A Skeptic's Path to Enlightenment podcast logo - meditator with headphones

Buddhism Without Beliefs with Stephen Batchelor

stephen batchelor buddhism without beliefs

subscribe for free AND GET the latest PODCAST episodes in your favorite player:

Nearly 30 years ago, Stephen Batchelor wrote a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs that’s become a foundational work for those seeking to adopt Buddhism into a non-religious form while still maintaining the power and authenticity of its time tested practices. I had a chance to speak with Stephen Batchelor recently from his home in France, where he shared his own creative struggle with Buddhism: from his origins as an ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk to becoming a skeptical agnostic who admits that he simply doesn’t know the answers to life’s biggest questions.

[00:00:55] Scott Snibbe: Stephen Batchelor, it’s an absolute pleasure to have a chance to speak with you. Your books have been very influential to me. Guide to Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, is my desert island book—the book I would bring if I could only bring one book to an island for the rest of my life, honestly, it’s your translation of this text.

It’s the one we studied and I’ve even compared the different versions and how you soften things from evil to wrongdoing and so on. I’ve compared it to the other translations and yours I find the most beautiful, poetic, and powerful. Thanks just for that, and the many other things we’ll talk about today.

[00:02:01] Stephen Batchelor: Thank you, that’s kind. I cut my teeth with classical Tibetan translating that book. I did it when I was in my early 20s, and it was such a wonderful experience. Not just the translation process itself, but the whole experience of getting close as one can to a figure such as Shantideva.

Stephen’s journey with Buddhism

[00:02:24] Scott Snibbe: Then you had, as we call it in the West, a crisis of faith. Can you start off by talking about your journey from someone deeply committed to traditional Buddhist doctrine to where you are today?

[00:02:37] Stephen Batchelor: Basically I set out for India when I was 18-years-old. I left my home near London, went overland—as many of us did—and ended up in Dharamsala in 1972. It was the only place really in India, at that time, that was offering courses to Westerners. I became a novice monk at that period.

Then when Geshe Rabten was appointed Abbot of the Tibetan Monastery in Switzerland, I went with him, as part of a small group that he offered to train in the Geshe studies. We had to do this in Tibetan because at that time none of these texts were translated or very few of them were available in English.

I accepted those doctrines, but they didn’t completely rationally make sense. That was my faith as it were. I was very much committed to this project. But at the end of the day, I found that the arguments—for example, rebirth—simply didn’t cut the ice. They were not even valid arguments in terms of the Tibetans own criteria of what constitutes a valid argument. I found that logic was being used basically to prop up faith, so I did run into a bit of a brick wall with the training in philosophy.

What also probably contributed more to my crisis of faith, as you put it, was not so much my difficulty in accepting certain arguments, that I could have dealt with. It was the fact that there were certain elements within Tibetan Buddhism that I found very challenging. One of them was guru devotion.

I was extremely close to Geshe Rabten. He was one of the men who certainly had the most influence in my life and continues to do so. It’s nothing personal with Geshe la. But the idea of somehow giving away my autonomy to another person, as the Tibetan texts say, giving my power, rung wong, to the guru’s, gen wong, his other power, and surrendering myself in that way was not a practice that I could really do in good faith.

The other problem was that I didn’t find that the Vajrayana practices that I’d been initiated into, and I was practicing on a daily basis, were actually working for me. It really didn’t speak to me. Or let’s say I got to the point where I realized that this was just not my way. I used that moment to follow a longing, an intuition, an attraction to Zen Buddhism, which for the Tibetans is something you don’t go near. But I’d always been drawn to Zen, both to the art, to the quirkiness, and to some of the texts. The whole Chinese approach to Buddhism I found very attractive.

At that time Songwangsa was the only monastery in South Korea that would accept my Tibetan ordination, and there was a handful of other Westerners training there. That was enormously helpful. I’m not suggesting that it somehow supplanted or was better than my Tibetan training. In fact, what I found is that it became a very good balance from all the study I’d done, all of the text I’d read and translated, all of the ideas I’d struggled with. Having this contemplative component very much put my practice into balance.

