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Horgan on Buddhism

Science writer John Horgan has reprised the anti-Buddhism critique that he first published on eight years ago. Slate has reissued the original article, and Buddhists are again berating him for his ignorance. So he wants to have another go at explaining his misgivings.

Horgan's recent book Rational Mysticism looks at attempts by scientists to account for mystical and religious experience, from a materialist perspective. As part of his research he checked out Zen Buddhism and attended meditation sessions. However meditation never really tamed his 'monkey mind', he says. He was also distracted by a classmate who kept asking 'unbearably pretentious questions'.

There were intellectual qualms:

One of Buddhism's biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn't invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.

Horgan goes on to point out that research on meditation suggests its effects are variable. Meditation is supposed to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, he says, while brain scans yield inconsistent results.

As for the 'deep truths' perceived through meditation or mystical experience, Horgan complains of a lack of consistency. Some find that mind, not matter, constitutes the deepest level of reality and is in some sense eternal. However he inclines to the view of meditators like Susan Blackmore, who are strict materialists and deny that mind can exist independently of matter. (Blackmore even rejects the concept of free will, holding that there is no self to act freely.)

Then there's the claim that contemplative practice will make us gentler, more humble and compassionate:

Given the repulsive behavior over the past few decades of so many gurus-including Chogyam Trungpa, who was an alcoholic womanizer and bully-you could conclude that mystical knowledge leads to pathological narcissism rather than selflessness. Instead of shrinking to a point and vanishing, the mystic's ego may expand to infinity. Did Buddhism deflate the ego of Steve Jobs?

...Like an astronaut gazing at the earth through the window of his spacecraft, the mystic sees our existence against the backdrop of infinity and eternity. This perspective may not translate into compassion and empathy for others. Far from it. Human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. Instead of becoming a saint-like Bodhisattva, brimming with love for all things, the mystic may become a sociopathic nihilist.

Horgan also thinks some 'bad' gurus have 'fallen prey to mystical nihilism', corrupted by 'that most insidious of all Buddhist propositions, the myth of total enlightenment'.

This is the notion that some rare souls achieve mystical self-transcendence so complete that they become morally infallible-like the Pope! Belief in this myth can turn spiritual teachers into tyrants and their students into mindless slaves, who excuse even their teachers' most abusive behavior as "crazy wisdom."

A final misgiving is about the glorification of male monasticism. Hogan notes that the Buddha himself started on his path to enlightenment by abandoning his wife and child. For him, by contrast, 'spiritual' means life-embracing. So a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexual love and parenthood is 'not spiritual but anti-spiritual'.

It's Christianity that usually gets atheists hot and bothered, with only the barest of nods to eastern mysticism. So I was interested in Horgan's complaints, some of which I've had to deal with myself. The last one, for instance. It must be tough on the families when the breadwinner goes off to find God. It seems true too that spiritual practice can lead people in the wrong directions, inflating their egos.

But over the years I've come to realise that the insights of Buddhist psychology are timeless, and essential to a healthy mind. Nor are they culture-dependent. The writings of Jack Kornfield have been particularly influential. He understands the obstacles, both practical and intellectual, that bother newcomers, because he has experienced them himself. At the same time he has seen people get past them to them to turn their lives around.

It's easy to be misled by archaic thinking. For instance anyone who becomes immersed in spirituality literature, or who just listens to what near-death experiencers say, should eventually recognise that the 'cosmic moral judge' idea is a misunderstanding. We judge ourselves: our future experience will be determined by what we are now and what we have made of ourselves. That may not have been obvious to our ancestors, but in our age we can transcend their ideas - if we choose to.

So why does someone who, on some level is open to spiritual ideas, close the door on them? Why does he gravitate so firmly to the negative aspects of religion?

It must be hard to avoid, if you spend your time interviewing top scientists and are firmly embedded in materialist culture. Then there's the traditional religious upbringing. Mine was no big deal, and it did not take much to break from it. Even so, I was well into my thirties before I was able to consider any kind of religious thinking on my own terms. I guess Horgan's experience with Catholicism was more intense. Atheists who had to fight to win their freedom of thought don't willingly surrender it.

However there's a sense in this sort of reasoning that, in order to keep resisting something, one has to keep reminding oneself of its worst aspects. Otherwise one might give in. Horgan's complaints have a certain truth, but they are the exceptions not the rule. He can't really believe that mystical truth seeking typically turns a person into a sociopathic nihilist. And why meditate if it makes you more anxious, not less? But if he allows himself to think these things, it's easier to justify turning his back on the whole thing.


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I had a brief fling with Buddhism a couple of years ago. It began by trying to find which branch I would check out. As I read about them, I discovered they're just as divisive as Christians, each group alleging they are the real one, and the others are frauds. After reading what they had to say about each other, I decided the best course was to steer clear, entirely.

Enlightened, my foot.

Really interesting post, Robert. I'd like to say more later, but my overall response to Hogan is that his critique sounds a lot like the critiques I used to hear of the medical profession from the holistic side. Once you are done reading those critiques you would think we just ought to do away with modern medicine altogether, forgetting that in 1900 life expectancy was something like 46. Not all of this is due to modern medicine, but surely a good deal of it is. Seems like a classic baby/bathwater issue.

