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Beyond Belief

One of my fondest altered-state memories dates back my late teens. I was sitting alone on the porch of my parents' house on a warm summer night. My mother and father had gone to a party, and my brother and three sisters were in a room just above me watching television. There was a kind of urgency in the air; the trees shimmered like dark flames against the starry sky, and the crickets and cicadas seethed and pulsed toward a crescendo. So loud was this insect symphony that I barely heard the inane laughter from a television sitcom drifting down from the open window above me.

I was suddenly overcome with astonishment that I exist, that the world exists, that anything exists. I wanted to run upstairs, grab my siblings, and tell them to stop watching that stupid TV show and pay attention to the miracle of being right there in front of them. Fortunately, I restrained myself. But everything I have learned and experienced since then has reinforced my sense of the unutterable mysteriousness of things.

Contrary creatures that we are, we want to believe that our innermost thoughts are unique to us, and yet we desperately seek communion and confirmation, too. It can thus be both unnerving and exhilarating to discover our private musings expressed in someone else’s words—perhaps more clearly than we articulate them to ourselves. I had this uncanny sensation in 1997 when I was flipping through an issue of the journal What Is Enlightenment? and stumbled upon the following passage:

"I was walking through a pine forest, returning to my hut along a narrow path trodden into the steep slope of the hillside. I struggled forward carrying a blue plastic bucket filled with fresh water that I had just collected from a source at the upper end of the valley. I was then suddenly brought to a halt by the upsurge of the sheer mystery of everything. I was as though I were lifted up onto the crest of a shivering wave which abruptly swelled from the ocean that was life itself. How is it that people can be unaware of this most obvious question? I asked myself. How can anyone pass their life without responding to it?"

The passage was from a book called The Faith to Doubt, written in 1990 by Stephen Batchelor, a British Buddhist. His epiphany took place in 1980, when he was studying Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama. The experience was not "an illumination in which some final, mystical truth became momentarily very clear," Batchelor goes on to say. "For me it gave no answers. It only revealed the massiveness of the question."

The setting aside, I felt that I could have written this passage myself. It describes precisely the sensation that first overcame me on that warm summer night when I was still a teenager and that I have sought to recapture ever since.

Batchelor's epiphany became the touchstone of his life. He ended up drifting away from Tibetan Buddhism, which offered no help in understanding his experience, and toward Zen Buddhism, which was much more compatible with his outlook. Zen masters are fond of citing the adage: "Great doubt, great enlightenment. Little doubt, little enlightenment. No doubt, no enlightenment."

Re-reading Buddha’s original teachings, Batchelor realized that Buddha resolutely resisted speculations on metaphysical questions, such as whether God exists, why the universe was created, why evil exists and whether individual consciousness persists after death. It was Buddha’s followers who transformed his simple teachings into a religion, complete with theological dogma, moral strictures and rituals. In Buddhism Without Beliefs, Batchelor advocates a bare-bones Buddhism, one that "strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here" and leaves us in a state of acute existential awareness.

He emphasizes that this state is not always pleasant. When we truly confront reality, we "tremble on that fine line between exhilaration and dread." In fact, there is no better way to confront the "enormity of having been born," he contends, than to ponder our own mortality. Batchelor advocates sitting in silence while dwelling upon the following question: "Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?" Ideally, this meditation upon death will "jolt us awake to the sensuality of existence."

Batchelor’s writings contain what I read as subtle rebukes to other spiritual authorities. He seems to have gurus like Andrew Cohen in mind when he warns how some mystics can succumb to "the danger of messianic and narcissistic inflation" (which I call the I’m-enlightened-and-you’re-not problem). "We find ourself humbly assuming the identity of one who has been singled out by destiny to heal the sorrows of the world and show the way to reconciliation, peace, and Enlightenment." Batchelor recommends "ironic self-regard" as a way to avoid this self-infatuation.

