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)


Mike D. said...

As a western Buddhist it's easy to agree with most of this article. I've never felt that blindly believing Buddhist cosmology was necessary in following the Path. However, I do think the article does discount the value of some of the conventions of the Buddhist tradition. I personally find that certain conventions inspire and enrich the practice. I feel more energized when I see a Buddha rupa, hear Pali chanting, or meditate with bhikkus. Is the author suggesting that a formal Sangha is no longer necessary? We can use these conventions as a skillful means for furthering our practice without attaching to them or becoming dogmatic. To reduce the Path to "contemplative science" ignores the rich history of those who have reached the Deathless before us. Without inspiration from these Ariyas the practice for me would become very dry.

Barry said...

Gary, thank you for this long and thoughtful post.

I won't respond with the thoroughness that it probably deserves. But I do want to say that Harris misses the point of Linji's comment and, in so doing, misses the point of Buddhism - at least as practiced within the Zen school.

Linji is pointed to a certain kind of conceptualization and it doesn't have anything to do with "isms." Unfortunately, Harris needs Linji to be talking about "isms" such as Buddhism. (It's worth noting that Buddhism is a late 18th century Western concept - the first use of the term in English dates to 1801.)

More importantly, Harris understands Buddhism to consist of "paying attention" (meditation) and certain ethical behaviors. These are certainly important.

But unless one cuts through conceptual thought, one will never experience the liberation from dukkha described by Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

I say all this in full recognition of the incredible diversity that is Buddhism, with all its devas, energies, bodhisattvas, gods and past and future Buddhas - the psychedelic part of human consciousness!

G said...

Mike, you make an important point above about both tradition and skillful means. The tradition of the ordained Sangha is not something that I would like to see end, as it clearly can harbor inspired levels of practice in some of its members. Ajahns Chah & Sumedho come to mind in relation to this. (Unfortunately, as with any institutionalized religion, such enlightened & enlightening groups of people are very much in the minority. Everyday here in Thailand, I see less than virtuous behavior from bhikkhus - this is reason for reformation, however, rather than the disbandment of the Bhikkhu-Sangha.)

As to the inspiration that can be gained from religious conventions like contemplating Buddha-rupas, Pali Chanting, and group meditation, you make another valid point, Mike. These forms of skillful means - along with others, of course, can help us to progress along the Path, if not attached to, wherein they themselves become obstacles. It's all in how they're used, isn't it?

One issue you didn't touch upon, which is central to Harris' argument, are the superstitious elements in Buddhism. Do you consider them central to Buddhist practice, also? (Superstitious elements, according to Harris, would be belief in gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, heavens, hells, and reincarnation/rebirth, along with the belief that certain monks can perform acts of magic.)

Good comments, Mike.

G said...

Barry, I agree with you that Master Linji is pointing to the transcendence of the rational mind and the experience of satori in the quote used by Harris. Ultimately, this is also the transcendence of Buddhism, for as the Buddha taught, Buddhism is a raft that we use to travel across the river of delusion to the 'other shore' (which is right here!). Once 'across', we retain the raft for others to use, of course.)

Elsewhere, Harris does write of those experiences that transcend conceptual thought, remarking that they are of great interest to him as a scientist, as well being of importance spiritually. (He's not shy of concepts such as 'spiritual' & 'mysticism'.)

As to 'the psychedelic part of human consciousness', which you relate to the belief in devas, energies, bodhisattvas, gods and past and future Buddhas, is this central to the Noble Eightfold Path, I wonder. In my own practice there have been visions, weird experiences, intuitions, dreams, hunches, synchronicity and the like, and they are certainly interesting phenomena, but ultimately they are also distractions from the Path before us, aren't they?

Be well in the Dharma,

Mike D. said...


You busted me on being an Ajahn Chah nut! As far as the superstitious and metaphysical elements that are tied into Buddhist culture, they've never really been a part of my practice. Who knows, there might actually be levitating monks and friendly devas out there. But I don't know how believing in these things would help me to clearly see anicca, dukkha, and anatta in the five khandas. Like you said, these phenomena can be distractions from the Path. Just something else to let go of, right?

Something you mentioned that I didn't think about was the fact that there are bhikkus out there that are lacking in the sila department. Thanks for mentioning that. I'm sure seeing corruption within the Sangha would shake the perception I've built. My only experience with bhikkus has been at the Bhavana Society in the US and they seem very disciplined.

