Talk: A Buddhist voice for Europe, by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen and Martine Bachelor

Talk by Stephen Bachelor (pic: Stephen and Martine)

Stephen Batchelor is a Buddhist teacher and author, who lives in South West France and conducts meditation retreats and seminars worldwide. He was trained as a monastic for ten years in traditional Buddhist centers in Asia, and now presents a lay and secular approach to Buddhist practice, largely based on the early teachings of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon.

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This is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Annual General Meeting of the European Buddhist Union in Budapest, Hungary, on September 25, 2010.
Much of the historical material is found in Stephen Batchelor’s “The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture” (London: Aquarian/Berkeley: Parallax, 1994 [hard cover / out of print], 2011 [paperback]).

The title of this presentation is A Buddhist Voice for Europe. The idea of “voice” is central to what Buddhism is about. We speak, for example, of the Buddhavācā, the word of the Buddha. When the Buddha started giving voice to the Dharma – his teaching – he did not do so in a vacuum, but always to an audience, either a group of people, or a single person. His voice was the first step in the initiation of a dialogue. A voice asks for a response and when that response is received, then one is forced to think, maybe rethink, what one is doing and then respond again with other words. In this respect, what we are doing as Buddhists in Europe, irrespective of our different traditions, schools and interests, is that we are giving voice to something. And in doing so we are asking for some sort of response, which in turn may make us think more clearly about what we are doing. Throughout Europe we are slowly evolving as a voice, a Buddhist voice, that has something distinctive to say, informed by a set of values that are not traditionally those of Europe, yet are now being articulated by Europeans. This Buddhist voice is not, however, already hidden somewhere inside ourselves, waiting to emerge, but rather it emerges over the course of time as we engage in conversation and dialogue. This is not occurring only between individual people, but also between Buddhism and other religions, such as Christianity, or with secular disciplines, such as psychology and the natural sciences. These conversations are taking place privately as well as publicly, and as they evolve we may get a clearer sense of what is distinctive about a Buddhist voice in Europe today.

I would like to start with a thought experiment. Let us cast our minds back to the year 1910, exactly one hundred years ago, and ask ourselves what was the state of Buddhism in Europe then. For those of us present here, this was a long time ago, before any of us were born. This is three years before the outbreak of the First World War, a time very difficult for us to imagine clearly today. But this is the period when the first stirring of a genuine, personal interest in Buddhism began in Europe. Scholars, of course, had been studying Buddhist texts and ideas since the middle of the 19th century, but it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Europeans began to take Buddhism seriously enough to want to put it into practice in their own lives.

How many Buddhists were there in Europe in 1910? There would have been very few. One of them was a man called Karlis Tennisons (1873-1962), a Latvian who in 1923 would be appointed by the 13th Dalai Lama as the Buddhist Archbishop of Latvia. Tennisons was among the very first Europeans to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. He received his monk’s vows in Buryatia, a Mongol area around Lake Baikal in Russia, in 1893. (Although there is no corroborating evidence for this, Tennisons claims that he was ordained by a Lithuanian Buddhist monk called Kunigaikshtis Gedyminas, who went under the name Mahācārya Ratnavajra, who had supposedly studied in Tibet in Ganden Monastery. If this is true, then Gedyminas would have been the first modern European to be a Buddhist monk – the first European to ordain as a Buddhist monk was a Greek called Dharmarakshita, who is recorded as having been an envoy of Emperor Ashoka in India in the 3rd century BCE.) Tennisons had a small temple in Riga, and so he would have been active in that centre in 1910, and presumably had a small group of followers around him.

