Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism: Embrace, Let go, Stop, and Act

Dec 14 2019
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Stephen Batchelor, whose seminal book Buddhism Without Beliefs made his name nearly synonymous with “secular Buddhism.”

Robert Wright: Hi Steven. 

Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob. 

How are you doing?

I'm okay.

Good. You should be, you're in France, living an enviable life there, i gather. 

Well, unfortunately, human life, wherever you are... 

Ah. That brings us directly to our subject, which is Buddhism. … You’re very well known as a writer on Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk yourself, still a practicing Buddhist. Now, some people might contend that description because you are famously a proponent of secular Buddhism and there are people who don't think that secular Buddhism should be called Buddhism, I guess. But we'll get into all of this, into what we mean by secular Buddhism. One interesting thing about your worldview is that you don't view the terms "secular" and "religious" as mutually exclusive. You think something can be secular, but religious. So, yeah, we'll get into this.


I wanted to start out with a question that is in some ways biographical. You originally trained in the Tibetan tradition and were ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Tibet. You later did a lot of study in the Zen tradition, I gather. And in the meanwhile, you had what you've described as a very influential experience at a 10 day meditation retreat in the Vipassana tradition, a tradition that has come to be associated with ... mindfulness practice. ... And those really are the three main kinds of meditative traditions that I think Americans at least will encounter: either Tibetan, Zen or kind of Vipassana/mindfulness. 

So I want to get you to talk a little about the differences, but first I want you to talk about the commonality. In a way, this is asking, What is the heart of Buddhism that you want to preserve? What would you say was common to those three experiences?

Just one little correction, I didn't actually study in Tibet. I started in North India in Tibetan refugee communities. In the early seventies Tibet was undergoing the cultural revolution and they wouldn't have liked us hippies showing up... 

What Buddhism is again, one of these... It's like Christianity. What is the heart of Christianity? It's a very difficult question to answer, but, personally, what I think has been a constant thread throughout my involvement in these three different forms of Buddhism is, one, a commitment to a certain kind of attention, a certain kind of awareness, a certain sensibility that has to do with how we pay attention, how we experience ourselves as a mortal creature in a fluid, changing, tragic and, in some levels, impersonal world, in which we find ourselves thrown, some philosophers say, and with the only certain prospect that we will be thrown out there. And, each of these traditions has different ways, basically, of coming to terms with birth and death. So I could argue that at the heart of Buddhism is coming to terms of birth and death, but then that would also be the heart of Christianity or Islam too, I guess, in some ways.

Right. Can I just interject here? … The fact that eventually our lives will end does point to a big thing that separates your secular Buddhism from what some people would call traditional Buddhism, which is the rebirth.

You may leave open the possibility of rebirth, but you're certainly not counting on it. ... Your secular Buddhism does not give people that kind of reassurance about death. 

No, it doesn't at all. But you have to remember also that in Buddhism, traditional Buddhism, rebirth is not conceived, is not seen as consolatory.

It's actually seen as the problem. I mean, the whole aim of traditional Buddhism is to free yourself from the cycle of birth and death and not get reborn again. Westerners are drawn to rebirth because it gives them the, you know, the possibility of not really dying. 

Although, if you live a sufficiently virtuous life in Buddhism, you can have a pretty nice subsequent life, right? 

There is this whole payoff thing. 

Right. And there are also realms of hell, which a lot of Westerners don't understand about traditional Buddhism. But you can go to hell. You won't spend eternity there, cause there will be another afterlife, but it'll be bad. 

No, that's right. I mean, the karma rebirth thing does provide a cosmic frame for seeing and understanding our lives in a much bigger context than that of just our 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years here on earth. And I think one of the things rebirth has provided in Asian societies is basically to locate the individual person and community within a much grander a sense of their brief life--and often in premodern societies these can be short, brutish lives. 

