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


JD said...


Another nice and interesting one here. I know we disagree on this issue in some ways but I'll make it short. I don't think the materialism that is so much a part of science is compatible with Buddhism at all because if it is true then kamma, rebirth and enlightenment all fall apart.

I see that there are certain ways of looking at things that Buddhists find they have in common with science but I think the two are not entirely compatible. I might be more extreme here but if the Buddha clearly stated in the Canon that there were other realms, rebirth was real and that we were the owners of our actions in this and in furture lives then either the Buddha was a liar or wrong which would mean the empty materialism of science would be right. If that were so there is not much point in following the path at all other then to live harmoniously in the here and now with oneself and those around you since enlightenment would false.

Also, I think Ajahn Jayasaro said a lot of people chide some traditional Thai's for merit making and wishing to reborn in heaven as a deva but at it's heart all those people really want a sense of peace. Recollection of the Devas is something the Buddha did offer up for those interested in heavenly births. I would add that wishing for heaven isn't that much of a bad thing anyway.

I guess when I left my theist beliefs behind I never did so because I though science had better answers but because Buddhism made more sense. For me, growing up in a household with a mother that believes in fairies and ghosts left an impression on me that lingers to this day and I find the cold and sterile scientific worldview to be of no benefit to me. If others see it as compatible then who am I to stop them, it's not really my business.

Again Gary, nice post and i wish you well.

G said...

We can agree to disagree on this one, can we not, Justin? :)

If rebirth does not occur, that doesn't negate all of the teachings regarding karma, as our thoughts, words, and deeds do have results, and this is karma, surely? Ajahn Sumedho has taught rebirth in terms of psychology, describing the ever-changing contents of the mind as a form of moment to moment rebirth. As to enlightenment, it can still have its place as the pinnacle of Buddhist realization whether future lives exist or not.

Wishing for heaven isn't that bad if the alternatives don't include actually walking the Eightfold Path to awakening, Justin. So many people here in Thailand are concerned with the supernatural & future lives to the point they seem out of touch with the-way-things-are (the Dharma) and this life now. (Most Thais seem oblivious to the Buddha's teachings on the Four Noble Truths, for instance, and have never heard of the Middle Way!)

What is the more beneficial endeavor, Justin: to work for a happy rebirth for one's (ultimately non-existent) self, or to walk the Noble Eightfold Path? The former may well be a pleasant distraction from life's realities, but the latter not only benefits the practitioner, but also society at large. This is the question that fascinates me at present.

Reflecting on why we believe certain things is of much worth, isn't it? Your ability to consider why you believe what you believe, Justin, will certainly assist in your cultivation of awakening. I'm not so sure that the rude lady living in our street who 'makes merit' for her future lives on a daily basis does the same.

Thank you for your thought-provoking comments, Justin.
G :)

Anonymous said...

Zen Master Rama on Science:

"life is not dependent upon our classifications and our categories, our science. But we are. We find it interesting and helpful.

One function of the intellect is to catalog. But cataloging doesn't change anything. If we call it a rose, or by any other name, it still smells as sweet. The name doesn't really matter. It is convenient for us.

A categorization implies a hierarchical way of seeing things. Life is really relational, not hierarchical. Hierarchical is a human way of looking at things. Relational is much more the way things are. Everything is connected.

In reality, as any physicist will tell you, the physical world is made up of moving energy. All matter is energy.

Everything around us is shifting all the time. Energy is moving in all things. What gives energy a continuity, what creates a pattern, is you.

The world glows all the time. All of the things that you have come to understand aren't. The greatest thinkers in the world see very little compared to the enlightened.

There's no way we can possibly understand anything. But we can see things, we can perceive things, and we can wonder. We can just be in a world of awe and wonder. That's the best we can do.

What are the beliefs today? To think that this is the only universe, that the physical creation is all there is – these are the dogmas of our times.

Things are not necessarily logical. Logic is a secondary source reference. Everything is what it is. We have decided to apply rationale to things. It makes us feel better.

The body is a very low level machine language. The language of the soul, of the mind, is much more evolved.

Mind is not simply the collection of aggregate cells inside your brain. If you are only the grey matter, then when that dies, you won't exist any more. It's not that easy. You exist forever.

