Monday, August 20, 2012

Buddhism, Part 1

As part of my investigation into religion, I decided several months ago that it made a lot of sense to investigate religions other than the one I happened to be born into.  As part of that effort, a few months back I did some studying on Buddhism, and never got around to formally writing up my thoughts, so here goes.

The book I read was What the Buddha Taught, and I was really struck by two things.  First, Buddhism seems to get right all the things Christianity gets wrong, but get wrong all the things Christianity gets right.  Second, even after making an effort to understand it, I still find myself rejecting Buddhism not just as wrong, but as self-evidently absurd (and this concerns me greatly).  I'll talk about this second point more in my next post, but for now, I want to deal with the first point.

For those unacquainted with Buddhism, I would definitely recommend reading the book yourself.  It's quite short (less than 100 pages), and even has some cool pictures of Buddha statues.  A final word of caution, my analysis here is working off of a single book (which itself is really more of a summary) written by one guy, so I'm sure I've still got plenty of misconceptions.  But if misconceptions stopped us from making authoritative-sounding claims, all of Congress would be out of a job.  Heyo!

What Buddhism gets right and Christianity gets wrong

Buddhism has this wonderful view of how to pursue truth that's about 2300 years ahead of its time.  It rejects authority in the forms of Faith and Tradition, and instead exhorts the follower to "come and see" rather than "come and believe".  It is a prescription for arriving at your own knowledge, finding Truth for yourself, rather than being told what's true by a religious teacher.  It's really a fundamental rejection of Authority in favor of Truth, which carries with it the implicit assumption that Authority and Truth are different things. The Christian basically claims that Authority and Truth are one and the same- that anything that has Authority is wholly and completely true (usually either the Church or the Bible, depending on the denomination).  But I don't think anyone reasonable could deny that people in the past have taken action based on these Authorities and have been wrong.  The Church was responsible for the crusades, and the Bible has had to be reinterpreted several times, notably to disallow slavery and to allow the equal social standing of women, just to name a few.  So while the Christian may hold that the ideal Church or the properly interpreted Bible is categorically true, the Buddhist seems to have the weight of history on their side- it's incredibly unlikely that all the past believers of a religion have been wrong, but all the current ones are right, particularly since we are taught our religion by all those wrong-headed believers from the past.

Buddhism absolutely prohibits violence in it's name- you are not to make others believe, but only to offer them Truth that they may have the chance to seek more of it if they so choose.  Buddhism, seemingly unique amongst all religions, has spread through peace.  There is, as always, contention over exactly how peaceful Buddhism is.  I'm certainly not the expert here, but I will say that if What the Buddha Taught is at all accurate, then at the very least Buddhism places a much higher premium on peace than Christianity.  Abrahamic religions tend to treat violence, be it in the Old Testament or the End Times (or Jihad), as a necessary means to an end.  Buddhism treats it as wrong in all its forms.  Even if Buddhism does have some violence in its history, there's still a pretty stark contrast between modern Buddhism's view of violence with modern Christianity's view of violence.

Things Buddhism gets wrong and Christianity gets right

Buddhism rejects Doubt.  It is explicitly called out as something that is going to prevent you from reaching enlightenment.  This doesn't jive with me at all.  Bayesian belief doesn't allow for doubt-less belief. We literally can NEVER be 100% sure of anything, and claiming that we can seems to me at best bad epistemology, and at worst an invitation to ignore evidence (I confess to being a bit confused by the duality presented in What the Buddha Taught- Doubt is listed as one of the "five hindrances to progress", but the author also cautions against "being attached to a certain view" as foolish and unwise).  Christianity, on the other hand, seems to embrace doubt.  Admittedly, many Christian families and denominations do not, but pretty much every famous Christian philosopher (Catholic or otherwise) has gone through severe doubts, and come away better for them.  This one's a no-brainer for me.  Without the possibility of doubt, you've given up any hope of fixing your beliefs if you're wrong.

Buddhism advocates for detachment. It basically says that "Dukkha" (loosely translated "suffering", though the author stresses that this is an inadequate translation.  Think along the lines of the Christian term "broken") arises because of our "thirst" for things of this world.  It says that these desires are what stop us from reaching a true understanding of reality, which is what leads to enlightenment.  This idea that "thirst" is the evil in itself is just plain weird to someone who comes from a Christian background. Christianity (in my estimation) teaches that this thirst is pointing us towards something much grander. It teaches that this thirst can be quenched, and indeed that a passion for good things (or passion against bad things) is one of the primary moral imperatives in this world. Love God and Love others- and Love is not detachment. I think the Christian view fits a lot better with my empirical experience- the happiest times in my life are when I've been in love, or passionate about something, or have a goal I'm striving towards- not when I've been detached.

