Last week, at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York, on the banks of the Hudson River, I was reunited with an old friend. It was very good to see him, and also a poignant reminder of the passage of time.
Forty years have passed since we met in the rural hamlet of Schwendi in Switzerland. A handful of houses lay at the end of the road, which gave onto a small farm and a dense forest. Before one doorway, a group of shaven-headed, red-robed Westerners half-heartedly imitated Tibetan monks at debate, clapping hands and reciting definitions. My approach interrupted their exercise, and a bored-looking Stephen Batchelor jumped to his feet with obvious relief.
The mandate of that tiny community was to produce a cadre of teachers for Tibetan Buddhism’s spread to the West. I was joining them.
The cultural transition we grandiosely prepared for ended up being more nuanced and ambiguous than any of us expected. As I was to learn over the next few years, debate was hardly the right word for the Tibetan practice of mtshan nyid (definitions). It was a powerful learning tool and could certainly be disputatious, but it was quite the reverse of the free thinking that plunged our forefathers into the paroxysms of the Enlightenment. We were after a different sort of Enlightenment, and our attempt to replicate the medieval Asian mindset triggered a whole new set of paroxysms. Some of us acknowledged the fact. Others hung on to their timorous certainties, the prime one being the sacred status of all things Tibetan.
Stephen became one of the only people with whom I could freely express my doubts. On long walks through the Schwendi forest, and later on perambulations around Mont Pèlerin, we came to the same tacit conclusion: much of what we were being encouraged to do there was a waste of time.
Buddhism is embodied in books, rituals and institutions, whereas dharma grows in the heart.
This was blasphemy. We spoke cautiously of it to others, if at all. It was undermining my reasons for being there so, to be absolutely sure, I moved into the den of the lion: Sera Monastic University in South India. I’ve always had a reckless streak, and this time I truly lost my footing. My suspicions were confirmed and my desolation was complete. Just like other monks and nuns, just like scientists and politicians, Tibetan monastics may be driven by good intentions, but also by ambition, passion, rivalry and intrigue. They’re just human beings. I went to Sri Lanka and found the same thing, though I had fewer expectations, and so was less disappointed.
But I couldn’t let it go. It was catastrophic for my monk’s vocation, and I had to move on. That was thirty years ago.
Shunning organized Buddhism was a disastrous career move, but my integrity was at stake and I saw no alternative. I had to find a language, a voice and a vantage of my own, outside of any Asian tradition.
Buddhism is embodied in books, rituals and institutions, whereas dharma grows in the heart. My mission was to see through Buddhism. Could I really divorce the two or was I tilting at windmills? I knew what I’d learned, now I had to see what it was worth. If I could capture the imagination of a non-Buddhist audience, I’d be on track. The question was, how to express it?
Early Buddhist teachings helped. They were less structured and more colloquial than the later Tibetan scriptures. I read beyond that, though. Evolutionary psychology, biology and history turned out to be useful. Scientific studies of Buddhist brains, not so much. How do you measure meditation anyway? What I needed was to examine what the Buddha talked about without resorting to the stilted language of arcane Buddhism.
Some of my peers escaped into university, but that wasn’t for me. Academia makes perfectly intelligent people write very badly.
I went through a long spiritual vagabondage, and realized what I was seeking only when I found it: someone of like mind. Her name was Caroline and she was no Buddhist, but she understood dharma and she understood me. Validation is everything. Within months I was teaching, and my memoir was taking shape. We’ve been partners ever since.
In 2011 I eerily received an invitation to the Buddhist Teachers Council at the Garrison Institute. I have no idea how I appeared on their radar, but I went. My peers were welcoming, but I still didn’t fit in. It’s weird. I totally relate to what the Buddha taught, but can’t relate at all to traditional Buddhists.
It’s not what you believe that counts; it’s what you do
On the other hand, it’s always a pleasure to see Stephen again. He’s like a brother, and although we took very different paths we’re still of very like mind. Still, he somehow managed to dispense with orthodoxy without ever leaving the fold, and eloquently too. For that, I tip my hat to him.
I am no guru. I live a worldly life and am as conflicted about myself as my students are. That’s important. It’s a credential. What matters is not that I’ve reached some level of perfection but that I have an ongoing relationship with my imperfections. My demons aren’t gone. Rather, I’ve befriended them.
I teach by putting what people already know in a new light. It connects me with others and I love it. If life has a purpose, this is it.
My next book is about the Buddha’s eightfold path, and it’ll steer clear of Buddhism. It’s about dharma, not doctrine or philosophy. I’m borrowing freely from a new language devised by Stephen, which he calls “Rebuilding Buddhism from the ground up.” It’s audacious.
