Stephen Batchelor, a Secular Buddhist teacher and former monk, joins the FLI Podcast to discuss the project of awakening, the facets of human nature which contribute to extinction risk, and how we might better embrace existential threats.
Topics discussed in this episode include:
- The projects of awakening and growing the wisdom with which to manage technologies
- What might be possible of embarking on the project of waking up
- Facets of human nature that contribute to existential risk
- The dangers of the problem solving mindset
- Improving the effective altruism and existential risk communities
3:40 Albert Einstein and the quest for awakening
8:45 Non-self, emptiness, and non-duality
25:48 Stephen’s conception of awakening, and making the wise more powerful vs the powerful more wise
33:32 The importance of insight
49:45 The present moment, creativity, and suffering/pain/dukkha
58:44 Stephen’s article, Embracing Extinction
1:04:48 The dangers of the problem solving mindset
1:26:12 Improving the effective altruism and existential risk communities
1:37:30 Where to find and follow Stephen
We hope that you will continue to join in the conversations by following us or subscribing to our podcasts on Youtube, Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, or your preferred podcast site/application. You can find all the AI Alignment Podcasts here.
Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today, we have a special episode for you with Stephen Batchelor. Stephen is a secular and skeptical Buddhist teacher and practitioner with many years under his belt in a variety of different Buddhist traditions. You’ve probably heard often on this podcast about the dynamics of the race between the power of our technology and the wisdom with which we manage it. This podcast is primarily centered around the wisdom portion of this dynamic and how we might cultivate wisdom, and how that relates to the growing power of our technology. Stephen and I get into discussing the cultivation of wisdom, what awakening might entail or look like. And also his views on embracing existential risk and existential threats. As for a little bit more background, we can think of ourselves as contextualized in a world of existential threats that are primarily created due to the kinds of minds that people have and how we behave. Particularly how we decide to use industry and technology and science and the kinds of incentives and dynamics that are born of that. And so cultivating wisdom here in this conversation is seeking to try to and understand how we might better gain insight into and grow beyond the worst parts of human nature. Things like hate, greed, and delusion, which motivate and help to cultivate the manifestation of existential risks. The flipside of understanding the ways in which hate, greed, and delusion motivate and lead to the manifestation of existential risk is also uncovering and being interested in the project of human awakening and developing into our full potential. So, this just means that whatever idealized kind of version you think you might want to be or that you might strive to be there is a path to getting there and this podcast is primarily interested in that path and how that path relates to living in a world of existential threat and how we might relate to existential risk and its mitigation. This podcast contains a bit of Buddhist jargon in it. I do my best in this podcast to define the words to the best of my ability. I’m not an expert but I think that these definitions will help to bring a bit of context and understanding to some of the conversation.
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. 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. And with that, let’s get into our conversation with Stephen Batchelor.
Thanks again so much for coming on. I’ve been really excited and looking forward to this conversation. I just wanted to start it off here with a quote by Albert Einstein that I thought would set the mood and the context. “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature and its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely. But the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation of inner security.”
This quote to me is compelling, because, one, it comes from someone who is celebrated as one of the greatest scientists that have ever lived. In that sense, it’s a calling for the spiritual journey, it seems, from someone who, for people who are skeptical of something like the project of awakening or whatever a secular Dharma might be or look like. I think it sets up well the project. I mean, he talks about here how this idea of separation is a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. He sets it up as the problem of trying to arrive at experiential truth and this project of self-improvement. It’s in the spirit of this, I think, seeking to become and live an engaged and fulfilled life that I am interested and motivated in having this conversation with you.
With that in mind, the problem, it seems, that we have currently in the 21st century is what Max Tegmark and others have called the race between the power of our technology and the wisdom with which we manage it. I’m basically interested in discussing and exploring how to grow wisdom and about how to grow into and develop full human potential so that we can manage powerful things like technology.
Stephen Batchelor: I love the quote. I think I’ve heard it before. I’ve come across a number of similar statements that Einstein has made over the years of his life. I’ve always been impressed by that. As you say, this is a man who’s not regarded remotely as a religious or a spiritual figure. Yet, obviously, a highly sensitive man, a man who has plumbed the depths of physics in a way that has transformed our world. Clearly, someone with enormous insight and understanding of the kind of universe we live in. Yet, at the same time, in these sorts of passages, we realize that he’s not just the stereotyped, detached scientist separated out from the world looking at things clinically and trying to completely subtract his own subjectivity.
This, I think, is often the problem with scientific approaches. The idea is that you have to get yourself out of the way in order to somehow see things as they really are. Einstein breaks that stereotype very well and recognizes the need that if we are to evolve as human beings and not just as scientists who get increasingly clear and maybe very deep understandings into the workings of the universe, something else is needed. Of course, Einstein himself does not seem to really have any kind of methodology as to how that might be achieved. He seems to be calling upon something he may consider to be an innate human capacity or quality. His words resonate very much in terms of certain philosophies, certain spiritual and religious traditions, but we don’t really see any kind of program or practice that would actually lead to what he recognizes to be so crucial.
I found the final comment he makes a bit deflating, he says, he seems to think it has to do with inner security, which is a highly subjective, and I would think rather limited goal to achieve, given what he’s just made out as his vision.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, that’s wonderfully said. You can help unpack and show the depths of your skepticism, particularly about Buddhism, but also your interest in creating what you call a secular Dharma. We’re on a planet with ancient wisdom traditions, which have a lot to say about human subjectivity. Einstein is setting up this project of seeing through what he says and takes to be a kind of delusion of consciousness, the sense of experiencing oneself and thoughts and feelings as something separate and this restricting us to caring most about our personal desires and to affection.
I mean, here, he seems to be very explicitly tapping into concepts in Buddhism, which have been explored like non-self and emptiness and non-duality. Hey this is post-podcast Lucas here and I just wanted to try and explain a few terms that were introduced here, like “non-self,” “emptiness,” and “non-duality.” And I’ll do my best to explain them but I’m not an expert and other people who think about this kind of stuff might have a different take or give a different explanation, but I’ll do my best. So, I think it’s best to first think about the universe 13.7 billion years ago as an unfolding continuous process, which contextualized within the unfolding of the universe is the process of evolution which has led to human beings. There’s this deep grounded connection of the human mind and human nature, and just being human with the very ground of being and the unfolding of everything. Yet, in that unfolding there is this construction of a dualistic world model, which is very fitness enhancing where you are constructing this model of self and a model of the world. This self-other dualistic conceptual framework born of this evolutionary process is fitness enhancing, it’s helpful, and it’s useful, yet it is a fabrication, an epistemic construction which is imposed upon a process for survival reasons. And so non-duality comes in and simply rejects this dualistic construction and says things are not separate things are not two, one undivided without a second. This means that once one sees all this dualistic construction and fabrication as it is then one enters, what I might say is something more like a don’t know mind, where one isn’t relying on this conceptual dualistic fabrication to ultimately know. Or one doesn’t take it as what reality ultimately is, as divided into all of these things like self and other and tables and chairs and stars and galaxy. Non-self and emptiness are both very much related to this.
Non-self is the view that the self is also this kind of construction or fabrication, which under experiential and conceptual analysis just falls apart and reveals that there is no core or essence to you, that there is nothing to find, that there is no self, but merely the continual unfolding of empty ephemeral conditioned phenomena where emptiness here means that the self and all objects that you think exist are empty of intrinsic existence and are merely these kinds of ephemeral appearances based on causes and conditions which when those causes and conditions no longer sustain for that thing to appear in that current form the thing dissolves. In non-duality there’s this sense of no coming, no going, there’s no real start, beginning or end to anything, there is this continual unfolding process where something like birth and death are abstractions or constructions which are imposed on a non-dual continuous process. And so the claims of non-self emptiness and non-duality are all both ontological claims about how the universe actually is, but they’re also experiential claims about how we can shift our consciousness into a more awake state where we have insight into the nature of our experience and to the nature of things and we’re able to shift into a clear non-conceptual seeing of something like non-dual awareness or emptiness, or non-self. This might entail something like noticing the sense of self becoming an object of witnessing. There’s no longer an identification with self and so there’s space from it. There might eventually be a dropping away of a sense of self where all that’s left is consciousness and contents without a center where there isn’t a distance between witnesser and what is perceived. All there is is consciousness and everything is perceived infinitely close, where everything is basically just made of consciousness and where consciousness is no longer structured by this dualistic frame work.
