Spirit of the Age: Take the third way to nirvana

Click to follow
THE SPECTRAL figures moved noiselessly through the darkness into the elegant Georgian drawing-room. It was just before daybreak as they settled, cross-legged or kneeling, on their cushions and mats, drawing blankets and shawls around their shoulders, for their long meditation. The smell of the wick of a single lighted candle drifted through the air as the breathing settled and the rosy streak of the new dawn slowly lit the room.

This was Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry, which has its home in a Palladian mansion on the banks of the river Dart in Devon. Its director spent seven years as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and three more in a Korean Zen monastery, but he is an Englishman, Stephen Batchelor, a scholar in classical Tibetan, Sanskrit and Pali.

In Britain today there are several traditional Buddhist monasteries, which seek to create islands of Eastern orthodoxy in a sea of Western secularism. But Sharpham is different. It looks for a middle way between the dogmatism found in the ancient Asian traditions and the rational objectivity of Western scepticism. It offers a Buddhism without beliefs - just the kind of thing that Glenn Hoddle might have found handy this week when he blundered into the oriental minefield which is the doctrine of karma.

Batchelor's great project, which has caused a major stir among mainstream Buddhists across the world, has been to separate the techniques of the Buddha from the metaphysics of the Hindu culture into which the Buddha was born - aspects of which, despite his radicalism in other areas, he simply accepted. "The Buddha offered a method," says Batchelor, who is an expert in the Zen, Tibetan and Theravada traditions. "But he took Hindu cosmology for granted - the assumption that the earth is flat; the idea of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death." Batchelor's insistence is that you don't have to accept Asian cultural norms to benefit from Buddhism which, quintessentially, is a technique for living rather than a belief system.

The great insight which the Buddha formulated some 500 years before Christ was that all life is unsatisfactory and that the cause of this is craving or desire. Therefore, the cessation of desire will bring about unlimited happiness (nirvana). He then set out an eight-fold path of moral, ethical and spiritual guidelines to achieving this.

This, Batchelor insists, is the real attraction of Buddhism, not the exotic exuberance of the robes, ritual and chanting that lured the great trek of Western youth to the hippie Himalayas. He should know. He was one of them. "That Sixties sub-culture, with its psychotropic drugs, gave people the experience, however elusive, that one doesn't have to inhabit the world of common sense," he says. "But it goes back much further than that."

It goes back to the Enlightenment, of course, when the Western psyche was rent asunder into the dualism of rationalism and romanticism. By the Sixties, the romantic impulse had declared that materialism, science and progress had - by jettisoning intuition - created a spiritual vacuum. They went East to recapture it.

"Tibet took on the motherlode of that projection; the last place to be mapped, it was seen as the last outpost of spiritual values which had resisted the incursions of the corrupt and degenerate West," says Batchelor, as we stride across the muddy fields of the 500-acre farm in which the college is set. "Tibetan Buddhism acts as a huge magnet for those of such a frame of mind. It has a mesmeric effect - Westerners are mystified and fascinated. But, at a certain point, the tide begins to turn; in the end I realised I was still Stephen Batchelor who was born in Watford, and couldn't live with the split identity."

The result is the stripped-down, re-made version he sets out in his international best-seller, Buddhism Without Beliefs. It does not reject the central notion of rebirth, so much as redefine it. On life after death, he adopts the agnostic position of saying that we simply don't know. On rebirth, he says the concept does not necessarily imply a continuation of our personality, but only of the force of life in the cycle of nature. The notion of karma - which insists, as Glenn Hoddle knows all too well, that actions have consequences - then becomes a mere statement of fact, rather than of moral culpability. Had Hoddle been able to separate metaphysics from morality so neatly, he might still be the England coach.

Traditionalist Buddhists are indignant at all this. Remove the brick of reincarnation and the moral edifice collapses, they insist. "Batchelor is ready to cast away too much that is integral," says one critic, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, president of the Buddhist Publication Society of Sri Lanka. The result, he says, is simplistic: "The ultimate outcome of such concessions could be a psychologically oriented humanism tinged with Buddhist philosophy and a meditative mood."

That, of course, is its very appeal to many Westerners, as was evident from the conversations of the students at Sharpham, who were typical of the profile of the modern European Buddhist - independent professionals, aged mainly 30 to 45, who grew up in homes without any religious affiliation.

"It appeals to the modern sense of pragmatism," says Batchelor. "They are not asked to believe, only to do - to sit and watch their breath and see what happens." That may open the door to a world in which they can detect an inkling of something that can't be expressed in words - the mystical, ineffable, subtler, deeper truth that some would call God. Or they may just learn how, in a hectic, driven, compulsive life, just to sit still, walk more slowly and pay more attention to the here and now. "Either way," says Stephen Batchelor, "it's worth a try."