Please note that i wrote this back in January 2008. My views on Buddhism have changed and thus my words from back then might not necessarily reflect what i am thinking now. However, so much work and time went into the discussion in the comments, i want to leave these pages up, so that others may benefit from them. (August 16, 2011)

For a book that i found exciting and that is helping to embrace Buddhism again – stripped of its spiritual/religious overtones – see Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. There are also some secular Buddhist sites that follow in Batchelor’s footsteps. (October 7, 2012)


Buddhism is often touted as the religion for skeptics, even for atheists. Many people argue even that Buddhism is not really a religion but rather a philosophy because in its origin it was a non-deistic framework and thus cannot be a religion. Indeed religion is often defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power” (New Oxford American Dictionary), which is a rather Judeo-Christian-Islamic centric definition. Philosophy is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

The claim that Buddhism is a philosophy underlies many of the modern phenomena, including exchanges between scientists and the Dalai Lama. Such an exchange would be unthinkable between scientists and the Pope. Framing Buddhism as a philosophy, though, allows for that dialogue because that gives it more credibility in the eyes of the skeptics. This is a dangerous misconstruction of the reality of Buddhism. Especially the Buddhism that the Dalai Lama represents, Tibetan Buddhism, is steeped in religious traditions, including beliefs in various deities. Aside from the religious rites and stories, even if Buddhism does not contain a superhuman controlling power, it certainly is a “particular system of faith and worship,” another defining characteristic of religion (New Oxford American Dictionary). Buddhists have faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. And the reverence brought toward the Buddha sure looks like worship. However, even if we agree that Buddhism is not a religion, it would be dangerous to consider it a philosophy, especially on the same level as an academic discipline. While it takes discipline to meditate, the insights gained through meditation are hardly put through the same scrutiny as academic thought. Meditation is essentially a solitary practice and it is easy to get lulled into thinking that we are increasing our wisdom when in reality just the opposite is true. Buddhism lacks the safeguard of peer-review, which makes it essentially non-scientific. We could argue that this is exactly why the Dalai Lama is reaching out to scientists: so that they can scrutinize the Buddhist assumptions. It seems more like an attempt to safe Buddhism, though, by arguing that this millennia old religion has something to offer to modern science. This would be like suggesting that the world-view that the earth is flat has something valuable to offer. In science, including in philosophy, we do not try to integrate out-dated beliefs with current knowledge. We leave those beliefs behind. This ability to leave theories behind is the essential part of any philosophy that stems from the skepticism encouraged by philosophers. This skepticism is in stark contrast to Buddhism’s insistence that “truths” and “laws” have been found (as in The Four Noble Truths or the Law of Karma). Additionally, Buddhism suggests that “skeptical doubt” is a hindrance not a vehicle to obtaining enlightenment.

There are some tools of Buddhism that have proven useful, such as meditation, that bear integrating into our modern tool chest as tools that offer the benefits support by scientific research, such as relaxation or reduction in blood pressure. However, understanding how our brain works and how it effects our interactions with the world is too important to leave to the religions, including Buddhism. The essential danger with viewing Buddhism as something other than a religion is to suspend critical thinking, to believe that we can obtain knowledge – true knowledge – through introspection. Before we delve into this further, let’s first look at the argument that the pick-what-you-like approach to Buddhism keeps Buddhism around, or better yet, brings it back to its essential roots.

“To turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught” Sam Harris writes in his oft quoted essay on Buddhism (Sam Harris, “Killing the Buddha,” Shambhala Sun, March 2006, 73-75). He is suggesting, of course, to pick and choose from Buddhism what he finds useful and to leave behind the rest. Because, he argues, there is “[…] wisdom of the Buddha [is] currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism.” Harris elaborates about this wisdom: “One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.” Aside from the underlying assumption that the Buddha existed – and thus could espouse his wisdom like Plato or Socrates – the question arises: Has this hypothesis been tested? Actually, there are four hypotheses in Harris’ statement. It is interesting to note that the dictionary comments on empiricism as “a dated ignorant or unscientific practice; quackery” (New Oxford American Dictionary; see also the entry in the Skeptic’s Dictionary).

The four hypotheses Harris includes in his statement can be summarized as:

  1. Meditation leads to wisdom.
  2. Meditation leads to psychological well-being.
  3. Ethics leads to wisdom.
  4. Ethics leads to psychological well-being.

