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Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor explores scientific materialism and secular Buddhism.


photo by: Stephen Lasky

I remember the first time I tried meditation. The anxiety it stirred gave me a stomachache. When sitting meditation didn’t work I tried walking mediation as taught by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. That wasn’t much better — to confining, too restrictive, too many rules. It felt like church. But despite my inability to “do meditation,” I couldn’t escape feeling there was something to this Buddhist practice of quietly looking within.

Today’s guest on Skeptiko, Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Batchelor, has probably done more than anyone else in the last 20 years to change how Westerners approach Buddhist meditation. His books, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, and his latest, After Buddhism, stripped Buddhism of its robes and prayer wheels to consider mediation from a Western, scientific, reductionistic perspective. And while this approach has met resistance from many traditional Buddhists teachers, it has also been a tremendous boon to millions who wish to explore the well-documented scientific benefits of mediation without giving up their modern, secular worldview. Batchelor even made it okay for atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to give meditation a try.

Join Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Buddhist teacher and author, Stephen Batchelor.

Alex Tsakiris: I think your orientation–your secular, atheist orientation–has been a great fit for the social movement [surrounding Buddhism]… but I think what you’re doing is a little bit of “shut-up and [meditate]” here in that we’re skipping over the deeper, philosophical implications of what this “mindfulness” really means…

… I can shift over to another area where it’s even [clearer]… and that’s the idea of reincarnation. Again, it’s another area that back [when you began] wasn’t anywhere close to being studied scientifically, but since then it has been studied scientifically… and they offer rather compelling evidence highly suggestive that something like reincarnation is really happening. So again, where are you with all of that? And are you trying to fit that back into a secular orientation that may not hold up when we really look at the science?

Stephen Batchelor: I’m not a scientist and I can only–if evidence appears through scientific study and so forth of the possibility of a non-material consciousness that floats free from the material world…if evidence can be compiled that indicates that reincarnation is a possibility then that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. I just don’t think that those issues are actually central to what the Buddha was trying to do. I think these are fascinating areas and I’m fully supportive of all of this kind of research.

Alex Tsakiris: Follow through with that thought because I think this is an area where you’re probably at odds with [the traditional Buddist community] when you [claim that reincarnation wasn’t] central to what the Buddha was teaching. And even if he wasn’t “teaching it”… they went inside, in the same way that you have, and they came to the conclusion that consciousness is fundamental and reincarnation is real. Can’t we assume that the Buddha came to that same conclusion?

Stephen Batchelor: It depends on which text you look at. The accounts of the Buddha’s awakening–there’s one account that talks of him remembering all of his past lifetimes and so on. But the accounts that I find most compelling have nothing to do with reincarnation or the nature of consciousness. In fact there’s a text in the Pali Canon where the Buddha says quite clearly that consciousness emerges out of the interactions between an organism and its environment–that you have a sense organ and when that encounters a color, shape, sound or smell, or an emotion bubbling up inside you, that encounter is what gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is something that emerges contingently upon an organism encountering an environment…

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Click here for Stephen Batchelor’s Website

Read Excerpts:

Alex Tsakiris: In preparing for this interview, I watched the interview you gave with Dan Harris of ABC News. Dan Harris is quite a guy. He’s been on this show I enjoyed him and enjoyed his book, 10% Percent Happier. In that interview, and I think this was for Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, you said, “I’m a naturalist. A materialist. I believe that this world is mediated through this body and this brain–and that’s all there is.” Would you say that’s pretty accurate of the conclusion you’ve come to?

Stephen Batchelor: Yes, with the qualifier that I also believe that this naturalistic world is profoundly strange and mysterious, and we’ve probably only scratched the surface of what is actually going on. I think we also have to take into account the limitations of our human brain; the limitations of our knowledge. But I see no reason at all to introduce and element let’s say of some free-floating consciousness or spirit … or some divine powers to operate behind the scenes. To me, I just don’t think that’s necessary and I don’t think there’s any compelling evidence to support such a view. At the same time I feel that when we go back to the earliest teachings of the Buddha, I don’t think the Buddhists saw his teaching as offering a kind of definitive description of how reality works. I think he was a pragmatist. I think he was a skeptic. I think he was interested in how do we come to terms with birth, sickness, aging and death? How do we live as human beings in a way that fulfills our potential?

——————

Alex Tsakiris: I think your orientation–your secular, atheist orientation–has been a great fit for the social movement that’s going on in terms of, as you said, a post-religious, western culture. I guess what I was driving at, and maybe it’s too fine of a point, but I don’t really think it is. I think what we’re doing is a little bit of “shut-up and calculate” here in that we’re skipping over the deeper, philosophical implications of what this mindfulness really means. Because it does stand to undermine the very materialism that you’re talking about. Materialism doesn’t sit well with immaterial thoughts–being able to change the physical structure of a brain. Our understanding of materialism as it relates to consciousness would suggest that essentially consciousness is an illusion. Consciousness can do no work. So Daniel Dennett, that new atheist author and figurehead Daniel Dennett who’s famous for saying, “consciousness is an illusion.” Richard Dawkins is famous for saying that “we are essentially biological robots.” They’re kind of saying the same thing and the consciousness research undermines that. And it undermines it in a way that’s subtle and people are still coming to grips with but when you really dig into it, it does undermine it. I can shift over to another area where it’s even [clearer] because part of the Buddhist dogma that initially turns you off was the idea of reincarnation. Again that’s another area that back in those days wasn’t anywhere close to being studied scientifically but since then it has been studied scientifically. And some Buddhist-oriented researches have been involved in part of that. But for the most part it was a group at the University of Virginia–initially Ian Stevenson and now Jim Tucker–and they offer rather compelling evidence [that’s] highly suggestive that something like reincarnation is really happening. So again, where are you with all of that? And are you trying to fit that back into a secular orientation that may not hold up when we really look at the science?