Thanks for taking the time to put this blog out there. I'm glad a friend directed me here.


Dhamma81 said...


Nice post. I don't believe that it is an absolute necessity to believe in gods, devas and the like, but to dispense with them altogether as nonsense seems to me out of the question.

The Buddha was very clear on what was right view and what was wrong view and most of what Western Science teaches is the same sort of nihilist materialism the Buddha cautioned against. That is why I find it difficult to ever really marry science with Buddhism or vice versa.

That being said, I have a friend who is starting a prison meditation program that strips most if not all the religious aspect out of Buddhism and focuses more on the meditation aspect of things. His point was that a lot of people want to be free of suffering without the relgious aspect and that it is easier to reach people in that way. I agree with him to a point, and if he can bring people peace of mind without ever mentioning the Buddha then that is commendable, but in some ways I think a Buddhism without the Buddha would be tragic.

The Buddha and the stories of him and his disciples in the Canon are an inspiration to the worldwide sasana whether lay or ordained, and that is a form of inspiration that is rooted in almost two thousand six hundred years of tradition.

It's downright disrespectful for someone to assume that most of the texts and the traditions are just useless conventions that do more harm then good. It comes off as arrogant that Western Science thinks it has better answers then time honored tradition where there are people alive today to vouch for the efficacy of the Buddha and his Dhamma. Besides, science still kills millions of animals in the name of the "greater good" and deny that there are consequences since they are so rooted in nihilism/materialism.

Buddhism would never condone severing the spinal cords of rats or monkeys or giving cancer to them to see how certain untested medications work or not. Buddhist morality wouldn't stand for that and some of that is rooted in some of the "superstitious" aspects of the Dhamma. If there is Kamma and there is a hell then how could one ever think of doing that type of harm? Of course, we don't know this but the cosmology and the tradition is there to guide us.

Harris seems to forget that it is not just religious misunderstandings that have led to atrocity, the 20th centuries worst purveyors of human suffering were godless atheists like Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin. The Buddha warned that pure materialism undermined morality and left no real reason for it and I tend to think he is right. People always say we don't need religious morality in the world but where does secular morality come from? It's just whatever the lastest science journal or the current crop of opinions from people sunk in greed, hatred and delusion have to say. That is scarier then a religious ideal like the precepts that remain unchanging and have scriptural stories highlighting the dangers of not abiding by them.

Does that mean everyone who is an atheist treats people wrongly? I'm not saying that at all. There are good and bad people from every belief system out there, but to assume that it is primarily religion that is the culprit when probably one hundred million people or more died under the banner of Atheistic Communism in the last century doesn't settle with me. Animal testing is another thing science condones but Buddhism in the strictest sense of the precepts could never.

Another reason the Buddha cautioned against the materialism science upholds as true and holy is because it seems to undermine the pursuit for Enlightenment as well. If a serial killer just rots in his grave and a monk the same and there are no results to actions then why any effort towards liberation?

These are questions humanists and scientists can come up with answers for but none satisfy where the Buddha was pointing to, that there was an end to suffering that we as human beings could put an end to right here and now. Not with pills and brain scans but with meditation and following the path he set out close to 2600 years ago and that millions of people up to the present day have found to be effective in liberation of the heart.

Maybe Harris really wants to find out how everyone can get along, and if that is the case then I applaud him. The problem from a Buddhist perspective is that we can't all get along in an imperfect samsara world, this is where people like him don't understand Buddhism. We can try, but we are never going to create a worldwide utopia under the banner of Buddhism or science, and I am personally ok with that. Remember the Dhamma Summaries.... Hope this isn't too much of an angry rant guys. Be well now.

G said...

I'm an Ajahn Chah 'nut', too! :)
He taught pretty much the same as you wrote regarding levitating monks, gods and the like, as far as I know. (And what distraction from the Path would the sight of a levitating monk be!)

Here in Thailand, Mike, I've seen monks shopping like regular laypeople many, many times; I've seen them eating in restaurants or with their families after midday; I've seen them wandering through neighborhoods handing out envelopes for people to put money in; I've seen them flirting with laypeople; and in the Thai news, monks are often reported for having embezzled temple funds and/or having sex with a parishioner - very occasionally a story crops up where a monk has actually murdered someone!

