Drawing from his experience in multiple traditions, Stephen Batchelor, the best-selling author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, discusses his uniquely Western teaching style and Buddhism’s encounter with modernity.

Photo © Lydia Rodolitz
Photo © Lydia Rodolitz

Stephen Batchelor was born in Scotland and educated in Buddhist monasteries in India, Switzerland, and Korea. In 1972, at the age of nineteen, he settled in Dharamsala, and in 1974 he ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Gelug tradition. Three years later, he left the Tibetan tradition and traveled to Korea, where he practiced as a Zen monk. Batchelor disrobed in 1985, when he moved to Devon, England to live and teach at the Sharpham Community and Gaia House. There, Batchelor synthesized a distinctively Western teaching style, drawing from multiple Buddhist traditions.

Batchelor now lives in Aquitaine, in southern France. A writer and photographer, he also leads retreats worldwide with his wife, Martine, who trained in the Korean Zen tradition. He recently toured the United States, teaching retreats with a focus on integrating Buddhist ideas with meditation practice. Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen interviewed Stephen Batchelor in June 2002 after a retreat in Taos, New Mexico. The retreat included a workshop on the work of Nagarjuna, the seminal third-century Indian philosopher.

You’ve said that Nagarjuna is arguably the most important voice since the Buddha himself. Why?

Nagarjuna’s significance was twofold: first, he went back to what he understood to be the central teachings of the Buddha; and second, it was the first time since the Buddha that a recognizable individual rearticulated the teachings in his own voice. Nagarjuna opened up the possibility of Buddhism’s diversifying beyond the early schools into what have come to be known as the Mahayana traditions. Yet although Mahayanists consider Nagarjuna a founding figure, I find him interesting precisely because he belongs neither to the camp of early Buddhist traditions nor to the schools that follow him. He’s a transitional figure; he stands between the past and the future, and that gives him a freedom to speak his own mind without defending an orthodoxy or establishing a new one.

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