Songwangsa monastery korea
Source: Stripes Korea

What I found is that Zen Buddhism became a very good balance from all the study I’d done, all of the text I’d read and translated, all of the ideas I’d struggled with.

I did feel the Tibetan Buddhism, as I knew it, was still very much enclosed within the kind of medieval culture that the Tibetans had had until they left Tibet in 1959. I didn’t see much willingness to reform or change this system. For that reason, my writing has primarily been an ongoing struggle, both for myself, and perhaps for my readers too, to try to figure out, what is this stuff all about?

Intuitively, viscerally, I’m very much embedded in Buddhist tradition. I am a Buddhist. It’s very important to me. It’s what has really constituted my life’s work. Yet I feel that sometimes Buddhism is doing itself a disfavor by holding onto and teaching ideas that many people in the modern world can’t swallow or simply do not engage with at all. This is a great shame and I feel that perhaps my work can help the Dharma reach people who otherwise would not find it easy to access through traditional Buddhist traditions.

Yet I feel that sometimes Buddhism is doing itself a disfavor by holding onto and teaching ideas that many people in the modern world can’t swallow or simply do not engage with at all.

What is Buddhism without beliefs?

[00:07:47] Scott Snibbe: You’re not just someone who deeply explored a couple of different Buddhist traditions. But you’re also grappling with perhaps creating a new tradition.

How does Buddhism arrive in the West? What is Buddhism without beliefs?

I read your famous book, Buddhism without Beliefs, early in my Buddhist journey. Some people I know are scared to even read your book, it’s funny. When I tell people I read your book, they’re like, Ooh, I don’t want to read that. I wasn’t scared to read your book and I loved it.

Some people I know are scared to even read your book, it’s funny.

[00:08:16] Stephen Batchelor: I find it very disturbing, frankly, that people are scared of reading a book, that troubles me. I wasn’t brought up in a culture in which you were scared of reading books, they’re human heritage. The Gelug tradition is always saying, Don’t just believe this stuff, examine it as a goldsmith would examine gold. Don’t just take it on faith, that surely is about exploring and questioning.

The Gelug tradition is always saying, Don’t just believe this stuff, examine it as a goldsmith would examine gold.

People think that I dismiss reincarnation, that’s not my position, it never has been. I take an agnostic position. In other words, I just honestly acknowledge that I don’t know. That, to me, is much more interesting than taking a position either pro or contra by believing in a lot of this metaphysics, rebirth, karma, and different realms of existence, on the one hand, and then denying those things, as though they’re just sort of childish nonsense on the other.

I’m interested in the middle way; an agnostic position is one in which, in complete honesty and respect, I have to admit that I do not understand this. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems to me that in order to study Buddhism, you have to first download classical Indian cosmology and metaphysics, then you begin your study. To me, that doesn’t make any sense. I can’t imagine if the Buddha were to appear in the world today that he would try to get everybody to believe in reincarnation. He might, I’ve absolutely no idea, but I doubt it.

I’m interested in the middle way; an agnostic position is one in which, in complete honesty and respect, I have to admit that I do not understand this.

When did you break out of the tradition?

stephen batchelor as a monk
Stephen Batchelor, source: Tricycle

[00:10:12] Scott Snibbe: When did you break out of the tradition entirely and start thinking along this original line of thought?

[00:10:23] Stephen Batchelor: One of the key points was when we actually studied the arguments for reincarnation. Because there I was in good faith; I’d been told that this would sort the problem out, but it doesn’t, it just pushes the problem one step back. The argument only works if you believe consciousness can only emerge from previous moment of consciousness. If you believe that, then yeah, of course it works. That’s the presupposition of the argument, that’s not very helpful.

