I don't read every article in The New Yorker. But when I got near the end of the latest issue and saw this image, along with "American Nirvana: Is there a science of Buddhism?" by Adam Gopnik, I knew I'd peruse every word.
(The online version has a different title.)
Gopnik's piece was a review of two recent books: "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment" by Robert Wright, and "After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age" by Stephen Bachelor.
Naturally I've ordered both books from Amazon. I say "naturally," because I'm a big fan of Buddhism -- but only when Buddhism is stripped of religious supernaturalism, dogmatism, and mysticism. Bachelor has done this in several previous books that I've enjoyed, so I figured it was a no-brainer to buy his newest book.
I'm less familiar with Robert Wright. However, as soon as I got a few paragraphs into Gopnik's review, these passages told me I'd be ordering his book also.
He [Wright] thinks that Buddhism is true in the immediate sense that it is helpful and therapeutic, and, by offering insights into our habitual thoughts and cravings, shows us how to fix them. Being Buddhist—that is, simply practicing Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—will make you feel better about being alive, he believes, and he shows how you can and why it does.
Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation.
Great. I've always had the feeling that, like Jesus, whoever the Buddha really was isn't at all like the mythical person he is now imagined to be. Here's how Wright speaks about the Buddha.
...a wealthy Indian princeling named Gotama (as the Pali version of his name is rendered) came to realize, after a long and moving spiritual struggle, that people suffer because the things we cherish inevitably change and rot, and desires are inevitably disappointed.
But he also realized that, simply by sitting and breathing, people can begin to disengage from the normal run of desires and disappointments, and come to grasp that the self whom the sitter has been serving so frantically, and who is suffering from all these needs, is an illusion.
Set free from the self’s anxieties and appetites and constant, petulant demands, the meditator can see and share the actualities of existence with others. The sitter becomes less selfish and more selfless.
Sounds good. I've written a lot on this blog about how modern neuroscience agrees with ancient Buddhism (and Taoism) that a notion of an independent, unchanging, separate "self" is indeed an illusion. So, of course, is the related notion of a unitary "soul" with pretty much the same attributes.
Rather, we're a conglomeration of all sorts of psychological/mental traits that usually fit together more or less coherently, causing us to mistakenly believe that a self or soui is inhabiting the body we call "me." Gopnik says;
Wright, like his Bay Area and Boston predecessors, is delighted to announce the ways in which Buddhism intersects with our own recent ideas. His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously secularized but aggressively “scientized.”
He believes that Buddhist doctrine and practice anticipate and affirm the “modular” view of the mind favored by much contemporary cognitive science.
Instead of there being a single, consistent Cartesian self that monitors the world and makes decisions, we live in a kind of nineties-era Liberia of the mind, populated by warring independent armies implanted by evolution, representing themselves as a unified nation but unable to reconcile their differences, and, as one after another wins a brief battle for the capital, providing only the temporary illusion of control and decision.
By accepting that the fixed self is an illusion imprinted by experience and reinforced by appetite, meditation parachutes in a kind of peacekeeping mission that, if it cannot demobilize the armies, lets us see their nature and temporarily disarms their still juvenile soldiers.
I used to believe that meditation could lead to knowledge of higher realms of existence by separating our eternal soul from our time-bound body/mind. Now, I'm firmly in accord with Wright's secular Buddhism.
Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind.
“According to Buddhist philosophy, both the problems we call therapeutic and the problems we call spiritual are a product of not seeing things clearly,” he writes. “What’s more, in both cases this failure to see things clearly is in part a product of being misled by feelings. And the first step toward seeing through these feelings is seeing them in the first place—becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings influence our thought and behavior.”
Our feelings ceaselessly generate narratives, contes moraux, about the world, and we become their prisoners. We make things good and bad, desirable and not, meaningful and trivial.
For sure. I doubt that anyone can completely break the habit of creating narratives about the world. But we can make our stories less rigid, ego-centered, and unproductive.
Meditation shows us how anything can be emptied of the story we tell about it: he tells us about an enlightened man who tastes wine without the contextual tales about vintage, varietal, region. It tastes . . . less emotional. “All the states of equanimity come through the realization that things aren’t what we thought they were,” Wright quotes a guru as saying. What Wright calls “the perception of emptiness” dampens the affect, but it also settles the mind. If it isn’t there, you don’t overreact to it.
