Pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist sites led by experienced Dharma teachers. Includes daily teachings and group meditation sessions. A local English–speaking guide accompanies and assists.
A talk with Stephen Batchelor
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.
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.
Image 1: Stephen Batchelor during his time as a Korean monk, circa 1981.
Image 2: Batchelor during his time as a Tibetan monk, circa 1978.