Thursday, November 19, 2009

The skeptical Buddhist - enlightenment and rationality

Let me start by saying that I don't, in any way, intend this to be an apology for Buddhism.
However, I do have a soft spot for Buddhism in general. And I have a much better grasp of the principles of Buddhism than I do of any other religion, so it makes sense that I use Buddhism as a kind of case study.

Buddhism's public image is of a rational, moral, and open system of thought, the principle aim of which is to eliminate the suffering of sentient beings. And so we have the Dalai Lama engaging with neuroscientists, cosmologists, and high ranking political figures. We have FGS building temples across the globe (including a beautiful example here in South Africa). We have people like Guy Newland publishing books that are very much what we expect from philosophy, not religion. And we have a practice, namely meditation (particularly in it's secular forms), that seems to be pretty beneficial, and not require very much from us in the way of belief.

It looks to have all the benefits of religion - moral teachings, consolation, community etc. while having none of the downsides of the kind of religious systems we know here in the West. A lot of Westerners are attracted to Buddhism because of this image.

And, at it's best Buddhism is just like this.

The problem is, though, Buddhism at it's best seems to only actually exists in books.

By this I mean two things.

On the one hand, if one reads Stephen Batchelor (which I highly recommend), or D.T. Suzuki's books on Buddhism, one necessarily gets a lopsided view of what Buddhism is about, you're going to be getting large doses of Buddhist philosophy. And like philosophy as we understand it in the West, the philosophical practices within Buddhism are - for the most part - rational. But this philosophical aspect of Buddhism is only a tiny part of it, and anyone who shows up at a Dharma centre looking for long stretches of meditation punctuated by Socratic dialog is going to be sorely disappointed. Much of the day to day life of Buddhists are characterised by the same kind of supernatural woowoo rituals that characterise any other religious tradition. I know when I heard of one of my Buddhist friends burning little bits of paper every morning to "clear his Karma" (or something), I was horrified - this could not be a part of a rational religion.

On the other hand, Buddhists themselves tend to be exactly the same kind of petty, politicking, perverted, impolite people as we all are. Anyone who has spent any time with anyone involved in a Sangha (Buddhist community) of more than one person knows this. And this is what we should all expect, given the fact that they're just human. And, in fact, Buddhists themselves never really make the claim that they're perfect. It's just, once again, the "public image" that sets up this expectation. Most practicing Buddhists will admit their fallibility and imperfections readily and, usually, with a cheerfulness that's unthinkable for a Christian.

The first point is relatively benign, we can certainly live with it - at least, I could, especially if it was a genuine path to world peace, a healthy environment, and a three day work week. For these things I would happily spend my life prostrating and burning paper in front of Statues.

The second point is more problematic.

By and large, one of the big motivations for new Buddhists to practice is the "enlightenment" idea. Now, if any one's interested, I can go into this a little deeper in some posts later on, but from the outsider's perspective, "enlightenment" tends to look like something very mystical, and very important. Something very different from our mundane experience of life. "Enlightenment" is seen as something to be achieved (and, indeed, in some schools of Buddhism enlightenment is seen as being something that's only achievable over thousands of lifetimes - but Reincarnation and Karma is some nonsense I don't have time to get into right now).
However one conceives "enlightenment", Westerners coming to Buddhism are going to see it as a goal to be achieved. They are going to think of it as an endpoint for their practice. No matter how much someone like Seung Sahn stressed that "wanting enlightenment is a big mistake", Westerners are going to want enlightenment.
How do we seek/get enlightenment - well, generally through a teacher (who may or may not be enlightened him/herself).

Can you see what the problem is?

The teacher/lama/guru/Roshi/Shifu in Buddhism is an authority figure that is given an immense amount of power over their students for reasons that are, almost by definition, not accessible to the student. The teacher can ask things of the student without reason, and their will will be accepted because the student cannot (yet) understand the workings of the enlightened mind. I have personally seen the fierce devotion that a teacher can elicit from their students. And one need only do a little search online (for opinions on Michael Roach, for example) to see how heated the debates over teachers can be.

The point is not that all Buddhist teachers are corrupt - the Buddhist teachers who I have met have all been very kind, very intelligent, and very humble people. The point is that the student/teacher relationship in Buddhism is liable to be abused - and it has been abused. (read these for examples). Furthermore, this relationship is open to abuse insofar as (the particular brand of) Buddhism requires us to believe something that can't be verified. Sure, we can eventually get enlightened, but it may take several kulpas. This is irrationality at its best, and this irrationality opens up the possibility for abuse. I'm not saying that this is in any way the general case - just like it's not the case that every Catholic priest is a child molester.

This leads to a more general point I'd like to make about the role I see Buddhism playing in the future of humanity and the west in particular. Having spent a lot of time reading about Buddhism the last ten years or so, I don't think that - as a religion - it has very much to offer us - that is, I don't think there would be much to gain by us all taking refuge. I think that certain meditation techniques that come out of the tradition have some potential therapeutic applications. I also think that the Buddhist philosophical tradition may have some useful insights - as an example, Fredrick Copleston suggests we read Dogen as a kind of proto-phenomenologist, and in doing so we may learn from his explorations of the ordinary mind. But the appropriate attidude towards the philosophical aspects of Buddhism should be the same kind of attitude we take towards Hellenistic philosophy, that is, being sympathetic to their aims, but deeply skeptical about their conclusions.

If you want rationality, if you want profundity, you needn't look any further than your own back yard (or local library). Read some moral philosophy. Read some books on science and mathematics. Read Proust, James, and Nabokov. If you want to meditate, get hold of Jon Kabat-Zinn's books and spend some time on your living-room floor. You certainly don't need to seek out a teacher with a funny name to meditate (although Kabat-Zinn's name is pretty funny).

Way safer is to become a well-read, meditating atheist than becoming a Buddhist. At least you wont need to give an inch of rationality for some vaguely defined, but impressive sounding word.


  1. Good post. Like the well-read atheist bit - not so sure about meditation. :-)

  2. Thanks!
    heh - the meditation bit is consolation to people who actually WANT to sit around in black robes staring at a wall ... Don't need to be a Buddhist to take up one of the most boring practices known to man ;)


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