Stories of Self (Vol. 5)

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Photography and collage by Stephen Batchelor.

Stories of Self is a(n approximately) monthly essay series by Scott F. Parker that explores the nature of the composed self through conversations with memoirists, theorists, artists, and possibly musicians.

Tending Toward Edification with Stephen Batchelor

For Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism is an empty concept—empty in the sense that it’s not fixed. When you reach toward Buddhism, what you end up contacting are your own beliefs about Buddhism. The practice of Buddhism, says Batchelor, is to let go.

Batchelor’s books Alone With Others and Buddhism Without Beliefs were instrumental in shaping my early understanding of Buddhism. In many ways, the narrative arc from confusion to enlightenment served as a precursor to my own interest in memoir. But Batchelor, who loves paradox, exposes the riddle of the self at the heart of personal narratives, pointing out that it, too, can be empty. Here is the opening of his translation of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s poem “Self”:

Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

This is just the kind of thing I’m trying to feel my way around when I read memoir. I checked Batchelor’s schedule online and learned that he would be leading a retreat in Santa Fe that aligned with my spring break from teaching high school math. I sent him an email and he responded enthusiastically about meeting.

Ahead of my trip I reread Batchelor’s own memoir, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which frames his life story as a quest. From his early years, he was searching for a meaningful response to his existential condition. “I remember lying awake at night trying to stop the incessant outpouring of anxious thoughts. I was perplexed by the failure of teachers at school to address what seemed the most urgent matter of all: the bewildering, stomach-churning insecurity of being alive.”

When Batchelor finished school in Britain, he set out looking for the kind of answers that mattered to him and, following the “hippie trail” and the insights of hallucinogens, found his way to India. There, in 1972, he made contact with Buddhists and landed in Dharmsala, where he studied Tibetan Buddhism and became a monk. But by 1981, Batchelor was growing disillusioned with the centrality of metaphysics in Tibetan Buddhism and traveled to Korea to train in Zen. Zen offered Batchelor a new response to the insecurity he had known. Instead of solving the problem, Zen taught him how to live in it: “The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks. The certainties of Tibetan Buddhism had had a suffocating effect upon me, while the uncertainty celebrated in Korean Zen brought me vividly, if anxiously, to life.”

Zen also opened up Batchelor’s creative life. “The importance for me of returning to photography lay less in the quality of the pictures I took and more in the reawakening of an aesthetic sensibility that had lain dormant throughout my years as a Geluk monk… . Under the influence of Zen, my writing took on a more experimental and playful quality.” Buddhism became less a system of thought and more a way of being. He stayed in Korea until disrobing in 1985 and beginning life as a lay Buddhist.

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This brief summary takes us about a third of the way through Confession. The remainder of the book covers Batchelor’s life with his wife, Martine, whom he met in Korea; their years in Devon and France teaching Buddhism; and his quest to know Buddha apart from the mythology that has developed around him.

This lifelong quest leads Batchelor to the lands where Buddha once walked, but more than anything it leads him to the Pali Canon, which contains the oldest and most accurate accounts of Buddha’s teaching. The strangest thing about Confession as a confession is just how much of it is not about its author, except in relief: “I realize that everything I discover about this distant historical person will also reveal something about myself.”

I arrived in Albuquerque around midnight and checked into a motel near the airport. In the morning, I got in my rental car and drove north to Santa Fe. It was early and there was plenty of time before our meeting. I drove to the base of Atalaya Mountain. It seems right to a hike a mountain when you’re thinking about Buddhism. Some insight, I was sure, awaited me at the summit, as I recalled the maxim There are many paths up the mountain, but there is only one mountain.

Atalaya is 9,115 feet, about 1,800 up from the base. I made summit quicker than I expected, back sweaty underneath my pack, shoes full of dust, my skin hopefully not burned. The air was still, the ground crunchy with dry pine needles; I sat on a rock outcropping, watched the desert and mesas do nothing at all, and felt happy. If there would be an insight it would be this again: the contentment that follows physical activity, amplified by the elements.

On the descent, I collected souvenir chunks of the pink granite lining the trail and kept a curious eye out for reptiles, noting nothing more dangerous than a small lizard. At the car, I draped my shirt over the windshield to dry and changed pants in the parking lot as St. Johns College students hustled to class.

Still with time to kill before meeting Batchelor, I followed my internal compass to the tourist center of Santa Fe: art galleries, mineral shops, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. My arms and legs were layered with dust, I was headachey from altitude, and I could see that I had burned one side of my neck. There was time for coffee too, and to wash my hands and face in the bathroom, but I would nevertheless be a bit of a mess when I arrived for the interview.

