Monday, November 28, 2011

If You Wish to Strive for Peace of Soul and Happiness, Then Believe; If You Wish to be a Disciple of Truth, Then Inquire

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Yeah, the article is almost nine years old, but it's new to me. And since I was just going on about the same topic, I had to excerpt it.


  1. science's disturbing perspective
    Disturbing, huh? If only there was some perspective that made life less disturbing. Something that allows us to make peace with ourselves and others.
    Buddhism as religion is silly, but I find it useful as a way of enduring life. (I chatted with Horgan about this years ago on his website.)

  2. Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion, and that compassion and moderate asceticism are virtues. Positions which are entirely compatible with science and the most rational of thought. Horgan agreed with me about that, but said there is no reason to call these positions "Buddhist", since they simply result from rational thinking. To me that sounds a little like saying we shouldn't call high school physics "Newtonian mechanics" because anyone could have thought of it.
    People are narcissistic, though, so they turned Siddhartha's teachings into a ridiculous, self-centered religion focused on achieving nirvana like it's a commodity, or an orgasm. So if that's what he's calling Buddhism then I agree with him.

  3. Well, to me a doctrinaire Buddhist is one who scrutinizes the Pali canon as if it matters down to the smallest detail what Gautama said and did. I think he's saying that if you feel comfortable being your own authority, competent to judge what makes sense and what doesn't (such as early Buddhism's attitudes toward earthly pleasures and females), then you might as well dispense with the official nametag too and just call yourself a thinking person. I talk about Buddhism because writers who identify as such taught me a lot, but I just have no interest in getting hung up on quibbles over the proper nomenclature.

  4. I see Gautama Siddhartha as a philosopher who was right about issues of the greatest import to all of us. Shouldn't we give credit where credit is due and not blame him for sins of his followers? But I agree that there is so much baggage attached to the word "Buddhism" that perhaps you and Horgan are right to eschew it.