Monday, September 10, 2007

Hitchens - Zen is not Great?

I've been reading Christopher Hitchens' book "God is not Great" and as a scientist and practitioner of Zen I hope the poor scholarship displayed in the following passage isn't throughout the book:

"Although many Buddhists now regret that deplorable attempt to prove their own superiority, no Buddhist since then has been able to demonstrate that Buddhism was wrong in its own terms. A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism. Those who become bored by conventional "Bible" religions, and seek "enlightenment" by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals." - Christopher Hitchens "God is not Great"

The "deplorable attempt" that he refers to is the involvement of the Buddhists in the Japanese imperialism and genocide during WWII. Indeed, this was black mark in the history of Buddhism - but not really surprising, since Buddhism is a human activity, it is prone to human failings. The same could be said of science itself. Science has been used for immoral acts and numerous unfortunate accidents have resulted from scientific efforts. Some might try to condemn science as an enterprise but most know better.

Hitchens, however, is smart enough to know that his argument would be weak if he couldn't emphasize that "no Buddhist since has been able to demonstrate that Buddhism was wrong on its own terms." I wonder how he knows this to be true? First, there is the problem of knowing what all Buddhists have demonstrated in their lifetimes - I'd say this is unknowable. Perhaps he means he personally hasn't encountered any evidence that a Buddhist has so demonstrated this. A minor point, yes, but Hitchens seems to like minor points. Second, there is the problem of saying that Buddhism has a single set of terms. In fact, there is probably more variation in the "terms" of the various Buddhists lineages than in the various branches of Christianity. But let's assume he's referring to the entire body - to the collective set of all values held by all Buddhists.

If this were the case how could a Buddhist NOT easily demonstrate that the actions of those Buddhists during WWII in Japan were contrary to the teachings of the Buddha? Here's a simple story about Bodhidharma (an Indian monk and meditation master who came to China in 520CE) which illustrates the case simply.

Legend has it that once he met with Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty who felt very proud of himself for building Buddhist temples. The Emperor asked Bodhidharma what merit he had gained from such endeavors. Bodhidharma replied: 'No merit at all'. He explained that this was because the Emperor's motives were impure. The astounded Emperor then asked what true merit was. Bodhidharma answered: 'It is pure knowing, wonderful and perfect. Its essence is emptiness. One cannot gain such merit by worldly means'.

Clearly Japan during WWII was like the Emperor here - seeking personal gain. This isn't Buddhism, nor is it surprising. Practicing Buddhism doesn't make one infallible. I can vouch for that!

Let's move on to other portions of his statement - A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism.

Wow! So very very wrong. Hitchens seems to know a lot about the religions he writes about. But if I were to grade this statement on its accuracy in depicting Buddhism I'd give Chris an F. First, Buddhism (and I'll admit that I mean ZEN when I say Buddhism), is not a faith. Faith is a loaded term. Most people take it to mean (in this context) something that people believe in. No one would call science a 'faith' despite the fact that many scientists believe the scientific method is a damn good method to figure things out. For this same reason Buddhists wouldn't call Zen a faith. It has NO beliefs. It does have a method though - which is essentially to be very careful and observant, to pay very close attention to everything, to question everything, to even question the very thoughts your mind keeps spitting out. So, it's not a faith.

"Despises the mind and the free individual" is another whopper. Buddhism despises nothing. He seems to be exaggerating the emphasis that Zen puts on distancing oneself from one's own mind. Zen doesn't despise the mind, nor does it distrust it or dislike it etc. There is an emphasis on not relying too heavily on rationality and logic. This is true. Zen is in this respect most useful for people who have overly powerful and active minds. It helps them redirect their focus from their thoughts to the world and people around them. Zen is basically saying "While thinking your thoughts, don't get so wrapped up that you forget to pay attention to the world." In this respect Zen is helpful also in getting people to stop caring so damn much about what they think. Every war was started by someone who thought they were doing the right thing for themselves/ their people. Every angry thought is the result of someone thinking they "are right, damnit!"

And where did Hitchens get the idea that Zen despises the "free individual"? How can that be true if the following is also true:

The Buddha said, "Don't believe me, don't believe anybody, don't accept anything based on tradition. Don't believe anything based on the fact that your community believes this or your country believes this or the people that you are around believe this," another version of Buddha's words: "Do not believe in me; do not believe my teaching. You hear, listen to my talk, and test it by yourself. Appeal to your own experience. And if you find it true, accept it. Don't believe in me just because I have a little more experience than you. Don't believe what I say to you for that reason. Believe in yourself!" and also: Buddha himself said, “ Belief is not important. Don’t believe what I say just because I said it.” These were his dying words.

Indeed there are always people who don't want to take responsibility for being a free individual. These people want to hand responsibility of their actions over to some authority - this has happened, obviously, even inside various Buddhist groups. (This is why I think the best way to be Buddhist is to not be part of any group!)

Hitchens also said Buddhism preaches submission and resignation. I suppose one might say that sitting quietly for a designated period everyday, observing ones thoughts, and denying one's desire to stimulate the mind with entertainment is a form of submission. But I wouldn't go so far as to call it resignation. Buddhism is a practice of action. It is not based on words or ideas - its emphasis is on reality and living one's life. Action - doing things, is what Zen is about. Zen prepares one to do what needs doing - it is not a form of escape or a killer of motivation. The submission of the ego to the practice of Zen is no different than the submission of the ego to the practice of Art or Science - it is a way of saying to your ego "I know you want coffee right now, but this moment of silence is important, pay attention damnit!"