I think one of the attractions to Tibetan Buddhism was precisely because it offered something I’d been deprived of as a kid. Of course, I was extraordinarily drawn to the Tibetans themselves, not just the Lamas, but the ordinary Tibetans I got to know who lived in Dharamsala. I thought these people embodied something that we don’t have. I’d never come across in my life in London, and I was very, very drawn to that. Someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who radiates these qualities and that too served as an enormous confirmation that following this way could be enormously valuable and fruitful, not just for me, but for others.

Buddhism in Tibet is something that emerged through the encounter between what came from India, from the Nalanda tradition, and then engaged with what was going on in Tibet in the 8th century, then later in the 11th century. It was through the interaction of these two cultures that what we now call Tibetan Buddhism—which I don’t like that as a term, but nonetheless it’ll do—that it emerged. Tibetan Buddhism is very different from Japanese Buddhism or Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Another thing, if you want sort of key points as to what made me question, would be the awareness that all the forms of Buddhism that one can encounter in Asia are all so terribly different, not because one of them is right and the rest are wrong—which is often how traditional Buddhists see it—but actually because they’ve emerged out of very different conditions and circumstances.

In other words, Buddhism is an example of dependent origination, it’s something impermanent, conditional, imperfect, it’s inessential in itself, which is exactly what the dharma teaches. There’s nothing particularly sacred or holy about any particular form of Buddhism, they all work well. They’re very well adapted to the cultures in which they emerged. But I don’t really feel that you can just transpose them into, say, modern California.

In other words, Buddhism is an example of dependent origination, it’s something impermanent, conditional, imperfect, it’s inessential in itself, which is exactly what the dharma teaches.

It’ll work for some people. I have many friends I’ve known for years who are perfectly fine and happy with that particular approach. But I also know through the communications I get from people who’ve read my books, from the programs I give, the talks I give, and so on, that there’s lots of people who have either become disillusioned with Buddhism, because they simply cannot take on board some of these beliefs or these devotions to these lamas they fly through once a year or whatever. Yet they do, like I did, intuitively feel there’s something incredibly valuable here.

But Buddhism, it’s kind of getting in the way of that. Going back to your point about starting another tradition, I certainly don’t see myself as the founder of a tradition, it’s something that actually makes me very uncomfortable, to be quite honest.

I certainly don’t see myself as the founder of a tradition, it’s something that actually makes me very uncomfortable, to be quite honest.

How do you practice Buddhism without beliefs?

[00:14:11] Scott Snibbe: Something you wrote is that the Dharma is not something to believe in, but something to do. Most of my teachers would agree with you that the core of Buddhist psychology is an understanding that certain thoughts and actions lead to happiness, others lead to suffering.

Can you talk practically about how you practice Buddhism without beliefs?

[00:14:33] Stephen Batchelor: This journey is one that’s moved from Buddhism being something to believe into Buddhism is something to practice. I would also question whether in fact Buddhism is about being happy, or somehow no longer suffering. I find that’s very vague. Also, it’s not what I’m primarily interested in. I’m practicing the Dharma not in order to be happy—although I’d love to be happy, that’s a basic human need—I’m practicing the Dharma because I want to lead a rich, full, and meaningful life, even though that may entail a lot of trouble, difficulty, hardship, conflict, and pain. What matters to me, far more than happiness, is meaning and purpose.

I’m practicing the Dharma not in order to be happy—although I’d love to be happy, that’s a basic human need—I’m practicing the Dharma because I want to lead a rich, full, and meaningful life, even though that may entail a lot of trouble, difficulty, hardship, conflict, and pain.

Meaning and purpose is something that I’ve got to work out for myself. Buddhism can provide me with a framework but the actual practice of this is not a practice so that I don’t feel so unhappy and I feel happier, although that would be a lovely byproduct, but is my life being rendered both more meaningful for myself and for others?

Rather than noble truths, I’m talking of noble tasks: to embrace life, to let reactivity be when it arises, to notice and see it come to rest, to notice these moments of non-reactive stillness and quiet. From that stillness, emptiness, openness, that then provides you with the foundation of cultivating a path, specifically the Noble Eightfold Path.

