“… but in a way that corresponded with my own interests and needs.”
As a young man, Stephen Batchelor traveled half-way across the world in order to study Tibetan Buddhism. Even once he accomplished the long and difficult journey from the British Isles to Dharamsala, India, Batchelor was at first turned away when he asked to be accepted for monastic ordination. Only after a full year of further reflection did Batchelor ask again, and this time he was approved to be ordained as a monk in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (on June 6, 1974).
Just three months after his ordination, however, Batchelor attended a retreat led by S.N. Goenka, at which Goenka taught his own version of vipassana, a form of meditation practice associated with Theravada Buddhism. Suddenly Batchelor decided that what he really wanted to study and practice was not Tibetan Buddhism at all, but rather “Goenka-style vipassana”.
There was a falling out of some sort, though, so Batchelor did not actually become a student of Goenka’s. Nevertheless, Batchelor claims to have “studied” with Goenka, when in fact that one retreat, followed by what Batchelor has described as “a certain conflict with Goenka“, was the sum total of his training in “Goenka-style vipassana,”
Instead, Batchelor continued to be a Gelugpa monk, and pretended to be studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism, even though he now believed that “Goenka-style vipassana” was “certainly … more immediately effective” than anything found in Tibetan Buddhism. [see interview linked to above and below]
Many years later, Batchelor was asked: “Was there any conflict or difficulty around mixing the practices?”
Batchelor replied that there was some conflict, but this was only due to the fact that, in his words, “this practice [“Goenka-style vipassana”] was not really understood by the Tibetans.” This is a very revealing statement. After three full months of formal training in Tibetan Buddhism Batchelor now felt qualified to condescendingly dismiss the “understanding” of the Lamas who had, reluctantly, agreed to take him in as a student.
Batchelor did consider possibly switching to another school of Tibetan Buddhism, but when he learned that they would also expect him to actually study and practice Tibetan Buddhism (what a concept!), he “quickly lost interest.” [Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, p. 61]
By 1979 (Tibetan Buddhists are very patient people) Batchelor’s welcome appears to have been wearing rather thin. From a friend, he learned of a Zen monastery in Korea that accepted western students, and obtained (from the same friend) an English translation of Dharma talks by the head of the monastery, which Batchelor says he found to be “largely incomprehensible.” With no more information than this, Batchelor wrote to the monastery, and as soon as he learned that they would accept him he took his “formal leave” of his teacher and in his own words “severed my links with the world of Tibetan Buddhism in which I had spent most of my adult life.” [Confessions, pp. 61-62] My guess is that they helped him pack and gave him a ride to the airport.
Of his new teacher in Korea, Batchelor says that from the beginning, “I maintained an ironic but respectful distance … I put Kusan Sunim’s instructions into practice, but in a way that corresponded with my own interests and needs.” [p. 66]
Batchelor was unpleasantly surprised to learn that, like his former teacher (Geshe Rabten), Kusan Sunim also naively believed in the “validity” of what he taught. To this day, Batchelor is scratching his head over the puzzling fact that both of these stupid backwards Asiatic simpletons were “committed to upholding and transmitting what they had been taught by their teachers and lineage.” [p. 66] Oh, the inscrutable mysteries of le pensee sauvage!
In December of 1983 Kusan Sunim died. Batchelor spent the next year helping to prepare an English language edition of Sunim’s teachings, and then, one year after the Master’s death, he left Korea and returned to England and to lay life.
Back in England, Batchelor eventually came to be viewed (for some reason) as a Buddhist teacher and even something of a Buddhist philosopher. Certainly he viewed himself as not only both of these, but as nothing less than the prophet of a New Buddhist Dispensation.
However, Batchelor did not at first reveal the extent of his inflated self-image. Once again, ironic detachment served him well as he cautiously struck a pose as just another ex-hippie pseudo-intellectual searching for a form of spiritual practice that would blend comfortably with the blandly middle-class mindset and lifestyle that he had safely returned to after running out of wild Buddhist oats to sew abroad.
Also see parts Two and Three of Buddhism Without Ironic Detachment:
[The pic of the two girls at the top of the post is a promo for the film “Eve and the Firehorse” by Julia Kwan — the pic was found here. Little Buddha at the computer pic was found at Elephantjournal. Ironman Zen pic is by Freakscity.]