How Does Buddhism Speak to Us Today: An Interview with Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor talks to Buddhadharma deputy editor Koun Franz about the importance of study in Buddhist practice and the relevance of the Buddha’s teachings to modern life.

Koun Franz
3 December 2019
Stephen Batchelor. Photo via Bodhi College.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, about the role of study in Buddhist practice. Often, it seems Buddhists fall into talking about two possible paths: that of the practitioner, and that of the scholar, as if there’s no one path wide enough for both approaches. Batchelor bridges that gap, showing how practice opens up questions we can pursue with an attitude of curiosity—not just by going deeper into the practice but by investigating its foundations, the arguments against it, Western philosophy, psychology, and more, going wherever the questions may lead.

—Koun Franz

Koun Franz: I want to focus on the question of study and the role of study in relation to the Buddhist path. I know this is a kind of a big topic for you. What study is for you, what, how do you define that?

Stephen Batchelor: I think study in a dharma context has to do with arriving at a more fully-rounded and integrated understanding of the dharma, utilizing and valorizing both the reflective critical functions of our minds and our rational functions, which one seeks to bring into alignment, to support the formal, more contemplative practices, like shamatha-vipassana and so on.

Study is an integral part for me of what it means to arrive at a fully rounded comprehension of a particular theme or topic or insight of the dharma.

Study, for me, has always been an integral part of my practice. I find it hard to understand how someone could somehow dismiss it as irrelevant or missing the point. I hear people say things like, you know, “I don’t need to study, I want to practice.” The best response I’ve heard to that was when I was training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, 30 or 40 years ago. We were doing a course, which was extremely dry, on Buddhist logic and syllogisms with an old Mongolian Lama called Geshe Ngawang Nyima. And one of the students at the end of the class said, “Why do we have to do all this study? Why can’t we do more practice?” And he said, “If you really knew how to study, you would be practicing.” That, to me, has always been my point of reference with regard to this question. Study — developing and refining one’s critical faculty of reason — is an integral part for me of what it means to arrive at a fully rounded comprehension of a particular theme or topic or insight of the dharma.

KF: When you’re working with a teacher, it’s very clear what to study, because someone says, “Study this.” But many of the people who read our magazines are a little more isolated. They’re working out the practice for themselves. How do we know what to study?

SB: I think you have to follow your nose. If your meditation practice is something that leads to your asking certain kinds of questions — I would very much hope that it throws your sense of who you are, of what the world is, into question. As soon as we step back in meditation — whatever practice we’re doing — it opens up a space whereby our habitual assumptions and beliefs and views and opinions are allowed to be questioned. As soon as such a questioning occurs, then you are embarking on a process that could entail what we call studying. For many people, that might involve reading books, it might involve listening to podcasts, it might involve actually attending courses online. There’s an amazing amount of stuff that is now available.

You don’t need a teacher to somehow say, “Okay, now we’ve covered this and these are the sort of issues you need to be clear about. And now we’re going to go onto that.” You’re kind of thrown back on your own resources really. The key, to me, is being more and more clear about what other questions your practice is giving rise to that call for some kind of clarity and consonance and coherence within everything else you believe. A primary part of study is learning to bring your various insights — what you’ve learned from life itself, really — into alignment.

Something useful, particularly those in isolation, is to start writing down what you think, you know. It’s sometimes quite interesting. You’re on retreat, for example, you and you arrive at what feels to be a really new insight into something or other. Write it down. Articulate it. Spell it out. Set yourself a little project, like, describe this in a thousand words or five hundred words, and then start writing it out. As soon as you start writing, you get much closer to the actual logic of your thinking. What this often leads to is you realize that actually it’s not as clear-cut and coherent as you thought. And also — and I find this again and again — by writing down what you think you understand, it leads you to places that you otherwise may not have reached.

I find again and again that the writing I do — which is my vocation really — is not just a transcription of my brilliant ideas. It’s actually part of the learning process itself. It’s through the writing that I push against the envelope of what I currently understand and the different sentences that unfold in a paragraph very often take me to something I hadn’t really thought of before. And I don’t think I would have done that just by doing a few more hours on the cushion. So, to me, the process of writing — or maybe writing poetry, maybe painting a picture, maybe giving articulate form to your practice — is a very integral part of making that practice become more and more lucid and clear in terms of what it reveals about yourself and others in the world.

