Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor joins us once again to speak about the growing acceptance of a secular approach to Buddhism.

Hi, everyone. Before we get started with today’s episode, I want to remind the listeners that we’ve started a new podcast which may also interest you. It’s called Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, and appears every other week, alternating with The Secular Buddhist. You’ll find many of the same guests you’ve enjoyed and learned from here, as well as new researchers, teachers, and practitioners. You’ll find Present Moment in the Science & Medicine section of iTunes, in Natural Sciences, or just do an iTunes Store search for Mindfulness, and look in the results in the Podcasts section. You can also visit the website, Thanks for checking it out, and if you like what you hear, please feel free to share it with others.

As of this, our 200th episode of the Secular Buddhist, it’s appropriate to look at how far we’ve come just in the past few years as secular Buddhists. There are a dozen websites linked on our own Secular that are specifically dedicated to Secular Buddhism, across nine countries. We have over 3,500 regular listeners to this podcast, over six thousand people registered to participate on the site, and over eight thousand Likes on FaceBook, with more people joining in the dialogue, even just to listen, every day. Though those numbers may be small in the big picture, when you consider how uncommon even discussing secular Buddhism was just five years ago, and the fact that this is all volunteer and we do no advertising, it’s amazing, and it’s here to stay.

We find ourselves in a unique position in this exploration and public dialogue about our practice, about how we live our lives. There is tremendous opportunity and openness with a secular dhamma, built as it is upon a foundational understanding of the uniqueness of the individual, and how it can impact the world we know. Our returning guest is perhaps the best recognized father of contemporary secular Buddhism.

Stephen Batchelor is a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, best known for his secular or agnostic approach to Buddhism. Stephen considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs. In particular, he regards the doctrines of karma and rebirth to be features of ancient Indian civilisation and not intrinsic to what the Buddha taught. Buddhism has survived for the past 2,500 years because of its capacity to reinvent itself in accord with the needs of the different societies with which it has creatively interacted throughout its history. As Buddhism encounters modernity, it enters a vital new phase of its development. Through his writings, translations and teaching, Stephen engages in a critical exploration of Buddhism’s role in the modern world, which has earned him both condemnation as a heretic and praise as a reformer.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Earl Grey.


“From the age of nineteen to twenty-seven, I trained with lamas of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism who taught me that ultimate truth was an absence of something that had never been there in the first place. I have been guided by this sublimely absurd idea ever since. It has led me away from a religious quest for transcendence and brought me back to this secular world in all its contingency, poignancy and ambiguity.” — Stephen Batchelor


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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.

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  1. mufi on May 27, 2014 at 7:23 am

    At about the 39-minute mark, Batchelor said (in the context of his recent visit to Korea):

    I realized that I was, in a sense, just as interested in a secular Buddhism as I was in a Buddhist secularity. In other words, secular Buddhism suggests that this is Buddhism inflected by secularity, whereas Buddhist secularity would be a secular life that’s inflected by the values of the dharma.

    If I understand him correctly, he then goes on to suggest that, “as a secular person”, he identifies more with the latter concept, Buddhist secularity, than he does with the former, which he likens to a traditional Zen, Tibetan, or Theravadin institution “coming to terms with secular values.”

    I find this distinction interesting in no small amount because of who made it. After all, Batchelor has become somewhat of a figurehead for Secular Buddhism, so for him to distance himself from the term in this way is surprising (although I should add that he seems more comfortable with the term in other segments of the conversation).

    In any case, I too relate more to Buddhist secularity, as Batchelor describes it – perhaps even more so, given that, my relationship with the dharma is considerably younger than his. It also began and remains a rather open relationship, in which the secular values that I already held are indeed “inflected” (as in: influenced or informed) by Buddhism, but then not nearly as much as a traditionalist might like.

    I look forward to his next (more scholarly) book!

  2. Mark Knickelbine on May 28, 2014 at 7:14 am

    Great interview, Ted, and good to know we will have a new book to read in a little over a year!

