A Defense of Buddhism Against Some Tired Old Criticisms By Charles Louis
A few years ago the journalist and author John Horgan wrote an article about his personal exploration of Buddhism, and the unfavorable view of Buddhist practice and philosophy that he had with some regret arrived at. Mr. Horgan, who as a writer specializes in covering the world of science, is also well-versed on the subject of spiritual enlightenment, having written an excellent book on what cutting-edge science has to say about the quest for transcendental experiences. Having read a couple of his books, and having a high opinion of him as both a writer and a person, when I recently chanced upon his article on Buddhism I was naturally curious to learn what opinion he had formed.
Even though I don’t actually wear the label “Buddhist”, my spiritual worldview and practice has a great deal in common with certain Buddhist schools of thought, and I’ve always had the highest regard for dedicated Buddhist practitioners. So yes, I felt a wee bit disappointed and defensive when I began reading Mr. Horgan’s Buddhist critique. It’s not that the aspersions he casts, per se, took me by surprise, some of his pet peeves against Buddhism are actually pretty classic criticisms. Criticisms that chauvinistic and racist Western opponents of Eastern religions first began to voice way back in the late 19th century. But Mr. Horgan is not a racist, a cultural imperialist, or a closed-minded fundamentalist type. The fact that he can still entertain such critical views about Buddhism means that they need to be taken seriously, and thoughtfully addressed by both “card-carrying” Buddhists, and sympathizers such as myself.
To take on that task here, I’ll touch on each of the points he makes against Buddhist beliefs and practice, in the order they occur in his article. The first point that he makes is that Buddhism is “functionally theistic”. That the doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply “the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness” to determine our next incarnation.
Although, personally, I don’t subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation, I find this first criticism to be fairly weak. Reading a belief in a man-upstairs kind of deity into the theories of karma and reincarnation is obviously a result of our human tendency to anthropomorphize, to interpret the impersonal as personal, thinking in terms of humanlike beings acting as agents behind natural forces and processes. Of course, the tendency to think in terms of a big-guy-in-the-sky God who micromanages the universe from the outside is also a legacy of two thousand years of Western religious training. Mr. Horgan seems to be subject to these two tendencies. But the Buddha, and many Buddhist denominations are definitely not.
As for Horgan’s train of reasoning itself, it simply does not logically and necessarily follow from the notion of karma that there must be a supernatural “cosmic judge” who makes sure that karmic law always serves up justice to us. I’m not going to go off on a digression here, and examine the thinking of great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers who’ve endeavored to explain how karma might possibly work without the micromanagement of a judgmental Jehovah. It will have to suffice here to say that some brilliant Eastern minds have in fact provided alternate explanations.
So, Buddhists are not actually guilty of dodging the “theistic implications” of their belief in karma and reincarnation. A Buddhist does not need to be intellectually dishonest with her/himself to avoid these supposed implications. She/he merely needs to subscribe to one of the alternate explanations.
Mr. Horgan next offhandedly reduces nirvana to the Buddhist counterpart of the Christian Heaven. This is a remarkable reduction indeed, considering the multitude of glaring differences between the Buddhist concept of a blissful state of liberation, and the Western religious hope of “pie in the sky”. Mr. Horgan does mention that we don’t have to die to enjoy nirvana, but he completely glosses over the rest of the difference between the two paradises. Webster’s defines heaven as “the dwelling place of the Deity and the blessed dead”, and “a spiritual state of everlasting communion with God”. Nirvana fits neither definition. It’s not a supernatural place or realm, where a deity resides. And, as Horgan concedes, you don’t have to be deceased to get there. Neither is nirvana a state of communion with an otherworldly God.
Nirvana is simply a transcendentally calm and contented way of experiencing reality that we graduate into by diligently practicing the internal discipline that the Buddha taught. It’s the supreme internal stability, strength, and serenity that results when we fully emancipate ourselves from our drug-addict-like enslavement to the cravings and demands of the “ego”. Needless to say, this is not exactly what the Christian churches understand by the word heaven! For them Heaven is a metaphysical locale, and our entry there is contingent upon our success at cultivating faith in Jesus Christ.
