We Buddhists by Stephen Batchelor 

Netsuke Rat, 19th century, Japan. Metropolitan Museum of Art.It’s remarkable how many worthy causes are being espoused by Buddhist groups these days. A few weeks ago I attended a day-long meeting of my chosen organisation: Buddhists for Pet Rats (BPR for short). Although the talks and discussions were of the high quality I have come to expect at BPR meetings, I must confess that I left the gathering feeling somewhat uneasy.

The day started with a lecture by a Tibetan Buddhist scholar entitled: ‘What is it like to be a rat?’ This stimulating fusion of cognitive psychology and Madhyamika dialectic prompted one of our members to ask, ‘Er, forgive me if I misunderstood you, Dave, but what do you mean by the rat’s “self-consciousness”? We Buddhists don’t believe in a self…’ And here the questioner paused for a fraction of a second before continuing. I don’t recall what else he said; I was puzzled by the implications of the pause.

For that pause contained so much that we never speak about, either at BPR meetings or elsewhere. The pause was a silent rallying call for Buddhist self-approval. I could hear a soundless roar of ‘YES!’ fill the room. No one (myself included) dared raise a murmur of qualification. From that moment on, poor Dave didn’t stand a chance.

I suppose my problem was one of uncertainty. I find it uncomfortable to declare categorically that I don’t believe in a self. For whatever I am, it’s far too weird to be resolved just by slapping a dogmatic belief onto it. Whether I believe in ‘’self’ or ‘’non-self’, ‘God’ or ‘not-God’, I am somehow left floundering in the same trap. Strangely, during that pause I felt my Buddhist faith being crushed by the resounding clamour of belief. Most alarming of all, my tacit agreement put me in collusion with everyone else.

The discussion ended with a slightly uncomfortable compromise, which we all pretended to ignore. Luckily, one of the Zen nuns proposed a period of meditation. So we propped ourselves up on zafus and had yet another go at sitting quietly doing nothing.

‘I’d like to read a haiku,’ she said.

It went something like this:

The old drain.

A rat leaps in.


Far more to the point, I thought, as I settled down to a relatively undistracted half hour.

After lunch I took my plastic cup of tea into the shrine-room and found myself standing among a small group of BPR members who were politely ridiculing the BJA (Buddhist Jerbil Alliance – Ed.).

Then one of them said, ‘I can’t relate to those haikus, you know. As Buddhists we’re against concepts… ‘

And then that imperceptible pause again. ‘Are we?’ I thought. But I kept my mouth shut.

Netsuke Rat, 19th century, Japan. Metropolitan Museum of Art.The meeting ended amicably enough. Bhante brought Shariputra in and folks huddled around, ah-ing and ooh-ing as the overfed little creature wondered why it wasn’t getting anywhere as it peddled like mad inside its treadmill.

On my way home I pulled into a lay-by on the A38. I lowered the seat-back and contemplated the OM MANI PADME HUM on the dashboard as it was lit up by the headlights of passing cars. I curled up on the seat and nibbled a cheese sandwich. I felt like resigning. Not only from BPR, but from the whole business. Then it dawned on me that there was no person, no authority, no institution to whom I could hand in my resignation. In a flash of Sartrean insight I realised that I was condemned to the Dharma, no matter. what I chose to do. This was strangely reassuring. 

Published in the October 1989 edition of Buddhism Now.

Image: Netsuke Rat, 19th century, Japan. © Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Categories: Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor

6 replies

  1. I have never understood the Buddhist concept of no-self. When one has an experience of no-self, who or what is it that is aware of this experience? It seems to me that there is a prior presence I call “I” that is aware of this no-self. I am genuinely curious to understand.

  2. It is quite simple really, ‘no-self’ is Madhyamaka – the Absolute scale; Self is Yogacara – the relative nity-grity that we need to take care of. We have to live with both, the Absolute and the Relative, or we are damaging stuff. Best’. Gensho.

    • Thanks Richard,

      Those are just different ways the Madhyamaka and Yogacara teachers used to describe the insight of seeing anatta, Sunyatā.

      Sunyatā (Emptiness) is a synonym for the insight of seeing not-self (anatta). Awakening dissolves the idea of both self and not self.

      Ajahn Chah sometimes called it ‘one who knows’, sometimes ‘Buddho’ (knowing).

      Bankei called it the ‘Unborn Buddha Mind’.

      Shen Hui called it ‘Absence of thought’ (Mind is non-action, the way no-thought, no seeking, no attainment, no coming, no going.)

      Those who understand this emptiness of phenomena
      Yet conform to the law of karma and its results,
      That is more amazing than amazing!
      That is more wondrous than wondrous!
      By Arya Nagarjuna


  3. This question begs an answer. Do buddhist (?) just talk about not having (?) a self (?) but actual wish (?)that it was indeed so. My (?) marks are subject for open discussion / agreements,I.e., what is a buddhist?
    Could one come to a consensus. I doubt it!


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