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“Embrace this world second by second”

On June 23rd, 2015, the renowned Buddhism teacher and writer held a public talk at Yogawerkstatt about his new book “After Buddhism”. Here’s a brief summary.

At the age of 18, over 40 years ago, Stephen went to India and came in touch with the Dharma in Dharamsala. “I became interested in the Dharma, I started to study it. The Dharma, not Buddhism, mind you! The term ’Buddhism’ is an invention of 19th century Western scholars. Buddha himself taught the Dharma, not Buddhism.“


Stephen has dealt with the Dharma for way more than 40 years now, he says it’s the only thing he knows something about, it’s his only “qualification“. “It has become a real passion. I love the Dharma!“ Why? Because it addresses a number of basic questions such as: What does it mean to be a human being in this world, to be born, to grow up and die. How can we become better humans, how can we have a fulfilled and self-realized life, become truthful, compassionate, and wise.


So much for some of the central questions raised by the Dharma. Buddhism on the other hand has time and again neglected these in the course of its history, and instead embarked on religion, ideology, and political and power interests.

Depending on different times and the cultures it encountered, Buddhism has taken on different shapes like Theravada, Zen or Tibetan Buddhism. All this, by the way, is a sign of its vitality and intellectual radiance. The Buddha himself was well aware that everything was subject to change and that ideas too developed and changed their course.


This is the starting point of Stephens new book “After Buddhism”: “What do I mean by this title? I don’t say: ’After the Dharma’ but ’After Buddhism’. The book is about the evolution and changes of the Dharma in our time, about its interactions with our current civilization.“


Interestingly, it’s often little known that some of the answers and techniques which are now commonplace to deal with various issues actually originate in the Dharma. Just take the concept of “mindfulness”. We find mindfulness exercices against depressions and anxiety disorders and in many other fields, be it management seminars, business life, or even the military. Stephen: “Mindfulness is something the Buddha taught. Nowadays it has become mainstream, and so many people in so many areas refer to it. I can see that in the retreats that I lead. Before, the people who came were mainly interested in Buddhism. Now, many come without knowing anything about that. But they have heard of mindfulness. – These are good examples of what I call ’After Buddhism’“.


All this isn’t bad, says Stephen, especially when old Buddhist practices are connected with the big issues of our time, such as climate change. “After Buddhism“ for him means to find out which direction Buddhism takes in our time and culture. “I spent seven years in Tibetan, and four years in Korean Zen Buddhism contexts. I learned the languages and studied the texts. But I found out that they don’t have much to say to Western people of our time, they don’t address their issues and problems.“


What’s needed, then, are teachings for the people of our time. Where is the journey taking us, asks Stephen, and proposes a time frame in which to find possible answers: the period between the birth of the Buddha and the appearance of the first Buddhist schools and directions. “There are many ancient scriptures partly still written in the Buddha’s lifetime, but we often have to work our way through many layers of subsequent writing and interpretations before we reach the original texts. I want to carve out the essence of the Buddha’s teachings as they were put into writing in those ancient times. Maybe we can find a Dharma for our world today by revisiting and reassessing these 2.500 year old scriptures.“


“After Buddhism” also deals with questions such as, what kind of person was the Buddha, in what cultural and ideological context did he grow up before he was able to establish his own teaching? What was so new about it as compared to the metaphysical and religious concepts of his time? Both aspects go hand in hand, therefore the book is a biography of the Buddha just as it is a reassessment of his teaching.


Stephen considers the early scriptures to be the most radical ones. This is a Dharma which can do without metaphysical concepts such as reincarnation. The latter, for instance, isn’t intrinsically Buddhist – you can find it in other religions of that period, such as in Hinduism and Jainism.


Another fundamental concept of Buddhism called into question is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, i.e. the truth of suffering, the truth of its cause in craving, the truth of ending suffering, and the truth of the eightfold path which frees us from it. In Stephen’s understanding, this doctrine was formed centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime. “The Buddha’s starting point weren’t truths but tasks. He wasn’t starting from what one had to believe in but from what had to be done. He wasn’t dogmatic – his was a practical and pragmatic approach.“


According to Stephen, the four truths which the Buddha proclaimed at the end of his first teaching were in fact tasks.


First: Fully assume your life. In order to realise suffering, explore the tragic nature of human existence. But accept it. It’s the same as with a depression therapy: The first step to start it is to admit that you are depressed. Therefore, the first dictum of the Buddha, according to Stephen, isn’t “Living is suffering“ but  “Accept suffering“.


Second, the cause of suffering is in craving: The question is, how can we live such that we don’t permanently react to external stimuli, that we are not driven by our wishes and feelings, and not subjected by our instincts? How can we escape conditioning? How can we step back and observe us as while we are busy creating “stories“ and representations of ourselves? Those stories prevent us from seeing who we really are.


Third, the end of suffering: Nirvana, says Stephen, is not so much an indescribable metaphysical state but rather the state of mind when we have stopped constantly “feeding“ our cravings and ego, stopped reacting to stimuli all the time. Stopped it – even if it’s only for brief moments. According to Stephen, these are not specifically Buddhist, but plainly human experiences: „The Buddha teaches us to cultivate these moments of peace and quiet, and mindfulness.“


In our modern understanding, the three tasks might be summarized as follows: Accepting life and getting rid of determinations are the conditions for inner peace. But contrary to what the Buddhist orthodoxy says, Nirvana isn’t the ultimate goal of the Dharma. For Stephen, the fourth task is an ethical one.


“Nirvana is an open space of possibilities. With the help of Nirvana, we have the possibility to communicate with the world in a non-conditioned, affirmative way, free of ego, greed, craving, hate, and fear … The original teachings of the Buddha aren’t so much ’Buddhistic’ as they are universal. They are about doing the business of living a bit better, about embracing this world second by second”, Stephen said in his closing remarks. – Words that resonated in his public at Yogawerkstatt.


About Stephen Batchelor:

A native of Scotland, Stephen Batchelor spent years of his life in buddhist centers in Asia and now works as a Buddhism and meditation teacher worldwide. Stephen has published a number of books about contemporary approaches to Buddhism which have become standard literature, among which “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening“, “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist“, and “The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture“. His latest book, “After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age“, was published in October 2015.