When radical Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor wanted a site for his educational institute, there was really no alternative to Totnes. Alix Sharkey meditates on our own west coast answer to California.

As he strolls down the lane towards his Devon home, Stephen Batchelor looks the perfect countryman. Like any gentleman farmer in his mid-forties, he sports a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, corduroys and green wellies, his thinning hair brushed back under his cloth cap. Few would guess from his appearance that Batchelor is a controversial Buddhist philosopher and historian, a best-selling author, an award-winning travel writer (The Tibet Guide), scholar and translator of classical Tibetan, dab hand at Sanskrit and Pali, and an internationally renowned meditation teacher.

Nor is there any external clue to his 10 years as a Buddhist monk - the first seven studying Tibetan Buddhism in northern India, Switzerland and Germany, the following three in a Korean Zen monastery, where he met his French wife Martine (who spent 10 years as a Zen Buddhist nun). Today, he and Martine are the teachers at Sharpham College, Britain's first and only Buddhist-inspired educational institute, which they founded in order to nurture the latest hybrid of this 2,500-year-old spiritual path.

Despite his conservative appearance, Batchelor is regarded as a radical iconoclast in certain Buddhist circles. His new book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, already a best-seller in America, has aroused the ire of no less a figure than Robert Thurman, probably America's leading Buddhist academic (and father of the actress, Uma). In a recent issue of Time magazine, Thurman, professor of Buddhist Studies at New York's Columbia University, denounced Batchelor's book for reducing Buddhism to "humanism". For his part, Batchelor admits he has tried to humanise the Buddha and restore "a sense of this real historical figure who, through his own efforts, awakened from the sleep of existential confusion" - or, to use the conventional phrase, attained enlightenment.

Buddhism, its adherents claim, is a remarkably pragmatic spiritual path which generally avoids dogma and blind faith. However, its central premise - that one should work toward enlightenment - is notoriously difficult to elucidate. After all, what is this enlightenment? How does one realise it? How difficult is it to attain? Certain traditions address these questions by means of poetic allusion; others insist there is no point in even trying: since enlightenment entails complete transcendence of all conceptual limitations, it cannot be explained in conceptual terms. To use Wittgenstein's phrase, we must accept that, "what can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent".

Taking the bull by the horns, Batchelor tries to render this ineffable experience at least partly intelligible. "The Buddha was not a mystic," he writes in Buddhism Without Beliefs. "His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God ... his awakening meant ... having discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving."

Equally unconventional is his suggestion that the rituals, liturgies and iconography of various Buddhist schools are little more than cultural accretions, which contemporary practitioners can dispense with. Japanese Zen Buddhism, noted for its sparse and ascetic practice environment, normally requires at the very least some candles and incense - but not Batchelor. Even meditation cushions are unnecessary; use a chair if you prefer, he says. The only prerequisite, it seems, is a relatively quiet place to meditate. With its gutsy, stripped-down vision of Buddhist practice and ethics, Buddhism Without Beliefs has already made its subject matter accessible, possibly even attractive, to Americans - and might yet do the same for middle England.

The Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry is now halfway through its second year-long course of "road education in traditional Buddhist values, critically applied to contemporary needs". The college's dozen students pay pounds 5,000 each for a year's tuition and board in a magnificent Palladian-style Georgian mansion on the banks of the river Dart, set in rolling meadows and lush woodland, teeming with wildlife and wild flowers. Their day begins early, with a half-hour of group meditation at 6am. The students, six men and six women, aged between late twenties and mid-fifties and including seven different nationalities, then have breakfast. Next they carry out rota duties - cleaning, preparing lunch, taking care of visiting teachers, working on the 500-acre farm, which has a dairy and sheep, a cheese-making business, and its own vineyard - before classes begin in earnest. These might start with a tutorial on Third World economics, and continue with classes on linguistics, epistemology, post-modernism, or modern French philosophy. Lunch is followed by art, writing or music classes, more farm work, or the weekly session of volunteer activity students are expected to contribute to the local community. Some will do therapy work in prisons, others take care of the elderly or sick.

Students are not obliged to be Buddhists, but they are expected to have some kind of personal meditation practice, and to join in group meditation. They must also live communally, work with the staff to develop their own socially engaged study project, and produce a body of artistic work for the year's end.

There is no Buddhist catechism on offer - students analyse the many contradictions and inconsistencies between various Zen schools, Tibetan lineage, and the Theravada traditions found in Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Though all of these place initial emphasis on meditation, ethical discipline and self-investigation, their methods, philosophy and psychological definitions can differ wildly.

"Because our Buddhist studies are not rooted in any given tradition," says Martine Batchelor, "Buddhism becomes questionable. Likewise with contemporary studies, we put people in this in-between area, where they have freedom to question and freedom to explore responses both to Buddhism and the contemporary dilemma. How does Buddhism respond to the environmental crisis, for example? What does it have to say about the fact that the planet is apparently degrading rapidly due to global warming?"

Britain has around 175,000 practising Buddhists, according to recent research by the Multi-Faith Directory of the University of Derby. This figure includes 130,000 or so "ethnic" Buddhists, mainly of Chinese, Thai and Sri Lankan descent, and 45,000 "Western" practitioners, according to the Christian Research Association. Add to this the growing number of non-Buddhists involved in some form of regular meditation practice, estimated at 10,000. Sharpham College is both a response to this trend, and the latest example of the Buddhist-related network evolving along England's west coast.

