BG 242: Practicing at the Crossroads

Episode Description:

Martine Batchelor was a nun in a Korean Buddhist monastery for 10 years, where she followed a traditional path of practice and exploration. We speak about her journey in becoming a nun, what the rhythms of that life were like, what practices she undertook, and how she came to integrate, and deepen, the understanding she uncovered during her decade of training there.

The episode concludes with a compelling conversation about the multi-perspectival nature of human beings, and how we’re constantly practicing at a crossroads between various aspects of our lives.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, The Myth of the Teacher.

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m really thrilled today to be joined by a special guest, Martine Batchelor. Martine thank you so much for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks. It’s your evening, our morning and we’re connecting from across the globe. It’s really fun.

Martine: Thank you. I know it’s wonderful. I’m glad to meet the Buddhist Geeks and I look forward to have some fun.

Vincent: Nice. And just a little background, a personal background, I meet Martine recently at a dinner in Los Angeles. Your husband, Stephen, was there who we have on the show and a couple other people who’ve had on the show. And it was just a wonderful gathering and I really enjoyed hanging out with you during that time and getting to know a little bit about you, and that’s part of the reason I thought it would be really fun to have you on the show, because I just enjoyed so many of the things that you had to say that night.

I also would mentioned that we helped convince you to get on Twitter that night. So people want to check you out you’re now on Twitter and you’re tweeting all kinds of fun stuff.

Martine: Exactly. Exactly. Well I’m not totally, I have to learn more about Twitter. I make mistake time to time but it’s interesting. It’s fun.

Vincent: Cool. And then a little bit about your practice background and your kind of writing background. You’re a former Buddhist nun. You studied Zen Buddhism, actually a Korean form of Buddhism, under the guidance of Kusan Sumin and you’ve written several books. The most recent is The Spirit of the Buddha. You’ve also written a book on Buddhism and Ecology, The Path of Compassion, the Bodhisattva Precepts and several others. Some that have to do with women and Korean Zen. You had a long history of writing and of practice. And we wanted to start by kind of exploring a bit of your background with the Buddhist practice piece. And I was wondering if you could share how you got into this whole Buddhist thing?

Martine: Well you see the thing is that I really don’t come from a religious family. I’m more from a socialist family. And so from a very young age I wanted to save the world. And then I became an anarchist and then encountered Buddhism serendipitously, by accident. I started to live with some free jazz band in Paris when I was 19-20. Actually, one of the guys was into Buddhism and he had a book the Dhammapada, which actually I could say changed my life. Because I was reading it and there was this short piece where the Buddha seems to imply, or suggest, that if I wanted to change others maybe I should change myself first. And I thought, “This is a good point.” That I wanted to change the world but I cannot even change myself it’s going to be impossible. And I reflected cause I was quite idealistic at the time. I reflected that I could tell myself don’t be egoist, don’t be this, don’t be that. And it had no effect whatsoever. And so in a way from that I left my interest in politics and I went more into what of course really strange for me interest in spirituality.

In those days, in the 70s you did not have so much. So I went to live in England. I tried this and that, different kind of spiritual stuff around. And then I decided to leave Europe because there was this kind of dream. Having read certain books talking about spirituality. And I thought you know looking for a teacher, looking for something. And so I went to India. I mean hitchhiking and kind of on the hippie trail, it was called.

And then I got to India but because I never really travelled before I made a mistake in my passport. And so I could only have a single entry to India. I went to Nepal. I couldn’t get back in. Somebody help me to get back in but I had to get out. So then I decided to go, because I wanted to go to Bodhgaya or to Dharamsala. And now I could not go there anymore. And then I meet some Japanese who told me that in Thailand I could find some Buddhism, and then of course in Japan I could find some Buddhism, some meditation. So I went to Thailand and again quite a few things happened in Thailand by accident. I was given the wrong plane ticket going from Bangkok to Kyoto to Tokyo to Osaka. Instead of going to Osaka it was putting Seoul on the way to Tokyo. And then again by chance I met some Korean monks. And then I thought well why not go to Korea for a month. I have $100 and there’s meditation there. That could be interesting.

