Stephen Batchelor —
The Limits of Belief, The Massiveness of the Questions

Stephen Batchelor’s “secular Buddhism” speaks to the mystery and vitality of spiritual life in every form. For him, secularism opens to doubt and questioning as a radical basis for spiritual life. Above all, he understands Buddhism without transcendent beliefs like “karma” or “reincarnation” to become something urgent to do, not to believe in.

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is a teacher and writer. His books include Buddhism Without Beliefs, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and The Faith to Doubt. His newest book is After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age.

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I was devoted a local Buddhist group for 5 years and Batchelor even came and spoke and I felt his talk of true sangha, dharma and buddha as community and spot on. When one member sat in for a speaker who failed to show up and proudly he played a tape from his mom! Mom was meditating! Had even moved to be near Unity Church. He was so tickled. Well the old Zen heads, rigid as can be totally attacked, saying they did not like guided meditations. There were no Christian references! Just exhortations to relax and allow nature to be your guide. I thought it lovely but I found this lack of openeness to another's joy in something different, less than compassionate.

Rigidity, lack of openness, orthodoxy. i hear you. I was invited to take communion in a Catholic church, and as a Baptized Protestant, would have been allowed to take Communion, but refused, because the option to take Communion was not open to those who had never been or who were not-yet baptized. Religion as gated community - who needs it? What on earth is the use of this rigidity - this keeping some in and some out? Definitely less than compassionate. I vote for Mom's guided meditation.

My father's UMC pastor allowed me to take communion, such a blessing since my father wanted to baptize me as a baby.

Batchelor's emphasizes that questions are primary in Buddhism. And that his secular form of Buddhism also emphasizes doing over belief. I will be getting a few of his books. I am intrigued about the possibility of adding secular to other religions and finding somethin of value there - a secular Christianity, for example. Thank you for bringing his ideas to a wider audience.

I appreciated the program with Stephen Batchelor -- specifically his views on being rooted, but not stuck, in tradition: how "it is something that is alive, and it evolves and it changes over time. "

This resonates for me in my work in classical music broadcasting.

Need I say more?

Thank you for today's show.


Like many religions, mainstream Buddhism, despite what many Buddhists say, seems to boil down to blind belief in certain propositions. Like Bachelor I've written about some of these propositions in a skcptical and questioning way. In fact I'd say I am more skeptical. I don't, for example, believe that we can see "original Buddhism" in the Pāli texts. There are some interesting starting points for reflection and contemplation, but any sense of the historical Buddha has long been obscured (possibly on purpose). The unity of which many scholars speak seems to me to be largely projection and wishful thinking - in reading and studying Buddhist texts in Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese I have been surprised mainly at how incoherent, how fractured, and how diverse are the ideas expressed in the early texts. The only common thread I see is that Buddhism has proposed many different ways of paying attention to experience in an attempt to understand it. The theories spawned by this examination of experience are so varied as to be meaningless when taken together. The resulting metaphysics are hopeless in a post-Kantian world.

Personally I don't see any mileage in the "secular" label. To some extent all Buddhist practice is religious, certainly all mainstream Buddhist belief is. The fact that Iron Age theology and metaphysics is no longer fit for purpose is not something that makes me seek a new label. Instead I try to adopt what still makes sense and let go of what does not. This does require a radical rethinking of Buddhism. Most theory will not, and does not deserve to, survive. Many practices will. The collision of Buddhism with modernity seems to be happening in geologic time, like two continents colliding. It has taken generations so far and it will be generations from now that any accommodation becomes mainstream.

Chogyom Trumpa presented a secular Buddhist approach to living in the United States. Could you comment on comparing and contrasting what Mr. bachelor is saying about secular Buddhism ?

Chogyam Trungpa,,,,The Shambhala Path....Warrior In The World....a secular path with many parallels to much of Richards discussion. Interesting.

I throughly enjoyed listening to Mr Batchelor and Ms Tippet. I have always leaned toward Buddhism but not keen to be labeled as one for lack of knowledge. Two years ago I undertook my first Vipassana Course under SN Goenka and was struck by the promise of non-religion to reach enlightenment and yet a tradition so filled with dogma it left no room for questions. I have read some of the critics of Mr Batchelor and feel that they like the other religions are fighting to uphold their dogmas rather than truly explore what the enlightened teachers offered. One last note: On my own journey of understanding I think I have found a gem to share. Stop trying to verbalize and conceptualize and intellectualize the experience - whatever it is you are doing; do it with awareness and presence and acceptance that this to will change. It needs no judgment of good or bad. That is all there is to happiness really.


I was taken by a Buddhist scholar who expressed ideas that with I have been struggling, Buddhism as a religion. I feel culturally Jewish but ritual has always left me cold. In the depth of quiet meditation I have felt synchronized with the Buddha. I have visited monastaries in various countries in SE Asia adorned with Tonkas and golden Buddhas of various sizes and shapes monks chanting bowls ringing and drums sounding. They were exciting and mysterious. I was not aware of the mystery they invited me into until I listened to Mr Batchlelor, the mystery of this wonderful brief life. I didn't have a taste to memorize gods, incarnations, or sutras. To live a moral life in this moment seemed to be enough for me. Now I have a name for my cultivation, secular Buddhism.