Another emerging centre of Buddhism in Europe at this time was in St. Petersburg. In 1909, there began the construction of the first Buddhist temple in Europe, which was done under the direction of Agvan Dorzhiev (1854-1938), a Buryat Mongol who had studied in Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, and became an advisor to the 13th Dalai Lama. It was he who raised the funds for this Mongolian-Tibetan style temple that still exists today. We also know that in 1910, the prominent Russian Orientalist Theodor Stcherbatsky (1866-1942) met the 13th Dalai Lama in Urga, which is now called Ulan Ude, also in Buryatia. There was a flourishing school of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg, where Stcherbatsky and other scholars did research, taught and wrote. Stcherbatsky’s books on Buddhist logic are still referred to today. In 1910, however, Stcherbatsky was in Urga discussing with the 13th Dalai Lama whether it would be possible for him to go to Tibet to study directly under Tibetan Lamas. He wanted to go beyond texts and have access to living representatives of Buddhism. Although the Dalai Lama was sympathetic, in the end the Tibetan authorities did not allow it, possibly under pressure from the British, who had forced a trade agreement on the Tibetans in 1904 and were wary of Russian Imperial intentions in Tibet.

What about Buddhism in Western Europe at this time? In 1910 Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) was completing her first book, The Buddhism of the Buddha and Buddhist Modernism (Le modernisme bouddhiste et le bouddhisme de Bouddha. Paris: Alcan 1911), a title that would still not appear out of place today. Although Alexandra David-Neel is best known for her books on Tibetan Buddhism, at this time she was a rather traditional Theravādin, who understood Buddhism in terms of what she had learned from her studies of the Pāli Canon. In this book she sought to recover the earliest known teachings of the Buddha, and on that basis to engage in a conversation with modernity. David-Neel was politically active, and believed that Buddhist modernism was only one step away from socialism. When her book was finished, she travelled to Ceylon, and began her journey into the Buddhist lands themselves. In Ceylon, she was welcomed by Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), who was the great reformer of Ceylonese Buddhism, and a protégé of Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), the founder of Theosophy. But slowly David-Neel made her way through India up into the Himalayan region. By 1912 she was in Sikkim, and her interest was turning towards the Tibetan tradition of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

In Great Britain, there were also very few Buddhists. In 1908, a small society called the “Buddhist Society of England and Ireland” invited Allan Bennett (1872-1923), ordained as Ananda Metteyya in Burma in 1901, to return to his homeland to establish a Buddhist community. This came to nothing. Within six months of his arrival, Bennett’s health failed, and he returned to Burma.

In Germany at this time there were two figures of particular importance: Paul Dahlke (1865-1928) and Georg Grimm (1868-1945). Dahlke lived in Berlin, while Grimm, I believe, was based in Bavaria. Both were lay Buddhists who studied and translated Pāli texts, in an attempt to make the Buddha’s word known. Again this was on a very small scale. It would not be until the 1920s that Paul Dahlke founded the Buddhistisches Haus in Berlin, which still exists today. The most notable figure, however, was Anton Gueth (1878-1957), who was ordained in Burma in 1904 as Bhikkhu Nyānatiloka. He was invited to Lausanne in 1910, with the aim of starting a small Buddhist monastery in Switzerland. As with Bennett in England, this did not work out, and Nyānatiloka went to Ceylon, where the following year he founded the Island Hermitage, which became the first monastic community for Westerners. It also still exists today.

The movement that Europeans in 1910 would most likely have identified as “Buddhist” would have been Theosophy. Nowadays, Theosophy seems to be a rather curious amalgam of Eastern and Western ideas with a lot of occultism and mysticism thrown in, but at the time it was an important cultural and spiritual movement, which attracted leading intellectuals and artists from all over Europe. It is difficult for us today to recognize the impact it had in European society then. The founders of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky and the American Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), had both received Buddhist lay precepts in Ceylon, and considered themselves Buddhists. Nonetheless, Blavatsky’s version of Buddhism was highly eccentric. She maintained that her “secret doctrine” was communicated telepathically to her by “masters in Tibet.” In 1909, the Theosophical Society declared that it had discovered the next World Teacher, called Maitreya, in the eleven year old Indian boy called Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). Thus they appropriated the ancient Buddhist myth of the future Buddha Maitreya, and began to train Krishnamurti for the role of the next Buddha.