The mystical technocrat Ken Wilber comes to mind when Batchelor cautions against taking on the mystery of existence with the "calculative attitude." As the success of science demonstrates, we can solve many problems through calculation—that is, careful analysis, deduction and induction, trial and error. But existence is not a problem but a mystery, Batchelor says, which not even the most potent calculation can solve. Batchelor also warns against viewing meditation as a technique or procedure that when diligently carried out yields various benefits. "Meditation and mystery are inseparable. Just as the mysterious cannot be unravelled through calculation, nor can a meditative attitude be acquired as though it were a technical skill."

Batchelor describes himself as an "agnostic Buddhist." The term agnostic was coined in 1869 by the British scientist T.H. Huxley, best-known as "Darwin’s bulldog." Huxley summarized the "agnostic faith" in two principles: 1: Follow your reason as far as it will take you. 2: Do not pretend that conclusions are certain when they are not demonstrated or demonstrable. Agnosticism is often denigrated as a passive worldview, the philosophical equivalent of a shrug. But true agnosticism, Batchelor contended, consists of the active cultivation of doubt and uncertainty in the face of the mystery of existence. An agnostic stance "is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know." Agnosticism consists of "an intense perplexity that vibrates through the body and leaves the mind that seeks certainty nowhere to rest."

Reading Batchelor, I kept finding passages that echoed my own thoughts, sometimes eerily so. One morning, I confessed to my journal that in spite of my professed interest in cultivating mystical wonder, I am actually quite content to remain in my ordinary dull-witted state. Deep down, I fear confrontation with reality. I keep it at arm’s length by turning it into an intellectual puzzle. I then put down my journal and picked up Faith to Doubt, which I had started reading only a day or two earlier, and came across a passage in which Batchelor questioned his own commitment to awakening:

"Because--despite all the lofty talk about ‘transformation’ and ‘awakening’--do I seriously want to change? Do I not just want an appendage of enlightenment to stick on to what I already am? I understood that so many of my visions for the future were just extensions of my mediocre self covered with the veneer of misconstrued notions of sagacity."

I felt that in Batchelor I had found a kind of alter ego, even a soulmate. I arranged to meet him on a winter afternoon in the Greenwich Village apartment of Helen Tworkov, editor of the Buddhist journal Tricycle and an admirer of Batchelor’s work. He was a soft-spoken man of medium height and build. He had grey hair, thinning on top and brushed back, and he wore glasses with greenish rims. He was born in 1953, the same year as I. We sat at a table on which stood a vase containing three branches studded with cherry blossoms.

As we spoke, Batchelor’s gaze occasionally drifted over to the window beside us, which looked out on the dark brownstones of the West Village. His demeanor was both diffident and firm. When I asked him about his history, he warned that he suspected his own reconstruction of his youthful states of mind. But he could give me some facts. He was born in Scotland. His parents separated when he was quite young, and he grew up with his mother in a town north of London. In his teens, he took LSD, marijuana, and other drugs and read counter-culture classics such as Be Here Now.
Batchelor thought Ram Dass's book "showed, in what may seem now like very simplistic and naive language, a passageway from the psychedelic experience into a kind of Eastern spirituality and mysticism. And that I think served as a very important bridge at that time."

In 1972, bored by his education and by England, he traveled east. Eventually he arrived in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama was living in exile from his native Tibet. The Tibetans entranced the young Englishman. "This was a people who were dispossessed," Batchelor explained, "and yet in the midst of that they retained this warmth, and almost luminous kind of intelligence."

He started learning Tibetan and undergoing training as a monk. Gradually, in spite of his admiration for his Tibetan teachers, he became disaffected by their form of Buddhism. "What they taught was so defined by Tibetan history and culture that I increasingly found the practices and so forth didn’t mesh with my yearnings, my longings, my needs as a westerner."

His frustration was brought to a head by his 1980 epiphany, in which he felt the mystery of existence so acutely. None of his psychedelic or meditative experiences had prepared him for this sensation. "It was one of those experiences that came completely out of the blue and utterly shocked me." The experience "probably didn’t last for more than a few minutes in its intensity, but it’s never left me either," Batchelor said. "And the work I have done since has been an attempt to somehow articulate that."

