One City

One City

If You’re Going To Slam Buddhism, Get Your Facts Straight

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).

Comments read comments(23)
post a comment
Julia May

posted May 4, 2009 at 10:48 am

Eep. It would be more intersting to hear from Horgan what happened to him that made him personally give up studying Buddhism than a cursory and incomplete breakdown of some varied Buddhist historical information. He doesn’t say anything about meditation and mindfullness.

report abuse

Your Name

posted May 4, 2009 at 11:50 am

This made me think of Religulous, Bill Maher’s editorial documentary on world religions, in which he takes a stance that I don’t think he’d deny is anti-religious, though he doesn’t touch on Buddhism much. (BTW, I like Bill Maher, and the film is actually thought-provoking and stirs up some good questions for debate.) The thing that strikes me as most similar to Horgan is that these guys are SO adamant in their stances that they’re essentially making themselves into zealots of the Church of Non-Belief. I’m no one to judge them, but are they really justified in pointing the finger at everyone else who’s “deluded” by religion/faith/spirituality? As Bill Maher probes an interviewee in the film, “What if [they’re] wrong?”

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 12:21 pm

The MiniMoFo/Jerry fantasy take on the Andrew Sullivan post:
Andrew must have a personal and deep contemplative practice and has been following the One City Blog. He is quoting these superficial rejections of Buddhism (both arguments are based on something more “new agey” than the get the fuck up and do something version of Buddhism that we practice at the IDP – more “Self Improvement” than “Buddhist”) to move the ball forward and get us talking.
These authors writings are no more relevant to a real conversation about interdependence than Michelle Obama’s college paper on Louis Farrakhan is to her husband’s fitness for the presidency. It’s called “stirring the pot” “kerfluffle” “macguffin” “red herring” “east coast west coast” or “bridge wars”.
Welcome Andrew!! And feel free to contact us directly if you’d like to do a guest post!

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 12:24 pm

I actually didn’t think Hogan’s article was that bad. He’s right that Buddhism has a number of integral supernatural elements that make it arguably just as trans-rational as Catholicism. And what he says about detachment has more than a little truth to it. The instructions that Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen are not applicable in a Theravadin context, for instance.
I agree that his concluding paragraph, in which he uncritically embraces a nihilistic philosophy as if it was self-evidently true, is a little silly. The title is also misleading – taking a Buddhism course, talking to a few people, then deciding you aren’t interested is not the same as “ditching” something. He could have just said “Buddhism wasn’t for me.”
Sullivan is being obnoxious too, with his title. Would he publish a post called “Up from Judaism” or “Up from Islam”?

report abuse

Dogo Barry Graham

posted May 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm

As a Buddhist, I didn’t have any problem with Horgan’s article, which I’ve read before. To take offense is to make it about yourself, and to get into name-calling (describing him as “stupid”) suggests that he’s onto something in his view of religion being a comfort to the ego.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 12:57 pm

To take offense is to make it about yourself? So to critique something is to make it about you? That doesn’t sound right at all, Barry. Compassionate critique is the basis of Buddhism, and is not inherently selfish at all.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 1:31 pm

While I would tend to agree with Dogo Barry Graham’s comment, I also find myself wondering why Horgan’s article was even published. Not because I was ‘offended’, but simply because it wasn’t a researched and thoughtful look at a religion – it was little more than religion-bashing, something that seems below Slate’s standard content [maybe it would have made for a good personal blog post].
I don’t feel this way because of my feelings and thoughts about Buddhism, but simply because I’m exhausted by these trite ‘science’ based critiques of religions that seem hell-bent on forcing readers to believe that life is an accident, and pointless.
First off, if that is the case then an opinion-piece on the matter is a waste of time, both to write and to read.
Secondly – science hasn’t proven or disproved any overarching beliefs our world religions hold. The universe remains a mystery – to cite current science as absolute truth is little more than citing a current religious text.
Lastly, critiquing religions based on writings from 2,000+ years ago seems unfair. His taking the time to look at neuroscience’s ability to contradict the relevance of the concepts behind meditation is like teasing a child for their understanding of a complex topic. We’ve only just scratched the surface of these sciences – and we’re going to judge ancient civilizations and religions for the way they attempted to understand them? I suppose they’re silly for not driving cars and sending emails, too. Everything is contextual. I’m sure that if we were to be judge for our scientific theories in 2,000+ years we’d be generally ridiculed for our lack of understanding.
That’s not meant to ‘dis’ science, but merely to suggest that a ‘scientist’ should perhaps be more open minded to the possibilities – as should everyone else. That, and “talkin’ shit” never makes you look like a serious thinker/writer – an issue that is increasingly problematic, I believe, with the increasing ease of publishing your thoughts and opinions online.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 1:55 pm