There are, however, a couple of ways in which nirvana does actually loosely resemble the Christian Heaven. For example, like making it into Heaven, nirvana is an ideal spiritual goal to aspire to. And just as we must be virtuous boys and girls to reach Heaven, practicing good ethical conduct is an important part of the Noble Eightfold Path to nirvana. But this is where the similarities end. There’s little else to justify pigeonholing nirvana as merely “Buddhism's version of heaven”.
Having courteously dissed the main goal of Buddhism by comparing nirvana to Heaven, Mr. Horgan then proceeds to attempt to politely discredit the mental discipline Buddhists use to reach and retain their impressive interior bliss. He brings up the fact that there’s hard scientific research that calls the benefits of meditation into question. He grants that meditation can reduce stress, but emphasizes that it can also sometimes worsen clinical depression and anxiety.
Sure, meditation is a powerful tool, and as is the case with any power tool it can cause injury. Especially in the hands of people who have inadequate training in how to properly use it. But the effectiveness of meditation as a means for achieving both inner peace and enlightenment is supported by plenty of what scientists dismissively call “anecdotal evidence”. And what scientific researchers pooh-pooh as “anecdotal evidence” of the value of meditation is what nonscientists would call impressive examples that go to show that when done correctly meditation is well worth any risks that might be involved.
As for Mr. Horgan’s claim that meditation is not significantly more useful for decreasing stress than just sitting and stilling ourselves, apparently he doesn’t get that “just sitting” and being still is the essence of some classic forms of meditation. If settling our bodies into a seated posture, and our minds into a quiet place for a fixed amount of time each day has a stress-reducing effect with measurable value for our mental health, then ipso facto meditation can be said to work, to work as a drug-free therapy for the tension and pressure of modern life!
Mr. Horgan then segues into questioning the validity and profundity of the spiritual insights rendered unto Buddhist meditators by their contemplative practices. In particular, he has a serious problem with the central doctrine of anatta. Anatta is the signature Buddhist view that there’s no such metaphysical item as a “soul”, no such thingamabob as the separate, solid, central mental entity called the “self”. Anatta is nothing less than the Buddha’s fundamental inspiration that the “self” is just a process, the ongoing byproduct of the interaction of different mental activities, as opposed to the more common idea that we have an incorporeal little guy in our heads, what’s called a “homunculus”, an actual controlling psychic unit that presides over our thinking and awareness.
Horgan points out that modern brain science does not exactly support the denial of the existence of a self. This is quite true. But if we’re going to rely on what science has to say on the subject we can’t aggressively dispute the doctrine of anatta, either. Because although contemporary cognitive science doesn’t endorse anatta, neither can it currently disprove it.
And, although science is admittedly often quite good at what it does, I do not share what appears to be Mr. Horgan’s implicit position, that materialistic science is the only valid way of gaining knowledge of our deepest nature, and of the ultimate nature of reality. Maybe for Mr. Horgan it’s a must that unmystical scientific methods confirm an insight before he will adopt it as his own. But then this means that he willfully harbors a bias, against mysticism and in favor of scientific materialism. A bias that ironically disqualifies him from being scientifically objective on the entire subject! (BTW, I suggest that everyone read Huston Smith’s excellent book on the blatant materialistic bias of modern science, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief.)
Yes, there is such a thing as scientific dogmatism, even though it’s hypocritically at odds with the supposedly impartial spirit of science. And lamentably this dogmatically scientific mindset has no more use for the perennial spiritual insights of Buddhism than it has for some of the outdated theological beliefs of fundamentalist Christians and Islamist extremists. So I for one am not inclined to reject a bodhic idea just because it hasn’t yet been rubber-stamped by the scientific community.
Horgan then explains why he thinks that the doctrine of anatta isn’t really conducive to making us good Samaritans and citizens. His argument is that if you don’t believe in a self, if you don’t believe that people have that ole “homunculus” (mini man or woman inside their heads) who’s feeling all of their pain, then you’re just not likely to care too deeply about the suffering of others. Although this line of psychological speculation has the ring of intelligent deduction, that ring is not really all that strong. Logically speaking, that we don’t have a central self, that our self is actually a process rather than a being, does not imply that we’re mere illusions whose suffering doesn’t matter! A professional logician would point out to Mr. Horgan that his reasoning is both “invalid”, and “unsound”.