Here we have a sketch of Europe at a time when Europeans are just beginning to take Buddhism seriously enough to want to practice it. But they very poorly informed as to what the tradition as a whole had to offer. Zen and other forms of East Asian Buddhism were largely unknown in Europe at that time. Little was known about the Tibetan traditions, and that was often filtered through the distorting lens of Theosophy. The Theravāda school was better known, and assumed at that time to represent the authentic teaching of the Buddha. Among Europeans, Buddhism was a small minority interest. I doubt whether people then could have imagined the sort of development and growth of Buddhism in Europe that we have witnessed in the course of our lives. But we also need to remember that 1910 was not that long ago. My mother was born in 1913, and I spoke to her yesterday. She is 97. So it sounds like a long time ago, and seems like a very different world, but just expand your time frame a little bit and it is a blink of the eye.

I would now like to expand the time frame further, and try to place Buddhism in Europe today in the context of the broader history of the relations between Buddhism and the West. Scholars, particularly Richard Gombrich (1937-) in Britain and Heinz Bechert (1932-2005) in Germany, have recently revised the dating of the Buddha, and there is now a broad acceptance among those working in this field that the Buddha lived from about c. 480-400 B.C.E. (The traditional dating was 563-483 B.C.E.) This makes the Buddha an almost exact contemporary of Socrates (469-399).

We also need to be aware that in this period, the 5th century B.C.E, there was a much greater sense of connection between the Indian sub-continent, the Persian empire, and Greece. (An excellent book on this topic is Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.) This ancient world shared many common ideas and beliefs, such as that of reincarnation. When talking of this time, we need to speak in terms of Eurasia, rather than Asia and Europe, or East and West. Unfortunately, due to the rise of Christianity in Europe and Islam in Arabia and Persia, the connections that existed in the ancient world were largely lost and India and Europe became cut off from each other for many centuries. Colonialism further exacerbated this sense of bifurcation between East and West. At the time of the Buddha the great world power was the Achaemenid empire of Persia which extended all the way from Egypt to Gandhara, i.e. modern day Pakistan. Although the Buddha lived about a thousand kilometres further east, major trade routes connected his homeland in the Gangetic basin, which corresponds roughly to the modern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with Gandhara. I think it is possible that the Buddha as younger man might even have gone as far as Taxila, the capital of Gandhara, himself.

In the year of the Buddha’s birth, 480 B.C.E, there were Indian soldiers from Gandhara fighting at the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place 150 miles north-west of Athens. The expansionist Persian empire thus brought Indian and European peoples into contact at the time of the Buddha. There is a passage in the Pāli canon where the Buddha explicitly mentions Greek communities and their form of social organization, which he compares to that of the caste-system in India. Then in the century after the Buddha died, we have the emergence of the Hellenic schools of philosophy, the Pyrrhonists, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. Pyrrho was a philosopher who accompanied Alexander (356-323 B.C.E.) to India and arrived there about 325 B.C.E. He came back to Greece and founded the school of thought called Pyrrhonism, which may well have been directly influenced by Buddhist ideas. When I was in Cambridge recently, I came across a book called Pyrrhonism: How the ancient Greeks reinvented Buddhism by the scholar Adrian Kuzminski. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2008.) It is somewhat academic, but cites some compelling arguments for the role of Buddhism in the formation of some of Pyrrho’s central ideas.

After the time of the Buddha and Socrates, you find a number of communities in the Hellenic world who teach ideas and practise spiritual exercises which are surprisingly similar to those that we would consider to be Buddhist. They had a conception of philosophy which emphasised the care of the soul rather than the pursuit of abstract knowledge. Teachers such as Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) insisted that philosophy was of no use at all unless it healed your soul and led to human well-being or flourishing (eudaimonia). They developed spiritual exercises, and lived simply in small communities much like Buddhist monks and nuns in India. The Epicureans and Pyrrhonists were also non-theistic.

