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.