The Upaya Zen Center was putting Batchelor up in a house near their grounds. I found the house using the exceedingly careful directions Batchelor had emailed me and pulled my tiny rental car into the crowded driveway. A man greeted me by name but did not introduce himself, causing me to say, “Stephen?” though I was pretty sure he was not. “I wish,” he said.

Not-Stephen led me through a gate to a small house. Inside, he showed me where to place my shoes and called out to Stephen, who emerged from a back room wearing a purple zip-up sweater and looking just like his author photo. Stephen offered me water from the fridge and guided me to a corner of the living room, where two comfortable chairs were arranged at forty-five degrees with a small table between. I noted the sparse Zen decor—open layout, paper lamp, serene black-and-white photographs. Stephen took the corner chair and directed me to the other. For the next hour and a half, each of us would alternate between turning to face the other and offering a quarter profile.

With my phone recording on the table, I asked Stephen how writing Confession was different from writing the earlier books.

“I think anybody who writes anything of a memoir-like nature becomes very interested in the whole nature of memoir writing because you, presumably, face the same challenges that anyone else who’s done it would have faced. The big challenge is: What do you include, what do you exclude? How do you make those choices?”

Art has long been important to Batchelor. Before Buddhism, and long before writing, he practiced photography. For many years now, Batchelor has also practiced collage, working from found pieces. In Confession he describes his writing process as a collage method. The question of what to include in a memoir is the same: how to turn material into a work of art?

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“I don’t tie the books up conceptually or thematically. It’s really about exploring the whole concept of composition. I’ve written X, the next thing will be Y. How do they meet? What works together and what doesn’t? And that’s a very mysterious business. Why is that right and that conjunction not right? And that’s something you can’t explain. It’s a cultivation of a certain intuition.”

The process of inclusion Batchelor describes sounds to me like the way a self is composed: intuitively, somewhat randomly, and with an eye toward fulfilling a private vision of some kind. We don’t know what the self is apart from the self we have or are. Yet that self has been assembled through arrangement and analysis of experience. Meaning it is to some extent the work of a prior self, which itself was the work of a still prior self, and so on. The logic here is regressive: it’s turtles all the way down. Is there any way out of the paradox?

“At a certain point I got tired of taking still photographs because I came to be more interested in the way that things move, so I started doing video. I would play around endlessly trying to organize it in a way that got a result I felt good about. Now, I think that’s a better metaphor for self, except you don’t construct in such a distanced way. But when you look back on who you are and when you find yourself trying to represent the narrative of your story—which basically to me is what the self is, a narrative—then, as in memoir, you’re basically making a movie, and you’re collaging together bits and pieces.

“Your sense of who you are is basically what you’ve collaged together, how you’ve organized the details of your past, the episodes of your past. And I think we do this all the time. We’re constantly maintaining, editing, censoring our stories that constitute our sense of who we are. It’s collage. Not moment to moment because then you’re just doing what you do. I’m speaking to you now. That’ll become part of my narrative. But the self is created through retrospectively collaging together the episodes of your life for whatever reasons stand out or are significant or meaningful or embarrassing.”

Here we come up against the concept of no-self. It’s common to hear about Buddhism that it denies the existence of the self. That what we take as the self is merely an illusion that can be exposed by following certain methods. However, for Batchelor, the self is not an illusion as much as the permanence of self is an illusion.

“So I don’t think there’s any such thing as a self any more than there is a character in a movie. In a movie a character overcomes a series of conflicts and by the end of the movie has undergone some sort of transformation. And that, I think, is a good model for how we exist as selves. The problem is we probably have a biological instinct to insist that there is something unchanging at the heart of all that. And this is what Buddhism is critiquing, saying, no, that’s not the case. There is no fixed point that never changes throughout the narrative. And as long as you hold onto that you’re actually inhibiting your own process of development and growth and discovery.”

Yet doesn’t autobiographical writing risk giving the self a false permanence? The narrative nature of most memoir depends on the creation of a coherent, stable self. Doesn’t creating an artifact of the self necessarily reify it, at least to a degree?