The numbering is for convenience and does not imply a hierarchy. What is the evidence that we have so far? Jon Kabat-Zinn has studied mindfulness meditation, one form of meditation taught in Buddhism, extensively in the context of pain management and stress reduction (see the work on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). Zindel Segal and colleagues studied it in the context of depression (see the work on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy). This research supports #2 with evidence: Meditation can help with pain management and contributes to stress reduction; and meditation can be used to decrease the likelihood of recurrent depressive episodes. It even has physiological effects, including reduction in blood pressure. That is certainly one reason why Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is now being taught extensively at hospitals. Meditation leads to psychological well-being, at least when that is defined as the reduction of stress, pain, or depression.

What about the other three hypotheses? As far as I know, nobody has studied formally whether meditation leads to wisdom. It sounds nice! But what is wisdom? We could use the famous AA slogan: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” This implies ethics: we can tell what is right and what is wrong, what is beneficial to us and what is not. So, wisdom leads to ethics, which leads to wisdom, according to Harris. A self-reinforcing structure, which is probably beneficial since a deepening understanding of ethics can be helpful. In order to test whether meditation leads to wisdom, though, we need to have a better understanding of what Harris means by meditation. He describes it as “using attention in the prescribed way.” Attention to what? Generally, in meditation attention is paid to something to focus the mind, such as the breath, a word, or a sound. How would that lead to more wisdom, which can formally be defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment” (New Oxford American Dictionary)? Even without studies, looking at the connection between wisdom and meditation, it becomes clear that the connection is weak, at best. Paying attention to one’s breath, for example, does not give a lot of experience interacting with other people, a component of wisdom (experience). Ethics evolve through these interactions, especially if we view ethics as going beyond moral codes to encompass a whole philosophy of life. Interaction becomes necessary: only when we interact with others, be they human or other “sentient beings,” can we determine what is right and wrong, something that is only necessary in interaction, and how the world works. Based on this alone, I would argue that meditation cannot lead to wisdom since it is essentially a solitary practice, directed onto the self. Wisdom could only be gained if meditation tapped into something bigger than the self, which would bring us into the realm of the supernatural, the religious. Now, we can use meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, to calm the mind, so that we are more receptive to wisdom, by paying better attention to reality rather than getting lost in our dream world. This would be a side-effect of meditation, though; wisdom would not be directly obtained through meditation then.

What about Harris’ assertion that ethics lead to wisdom and psychological well-being? Certainly, if we argue that someone who acts unethical and then feels guilty – decreases his or her psychological well-being – we can agree that ethics lead to psychological well-being. Although we could argue that the guilt feelings, the decrease in psychological well-being, are a direct result of the moral code and would otherwise be absent: If an act were not labeled as “wrong,” there would be no guilt feeling. Thus, ethics would decrease our psychological well-being, which, in fact, sometimes happens when absolutists rules are imposed on believers. This would undermine Harris’ hypothesis. Furthermore, as I have argued above, the wisdom-ethics relationship is self-reinforcing at best, circular at worst. There is, however, not the clear casual relationship that Harris implies.

Aside from the lack of evidence, there is no reason that these hypotheses have to be tied to Buddhism. In fact, Harris does not even do that since he argues for stripping these hypotheses out of the Buddhist religion. Thus, support for these last two hypotheses does nothing to argue for Buddhism, or any supposed wisdom of the Buddha. It simply suggests that ethics are an important element of living as a human being. Harris fails to advance arguments why Buddhist ethics are somehow better than, say, Christian ethics, or even more to the point, ethics developed within the secular humanism framework. Victor Stenger presents evidence in his book “God: The failed hypothesis” that shows that ethics developed in addition to the moral rules in Christianity that, in fact, most Christians use ethical guidelines outside of Christianity to evaluate the Christian moral code. We could do the same with Buddhism.

So, why then embrace Buddhism? Harris writes “For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence.” Buddhism is good because it sets up the four hypotheses and then asks us to test them. However, except for one of these hypotheses – that meditation leads to psychological well-being – there is not sufficient evidence for “the methodology of Buddhism.” At least not outside of Buddhism: Maybe Harris claims that we can find this evidence through contemplation, through meditation. If that is the case, he has fallen into the trap that was already identified in 1902 by William James (in his book “Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature“) and more recently supported by Timothy Wilson’s research (in his book “Strangers to Ourselves“). We cannot test hypotheses just by thinking about or contemplating on them, at least not in a way that is consistent with the scientific method. Harris also fails to give support for his contention that empiricism is a valuable way to scientific knowledge. Again James’ and Wilson’s work call this very much into question.

