Sunday, 4 December 2011

Why I Don't Dig Buddhism

These are my comments on "Why I Don't Dig Buddhism" posted by John Horgan on Scientific American.

I’ve been brooding over Buddhism lately, for several reasons. First, I read that Steve Jobs was a long-time dabbler in Buddhism and was even married in a Buddhist ceremony. Second, a new documentary, Crazy Wisdom, celebrates the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who helped popularize Tibetan Buddhism here in the U.S. in the 1970s. Third, Slate magazine, for some reason, just re-published a critique of Buddhism that I wrote eight years ago, and once again Buddhists are berating me for my ignorance about their religion.
Pop: As a Buddhist I can tell, from just this that any supposed study you have made of Buddhism must have been incredibly shallow. I will elucidate as I go on.
I’m a sucker for punishment, so I thought I’d try to explain, once again, my misgivings about Buddhism, in this heavily revised and updated version of my Slate essay (which was put through an especially tortuous editing process). Here it is:In 1999, a flier appeared in my mailbox announcing that a local Japanese-American woman would soon start teaching Zen at my hometown library. If I believed in synchronicity, this flier’s arrival would have seemed a clear case of it. I had just begun researching a book on science and mysticism, and I had decided that for the book’s purposes—and my own well-being—I needed a spiritual practice.Superficially, Buddhism seemed more compatible than any other religion with my skeptical, science-oriented outlook. The Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman once told me that Buddhism is less a religion than a method for fulfilling human potential, a method as empirical in its way as science. Don’t take my word for anything, Buddha supposedly said, just follow this path and discover the truth for yourself.
POP: As any Christian scholar might tell you your above words indicate one thing quite clearly: you are a very typical 70’s style “New Age Christian”. Your values and world view are Christian yet you feel that you need to cherry pick what suits you so that you might convince yourself that you are following your spiritual path for good reasons defined in every way by you. Very self deluding.
So I started attending meditation sessions in the basement of my town’s library, a castle overlooking the Hudson and finally the chapel of a Catholic monastery (where some of my classmates were nuns, who seemed much nicer than the ones I remember from my youth). I learned more about Buddhism by reading books and articles, attending lectures and conferences and, most of all, talking to lots of Buddhists, some famous, even infamous, others just ordinary folk trying to get by.
POP:  For a start, you can not learn any “Buddhism” from books – you can only learn about people’s perceptions of Buddhism. Even reading the whole of the foundation doctrine documents will not teach you anything about what Buddhism is. Even asking Buddhists is likely to take you a long way from the path because as Buddha might have explained to you, had he had the time or inclination, people vary enormously in their ability to understand the way. Hence Buddha’s teachings, like those of other great leaders like Jesus, were aimed at different levels of education, intellect, tenacity, age, background etc. For example, the 8-fold path is not so easy to understand even if you read many explanations because it is not made, like the 10 commandments, of negatives – of “don’t”s – it is made of positives: “do”s. This was for so very many of those who came to listen to him just far too hard. He simplified things for those: the rules of Śīla which are all “don’t”s.
Eventually, I stopped attending my Zen sessions (for reasons that I describe in detail elsewhere). One problem was that meditation never really tamed my monkey mind. During my last class, I fixated on a classmate who kept craning his neck and grunting and asking our teacher unbearably pretentious questions. I loathed him and loathed myself for loathing him, and finally I thought: What am I doing here? By that time, I also had serious intellectual qualms about Buddhism. I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than Catholicism, my childhood faith.
POP: Again, this proves a point made above – you never left the path of Christianity. You were trying to prove to yourself that your acceptance of your true faith was based on the thing that you have come to doubtingly believe should be the basis: rationality. This screams to me your Catholic upbringing – it’s is archetypical of a Catholic. You were fooling yourself – classic cognitive dissonance – on the one hand you wanted to keep the faith that the world around you was telling you was flawed and therefore not worth following while on the other you wanted to prove to yourself that whatever you chose based on this imposed necessity for rationality would be sound in your own judgment – in other words you were pretending to yourself that you might find the “truth” knowing full well that the only truth you would ever accept would be the one you have locked away in your heart so that your very confused mind would not tear it apart. It’s call “conflicted”.
One of Buddhism’s biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn’t invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.
POP: Here is now the proof of what I have said above. You see you overly attack the thing you have been led to believe is the basis for why you should abandon your Christian faith – you call it clap-trap (I am not in any way saying it is or is not clap-trap). This is the crux of the matter. You desperately want your Catholic faith but you, being the coward you are (and not different to many), will not allow yourself to defend your faith because you need it to be “rational” and if it is based on “God” then it can’t be rational. Here’s some news for you from a student of ancient Hebrew – the “God” you have painted a face on (thus breaking the second Commandment) is not the “God” that Moses taught about. So, instead of trying to understand the “clap-trap” you had been led by the very same mixed-up popular (ie lowest common denominator) masses to reject (being the fickle, lazy coward you are), you instead, and of very clear purpose, went out to shoot down every other version of “God” you could find. What’s more, your investigations there were even more shallow than the investigations you made of your own faith’s foundations. Then you have the gall to try and lead your readers to believe that you have actually studied! What a totally dishonest spiritual investigator you are – and I mean that with all the love a Christian might offer.
Those who emphasize Buddhism’s compatibility with science usually downplay or disavow its supernatural elements (and even the Dalai Lama has doubts about reincarnation, a philosopher who discussed the issue with him once told me).
POP: Again, this is so very shallow. You have defined Buddhism by your own need to be something really simple so that you can hang your tortured spiritual need on it. There’s no investigation of what the facets of Buddhism might be, it’s history, the various levels of practice based on such obvious factors as education, demographics, proximity to source doctrine, nature of Buddhist doctrinal establishment (the list is long).