To think the universe is only composed of the physical universe is to be rather shortsighted.

Everybody goes into different dimensional planes. You do it every night when you dream. You are journeying into other dimensional planes. Dreams are not just functions of the cerebral cortex.

All of the physical universes put together, stretching out endlessly, are only a fraction of the totality of reality. In other words, all of the physical universes are only part of the physical dimensional plane, and there are thousands of dimensional planes.

The stars in the sky last for billions of years. That's nothing to the mind, nothing. It's an instant, a millisecond. The mind doesn't even know time because it is deathless and birthless. It shines radiantly forever. We don't see the shine because of the clutter.

The shortest distance between two points is your mind. It's not a straight line.

Within an atom there can be a billion kingdoms, endless. But all of them are bound by the cycle of birth and death. They all come into being for a while and then vanish.

There is no continuity at all. The universe isn't any particular way. It strictly depends upon perception.

Molecules don't have patterns. You create a pattern by the perception of something. The continuity of awareness is your perceptual field. Existence only occurs through the act of perception -- there is no body.

The world is the way the world is because we think that it is so.

There is only eternity. That's our real body. The stars are our blanket. Time doesn't even exist, except in our own minds.

There is no time. There is no space. There is no condition. There is only awareness, awareness of these ideas.

Time is a convenient filing system human beings have devised to segregate their experiences.

A surfer is poised on a wave on his board, cutting quickly to the left. He'll always be there, in that moment. He's never left it. He had no birth, he didn't go to school, he didn't purchase the board; none of those things ever were.

You create time by joining events together. But they don't join together; there's no separativity.

Time is change. It's the separation of eternity from itself. When eternity is separated from itself, we see it appear in different forms. Time is not a movement in space. Space is a movement in time.

Time does not really exist as we know it; rather it's a transfiguration of a concept in which mortality, mutability, is conditioned.

I would suggest to you that at this moment you are the only self that you have ever had; you've never had a childhood; there wasn't a five-minute-ago time.

There is no future. There is only now, a continuous now. We have become so wrapped up in the past and the future that we don't see the continuous now. There is no future. It is an idea that you have.

This moment there is all that will ever be or has ever been. All the events of all of our lives are going-on simultaneously. There is no beginning and there is no ending. There's only this moment.

There is no deterioration and there is no creation. These are projections, moments of existence. Each moment is perfect.

Perception defines everything.

Nothing is distinct and separate.

When you think about something, you separate yourself from it.

Everything happens all at once forever. All incarnations are lived at once, and yet there does seem to be a linear sense of time when you're in the vortex of time and space when your consciousness is fixated in a body.

How do you know you're even here right now? Perhaps you're not. Perhaps you're far, far away and this is just a dream. Life is a series of dreams, a series of interlocking awarenesses.

Our awareness creates life. Life does not exist independently of perception.

Chaos theory simply suggests that what appears to most people as chaos is not really chaotic, but a series of different types of orders with which the human mind has not yet become familiar.

Words are inaccurate pointers to reality and should by no means be trusted.

Thoughts can increase our understanding of a subject, or they can just as easily constrict or block our understanding of a subject. It very much depends upon the language we are thinking in.

Language is the medium of our thoughts.

Grammar has qualities, shapes and forms.

As a former English professor, I can assure you that grammar is the qualitative interpolation of language. Adjectives, pronouns, predicates, past pluperfect indicative - ridiculous. It has qualities, shadings, differentiations, rhythmic structures of symbolic meaning.

We are all carrying the imprints of our most ancient ancestors. Not simply in the genetic code, but in the imprints of attention that are passed on.

Intelligence is something that is not just thinking, it's feeling. Ultimately, the highest reflection of intelligent life is cooperative life in which all benefit.

The mind is like a computer. It runs programs. Most of the software has been poorly written. It is written in the language of fear.

We are intelligent atoms. We are intelligent organic structures. We can change who we are. We can heal ourselves. With genetic engineering, we are considering changing the physiological structure of the body.

The universe is holding congress with itself.

Our past affects us, our present affects us, and even our future can affect us. We live in the relative world of time and space.

