My father had a sign on the door of his office that read, “Those who freely share their opinions are operating on the assumption that the demand for them is brisk.” Little did I know it at the time, but my father was preparing me for the interest in Buddhism that has haunted my entire adult life. The sign on the office door was, in my opinion, a bit too wordy, but I never shared that opinion with my father, because he never asked for it. (He did ask for my opinion on a number of things, but not on that sign.)
In one of my favorite dialogues in the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle-length discourses), the Buddha is reported to have told one Prince Abhaya how he decides what is worth saying;
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings. Abhaya Sutta
Some people of our times have boiled the essence of those criteria down to a mnemonic: “Before speaking, THINK.” That is, ask whether what you are about to say is
Speaking, according to traditional Buddhist authors, is a manifestation of what one is thinking. All speech acts and physical actions are preceded by mental actions. When Buddhists speak of karma, they are speaking primarily about one’s thoughts, for it is from thoughts that verbal and physical actions arise. Buddhists have a good deal to say about thinking, and they have numerous categories by which they analyze different kinds of thinking. This is not the place to go into those details. There is, however, one kind of thinking that Buddhists never recommend. It is called prapañca, a term that will be left untranslated for now.
The fact that prapañca is never recommended is a sign that this kind of thinking is regarded as unhealthy or unwholesome (akuśala). But what exactly is this kind of unhealthy thinking, and how can one know that one is indulging in it? How can one take precautions against it? In looking for answers to these questions, we encounter a variety of interpretations.
Early translators of the Pali canon sometimes rendered the term papañca (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prapañca) as “obsession”. While it is true that there is an obsessive dimension involved in the kind of thinking called prapañca, that translation does not tell the whole story. What the term often means outside of Buddhist contexts is something more like elaboration. If, for example, one states an idea briefly and the idea is misunderstood, then one can offer a more elaborate account of the idea. Alternatively, if one makes a claim, and someone else disputes the claim, one might then counter the dispute by offering a more carefully qualified version of the claim. That more carefully qualified claim is called a prapañca. In this context, prapañca is a verbal action, whereas in Buddhist contexts prapañca tends to be the thinking underlying the speech. If a person making a claim is too attached to the claim being made and defends it against all criticism, no matter how reasonable, then the verbal prapañca may be characterized as intellectually obsessive in nature. An idea of which someone simply will not let go, no matter how good the reasons may be for dropping it, may generate a good deal of verbal prapañca. The verbal prapañca is not the obsession per se but rather the verbal manifestation of the obsessive clinging to the idea; clinging to ideas tends to make one rather talkative.
In Buddhist contexts, the mental prapañca that is so often warned against is, I am inclined to think, the making of unnecessary narrative. It is generating explanations above and beyond the mere observation of what is happening. Not being content merely to observe what is taking place, one may well try to tell a story about why something is taking place. For example, if I see someone behaving in a particular way, I may be tempted to try to explain the behavior by telling some story about the hidden (to everyone but me) motives of the person whose behavior I have observed. But attributing motivation to a mind I cannot directly observe is gratuitous in the sense that it oversteps the limits of observation. It is this overstepping the limits of observation that is the root cause of what Buddhists in India called prapañca. It is telling stories of the kind that no one can be sure whether they are true or false.
People who imagine that they have figured something (or someone) out often have a difficult time keeping their hypotheses to themselves. And so gratuitous thinking often gives rise to gratuitous speaking, for example, sharing one’s opinions with those who have not asked for them. (In really extreme cases, gratuitous thinking may even result in writing posts on a blog. When the disease has developed to that degree, the prapañca may well be incurable).
Prapañca is one of the principal ingredients in modern culture. Indeed, it is probably one of the principal ingredients in any human culture, for much of what we call culture is simply common agreement on which stories deserve to be told and called true, despite their overstepping the limits of observation. Nearly all of religious doctrine is prapañca that has come to be accepted by a community of people, despite being neither verifiable nor falsifiable through experience. Nearly all political conviction is prapañca, for very few political disputes can be settled by an impartial appeal to evidence collected through careful observation. Most philosophy is prapañca, and I would hazard the guess that one can also find traces of prapañca in other academic disciplines as well.
The Buddha reportedly said that there were a good many topics of conversation that he avoided. He did not like to talk about current events, sports or what people were doing and saying. He did not like to offer speculations about how the world came about or how it might come to an end. He did not like to speculate about how big or how old the universe is. All such topics of conversation were regarded as what in Pali was called samphappalapa, usually translated as “idle chatter” or “pointless speech.” Pointless speech is based in prapañca, which might therefore be called pointless thinking or generating pointless narrative or telling unnecessary stories.
No one asked me what my opinion is about the meaning of the Buddhist term prapañca. I shared it anyway. I obviously failed to absorb the lesson on the sign on my father’s door. So my advice to you is not to read this post.
“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.
Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.
My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.
In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.
My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.
Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.