All this isn't to say that the Sangha isn't worth respecting and supporting, but that a certain selectivity might be appropriate! I visit and support the community at Wat Pah Nanachat (the International Forest Monastery) here in Ubon on a regular basis, and have knowledge of their mode of practice, which appears exemplary, even though most of them are in the early stages of their monkish careers. I trust that the monks that you know over there in the US don't indulge in the kind of behavior noted above!

Thanks for comment, Mike;
it's much appreciated.

G said...

Excellent comments, Justin!

Regarding a superstitious belief in gods, demons and the like, it seems that some people are inspired by such faith whilst others are put off by it; to me it seems altogether irrelevant, and is superfluous to the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is, after all, the heart of what we call 'Buddhism'.

I don't share your dislike of modern science and its view of the world, and find it at no odds whatsoever with walking the Path. In Buddhist tradition, it says that the Buddha walked immediately after being born, and then declared his spiritual status with perfectly spoken words - are we to believe this as actually having happened? Or is this a story to inspire those with little conviction in the Way? Fortunately, Buddhism is generally not the kind of fundamentalist faith that demands we take every word written in the Pali Canon and its commentaries as literally true, but that we use them as aids to our practice.

True enough, Justin, some scientists do have an arrogant tone to them when they denounce religious faith the way Sam Harris and his friends sometimes do. But, then again, they do have the actual facts on their side that have been experimented upon and proven to be truer than any alternatives, unlike people that simply read a text considered sacred and then declare it to contain 'the truth' - whether that text be the Bible, the Koran, the Gita, or the Tripitaka etc.

This is one extremely important aspect of the Buddha Way, that we are encouraged to test out the teachings for ourselves, much as scientists test out the validity of their theories.

You're right, Justin, that wars and other atrocities have been perpetrated by anti-religious regimes (the Khmer Rouge, the Soviet Union etc.). Extremism seems to be the culprit here, rather than religion. An extreme atheist state would appear to be just as likely as an extreme religious one to instigate a war or suppression of its people. Fundamentalism, whatever its particular 'faith' (religious or otherwise), is the cause of much mistrust, mistreatment, and misdemeanors.

That a utopia is clearly impossible in an inherently imperfect universe is indisputable, Justin - at least with me! But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't improve ourselves and the societies that we live in, does it? There's a big difference between the imperfect societies of America and Burma, and regarding human rights (along with many other criteria), the former is preferable to the latter.

As to your comment being an angry rant, Justin, the thought never entered this mind until you mentioned it! :)

Be well in the Dharma,

Honkey Dorey said...

I know I'm really late in the game on this one, but regardless...

This is a great article, and I was so happy to find a self identifying Buddhist talking about it here. Thank you for sharing! Sam Harris makes so many great points here, especially when he talks about the dangerous, divisive nature of religion. Buddhism, regardless of how effective or levelheaded it might seem compared to other religions, is still conducive to destructive us-them thinking if only because of the name attached to it.

A lot of things came to mind when I finished reading this article. First was a nearby Vipassana meditation center whose members continue to grow exponentially. Although they practice Buddha’s teachings, they do not identify as Buddhists, at least not publicly. To attend any course as a student and to serve a course (cooking, cleaning, working) are both free of charge, and all are welcome. It is essentially a sangha “minus the religious aspect.” Then I thought of the growing popularity of the spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle, whose writings are almost identical to Buddha’s teachings “minus the religious aspect.” This guy was on Oprah talking about practicing mindfulness! Very cool, and accessible to those of all faiths and even those without any faith.

As Sam Harris points out, Buddhism comes in fourth place, meaning that the three religions that come before it, a huge majority, will be turned off by anything that identifies as Buddhism. I assume that we agree on how unfortunate this is. The practices that Buddhism encompasses are so useful for anyone.

It may be hard to swallow for anyone who has seen the benefits of practicing Buddhism in their life, but as a Buddhist, if simply letting go of the name of your practice is a step towards living together joyfully with humanity, wouldn’t Buddha say, “hell yeah”?

I’m really eager to hear more thoughts on this!

G said...

Better late than never, Honkey Dorey.

Yes, there's a lot of interesting stuff regards meditation & mindfulness out there that doesn't involve 'religion.' Whether or not these activities cover the entirety of the Eightfold Path is another thing, for the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment isn't just the result of cultivating mindfulness & meditation, but involves morality also. However, such modern movements as those centered on vipassana practice are surely doing a lot of good, bringing some serenity & happiness into people's lives. I'm sure this subject will be returned to at some point this year, Honkey, so watch this space!