|Buddhist atheist: Stephen Batchelor|
Thursday, August 23, 2018
Buddhism without Faith (audio)
("Wondrous Doubt" transcripts)
Stephen Batchelor: Many of my critics would be quite happy for me to stop calling myself a "Buddhist." And even some of those who like my work feel that the Buddhism gets in the way. But I disagree profoundly with that.
The rootedness in tradition is central to me. And I see Buddhist tradition as — which I suspect like other traditions [is] — not something which is static and fixed and somehow preserved in formaldehyde, but it is something that is alive.
Host Krista Tippett: Stephen Batchelor’s secular Buddhism speaks to the mystery and vitality of spiritual life in every form. For him, secularism opens to doubt and questioning as a radical basis for spiritual life. Above all, Stephen Batchelor understands Buddhism, without transcendent beliefs like karma or reincarnation, to become something urgent to do, not to believe in.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. [Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Stephen Batchelor is the author of numerous books, including The Faith to Doubt, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and, most recently, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World.
He grew up near London and traveled to India in the early '70s, where, he has often written, he was immediately captured by Buddhism. He spent a decade as an ordained monk, living, studying, and writing in Tibetan Buddhist and Zen communities in Asia. I spoke with Stephen Batchelor in 2016.
Ms. Tippett: I feel that, all the way through your writing, you talk about doubt and questioning as a radical basis for spiritual life.
And I get curious, as I see that as such a thread in you and through your work, about whether you trace the roots of that — that reverence for doubt and questioning, or a sense of the primacy of that — into however you would describe the religious or spiritual background of your early life.
Mr. Batchelor: I grew up in a sort of humanist background. My family had long departed from any active involvement in the church, so I didn’t have any religious education. I never went to any religious services. And in some ways, I never really asked those kinds of questions that religion would address.
I grew up as a child who, I think, was quite sensitive, and I was further sensitized by the fact that I grew up in a single-parent family — which, at the time, was…
Ms. Tippett: Also, very...
Mr. Batchelor: …very unusual, so I did feel different. And I attributed a lot of that to not growing up with a father, and this made me, perhaps, more introverted than I already was. And I do recall being at school, for example, and wondering why the teachers never addressed the quality of our own subjectivity.
In other words, the kind of anxiety that I became aware of quite early on that struck me as both troubling, and yet, somehow taboo. It wasn’t something you talked about. Perhaps if I’d gone to Sunday school or church, these issues would have been addressed. But I was thrown back on a kind of deep curiosity about what it meant to exist.
And that, I guess, is perhaps lying at the roots of my own subsequent fascination with doubt, with questioning, with astonishment, with wonder, as the very, very root of what we call spirituality or religion.
I also remember lying awake at night as a child and wondering why I couldn’t stop the incessant outpouring of thoughts and chatter. The mind seemed endlessly restless. And that, perhaps, was a foretaste of what I would subsequently know as meditation.
Ms. Tippett: Yes. Tell me, when you say you were immediately drawn — captured by Buddhism and immediately converted and drawn in, and really gave yourself, your life, over to it in Dharamshala and thereafter, how do you describe what captured you, what you've discovered there?
Mr. Batchelor: I think what impressed me most was the presence of the Tibetan people, who had only recently gone into exile, about 12 years before.
And I’d never met people like that before, people who were living in great poverty, great — enormous distress; and yet, had within them a kind of a stillness, a kind of radiance, in a way — and not just the lamas, but the ordinary people.
I was immensely moved by that. I’d never come across it in England, in Europe, where I’d grown up. And at the same time, I’m also aware that there was a high degree of romanticism, idealization: Perhaps it allowed certain deep longings to come to the surface.
Ms. Tippett: You mean in yourself; you were…
Mr. Batchelor: In myself, yeah, and I was drawn — I was just so — I was completely — I fell in love with it. More