Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A reply to: 'Buddhist Retreat, Why I gave up on finding my religion', By John Horgan

Original article

This article was first published in 2003. Seemingly it is John Horgan's previous dabbling with Buddhism which qualifies him to criticise what he claims it represents, but Buddhism is very difficult to understand and many spend their lives following or reacting against misunderstandings of it. While I don't claim to fully understand it myself I certainly understand it better than John Horgan, so I'm going to respond to his criticisms.

Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word.


Something appearing (naively) to be 'functionally theistic' is not the same as it being theistic. Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation not the mercy of imaginary beings. Anyway, there do appear to be some functional benefits to theism. Why else would it have evolved and become so dominant as a biological tendency and a cultural phenomenon? Those who are engaged in organised religion are happier and healthier than those who are not. Perhaps organised religion is also good for the moral welfare of nations. Buddhism, it would seem, gives the same benefits as theism without having to rely on faith to believe in the literal existence of beings which are really (at best) unknowable.

Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.


Buddhism teaches rebirth rather than reincarnation and the difference is not just in name. In Hinduist reincarnation, a permanent self ('Atman') is incarnated in body after body like someone changing their clothes. Buddha denied that such a permanent self exists. With Buddhist rebirth there is no entity to be reborn, just effects following on from causes just as in ordinary existence. Some actions lead to bad consequences and some lead to good consequences. There is no need for judgement. Admittedly traditional Buddhism does not necessarily have the same notions of what actions lead to bad conseqences as modern westerners, but that is really just a difference of detail. If someone kills an insect I don't believe that that will lead to bad consequences - except in so far as cruelty may be cause of unhappiness or unless the insect is a killer bee. Nevertheless it is true that some actions are in the interests of my future happiness and some are against the interests of my future happiness.

The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.


If the aim of meditation in Buddhism was relaxation, then Horgan might have a point. However, the aim of meditation is the elimination of suffering and there is good evidence that meditators are happier. And what worthwhile activity is free from challenges and difficulties?

The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, 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.


Anatta is not the principle that there is no self at all. Anatta is the principle that there is no unchanging, permanent self. And this is indeed borne out by neuroscience which reveals a mind that is a series of massively parallel and constantly changing processes. There is not even a single central 'place' where all our perceptions and experiences meet.

Even if you achieve a blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of your self, this perspective may not transform you into a saintly bodhisattva, brimming with love and compassion for all other creatures. Far from it—and this is where the distance between certain humanistic values and Buddhism becomes most apparent. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous.


It seems presumptious to suggest that not absolutely accepting the relatively new (by the standards of Buddhism) ethical philosophy of Humanism is unacceptable. Nevertheless, I agree with Horgan in so much as that being a senior member of the Buddhist clergy is no guarantee of compassionate behaviour. As for whether Buddhism leads to compassion on the whole, I simply don't know. But again, the final aim of Buddhism is not compassion but elimination of suffering.

What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.


I agree that some such abuses have happened. People who act like this I would suggest have an incomplete understanding of Buddhism as amoral. It is foolish to excuse such behaviour on the grounds that being 'beyond good and evil' makes you immune to moral culpability. Many sociopaths could be described as internally 'beyond good and evil' in a similar way.

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.


Lots of Zen Buddhists are agnostic. It doesn't matter what you believe in Zen with regards to metaphysical notions. I would say that when you are agnostic about your agnosticism - when you don't even believe your own thoughts, whether they be beliefs or doubts - then you are enlightened.

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. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'ĂȘtre of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.


Science has never shown that we are accidental in the way described. The chance of this universe having properties suitable for the formation of complex matter, let alone life, let alone intelligent life by chance alone is so small that it is barely worth considering. The only known explanations for this are the various sorts of Anthropic Principle or various sorts of creation myths. All of these explanations require that in some sense conscious beings are a necessary part of the universe.

The Buddhist view in my mind is quite close to the Anthropic Principle not in the sense that the universe was created for the benefit of mankind or with the purpose of creating mankind, but that what we think of a 'the universe' cannot really be separated from what we think of as 'ourselves'. Any belief in a fundamental separation would be very difficult to defend scientifically and would be correctly understood to be a metaphysical belief.

13 comments:

  1. Justin,

    I enjoy reading your posts! This is another good one that brings up a lot of things I've actually been thinking about myself.