So I arrived in Korea. I go to this nunnery where nobody speaks English. Then they send me to this monastery, which at the time in ’75 was the only place where there were some Westerners and I end up in Songwansa. And in Songwansa, this is a big end ceremony of the year. And I tried to go to help in the kitchen. There is this lady about 50, a Korean lady. And she asked me, “Are you married?” “No.” “Do you have children?” “No.” “Are you studying?” “No.” Are you working? “No.” And then she said to me, “Well if I was like you, free, I would become a nun.”

And then I thought why not. This is a good idea. For the last three years, 18 to 22, four years I keep repeating the same mistake, getting into the same suffering. I said “why not, becoming a nun maybe I could learn not to repeat the same thing so then I won’t have the same suffering.” And I thought I could learn Tai Chi, calligraphy, a bit of meditation for a year or two, why not. And then I became a nun. So Master Kusan accepted for me to become a nun. I never learned Tai Chi nor calligraphy but I did learn meditation. That’s the way I encountered Buddhism.

Vincent: Very cool. That’s random in some sense but it sounds like there was a kind of serendipitous situation where you just suddenly found yourself in Korea at this nunnery. It’s incredible.

Martine: Yeah. No, no, I considered myself extremely lucky. Because I think actually Korean was the only place where I could have become a nun. I could not have become a nun anywhere else.

Vincent: That’s so interesting. And when you were doing that kind of practice, I want to hear a little bit about what that was like because I understand that you did practice very intensively while you were there. And I understand that you stayed more than just the year or two that you may have planned on. So maybe you share a little bit of about your time there and what it was like the actual rhythms of being a nun there.

Martine: So what is important to see is that I arrived in a monastery and I was allowed to stay there as a nun because it was the only place which had westerners. And so they found a little place on the side for the few western women who became nuns. And so we followed the schedule which is three months in winter and in summer, you sit 10 hours a day for three months at the time. And then the spring and the autumn, then you sit four hours a day. And then in the day time you can continue to sit if you want or you can go for walks or learn the language. It’s what’s called a bit of free time or you can visit monasteries or nunneries and that’s what I used to do. During the free period I used to visit like the great masters.

And then what you do is basically you get up at 3 o’clock in the morning. You sit two hours, 50 minutes. You sit and then you walk 10 minutes inside the Zendo, the Zen hall, but you walk at an ordinary pace for 10 minutes and then you sit again 50 minutes. Then you have breakfast around six-ish then you start again. In the morning you have three hours of sitting, afternoon four hours of sitting, and then in the evening you get two hours of sitting. And then in the middle of the day around 4 o’clock generally you have a working period.

Vincent: Wow. So this is really intensive practice that you’re doing then during these periods.

Martine: I would not say… you see these 10 hours a day for Korean Buddhism, for Korean Zen or what is called in Korea, Korean Son is not intensive.

Vincent: Really?

Martine: No, this is ordinary practice.

Vincent: Oh wow.

Martine: Because you sit 10 and you sleep six. That’s really ordinary practice. It starts to get intense practice if you do 14 hours of sitting with only 4 hours of sleeping or if you do no sleep practice.

Vincent: Great.

Martine: No laying down practice, that’s intense.

Vincent: Okay. Did you do some of that intensive practice as well while you were there? Where you really…

Martine: Once I tried. Because I really wanted to try it. And so I tried and we did the few women together in one room. We did for four days no sleep practice so all day, all night. And that was interesting because you see after the third day you were so tired you could not proliferate. You could just do the questioning because you got too tired to think. [Laughs] It was very effective but you’re a little kind of vague and hazy when you walked outside. It was a bit weird as a feeling.

Vincent: That’s so interesting. And you mentioned questioning. I understand one of your central practices was a type of inquiry, exploring a particular question, and from what I’ve heard it’s sometimes translated as “What is this?”

Martine: Yeah. No, the practice of questioning it comes from China but they really have followed the master, reinstituted in the 12th century Master Dahui, a Chinese master. So the idea that you have the koan and then out of the Koan you have what they called hwadu, which is in the way the main point. And then you work on the main point. And so you have 1,700 koans and so this is just one of them, but this is the one which is used the most.