Now these schools flourished for about six or seven hundred years in Europe, and were enormously influential, and some of their ideas and practices were incorporated into Christianity. But in the sixth century, when Christianity was well established in Europe, the emperor Justinian (482-565) closed all of the ancient Greek schools. This was a devastating blow to traditions that otherwise might have continued to develop. I do not think that the spread of Christianity was inevitable in Europe. Had the philosophical schools of Greece survived, we might be living in a European culture much more attuned to Buddhist ideas and practices. As a result, Buddhism would not feel so alien to Europeans today as it often does. In addition to the suppression of the Greek schools by Christianity, the rise of Islam also served to further separate Europe from Asia. Moreover, the Islamic invasions of India were a crucial factor in the disappearance of Buddhism from the sub-continent around the 12th century C.E.. So Islam too, in a way, prevented any further connections being developed between Europe and Buddhism.

It was not until 16th and17th centuries that the first attempts by Europeans to understand Buddhism began. This was largely undertaken by Jesuit missionaries in Asia. Until that period the word “Buddhism” did not exist in Europe. European travellers in Asia had failed to understand that what was being practised in Ceylon, Thailand, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea belonged to the same religion. They thought that all these different aspects of Buddhism were different regional cults. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that the full extent and diversity of Buddhism was recognized. And we had to wait until the middle of the 19th century before the first scholarly understanding of Buddhism began to emerge. The key figure here was the Frenchman Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852), who was the first to provide Europeans with a coherent understanding of Buddhism as a philosophy and a way of life. And then suddenly Europeans were surprised to discover that in Asia there was a figure, the Buddha, comparable in many ways to Christ, who predated Jesus by several centuries, whose teaching was not only disseminated as widely as that of Christianity, but also appeared to embody many of the virtues that Christians espoused. It came as a rather startling discovery. I do not have the time to go into this now, but it is fascinating to see the impact that the discovery of Buddhism had on people from all walks of life in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. On the one hand, you have the emergence of a detached academic understanding of Buddhists texts, which took place mainly in Paris, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Oxford, while on the other, you have the enthusiastic response to Buddhism among artists and writers of the romantic tradition, who often saw in Buddhism all the virtues that Europe seemed to lack.

For example. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was living in Arles with Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). It was around this time that artists became familiar with Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which provided some of the first images of a Buddhist culture. Commenting on one of these prints, van Gogh observed: “Here we see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic, and intelligent, who spends his time doing what? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying Bismarck’s policies? No. He studies a blade of grass.” Van Gogh then painted “A Self-portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin,” in which he presents himself as a shaven headed Buddhist monk.

This very brief sketch of the historical background to Buddhism in Europe takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century, when, as we saw, the first Europeans actually began practising the Dharma. But it took the horror of two World Wars, which threw into question many core values of European civilisation, before Buddhist ideas really started to take root in European consciousness. In some ways I think that after the Second World War Buddhism became a kind of balm, a way of healing the wounds of that very violent century. These wounds were not just physical, but spiritual. People experienced profound mental turmoil and confusion. Buddhism appeared to them as a rational religion, another approach to asking the deepest questions of life, complete with meditation practices that made a difference in their own experience, but without any of the baggage of our Christian or Western heritage. For many, it held out the hope of a way of life that might serve to resolve some of the suffering and doubt of our times.

Since the time I became involved with Tibetan Buddhism in India in 1972, the presence and availability of Buddhist teachings in Europe has grown enormously. I do not think that I would be exaggerating to say that in 1972 it was possible to have read every popular book on Buddhism in English that existed. Today, by contrast, one cannot keep up with the number of Dharma books that are published every month, let alone the amount of new material that appears almost daily on the internet. Within 40 years the amount and quality of information about Buddhism has vastly increased. Writers today, many of whom are Western converts, speak with an authority derived both from their studies of Buddhist tradition and their firsthand experience of meditation.