And so a layer of fabrication drops away and there’s just consciousness and this deep sense of interconnectivity and being. This is what I think Eisnstein is pointing to when he says that our experience of ourselves as separated from the rest of the universe is a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. I think he is pointing towards how the constructed sense of self and the dualistic fabrication of a self-other world model populated by objects and things and other people and then buying into these constructions as a kind of an ultimate representation of how things are where there are all these things with intrinsic independent existence, with a kind of essence, rather than being this non-dual, undifferentiated, unfolding, continuous process, which can be said to be neither same nor different, which there can neither be said to not be a self or be a self, and so I think this is what he is pointing in the direction of and why I point out that there are other wisdom traditions which have been thinking about and practicing cultivating these kinds of insights and awareness for many years. So, back to the conversation. As you said, he doesn’t have a practice or a system for arriving at an experiential understanding of these things. Yet, there are traditions which have long studied and practiced this project.
Stephen Batchelor: Yes, this is absolutely correct. Myself and many of my peers and colleagues and friends have spent their lives exploring these wisdom traditions. In my own case, this has been various forms of Buddhism primarily. I think we also find these traditions within our own culture. I think we find something very similar in the Socratic tradition. We find something likewise in the Hellenistic philosophies, which also recognize that human flourishing, which is a term I very much like, is essentially an ethical practice. It’s a way of being in which we take our own subjective assumptions to task.
We don’t just assume that everything we think and feel is the way things actually are but we begin to look more critically. We pursue what Socrates calls an examined life. Remember, an unexamined life is not worth living, he said. Then, what is this examined life? Perhaps like yourself and others, I found, in a way, more richness in Asian traditions because they don’t just talk about these things, but they have actual living methodologies and practices that, if followed, can lead us to a radical change of mind can begin to unfold different layers of human experience that are often blocked and somehow ignored, and cut off from what we experience from moment to moment.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, exactly. There’s this valid project then of exploring, I think, the internal and the subjective point of view in a rigorous way, which leads to a project of something like living an examined life. From that perspective, one can come to experiential kinds of wisdom and I think can get in touch with kinds of skillfulness and wisdom, which an overreliance or a sole reliance on the conceptualization of the dualistic mind would fail at, thinking about like compassion or discovering something like Buddha nature, which I had been very skeptical of for a long time, but less so now, and heart-mind, and heart wisdom.
And that awakening is, I think, a valid project, and something that is real and authentic. I think that that’s what Einstein helps to explain. His credentials, I think, helped to beef this up a bit for people who may be skeptical of that project. I mean, I view this partially as, for thousands and thousands of years, people have been struggling just to meet their basic needs. As these basic needs, even just material needs, keep getting met, we have more and more space for authentic human awakening. Today, in the 21st century, we’re better positioned than ever to have the time, space and the information to live deeply and to live an examined life and to explore what is possible of the depths of human compassion and well-being and connection.
Thinking about the best moment of the best day of your life and if it’s possible to stabilize in that kind of introspection and compassion and way of being.
Stephen Batchelor: I broadly go along with exactly what you’re saying. It almost seems self-evident, I think, for those of us who have been involved in this process for a number of years. On the other hand, it’s very easy to sort of talk about emptiness and non-duality and Buddha nature and so on. What really makes the difference is how we actually internalize those ideas both conceptually. I think, it is important that we have a clear, rational understanding of what these ideas convey. Also, of course, through actual forms of spiritual practice, by performing spiritual exercises as we find already in the Greeks, that will hopefully actually lead to significant changes in how we experience life and experience ourselves.
What we’ve said so far is still leaving this somewhat at a level of abstraction. I’ve been involved in Buddhism now full time for the last 45 years. If I’m entirely honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that at many levels, my consciousness seems to be much the same. There are moments in my practice in which I’ve gained what I would consider to be insights. I like to think that my practice of Dharma has also made me more sensitized, more empathetic to the needs of others. I like to think that I’ve committed myself to a way of life in which I put aside the conventional ambitions of most people of my generation.
Yet, I can also see that I still suffer from anxieties and high moods and low moods and I get irritated and can behave very selfishly at times. I see, in many ways, that what this practice leads me to is not a transcendence of these limiting factors that Einstein refers to, but let’s say a greater clarity and a greater humility in acknowledging and accepting these limitations. That I think is, if anything, where the practice of awakening goes to. Not so much to gaining a breakthrough into some transcendental reality, but rather to gain a far more intimate and real encounter with the limitations of one’s own experience as a human being.
I think we can sometimes lose touch with the need for this moment to moment humility, this recognition that we are, I think, to a considerable degree, built as biological organisms to maintain a certain kind of consciousness that will, I suspect, be with us largely until we die. I would say the same also about the Buddhist teachers that I’ve met over the decades that however insightful their teachings may be, however fine examples they are of what a human life can be, the more time I spend with them on a day to day basis. I have done with Tibetan lamas, with Zen masters, I’ve got to know them quite well.
I discover not so much a person who is almost as it were out of this world, but rather someone who carries still with them the same kinds of human traits and quirkiness and has good days and bad days like the rest of us. I would be cautious, in a way, setting up another kind of divide, another kind of duality between the unenlightened and the enlightened. One of the things I like very much about Zen is that it’s quite conscious of this problem. One of my favorite citations is from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch called Hui-neng, who says, “When an ordinary person becomes awakened, we call them a Buddha. When a Buddha becomes deluded, we call them an ordinary person.”
This is a way of thinking that is perhaps more close to Taoism than it might be to the Indian Buddhist traditions, which to me, tend to operate rather more explicitly within the domain of there being enlightenment on the one hand, and delusion on the other, awakening on the one hand, non-awakening on the other. Then, there’s a kind of a step-by-step path that leads from one unenlightened to enlightened. The Zen tradition is suspicious of that kind of mental description of that kind of frame and recognizes that awakening is not something remote or transcendent. Awakening is a capacity that is open to us in each moment.
It’s not so much about gaining insight into some deep ontology into the nature of how things really are. It’s understood far more ethically. In other words, if I respond to life in a more awake way that can occur for me as well as the Buddha or anyone else in any given moment. In the next moment, I may have slipped back into my old neurotic self and recognize, in fact, that I don’t respond appropriately to the situation’s I face. I’m a little bit wary of this language. A lot of the language we find in the Indian Buddhist traditions we find also in Advaita Vedanta and so on do tend to set up a kind of a polarity. That’s kind of unavoidable, because given what we’re talking about, we need to have some idea of what it is that we are aspiring to achieve.
The danger is we set up another dualism and that’s problematic. I feel that we need a discourse that is able to affirm awakening and enlightenment in the midst of the every day, in the midst of the messiness of my own mind now. The challenge is not so much to become an enlightened person, but it’s to live a more awake and responsive existence in each situation that I find myself dealing with in my life. At the moment, my practice is talking to you, is having this conversation. What matters is not how deeply I may have understood emptiness, but how appropriately, given our conversation, I can take this conversation forward in a way that may be a benefit to others.
I might even learn something myself in this conversation, maybe you will too. That’s where I would like to locate the idea of awakening, the idea of enlightenment, in how I respond to the given situation, I find myself at any moment.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. One thing that comes to mind that I really like and I think might resonate with you, given what you said, I think, Ram Dass said something like, “I’ve become a connoisseur of my neuroses.” I think that there’s just this distinction here between the immersion in neuroses, and then this more awake state with choice where you can become a connoisseur of your neuroses. It’s not that you’ve gotten rid of every bad possible thought that you can have, but that there’s a freedom of non-reactivity in relation to them. That gives a freedom of experience and a freedom of choice.