Many aspects of life cannot be explained through logic or reason. The reasoning part of the mind simply doesn't have the capacity to understand the many whys and how's of being and non-being.

Psychic perception is a much more efficient and accurate method of seeing and knowing reality.

Metaphysics is the study of how to shift the self. How to get outside the self-reflection and to just gaze with awe and wonder at the countless universes, the countless celestial radiances of mind, of life, of enlightenment, nirvana, or God, whatever you want to call it.

C. S. Lewis, Plato, Aristotle and many more names that I could add, including Einstein's, were individuals who were able to see the innate order in life, which others perceive as chaos.

Take chaotic mathematics, for instance. The universe is chaos. But chaos is whimping out. There is no chaos. There are just different levels of order in the universe.

Chaotic mathematics is essentially the study of chaos. It can't be chaos, if you can study it and it has an order.

Chaos is not disorder. Chaos is the totality of existence. You could call it God. You could use the term, the Tao. Chaos is all things -- wild and wonderful, connected perfectly by the life force.

Do not be a sniveler. Do not say you can't be happy, you can't be enlightened. How do you know? It is all chaos.

Is there Chance? No. There is karma. Karma causes all things to happen. There is only one thing karma cannot decide, and that is how far you will evolve in this lifetime."

G said...

Thank you The for the quotations from 'Zen Master Rama'.

I checked out the link you supplied and found the material there amusing & rather new age in its approach to spirituality and science. The fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, mysticism, Hinduism, Atlantean & Egyptian mythology, etc, is quite bewildering and appears somewhat disjointed.

As to the quotation itself, there's some nice lines there, though I wonder how much of it arises out of genuine practice & realization and how much from the imagination of the 'Zen master' is unclear. Statements like "you will live forever" do not sit well with either Buddhism nor science. I did like these following words, however: "When you think about something, you separate yourself from it." Very Zennish!

By the way, from whom did Rama receive inka (official recognition of one's awakening and certification to teach)? Or is he one of these self-declared 'masters'?

Thanks again for the comments, The.

hen said...

Hello Gary,

Great post and I have been enjoying exploring your blog(s).

I had a struggle with this when I first encountered Buddhism 8 years ago. Tibetan Buddhism is the most accessible sangha in the UK, generally via the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition). There's centres in almost every town and it is well geared up for Westerners. So the first sangha I was part of was NKT.

However, although I could see the truth in the teachings, I couldn't get on with the overly idolistic nature of the practices. Millions of deities and, as I perceived it, too much spiritual materialism.

I broke off from practicing within that sangha but will be forever grateful to them for starting me off in my practice. I have been practicing without a sangha since then and have found that having certain objects around me helps me to practice. As a psychological tool only. I don't have faith in the idea that deities embue the idols with their spirit. However, I don't pretend to understand Enlightenment so I am fully open to the experience should it ever occur.

I am drawn to the personalities created for all the Buddhas and can see the benefits to practice in attempting to imbue oneself with the same qualities. I don't have a sense of any actual personalities coming from another plane of existence though.

This is not to say that I have never had experiences within my practice, that I can not explain and that felt intensely connected to strong Buddha nature. These experiences however are just that. Experiences. They have added to my practice and I don't question them. I do hope they continue! They appear to deepen my meditation and the benefits of my practice linger longer in the day to day.

Very nice to meet you Gary :)


G said...

Hi Hen, very nice to meet you, too. :)

Interesting account of your experiences back there in the UK. Another extremely accessible Sangha is the Forest Sangha headed by Ajahn Sumedho. They have four monasteries that I'm aware of in England, plus lay groups in many major UK cities. There's little or no reference to deities in their practice, Hen, with the emphasis on meditation & mindfulness.

I very appreciated the following words you wrote:

"I am drawn to the personalities created for all the Buddhas and can see the benefits to practice in attempting to imbue oneself with the same qualities. I don't have a sense of any actual personalities coming from another plane of existence though."

Reference to buddhas, bodhisattvas & the like as personifications of certain qualities is both understandable & commendable as part of practice. And, even if we have a 'sense' that actual personalities are visiting from another plane of existence, does that 'sense' make it real? I worked in a psychiatric hospital for many, many years, Hen, and the delusions that the patients suffered from there were every bit as 'real' to them as Jesus or Guan Yin are to their followers.

