Sunday, January 27, 2008

There really are aspects of Buddhism which are mythical, irrational, metaphysical, and just plain weird

I was surfing the web this afternoon when I serendipitously found this old article by John Horgan, Why I Ditched Buddhism. Below are some relevant quotes and my corresponding commentaries.
"Four years ago, I joined a Buddhist meditation class and began talking to (and reading books by) intellectuals sympathetic to Buddhism. Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth; Buddhism's moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science—or, more generally, with modern humanistic values."
This makes me wonder what kind of meditation class Horgan went to. How long did he practice Buddhism? What school of Buddhism did he get his experience from? In any case, I could relate with Horgan. One of the reasons I chose not to convert to Buddhism or label my faith as exclusively Buddhist (although agnostic Buddhist comes close) is that there really are aspects of Buddhism which are mythical, irrational, metaphysical, and just plain weird. From that perspective, Buddhism is no different than Catholicism (or any mythic religion and their metaphysics).
"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."
I admit. Reincarnation is a touchy subject with lots of metaphysical baggage. Though some adherents of Buddhism appear to worship and pray to countless buddhas, there is no "cosmic judge" in Buddhism. The notion of karma (the law of cause and effect) dispatches the need for a "cosmic judge", or even God. There is no cosmic judge in Buddhism the same way as there is no cosmic judge when it comes to natural selection in evolution. I find Horgan's view of reincarnation and karma as hogwash. Horgan's view of reincarnation and karma sounds New Agey to me.
"Much more dubious is Buddhism's clam that perceiving yourself as in some sense unreal will make you happier and more compassionate. Ideally, as the British psychologist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore writes in The Meme Machine, when you embrace your essential selflessness, "guilt, shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, and fear of failure ebb away and you become, contrary to expectation, a better neighbor." But most people are distressed by sensations of unreality, which are quite common and can be induced by drugs, fatigue, trauma, and mental illness as well as by meditation."
I'm no Buddhist scholar, but I think Horgan misses the point of Buddhism's nuanced views of reality. There are different schools of Buddhism and Horgan didn't make a distinction which school of Buddhism he is critiquing. Since he mentioned Zen, Robert Thurman and Chogyam Trungpa, I'll assume that Horgan is thinking about Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. However, in Tibetan Buddhism alone, there are four major schools each with its own interpretation of Buddhist teachings and sets of practices. Granted, Horgan was generalizing to make a point. But equating the Buddhist teaching of illusion (or maya) with mental delusion (i.e. sensations of unreality, trauma, mental illness) seems very irresponsible to me. The underlying assumption of Horgan is that, our waking state is what is acceptable as a normal experience.
"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."
There is some element of truth to this for some gurus who are deluded with their spiritual accomplishments. But this issue holds true for all religious traditions. But I didn't get the idea that "enlightenment makes you morally infallible" from the Dalai Lama or from some of the Buddhist teachers I know. I wonder what kind of Buddhist teachers Horgan hung out with.
"But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha's first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual. From this perspective, the very concept of enlightenment begins to look anti-spiritual: It suggests that life is a problem that can be solved, a cul-de-sac that can be, and should be, escaped."
While it is true (based on the folklore about the Buddha) that the path the Buddha took towards his own "enlightenment" was radical, upon "awakening" the Buddha preached about The Four Noble Truths and with it, The Eightfold Path. Buddhism is also known for its Middle Way approach.
"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'ĂȘtre 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."
I think Horgan is correct when Buddhism is viewed from its popular and mythical perspective (e.g. concepts of karma and reincarnation). However, what I think Horgan misses is that, from a developmental point of view, religion has its levels. This has been eloquently articulated by Wilber in his Beliefnet essay, Which Level of God Do You Believe In? So there is a magic Buddhism, mythic Buddhism, a mental Buddhism, etc. Same as with other religions. A mental Buddhism (or Catholicism) has no problem being reconciled with science -- science of well-being to be exact. It looks like Horgan got caught up with magic and mythic Buddhism. I'm not sure if he's even familiar with the Buddhist school of thought known as Madhyamaka, as popularized by Nagarjuna. Here's the description of Madhyamaka:
"The immediate implication of the essenceless of self is one of universal interdependence -- for even causes and conditions are empty of inherent existence or essence, as stated by Nagarjuna in the very first chapter of the Mulmadhyamakakarika. This means there is no first or ultimate cause for anything that occurs, essentially, all things are causally indeterminate, dependent on innumerable causes and conditions which are themselves dependent on innumerable causes and conditions."
Now which is more radical, science's view (as per Horgan) that "we are incidental, accidental" or the Buddhist notion of interdependence?
But Horgan is the author of the book Rational Mysticism so I give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he does know what he's talking about. Horgan's critique of Buddhism apply to all other religions at the magic and mythical level. But I think Horgan is coming from a very partial point of view.
On the other hand, like I said, I'm no Buddhist scholar so my views on Buddhism is very partial. So to all my Buddhist readers out there, I'd like to hear your response to Horgan's interpretation of Buddhism. What are the things he got right? What are the things he got wrong?
Finally, here's a Buddhist response to Horgan's critique. See the ABC WEB LOG: A Critique of Buddhism.
May all sentient beings experience peace, love, happiness, serendipity, serenity, and Divine discontent. January 23, 2008 at 09:26 AM in Religion Permalink Comments (5) TrackBack (0)

The Next Buddha is 'WE'
The next Buddha will not be a He, nor will be a She, but We. That is according to this fascinating essay by Michel Bauwens. Next Buddha Will be a Collective
"Religious and spiritual expression is always embedded in societal structures. If social structures are moving towards the form of distributed networks, what kind of evolution of spiritual expression can we expect? In this essay, we will first describe the general societal changes that we see emerging, and expect to become more prevalent in the future, then examine to what degree these changes will have an impact on individual and collective spiritual expression."Read more.
Very, very, very fluffy. January 25, 2008 at 05:15 AM in Spirituality, Web/Tech Permalink Comments (0) TrackBack (0)

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