Stephen Batchelor answers readers' questions about his Week 1 teaching. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. In Verses From The Center, you explain how “one can become fixated on emptiness as easily as on anything else. In doing so, what is intended to stop fixations becomes an insidious form of entrapment.” As someone who spent many years in this trap, I tend to be cautious about “mindfulness,” as a possibly untranslatable concept. For instance, in his book on Nagarjuna, David Ross Komito explains mindfulness meditation as “bare perception . . . to directly and nonconceptually cognize the object.” I don’t understand Nagarjuna to be saying there is an “object” to be purely perceived or cognized, but for the western empiricist/positivist mind this seems to have a lot of pop-psychology appeal. So, my question is, do you think that the western practitioner might be better served by some practice other than mindfulness, to avoid this “form of entrapment” peculiar to us?
Stephen Batchelor replies: I'm not at at all sure that the kind of "entrapment" you speak of is "peculiar" to Western practioners. The warning against reifying and identifying with ideas such as emptiness goes back to Nagarjuna, if not to the Buddha himself. It is a deeply human tendency that must have been present when the Buddha and Nagarjuna were teaching, otherwise they would not have addressed it. Likewise, "mindfulness" (or any other form of meditation) can, if used unwisely, become another attachment and trap. I do not agree with David Ross Komito that mindfulness meditation is "bare perception ... to directly and non-conceptually cognize the object." It is rather a practice in which one recognizes that "when one breathes in a long breath, one knows that one is breathing in long " as the Buddha put it. This is clearly a conceptual act and it is focused on a specific object (note that the Buddha never uses the abstract term "object", which only came into use later). Terms like "bare" perception are also misleading. I have no idea what that might be. Mindfulness practice should be judged as effective or not in terms of whether it actually works in practice, i.e. in enabling human life to flourish in the context of the eightfold path, rather than whether it seems immune or not from certain potential misuses.
2. Your interpretation of Buddhism seems quite open-ended. Does that mean there are no "wrong views" of Buddhism -- that is, do any Buddhists flat-out get the dharma all wrong? Or does it depend on how one defines dharma?
SB: I am not sure my interpretation of Buddhism is so open-ended. As a liberal, I seek to respect the integrity of anyone's Buddhist practice, even if I personally find what the person believes or does not to be in accord with what I regard as the Dharma taught by the Buddha. The Dharma has been defined and put into practice in various ways throughout Buddhism's history, which, for me, is a sign of its adaptability and flexibility in meeting new human needs. I do not, however, endorse a relativism, where all views about Buddhism are equally valid. I feel a certain urgency in our contemporary situation to recover as best we can the import of what Siddhattha Gotama taught in the 5th century BCE. This seems to me to be a requirement of a culture that values historical consciousness. In this way, we might be able to gain a clearer understanding of how subsequent Buddhist schools either developed on core ideas of the Buddha or adopted ideas and practices that went off in directions that seem less compatible with those core ideas.
3. Do you still find meditation to be a critical aspect of your personal practice? Do get to it everyday?
SB: I very much believe that we need to expand the concept of "practice" to include areas of our life other than just what we do on the cushion for a set time each day. The Buddha presented the eightfold path as that which was to be practiced, not just meditation—though, clearly, meditation is a central and key part of that path. I do not always do formal meditation on a daily basis.
4. Thank-you for your teaching Stephen. To what extent would you say that a true state of mindfulness, or being awake, is more challenging to attain now than at the time of the Buddha? The astonishing advances in technology have led us to the point where are almost always 'available', or being bombarded on all sides by sounds and images. There has perhaps never been a greater need than now to stop and take real notice of what is around us.
SB: I recognize that the modern world bombards us with a greater number of distractions than existed at the Buddha's time, but I am not sure that the basic issues of the human condition that he addresses in his teaching have changed signficantly in the last 2,500 years. If they had, then why do the teachings so often seem to speak so directly to us today? If egoism, compulsive behavior, noise and bustle etc., had not been a problem at the Buddha's time, then why did he lay so much emphasis on combatting their distracting power? I wonder sometimes if this tendency to blame the conditions of modern life for our inability to become more awake is not just another strategy or excuse to avoid facing up fully to the dukkha (suffering) to which the Buddha points.