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.

Myoung Ho Lee, Tree #5, 2007. © Myoung Ho Lee, courtesy Yossi Milo gallery, New York.
Myoung Ho Lee, Tree #5, 2007. © Myoung Ho Lee, courtesy Yossi Milo gallery, New York.

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. 

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