Stephen Batchelor: I’m not a scientist and I can only–if evidence appears through scientific study and so forth of the possibility of a non-material consciousness that floats free from the material world…if evidence can be compiled that indicates that reincarnation is a possibility then that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. I just don’t think that those issues are actually central to what the Buddha was trying to do. I think these are fascinating areas and I’m fully supportive of all of this kind of research.

Alex Tsakiris: Follow through with that thought because I think this is an area where you’re probably at odds with people when you don’t think that this was central to what the Buddha was–even if he wasn’t teaching it as you said, what was the realization of thousands and thousands of people who followed [him]. That’s my read on it — they went inside in the same way that you have and they came to the conclusion that consciousness is fundamental. Reincarnation is real. Can’t we maybe assume that the Buddha did come to that same conclusion?

Stephen Batchelor: It depends on which text you look at. The accounts of the Buddha’s awakening–there’s one account that talks of him remembering all of his past lifetimes and so on. But the accounts that I find most compelling have nothing to do with reincarnation or the nature of consciousness. In fact there’s a text in the Pali Canon where the Buddha says quite clearly that consciousness emerges out of the interactions between an organism and its environment–that you have a sense organ and when that encounters a color, shape, sound or smell, or an emotion bubbling up inside you, that encounter is what gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is something that emerges contingently upon an organism encountering an environment. Now, that consciousness we need not think of as material in the sense that it’s made of atoms or something. But it’s still part of the physical world. Philosophers I think now are not so comfortable with the world materialism. They prefer something like ‘physicalism’. In other words, although these things may not be strictly speaking material, they are nonetheless only possible within the physical environment. That I think is very close to what the actual Buddhist teachings taught. Now the whole business of reincarnation and consciousness existing independently of a physical organism, this is not an exclusively Buddhist idea. This is a common view that you’ll find in Hinduism and Jainism and pretty much all the major Indian traditions of thought. It says more about the traditional cosmology and metaphysics of ancient India than it does about what is specific to Buddhism. And when you compare the Buddhist teaching, particularly as we find it in the earliest historical texts, we find that actually [the Buddha] seems to be articulating something that is not primarily based upon the notion of reincarnation or the separate existence of consciousness but he actually denies [it]. There’s a passage in the San Yu [text] where he says the idea that consciousness can exist independently of the physical environment is impossible. He says that in black-and-white. It’s an exceptional text but that actually makes it more likely to go back to the Buddha because it’s unlikely to have been added at a later date.

So there’s a great deal of quite strong evidence that the Buddha was not primarily concerned with these particular doctrines and teachings. In later Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism and Tara Buddhism, they developed very sophisticated theories of the nature of consciousness and how it comes into the body at birth and so on. And going to Dr. Stevenson’s work–if we are to explore the possibility of reincarnation we need to do so empirically by the study of cases in the way that he and his followers have done. And now another scientist, Dr. Charles Tart, has taken on this work and has continued to compile case studies of these kids usually from Asia but not exclusively–even children from Christian cultures, western cultures have also reported memories–quite compelling memories of remembering past lives. But there are enormous philosophical problems with this work. I think a lot of people, particularly Buddhists who want proof of reincarnation will take these studies and basically say, ah, this child remembered x-y-z, therefore there is reincarnation. That is drawing what is to me–that’s inductive reasoning. You’re drawing a very general conclusion from very limited pieces of evidence. You could just as well conclude, as some early Indian philosophical schools concluded, that we have two or three lifetimes; that just because a child has access to information of a previous existence and offer some compelling evidence, that in itself is no proof that that child will be reborn again. It could be a butterfly in a chrysalis. It’s a two-life [situation]. You have to be very careful to draw these very generalized conclusions, particularly if they happen to support your religious beliefs.

Alex Tsakiris: I agree and I think that’s an important part of your work. No matter if someone agrees with everything that you’re tearing down or not, I love the iconoclastic approach that you take: strip it all down and see where the data leads. I don’t follow your reasoning on reincarnation because in the same way that I think we have to strip away the religious dogma we also have to strip away the science dogma and the shadow of materialism. Materialism is so ingrained in our education system; in our scientific system–as soon as someone begins to think outside of the box and even contemplate reincarnation I think the challenges that you’re making are immediately thrown on the table without thought of in those challenges I am still undermining everything I thought I knew about science and the physical world. But again, you’ve laid bare the field and I think people can do with it what they will.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Does the secular Buddhism crowd misunderstand mindfulness research?”]

Stephen Batchelor: I think I really have to come back to what–to me–is the primary issue. The Buddha describes his teaching as that of coming to terms with ‘Dukkha’ the suffering of life and the seeking to find an authentic response to that suffering. He presents his teaching as much as we find the Hellenistic philosophers presented their teaching: it’s primarily a kind of therapy that has to do with human flourishing as the Greeks would call it. It has to do with learning to live a life to the utmost of our potential. And frankly, whether we believe in reincarnation or we don’t believe in reincarnation. If we believe in higher states of consciousness or not, I think that’s a secondary issue. I don’t think it makes much of a difference as to how we live moment-to-moment in this world in a sensitive, wise, and compassionate way.

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