Buddhism, venerable and ancient world religion, has lately found itself in the thick of a cutting-edge dialogue with modern science.
This dialogue has included the Mind & Life conferences, where the Dalai Lama has discussed the nexus of Western science and contemplative traditions with leading researchers. It has encompassed the growing movement to adapt mindfulness meditation to promote emotional and physical health in secular settings. And cognitive scientists are even exploring how contemplative practices can affect the mind and, literally, re-shape the brain.
Yet these developments are not as new as they seem, according to Stephen Batchelor, the brilliant and sometimes controversial author of books such as the best-selling Buddhism Without Beliefs and the recent Confession of A Buddhist Atheist.
Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, has written with great power and elegance about the evolution of Buddhism in modern times.
I recently talked with Batchelor for “The Greater Good Podcast,” discussing the interplay between Buddhism and science today. In our conversation, Batchelor explains how Buddhism has consistently adapted to changing circumstances, and he challenges some central tenets of traditional Buddhism, even asserting the need to “re-think Buddhism from the ground up” to respond to modern concerns.
Below we present a condensed version of the discussion.
Michael Bergeisen: Your new book is entitled Confession of A Buddhist Atheist. What are the core beliefs of a Buddhist Atheist?
Stephen Batchelor: A Buddhist Atheist would be a Buddhist who eschews any assumption that there is some sort of transcendent entity. And this, of course, in some ways is not saying anything terribly remarkable, because clearly the Buddha never spoke of any such thing. The Buddha therefore was Atheist, and his Atheism was simply an absence or lack of any need to speak in terms of a deity.
He’s not an Atheist, nor am I an Atheist, who has a particular axe to grind with God. I’m not an Atheist in that I have some objection or some dislike of that way of thinking. It’s simply that I see no use or value of entertaining such notions. I feel that I can articulate what I believe to be at the heart of my quest for meaning as a human being without any recourse to such ideas. And this is, of course, the case with Buddhism, for the most part, over its two-and-a-half thousand year history.
MB: Over the last 10 years or so, particularly in the West, there’s been a strong collaboration between Buddhism and Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama, and science. Do you have any thoughts about or reactions to that development?
SB: I feel that every time Buddhism has found itself in a new historical or cultural situation—for example, when it went to China about 600 years after the Buddha, and then when it subsequently went to Tibet and to Japan—in order to establish itself as a viable philosophy, it needed to engage with those new host cultures. That is what we’re seeing again with the dialogues that have emerged in recent years with the natural sciences, and the much longer dialogue that’s been going on with psychology and psychotherapy. These are simply the ways in which Buddhism is finding its way, in a sense, or coming to terms with a new host environment.
The natural sciences enable us to have a much clearer, precise understanding of what the phenomenal world is. They are very much in tune with how the Buddha presented his approach, which likewise was one of paying close attention to the phenomenal world—one’s breath, one’s body, one’s feeling, one’s mind, what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. That, therefore, points to a common starting ground.
If I have any concerns about this dialogue, it is that I’m not entirely sure of what the Buddhists would try to get out of it. I don’t really know what the agenda is of the Dalai Lama and his followers. Many of those involved in this dialogue, and I’ve not been included in this, are I think quite traditional Buddhists with certain views and understanding of, say, the nature of mind that might be rather difficult to align with the findings of modern science.
MB: In the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve also seen one significant aspect of Buddhist practice, mindfulness meditation, move outside of the monastery and the meditation hall and be brought to other places, such as prisons and hospitals, often through John Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. Do you have any thoughts about this development?
SB: I’m very much in favor of all of this, and mindfulness is not an exclusive preserve of Buddhists any more than suffering is. And anything that can be used from the Buddhist tradition that helps alleviate suffering is clearly something that should be done.
I also feel a certain source of satisfaction that ideas and practices that I was pursuing 30 or 40 years ago which were then considered to be extremely marginal and odd are now finding their way into acceptance by mainstream culture. I don’t have the concern that some of my friends may have that Buddhism is going to somehow be asset-stripped, that mindfulness will be lifted out, commodified, and turned into a sort of psychological equivalent of Hatha Yoga.
MB: Over the last several years, there’s been much writing and research about how contemplative practices, including Buddhism, can change some of our emotional and mental patterns—changing our minds and thus changing our brains. Do you find these claims credible or persuasive?
SB: I find it rather surprising that the scientific community, or at least parts of the scientific community, felt that that would not be the case.
For example, for a professional violinist, the part of their brain that is connected to the movement of their fingers will be much exaggerated. I find it strange to think that any kind of discipline, whether it be a discipline such as that of a classical musician or the discipline of training yourself in contemplative exercises over a long period of time, will not have some effect on the structure of your neural pathways.
The other point I think one has to bring up here is that one should be careful of tying Buddhism to the findings in some natural science. In other words, I think there’s a rather premature enthusiasm among certain Buddhists to feel that these very preliminary findings are somehow solid validations of the legitimacy of meditation practices. I think that is an entirely unjustified conclusion.
