Stephen Batchelor and Martine Batchelor, both with extensive backgrounds in monastic Buddhism, are currently lay dharma teachers, practitioners and authors of a number of important books. Naming only a few, Martine has written Walking on Lotus Flowers: Buddhist Women Living, Loving and Meditating; and has co-edited Buddhism and Ecology. Stephen has written Alone with Others, Faith to Doubt, and The Awakening of the West; and they have cooperated on The Way of Korean Zen. They live in South Devon, England, and teach at Gaia House and the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemplative Enquiry.
How did you become interested in Buddhist practice?
Stephen: It is very difficult to reconstruct one’s initial development of interest in anything as significant as Buddhist practice. I suppose to some degree it simply was something I picked up on in the counter culture of the 1960’s that resonated.
Having read a few books when I was a teenager in England (I can’t even remember which ones), I was sufficiently inspired to trail off to India at age 18. I ended up at Dharamsala, and made contact with Tibetan Lamas, and there was a course at the library in Dharamsala starting just then. It was a two-month series of lectures on basic Tibetan Budddhism with lots of reading, meditation, a puja. It wasn’t academic, but nor was it a meditation retreat. I enrolled in that, and I have been doing that sort of thing ever since.
Martine: I came from a socialist background growing up in France, and I had no interest whatsoever in any religious form, but I was interested in traveling from a very young age. When I was about 18 I came across the Dhammapada and that actually changed my life.
I was very active politically at that point, and in the Dhammapada there was a sentence which I understood as saying something like “Before you change all the people, you might want to change yourself.” Suddenly I got the understanding: I can’t even change my anger, the way I feel about the political causes—How can I change the world? I still wanted to be a journalist but I decided I would try to find some form of meditation, and that helped me to live a more relaxed life for a few years.
When I was about 21 I traveled East, and for various reasons ended up in Thailand. Here I met some scholar monks from Korea, who told me that I could study Zen meditation there. So I went to Korea with the idea of staying a month or so, before going on to Japan.
I immediately went to Songgwang Sa monastery and shortly after I arrived a laywoman asked me, “Why don’t you become a nun?” I said, “No, no way!” Then she said: “Aren’t you lucky. l am a mother and have all these children, but I would love to become a nun. But you, you could do it!” And so I thought, “Yeah. I have no relationship, no job or anything, so why not?” So that is how I started.
That is quite a transition—from activist to nun. And in your case, Stephen? Did you ordain fairly soon after this first experience in Dharamsala?
Stephen: No, it was about a year and a half after I started my studies and practice that I finally became a monk, and I did so for the fairly traditional reasons. I am very reluctant to make clear-cut statements about my motives—I think one edits them considerably as one makes sense of one’s life in retrospect. But no doubt there was a certain amount of romantic idealism; thinking of enlightenment, and recognizing a degree of suffering.
What did become quite clear was that if I wished to really go into this complete commitment to practice, the optimal lifestyle would be that of a monk. It would enable me to take certain vows that would maximize my ability to study and practice.
And what sort of training did you receive as a Tibetan monk?
Stephen: My primary training was with Geshe Rabten in Switzerland, along with a small group of fellow Western monks and lay people. The initial aim in the Gelugpa tradition was to undergo the basic training of the monastic university, which entailed the study of logic, epistemology, philosophy, psychology. Following traditional texts, memorizing those texts, debating in Tibetan—doing the whole thing in Tibetan. It was intellectually very demanding, because we were doing a course of study at which time there were no, or very few, English translations of this material, so we had to learn it all in Tibetan.
In retrospect, I think that was an extremely positive intellectual discipline and training that I feel has probably served me well just in terms of being able to use my mind. And this intellectual training was not in isolation—throughout this period we were doing a lot of other basic practices. So it was a very complete, very complex practice, under the guidance of a very highly qualified and highly regarded teacher.
And yet you wound up joining a Zen monastery in Korea, where you met Martine?
Stephen: Yes, that’s true. After about 6 years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition I felt increasingly frustrated with the kind of studies we were doing. A lot of the study seemed to be less and less actually relevant to my own practice. I felt all this emphasis on debate and study and memorization was becoming a bit top-heavy.
