Stephen Batchelor doesn’t take his Dharma sitting down. He has traveled several distinct Buddhist paths, becoming a monk in both the Tibetan and Zen traditions and studying intensively in the Theravadan as well. As a scholar, teacher and author, Batchelor has followed the Buddha’s dictum to examine his teachings for oneself rather than simply believe in what he says—even if we could be certain of what that was. With the eye of a skeptic, the mind of a scientist, and the heart of a humanist, Batchelor asks us to question all of our assumptions; his gift is to propose a Dharma—timeless and universal—for our time and place. His latest book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, was published in early 2010, stirring controversy in Buddhist circles and gaining wide attention and much acclaim. The following conversation between Stephen Batchelor and Inquiring Mind coeditor Wes Nisker took place earlier this year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
Inquiring Mind: In a recent talk you said that you love mindfulness because it reminds you that you are alive, a situation we usually take for granted but one that is really quite mysterious and remarkable when we pay attention to it.
Stephen Batchelor: Yes, my sense is that the practice of the Dharma is about suspending those entrenched habits of mind that actually cut us off from the very weird fact of being here at all. We spend so much of our lives inhabiting a fictitious future or nostalgically indulging in memories and reminiscences that we fail to notice this extraordinary thing that is happening to us right now. It has taken four billion years of evolution to generate this kind of organism with this kind of brain, and yet we wake up in the morning and feel bored.
IM: Of course, when we are mindful, it can also wake us up to the First Noble Truth and the fragility and suffering that any incarnation ensures.
SB: That insight can come as a bit of a shock. If you pay attention to what is taking place right now, you also become aware of the fact that it is temporary and that you are subject to breakdown, disease, aging and death. The Buddha is asking you to wake up to this truth, because only then will you fully experience life as a miracle.
IM: You have talked about the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth as a way to escape the fact of death.
SB: I think that for many Buddhists rebirth is a consolation. But if you look at classical Buddhist understanding, rebirth is not the solution, it’s the problem. The Buddha sought to free people from taking birth; the idea is to become a “non-returner.” Yet I don’t think that particular way of looking at the world is believable anymore. I would rather explain our condition through the idea that we have evolved from more primitive forms of life. The idea that there will be something spiritual or subtle, some sort of consciousness that can escape the collapse of the body and brain, is not very credible in the modern scientific worldview.
IM: Yet a lot of contemporary Western Dharma teachers talk about rebirth as a matter of fact.
SB: I think we have to stand aside from this type of Buddhist belief and consider the world revealed to us through the sciences, which gives us insight into our beginnings through the story of evolution and natural selection. The great challenge to Buddhism and most other world religions is that they are entering a culture in which the traditional accounts of human life are being called into question.
IM: The stories about rebirth don’t seem to work so well anymore.
SB: However, they will continue to be told for a while because they have enormous consolatory power. As our understanding develops, we really have to bite the bullet and accept what Nietzsche intuited: God is dead. The old way of accounting for how human beings came into existence no longer has any traction. It is being replaced by a view that for many religious people, Buddhists included, is deeply threatening.
Nonetheless, the modern scientific worldview is one that frequently accords with the principles the Buddha laid out as constituting his awakening. His most profound insight was into the fact of conditioned emergence: that all things arise out of conditions. There is no room in the Buddha’s early teaching for any other kind of agency—no god giving directions—just the sheer power of conditions themselves. The process of evolution is a wonderful illustration of this basic idea of conditioned arising.
IM: Some schools of Buddhism claim that consciousness is the ground of being, underlying all manifestation. That consciousness itself is the deathless.
SB: The Buddha certainly didn’t teach that. He talks about consciousness as an emergent property that arises out of the interaction between an organism and its environment. Or as the Buddha would say, “The eye is impacted by a color or a shape. Dependent upon that, consciousness emerges.” When that interaction ceases—when you close your eyes or when the color or the shape disappears—that eye consciousness ceases.
IM: And the neuroscientists would agree with him.
SB: Yes, neuroscience would be quite on board with this. The idea of an underlying consciousness that is different from our ordinary sensory or mental consciousness is essentially a retreat back to the doctrines of the Vedanta. That’s where we encounter what in the Upanishads is called atman, also known as truth, consciousness, bliss, a sort of primary underlying “stuff” that survives all death. That seems entirely at odds with the thrust of the Buddha’s teaching found in the Pali Canon. Later, the teachings of Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka school seem much closer to the Pali Canon than all the other rather far-fetched views about consciousness.
On the other hand, I think that teachings such as dzogchen—the emphasis on consciousness itself—can be used as skillful means, as a strategy for cultivating qualities of awareness. The danger is that we take a strategic piece of advice and turn it into a claim of ontological truth, saying, “This is the nature of reality.” Then, we are in danger of losing touch with the Buddha’s radical teaching, and in fact are returning to what the Buddha himself rejected.
IM: The Buddha was trying to face the hard facts of life and death. He seems profoundly unromantic, an objective scientist of the self.
SB: Yes, a scientist, and profoundly unromantic. He breaks down the constituents of phenomenal experience, leaving no room for any kind of mystical or supernatural elements. His teaching is strikingly rational and eminently pragmatic. However, his Dharma differs from the worldview of the natural sciences in that it offers us a way to interiorize our understanding.
IM: He gave us a way to turn our knowledge into wisdom.