I think rather the contrary. You become more acutely aware of how you construct the narrative of self. You suffer from the conceit of there being a constant. Stephen C. Hayes makes a useful distinction. He talks about self as perspective and self as narrative. There is a sense that, whether you like it or not, you have the deep intuition that there is a constant ‘I’ that remembers what you did when you were a kid, remembers what you did last week, and that plans and prepares for what you will do in the next year. And that doesn’t appear to change. It’s a perspective that appears to be and feels to be a constant. But it’s utterly elusive. If you try to pin it down—and I’ve done this in lots of Buddhist meditation; they ask you to find the self, and you go through the body and the mind and the feelings, and wherever you look it always slips out of your reach; there’s nothing you can pin down and point to and say, ‘Ah, that’s me.’ But as long as you’re not actively looking for it, it’s self-evident. As soon as you start looking, it vanishes. It’s like what St. Augustine said about time: As long as nobody asks me what time is, I know perfectly well what it is. As soon as I say, What is time, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about anymore. It’s the same, I think, with self. As long as you don’t subject it to inquiry, it’s self-evident, it’s obvious, we feel it, we know it, it’s part of the landscape. As soon as you start probing it with questions like, Who am I, it slips out of your grasp.”

I am reminded here of Colin McGinn, who uses the term mysterian to describe his position that the mind-body problem is beyond the possible understanding of the kind of minds humans have. Despite the sense of progress we have carried since the Enlightenment, there is no reason to assume we are capable of achieving Truth or ultimate knowledge of the way things are. As the eye doesn’t see itself, the mind may be inadequate to understanding the mind.

It isn’t hard to find religious Buddhists who will tell you that Buddhism contains the correct account of the way the world is. Faith of this kind is always a circle: I am a Buddhist because Buddhism is true… and Buddhism is true because it confirms my Buddhist view of the world. But many Buddhists, such as Batchelor, have no faith, do not consider themselves religious, and are not concerned with the way the world is except as an intellectual curiosity. Buddhism is more like the best idea anyone’s come up with so far for humans to be in the world.

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And what is this way of being? Does it extend beyond meditation and mindfulness to permeate one’s very existence?

“I see my whole life as practice in the sense of embodying and bringing into being—the word for practice in Buddhism literally means to bring something into being, to create a path or way of life, to create ideas, create narrative, create work. All of that to me is practice. Photography and collage are as much about bringing something into being as are writing or meditating. I don’t really draw a line to differentiate the activities at all. They’re all part of an integral whole. I understand the eightfold path not as doing everything right, which I think is a very crude, moralistic idea, but rather as living one’s life so that the various elements of one’s humanity are brought more and more into a coherent whole. And that, again, could describe photography, could describe collage, could describe books, could describe creating a self. To me, the self, the person is also a work in progress, it’s a project. In that sense it’s closer to an art project. It’s more helpful to think of Buddhist practice as analogous to the work of an artist than to the work of a technician. And yet Buddhist meditation is often presented as a technique. It solves problems and you become proficient at it and good at it. You become a great enlightened person. I think that it is a very narrow and misleading sense of what practice is about.”

And yet, the Buddhism of utility, Buddhism as psychological response to embodied life, what is it but a very broad technique for how to live?

“It somehow is appealing to Western people to talk of Buddhism as a science of the mind. There may be elements that are valid in that regard, but take the Mind and Life program of the Dalai Lama and many of his followers. They reduce Buddhism to a practice in which you become technically proficient and solve certain problems and arrive at certain insights. But it doesn’t strike me as being concerned with living an integrated, contemplative, ethical, philosophical, and creative existence.”

Batchelor has had private audience with the Dalai Lama and worked with him on several occasions. This background makes Batchelor’s gentle criticism especially refreshing, considering how consistently the Dalai Lama is treated as being beyond reproach.

“When it comes to realizing the core values like wisdom or compassion or love—or empathy, for that matter—I don’t think these qualities can be generated as the end product of a technical procedure. It’s not as if you do x amount of meditation you’ll end up being wise or loving. I think that’s baloney. I don’t think it makes sense at all. These are meta-technical qualities. And they’re the ones that are important. You can be very good at concentration, very mindful, but you could be a complete asshole, you could be irresponsible, you could be selfish, you could be any of those things. Empathy, I think, is a natural human capacity that we limit through our self-centeredness. Everybody’s empathetic… to your children, to your family, and so on. But your empathy is constrained by the limits you put on your core concept of me and mine. Within the me-and-mine frame, we’re all naturally empathetic. Buddhist practice, in a sense, is about eroding or putting into question the validity of where you draw that line.”

I’ve always thought reading accomplishes the same. Memoir especially puts the reader in close emotional proximity to another (an other). It gives us access to other selves whom we very likely would otherwise never know, and in so doing breaks down some of the divisions between us. Many art forms achieve this to some degree, but in memoir it is the sine qua non of the form.

My thesis, in brief, is that, roughly since the time Nietzsche’s madman announced, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” we have increasingly been living in an era without viable authorities for how to live. This individuation has very often left us isolated and atomized, in severe need of connection and looking for models, be they members of our communities or the images of mass media.

