The surprisingly spatial quality of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism

In a gently humorous interview with theologian/broadcaster Krista Tippett on the wildly popular podcast “On Being”, Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Batchelor explores the particular aspect of Buddhism that he practices, called secular, or atheist, Buddhism.  In it he delves into the issues and value of such practices as doubt, questioning, and transcendence.

Although much of Batchelor’s musings will be familiar to those already acquainted with Buddhism, what comes as somewhat a surprise is the consistently spatial ways in which he recalls and interprets his spiritual practices.

Locating Culture

A nation without a country: “I think what impressed me most was the presence of the Tibetan people, who had only recently gone into exile, about 12 years before. And I’d never met people like that before. People who were living in great poverty, great, enormous distress, and yet had within them a kind of a stillness; a kind of radiance, in a way.” (minute 4:19)

The evolution of culture: “A culture arises out of communities that share common values and practices, and over time they generate a common sense of what matters in life, a common ethical aesthetic, philosophical sense of the world.” (39:35)

Isolation As Transcendence

A first mystical experience: ” I was walking in a woodland, and suddenly I was just overwhelmed by the sheer surprise that this was happening at all. And it struck with me a — it was like a visceral blow to the whole body. It was a deeply emotional opening to life in a way I’d never even suspected before. And yet it wasn’t presented to me as a set of solutions or answers to human questions. But, rather, it exposed what I still feel to be the utter primacy of the questioning, the doubting.” (9:00)

On the primacy of questioning as opposed to answering: “For three months, twice a year, we would just sit in a darkened room, and ask ourselves, ‘What is this?’ and wrest with that question. Nothing else.” (22:00)

The value of non-reactive stillness: “Mindfulness allows…the very simple possibility of stopping, just pausing, opening up a gap in thoughts and feelings.” (31:12)

Real-World Religion

Divinity does not take place in Heaven: “The Buddha and his followers, the different kings and other figures he interacts with, inhabit a quirky, rather tawdry human world that is very much like the world that we know today. ” (15:00)

Learning how to speak about a faith developed in remote time that keeps it relevant and accessible: “We need another kind of language in order to articulate this tradition in ways that speak to our sense of modernity, or the kind of creatures we are now in a world informed so much by the natural sciences. A sense of being sentient creatures who have evolved on the surface of this planet that’s spinning around the sun. This is a worldview quite different from that in which Buddhism has grown up.” (38:00)

Places Of Spiritual Practice

Must a place be associated with one god or tradition in order for it to be sacred?: “In the future, we might have atheist cathedrals.” (33:15)

Connecting to one’s spiritual understandings in a haptic and tangible way: “One of the things that I greatly cherish is pilgrimage. …[E]very year for the last few years I’ve been going back to India primarily and visiting these ancient sites. … physically going to these places that carry these memories, let’s say — I don’t see this in a weird mystical way of vibrations or something like that. But when I find myself in these places, and I sit quietly in such places, and I bring to mind what has occurred in these places in the past, it connects me to the tradition in a nonverbal way that is somehow a kind of literal ‘earthing’ of my practice.” (33:45)

It’s not just about us as individuals, it’s about us as communities: “we’re not just looking for a philosophy of life. We’re looking to create spaces, spaces where we can come together as strangers and publicly celebrate what we value most deeply.” (35:12)

Nirvana Urbanism

It’s not just about us as communities, it’s about us as a people: “There is a beautiful parable in the early Buddhist texts where the Buddha sees his Eightfold Path, his way of life as leading, not to nirvana (which is the traditional view), but leading to the rebuilding of a city.  That, to me, is a very, very valuable source for thinking of Buddhism as a culture. I like to think — and again, I might be wrong — that the Buddha was concerned not with the founding of another religion; he was concerned to establish a set of norms, which are enacted through the Eightfold Path, that would give rise to another kind of civilization.” (40:12)

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