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"

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Universal Religion Part 2: The limits of universalism

Religion of course can be very divisive. As Richard Dawkins says it can inspire people to murder others because they have a barely distinguishable belief system. I don't agree with Dawkins that religion itself is a primary cause of violence, it is simply one more label by which we define tribal in-groups and out-groups - any ideology or physical difference will do just as well. In religion, emphasising commonality can bring people together, while emphasising difference has a danger of increasing hostility. On the other hand, by lumping everything together and glibly saying that it is all the same, we can muddy the water and distort the meaning of religions. And even if we can help bring religions together we do so at the risk of defining an in-group of religious people and an out-group of non-religions people.

I recently went on an interfaith peace march. In the current climate it seemed like a worthwhile cause, even if Oxford isn't exactly a religions warzone. It's hardly the Gaza Strip. I must admit that I felt a bit awkward - I've never done anything like that before, because I've never thought of myself as a religious person. But hey, Zen is technically a religion and I thought it was worth showing my face. It was good that all these different faiths were able to march in unity for the same cause and the speeches that were given, of course encouraged unity by emphasising common ground. But, I wondered at the way in which it seemed to exclude anyone who didn't have religious beliefs.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. We all believe in the same God..."
(Damn it the Hindus!)
"...We all believe in a Creator God..."
(darn! - Buddhists !)
"...We all have Religious Belief..."
(What are those Zen bastards doing here?!)
"...Well, at least we're not atheists!"

To say that 'all religions are essentially the same' is all very well, but what about polytheistic religions? What about the fact that Buddhists don't have a belief in God or in any transcendent absolute? What about religions which emphasise the ego such as Laveyan Satanism? What about non-religious 'peak experiences'. What about secular philosophies? What about ordinary life? We are always creating a perimeter somewhere. Attempting to find the unity of religion, Universalists expand the terriritory of 'the sacred' - the 'in-group' - but always leave an 'out-group'. Instead of finding unity, they are merely moving the borders of duality. Instead of dividing the world into Islam, Christianity, Buddhism etc, it divides the world into believers and non-believers, divine and profane, good and evil. How can we transcend all in-groups and out-groups and find a sense of the truly universal?

And in finding this common religious ground, there is also a strong temptation to bend the meaning of other faiths so that they fit into our conceptual (and dualistic) framework. Now I have a lot of respect for Baha'i - if I was to be a theist of any sort I'd probably be a Baha'i. Similarly, I hope my perception of Pure Land Buddhism isn't offensive to anyone. And I don't want to generalise from a single case, but I came across Baha'i online recently who was interested in learning more about Buddhism. It was no surprise that the branch they were most interested in was Pure Land. Pure Land is a populist, non-monastic strand of Buddhism aimed at ordinary lay practitioners. It is very dualistic in it's teachings, and is remarkably similar to the Abrahamic religions in form - salvation is gained not through personal practice but in faith in higher powers. Nirvana is characterised as the 'Pure Land' - almost exactly the same as the celestial realms of Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths - a great example of convergent memetic evolution methinks - Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore would be delighted.

Why Buddhism doesn't quite fit

The majority of religions teach some sort of substantialism, which is inevitably dualistic - the world is divided into mind/matter, man/God, Atman/Brahma, sacred/profane, good/evil and so forth. They posit a transcendent power which is utterly distinct from ourselves and with which possibly in moments of mystical union we somehow become merged or receive communion with. Belief in the existence of a 'cosmic other' is something that has to be maintained by faith. Mystical 'union with the absolute' (if the faith allows such a thing) is a metaphysical event - the union of the substances of the human soul and of 'God'. They posit an eternal soul substance which corresponds to our sense of continuing personal identity. They reject the message of materialism, that our identity is produced by temporary physical form which is extinguished on death. Buddhism rejects both of these views as being based on the mistake of taking a conventional truth (identity) for an ultimate one (an immortal soul or a real self somehow arising from a temporary brain state).

Buddhism differs from other religions - apart from Taoism I think - in that there is no transcendent power - the mundane and the divine are not two, mind and matter are not two. Nirvana is not a separate realm from samsara; Buddha Nature is not separate from ordinary life. Buddhism teaches sunyata, or emptiness rather than divine substantialism. Buddhism teaches, not only the unity of 'the Divine', but the unity of the Profane with the Divine; not only the unity of religion, but the unity of religion with non-religion; not only the unity of man, but the unity of man, animals and inanimate objects; even the unity of unity and non-unity. Unity itself is not separate from non-unity - form (the relative, mundane) is not different from emptiness (the ultimate or universal nature of reality).

The union of man with the transcendent or divine is not a metaphysical event in Buddhism, nor is it even the collapse of a real duality. It is just the realisation that there never was a separation between the ordinary and the universal in the first place. It is the dropping of mentally created distinctions which had been taken as real dualities. The very duality between relative (man) and ultimate (God) is a constructed convention of the human mind.

But even to create a duality between dualism and non-dualism is more dualism. Experiences of the emptiness or unity of all things, which is seen in contrast to the ordinary dualistic world are regarded in Buddhism as incomplete because a non-dualism which exists in contrast to dualism is itself a dualistic viewpoint. Genuine non-dualism includes dualism, non-dualism, sacred, profane, God and non-God - nothing is excluded. Nirvana is the opposite samsara only from the perspective of those in samsara. Nothing is excluded. The point is that distinctions are real but only conventionally real, ultimately nothing is separate. To create a distinction between the conventional and the ultimate is again, conventional truth, ultimately there is no distinction. Nothing can be stated which is not conventional truth. This is why many Buddhist teachings appear dualistic in a way similar to other religions.

The barrier between self and cosmos in Buddhism is not a real physical or metaphysical separation or wall, it is a mental fabrication maintained by ourselves. At the moment of satori we fully realise its fabricated nature, we realise that there is no barrier to cross, nothing to attain.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Deshimaru Footage: Deshimaru Chanting

Also walking around with a rather cool hat on...