Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Does Buddhism actually work?

with 6 comments

On the July 15, 2014 issue of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning discussed 12 Step Programs . After giving a brief account of the indebtedness of the 12 Step Program to an evangelical Christian organization known as The Oxford Group, Dunning delved into the important question of whether 12 Step Programs actually work. This turns out to be, in principle at least, a fairly straightforward question. The claim is made that 12 Step programs help people to break addictions of a various kinds, such as addictions to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, gambling, shopping, hoarding behavior or overworking. Answering the question of whether these programs work is simply a matter of compiling statistics how what percentage of people who resort to these groups are actually able to spot the addictive behavior they sought to stop. One possible complication in the seemingly straightforward task of gathering these statistics is at what point does one collect them. If someone manages to stay free of the addiction for, say, fifteen years and then “falls off the wagon,” does that count as a success or not? If a person is in the program for twenty years and has seventy relapses but eventually happens to die in between relapses, do this count as a success or not? Supposing it can be determine (even if only arbitrarily) what counts as an example of the program working, one can come up with at least an approximate answer to the question “Do 12 Step Programs actually work?” (It is worth either reading or listening to Brian Dunning’s report and conclusions.)

After listening to Dunning’s podcast, it occurred to me that Buddhism is usually described as a program (although its followers tend to describe it as a mārga or pratipad, both of which Sanskrit words mean method of course or path, or as a dao (道), which also means path or way or course or method). A legitimate question to ask, therefore, is whether the program actually works. Does the path actually lead to the destination indicated on the roadsigns? Not only does this seem a reasonable question to ask, it seems to be the most important question for someone to ask about any path before embarking on it. Does this path actually go to where one would like to go?

Answering the question of whether Buddhism works should be quite simple. First, one determines what the destination of the path is said to be, and then one determines how many of the people who embark on the path actually reach the destination. The claim is that Buddhism is a path of getting to nirvāṇa. So all we need to do is collect statistics on what percentage of the followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvāṇa. If a very high percentage (once we decide how high a percentage needs to be to count as “very high”) does reach the goal, then Buddhism works. If only a very few people who follow the Buddhist method manage to reach nirvana, then we must conclude the path does not work very well.

No sooner is the method of determining the answer to the question of whether Buddhism works stated, however, than it is obvious that there is a problem. Suppose one were to use a similar method to determine whether highway I-25 works. According to the maps, this highway extends from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Buffalo, Wyoming. Now to determine whether the highway works, all we need to do is determine what percentage of the people who set out from Las Cruces make it all the way to Buffalo. I don’t know the answer, but I would suspect relatively few users of the highway manage to make the entire journey from Las Vegas to Buffalo, or from Buffalo to Las Vegas. Quite a few probably end up getting only as far as Denver or Albuquerque, or perhaps even only as far as Truth or Consequences, NM. This being the case, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that I-25 does not work very well. But that conclusion is obviously silly. Surely, one might observer, the criterion of success needs to be modified such that anyone who manages to use I-25 to get from somewhere on the highway to somewhere else on the highway counts as having made a successful journey. Using this criterion, we would have to say that I-25 works if someone manages to drive the thirty miles from Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado.

In applying the analogy of determining whether I-25 works to the matter of determining whether Buddhism works, we could either use the very strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana, or the more lenient criterion of determining how many followers of the Buddhist path manage to get somewhere other than the place where they started out. Let’s begin with the stricter criterion. What percentage of Buddhists reach the destination of nirvana? To answer this, we must first know what exactly nirvana is. Traditional Buddhism offers two definitions. Nirvana is either the cessation of rebirth or the complete elimination of greed, hatred and delusion from one’s mentality, with no possibility of their returning. How many Buddhists arrive at either one of those two destinations?

The problem of determining how many people achieve nirvana turns out to be at the very least difficult, and at the very most impossible in principle. Let’s begin with the latter. Given that it is not even possible to know whether anyone is ever reborn in the first place, how can one know whether anyone has stopped being reborn? For all we know, we all have only one life anyway, in which case we all succeed at not being reborn, whether we wish to or not. In that case, it would be trivially true that everyone who follows the Buddhist path avoids future rebirth; so does everyone who does not follow the Buddhist path, including every squirrel and every Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). Even if it were granted that some or all beings are reborn, there is no easy way of knowing which beings stop being reborn. The Buddhist tradition claims that the Buddha himself had the ability to see what happened to everyone upon their death, so he could know who had stopped being reborn and who had been reborn in some other realm. There is, however, no way of knowing whether those stories of the Buddha’s powers of clairvoyance are true or whether he simply claimed he could do what no one else could do, or whether his admiring disciples made this claim on his behalf. While I think it would be safe to dismiss these claims, it might be better simply to conclude that there is no known way of determining whether they are true, and hence no way of knowing whether anyone achieves nirvana.

If we take the other definition of nirvana, the definition that says that nirvana consists in the complete eradication of the very possibility of being greedy, hateful or delusional, we are still left with something that it is impossible to determine. At the very most, we might be able to say that a person has not been angry for a very long time; but does it follow from that that there is no circumstance whatsoever that would provoke that person to anger? Are we ever in a position to know that some psychological event that is currently not taking place will always and forever be absent from a given mentality? Here again, Buddhist tradition helpfully offers the claim that when a person has attained the complete eradication of greed, hatred and delusion, then that person knows that there will never again be greed, hatred or delusion in successive moments of mentality. That claim, however, cannot be tested. It is not at all obvious what kind of evidence one would even look for to determine whether it is true or false.

