fundamentalism rears its ugly head (part two)

The best way I can make my points about why I disagree with Sam Harris’ article from the Shambhala Sun a couple of years back, is to deconstruct it. So here goes.

“…to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught.” There is no “essence” of what the Buddha taught. What the Buddha taught, first, has been lost to us by the ages. Written testimony is separated from the historical Buddha by no less than two hundred years (and probably closer to six). What we have are the remains of an oral tradition that can now fill hundreds of volumes — in Chinese. Which would translate into hundreds of thousands of English volumes. What Harris is really saying here is this, “I have an opinion about what the essential teaching of the Buddha is that I learned from some book and/or Buddhist teacher who got their idea from some interpretation of one thing out a thousand that the Buddha may have said. Because that thing that I think the Buddha may have said lines up with my idea about a how people should live their lives, I’m labeling it as the ‘essence’ of what Buddha taught.”

There’s nothing really wrong with this, of course. We all do this. Just be honest with us, Mr. Harris. There is no way you know what the Buddha actually taught just like there is no way you know what Jesus actually taught. You weren’t there. And if you were, neat trick. Tell me you how you did it.

“The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism.” Well where else should it be kept? But, in all seriousness, what exactly do you mean by “the wisdom of the Buddha”? Again, if you’re referring to what the Buddha said, you don’t know what the Buddha said. What you have are the remains of two and half thousand years of texts written by other Buddhists who tell you what the wisdom of the Buddha is. If you take the “Buddhism” out of this equation, where are you getting your ideas about the Buddha? A direct transmission? A time portal? Our current understandings of the Buddha come through the texts that were written by his followers. Our current ideas about the Buddha are not gained through scientific inquiry. India, being a tropical climate, is an archeologists nightmare. Nothing survives. It’s not at all like the Near East, an arid climate that preserves everything, where were can dig up dining rooms from the time of Christ and put together an damn-near perfect representation of first century life in Palestine. All we have of the Buddha are texts written by Buddhists. If Harris (or anyone for that matter) makes a claim about “what the Buddha really taught,” they’re making that assumption based on the historical record kept by the very same monks and religious institutions that Harris wants to do away with. Which seems a bit nutty to me.

“…most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced.” Ouch. I know Harris doesn’t care about being politically correct, but I’m still going to take exception at being called “naive.” I find this to be the very definition of hubris; is Harris really so convinced of his own ideas about Buddhism that he is willing to tell me that mine are wrong?

“Worse still, the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world. At this point in history, this is both morally and intellectually indefensible—especially among affluent, well-educated Westerners who bear the greatest responsibility for the spread of ideas.” Whoa! Hold the phone for a minute! I’m a little unclear on his intention here because I think his wording is somewhat ambivalent. Is he really saying that “well-educated Westerners” have some greater right to spread their ideas than non-Westerners? I’m not entirely sure what he means here because he goes on to say, “It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that if you are reading this article, you are in a better position to influence the course of history than almost any person in history.” Which I have to agree with. I have a tremendous amount of power and ability to influence other people because I happen to own a computer (and I’ve written before about people’s level of moral responsibility). But it does not follow that just because I happen to have greater access to power and influence by an accident of birth that I have a greater responsibility to spread my ideas. I’m not entirely clear on what he’s saying here, but he sounds pretty close to arguing that well-educated Westerners have some moral higher ground or more of a right to spread their ideas than others which, if you think about it, is colonialism repackaged in the skin of Buddhism. Which is abhorrent.

“But the fact that the Dalai Lama regularly meets with Western scientists to discuss the nature of the mind does not mean that Buddhism. . . is uncontaminated by religious dogmatism. Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving discourse about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries.”

I love this bit. I’m going to linger. First, there’s the phrase “religious dogmatism.” “Dogmatism,” of course, merely means the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, regardless of evidence. I love that Harris uses it because in this essay he opens with his own piece of dogmatism — that there is an “essence” of the “wisdom of Buddha” that has been contaminated by his followers. Even though Harris has no proof of that wisdom without using what the Buddha’s followers said about the Buddha since the Buddha didn’t write anything down. Love it.

Moreover, he then goes on to disparage the ideas of “pre-literate” people. But, and here’s the kicker, wouldn’t the Buddha fall into that category of a “pre-literate” person since he lived in “pre-literate” India? It seems to me that if Harris is so concerned about doing away with antiquated dogma, he should at least do us the favor of being consistent. I mean, at least do away with the Buddha while you’re doing away with Buddhism.

