Martine & Stephen



Wes Nisker interviews Stephen Batchelor for Inquiring Mind.


IM: At the end of your book The Awakening of the West, you quote Thich Nhat Hanh saying "the forms of Buddhism must change so that the essence remains the same." After tracing the course of Buddha Dharma through so many lands and incarnations, what do you believe is the essence?

SB: This is a question I've asked myself for a long time, and I can't honestly say that I know the answer. One of the things that happened to me in writing this book was that I had to expand the boundaries of what I would include as “Buddhist”. As a result I find it even more difficult to define “Buddhism”. In a sense the question is a very Western, rationalistic approach to the subject. “What is Buddhism?” The question itself is questionable.

            That aside, I would venture to say that the essence which unites all Buddhist traditions is the idea of freedom. Specifically, freedom from the causes of suffering: greed, hatred, and delusion. While this is usually defined as an “inner” or spiritual freedom, it also forms the basis of an “outer” or cultural freedom.

            Increasingly, I see Buddhism as a culture: a complex, interrelated system of values and practices that inform every aspect of human life. For instance, the early Theravadins describe the world as a vale of woe, which is the world seen from the perspective of anguish, whereas the Vajrayanists describe the world as radiant and beautiful, which is how it is seen from the perspective of freedom.  All these different perspectives together give rise to what we might best call a “culture.”

            Since each of the Asian Buddhist schools tend to see one perspective of the Dharma as being true, or more true than the others, we get a lot of bickering over what is the highest teaching, the purest teaching, and so on. I don't think that will happen so much in the West, because we are encountering all traditions at once: Theravadin, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren. The perspective of any one of those traditions is, to my mind, always partial because it is looking at the world from one point of view. The challenge in the West, it seems to me, is to find a way of incorporating all perspectives.  To do this will entail working towards a definition of Buddhist culture, which will respect, even celebrate, the differences, while providing a coherent overview.


IM: What your book makes clear, is that Buddhism has been shaped by the different national cultures that have arisen at particular moments in its history.

SB: Quite true. Each form of Buddhism is an instance of historical dependent co-arising. Unfortunately, most Buddhist centers and meditation retreats do not teach Buddhist history. The various traditions are often blind to their own historical development, and therefore unaware of how their different national cultures have helped shape their current understanding and practice of Buddha Dharma. I would hope that the Buddhism of the modern world will emerge with more historical consciousness, and therefore more tolerance for differences.

IM: In the Pali texts the historical Buddha often seems to be addressing a particular class of people, notably "the well-born sons and daughters." Perhaps those early followers of the Buddha were the social equivalent of the highly educated and mostly middle-class folks who have now taken up Buddhism in the West.

SB: Yes, I think that's right. One can imagine the Buddha, during his time, as having had the same status and authority that a Nobel Prize winning physicist would have in our culture today.  He was someone who, by virtue of what he accomplished, became worthy of the greatest respect. We have to remember that the Buddha was speaking in the context of a culture which supported and valued spiritual realization as the highest form of achievement. In the West we have a rather different set of cultural values that define what is worthy of respect.

            It has always been the case, historically, that the Dharma has entered a society through first gaining acceptance by an articulate minority, through whom it then spreads into the rest of the culture.  At the Buddha’s time this minority were the samanas - drop-outs effectively - who sought another way of life to the one currently on offer.  It was the same in China:  those initially drawn to Buddhism were disaffected intellectuals and Taoist hermits.  It is no coincidence that those of us involved in Buddhism in the West tend to be products of the Sixties’ counter-culture, intellectuals, artists, eco-nuts and so on.

IM: Don't you find it curious that most of the great thinkers and philosophers of the Western world have either ignored or dismissed Buddhist thought and practice?

SB: Most Western thinkers are still stuck in their own Eurocentricity. They seem convinced that philosophy has it's origins in Plato and is an exclusive exercise of the West. Even someone like Nietzsche, who begins to question the assumptions of Western philosophy, does not look to the East for other sources of philosophical inquiry but instead goes further back into Western history, to the pre-Socratics. Camus and Sartre, who were considered radical, are really only radical within the confines of their own European paradigm.