And contrary to what Mr. Horgan’s rationalization of his views would lead him to expect, one of the chief ethical values of Buddhism has of course always been compassion. Sure, Buddhist societies and practioners have not always lived up to the Buddhist emphasis on compassion, just as Christians have not always practiced some of the noble morals their religion preaches. But is this failure of Buddhists to fully actualize their famous compassion due mostly to the doctrine of anatta, or more to the general difficulty that humans have consistently living up to their highest ethical ideals?
At any rate, certainly no Buddhist sect has ever actually taken the philosophical position that because we don’t have a self or soul therefore compassion is pointless and unnecessary. In the real world, and in the history of the Buddhist religion, the theory of anatta simply does not work in the morally dangerous, compassion-undermining way that Mr. Horgan fallaciously fears.
Horgan also holds that Buddhist enlightenment is morally hazardous because it places supposedly enlightened people on a moral pedestal above distinctions between right and wrong. He fears that there’s a distinct possibility that people who fancy themselves to be enlightened will lose the sense of right and wrong altogether. That they will come to believe that they are ethically infallible, that they truly can do no wrong because they are so darn enlightened, and that they will begin to operate accordingly. He cites a couple of examples of Buddhists behaving badly, such as the alcoholism of the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa, and the “masochistic behavior” of Bodhidharma.
Okay, admittedly, perhaps some “enlightened” Buddhist masters were not quite perfectly enlightened after all, perhaps their sense of being “enlightened” made them spiritual megalomaniacs. Perhaps this is an inherent pitfall of the quest for enlightenment, one we should carefully guard against. But does this really invalidate the very idea of enlightenment? Does it inescapably follow that there’s no legitimate enlightenment to be attained by practicing the Buddhist path? Because not all reportedly enlightened people have been 110% perfect in their personal conduct, does this mean that enlightenment is just a beautiful lie? Hardly, once again the logic of the cranky critics of Buddhism and religion is not as credible as they’d like to think.
Mr. Horgan also has his issues with the Buddhist path’s emphasis on extreme renunciation and detachment. He even criticizes the Buddha himself for coldly deserting his family (glossing over the little fact that the Buddha was a prince who left his wife and child in the lap of luxury, not in a skid row homeless shelter!). Horgan thinks that reckoning the self to be a fiction, and cultivating nonattachment from certain aspects of the self’s experience, is not really conducive to greater happiness, and is actually “anti-spiritual”.
If this were true, then I suppose that Jesus Christ himself, who told wannabee disciples that they needed to free themselves of all their worldly wealth, and their attachment to their families, was not very spiritual either? He certainly doesn’t come off sounding much like a “family values” oriented sort of spiritual life-coach. But genuine spirituality can indeed sometimes alienate you from the people in your life. And it will change how you prioritize the aspects of your life. You don’t reach enlightenment by continuing to take life the way you always have!
And the enlightened state of mind, in which our attachment to our ego-self, and its selfish loves, has been overcome is certainly less plagued by anxiety and depression. Less prone to heartache, despair, and bitterness. The external world no longer has the same power to inflict melancholy and miserableness on the enlightened mind. The experience of many enlightened individuals bears ample witness to this fact.
Mr. Horgan then cites a Western Buddhist who admits that his Buddhism may perhaps be superfluous, a touch of unnecessary window dressing on his basically secular humanist worldview. But are we supposed to conclude that because Buddhism may sometimes be spiritual window dressing that secular Westerners put on their values it’s incapable of being a real-deal form of growth-oriented spirituality? Have all the devout Asian Buddhists who’ve practiced it in a truly religious spirit (despite its metaphysical differences with other world religions) been fooling themselves for the last two-and-a-half millennia? Has it really just been a way of dressing up secular attitudes for them too? Are modern Western Buddhists too spiritually shallow, or deeply materialistic to adapt Buddhism to their needs without diminishing it to a bit of phony religious ornamentation for their lofty ethics? Have they just found a New Age way of being holier-than-thou?
