Monday, 17 November 2014

A Review of Sam Harris’s new book "Waking Up: A guide to spirituality without religion"

A Few Words Upfront: I had Sam’s new book lounging around downlist on my Kindle when I read Chris Dierkes’s strident objection to The Great Sam in his Soul Interpreter blog. The (usually) Great NellaLou, who blogs Smiling Buddha Cabaret, sent a 'shout out' in praise of Dierkes’s rambling 3700+ word post which he titled “Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit.” I read Sam’s book, promptly, and loved it. So, now, like a Canadian Mountie, I come galloping to the rescue. Hang on, Sammy! Here I come!”
For starters, let it be known that Sam Harris, famously one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism who brought non-belief out of the shadow of Satan’s pitchfork and into prominence and respectability this century, is not a Buddhist any more than he is a follower of any other religion.

From use of the X-Ray feature in my Kindle, I find that in his book, Waking Up, Harris uses the word ‘buddhist’ 20 times. Only once does he use the word in reference to himself, which occurs in Chapter 3, thus [emphases, mine]:
If I were a Christian, I would have undoubtedly interpreted [my experience of “losing me” and no longer being a separate self] in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit. If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the Eternal Self, in which the world and all individual minds are thought to be mere modification. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness” in which all apparent things manifest as if in a dream.”

But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.
Thus, in one fell swoop the twin towers of Chris Dierkes’s argument collapses. Harris is not a Buddhist and this “his Buddhism” being Bullshit thing is all Dierkes’s Bullshit. And, thus, Dierkes’ long argument on matters dogmatic where Dierkes places in combat Dierkes’s narrow view of what Buddhism is against that which he supposes is Harris’ narrow definition of what Buddhism is is, itself, a battle of smoke against mirrors that dissolves into a calamitous pile of stinky shards of nonsense and piffle.

The truth is that Harris’ book isn’t didactic. And, it doesn’t wander into a briar patch of insolence by turning Buddhist sutras into the inerrant words of some damn floats-on-a-cloud Buddha God. Rather, the book is (mostly) a telling of Harris’s experiences with powerful mind-altering drugs and of many many years practicing meditation techniques intently. His life as someone who has had profound experiences – both blissfully good and (with drugs, not meditation) terrifyingly bad – taking his brain to extreme places acts both as a lure and a warning. But Harris doesn’t preach.

Harris doesn’t tell us what to do; he just explains his rich and oft-times wayward history as a seeker. But he does warn us that he may have been very lucky. Some of his uses of potent drugs could possibly have set him down a corridor to insanity. And while he maintained a skeptical sensibility while being an acolyte of important meditation instructors, other more-vulnerable seekers can easily be taken in my charlatans. Pretending to be a great realized master is easy. Actual enlightened masters are a rarity.

In the Soul Interpreter “…Buddhist Bullshit” essay, a seven-minute Big Think video that Harris is in is ostensibly the object of Dierkes’s derision (though, too, praise for Harris). But Dierkes knows about the new book and should know that limiting his assessment of Harris to the spare and edited words from a short video is an injustice.

Anyway. My assessment of Waking Up is that it is in most ways typical Sam Harris: Earnest and brilliant. I love to read Sam’s words (or hear him on television). He has full control over a formidable vocabulary which he uses to craft clear, well-written text.

One thing Sam does, which for me adds to his charm, but, likely, annoys most others is that, sometimes, he veers wildly off topic for what appears (to me) to be for no particular reason (other than, possibly, he’s an Aspergers geek). In a recent three-hour discussion with Cenk Uygur of the MSNBC show “The Young Turks,” Sam and Cenk got off-track when they veered into debating the not-vitally-important issue of whether or not Mormonism is more impossible to be true in its beliefs than mainstream Christianity. Cent insisted that both Mormonism and mainstream Christianity were completely – and thus, equally – impossible. Sam insisted that mathematicians would back him in his claim that the wacky add-ons that come with Mormonism gave it a boost to a yet higher level of impossibility. Yeah. OK.

In Waking Up, Harris veers off into Strange Geekyville when for what seemed for no good reason, to me, he engages in a long analysis of the recent first-person book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, showing how it is neither a proof of anything nor an honest, diligent record of whatever happened to its author, Dr. Eben Alexander.

I highly recommend Waking Up to Sam Harris lovers and anyone interested in having amazing things happen in their experience of consciousness (which would necessarily include all Progressive Buddhism readers).

Tom Armstrong is a long-time blogger on matters Buddhist and Homeless and was the founder of the Blogisattva Awards in 2006.  He lives in Sacramento, California.


  1. Hi you might like this Buddhist poem on impermanence

  2. Great post, specifically for those ones as myself who are starting to research and learn a bit more about Buddhism and Religions