Friday, June 20, 2014

Buddhism: a philosophy for the 21st century?

NOT a religion, but a philosophy. I've recently finished reading this book:

Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World
Lama Surya Das, the most highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition, presents the definitive book on Western Buddhism for the modern-day spiritual seeker.

The radical and compelling message of Buddhism tells us that each of us has the wisdom, awareness, love, and power of the Buddha within; yet most of us are too often like sleeping Buddhas. In Awakening the Buddha Within, Surya Das shows how we can awaken to who we really are in order to lead a more compassionate, enlightened, and balanced life. It illuminates the guidelines and key principles embodied in the noble Eight-Fold Path and the traditional Three Enlightenment Trainings common to all schools of Buddhism:

Wisdom Training: Developing clear vision, insight, and inner understanding -- seeing reality and ourselves as we really are.

Ethics Training: Cultivating virtue, self-discipline, and compassion in what we say and do.

Meditation Training: Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and awareness of the present moment.

With lively stories, meditations, and spiritual practices, Awakening the Buddha Within is an invaluable text for the novice and experienced student of Buddhism alike.
I actually struggled with this book quite a bit. There were several times, where I almost quit reading it.

There was much I simply could not agree with. In fact, it very much reminded me of why I never pursued Buddhism, even though I like a lot of the things the Buddha is said to have taught. Every time I've tried to learn more about Buddhism, there would be something irrational that would put me off.

I felt that many times while reading this book, but it was a mixture of things, it wasn't all off-putting. I persevered with it, and by the end I was glad I did. I bought the book in the first place because I was hoping that it would:

A.) Teach me about Tibetan Buddhism.

B.) Be an interesting story of the life Surya Das (formerly known as Jeffrey Miller from Long Island) chose for himself, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist Lama.

C.) Teach me some things I could integrate into my own life.

In the end, I have to say it did all of those things. Surya Das has lead a life I would not have liked to have had, but thankfully he did it and I got to read about it and get the benefit of his insights from that, without having to do it myself. Sometimes you can learn a lot from a book, even if you don't agree with much of what it says. It challenges your ideas and makes you think. This was one of those books.

While reading the book, I found myself looking up a lot of things he was referring to on the internet. It was on-line that I found this essay by Sam Harris. I found myself agreeing with much of it:

Killing the Buddha
“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.


For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.


Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.

Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.


What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

It is as yet undetermined what it means to be human, because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight. We do not know what we will be a thousand years from now—or indeed that we will be, given the lethal absurdity of many of our beliefs—but whatever changes await us, one thing seems unlikely to change: as long as experience endures, the difference between happiness and suffering will remain our paramount concern. We will therefore want to understand those processes—biochemical, behavioral, ethical, political, economic, and spiritual—that account for this difference. [...]

Read the whole essay for embedded links and more. Harris expounds further on some of the ideas mentioned in the above excerpts, as he makes his case, and it's a good read. But back to the "Awakening the Buddha Within" book:

At the end of that book, even Jeffrey - oops, excuse me, "Surya Das" - said there were many types of Buddhism, and that one didn't have to embrace or believe in many of the beliefs held by Buddhists, or even believe in God. In the end, he said you could take from it what you wanted or needed.

I appreciated the lack of insistence on following dogma, but also found it a little ironic that he seemed to be indirectly supporting at least a portion of Sam Harris's essay; that Buddhist teachings don't have to be mixed up with religion.

I would not go so far as to say the two authors agree, but they seem close to agreement on some points. I think perhaps that Das is saying the teachings don't have to be mixed with religion, whereas Harris is more forcefully arguing that they should not be. That's not agreement, but pretty darn close.

Also see:

On criticizing fellow Buddhists
The tyranny of "Consensus Buddhism"!


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