Nonetheless, Buddhists are still a very small minority in Europe among those who consider themselves as “religious”. In the last census in the United Kingdom published in 2001, 150,000 people declared themselves as Buddhists. Around 100,000 of these were ethnic Buddhists of Chinese, Sri Lankan and Thai origin, which leaves about 50,000 converts. This sounds like a small number, but I was recently told that there are only 28,000 Quakers in Britain at present. On the other hand, in any major city in Europe today you will be able to find temples, centres or meditation groups from several Buddhist traditions. Although on a small scale, Buddhist teachings are widely and readily available. It is no longer necessary to travel to Asia in order to study Buddhism or train as a Buddhist monastic. What is available in Europe now would have been unimaginable in 1972 when I travelled to India as a young man. If someone had told me then: “By 2010 the Dalai Lama will be one of the world’s most recognized spiritual leaders, there will be Dharma centres all over Europe and America, and hundreds of books in most Western languages,” I would probably have dismissed the person as a fantasist. But in fact this has come to be.

One of the ways in which Buddhism makes itself known to Europeans today is not through meditation centres, books or journals, but through the mainstream culture. I live in France. The word “Zen” has become integrated into the French language. When my wife had a hernia a few years ago, she was fetched from our home by an ambulance. She was in great pain, and the driver of the ambulance said to her: “Madame, il faut rester Zen.” (“Madame, you should stay Zen” i.e. remain calm.) He had no idea that she had spent ten years as a Zen nun in South Korea. Buddhist ideas and practices have now found their way into mainstream medicine, particularly through the recent adoption of mindfulness techniques in healthcare. In Britain one can now get a Master’s degree in mindfulness in a university. At the same time references to Buddhism appear continuously in popular culture, literature and film. The winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes this year was “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” a low budget art-film from Thailand that beat all the entries from the famous American and European directors.

I have noticed that when Buddhism is mentioned in the media, it is generally presented sympathetically, often with a certain deference. In such ways, fairly subtle Buddhist ideas are filtering into European consciousness, even among people who would never think of reading a Buddhist book, or hearing a Dharma talk. Those who might otherwise be put off by Buddhism as a “foreign religion” find themselves admiring the Buddhist spirituality that informs Thai, Korean, or Japanese cultures. It is through such media that a quiet transmission of Buddhist values is constantly taking place in Europe today.

Yet despite the relatively high profile of Buddhism, Buddhists in Europe still constitute a very small and vulnerable community. If the Catholic Church were to lose a 100,000 followers over a decade, that would not make a huge difference. But if the Buddhist community were to decline by a 100,000, it would be a catastrophe. As Buddhists we need to be careful not to succumb to complacency when our tradition is riding a wave of popularity. Much of this might turn out to be no more than a fashionable, but shallow surge of interest. We need to keep in mind the wider historical perspective, and recognize that when we establish a Buddhist centre, we are making a commitment to an uncertain future, which is likely to confront us with unforeseen difficulties and obstacles.

There is also the question of how tolerant European societies really are. Is this tolerance genuine or only apparent? As long as Buddhists are perceived as non-threatening, peaceful and happy, then of course they are easy to tolerate. The media tells us that the French monk Matthieu Ricard is the world’s happiest man, and his appearances on TV and his writings might seem to bear this out. But however helpful this might be in drawing people to Buddhist meditation, it can obscure the fact that Buddhism represents a system of ideas and values that present a profound challenge to the greed encouraged by our consumer society, the fears that are used to justify military power, even to the entire capitalist system itself. One could argue that Buddhism is failing to represent itself accurately, if it is not perceived as threatening. What the Buddha taught was very radical and unsettling. It challenges me in the deepest sense of who “I” am; it presents a rigorous critique of selfishness, attachment, and hatred. If its values were to be clearly communicated, then they should challenge people in the very way they think about themselves and their world, leading them to consider making fundamental changes in the ways they live.