No, to all of the above! What’s true for some is not true for all. Sure, the Buddhism of some Westerners is a pretty thin veneer covering an essentially humanistic outlook. But this is certainly not the case for many others. And not at all the case for most practicing Asian Buddhists. This one is perhaps Mr. Horgan’s weakest criticism yet. How do I prove the depth and sincerity of the spirituality of Buddhists? Just look at the truly spiritual way that so many Buddhists live. You can know authentic spirituality by its fruits, after all.
Mr. Horgan’s final negative observation is about religion in general. In Horgan’s view religions are little more than belief systems that men and women invent to pander to their own anthropocentric sense of man’s importance in the grand scheme of the cosmos. According to this kind of cynical thinking a religion is just an ego-boosting worldview in which the whole universe is supposed to be “anthropic”, geared to and revolving around human beings. I quote, “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.” Religion is just way too broadly besmirched and belittled here as being merely a reflection of our self-centeredness as a species! This is hardly an impressive, let alone an appreciative understanding of religion.
I would humbly submit that perhaps there’s a wee bit more to religion, and to why humans keep inventing religions. More than just our human bigheadedness. Or our tendency to anthropomorphize, to look for human personality elsewhere in reality. Instead, and to the contrary, maybe religion and spirituality are an outer manifestation of an inner awareness of our own depth. An awareness that our deepest reality and identity transcends our human narcissism. Perhaps religion is actually man’s ticket beyond his egoism, to profoundly greater depth and self-transcendence.
Horgan also thinks that science is much more noble than religion, because science is bravely honest about the cold meaninglessness and scary randomness of existence. Once again, he seems to share the materialistic mindset of a great many modern scientists, who consider science’s blindness to the values inherent in reality to be an intellectual virtue. Those of us in the “religious” camp, of course, see science’s blindness to values as more of a spiritual handicap. We should have compassion then on our radically skeptical sisters and brothers in the sciences, as they are, after all, ethically and spiritually-challenged.
However, despite his scientific materialism, and mild cynicism, John Horgan is not one of the bigoted and ignorant critics of Buddhism and alternative spirituality. He and his criticisms cannot be easily dismissed as anti-Eastern religion, as anti-religion in general, as intolerant or conservative. This is why Mr. Horgan’s faultfinding opinions merit such a lengthy response. Mr. Horgan demonstrates that it’s altogether possible for a modern person in the Western world to have a good and open mind and still seriously misunderstand certain key “Eastern” spiritual concepts and techniques.
Another Western admirer and student of Asian inner sciences was Carl Jung. Despite his interest in “Oriental” thought, Jung held that it’s simply impossible for Western minds to fully take on board Eastern religions. Perhaps he overestimated the difficulty of absorbing a philosophy of life imported from an “alien” culture. But if the fact that a man of goodwill, such as Mr. Horgan, can undertake an exploration of Buddhism and reach a negative verdict similar to that of Western cultural and religious chauvinists is any indication, perhaps Jung did not really overestimate by much the difficulty of perfectly attuning our minds to foreign philosophies.
It does seem that Eastern ideas always either get misinterpreted or thoroughly reinterpreted by Europeans and Americans. Well, once you take a belief out of its original cultural context it’s going to undergo some change. This is just inevitable, and not always a completely bad thing, of course. But often it does lead to the misuse and abuse of “exotic” religious beliefs.
To give a reverse example of what I mean, in 19th century China an Easterner named Hong Xiuquan twisted some "exotic" Western beliefs that he had learned from Christian missionaries, and launched an insurrection that may have cost more than 20 million lives! Admittedly, an extreme example. But it shows that transplanting beliefs is a tricky proposition. Recklessly transplanted beliefs can sometimes be downright dangerous to our physical and spiritual well-being. To the degree that even progressive intellectuals, such as John Horgan, turn against them. This is something of a tragedy, since such individuals, who are on the cusp of social and spiritual enlightenment, could potentially help humanity make great strides in its ongoing evolution. If they had not been soured on spirituality by some of its unfortunate distortions, that is.
To sum up here, there are still some old negative saws about Buddhism and alternative spirituality hanging around in the minds of even progressive intellectuals. Apparently 21st century men and women whose aspiration is universal human enlightenment still have their hands pretty well full with the preliminary grunt work of enlightening the general public about the very nature of enlightenment.