The area around the medieval town of Totnes, midway between the highlands of Dartmoor and the beaches of the south Devon coast, has long been regarded as a New Age node and a quick trek around the town centre will confirm the above-average incidence of pierced and dreadlocked youth in baggy surfwear and big boots. But these are merely the latest and most visible influx of alternative types drawn towards a region that has mystical connotations stretching back to Druidic times.

More prosaically, the region's links with alternative education and ecological concerns date from the 1920s, when a philanthropist Yorkshire farmer called Leonard Elmhurst settled in the area and founded a charitable educational trust at nearby Dartington Hall. Elmhurst believed education should cultivate the whole person and used his American heiress wife's fortune to fund his pastoral vision.

Sharpham benefited from the philanthropy of another enlightened landowner. Maurice Ash's family took over the Sharpham estate in 1961. Now 80, he lives in a small one-bedroomed flat in a corner of the house, and splits his time between environmental and philosophical studies. As a boy he attended Gresham's, the progressive Norfolk school that educated Britten, Spender and Auden. Not surprisingly, Ash was keen to continue Elmhurst's commitment to alternative education. He also felt the estate should have a spiritual core, and searched for a suitable tradition, even considering Islam at one point. Though an agnostic himself, Ash's interest in Buddhism was aroused through his life-long study of Wittgenstein, whose work, he says, "has several themes in common with Buddhist philosophy, especially in the Philosophical Investigations and some passages of Tractatus." In 1985 he co-founded the Sharpham Community, a Buddhist-based group which ran a small education programme for the local community. Shortly afterwards, newlyweds Stephen and Martine Batchelor arrived from Korea. "The college," says Ash, "is basically an extension of that process."

Sharpham's evolution has coincided with the steady growth of alternative education, research centres and meditation facilities in the Totnes area. Within a few miles' radius are Dartington Hall, which offers year-round alternative educational seminars and arts programmes; Schumacher College, a residential college specialising in "deep" ecological research; the highly regarded Karuna Institute, which teaches Buddhist-based psychotherapy; and several centres offering short- and long-term residential meditation retreats. These facilities are both staffed and attended by growing numbers of teachers, artists, writers, therapists and other specialists, attracted by the area's natural beauty, the liberal colleges funded by charitable trusts, and like-minded neighbours - all of which adds up to a curiously English take on the Californian "West Coast" alternative lifestyle.

Up the road at Gaia House, a residential centre offering meditation programmes, non-profit business is booming. ``With a capacity of 60, we offer an annual total of around 7,000 retreat nights," says Russell, one of Gaia House's management team since 1991. "We're currently running at just over 40 per cent full." Increasing numbers of women are visiting the centre, says Russell, and more and more British people - in stark contrast to a few years ago, when most visitors were foreigners. "People come because the centre is beautiful and well-run," says co-manager Kirsten, a German, "and the teachers have good reputations. But also it's the area. There's so much on offer around here." It is a measure of Gaia House's international reputation that both Russell and Kirsten first heard of it while travelling in India.

"Sharpham College cannot be understood independently of the history of this local area and its commitment to alternative education," Stephen Batchelor says. But it is only recently that Buddhist teachers and radical thinkers from other disciplines have moved into the area. "That keeps our costs down because we don't have to bring people in from London or abroad - they're all on our doorstep."

It was the quality of Sharpham's teaching staff that first attracted 31-year-old Charlie, who felt that meditation and communal living would help him decide "the next step" in his life. Having worked abroad as a director of a large international healthcare charity, he came to feel the charity was merely "adding to the problem" by bowing to pressure from the drugs industry. "They only supported us," he says, "because we were opening up new markets for them."

Charlie estimates that over half of his fellow students have taken a similar leap in the dark, giving up job, home and family to attend. And what if someone accused him and his colleagues of being selfish? He says he hopes to become "a more centred and resourceful person", able to contribute more to society.

"I've already seen the effect it's having on my friends," he says. "They tell me my decision has inspired them and they are now making radical changes in their own lives. Is that selfish? I don't know."

Stephen Batchelor is equally uncertain whether, for all his work at Sharpham, Buddhism can flourish in Britain. If his ambition is to develop a vibrant, non-sectarian, contemporary Buddhist tradition, that is socially engaged and ethically consistent with a liberal, democratic, capitalist system, he is under no illusions about the enormity of this task.

"A phenomenon as complex as Buddhism has to take root in any culture across generations. History shows us, when we look at China and Tibet and how Buddhism developed in those countries, that it usually takes between 200 and 300 years for domestication to occur. And I don't think information technology and modern communications will speed that up. The real test will not be how many centres are created in the next 10 or 20 years, but whether the subsequent generations will still resonate and identify with, practise and express these ideas and values. If they don't, it's just not going to happen".

Applications to Sharpham College for 1998-99 should be addressed to: Sharpham House, Ashprington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7UT (01803 732521).`Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening' is published by Bloomsbury,price pounds 9.99; `The Tibet Guide' is published by Wisdom Books, price pounds 15.99.