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:
- Meditation leads to wisdom.
- Meditation leads to psychological well-being.
- Ethics leads to wisdom.
- 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.