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Why I Don't Dig Buddhism

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I've been brooding over Buddhism lately, for several reasons. First, I read that Steve Jobs was a long-time dabbler in Buddhism and was even married in a Buddhist ceremony. Second, a new documentary, Crazy Wisdom, celebrates the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who helped popularize Tibetan Buddhism here in the U.S. in the 1970s. Third, Slate magazine, for some reason, just re-published a critique of Buddhism that I wrote eight years ago, and once again Buddhists are berating me for my ignorance about their religion.

I'm a sucker for punishment, so I thought I'd try to explain, once again, my misgivings about Buddhism, in this heavily revised and updated version of my Slate essay (which was put through an especially tortuous editing process). Here it is:

In 1999, a flier appeared in my mailbox announcing that a local Japanese-American woman would soon start teaching Zen at my hometown library. If I believed in synchronicity, this flier's arrival would have seemed a clear case of it. I had just begun researching a book on science and mysticism, and I had decided that for the book's purposes—and my own well-being—I needed a spiritual practice.

Superficially, Buddhism seemed more compatible than any other religion with my skeptical, science-oriented outlook. The Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman once told me that Buddhism is less a religion than a method for fulfilling human potential, a method as empirical in its way as science. Don't take my word for anything, Buddha supposedly said, just follow this path and discover the truth for yourself.

So I started attending meditation sessions in the basement of my town's library, a castle overlooking the Hudson and finally the chapel of a Catholic monastery (where some of my classmates were nuns, who seemed much nicer than the ones I remember from my youth). I learned more about Buddhism by reading books and articles, attending lectures and conferences and, most of all, talking to lots of Buddhists, some famous, even infamous, others just ordinary folk trying to get by.

Eventually, I stopped attending my Zen sessions (for reasons that I describe in detail elsewhere). One problem was that meditation never really tamed my monkey mind. During my last class, I fixated on a classmate who kept craning his neck and grunting and asking our teacher unbearably pretentious questions. I loathed him and loathed myself for loathing him, and finally I thought: What am I doing here? By that time, I also had serious intellectual qualms about Buddhism. I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than Catholicism, my childhood faith.

One of Buddhism's biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn't invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.

Those who emphasize Buddhism's compatibility with science usually downplay or disavow its supernatural elements (and even the Dalai Lama has doubts about reincarnation, a philosopher who discussed the issue with him once told me). The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, when I interviewed him, compared meditation to a scientific instrument such as a microscope or telescope, through which you can glimpse spiritual truth. This analogy is bogus. Anyone can peer through a telescope and see the moons of Jupiter, or squint through a microscope and see cells divide. But ask 10 meditators what they see, feel or learn and you will get 10 different answers.

Research on meditation (which I reviewed in my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, and which is usually carried out by proponents, such as psychologist Richard Davidson) suggests how variable its effects can be. Meditation reportedly reduces stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, too. Some studies indicate that meditation makes you hyper-sensitive to external stimuli; others reveal the opposite effect. Brain scans do not yield consistent results, either. For every report of heightened neural activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the left parietal lobe, there exists a contrary result.

Moreover, those fortunate souls who achieve deep mystical states—through meditation or other means—may come away convinced of very different truths. Shortly before his death in 2001, the Buddhist neuroscientist Francisco Varela (a friend of Trungpa) told me that a near-death experience had showed him that mind rather than matter constitutes the deepest level of reality and is in some sense eternal. Other Buddhists, such as the psychologist Susan Blackmore, are strict materialists, who deny that mind can exist independently of matter.

Blackmore looks favorably, however, upon the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. "Where, exactly, is your self?" Buddha asked. "Of what components and properties does your self consist?" Since no answer to these questions suffices, the self must be in some sense illusory. Meme theory, Blackmore contends in The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 2000), leads to the same conclusion; if you pluck all the memes out of a mind, you will have nothing left. She even rejects the concept of free will, holding that there is no self to act freely.

Actually, modern science—and meditative introspection—have merely discovered that the self is an emergent phenomenon, difficult to explain in terms of its parts. The world abounds in emergent phenomena. The school where I teach can't be defined in strictly reductionist terms either. You can’t point to a person or classroom or lab and say, "Here is Stevens Institute." But does that mean my school doesn't exist?

Then there is the claim that contemplative practice will make us gentler, more humble and compassionate. In Zen and the Brain (MIT Press, 1998), the neurologist and Buddhist James Austin proposes that meditation and mindfulness erode neural regions underpinning our innate self-centeredness. But given the repulsive behavior over the past few decades of so many gurus—including Chogyam Trungpa, who was an alcoholic womanizer and bully—you could conclude that mystical knowledge leads to pathological narcissism rather than selflessness. Instead of shrinking to a point and vanishing, the mystic's ego may expand to infinity. Did Buddhism deflate the ego of Steve Job?

I've had a few experiences that could be called mystical. In The Faith to Doubt (Parallax Press, 1990), Stephen Batchelor, one of my favorite Buddhist authors (see my profile of him here), described an epiphany in which he was suddenly confronted with the mystery of being. The experience "gave me no answers," he recalls. "It only revealed the massiveness of the question." That was what I felt during my experiences, a jaw-dropping astonishment at the improbability of existence.

I also felt an overwhelming sense of life's preciousness, but others may have very different reactions. Like an astronaut gazing at the earth through the window of his spacecraft, the mystic sees our existence against the backdrop of infinity and eternity. This perspective may not translate into compassion and empathy for others. Far from it. Human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. Instead of becoming a saint-like Bodhisattva, brimming with love for all things, the mystic may become a sociopathic nihilist.

I suspect some bad gurus have fallen prey to mystical nihilism. They may also have been corrupted by that most insidious of all Buddhist propositions, the myth of total enlightenment. This is the notion that some rare souls achieve mystical self-transcendence so complete that they become morally infallible—like the Pope! Belief in this myth can turn spiritual teachers into tyrants and their students into mindless slaves, who excuse even their teachers' most abusive behavior as "crazy wisdom."

I have one final misgiving about Buddhism—or rather, about Buddha himself. His path to enlightenment began with his abandonment of his wife and child. Even today, Tibetan Buddhism—again, like Catholicism—upholds male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. To me, "spiritual" means life-embracing, and so a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexual love and parenthood is not spiritual but anti-spiritual.

Buddhists often respond to my carping by saying, "You didn't give Buddhism enough time! If you truly understood it, you wouldn't say such stupid things!" And so on. String theorists and Freudian psychoanalysts employ this same tactic against their critics. I can't fault these supposed solutions to existence until I have devoted as much time to them as true believers. Sorry, life's too short.

Some of my best friends are Buddhists, and I enjoy reading and talking to Buddhist and quasi-Buddhist intellectuals, including all those I've mentioned above. I admire the open-mindedness and pacifism of the Dalai Lama. I sometimes drag visitors to my hometown to a nearby Buddhist monastery, which features a 40-foot statue of Buddha surrounded by thousands of mini-Buddha statuettes. A porcelain Buddha smiles at me from atop a bookcase in my living room. I like to think he'd grok my take on the religion that he founded. Remember the old Zen aphorism: If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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