The Koan is you have Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch, and then you have Huigong, a young monk who comes to visit you. And then they have a little interchange. And out of that interchange you have this, what is this? as the main point. What’s called the hwadu. And then the practice is actually you just have that one question and you sit in meditation and you just ask it. “What is this?” “What is this?” And so it’s very important to see that this is a practice of questioning. This is not a practice of answering. Because in Japan in the 17th century, with Hakuin things changed they have this system of passing koans. This you do not have in Korea. So in Korea what is most important is a sensation of questioning. So you don’t change koans. You keep your one hwadu. For example, “what is this?” and you do this for your whole life. Because they have the idea that if you cultivate the sensation of questioning with one hwadu, one question you can do it with all. And so the idea is really to kind of develop a sensation of questioning, which is kind of like becomes greater and greater until it bursts. So it kind of called the mass of questioning and then the idea that it burst into a breakthrough, an understanding.

But what also what was special in my temple Songwansa that they followed Chinul. And so Chinul is one of the rare Zen masters who believed in sudden awakening followed by gradual practice. When generally Zen is considered… most of the people do sudden practice, sudden awakening. So here it’s sudden awakening, sudden practice. And here you are in this temple where they do sudden awakening and gradual practice. With then the idea is that you do the questioning, you have a breakthrough, but you still have the habits which you have to work with then you continue to practice. You have another breakthrough, then you have more cultivation with habits and thing and so on and so forth. Like for example, my teacher Master Kusan was reputed to have had three awakenings.

Vincent: Okay. Really interesting. So in other words there was a recognition in how you were practicing that you may have these awakening experiences and then you have to follow that up with practice. And actually you mentioned Chinul. I’m not really familiar with Korean Buddhism that much, but one of my early teachers did turn me on to this book “Tracing Back the Radiance,” which was a translation on some of his teachings I guess. And I remember this one metaphor that stuck with me about what you’re saying, was that even though the sun may be out it doesn’t mean all the snow will melt all at once. That there is then a process of melting. So it sounds like in some ways you’re describing something like that. What was your experience with that? How did you find it to be?

Martine: Well you see I think all this Zen practice and it has really influenced how I practice, how I teach and everything like that. But I was really not a sudden awakening, sudden practice type of person. Because what really motivates me is not so much this kind of fable awakening. What interest me is how I’m going to develop wisdom and compassion, how can I dissolve the habits. So I won’t mention any kind of… I have various what I would call breakthroughs, but I would not say it was amazing awakenings. But what was interesting for me nowadays working also with vipassana is that by cultivating the questioning, which we never talked about awareness, vipassana or anything of that nature.

Actually within six months I was developing awareness and that awareness was making a difference to the way I was looking and feeling, to the way I would be speaking or whatever. So I might not be the best person because I am not one of these Zen kind of 100% type of person and I looked at the Zen practice in a very pragmatic way.

Vincent: And how long, you spent something like 9 or 10 years doing this same rhythm or the same routins of three months on and three months not off but sort of less intense. You were there for a long time, weren’t you?

Martine: Yeah. I was there for 10 years.

Vincent: Wow.

Martine: Also what is very important to say is that in Korea you are not in silence. So that during the three months also it’s intense, it is not the same intensity as on a silent retreat. So actually what you have in the system in Korea is that as you sit, I mean yes you sit a lot. You sit 10 hours a day, day after day. But every two weeks you have in a way two days off. I mean you sit four hours each two days but one day is a bath day where you wash and clean your clothes and everything and you shave your head. And then you go for walks in the mountains all with your buddies and things. And then the next day is like a ceremony where you listen to a talk. So you just have a dharma talk once every two weeks there.

And what is interesting here is that you have two things. One is that it really makes you self reliant. You don’t went to the teacher all the time or ask question all the time. They really believe in self-reliance. That it really depends on you.