            It is amazing to me that even today, Buddhism has failed to gain notice in Western philosophical circles. One of the most famous of modern thinkers, Michel Foucault, goes right into Buddhist territory with many of his ideas, yet he never makes a reference to Buddhism. The same with Richard Rorty, one of the most important contemporary American philosophers, whose book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity reads in part almost like a Buddhist text. His analysis of the contingency of the self, for example, is a pure Buddhist analysis, but he never even mentions Buddhism.      

            What Western philosophy lacks and Buddhism provides is a system of praxis. Buddhism is not just about philosophical ideas, information and theories. It offers systematic ways of realizing and integrating ideas and ideals into your own life, actually transforming the way you experience the world. That is really what distinguishes Buddhist from Western philosophy.

IM: In the West, the only praxis seems to have been more thinking. Let's think our way out of this problem we thought up for ourselves.

SB: Yes, it's an exercise in futility. I also find it rather bizarre when I meet Western academics and discover that their lives seem to be somehow disconnected from their work as philosophers. Generally speaking, you don't find such a wide gap when you meet Tibetan lamas or Zen masters.

            On the other hand, I think there is a mistaken tendency in the West to see Buddhism as anti-intellectual. The Dharma is regarded as a Rousseau-like condemnation of reason and an elevation of feeling and intuition to some sort of ideal state. People approach Dharma as a resurgent romanticism, as a way to get back in touch with their feelings. They mistake going beyond the limitations of thinking with abandoning thinking - and simply end up with sloppy thinking.  In fact, Buddhism has a very rigorous culture of reason. Just read the dialogues in the Pali Canon - the Buddha was certainly no new-age, touchy-feely type.  We must remember that the Buddha's Eightfold Noble Path begins with right understanding, a carefully reasoned view of reality. The Buddha didn't start with meditation and mindfulness; the first step is to find a coherent intellectual understanding of the causes of suffering and the path to freedom.


IM: Buddhism may not be penetrating Western philosophy, but it does seem to be having an impact on Western psychology. Perhaps psychology is the venue through which Buddhist ideas and practices will find their way into the mainstream of Western culture.


SB:  Yes, I suspect this may be the case.  Today we are certainly a more psychologically literate than we are philosophically literate.  With its emphasis on the psychological origins of anguish and its provision of a methodology to uproot them, Buddhism clearly has a great deal in common with the contemporary practice of psychology.  It is no coincidence that a great number of those drawn to Buddhism have either been through psychotherapy or are practising as psychotherapists.  Such people would seem to be one of those articulate minorities, through whom the Dharma might spread into the wider culture.

            There is, however, a danger that Buddhism could be reduced to  psychotherapy, just as, for instance, yoga has been reduced to an exercise routine. The Hatha yoga of Patanjali is part of an integral spiritual system, but often it is taught outside of that context, thus diminishing its broader significance. I am concerned that Buddhism does not get reduced in this way to what one might call "single practice" Buddhism. It's not just about doing a certain kind of meditation, or trying to iron out the kinks in your psyche.  As a culture, Buddhism engages the whole of one’s life.

IM: Perhaps Buddhism will be good medicine for the millenial anxieties of the Western world. Maybe an infusion of Dharma will slow us down and offer us a shot of the sanity and humility we so desperately need at this moment in our history.

SB: We can only hope so. I think much of what Buddhism teaches is subversive to the consumerist ethos of the West.  Like "Breathe and smile" or "Just sit." These are subversive ideas in that they introduce quite other notions of what being human is all about.  Buddhism challenges many of the values and priorities of our culture.  So far the Western cultural establishment has tended to ignore Buddhism as the marginal preoccupation of a few.  If it becomes more widespread, though, then we can expect a more concerted critique - which would be a very good thing since it would force Buddhists to articulate more clearly what they value.  The Pope’s recent denunciation of Buddhism in his best-selling book may just be the opening salvo in this cross-cultural exchange.  There is a lot at stake.

This interview was conducted by Wes Nisker for Inquiring Mind in Berkeley, California, 1995.

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