I think you very much well set up a pragmatic approach to whatever awakening might be. Given the project of living in a world with many other actors with much pain and with much suffering and with much ignorance and delusion, I’m curious to know how you think one might approach spreading something like a secular Dharma. There’s kind of two approaches here, one where we might make the wise more powerful and one where we might be making the powerful more wise.
If listeners take anything away today, in terms of wisdom, how would you suggest that wisdom be shared and embodied and spread in the world, given these two directions of either making the wise more powerful or making the powerful more wise?
Stephen Batchelor: Okay. To answer that question, I think, I have to maybe flesh out more clearly what I understand by awakening. My understanding of awakening is rooted in the conclusion to the Buddha’s first discourse, or what’s regarded as the Buddha’s first discourse. There, he says very clearly that he could not consider himself to be fully awake until he had recognized, performed and mastered four tasks. The first task is that of embracing life fully. The second task is about letting reactivity be, or letting it go, I think letting it be is probably better. The third is about seeing for oneself, the stopping of reactivity, or seeing for oneself a nonreactive space of mind. Then, from that nonreactive space of mind, being able to respond to life in such a way that you actually open up another way of being in the world.
That’s called as the fourth task creating a path or actualizing a path. That path is understood not just as a spiritual path, but one that engages how we think and how we speak and how we work and how we are engaged with the world. What’s being presented here as awakening is not reducible to gaining a privileged insight into say the nature of emptiness or into the nature of the divine, or into something transcendent or into the unconditioned. Buddha doesn’t speak that way. These early Buddhist texts on which I base what I’m saying have somehow been relegated to the sidelines. Instead, we find a Buddhist tradition today speaking of awakening or sometimes they’ll use the word enlightenment, as basically a kind of mystical breakthrough into seeing a transcendent or truer reality, which is often called an absolute truth or an ultimate truth.
Again, these are words the Buddha never used. In my own approach, I’m very keen to try to recover what seems to me and I admit that this is my own project. I don’t think it’s a widespread view. I find this very, very helpful, because awakening is now understood not as a state that some people have arrived at and other people haven’t, which I think sets up too harsh a split, a duality, but rather, awakening begins to be understood as a process. It begins to be understood as part and parcel of how we lead our lives from moment to moment in the world. We can look at this in four phases as embracing life, of letting our reactivity be, seeing the stopping of reactivity and then responding in an appropriate way.
In practice, this process is going on so rapidly that it’s effectively a single task. It’s a single task with what we might call four facets. Here, I would come to what you talk about as wisdom. Wisdom, in this sense, is not reducible to some cognitive understanding. It has to do with the way in which we engage with life as a whole, as an embodied, enacted person. Again, it reflect somewhat the Zen quotation I already mentioned. It has to do with the whole of ourselves, the whole of the way we are in the world as an embodied creature.
I feel that to make the wise more powerful, by wise, I would mean people who actually have given the totality of their life, not just in terms of years, but I mean, in terms of their varying skill sets that they have as human beings, their emotional life, their intuitive life, their physical life, their cognitive life, that all of these elements begin to become more integrated, the person becomes less divided between the spiritual part of themselves and the material part of themselves, for example.
The whole of one’s being is then drawn into the unfolding of this process within the framework of this fourfold task. I feel that if we are to make the powerful more wise, one would require the powerful to make, not just changes in how they might think about things or even gain mystical insights, but actually to have the courage to embark on another way of being in the world at all levels. That is a much greater challenge, I feel. I think we also need the humility to recognize that although, as you say, we do have at our time in the 21st century now, access to traditions of practice, philosophies, we have leisure, we have the times and places to pursue these sorts of practices, we should be wary of the hubris that thereby we can somehow, by mastering these different approaches, we can thereby be in a far better position to solve the problems that the world presents to us.
I think that may be true in a very general sense. But I feel that what’s really called for is a fundamental change in our perspective, with regard to how we not only think of ourselves, but how we actually behave in relationship to the life that we share on this planet with other beings and this planet that we are endangering through our activities. The other dimension, of course, is this is not going to be something that any particular individual alone will be able to accomplish but it requires a societal shift in perspective. It requires communities. It requires institutions to seek to model themselves more on this kind of awake way of living, so that we can more effectively collaborate.
I think the Buddhists and the Advaitists and the Sufis and the Taoists and so on certainly have a great deal to offer to this conversation. I feel that if we’re really to make a difference, their insights have to be incorporated into a much wider and more comprehensive rethinking of the human situation. That’s not something I can see taking place in a short term. I feel that the degree of change required will probably require generations, if I’m really honest about this.
Lucas Perry: You see living an awake life to be something more like a way of being, a way of engaging with the world, a kind of non-reactivity and a freedom from reactivity and habitual conditioned modes of being and a freedom to act in ways which are ethical and aligned and which are conducive to living an examined and fulfilling life.
Stephen Batchelor: Exactly. I couldn’t have put it better myself, Luke. That’s kind of my perspective. Yes.
Lucas Perry: I wanted to put up a little bit of a defense here of insight because you said that it’s not about pursuing some kind of transcendent experience. Having insight can be such a paradigm shift that it is seemingly transcendent in some way. Or it can also be ordinary and not contain something like spiritual fireworks, but still be such a paradigm shift that you’ll never be the same ever again. I don’t expect you’ll disagree with this. In defense of insight into impermanence, it’s like our brains are hooked up to the world where there’s just all this form and sense data and we’re engaging with many things as if they were to bring us lasting satiation and happiness but they can never do that.
Insight into impermanence, I mean, impermanence, conceptually is so obvious and trivial everyone. Everything is impermanent, everyone understands this. If at a deep, intuitive and experiential and non-conceptual level one embodies impermanence, one doesn’t grasp or interact in the world in the same way, because you just can’t, because you see how things are. Then similarly, if one is living their life from within immersion in conceptual thought and ego identification, the capacity to drop back into witnessing the self and for that to dissolve and drop away, and then for all to remain is consciousness and its contents without a center. Hey this is post-podcast Lucas again and I just wanted to unpack a little bit here what I meant by “immersion in conceptual thought” and “ego-identification.” By ego identification I mean this kind of immersion and identification with thought where one generates and reifies the sense of self as being in the head, and as the haver of an experience, as someone having an experience in the head, and thinking the thoughts and executing all of the commands of the mind and body. And this stands in distinction with a capacity to unhook awareness from that process and to witness the self as a object of perception, an object to be witness, rather than as the center of identity, and for that to then create a distance between the foundation of witnessing and the process of being identified with the ego or reifying and constructing an ego, which is the beginning of shifting towards a perception of consciousness and it’s contents without a center. So, back to the conversation. That kind of insight and the stabilization in that can be a foundation for loving-kindness and openness and connection.
People experience a great immense of relief, like, oh, my God, I was a poor little self in this world, and I thought I was going to die. Now, I’ve had this insight into non-self, which can be practiced and stabilized, even in a normal day to day life through the practices of, for example, Dzogchen and Mahamudra. This is just my little defense of insight as I think also offering a lot of freedom and capacity for like an authentic shift in consciousness, which I think is part of awakening and that it’s likely not just a way of being in the world. Do you have any reactions to that?
Stephen Batchelor: I have plenty of reactions to that.
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
Stephen Batchelor: I don’t disagree with you, clearly. Of course, there are moments in people’s lives, whether they’re practicing Buddhism or whatever it is. Sometimes, they’re not doing any kind of formal spiritual practice whatsoever but life itself is a great teacher and shows them something about themselves or about life that hits you very powerfully, and does have a transformative effect. Those moments are often the keynotes that define how we then are in the world. Perhaps my work has tended to be recently at least somewhat of a reaction against the over privileging of these special moments.
And attempt to recover a much more integrated understanding of being awake is about being awake moment to moment in our daily lives. Let me give you a couple of examples. With hand on heart, I can say that I have had one experience which would fit your definition probably of what we might call a mystical experience. This occurred when I was a young Tibetan Buddhist monk, I was probably 22 or 23 years old. And I was living in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama has his residence. I was studying Tibetan Buddhism. I was very deeply involved in it. One day, I was out in the forest in the huts near where I lived and I went to get some water. Coming back to my hut with a bucket full of water, I suddenly was stopped in my tracks by this extraordinary realization that there was anything at all, rather than just nothing, a sense of total and utter astonishment that this was happening.
