Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Buddhism & Science: Superstition

"They do not get carried away by superstition; they believe in deeds, aspiring to results from their own deeds through their own effort in a rational way; they are not excited by wildly rumored superstition, talismans or lucky charms; they do not aspire to results from praying for miracles."
(From Anguttara Nikaya III 206, Pali Tipitaka)

The above quotation, attributed to the Buddha, is the description of the third of five qualities to be developed by dedicated lay Buddhists, which are collectively known as the upasakadhamma in Pali. (The other four qualities are: 1) conviction in the efficacy of the Buddhist way of life to transcend suffering, 2) basic morality, 4) commitment to the Buddhist Path & its teachers, and 5) supporting Buddhism & other charitable causes.) In this brief article, the focus is on the third quality which is described above in bold type.

In response to my last post, entitled The Noble Eightfold Path, Leander, a regular reader of this blog, made intelligent objections to my treatment of the superstitious and supernatural elements in many people's lives. (Please look at Leander's eloquent words in the 'comments' section of the previous post to see exactly what he wrote.) In my response, I focused on modern, scientific reasons for not indulging in the belief of supernatural entities and places, as well describing the Eightfold Path in rational terms.

In the words quoted above, it can be seen that such an attitude to superstition, particularly towards the petitionary and protective varieties often seen here in Thailand, is grounded in traditional teachings attributed to the Buddha. Praying to gods, angels, and nature spirits to help one out of difficulties or to gain some advantage over others is simply not in the down-to-earth spirit of the Buddha's teachings; something that most meditating Buddhists would probably agree with. Few people in this beautiful country actually practice meditation or mindfulness, however, preferring to concentrate on 'making merit' to gain some advantage for their future lives, or procuring 'magic' talismans or potions to protect them from harm. Monks are often asked to supply lottery numbers in the belief that they have some sort of predictive powers to enrich their followers - something the late, great Ajahn Chah, amongst other forest monks, refused to do.

Of course, in the Buddhist scriptures there can be found ample descriptions of supernatural beings, places, and phenomena, apparently inherited from the Hindu culture in which Buddhism originally developed. And, again, here in Thailand the existence of gods, spirits, demons, ghosts, and a host of other irrational beliefs are taken for granted by the majority of the populace. And, yet, those that seem most dedicated to walking the Eightfold Path also seem to be the least superstitious. Is it that investigating experience with mindfulness reveals reality, and that that reality lacks such unscientific entities as angels, demons, and dragons?

An important point here is not to go overboard in criticizing Asian countries in particular for their more superstitious beliefs, for if they had not kept alive the Buddha's teachings for the last two-and-a-half millennia, there'd be no living Buddhism to learn from. For this alone, we Western Buddhists should be deeply grateful. However, it is not only occidental Buddhists that can be detached from superstition - many, many orientals do the same. Think of the many wonderful Buddhist teachers to spread the teachings to the West - how many of them presented it in a rational manner, with little or no mention of fantastic beings or places?

Perhaps it's time to fuse the heart of Buddhism - the Noble Eightfold Path - with modern scientific discoveries, which are based on facts rather than opinion or tradition. The interconnectedness of all life that Buddhists have taught about for so long is now being independently confirmed by modern science, as is the efficacy of mindfulness & meditation to develop peaceful, happier people. What do you think, reader - is it time to ditch the supernatural in favor of the natural? Or is belief in the supernatural an integral part of the Path? Please leave a comment and share your perspectives on this important debate. (Once again, a big thank you to Leander for his much-appreciated comments last time. Hope you don't mind being credited here!)

The quotation above is taken from 'The Buddhist's Discipline', a booklet written by the Venerable P.A. Payutto and available in PDF format from the following link (please click on '11.pdf' in the small blue box when you go there to view or download the booklet):
The Buddhist's Discipline

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Noble Eightfold Path

“These two extremes, monks, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, and unprofitable; and self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and unprofitable.
“Monks, by avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.
“And what, monks, is the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana?
“It is just this Noble Eightfold Path, namely:
“Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
“Truly, monks, this Middle Way understood by the Tathagata produces vision, produces knowledge, and leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.”
(Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)

In the above words ascribed to the Buddha in his first discourse, we have the heart of Buddhism, or what he calls in the Sutra the Middle Way. That Buddhists should endeavor to walk the Middle Way avoiding extremes of behavior in thought, deed, and word is well-known enough. But this is a pretty vague and wishy-washy guideline on which to base one’s life, especially if Nirvana is one’s aim. Of course, as the quotation above shows, Buddhism doesn’t leave it there, defining the Middle Way in a much more constructive manner: The Noble Eightfold Path.