    I'm glad you responded to the author's misunderstanding of reincarnation vs. rebirth. This may be one of the most common misconceptions about Buddhism. Especially when some sects of Buddhism come nearer to the view of reincarnation than that of rebirth, which Buddha taught.

    This was certainly one of my big questions, but I found a pretty good explanation of the differences in a book called "The Historical Buddha".

    I don't claim by any means to "get it" now,yet I do understand that there certainly is a difference and it coincides with Buddha's teaching of no permanent self.

    I do wonder, though, how a newbie such as myself had the patience to delve into these doubts a little deeper than the author who seems to have been studying this for some time.

    To me science is as much a religion as any other. There is a "faith" needed even in science and I believe that Buddhism can cohabit with most scientific viewpoints.

    Even if humankind and consciousness is a cosmic accident, what a beautiful accident it is, despite the suffering sometimes involved. Buddha pointed to a way to experience this beautiful accident sans suffering. He promised nothing less, nothing more.

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  2. I should perhaps have clarified that I don't accept the Buddhist notion of rebirth as traditionally taught (although I don't accept the notion of oblivion after death either). Even though I can accept that there are laws of cause and effect, the effects from my actions on my 'future self' are lost if there is no future self. There is no strand of identity to connect my actions with any particular future sentient being.

    I can accept however that if my real identity is reality itself then I am ('already') all beings at all places and times - its just that their sense of selfhood is cut-off from each other.

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  3. Hi, Justin

    "Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation not the mercy of imaginary beings."

    This is certainly true of Zen. But it is more true in some traditions than in others...

    "If the aim of meditation in Buddhism was relaxation, then Horgan might have a point."

    Good point!

    "would say that when you are agnostic about your agnosticism - when you don't even believe your own thoughts, whether they be beliefs or doubts - then you are enlightened."

    At the very least an 'enlightening being'.

    "Science has never shown that we are accidental in the way described."

    Absolutely agreed!

    "The chance of this universe having properties suitable for the formation of complex matter, let alone life, let alone intelligent life by chance alone is so small that it is barely worth considering. The only known explanations for this are the various sorts of Anthropic Principle or various sorts of creation myths."

    Less agreement on this. I am much more ambivalent on the 'omicron point of the anthropic universe'.

    While 'appearing' to be so, the anthropic principle is 'blinded' by the limitations of our own perception...

    Enjoyed reading - Regards

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  4. Justin,

    "Even though I can accept that there are laws of cause and effect, the effects from my actions on my 'future self' are lost if there is no future self."

    My thinking is that was the Buddha's point exactly. There is "no self" neither past, present, or future. Remove the self from the conception of rebirth and maybe we can be on our way to understanding.

    Yet the problem in my understanding is the "connection". How is the life I lead today the karmic building blocks for another's sometime in the future? In the book I mentioned they explained reincarnation as that "strand" of identity running through myriad lives. Yet rebirth was explained more as one life being the building blocks for another and another, etc.

    On top of that, Tibetan traditions in particular confuse matters further by taking rebirth so literally that they seek out reincarnations of former teachers. Either their understanding of Buddha's teachings on this are wrong or they have a deeper and more complex understanding than I do.

    "I can accept however that if my real identity is reality itself then I am ('already') all beings at all places and times - its just that their sense of selfhood is cut-off from each other."

    This line of thinking sits with me too. It seems to fit with any piece of the puzzle. Yet somehow I think that what we are discussing here is peripheral to the core of the matter.

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  5. Mary,

    I am much more ambivalent on the 'omicron point of the anthropic universe'.

    While 'appearing' to be so, the anthropic principle is 'blinded' by the limitations of our own perception...


    Not all APs insist that the universe exists in order to produce observers. What I think it boils down to is that we see what we when we look out the window, because we are observers. We do not come from nothing, but from the very universe that we are observing. And this puts limitations on what it is that we observe. For example, the universe has to be of at least a certain size in order to be consistent with the production of intelligent life.

    For me, this also raises a question mark over the idea that we and the universe exist in an absolute (objective) way, as opposed to just being, for example, a possible situation existing in hypothetical (mathematical or probable) space.

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  6. Chris,

    My thinking is that was the Buddha's point exactly. There is "no self" neither past, present, or future. Remove the self from the conception of rebirth and maybe we can be on our way to understanding.