It was a moment that maybe lasted a few minutes and all of its intensity. What it revealed to me was not some ultimate truth and not certainly anything like emptiness or pristine awareness. What it revealed to me was the fundamentally questionable nature of experience itself. That experience, I will fully accord with what you have said, has changed my life, it continues to do so now. Yes, I do feel very strongly that deep personal experience of this sort of nature can have a profoundly transformative effect on the way we then inhabit the value system, what we regard as really being important in life.
As for impermanence, for me, the most effective meditations on impermanence were those on death. Again, this is from my Tibetan Buddhist training. Impermanence is of key significance regarding the fact that I am impermanent, that you are impermanent, the people I love are . When I was a young monk, every day, I had to spend at least 30 minutes meditating on what they call in, Tibetan, chiwa’i mitagpa: The impermanence, which is death, and you contemplate reflectively the certainty of death, the uncertainty of its time, and the fact that since death is certain and its time is uncertain, then how should I live this life? The paradox I find with death meditation was not that it made me feel gloomy or pessimistic or anything like that.
In fact, it had the very opposite effect. It made me feel totally alive. It made me realize that I was a living being. This kind of meditation is just one I did for many, many years. That likewise did have a very transformative effect on my life and it continues to do so. Yes, I agree with you. I think that it is important that we experience ourselves, our existence, our life, our consciousness, from a perspective that suddenly reveals it to be quite other than what we had thought. It’s more than just as we thought, it’s also as we felt. Once these kind of insight become internalized and they become part and parcel of who we are, that I feel is what contributes very much to enabling this being in the world version of awakening.
In the Korean Zen tradition in which I trained, they used to speak about sudden awakening, followed by gradual practice. In other words, they understood that this process that we’re involved in of what we loosely call the spiritual path or awakening is comprised both of moments of deep insight that may be very brief in terms of their duration. But if they’re not somehow followed through with a gradual moment-to-moment commitment to living differently. Then, they can have relatively little impact. The danger I feel of making too big a deal out of these moments of insight is that they come to be regarded as the summum bonum of what it’s all about.
Whereas, I don’t think it is, I think, that they are moments within a much richer and more complex process of living. I don’t think they should be somehow given excessive importance in that overall scheme of things.
Lucas Perry: That makes a lot of sense. This is very much rings true from your conversation you had with Sam Harris and the back and forth that you had there is that you put a very certain kind of emphasis on the teachings. Many of the things that I might respond with over the next hour, you would probably agree with. You see them as not the end goal, you would deemphasize them in relation to this living an authentic, fulfilled, awakened life as a mode of being.
Stephen Batchelor: I think that is broadly correct. I honor the insights that come from all traditions, really. I don’t think Buddhism has a monopoly on these things at all.
Lucas Perry: You’re talking about death. I’ve been listening to a lot of Thích Nhất Hạnh recently. I mean, even insight will change one’s relationship with death. He talks about a lot no coming, no going, no birth, no death and the wave like nature of things. Insight into that plus I find this daily mahamudra practice of dropping back to pristine awareness or I think in Dzogchen, they call Rigpa, and glimpses of non-duality and the nature of things. All this coming together can lead to a very beautiful life where I feel like these peak spiritual experience moments are a part of the ordinary, part of the mystery and part of checking and seeing how things are.
I guess, just the last thing I’m trying to emphasize here is that I think the project does lead to a totally new way of being new paradigm shifts much more well-being and capacity for loving-kindness and discovering parts of you that you never knew existed or that the possible. Like, if you’ve spent your whole life using conceptual thought to know everything and you’ve been within ego identification, and you didn’t know that there was anything else, changing from that and arriving at something like heart mindfulness changes the way you’re going to live the whole rest of your life and with much greater ease and well-being.
Hey it’s post-podcast Lucas back again and just wanted to define a few words here that were introduced that might be interesting and helpful to know. The first two are prestine awareness or rigpa. Rigpa is a Dzogchen word for this. I think they both point toward the same thing, which is this original and ground of consciousness which is this pure witnessing or this original wakefulness of personal experience, which all content and form or perceptions or even the sense of self and experience of self appear in relation to this witnessing or pure knowing, which is the ground of consciousness. One can be caught up in ego-identification or can be obscured and lost in thought or anything like this, but this pristine awareness or rigpa or this witnessing is always there underneath whatever form and phenomena are obscuring it. This is related to glimpses, I mentioned glimpses here, and these are pointing out instructions for noticing this aspect of mind. And if that’s something that you’re interested in doing, I highly recommend the work and books of Loch Kelly. He teaches very skillful pointing out instruction which, I think, help to demonstrate and pointing towards pristine awareness or rigpa, which he calls awake awareness. And I also brought up heart-mind here. Heart-mind is a part which is something that one arrives at by unhooking from conceptual thinking and dropping awareness down into the center of the chest where one finds non-conceptual knowing, effortless loving-kindness, a sense of okay-ness, non-judgement, and a place of continuous intuition from which to operate. But that can use conceptual dualistic thought, but doesn’t need to and also understands when conceptual dualistic thought is useful and when it is not. So, alright, back to the episode.
Stephen Batchelor: I don’t disagree with what you have been saying. I feel somehow that we haven’t really found the right language to talk about it in. We’re still falling back on ideas that are effectively jargon terms, in many ways, that people who are involved in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality will understand. If you haven’t had exposure to those traditions, a lot of this, I think, will sound a little bit obscure, maybe very tantalizing. So many of these words are never really very clearly defined.
I feel that there’s a risk there that we create a kind of a spiritual bubble, in which a certain kind of privileged group of initiates, as it were, are able to discuss and talk around these things. It’s a language that as it stands at the present, I think, excludes a great many people. This is what brings me to my other point. Again, you were talking in terms of well-being, in terms of living at ease, in terms of being more fulfilled, but what does that mean? Words that haven’t yet come up in our conversation are those of imagination, those of creativity, we haven’t touched upon the arts.
I’m always rather surprised, to be honest, in these kinds of discussions to hear very little about the arts and imagination and creativity. For myself, my practice is effectively my art. I do work as an artist. That’s been my vocation since a teenager. It got sidetracked by Buddhism for about 20 years. To me, the creative process, you were saying, we come to experience our ways in ways we’ve never suspected before, that we have a much less central insistence on our ego, we’re less preoccupied with concepts. This is all very good. To me, that’s only, in a way, establishing a foundation or a ground for us to be able to actively and creatively imagine another world, another future, another way in which we could be.
For me, ethics is not about adhering to certain precepts, it’s about becoming the kind of person one aspires to be. That, you can extend socially as well what kind of society do I wish there to be on this earth?
Lucas Perry: There’s this emphasis you come at this with, it’s about this mode of being and acting and living an ethical life, which is like awakened being. Then, I’m like, well, the present moment is so much better. There’s this sense where we want to arrive in the present moment without being extended into the past or the future, experientially, so that right now is the point. Also, you’re emphasizing this way of being where we’re deeply ethically mindful about the kind of world that we’re trying to bring into being.
I just want to, as we pivot into your article on extinction, unify this. The present moment is the point and there’s a way to arrive in it so fully and with such insight that you’re tapping into depths of well-being and compassion that you always wish you would have known were there. Also, with this examined and ethical nature, where you are not just sitting in your cave, but you’re helping to liberate other people from suffering using creativity to imagine a better world and helping to manifest moments to come that are beautiful and magnificent and worthy of life. That doesn’t have to mean that you’re an anxious little self caught up in your head worried about the future.
Stephen Batchelor: I don’t actually believe in the present moment.
Lucas Perry: Okay.
Stephen Batchelor: Quite seriously, nor does Nagarjuna. I’ve never been able to find the present moment, I’ve looked and looked and looked a long time.
Lucas Perry: It’s very slippery, it’s always gone when you check.
