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)