Free Thinking – Rana Mitter interviews Stephen Batchelor
In February 2016, presenter Rana Mitter had a wide-ranging discussion with Stephen Batchelor for the BBC Radio 3 flagship arts and ideas programme ‘Free Thinking’. Their conversation is reproduced here with kind permission from the BBC.
RANA MITTER The legacy of the man who sat down under a pipal tree and found not only fallen leaves but also the secret of enlightenment. The Buddha. Stephen Batchelor is a Buddhist teacher and writer whose new book is After Buddhism – Rethinking the dharma for a secular age. He’s gone back to the original texts around the Buddha and interpreted them for the contemporary world. And it’s a vision which takes the otherworldly out of the equation and concentrates on the here and now.
Stephen, before we start with your ideas, could you tell us a bit about your background, because for those who can’t see you on radio, you’re a western Englishman of a certain age, and not perhaps everyone’s idea of what a Buddhist expert would look like. So what brought you here?
STEPHEN BATCHELOR I was raised in North London near Watford. As soon as I’d finished grammar school, as many young people did in the early 1970s, I went overland to India. I ended up in the community around the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in the Himalayas, and became immersed in the study and practice of Buddhism. I became a Buddhist monk when I was 21 in 1974, trained as a monastic for 10 years in the Tibetan tradition and then in the Korean Zen tradition. After this, I returned to Europe. I disrobed, I was married and became a writer, a commentator, a meditation teacher of Buddhism, trying to interpret it for our times rather than simply repeating what the classical traditions had taught.
RM And like many monks in the Christian tradition, you’ve moved away in a sense in terms of the way that you engage with religion. Your book very much in its title and in its content argues for what you call a ‘secular’ Buddhism. What do you mean by that term?
SB A secular Buddhism is one that I understand to mean to be a practice of the dharma, which is what the Buddhists call Buddhism, that is focussed entirely on the concerns of this saeculum, which in Latin means this age or this time. I’m not interested in theories about reincarnation, past and future lives, laws of karma that govern our destiny over centuries, aeons or whatever. I’m concerned with coming to terms with the suffering or the condition of life as we find it on this earth and as we understand the world today through a largely scientific paradigm.
RM Now hang on a sec there Stephen, in one sentence, you’ve dismissed the entire theological apparatus of what most people associate with Buddhism: reincarnation, karma and so forth. How do you identify that it’s okay to throw these overboard and still call yourself a Buddhist?
SB Many Buddhists would immediately dismiss me as having no understanding of what Buddhism is about, and this is what my book is about in a way – going back to the earliest sources and unpacking texts within what are called the Pali Canon.
RM Pali being a classical language in which many of the Buddhist texts are written?
SB That’s correct. It’s like Sanskrit, but it’s a more spoken form, and it’s the language in which the early Buddhist canon as preserved in Southeast Asia is written. When we go back to those early texts, we find that a lot of what we habitually think of Buddhism, as a religion, as a worldview, as a belief system, is somehow undermined. It’s not always reinforced by the readings of those texts, and we find that the Buddha too, although he does use the language of rebirth, he never sits down and says, okay, I’ll explain to you what rebirth is. In other words, it was part of the worldview of the Indian culture of that time that he took on board much as we today would take on board the modern scientific understanding of evolution and the big bang, and so on. And what’s particularly striking is that despite his very, I think, precise analysis of the nature of human experience, he actually does not provide any mechanism whatsoever to allow the idea of rebirth. For example, he denies quite explicitly on many occasions that there can be any consciousness or mind that can exist independently of the physical world. So we have a problem, and the more that you go into these particular passages, you find that actually the Buddha doesn’t seem to be concerned so much with future lives and past lives and so on, but actually with: how do we live a flourishing life here and now, in this world?
RM Could I just take up that point then because I assume that you are not the first person to have looked at these texts and to have separated out what you see as the more worldly aspects of what the Buddha wanted from the metaphysical aspects, the religious aspects, the spiritual aspects. Isn’t it nonetheless the case that the long tradition of Buddhism has included those sorts of beliefs, and to cut them out in a sense removes something very essential in the way that people engage with it?
SB Well, I think that the difference is that you begin to engage with Buddhism not as a religious belief system that is concerned with your overall salvation and destiny and the cosmos, rather you begin to engage with Buddhism, or the dharma, as a way of life, as a way of living more consciously, more wisely, more compassionately, here and now. And what is striking particularly is the way that this idea of mindfulness has been picked up in contemporary society. It’s now gone viral, it’s everywhere, and it’s bizarre for me to suddenly find a practice that is utterly central to the Buddha’s vision is now being applied, being subject to clinical trials for its effectiveness, and it’s been found to work. That to me is one of the strongest evidences that it’s not just ideas that I’m involved with here but practices that make a difference in the quality of how you live.
