Monday, May 22, 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'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.


At May 22, 2006, Blogger karen said...

Justin, Thank you for this post. It is very interesting reading on my day off work and I am very interested in the book "Rational Mysticism". It is a solace to me to know that there are other people out there who question the same types of things that I constantly question. Of late, I have come to the conclusion that I am a naturally curious person and that I will never find the answers to the myriad of questions that I have. But I read all of the interviews that Horgan included on his website that were from the book "Rational Mysticism" and I think I found the most common ground with Stephen Batchelor and Brother David. Most of the time, I think that the greatest acheivment we can manage is to recognize our humanity, which for me means we are accepting of our ordinariness. To be content to just be common is to me a great step towards awakening. It is also the most difficult acceptance. I am very near the verge of giving up on finding my niche in the realm of religion. Not one path answers all questions. And I agree with Horgan's experience with the Zen teacher. If you have ever spent any amount of time in a Buddhist setting such as the one he describes, you really come to loathe the trite questions such as "What is this?" I did anyway. There are so many other, more important things to do in this world before we die that it seems unbalanced to spend inordinate amounts of time pondering. I am not against meditation per say, but my practice has changed dramatically in the past year. Time alone is necessary for real sanity. But the other end of the spectrum, too much time alone, leads to self-absorption. Self-absorption in turn leads us to be a big bore to everyone, even ourselves. But again, thank you, now I have new questions to ask myself.

At May 22, 2006, Blogger Justin said...


I recommend Stephen Batchelor's book 'Buddhism Without Beliefs' if you haven't read it already.

I think that Zen has and is helping me to accept that I am ordinary and that not only is it OK to be ordinary, it can be pretty wonderful, pretty extraordinary even. What makes life satisfying and extraordinary doesn't have much to do with how 'special' society regards me or I regard myself - although I do like my loved ones think me special.

'Rational Mysticism' does look like the sort of thing I'd enjoy reading.

Maybe 'what is this?' would become annoying but I've not had that sort of 'Rinzai?' practice. Surely the aim of such questions is not pondering but an end to pondering and the beginning of just living?

I agree that Buddhism can be very inward-looking, but it does not have to be that way forever or at all.

Its important for our happiness to have a social life and the 'Engaged Buddhism' movements are also attempts to counter-balance this tendency.

Practicing 'too much' is not much of a danger in my life right now.

Perhaps you need to do something else - for a while at least - or just ease off?

At May 22, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I have eased off the formal sitting quite a bit. Also the woman who oversees the small group that I sit with told me that there was a time when she couldn't even force herself to sit. It may be a necessary step in the journey. I still spend time alone. Although it may be a walk in the woods rather than on the cushion. I just finished reading an interesting article in the latest Tricycle about the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, which rests on faith. Their beliefs are similiar to mine in that a part of me has great trust in the Universe ( for lack of a better word). This month the magazine must be dealing with faith and how it relates to Buddhism because there is another article that explains the difference between traditional Christian faith and the faith necessary to walk the Eightfold Path. The faith described is more of a trust in the Buddha's enlightment and the confidence that if we take this path, that awakening is possible for us also. I have no problem with that. I do trust that each and everyone of us can be awake. I think that I may have to come to accept though that no matter what group or organization I choose to practice with, I will find imperfections sooner or later. After all, we are all human. It doesn't dampen my desire though to seek though. And since I keep looking and keep finding that no one person or philosophy will fulfill my desire, I have to come to the conclusion that I need to stop looking for methods, people or places that will bring me home. Intellectually I know this within myself. The romantic part of me doesn't want to know that there is no Prince Charming. I think this is the most difficult thing for me to accept. That is that we are essentially alone on the journey and that what we learn, we learn through and from our own experiences.

At May 22, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

maybe it is no more than the fact that you are beginning to realise that the answers you seek cannot be found outside of yourself.

I think it might just be part of the journey.

Eventually, after you have looked for answers everywhere there is only one place left to look. Inside of yourself.

This looking inside is the hardest of all places to look.

Whilst you look outside, if you don't like what you see then it can be someone elses fault and nothing to do with you.

If you look inside and don't like what you see, what then? Denial? Acceptance?

Giving up looking for answers from any group or belief might be a step forward.

If I was looking for a particular group to have all the answers and tell me how I 'should' live my life then I could seek that forever and never be satisified.

If I don't do that but accept that then I can accept the group I attend and love them for who they are without worrying about whether they or I have the ultimate truth or the ultimate answers.

There was a time when I thought I might find some sort of guidance as to what the 'best' way to live my life was. In the end I realised that only I can decide that and I still might be wrong. I guess I grew up.

At May 22, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

"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."

Au contraire. The overwhelming majority of the scientific community considers this "chance" to be not only worth considering, but highly probable.