And another bit of poor scholarship on Hitchens part: Buddhism "regards life as a poor and transient thing." Yes, it is true that Buddhism emphasizes the temporary nature of life but never does it consider it "poor"!!! Egad, this is about as opposite to the teachings of Buddha as one can get! Life is short but sweet - this is the viewpoint of Buddhists. The logic is simple. If one fails to realize the temporary nature of things two bad things happen (1) one is surprised when the thing dies/goes away (2) one fails to appreciate the thing when it's around. Buddhists cherish every moment of life - even those moments when one is cleaning the catbox or doing the taxes. Perhaps Buddhists are less shocked when change happens because they remind themselves to expect this change constantly, but they are probably no less saddened by the loss of a loved one. Buddhism is realistic. Any viewpoint that doesn't consider life to be transient is not realistic. Buddhism is not pessimistic. It doesn't consider life to be unfortunate or poor. (Buddha's emphasis on suffering was merely his realization that people's selfishness often leads to unhappiness ). Again, Hitchens disappoints - I thought his work was well researched.

Saying Buddhism is "ill-equipped for self-criticism" is another whopper. First, it's the only "religion" I know of that is based on the idea of "question everything, including your own thoughts"- so at its very foundation is the core value of self-criticism. Perhaps Hitchens is talking about a lack of high-ranking monks publicly apologizing for the WWII problem. I can't speak to this other than to say that most Buddhists don't feel they are part of an organization that tells them what to think. Everyone is responsible for their own thoughts, therefore no Buddhist today is responsible for what Buddhists in WWII did - at least no more so than any other person is.

And if Hitchens wants to hear a Zen Priest be critical of Buddhism, he needn't look far - just google Brad Warner!!

I won't go into great detail on the remainder of Hitchens quote other than to say that the goal of Soto Zen is awareness of the present. Not escape into some oblivion of Nirvana. Yes, there are plenty of people trying to sell "enlightenment" in one form or another, and plenty of them call themselves Buddhists, but this isn't the Buddhism I practice.

In short, I'd say Hitchens did some piss-poor research on this chapter. There are lots of foolish people and plenty of foolish eastern cults and religions, but if Hitchens actually knew what Zen was about, I'd think he'd have to admit he got quite a bit wrong with this final statement.

Albert Einstein got it right:

"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity"


At September 11, 2007, Blogger Sho-Nin Justin said...

A thoughtful and well-written posting. Thank you 'me'.

Buddhism is very difficult to understand, perhaps Zen in particular. There are plenty of people who love the sound of their own opinions and love their beliefs a little too much, who have an opinion on this but who have little theorietical understanding and no real understanding.

Susan Blackmore (a scientific rationalist who has worked with Richard Dawkins) has more value because she actually practices Zen.

I have found two ways to seek answers and, oddly enough, they seem to converge.

The first is the practice of Zen. I was initially attracted to Zen because it has very little religious trapping. The whole point of it (although in the end, of course, there is no point) is to wake up and see through the illusion to how things are. For that purpose it does not matter whether you read scriptures, partake in rituals, or study doctrines, although these things can sometimes help. The prerequisites are great doubt and great determination (Batchelor 1990, Crook 1991). ...

The second is the practice of science. This requires the same doubt and determination, although it is trained in a completely different way. Unlike the memeplexes of religion, the memeplex of science includes methods for systematically doubting and testing its own claims (Blackmore 1999). Unlike most religions, yet like Zen practice, it encourages open-minded search for the truth about how things are, and a willingness to change one’s mind in the face of the evidence.

At September 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does it matter what people say about Zen? The point about it is that you can discover the truths for yourself by doing it. That is also really the easiest way to 'understand' Zen.

It does not require a suspension of critical facilities or a belief in anything.

The fact that many choose to do that is entirely besides the point.

I like to believe that my car uses fairy magic to keep it going. I don't then have to get my hands dirty if a fairy dies and therefore part of the car stops working I just call the fairy doctor to fix it at great cost.

It's a lot easier to believe...

At September 12, 2007, Blogger Jinzang said...

Hitchens is a good writer, a good stylist, I mean, who thinks that because he can say something well, that makes it so. But truth comes from experience and not from clouds of verbiage.

I'm glad Susan Blackmore likes Zen (even if she doesn't like homeopathy) but her understanding of it always struck me as being a little off the mark. I think brainy people have a hard time when they come to Zen, because they're always trying to put it in a conceptual box, while Zen is always trying to escape it.

At September 13, 2007, Blogger me said...

Having read more I realize that Hitchens point was, of course, not to describe religions so much as to emphasize only those negative features they tend to share.

His comments on Buddhism, although false in detail, were correct from the view that, indeed, Buddhism has not shown itself immune to the problems that all religions seem to suffer from. We can say "those are not examples of TRUE Buddhism," but so can all the Muslims, Christians, etc. say the same for their own religions. This doesn't change the fact that these religions have played a role in increasing human suffering.

The point could be made, but Hitchens had no interest in doing so, that some religions are more likely to fail in this regard than others. And I would argue, based on the points I raised in this post, that Buddhism, like science, has built-in self correction mechanisms to help prevent / minimize such failings.

"Do not follow leaders, watch your parking meters..."

At April 17, 2013, Blogger Ar-Man said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At April 17, 2013, Blogger Ar-Man said...

Thank you for your entry.
Hitchens did a great analysis regarding the 3 Abrahamic religions, but every time that I heard him talking about Buddhism, it was a superficial nonsense.
I think he was just not humble enough to not touch subjects that he's not well informed on.
These are the 2 major points that he's totally ignorant about.

1. Buddhism is one of the first philosophical thought schools who introduced the scientific enquiry based on facts and experimentation.

2. Buddhism(also like many other oriental traditions) are preaching to embrace the present moment, and not lose yourself in the past nor the future, so it's pretty impossible to find someone who will call himself a buddhist and who'll have jihadist behavior, or someone who'll not cherish every moment of his unique and valuable life.


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