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.


  1. Just like you I've been in confusion about religions a lot of years ago. I've researched the core ideas of every religion that I came across, about what they come to say and only found that they have been following the laid principles and laws of the religion in order to ensure maximum benefit to the individual and the society in which one lives. All the principles and laws have been in accordance with what the buddhism tells as 'MIND'.
    These rules are laid in synchronous with our mind's funtioning. The creators of the religion have carefully planned structures from their own experience and with their knowledge acquired through introspection and have thus laid those principles. What ever they be, they aimed at delivering a peaceful and happy existence to human beings, which is possible only through abiding by the principles. The mind's functionality is that a same thing can be achieved by many means and hence a numerous religions following various principles but without changing the essense on which this human mind works, exists today. What Buddhism differs in matters with other religion is that it offers your own way to approach the truth, be the way million in numbers, but arrive to the only conclusion, which is the Buddhism's core principle. The seekers finally end up with this MIND, which is neither incomprensible nor comprehensible because they find that finding, seeking or whatever that you do is because of the "NATURE" of the MIND. So anything that arises, be it questions how much ever suprising or attention-drawing or wishes or desires, or whatever happening through this mind is one kind of nature of this mind and nothing more than that. They also get to understand that searchings will never yield results because the nature of a searching is that it arises momentarily and only when responded immediately will make a turn in your life. IF YOU PAY ATTENTION TO IT, YOU WILL BE DRAWN INTO ITS ENDLESS CIRCLE. IF YOU LET LOOSE OF YOUR THOUGHT OF FINDING THINGS, YOU WILL NOT BE RESTRAINED BY ANY MORE SEARCHINGS AND YOU WILL BE FREE. A lot of such understandings comes naturally without teaching anything inadvance, but purely with the seekers self guided thought. They allow this self-understanding because the essense of human minds are same just as any river passing through various terrains still attaining the same ocean.


    Hence many other religions don't allow this understanding to be attained by our own way of seeking, rather set a program to run in our minds without giving us the burden of how to create the program.

    I am not a buddhist but I am following the freelancer way of buddhist living. However this is not the way taught in conventional buddhist schools. This teaching is the direct absorption from the twenty sixth patriach, Bodhidharma(also called 'Tamo').
    Hey if you are interested to peep at my poem about this mind, just click my blog url post on date Aug 21

  2. You might like the book "The Unexpected Way: On converting from Buddhism to Catholicism" By Paul Williams

  3. I get so sick of hearing about the Baysian theorem. But I hate math. It makes my head hurt.

    "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."

    I don't see how that makes any sense. I'm a Deist so I have a vague sense of a "non-physical soul" but even if the soul was physical I don't believe that would result in determinism. I could always appeal to quantum theory which I know next to nothing about if I wanted to defend it with science, but like atheists say of the Bible "You can prove anything with science." So I stick with common sense. How do I know there's a God who created the world? Common sense. How do I know he wants us to live morally? Common sense. How do I know we have "souls"? Common sense. How do I know we have free-will? Common sense.

    Now a Christian might argue that only humans have free-will and animals just follow instinct blindly without fail. But that's probably because most pastors had only dogs (and stupid breeds at that, the type that hump your leg) growing up. If they had had a cat, or more than one cat, they'd know animals have free will too. Cats clearly make choices. You can see their little heads looking back and forth between two things trying to make a choice. So no stupid "philosophical" or "scientific" argument will ever convince me that cats don't have free-will. No stupid "my religious book says cats don't have free-will" argument will convince me either. I trust what I observe myself.

    Speaking of cats...if you've never been there, you should check out I can haz cheezburger.

  4. I must admit that although a Deist I have theistic tendencies, and although I may not believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, I do believe that God revealed the 10 commandments on I'm kinda a Theist/Deist hybrid of some sort. Anyway, God created cats, and that's my answer to the problems of theodicy. A God who could create cats can't be all bad.

  5. I think in a lot of the above the problem is the disconnect between the religion of the people and the religion of the academics. In every religion you've got the "folk" version of the religion and the "academic" version. Its the same with Judaism and Christianity too. The problem is that since the Reformation we've been in this weird cycle where everyone thinks that academic Christianity (original sin, predestination, the Trinity, etc.) must be imposed on everyone. Prior to the Ref, folk Christianity was extremely popular. The common folk believed in God, in Jesus dying for their sins, and in living morally. The common folk didn't buy into Paul, predestination, lack of free-will, original sin, the Trinity, etc. All of that was the property solely of the academics. The problem is we've enabled the academics to control us too much. Its time for the common people to take their religion back. Otherwise, Christianity will die, because academic religion is dead. Academic religion, whether Buddhist or Christian, always ends up in bed with determinism and therefore inconsistent with itself. Determinism is inconsistent with reality, and therefore with everything else, and no coherent system can exist where determinism is embraced.