    I have taken issue in the past with Stephen’s notion of “secular religion” but this time I was impressed with the idea of religion as something that situates us within a mystery. As much information as we may have about the world, the answer to the question “What is this?” will always be open. To live with an awake mind and an awake heart is to forsake the security of the preconceptions by which we usually live. Perhaps the idea of secular religion would help us understand that what we are doing is embracing and communing with the mysterious presence of the life we share.

  3. Mark Knickelbine on May 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    At the same time, however, I stumbled a little bit on his insistence that Secular Buddhism be based on canonical texts. He never really explains why, but the implication is that Buddhist ideas are not authentic unless we can point to some place in the Pali texts that support them. This is getting perilously close to saying “If The Buddha didn’t say it, then it’s not Buddhism,” which is problematic on a number of levels. First off, it reinforces the mystical notion of “the Buddha’s dispensation,” that he achieved something unique that gives his words authority. If we accept that, then no mere mortal is qualified to reject or even interpret what’s in the Pali texts. Secondly, it suggests that truth ends in 500 BCE or thereabouts, and that all the Buddhist thinkers and teacher who came afterward can only be second best — to say nothing of the other world wisdom traditions. Finally, it grounds the dharma in texts — which is scarcely the reading of the Kalamma Sutta I have. If we take a truely secular view, it seems to me we must accept, first off, that the Pali Canon is valuable to the extent that it provides teachings that are useful for us in pursuing the dharma, and only to that extent. Any other teachings, whether from in or outside the Buddhist traditions, to the extent they are also useful in helping us pursue the dharma, would be just as valuable. Ideas change, grow and evolve, and that certainly has been the history of Buddhism. To privelege the Pali texts for any other reason would amount to the same kind of idolatry a secular perspective exists to move beyond.

    • Ron Stillman on May 28, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      Mark, I’m curious what you mean by the word dharma and “pursuing the dharma”?

      • Mark Knickelbine on May 29, 2014 at 7:35 am

        Thanks, Ron! I would define the dharma as the wisdom of embodied human experience. In order to awaken, there must already have been something for Gotama to awaken to. This is why his first words afterward were to the effect that everyone has the capacity to wake up, and why his principal teaching was “Come and see.” The capacity of the human animal to become aware of how the mind works and to release the mental reactivity that enslaves us; the capacity to cultivate equanimity, compassion, kindness and joy: this is the dharma. It is not any set of teachings, regardless of who delivers them. Teachings can help us awaken but they are not awakening. Awakening is a more or less universal human capacity and therefore is not the province of any single teacher or tradtion. In my humble opinion, of course!

        • Ron Stillman on May 29, 2014 at 12:32 pm

          Could we go so far as to refer to this definition as “secular Dharma” to distinguish it from the other Dharmas of Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism?

          • Mark Knickelbine on May 29, 2014 at 2:17 pm

            I think in that sentence you could translate “dharma” as “doctrine.” I realize the word gets used all kinds of ways.

    • Carl H on June 2, 2014 at 8:08 am

      I think you are reading something into Stephen’s remarks that is not actually intended. “Buddhism” by definition is something based on the teachings of the “Buddha.” But what teachings, the first turning, the second, the third? Stephen looks to the earliest teachings that seem to be distinctive and original and not derivative of the cultural/spiritual mindset of the time. And do those teachings speak to our post-modern existential condition. He feels that many do, and he’s is also particularly fond of classic Chan writings. A coherent teaching cannot be based on the entirety of the Nikayas, they are too self contradictory, so one must pick and choose which speaks to one. This applies to Mahayana teachings as well. Idolatry is a strong term. That the early texts are the basis of the teaching is not to privilege them; you must start somewhere. “Any other teachings, whether from in or outside the Buddhist traditions, to the extent they are also useful in helping us pursue the dharma, would be just as valuable.” Stephen often uses early Hellenistic and 19th and 20th century philosophies to expand on the teachings found in the early suttas.