You are demanding that “the thing that people follow for a multitude of reasons starting with upbringing” MUST be rational IN YOUR JUDGEMENT before you can accept it as worthy of being followed by you. Sir, you will never satisfy this need. Consider this simple truth – for all of religions it is the same – to find “salvation”, though in all followings it is a path of unending hard work, it is but like stepping through a door to start. It is that simple. You sir are standing outside in the corridor having left the room of your own faith because YOU allowed others to convince you it was unworthy of a “rational” being and are now kicking at various doors and deciding they too are flawed based on the very reasons you allowed yourself to believe your own is flawed. Shallow. Cowardly. LAZY.
The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, when I interviewed him, compared meditation to a scientific instrument such as a microscope or telescope, through which you can glimpse spiritual truth. This analogy is bogus. Anyone can peer through a telescope and see the moons of Jupiter, or squint through a microscope and see cells divide. But ask 10 meditators what they see, feel or learn and you will get 10 different answers.
POP: As you will get 10 different answers to anything you ask of 10 people – consider the old story of the blind men and the elephant. If you are asking others what the elephant looks like you are not experiencing the elephant for yourself.
The Buddha and all of his most advanced followers ever since his time will tell you that for the most of us meditation is a goal to try and achieve but we will never achieve it – the best we might do is give opportunity for our children to learn it – maybe one will have what is necessary to become someone who gains depth in this direction but for the most of us the practice is just way way too hard and too demanding of our time and frankly, because we do not get wiz-bang instant gratification from our attempts, very unlikely to survive many attempts. This is as true for those in Buddhist countries as it is for us except at least there the average lay person knows that there is merit in the attempt just as there is merit in the attempt to be a good Christian in our cultures.
Research on meditation (which I reviewed in my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, and which is usually carried out by proponents, such as psychologist Richard Davidson) suggests how variable its effects can be. Meditation reportedly reduces stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, too. Some studies indicate that meditation makes you hyper-sensitive to external stimuli; others reveal the opposite effect. Brain scans do not yield consistent results, either. For every report of heightened neural activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the left parietal lobe, there exists a contrary result.Moreover, those fortunate souls who achieve deep mystical states—through meditation or other means—may come away convinced of very different truths. Shortly before his death in 2001, the Buddhist neuroscientist Francisco Varela (a friend of Trungpa) told me that a near-death experience had showed him that mind rather than matter constitutes the deepest level of reality and is in some sense eternal. Other Buddhists, such as the psychologist Susan Blackmore, are strict materialists, who deny that mind can exist independently of matter.
POP: And here, you look for the one seed of Buddhism that you think might be worthy of your conflicted Catholic acceptance and based not on personal experience but cherry picked “data” you finally give Buddhism the coup de grâce. Yes you are the wise Soldier of Christ decked out in your sword of the cross and your white robe. Oh please (Catholic) God, see what I have done in your name – I have slain the heathen – please welcome me back to the fold. Son, the door has been ever open to you.
Blackmore looks favorably, however, upon the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. “Where, exactly, is your self?” Buddha asked. “Of what components and properties does your self consist?” Since no answer to these questions suffices, the self must be in some sense illusory. Meme theory, Blackmore contends in The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 2000), leads to the same conclusion; if you pluck all the memes out of a mind, you will have nothing left. She even rejects the concept of free will, holding that there is no self to act freely.Actually, modern science—and meditative introspection—have merely discovered that the self is an emergent phenomenon, difficult to explain in terms of its parts. The world abounds in emergent phenomena. The school where I teach can’t be defined in strictly reductionist terms either. You can’t point to a person or classroom or lab and say, “Here is Stevens Institute.” But does that mean my school doesn’t exist?
POP: This is worthy of little comment other than it might be paraphrased as “look, I really did research this” and “look, gee, this is as confusing to me as quantum physics so just in case I might look like a fool I better give it a few words”
I snip out the lashon hara that follows and jump to the final nasty little dishonesty of yours:
[snipped]I have one final misgiving about Buddhism—or rather, about Buddha himself. His path to enlightenment began with his abandonment of his wife and child. Even today, Tibetan Buddhism—again, like Catholicism—upholds male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. To me, “spiritual” means life-embracing, and so a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexual love and parenthood is not spiritual but anti-spiritual.
POP: And here we are finally, you not only have kicked in the Buddhist door of your corridor trap and put your foe to the sword but now you have to claim the moral high ground and twist the knife. Sir you are a cad of the lowest form. Your dishonesty and your Christian warrior bravado are not worthy of a true Christian. You break so many commandments of both Moses and Jesus here that I do not know where to begin. Judge not lest ye yourself be Judged.
Buddha was a man and all men are flawed. When you have walked in other’s shoes then you have the opportunity for compassion not the right to judge.
The rest has also been snipped – it is of so little worth except for the last quote:
“If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.”

The proof of my assertions rings so clearly here – you, the warrior of Christ did meet Buddha on the road and you duly slew him.
Sir, the man you met on the road was the last vestige of goodness that might have been in you – you did slay the child that might have found the wonder of something beautiful.
I doubt that you will ever be spiritually happy – you will hang about outside the door of your own besmeared faith refusing to go in and you will find fault in all other men’s faiths for this reason or that. There is a saying that “you can not find the bull riding on its back” but you my dear friend have not only leapt off the bull but have castrated it and yourself and then slain the bull and flung its entrails on every path leading to the scene of your crime.
I’d recite for you some Buddhist doctrine but what would be the point?
The Peak Oil Poet

(try this: breaking three breaks one and two)


  1. Thank you for a well written and thoughtful response to John Horgan's article. I chuckled at John's argument. Your response mirrored what I would like to responded back to John. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Take care.

  2. Thanks Cuong Le. It is appreciated.


  3. POP, your response made me laugh. Out loud. Your ad hominems were quite witty, although I feel a little guilty finding them so entertaining.

    Your hallway/door analogy was interesting and provocative.

    In my reading of your post, calling JH a Catholic is a bit of a straw-man, as he claims the opposite, although I appreciate that you're looking at the foundations of his spiritual and religious perspective. I'll reflect on this myself, having been brought up as a Christian, but now an atheist. The "problem" is that although I can embrace some sort of spiritual practice, some path to betterment and deeper understanding, I don't imagine I'll ever believe in God. So your points resonate more on a psychlogical level with me.

    Anyway, I've added you to my feeds list. Keep the passion

  4. :-)

    Thanks Nathan.

    as for God - my take is simple - anyone who "believes in God" not only proves him/herself a fool (or aberrant or was cruelly indoctrinated as a child) but also breaks the first two Commandments.

    Anyone who says "i don't believe in God" also breaks those commandments plus the third.

    Belief in Jesus is only a requisite for Christianity and it's kind of like a secret club thing - to gain entry to the club you have to use the formula. Of course that means statements about belief.

    Unfortunately this aspect of Christianity has not only destroyed much of the goodness of Christianity but has also seeped into and fouled both Judaism and Islam.

    Similar damage has been done to Buddhism by Hinduism.

    In the end the true spirituality comes from being completely open to the universe.

    Might as well - can't hide from it. That's what Aquinas meant when he said that the beginning of wisdom was fear of the Lord.


  5. All I see is violently insulting a person for writing an article voicing his disagreements with an ideology that you happen to like.

    1. or an evil old coot making fun of another idiot

      like or not like, believe or not believe, it's something i know

      so i can have fun poking holes in bigoted shallow foolishness that tries to make a lop-sided claim to superiority based on ignorance and not enlightenment


  6. Good response. Most of the newbies try to understand Buddhism through some book. For once they should learn Pali and translate the Theravada Thipitaka and try to analyze the facts in their language. At least if they read the English version of Tripitaka. They would find all the answers then. Let's just hope the writer, John Horgan have the brains to understand your arguments.

    1. actually, i don't think you can learn Buddhism from any book though all learning is useful

      learning Buddhism is like learning to ride a bicycle - you have to jump on and do it

      even then, being "Buddhist" is like being "Christian" - mostly you can't chose it - you are born into it or you are not

      most Buddhists can't tell you the 8-fold path just as most Christians can't tell you the 10 Commandments (though most Buddhists can tell you sīla once prompted)

      no system speaks ultimate truth

      ultimate truth is bigger than we tiny creatures living in the blink of an eye


  7. Where's the compassion for John? I wonder if he heard you.


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