Stephen Batchelor: Arguably, it’s only a conceptual device to basically describe what is neither gone nor what is yet to come. There’s no point, there’s no actual present moment, there is only flux and process and change. It’s continuous. It is ongoing. I’m a little bit wary of actually even using the term present moment. I would use it as a useful tool in meditation instruction, come back to the present moment, everyone knows pretty much what that means.
I wouldn’t want to make it into an axiom of how I understand this process as something highly privileged and special. It’s to me more important to somehow engage with the whole flow of my temporality with everything that has gone, with everything that is to come and I’d rather focus my practice really within that flow, rather than singling out any particular moment, the present or any other, as having a kind of privileged position. I’m not so sure about that.
Lucas Perry: Okay.
Stephen Batchelor: Also, creativity, I don’t think is just some sort of useful way whereby we might think of a better world in the future. To me, creativity is built into the very fabric of the practice itself. It’s the capacity in each moment to be open to responding to this conversation, for example, in a way that I’m not held back by my fears and my attachments, and so on and so forth, but have found in this flow an openness to thinking differently, to imagine differently, to communicate, to embody what I believe in ways that I cannot necessarily foresee that I can only work towards.
That’s really where I feel most fully alive. I’d much rather use that expression, a sense of total aliveness. That’s really what I value and what I aspire to, is what are the moments in which I really feel that I’m totally alive? That’s what is to me of such great value. I’m also not sure that by doing all these practices that you find deep happiness and so forth and so on. I would not say that for myself. I’ve certainly experienced periods of great sadness, sometimes of something close to depression, anxiety. These, again, are part and parcel of what it is to be human.
I like Ram Dass’s expression becoming a connoisseur of one’s neuroses. I think that’s also very true. I’m afraid that the language of enlightenment and so forth often tends to give you the impression that if you get enlightened, you won’t feel any of these things anymore. Arguably, you’ll feel them more acutely, I think, particularly as we talk about compassion or loving kindness or bodhichitta, we are effectively opening ourselves to a life of even greater suffering. When we truly empathize with the suffering of maybe those close to us, or the suffering that we are inflicting upon the planet, this is not something that is going to make us feel happy or even at ease. Hey it’s post-podcast Lucas here and just wanted to jump in to define a term here that Stephen brings in which is bodhicitta. Which is a mind that is striving for awakening or enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings that they also achieve freedom or awakening and liberation from suffering. Alright, back to the conversation.
I feel that these kinds of forms of compassion are actually inseparable from experiencing a deep pain, something that’s very hard to bear. I’m afraid that that side of things can easily be somehow marginalized in favor of these moments of deep illumination and insight and so forth and so on.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I mean, pain and pleasure are inevitable. I think it’s very true that suffering is optional and … Okay, yeah.
Stephen Batchelor: Again, what you’ve just said is one of the cliches that we get a lot. A lot of this has come from out of the mindfulness world. The pain is somehow unavoidable but suffering is optional. I find that very difficult to understand.
Lucas Perry: The direction that I’m going is there’s this kind of loving kindness that is always accessible and I think this fundamental sense of okayness, so that there can be mental anguish and pain and all these things, but they don’t translate into suffering, where I would call suffering, the immersion inside of the thing. If there is always a witnessing of the content of consciousness from, for example, heart-mind, there is this okayness and maybe at worst, bittersweet sadness and compassion, which transforms these things into something that is not I would call suffering.
You also gain the degree of skillfulness to work with the mud of pain and suffering to transform it into what Thich Nhat Hanh would say like a lotus.
Stephen Batchelor: Again, we might be on a semantic thing here.
Lucas Perry: I see.
Stephen Batchelor: If we go back to the early Buddhist texts, or most Buddhists, they have this one word dukkha, they don’t have a separate word for pain or for suffering. This is an intervention that’s come along more recently in the last 20 or 30 years, I think, this distinction. There is dukkha. The first task of the four tasks is to embrace dukkha. Dukkha includes pain, it includes suffering, it includes anything. It has to do with being capable of embracing the tragic nature of our existence. It has to do with being able to confront and be open to death, to sickness, to aging, to extinction, as we’re going to go on and talk.
I find it difficult personally, to somehow imagine we can do all of that without suffering. I don’t know what you mean by suffering but it looks to me as though you’ve defined it in a fairly narrow way, in order to separate it off from pain. In other words, suffering becomes mental anguish. They often talk of this image of the second arrow. The first arrow is the physical pain. Then, you add on to that all of the worries about it and all of the oh, how poor me, and all that kind of stuff. That’s psychologically true. I accept that.
That’s a way too narrow way of talking about dukkha. Dukkha, there is a grandeur and a beauty in dukkha. I know that sounds strange. For me, that’s really, really important not to feel that these spiritual practices somehow can alleviate human suffering in the way that it’s often presented, and that we become everyone smiling and happy, would you get that too. I mean, Thích Nhất Hạnh’s approach. There’s a kind of saccharin sweetness in this approach, which I find kind of false. That’s one of the reasons also like a lot of the Christian tradition, the image of Christ on the cross is not the image of a happy at ease kind of person. There’s a deep tragedy in this dimension of love that I’m very wary of somehow discounting in favor of a kind of enlightened mind that really is happy and at ease all the time.
Of all the different teachers and people I’ve met, I’ve never met anyone like that. It’s a nice idea. I don’t know whether it’s terribly realistic or whether it actually corresponds to how Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and others have lived over the last centuries.
Lucas Perry: All right. Your skepticism is really refreshing and I love it. I wish we could talk about just this part forever, but let’s move on to extinction. You have an article that you wrote called Embracing Extinction. You talk a lot about these three poisons leading to everything burning, everything being on fire. Would you like to unpack a little bit of your framing here for this article? How is it that everything in the world is burning? What is it that it’s all consuming? How does this relate to extinction?
Stephen Batchelor: Okay. I start this article, which was published in the summer edition of Tricycle, this year, by quoting the famous statement of the Buddha, we find in what’s called the Fire Sermon, where he says, the world is burning, the eyes are burning, the ears are burning, et cetera, et cetera, the senses are burning, the mind is burning. Then he asked, burning with what? The answer is burning with greed, burning with hatred, burning with confusion. That’s his way of speaking about what I would call reactivity.
In other words, when the organism encounters its environment, it’s a bit like a match encountering a match box. That causes certain reactive patterns to flare up. These are almost certainly the result of our evolutionary biology that we have managed to survive as a race, as a species, so successfully, because we’ve been very good for getting what we want. We’ve been very good at getting rid of things that have gotten in our away. We’ve been very good at stabilizing our sense of me and us at the expense of others, by having a very strong sense of ego, a very strong sense of me.
These are understood as fires in the earliest texts and then later, Buddhism, begins to think of them more are toxins, as viruses, as poison that contaminate the whole system, as it were once they have taken hold. What I find quite striking is how this metaphor of fire, which was probably spoken by the Buddha about 500 B.C., a long, long time ago. Yet, when we read that today, it’s very difficult not to hear it as a rather prescient insight into the literal heating up of the physical environment, that through living a life of industrial technology, basically, whereby we have managed very successfully to develop, as we call it, industries and great cities and systems of transport and electricity, all this kind of stuff.
The consequence has been that we’re actually now poisoning the very environment that we depend upon in order to live. For that reason, I feel that there’s something in the Buddhist Dharma that recognizes the heating up that occurs when we lead a life that is driven by our reactive habits, our reactive patterns. The second of the four tasks is to let those be, is to let them go, is to find a way of leading a life that is not conditioned by greed and by hatred and by egoism and confusion. That’s the challenge.
Of course, on an individual level, we can do the best we can. If it’s going to have any lasting impact on the condition of life on earth, then this has to be a societal cultural movement. This comes back to something we already talked about before. If we’re going to make a difference to our future, if we’re going to stave off what might turn out to be rapid extinction, not only of other species, but possibly even of the human species, and not within billions of years, but possibly within the next century, then we have as a human community, a global, to really alter the ways in which we live.