    Yet the problem in my understanding is the "connection". How is the life I lead today the karmic building blocks for another's sometime in the future? In the book I mentioned they explained reincarnation as that "strand" of identity running through myriad lives. Yet rebirth was explained more as one life being the building blocks for another and another, etc.


    I have the same doubts about the notion of rebirth. Rebirth is explained as (more-or-less) identity-less causality between one life and another. If I perform an act, the effects ripple out across the universe at the speed of light. There are some (generally local) effects which I can predict from my actions and hence 'control'. But what agent or principle could force the consequences of one life which ends to be concentrated on a single new life? And for it to 'matter' at the self-interest level which is implied, that new life would have to be in some way 'me' in a way which other lives are not. Just because I (no matter how strongly) influence someone's life it does not make that person 'me'.

    On top of that, Tibetan traditions in particular confuse matters further by taking rebirth so literally that they seek out reincarnations of former teachers. Either their understanding of Buddha's teachings on this are wrong or they have a deeper and more complex understanding than I do.

    I think they are confused. Personally I think that the notion of literal rebirth is either an adaptation of a Hinduist myth which Gautama Buddha failed to fully penetrate or it was maintained as a 'skillful means' - a metaphor for unborn nature of existence that Buddha realised or to maintain the moral fabric of his society of monks.

    I have an idea related to the Anthropic Principle, which links back to the notion of rebirth. I'll try to get it down in my blog here in the near future.

    This line of thinking sits with me too. It seems to fit with any piece of the puzzle. Yet somehow I think that what we are discussing here is peripheral to the core of the matter.

    Yes the mystery of birth and death is right here and now. There is no other actual birth and death only ideas about birth and death.

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  7. >Buddhists rely on their own effort >for salvation not the mercy of >imaginary beings.

    "Amitabha's body is the color of gold,
    The splendor of his hallmarks has no peer.
    The light of his brow shines round a hundred worlds,
    Wide as the sea are his eyes pure and clear.
    Shining in his brilliance by transformation
    Are countless Bodhisattvas and infinite Buddhas.
    His forty-eight vows will be our liberation,
    In nine lotus-stages we reach the farthest shore.
    Homage to the Buddha of the Western Pure Land,
    Kind and Compassionate Amitabha.


    "The Buddha Amita is the Buddha of the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss. He is also known as Amitabha 'infinite light', and Amitayus 'infinite life'."

    http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/BuddhistDict/BDA.html

    Well, that is our Christ, is it not?


    -Bruce

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  8. Nothing deep here. Just wanted to say I like your blog. Thanks!

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  9. 888,

    I couldn't get your link to work.

    Yes, you were right to flag that comment. Many Buddhist do (foolishly IMHO) rely on imaginary beings to help them. But that runs contrary to what Buddha originally advised.

    Yes Amitabha is functionally more-or-less equivalent to Christ.

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  10. bill,

    drop by any time :)

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  11. The Buddha even advised against relying on him, teaching his followers to take refuge in what was being taught, rather than in the teacher.

    When the World-Honored One was about to enter parinirvana, Manjushri asked him to give a sermon once more. The World-Honored One scolded him, saying, "I have not spoken even a single word for forty-nine years."

    This is the same as the Buddha telling Shariputra to look within, as opposed to creating statues and idols of him. To me, these things are indicative of the difference between a religion and a "way".

    I think Mr. Horgen may have missed that.

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  12. We do not come from nothing, but from the very universe that we are observing. And this puts limitations on what it is that we observe."

    Of course!

    "For example, the universe has to be of at least a certain size in order to be consistent with the production of intelligent life.

    For me, this also raises a question mark over the idea that we and the universe exist in an absolute (objective) way, as opposed to just being, for example, a possible situation existing in hypothetical (mathematical or probable) space."


    True. But there is that possibility that this universe is only one of many, and that the very conditions for production of what we anthropomorphically think of as 'life' are indeed not statistical or probability-based, in that each and every 'probable' universe does 'exist'. ;-))

    Indeterminate...

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  13. But there is that possibility that this universe is only one of many,

    This is actually one well known form of the Anthropic principle.

    that each and every 'probable' universe does 'exist'.

    Yes. It may be that this universe is just one more 'possible' universe and the only thing that marks it as 'real' is that the observations are coming from itself - from sentient beings which emerge within it.

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