      • Mark Knickelbine on June 3, 2014 at 8:01 am

        Carl, I know that Stephen has translated Nagarjuna, quotes koans frequently and has derived his approach to Buddhism from Don Kupit and other postmodern Christian theologians. But his critics do have his number when they point out an inconsistency in his approach to the Pali texts. Sometimes he parses the texts as if he’s dealing with “the words of the Buddha,” and the next he’s cherry picking and rejecting texts on the basis of presumed cultural predispositions and implied motivations. Just as he’s reticent to abandon the notion of religion, he wants to hang on to the authority of the Pali Nikayas as long as he can.

        • Carl H on June 4, 2014 at 7:51 am

          I have never known Stephen, in any of his teachings, to imply that he was dealing with the “words” of the Buddha. It is the “teachings” of the Buddha that I’ve known him to parse. And considering the Nikayas to be our most accessible repository of what is likely to be the earliest and most original teachings of the Buddha doesn’t seem to be the same as “he wants to hang on to the authority of the Pali Nikayas as long as he can.” Religion and faith are not popular terms on this site, however they can have a usefulness of meaning not contained in other English words. “Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence” and “religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social.” A major component of a religious view is faith. As Paul Tillich has expressed it: “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned, and is that which comes upon a person, deeply moving and taking hold of him or her, such that no conditions or limitations can be placed upon its seriousness.” Religion and faith do not, despite common usage, necessarily have anything at all to do with theism or anti-theism, they can just simply be expressions of “ultimate concern.” And that seems quite compatible with a secular approach to the Buddha’s teachings.

          • Mark Knickelbine on June 5, 2014 at 2:39 pm

            Carl, I could cite many examples of Batchelor speaking as if at least certain texts are more or less journalistic accounts of what The Buddha did and said, but if you go on Dharmaseed and listen to his series on the life of the Buddha I think you will recognize many examples for yourself. And I think the Tillich quote gives the game away: “that which comes upon a person”? We can’t think of religion without thinking abut the transcendent and the extra-human. One can define religion any way one likes; that won’t change its meaning to the mass of humanity, and I don’t see the advantage of confusing people on the issue.

        • mufi on June 5, 2014 at 9:25 am

          Mark, for that matter, Batchelor often cites his experience with Korean Zen as an affirmation of the idea that the early Buddhist doctrines of karma (as in: the law of moral causation) and rebirth need not play a major role in Buddhism and, by extension, might possibly be dropped altogether, while nonetheless preserving a Buddhist family resemblance.

          The thing is, to my eyes, karma and rebirth do play major roles in early Buddhism, which thereby begs to questions:

          1) Why do we (i.e. Batchelor, myself, and other regular participants here) tend to put so much emphasis on the Pali suttas as a textual basis for Western secular practice, when they are (as Batchelor admits under pressure) “shot through” with allusions to the ideas of karma and rebirth? and

          2) By the same token, why is the tag line of this (SBA) web site “A natural, pragmatic approach to early Buddhist teachings and practice” [emphasis on ‘early’ mine]?

          I think the first question is easy enough to answer (with props to Julie Andrews): the beginning is a very good place to start. However, let’s try not to get stuck there!

          I’m unable to answer the second, but perhaps you can.

          • Mark Knickelbine on June 5, 2014 at 2:26 pm

            mufi, I’ll give you my answers, keeping in mind I don’t speak for SBA:

            1. Because, more so than Zen and certainly more so than in Tibetan or Pure Land traditions, in the Pali texts we can find articulated a well-worked out analysis of the human existential condition and a prescription for how to work with it. The farther we get in Buddhist history (until recently at least) the more what we find is inflected by concepts like absolute truth, Buddha nature as some kind of transcendent substance, devotion to celestial bodhisattvas and protector deities, etc. That doesn’t mean there is nothing valuable in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions — there is a lot — but that the rational, observable concepts in the Pali texts provide the strongest basis for a naturalistic understanding of the dharma.