I looked at that time for a more contemplative training—initially within the Tibetan schools, but I didn’t find that. So I was moved to follow that impulse I had had for many years to practice Zen. I had actually, throughout this period as a monk in the Tibetan tradition, been practicing vipassanā [insight meditation] in the Goenka style.
As a Tibetan monk, you were practicing Goenka-style vipassanā?
Stephen: Yes. Goenka came to Dharamsala in 1974 or 1975, shortly after I was ordained, and I did a 10-day vipassanā retreat with him. It completely turned my whole view of Buddhism around, because it then became clear that one could actually, in a relatively short period of time, enter into a meditative state that really altered one’s quality of experience. The mind slowed down and became still, and one saw things in another way.
This was quite different from what the geshes would say, and certainly it was more immediately effective than any of the meditations I was doing with the Tibetans.
Was there any conflict or difficulty around mixing the practices?
Stephen: Yes and no. There was a conflict in the sense that this practice was not really understood by the Tibetans, and also not regarded as being of any great significance. Yet, it was tolerated. The Tibetan Lamas realized it was not incompatible with what they were doing, but it certainly didn’t fit into their scheme of things.
But I had run into a certain conflict with Goenka, so I chose to stay in my Tibetan training but to continue the vipassanā practice. But that quality of satipaṭṭhāna [mindfulness] never left me, and that is really what I wanted to develop.
But I did find an element in the vipassanā practice that was a somewhat passive observation, whereas I found the Zen approach—particularly as I found it taught in Korea—to be a more dynamic inquiry. That appealed to me because it valued a deep kind of existential question which I didn’t find in Tibetan Buddhism or (at that time at least) in the Theravada approach either.
Therefore I chose to go to Korea, and found it exactly what I wanted. I was very, very happy there; I stayed for the last three years of Master Kusan’s life, and then for another year to try and help keep the International Meditation Center going. It was at that point that Martine and I decided that we wanted to return to the West.
Martine, what was it like being a Korean nun?
Martine: I took to it quite warmly and enthusiastically once I understood what was going on, and it was a fantastic training. We did a lot of meditation because that is why we were there—we were in a meditation school and in a meditation monastery. They would tell us to meditate six months of the year, 10 hours a day at least, if not more. In between retreats, you would sit maybe 2-4 hours a day. So I took my meditation as my task because that was what I was there for, and it was a perfect place to do it with Master Kusan, a great master.
After the first five years I began to read more, and learned the language to understand what was going on. After a while I became a translator for Master Kusan, and translated some of his talks and teachings. It was really quite a rich environment among the Westerners and also our connection with Master Kusan. Then Stephen came, and with his scholarly background, we were able to work together translating and editing more teachings and texts.
Can either of you say anything about your decisions to disrobe, marry and return to the West?
Stephen: In my case, and this may be true for both of us, I saw less and less reason to remain as a monk by the end of my Zen training. It had, in a sense, served its purpose.
Also we discovered that we were very close to each other and, quite naturally after about a four year friendship, realized that we would very much like to live together and live the lay life with another kind of commitment. I saw it always as moving from one kind of commitment (in the monk’s case, celibacy) into a commitment to a married relationship with one person, and always within the context of dharma practice. So in that sense I didn’t personally find it at all disorienting to disrobe.
Martine: In Korea we had to spend some time together and got to know each other as good friends. We had strong discussions about the dharma and the precepts and this and that, so we were already very good dharma friends—which I think is very important.
When Master Kusan died, it was a shock for both of us, and things at the monastery really changed. Stephen had already decided to go back to Europe. It worked that we continue our commitment to ourselves and to the dharma in that way.
Compared to a lot of people’s experience in disrobing, I think it was very smooth. Thanks to Christopher [Titmuss], who Stephen knew from before, we were invited to visit and then join the Buddhist lay community of Sharpham, in Devon. This was very lucky—it was like moving from one dharma community to another. For us who had been ten years living in monasteries, it was fine to be in a community.