One of the most difficult of all Buddhist doctrines is anātman, which literally means non-self. A typical way of framing this doctrine is in contemplative exercises in which one is instructed to pay attention to the incoming and outgoing breaths. Paying attention to breathing requires deciding to focus attention on that one thing, and remembering to return to the breathing when attention drifts to some other topic (as it almost always does). Typically, when this exercise is done in a Buddhist context, one is told to make a mental note that paying attention is just a mental process; it is not the self, nor is there a self to which paying attention belongs. Similarly, deciding is just a mental process, remembering is just a mental process, distracted drifting off topic is just a mental process. None of these is the self, nor is there a self to which these processes belong.
It is easy to say all those words, and not especially difficult to follow the instructions for that particular contemplative exercise. Less easy is to know what is gained by disowning all those mental processes and not letting oneself see a self in any of them. The standard answer is that seeing all those processes in impersonal terms is conducive to wisdom, the antidote to delusion, and that delusion is one of the three mental processes that result in dissatisfaction (the other two principal causes of dissatisfaction being desire and aversion). But that is simply a claim. To say that looking at mental processes in personal terms is delusional and that looking at them impersonally is wise is to beg the question. Why should anyone believe such a claim? Why should one deem any thought to be either wise or delusional?
I do not have an answer, at least not one that I find satisfactory or am willing to try to defend. At this stage in my life, all I have is the question: What warrants the claim that thinking in personal terms causes dissatisfaction?
In the past I have experimented with several different ways of talking about the dogma of anātman. My approach has been to answer the question what exactly is being denied when one denies that something is the self or part of the self or a property of the self. Three possible answers have suggested themselves to me. One possible reply is that what is really being denied is individuality. Another possible reply is that what is being denied is identity. And a third possible reply is that what is being denied is autonomy.
The word “individual” literally means that which is not divided, that which remains a single thing, no matter how many aspects it may have. Denying individuality could be seen as affirming our internal dividedness, acknowledging and perhaps even accepting the fact that some of our motivations are in conflict with some of our other motivations and that our psyches are not always in the same mood. Jungian psychologists sometimes say that the healthy psyche is not so much an authoritarian government in which the Supreme Leader (the ego) directs all decision-making and banishes all dissidents to dark dungeons; rather the healthy psyche is a round-table discussion in which the ego is but one voice among many, and not always the voice that prevails. Delusion might then be the feeling that we somehow should be consistent, always on course, never wavering from a single point of view. Since it is impossible to be that way, striving to be that way and then failing is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
A second possible interpretation of the dogma of anātman is that what is being denied is identity, again in the etymological sense of the word. “Identity” literally means sameness. To say that one has an identity is to say that there is something essential that remains the same when accidental properties change. If one had this sort of identity, then the temporary angry or grumpy moments are aspects of an enduring self that is at other times calm and cheerful. An abiding identity of this kind would have no abiding qualities; it would make no sense to say, for example, of a person in a fit or rage that he is not himself today. On the contrary, he is very much himself at all times, whether drunk or sober, pleasant or unpleasant, careful or reckless. It is not obvious what is gained by believing in a self of that kind, nor is it clear what is gained in denying it. It is not obvious whether belief in an abiding sameness that is essentially unaffected by temporary association with different properties is delusional or wise, whether it engenders contentment or disappointment. Something that can be said about identity in the sense of something that remains stable as its aspects change is that denying it flies in the face of how nearly everyone experiences the world. It is a very unusual person who wakes up in the morning without feeling that she is the same person as the one who went to bed to night before. What could the point be of denying the validity of experiences that seem so very intuitive?
There is another sense of identity, that which attends the phrase “to identify with” as when we say that a person identifies with being of a particular ethnic group or nationality or political party or profession or religion or gender or lifestyle or that someone identifies with being a hapless victim or a successful entrepreneur or a no-nonsense pragmatist or a far-sighted visionary or a compassionate vegetarian. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist proponents of anātman were making the observation that identifying too strongly with particular candidates for selfhood entrains the dissatisfaction that naturally comes from feeling alienated from all those things perceived to be contrary to what one strongly identifies with. To insist that I am this and not that may make me uncomfortable with those who insist they are that and not this; it may also serve as an obstacle to recognizing that no matter how much I may insist on being only this, I can’t help also being a little bit of that. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist was saying, “the more you can desist from identifying with this to the exclusion of that, the less frustrated you will be with life.”
There is one further thing that the doctrine of anātman may be denying, or at least questioning: autonomy. Different cultures seem to have different attitudes toward the notion of autonomy, to being one’s own law and master. Generally speaking, in post-Enlightenment European culture, autonomy is more highly prized than it is in more traditional cultures. Perhaps the traditional Buddhists deserve credit for observing that the perception of autonomy is largely an illusion. We are all conditioned by the actions and attitudes of people around us, by the environment in which we live, by the indoctrination we have received from family and friends and social institutions, by the health of our physical bodies, and by countless other determinants over which we have very little or no control. We are all like corks being tossed this way and that in a maelstrom, and it may be no more than a fantasy to think we are steering our own course. In most Buddhist contemplative exercises, the instruction is given to observe things as they are, to accept them to whatever extent that is possible without passing judgment. In short, the instruction is to relinquish the conceit of autonomy.
Whatever it may be driving at, the doctrine of anātman is worth thinking about. One way to avoid thinking about it (or anything else) is to have too-ready an answer, too glib a reason for taking on the habit of saying that thinking is just a mental process, not the self and not a property that belongs to the self.
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.