Batchelor v. Thurman
The following debate took place in New York City in January 1997 at the home of Michael Marsh. Stephen Batchelor lives in England and is the Director of Studies at the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Inquiry. He is the translator of Shantideva's A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, as well as the author of several books, including the recently published Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead). He is currently leading a Tricycle Retreat.
Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, and a cofounder of Tibet House, New York; his translations include The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and works by Vimalikirti and Tsongkapa. Both Batchelor and Thurman are longtime Buddhist practitioners and former monks in the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In the dialogue, "Tricycle" represents questions and comments put forth by those present at the debate—staff members Helen Tworkov, Mary Talbot, and Lorraine Kisly, as well as Michael Marsh, Pico Iyer, and Mark Epstein. The photographs were taken by Sally Boon.
Tricycle: The creation myth in Christianity is also very pragmatic.
Thurman: Yes. But that claim beyond myth is not plausible to me because God didn't teach voidness and since he didn't teach voidness then he can't prove his version of reality to me. Buddha taught voidness and that did prove itself to me.
Tricycle: Bob, in your view the rebirth story is very useful and it's very pragmatic, but you are talking about it in a way that undermines the possibility of its "reality."
Thurman: In a sense the only absolute reality is voidness. Buddhism is actually more scientific in the way Western empirical science understands itself. Accounts are always open for revision because voidness is a self-deconstructing account. There is no absolute truth other than that there is no absolute truth. In a way, that's what voidness means. So that relativizes it.
Tricycle: If you accept that Buddhism is about suffering and the relief of suffering then the question to you, Bob, is why, without rebirth, you would then change some part of your life? And the question to Stephen is, does the vow to relieve suffering become greater or lesser with a dependency on rebirth? Is there a way in which the dependency actually could subtract or undermine?
Batchelor: It could go both ways. I think that for people who are inspired by the notion of subsequent lives it could reinforce the vow to save all beings. But there could also be those who could feel, "Well, you know, this life is kind of busy. Maybe in some future life I'll get my act together." I don't think that there's anything to believing one way or the other that has any intrinsic ethical implications.
Thurman: But, Stephen, how can you vow to save all beings if you only have another fifteen years or eleven minutes? What does it mean to say it then?
Batchelor: What does it mean to say it anyway?
Thurman: If you have an endless amount of time, it means that's going to be your orientation over that endless amount of time.
Batchelor: But why would you slow down now, Bob? You've got a lot of work to do to save all sentient beings. The implication of what you're saying is that if you didn't believe in future lives—
Thurman: That's right. The vow becomes unrealistic, completely unrealistic, and says nothing.
Tricycle: But is it really more "realistic" if you have ten lives?
Thurman: Definitely. Absolutely. Not ten. Endless, because all beings are endless. In your Zen centers they say, "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them all." You say that all the time, and what does it mean if you're living at one moment and the next you're dead and buried in New Jersey?
Batchelor: That's a very literal interpretation of that vow. I'm inspired by that vow but not because of its literal implications.
Thurman: Then you're not literally taking the vow. You have to save all the beings! You have to save me! You'd better! You can't abandon even me. And if you don't mean that, you're not taking the vow.
Batchelor: That's certainly one way one could interpret it, but I would see it as an expression of a total commitment. In the language of those times, that's the most total expression, or total metaphor that you could come up with for articulating that passion.
Thurman: But can you genuinely articulate it if you are doing it right along with the belief that it is impossible and can't be done? If you don't think you have endless time to do this—or at least quite a long time, then you're not taking the vow.
Batchelor: It's very difficult to take that literally because if beings are numberless then it's a project that you will be engaged on forever.
Thurman: Do you take anything literally?
Batchelor: I take the teachings on shunyata literally.
Thurman: And you take New York City literally, and the street, and up and down, and life and death. You take some things literally although you know they're also only relative not absolute realities.
Batchelor: Yes, of course.
Thurman: So why would you exclude those imaginative possibilities?
Batchelor: For a start, it falls out of the range of my own experience, so I have to say that I cannot confirm or disconfirm those descriptions.
Thurman: Okay, agreed.
Batchelor: I think the great challenge for us is to come up with something comparable in imaginative power but one that does not require us to simply replicate the unique imaginative expressions of the past.
Tricycle: But isn't that searching for another useful story to make us feel a little bit better?
Batchelor: There is an element of that. I think a lot of these teachings perhaps do begin with stories of consolation. The difference is between a story of consolation that posits something fantastical—like New Age groups believing that there are space ships waiting to take up those who believe in them, or whatever—and theories of consolation that are a first step towards an actual practice that can begin to change not only your ideas or your beliefs but actually begin to change your whole sense of who you are in this world. And Buddhism certainly is concerned with presenting a path, a way of being, that literally changes your obsession with isolation and leads you to an understanding that your uniqueness is something built up not on a metaphysical basis of some stuff that's distinct to you, but upon the unrepeatable matrix of circumstances and conditions that has generated your being.
To me one of the great insights of the Madhyamaka philosophers is how the individuality of a person does not contradict the emptiness of any separate nugget that defines that person; but individuality is the consequence of relationship, of what you and your parents have done, such that in this particular moment you are constellated in this particular way. Now, we sometimes take that individuality and see that as a ground for affirming some sort of isolated selfhood. That would be the illusion that the Buddhist teaching would seek to undermine. And that leads to the possibility of transformation, both individually as well as socially, and hopefully, in Bob's language, a new vista on the evolutionary possibilities of humankind.
Thurman: It sure would.
Tricycle: And this can be done without taking responsibility for past and future lives?
Batchelor: I believe so.
Thurman: Although you have conceded that you have to adopt a virtual past and future agenda of some sort. So in a way you posit a virtual continuity and connectedness, if not the literal former and future life one.
Batchelor: I think "virtual" is actually quite a good term.
Tricycle: You disagree on what continues. But there's been no difference in your views on the fact of continuity. Is that correct?
Batchelor: One way one could put it is: I would try to behave as if there were infinite lifetimes in which I would be committed to saving beings.
Thurman: Then in case it turns out that you have to spend infinite lives here, you'll be all set!
Image 1: Stephen Batchelor, left, and Robert Thurman, January 1997.