I can't help but feel that what Bachelor promotes is not Buddhism , but I his own version say bachelorismm which is fine but I don't know why he uses Buddhism.

I feel what he teaches is rooted in the material. spirit , spiritualism is for me our humanity recognising that we are not just this body and mind but there is something else that can't be experienced through our 5 senses.

We live in such a wonderful universe and the findings in quantum physics are fascinating . How anyone can deny reincarnation rebirth and the miracles is beyond me. It would seem that he also seems to deny thousands of years of the Buddhist experience .

A wonderful interview that reflects my own Zen practice and the approach at my Zen center, where I've practiced for 12 years. Raised as a Southern Baptist and the son of a minister, I found doubt in my early 20s, and continue to cherish doubt within my Zen practice. With not believing, the whole world opens.

Thanks so much for this discussion with Stephen Batchelor - particularly the unedited podcast which was wonderfully wide ranging and a joy to listen to.

Krista Tippett mentions a cathedral for atheists -- I encourage you to visit the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh.

The gathering spaces Batchelor is calling for do exist, at least on the West Coast of the US. I invite him to join us at Burning Man, for example, where people do make secular or at least unspecifically spiritual sites of pilgrimage, catharsis, sharing, prayer, poetry, meditation, and ritual. Krista T ought to go as well. Do a pilgrimage to the Temple that is built and burned out in the desert every year... tradition may have heft, as she mentions in this interview, but we are capable of making new ones. Bringing the gravitas she mentions is optional; I often find it there, at the Temple, but it is a context where people can bring whatever background or ideas about spirituality they happen to bring.

Appreciated this so much... my personal sadhana takes me out of my comfort zone. My yoga practice includes swadhya- not always comfortable, not often easy, but oh so rewarding. Thank you....

Really enjoyed this episode.

At one point KT mentions analogous Christian thinkers who also focused on "critical analysis of text and tradition." Can any one point me to a few theologians / books? Thanks!

Nick, you may wish to take a look at Gianni Vattimo's 'After Christianity,' and Don Cupitt's writings (listed on his website at starting perhaps with his most recent, 'Ethics in the Last Days of Humanity'. Also worth reading are the texts of the New Zealand presbyterian Lloyd Geering's lectures 'In Praise of the Secular' available on

People like religion because it provides answers to massive questions and directions for how to live, so following a religion of questioning and doubt is really challenging. It asks a person to face existence without any cushions, just humans.

Can a community of individuals have no religion, but have a belief in something greater than themselves? If we collectively want to change, then it may be necessary to attempt to redefine what we view as belief systems.

I grew up in a very Roman Catholic family that went to church every Sunday. Although my parents weren't as devote, it was more of the influence my grandparents had. I was confirmed when I was 16 and learned a lot about the church throughout my life. One thing that the church did give me was learning how to forgive, love, and appreciate the world a little more. It taught about a wonder that made earth beautiful. But, I also found there to be a lot of intolerance and not so nice things over the years. It wasn't about true love, and there isn't an openness to explore various life paths. It recognizes they exists, but doesn't admit that they can be just as valid as Catholicism. Because of this, I ended up leaving the church behind and pursuing my path in ecological thought. I have found that being more spiritual has given me a love and appreciation for all beings, but it can also create a disconnect is believing humans are special when it comes the ecology. But, this also depends on the belief system. Doing this though has brought a lot of things full circle, just in a different way. I find that being spiritual can help you connect easier and find those connections that are hidden out there.

By questioning everything all the time makes it feel as though there is little to stand on as Stephen conveys. How then does one find there footing?

By questioning everything all the time makes it feel as though there is little to stand on as Stephen conveys. How then does one find their footing?

I think that belief in the unseen can give us a different outlook on the natural world. I feel that when we accept the idea of spiritual believe such as Buddhism allows us to see the connection of spirt within all living things. This connection can lead to a oneness and interconnectedness. I feel that some spiritual like Catholicism beliefs can also teach us to gain an awareness that we are better than the natural world hence our trying to always control the natural world. This idea of being in control of the natural world can be drawn back to the old testament where it reads “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). I think that spiritual believe can in many ways move us into a closer relationship with nature. I think that the lack of belief can in result lead us to become dry and very one sided in a sense that we are just a body with parts but nothing more. This would deny the sense of the spirit within all living things.

To me, religion has always seemed to require faith and sort of shunned questioning (as someone who has never been very religious this may be off the mark for others). It's interesting to me that someone can come at Buddhism with this mindset and I wonder if this would even be possible in any western religions? I also wonder if Stephan considers himself spiritual? The word spiritual has always been troublesome to me. I feel like I have seen many people who don't consider themselves religious say that they are spiritual, or act in ways that I might consider spiritual, yet religion and spirituality seem very connected to me. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Stephan says and I don't consider myself spiritual at all.