Now, there's some kind of hope, some kind of prospect that, you know, we are living in this world, not just for our immediate gratification, but for something greater, something that transcends us. And, Buddhism, of course, like Hinduism and Jainism, believes that after physical death there's some part of ourselves-- again, what that is, is a big debate, but something--let's say, consciousness will carry on into another birth. And that will carry with it the residue and a legacy of your past acts; and if they're good, then you'll have a nice rebirth, and so on. 

But the point is I just think that whole way of looking at the world is really outdated. It is a reflex, really, of classical Indian cosmology. It's a pre-modern worldview that, in the light of the way we understand human evolution, the way we understand how consciousness emerges out of the organism and the brain, it's very difficult to really understand what this is about. 

And to me, the primary question has to be the question the Buddha himself posed, in his own quest. And that is, how do I come to terms with having been born and having to die? 

And I would argue that there is a strong case to be made that the Buddhist teaching is primarily a teaching on how we can learn to flourish fully as human persons, in this world, in our societies, in the human community, in the community of all living beings, as it were. 

And if there is a future life, then that would be the best way to prepare for it; and if there's not a future life, we would have done the very best we can in this world. Now,  there are early Buddhist texts that actually say that. The Kalama Sutta is the best case where the Buddha says exactly that point.

And so I'm not rejecting traditional Buddhism. In fact, I'm recovering texts that have often been marginalized in traditional Buddhism because they don't fit the standard view of death, and rebirth, and karma and so on, which is very much, to me, has far more to do with Indian religious tradition than it does with what is specific and I think particularly illuminating about what the Buddha himself taught. 

So you're saying the Buddha inherited from his milieu the idea of rebirth--and he didn't, like, fight it, it was taken for granted--but that's not what you think is important about his work. And in fact, you think you can find early texts that maybe ... you would even call secular, in the sense that they are addressing these questions: how do you flourish in this life notwithstanding the fact that you know that you're gonna die? How do you cope with death? How do you do all this without the reassurance, without thinking about rebirth or a next life? How do you do it in naturalistic terms, you might say. 

That's correct. The concept of rebirth was simply the way Indians-- for the most part, there were exceptions, but for the most part--saw how the world worked. And this wasn't even an exclusively Indian idea. You will find Pythagoras and Plato, they both believed in rebirth. And rebirth was an idea that continued right up until, you know, the Christian era. 

I think it's an idea that actually sprung from an agrarian understanding of the cycles of life.  People began to see: just as you plant the seed, and it grows in a plant and then it dies, and then miraculously in the spring it comes up again… It's very much a cyclical understanding of the world that would be characteristic of agrarian societies in different parts of the world. 

So I don't think it's remotely to do with anything essentially Buddhist, but the fact is that Buddhists over the centuries have taken this as a primary, kind of doctrinal belief, and it's become embedded and integrated into the Buddhist teaching in ways that [make it] quite difficult to disentangle it from the rest of the philosophy and the practice. But I think we're in a stage now where we really have to go back to these early sources and try to rethink what the Dharma, which is what Buddhists call Buddhism, is actually offering us, and what it's telling us, and how it can provide us with methodologies to actually enhance the quality of our lives. 

What's the closest you can come to putting that in a nutshell? What is the 60-second, or the 30-second version of the Buddhist teachings for your purposes? 

Okay.  It's very easy. It's called ELSA. It means "Embrace, Let go, Stop, and Act." And that is a rereading of the four noble truths.

In other words, to embrace suffering, that is to embrace life in all of its dimensions; to let go of the instinctive and condition-reactive patterns of fear and greed and so forth and so on that come up almost spontaneously in many situations; to stop that behavior and come to rest in a clear non-reactive space of mind; and from that clear, non-reactive space of mind to embark on an ethical life, which is called The Eightfold Path. So, ELSA: Embrace, Let go, Stop, Act. It's even less than 30 seconds. 

That was very good. So part of the idea--a kind of big part, I think--is that the problem with things that you don't like and things you find unpleasant is that you don't like them and that you find them unpleasant. And rather than wishing for them to go away, you need to find a different relationship with them. 

