Stephen Batchelor was born in Scotland and educated in Buddhist monasteries in India, Switzerland, and Korea. In 1972, at the age of nineteen, he settled in Dharamsala, and in 1974 he ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Gelug tradition. Three years later, he left the Tibetan tradition and traveled to Korea, where he practiced as a Zen monk. Batchelor disrobed in 1985, when he moved to Devon, England to live and teach at the Sharpham Community and Gaia House. There, Batchelor synthesized a distinctively Western teaching style, drawing from multiple Buddhist traditions.
Batchelor now lives in Aquitaine, in southern France. A writer and photographer, he also leads retreats worldwide with his wife, Martine, who trained in the Korean Zen tradition. He recently toured the United States, teaching retreats with a focus on integrating Buddhist ideas with meditation practice. Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen interviewed Stephen Batchelor in June 2002 after a retreat in Taos, New Mexico. The retreat included a workshop on the work of Nagarjuna, the seminal third-century Indian philosopher.
You've said that Nagarjuna is arguably the most important voice since the Buddha himself. Why?
Nagarjuna's significance was twofold: first, he went back to what he understood to be the central teachings of the Buddha; and second, it was the first time since the Buddha that a recognizable individual rearticulated the teachings in his own voice. Nagarjuna opened up the possibility of Buddhism's diversifying beyond the early schools into what have come to be known as the Mahayana traditions. Yet although Mahayanists consider Nagarjuna a founding figure, I find him interesting precisely because he belongs neither to the camp of early Buddhist traditions nor to the schools that follow him. He's a transitional figure; he stands between the past and the future, and that gives him a freedom to speak his own mind without defending an orthodoxy or establishing a new one.
Are we at a similar crossroads today? Is it our collective challenge to "reinterpret" the dharma, using our own idiom?
In a sense, yes, but as soon as you set out to reinterpret the teachings, you risk putting a distance between yourself and the dharma. That's a danger. It is important both to be firmly grounded in the dharma and to respond to the challenges in the world in which you live. This has been the challenge every time Buddhism has gone from one culture to another: to be truthful to the sources of the tradition while articulating them in a way that meets the needs of one's time.
Is teaching from multiple traditions one of the ways you face that challenge?
Perhaps. Each tradition has something to offer that the others don't. I'm attempting in my teaching to find a coherent model that draws equally upon the Tibetan teachings I received as a monk-philosophical, psychological, and doctrinal-together with the practice of mindful awareness, or vipassana, with all of this then being shot through with the quality of perplexity, curiosity, and questioning that Zen koan practice engenders.
Studying in more than one tradition is common in the West. Why do you think that is?
With some exceptions, you can't always expect a Westerner to identify fully with and take on a given Asian orthodoxy. When we look at Buddhism historically, each of the traditions has developed in response to the needs of people in particular cultures at particular times, and each has left parts of the tradition in the shadows. In the West we're exposed to all of the different schools, which is unprecedented; we've also come to Buddhism with a whole new set of questions. Many of us are more committed to the questions than to the givens of a certain orthodoxy. Inevitably, we draw from different Buddhist traditions.
There can be. One wouldn't want to encourage dilettantism, just hopping from one set of teachings to another. But provided one's exposure to these traditions is something that continues on a long-term basis and is informed by an ongoing practice, I can only see it as an enrichment. I'm finding more and more that my understanding of these different schools is beginning-I emphasize beginning-to resolve itself into an integral vision. The different practices and ideas are sufficiently compatible-they are, after all, rooted in the same source-to complement one another quite naturally.
You seem to have a very pragmatic-perhaps scientific-approach to the dharma. Where does that leave your view of reincarnation?
That's a big can of worms. I can talk about it best in the context of my own story. When I was a Tibetan Buddhist monk, I was trained to be a geshe, and believing in reincarnation was indispensable in order to teach with any kind of honesty in that tradition. In fact, the teachings I received endlessly reiterated the point that if you didn't come to terms with the doctrine of rebirth, then you really had no business being a Buddhist.