RM We’ll come back to mindfulness in a moment because obviously it’s the aspect of Buddhism that has become most common in the popular culture of today. But isn’t there a danger that if you take the religious and the metaphysical out of Buddhism, or indeed any religious system, it becomes nothing more than a classy self-help guide, something you might find in the self-self section of a bookshop?
SB That is a danger. I fully accept that. I would argue that by taking out the overtly religious, metaphysical elements of Buddhism you are then freed to recover a practical philosophy which to me would be quite comparable to, say, Epicureanism or Stoicism that were not self-help techniques at all. They were complex, ethical systems that were very challenging and very demanding, and that is what you find, and I would argue that is what the Buddha was doing.
RM Here is what seems to be the core question in your approach, Stephen. If we are talking about Buddhism as a secular belief, then why shouldn’t it be equally valid, or more value particularly for people coming from a western culture, to say well let’s just have Christianity with the religion taken out, and use that as a guide to good behaviour and ethical behaviour. Why does Buddhism matter at all?
SB If you take the example of Christianity, that has happened. We call it Humanism to a large extent. Humanism is a secularised form of Christianity. We also find inspired figures who’ve inspired me a great deal, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who coined the idea of a religionless Christianity.
RM We could argue about that, but let’s get back to Buddhism on this. You’re arguing that there is something that those in the West – it’s a book that’s in English and it’s been published in the Western world – can gather from the Buddhist dharma that they would not be able to get from the Judaeochristian tradition. What is it that you can get from that particular form of secular Buddhism in our secular humanist society?
SB Practice. You get a very distinctive form of practice that engages you not just in meditation, which of course is what is well known in Buddhism. But it is a central point that the Buddha is concerned not with declaring what is the nature of reality; he is more concerned with ethics. What can I do? How can I live well? And that in Buddhism has to do very much with working with the actual patterns and habits and reflexes and reactions of your own mind. It has to do with a degree of self transformation. It’s a discipline and it’s a meditation that’s not just a freestanding self help but it’s a meditation practice that is integrated into an ethical and a philosophical frame.
RM Tell us about the texts a bit more, Stephen. You’ve gone back to the original Pali Canon, as you say. Give us an example of one of those texts, perhaps something that you’ve found particularly enlightening that pushes us in that direction.
SB A good example would be a text called the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness. It’s central to the Theravada canon, and yet when you read this text, you find that it’s offering us an utterly pragmatic approach to how to live in our bodies, how to come to terms more vividly with the kind of feelings and reactions that arise in moment-to-moment experience. It offers us a methodology to stabilise attention, to stand back to some degree, to not be driven and taken over by wandering thoughts or fears or fantasies, to acquire a degree of nirvanic, I would say, non-reactive…
RM Nirvana is one buddhist term that we have tended to hear.
SB We do hear that, it is well known, it’s famous, nirvana. But I don’t think of nirvana as some sort of Buddhist heaven, or some sort of mystical goal. I think of nirvana as the potential that is present in each moment of our lives.
RM Let me briefly probe one other Buddhist framework. After working with Tibetan Buddhism, you worked with the Korean Son variety, which is known better in the west as Zen, of course. That delights in paradox, the famous old line: ‘What is the Buddha?’ ‘Answer: three pounds of flax.’ What can that sort of paradox do for our contemporary secular understanding? Is it a useful framework?
SB Yes, I think it is. Although I do go back very much to the Pali materials, I feel that what’s been preserved in the Son or Zen, or Chan traditions in China, preserve this sense of mystery basically. Paradox is one way of expressing that. But it’s recognising that our experience is fundamentally mysterious and weird, and that we don’t know what it is.
RM When I ask neuroscientists what they think the most exciting problem they have to face in science in the next century is, they say the mystery of consciousness, the thing that neuroscientists don’t understand. It’s a version of that?
SB It’s a version of that. It’s about really coming to experience your life as a question, rather than just assuming that it is as described in psychology or science or whatever. It’s returning I think to a felt visceral, somatic sense of perplexity.
RM That sounds to me rather like the metaphysics of a religion, Stephen,
SB There’s always going to be a fuzzy border between these two, and in some ways I consider myself a religious person, actually. Not in a conventional sense of holding fixed metaphysical beliefs.
RM But you don’t entirely reject the completeness of what we experience as purely material?
SB No, not really. I’m not actually to be quite honest interested in whether reality is material or immaterial, or it’s psychic or cosmic. I’m not really concerned with those questions, and I don’t think the Buddha was either. The Buddha was really concerned with what he calls dukkha – in other words the conflicted nature of our life as humans, creatures, the temporal and finite nature of our existence, and how we can come to terms with that and learn to live better.
RM I have to say pulling in the Buddha at the end trumped me, it’s a card I can’t play against. Absolutely fair enough. Many thanks Stephen Batchelor, and After Buddhism – Rethinking the dharma for a secular age is out now.