Absolutely. Absolutely.

And I gather the meditative techniques... So, back to this biographical question--you've done Tibetan, Zen, Vipassana/mindfulness, what do they have in common?--I assume that the meditative techniques in all of those cases helped with that challenge. 

Absolutely. Yeah. Although I'm not a traditional Buddhist--and for many people, I'm not even a Buddhist--nonetheless, everything I do draws upon what I've learned from these different traditions. 

From the Tibetan tradition... I was in a very scholarly tradition, Gelugpa, and my training as a monk involved logic, epistemology, philosophy, psychology. Immensely helpful. And it gave me a grounding in the fundamental Buddhist terminology and logic of how Buddhist thinking works. Basically, I was trained as a theologian, that's what we call it in the West. 

The Zen tradition emphasizes the primacy of questioning, inquiry, mystery, immediacy, spontaneity, creativity. All of which I think are profoundly informing what I do. 

And the Theravada, or the Vipassana, or the mindfulness tradition goes back very much to what the historical Buddha taught and brings and emphasizes within that this concept of mindfulness, which I've always felt to be right at the very heart of Buddhism. It's not some sort of, you know, optional thing. It's there in the Eightfold Path. 

And what is most remarkable of all the 40 years I've spent studying Buddhism is how mindfulness has taken off into the mainstream of contemporary life. If someone had told me in the 1970s that in 40 years time you'll be able to practice mindfulness on the national health service in Britain, I would have written them off as crazy. But it's happened. And it's quite extraordinary, the extent to which this ancient Buddhist practice has found its way into the world we live in today. And I find that extraordinary, and a real validation of a great deal of the work that I've been doing. Obviously, not just by myself, but with my colleagues and friends over the years.

And what do you think is the key to its appeal? And I guess I'm also asking you to quickly define it in the course of answering that. 

Okay. Well, it's very simple. I mean, this is a little weird thing. It's incredibly simple. It's basically learning how to stop and look instead of just reacting.

So if you're using mindfulness, let's say, to overcome anxiety attacks or something, instead of, as soon as the first anxious thought pops into your mind, which then sort of hooks you and then drags you along and proliferates into all of these horrible anxious ideas you have, you just notice it at the outset. It's a thought. It's just words coming up in my brain for whatever reasons, and I can see it as such. I can step back and just observe that process at work. And if I do so--I'm not saying this is easy, but if I do so--after a while, the thought will kind of just fizzle out of its own accord. It's only by my fueling it with all my other worries and fantasies that it proliferates and develops and builds up ahead of steam. And I have a serious anxiety attack. 

And the principle behind mindfulness in that therapeutic context is exactly the same. It's the principle behind what a monk in a forest in Thailand will be doing to become enlightened. Exactly the same. It's about learning to stop, come to rest in a nonreactive space; and from there, learning to respond to life with greater consciousness, with greater sense of awareness of what else is going on around you, what other people's needs are and so on, rather than just habitually and compulsively letting the old patterns kick in and just drive you into saying and doing things you might subsequently regret. 

So it's very simple. 

Difficult, but simple.

Okay. So there's an interesting feature of your perspective, and I think there might be a tension within it. I don't know, you tell me. On the one hand, you put a lot of emphasis, I think, on the adaptation of spiritual traditions to the time in which they're being practiced, right? 

Yes. 

And in fact, I think there are people who would point out that the way you've just described mindfulness, although it's not inconsistent with ancient texts, if you went and looked at the kind of the Bible of mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta or whatever, what you just said wouldn't leap out at you, right? I mean, it's a long thing about "okay, think about this, think about that". You know, it never says "Stop and live in the moment."

Well, it doesn't say "Stop and live in the moment." That is true. That is a sort of Western, sort of idiomatic way of phrasing that.