Your attitude towards certain experiences in meditation and beyond are also commendable, Hen. Many of us meditators have had such experiences, and the wise thing to do is recognize them but not cling to them. Let them go, along with every thing else, and Buddha Nature is right there, waiting.

Keep in touch, Hen.

hen said...

My very good friend was an aspiring Anagārika with the forest Sangha at Chithurst Monastery (Cittaviveka). He has left there now and prefers to practice without placing himself within any particular sangha, like me.

I am well aware of Ajahn Chah's teachings and have met and spoken with Ajahn Sumedho, in a small way. Now I know better and that I should probably not have stopped him to talk with him, but instead shown a little more respect!

The meeting was at Avebury Stone circle 6 years ago. Oddly it was only 2 days before my friend was moving into Cittaviveka (he stood well out of the way of the exchange!!). I asked Ajahn Sumedho if he felt there was any 'other worldly' nature to the stones at Avebury and similar sites. He politely answered with a big smile on his face that 'I don't know about that but it is a lovely place to visit' as a break on his journey to Amaravati monastery.

I took a lot from that one sentence. I feel it applies to all worldly things.

Thank you Gary :)


G said...

Hi Hen - what a nice story about Ajahn Sumedho. I doubt that he minded being stopped and asked that question. That's what teachers are for, after all.

'I don't know' is often the honest answer that we don't like to give in response to life's mysteries. Making stuff up like deciding that the world's flat or was designed by a deity because we haven't got the evidence yet seems pretty dumb, really.

That's the interesting difference between the scientific method and the religious one - the former encourages us to admit that we don't know what (if anything) preceded the universe, whereas the latter tends to prod us to make up stories to fill the gaps in human knowledge.

So, 'I don't know' is the honest answer when asked questions like, "Where did the universe come from?" and "Is there a god?" When this is realized, we can put such concerns to one side & get on with living life as it is in this moment, hopefully developing wisdom therein.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gary,

apologies for not writing back earlier, I sadly don't find as much time these days for exchanges like these as I'd like – so I'll be limiting this reply to your last one to my comment on your previous post, and to this post, and neglect the rest of the discussion going on here. No problem that you credited me, on the contrary - I wanna thank you for the kind words you found about my comment.

To me it seems the topic at hand is split into two subtopics – superstition, and the nature of the objects of superstition. In your own words „efficacy of superstition" and „existence of the supernatural“. About the former, we agree – superstition is not useful in spiritual practice at best, and constitutes a hinderance at worst. I have nothing to object to your observations of the situation in Thailand and elsewhere when it comes to superstition.

Our views differ though when it comes to the nature of the objects of superstition, the supernatural. First, I think I didn't make clear enough my black hole analogy. What I meant...we observe gravitational phenomena in outer space that we term black holes. What is causing these phenomena, we don't know for certain. There's various models to explain them, one is heavily favoured in our current paradigm.

The same holds true for me when it comes to the supernatural. The phenomenon nobody would dispute is the recurrance of the almost exact same supernatural ideas (ghosts, elementals, the afterlife etc.) in virtually every era and culture we know of, in some form or another, often very similar. Just like with black holes, there's a couple of models to explain this phenomenon (some of which I mentioned in my previous comment), and just like with black holes, one of these is heavily favoured in our current paradigm.

Reports and ideas about the supernatural have existed throughout our history. They can be mistreated in two ways – blindly accepting them, or blindly rejecting them, being too sure either way. The Buddha with his teaching was addressing a society that was rife with behaviour of the former kind. One can only speculate how he would address ours, which is rife with mistreatment of the latter kind – and superstitious in its own right. Because to really be sure there's nothing supernatural, we'd have to believe that every single report throughout history of such things was either due to delusion, fraud or misunderstanding. That's a very daring belief, and if it's not superstitious in its own way, I don't know what is.