Then Gopnik moves to an examination of Stephen Bachelor's book. Since I don't believe in free will, probably I'll like Wright's treatment of this subject more than Bachelor's. Still, I agree with the basic thrust of how Bachelor sees things, based on this passage from the review.
Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a task-based ethics . . . such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task. When an inclination to say something cruel occurs, for example, can you resist acting on that impulse? . . . Whether your decision to hold the barbed remark was the result of free will or not is beside the point.” He calls the obsession with free will a “peculiarly Western concern.” Meditation works as much at the level of conscious intention as it does at the level of unreflective instinct.
Having read other books by Bachelor, I already knew that he likes his Buddhism with supernaturalism on the side. But as Gopnik notes, this requires Bachelor to show that the "main dish" of secular Buddhism hasn't been made untasty by a mixture with religious superstition.
Batchelor also tackles the issue, basically shelved by Wright, of whether Buddhism without any supernatural scaffolding is still Buddhism. As a scholar, he doesn’t try to deny that the supernaturalist doctrines of karma and reincarnation are as old as the ethical and philosophical ones, and entangled with them. His project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition.
l really liked the following passage in Gopnik's piece. I get the absurdity he speaks about below frequently in comments on my blog posts. Because nothing is 100% certain, not even the best proven scientific theory, religious believers often try to equate faith in some supernatural entity with faith in a law of nature.
Um, there's a lot of room between 0% and 100%.
A belief in the truth of electromagnetism warrants 99.9% faith in it. A belief in the truth of Jesus' resurrection and ability to save souls warrants a much lesser faith, like 0.1% -- given the demonstrable evidence for each.
Then there’s the shrug-and-grin argument that everyone believes something. Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very different thing.
We have confidence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientific revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on offer.
Batchelor tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims are really the same because they are both beliefs.
And this is a great section of the review that I've quoted at some length. It is indeed amazing that so many "spiritual" people who claim that living in the moment, now, is the best and highest use of human consciousness, unabashedly embrace scientific, cultural, and other truths that only exist because people put a bunch of moments together to fashion a greater understanding of both the past, present, and future.
A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science and Buddhist practice flows from the nature of scientific storytelling.
The practice of telling stories—imagined tales of cause and effect that fixate on the past and the future while escaping the present, sending us back and forth without being here now—is something that both Wright and Batchelor see as one of the worst delusions the mind imprints on the world. And yet it is inseparable from the Enlightenment science that makes psychology and biology possible.
The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientific evidence for the power of meditation—EEGs and MRIs and so on—without ever wondering why a scientific explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures. (Science has latterly been practiced by Buddhists, of course.)
What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice—the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment—is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires. Science is competitive storytelling. If a Buddhist Newton had been sitting under that tree, he would have seen the apple falling and, reaching for Enlightenment, experienced each moment of its descent as a thing pure in itself.
Only a restless Western Newton would say, “Now, what story can tell us best what connects those apple-moments from branch to ground? Sprites? Magnets? The mysterious force of the mass of the earth beneath it? What made the damn thing fall?” That’s a story we tell, not a moment we experience. The Buddhist Newton might have been happier than ours—ours was plenty unhappy—but he would never have found the equation.
Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend. The stories improve over time in the light of evidence, or they don’t. It’s just as possible to have Buddhist science as to have Christian science or Taoist science. But the meditator’s project of being here now will never be the same as the scientist’s project of connecting the past to the future, of telling how and knowing why.
Lastly, Gopnik ends his piece with the stark truth that everything ends. After birth, death. In between, we're continually introduced to the reality of loss. Which is the root of sadness. Whatever helps us deal with loss and sadness, this has to be good, Insofar as Buddhism and meditation can do this, they're worthy of our embrace -- along with much else.
The larger problem we face is not suffering but sadness, and the sadness is caused by the fact of loss. To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, but to see loss squarely sounds like wisdom. We may or may not be able to Americanize our Buddhism, but we can certainly ecumenicize our analgesics.
Lots of different stuff from lots of different places which we drink and think and do can help us manage. Every faith practice has a different form of comfort to offer in the face of loss, and each is useful. Sometimes it helps to dwell on the immensity of the universe. Sometimes it helps to feel the presence of ongoing family and community. Sometimes it helps to light a candle and say a prayer. Sometimes it helps to sit and breathe.