KF: I love this exercise of asking people to write down what they know. Because I suspect that if we’re honest that that list is pretty short.

SB: When we start analyzing what it is we think we know, it doesn’t turn out to be as secure and certain as we might have imagined. But, at the same time, we hold lots of opinions and views, but they may not be registered consciously as opinions and views. So, study is a way of functioning as a kind of an internal critical investigation into your own assumptions — into your own views.

Buddhist teachers make all kinds of incredible claims. They talk about absolute truth, for example. Now, whoa, I think that could be looked at a little carefully. The language of Buddhist teaching often makes considerable metaphysical claims. “The ultimate nature of reality is emptiness.” What does that mean? I mean, what’s going on? Does that really make sense? How does that work within everything else I think?

KF: It also seems that another benefit of study is that you can be challenged by it. Especially if you’re not working with a teacher. It’s so easy to design a Buddhism that’s made just for you — that perfectly suits your own preferences and tastes and worldview. We need something to interrupt that.

SB: This is very crucial. I think as one develops a relationship with the classical texts, in particular, the canonical texts in the different schools, you constantly find yourself exposed to ways of thinking that you either don’t understand actually seems to contradict what you think. So, to me, the process of study is really being willing to engage in an ongoing conversation. I find that what I really value most in study is being able to engage in a dialogue with the textual tradition. When I read a Pali sutta, or The Record of Lin-chi, or something, it’s not just that this is some objective bunch of data that I have to intellectually get to grips with; I find myself in dialogue with the Buddha or Sariputta or Lin-chi, or whoever it is. And it’s that dialogic relationship to texts that I think is what drives the process of study forward — both in challenging your own views and, also, it can sometimes reveal inadequacies within the written texts as well. Ideas that perhaps were fine 2000 years ago, but nowadays we might not give such credence to. So, it’s a two-way process. In traditional Tibetan training, this would be done through the process of debate, which I did for many years.

KF: I’m interested in the idea of debate. Debate hasn’t found a lot of foothold in the West. I wonder if you have thoughts on how communities can establish a kind of space around that, where it’s not just that people are arguing with each other, but they’re taking up a debate intentionally as, as part of this process. How would people begin that and start to dig into the value of that?

SB: I think we first have to say a few things about how the tradition has utilized debate. We must be a little careful to think of Tibetan Buddhist debate in the Gelug school — where it mainly goes on — as a kind of Socratic, unconditional inquiry into what the hell is going on. It’s actually more a training methodology to get clear about the logic of the tradition’s own arguments. In other words, it’s using logic and reason as a means to support your understanding of the doctrines. Ultimately, I think, it supports your faith. I think debate will only get you so far.

As a teacher today, I don’t instruct people in debate. I think it would have limited value to transpose this tradition into English and to do it as the Tibetan Buddhists have done.

But, it’s very common in Buddhism to assume that you have a lama or roshi or ajahn on a throne at the end of the room. And this person will sometimes speak for one or two hours without interruption, delivering the great truths of the dharma. And maybe it’s a brilliant talk, but the audience is very often left passive, meant to just absorb all this stuff. There might be a few questions added on at the end. I think we have to really question that as the normative learning model that the Buddhist tradition has passed down to us. It’s a very authoritarian model of learning. It somehow rests implicitly upon the insight, or the enlightenment, of the teacher. And the student is effectively supposed to just be a passive recipient of this knowledge. Of course, a lot of this knowledge is practical — the teacher is trying to get you to do something, but often the “do something” is to go and meditate more or to go and do good works in the community or whatever. I feel that there’s a lot can be gained by challenging that learning model.

I feel it’s really crucial to enable students to struggle with what’s being taught to them so that they are forced to think more deeply with some of these ideas.