How do you view enlightenment?

enlightenment art, tree with sunset

[00:16:27] Scott Snibbe: This reframing of the first Noble truth as embrace life, this is one of my very favorite things that I’ve read in your work because I do really think it’s a very appropriate translation. You look around and life is not always suffering. Are we suffering right now through this conversation? It also really resonates with the Mahayana view of the beauty you can find in reality. I really love that.

Tell me a little bit about your agnostic perspective on enlightenment. Even among different Buddhisms, there are different views on enlightenment. The Tibetan view is often total omniscience and awareness, the ability to manifest yourself in many bodies in different forms, to benefit beings and perform miracles, things like that. The Japanese version is maybe a little more like a beginning, the satori is like, my path starts now that I’m awake. What is your take?

[00:17:32] Stephen Batchelor: I like to think of awakening far more as a process of waking up than as reaching some sort of sublime goal. There are certainly within that process moments of insight. The Eightfold Path is what really matters, and not as a way to the end of suffering, which is the standard Buddhist way of looking at it, but actually as the way to arriving at another kind of world.

It’s a moment in which your life turns around in a way, shifts away from a life basically driven by habit, reactivity, and conditioning, to a life in which you find an inner freedom, a freedom from reactivity, greed, and hatred. You find moments of stillness and clarity, and that is what then opens up the possibility of living radically differently in this world. We find this again in a very famous parable the Buddha gave. We find it in the Pali Canon.

I don’t know whether it’s in the Tibetan, but it’s about the man who goes into the forest and he finds an ancient path and he follows the ancient path and it leads to the ruins of an ancient city. Then he gets the king and the ministers to get the community to rebuild the ancient city. When he explains that, he says the path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and the city is what it leads to.

The rebuilding of a city is what the practice is about. It’s about creating space in which we can live together on this earth that is organized by the law of the Dharma, the Dharma meaning, of course, law. In other words, it’s about the creating of a kind of society or community, rather than bringing everything to an end in Nirvana.

Reincarnation

[00:19:36] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, a beginning, not an end. I want to go back to the analyses you had of some of these arguments. Because I had exactly the same reaction. I’m a mathematical, scientific type of thinker; I studied computer science, I was good at math. I had the same reactions as you when I learned these arguments. Here’s the argument for continuity of consciousness, to me it was quite obvious that was a very poor argument because it rested on an axiom that consciousness was immaterial. Similarly with the arguments for karma and so on; so I agree with you on those.

I’m curious about your direct experience with living teachers who’ve been recognized as reincarnated, who say they’re reincarnated, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or a lot of my own teachers. I’m old enough now that I’ve seen some of my teachers die and met their reincarnations. I just had lunch with Yangtze Rinpoche a couple of weeks ago, who’s a reincarnated Lama. I’m so curious why that wasn’t convincing, or how those experiences worked into your own beliefs and views. Having spent so much time with “reincarnated” beings myself, that has become firmer evidence than these somewhat poor arguments.

[00:20:57] Stephen Batchelor: To be honest, that hasn’t been my experience. I recognize that many of the most impressive people I’ve met have been tulkus, reincarnate lamas. I’ll give you an example, while I was in Dharamsala, Geshe Rabten, my teacher, started having dreams about where his teacher may have been reborn. He then went to the junior tutor, Trijong Rinpoche, and Trijong Rinpoche was having similar dreams about where this lama was being reborn.

He had been left behind in Tibet. They tracked him down to Manali, and they went into the house that they’d seen in their dreams. This young boy races out and he says, Uncle, uncle. Very impressive, right? This young boy—Lausanne Tenzin—then came with us to Switzerland, I knew him quite well, and he basically wasn’t interested in Buddhism at all. In fact, and this I found very sad, was that towards the end of his life, Geshe Rabten had to admit, Kong Yabo Mindu, he’s no good.

Despite the story of the dreams and so on, which of course ticks all the right boxes, in the end, a young man’s childhood has basically been taken away from him. He’s been thrown into a world that he has no interest in being in, and he’s not the only one. There’s lots of young men who have been recognized as reincarnated lamas, who’ve dropped out of the whole thing and they’ve been disillusioned. I think it’s an almost cruel thing to do to a child, to take them out of their family environment, and train them as young monks from a young age.

I think it’s an almost cruel thing to do to a child, to take them out of their family environment, and train them as young monks from a young age.

It works for some people. In fact, it might have worked very well for me. I’d love to have had that education from the age of 10 or 12, but probably a lot of people don’t. The empirical evidence that you cite does not impress me at all. In fact, it makes me rather concerned about the whole system.

[00:23:13] Scott Snibbe: That makes sense, even His Holiness has said, I’m only sure about three or four of my predecessors. The fact that the process is fallible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 100 percent fallible. Just to push you a little bit on this.

[00:23:28] Stephen Batchelor: That’s not to say that on occasion it doesn’t work. It does produce some wonderful people. I’m not sure though that you would not get the same result were it done basically on a merit-based system. I think probably at its best the Tibetans developed a skill over the centuries in recognizing what we would call the gifted child.

Why is the child gifted? Is it genetics? Is it karma? Who knows. The point is certain kids show from a young age that they are very bright and promising. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that.

How a spiritual practice is like art

Stephen Batchelor's art
Stephen Batchelor’s art

[00:24:07] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned art practice and I wanted to get into that. I have a quote from you, “Dharma practice is more akin to artistic creation than technical problem solving,” which I love because I’m a combination of an artist and technical person. You’ve written in other places and essays about the overlap of art and Buddhism, and you practice various forms of art yourself. I would love it if you could talk about how spiritual practice is like art, and how actual art practice relates to Dharma.

[00:24:37] Stephen Batchelor: Before I was remotely interested in Buddhism, I was very much drawn to the arts. My family has artists in it and I was very much a person when I was at school who was in the humanities, not the sciences. To me, it was the only way to go. But when I became a Buddhist monk, I stopped all artistic practice because I was told to. Monks don’t do this kind of stuff. I remember once one of our monks, wanted to go to the local church in Switzerland and play the organ. Geshe Rabten said, No, you can’t do that, that’s music.

I’ve always grated a bit against that. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Zen, because Zen values the practice of the arts. Instead of demonizing art as something that takes you away from the path, it saw it as a way to a practice in its own right. That’s how I see my own art practice. I don’t see it as a sort of hobby, I see it as my work. I see it as a very integral part of my Dharma practice.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Zen, was because Zen values the practice of the arts. Instead of demonizing art as something that takes you away from the path, it sees it as a way to a practice in its own right.

Now, I think the practice of art is basically one way of responding to the situation of life. In my case, I work with collage. I’ve been doing this now for about 25 years. I make collages out of found materials, things people have thrown away. Then I reassemble them according to a quite strict grid mosaic patterns. I see this both as a way of trying to embrace life, trying to recover the things that the world considers to have no value, and then restore them to a work of art.

My own process of making these things has evolved through its own logic, into the sequences of collage that I make. These take about a year to make, because I have to find all the materials. I don’t buy any materials. They have to be scavenged. I enjoy it because I can’t explain it. I do it not because I’m trying to prove something or show something. I’m doing it because I’m moved to do so.

I’ve got into a flow over these years in which I no longer worry or think about what I’m going to do next. I find that my process now as a writer and as a collage artist have actually merged. The artwork has actually infused and illuminated not only my written work, but also my practice as a human being, as a Dharma practitioner. It’s given me a very necessary counterpoint to my intellectual work.

How do you feel about your own death?

[00:28:01] Scott Snibbe: Let me ask you about one of life’s other big boundaries and mysteries. I’ve had some powerful experiences with these death absorption meditations that I’m sure you’ve practiced from Tibetan Buddhism. Also, at the bedside of people close to me as they died. I dare say you might’ve had those experiences too.

How do you feel about your own death? Curious? Scared? Open-minded?