            2. You’d have to ask Ted what he had in mind when he wrote it but I suspect he meant something like that Secular Buddhists understand the fundamental concepts of the Four Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Marks and Dependent Arising as being the heart of what Buddhism is about. It’s not that we don’t explore other stuff but we do it from the perspective of the earliest core doctrines (see answer 1).

  4. WayneL140 on May 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Stephen Batchelor speaks for me better than I can for myself. I probably disagree more often with myself than with him, which is odd, I guess. That’s to say I disagree less with him than anyone else I’ve ever known. I’m on the same page.

    Ted, I am finally on the same page with you about a dharma center, although I’m still not sure how a secular Buddhism can organize without becoming more of the same with regard to hierarchy and dogma, you know, just another religion. My focus is on Impermanence, Non-attachment, and no fixed self, which I believe is the next step after mindfulness training, and how to achieve awareness. This is completely non-denominational and cross-cultural. It is singular, but could be cohesive for a group.

    I’m very happy where Stephen has gotten and is going. I have no problem with basing my practice on the texts, as a strong building needs a good foundation. The texts haven’t changed as my mind has changed.

    The best news for me is I feel I have no need to be a leader as Stephen is the person I can follow. He gets it. I just wish he were more forceful with pushing awakening as not only possible, but inevitable to anyone who practices mindfulness well.

    Ted, this is the best podcast yet. Perhaps it’s more evidence of where I am than where anyone else is, but I found myself agreeing with everything in it. It’s the right path, and hopefully more people will find it to follow it.

  5. Ted Meissner on June 5, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Hi, Mufi. The use of “early” in the subtitle was simply acknowledging that the Pali canon was where our starting group had the most interest and understanding, and as such would be foundational to our topics. No slight of Mahayana, but simply noting that wasn’t likely to get the same air time with this starting group. As Mark pointed out, we are open to valuable practices and ideas from the full spectrum of the Buddhist path.

  6. mufi on June 7, 2014 at 5:32 am

    Thanks, Ted and Mark, for responding to my question about the “early Buddhism” reference in the SBA’s tag line.

    Language has a way of betraying our intentions by taking on a life of its own, producing consequences that we might not have bargained for. In this case, “early” connotes and entails a limitation in scope. If that’s what you intended, then so be it. If not, then you might want to consider revisiting the decision at some point.

    In any case, as I understand Batchelor’s vision of Secular Buddhism (in the broader sense, as opposed to the narrower one that I highlighted above in my first comment on this podcast), the Pali suttas are indeed a sensible place to begin exploring the potential for a pragmatic and naturalistic (existential) approach to Buddhism in the (post-)modern world. (I insert “existential” and “post-” in parentheses because I think those are terms that he prefers). But that’s all they are – a starting point – and one that’s fraught with its own set of difficulties – not just from the supernatural doctrines that “shoot through” the Pali texts, including the Four Noble Truths, but also from its dogmatic and obsequious tone – even in regard to those doctrines that are easier to naturalize (as Owen Flanagan attests).

    To some extent, Batchelor has already tried to mitigate the risk factor of neo-fundamentalism (my coinage) arising from this approach by reframing the “Four Noble Truths” as “four tasks” (e.g. see here), thereby reframing them as prescriptive, as opposed to descriptive. But, as an historical claim, it’s debatable at best whether that’s what the Pali authors intended. I have my doubts, but as a philosophical claim I’m more sympathetic.

    Still, I find that it requires mental effort to make the texts say what I think they should say, and it eventually tires me out (not to mention that it consumes a lot of precious leisure time). Now, if Secular Buddhism had a canon of its own, then that could significantly lighten the cognitive load and reduce the time investment. The problem there is more one of authenticity (as in: how is this continuous with Buddhist tradition?), but that’s a debate that becomes less and less interesting as time moves on. Besides, what’s more important than pedigree is human well-being and flourishing, however one labels that.

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