Harris, then, points – indirectly and presumably not intentionally – to the main danger of using Buddhism as a form for scientific inquiry: Contemplation is inward focused and thus can lead to wrong conclusions that parade as wisdom but do not hold up to scientific scrutiny, or even critical thinking. By elevating Buddhism to a philosophy, we are opening the door for these false conclusions to be entered into our understanding of the mind. Yet under the light of reason, Buddhism quickly turns into a religion that requires faith, maybe not in a superhuman controlling power, but faith into the possibility of enlightenment – ultimate understanding – through the path prescribed by Buddhism. Given how rare buddhas are, we could even argue that it requires faith in a superhuman being: The Buddha who attained that elusive state. Even Harris underlines that faith by writing that one can believe in the possibility of becoming a Buddha, an enlightened being.

Instead of using approaches that are far from scientific to understand the mind, we should spend our time to research the mind using truly scientific methods. Meditation has its uses but scientific inquiry is not one of them.


I am grateful to Meera Nanda for writing her excellent “Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris,” which helped me crystallize my thinking on the issue of spirituality. The article can be read here.

I’ve also stumbled on an online book that seems related: The Shadow of the Dalai Lama. It is nice to see that I am not the only one who is critical of Buddhism. (Hat tip to Butterflies & Wheels!)


Comments

The End of Buddhist Spirituality — 14 Comments

  1. Vijeno , in the post on April 23rd , asks , ” Are you familiar with the works of Ken Wilber ” ? I suppose the question was put to Rachel .

    I’ve read 7 to 8 books of Wilber including his masterpiece ” Sex , Ecology and Spirituality ” . He’s an inter-disciplinary scholar and is one of the best spiritual prose writers of our times . He has a very poetic and seductive style of writing ( fortunately or unfortunately ) . I think Rachel should read Wilber’s ” Marriage of Sense and Soul — Integrating Science and Religion ” . It’s an attempt at integration which is laudable ( although I seem to ask myself often why there should be an integration of Science and Religion at all ) 🙂 Rachel raised a question regarding peer review . I think Wilber is quite right when he observes that ” paradigms ” are just a set of rules , injunctions , method , practice . He goes on to argue that religious injunctions should be practised and CAN be verified with those who’ve done the same –” community verification ” .

    Wilber offers the ” quadrant theory ” and elaborates on it saying that there are 4 domains — the world of ” Its ” ( Objective , Science ) , of the ” I ” ( Subjective –religion , art etc . ) , of the ” We ” ( Inter-subjective , Society ) and the Non-dual ( Transcendental , Mysticism ) . I remember having read in one of his books a remark he makes , ” A neuroscientist can explain how a thought arises without understanding the CONTENT of a single thought ” ( emphasis added , proxy words ) . He’s pointing to the complex problem of Quale .

    Buddhist insight into the nature of self has been approved by many scientists . There’s no such thing as a ” self ” residing in the brain , the ” anatta ” ( no permanent self ) theory of Buddhism . I agree that like most other religions , Buddhism has also become stagnant and rigid . I’m not a religious person 🙂

    I know I should write more . Shall do it one of these days .

    Senthil

  2. Rachel,
    You said:
    “Buddhism lacks the safeguard of peer-review, which makes it essentially non-scientific. We could argue that this is exactly why the Dalai Lama is reaching out to scientists: so that they can scrutinize the Buddhist assumptions. It seems more like an attempt to safe Buddhism, though, by arguing that this millennia old religion has something to offer to modern science. This would be like suggesting that the world-view that the earth is flat has something valuable to offer. In science, including in philosophy, we do not try to integrate out-dated beliefs with current knowledge. We leave those beliefs behind.”

    I don’t understand two things here:
    1. Why does it seem to you that Dalai Lama is trying to “safe Buddhism” when he is trying to put the Buddhists’ minds out there to be tested by genuine scientists? You mean he is trying to get false credibility by going for scientific scrutiny? If so wait until scientific results are out. Or do you mean he is maintaining a poker face and tying to bluff? If so, call his bluff. And the only way to do it is wait for the results. Or are you suggesting there are other ways to test Buddhist theory? If so what are they?
    The people who I think wouldn’t wait to see the results are:
    a. People who believe whatever others say as long as they say it with conviction or if it is there in some book or if the majority say it is the truth. These people unfortunately don’t need proofs whether the issue is scientific, political or religious.
    b. The second set is the People who don’t have time to wait for the results. These people are like a doctor in an emergency room or a stock broker. The doctor can’t wait for all results of the tests if the patient is dying. He would have to try one cure or the other. The stock broker can’t wait for the financial report to come out. If he waits it is too late to make money. They have to have make a decision “without complete data”. The doctor is moving ahead picking a cure because he can see an impending danger(link -1 below). The stock broker is moving forward because he is seeing an attractive opportunity(link-2). Buddhism is exactly for these kind of people. For the rest of them it is like any other theory with no proof. And also don’t forget when it comes to the matters of mind people can always claim that person cheated the machine. If there are people who can cheat lie detector tests there could be people who could cheat these machines too.

