What is Buddhism? It’s a simple question, but one with no answer, at least on a frozen, bite-sized, media-ready level. This is a question that is reminiscent of the koan that Stephen Batchelor in the early 80s, as he sat in front of a white wall in a Korean Zen monastery, day after day: “What is that?”
At the time, Batchelor was still a Buddhist monk practicing the saffron robe and the crimson sash. He had left England in the early 1970s with Siddhartha, Alan Watts and Soft Machine in his head and a mop of long hair on top. The young man went east and found himself in Dharamsala, the northern Indian home of the exiled Dalai Lama. Batchelor was therefore one of the first among the waves of young Westerners who embarked on a quest for higher consciousness and became natives in the process.
“I suspect that in the initial phase of the honeymoon, I probably took it all in uncritically and thought that was it,” said Batchelor, a seemingly mild-mannered but fiercely 62-year-old man. concentrated, via Skype from his home in France. . “The paradox is that the emphasis of my training was very explicitly placed on not everything for granted, by subjecting these doctrines, ideas and teachings to a kind of critical rigor. And what you find out at the end is that most of these things that Tibetans or Buddhists claim to be true don’t hold up particularly well. In A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell said that the Jesuits used a very sophisticated reason to convince themselves of what they already believed. I think it’s the same with Buddhists.
As Batchelor’s position within the hierarchy of orthodox Tibetan Buddhism grew, his doubts about two of its central tenets – karma and reincarnation – deepened.
“We don’t need to keep clinging to these ideas from the ancient world,” Batchelor told me. “They no longer serve us. They confuse. And then they lead to all kinds of silly fantasies about ‘If I do that in this life, then when I’m reborn in the next life, I’ll become a deity.’ That’s just missing the point.
Batchelor’s first giant leap away from Buddhism as an organized religion took him to the Korean Zen monastery, Songgwangsa, where his teacher, Kusan Sunim, asked him to meditate on the aforementioned koan. During his years in Korea, he became closer and closer to a Zen nun, another spiritual pilgrim from the West, who had taken the name of Songil and was also in a state of doubt. In 1985 they renounced their vows, got married, and returned to Europe, where they faced a different kind of question, one they hadn’t had to ask themselves for many years: how were they going to make a living? Stephen and Martine Batchelor both found an answer in writing and teaching.
Batchelor’s break with Buddhist orthodoxy led to his first book, faith in doubt, published in 1990. Since then, in a series of wonderfully lucid volumes that strike a welcome balance between personal memoir, philosophical and historical inquiry, and practical teaching – including two bestsellers, Buddhism without beliefs and live with the devil—Batchelor wrote his way to a radical overhaul of Buddhism itself. He considers his latest book, After Buddhism: Rethinking Dharma for a Secular Time, recently published by Yale University Press, as a sort of crowning achievement.
“I don’t like the term ‘magnum opus’, because it’s very big, but actually I think that’s what the book aspires to be, a sort of culmination of about 40 years of work. I think in some ways it’s cohesive as a whole maybe more than anything I’ve ever written.
The writings and luminous teachings of Batchelor, taken as a whole, are not limited to Buddhism for Dummies. Nor do they reduce Buddhist practice to the level of pseudo-science, a corporate self-awareness technique, or an antidote to your iPhone fixation. Batchelor removes Buddhism from the realm of dogmas and spiritual hierarchies and gives it to us as a living practice, a responnse here and now.