The Spirit of the Buddha

A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Martine Batchelor

Martine Batchelor joins us here to discuss her new book, The Spirit of the Buddha. Formerly a nun in the Korean tradition of Zen Buddhism, Martine is the author of several books and is a frequent contributor to Tricycle. She led a Tricycle Retreat, "Break Your Addictive Patterns," in the summer of 2010, and lives in France with her husband Stephen.

From the introduction of The Spirit of the Buddha:

In exploring the spirit of the Buddha one could make an extensive presentation of Buddhism and its various developments. But the title for me is a personal title, it is not about Buddhism, it is about the Buddha. The Buddha is the source of Buddhism and in his time he did not know he was creating Buddhism or that his teachings would survive for 2500 years. So in this text I want to go back to the originator and founder of this great religion and cultural movement. Who was he? What did he teach? What were his personal traits? How did he create this new religious movement?

It is important to see that the Buddha did not appear out of nowhere with a philosophy already formed, but that he was born in a certain cultural and religious milieu. Often he had to define himself and his teaching in competition with or in opposition to other religious currents. There was a great tradition in his time for religious seekers to test each other and engage in philosophical debates. Moreover, since the teaching of the Buddha is based on conditionality, it seemed important to consider the conditions that gave rise to his search, to his movement and to the practices he taught.

Here is a video of Martine reading from chapter 2 of the book:


You can purchase The Spirit of the Buddha here.

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Dharma Bum's picture

I travel a lot for work and sometimes it is actally easier to practice on the road, freed from distractions and household responsibilities. But as they say, wherever you go, there you are. And you might as well bloom where you are planted.

I love the work being done to emphasize Buddha's core teachings without the institutional and cultural trappings. It's a testament to Buddha's teachings that the "historical Buddha" holds up so well.

Martine Batchelor's picture

The hardest place to practice is when we watch television because it is often very absorbing or contentious, when with family as we easily revert to habitual roles and positions, when in a meeting where issues of self and power often occur. There are different places to practice. If we can be a little more aware then and try to be mindful nevertheless it can become more spacious and creative. When we revert to habitual patterns it is life and we can learn from that too.

kasselmann1's picture

I am also grateful to you, Martine, for this book and these thoughts that dig down to Buddha's teachings and the context of his time. For me personally, it's timely that you have written something in this vein. While all the historical and cultural twists, turns, embellishments and interpretations are very beautiful, inspiring and surely demonstrate the great strength of Buddha's teachings (and his remarks about 84,000 teachings), they can also often be confusing and intellectual for me. I was also looking for something like Stephen's book Buddhism without Beliefs a number of years ago when it was published. I'm honored to have this chance to thank you and him personally. Not much contribution to discussion, here, just thanks.

Brucio's picture

Hello everyone,

I'm only on page 33, but it's already been a grand adventure. Martine, it feels like the two of us are in my family room, sipping tea. And there are moments such as the one I had ten minutes ago, when I read this:

"Right action is not a fixed right action. It is an action that is conditioned by love and respect. It is an action that considers the consequences of our actions in terms of whether or not they cause suffering."
(Page 33)

Oh. Of course. Why didn't I think of that? The Buddha was talking about thinking, saying and doing things that work, for myself and other people. I think it's time for me to really look at the Noble Eightfold Path and to watch for how I live these principles, or stray from them, each and every day.


Martine Batchelor's picture

Indeed the Buddha was very pragmatic.  There are many examples which show that he was concerned about disputes between people, about the results of people’s actions and generally with an emphasis for kindness to oneself and others.

Sam Mowe's picture

"Here we have two important concepts for the Buddha: the ideas of home life and of homelessness. He reiterated several times that he felt that the home life was crowded and full of dust, while the homeless life seemed wide open." —The Spirit of the Buddha (p.18)

I love the idea that the Buddha was a wanderer. For all of Buddhism's emphasis on working with the the mind, the defilements of the inner world, the life story of the Buddha suggests that there is something to be discovered through outer, physical seeking. That there is an fundamental relationship between where a person is and who they are and what they discover.

Of course, Buddhism's history is full of householders and wanderers. Stayers and goers. Monks and pilgrims. What do people think about the relationship between home life and homelessness in Buddhism?