Buddhism (or rather, the Buddha) flatly refused to answer some questions.  What the Buddha Taught basically says that our human-ness matters more that these unanswerable metaphysical questions.  Now, I'm generally on board with this sentiment- I agree that our Human-ness matters a LOT more than metaphysical questions in terms of how we live our day-to-day lives.  But I also think that these questions can help us differentiate which religion (if any) actually makes sense. That is to say, once you're a Buddhist (or a Christian or a Muslim), it's not such a big deal to not have an answer for these questions. But when deciding between these religions (or if you believe any of them at all), we ought to hold them all to the same standard. Since these metaphysical questions seem to me some of the best arguments against Atheism, it's important that religion offers a better answer than "it doesn't matter", or it hasn't differentiated itself from Atheism.  One thing about Christianity- a lot of its answers aren't convincing, but it always has an answer.

But Buddhism goes farther than just refusing to answer a few question.  This particular book says things like "Nirvana is beyond all terms of duality and relativity" all the time.  He never nails down exactly what he's saying. It seems like there's pattern here of hand-waiving; Buddhism can't answer what Nirvana is like, it can't explain where right and wrong come from, it can't explain where the Arahants go once their bodies die, and most importantly, it can't explain where any of it comes from, other than to say "it comes from itself" in some infinite cycle. It's certainly unfair to accuse Buddhism of this without acknowledging that both Christianity and Atheism do some hand-waiving themselves, but it seems like the hand-waiving of Buddhism is much more foundational than the other two.

Buddhism also has no answer for determinism.  Here again it does some hand-waving, but it can't ultimately tell us why we as rational agents matter more than the sum of our parts anymore than atheism can.  The Arahant is only the Arahant because he could not be anything else. And the non-enlightened is only non-enlightened because he has no choice. That's the crux of it- without a non-physical "soul", it seems to me we've lost the ability to say that we "choose" anything. We've lost will itself.  Christianity has an answer for this.  Granted, it's an answer that's often shrouded in the mystery of "God's ways are higher than our ways", but at least it's an answer.

Finally, Buddhism is the only philosophical system I know of that really embraces the idea that you're really nothing more than the sum of your parts, and that "you" isn't actually the "you" you think it is- it's just whatever signals happen to be running around your brain at the moment. Certainly most forms of atheism lead to this conclusion- but usually it's followed by a wholesale rejection of the idea that this negates the concept of finding meaning. Buddhism, in contrast, seems to make it the goal to come to terms with your non-individuality, and sort of assimilate back into the universe (for lack of a better phrasing). The point is to get to a place where you recognize your non-individuality and you cease to even desire individuality. I certainly don't find that model very compelling- my moral intuitions point pretty clearly towards individuality and freedom being some of the highest "good" we can find.


It almost seems like Buddhism should be labeled "Romantic Atheism".  It rejects basically everything "spiritual", but tries to hold on to meaning by talking in terms of morality, though I've yet to see any basis for calling something "right" or "wrong" in a Buddhist framework.  In that sense, it finds itself vulnerable to the same moral relativism charges levied against Atheism. They both share the fundamental flaw that they can't tell us WHY humans matter. Buddhism talks a lot about the value of life, and how we ought to be compassionate and loving to all things- while simultaneously denying that things have a "self" to begin with. I can't rectify these competing values in a single world view- either in atheism or Buddhism. I'm actually thankful for the parallels I see between the two. I'm tempted to attribute my lack of understanding to a cultural bias of mine, that I am simply thinking like a westerner and don't understand. But it seems to me that lots of westerners make this claim too, and I don't agree with them either.

But I'm still really unclear on who/what is actually getting enlightened if the mind/consciousness is just physical. Buddhism talks of disciplining the mind, but who or what is doing the "controlling" of the mind to discipline it in the first place? If we have no true sense of self, then it seems like there's no reason to care about finding enlightenment- and more importantly, nothing to be enlightened.

I also found the author's criticism of theism a bit wonky. Pretty much any of the objections he made- "Though highly developed as theories, they are all the same extremely subtle mental projections, garbed in an intricate metaphysical and philosophical phraseology"- seem to apply word-for-word to Buddhism as well.

Ultimately, I think I would give Buddhism a lot more credit if I had never been in love.  Buddhism claims that detachment is the path to enlightenment.  But my experience (and intuition) tells me that passion- whether for a person, an activity, or an ideal- is the only thing that gives life meaning.