Batchelor initially assumed that his Tibetan teachers would be familiar with his experience and help him understand it, but they were baffled. He realized that the Tibetan language did not really have the words and terms that he needed to convey the gist of his revelation. For example, he could not translate the seemingly simple sentence, "The world appeared to me as a question," into Tibetan. "I can say it, but it’s meaningless, it’s gobbledygook." As a result, he became "acutely conscious of the limits of Tibetan Buddhist culture."

Batchelor squirmed a bit when I asked if his experience could be described as mystical. He disliked the term, or at least was ambivalent about it. It suggests "some visional insight into the nature of reality that somehow cuts through the veil of appearances into something transcendent, beyond, that’s wholly other." To Batchelor, spirituality is about seeing this reality right here and now, in front of us. "I suppose if I were a theologian, I would be a theologian of immanence rather than transcendence."

Batchelor started reading voraciously, searching for insights into his experience. He found echoes of his revelation in the works of such disparate thinkers as the Catholic theologian Paul Tillich, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the French existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But the tradition that resonated most with his experience was Zen Buddhism.

I asked Batchelor why he called himself an agnostic Buddhist rather than just an agnostic. He admitted that he sometimes asked himself the same question. "Especially when I run up against the rather more rigid, dogmatic forms of Buddhism, I think, ‘Why am I still bothering with this stuff?’" But he still felt at home in Buddhism. "That doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with it. Perhaps that means I’m like Catholics who spend their whole time berating the Vatican." He smiled. "I sometimes compare Buddhism to the tinder on matchbooks. If I didn’t have it there, I wouldn’t be able to get any spark."

Batchelor rejects Buddhist doctrines such as reincarnation. The idea that individual human souls persist in some disembodied form even after the body dies is "very difficult to square with the world as we know it through the sciences." He did not rule out the possibility of life after death. He simply believed that we cannot know one way or the other. "I don’t find those questions terribly interesting, to be honest. I certainly don’t feel they have much to do with what I consider to be the heart of my Buddhist or spiritual practice. I’m indifferent. I could live with it either way."

Belief in reincarnation or an afterlife, while perhaps consoling, diverts us from an honest confrontation with death. "To hold death as a question, again, to me is central. I guess it goes back to that experience again. I’m not saying that’s easy or comfortable, but it’s true to what I can understand." He accepted the notion of karma, if it is defined simply as the fact that our actions in this world have consequences in this world, and not in some ethereal afterlife.

Batchelor shares with his friend and fellow Zen Buddhist Susan Blackmore a distaste for occult, supernatural beliefs. An obsession with the supernatural "turns us away from experiencing the wondrousness of what is right before our eyes and ears, all the time," Batchelor said. The world revealed by science is much more fantastical and counter-intuitive and wondrous than the world as it is portrayed by Tibetan Buddhism or Christianity or New Age pseudo-prophets. "The scientific descriptions of the world generate to me a much deeper sense of awe and wonder than these Buddhist and religious sorts of fantasies."

Batchelor is unimpressed by most attempts to fuse Eastern mysticism and science. "The classic statement of this is The Tao of Physics, which nowadays looks terribly dated," he said. "It basically just trawls through quantum physics and relativity and trawls through Buddhism, Hinduism, and the lot and pulls out any kind of ostensible parallel, confirming a thesis that they are talking about the same thing. It is a very flimsy way of doing things."

Batchelor still believes in enlightenment, or "awakening." As he understands it, enlightenment is not a state of permanent bliss and beatitude. It begins as a transitory experience that fades but leaves you permanently altered. "You somehow have a glimpse of the world from another perspective. But the actual path begins there. It doesn’t end there."

The questions posed by life and death demand "a response," Batchelor said, "both intellectually, ethically, socially, politically. But that response is always provisional and partial and incomplete. And in a sense it stimulates an ever-greater appreciation of, almost, the infinity of the question. So I see the path very much as a trajectory--an ongoing, open-ended trajectory into the future--rather than something that can be finalized by a belief system, or some scientific discovery, or by the claim of some guru, or whatever."

