Stephen Batchelor is a paradoxical pilgrim. He’s an atheist, or self-avowed “nonbeliever,” and yet he keeps traveling to religiously significant Buddhist places. His most recent book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, is all about pilgrimage, and he often leads tours around Buddhist sites in India. But if you’re taking a secular approach to Buddhism, why embark on geographical journeys to Buddhism’s holy places? Sam Mowe, Tricycle’s associate editor, spoke with Batchelor about things that might seem out of character for the Buddhist skeptic: devotion, imagination, and embodied experience.

The idea behind your next tour, “The Ancient Buddhist Monasteries of India,” is to go to these places and return them to their original purpose—not to just visit them but to set aside time for teaching and meditating. What’s the value of practicing in these ancient places? Well, that’s going to vary from person to person. We want to return to the architectural spaces in which early Buddhism took place. This is somewhat similar to what I’m currently interested in: to go back to the earliest texts, the Pali discourses and so on, and seek to recover from that earliest body of material what appear to be the distinctive elements of the Buddhist dhamma [see page 44]. And having been to these places before—well, not all of them, but most of these rock-cut temples—it’s a bit like going back to the early Pali texts. You get a rather rare glimpse of the physical space in which early Buddhist community lived.

So the idea is to try to return in a physical way to an architectural parallel to the earliest teachings. I know that might sound a bit strange, but it’s very much part of how I understand pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is, in a sense, a physical act in which you go back to places that were inhabited long ago and in doing so recover a sort of physical intimacy with the spaces themselves. In most of the spaces in North India, you basically just find archaeological things. But in the south, we actually have surviving monasteries, although they are no longer functioning as monasteries. And they belong, essentially, to the India Archaeological Survey. In other words, they are preserved by a secular institution and the government of India. Nonetheless, and this is part of the subversive nature of this trip, our purpose is to not treat them as simply interesting architectural remains, but, in the spirit of pilgrimage, to return there out of a respect and a reverence, perhaps, for what would have gone on there over many centuries ago, which has now disappeared.

What role does imagination play in that process? Can you cultivate a sensibility that would allow you to have a more meaningful experience in these spaces? Well, imagination plays a large role wherever you go, whether you to Bodhgaya or to any of these places. You have to somehow be able to imaginatively return to what these places may have been like. The approach I’m taking is actually to sit quietly in these places, to do the practices that would have been done there 1,000 or 1,500 years ago, to consider the text that would have been thought about in those places originally, and thereby try to recreate the atmosphere that is in conformity with the purpose for which the place was built.

When you describe it, it sounds like a kind of faith or devotion plays a role in pilgrimage. That’s true, yes.

How does that fit in with your own stance as a Buddhist atheist or nonbeliever? It’s a bit like people who would go to, let’s say, Shakespeare. Now you have a whole pilgrimage industry that goes to a place called Stratford-upon-Avon. They don’t call it pilgrimage, but it comes down to the same thing. Shakespeare is not a religious figure. Shakespeare is, nonetheless, the object of a certain cult, and a certain devotion. And I think you can find many examples outside of formal religious pilgrimages, where people—quite secular people, atheists, and others—who for other reasons have great devotion to a figure like Shakespeare. And, in effect, what we now call pilgrimage is actually more like tourism. In the Middle Ages, when people had time off they’d go off to visit a monastery or some sacred shrine or something. And it was as much a touristic endeavor as it was a strict religious activity. If you read Chaucer, the Canterbury Tales, it sheds a very illuminating light on what we now call pilgrimage. It was much more a sense of returning in a group to a place associated with something you value. And the trip has as much to do with the interactions you have with the other people along the tour as it does with the actual sacred quality of the places to which you go. I think pilgrimage has come to be seen a little bit too preciously, as an overtly spiritual activity. But I think it’s actually the name we give to an aspect of human behavior that cuts across the division between religious and secular.