So, the eight aspects of the Path exist to assist us to establish vision and understanding in our lives, which in turn lead to calm, penetration, enlightenment, and Nirvana. But, vision of what - gods, heavens, previous lives, aliens, dragons, fairies, and pixies? No, vision of the way things are, right now. (And, my guess is that you are not sat with Zeus, Tinkerbell, or E.T. as you read these words. Nor are you residing in some celestial realm, surrounded by angels, seventy-two virgins or the like. And what is this religious obsession with virginity, anyhow? Surely true spiritual purity is of the mind, not of the body?)

I am sat in my living room as I write these words, not amongst the clouds; and no deity sits with me, only my pet dog, Leo. And as for ‘fairies’, well there’s plenty of those here in Thailand, but they don’t live with me! I imagine your present circumstances are much the same as my own. Reality can be pretty boring sometimes, not colorful and exciting like a blue-tinged god playing the flute or a telepathic grey come to whisk you off to their planet. And yet, the kind of vision that the Eightfold Path points to is precisely that of the boring every day type; indeed, it is only this kind of vision that can lead to real understanding of the Dharma ('the-way-things-are'). Understanding the nature of ghosts and goblins isn’t liberation from the extremes of human suffering, rather, it is a form of escapism, like reading the Lord of the Rings books, only taking them for real.

Attaining this vision and understanding of reality leads us to calmness. We are no longer caught up in the highs and lows of life, avoiding such extremes of emotional attachment and aversion. We are walking the Middle Way to the penetration of life’s ultimate dilemma, our suffering, and becoming enlightened to its causes and cures. We are approaching Nirvana, the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The Noble Eightfold Path, it is claimed, leads us to the transcendence of suffering, to genuine, lasting contentment or happiness. And, this is done not by praying, reciting incantations, doing rituals, or invoking supernatural powers to intervene on one’s behalf. It is done through the effort of maintaining the eight aspects of the Path until their fulfillment. Each of us, as practitioners of the Way, can cultivate the wisdom and compassion that arise out of our dedicated efforts, not through the (non-existent?) assistance of certain celestial beings. (If, in reality, they are personifications of those qualities needed in us to transcend suffering, supernatural beings may be useful in walking the Path, but otherwise, they seem like self-created mirages in the desert of nescience.)

Dear reader, what is your experience of the Path – is it the down-to-earth system of practice described above, or is there ‘something more’ to it for you? Do celestial beings appear to you and assist in your efforts? Does the belief in such beings and the divine realms they are supposed to inhabit inspire you somehow, or do you find such ideas irrelevant to walking the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha? As to the Path itself, is there a clear line between it and the supernatural and superstitious aspects of Buddhism for you, or are they inseparable? Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

For any Buddhist terms that you’re unfamiliar with, please click on ‘A Buddhist Glossary’, found on the right side of the blog.

Friday, February 20, 2009

All Faiths and None

Venerable Amaranatho, a Buddhist monk residing at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England asked me to take a look at an Internet project he is involved in called AFAN (All Faiths and None). Having taken a look at the site, I can vouch that it's certainly worth a look for anyone interested in interfaith and humanist issues, with contributors representing Buddhism (Venerable Amaranatho), Christianity, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Judaism & Sikhism. For reasons of accuracy (and laziness) Venerable Amaranatho is quoted here:

"All Faiths and None (AFAN) is aimed at providing web based resources for further education colleges. AFAN is composed of a group of people with different worldviews who are exploring some of the big questions in life from their personal viewpoints. The AFAN website provides resources to enable college learners and staff to develop an understanding of the big questions..

"The website includes short essays on a range of topics from death, to sex, to violence and freedom. There are also videos, music and images exploring these topics from a range of perspectives. The different resources can be used to explore further the values and beliefs held by people in the world today. You can some of my Buddhist essays which are directed towards young people at

"AFAN hope that these resources will help to build mutual understanding, and recognition of common values and unique differences. Teachers wanting to use these resources in their institutions will find the necessary tools to facilitate this in the teachers' section of the website."

So, why not take a look at AFAN by clicking on the link below - which is interesting even if you are not a college teacher or student - and learn about the varied perspectives of various traditions on important is a genuinely stimulating site!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Buddha & Science: Killing the Buddha

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.
(Sam Harris, ‘Killing the Buddha’, Shambala Sun, March 2006 - see link below)
In his thought-provoking article for Shambala Sun magazine, Sam Harris raises some fundamental questions for those of us that follow the teachings of the Buddha. It is not that Harris is some kind of iconoclast that wishes to destroy Buddhist tradition for the sake of it, and nor is he (as far as I know) an American Zen master calling for attachments to be dropped so that one may awaken to the truth of Zen. He is a serious-minded scientist that has considered the negative affects that religions have had on the world, along with his colleagues the famous biologist Richard Dawkins and the well-known journalist Christopher Hitchens. (These three writers have been dubbed ‘the Unholy Trinity’ for their anti-religious views!)