I am very intrigued in what you both think or feel about this whole phenomenon of Buddhism coming to the West. You have written a whole book on it, Stephen. From your fairly unique perspective of being Westerners who have really quite fully immersed yourselves in various Asian Buddhist cultures and in the Buddhist tradition, what do you make of all this? What do you think that the prospects are? Are we getting the real stuff these days in the West? Are we diluting things to follow our hopes and wishes?
Stephen: I don’t think it is anything different from what has occurred historically many times before, particularly when you think of Buddhism going outside of its original cultural environment to China, Korea and Japan. It is not an unprecedented thing, and I don’t think one should make too big a deal out of it as though coming to the West were something special. It is not that different from what has already occurred.
What is happening really, in crudest terms, is that there is in our Western culture a need, both a personal and a social need, for another way of looking at the world that is perhaps more complete, more satisfying, that addresses certain questions in our lives that we don’t find answers for in our own traditions. Buddhism seems to offer some response to those needs. If it didn’t, I don’t think there would be any interest in it.
Martine: I think one has to be careful of this big subject: Buddhism in the West. For me the primary thing is the method of the teaching about suffering. You might be teaching something very deep, but you might not be able to help the person you are addressing; so you might be slightly lighter, and that is maybe what they are needing in that moment—then maybe when they are ready they can go deeper.
There are many Western teachers who are very practiced and are very, very good teachers—and they continue to practice, which is very important. With good teachers the teaching can become both deeper and wider. For me, the two are important. Depth is important of course; but breadth, too, is important. In the West we can’t afford to neglect the breadth because this is a pluralistic society and we see all these Buddhisms at once.
If you are a dedicated practitioner, I don’t see why your practice won’t be as deep as somebody who is practicing in Korea. I think it is intention that is important—the sincerity and the dedication.
Can you say more about the importance of addressing people’s suffering?
Martine: This has to do with the basic Buddhist doctrine of the three trainings. Master Kusan always emphasized the importance of training equally in ethics, concentration and wisdom. To me what the problems seem to be in the West (and it could have been the same in the East, I don’t know) is that somebody might choose only ethics or only concentration or only wisdom; but the teaching has been that you must practice the three together.
I think this is what we are called to do: practice the three together in our lives—not just as an intellectual understanding. I think you have to practice the precepts, you have to cultivate meditation, you have to study, you have to develop wisdom and understanding at various levels. We must never lose sight that these three trainings must go together.
We are not psychologists or doctors. We come from the Buddhist tradition; we come with a certain base from which we then try to alleviate the suffering. I cannot work on alleviating the suffering without also cultivating the Buddhist practice. To me that is very important.
Some dharma teachers are psychologists, and at least some parts of the American medical profession are looking to Buddhism for inspiration in their treatment of pain; also it seems many students use both traditional Buddhist and modem psychological techniques of self-understanding in parallel. Any thoughts on this?
Stephen: Well, again, I don’t think it is anything surprising. In order for Buddhism to communicate its message within a given culture it has to learn to speak the language of that culture. (I don’t mean French and English, but the dominant cultural modes of expression.)
Buddhism has always tended to enter into a particular foreign culture at a fairly specialist level, and it seems that in our culture one of the areas in which Buddhism has connected to the West is through psychology and psychotherapy. These disciplines have numerous resonances with Buddhist understanding. I think it is quite natural that Buddhism would adopt a psychological manner, because it is particularly apt.
At the same time, Buddhism is not a fixed body of dogma (like perhaps some other religions). It has always been transformed by its interactions with those cultures into which it has moved; at the same time, those cultures have been transformed by their interaction with Buddhism. So the style of the teaching reflects Buddhism’s creative capacity to interact with a culture in a way that makes it available to that culture, but at the same time it remains true to its own principles and its own pattern. With psychology, I think that is precisely what is going on.