MB: And why do you think that?
SB: Well, I think for a start because I think the evidence so far is not very widespread. The scientists themselves say these are very preliminary observations.
I also question the fact that we should feel that a practice such as that of meditation—or ethics or philosophy—should need to be validated by there being some discernable neurological correlate going on in our brains.
Let’s imagine that in 20 years’ time, when there’s been more work being done investigating the effects of meditation on people’s brains, we find that actually there are no significant correlations. Does that mean that one would just stop meditating? I don’t think so. The validation for meditation for me has nothing whatsoever to do with the effect it may or may not have on the neurological pathways of my brain; it has to do with the first person quality of life: How I experience myself and the world, the quality of well-being, the quality of authenticity, the quality of a deepened, more open aesthetic and affective awareness. I doubt these are qualities that can be measured.
MB: There’s been a fair amount of research suggesting that mindfulness can transform our psychology and help relieve us of unhelpful habits of the mind. You’ve been meditating for many years. Do you accept those claims, and is that something you’ve seen at work in yourself?
SB: Well, I think it’s too simplistic to say that simply by being mindful of your mental states, that will somehow guarantee some improvements in your inner well-being; I think that’s very naïve. The Buddha clearly saw mindfulness as one strategy amongst others: mindfulness, concentration, effort, intelligence, and a certain degree of confidence. These all have to act together. Mindfulness, by itself, I think would have a relatively limited effect.
The other question as to whether I’ve observed this within myself, well the problem with that question is if I’m really honest, I cannot say how I would’ve been if I had not practiced meditation. Maybe I would be a much better person.
Yet I suppose that since I continue to practice these things, that I continue to teach them, that I valorize them, clearly this implies that I do believe that they have had a positive effect. So, for myself, I’d like to think that, yes, all of the many hours that I’ve put into formal meditation practice have had a positive effect on my way of being.
I think I can probably say with some confidence that I’m a much calmer and more focused person that I used to be. I like to think that meditation gives me a groundedness in my observation of the world that is a very powerful platform for investigation, analysis, and reflection. But I wouldn’t want to single out any one feature, say mindfulness, as though that was the sort of magical element that will generate some sudden transformation.
MB: I want to ask you about one final, related area: love. Perhaps the key focus of Buddhism is to elimainate grasping, with the idea being that grasping leads to the kind of suffering that Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths are focused on eliminating. But we also know that love—romantic love, love for our children, love for our family and friends—is essential to us, and it has been forged, presumably, by millions of years of evolution. Yet, applying a Buddhist paradigm, love also seems to lead to grasping. So how does one square these two: the powerful and certainly beneficent effect of love on the one hand and its links to suffering and grasping on the other?
SB: Well, first of all, I would actually challenge the idea, the dogma, that craving is the cause of suffering. I mean, obviously that is true in some instances. But I think to make a blanket assertion that craving is the cause of all human suffering, to me, doesn’t make sense. It only really makes sense within the framework of a multi-life model—in other words, your craving is what causes you to be reborn. But if you don’t believe in rebirth, the argument doesn’t really carry much weight.
Now, of course, you can see filial love and romantic love as having a neurotic component. It can become an excessive attachment. It can become compulsive. It can lead to violence. But on the other hand, these attachments, provided they’re not cultivated to excess, are necessary for the cohesiveness of society, for the raising of children, and for family life to provide environments in which people can grow up as healthy, mature individuals. I don’t think the Buddha would’ve had any problem with that; Buddhists have always had children. Buddhist societies, those I’ve lived in, seem to valorize family life.
But it is true, nonetheless, that since Buddhism has been a religion that has been predominantly monastic, it’s been celibate monastics who’ve called the shots and developed our current perception of Buddhism.
I think one of the challenges for our times is that we have to try to think more clearly and more carefully as to what a “lay” Buddhism would be.
Buddhism has been seen as about ultimately stopping rebirth and thereby achieving deep meditative and other states whereby you free yourself from all kinds of grasping. But I don’t frame Buddhism in that way anymore. I’m concerned to see how Buddhism is something that offers us a framework for living in a secular world, in a world in which we are entirely concerned with the suffering on this planet instead of having concerns about a hypothetical post-mortem existence.
So if we secularize Buddhism, then I think we have to rethink it from the ground up. Craving as the cause of suffering has to be really rethought, the doctrine of the Four Truths has to be reread. I think it can be done .
We can’t anymore simply rely upon the time-honored traditions of Asia, in which Buddhism was addressing a very different set of needs than those that are demanded of by modernity. Environmental destruction, global warfare—the issues we face as a race are so different than those that Buddhism faced when it evolved in the past.
Buddhism itself has to rethink its primary assumptions as to what it’s about. And that, I feel, is not only a challenge that I try to address in my writings; I feel it’s something that Buddhist communities worldwide are one day going to have to really reconsider, perhaps a very radical way.