For some time I have been reading and listening to the teachings of Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, finding her wise words both challenging and instructive. Together with Jack Kornfield, Chdrön has been my main pathfinder into the world of buddhism. Last week I listened to Chödrön’s teachings on the Bodhisattva Mind, where she praises Stephen Batchelor’s translation of the Guide to Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, especially emphasizing his choice of ordinary, non-religious language. Being an atheist I (naturally) got curious about Batchelor and his own teaching & writing.
STEPHEN BATCHELOR is a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, best known for his secular or agnostic approach to Buddhism. Stephen considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs.
Today I’ve finished reading my first Batchelor book: Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, and my mind is filled with new thoughts & ideas, and joy, joy for discovering Batchelor in the world of buddhism.
I’m not yet capable presenting any kind of interesting resume of the the book. But here are some excerpts from a text where Batchelor very interestingly points to the resemblance of making art and meditation:
The artist’s dilemma and the meditator’s are, in a deep sense, equivalent. Both are repeatedly willing to confront an unknown and to risk a response that they cannot predict or control. Both are disciplined in skills that allow them to remain focused on their task and to express their response in a way that will illuminate the dilemma they share with others.
And both are liable to similar outcomes. The artist’s work is prone to be derivative, a variation on the style of a great master or established school. The meditator’s response might tend to be dogmatic, a variation on the words of a hallowed tradition or revered teacher. There is nothing wrong with such responses. But we recognize their secondary nature, their failure to reach the peaks of primary imaginative creation. Great Art and Great Dharma both give rise to something that has never quite been imagined before. Artist and meditator alike ultimately aspire to an original creative act.
Like Great Dharma, Great Art begins in anguish. It is through knowing anguish, rather than evading or ignoring it, that the door to beauty is first opened. Contemplative experience is not merely cognitive and affective but aesthetic.
In fact, the practice of dharma is more truly akin to the practice of art. With the tools of ethics, meditation, and understanding, one works the clay of one’s confined and anguished existence into a bodhisattva. Practice is a process of self-creation.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Batchelor’s point of view, you can listen to his Dharma Talks at Dharma Seed
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Male birds learn their songs by listening to their elders, then recombining the palette of notes of the species into a unique signature. I offer this as a doorway into 4 thoughts. 1: he is describing folk tradition, which is not necessarily lesser than Enlightenment tradition. 2: derivation is not to be avoided. It can’t be avoided. 3: the search for uniqueness can lead away from buddhism very quickly. 4: Marxism and its baby child deconstructionism might be working to destroy uniqueness as, paradoxically, they break down the normalizing moment. Maybe it’s the normalizing moment that creates uniqueness, over time, through boredom. Such paradoxes!
Thank you Harold,
I’ve added some thoughts:
To me this is not about lesser or greater value, but about bringing one’s own critical mind into the story. Batchelor is rejecting dogmatic truths, and thereby opening up for philosophy and/or art as a way of life – a perpetual questioning, a genuine curiosity.
Regarding uniqueness, I guess there is really no way avoiding it, one only have to remember that the world is populated by 7,200,000,001 unique singularities … it’s all very special and very universal at the same time.
It seems there are so many different things being presented here.
“Stephen considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs.” ?! There are many lineages, including Zen and many transmissions of the Dharma which can be followed from teacher to student. Some come to an end some flourish and sometimes some are corrupted. Texts survive for translation. It is very valuable and arduous. For the purpose of enlivening understanding a teacher will draw on many aspects of right here, right now. But a “culture of awakening” sounds as crazy as an army of Buddhas.
Certain types of “contemplation” might be sort of like certain types of art production but if you are working in a state of suchness, you are painting a picture, telling a joke, washing a dish, thinking about something.
Finally, why would you want to create yourself? Why put a bigger box into a smaller one?
Well, first of all; I apology for lack of stringency in my post. Unfortunately I do not know enough about Batchelor’s view to present it in any clearer way just now.
The Batchelor quotes are taken from a text, the whole text can be found if you follow the link.
My intention was primarily to share my enthusiasm for his book.
Batchelor differs in one radical way from all the other buddhist teachers I have encountered, in that he do not believe in reincarnation (karma, samsara), which is a central dogma in Buddhism. It might seem like a minor difference, but is actually momentous.
I share Batchelor’s disbelief, and reading a very well informed ex-buddhist monk discussing just this made a great impact on me.
All systems of belief are problematic but the simplest definition of karma is “cause and effect”.
I am also not a Buddhist, In all religions there are many ideas about what happens after death that are fraught with superstition and cultural icons and it seems a matter of “taste” what appeals to people. In the end, “don’t know” is the best practice. It is too simple or too difficult, but sitting practice is the best approach to understanding dharma, and after 20 years or so, even then, still sitting! lol
I really enjoy reading your thoughts and I hope my commenting conveys that.
Comments much appreciated!
Absolutely agree on the sitting practice, even if it at times is extremely challenging.
Thank you for your willingness to “confront an unknown and risk”. The world, especially now, needs more original creative acts.
Thank you, Jerry!
First, I, too, find karma and reincarnation problematic (and I have some other issues with Buddhism), hence my self-imposed label of mostly Buddhist. I offer a comment a bit outside the context of your wonderful post, which is incredibly helpful to me.
Currently, I am listening to Karen Armstrong’s “The Case For God,” a look at “trends” in the major traditions from the Paleolithic period to the present. Armstrong emphasizes that hers is not an attempt to write a history but explore how mythos and logos have always been part of the human experience in that we use our reason to interpret the myths we tell ourselves to explain our lives, which to me (I am not attributing this to Armstrong), is the case for God. My own preference is also secular, “the web that has no weaver.” I mention Armstrong because if you do not know her work, your comments on Batchelor bring her work to mind. Her discussion is elegant and illuminating, as is yours quite often.
Finally, your post has helped me make a decision regarding Batchelor. I believe I will read “Buddhism Without Beliefs” prior to his translation of the bodhisattva guide that Chodron praises so frequently. This thought-provoking post, along with your joy, has moved his name up my reading list. Thanks so much, Sigrun!
Thank you so very much, Karen!
I do not know Armstrong at all, but will definitively look up her work!
Mostly Buddhist, oh – what a wonderful “label”, like placing oneself at the threshold, keeping one’s critical mind vital and at work 🙂 I guess this is an equivalent to the “don’t know” mind, which Rio mentions in her comment, and which also Kabat-Zinn is a strong spokesman for.