Having grown up in a family of scientists, at a very early age I acquired the notion that science is interested almost exclusively in the investigation of nature for the sole purpose of discovering what there is and formulating hypotheses about how what there is works and why it is as it is. This investigation, I was taught, is ideally carried out with no contamination from commercial interests, political or social agendas, moral considerations or aesthetic tastes. I was also taught that in practice quite a bit of scientific investigation falls short of that ideal. Now I am well aware that this essentially Peircean notion of what science is all about has been critiqued by many worthy philosophers of science and is considered by some to be hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, I cling to that vision of science and admire all scientific investigation that comes anywhere close to that ideal.
Having come to Buddhism as an adult (insofar as any young pup at the age of twenty-three can be considered an adult), I no doubt misinterpreted a great deal of what I encountered, because I interpreted what I encountered on the basis of the prejudices I had acquired through the system of indoctrination that in the United States of America is mistakenly called education. To be more specific, I saw Buddhism as being an entirely different sort of project from the scientific project. Buddhism, as I saw it, is not at all interested in acquiring an understanding of what there is and how it works but is rather interested in reducing eliminable forms of human unhappiness. Unlike science, Buddhism is ideally dealing in morality and in political and social agendas and in aesthetic taste—the very factors that are absent in ideal science.
My conclusion from all this was that, because people are multifaceted, it is possible for one person (and yes, I do believe in the reality of persons and selves and all those other realities that Buddhists try to dismiss as being merely conceptual) to be a scientist and a Buddhist, but that it is impossible to be doing good science at the same time that one is practicing good Buddhism. In much the same way that one person can be both a tightrope walker and a Grand Prix racing driver, but that it is impossible to be walking a tightrope at exactly the same time one is driving a racing car, it is impossible for a person to practice science at exactly the same time as one is practicing Buddhism. The practices are incompatible. At any given moment, one must choose which of the two to be doing.
Now insofar as a person takes on the completely foolish project of trying to be consistent in all his beliefs and practices, a person may decide that he has to choose between accepting prevailing scientific hypotheses and the very well-thought-out and purposeful dogmas of Buddhism. In my own early life, I foolishly strove for consistency and therefore jettisoned about 95% of the dogmas of Buddhism on the grounds that I deemed them scientifically false, or at least untestable and therefore lacking scientific meaning. And so I jettisoned karma, rebirth, hell realms, celestial realms, and nirvāṇa for starters and moved on from there to empty the entire medicine cabinet. As more than one person pointed outl, I pretty much discarded all of Buddhism, except for the haircut.
In my latter years, as I have grown less concerned with intellectual integrity and logical consistency, I have come to see that there is a great deal of value in the aspects of Buddhism I formerly discarded. This is not to say I believe the dogmas I once rejected. I just see a real value in acting as if I didn’t not believe in them. Buddhist dogmas are very good at doing precisely what they were designed to do. They make life uninteresting and boring, and that makes one less resentful and afraid of one’s inevitable mortality. We are all going to die. But given that life is so insipid and devoid of meaning and utterly lacking in fun anyway, who will miss it? Nothing could be much better as death approaches (as it does with every breath we take) than the studied indifference to life that Buddhist dogmas instill in those who allow themselves to entertain them.
We live these days in a world in which the incompatibility of the scientific project and the religious project has led to increasing jettisoning of scientific method rather than of religious dogma. Fundamentalism (which began in the Christian world as a conscious rejection of scientific method and has found its way into every other religious tradition) is growing in cultures all over the world with the result that people build their lives, and dare to try to compel others to build their lives, on ideas that have proven themselves throughout history to be intellectually and morally bankrupt—such as the idea that the creator of the entire universe gave a particular parcel of land to one small group of people to own and rule until the end of time, or the idea that women ought always and forever to be subservient to men, or the idea that homosexuality and abortion are offensive in the eyes of the creator, or the idea that the world can be saved only by a savior with a particular name rather than through the collective efforts of human beings who have learned from their experiences and shared their insights with one another through respectful dialogue. The human race could very well perish because of its attachment to the kind of rigid adherence to religious dogmas and practices that we now call fundamentalism. (Of course, none of this matters. If people wipe themselves out, something else will come along to take our place, and then something else after that until eventually the sun explodes without any consciousness that any of us who are made of star dust ever existed.)
When I heard the Dalai Lama say in an address to a small group of scholars and political activists in Montreal in 1993 that he thought the time had come to replace (yes, he used that word) much of Buddhist abhidharma with scientific hypotheses that have not yet been defeated, I was the first to jump to my feet in thunderous applause. A few moments later, a much more reflective voice spoke up quietly and said directly to the Dalai Lama: “Don’t be so quick to discard the tradition that has produced a man of your caliber.” My reaction in 1993 was to think to myself, “Oh God, another cloying uncritical devotee of His Holiness.” Now, twenty years later, I have come to see that the gentle, reflective voice, which belonged to the philosopher Charles Taylor, was saying something rather important to heed.
I fear that the mixing of two incompatible projects—science and Buddhism—is likely to weaken and ultimately undermine both. The only way I can see to keep them both vibrant is to keep them separate, to let each of them be the right tool for the task it was designed to accomplish, and to recognize that it has never been the case and never can be the case that life can ever be reduced to just one legitimate task. Gathering knowledge impartially without any political, commercial, social, moral or aesthetic motivations is important. That is the task for which the tool of scientific method was developed. Learning to switch narratives from those that inflict pain and suffering to those that heal and enable peoples to live peacefully with one another is also important. That is a task for which the tool of Buddhism was developed. Using each tool to do the task for which it was designed strikes me as wise. Choosing only one of the two tools and discarding the other strikes me as foolish. Allowing oneself to think that the two tools are both designed to do the same task also strikes me as foolish, even dangerously so. I do not have confidence that the Dalai Lama fully comprehends what the consequences of replacing fourth-century scholasticism with cognitive science and quantum mechanics are likely to be. I would therefore recommend learning to use scientific method when it is appropriate, and to study classical abdhidharma when it is appropriate.
The last time I saw my father, just a few days before he died on 30 July 2012, he invited me to look at his bookshelf and take whatever books I wanted. When I was growing up, his library was much larger and contained a good variety of books on geology, ornithology, the environment, American history, anthropology cultural and physical geography and language, along with dozens of dictionaries, almanacs and other reference works. Most of those were given away in the last years of his life. Among the books that remained, the category with the most volumes remaining was books on atheism. Also by his favorite chair was a stack of books on atheism—and some books on birds. He belonged to an atheist book club with whom he met religiously. It was obvious that his atheism was important to him. It struck me as odd that he felt it increasingly important to take a stand on this matter, and I did not quite understand why he was not content to remain an agnostic or to be largely indifferent to religious matters. I still do not fully understand. This blog posting represents a first attempt to explore the issue and to try to understand why my father was an increasingly outspoken atheist. I am not confident I know his reasons, but I am confident I knew him well enough to make a reasonable guess as to what his reasons might have been.
Given that the concept of God is so multifaceted and that the overall idea is therefore vague and nebulous, if one simply claims not to believe in God, one has no clear idea what exactly the person does not believe in. What I shall try to make more clear to myself is what exactly my father rejected, and what he accepted as preferable to what he rejected. As far as I can tell, he rejected the notion of God as a creator, as a higher power, as a source of morality and as a means of salvation.
- Creator. My father was a geologist. From as far back as my memory goes, I heard him talking about geological eras millions of years long that took place over the course of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet earth. The history of the planets was part of the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy of which our sun is a part, and so on. Vast time scales and unimaginably large expanses of space were part of the daily conversation in my childhood, as was the reminder than if the history of the earth up to now were twenty-four hours long, then the time that human beings emerged on the planet was just a few minutes before midnight. In this view of the place of the human being in the universe, there was no place for a notion of a creator who had created man in his own image and for whom the human being is the creature of central importance. There was no place for the idea of a single power so great that it knows every detail of creation and controls events.
- Higher power. To say that there is probably not a single power so great that it controls all events in the universe is not to say there is no power greater than human beings. To say there is no intelligence that knows all events in the universe is not to say there is no intelligence greeter than one’s own. All of human learning is a collaborative effort that is carried on for countless generations, and the totality of human experience was my father’s higher power. Indeed, the entirety of intelligent life was a higher power from which my atheistic father was constantly willing to learn. What he rejected was the notion that any understanding is infallible and immune from being superseded by a clearer and more comprehensive understanding.
- Source of morality. There was no single claim about God that more rankled my father than the claim that people need to believe in God in order to be moral, altruistic, caring and decent to one another. He was convinced that people learn the value of honesty by witnessing the consequences of deceit, and they learn the importance of kindness by witnessing the consequences of cruelty. One learns moral integrity by being keeping one’s eyes open in this life, not by keeping an eye on the afterlife The punishment for careless and shoddy behavior is immediate, he believed, and the rewards for attentiveness and generosity are amply doled out in this life. There is no need to wait until death to discover whether one’s life was well lived and whether one fought the good fight.
- Means of salvation. Although descended from a long line of Christian ministers, my father rejected most of the core dogmas of mainline Christianity. He did not believe in original sin and therefore had no need for the doctrine that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an atonement for original sin. He believed that consciousness is a property that emerges from the enormous complexity of billions of neurons passing electromagnetic and chemical signals to one another and that when the living organism that is host to a central nervous system dies, so does the intelligence that emerged from that particular collection of neurons. The idea of life outside physical life made no sense at all to him, and so he had no use for the Christian dogma that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought eternal life to human beings or any other life form. One needs to believe in salvation only when one sees life as a problem. My father never saw life as a problem and therefore had no hankering for salvation.
As a scientist and a humanist, my father simply had no need for a belief in an omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent creator and savior. But having no need for something would most naturally lead simply to being indifferent to it and taking no interest in it. My father was not indifferent to religion. He was hostile toward it. He was not disinterested in it. He was scornful of it. Where did that come from?
Probably the greatest single factor in my father’s moving from agnosticism to atheism was his alarm at the increasing influence of organized religion in American politics. He was born in 1923 and therefore lived for thirty-one years before “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and thirty-four years before “in God we trust” was printed on paper money. (That slogan began appearing on some coins, of course, shortly after the Civil War, even though there were many coins that escaped having that pious motto inscribed on them until just before the Second World War.) My father was still a child when religious fanaticism led to the Prohibition and its many unfortunate consequences. He lived to see white ministers in the American southeast proclaiming that racial segregation was part of God’s plan. He saw appeals to dubious interpretations of scripture trump reason in almost every domain of American life, from the teaching of science in American classrooms to the way that pointless and unnecessary wars were justified in the name of protecting America from godless or anti-Christian enemies.
In the final analysis, I think my father’s atheism was made staunch not so much by reflection on theology as by the outrageous conduct of human beings who claimed to be righteous believers in the one true God. I sometimes tried, without much success, to convince him that not all believers are narrow-minded fanatics bent on imposing their wills on others. It often troubled me that the man who had taught me from earliest childhood to question all my prejudices was himself prejudiced against almost all organized religion. Having said that, I must admit that there are few of the beliefs he instilled in me as a child that I have rejected—even though I have certainly questioned them. What appalled him about much of organized religion also appalls me, and what he cherished in the natural world I also cherish. Who knows but that when I am nearing the end of my days, I will have given away all my books except for a few well-chosen volumes on atheism—and some books on birds.
Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship. (Advices and Queries, paragraph 6.)
The late Prof. Willard Oxtoby of the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto said that religious pluralism is not merely the acceptance of the fact that there are different beliefs and practices among human beings, but the celebration of that fact. If one has the conviction that the world would be impoverished if there were fewer ways of being religious, then one is a religious pluralist. That said, there are many ways of being a pluralist. (How much sense would it make if there were only one way of being pluralistic?) In what follows, I shall talk about some of the approaches I have followed, with more or less success. Please forgive me for describing them using culinary analogies. Prof. Harvey Cox, among others, has used the metaphor of the cafeteria or the food mall to talk about an approach to religiosity. One can imagine a person going to a food mall in a modern shopping center in which there are cuisines from many countries available. There are several ways of dealing with the wide array of choices. Let me mention three.
- The spiritual mixer. A person might feel like having a little bit of everything at the same meal. So he might order sushi at the Japanese stand, a feta cheese salad at the Greek booth, a side dish of refried beans at the Mexican American stall and a gulab jamun for dessert at the Indian food vendor. Not everyone would find that combination a satisfactory meal, but the beauty of a food mall is that one can find almost anything one likes and put it all together in whatever combination strikes one’s fancy. A person pursuing a religious practice in a similar spirit to our imaginary diner might don his tefillin, light some candles and incense at a home altar on which a crucifix, an Amitābha Buddha image and a statue of Ganesh are all enshrined and earnestly chant some verses from the Navajo Yei bichai. If the person in question finds aspects of Judaism, Christianity, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Hinduism and Navajo chanting all personally meaningful in some way, this mixture of elements, which might seem odd to some, might be uplifting and transformative.
- The serial taster. Another person might go to the same food court, look around and conclude that all offerings look appetizing. But instead of having a little of everything at the same meal, this diner make a resolve to have an Italian meal today, a South Indian course tomorrow, a Chinese feast the day after tomorrow and a combination of Thai foods the day after that. This person might recognize that the elements of any given tradition of cuisine complement each other nicely and that combinations of taste have been put together over the course of centuries of culinary experimentation. While not wanting to restrict herself to one kind of food forever, she nevertheless sees an advantage in savoring each tradition separately and spreading her experience of variety over the course of a week or perhaps over the course of a month or longer. The spiritual counterpart of the serial taster might be someone who goes to Quaker meeting for worship on Sunday, vipassanā meditation on Monday, Hindu bhajans on Tuesday, a Greek orthodox mass on Wednesday, a Course in Miracles discussion group on Thursday, a mosque on Friday and a synagogue on Saturday. She might fully relish each religious event during the week but feel incorporating elements of all of them in a single hour of practice might lead to spiritual indigestion.
- The consistent diner. Some people find that they get the greatest satisfaction from eating the same type of food, perhaps even exactly the same dish, every day. Personal satisfaction for this diner might come in consistency, but while having a preference for maintaining habitual consistency, he may derive vicarious satisfaction by being in the company other others who have different diets. So this person might seek out friends who have different tastes from his own. He goes predictably every time to the organic fruit vendor and comes back with a fresh fruit du jour salad topped with yogurt and granola, which he enjoys as his friends enjoy their lasagna, enchiladas, kota riganati or shawarma. He eats the same thing not because of a disdain or fear of other diets, but because he has found a diet that works well and need not be tampered with. The spiritual counterpart of this diner might be the observant Jew who has plenty of Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim and secular friends whom he admires precisely because they are who they are.
At various times in my life I have tried each one of these approaches. In the 1980s I was part of a Zen community in which we were encouraged to be informed about other forms of Buddhism and about religions other than Buddhism and to attend the interfaith events that were fashionable in those days. While I thoroughly enjoyed the company of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism or Catholicism or cabalistic Judaism or Wicca and approved of them wholeheartedly for following practices that they found meaningful, my own path was Zen, and I was reluctant, because I saw no need, to mix it with anything else—until I eventually discovered that the culture of Zen did not suit my temperament at all and left me deeply unfulfilled.
My dissatisfaction with “pure” Zen left me for a while with a suspicion of all claims of purity, real or imagined. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I came to feel for a while that all claims to purity were the product of imagination and that real purity simply does not exist.) Despite the fact that no religion other than Buddhism appealed to me very much at all on a personal level, I still rejoiced that there was a varied menu of religious practices for people to choose from and that if a person sought long enough she could surely find something meaningful and uplifting. As for me, what I found fulfilling was a sort of generic Buddhism that contained elements of Theravāda, bits and pieces of Mahāyāna, a smidgeon of Vajrayāna; the mixture could perhaps be characterized as ABZ (Anything But Zen) Buddhism. That phase eventually gave way to a succession of other phases.
The teachings and contemplative practices of Buddhism have appealed to me for my entire adult life, but I never really found a Buddhist community with a structure in which I felt fully at home. My childhood upbringing left me with an unshakable conviction in the fundamental equality of all people, as a result of which I found the hierarchical, and mostly patriarchal, structure of all the Buddhist communities I encountered off-putting. Equally off-putting was a subtle smugness among many Buddhists—admittedly mostly among converts—whereby Buddhism was assumed to be the standard against which all things spiritual were to be measured. I remember getting into several rather heated discussions with fellow Buddhists who insisted that to be a truly committed Buddhist was to wish that eventually everyone would be a Buddhist. Their reasoning was that to be a Buddhist is to strive to be compassionate, and to be compassionate entails wishing the very best for everyone, and since Buddhism is the very best, one naturally wishes it for everyone. Such people often seemed shocked that I wished for everyone to find whatever form of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, humanism, tribalism or atheism that suited their needs the best. Such people were puzzled that I assumed most people will find different things suitable to them at different stages of their life, for to be alive is to change.
The only communal structure that ever felt like home to me was that of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Making me feel profoundly at home were the Quaker manner of tending to communal concerns, the fact that they had no distinction between clergy and laity but considered everyone clergy, the conviction that everyone is a seeker and everyone has something to learn from everyone else and the conviction that no authority is unimpeachable and no attempt to articulate the truth is absolute.
My project for many years has been to learn how to be part of a community of Quakers while drawing most of my nourishment from the teachings of the Buddha and their associated practices. It did not take very long at all to discover that a Quaker meeting for worship is no place to try to do my Buddhist meditation. A Quaker meeting for worship, I came to be convinced through experience, is a Quaker meeting for worship and is most fulfilling to me when I enter fully into that almost indefinable and indescribable mode of worship that occasionally gives rise to what Quakers call a covered meeting—a gathering at which everyone is fully centered and attendant upon something that feels very much as if it participates in divinity—whatever that may mean. To be the only one in the meeting doing vipassanā is to rupture the unity of the gathered meeting. So eventually I abandoned the practice of the spiritual mixer and took up something more like the practice of the serial taster. In the course of a week, or even a day, I am likely to read an epistle of George Fox, a lecture by Swami Vivekananda, a chapter of a book by Paul Tillich, an essay by Dōgen, a few pages of Carl Jung, and a writing by Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky. I have given up trying to arrive at an intellectual synthesis of all these diverse thinkers, but I never fail to learn from them and be inspired by them, each being motivational in its own way. If someone were to demand that I give one of them up, I would have to say “Please give me another commandment, for I cannot follow the one thee has given me.”
Needless to say, at any given moment it would be nearly impossible for me to say whether I was acting out of my Quaker habits or my Buddhist habits. In 99% of daily life, the habits of one are fully compatible with the habits of the other. The differences are, to me at least, trivial. When among Buddhists I use a different vocabulary than when among Quakers, because speaking to the natives in their own language slightly raises the odds of being superficially understood. To be understood more deeply, however, kindness will suffice. And kindness is most likely to emerge when all one’s labels have slipped off.
While browsing the stacks of a university library In the autumn of 1968, I stumbled upon an English translation of Ernst Benz’s 1963 book Buddhas Wiederkehr und die Zukunft Asiens (Buddha’s return and Asia’s future). The title given to the English translation, published in 1965, was the somewhat more dramatic and unmistakably Cold War oriented Buddhism or communism: which holds the future of Asia? I checked out the book and eagerly read it, not because I was especially interested in whether Buddhism or Marxism held the future of Asia, but because I was interested in gaining some insight into which held my own future.
At the age of twenty-three, I was being pulled in three directions all at once. I had come into contact with Canadian Quakers and admired their ways of arriving at decisions and organizing themselves into an egalitarian and leaderless community. At almost exactly the same time I had come into contact with Canadian Marxist-Leninists and had been impressed by the clarity of vision in The Communist Manifesto. As if that weren’t enough confusion, I was also reading everything I could find on Buddhism and was especially attracted to the Theravāda and Zen traditions of contemplative practice. While each of those three traditions attracted me, each of them also had features that repelled me. I simultaneously regarded myself as a Quaker Buddhist Marxist and as none of the above.
Marx seemed to me to have offered an excellent account of the ways that those who sell their labor (proletarians) tend to be disadvantaged by those who pay for labor (capitalists or the bourgeoisie) to produce goods and services that are then sold at a profit as commodities. He saw clearly that people themselves become commodities, often of lesser commercial value than the products they manufacture. He also made a good case for the claim that the economic injustices inherent in capitalism are unlikely to be rectified by those in power voluntarily relinquishing their power and sharing it with the disadvantaged. He made a good case, in other words, for the inevitability of violent confrontation as the far-more-numerous proletarians angrily tore the tools of oppression out of the hands of the far-less-numerous capitalist bourgeoisie.
It was, however, precisely the idea of violent revolution that ran up against the pacifist ideals I was drawn to in both the Quakers and the Buddhists. Marx himself scoffed at those who, like the Christians, held out hope of achieving a classless society through peaceful means. After all, two millennia of Christianity in Europe has not transformed European society into a classless culture of economic justice; instead, Christianity has been transformed beyond anything that the earliest Christians would recognize as institutions that embody their values. Similar observations could be made of Buddhism in Asia; rather than reforming any culture it has gone to, it has been corrupted by every culture to which it has spread. Rather than liberating the oppressed in India, China, Japan, Tibet and Southeast Asia, the Buddhists themselves became the oppressors. Christianity and Buddhism were both conquered by their converts. On the one hand, it seemed obvious Marx was right about the necessity of violent revolution. On the other hand, I was unwilling to partake in violent revolution. This put me in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that I was unwilling to do the very thing I was convinced had to be done to achieve economic justice and an egalitarian society.
Eventually I became disillusioned with Marxism, because it seemed obvious that it had failed as miserably as Buddhism and Christianity had failed. The Marxist institutions that had been motivated to bring out social and economic justice were undermined by the very forms of corruption they sought to eradicate. There was as little inspiration to be found in the Soviet Union or in the People’s Republic of China or in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar as there was in the United States of America. Every political reality seemed a caricature of the ideals on which it was founded. Everything was a disappointment. But wasn’t that exactly what the Buddha taught? And was it not the teaching of the pre-millennialist Christians that Christ will initiate the rule of saints and that human effort is therefore of limited efficacy? The other-worldly teachings of those who saw no hope for humanity in this world proved to be an almost irresistible temptation. For better or for worse, the temptation for me never got beyond the almost irresistible stage.
Forty-four years have gone by since I discovered Benz’s Buddhism or Communism, and it is still not obvious which holds the future of Asia, and no more clear which one holds my own future. I cannot seem to swallow either one, nor can I spit either one of them out. I am still almost but not quite a Marxist, nearly but not quite a Buddhist, and nearly but still short of being a Quaker.
It doesn’t worry me that I can’t quite seem to find the right tail to pin on the donkey or the right label to paste on my forehead. That just means that I never quite know which box to tick on questionnaires that ask what my religious and political preferences are. What troubles me more is that the human race as a whole can’t decide to work together to find ways to provide food, shelter, uncontaminated drinking water and basic health care to the world’s human population and viable habitat to the world’s non-human population. It troubles me that the human race can’t seem to find a way to keep its population at sustainable numbers. It bothers me that a significant number of human beings expend so much of their time, energy and money to deceive others and that they are so often more successful at what they do than are those who dedicate their lives to disseminating accurate information and practical solutions to difficult problems. It saddens me that whether one looks at the world as a Marxist, a Quaker or a Buddhist, the goal lies beyond reach, seemingly obstructed forever by hard-hearted men (and a few such women) of narrow vision, limited imagination, selfish motivation, and vicious temperament.
The evils of the world are just as the Buddhists, the Quakers and the Marxists have described them. What Fox, Marx and Gautama had in common was a clear vision of the human condition. What they also had in common was the absence of any workable solution to that evil.
Successful graduates of all three traditions (Buddhism, guruistic Hinduism, and Sufism) will testify that there is a great “spiritual” opening-up that can happen when our own self-esteem and will are successfully defeated, even if the defeat is only momentary, and a rightly prepared student can grow tremendously at that time. All the crushing burdens of Buddhist monastic discipline and guruistic and Sufi disciplines seem aimed at bringing the student to that point.
It is true that there is no lack of testimonies to spiritual openings in various traditions that identify themselves as spiritual (in some sense of that bafflingly polysemous word). What is not entirely clear is whether there is any truth to the testimonies. Is there any truth to the matter of whether someone has had a spiritual opening, or is enlightened, or has been liberated from the world of suffering, or is saved? And if there is some truth to the matter, then what is the criterion by which one can distinguish a true from a false claim about the matter? Who is it who is in a position to determine whether anyone (including himself or herself) has had a genuine opening, enlightenment, liberation or salvation? It seems to me that all these questions are so intractable that the best policy may be to set them aside altogether, and in setting them aside, to suspend judgment on all claims to spiritual attainment, whether one’s own or that of another.
At this year’s Summer Seminar on Buddhism, John Maraldo has been lecturing on members of the Kyōto school of philosophy. In the first lecture in his series of talks, Professor Maraldo read excerpts from letters written by Nishida Kitarō, regarded as the founder of what eventually came to be called the Kyōto school. Writing about his own Zen training, Nishida observed to a close friend (probably D.T. Suzuki) that he had seen many people who had passed through the rigors of Rinzai Zen training, which meant that they had passed through the curriculum of kōan, without showing evidence of being improved in any way at all. They still seemed as selfish as ever, as prone to moral peccadilloes as ever, and as subject to falling prey to painful mental attitudes as ever. He could not understand why their Zen master had passed them and certified them as having gained liberative understanding (kenshō). Nishida’s doubt about the efficacy of Zen training increased when he himself was deemed by his Zen master to have passed the hurdles and gained insight into the true nature of things. He admitted that he did not feel any wiser or any closer to liberation after successfully passing his kōan that he felt before passing them. If being authenticated by a Zen master as having had an opening or an insight produced no noticeable differences in mentality or behavior, mused Nishida, then how could one attach any meaning to what was putatively being authenticated?
Before dismissing Nishida as a hopelessly deluded fool for questioning the notion of enlightenment that is identified as the greatest good and the goal of all Buddhist practice—such a dismissal would be facile unless it could be shown to be warranted by some criterion—it should be asked in a more general way who decided that the Buddha was, well, a buddha. That is, who decided that Gautama was indeed awake (buddha) from his dogmatic slumbers? The Buddhist literature suggests that Gautama himself declared himself to be awake. The Buddhist literature also narrates that not everyone agreed with him. There were those who doubted his wisdom, questioned whether he was correct in claiming that he had been liberated from greed, hatred and delusion. And the Buddhist texts also narrate that Gautama’s own teachers declared him to have reached the goal of awakening, but that he himself knew that they were mistaken, for he knew that he had not reached that goal.
Having an opinion about someone else’s attainments is rarely a good idea. It is really not any of one’s business whether someone else has been enlightened, liberated or saved. I would be inclined to say that even when it is one’s business (which happens only when one’s own spiritual state is in question), it is probably not a good idea to have an opinion about this particular issue. Not much can come from thinking of oneself as enlightened except hubris and disappointment.