The other aspect of that is because you can talk, I mean you sit 10 hours, you eat in silence and you sleep for six hours, so you don’t speak much. But you can speak which means that you can get into trouble and you have to work with it. And so you get what I’m calling a less rarified atmosphere. Yes it’s intensity but intensity which is kind of brought down again and again with working with people, talking, this happens and that happens. And so I think it’s kind of like a different type of intensity you would have. For example on those three months silent vipassana retreat.

Vincent: Got you. Okay. That’s really interesting. It’s helpful for me to hear those differences, because I’ve done more of the rarified thing myself. And then I’m wondering because this is such a… 10 years is a long period to be doing this type of training and I’m wondering what kinds of thing you did notice change, not just about yourself but also your experience of life and your experience with relationships. I know that after this time you did get married. You and Stephen got married after you left the monastery. So I’d be curious to hear just how this period, this decade of intensive practice changed your experience of things.

Martine: Well first you see, again from a Korean perspective, 10 years is nothing.

Vincent: [Laughs] Sure. Sure. Sure. From the traditional way of training.

Martine: It’s like 10 years you’re just starting there. So many years back I came back as a lay person to do some research in Korea for one of my books. And I went to see these really serious nuns. They were doing three years retreat. But again they’re really nice and friendly, etc. etc. And one of them is asking me “But what do you do now in the West?” I said “I’m teaching meditation.” And she said, “What you are teaching meditation?” And she laughed like it was kind of the craziest thing she ever heard. Me who had just meditated for 10 years I was already teaching. So it’s really different. So for me, 10 years is just like it really was my training. And so of course I could see certain things change, but I would not say that at that time they were that dramatic, because it’s very interesting when you see it in this way it’s not special. It’s really not special. And so you have this rhythm. You see it for the first two weeks of the three months are really tough, really tough, really difficult. And then you have the next two months and you’re thinking “I’m going to do this forever after. This is so fantastic.” And then the last two weeks you’re really ready to go.

So it was very interesting for me to see this rhythm. In a way often we have this idea that you just go up and up and up. But I don’t think that’s the way it works. You go up and down. You learn some things then you have something else to learn. So I would not say there was lots of major changes, which was obvious to me at the time. What was interesting is when I left.

What is interesting is when I left internal relationship is that I became a nun because I keep having romantic adventures and I did not find them very satisfactory. And I thought well if I become a nun at least I wouldn’t have to worry about that. Actually being a nun was wonderful because I could be with men and not worry about anything. Not check the vibes, send vibes, or things like that. So for 10 years it was really nice at that level. But, I think it’s very important to see that as a monastic you can go in depths in certain ways, but in other ways you’re really not dealing with certain things. And so I would say for 10 years I did not deal at all with romantic relationship. So that when I left the monastery, when I stopped being a nun, I mean I was 32 at the time. And emotionally I felt I was 18. And so it was a little extreme especially as I fell in love with Stephen and we got married and all that after being we stopped being monks and nun.

And what was interesting for me then is that these 10 years of practice then I have to put them into action. And so I came back, went to live in England with Stephen in a community. And I was in this really weird place of feeling 18 emotionally and then at the same time I was this nun who had done lots of meditation previously. And it took me six months to actually find the way to bring all of what I had cultivated in Korea to my daily life in the real world. And after that it was fine. After that what I found is even now, in a way I feel the benefit of these 10 years. What I feel is like a ground, like by sitting for 10 years in that way it really gave me a ground within myself. But then what I had to do which I did was to continue to cultivate it. And so to me that’s in a way what I’m learning. I continue to learn all the time. Because what I would call that food. To me it was kind of like getting really nurtured for 10 years and then for the last 30 years I’m just kind of applying it, contining to develop it, etc. etc.

Vincent: That’s beautiful. And it’s so interesting as you’re describing, to me you’re describing kind of two different perspectives that crop up again and again in our conversations here on Buddhist Geeks. One is maybe more the traditional perspectives of different Asian cultures. You know, you got the Tibetan retreats doing three years, three months, three weeks, three days sometimes people doing multiple of those two, three, four of those. Cave yogis spending 20-30 years in a cave going deep. There’s a rich history of very very intensive practice, life long intensive practice in these Asians traditions. And then now as Buddhism has come to the West, we have this whole other way of orienting toward practice that seems to also be emerging, which you also described of saying, Ok, you can go really really really really deep in certain ways but then you still, if you’re living in this context which is so much more complex in a certain way, the modern and post modern context that we’re in. All these things are happening. Everything is changing really quickly. We’ve got the internet. We’ve got all kinds of complex relationship, business relationships, everything like that. And then there’s this question about, well how does practice apply no matter how deep you may have gone to these other domains. And then there is a question about that, that also comes up really strongly especially in Western Buddhism.

