Stephen Batchelor is a writer and dharma student who has spent many years as a monk, both in the Tibetan and Zen traditions. He translated Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, and he is the author of Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, and The Tibet Guide, which won the Thomas Cook Guide Book Award in 1988. His most recent book is The Faith To Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty, published by Parallax Press. Stephen lives with his wife Martine in a Buddhist community in Devon, England. He is currently working on a mystery novel which, rumor has it, takes place in a spiritual community. This interview was conducted by Wes Nisker and Dan Clurman.
Inquiring Mind: As someone who has practiced Tibetan Buddhism, Korean Zen, and South Asian Theravada Buddhism, you are a perfect subject for our Inquiring Mind issue on the different schools of Buddha dharma. Tell us some of the essential differences you have found on these three paths.
Stephen Batchelor: Speaking in general, both Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism operate within a framework of Indian metaphysics. In these traditions the path is seen as a series of linear stages that you pass through. It’s understood that if you apply the techniques correctly you’re guaranteed success. Practice is a very predictable, almost scientific endeavor, which presupposes that consciousness is a linear phenomenon that occurs within a cause and effect framework. Meanwhile, in Zen there’s an acknowledgement that insight can erupt unpredictably or suddenly. You will find the use of the term “sudden” in Zen, and sudden is an acknowledgement that insight or illumination can occur at any moment.
IM: Then Zen teaches that enlightenment is innate within us, but covered over by the more rational, analytic faculties of mind?
SB: Not exactly. Zen might say that the rational, analytic mind is just one part of a much greater whole, which Zen sometimes calls “the big mind,” and this big mind includes the part that is already enlightened. We’ve just sealed ourselves off from that mode of awareness. In Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism, enlightenment is seen as something distant or transcendent, something “other.” Whereas in Zen, enlightenment is seen as something that is immanent; it’s already present within our consciousness, and if we press the right button or open the right door, there it is. Zen recognizes that human consciousness and human life function multidimensionally, and that we live as temporal, human beings in a linear history, and also as poetic, mysterious creatures. The practice is one that involves both dimensions.
IM: It seems as though Zen is very grounded, and encourages engagement in the world.
SB: I think that “in the world” is a tricky term that means different things to different people. Mahayana will talk about saving all sentient beings, but that doesn’t mean anyone goes out into the street to save them. And Zen can be expressed in everyday life, provided you live up in an idyllic little mountain retreat in some obscure province of China or Japan. In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva ideal is constantly reiterated, as in the last of the ox-herding pictures, when the enlightened one goes back into the market with gift-bestowing hands: He returns to the world for the sake of all sentient beings. But in practice, the bodhisattva ideal is not often realized. And I think that is the challenge in our culture: to realize that metaphor.
IM: How might the different schools of Buddhism complement each other, especially as they take root in the West?
SB: It seems to me that every Buddhist tradition we encounter in the West today has developed certain specializations. Theravada Buddhism, for example, preserves the value of the vinaya and the monastic life as the Buddha described it. In Theravada we also find the very powerful vipassana meditation practices, leading to direct insight into the essential characteristics of life: suffering, impermanence and selflessness. Meanwhile, Tibetan Buddhism has a comprehensive quality. It integrates the whole range of Buddhist philosophical development, from early so-called Hinayana through the Mahayana, and on top of that, maintains and develops the tantric tradition. It’s also rich in presenting the dharma through symbolic imagery. Meanwhile, Zen is very good in sustaining the force of uncertainty and mystery. Zen also has great reverence for nature. And in Zen you find painting and poetry are actually encouraged as part of the spiritual practice. Even tea drinking. Can you imagine a Theravada bhikkhu putting any value in painting as an expression of the dharma? It’s certainly not very common. In Tibetan Buddhism you don’t find much poetry either, and although there is painting, it is very formalized.
I want to make it clear that I find Zen and the Indian traditions complementary. They are simply coming from different perspectives, operating within different models of consciousness. We can, as Westerners, appreciate the full range of qualities fostered in the various traditions. So what we are confronted with, when we consider Buddhism, is not something monolithic but rather, a complexity of styles and traditions, each of which has its own strengths. And many people, like myself, do not feel entirely satisfied with any one of them. I find that I mold my practice according to the needs I have, both personally and culturally, as a Westerner, as someone whose conditioning is very different from that of a Thai or Tibetan or Korean.
IM: There are many teachers who would say there’s a real danger in that kind of mixing and matching of practices.