One of the most provocative stories in the Buddhist literature is the narrative about a monk named Channa, who was in terrible suffering from a disease that all the physicians he had consulted regarded as incurable. Seeing no point in being terminally ill with a painful disease, Channa told his fellow monks that he was going to take his own life. His friends examined him by asking all manner of questions, and on the basis of his answers they determined that he was an arhant. That is, he had eliminated all traces of greed, hatred and delusion and was therefore in no danger of being reborn in heaven or any other realm at the end of his current life. In short, he had achieved the goal of Buddhist practice. Following the custom of the day, his friends remained silent when he asked their permission to end his own life; in other words, they voiced no objections to his decision. Channa then cut his own jugular vein. As he was bleeding to death, says the story, he became afraid of dying. Fear of death is a sure sign that he was not an arhant. In short, Channa and his friends had all been wrong in their judgment that he was an arhant. Fortunately, the story continues, Channa drew all his resources together and overcame his fear of death at just the moment that he drew his last breath. When Channa had died, news of his death was relayed to the Buddha, who used his superhuman powers to determine where Channa had gone after his death. Seeing that Channa was nowhere to be found in any of the celestial realms or the hell realms and that he had not been reborn as a human being or an animal, the Buddha declared that in the very last moment of his life, Channa had become an arhant.
The story of Channa is as disturbing as it is dramatic. It raises the question: how on earth did the Buddha know that Channa died an arhant? Why did the Buddha believe that his inability to see Channa in any of the usual afterlife settings was sufficient grounds for concluding that Channa no longer existed and so had attained final cessation (nirodha), the summum bonum that is the goal of all Buddhist practice? Might the Buddha have been wrong? Is there any reliable way of answering the question of whether the Buddha was right or wrong in this matter? Is there recourse to anything but dogma and blind faith in such matters? Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. How could I? How could anyone?
Marshall Massey raises another interesting point in his comment to my previous posting. He says:
But if we reject the idea that it is merely a happy-puppey syndrome, then we have to accept that there is an important potential spiritual benefit to be gained from tough monastic discipline, alongside the undeniable abuses of the system and the undeniable psychological and social costs. And the question then becomes: is there a better alternative? Is there some other path to the same benefit, that doesn’t come at so high a price?
A lot of people — at least here in the West — say, yes, there is: we can defeat our own pride and will without entering a cult. And we point to some examples of success on that alternate path, including Gautama himself, Francis of Assisi, and to a lesser degree, a few of the Quaker giants. But the rarity of such successes is not encouraging.
It seems to me that this observation is based on a questionable premiss. The presupposition is that the legitimacy of monastic disciple, or the lack thereof, is determined by its consequence, and specifically the consequence of spiritual benefit. First of all, I doubt that there is any way of defining spiritual benefit that does not involve some form of circularity. If there is no non-question-begging way to determine whether there has been spiritual benefit, then that cannot be used as a criterion for deciding whether monastic discipline is worthwhile.
Here an important Buddhist text comes to our rescue, a text called Milindapañha (Milinda’s Questions). In this text a Bactrian king named Milinda asks Nāgasena, the most highly-respected Buddhist monk within his kingdom, whether it is necessary to be a monk to gain nirvana, that is, liberation from the root causes of suffering. Nāgasena replies that for every monk who attains nirvana there are one hundred ordinary householders who attain that goal. Then he corrects himself and says that in fact thousands—no, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands—of laymen attain nirvana for every monk who attains it. Naturally Milinda then wants to know what on earth the purpose of monastic discipline is, if it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for freedom from suffering. Nāgasena’s answer, which might surprise some, is that the monastic life is pleasing to some people. It exists just for those people who find it a satisfying way to live, here in this world, independently of any other considerations. This seems to me just exactly the best answer one can give to the question “Should I be a monk?” The answer is “Suit yourself.”
I would suggest that exactly the same answer is the right response to a whole range of other questions. Should you meditate? Well, if you find meditation enjoyable, and if you can do it without harming anyone, then please yourself by meditating. Should you seek out a spiritual master who will dominate you and break your will, as if you were a wild horse that needs to be domesticated to be of use to someone else? If you find being dominated fulfilling, then please yourself by joining an organization that will break your will. One possibility is to join a Buddhist gang, whose members praise the Buddha for being anuttara purisadammasāratī (an unsurpassed trainer of the human beast). Or should you seek out the company of people who perceive social hierarchies as damaging and therefore try to avoid them? If that would please you, then by all means seek out such company. (Good luck finding it in any species in the order of primates!)
On this whole series of questions, I find that Van Morrison speaks my mind when he sings:
I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating
And still I’m suffering but that’s my problem
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is