So it’s so interesting to me. You’re kind of describing both of these and you seemed to acknowledge that there’s something important in both. But I wondered if you maybe could say a little bit more about that?

Martine: You have to see I feel that our practice is at the crossroads of the two dimensions, of the depth dimension but also the width dimension. I think it’s very important to see we are at that crossroad. If you put too much emphasis on the depth dimensions something is missing. If you put too much emphasis on the width dimension something is missing.

So what I would say is that in the depth dimension, “Why can you go in depth?” Because generally you are in very narrow circumstances. That you’ll be on a vipassana retreat for three months in silence and everything is done for you far from your little job, that you are in a Zen monastery, which will be a little more a akin to daily life but still you will have kind of a certain schedule. And you’re not working and you don’t have family and so forth, or that you are in the mountain by yourself, etc. You have narrowed. It’s very important to see. I mean the Buddha understood that if you narrow the circumstances then it’s easier to go in depthss in some ways and I would agree there.

But if you want to become a professional monastic, a professional hermit then fine. That’s what you do and there is a place for that. But most people can’t do this. And so in a way what we have to see is also the richness of the width dimension. Where as you said things are complicated, are complex. You have to earn your living. You have to take care of things. You see things in the street, etc. etc. You have responsibility, etc. etc. And so I think it’s very important to see that there are these two aspects. To me if you just have the depths then it’s limited, because you can only have the depths within these narrow circumstances.

My thing is that you hear this great teacher everybody reveres. And my question as a test is, “What would this teacher do in the middle night in the car which has broken down, their mobile phone is not working and it’s pouring with rain.” How would they be in that moment? And I travel with my teacher Master Kusan and I saw him in this condition and he really was equanimous, and I was very impressed with him. So to me what is important is we have to remember the three training of ethics, meditation and wisdom. If we put too much emphasis on meditation, meditation is only within a certain narrow circumstances. If you want to get into depths of it. But I think human beings are multi-perspectival. And so we don’t just want to confine to that intense narrow place, which is good, but a human being is multi-perspectival so there is so much we can cultivate and so we can become more of our self. Our potential can go in many different directions.

When I came back from being a nun for 10 years I didn’t know what to do with children, because I’ve never been with children for 10 years. I mean they were like kind of martians for me. So then I decided okay I don’t know how to deal with children. I’ll learn about it. So I went for a nine month course of dealing with preschool children. It was fantastic. And I meet people there I wouldn’t have met in my kind of spiritual background. So to me I think there is really something important in cultivating the width and also in term of relationship. In terms of the way we relate to the world, to others, and it’s very rich.

And so we have to be careful of that what I would call the Theravada idea. But you also find it in Zen that in the monastery the intensity is purity and outside it’s impure. So you could have a guy sitting for hours on his meditation and he could just have lots of blue movies in his head. That’s what some of the monks were telling me they were doing while they were sitting.

So I think to me it’s very much about the two, being at the crossroad, and cultivating both. The meditation, the intensity will give us what I would call stability. Stability. We need the stability. Because the problem with the width is that we can be very easily overwhelmed by the movement, by what’s going on. So we need the stability. But at the same time to enrich the stability we need the openness. And I think we get the openness from working with the width, from our working with our life in all its aspects.


Martine Batchelor

Martine Batchelor, a former Buddhist nun, studied Zen Buddhism under the guidance of Kusan Sunim and is the author of Let Go, Women in Korean Zen, Buddhism and Ecology, Principles of Zen, Meditation for Life, and The Path of Compassion: The Bodhisattva Precepts, a translation of the Chinese Brahma’s Net Sutra. She lives in France. Website: