Up From Buddhism, Ctd.

This post provoked an inbox deluge. It probably wasn't the best way to back into a discussion of Buddhism - and it's worth restating that I post lots of material on this blog for the purposes of stimulating conversation, rather than endorsement. A reader writes:

I found your post on Buddhism a bit odd.  The main thesis of the Slate article to which you link is that Buddhism, though it appears to be compatible with a scientific understanding of the world, is in fact no better than Catholicism, and so should be rejected.  Is this an argument that you can afford to endorse?  Is the move from Catholicism to agnosticism a move up?

In fact Horgan does not seem to be aware of the diversity of Buddhism, nor of the resources it has available to answer a critique like his.  Karma, for example, doesn't require a divine being to enforce rewards and punishments.  It's a psychological process through which our actions leave psychological traces that evolve into results that we experience.  If we harm others, we perceive others as dangerous and hostile; others perceive us the same way.  If we steal, we see the world as a harsh place in which we are poor and nothing is good enough.  The process of karma is something we can see as it unfolds in this lifetime, if we know where and how to look.

Do you think that Horgan's critique of monasticism, which you appear to endorse, applies to Catholic monasticism in the same way?  In fact, Buddhist practices, especially in the Mahayana forms of the religion, aren't aimed at escaping from the world.  The main goal of meditation is to enable us to experience everything in our lives as it is, so that we can both savor life's beauty and be present with its pain, free from evasion or self-deception.  Many people have discovered that meditation makes our lives far richer, while enabling us to bear life's inevitable disappointments.  And there is an increasing body of scientific work, carried out by researchers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson, that is bringing to light more and more aspects of how meditation works and the many benefits it can bring.

Moreover, the doctrine of no self (anatta) definitely shouldn't be dismissed as cavalierly as Horgan does.  Mental processes may well be emergent; that does not prove that there is a substance, the self, that is your essence, who you truly are.  Many of the most important thinkers of our time, including leading analytic philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Derek Parfit, psychologists such as Thomas Metzinger, and Continental philosophers too numerous to mention, have come to the conclusion that belief in a substantial self is a serious mistake.  What Buddhism does is to give us practices by which we can, after much effort over a long time, come to see the truth of this conclusion in our own experience.

Finally, what proportion of American Buddhists do you think would support torturing terror suspects?  Though I have no poll data to back me up, my personal experience with members of my spiritual community and other Buddhist friends suggests that almost all of us are cheering you on in your efforts to end torture and bring to light the truth about its perpetrators.  Buddhism and Christianity both contain some wonderful ethical teachings about nonviolence, universal love and compassion.  But given how totally some Christians seem to disregard those teachings, perhaps a dose of Buddhist ethics could help counteract some of the worst tendencies of our current culture. 

Another reader adds:

There is so much wrong with John Horgan's assertions about Buddhism, I don't even know where to begin.  I'm a practicing Zen Buddhist of the Soto sect and my reality of Buddhist practice is far removed from that of Horgan's perceptions after a few classes, books, and conversations.  If I tried to make a list of everything wrong, it would take forever, and I sure as shit am no ombudsman.  What I will say is that Zen is far from dogmatic and theistic.

Christianity has commandments, we have precepts.  We don't tell people what right and wrong  is.  We say people who commit right actions tend to have these things in common, and this is what you should aim for, knowing full well that we often fall short of it.  The most compassionate people I have ever met were Buddhist.  When I say compassionate, I don't mean coddling, either.  There were no false platitudes of love and understanding.  Meeting a Zen Buddhist, you quickly get the sense that this person makes no judgments of you whatsoever.  No matter who you are, you belong as much as the man next to you.

Buddhism doesn't promise false hope or enlightenment (any real Buddhist will tell you that Enlightenment is a load of crap, and nothing you should concern yourself with).  All Buddhism tries to do is make it so that by the end of your life, you're just a little bit better than how you start it.

For some very different perceptions of what Buddhism is, I recommend Roshi Brad Warner, author of "Hardcore Zen," and "Sit Down and Shut Up."

Yet another:

I have to confess that your post "Up From Buddhism" caught me off guard. In the past you had always struck me as a respectful Catholic, one whose only real beef was with fundamentalism. Yet, "Up From Buddhism"? Buddhism is lower than what?

To compound matters, the two writings that you quote -- one from John Horgan and the other from Daniel Florien -- betray a lamentable but all too common ignorance of Buddhism. Neither of them has come "up" from Buddhism simply because neither of them seem to have had a coherent understanding of Buddhism in the first place.

There are hundreds of schools of Buddhism. Rather than a single scripture, there are hundreds of Buddhist scriptures, with the English translation of the Flower Garland Sutra alone comprising some 1500 pages of text. Some of Asia's greatest minds of the past 2000 years have been engaged in the study and elaboration of Buddhist philosophy -- Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, Asanga, Atisha, Gorampa, Tsongkhapa, etc. Why do Horgan and Florien somehow think that have uncovered some deep and heretofore unseen flaws in Buddhism after perusing a few books and practicing a bit of meditation? This would be like going to mass a few times, reading a book or two about the pope, and assuming that Catholics never bothered to develop a coherent theological underpinning for their beliefs and practices.

For example, Horgan's assessment that Buddhism "turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood" is simply not true. His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and one of the highest ranking spiritual authorities in Tibetan Buddhism, is not a monastic; one of his sons is a monastic, but the other (an important figure himself) has just celebrated the birth of his first daughter. Furthermore, those schools of Buddhism that include the methods of tantra are full of sexual imagery and see the skillful use of sexuality and other sensual pleasures as very powerful methods for positive spiritual development when properly channeled. Even Zen Buddhism is far more earthy and engaged with the daily aspects of living than is, for example, Catholicism. Why on Earth was Horgan ignorant of this aspect of Buddhism?

I was also struck by Horgan's mention of a conversation that he had with renowned neurobiologist Francisco Varela. In that paragraph Horgan equates the conception of anatta (no-self) with simple "nonexistence". The notion of anatta as well as the related concept of shunyata do not mean that nothing exists -- why Horgan would assume that Buddhists believe this is beyond me. (Ironically, this is a regular trope of 19th-century Christian missionaries who sought to discredit the "nihilistic" religion of Buddhism.) These notions simply mean that nothing arises except in dependence on causes and conditions, and when those causes and conditions cease, so does the phenomenon. In other words, nothing has an independent, unchanging, permanent existence -- much like there is no such thing as an "automobile" apart from its constituent parts, and those parts depend on their constituent elements, etc. That doesn't mean that I can't go take a ride in my car; it just means that my car is not an independently-existing entity and, as such, it will cease when its constituent parts cease. That's why we have mechanics. So, when Horgan writes "all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does," he is quite correct, but only because "anatta" does not mean simple "nonexistence." In fact, if cognitive science has revealed that the mind is an "emergent phenomenon" that has "parts" -- that is, a phenomenon in a constant process of arising and dissolution based on causes and conditions, with no permanent, independent, indivisible and unchanging core -- that would fit the very definition of anatta.

Why Horgan would imagine himself better informed than Varela on this point strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. Perhaps Varela is wrong; but if one of the more influential neurobiologists of the past three decades makes a claim about neurobiology that strikes you as odd, it is probably best to start out with the assumption that you know less than he does, have thought it over less than he has, and that it would be wise to do a little research before dismissing his assertions.

Similarly, when Horgan writes "All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests," he is simply wrong. First, Buddhists do not believe that the universe "was created" by any higher power, much less that it was brought into existence "for our benefit." That Horgan does not seem to have understood this is strange indeed. In fact, Buddhists start out with a much simpler set of issues: Does the universe exist? Are there beings within the universe that are conscious of their own existence?  What is the nature of their existence? This strikes me as far, far less "narcissistic" than imagining that some higher being created the universe with humans at the center. In fact, it really is not very different at all from the scientific view that Horgan describes, but with the very important distinction that Buddhists consider consciousness to be an intrinsic element of the universe.

Daniel Florien fares no better in this. You cite him as writing "Doctrines of reincarnation, detachment, karma and the like have always struck me as ridiculous or wishful/dreadful thinking." The notion of "karma" is really just cause-and-effect; no phenomena emerge without causes, and no phenomena emerge without creating an effect. This strikes me as significantly less "ridiculous" than the notion that things can appear out of nowhere and for no reason. Reincarnation, I will grant, is more complicated. Yet, it certainly is not without its justification, and it is not an article of mere faith. The argument is really quite simple: if no phenomena emerge without cause, and if each effect is directly related to and resembles its immediate causes, how do we explain consciousness? Buddhist argue that each moment of consciousness can only come from a previous moment of consciousness, meaning that one's first moment of consciousness in this body must have come from a previous moment of consciousness elsewhere -- and so on, back through beginningless time. The idea that consciousness has no beginning and no end is surely no more "ridiculous" than the notion that there is an omniscient being that has no beginning and no end, or that consciousness emerges from and is reducible to an electrochemical process.

In short, these writers do not seem to have come "up from Buddhism" at all -- they never seriously got down with it in the first place.

I'm more with these readers than the piece, which I ran, as I often do, not because I agreed with it but because it was a stimulating read. I have a reverence for Buddhism, went through a serious phase of studying it a decade or so ago, and continue to find its insights spiritually valuable.