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Absolutely Not!

An interview with Stephen Batchelor, Author of Buddhism without Beliefs
by Andrew Cohen



"I was walking through a pine forest, returning to my hut along a narrow path trodden into the steep slope of the hillside. I struggled forward carrying a blue plastic bucket filled with fresh water that I had just collected from a source at the upper end of the valley. I was then suddenly brought to a halt by the upsurge of an overwhelming sense of the sheer mystery of everything. It was as though I were lifted up onto the crest of a shivering wave, which abruptly swelled from the ocean that was life itself. 'How is it that people can be unaware of this most obvious question?' I asked myself. 'How can anyone pass their life without responding to it?'"

This experience, which befell Stephen Batchelor some twenty years ago during his tenure as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Dharamsala, India, and which he later recorded in his book The Faith to Doubt, was not, he says, "an illumination in which some final, mystical truth became momentarily very clear. For it gave me no answers. It only revealed the massiveness of the question." As a result, it seems, Batchelor became something of a "Renaissance monk," reading widely in Western philosophy, psychology and theology, and pursuing with particular interest "the ways in which existentialist concepts were used to understand religious experience." His intriguingly spare interpretation of his own experience was ultimately to provide the long-term model for an agnostic approach to spiritual life perhaps best articulated in his credo, "Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves." It is an approach he has pursued quite actively ever since, and to which, no longer as a monk but as an influential author, scholar, meditation teacher and director of the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England, he remains unwaveringly faithful to this day.

The essence of Batchelor's view is that there is no truly authentic response to human life that does not acknowledge its inherent and underlying existential uncertainty. Western practitioners of Buddhism cannot hope to become truly free, he insists, as long as they walk the Buddhist path in thrall to an accumulation of unexamined dogmas—dogmas that have obscured and distorted their perception of the Buddha's message and inhibited their ability to give fresh and authentic cultural expression to their own distinct existential "perplexity." The aim of Batchelor's radical approach to the Buddha's teaching is therefore to liberate it from all the nonessential trappings of "religion" and "spirituality" that have effectively choked off what he takes to be its no-frills revelation of the existential dilemma of human life. "As in the beautiful parable of the raft," he writes, "the dharma [teaching] is merely a temporary device to get you from one side of a river to another. Its meaning is completely distorted if it is raised to the status of an end in itself. For myself, the end for which the Buddhist path is the means can only be the penetration of this mystery of being thrown into birth only to be ejected again at death."

With the publication of his book Buddhism without Beliefs, Batchelor hopes to propel the ever evolving teaching of Gautama the Buddha forward into yet another—the lightest and least encumbered by orthodoxy to date—of its unique historical incarnations. "While we may find certain stylistic aspects of his teaching alien . . . the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha [has] continued to turn after his death, generating ever new and startling cultures of awakening," he writes. "The challenge now is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of an agnostic and pluralist world."

Without question, Batchelor's blueprint for the future of a secularized Western Buddhism is daringly bold and revolutionary. And one can only admire his courageous willingness to stand alone, within his own chosen tradition, against the unquestioned adherence to Buddhist doctrines and practices that have lost their meaning for contemporary practitioners. Nevertheless, the fact that Batchelor sees his reformulation of the Buddha Dharma as an adaptation to the pluralistic climate of Western postmodernism caused us some existential perplexity of our own. The most salient characteristic of contemporary Western culture would seem to be an obsessive preoccupation with such noble ideologies as relativism, subjectivity and personal autonomy. It may well be, in fact, that Buddhism in all its globetrotting has never encountered a culture quite so at odds with the austerity and selflessness traditionally thought to be crucial to the pursuit of enlightenment. This prompted us to wonder whether the adjustments Buddhism might have to make in order to become truly "postmodern" could ever lead to anything other than the loss of its very heart. Could a teaching whose goal is enlightenment really be accommodated to the individualistic imperatives of the contemporary West? The answer to this question hinges, we realized, on a determination of what the "heart" of Buddhism actually is, and ultimately on our understanding of the nature of enlightenment itself. It is in light of the incredible variety of contrasting views on this subject, which seem to be able to coexist within even a single tradition such as Buddhism, that we have asked: What is enlightenment? Is it, as Andrew Cohen believes, the discovery and realization of a singular and timeless absolute context for all human experience which, once it is recognized, can only be surrendered to? Or is it rather, as Stephen Batchelor's existentialist reading of the Buddha's attainment seems to suggest, a more relative matter—a courageous willingness to confront, over and over again and in an endless variety of circumstances, the inherent emptiness and essential mysteriousness of existence? Is it the final and irrevocable realignment of a human consciousness with the ultimate meaning and purpose of life—or the unobscured perception of a random and contingent reality in which any sense of purpose is a product of human invention?

These are subtle but vitally important questions, because the ability to distinguish that which is absolute from that which is relative, far from being a matter of mere semantics, could be said to be the foundation for any clear understanding of what enlightenment is and is not. This crucial distinction between absolute and relative is the subject of the fascinating dialogue you are about to read, which, in the subtlety of its discrimination and the urgent liveliness of its back-and-forth, resembles nothing so much as the "dharma debate" said to have been an important feature of Buddhist life in the bygone eras of its rich and varied history.

–Simeon Alev


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