A little while ago, I couldn’t help commenting on a post I reshared on Google +, even though the content is maybe more suited to some of what I’ve been doing here. (Very possibly why, at the time of writing this, nobody has responded there; it’s kind of dense by many people’s standards.) I tried to keep things short over there, believe it or not ;), but I thought I’d repost it here where it is more relevant, and probably expand a bit.
I’m trying to avoid nesting blockquotes here, but will set it off with dividing lines for clarity. And change the formatting a bit, so I’m not top-posting before there’s any context to wrap around it. (I ended up having trouble getting some line break/paragraph spacing formatting in particular right after pasting that in, and ran out of spoons to deal with it. So, sorry it’s kind of ugly in places.)
via +John Pappas [of Sweep the dust, Push the dirt–which I haven’t been able to keep up with well lately! But, very thoughtful blog.]:
Science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can…
I enjoyed the article but any religion practice is defined by an individual’s need, perspective and inherent skepticism. In that way there is a spectrum of religious people even within one particular static belief system. This is also why organized religions are so fearful of “picking and choosing” aspects of the religion you “belong” to. When you choose for yourself you disintegrate the power structure that religions built around themselves to secure their position in society. You, in essence, state that they are not needed.
And you are correct. It becomes the goal of the individual to align their spiritual self with the stark (but wonderful) realities that science unfolds.
“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”
Brilliant piece on why Buddhism shouldn’t be awarded ‘special status’ by the skeptical community. Like all religions, it’s got its fair share of woo too.
For a 2,500-year-old religion, Buddhism seems remarkably compatible with our scientifically oriented culture, which may explain its surging popularity here in America. Over the last 15 years, the numb…
______ My response:______
+John Pappas raises some excellent points. I would add explicitly that the tendency to wrap certain kinds of rigid structures and types of mysticism around a philosophical system, should not be confused with the underlying philosophical system itself.
While John Horgan does make some interesting observations about tendencies in Western Buddhism specifically, I kept getting frustrated reading the article because the author seemed to be bringing in many of the same preconceptions about the way the world works which lead to some of tendencies he was describing. Including filtering this through the kind of oppositional dualistic worldview which is kinda incompatible with Buddhist philosophy. This includes the assumption that somehow science and everything that gets described as religion are inherently incompatible and ultimately irreconcilable.
If your philosophical system gets in the way of trying to understand the world around you–whatever the details may be–you’re doing it wrong.
Something I wrote about that general theme, from a different philosophical perspective, a while back–though most of the points apply equally well to Buddhist philosophy:
Illusions getting in the way? Hrm. I didn’t get the impression that he developed a very thorough understanding of the actual philosophy involved, before rejecting some of the outward trappings and, indeed, ways that philosophical concepts and the terms for them are commonly interpreted by people coming from Western systems–which may or may not say much about, say, anatta itself. (Which does not have much in common with Western nihilism, no.)
These days I identify more as Buddhism-inspired, myself, but seem to have put a lot more time and effort into trying to make sense of a philosophical system I might or might not more fully identify with.
[Added as a comment:]
I totally forgot to mention the assumptions of some kind of conflict between individual and wider community interests. Which, particularly for people who have grown up with the common emphasis on rugged individualism pushed in dominant US culture, I can well imagine is hard to get past as a base assumption about how the world must inevitably work. This applies equally well to some of Horgan’s observations–and to some of the frankly narcissistic behavior I have personally witnessed in some Western convert communities. (While this level of it is, indeed, not the norm, it is kind of hard not to notice.)And none of this meshes too well with a Buddhist (or other) emphasis on interconnectedness.
There is another view: that strong individuals kinda by definition make for strong communities, and that you can’t do much to help other people have good lives unless or until you deal with your own stuff. Emphasis on the two levels of organization is not mutually exclusive.
I didn’t want to clog things up there with links back to posts here–out of my usual desire for thorough explanations before anybody can misinterpret what I’m trying to say :)–but I wrote some about this no conflict required kind of approach to individuals and wider communities especially toward the end of Culture, how we view human difference, and abuse.
Buddhism has, for most of its history, run up against and needed reconciliation with different cultural outlooks; one of the strengths of the philosophical traditions there is that they have the built-in flexibility to do that. I was trying to find a good link to something going into how the initial monastic approach clashed big time with the rather different Chinese emphasis on community–and the compromises and changes in approach and presentation to reconcile this, through emphasis on individuals helping their families through getting their own shit sorted out–but didn’t have much luck finding something suitable right now. But, some of the results, from a decent more general discussion
of some of the philosophical conflicts:
The most Daoist of Chinese sects is famously the Chan sect. We can understand its Daoist character by returning to the paradox of desire. Laozi’s analysis says artificial desires are those created by learned distinctions. If we are to eliminate the desire for Nirvana, it must be by “forgetting” the dichotomy of Nirvana-Samsara. This realization is both the inner reality of enlightenment and corresponds to a mystical answer to the being/non-being of Nirvana. It underwrites the Chan/Zen emphasis on practice, the here and now — “every moment Zen” — and the signature “realization” that we are already Buddha. The Buddha nature is your self-nature—again exemplifying the Neo-Daoist “Sage within, King without” spirit…
Chinese Zen was dominated by the notion of “sudden enlightenment” which consists of the denial that any process leads anyone closer to the Buddha-nature. You can’t get any closer — you’re just there.
