I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Buddhism. The bestseller Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright, which I critiqued here and talked about with Wright here, has dredged up memories of past encounters with Buddhists. One is the teacher and author Stephen Batchelor, whom I interviewed while writing my 2003 book Rational Mysticism. I didn’t tell the story of our meeting in Rational Mysticism, but I’m going to tell it now, because I find Batchelor’s version of Buddhism appealing, and I think others might too. This is an edited version of an essay originally posted on my personal website. -- John Horgan
Contrary creatures that we are, we like to think our innermost thoughts are unique to us, and yet we want confirmation, too. It can thus be unnerving and exhilarating to discover our private musings expressed in someone else’s words. I had this uncanny sensation in 1997 when I was flipping through a magazine and stumbled on the following passage:
"I was walking through a pine forest, returning to my hut along a narrow path trodden into the steep slope of the hillside. I struggled forward carrying a blue plastic bucket filled with fresh water that I had just collected from a source at the upper end of the valley. I was then suddenly brought to a halt by the upsurge of the sheer mystery of everything. I was as though I were lifted up onto the crest of a shivering wave which abruptly swelled from the ocean that was life itself. How is it that people can be unaware of this most obvious question? I asked myself. How can anyone pass their life without responding to it?"
The passage was from The Faith to Doubt, a book by Stephen Batchelor, a British Buddhist, published in 1990. His epiphany took place in 1980 when he was studying Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama. The experience was not "an illumination in which some final, mystical truth became momentarily very clear," Batchelor said. "For me it gave no answers. It only revealed the massiveness of the question."
Batchelor's epiphany became the touchstone of his life. He ended up drifting away from Tibetan Buddhism, which offered no help in understanding his experience, and toward Zen, which was more compatible with his outlook. Zen masters are fond of citing the adage: "Great doubt, great enlightenment. Little doubt, little enlightenment. No doubt, no enlightenment."
Re-reading Buddha’s original teachings, Batchelor decided that Buddha’s followers had transformed his simple teachings into a religion, complete with theological dogma, moral strictures and rituals. In Buddhism Without Beliefs, Batchelor advocated a bare-bones Buddhism, one that "strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here" and leaves us in a state of acute existential awareness.
He emphasized that this state is not always pleasant. When we truly confront reality, we "tremble on that fine line between exhilaration and dread." In fact, there is no better way to confront the "enormity of having been born," he contended, than to ponder our own mortality. Batchelor advocated sitting in silence while dwelling upon the following question: "Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?" Ideally, this meditation will "jolt us awake to the sensuality of existence."
Batchelor described himself as an "agnostic Buddhist." Agnosticism is often denigrated as a passive worldview, the philosophical equivalent of a shrug. But true agnosticism, Batchelor contended, consists of "an intense perplexity that vibrates through the body and leaves the mind that seeks certainty nowhere to rest."
Batchelor didn’t need to convince me to see the world this way. Since I first took psychedelics as a teenager, I’ve been convinced that the world is infinitely improbable. We should be perpetually overcome with astonishment at our own existence. Reading Batchelor, I felt as though I had found a soul mate.
So I was thrilled when in January 2000 he agreed to meet me for an interview at the Manhattan apartment of a Buddhist friend he was visiting. Batchelor was a soft-spoken man of medium height and build. He had grey hair, thinning on top and brushed back, and he wore glasses with greenish rims. We were born the same year, 1953. We sat at a table on which stood a vase containing three branches studded with cherry blossoms.
As we spoke, Batchelor’s gaze occasionally drifted over to the window beside us, which looked out on the dark brownstones of Greenwich Village. His demeanor was both diffident and firm. When I asked him about his history, he warned that he suspected his own reconstruction of his youthful states of mind. But he could give me some facts. He was born in Scotland. His parents separated when he was quite young, and he grew up with his mother in a town north of London. In his teens, he took LSD, marijuana, and other drugs and read counter-culture classics such as Be Here Now.
Batchelor thought Ram Dass's book "showed, in what may seem now like very simplistic and naive language, a passageway from the psychedelic experience into a kind of Eastern spirituality and mysticism. And that I think served as a very important bridge at that time."
In 1972, bored by his education and by England, he traveled east. Eventually he arrived in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama was living in exile from his native Tibet. The Tibetans entranced the young Englishman. "This was a people who were dispossessed," Batchelor explained, "and yet in the midst of that they retained this warmth, and almost luminous kind of intelligence."
He started learning Tibetan and undergoing training as a monk. Gradually, in spite of his admiration for his Tibetan teachers, he became disaffected by their form of Buddhism. "What they taught was so defined by Tibetan history and culture that I increasingly found the practices and so forth didn’t mesh with my yearnings, my longings, my needs as a westerner."
His frustration was brought to a head by his 1980 epiphany, in which he felt the mystery of existence so acutely. None of his psychedelic or meditative experiences had prepared him for this sensation. "It was one of those experiences that came completely out of the blue and utterly shocked me." The experience "probably didn’t last for more than a few minutes in its intensity, but it’s never left me either," Batchelor said. "And the work I have done since has been an attempt to somehow articulate that."
Batchelor initially assumed that his Tibetan teachers would be familiar with his experience and help him understand it, but they were baffled. He realized that the Tibetan language did not really have the words and terms that he needed to convey the gist of his revelation. For example, he could not translate the seemingly simple sentence, "The world appeared to me as a question," into Tibetan. "I can say it, but it’s meaningless, it’s gobbledygook." As a result, he became "acutely conscious of the limits of Tibetan Buddhist culture."
Batchelor squirmed a bit when I asked if his experience could be described as “mystical.” He was ambivalent about the term. It suggests "some visional insight into the nature of reality that somehow cuts through the veil of appearances into something transcendent, beyond, that’s wholly other." To Batchelor, spirituality is about seeing this reality right here and now, in front of us.
I asked Batchelor why he called himself an agnostic Buddhist rather than just an agnostic. He admitted that he sometimes asks himself the same question. "Especially when I run up against the rather more rigid, dogmatic forms of Buddhism, I think, ‘Why am I still bothering with this stuff?’" But he still felt at home in Buddhism. "That doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with it. Perhaps that means I’m like Catholics who spend their whole time berating the Vatican." He smiled. "I sometimes compare Buddhism to the tinder on matchbooks. If I didn’t have it there, I wouldn’t be able to get any spark."
Batchelor rejected Buddhist doctrines such as reincarnation. The idea that individual human souls persist in some disembodied form even after the body dies is "very difficult to square with the world as we know it through the sciences." He did not rule out the possibility of life after death. He simply believed that we cannot know one way or the other. "I don’t find those questions terribly interesting, to be honest. I certainly don’t feel they have much to do with what I consider to be the heart of my Buddhist or spiritual practice. I’m indifferent. I could live with it either way."
Belief in reincarnation or an afterlife, while perhaps consoling, diverts us from an honest confrontation with death. "To hold death as a question, again, to me is central. I guess it goes back to that experience again. I’m not saying that’s easy or comfortable, but it’s true to what I can understand." He accepted the notion of karma, if it is defined simply as the fact that our actions in this world have consequences in this world, and not in some ethereal afterlife.
Batchelor had no interest in supernatural phenomena, which distract us from “the wondrousness of what is right before our eyes and ears, all the time." The world revealed by science is much more fantastical and counter-intuitive and wondrous than the world as it is portrayed by Tibetan Buddhism or Christianity or New Age pseudo-prophets. "The scientific descriptions of the world generate to me a much deeper sense of awe and wonder than these Buddhist and religious sorts of fantasies."
Batchelor still believed in enlightenment, or "awakening." As he understood it, enlightenment is not a state of permanent bliss and beatitude. It begins as a transitory experience that fades but leaves you permanently altered. "You somehow have a glimpse of the world from another perspective. But the actual path begins there. It doesn’t end there."
The questions posed by life and death demand "a response," Batchelor said, "both intellectually, ethically, socially, politically. But that response is always provisional and partial and incomplete. And in a sense it stimulates an ever-greater appreciation of, almost, the infinity of the question. So I see the path very much as a trajectory--an ongoing, open-ended trajectory into the future--rather than something that can be finalized by a belief system, or some scientific discovery, or by the claim of some guru, or whatever."
Batchelor said he no longer meditated every day. "I am a meditation teacher who doesn’t meditate any more," he said, smiling sheepishly. Although he once found meditation "extraordinarily valuable," over time it came to seem like "a kind of evasion, really. It was a cutting off from experience, rather than a full-blooded engagement with all of its ambiguities and messiness." He tried to cultivate his existential awareness through writing now more than through meditation. "I write and think and struggle with questions. That’s my practice."
Batchelor realized that his anti-belief outlook could ossify into still another belief. "Any statement you make, however skeptical it might appear, could serve as the basis for yet another kind of fixed view. ‘Doubt everything’ could become a dogma." He tried to apply his doubt toward his own opinions as well as those of others. He sought to keep his outlook fresh in his writing by deliberately introducing discontinuities into his narrative. He hoped thereby to "reflect something of the Zen idea of the suddenness, abruptness of insight and understanding, something that breaks into life."
It was late afternoon. The sun had vanished behind a sooty water tower across the street. Gazing out the window Batchelor murmured, more to himself than to me, "That’s beautiful." And it was. The grimy, cluttered cityscape was redeemed by the sky above it—pale violet and cloudless, with the transparency that only winter skies have.
Batchelor grimaced when I asked if he believed that life is fundamentally good. "Good is such an anthropocentric, anthropomorphic idea. To characterize reality as good is like characterizing reality as having purpose," he answered. "It’s another consolatory device." He paused. "I mean I’m glad it’s all here," he continued, "but then to label it as good is..."
Frowning, Batchelor looked out the window again. Life’s goodness, he continued, is inseparable from its dark aspects, from pain and cruelty and injustice. Good and evil "have to go together. They are polarities that are meaningless independent of one another."
As I put my notebook and tape recorder away, Batchelor kept mulling over his awkward relationship to Buddhism. Maybe at some point he would break away from it, he said. Especially in its American version, Buddhism can be awfully stuffy, conservative, and dogmatic. He worried that it might seem gimmicky for him to announce that he was no longer a Buddhist. Also, he might appear ungrateful and hypocritical, after all that Buddhism had done for him. But still, at some point...
Batchelor stood in the middle of the twilit room, lost in thought.
A subway got me to Grand Central Station just in time to catch my train home. Hurtling north through the night along the Hudson River, I took my notebook out and scribbled down a few thoughts. Batchelor really seemed to dwell in a state of profound uncertainty. It wasn’t a pose. There was a restless, unsettled quality to him. But was that cultivated or congenital? Perhaps he advocated a spirituality that suited—and justified--his temperament. And his spirituality appealed to me because my temperament resembled his.
And that was what worried me. Batchelor seemed trapped within his own skepticism. His anti-belief philosophy did not even permit him the consolation of saying that life is good. I like to think of my skepticism as a position that I arrived at freely. But maybe it is hard-wired into me, like color-blindness, or tone-deafness. Maybe spirituality is a matter of genes and memes, not of the choices we think we make.
I realized that I had forgotten to tell Batchelor my joke. I had thought of the perfect mantra for cultivating awe before the mystery of existence. Instead of "Om" or other familiar mantras, you repeat the phrase "Duhhhh...." Probably just as well, the mood hadn’t been right.
The man sitting to my left was snoring softly, mouth agape. His head and neck were tucked into a yoke-shaped inflatable pillow. I put my notebook away and stared into space, listening to the rhythmic rumble of the train. Occasionally something luminous sliding past the train window caught my eye: the seamed canvas domes of indoor tennis courts, a junkyard crammed with dead cars, the lights of a harbor on the Hudson River’s far bank, the turreted walls of Sing Sing Prison.