Just as he and I gave up Tibetan debate years ago, we also gave up praying to invisible demons and expecting to be free of suffering. Awakening is not a shattering breakthrough; it’s a modest acceptance of any moment in life, preferably every one. Also, it’s not what you believe that counts; it’s what you do. That alone determines your experience of life. You can’t follow in someone else’s footsteps; they’ll never fit.
I guide workshops and one-on-one, by Skype and in person. My old teachers wouldn’t approve of what I teach. They wouldn’t recognize it. Still, this is my respectful homage to them—for by hook or by crook I learned, and I thank them.
All of this swirls in my mind as I drive home from Garrison, north on Highway 87, where three lanes give way to two, and the traffic thins towards frozen Canada. I’ve lived here half my life and yet, just as in the land of my birth, I feel I’m entering a foreign country. That’s sort of how I feel about Buddhism. I’ve heard that this is the predilection of many writers — and I thought writing would help me find my way home….
I’ve learned to let go of who I think I should be, to savor life, to accept the woe and the joy in whatever measure they befall me. The freedom I’m after must be able to encompass them both. Else, what use could it be?
9 thoughts on “Buddhism, or dharma?”
Hello Stephen, this is a very sensible article concerning the problems of organised religion.
Here in the UK, as all over the world, we have many buddhist centres that are run by the same organisation & it is completely resistant to challenge. Their whole business is built upon a dubious Tibetan guy’s vested interest in some spirit demon. I’m sure you are aware of the rest & the political campaign that is ongoing to defame the Dalai Lama. There are many people, like me, who have been disillusioned by this organisation, & it is very refreshing to hear of other’s, like yourself, who also can see the ignorance. I enjoy reading your newsletters, & if I ever get to Canada, (hopefully soon), I would very much like to meet you.
There is a website for people affected by the controversial buddhist group here :-
Thankyou Stephen, Warm wishes from Sue
Hi Sue: I spent a week with Kelsang Gyatso in 1980 or 1981, translating a course he gave in Pomaia. This was at the request of Geshe Rabten, who called him a friend (which I thought unlikely) . Gyatso did not appreciate the way I questioned his delivery of certain magical stories, and was a right little dictator. His firmness of mind was quite striking, though I would never have expected him to build such an empire. I’m not sure his vested interests are so much in Dolgyal as in himself.
We might meet here in Canada, or perhaps in the UK one day. Are you part of this survivors’ group?
Hello again Stephen. I do follow the survivors group out of interest, although I would not call myself a part of it. I have trouble being a part of any group! I was asked by a friend to help set up a centre & that’s how I got involved in 1990, but I could see this was not a good place to be & definitely not the kind of thing that attracted me to the dharma back in the 60’s, so in that respect I am a survivor. I am awaiting now their final showdown, as there is a lot of exposure of them online, & they certainly have disgraced themselves.
After turning my back on this business I must say that I’m astounded by the following of this superstitious mindset. My attitude has always been, regarding the interpretation of buddhist technique, towards a mental stability & a deep understanding of mind.
The confusion & anger I felt about my involvement was helped by an appointment with Lama Yeshe, the abbot of Samye Ling Monastery, Holy Island, in Scotland. He said that if I knew how many people came to see him about Gyatso then I would see how he is giving buddhism a bad name. His advice was for me to continue on my own path & stay away from them. Wise words, & also useful in other areas of conflict in my personal life when my unity has been threatened.
Keep up the good work & let me know if you come to the UK.
Glad to hear that a new book is in the works. Just the other day I was wondering just that. Always appreciative of your unadorned, pensive approach.
Thanks Jennifer: Knowing that people are waiting for it helps it move along in its gestation.
another great piece, stephen — thank you!! please write more re: this exact issue ASAP.
Hi Patrice: You make it sound urgent. What’s on your mind, exactly?
thank you for speaking/writing re: a topic not often shared by dharma teachers. this, from above, speaks volumes:
Buddhism is embodied in books, rituals and institutions, whereas dharma grows in the heart. My mission was to see through Buddhism.
your thinking and writing feed me deeply and i look forward to more of your perspective re: this particular subject. i see my disconnect and struggle w/ the cultural trappings of buddhism as i imagine many dharma students do. your voice is beyond helpful.
looking forward to the next book!!
thought provoking article. The almost 90 year-old Catholic Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast said, “Religion starts from mysticism – there is no other way to start a religion. So, I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth, this big bang experience and then the lava flows down or the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom it’s just rocks and you would never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire; morals become moralistic; rituals become ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.”
I think that’s the problem with the outward appearance of all the world’s religions nowadays, and Buddhism is no exception.