Martine Batchelor's picture

There is an interesting tension in the Buddha’s life and practice -- he seemed to enjoy and benefit from practising in the forests and wandering and at the same time he spent a lot of his times in the main towns of his area teaching and meeting with kings and laypeople and other wanderers who also were in towns where the people to teach and be supported by were.

Brucio's picture

Hi Martine,

Yes, I feel some of that tension. To meditate, to walk down a country road, to watch the birds come to the feeder. But also to see who's around the next corner, and learn from what they show me. Both are good.

Your book is arriving tomorrow! I hope this discussion continues for some time, beacuse I want to be a part of it.


Brucio's picture

Hi Sam,

My first thought is that homelessness has no tug on me, that I need a home, with my wife, and at the school where I teach. Here is where I open myself to other human beings, and where I foster an opening in some of them. I retire in four years, and I want to contribute for this time at school, to deepen with kids and adults. And onward with Jody.

However, there is a tug ... for two-and-a-half months to ride my bicycle across Canada with 25 other travellers, being with the land and being with Canadians. Homelessness with a home at the end.


fairway Linda's picture

I am very interested in this book. Is it a primer on what buddhism is about? For example, I have been told that Buddhism has no creator god but is unfair to women, and yet the author was formerly a nun in the past. Why is there an idea of "Going for Refuge" or leaving the home when in Christianity you can be householder without contradiction? Yet I am very interested in monasticism and how that is one of the links of Christianity and the Buddha, but the difference was that Christ was not a monk. Also I found that this book was more cheaply on, is that ok to post??? It is part of what seems to be an interesting series.

Martine Batchelor's picture

It is a little like a primer with an accent on making the message and life of the Buddha accessible to modern times. Buddhism does not have at the centre of its practice and faith a creator god. In its mythology (similar to the religions of its times) there are different gods floating about, though the Buddha seems to have a tendency to make fun of them. One of the gods mentioned is Brahma, a creator god in Hinduism.

The Buddha accepted that women could be awakened like men and allowed them to become fully ordained nuns, so as such he was quite revolutionary in his times. Overtime Buddhism reverted to a more patriarchal model following the customs of the societies in which it found itself. But full ordination for women continued in some Buddhist countries like Korea where the opportunities for laywomen and nuns are excellent to study and practice.

“Going for Refuge” is not the same as being ordained. Taking the three refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (community) just shows one’s commitment to the Buddhist path of training in ethics, meditation and wisdom. The sangha/community includes nuns, monks, laywomen and laymen. You do not need to be a monk or a nun to practise Buddhism.

fairway Linda's picture

The monastic aspect is discouraging, therefore I think that western Buddhism should stop trying to impose monastic practices on laypersons. However, i think a kinder gentler meditation will do us good! The Buddha did not believe in self-punishment in the way that is celebrated by the christian martyrs. I find Buddha so appealing because it is not all about death as in Christianity. But my question again is what of the yogic practice of the Buddha and ancient India made it into Zen oris the difference merely cultural. Thank you.

Paul_K2's picture

Good book. I like the discussion of nirvana (nibana) on pages 16.: The Buddha does not see nibbana as a special, metaphysical place to go to but as a process of dissolution that one can achieve here and now. It is important to point out, however, that over centuries and with the development of different Buddhist traditions nibbana took on a more rarefied and metaphysical meaning. At the same time, it is interesting to consider the recent teachings of Venerable Buddhadasa, a great Thai monk (1906-1993) who tried to go back to that original meaning of nibbana and even beyond. He said: ". . . I try to point out that the social good and acting for the benefit of society are prerequisites of travelling beyond to nibbana." The practicalness (pragmatism?) of the Budha I think is something that doesn't get stressed enough and is for me what makes Buddhism the most accessable of religions.

Thanks for this book and discussion.

Martine Batchelor's picture

There is often a tension in religions and meditative paths between the loftiness of the ideal and the seemingly ordinariness and sometimes messiness of our day to day lives. Over time it seems that the loftiness go up and then generally a new generation brings it down, then that becomes the new ideal then you have a renewal again.

The Buddha started with suffering and grasping and suggested different ways to deal with these from watching the breath to cultivating compassion. By exploring his life and teaching one can see that he was concerned by life and its difficulties as it was lived by the people of his times.