[00:28:30] Stephen Batchelor: To me, death is the great test of life. The most powerful meditations I did as a Tibetan Buddhist monk were the nine round death meditation in the Lamrim. I still teach that. I think it’s an incredibly powerful practice because it enables you to recognize that the only certainty in your life is that you will die. That could happen at any moment.

The most powerful meditations I did as a Tibetan Buddhist monk were the nine round death meditation in the Lamrim.

Of all the Tibetan practices, that really reset my whole sense of being a human being. I live with that every day. I don’t know what will be the next, whether I’ll still be here tomorrow. That’s a reality for me. That’s what drives me in my deepest passions as a human being, writer, artist and the various other things I do. Death, to me, is something utterly inseparable from life itself.

[00:29:38] Scott Snibbe: With your current stance on Buddhism, what’s your own experience and perspective on what happens when you die and what might come after?

[00:29:46] Stephen Batchelor: I have no preconceived ideas at all as to what will happen after death, but I’m also open to the possibility that it could well be something that we cannot even conceptualize. We’re looking at death from the point of view of a living being with a brain, and that living being with a brain is going to die. Therefore, what may happen after death could be infinitely beyond our comprehension. That kind of prospect fills me with a sense of wonder and awe.

Would you change anything about Buddhism Without Beliefs now?

[00:30:24] Scott Snibbe: It’s wonderful you can feel that without having to have any belief about all the different stages you go through as you die. Just a pure open-mindedness toward it.

As you look back on your career, if you want to call it, as a Buddhist, is there anything you’d amend in your earlier writings and your thoughts about Buddhism Without Beliefs?

[00:30:48] Stephen Batchelor: I see each book that I’ve done as something that has achieved a particular purpose at that time in my life, and I’m going to leave it alone. It has a life independently of me now, you have your copy on your desert island, and so forth. I’m so delighted that these books go off into people’s homes and libraries and that people read—I don’t know what people do with these things. That’s really the great joy of being a writer.

I’m very fortunate in having been able to be published quite widely and in different languages. I’ve been very blessed by having that opportunity. Recently, I had to make an audiobook of Living with the Devil, which I wrote in 2004. Normally, once a book is written, I never read it again. Why would I read my own stuff? But on these occasions, I do have to read it again. I have to read it out loud in a studio, and I find myself arguing with it the whole time.

I’ll think, This is a very badly made sentence. I could say this so much better. So I redo it. Then the producer behind the glass will say, No, you can’t change anything. You can’t change it. I can see all manner of ways in which I could improve what I’ve done in the past. I read stuff that I no longer agree with Buddhism Without Beliefs, I don’t fully go along with all of that anymore, but I am still operating within the four noble truth frame. I bring in this idea of tasks, but as a kind of adjunct to the truth. I’m still trying to explain the truths and trying to figure out how craving causes suffering and so on. I clearly wouldn’t do that anymore; what I would like to do is to write another book like Buddhism without Beliefs.

For our times now, I would like to have another go at doing the same kind of thing, but I certainly wouldn’t adapt or change or revise Buddhism Without Beliefs. That has its own autonomy now, like a work of art has autonomy. Buddhism Without Beliefs was actually commissioned as an introduction to Buddhism without using any Buddhist jargon. That was my brief. It turned out to be something rather different, which I hadn’t intended at all, and I’d like to give that another go.

[00:33:33] Scott Snibbe: I’d like to read that book. I think that would be a great contribution now that you’ve iterated so much on it. Stephen Batchelor, thank you so much for this conversation, your many books, and your ways of thinking that have greatly influenced me. It’s a delight to talk to you and feel the heart, curiosity, and presence of the human being behind it. Thank you so much for speaking with us and for everything you’ve done, and will continue to do, for bringing Buddhism into our modern era.

[00:34:03] Stephen Batchelor: Thank you very much, Scott. It’s been a lovely conversation.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe

Produced by Annie Ngyen

Marketing by Isabela Acebal

SHARe

Related Posts

SHARe

Log in

JOIN OUR MAILING LIST

JOIN OUR
MAILING LIST

Sign up and receive our free “Simple Ten-minute Meditation”