In Alone With Others Stephen Batchelor explores the historical and spiritual conditions that helped to shape Buddhism and illustrates how they influence modern Buddhist practice. In a concise style, Batchelor reveals the meanings which link Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism to contemporary existential philosophy.
Batchelor describes two basic dimensions of existence: having and being. Each dimension offers an attitude toward life. When we view life in terms of having, we are fulfilled in proportion to what we are able to possess. This acquisitive attitude characterizes much of modern life. Yet each act of having implies a sense of separation between the possessor and the possessed. Anxiety accompanies that separation; whatever we have can be lost. Becoming absorbed in having can prove a fundamental source of insecurity The primary purpose of dharma practice, according to Batchelor, is to reestablish a consciousness of being.
Unfortunately, we often approach being as another area of having. We want to “have” immortality, enlightenment and the meaning to life. Many organized religions encourage this acquisition of spiritual experiences. It is essential, therefore, that the symbols and concepts involved in a religious practice remain open-ended pointers toward being. They need to be like transparent windows we can look through, not at. If we become primarily involved with a religion’s symbols, rituals and beliefs, that religion can become another vehicle for having.
To avoid this, Batchelor insists that we discover the compatibility of the Buddha’s teachings with the actual structures of our lives. Then we can distinguish between insights which arise from our experience, and merely speculative attempts to adapt to yet another intellectual stance. As we directly examine our experience we need to ask, “what are the fundamental aspects of being human?” Our answer to this question directs what we attend to in practice.
Batchelor concentrates on two basic elements of being human: being-alone and being-with others. These polarities form an inseparable unity since we are always alone with others. We can only conceive of our aloneness because we associate with others; we can only be with others in the light of our individuality. We experience a continual tension between these poles. At times we seek collective association which can threaten our autonomy; at other times our individual inclinations draw us away from a larger realm of participation.
Most of us only experience a partial range of either being-alone, or being-with others. Batchelor views the Buddhist path as a means for authentically realizing the full range of both categories.
Being-alone plunges us into an existential dilemma. We are born alone into a world of possibilities whose only certainty is inevitable death. When we are alone in the face of these conditions, simply existing can seem awesome. We tend to shy away from the sheer mystery of existence, fragmenting the world into more manageable pieces and becoming preoccupied with them. Batchelor views this flight as a basic characteristic of inauthentically being-alone.
But this flight/strategy doesn’t really work. The overwhelming fact of our having been born alone and having to face death alone continually intrudes upon us even though we remain distracted by objects and the mind’s chatter. Eventually, a critical juncture may be reached, if even for a moment, when one comes “. . . to understand with greater and greater clarity that absorption in the world of things provides no refuge, and one ceases to center one’s hopes in them.”
At this point we may wonder, “To what end do I exist?” We may conclude in despair, “life is meaningless.” Or, a meaning not evident in the realm of having may be sought. “Taking refuge” in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha represents this radical shift from concern with fulfillment through objects to that of fulfillment through the possibilities of being.
Taking refuge in the Buddha does not represent taking refuge in some transhuman absolute but in actualizing our full possibility as human beings. Being fully human involves an individual sense of freedom in the midst of full participation with others.
Batchelor believes it was the importance of being-with others as a primary aspect of our existence that led to the emergence of the Mahayana school.
Although the form of Mahayana Buddhism was conditioned by the prevailing cultural and philosophical trends current in India during the first centuries A.D., its content was determined by the inner demand for greater spiritual fulfillment. This “inner demand” refers of course to the deeply felt need to fully integrate into religious life the essential human characteristic of being-with others.
Like being-alone, being-with others can be inauthentically fulfilled. Our self-concern can reduce others to objects who either do or do not fulfill our needs. Batchelor suggests that the equanimity which may arise through Buddhist practice enables us to see through our projections about people and recognize their equality with us.
Through equanimity we come to recognize that, “As I want to be happy, so too do others. As I wish to avoid suffering, fear and pain, so too do others.” With sustained contemplation we see how similar our own and other people’s goals are.
By dealing with such down-to-earth issues as being-alone, being-with others and the shift from having to being, Batchelor provides a bridge for those who wish to bring the insights of Buddhist tradition to their current spiritual practice.