Good review and commentary, Robert. Horgan highlights some of the problems I have with Buddhism and, especially, gurus in general. Nevertheless, it (his view as you relate it) is the kind of simplistic and dismissive polemic that has become the hallmark of the agressive atheists.

It isn't the philosophy of Buddhism that creates the ego-centred guru; it is the personality of the individual. Just as it wasn't the doctrine of love and forgiveness in the New Testament that guided a Pope to authorise the slaughter of the Cathars and introduce the infamous Inquisition.

As you rightly infer, Karma has more to do with natural balance than judgement and punishment. Many people still equate Karma with the Old Testament dictum of "an eye for an eye". In my own understanding, a negative act can only be balanced by a positive one, not another negative. Isn't that logical?

Good post. Horgan certainly puts the finger on some of the things that makes Buddhism and all other religions somewhat difficult to embrace. And still my own experiences inside buddhism have been mostly positive. As I am a Zen Buddhist teacher since 15 years now, and also have been the chairman of the Swedish Buddhist Association (an umbrella organiation that includes all major branches of budhism) for ten years I believe I can comment with some "authority". Even though the different buddhists in the umbrella organisation comes from different countries (Sri lanka, Tibet, China, Thailand)and (as Michael D says), holds differing views on many philosophical matters, I must say, on the whole they were a lovely bunch - easygoing and able to communicate and be friendly toward eachother. No one ever said we're the best!

To love others - even when you do not hold the same views - this to me seem to be a trait of many of the buddhists I met over the years. And Michael D - you're wrong! The different buddhist branches are'nt as diverse as the christians - they are even more so! I usually tell people that buddhists doesn't agree on anything. We happily disagree!


Horgans Why I Don't Dig Buddhism has some valid critique. But Buddhism is a exxperiental "spiritual" path - not a fixed set of dogmas to embace. If you practice anything superficially you will have superficial experiences. If you practice it deeply you will have deep experience. How you interpret those experiences is another matter. I have a close student of many years who is a materialist at heart (much like Susan Blackmore)and very far from my own take on these matters. He is still a good example of deep Zen practice. In buddhism you can hold metaphysical views ranging from materialism to monistic idealism and these questions has been friendly debated inside the religion for at least 1500 years.

My own views on consciousness and the world are far from the Susan Blackmore camp - read my blog
where I put some of my thoughts down.

Hi --
I've a great deal of interest in Buddhism, practise shamata meditation regularly, and visited Sam Ye Ling retreat earlier this year, which Trungpa co-founded. I've read Horgan's earlier essay before, and whilst it contains some valid points, I think that it throws babies out with bathwater.

1. Meditation's harmful effects. I've experienced some of these myself in my practise, namely that sometimes, intense meditation seems to magnify negative or obsessive thoughts. If this happens, and following advice, I generally back off and watch TV or have a laugh. But also, this can be part of a process of clearing out negative emotions. From my experience, meditation's a powerful tool -- and *any* powerful tool will have risks attached. This does not negate the beneficial aspects, and only means that it should be used with wisdom and intelligence.

The expectation that a powerful tool should have absolutely NO harmful effects is a totally urealistic demand, and one not followed in Western science (cf. the harmful effects of anti-depressents, including brain damage, which get doled out with abandon by medical practitioners.)

2. Trungpa: Whilst I'm well aware of Trungpa's foibles, and do not seek to excuse them, I also think that he's one of the most lucid expositors of Tibetan Buddhism that I've ever read. 'Cutting through spiritual materialism' and his other works are classics of their kind. Maybe the disparity between his behaviour and his work makes him a hypocrite; but at the same time, I can't deny the wisdom I've found in his work.

For me, buddhism represents a practise and a path rather than a set of sclerotized dogmas. It's not the only set of spiritual notions in my life, but it's been a great help to me in treating my depression, and frankly, therapeutically speaking, it's helped me a lot more than Western psychiatry ever did.

"For me, buddhism represents a practise and a path rather than a set of sclerotized dogmas."
Couldn't agree more.

I have read a wonderful survey of the findings of meditation research by Roger Walsh and Shauna Shapiro. I see it's online now:

I find it hard to read something like this and come away with the rather harsh conclusions that Horgan apparently has.

Also, the idea that some come away thinking that mind is immaterial, while others (like Susan Blackmore!) believe matter is what's fundamental, seems a little lop-sided. I think for those with deep meditative experience, only the tinest percentage would be on Blackmore's side.

All in all, Horgan sounds like a man on a mission, not an objective observer.

Robert Perry: "I think for those with deep meditative experience, only the tinest percentage would be on Blackmore's side."

My experience too. But some people seem to have a natural tendency to disbelieve anything sounding the least mystical. They naturally tend to move towards the rational and concrete. Even among buddhists. And that is perfectly ok in my book! Deep experience is beyond the rational and therefore in principle beyond words. So which way ýou go when trying to express the ineffable is maybe mainly a matter of basic peronality traits.

same probably applies to psychedelics. Blackmore is an experient of both.

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