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/candy.html
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/faithinawakening.html
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/awakening.html

    2. The second thing I didn’t understand is the connection of the flat-earth theory to this scientific scrutiny of Buddhist minds.

    Srini.

    • Srini: I freed your comment from the spam folder, where it was caught because of the number of links you included. Since the semester has started, I don’t have time to respond to your comment in detail but here are some quick thoughts:

      1. What exactly in Buddhist theory is valuable to science? What hypotheses can be derived from it?
      2. Flat earth is also a theory but it has nothing valuable to offer to science. Just because someone has a theory about something doesn’t mean it’s valuable for science.

      • Thanks Rachel. I was surprised why my comment didn’t go through.

        1. Nothing is valuable to science. It is science that is valuable to humans. It is Buddhism that is valuable to humans (according to Buddhists). But we cannot take their word for it. And Science is being used to get proofs. But then again when it comes to the matters of brain, science at this stage is not advanced enough to find out if they are really as happy they say they are. Say if someone is grieving their recently dead loved one and is not able to overcome the grief and is looking for a counselor. Does that person wait for all the scientific results or does he take as much evidence as he can at that stage and then proceed to see if that counselor does really solve his problem? That depends on the urgency of the problem, right? Same is the case of terminally ill people who might encounter an experimental drug. So if someone really feels the urgency or see the opportunity he can proceed on the path of Buddhism with what ever evidence he can get now and check if what they say is right.

        2. Your question is not right. Your question should be what is true and valuable to humans. Not what is valuable to science. Science provides some theories with objective proofs. These theories are then put to proper use to make the life of humans better. Flat-earth theory was found to be totally “wrong” it is “invaluable” to humans. So we leave it. Newton’s laws of motion were great until Theory of Relativity came along. It was found that the Newton’s Second law was just a great approximation of the better values provided by Relativity. Though Newton’s Second Law is “not exactly right”, it was still “valuable” when the speeds of objects are way less than speed of light. So we still use Newton’s Second Law. So the question is what is true and valuable to humans

        PS: When I referred to doctor in my original post on Aug 26th, I actually meant to say a doctor in an emergency room. Would you mind editing my post there to make it clear?

        Srini.

        • I really should be working on school stuff but you hit on some stuff that I’ve been mulling over recently. I think both of your points stress the same issue: Instead of seeing science as something that is valuable in itself, you suggest to look at things as potentially valuable to human beings. Thank you for that! I think that is a very useful lens to look at stuff; much more useful than my lens of valuable to science.

          Recently, I have been struggling with some of the stuff you mentioned in #1. So there isn’t any scientific proof that meditation is useful (none of the carefully designed studies have shown it to be more valuable than mere relaxation, for example) but does this mean that meditation cannot be a useful tool? If I find it personally valuable does it matter? To me, the danger is when these things replace something that truly works. For example, homeopathic remedies – they do not work (except possibly through the placebo effect) but they are often used and recommended when it would be better to use conventional medicine. Similarly with some of the Buddhist notions: I am very troubled by the idea of karma when it is used to justify the status quo. You are poor because you must’ve done something bad in a previous life. That just doesn’t cut it. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t sit and meditate! But I think that is my basic discomfort with Buddhism: The institutionalization of it has brought in religious elements that justify the status quo; that prevent true change in society. Remember that Tibetan Buddhism is a theocracy!

          One reason why I liked Stephen Batchelors’ book is that he addresses these things exactly. One of his main arguments is that we need to keep from Buddhism what is valuable in a Western, secular society. All the gods and goddesses, spirits, karma, and rebirth are not valuable from that standpoint.

          P.S.: I am not exactly sure where you’d like me to make the correction since you are referring to a doctor in an emergency room (before the stock broker) in your Aug 26th comment. I did make your other change and deleted the comment requesting it.

          • Glad to hear that you are thinking on the same lines too. I think that there is a difference in my understanding of Karma and yours. But I will let you concentrate on your school stuff now. May be we will sync up during your Fall break.
            Srini.

  3. wisdom is the insight through which you will know the actual nature of the beings, their minds and matter. That cannot be developed through mere reading. You will need to meditate. You will need a tool to know the inside matters. Meditation will sharpen your mind and with a sharp and concentrated mind, wherever you wish, you will know exactly its true nature.

  4. Oh, one good example: Nutrition. I have found that there are so many conflicting theories about what is actually healthy, you can justify virtually any eating habit as “scientific”. The only source of wisdom I can trust in this respect is my intuition and my own experience.