SB: Yes, it’s turning information into felt conscious experience; embodying our truth. That is what is distinctive in the Buddha’s teaching and also what is most difficult. Living from our deepest understanding requires an enormous effort, especially when it goes against the stream of our instinctually programmed perceptions of the world. We’ve been primed by evolution to believe that in an impermanent world, there’s the possibility of permanence; that in a dukkha-ridden world there’s the possibility of lasting happiness; that in a selfless, impersonal reality there can exist some true or lasting self. The Buddha recognized that human beings make these three primary errors, and he taught us how to counter those biologically driven assumptions. That old programming may have served us well at some moment in our evolution, but it has now gone way past the “sell-by” date.
IM: One major emphasis of Dharma in the West is to merge with science and become more secularized, leaving behind many of the beliefs, rituals and spiritual trappings of Asian Buddhism. Do you find that a healthy, positive development?
SB: For the most part, yes. But I don’t want to see Buddhism lose its depth and be reduced to a kind of pseudoscience or psychotherapy. The great gift of Dharma is not just to make us feel better about ourselves but to offer radical existential transformation. I hope that Buddhism is able to retain its power to affect our lives at the deepest level, rather than simply fiddling with the superstructures of our ego or social life.
IM: That seems to be a primary challenge for the Dharma as it moves through yet another cultural incarnation here in the West.
SB: Buddhism, I think, is probably facing the single most difficult transition from one historical epoch to another, which is really the transition to modernity. The problem with remaining true to some of the Asian doctrines—such as rebirth, karma, different realms of existence, supernatural events, transcendent consciousness and so on—is that we remain trapped in a metaphysics that has very little in common with the kind of scientific understanding we have of the world today. In that sense, Buddhism has to let go much of its Asian heritage. Let me add, respectfully let go.
IM: It feels like we are at a major turning point and a watershed moment for the whole species.
SB: I think so. We’re at a state now where the world we know is understood in a way that is so different from the world in which Buddhism and most of the other world religions evolved. We really have to start all over again. We have to dismantle the superstructures of Buddhism and all its different traditions to somehow recover what was radical and original in the Buddha’s first teachings.
IM: But that, of course, brings up the question of what the Buddha actually taught, which is a matter of ongoing speculation. Yet many Western teachers will cite the Pali Canon or a Tibetan terma as being the actual words of the Buddha.
SB: That is precisely why we need to adopt a more rigorous hermeneutic strategy. We can learn a great deal here from the work of Christian biblical scholars, who for the last 200 years have been asking what Jesus actually said or taught. Buddhists have barely started on this project, and we have a vast body of primary materials to examine, approximately five or six thousand pages of the Pali Canon. We can gain more insight into which passages have a greater probability of going back to the historical Buddha, but it will require a degree of scholarship that is probably not familiar to most vipassana teachers.
IM: Perhaps what we should be investigating more closely is not what the Buddha said so much as what works in the laboratory of mind training and heart opening. Why would we have to rely on the Buddha having taught something before we can embrace it or use it?
SB: Absolutely. Besides, the Buddha’s teaching is clearly pragmatic. It is concerned with what works. At the same time, if we are to remain true to our identity and commitment as followers of the Buddha, we need to disentangle the elements of Indian religion that have found their way into the Buddhist canon.
IM: Some of those elements might even contradict what the Buddha was saying and teaching.
SB: This is precisely the problem. We have to look at the canon for the distinctive voice of the Buddha. The first step is to see what could just as well have appeared in the Upanishads or in the Jain texts. For instance, we can put aside the doctrine of rebirth, or even the idea that liberation means freedom from the cycle of birth and death. We find that in Mahavira and the Upanishads; it’s simply the worldview of the Buddha’s time. These are the kind of criteria we can utilize in order to start sifting apart the actual teaching of the Buddha.
IM: How important do you think it is to do this kind of investigation?
SB: When I’ve pursued such an inquiry, the teachings that begin to stand out are precisely the ones that do not require belief in Indian metaphysics. They are the teachings that are pragmatic and that speak to the universal condition of humankind.
IM: In the Pali Canon you can read about the Buddha giving a discourse, and suddenly all the monks who are listening become enlightened. Does that mean they were completely transformed, with all defilements forever removed, or did they simply understand what the Buddha was trying to say? Could it be that Western teachers are overselling the idea of enlightenment, or the power of meditation to completely transform people?
SB: First of all, I don’t like the word enlightenment. It is a perfectly legitimate translation of bodhi, but the root meaning of the word is “waking up.” Referring to bodhi as some kind of permanent light that illuminates a dark place is to use a different metaphor. Bodhi points to waking up from some sort of sleep or some sort of dream.
In his very first discourse, the Buddha said that he became awake after gaining clarity about the Four Noble Truths. In another passage in the Samyutta Nikaya, he says, “Anyone in the past or the present or the future who is fully awakened does so by becoming awakened to the Four Noble Truths.” In other words, his awakening is not about some privileged state of mind or the unconditioned state but rather about a complex of truths. He awakens to a way of understanding the world and then a way of behaving in the world. That to me is absolutely fundamental.
So rather than enlightenment, let’s call it awakening, which starts with the First Noble Truth and a radical embrace of dukkha. We begin by opening our mind and heart to the facts of suffering, not only our own but that of all life—the facts of birth, sickness, aging and death. That embrace introduces us to an entire new perspective on life and how to live.
So the Buddha is presenting awakening not as a single mystical experience that may come upon us at some meditation, some private moment of transcendence, but rather as a new engagement with life. He is offering us a relationship to the world that is more sensitized to suffering and the causes of suffering, and he gives rise to the possibility of another kind of culture, another kind of civilization.
Given the suffering of our planet, the message of the Buddha at this time in our history has an enormous relevance. That’s not to suggest it is something we can just adopt as though it were another change of mind or a change of clothes. It requires that we reconsider our relationship to ourselves and our lives in a radical way. That is the purpose of the Eightfold Path; that is the purpose of the Dharma.