SB: I would agree with that. It’s essential that one’s practice be grounded in one of the traditions, both experientially and philosophically, before moving on to a different school. If one does a two-week vipassana retreat, and then a few Tibetan mantras, and then a course on Zen swordsmanship, one won’t get much out of any of them. But I also think there’s a danger in the other extreme, when one narrows one’s vision and identifies completely with a cultural form that has evolved to address the needs of an Asian people with whom one may have very few affinities.
IM: Perhaps the reason that vipassana has become such a popular form in the West is because it was introduced here with less of the Asian cultural trappings than the other traditions.
SB: I think that’s certainly one of the strengths of the vipassana tradition. It’s very commonsensical and practical. While I wouldn’t want to define vipassana purely as an application of technique, I would say that it can be almost scientific in its methods. And there’s a subtle danger in the emphasis on technique. As Westerners we have a tendency to reduce all our thinking and feeling capacities to some kind of technology. One could argue that to adopt a Buddhism that likewise defines itself in terms of techniques and technologies, we risk falling for the very illusion that is at the root of a lot of our spiritual malaise.
IM: Of course the vipassana technique does lead to an opening of the heart and the mind, and can nurture a person’s intuitive and poetic faculties. But your criticism touches a nerve in the vipassana community. There are a lot of people who feel a kind of dryness in vipassana retreats and in the methods employed. Maybe there’s a need for some Zen poetry.
SB: Exactly. And this is an example of how the different traditions can complement each other as they develop in the West.
IM: Let’s turn to Tibetan Buddhism for a moment. For many people, Tibetan practices seem quite mysterious, perhaps because of the complex symbolism and ritual involved. You studied Tibetan Buddhism for eight years, so perhaps you could enlighten us as to how it works.
SB: When we talk of Tibetan Buddhism, we’re actually considering a vast range of schools and practices, so one’s understanding depends on which specific Tibetan school one enters. I studied in the Gelugpa tradition, which emphasizes study in order to develop a firm foundation in the basics of Buddhist philosophy and psychology prior to getting into any yogic, tantric or meditative practice. I feel this study of Buddhist philosophy is a unique and very important point of departure. You start by reflecting deeply and repeatedly about what it is you are doing: you begin cultivating a Buddhist world view.
IM: How do you do the reflection?
SB: It’s important to understand that it’s not just thinking about something every now and again. It’s systematic reflection, which is a practice that I don’t think exists in any other Buddhist school. It’s analytical meditation, really. You sit on a cushion and you settle your breath and then you reflect on death, or the value of life, the meaning of refuge, or the meaning of suffering. And through this systematic reflection, you not only work toward a Buddhist understanding of life in the world, but you challenge your own cultural assumptions as well. So it’s a two-way process for a Westerner. I think this reflection practice is one of the great strengths of Tibetan Buddhism. In both Zen and vipassana, we too often reduce Buddhism down to a form of meditation practice, and the philosophical and metaphysical context remains in shadow. Furthermore, just consider for a moment that the Eightfold Noble Path starts out with right view and right thinking; it doesn’t start out with right mindfulness or right concentration. Those come at the end of the list somewhere. The Buddha didn’t put right view and right thinking at the beginning just because they were the first things that came to mind. The Buddha had his reasons, which the Tibetans respect and incorporate into their practices.
IM: In the West we especially try to ignore some of those middle steps on the Eightfold Noble Path.
SB: Yeah, those ethical steps are even more of a nuisance. (Laughter)
IM: And where does the Tibetan practice take you after reflection?
SB: The range of practices embodied within Tibetan literature is vast, but in all the traditions there’s a strong momentum toward tantric practice. This always includes some type of concentration practice, perhaps initiation into various mandalas, visualizations or mantra practice, and then ultimately yogic practices. In some of the traditions, however, like dzogchen and mahamudra, there’s a more immediate immersion into a Zen-like or vipassana-like meditative practice.
IM: We have heard that in the Tibetan visualization exercises, students are given very complex images and mandalas, sometimes multiarmed and multiheaded deities, and they practice holding these images in their consciousness. Beyond development of concentration, what is the effect of this practice?
SB: The visualizations are much more than concentration exercises. They have to do with a reconstitution of perception. When you do these visualization practices, you are actually working to undermine your ordinary perception, your ordinary thinking. You are substituting a divine Buddha world for the ordinary world. You replace the mundane with deities and mandalas. And in doing that, you are working with the basic dynamics of perception, the very matrices of consciousness that determine how you perceive the world.
IM: We assume you’re not talking about the creation of a fantasy world, which you then try to inhabit.
SB: No, not at all. It’s a world that you create and then deconstruct over and over again. You construct it, then deconstruct it; construct, deconstruct. You don’t give it any kind of solidity.
IM: And this is part of what is called tantra?
SB: Well, there are really two sets of tantric practices. The first set, the “developmental stages,” include the visualization of mandalas and deities, the recitation of mantras, reconstructing and deconstructing one’s world. The second set, the “yogic practices,” also called the completing practices, have to do with rechanneling psychic energies.
IM: In your book The Faith To Doubt you say that while you were studying Tibetan Buddhism, you took the opportunity to go on a vipassana meditation retreat with S.N. Goenka, and it threw your whole Tibetan practice into doubt. Can you describe what happened?
SB: Well, after giving that very positive assessment of Tibetan Buddhism, I’d have to say that I found a certain rigidity in the tradition. They’re locked into a causal sense of how things should progress, inherited from Indian metaphysics, so that over the centuries they have become hostage to their own system. For example, many Tibetans believe that whoever you are, you must go through fifteen years of scholastic training. They don’t seem to take into account other possibilities of the human mind, or the twenty years of education a Westerner brings to practice. You must understand that most Tibetans come to Tibetan Buddhism as we would come to primary school: to begin a liberal education. Meanwhile, most Westerners come to Tibetan Buddhism with a superfluity of education, and then are expected to go back to grade one. I think as Westerners we can work through some of the preliminary Tibetan practices in a much shorter length of time.
Furthermore, most Tibetans assume that meditative experience cannot be had until you’ve done all the preliminaries as prescribed in their system. So, let’s say you go on a Zen or vipassana retreat, as I did, and you get deep meditative insights about the mind-body processes and the nature of reality. Some Tibetans wouldn’t even accept this as a possibility, since you haven’t done your preliminaries yet. Nonetheless, after ten days in a vipassana retreat you can understand anicca and dukkha in a way that is completely unexpected in a Tibetan framework. If you have a direct meditative experience before going through all the steps and preparations—as I did at the vipassana retreat with Goenka—it can throw the whole Tibetan system into question. Perhaps that’s one of the advantages of being a Westerner and having access to the different schools of Buddhism. We have both the perspective and cultural detachment to question the forms themselves. We can see each system for what it is.
IM: In your book you discuss the attitude of doubt as one of the basic elements of Zen practice. How would you describe that quality of doubt, and how is it cultivated?
SB: First I think one should distinguish between doubt as a hindrance and doubt as part of a spiritual path. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, where the term doubt is commonly used, there’s a clear awareness that if you are in a state of vacillation or uncertainty about what you are setting out to do when you sit down and practice, then such doubt will be a hindrance. But the kind of doubt that I speak of in my book is more of a basic perplexity about the nature of life. When he was a young prince, the Buddha became perplexed by the harsh realities of life: sickness, aging and death. It was this state of doubt that led to his quest for liberation. I feel that in Buddhist practice, we sometimes lose sight of what it is that actually motivated us to adopt our practice. If we lose sight of that, which in many cases is a doubt or a fundamental questioning about our lives, then we can all too readily fall into a system of beliefs and techniques and lose touch with the depths of our spiritual existence.
IM: Many people might agree with you that doubt is a powerful motivation for spiritual life. But some teachers would also say that if you sit down and question, you eventually come to an understanding about the nature of things, as the Buddha claimed to have done.
SB: The doubt I am describing is a complement to faith. In Zen, you have the idea of great faith and great doubt as mutually supporting poles of spiritual practice. In fact, the three main aspects of Zen practice are Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Courage. Usually we tend to think of faith and doubt as opposites, that we need to get rid of doubt and hold onto faith, not recognizing, perhaps, that you cannot have one without the other. The kind of doubt we speak of in Zen is not something that is leading you to a nihilistic or purely cynical point of view, but rather one that maintains faith in the possibility of awakening. There is actually a direct correspondence between the depth and the extent of one’s perplexity and the depth and the extent of one’s enlightenment or understanding. If one’s doubt is merely intellectual or philosophical, then that will give rise to no more than an intellectual or philosophical enlightenment. But if your doubt is existential, gut level, which is what I’m talking of here, then it’s something that resonates through the whole of your body and mind. That doubt will be the locus for a corresponding insight that will also reverberate throughout your body and mind.
IM: Would you say that enlightenment is the end of doubt?