(Not surprisingly, I was more drawn to Zen/Chan takes on philosophy, and that led me to learn more about the Taoist philosophies that got blended in.) But, this is one of the most common schools of Buddhism taken into the West. It’s unfortunately easy for me to see how some people manage to pretty much miss the whole point–unconsciously–and fall into self-absorption.
Horgan mentions Stephen Batchelor’s works in his article, but seems to have missed one of the major points Batchelor keeps making in Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (I have not yet read any of his other books, though that one made me think a lot): enlightenment is not some kind of mystical occurrence, but a gradual and continuing process of developing a better understanding of the nature of reality and the world around us, and how we really fit into all this. Much as mentioned in the above quote (with basically becoming able to see one’s “Buddha nature” through all the layers of unhelpful stuff we’ve learned and made up individually), or indeed the closely related processes I talked about some in Happiness, Part 4: Seeing beauty.
Michel Clasquin-Johnson made some good points in his essay “Buddhism, science, and other world views”, in Common or Garden Dharma. Essays on Contemporary Buddhism, Volume 2 . A sample relevant here (bolding added):
From a Buddhist point of view, it seems that the whole question of the relationship, for which we should read the clash of ideologies, between religion and science is a peculiarly Judæo-Christian problem. As I shall try to make clear, to the Buddhist it is as senseless to say that religion and science are in conflict as to say that mathematics conflicts with English grammar. Both are symbolic languages that attempt to describe reality from a specific perspective. But those initial perspectives are so different that one cannot really talk of a relation between the two unless one posits a higher-order meta-language of which both are subsets…
On a more strictly academic level, one could mention that Buddhist philosophy has addressed many of the same questions as other religious and philosophical traditions, but starting from often radically different starting points. This provides us with a unique vantage point from which to examine our own beliefs and arguments, and discover the often well hidden presuppositions, prejudices and apparently self evident “facts” on which our arguments are so often based…
From the Buddhist point of view, the enterprise of physics may well be interesting in a theoretical way, but the origin and composition of the universe has nothing whatever to do with the goal of religious practice. The existence of the universe is, of course, a prerequisite for our existence and hence for the possibility of religious practice, but Buddhism takes this existence as a given and proceeds with no further consideration of the matter to its real concern, the state of the human mind…
And the three central Buddhist themes of impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness are, if not directly applicable as scientific concepts, at least congenial to them. In a later development, these three were conflated into a single concept: “emptiness”. When Buddhists say that “everything is empty”, this does not imply that nothing exists. It does mean that while everything in reality is real enough, no part of it could survive without the simultaneous presence of all other parts. It points to the radical interdependence of all that exists. It denies the existence of any form of reality that occupies a unique place, that exists solely by its own power. It applies this understanding of reality strictly to everything. There is no privileged place in this scheme for homo sapiens. There is no “ghost in the machine” – to classify ourselves as part ghost, part machine is to show an inadequate concept of the complicated nature of existence. We too are part of this unbelievably intricate web of causality, within and without, in which a myriad of causes, known or unknown, shapes what we are and what we become. This does not lead, in Buddhism, to a strict determinism, for volition is recognized as one of the empirically discernible factors that go into making a sentient being. But there is no soul or self in Buddhist thinking, no irreducible core of human-ness that transcends the vagaries of empirical existence. In fact, what I have called “insubstantiality” above, when read more literally, is “not-self” (anatta).
Much more quoted material than I had intended, but it’s all very relevant. Buddhist philosophy, per se, may not be focused on the same questions as science, but the original emphasis on “question everything” would tend to encourage curiosity about how things are really working in areas more relevant to the sciences.
Personally, I see it all as hard to divide up neatly, and prefer to take pretty much the same approach to all of it. Which seems to me to be kind of the point of all the philosophical influences I’ve chosen to work with, including the Buddhist side of things. That kind of complexity, though, is hard enough to approach with any hope of understanding if you are not relying on common Western philosophical approaches, which are ill-equipped to deal with radically interdependent complexity.
And, yeah, I hope to have the spoons available soon to get back to boring people with the explicitly philosophical series, and maybe even finally get around to the actual chaos and complexity bits. 😉
One way in which Malslow’s hierarchy of needs does not adequately explain reality, BTW: having disability-related trouble, with trouble getting some needs met, can leave you with more time and energy to devote to philosophical questions–not to mention a more pressing perceived need at times. Kind of like one person put it, in a Muskogee context:
If something is denied the body, the mind and spirit must be in the intake mode. If the mind and spirit are denied something, the body must be fed. It’s a matter of maintaining whole-person balance in our understandings.