Trying to apply the strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana gets us nowhere. Unlike the question “How many people start in Las Cruces, New Mexico and drive all the way to Buffalo, Wyoming?, the question “How many people who begin the practice of Buddhism attain to nirvana?” turns out to be unanswerable. But what happens if we apply the more lenient criterion, the counterpart of deciding that I-25 works as a highway if anyone manages to get on the highway at one point and end up at another point thirty miles, or two centimeters, down the road? It may be easier to apply this test. One might give a battery of psychological tests to a person to determine a mentality profile, have the person practice Buddhism for a period of time, give the battery of tests again and see whether the results of the first set of tests differed from the results of the second set of tests. Any difference in mentality profile could be attributed to Buddhist practice.

Well, yes, but that would still be a sloppy methodology. As described, it commits the fallacy of the form “If x precedes y, then x is the cause of y” (the Latin name for which fallacy is Post hoc ergo proper hoc). The difference in mentality profiles between the earlier and the latter battery of personality tests could very well have been caused by something other than the intervening Buddhist practice. The changes may have taken place simply because the subject grew older, or for any number of other reasons. To get anywhere at all with this question, one would have to have a group of people take personality tests before and after doing some Buddhist practice, and then have a control group taking the tests before and after not doing Buddhist practice for the same amount of time, and then compare changes in the two groups. If the Buddhist practice group changed in statistically significant ways differently from how the control group changed, then one might be able to attribute the difference in change to Buddhist practice. No doubt someone somewhere has done such an experiment and published the results, thereby claiming to have shown that Buddhist practice changes mentalities in some way. Do such tests results really indicate that Buddhist actually works?

Let us return for a moment to the Brian Dunning report on 12 Step programs. His conclusion is this:

So even though there are a lot of studies with a high noise level from the past half century, we can still form a pretty good answer to the question of whether twelve step programs work. If you have an addiction, then you are probably better off seeking a treatment program than you are doing nothing. You’re probably better off starting with a full medical intervention. And from there, the road forks: If you’re an evangelical Christian, your best chance at recovery is to enter a twelve step program; and if you’re not an evangelical Christian, then your best chance is to go with a community support program that is not a twelve stepper.

Without having done any research on the topic, my guess is that something similar to what Dunning said about 12 Step programs could also be said of Buddhist practice. If one wishes to change one’s mentality (presumably to a more positive mentality, however one defines “positive”), then it may be better to do something than to do nothing at all. The more attractive one finds a program, the more likely one is to stay with it, and the longer one stays with a program, the greater the likelihood the program will have some kind of results. If one finds Buddhist statues attractive and likes hanging out with people who identify themselves as Buddhists, then there may be a sense in which Buddhist practice works for one. If, on the other hand, one resists the very idea of accepting guidance from an allegedly enlightened master who lived twenty-five centuries ago and if one does not find Buddhist images aesthetically pleasing and inspiring, then one is unlikely to benefit much from Buddhism. In that case, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other programs that may work for one. Buddhism is by no means the only program in town.

There is, of course, also the very real possibility that nothing whatsoever works and that whether the changes in one’s mentality are positive or negative is a result of nothing but blind luck. If that is the case, then doing nothing may be every bit as effective as doing nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, please place your bets.


Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 21:08

Posted in Buddhism

6 Responses

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  1. Typo in your Latin: Post hoc ergo proper hoc > Post hoc ergo propter hoc


    Monday, August 4, 2014 at 00:36

  2. Place your bets indeed. I’m sure we all know Buddhists with decades of practice (or 12-Step for that matter), who appear to have missed the I-25 altogether or they’re in the wrong lane, or on the wrong side of the road! Or they set of on I-25 intending to get to Roswell, NM and will never make it. I have friends who have been Albuquerque and seem very confident that Wyoming really exists on that basis. I know one guy who says that if you’ve driven as far as Denver, CO, then it becomes clear the whole United States is just lines on a map, superimposed on rocks that know nothing about politics and the idea of Buffalo, WY is just a conceptual overlay and we should all just trying to get anywhere, stop and smell the roses or whatever.

    And so on.

    I seem to have ended up being an historical cartographer who gets around on a bicycle and never leaves Cambridge, Cambs; though I’m told that if one cycles beyond the city boundaries then roads such as M1, A1 and A14 take one to far away places (though apparently one is not allowed to cycle on them). It’s nice in Cambridge though, I have friends here, and we have an excellent library.


    Monday, August 4, 2014 at 01:07

  3. Thanks for spotting the typo. I have an aggressive spelling checker that does not like Latin. In the past it has changed “propter” to “proper”—indeed, it did so just now, and when I reasserted the ‘t’, the spelling checker promptly deleted it.

    Richard Hayes

    Monday, August 4, 2014 at 10:45

  4. Richard, your clarity and humour are undiminished. I bow to you.


    Tuesday, August 5, 2014 at 09:51

  5. These folks are taking a crack at measuring spiritual growth, which somewhat addresses your question: http://www.vox.com/2014/8/7/5978479/this-app-promises-to-track-your-spiritual-growth-for-you


    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 10:42

  6. […] have written before about how difficult it is to know whether a contemplative practice is a factor in one’s […]

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