I do think that spiritual traditions, Buddhism and others, offer us a framework in which we can work with these destructive emotions. Hopefully, in our own lives, maybe in the lives of those who we’re able to affect closely, maybe in the lives of people who are listening to this podcast, can ripple out and maybe, in the long term, diminish the kinds of powers that are at work, that in many ways seem unstoppable. At one level, I can be optimistic. I can see that we do have the understanding of what’s creating the problem. There is amongst more and more people, I think, a genuine commitment to lead lives that do not contribute to such a crisis.
I’m also aware, both in myself and many others, I know that we are complicit in this process. Each time we take a plane, each time we put on our heating system. I had a mango last night and I realized it came from the Ivory Coast. I mean that’s entirely unnecessary, yet I still go out and get the things. Again, it’s humility to recognize that I can have all these very high minded ecological ideas, but how am I actually changing the way I live? What am I doing in my life that will help others to likewise take those steps? I feel the power of evolution, the power of greed, hatred, and delusion, which I think are really just the instinctual forces that have got human beings to where they are, are very, very forceful.
They’re the armies of Mara, the Buddha used to call them. He says, there’s nothing in this world as powerful as the armies of Mara. Mara being the demonic or the devil. I wonder for many reasons, whether in fact, we are capable as a human community of restraining such instincts and impulses. I hope so. I’m not totally optimistic.
Lucas Perry: Right. Wisdom, as we would have understood it from the beginning of our conversation would be an understanding of these three poisons of hate, greed and delusion. It’s coming to understand them from this mind of non-reactivity and awareness, one can see their arising and by witnessing, disdentify with them, and then have choice over what qualities will be expressed in the world. One thing that I really liked about your article was how you talk about this problem solving mode of being. Many of our listeners, and myself included, and I think this especially comes from the computer science mindset, is this very strong reliance on conceptual dualistic thought as the only mode of knowing.
From the head, one is embedded in this duality with the world where one is in problem solving mode. You talk about how the world becomes an object of problems to be solved by conceptual thinking. This isn’t, as you say, to vilify conceptual thinking or to vilify and attack something like technology, but is to become aware of where it is skillful and where it is unskillful. To use it in ways, which will bring about better worlds, I’m wondering if you can help to articulate the danger of being in the problem solving mode of being where we lack connection with interdependence with the outside world, where there’s perhaps a strong sense of self from the problem solving mode of being.
Just to finish this off, I’m quoting you here, you say, “Such alienation allows us to regard the world either as a resource for the gratification of our longings or as a set of problems to be solved for the alleviation of our discontents.”
Stephen Batchelor: Yes, okay. To me, this is a very important point. I’m inspired in this thinking by a Martin Heidegger, who’s a very controversial thinker. But someone I feel who did have some considerable insight into this process long before anybody else. I cite him in the article. His point, which I completely agree with, actually, is that the problem with technology is not the technological machines and computers and so forth in themselves but it’s the mindset that, in a way, justifies and enables those kinds of technological behaviors to happen.
As you said, this is effectively a mindset that is cut off from the natural world. I think we can see this beginning in about the 18th century with Descartes and others, whereby we set up the idea that there is a world out there and that there is an internal subject, a consciousness that is able to distance itself from the natural world in order to have the objectivity and the clarity to be able to then manipulate it to suit our particular desires and to ward off our particular fears. Now, one of the things that often disturbs me is that this technological language is often used to describe these spiritual practices as spiritual technologies.
This is a term I hear quite a lot actually, or our rather, unthinking an uncritical use of the word technique, the technique of mindfulness, the techniques of meditation, meditational techniques. As long as we’re not thinking critically around that term technique, I think, very often we are unconsciously perpetuating precisely the distinction that we often, in another part of our mind, we’re trying to overcome, namely this notion of separation. We see this in meditation. If you see your mind as it is, if you recognize what are the destructive emotions, then you can get to the root of them, get rid of them, and then you’ll be happy.
That, again, carries with it a certain mindset, which is so much part, not only of our modern western culture, but I feel is part of the human condition. I think, we’re very deeply primed to think of the world as something out there and ourselves as something in here. We find in eastern religions, for example, the idea of rebirth that when we die, we don’t really die, our mind will sort of go on somewhere else, which again, I think reinforces this notion that there is a duality. There’s a spiritual inside and there is a material outside. That’s just simply the way things are. Many of the people who teach Dzogchen and Vipassana and Mahamudra believe very strongly in there being a mind that is not part of the physical world, that somehow transcends the physical world, that gives us the opt-out clause, that when we die, we don’t really die.
Something mysterious will carry on. To that extent, I feel that I’ll stick to Buddhism, because it’s the one I know, I think Buddhism can actually, again, reinforce this technological mindset as an inner technology. I think that’s a very dangerous idea. If I go back to that experience I had in the woods in Dharamsala when I was 22 years old, it was that idea that was really overthrown. It was a recognition of the mystery that I am part and parcel of I cannot meaningfully separate my experience from what is going on around me. Again, it’s easy to say that, it’s another thing altogether to really feel that in your bones.
I think that requires a lifelong practice, a refinement of sensitivity. It also requires, I think, a much more critical way of thinking about so many of the ideas that we take on board without really examining to see whether they are in fact tacitly reinforcing certain mindsets that we will probably not be happy to endorse. I think, all of this goes together. If we are to engage with this environmental crisis, which undeniably is the consequence of our industrial technologies, then we have to also see to what extent we are complicit, not just as consumers in buying mangoes from the Ivory Coast, but also as subjects. As a subjective conscious beings who are at one level still buying into the mind-matter split.
I get into a lot of trouble with Buddhists because I reject the idea of reincarnation and the mind goes on somewhere after death precisely because I feel it is a dualism that actually undergirds our sense, the core difference, I would say, that separates us from being participants in the natural world. I cannot think of birth, sickness, aging and death as problems to be overcome. Yet, that is quite clearly the goal of Buddhism. It’s to bring the end of suffering, which doesn’t mean just the ending of mental anguish, which is in a sense, just scratching at the surface. It’s the ending of birth, the ending of sickness, the ending of aging, and the ending of death. It’s a total transcendence of an embodied life.
For this reason, I feel that it’s very helpful to replace the idea of solving a problem with the idea of penetrating a mystery. Because birth, sickness, aging and death are not problems, they’re mysteries and they’re mysteries because I cannot separate myself from death. I am the one who is going to die. I cannot separate myself from aging. I am the one who is aging, and so on. To do that is to acknowledge these things cannot be solved in the way that problems are solved. Likewise, confusion and greed and hatred, these are not problems to be solved, as Buddhism would often make us believe, they are mysteries too because I am greedy, I am hateful, I am confused.
They’re part and parcel of the kind of being that evolution has brought about that I am one of million examples. By making that change, and I think that change for me was put into practice by doing Zen meditation, primarily, the meditation of asking the question, what is this? That is a Koan or a hwadu, literally. It’s a practice that I trained in for four years in Korea. I did something like seven, three months retreats, just asking the question, what is this? In other words, getting myself to experience in an embodied, in an emotive way, the fact that I am inseparable from the mystery that is life.
That, for me, is the kind of foundation that can lead us into a profoundly different relationship with the natural world. Again, I need to emphasize that this is working against very profoundly rooted human attachments and beliefs. I think the Four Noble Truths is, again, it’s a problem solving paradigm. Suffering is the problem, ignorance is its cause, get rid of the cause, you get rid of the problem. That’s Nirvana. I think that shows that this problem solving mindset is not just modern technology from the 18th century in Europe, as Heidegger seems to think. It goes back to something way deeper. It seems to be built into the human consciousness itself, maybe even into the structures of our neurology. I can’t really speak with any authority on this thing. That’s my sense.
Lucas Perry: I can also hear the transhumanists and techno-optimists screaming, who want to problem solve the bad things that evolution has given us, like hate, anger and greed. You just find those in the genetics and the conditioning of evolution and snip them out and replace them with awakening or enlightenment, that sounds much better. Sorry, can you more fully unpack this mystery mode of being and what it solves, that being embedded as a subjective creature, who is witnessing things as a mystery rather than as viewing them as a problem to be solved?
