I have been meditating on Buddhism lately, for several reasons. First, I read that Steve Jobs was a lifelong devotee of Buddhism and even married in a Buddhist ceremony. Second, a new documentary, mad wisdomcelebrates the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who helped popularize Tibetan Buddhism here in the United States in the 1970s. Third, Slate magazine, for some reason, just republished a critique of Buddhism which I wrote eight years ago, and once again the Buddhists reproach me for my ignorance of their religion.
I’m a sucker for punishment, so I thought I’d try to explain, once again, my apprehensions about Buddhism, in this heavily revised and updated version of my Slate essay (which went through a particularly torturous editing process). It’s here:
In 1999, a flyer appeared in my mailbox announcing that a Japanese American woman would soon begin teaching Zen at my hometown library. If I believed in synchronicity, the arrival of this leaflet would have seemed a clear case of it. I had just started my research a book on science and mysticismand I had decided that for the purposes of the book – and my own well-being – I needed spiritual practice.
Superficially, Buddhism seemed more compatible than any other religion with my skeptical, science-oriented outlook. Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman once told me that Buddhism is less a religion than a method for realizing human potential, a method as empirical as science. Don’t take my word for it, Buddha would have said, just follow this path and discover the truth for yourself.
So I started attending meditation sessions in the basement of my town library, a castle overlooking the Hudson, and finally the chapel of a Catholic monastery (where some of my classmates were nuns , which seemed much nicer than the ones I remember from my youth). I learned more about Buddhism by reading books and articles, attending lectures and, above all, talking to many Buddhists, some famous, even infamous, others just ordinary people trying to get away with it. go out.
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. In my last class, I became fixated on a classmate who kept craning his neck, grunting, and asking our teacher unbearably pretentious questions. I hated him and hated myself for hating him, and finally I thought: What am I doing here? At that time, I also had serious intellectual scruples about Buddhism. I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than Catholicism, my childhood faith.
One of the biggest selling points of Buddhism for non-practicing Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural nonsense. This assertion is misleading. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it does not 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 our badness and kindness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.
Those who emphasize Buddhism’s compatibility with science generally downplay or disavow its supernatural elements (and even the Dalai Lama has doubts about reincarnation, a philosopher who discussed the matter 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 a telescope, through which you can glimpse spiritual truth. This analogy is false. Anyone can look through a telescope and see Jupiter’s moons, or squint through a microscope and see cells dividing. But ask 10 meditators what they see, feel, or learn and you’ll get 10 different answers.
Meditation research (which I reviewed in my 2003 book Rational mysticism, and which is usually driven by partisans, such as psychologist Richard Davidson) suggests how variable its effects can be. Meditation is said to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, but it has also been linked to an increase in negative emotions. Some studies indicate that meditation makes you hypersensitive to external stimuli; others reveal the opposite effect. Brain scans don’t give consistent results either. For every ratio of increased neuronal activity in the frontal cortex and reduced activity in the left parietal lobe, there is an opposite result.
Moreover, those lucky souls who reach deep mystical states – through meditation or other means – may come out convinced of very different truths. Shortly before his death in 2001, Buddhist neuroscientist Francisco Varela (a friend of Trungpa) told me that a near-death experience had shown him that mind rather than matter is the deepest level of reality and is somehow eternal. Other Buddhists, like the psychologist Susan Blackmore, are strict materialists, who deny that spirit can exist independently of matter.
Blackmore looks favorably, however, on the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which argues that the self is an illusion. “Where, exactly, are you yourself?” asked Buddha. “What components and properties is your self made up of? Since no answer to these questions is sufficient, the self must be somehow illusory. Meme theory, argues Blackmore in The meme machine (Oxford University Press, 2000), comes to the same conclusion; if you rip all the memes out of a mind, you’ll have nothing left. She even rejects the concept of free will, saying there is no self to act freely.
In fact, modern science – and meditative introspection – have simply discovered that the self is an emergent phenomenon, difficult to explain in terms of its parts. The world is full of emerging phenomena. Nor can the school where I teach be defined in strictly reductionist terms. You can’t point to a person or a classroom or a lab and say, “This is the 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 more compassionate. In Zen and the brain (MIT Press, 1998), neurologist and Buddhist James Austin proposes that meditation and mindfulness erode the neural regions that underlie our innate self-centeredness. But given the repugnant behavior in recent decades of so many gurus – including Chogyam Trungpa, who was an alcoholic womanizer and tyrant – one might conclude that mystical knowledge leads to pathological narcissism rather than altruism. . Instead of shrinking to a point and disappearing, the mystic’s ego can expand to infinity. Did Buddhism deflate Steve Job’s ego?
I had some experiences that could be called mystical. In faith in doubt (Parallax Press, 1990), Stephen Batchelor, one of my favorite Buddhist authors (see my profile of him here), describes an epiphany in which he is suddenly confronted with the mystery of being. The experience “didn’t give me any answers,” he recalls. “That only revealed the magnitude of the matter.” This is what I felt during my experiences, a breathtaking amazement at the improbability of existence.
I also felt an overwhelming sense of the preciousness of life, but others may have very different reactions. Like an astronaut looking at the earth through the window of his spaceship, the mystic sees our existence against a backdrop of infinity and eternity. This perspective may not translate into compassion and empathy for others. Far from there. Human suffering and death can seem ridiculously insignificant. Instead of becoming a saint-like bodhisattva, overflowing with love for all things, the mystic can become a sociopathic nihilist.
I suspect that some bad gurus have fallen prey to mystical nihilism. They may also have been corrupted by the most insidious of all Buddhist proposals, the myth of total enlightenment. It’s the idea that some rare souls achieve such complete mystical self-transcendence 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 the most abusive behavior of their teachers as “crazy wisdom.”
I have one last doubt 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 – supports male monasticism as the embodiment of spirituality. For me, “spiritual” means embracing life, and therefore a path that turns away from such essential aspects of life as sexual love and parenthood is not spiritual but anti-spiritual.
Buddhists often respond to my criticisms by saying, “You haven’t given enough time to Buddhism!” If you really understood him, you wouldn’t say such stupid things! Etc. String theorists and Freudian psychoanalysts employ this same tactic against their detractors. I can’t fault these supposed solutions to existence until I’ve spent as much time on them as true believers. Sorry, life is too short.
Some of my best friends are Buddhists, and I enjoy reading and talking to Buddhist and quasi-Buddhist scholars, including all of those I mentioned above. I admire the Dalai Lama’s open-mindedness and pacifism. I sometimes lead visitors to my hometown to a nearby Buddhist monastery, which houses a 40-foot Buddha statue surrounded by thousands of mini Buddha statues. A porcelain Buddha smiles at me from the top of a bookcase in my living room. I like to think he would take my point of view on the religion he founded. Remember the old Zen aphorism: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.