So, get the teacher to speak less. Instead of speaking for an hour, speak for 20 minutes — and I’m talking about myself as a teacher. I’ve started doing this more and more, and then immediately breaking up the room into little groups and go over this stuff. What have you understood from what’s just been said? But more importantly, what don’t you understand? What questions has this brought up? And then, after 20-30 minutes of doing that, you bring the questions back to the larger group as a way to feed back to the teacher and the fellow students how you’re actually processing this material yourself. You’re not just a recipient. You’re an active learner. This kind of peer learning is a modern pedagogical tool that I think is probably just as effective as the traditional debate system. I feel it’s really crucial to enable students to struggle with what’s being taught to them so that they are forced to think more deeply with some of these ideas.

KF: I was just talking to a teacher the other day who described a system almost identical to what you just described. I wonder if we’re moving in that direction. It’s, it’s an exciting direction, if so.

SB: Yeah, I kind of hope so. It’s emerging. It’s emerged fairly organically out of my own teaching work. But I have had a number of conversations with one friend who’s an educational psychologist, working completely independently of Buddhism. That has been very helpful. I think the Western educational systems have really considered different modalities of learning and I can only see that our Buddhist traditions can gain from that.

KF: We’ve been talking about study primarily in terms of studying the dharma. Are there other fields of study that you feel are also critical to developing that worldview? In terms of science or history or of art — what place does that have in this conversation?

SB: I think it has a huge place in this conversation. I think there’s often a risk in formal Buddhist educations. You’re basically being enclosed within a circle of teachers, students, monks, and nuns, and the aim of the study is to get as good an understanding of your tradition’s views and reasoning as you possibly can. That’s all very well in your sangha, but it’s probably going to be of limited value in how you actually embody and address these ideas in your everyday life. Most of us are probably not interacting with other Buddhists most of the time.

So, since I came back from India when I did my first training in the early seventies, my study of Buddhism has always gone side by side with the study of Western philosophy Western theology. I studied a lot of theology, psychology, science. To be quite honest, I read more non-Buddhist materials than Buddhist materials. At the moment, I’m reading an extraordinary book by Martin Hägglund, who’s a professor of philosophy at Yale called This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Remarkable book. I’m also reading I’m reading Seneca’s Epistles to Lucilius. I think there’s a lot to be gained by going back to the Greek Hellenistic traditions, which I think are very, very similar — lots of family resemblances to the Buddhist practices. The last two weekends, I was teaching with my colleague John peacock in Amsterdam and London. We didn’t cite anybody’s texts. We just worked with Lucretius and Epicurus and presented the dharma through them.

And also — and this can sometimes be more challenging for some Buddhists — is reading other what the other Buddhist traditions say, and to have a better understanding of how your own tradition is historically situated. Nowadays, in the West, we are unavoidably exposed to perspectives on Buddhism that are not going to be the same as ours. And yet they could be those of our friends living across the road. It’s something we can’t ignore anymore. We don’t have the luxury of that geographical isolation that most Buddhist cultures have evolved in.

So, study — as we can see from this conversation — can take us everywhere. One might argue: Well, where do we draw the line? I mean, we can’t study all of this stuff. We just don’t have the time. We have specific things we really need to get to grips with. Again, my advice has to be, as I said earlier: follow your nose, see, see which ideas really grip you, and then see where they have their origin, see who else has spoken about them. Start to develop your own little journey through literature and books. And in doing so, I think you may find a great richness.

KF: Finally, can you tell us about Bodhi College?

SB: Yes, it’s a European educational initiative, primarily focused on the study and the practice of what we call “Early Buddhism.” In other words, going back primarily to the Pali and also some Chinese sources that preserve what the Buddha and his immediate disciples said and did two-and-a-half thousand years ago, trying to get back to these original texts before they mutated into the different forms that we now know of Buddhism. It’s trying to get back to the Buddha before Buddhism — the dharma, before it became an Indian religion. So, Bodhi college offers a number of module-based courses.

We’re small-scale. We have a small faculty. But we’ve been running now for four or five years and we’re trying to very much engage with these ideas, not just out of historical interest — that is part of it — but particularly to ask ourselves: What do these primary Buddhist ideas have to say to our lives in the world today, in the secular world in which we live? How do they speak to our condition, now? How can we integrate and internalize some of these insights to make our lives flourish more fully in the non-Buddhist environment that many of us live in?

KF: Thank you.

Koun Franz

Koun Franz

Koun Franz is a Soto Zen priest. He leads practice at Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia.