Stephen Batchelor is a dharma teacher, author and photographer. He resides in France with his wife, Martine Batchelor. His books include Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead Books, 1997), The Awakening of the West (Parallax Press, 1994), and most recently, Verses from the Center (Riverhead Books, 2000).
Inquiring Mind: The Buddha was teaching to people who lived 2,500 years ago in an agrarian society, obviously a very different kind of world from the one in which we live today. Do you think that practicing Buddhadharma in our high-speed, urban, technological society poses a particularly difficult challenge?
Stephen Batchelor: I don’t really think the social and economic order makes all that much difference. What always amazes me is that I can pick up the Pali Canon, a text written over two millennia ago, and it seems to be speaking directly to me. Of course, there are bits of it that I can’t relate to, but the basic thrust of the teaching speaks to my condition now. I can only assume that when those teachings were originally given, they were speaking to a similar human condition. Remember, the Buddha tried to get people to leave the hustle-and-bustle of society—even though it may have been a rural society and moving much slower than our own—and retreat into the forests and sit at the foot of trees. He spent a lot of effort trying to get people to slow down. The Pali Canon places great emphasis on solitude and silence, on being mindful and more present with our bodies, and all of the instructions still light up when we read them in terms of our own experience.
IM: Perhaps the universality of human experience is more widespread and persistent than we think.
SB: That’s my hunch. I think the human mind has always been over-busy. I think the existential crisis that we have, this flight from death, from sickness and aging, this desperation to try to create something secure in our world, this holding on for dear life to our own sense of “me”—I don’t think that’s changed much at all. Externally, we have manifested new levels of speed, and many new things to desire, but I don’t think our lives are essentially different.
IM: Maybe there has been little change in the lives and practices of monastics from the Buddha’s time to now, but the circumstances of laypeople, at least, seem to have changed quite a lot.
SB: Even in the Buddha’s time, the layperson’s path was considered to be fraught with obstacles, compared to that of a monk or nun. The layperson today has far greater education and much more of a questioning mind, and perhaps most important, has leisure. During the Buddha’s time most laity would not have had very much leisure. For women today, control over their own fertility makes a huge difference in their ability to do Buddhist study and practice.
Certainly every time Buddhism has gone into a new situation, such as into China or Tibet, it has evolved to suit the temperament and the concerns and the questions of that particular place at that particular time. That is what makes Tibetan Buddhism different from Japanese Zen, and so forth. Clearly, something comparable will happen in the modern world if Buddhism is going to take root here. It’s got to find a language and form of practice that addresses the specific needs of our time, in other words, lay life, where people have a deep and sometimes passionate commitment to spiritual practice but are not willing to renounce the household life and to go off to a monastery.
Perhaps one new development we are starting to see in the Buddhism of the modern Western world is that laypeople are starting to take on the kind of dominant role that has traditionally been reserved for monks in almost all previous Buddhist societies. We already have a majority of lay meditation teachers, at least in the Theravada tradition, and although we take it for granted, that is a completely new situation in the history of Buddhism. It’s a whole new set of conditions, and it will be fascinating to watch how this great wisdom tradition of Buddhadharma responds to these new challenges.
IM: In your book The Awakening of the West you quote Nietzsche as saying that Buddhism is a religion for the “end and fatigue of civilizations.” To what extent do you think that the current interest in Buddhism is due to the fading of the old religious beliefs and institutions and the secularization of our world?
SB: I think if you look at Buddhism historically, you’ll see periods in which it serves as a kind of inward solace or security for people who feel that their world has been destroyed, or that their world is running out of steam. But it can also be a regenerative force. For instance, in China, Buddhism came in at the end of the Confucian Han civilization but then inaugurated a new way of thinking that culminated in the creative vitality of the Tang period. So Buddhism can be seen as sometimes responding to the crisis of a dying civilization and sometimes to the birth pangs of a new beginning.
In the West today, I think many people are drawn to Buddhism because they have become disillusioned with our ancestral religions, or with consumer capitalism, and they are looking for new forms of spirituality. Many are hungry for a religion that is not premised on belief in a god, and people are finding in Buddhism a pragmatic approach to life that seems to meet their needs. We in the West are often attracted to the Buddha’s teaching out of a kind of anti-intellectualism, a doubt about the ability of reason to solve our problems. Buddhism seems to be addressing people who feel that Western society and its methodology are somehow corrupt or in decline.
Many people, of course, also see the dharma as a means by which they can stop and consider anew what their lives are all about. The practices are not just regarded as a means for consolation and quietude but as a way to become conscious of the deeper values and aspirations that are stirring within us.
IM: From the latter point of view, our interest in Buddhism can be seen as a renewal or regeneration of what might be considered transhistorical ideas and values.
SB: Exactly. The interest in Buddhism is not only about discovering the dharma but about recovering ideas and values found in Western thought, vestiges of Christian and Jewish ideas. It is turning us back to our deepest spiritual yearnings.
IM: Do you think it is important for people to understand the historical context that led to their involvement in Buddhism? Can it affect how they regard their practice and their life?
SB: I think that reflection is almost indispensable. If we are to have any kind of coherent understanding of this phenomenon, Buddhism, we have to think of it historically. In fact, one thing that the Western mind brings to the understanding of Buddhism, which has not existed so much in Asia, is a keen historical consciousness. For instance, if we were asked, “What is the difference between Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism?” we would say, without missing a beat, “It’s the difference between Tibet and Japan.” But that’s not necessarily how Tibetans or Japanese would respond. I’ve spoken to many Tibetan lamas who find the very term “Tibetan Buddhism” offensive. They believe that what they teach and practice is simply the dharma as taught by the Buddha—unaffected by anything coming from Tibetan culture.
It is so ingrained in us to see Buddhism as a product of cultures and historical situations. We observe a kind of systolic-diastolic rhythm throughout the history of Buddhism, in which there are periods of expansion, periods in which it’s really engaging with the cutting edge of social and political change, and at other times in which it’s a retrenchment, a withdrawal. It is useful to be able to see this. It makes us less attached to our particular brand or our particular style of practice, to recognize that whatever we do is the product of certain historical conditions, whether they arose in Tibet, Japan, Burma or Thailand.
IM: Of course, that same historical consciousness allows us to play fast and loose with the various forms and schools of dharma.
SB: Yes, there is certainly a danger that we might then become dharma dilettantes. That is why we also need to recognize that all expressions of the dharma are emerging in a continuity, each interwoven with the traditions that preceded it—for example, the way Tibetan Buddhism is founded on the Indian schools. Tibetan Buddhism evolved its own style, its own practices, but Tibetans may not be conscious of the cultural origins of their religion. We, however, tend to notice all of the cultural factors that influence a particular form of Buddhism, yet at the same time are aware of the continuity of the dharma.
IM: How can that broader view serve us? What is a skillful way to negotiate through all of the various dharma forms and practices available to us?
SB: In order to really engage creatively and meaningfully in drawing from different traditions, we first need to be grounded in one. If we establish the foundation, then we have a great opportunity to bring in other elements and approaches as a way of refining our practice to meet our individual and social needs. So there are two things: the first is to be grounded in one tradition, and the second is to keep sight of one’s own needs and questions. It is very easy to become fascinated by all the diverse philosophies, practices and so on and lose sight of the fact that you are no longer addressing your primary concerns.
IM: Each of the traditions seems to have particular strengths, and one might be better than another in serving individual needs or concerns. Since you’ve studied in all three major schools of Buddhism, perhaps you could suggest which school is best at which aspect of dharma.
SB: The dharma has developed its own specializations, and each Asian Buddhist tradition has tended to become very good at a particular part of Buddhism. So if you want to practice mindfulness, you probably won’t want to go to the Tibetans, at least initially. If you want to practice devotion to a teacher and recitation of mantras, though, you’d be better off in a Vajrayana practice than a Theravada one. Likewise, if you want to focus on the central question life poses, then I’d suggest Zen koan practice more than simply watching your breath or visualizing a tantric deity. I think it is important to understand and appreciate the particular strength of each different tradition, and I think we are immensely fortunate to have them all available to us.