Religions, according to ‘the Unholy Trinity’, have had, and continue to have, extremely dire influences upon the world, most apparent in the ongoing conflict between the West and Islamic terrorists. In Killing the Buddha, Harris highlights many current violent conflicts around the globe that religion has inspired or played a major role in: Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, to name but a few. According to Harris, it is not only the god-dominated (theistic) aspects of many faiths that inspire such violence, but the very nature of religious faith itself:

Why is religion such a potent source of violence? There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavor in which us–them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics.(ibid.)
In other words, Harris is saying that religious belief in eternal life encourages the kind of behavior seen in the actions of suicide bombers in places like Iraq and Palestine, where belief in the heavenly rewards of martyrdom inspires the horrendous acts reported almost on a daily basis in the news. Indeed, looking at the terrible events on 9/11 (New York, September 2001) and 7/7 (London , July 2005), it is worth noting that suicide attackers were involved, almost certainly believing in eternal rewards for their awful actions.

It is not only Islamists that are involved in faith-inspired violence, and nor is it always in the context of a war. Look at the anti-abortion killings in America, which although on a much, much smaller scale than the above-mentioned atrocities, have still cost the lives of several doctors and other employees of abortion clinics. Like most mainstream Muslims (I would argue), most mainstream anti-abortion organizations in the States disavow the use of violence in the battle against planned pregnancy terminations, but the fact remains that violent incidents perpetuated by anti-abortionists have taken place, and continue to this day. Such violence is the direct result of religious faith combined with dogmatic interpretations of religious teachings. Regarding this point, Harris and his atheist colleagues would stress that religious faith produces killers.

At this point, Buddhists might retort that we are not involved in suicide bombings, the killing of doctors, or any other such violent behavior inspired by religious faith. Buddhism, like Jainism and Daoism, for example, does not encourage violence of any sort, and where Buddhists are involved in such acts, it is despite their Buddhist faith, not because of it. (Not unless they’ve completely misunderstood the Buddha’s teachings, that is; something that some Christians, Jews, Muslims and others would accuse their violent brethren of doing regarding their own faiths.)

The complicated conflict in Sri Lanka and the conduct of many Buddhists, including senior monks, would seem to dent a hole in the claim that Buddhist faith never results in violence, however. The Buddhist establishment there, it has been claimed, has not only failed to discourage the conflict between the Buddhist Singhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority, but actively encouraged the latter to acts of violence against the latter. Harris has an explanation for this:

The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. Needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.(ibid.)
By ‘wrong religion’, Harris simply indicates that it is not followed by the majority of the world’s population. (Indeed, most independent estimates of the total number of religious adherents in the world put Buddhism in fourth place, way behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the Big Three.) Harris is pointing out that while Buddhist practices such as morality, meditation, and mindfulness remain cloaked in religious garb, with all its superstition and blind faith, the heart of Buddhist wisdom becomes hidden and often marginalized.

The recent scientific interest in studying aspects of Buddhism, most notably mindfulness and meditation, is not interested in the more fantastic claims of the religion, such as the existence of gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, nature spirits, heavens, hells, and reincarnation or rebirth. And it is these, along with ritual and dogmatism that Harris sees as damaging to the future practice of essential Buddhism; he believes that to kill Buddhism, and, in the sense of worshipping him – which does occur widely in the Buddhist world – killing the Buddha is the way forward for Buddhists.

In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. 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.(ibid.)
What Harris seems to be promoting is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, as taught by the Buddha in his first discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (‘The Turning of the Wheel of Truth Discourse’). In studying this discourse, it can be noted that there’s no supernatural beliefs or faith-inspired worshipping to be indulged in; it is a logical and methodical approach to awakening to a happier and wiser existence. (The discourse is cloaked in magical events, however, such as the mention of gods rejoicing after its delivery, but these can be seen as cultural dressings, used to make the essentially non-religious teachings more appealing to ancient Indians used to talk of gods and the like.)

Is the practice of Buddhism shorn of its religious trappings possible? Well, many Westerners, not to mentioned educated Asians, have had no problems in practicing in this way, myself included. This is not to say that I am closed to the more supernatural elements in the Buddhist canon, but that I don’t actively believe in them either, remaining non-committal and open-minded. The Buddha himself, of course, taught in the often-quoted Kalama Sutta that we shouldn’t belief something just because it is part of tradition, found in scripture, commonsensible, logical, part of one’s opinions and beliefs, or taught by priests, monks or the like. We should test it out.