As an atheist spirituality, Buddhism is also a challenge to the theistic foundations of Christianity. Now one person who is fully aware of the threat of Buddhism to Christianity in Europe is Pope Benedict XVI. In 1987, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he said: “In the 1950s someone said that the undoing of the Catholic Church in the 20th century wouldn’t come from Marxism but from Buddhism. They were right.” Then in March 1997, in an interview with L’Express, a French news-magazine, he described Buddhism as an “auto-erotic spirituality,” which is frankly rather offensive. But Ratzinger/Benedict is no fool. He may turn out to have a more realistic understanding of the presence of Buddhism in Europe than many others. One wonders how widespread Buddhism needs to become in Europe before it is transformed in people’s minds from a benign happiness cult to a genuine challenge (like Islam) to Europe’s historical Christian identity.

As Buddhists, we need to have the courage to present Buddhism as something that is in opposition to many of the values that currently govern life in Europe. Yet to do this effectively, we have to give rise to a distinctive and more united Buddhist voice than is currently the case. As we know, in each European country, Buddhism consists of numerous small groups, representing many different traditions, factions and new religious movements. I often have the impression that each group is more interested in defending its particular turf rather than engaging in dialogue with other Buddhists. Many of the old Asian dogmatic views still divide us. We still unthinkingly use polemical terms like “Hinayāna” and “Mahāyāna,” which is not at all helpful. As a small and vulnerable community, we urgently need to work together more closely, and not get bogged down in historical, sectarian rivalries. I find it disheartening when I meet different Buddhists in Europe to realize how very little they know about, or are even interested in, other Buddhist traditions than their own. One of the positive things about organisations such as the European Buddhist Union, is that it provides a place where we can meet and talk to one another. If we are to move towards a Buddhist voice in Europe, we need to know more about each other.

Why are Buddhists not interested in knowing about each other? Why are some Buddhist groups well represented at the level of national and European Buddhist Unions, while others are excluded? What may be the largest Buddhist organisation in Europe, the Soka Gakkai, is generally not included in these meetings at all. Why? And why are so few ethnic Buddhists present? There seems to be a tacit agreement among the dominant groups – Tibetan, Zen and Theravada – that unless one meets their criteria for inclusion, i.e. holding certain doctrinal positions and practising certain forms of meditation, you are somehow suspect and not “really” a Buddhist. But frankly, if somebody comes to me and says in all sincerity: “I am a Buddhist,” why should I disbelieve them? Surely the richness of Buddhism in Europe is found in its diversity, not in some narrow definition of what constitutes what it “really” is. Could we not learn to celebrate this diversity, even though we may not understand or agree with what other Buddhists say or do?

For a distinctive and vital Buddhist voice to emerge in Europe, Buddhists need to engage in more dialogue between themselves as well as with other elements within the wider non-Buddhist world. For Buddhism to be taken seriously within mainstream European culture, Buddhists will have to articulate an intellectually rigorous and coherent response to the sciences, the arts, humanism, atheism, secularism, and modernity. If we are going to participate in a pan-European conversation at the same level with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, we have to work towards defining a clearer Buddhist stance on the different issues of our time. At the same time, we need to address issues and conflicts within our own community, such as the role of the laity and women in Buddhism, the question of where spiritual authority lies, the distinction between the Dharma and Asian culture, and how we can live together in spite of the doctrinal views that so often divide us. This will not be easy, but hopefully it will afford us greater insight into the sources and richnesses of our common tradition that began 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama “set in motion the Wheel of Dharma.” That is my hope.

Stephen Batchelor, EBU AGM 2010, Hungary, 25 September 2010

This is a transcript of a talk given at the Annual General Meeting of the European Buddhist Union in Budapest, Hungary, on September 25, 2010.
Much of the historical material is found in Stephen Batchelor’s “The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture” (London: Aquarian/Berkeley: Parallax, 1994 [hard cover / out of print], 2011 [paperback]).

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