Monday, 10 November 2008

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'être 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.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2006.


  1. Good post, I hadn't read that article before, but I'm very glad of your comments on it. I have to say that the zen buddhism he describes isn't something I've come across. I'm sure it exists, but certainly not from any of my teachers.

    Rubbish like meditation reduces stress. Well, maybe it can, but as you say, that's not the point - it's a nice side effect if it happens.

    I'd shy away from any definition of enlightenment, no matter how gently proposed, but I definitely agree with you sentiments here.

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  3. (this reply corrects my earlier one that I deleted...why can't they let you edit your comments?)

    I remember reading this article a few months ago when I was looking to counter-arguments to Buddhism (when I was trying to talk myself out of how much Buddhism made sense to me).

    Even with what little I knew then, I knew he was way off base in some of the things he said Buddhists claim, including his definition of reincarnation.

  4. Great responses. This guy clearly doesn't understand the basics of Buddhism and without that knowledge it is hard to make a plausible critique of the belief system.

  5. First, there is no God. That’s Buddha’s view to me. Gasp, gasp. It’s really non-theistic (Non is another word for no.) because there is nothing to talk about. The functional part is the talking. The talking is the reflection of No-God and is God and Not-God. There is the side of God being the theist and the side of not-God being the agnostic or the one that thinks he's an atheist. Both are dependent on each other in conversations all the while ignoring their source. The NO. Buddha didn’t go there because he would be right or wrong depending on with whom he was speaking.
    To the comment about Buddhists relying on their own effort for salvation: Truths are imaginary beings as they are reflections of what is really being said that people don’t want to hear. The truth is prettier, but ya gotta know how to really read to see what they are saying. If a person doesn’t want to know, Buddha left them a way out by just staying with wanting to be good, or so it appears. I think Dogen questioned this set-up and taught people how to read.
    My take on rebirth is the back and forth of the one who is conscious and the one who is not conscious and there is no one from nowhere that sees this going back and forth. My 4 year olds Grandpa died this past year and my son asked me where Grandpa went. I told him he went nowhere, the same place babies come from. They come from nowhere to somewhere, but nowhere never leaves them. So I think every new insight of non-duality is a rebirth in consciousness.
    Buddhist meditation is about seeing that I’m in fact all alone, cut off from everything and my thinking reflects this. It’s all about the sitting because it’s not about the sitting. "Just" signifies nothing else. Without the word sitting there would be no sitting, only just as it is. The thinking! This actually became more clear by reading one of your other blog posts.
    The Annata thing. Nothing does not change. Since there really is no not, then there is nothing to change. That’s why we can say that everything changes, on the functional side again.
    With this being said so far, there really is no right or wrong. There are just people who have wrong views about things fighting each other about who’s right. This is why I want to bring the “Noble” back into the Four Noble Truths. The class designation has all but disappeared and needs to be looked at again.
    Incidentally, the first sentence of the last quote you used of Horgan’s describes the attitude of the Nobleman who wished to be good.
    The universe is nothing but what I think is quite different that saying that the universe is what I think about myself. And if I am not, then the universe is not also. There is no not.
    I could be just full of…
    I know you can say this better that me. I really like your blogs, thanks.

  6. Bully? Ttrungpa Rinpoche might've drunk a lot, he might have been promiscuous (if you overlook the fact that he was half-paralyzed)...but bully? I've never heard that one, and I've heard all the stories. All of 'em, egad, I grew up in the community. He was also an amazing teacher, an inspiration to nearly everyone he met, a hardcore meditator and eloquent poet. He never claimed to be a saint--or a God--wrong religion, as you mention (Buddhism ain't theistic).

  7. The closest thing to reincarnation that I will buy is me being a reincarnation of my dad.

    No, not in some mystical sense, but as I grow older it sometimes startles me how sometimes when I talk or laugh it's like I am hearing my dad's voice. Or I see him in the little things I do without thinking about it... all his subtle mannerisms he has I have copied. They aren't necessarily good or bad, they are just him.

    I swore when I was a teenager I would never be like him (he was a great single parent, but he did have his negative side as well). Yet I find it very humbling to see how even when I tried so hard to 'be me' I still can see his great influence upon my life.

    If that's reincarnation, I'll buy it.

  8. I don't believe in reincarnation and I don't believe the traditional, literal description of rebirth. However, my understanding has shifted. Now, for me the objection is not that I can't see how rebirth can happen, but that (even though we appear to be separate, continuous beings) I can't see anything to limit my rebirth to a single being at the end of my life. What could shield the universe from my being reborn across it as every event and conscious moment in every direction and from me being reborn as every event and conscious moment from every direction?

    Nothing, I suspect. The idea that this is not happening is an illusion related to restricted access to usable information among other things.

    Even this is just metaphorical.

  9. I think, maybe, metaphor is your key word there.
    Could people learn to think on the other axis of metonymy and things would be more clear to them instead of wanting someone who knows to tell them?
    The only one who knows what a metaphor really stands for is the person that said it. It puts that person in quite a position.
    Maybe that's the point Ttrungpa's life is making. If he spoke in metaphors, then it ends with him. If he didn't, then it continues. That's our choice, I guess.

  10. .

    Thanks for your insightful responses to these "opinions" and to the above comments from others. Yes, rebirth is not reincarnation. No one solid self moves, just tendencies that desire, grasp and push away. When it/they pop up in an organism, the parents feed it, name it and it thinks so. For a while it feels like "me".

    My first teacher was CTR in 1973. He was no bully. He saved my life just by trusting me. When I came near him my mind would come to a halt and was like space. Talk as you will, realization is not an event..and Buddhism vanishes like a stick in a fire.


  11. Great article, Justin. I do sometimes worry as we say "Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation..." Unfortunately that cuts out Shinran and Honen and the whole of Pure Land Buddhism, which explicitly deny the efficacy of 'own effort' (Jap. jiriki) to achieve awakening.

    Perhaps we should be more explicit that we are ignoring them and speaking of "Buddhists, as they generally occur in the West and having definite historical roots in Asia..."

  12. Good point Justin W. And I think I'm revealing my own biases there, but I don't want to alienate or misrepresent Pure Land Buddhists.

    Maybe instead I should say "The Buddha taught that people should rely on their own efforts for salvation". That's pretty indisputable.

  13. Some comments on Buddhism and the Anthropic Principle:

  14. Interesting link Brian - thank you.

    Personally it's a little on the metaphysical/ontological/speculative side for me.

    It makes me think things like: if an observer is needed for something to exist as more than a possibility, then in what sense did the original quantum fluctuation exist? or the 'limitless Void ' or the superposition of the 'multiverse'? There seems to be a contradiction between saying on the one hand that mind and matter are interdependent and on the other describing things in objective/ontological terms.

    And some of the Buddhist ideas in there are very speculative and probably Hindu influenced, for example the idea of kamadhatu and this statement: "[Some!] Buddhist philosophers claim that minds are primordial and exist before entering their physical environment." As one of my online Theravada friends would say: Buddha didn't teach like this.

    But it's helpful to remind ourselves that there are parallels between 'new physics' and eastern thought.