Is Buddhism the Problem?

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Is Buddhism the Problem?

I have recently been recommending Sam Harris’ meditation app. Waking Up to some of my atheist friends who would not go near anything that smacked of religion. I like this app more than some other secular meditation apps I have come across, mainly because it doesn’t simply aim to help people to become less stressed. His program of fifty 10-minute guided meditations, as well as accompanying talks, encourage the meditator to explore the nature of consciousness and to try to cut through the illusion of the self.

Sam Harris is an interesting person. He first came to public attention after publication of his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (W. W. Norton, 2004), which stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List for 33 weeks. He subsequently become one of the so-called “Four Horsemen“ of New Atheism, together with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Dan Dennett. His podcast, Making Sense ( formerly Waking Up), in which he interviews a wide range of contemporary thinkers, is, I think, one of the best of its kind.

However, despite his avowed atheism, Sam Harris often speaks approvingly of some of the principles and practices of Buddhism, and he has spent many years practising Buddhist as well as Advaita meditation. In his 20s he did several month-long retreats with the Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita. He also practised Dzogchen and received teachings from several Dzogchen masters, most notably the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. His podcast discussions with Joseph Goldstein on insight meditation and Dzogchen are very interesting and informative, even though sometimes their discussions go beyond what I am able to fully understand. (Someone has helpfully gathered all seven hours of their discussions together in one YouTube video).

Among Buddhists, Sam Harris may be best known (or perhaps most notorious) for his 2006 article in Shambhala entitled “ Killing the Buddha.” This title is based on the saying “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”, attributed to the 9th century Chan/Zen master Línjì (Jap. Rinzai). I take this to be a warning not to worship the Buddha as some kind of external being, or as Harris puts it “to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught.” Harris’ main argument is that although the Buddhist tradition “represents the richest source of contemplatives wisdom that any civilisation has produced,” this wisdom is “trapped within the religion of of Buddhism” and “as students of Buddhism we should dispense with Buddhism.”

Re-reading this article recently, I found myself agreeing with much that Harris says. Yes, although some people insist that Buddhism is really a philosophy or a science of the mind, it is undeniable that around the world it is widely practised as a religion, with all the bells and smells, superstitious practices, tendencies to dogmatism and patriarchal hierarchies that we associate with other religions. Because of this, Buddhism is likely to always remain a minority interest within modern, secular societies. And yes, adopting “Buddhist” as an identity buys into the noxious ideology that divides humanity up into mutually exclusive religious (or atheist) communities and sees members of one religion as “us” and members of another religion as “them.” Recent events have reminded us, if we had forgotten, that Buddhists are not immune to this ideology.

Sam Harris would like us to be able to benefit from the contemplative wisdom he sees in Buddhism, shorn of all all its religious and unscientific baggage. His meditation app, as well as his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon and Schuster, 2014), are part of this project.

But do I really want to dispense with Buddhism? I’m not sure. And I really do mean I’m not sure. I’m writing this blog to try and work out what I think.

In the mindfulness movement, we have already seen the hiving off of a Buddhist practice and its adoption by secular society, sometimes with no knowledge of where it came from. I know that some Buddhists are unhappy with this perceived watering down and out-of-context use of a Buddhist meditative practice (McMindfulness, as it has been dubbed). Personally, I don’t see it as a problem. It’s hard to object to something that might help people suffer a bit less, provided that it isn’t hyped up to promise a lot more (which admittedly, it sometimes is). No doubt Buddhism will continue to be plundered for gems of wisdom and beneficial practices by secular society, and some Buddhists will continue to feel uneasy about this.

The trouble I have with dispensing with Buddhism as a “comprehensive package”, just taking out some nuggets of wisdom or useful contemplative practices and chucking the rest away, is firstly that so many aspects of the path hang together. It’s hard to see how you could effectively develop contemplative insights, ethical behaviour and wisdom in isolation from one another. Secondly, it is not so easy to draw a clear line between what is pure gold and what is the dross of superstition, cultural practices and pre-scientific woo-woo.

For example, my views on where to draw the line have changed over time. There once was a time when I would have dismissed practices such as mantra recitation or deity visualisation as on the woo-woo side of the line. I now have some inkling of the beneficial psychological effects such practices can have. I have even begun to see how prayer might just work, although I couldn’t see myself praying to a putative deity. The idea of rebirth I would also definitely once have placed well over on the woo-woo side. Now I can at least concede that it might just be a tenable hypothesis. So I would like the full resources of the Buddhist traditions to continue to be available for me to perhaps later draw on something else that might turn out not to be woo-woo after all.

In Buddhism, we can draw on two and a half thousand years of contemplative practice and experimentation, and of philosophical and ethical discussion, within cultures as diverse as India, Sri-Lanka, Thailand, Burma, China and Tibet. Much of it may be irrelevant to us in our current global context. But much of it certainly is not. Contemporary Buddhists are in the unique position of having (at least in principle) access to all of this experience. I would like to believe that over time forms of Buddhism will develop which will be fully compatible with, or even integrated into, modern, secular, scientific culture. These forms of Buddhism could be distinct in many ways from existing traditions, but still draw nourishment from them. You might not want to call them a religion, but they would still be Buddhism.

However, maybe Sam Harris is right. The “Buddhism” brand may always appeal only to a niche market. We may need to let go of Buddhism and just try to retain as much of the best of the traditions as we can under another name. I really don’t know.

What are your thoughts?