Stephen Batchelor: Again, my emphasis in what I just said was effectively to swing the pendulum back to a perspective that’s usually ignored. In practice, we need both obviously. It would be absurd to be just an out and out technophobe and to reject technology and to reject problem solving per se. That would be silly. Technologies have been enormously beneficial to us in so many ways. Look at the current pandemic, it’s quite amazing how we’ve been able to identify the virus so quickly, how we’ve been able to then proceed towards developing vaccines. This is all because of our extraordinary medical technologies. That’s great. I’ve no problem with that at all.
The real issue is when we start to think that a technological way of thinking is the only way of thinking. In the same way that you said earlier that we tend to think that conceptuality and duality and egos are the only ways of being. I think we have to add to that a technological mindset. I think that is just as much part of the problematic with greed, hatred and delusion. I think, it is a form of delusion. It’s a very primary form of delusion. In practice, that’s the challenge is to differentiate between those areas of our life when it is useful to stand apart from let’s say, a novel coronavirus and look at it under a microscope, very useful, very necessary. Not to let that way of thinking become normative to the whole way we lead our lives and to open ourselves to the possibility of encountering the world and ourselves, our mental states, other people, not as problems but as mysteries.
To be able to value that dimension of our experience without reducing it to a technological kind of thinking, but to honor it for what it is, as something that cannot be captured by concepts, by language.
Lucas Perry: Yet, they go together. I think the distinction here is subtle. People might be reacting to this and maybe a little bit confused about the efficacy of relating to things as a mystery as I am a little bit. Let me see if I am capturing this correctly. I can sense myself suffering right now taking the attitude and view that my neuroses and my sufferings and my pain are problems to be solved. It creates a duality between me and them. It creates this adversarial relationship. I’m not willing to be with them or to experience them. It’s this sense of striving or craving for them to go away or to be other than what they are. I think that’s why I am sensing myself suffering right now taking on the problem solving sense of view.
If I disdentify with that and I begin witnessing that, and I shift to these are mysteries and there is this sense of beauty that is compelling to you, which I can sense and this kindness and compassion and ease towards them. This doesn’t mean that the problem solving sense goes away. There’s more of a dropping into heart, into being, into willingness to be with them and explore them and to be skillful in their unfolding and change. That is in its sense still a kind of problem solving. I mean, there are parts of me that are unwanted, but there is a way of coming to issues which are unwanted and seeing them as mysteries and being with them in an experiential way other than the industrial 20th century ego-identification, conceptual thought problem solving mode of being, which feels quite samsaric, like you’re in a hell realm of hungry ghosts in the mind, everything needs to be different.
How do I think all the right thoughts to change the atoms to make the problems go away? Hey it’s post-podcast Lucas here, which I mean as a conditioned pattern of thought which is motivated and structured by ignorance or confusion, as well as craving. And so I see this kind of structure also applying to the problem solving mode of thought which has this element of craving and confusion of separateness that leads to this sense of suffering or disease. It seems to me subtle like that, does this capture what you’re pointing toward?
Stephen Batchelor: I think it is very subtle. Again, I would also concur that yes, there are parts of our inner life, our psychology, that can be effectively dealt with by inner techniques. Like, for example, if we’re extremely distracted all the time, if we train ourselves to be more focused, if we do concentration exercises, do Shamatha practice, over time, we can get better at not being distracted. That’s the application of a technique. There are aspects of spiritual practice, not a term I’m terribly fond of, but let’s stick with it.
I think the cultivation of mindfulness, the cultivation of concentration, cultivation of application, for example, all of these things have a technical aspect to them. If I do therapy I’ve got some neuroses like chronic anxiety. I’m not going to resolve that by saying how mysterious, wow, this is wonderful being in the mystery of anxiety. That’s not what I meant. What I meant is that that is something that we can recognize as being a problem, a legitimate problem.
Lucas Perry: It’s unwanted.
Stephen Batchelor: Yeah, it’s unwanted. It’s unwanted for good reasons because it prevents us from living fully, from being fully alive. It constrains us from living. It keeps us locked up in a little bubble of our own neurotic thoughts. We can find technologies, psychotherapies, that if we apply them can actually effectively help get rid of that problem. Although, as both Freud and Jung were quite clear, the problem will not just evaporate, it’ll still be there, but we’ll be able to live with it better. Jung’s idea was that we get to the point where instead of the neurosis having you, you have the neurosis.
In some ways, I think, a lot of these neuroses are going to be around, whether we like it or not. We can, in a way, have them rather than them having us. That is a form of therapy. That is a form of cure. When we come to these deeper spiritual values, let’s say wisdom, or compassion, or love, I find it very difficult to understand how these are qualities that we can arrive at by simply pursuing a set of technological procedures. I think and I’ve, again, witnessed this in myself in others, colleagues, friends, monks and whatnot, people who’ve dedicated years and years and years and years and years to cultivating these inequalities of mind, but in some ways don’t really seem to have become significantly wiser or more loving.
I really question whether wisdom is something that can be produced by becoming an expert in certain meditation techniques or love. I think these are qualities that are meta-technical, they’re beyond the reach of technique. I think suffering in the deepest sense of existential suffering, which is effectively what I think the Buddha is primarily concerned with, is birth, sickness, aging and death. Birth, sickness, aging and death, likewise, I do not think can be resolved by finding a solution that can render them no more problematic. Even if you follow the traditional Buddhist way of describing this, that’s effectively what happens. It’s only when you’re dead that you are freed from birth, sickness, aging.
Birth, sickness, aging and death are mysteries, but a great amount of what we suffer from within our inner lives, within our social lives, within our world. Our problems, if correctly identified as such, that can be dealt with through applying techniques. The challenge, and this is, I think, perhaps where you talk of subtlety is to be able to differentiate between what is actually a mystery and cannot be solved as to what is a problem and can be solved. Western technological society particularly, really, has no room at all for this mystery focused way of life.
We might get it in church on Sundays, a little bit of it, but we seem to have almost disconnected from that whole side of life. I feel that one of the reasons we’re drawn to some of these eastern spiritualities is because they seem to bring us back to that quality of awareness. If you don’t like the word mystery, and a lot of people feel a little bit uncomfortable with it, just think of it as I do a lot of the time that we live in an incredibly strange world that is extremely weird that you and I are having this conversation.
I never cease to be utterly astonished and amazed by the most banal things. I think it’s to be able to recover a sense of the extra ordinary, within the utterly ordinary, that enables us to begin to have a very different relationship to the natural world that we’re threatening. I feel that if we haven’t embodied that sense of strangeness of … not only strangeness but the same recognition that I cannot separate myself from these things, I cannot distance myself from these things, they are infinitely close. That’s another definition of mystery.
Lucas Perry: The ground of your being.
Stephen Batchelor: Yeah, if you want. Remember, that this is a term coined by Paul Tillich, the Christian theologian in the 1960s. He understood the ground of being to be a groundless ground that is beautiful. A ground which is like an abyss literally in German. If we talk of ground of being be very careful not to make the ground too solid, it’s a ground which is no ground. That, again, is very close to Buddhist thinking.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, it seems subtle in the way that you’re still solving problems from this way of being. From embodying this experiential relationship and subjectivity in the world, it changes and modifies in skillful ways, perhaps the three poisons and it allows you to be more skillful is what you’re saying. It’s not like you pretend like problems don’t exist. It’s not like you stop solving problems. It’s that there’s a lot of skillfulness in the way that this modification of your own subjectivity leads to your own being in the world. I’d love to wrap up here with you then on talking about effective altruism in this field.
The Future of Life Institute is concerned with all kinds of different existential risk. We’re contextualized in the effective altruism movement, which is interested in helping all sentient beings everywhere, basically, by doing whatever is most effective in that pursuit and which leads to the alleviation of suffering and the promotion of well-being as potentially narrowly construed. Though that might not be the only ethical framework, you might decide what would be effective interventions in the world. What this has led to is what we’ve already talked about here, which is this extremely problem solving kind of mind. People are like very in their heads and interested and reliant on conceptual thought to basically solve everything.