The problem is that people may think that this is a corruption or a dilution of Buddhism when it begins to take on another linguistic form. I know that many of my Tibetan teachers are highly suspicious of any adaptation of the traditional forms of expression, because they see it as a process of corruption. I think one needs to respect that warning. One certainly does not want to reduce Buddhism to, say, psychotherapy because then it could easily just get absorbed into Western culture, lose its own identity.
I respect that warning, but on the other hand, if Buddhism doesn’t engage creatively in other forms of expression, it is quite likely to remain marginalized, to remain a specialist interest amongst a few groups of people. But then I think Buddhism would not in the long run have much significant impact on the West.
Martine: Buddhist meditation is a healing power, but I think one has to be very careful to note it is not therapy. They can meet, but they are not the same thing. Meditation teachers can be psychotherapists as their profession, but need to be clear that there are real differences between therapy and meditation and the Buddhist path.
I have done some counseling training, because I saw that would be very useful for working with people in meditation interviews. But I can’t look back at people’s past or anything like this—what I want them to look at is the present and their future and how meditation could help them in their lives.
When we talk about concentration, we are talking about training the mind in a certain way. When we talk of inquiry, then I think it becomes a little bit more psychological. When we look into greed, hatred or anger, then we are beginning to look in a slightly different way.
I think the problem with putting too much psychology in meditation is that it might become too personal, too individual. People may become self-absorbed, which is the opposite of what meditation wants to do—the inner stopping in order to be more responsive to the world.
Meditation and psychotherapy may complement one another in helpful ways, but they may also become obstructive to one another. Meditation can become an anesthetic to one’s problems, and psychology can lead one to be too self-centered. The two need to be used together very carefully and very wisely.
Can you talk a bit about your current projects in England, especially the newly-started College of Buddhist Studies?
Stephen: We have been living in South Devon now for more than ten years, and throughout that time we have been involved with both Christopher Titmuss and Christina Feldman in the running of Gaia House Retreat Center as well as our projects at Sharpham House.
This year has been a year of considerable change on both these fronts. Gaia House has recently purchased a large old convent very close by, and we are now able to take many more people on retreat. We have a very large meditation room that can take up to about 100 people. It’s a wonderfully quiet and contemplative place, largely due perhaps to the fact that it has been a home for nuns for so long.
One of the wings we have turned into the hermitage wing, which is a place where people can stay for any length of time to do solitary retreats with the support of the teachers at Gaia House. That I think is an amazing thing we can offer, a place for people to have their own room and to sit according to their own schedule and to do their practice by themselves.
At the same time that this is happening, we are also creating in Sharpham House a college for Buddhist studies and contemporary inquiry which will start September, 1996, offering year-long residential and non-residential courses on mainly Buddhist themes, but always seeking to apply those Buddhist themes to the contemporary world. So in addition to studying, say, abhidhamma or Tibetan vajrayāna or whatever, we would also be offering courses in psychotherapy, for example, Western religions, Western philosophy, elements of science that are of interest to Buddhists like consciousness studies and so on, and providing that education within the context of an integrated way of life somewhat similar to that of a Buddhist monastery.
The students will live as a community, they will have regular periods of meditation together, they will work together on the land taking care of the garden, they will have classes in yoga and various kinds of body work, there will be opportunity for creative expression as well as some work in the community offering services to the elderly and so on.
So we hope—and this is a completely experimental venture—that we will be able to create an educational environment in which people can deepen their understanding of the diversity of Buddhist traditions at the same time getting at least a feel for different forms of Buddhist practice and particularly applying that theory of practice in actual concrete situations in compatible fields within Western culture.
Martine: And everything—even the Western study—is taught by Buddhists. So when they look at something like the relationship of consciousness studies with Buddhism it is not just a kind of dry academic study, but there will always be the experience of looking at the problems within a Buddhist and contemplative perspective.
Stephen: We are limiting the program to twelve participants, and choosing them as carefully as we can. We have had a lot of experience running a community for the last ten years, so the lifestyle has been worked out and the students will live just as the community lived. We have experience at Gaia House with teaching and so on, and we also have a tremendous resource of people in the locality who can offer courses.
I think we are very fortunate in terms of what is available to us and what our background is, so I am confident it will work.