Memoir, then, potentially fills a void by connecting us to others struggling to make meaningful lives in the same kinds of conditions we face (or ones we could face, or even ones we can barely imagine), and every so often we find one that teaches us something. We want such examples. Companionship. The assurance that we’re not alone in our struggles. Burdened with having to create our own senses of meaning pretty much ex nihilo, it’s a great comfort to know others have faced this existential situation and found various degrees or versions of success. These are democratic times. Without strong traditions of God or something like the Truth of Enlightenment that we can appeal to, we need as many answers to the question of how to live as we can access, so that from them we may assemble our own.

Batchelor, though, seems to need only one. His recent work has been motivated by a search through the Pali Canon for the pre-orthodox teachings of the Buddha before Buddhism began closing off in schools. The goal is to locate what is essential to Buddhism, independent of context, and apply it to modern circumstances.

But if Batchelor is willing to radically eschew the religious developments of Buddhism, why then maintain the devotion to the Buddha rather than take what’s useful from him and establish one’s own approach to life? If an idea is a good one, what practical difference does it make whether the Buddha or someone else thought of it?

“I do feel—and this will be an espousal of faith, if you will—that what the Buddha had to say, in terms of how a human being could live, is as valid today as it was then. I think he imagined a template for living—an ethical, contemplative, and philosophical template—that was utterly pragmatic. It was something you could do and something you could benefit from in a real way. And that model has informed the whole of my adult life. There is a degree to which I’m non-rationally committed to this. And that’s simply the way my life has played out. I don’t have the luxury of another fifty years to go and do something else. This is what I’m playing out in my life. I’m a sort of guinea pig, as it were. I’m willing to be a test pilot in this field, and I’ve found it enormously enriching.”

I love this acknowledgement on Batchelor’s part, his willingness to be self-reflective and self-critical. While I’m attempting to play the tough-minded skeptic here, I’m deeply sympathetic to what he’s up to. What he finds in Buddhism is what I hope anyone who is suffering unnecessarily will find in it: a better way of being in the world.

Before leaving the house in Santa Fe, I asked about the lecture he would be giving in the evening at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center. He told me it would follow a forty-five-minute meditation, during which he would decide what to speak on. For his sake, as well as the audience’s, he doesn’t like to give the same talks time and again. He added, humbly as possible, that if I wanted to attend I should plan to arrive early enough to get a seat. I told him I would, and we hugged goodbye.

Later, I parked the rental car on the side of a narrow gravel road in the waning evening light and walked the path to the Mountain Cloud lecture hall. Early, the hall was half full. I took a seat in a folding chair and closed my eyes to watch my breath. Twenty minutes later, Batchelor assumed his place at the front of the hall. By now, the room was full, chairs and benches all occupied, a small overflow room also crammed with audience. Batchelor offered simple meditation instructions before allowing silence to fill the room. For the next forty-five minutes, while watching my breath come and go, and forgetting to watch it come and go, I wondered about the relationship between the practice of watching one’s breath and the kind of things I had discussed with Batchelor earlier in the afternoon. Buddhism can make a lot of philosophical sense without a person ever sitting down to meditate. Conversely, meditation can be practiced completely independent of a Buddhist worldview. In the moment I couldn’t articulate to myself what we were doing—trying to confirm the truth of Buddhism and gain insight into the nature of reality? relaxing ourselves, giving our overworked minds a short break so that we might face the world from a place of calm? something more nuanced than either of these extremes? Was there any reason to think we were all doing the same thing?

I would ask Batchelor about this another time, but that night I thought back to something he wrote in his early book Alone With Others: “The explicit question, ‘What is the meaning of life?,’ will never be satisfactorily answered by another sentence.” 

But it is only in sentences that the New Mexico night returns to me, only in language that I could experience the openness and sensitivity I felt as I left the lecture hall. The mountain air black and crisp. Above me a sky full of moon and stars. Gravel crunching beneath my feet and the trees whispering calm in their own way. My environment—my place in the world—more familiar to me than I was to myself. I couldn’t explain it to myself any better than that, and I felt no need to. I was right where I belonged. There was no way to think otherwise.

Volume 1: Human Contact with Patricia Weaver Francisco

Volume 2: A Tremendous Sense of Purpose with Kao Kalia Yang

Volume 3: I Am Who I Am with Marya Hornbacher

Volume 4: Just the Right Amount of Empathy with Wing Young Huie

Scott F. Parker is author of the memoir Running After Prefontaine and, writing pseudonymously as The Synthesis, the anti-memoir in here.