Stephen Batchelor never planned to be controversial. He began as a young and earnest practitioner, leaving his native Britain in 1972, at age eighteen, to study with some of the most revered Asian Buddhist teachers around at that time. He ordained first as a Tibetan monk, and then, later, as a monk in the Korean Zen tradition. Yet although he adopted his root teachers’ languages, philosophies, and customs, he eventually found himself ill-suited to monastic life. In 1985, he returned to England, where he settled down with his wife, Martine, a former nun in the Korean Zen tradition.
Back at home, Batchelor began to formulate a distinctly Western approach to the Buddha’s teachings, and in his best-selling book Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997), he openly acknowledged his deep skepticism toward the doctrines of karma and rebirth. The firestorm of protest that followed—from traditional and even not-so-traditional Buddhists—surprised Batchelor. (He was characterized at the time as Buddhism’s bad boy at best and anti-dharma at worst.)
In his new, autobiographical book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor has arrived at what he considers to be the bare bones of Buddhism, upon which, he argues, an entirely new practice and understanding of dharma can be built. As always, Batchelor is as articulate as he is frank. No doubt many will cry foul.
— James Shaheen
You were a Tibetan and later a Korean Buddhist monk. Then you disrobed. Can you say something about that? As a monk, I had to play a certain role in society; I was obliged to follow the precepts and injunctions that were necessary for a representative of the Buddhist traditions in which I was ordained. As much as I valued my monastic training, I also found myself frequently in social situations where I didn’t feel entirely comfortable playing the role of a Buddhist monk. This was particularly true in the West, where my robes alone declared that I belonged to a particular Asian tradition. But when I found myself trying to have a serious conversation with someone in Germany or Switzerland, I often felt a strong conflict between what I felt I was obliged to say as a Buddhist monk and what I actually felt to be the case on a particular issue. And so in that sense I felt that I was a bit of a fake—particularly when I began to have serious doubts about certain elements of Buddhist orthodoxy: the belief in rebirth, different realms of existence, and so forth.
What do you hope to accomplish with “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”? I think dogma has become a problem in Buddhism. Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be superimposed upon the dharma as we find it presented in the earliest known sources— for example, the Pali canon—just as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed upon the historical fragments of his life that one likewise finds scattered throughout the canon. What I’ve done is to try to strip away the myths about Siddhattha Gotama, to try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of the Buddha as a human being. I’ve also tried to remove some of the dogmas that have developed subsequent to the material we find in the Pali canon, which are now entrenched as Buddhist doctrine.
How do you do that? The methodology I used was to ask myself, What is there within the Pali canon that is distinctively and originally a Buddhist idea? If I find a doctrine or teaching that talks of past or future lives, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death, I put that to one side as something that was already widely believed at the Buddha’s time. And by this process of subtraction—by removing things that are either found in the Upanishads or in other earlier Indian teachings (and things that have a blatantly supernatural quality to them)—I can begin to isolate those teachings that are distinctive to what the Buddha was teaching in the fifth century BCE.
What, then, did you conclude were distinctly Buddhist ideas? Four things stand out. One is the principle of dependent origination, or “conditioned arising,” as I call it; the second is the practice of mindful awareness—being focused upon the totality of what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience; the third is the process of the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Eightfold Path; and fourth, the principle of self-reliance—how the Buddha really wanted his students to become autonomous in their understanding of the dharma, and not to generate dependencies upon either the memory of him or upon some authority figure within the monastic community.
By getting down to the bare bones of what the Buddha was teaching, one is then perhaps in a position to begin to rethink Buddhism from the ground up. And I feel the four points that I listed are entirely adequate for constructing a new vision of the dharma, both as a worldview and as a form of spiritual and ethical practice, which speaks to our condition here and now.