And to end this paragraph with the notion that belief in Rinpoche’s birth from a lotus is “not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for”! I hope not. But, then again, I don’t think that a footnote in the history of Buddhism (where Rinpoche was born, mythologically or literally) really counts as a “spiritual breakthrough,” even for people who may believe in it. This, to me, is academic grandstanding. “Look at those silly Buddhists with their silly beliefs!” You could at least treat us with some respect, Mr. Harris, since we are “well-educated Westerners.”

“For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence.” That’s certainly true. But it does not follow that you have to. You can become a genuine Buddhist contemplative and believe in lotus-births. Having rational or irrational thoughts has nothing to do with. He goes on:

“The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. 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.”

Again. I linger. First, I linger on his parenthetical “meditation.” I linger here because now we come to it. We come to his “essence” of the “wisdom of the Buddha.” We come to what, for Harris, is essential, the core, the singularity of Buddhism. Meditation! Here’s the problem. The actual word used in the texts, for you linguists out there, is dhyana. We’ve come to equate this with “meditation” and almost almost exclusively with seated meditation, exemplified by those statues of Buddha you can buy at the drug store for your garden. But dhyana’s closer English equivalent, many would argue, is “contemplation.” Or, “recalling to mind.” Or, “thinking on.” As well as the English verb “to meditate.” The problem with this word, of course, is how do you do that and what exactly are you supposed to be contemplating or meditating on? Remember, “to meditate” implies an object.

It is from this question that arises the vast panoply of Buddhist practices. In my own tradition of Jodo Shinshu, we often recite the name of the Buddha, namu amida butsu. This recitation, from the outside, from Harris’ point of view, no doubt looks like “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” practice. People sitting around a temple reciting a “meaningless” phrase to an idol up at the altar who is supposed to lead us, at death, to a glorified “pure land.” But the reality is that nembutsu practice is fundamentally no different from other contemplative or meditative practices. How do I know? Because that’s what the word “nen” (the “namu” of the phrase) means.

So. To follow Harris’ logic. I am practicing meditation every time I say the Name. But the fact that I do it in explicitly religious contexts somehow means that I am not following the “wisdom of Buddha.” I’m sorry, Sam, ya lost me. I think I missed a step. Can ya back up for a second?

And I linger still. I linger on his last sentence, “as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.” Wow. Way to obfuscate. If you’re using “subjectivity” as it is used in the social sciences, then what you’re talking about is the relation of the self to systems of power. If that’s what you’re talking about, great! I’m with you. Yes, we absolutely need to develop our understanding of human subjectivity as it relates to systems of power because if we do, then we can move beyond not just religion but other human-constructed social systems that cause so much damage to humankind and the environment; systems like capitalism and nationalism; we can re-think our criminal justice systems; we can move beyond the social construction of race in a real and meaningful way. Whoo-boy! I’m with you!

But I suspect that’s not what you’re talking about. I suspect that what you’re really talking about is replacing any sort of spiritual/religious understanding of humanity or human subjectivity with a secular-humanist/scientific view. I don’t think you’re wrong. Let me be clear. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the idea that the world could use some more science. But what you must understand is that “secular-humanism” (just like religion, capitalism, nationalism, or patriotism) is a human-contructed abstract conception of the way the world should be. And you’re right. Those who think that they have the monopoly on what god wants from us are fundamentalist, dogmatic, intolerant, extremists. But if you cling to your view of scientific secular humanism with the same zeal and gusto as they cling to their ideas about god, you’ve simply replaced one form of fundamentalism with another.

Here’s an observable phenomenon in human society. Essentialist descriptions of “the other” allow us to denigrate them and boost ourselves up. Essentialist conceptions of human populations make it easy for us to claim that we have the market cornered on how to live and how the world should be. Essentialist conceptions of the world lead to fundamentalist beliefs about us versus them. Fundamentalism invariably leads to fascism. And fascism leads to the suppression of ideas, violence, and death. Regardless of the essentialism or fundamentalism being argued for. Even if Sam Harris is right — that there is no god and people like me with our naive superstitions are pre-literate buffoons — that won’t change the fact that his fundamentalism can only lead to one place. Fascism. Maybe it’ll be a better fascism than the one we got, but it’ll still be fascism.

There is another way. Being tolerant of other religious traditions is not, in all cases like Harris wants us to believe, mere political correctness and pointless drivel. But I fail to see how driving religious people off the face of the planet is somehow in any fundamental way different from the Jerry Falwells of the world and their desire to rid the country of gays and single mothers.

And if there is one thing I will defend with my very last breath it’s the notion that fundamentalism — even fundamentalisms I agree with — are a good thing.

Because they’re not.

(There’s so much more in this piece I could comment on. But I’ll spare you. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for putting up with me! Bring on the hate-mail!)