  5. Good point, yes. What I mean is that what I see “in there” is not “just brainwaves”, but rather it is brainwaves on the one side, and thoughts and feelings on the other. Both are equally there, and equally valid. We shouldn’t let our image of ourselves be reduced to particles and chemicals.

    And yes, sometimes you need to choose between intuition and scientific explanation. Often it will be good to choose the science – but not always. It’s not a given. Science can fail, obviously.

  6. Ever heard of the mammogram debate? That’s a very good example of “intuition” flying in the face of scientific evidence. What’s the result? Fear, misinformation, and unnecessary, invasive procedures. Yes, i would “trust a scientific examination over your own introspection in regard to how you’re feeling.” Relying on introspection as a way of examining our mind is ill-informed and potentially dangerous.

  7. That’s a lot of good thinking on your part.

    I agree that we shouldn’t use religion as a substitute for science. We shouldn’t use introspection as a means of scientific inquiry. It just simply isn’t.

    However, I think there is a problem with one of your conclusions: “Instead of using approaches that are far from scientific to understand the mind, we should spend our time to research the mind using truly scientific methods.” …

    I fail to see the necessity of “instead” here. We can perfectly well meditate and use scientific methods in the same life and even on the same day! (Possibly even at the same time, but I’m not that advanced just yet…) I can trust my introspective experience with myself just as much as I can trust the scientific examination – they don’t need to be in conflict. Would you trust a scientific examination over your own introspection in regard to how you’re feeling? Would you trust your intuition over scientific examination in regard to the exact speed of light? I don’t think there really is much overlap. Science describes how my brains work, introspection tells me how I feel about it. That’s it. Science has come, will be a while, and will vanish. Same goes for buddhism. And for my introspection, of course.

    Also, I don’t think that it is necessary to think that enlightenment is real. Why would I have to decide this right now? Meditation seems to benefit my life, so I practice it. The four noble truths are a good working hypothesis, so I go with it. Whether this will lead me to nirvana or not, we’ll find out about that in due time, won’t we? After all, meditation is about the here-and-now, not about the afterlife. If I were to meditate for nirvana, weren’t I to abandon that simple tidbit of wisdom?

    IOW, we don’t need to take the four noble truths as absolute metaphysical truths. Regardless of whether the buddha intended them to be (which would make buddhism a religion) or not. No one can make me believe in them as in a dogma. They’re pretty good guidelines, good approximations to an expression of my own experience in daily life. But they’re just concepts, and as such, buddhistically speaking, they’re just as empty as every other thing.

    Are you familiar with the works of Ken Wilber? He’s a little bit of a pop guru, but I think much of his reasoning is sound. Basically, he says that it is rarely ever really necessary to go for an “either/or” approach. Often, “this and that” works just as fine and saves us a lot of strife. I highly recommend reading him!

  8. The Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy website says that the program teaches “how to sidestep mental habits such as rumination and self-blame.” Although the stated purpose of MBCT is preventing cases of depression, it seems reasonable to assume that, because it teaches people to deal with negative thinking, it will at least serve as a treatment for mild to moderate depression when used in combination with other treatment(s), especially for people who have experience with meditation. For example, the University of Kansas program Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, which is described by the researchers as a treatment for depression, includes “anti-ruminative behaviors” as one of its six “elements.”

  9. You need a little more critical thinking than introspection… Just because some things were discovered through introspection or altered states (your claim of “most” certainly needs evidence!), does not make this a useful technique for pursuing scientific discovery. Some things were discovered entirely by accident, too, so would you suggest that scientists just start throwing stuff around and seeing what sticks?

    Also, creative thinking/imagination and introspection are different things. Creative thinking does not require meditation or altered states. It can be grounded entirely in rationality.

  10. I think you’re failing to realize the MOST scientific acievements, all the way from 1700’s to now, have been achieved/glimpsed of through introspective states, first. Or even in dreams. Or like Francis Crick and DNA, while on LSD.
    There is something there!! Truth or wisdom or whatever you wanna call it. Altered states of awareness bring the infinity of the universe into the limited capacity of the human brain, from there, anything can be conceived of. And let me tell you this, if we didn’t have the capcity for introspective states/,meditation/ imagination, we would have nothing to show for it, cuz everything starts in the imagination first, before conception. We’d be no different than the millions of species on this planet. Creative thinking is what makes us human, and able to build and achieve anything we can dream of. Creative thinking IS the direct link to the creativeness and inventiveness inherent directly in nature/theuniverse. All great scientists and thinkers have been introspectively inclined. Its no secret.

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