At May 22, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Do you have any sources I can read on this?

At May 22, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

There is a HUGE body of work written on the subject. If you like to do most of your reading online, I like to start researching new subjects on Wikipedia:

At May 22, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

The guy didn't like Buddhism because it's too much like Buddhism. To each his own, I suppose. But am I supposed to be impressed by an argument like that?

At May 22, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

Here's a little more on this. These remarks are sort of like saying you don't like quantum mechanics because there are too many weird paradoxes. Well, sorry, but quantum mechanics works and we can show it.

Similarly, Buddhism works and you don't have to wait to get to heaven to see the results. There are enough serious practitioners with genuine results to deny it and if you practice seriously with determination you will see it for yourself.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

There is a HUGE body of work written on the subject. If you like to do most of your reading online, I like to start researching new subjects on Wikipedia:

Alright, well I've done quite a bit of reading on evolution myself - I'm a big fan of the work of Richard Dawkins for example. And someone like Dawkins in particular I have no doubt would agree with the idea that the appearance of sentient life was not in any way 'inevitable'. And I agree with him as far as he goes, but I think this is only part of the picture.

I'm really talking about the viewpoint of cosmologists who find that the constants of the universe appear to be incredibly unlikely to have produced a universe which was capable of producing life.

Here's some reading for you on this subject:

At May 23, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I can see where you would think that Horgan has decided that he just didn't like the ins and outs of the Buddhist way, but I read the related material and I think it is more than that. I have been a serious seeker for a long time and I could relate to the experiences that this man had when he went looking. It's difficult to find someone, let alone an organization that feels genuine. That doesn't mean things started with those intentions, but down through the years I think things can get distorted by individual interpretations of doctrines and people frequently try to imitate their master or teacher. As I said in an earlier response, I have a natural curiosity and when I've pushed it as far as I can in one direction, and I have the feeling that there is still more to the story, I go looking again. My weakness is to want to "belong" or identify myself with a group of some kind that I find a common ground with. I still feel that in spite of what I have experienced, Buddha expressed what is closest to what I feel is true. What I must deal with, within myself, and maybe this is what Horgan needs to look at, is the fact that we are not infallible. And that we are created in such a way that no two of us will ever see any one thing in the same way. When I am in great doubt, as I am frequently, otherwise why would I even be looking, I often refer back to Krishnamurti. He was not the greatest speaker, in fact it often seems that he comes off as being angry or frustrated with his audience. But my gut tells me that he had something that he couldn't quite explain to people. One of the things that he repeatedly said was that no group, no person, no dogma will save you. You must be a light unto yourself. And for me, my experiences are bearing this out. It's almost like he is saying, stop beating your head against a brick wall. Which it sounds like Horgan is also doing. The answer is not "Out there". In fact, there is probably no answer to be found. There is only what is and our waking up to it.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

That sounds pretty much on-the-button Karen. I sit with a Soto Zen group - it's much easier to sit for long periods with a group and I enjoy the company.

But nobody tries to impose any beliefs on you or even talks about philosophical ideas much. They just arrive, have a chat if you want, sit in zazen, have another chat, and then go home.

I don't think the aim of Buddhism is to find answers to philosphical questions, but sometimes when I'm practicing the absurdity of some of those problems becomes apparent.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

"I'm really talking about the viewpoint of cosmologists who find that the constants of the universe appear to be incredibly unlikely to have produced a universe which was capable of producing life."

Seems to be related to Intelligent Design, which is really not science, but religion trying to use scientific language.

The discussion is very interesting to me and I'd love to take it further but, for the sake of the other participants on this blog, I'll resist pursuing it.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

OK, fair enough, but I will add that it has no resemblance to Intelligent design, but is better understood in terms of observer bias/biased sampling.

I'll leave it there.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger Siren said...

Well said, Karen.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

One of the things that he repeatedly said was that no group, no person, no dogma will save you. You must be a light unto yourself.

That's right, you have to see the truth for yourself. But it only makes sense that someone who's already seen the truth can help. Buddhism isn't a collection of buildings or gilded statues. It's a lineage of people who have seen the truth and helped others to do the same, going back to Buddha. I'm sorry you haven't found a teacher you can trust and work with. But keep looking and practicing.

At May 23, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"But it only makes sense that someone who's already seen the truth can help."
This is true, but it is not essential. The truth can be found without help.

At May 24, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

This is true, but it is not essential. The truth can be found without help.

Maybe so, but since the truth is so very hard to see, any sensible person will make use of whatever help they can get.

At May 25, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"Maybe so, but since the truth is so very hard to see, any sensible person will make use of whatever help they can get. "

Wholeheartedly agree.

It's just finding it...


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