Batchelor and his wife, a French-born former Buddhist nun, teach meditation and lead meditation retreats, but Batchelor no longer meditates every day. "I am a meditation teacher who doesn’t meditate any more," he said, smiling sheepishly. Although he once found meditation "extraordinarily valuable," over time it came to seem like "a kind of evasion, really. It was a cutting off from experience, rather than a full-blooded engagement with all of its ambiguities and messiness." He tries to cultivate his existential awareness through writing now more than through meditation. "I write and think and struggle with questions. That’s my practice."

Batchelor realized that his anti-belief outlook could ossify into still another belief. "Any statement you make, however skeptical it might appear, could serve as the basis for yet another kind of fixed view. ‘Doubt everything’ could become a dogma." He tried to apply his doubt toward his own opinions as well as those of others. He sought to keep his outlook fresh in his writing by deliberately introducing discontinuities into his narrative. He hoped thereby to "reflect something of the Zen idea of the suddenness, abruptness of insight and understanding, something that breaks into life."

It was late afternoon now. The sun had vanished behind a sooty water tower across the street. Gazing out the window Batchelor murmured, more to himself than to me, "That’s beautiful." And it was. The grimy, cluttered cityscape was redeemed by the sky above it—pale violet and cloudless, with the transparency that only winter skies have.

Batchelor grimaced when I asked if he believed that life is fundamentally good. "Good is such an anthropocentric, anthropomorphic idea. To characterize reality as good is like characterizing reality as having purpose," he answered. "It’s another consolatory device." He paused. "I mean I’m glad it’s all here," he continued, "but then to label it as good is..."

Frowning, Batchelor looked out the window again. Life’s goodness, he continued, is inseparable from its dark aspects, from pain and cruelty and injustice. Good and evil "have to go together. They are polarities that are meaningless independent of one another."

As I put my notebook and tape recorder away and my coat on, Batchelor kept mulling over his awkward relationship to Buddhism. Maybe at some point he would break away from it, he told me. Especially in its American version, Buddhism can be awfully stuffy, conservative, and dogmatic. He worried that it might seem gimicky for him to announce that he was no longer a Buddhist. Also, he might appear ungrateful and hypocritical, after all that Buddhism had done for him. But still, at some point...

Batchelor stood in the middle of the twilit room, seemingly lost in thought. We shook hands and said goodbye.

A subway got me to Grand Central Station just in time to catch my train home. Hurtling north through the night along the Hudson River, I took my notebook out and scribbled down a few random thoughts about Batchelor. What impressed me most about him was that he really did seem to be in a state of doubt and uncertainty; it was not just rhetoric. There was a restless, unsettled quality to him. But was that cultivated or congenital? Like the rest of us, perhaps Batchelor advocates a spirituality that suits—and justifies--his temperament. And the reason it appeals to me so much is that my temperament resembles his.

And that’s what worried me. Batchelor reminded me of the anthropologist Stuart Guthrie, the atheist who desperately hoped for a mystical experience that would help him transcend his pessimistic worldview. Like Guthrie, Batchelor seemed trapped within his own skepticism. His anti-belief philosophy did not even permit him the consolation of saying that life is good. Did I have the courage to sustain such a perspective? Did I have any choice?

I like to think of my skepticism—my faithlessness—as a position that I arrived at freely. But maybe it is hard-wired into me, like myopia, or color-blindness, or tone-deafness. Maybe Susan Blackmore is right: Free will is just an illusion; our destiny is a matter of genes and memes, not of the choices we think we make. The best we can do is grin and bear it as our fate unfolds.

Mulling all this over on the train, I realized that I had forgotten to tell Batchelor my mantra joke. I had thought of the perfect mantra for cultivating awe before the impenetrable mystery of existence. Instead of "Om" or "Sat nam" or any of the other familiar mantras, you repeat the phrase "Duhhhh...." Probably just as well that I hadn’t told the joke. The mood hadn’t been quite right.

The man sitting to my left was snoring softly, his mouth agape. His head and neck were tucked into a yoke-shaped inflatable pillow. I put my notebook away and stared into space, listening to the rhythmic rumble of the train. Occasionally something luminous sliding past the train window caught my eye: the seamed canvas domes of indoor tennis courts, a junkyard crammed with dead cars, the lights of a harbor on the Hudson River’s far bank, the turreted walls of Sing Sing Prison.