Why do you think we need a new Buddhism? Don’t you risk arrogance here? I would be the first to acknowledge that in undertaking such an endeavor one risks falling prey to one’s own conceits and confusions. If a particular traditional practice works well for a certain person, then I would only encourage that person to continue with it. But in my own case—as well as that of numerous others—it is clear that traditional Asian Buddhist approaches do not seem to work so well. Yet the great strength of Buddhism throughout its history is that it has succeeded many times in reinventing itself according to the needs of its new host culture. What is happening today in the West is no different. Historically, we can see that priestly Buddhist elites have tended to assume increasing authority over the majority of lay practitioners, and to some extent have lost sight of the aim that practitioners should become autonomous in their practice. Instead we often find a culture that is quite deferential, even dependent upon, devotion to a particular group of experts—be they lamas or roshis or ajahns. Such devotion certainly has its place in Buddhist training, but if we are to articulate the dharma in our own language, in the context of our own time, at a certain point I feel we need to respectfully detach ourselves from priestly and dogmatic authority in order to find our own authentic voice.
Where does that leave you in relation to traditional Buddhist cultures and teachers? In my own case, I feel no great need to go and sit any longer at the feet of traditional Asian teachers. But it may be that something will come up in my life or in my understanding that will necessitate further study and dialogue with Asian traditions. I don’t know. It should not be forgotten that over the last forty or so years we’ve produced a generation of teachers and scholars and writers who have had a long-standing, full-time engagement with the dharma, comparable to that of many Asian teachers. That is, we now have a generation of Westerners with a considerable amount of experience and insight, which, I would hope, should enable them to stand pretty much on their own two feet. Such independence is, as I said before, something I believe the Buddha encouraged.
Your book takes an autobiographical turn; it’s not just about your beliefs, but how they evolved. Why? I find I am less and less comfortable with assuming you can make such a clear-cut distinction between the ideas that you hold and the life that you have lived. I don’t think the two are really separable, especially if you see Buddhism as a practice rather than just an object of academic interest. None of these texts and practices can be understood apart from their impact on your own subjective experience as a human being living in a particular place, being of a certain age, being in a particular situation. Buddhism has never flourished in a vacuum.
Excerpt from Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
“Stories are impossible but it’s impossible to live without them. That’s the mess I’m in.”—Wim Wenders
On returning to England, I could have enrolled in a university, gained a degree in religious studies, and then pursued an academic career. Indeed, many of my peers, who had also trained with Tibetan lamas or Zen masters in Asia, chose this option after disrobing and returning to the West. But I found the entire academic approach to Buddhism chilling. Much as I valued the meticulous work of scholars in dissecting and analyzing Buddhist texts, I could not bring myself to adopt the clinical distance required for achieving such “objectivity.” To have done so would have felt like a betrayal.
On “Buddhism without Beliefs”
Instead of being the noncontentious introduction to Buddhism that was initially conceived, “Buddhism without Beliefs” triggered what Time magazine, in its cover issue on Buddhism in America, called “a civil but ferociously felt argument” about whether it was necessary for Buddhists to believe in karma and rebirth. I had proposed in the book that one could hold an agnostic position on these points, i.e., keep an open mind without either affirming or denying them. Naively perhaps, I had not anticipated the furor that this suggestion would create.
The ensuing controversy showed that Buddhists could be as fervent and irrational in their views about karma and rebirth as Christians and Muslims could be in their convictions about the existence of God. For some Western converts, Buddhism became a substitute religion every bit as inflexible and intolerant as the religions they rejected before becoming Buddhists. I argued that Buddhism was not so much a creedal religion as a broad culture of awakening that, throughout its history, had shown a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions. For a while I hoped that “Buddhism without Beliefs” might stimulate more public debate and enquiry among Buddhists about these issues, but this did not happen. Instead, it revealed a fault line in the nascent Western Buddhist community between traditionalists, for whom such doctrines are nonnegotiable truths, and liberals, like myself, who tend to see them more as contingent products of historical circumstance.
What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted? I suppose some of it has to do with fear of death, the terror that you and your loved ones will disappear and become nothing. But I suspect that for such people, the world as presented to their senses and reason appears intrinsically inadequate, incapable of explaining this fraught and brief life on earth. One assumes the existence of hidden forces that lie deep beneath the surface of the contingent and untrustworthy world of day-to-day experience. Many Buddhists would argue that to jettison belief in the law of karma—a scheme of moral bookkeeping mysteriously inhering within the structure of reality itself—would be tantamount to removing the foundations of ethics. Good acts would not be rewarded and evil deeds not punished. Theists have said exactly the same about the consequences of abandoning belief in God and the divine judgment.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.