But it does say --and I'm quoting, pretty much--it says, the monk will go to the forest and sit on the root of a tree. And when he's breathing out long, he knows he's breathing out long; and when he's breathing out short, he knows he's breathing out short. And that's kind of it. In other words... 

Well, although it gets into a lot of other stuff. "Think about your corpse when you're dead." It says a lot of stuff we don't hear it at modern meditation centers very often... But anyway, I take your point that, that yes, anybody who did what it says to do would find themselves doing what you're describing. I'm not really contesting that. 

The other half of the question was: On the one hand, you do emphasize adaptation, and we have to have a spiritual worldview that makes sense for our current time. On the other hand-- and this is, I think, very much what you're after in your, latest book After Buddhism, or at least it comes up- -you're interested in grounding your view of Buddhism in what you think the Buddha himself actually emphasized. Which, of course, involves this difficult task and figuring out what, of the things attributed to him, he might have actually said, but in any event. . . 

I'm kind of asking: why does it matter to you, what the Buddha actually said? 

To people you might call religious Buddhists, it matters because they have a kind of religious reverence for the person, right?  It's like saying, why does it matter to a Christian what Jesus said? Well, obviously, they believe he's the son of God, so that carries a certain authority with it. And although Buddhists don't describe the Buddha that way, religious Buddhists have that kind of reverence toward him. And they still pray to him, you know? 

So my question is: Why should a secular Buddhist care what the Buddha actually said? 

Well, the secular Buddhist is a person who is very concerned with what? With the saeculum. In other words, with this time and with this age. And there's no room here for gods or for mystical Buddhas floating in and out from different realms.

It's about coming very much into a profound acceptance of our humanity. And if we are to practice the Dharma, which the historical Buddha Gautama taught, I find that it's very valuable to isolate, or let's say to tease out those elements of his teaching which are not contingent upon the worldview of ancient India, they're not contingent upon the devotion of his followers at that time, but they're entirely contingent on what he has to say to human beings at his time in his saeculum, teachings that can be applied, I would say, just as effectively today as they could have been then. 

So in other words, emphasizing the human Buddha, humanity of the Buddha is one of several hermeneutic approaches whereby we have a way to separate out the stuff that has to belong to ancient India, ancient Indian culture, belief and so on, and the things that the Buddha said that we cannot derive from that context, that seem to be the result of his own experience, his own insight, his own vision. 

And the reason I find these elements most engaging is because they tend to be the most radical elements. There's very little religiosity in them. It's very difficult, when you imagine the Buddha living in his time, in India, at that period, to see anything going on there that would correspond to what we call “religious” today. 

It's a bit like Jesus and his disciples around the Lake of Galilee. If you could see them from Mars or something, it wouldn't look like a religion. It would be much closer, in fact, to what we might find in Greek philosophy. I think the Buddha is very close in spirit and in style and many other things to people like Pyrrho, Epicurus, the Stoics—again, which we don't think of as religious. They're practical philosophies that are not reducible to simple techniques.

And here, I think mindfulness we do have to treat with some caution because we single it out as though it's the be-all and the end-all of the Dharma. It's not. It's operative within the ELSA framework. Embracing the world, Letting go of reactivity, Stopping, Acting. It's embedded within ethics. It's embedded within a philosophy, which is far more than just paying attention and being here and now in the moment. 

But nonetheless, that complex of ideas and values and practices, I feel, is completely independent of any need to hold beliefs that have to do with reincarnation or laws of karma or different realms of existence, which was the case in most Buddhist societies there.

So, to me, going back to the early teachings, recovering the historical figure of Gautama humanizes the Dharma. Makes it very applicable, makes it something that we don't have to have complicated interpretations to understand. It's straightforward. It's practical. And basically... Try it and see: does it work? Is it effective? It's pragmatic. It's therapeutic. All of which are values that we honor in our culture today, and there we find them, I think . In a very different form, obviously. But, that is what speaks to me from the early tradition that does not find such a clear voice when we get into some of the later Buddhist schools.

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