Ethics is a problem to be solved. If you can just get everyone to do the right things, the animals will be better off, there will be less factory farms. We’ll get rid of existential threats. We can work on global poverty to do things that are really effective. This has been very successful to a certain degree. With this approach, tremendous suffering has already been alleviated and hopefully still will be. But it lacks many of these practices that you talked about, perhaps it suffers from some of the unskillfulness of the problem solving mindset. There isn’t any engagement in finding natural loving kindness, which already exists in us or cultivating loving kindness in our activities.
There’s not much emotional connection to the benefactors of the altruism. There’s not sufficient, perhaps, emotional satisfaction felt from the good deeds that are performed. There’s also lots of biases that I could mention that exist in general in the human species, like we care about people who are closer to us, rather than people who are far away. That’s a kind of bias. Children are drowning in shallow ponds all over the world, and no one’s really doing anything about it. Shallow ponds being places of easy intervention like you could easily save that child.
This conversation we’re having about wisdom, I think, for me, means that if effective altruism were potentially able to have its participants shift into a non-conceptual experiential embodying of perhaps kinds of insights or a way of being that you might support as living an examined life and as a method of awakening and perhaps insight into emptiness and impermanence and not-self and suffering, I think this could lead to transformative growth that might upgrade our ethics and experience of the world and the way of being and could de-bias some of these biases which lead to ineffective altruism in the world.
I think that seeing through non-self that really kind of annihilates caring about people closer to you rather than far away from you or people who are far away in time for those who are interested in existential threat. I’m curious if you have any reactions or perspective here about how the insights and wisdom of wisdom traditions and perhaps a secular Buddhism and secular Dharma could contribute to this community.
Stephen Batchelor: I have to confess that when confronted with these kinds of problems, the ones you just very clearly present, I really see considerable shortcomings in both the Buddhist community and in this broader spiritual community that we might feel we’re part of. Because in the end, a lot of these practices are effectively things we do on our own and we may do them within a small Sangha or small community. We may write books. We might get more and more people practicing mindfulness. That is all very well. I’m not actually convinced that simply by changing individual minds, and if we change enough individual minds, we’ll suddenly find ourselves in a much healthier world.
I think the problems are systemic. They are built into the structures of our human societies. They’re not intelligible purely as the collective number of individual deluded or undeluded minds. I think we’re going into the sort of territory of systems theory, whereby groups and systems do not behave in such a way that can be predicted by analyzing the behavior of the individual members of that system. I think, if I’m getting that correct. Again, I’ll just speak about the Buddhist community but it of course, probably refers to others as well.
I think the great challenge of the Buddhist community is that it has to come up with a social theory. It has to come up with a way of thinking that goes beyond the person and that is able to think more systemically. Now there are Buddhist thinkers who are trying to do that people like David Loy would be a very good example. Nonetheless, I don’t feel that we’ve really grappled with this question adequately. I have to admit to my own confusions and limitations in this area too. I feel that my writing, which is my main work, is slowly evolving in this direction. What really pushed me in this direction was an essay by Catherine Ingram, who you may have heard of, called Facing Extinction. I borrowed it effectively, my essay called Embracing Extinction is an acknowledgement of my debt to her.
I had been part of the green movement for the last 30 odd years or so. It was only on reading Catherine’s piece that I suddenly was struck viscerally by the fact of our creating a world that could well lead to the extinction of all species within the next century or so. I think we thereby need to be able to respond to these dilemmas at the same pitch and at the same level. In other words, the visceral level in which these questions are beginning to emerge in ourselves. Again, I go back to Zen, one of the favorite sayings of my teacher was great questioning, great awakening, little questioning, little awakening, no questioning, no awakening.
In other words, our capacity to be awake is correlated to our capacity to ask questions in a particular way. If we have intellectual questions or let’s say, problem solving questions, then we can resolve those questions by coming up with solutions. They’ll be at one level operating at the same pitch. In other words, they are conceptual problems, they’re intellectual problems. Great awakening arises because we’re able to ask questions at a deeper level. If you take the Legend of the Buddha, the young prince who goes out of the palace, he encounters a sick person, an aging person and a corpse, and that is what triggers within him what in Zen is called great questioning, or great doubt, great perplexity.
The practice of Zen is actually to stay with those great questions and to embody them to get them to actually penetrate into your flesh and bones. Then, within such a perspective, one then creates the conditions for a comparable level of visceral awakening. That now I feel has to be extended on a communal level. We have as a community, whether it’s a small, intentional community of Buddhists, or a larger human community, be able to actually ask these questions at a visceral level. The kind of empathy you speak of, I feel also has to come from this degree of questioning.
I think there’s often too much of an understandable sense of urgency in a lot of these questions. That urgency often just causes us to immediately try to go out and figure what we can do. That’s probably a good thing. We maybe do not allow enough time to really allow these questions to land at a deep visceral level within ourselves such that answers can then begin to emerge from that same depth. That is the kind of depth I feel that if we are to come up with a more systemic philosophy, a social theory, maybe an economic theory that is grounded in such depth that will perhaps be able to guide us more effectively towards being effectively altruistic.
That’s kind of really where I’m at with this at the moment. My work as it’s evolving in what I’m writing now, for example, I’m writing a book called the Ethics of Uncertainty where I’m trying to flesh this out more fully. This is where I feel my life is going. I don’t know whether I’ll live long enough to actually do more than climb a few more steps if I’m lucky. I’m very moved by my colleagues and friends who were very much involved in the extinction rebellion demonstrations, particularly in London. I have a number of close friends who are very involved with that.
That likewise, I found a great source of inspiration and something towards which I would very much hope for my writing in my philosophy to be able to contribute. That’s kind of where I’m going. I think that humanity does face an existential crisis of a major order at the moment. I see all kinds of forces that are railed that are sent not in our favor, the least of which is the four year election cycle. I just wonder how national governments who are in effect beholden to electorates whose needs are probably largely about can I get work? Can my kids get a good school and good health care system? That’s going to be the priority for most people frankly.
It’s all very well talking about saving the environment. When push comes to shove, again, your bias will be basically my kids, my immediate community, or my nation. We have to get beyond that. We can’t think in national terms anymore. There are transnational movements. I think that they certainly need to be developed and further strengthened. Can such transnational movements ever achieve the kinds of power that will enable changes to occur on a global level? I can’t see that happening in our current world, I’m afraid. I find very distraught by that.
When you see some of these right wing populists, they’re effectively pushing back in the other direction, and that, unfortunately, on the ascendant, I do not feel at all optimistic, given our situation. As a person who tries to lead a life governed by care and compassion and altruism, I cannot but seek ways of embodying those feelings in actions. As a writer, that’s what I’m probably best at doing. I’m very glad I’ve had the opportunity to be able to speak to you and to the Future of Life community about my ideas that I don’t know whether I really have a great deal to say that’s really going to change the paradigm that we are, I think all of us, are working towards another paradigm altogether.
Lucas Perry: Thank you, Stephen. I’ve really, really enjoyed this conversation. To just close things off here, instead of making powerful people more wise or wise people more powerful, maybe we’ll take the wise people and get them to address systemic issues, which lead to and help manifest things like existential risk and animal suffering and global poverty.
Stephen Batchelor: That would be great. That would be wonderful. Thank you very much, Luke. It’s been a lovely conversation. I really wish you all the best and all of those of you who are listening to this likewise.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, thanks so much, Stephen. If people want to follow you or to check out more of your work, I’ve really enjoyed your books on Audible. If people want to follow you or find more of your work, where the best places to do that?
Stephen Batchelor: I have a website, which is www.stephenbatchelor.org or the main institution I’m involved with is called Bodhi College, B-O-D-H-I, hyphen college.org. There, you’ll find information on the courses that I lead through them. Next year, in 2021, I’m leading a series of 12 seminars on Secular Dharma, which I’ll be addressing a lot of the questions that have come up in this podcast. It will be an online course, once a week for 12 weeks, 12 three-hour seminars.
It’ll be publicized in the next few weeks. We’re just finalizing that program as of now. Thank you.
Lucas Perry: All right. Thank you, Stephen. It’s been wonderful.