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What would Buddha do? Views from the Center

File:Stephen Batchelor.jpg


RT has not been much attracted to Buddhist philosophy in the past, though he has experimented with meditation, in one form or another, for some years. But Stephen Batchelor’s translation of Nagarjuna’s Views from the Center may be the book that persuades him that there is more than a remote connection between western and eastern thinking.

This, in a nutshell, is how RT sees the matter. The understanding of Buddha has largely centered on his struggle for enlightenment or awakening, which RT takes to mean the moment when the Buddha achieved a true experience and understanding of the world and humanity’s place within it. It is a dramatic story; but after his enlightenment, what did Buddha do with his hard-won wisdom?

The question seems to have been of secondary importance; early Buddhism emphasized the achievement of enlightenment, leading to the foundation of many monasteries and the branch of Buddhism known as the Lesser Vehicle. A premium was placed on meditation and the study of the received holy texts.

Three hundred years or so after Buddha’s life, the other principal division of Buddhism developed: the Greater Vehicle. The hero of this school of Buddhist thinking was the Bodhisattva, the enlightened person who remained in the world to help others achieve enlightenment. Nagarjuna is associated with the development of Greater Vehicle (or Mahayana) Buddhism.

Now this is what RT finds so important about Batchelor’s translation of Views (and RT has only finished the introduction): the idea that emptiness, Narajuna’s primary goal as a Buddhist, is an act. It is not the destruction of the self, as might be assumed from the English word, but the transformation of the self, when the self both is and is not. And when does this happen? When we are making a choice–that is when we have the freedom to do or not do something. Emptiness is choice.

In fact, we could follow this thinking further and say that choice is what makes us human. This ability to affect the world, to rise up from being and participate in transformation, is humanity’s particular gift.

But before we jump to the conclusion that Nagarjuna (or Buddha) believed in free will, we should also remember that, according to Batchelor’s understanding, Buddhism is not a religion in the western sense. It is a condition of openness, an awareness of the possibility and spontaneity in life. In contrast, belief is a means of surrendering the possibility of choice by adherence to a dogma, be it western or eastern or specifically Buddhist. We must take into account the teachings we have learned when we choose, but we must refer to own self when we actually decide. We must reveal ourselves (or non-selves) in choice.

Or, at least, that is as far as RT has got with thinking this through. Doubtless, there is more to learn about the Buddhist (or even Buddha’s) perspective on choice…   RT


Photo: Stephen Batchelor at Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic.

  1. March 3, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Very interesting. I think the buddhist concept of emptiness might be the most elusive one. What I like about Stephen Batchelor is that he always looks at the original texts (when available, of course) and starts from there. Sometimes buddhism is popularised so much that all meaning is lost. It then becomes just another self-help book.

  1. March 18, 2013 at 2:19 am

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