Calling yourself a tourist is like calling yourself a hipster. Nobody wants to do that. What’s the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist? Yeah, that’s true. I mean obviously there are people who will be going to Bodhgaya who are Buddhists, for whom Buddhist Bodhgaya will have a certain resonance and a significance that it won’t have for people who are not Buddhists. But you can say the same thing about Jerusalem. Jerusalem has become a huge tourist attraction. Many people who go there are not devout Jews, Christians, or Muslims. They go there simply out of historical interest in this very beautiful place. They go for artistic reasons. A fair number of them will also have some religious beliefs or views or identities that will give it another dimension of meaning for them. So, again, I think it’s actually very difficult to draw a line. Even people who go, say, to Bodhgaya or Jerusalem although they don’t consider themselves formally religious, will in some respects be moved or drawn by the religiosity on display. The line is blurry. Obviously, if you go and spend a week on a beach in Florida, it’s very difficult to give that any sense of being a pilgrimage. But as soon as your tourism starts to take in places of cultural or religious interest, the line between that and pilgrimage is a difficult one to draw. You can recognize easily the two extremes: the Tibetan old lady who goes down and prostrates all the way to the Potala in Lhasa, and on the other hand the guy who goes to a Florida beach for two weeks. But the bulk of tourism or pilgrimage falls in a big bundle in the middle. It’s more ambiguous.

You always have this problem that there are only other tourists when you go to a place. There are all these tourists; you often forget that you happen to be one of them. Or that from another person’s point of view, you are just another one of those horrible tourists. We tend to denigrate tourism, and it seems that people wouldn’t stand up and declare themselves proud of being a tourist. But it’s more a behavior than some sort of identity that one approves of or disapproves of.

It sounds like the power in these trips lies in gaining historical knowledge, experiencing what Buddhist life was like in ancient India. Can you speak on the connection between historical understanding and spiritual development? Well, if you’ve read any of my stuff, you’ll know that I give considerable importance to having a clear historical understanding of the Buddha’s life and 5th-century B.C.E. India. Because I don’t think these Buddhist teachings, or any teachings of any tradition, can really be understood if you strip them of the context in which they were taught. I found it enormously helpful in understanding Buddhism to know about the context within which these teachings were given, to recognize that Buddhist doctrines and meditation practices emerge out of a context of human needs—for example, the interests of people living in particular times, in particular cultures. To recognize that Buddhism has emerged always—well, not always, but in many cases—out of its interactions, sometimes conflicted interactions, with competing religions like Hinduism or Confucianism and that Buddhism cannot exist in some sort of idealistic space which is unaffected by these other forces. So in other words, I find that history in a sense is a very beautiful illustration of what the Buddha calls pratityasamutpada, conditioned arising, dependent origination. In other words, Buddhism itself is a product of its own circumstances, of the cultures where it’s been effective, of historical needs, political structures, economic structures, and so on.

When you translate that into a more concrete form, then I find there’s a certain parallel in visiting these sites where some key events in Buddhist history took place. A very obvious example is Bodhgaya. Now, it’s interesting to observe one’s mind in terms of the sort of rather romantic ideas you might have before you get to Bodhgaya that this will somehow magically put you in touch with something essential to the Buddhist experience. I don’t think it will. And there’s often a sense of disappointment when you get to these shrines and you find that they’re basically just piles of bricks or stones or whatever and do not have any sort of resonance or vibrations emanating from them. But nonetheless, this is where the imagination comes in. It does have a curious way of somehow connecting you to the sources of a tradition that you admire, in a kind of physical, bodily way. And one of the reasons I find it difficult to talk about this intelligently is that it is an experience that really is beyond words. You put your body in these places. You hear the same birdsong. You breathe the same air. You are surrounded by the same trees and foliage that the Buddha may have been surrounded by. And that, somehow, gets you as close as you ever can physically to the source of the teachings that you are practicing in your daily life. There may be an element of magical thinking going on here. But I nonetheless have found it—especially being somewhat of an intellectual—I found it rather refreshing and rather grounding to be able to be in an intimate relationship with the tradition despite not be able to construct a coherent conceptual narrative around what I’m doing.

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