really rather simplistic and devotional practices that are associated with lay life. The modern person is one who has a level of education far higher than traditional Asian lay Buddhists. The modern person also has access to leisure time, which, as a product of modernity, is certainly not something an Asian lay Buddhist would have ever had much of.
And since we have more control over our fertility, that liberates women in particular to structure their lives with more authority. What this means is that a lot of people find themselves interested in Buddhism in a way that’s not actually addressed either by monasticism or the pious, often rather superstitious, beliefs of traditional lay Buddhism.
It is actually a bit of an unknown as to how to construct a form of Buddhist practice that would meet the needs of such a person. We now have the phenomenon of the weekend or the weeklong meditation retreat. That is clearly a novelty in terms of the tradition. I would hope that there would be more opportunities for more in-depth study, and that’s why we’ve started offering study retreats which somehow bridge that gap.
Ramsey : Your interest in Buddhism started out as a spiritual quest when you were a teenager. Now, however, you describe yourself as a materialist, a Buddhist with a keen interest in evolutionary biology, something you’ve said that you find ‘infinitely more compelling than religious or mystical writings’. Can you say something about this change?
Stephen : Well I think one has to use these words ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ somewhat advisedly. Spiritual is a word I’ve always had a little difficulty with. It’s much bandied around. In Buddhism Without Beliefs I only actually use the word spiritual twice, and in both cases pejoratively. When pressed, most of us would have a hard time saying exactly what we mean by it. For some ‘spirituality’ is often a word used instead of religion, which we find often has a rather bad taste.
But I suppose, yes, as a young person when I was coming out of the 1960s sub-culture, fairly confused and fairly idealistic, I was looking for a spiritual practice, something that would give my life meaning at some level and I was immensely attracted by the exoticism of Buddhism, but also I think by the same sorts of ideas and philosophies that I’m attracted to now.
I suppose my shift to becoming an avowed materialist comes as a result of my own critical thinking about Buddhist ideas about reincarnation, and particularly the need therefore to posit a separate spiritual or conscious entity which you call consciousness, or mind, or soul, or whatever, that I cannot really accept any longer.
When I was trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk it was understood that in order to embrace the doctrines of the Gelugpa church one had to accept effectively a mind/body dualism: that there was the material existence of your body and the spiritual existence of your consciousness or mind that, at death, would survive the breakdown of the physical body and then get reborn. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, but all forms of Buddhism in some degree, give primacy to the destiny of this spirit, or this consciousness or this soul.
Nowadays not only do I have great philosophical difficulty in accepting the existence of such a soul or spirit, I’m not prepared to embrace the sort of dualism that to me seems necessary to uphold that view of the world. I’m very much compelled by the accounts of human evolution that seem to be quite adequate to explain how the brain has evolved and how consciousness is to some extent a function of neural activity, but with the proviso, of course, that the brain does not exist in isolation from its physical environment in the external world. Consciousness thus is really emergent not just from the brain in isolation but emergent from the brain’s interaction with a physical and social world.
I’m more and more inclined to the view that the belief in rebirth and reincarnation is an atavism, a leftover legacy from ancient Indian thought. It’s clearly not intrinsic to Buddhism for the very simple reason that it pre-exists Buddhism. The Buddha adopted a view that was already current in his time.
I also feel it gives an opt out for any kind of engagement or commitment to healing the suffering of this world in that one would always be tempted to give a certain priority to your destiny as a conscious entity moving from one life to the other.
I feel that Buddhism has to become radically secularised and have as its prime object both of wisdom and compassion, this biosphere, this world in which we live on this planet. The only thing we know for certain is that life exists here; everything else is hypothesis and belief and speculation.