Maybe he would have admonished us to realize that we cannot and should not be as sure as we are about the nature of these things. After all he never really spoke out against the existence of these things as far as I can tell, only against their validity as tools for spiritual work. Samyutta Nikaya 56.31 suggests that he didn't just take over supernatural ideas from the culture he came from, but witnessed some things himself. Only he didn't talk about them, since he was all about getting work on the Path done, and they were not helpful for that.

Furthermore, especially as Buddhists we should be - not hostile - but careful about anything that arises out of a paradigm that is obsessed with seeing matter as all that's real. While some good and amazing things have come from that paradigm, there's rarely a thing in the world that's all good.

"Is it that investigating experience with mindfulness reveals reality, and that that reality lacks such unscientific entities as angels, demons, and dragons?"

The reality revealed by mindfulness also lacks infrared and ultraviolet, for example. They're still part of a greater reality though. Our perception of the world surrounding us is limited. For us as human beings in general, and greatly varying from person to person. For some people supernatural experiences are as real as day, and again, it's a huge leap of faith to explain them all away as lies, delusions and misunderstandings.

One might object that while we don't personally detect infrared, we have tools to detect it, whereas we don't have any tools to detect the supernatural. But for this to be an argument, we'd have to engage in another of our modern superstitions – that our methods of measuring the world around as are capable of detecting everything there is, and so would have already detected anything supernatural if it existed.

"What do you think, reader - is it time to ditch the supernatural in favor of the natural?"

I think it is time to stop taking this distinction too seriously, or see both terms as contradictory. I guess none of us has reached a state where identification with ego has completely and utterly come to a halt and disappeared, as in the case of the Buddha. Yet we all, I guess, think it's possible, and trust in that. Why not put, instead of blind belief or rejection, a little faith in our ancestors and contemporaries who tell us there is more to the world than meets the eye ? Investigating this as a possibility in my opinion is a good idea. Because be it as psychological archetypes, tricks of the mind or actual external entities – while it might not be useful in spiritual practice, the supernatural affects us, some of us. And the better we understand what affects us, the better we'll be able to live in harmony with it. And this harmony will free up resources like time and energy in our lives, that will enable us to do spiritual practice.

Sorry if his has become a little rant – I am very passionate about this topic and do not always succeed to express the many thoughts about it that I want to express in a way as clear as I'd like. Also I didn't mean any of this to come out as offense, in case it did.

Thanks for the talk, kind regards

puthujjana said...

Hi Gary,

I've learned the importance of reminding myself often that I don't actually “know” much of anything. My own views and opinions, perceptions and conditioning combine to form what I take to be reality. I'm aware on a deep, yet not fully understood, level that this is not the reality of which the Buddha spoke.

I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of devas, ghosts or gods. (Fairies??:-) Perhaps knowing the truth here requires a certain sensitivity that I do not currently possess. Who knows? I'm open to the possibilities either way. So my answer falls somewhere between the choices you've offered. I see my practice as being very down to earth. Does not feeling the need to reject bits and pieces of the teachings make it otherwise?

I should tell you that the idea of “Western Buddhism” makes me more than a bit uneasy. (Perceptions, views and opinions, oh my!) Sometimes even the word “Buddhism” gives me the willies. A couple of years ago I attempted to start a lay practice group. Every “Buddhist” that I met, without exception, was intent on doing away with one thing or another. No bowing, no chanting, no rebirth, no kamma, certainly no “supernatural stuff”. They were also all, without exception, very grumpy and serious and dour. Lots of grumbling and talking about talking about “Buddhism” That wasn't a typo. There was lots of talking about talking about it. And they all totally rejected the very idea of the Thai Forest Tradition, monastics and the whole bit. It was a very trying and, er, educational time for me. It was sort of like that TV show that used to be on called “Punk'd” if anyone is familiar with that. Or Candid Camera.

Sorry Gary that I've probably gone off topic here. I'm a bit rusty.

Anonymous said...

Gary I wonder if there’s much of a difference between those that look for the supernatural and those who look to modern science to try and make sense of the universe. No matter which method we use to shape our perceptions of nature we’ll never have all the answers. Why are we spending time trying to make sense of the universe out there when there’s so much work to be done with this body and mind in the present moment? Even if I had the intelligence to understand the nature of black holes or dark matter (which I don’t), what would that knowledge do for me? I have a hard enough time just staying with my breath and understanding that!