SB: Not really. The doubt I’m talking about has to do with mystery, and I don’t believe that enlightenment demystifies the world. If anything, it makes it more mysterious, more wondrous and more awesome. That’s the direction in which this doubt-perplexity is moving.
IM: The doubt you talk about is probably more prevalent and cultivated in the Zen schools than in the other schools of Buddhism. It seems to be that in Theravada, for example, you are encouraged to have an investigative attitude, but early on you are given a framework for practice so that you know what you are looking for. You are instructed to notice impermanence and emptiness of self. You are pointed toward the insights. Do you feel that Zen is more open to the doubting attitude?
SM: Zen has its own subtle way of providing a framework for practice. For example, there are numerous terms in Zen that correspond to the concepts of impermanence, emptiness and so on. In Zen you have terms such as “true mind” or “true person” or “Buddha-nature.” In the records of the Zen masters, you find these terms being repeated again and again. But in actual practice you are indeed expected to suspend all expectations of having any specific insights or experiences.
Imagine that you have a garden or a park and there’s a lot of children. With an Indian approach—Theravada or Tibetan—the teacher says to the children, “Look, there’s a red ball and a blue cross and a green puppet out there. Now go and find them.” You are told what it is you are supposed to find and then you can go out and look for it. Whereas in Zen it’s as though the teacher says, “There is something hidden in this place. See if you can find out what it is.”
IM: Speaking of “hidden,” the koan meditations are very fascinating to many of us who have not practiced in that method. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Explain how the koan system works and how these puzzling, unanswerable questions lead to the basic experiences and insights of Zen.
SB: The koan, at least in Korea the way I was taught to use it, is basically a device, a sort of springboard to throw you into a state of doubt or perplexity. And once the doubt or perplexity is alive within you, then the form of the koan can be discarded. It’s not important. The idea is that through working with the koan, your mind takes on a quality of uncertainty, of unknowing, of inquiry, perhaps even bewilderment about what is actually happening in your life from moment to moment. But the koan also serves another function, and that is to concentrate the mind. So by focusing your attention single-pointedly on the koan, you also cultivate a degree of tranquility and concentrated awareness. So in Theravada or Indian Buddhist terms, koan practice would be a method of cultivating concentration and insight simultaneously. So it’s misleading to define the state of mind into which the koan puts you merely in terms of perplexity or doubt, because that perplexity or doubt operates within a matrix of meditative qualities which you’d find in most Buddhist traditions: concentration, presence in the moment, waiting, listening, being more open to what’s occurring.
IM: When you’re working with a koan, isn’t there an element of analysis that takes place? After all, you’re being given a riddle.
SB: You do start out analytically. You start out with a question or koan such as the one I used in Korea: “What is this?” Very quickly that question becomes, “What is it that asks what is this?”
IM: Basically the koan starts questioning you.
SB: Right. The teacher I worked with used koans that ask “what is it?” or “what is this?” as a way of asking what is this consciousness, what is this mind? But he would emphasize that by mind or consciousness we don’t mean the intellectual mind, the mind that is aware of sense objects. So right away the question gets thrown up in the air.
IM: Does the Zen master ever explain at the beginning that what is really being questioned is the self and the nature of consciousness?
SB: Some of the teachers do. The actual text itself just says, “What is this thing?” “What is it?” without specifying. The Zen master’s role is to shock you into at least a preliminary awareness or an intimation of what the question really refers to. That is often done by example, by metaphor, by poetic suggestion. But again, in terms of practice, it’s something that you work out for yourself. In Korea, you’re left very much on your own to work these things out. It’s a very difficult practice and there’s not a lot of guidance from the teacher. A Chinese Zen master of the twelfth century said that koan study is like gnawing on an iron stake.
IM: We’d like to conclude by asking you to share some of your thoughts about the establishment of Buddhism in the West.
SB: I see Buddhism as a vital force in my own life, and by implication, out of whatever sense of compassion I have for others, I would like to see it become a vital force in other people’s lives. I think that’s natural. That’s my categorical imperative. But I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to say at present whether Buddhism is here to stay. I think Buddhism is still marginal to our cultural mainstream, and I don’t think it has penetrated very deeply. So perhaps it could be just another fad for the West, like theosophy was in the nineteenth century. But if Buddhism does take hold in our culture, then it will certainly change as it has in every country and culture and era through which it has moved.
IM: In return, Buddhism might be able to help change our current culture and way of life.
SB: Yes, I agree. Buddhism would be a valuable counterbalance. But Buddhism may not be able to save Western culture.
IM: Perhaps it’s for the best. (Laughter)