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Going Back To The Source: Humanist Enlightenment in The West {VIDEO Clip}

December 27, 2014

This is the 9th short video clip (8:44) from the conversation between Stephen Batchelor and Henry Shukman, on June 4, 2014, at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico on “Going Back to the Source.” 

The entire talk’s video (1:03:15) can also be viewed on our YouTube channel.

Their dialogue covers : Eastern and Western thought, the great doubt, dismantling of knowing, ancient greeks and buddhism, zen and classical philosophy, seeing with clarity, humanist enlightenment in the west, roots of being human, Zen’s transitional phase, like mindedness, sharing an identity with everything that lives, and releasing our reactivity. In their view, we arrive at the single source from many paths.

In this clip Henry and Stephen talk about “… Humanist Enlightenment in The West …”  …  below is the transcript of this segment of the conversation:

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Henry Shukman: Yeah, we all have inherited a misconception about the division of…

Stephen Batchelor: East and West.

Henry Shukman: Eastern thought and Western thought, and it’s quite remarkable actually. I mean not only—I mean Alexander, I mean set up an empire, a single political entity that included much of Western India and Greece in a single entity. Prior to that there were two Persian empires, both of which included a piece of India and a piece of the Eastern Greek territories already back in the 6th-Century B.C. So what happened I think in the West is that European imperial colonialism needed to believe that classical Greece was a kind of humanist miracle without precedent because it justified European superiority.

What Aimé Césaire called the White man’s superiority complex—that because of that it was fine for us to go about the world subjugating peoples because we were the inheritors of something that hadn’t happened anywhere else, which was a kind of humanist enlightened revelation, basically that was encapsulated in Athens in the 5th-Century, something like that.

But actually that story really leaves out an enormous fact which is that Greece itself had been linked not only through the polity of the Persian empire but through trade that now is thought to have been far more extensive than previously believed. But the idea that there were these two parallel worlds that knew nothing about each other is just a great falsehood.

Stephen Batchelor: No, it’s a total fiction.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, and I mean I find that deeply reassuring. And one of the things that used to sort of bother me a bit when I got into Zen in the first place was that my dad, who’s a thoroughly rational Oxford professor; he was just so supportive, a very kind guy, was supportive of everybody basically including his son doing this strange thing called Zen. But then it seemed really foreign and exotic. And I would try to explain it and I’d see his eyes glazing over. So I’d say, “Yeah, but what is it?”—”Well, you know, you meditate and you…”—”What’s that? Why that?”

And anyways I’d try to explain. He never really bought it. And yet why did it feel so natural, so sort of somehow intrinsic to being human and not foreign at all, it made me feel much less foreign actually. In fact it {Zen} helped me discover a very deep kind of belongingness in the family of things, which I’d never had. And I thank Zen for that, my Zen teachers of course. So to discover that there are in fact possible, maybe a bit speculative, but possible shared roots or at least shared exchange going right back into the beginnings of the Greek miracle—and Buddhism I find very reassuring, that we’re not doing something that strange after all, we’re not doing anything exotic and foreign really at all.

Stephen Batchelor: No, I think the same. I think that what might be, in a sense, the long term outcome of the current interest in Buddhism in the West is not discovering that Buddhism is another exclusive and superior tradition. It took sort of a counter move to European superiority; we now raise up everything Asian, but actually will be a means whereby we come to recover the common roots of our humanity.

Henry Shukman:I couldn’t agree more.

Stephen Batchelor: What is weird though, although you’re right, European enlightenment, European thinkers think of Greece as the beginning of our specialness. When you go back to look at the Greek histories that the Greeks wrote at the time, they had long believed that philosophy came from India—this was already in the texts.

Also, there’s this story that goes back an awful long time that the god Dionysus was banished from Greece and exiled to India. And when Alexander arrived in what is now Pakistan, according to one record at least, he met Greek communities.

What is perhaps even more striking is that there is one discourse in the Pali Canon, the Assalayana Sutta, the discourse to Assalayana in the middle length discourse is where the Buddha is debating with a Brahman.

The Brahman is saying, “People are born and there is a divinely ordained caste system that is immutable and the Buddha says, “But look at the outlying countries like the Yona and Cambodia. Yona is Ionia, Greece. In Ionia, in Greece they have two classes, masters and slaves, and they’re thoroughly interchangeable. This is in the Pali Canon, a reference to Greece. They’re probably Greek communities that could have been the descendants of the followers of Dionysus who were already settled in the Punjab.

We know, for example, also in terms of the extraordinary distances people are able to cover, the early Greek records all agree that at the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place I think 100 miles west of Athens in 480 B.C.E., this was the Persian attempt to conquer Greece. In the Persian army were Indian soldiers, elephants, people from basically the Punjab. Even further back when Darius I wanted to expand the Persian Empire further east into Gandhara, he sent scouts, we’d call them now. This was in 520 B.C.

The Battle of Thermopylae, by the way, took place in the year the Buddha was born. But 40 years before then, Darius employed a Greek called Scylax of Caryanda to go and check the river systems of the Indus to see where the Indus came out in the sea in order to prepare for the invasion. In modern scholarship is a Russian scholar who’s looked into the work of Scylax and has found it’s very likely in fact that he even went as far as the Ganges—went out into the Bay of Bengal, down to Sri Lanka and back. So all of this shows, you know, as you say, the cross traffic of trade, of ideas, of cultures, of movements of men and women of armies of people was going on long before the Buddha. It disrupts and undermines this whole notion of the East and the West. That I think is a language that’s just passed itself by day and needs to just be dropped.

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Stephen Batchelor is a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, best known for his secular or agnostic approach to Buddhism. Stephen considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs. Click here for his Full BIO.

Henry Shukman is head teacher at Mountain Cloud Zen Center. Click here for his full BIO.

This video clip is from : Going Back to the Source : A conversation with Stephen Batchelor and Henry Shukman, Produced by Chris Hebard, Filmed by Luke Fitch (, copyright

This conversation, and the video, is presented by Stillness Speaks in association with Tricycle and Mountain Cloud Zen Center.

Full transcript of the conversation can be found at Tricycle by clicking here.

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