The Buddha said our way out is right here in the four foundations of mindfulness. That’s not to say that science does not have value in the world. Of course it does. I just wonder if we should frequently ask ourselves “is this thought or action aimed at liberation?” If the answer is “no” then we probably aren’t practicing right mindfulness. Clearly those who cling to superstition and merit for a favorable rebirth aren’t practicing what the Buddha taught and probably don’t want to get off the wheel anyway. I guess my point is modern science isn’t exactly geared towards liberation from all suffering either.

I like the theme you’re working with here! Although, I do find it disheartening to hear how most Thai’s practice. Makes you wonder who will carry the torch for the Dhamma in the 21st century.

-Mike D.

JD said...

It's interesting to see the very wide range of perspectives in this discussion. I think Leander hit the nail on the head when talking about how the scientific paradigm has seemed to trump all else in this present day and age and how that view can't be held in its entirety without rejecting every report of the supernatural throughout history as delusion. That is exactly what some of the more smug in the science community do, they think there is literally a rational materialist explanation for everything.

I find it intteresting that Ajahn Brahm started to see the serious flaws in science and the way that bought into the dogams of their way so much that it left them blind to any other explanation for something. One of the things monks can't do by their rules is to lie and Ajahn Brahm insists that rebirth is real and that their is something beyond death. Whether most of us know this or not in our own practice it is at least food for thought that an ex materialist physicist turned monk like him would go out and claim that the materialism that science teaches is just off the mark and that the Buddha was correct.

Even one piece of serious evidence of a ghost or of rebirth tears to shreds the works of people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and would throw the science community into an uproar that would probably cost many jobs if not the very sanity of many who are in it. The same goes for science discrediting religion, the world would be in an uproar and if people like Sam Harris think that scientific proof of their being no God is going to stop fanatical Muslims from acting out violently he has a rude awakening coming.

I suppose that science and Buddhism both look for truth and follow the path for awhile and then diverge somewhere along the way. Buddhism can never understand the material world in the level of detail that science can but science can never understand the deeper levels of the spiritual life either. Undoubtedly science has left many positive contributions to the world that have made life better for most of us, but so has Buddhism.

I just think that as Kris said, many in the West tend to go too far in rejecting what many monks outside the west would consider essential aspects of Buddhism in favor of the familiar science stuff they grew up with. Even Western Monk Ajahn Thanissaro once said that many things people consider to simply be cultural relics or outmoded pieces of Buddhism actually become essential later on. I guess none of us will ever know unless we walk the path to the end.

G said...

Wow, thanks for the diverse & interesting comments here - not sure I have the time or ability to produce the responses you all deserve, but thank you for taking the time to comment, nevertheless - lots to ponder!

One important remark that I'd like to highlight from your comments is one by Justin (Dhamma81):

"I suppose that science and Buddhism both look for truth and follow the path for awhile and then diverge somewhere along the way. Buddhism can never understand the material world in the level of detail that science can but science can never understand the deeper levels of the spiritual life either. Undoubtedly science has left many positive contributions to the world that have made life better for most of us, but so has Buddhism."

Couldn't have put it better myself, Justin. Thank you!

Leander, your comments didn't come across as a rant at all. Feel free to write what you like on this blog, as long as it's not rude! :)

As to modern scientific theories being nothing more than superstition, akin to believing in gods & dragons, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the word 'superstition' here. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, superstition is:

"A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as bringing good or bad luck."

Please forgive my fastidiousness here, Leander, but I am an English teacher after all! Scientific theories are not superstition, they are quite the opposite, as they are based on independently observed facts, rather than belief alone. It's an important distinction. Not believing something because there's no objectively-corroborated evidence to back it up is not superstition.

Having said this, I agree with you that blind disbelief can be as bad as blind belief; therefore, admitting 'I don't know' is the only honest course of action to take sometimes. 'I don't know' does not equate with 'I believe', however, it literally means, I don't know'!

Kris (Putthujana) - great to read your words!
Yes, as written above, 'I don't know' does seem the wisest (if not the easiest) course of action sometimes. You make this point very well.