And this is where science comes in, of course. It’s one thing to test out for one’s self (so-to-speak) Buddhist teachings contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, as Buddhists have done for two-and-a-half thousand years, but quite another for modern science to research and confirm that this Way does indeed lead the practitioner to enlightenment and true happiness. Such scientific confirmation would not only benefit us Buddhists, but potentially present the opportunity for non-Buddhists to incorporate the contemplative and moral disciplines that have such wonderful results into their lives, also. In theory, this could reduce the conflict and misunderstandings in the world dramatically, if not eradicate them altogether.

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”(ibid.)
Harris has a point, doesn’t he? As Buddhists, do we really feel that we can convert the world to our way of thinking and behaving? (As Buddhists, would we even want to?) A non-sectarian, non-religious form of what Harris describes as contemplative science would seem to be the answer here, enabling people of whatever cultural and religious backgrounds to examine the evidence for themselves both subjectively and objectively, seeing how morality, meditation, and the wisdom that arises from them can help us to live more satisfying and peaceful lives.

But there’s a contradiction here, somewhere. If we are, as Harris encourages us, to kill the Buddha and Buddhism, and therefore cease to be Buddhists in any meaningful sense of the term, who is all this scientific research to be conducted on? Where will be the Buddhist meditators that have practiced for decades and reaped the rewards of their discipline to be found if they’ve renounced the Path and become ‘non-sectarian’. Buddhism, even with the supernatural and ritualistic stuff removed, is a whole way of life that incorporates not only meditation and mindfulness, but also morality and generosity, not to mention goodwill, along with many other aspects. So, I’m a trifle confused here, and perhaps I’ve misunderstood Sam Harris somewhere, but despite the rest of his article Killing the Buddha making perfect sense to me, this point leaves a doubt in my mind. Perhaps I’m just too attached to being a Buddhist!

Harris finishes his article with what I consider an inspiring paragraph. And it is worth noting that the central problem that he identifies as needing further study is the ‘reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion’ that blights our lives. These so-called ‘three poisons’ are, of course, the cause of human suffering and misbehavior according to Buddhist teachings. For what it’s worth, I have no problem letting go of faith, in the sense of the blind, dogmatic sort, as that’s not part of my approach to Buddhism anyhow. I would be most interested to read of your opinions on the issue, whether you consider yourself Buddhist or not, so please click on the comments feature below and let me know what you think. Dialogue is one sure way that we can grow together in the light of the Buddha’s teachings, especially when we bring those very teachings into question. As to Sam Harris, here’s that final paragraph of Killing the Buddha, to leave us with much food for thought:

There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in our way.
Killing the Buddha article (Click here & scroll down the page)

Monday, February 9, 2009

According to the Dharma

Those things that lead to passion, not to dispassion; to attachment, not to detachment; to amassing, not to dispersal; to ambition, not to modesty; to discontentment, not to contentment; to association, not to seclusion; to idleness, not to energy; to luxury, not to frugality, of them you can quite certainly decide: This is not the Dharma, this is not the Discipline, this is not the Master’s teaching.

(The Buddha, Vinaya Pitaka, Tripitaka)


The above list attributed to the Awakened One is an interesting one. It is interesting because it challenges us to examine our practice of Buddhism in light of the Blessed One’s standards, seeing if we are up to the task of Awakening to the Truth taught by him. In worldly life, passion, attachment, amassing, ambition and several of the other states referred to as negative are viewed as worthy qualities to cultivate. We Buddhists, then, need to make a choice: to live according to society’s standards or according to the Dharma. Which is it to be?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Buddha Face

Are we face-to-face, in symmetrical relationship, object to confronting object, each shutting out the other? Quite the contrary. Here where I am is no face, no speck of anything to ward you off with, to resist your invasion. Whether I like it or not, I’m so wide open to you that your face is mine and I have no other.

(Douglas Harding from ‘Open to the Source’, edited by Richard Lang*)

If time is taken to take facts as they are, based on present evidence rather than on belief, where is the separation between you and me to be found? What I see here is you, and (I suggest) what you see there is, in fact, me - or whoever happens to be with you. We are seen to be interdependent in actual experience, not only in Buddhist theory. The apparent separate self is nothing more than an apparition, and it is none other than the Buddha that sees this ghostly delusion for what it is. You are my 'Buddha Face.'

*'Open to the Source' is published by Inner Directions and available via the Headless Way website, linked on the right of this blog.