In a recent post entitled “Up From Buddhism
,” Andrew Sullivan quotes a journalist and a blogger who have a less than favorable view of our tradition:
From 2003, John Horgan explains why he gave up on Buddhism:
…what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha’s first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual.
From this perspective, the very concept of enlightenment begins to look anti-spiritual: It suggests that life is a problem that can be solved, a cul-de-sac that can be, and should be, escaped.
Daniel Florien adds:
I’ve never found Eastern religions attractive, even when I went through my anti-Western culture phase. Doctrines of reincarnation, detachment, karma and the like have always struck me as ridiculous or wishful/dreadful thinking.
At best, this is cursory, lazy thinking. At its worst, it’s willfully ignorant. I wouldn’t ordinarily bother with this kind of thing – the internet is a cacophony of very loud, very opinionated people (I’m no exception) – but Sullivan’s blog attracts tens of thousands of views a day. And besides, I ordinarily like his thoughtfulness. And this is so patently incorrect.
And it kind of pissed me off.
As a student of Buddhism I found this post condescending and mildly offensive, but mostly just wrong. Sullivan is quoting from an article Horgan wrote for Slate
, and though Horgan is a journalist who has written several books, been published in the New York Times, and received prestigious fellowships, its a mean-spirited wholesale attack on Buddhism. I’m not sure why Sullivan is giving him the time of day. He’s evidently not a serious thinker.
Horgan and Florien do something I’ve seen before: Use a literal, rigid interpretation of a faith in order to ridicule it and dismiss it. It’s not too different from the reductive mis-readings of Islam that flourished after 9/11 to denigrate Muslims.
But the idea that Buddhism encourages people to turn away from life, and things such as sexuality and parenthood, is simply not true. At least, not the strain of American Buddhism I study, which draws on the whole corpus of Buddhist teachings.
To begin, Horgan uses the traditional story of the Buddha to paint him as some kind of garish deadbeat dad who ‘abandons’ his wife and child. The Buddha’s story as told in the sutras is just that – a story. You can’t dismiss a faith with 350 million adherents based on a detail of a legend that, it turns out, probably isn’t even true. From the Oxford Press The Buddha: A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Carrithers:
“Later traditions embroidered a great deal on the Buddha’s early life and appearance, but of this we can rely on little. The conventional images of him are perhaps true to his characteristic posture in meditation, but since such images were not made until centuries after his death they cannot be portraits.”
I would argue the same can be said of other major religious figures. You can’t dismiss Christianity because the Bible says a guy was caught in a whale. It’s a story! A narrative crafted by humans for humans, with all the inaccuracies and imperfections of any human endeavor. Folks like Horgan and Florien can’t see the forest for the trees.
Here’s what Carrithers has to say about the Buddha-as-Prince thing:
“We are on firmer ground with two facts. First, the Buddha was born among the Sakya people…. The Sakyas were one of a number of peoples spread along the northern edge of the Ganges basin, at the periphery of the then developing North Indian civilization. When the Buddha was born these people were still more or less independent and roughly similar systems of government. They were ruled by oligarchies or councils of elders, or some mixture of the two, and might therefore be called tribal republics. Some of these might have elected a leader for a fixed term, but they did not have kings in the strict sense, and therefore the later tradition that the Buddha was a king’s son must be dismissed.” (12-13)
This is more detail then you ever cared to know about the Buddha’s origins, but it serves to illustrate an important point about the dangers of religious literalism, i.e., that we don’t know if the Buddha had a wife and a little Buddha Jr. Even if he did, and left them to pursue his teachings, it’s a story that illustrates the principle of non-attachment.
As for the principle of non-attachment: Buddhism is not about isolating oneself. The discpline of meditation, with its roots in the ascetic pursuit of enligthenement through deprivation of the body and senses, is the most often misunderstood aspect of the Buddha’s teachings (no, meditators cannot levitate, although that would be totally sweet).
The Buddha, in fact, rejected the ascetic approach to finding enlightenment when he rejected detachment from everyday life. His teachings are laced with common-sense, real-world examples of how to more mindfully deal with the world, with the ultimate goal to be an awakening to the full spectrum and richness of life. The Buddha saw that we spend most of our time asleep and detached, lost in fantasy or material things or troubled emotions. He wanted people to wake up. His answer to extreme aceticism and isolation was the Middle Way. Again, Carrithers:
“In the traditional account the Buddha, realizing the pointlessness of extreme asceticism, accepted a reasonable meal and sat down to find that other path. In effect, that is, he accepted a still relatively disciplined asceticism, but one which avoided the extremes of sensual indulgence or of self-mortification. He was soon to designate this more measured asceticism the ‘Middle Path’.” (49)
Practicing some detachment is essential, since it creates the space in which we can see the habitual patterns that lead us to suffering and confusion. But the ultimate goal was not some mystical isolation.
The question of detachment often comes up in group discussions and on retreat. As western students of the Buddha, it’s something we wrestle with, but with guidance from a good teacher or a little self-study its a challenge it can be negotiated.
I liked this quote that my fellow blogger Julia May Jones posted last week in her (understandably popular) post on Buddhism and love
“But with either extreme – controlling our emotions or abandoning ourselves to intensity – what we are avoiding is direct and naked confrontation with the real nature of our energy. With either extreme we never actually experience ourselves. We never taste the texture of our world. We never touch the qualities of our own being in their
incredible fullness and variety…. It is important to experience our emotional energies simply and directly. Our emotions are a spectrum of fluid and fluent energies, and experiences their energy fields is the purpose of our exploration. … One of the most enlivening, exciting and fulfilling discoveries we can make as human beings is finding that our emotions are actually reflections of our awakened enlightened potentialities.” (Spectrum of Ecstasy, Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen)
That doesn’t sound like isolation. It’s called being in touch. Any Christian can meditate for a while or take a yoga class and get the same unit of satisfaction that a Buddhist does. Horgan seems not to have understood this. It’s no wonder he finds Buddhism unsatisfying as a spiritual discpline: he has it backasswards.
All this is not some exotic, inaccessible ninja monastery teaching. It’s from an Oxford Very Short Introduction, available at your local bookseller for half the price of a movie, and from going to a Buddhism study group for a while and listening and taking notes.
In the end, I don’t think Horgan’s problem is with Buddhism, actually, but with spirituality. He’s one of those Science Makes Spirituality Stupid and Obsolete fellows. From his Slate article:
“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel.”
Man, what a killjoy! All I can say to the Horgans of the world is this: If you feel the inner movement to find a spiritual discipline, bring a little common sense and skepticism to the process and you can’t go wrong. I happen to think you can be both a critical, independent-minded person and a good Buddhist.
I read Andrew Sullivan because he isn’t lazy like Horgan. He should tell his interns to stop posting this kind of facile commentary in order to generate controversy (and traffic).