As to 'Western Buddhism', I feel the same uneasiness myself. Living here in Thailand, I can tell you that the more modern interpretations of Buddhism that exist are pretty popular too, mainly amongst the more educated practitioners of the Way. I don't equate 'Modern Buddhism' with 'Western Buddhism' at all - that would be a little bit of an insult to many Asian Buddhists! Your account of your encounters with some interesting Western Buddhists is very amusing indeed! :)

Mike, I'm pretty much in agreement with you on everything that you've written above. I appreciated the following words:

"I wonder if there’s much of a difference between those that look for the supernatural and those who look to modern science to try and make sense of the universe."

Human beings are constantly looking for ways to make sense of this universe, and both the natural & supernatural theories are part of this tendency. Again, the difference for me is that if I had a heart problem, I'd go to a doctor who's been trained in science-based medicine, rather than a witch doctor!

Everyone be well in the Dharma,

Anonymous said...

I'm very fond of natural science itself, and the two points I referred to as superstitious are not scientific theories. They're tenets of the paradigm largely behind natural science, and superstitious according to the definition found in Wikipedia (which is the definition I usually apply to the term), namely because they are beliefs or notions "not based on reason or knowledge".

a) the belief that any unexplained event ever reported has a natural explanation
b) the belief that our science is so advanced that it would have already found evidence for the supernatural. To elaborate, the belief that our investigation of the universe is thorough enough that absence of evidence constitutes evidence of absence.

Kind regards,

G said...

Thanks for bringing the Wikipedia information to light, Leander. But, as an English teacher, I think I'll stick to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of words over Wikipedia's, as much as I respect and use the site myself. All this, of course, is semantics, which can divert us from the main issue at hand: Is belief in things not known or experimented upon 'valid' in the context of Buddhist practice?

The message that is coming through from several commentators, including yourself, is, "Yes." This is a challenge to my own empirical approach to such matters, and as such is a valuable opportunity for deeper reflection on the nature & value of belief & faith. I thank you & everyone else for the views put forth on these pages. Please keep them coming!


Anonymous said...

The Oxford Dictionary definition is actually more precise indeed. Just wanted to make clear what I had in mind when I previously used the word superstitious :)

"The message that is coming through from several commentators, including yourself, is, "Yes.""

I don't wanna speak for anybody else here, but for my part, it's "no". No belief in the supernatural, no belief in its non-existence. Instead humble admission that we don't know for sure either way, and that from that logically follows that it indeed is a possibility we should consider.

And having a little trust that other people indeed saw what they think they saw doesn't constitute belief. It's, contrary to belief, still open to other possibilities.

Kind regards,

G said...

Ah, we seem to be converging here, Leander!

Admittance that we don't know is exactly the position Kris (Putthujjana) & myself cited as the wisest approach to unproven supernatural elements promoted by certain superstitious enthusiasts.

Yet again, it seems worth mentioning that "I don't know" is not the same as, "I believe." And, as can be readily observed, many - perhaps most - Buddhists in the world do believe in the supernatural apparently without any empirical reason to do so. The question that arises in response to this divergence of views is: Which is more in line with the spirit of inquiry encouraged by the Buddha - Blind faith or agnosticism? The Kalama Sutta would seem to be clear on this point, but perhaps there's more to it than that. What do you think, Leander?


Anonymous said...

There's a timely article up on Buddhist Channel today...,7823,0,0,1,0

G said...

Yes, very timely...and interesting, if a little brief.

Thanks for reminding me of the existence of the Buddhist Channel news site, Mike - I haven't visited there for a long while!


puthujjana said...

Gary and friends,

I believe that the Buddha understood the material world perfectly. That it is, by it's very nature, unsatisfactory. Even with the many wonderful and beneficial scientific discoveries and contributions, that fact remains.

Thank you all for this interesting discussion. It has helped me clear up some things.


G said...

Timely reminder of the unsatisfactory nature of all things, Kris, including our views on the supernatural & natural.


Anonymous said...

But I thought we had already agreed that what is outlined in the Kalama Sutta is a reasonable approach. It was certain things you said, like

"The enlightening response to so-called supernatural phenomena is to see them for what they surely are: distortions of natural phenomena."


"Is it that investigating experience with mindfulness reveals reality, and that that reality lacks such unscientific entities as angels, demons, and dragons?"

that didn't sound too agnostic to me - that's I guess why I felt I needed to "defend" an agnostic approach to the supernatural. Apologies if I misinterpreted your I previously stated, I'm passionate about this topic, and I guess that can make me biased here and there.

To make my use of the word "agnostic" clear though, I simply mean "non-committal" instead of "belief that it cannot be known". Since there again, we'd have something sneaking in that goes against the Kalama Sutta :)

Kind regards,

G said...

Hi Leander - thanks for another thoughtful post.

No, you haven't misinterpreted my words - you seem too aware to do that. Perhaps, however, it isn't clear that the tone of my writing has been deliberately provocative to elicit genuine reactions from my readers. I don't necessarily believe everything that I write on 'Buddha Space', but use words as tools to stimulate reflection.

Apologies if this mislead you in any way, Leander; you have answered in a very commendable manner, and like the other contributors to this discussion, have given much food for thought.

Here in Thailand most people believe in ghosts, and although I do suspect that natural, rather than supernatural, causes are afoot, I don't go around questioning other people's beliefs on the subject, as that would be both presumptuous and futile, given the cultural acceptance of ghosts as supernatural phenomena in this society.

I sincerely hope that you will keep reading & contributing to 'Buddha Space' in the future, Leander.

puthujjana said...

"I don't necessarily believe everything that I write on 'Buddha Space'"

What is the point then?


G said...

The point, Kris, is to explore Buddhism with fellow Buddhists,and anyone else that is interested. :)


DhammaRaja said...

I'd like to share my view, that its true there is some superstitious today between some asian buddhist, but that doesn't mean western buddhist is in true way of buddhism

western buddhist try as they can to deny the exist of concept of brahman in buddhism, which is same as nirvana as lord buddha mentioned it tone of times in pali tipitaka, and make buddhism form of athiest materialist, in other words nonsense way of believe or practice or whatever

as a result, asian buddhist is more near to the true buddhism than western who became another copy of atheism

G said...

Thank you 'Dharma-King' for your comment, which has valid points in it, but it seems to make a major mistake when it states that "the exist of concept of brahman in buddhism, which is same as nirvana as lord buddha mentioned it tone of times in pali tipitaka." Brahman doesn't exist in the Pail Tipitika; the god Brahma Sahampati does appear, but he is not identified with Nirvana - no being is. As it is written on Wikipedia's entry for Brahma (in Buddhism):

"The name Brahmā originates in Vedic tradition, in which Brahmā appears as the creator of the universe. By contrast, early Buddhist texts describe several different Brahmās coexisting in the same universe; some of them think they are "all powerful" creators of the world, but they are corrected by the Buddha. The myths, characters, and functions of these Brahmās are distinct from those of the Vedic Brahmā. However, at least one of the Buddhist Brahmās is identified as being the object of worship of pre-Buddhist brahmins. The Buddha described the Vedic Brahmā as a misunderstanding, or mistaken remembrance, of one or more of the Buddhist Brahmās, as explained in the Brahmajāla-sutta (Digha Nikaya 1).

There is no identity between the Buddhist Brahmās and the Hindu conception of brahman as an all-encompassing divine force."

Of course, as written in the original article, Western Buddhists should not be too zealous in criticizing Asian Buddhists who are overly superstitious; but the same goes the other way. You lump all Western Buddhists together in your comment, something that the original article clearly does not do with Asian Buddhists. Moreover, nowhere does the article - nor any other on this website - promote atheism. This is a misreading by yourself. Still, never mind. The human mind is full of errors as well as superstitions, and I wish you well in your life. May you be happy & free from suffering!

Valerie said...

Kamma, rebirth, and enlightenment fit in very well with modern science. For those who don't have a scientific bent, there are some wonderful books which show this: The Tao of Physics; The Quantum and the Lotus, are just two of many.

Here are several of Albert Einstein's quotes:
"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spritual; and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity."

"If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."

"A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe'; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compasion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."