In defense of Andrew Sullivan’s post, I’m going to guess he (or his intern….) chose one of those quotes specifically because it tacitly critiques Catholicism as well (Sullivan is Catholic). Also, the post links to a site called Unreasonable Faith–that has, in the comments section, an extensive debate about Buddhism, some of which seems well thought out.
It almost seemed to me like Horgan is talking more about his upbringing/Catholicism, or at least that’s the subtext–he thought Catholicism was bullshit and “lapsed”, turned to Buddhism, which he thinks has some similarities with Catholicism, which lead him to “ditch” Buddhism (when really it just seems like he’s still reacting to Catholicism/his upbringing)
anyway some of Horgan’s points I have say, I’ve thought of as well–not nearly in the “and that is why Buddhism is bullshit” way, but–just thinking about it. For example, living well to be reborn well (“well” isn’t the word exactly but…..). This does seem like so many other religions (which isn’t necessarily a negative thing), in terms of afterlife. Live well today, and you will be rewarded with heaven/human birth/etc.
I also do not understand the idea of reincarnation–it seems in my verrrrry novice perspective to be almost antithetical to what little I do know, in terms of Buddhist teachings of non-self/the self as fluid, and the idea of impermanence. It really seems to contradict all those things. Everything is impermanent–except live well and “you” will be reborn as a human. So “I” will carry on. (?) I’ll assume there are teachings that address this seeming contradiction; nevertheless impermanence and reincarnation seem to contradict each other in a very basic way.
I also have wondered about the idea of “precious human birth,” as that notion has seemed narcissistic to me, and I lean more towards Horgan’s idea that, “Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way.” — but then ironically this belief actually seems to lead perfectly to Buddhism for me….the unknowability of “why” we are, and perhaps there is no “why” and in fact the “why” is incidental, which is what Buddhism seems to address for me, not the “why” but rather the fact of “we are”– we are here, all dealing with the human condition, life, death, sickness; Buddhism seems to offer a way to deal with this, the pain of being human.

report abuse

Steve Silberman

posted May 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Ethan, we were not alone in our reaction. I wrote Andrew an email myself, and he says he got a “deluge.” He has backed away from the original post:

report abuse

Steve Silberman

posted May 4, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Sorry, *Stillman*.

report abuse

Dogo Barry Graham

posted May 4, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Ethan, I agree, but I didn’t see any compassionate critique in what you wrote. I saw egoic anger and name-calling.
How is it possible to be offended if you’re not making it about yourself? Who is it that’s offended? I think you’re letting your ego get in the way of what otherwise might be a reasoned critique.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 4:12 pm

I didn’t write this article Barry. Stillman did. We have about 15 writers. So that’s one issue.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm

The comments here have the regular difficulties of misunderstand the teachings of Buddhism. Unlike many western religions, one needs to learn and study with an authentic lineage holder of Buddhism.
Why? In order to explain all of the natural misunderstandings that one can create in our thinking.
I would like to propose if someone wants to criticize a practice, it would be best to interview someone who holds the authority to speak on behalf of a lineage. There are many people who read books on Buddhism and think that they understand it. Unfortunately, I have never met one self-taught Buddhist who actually has gained any true insight or wisdom. In fact it would be ridiculous to Buddhist practicitioners that one could self-learn as a lineage holder guide is part of process. No teacher = no results.

report abuse

Dogo Barry Graham

posted May 4, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Ethan, that makes sense – I was particularly surprised by the personal/angry/blaming tone, because it didn’t sound like anything else I’d read by you. My apologies for the error.

report abuse

Daniel Florien

posted May 4, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Where and when did I ridicule Buddhism? All I said was it never appealed to me and that I found certain parts of what some Buddhists believe absurd. I hardly see how that equals me ridiculing it.
Not that I have a problem with ridiculing religion (my blog is full of it), but I don’t particularly like to be accused of something that I haven’t done. :)

report abuse

Anthony Federico

posted May 4, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Yah I wrote to Sullivan.
I agree, it was weak, but too typical to be provocative.
For anyone interested, keep your eyes peeled for Terry Eagleton’s new book (May) called something like Faith, Reason and Revolution where he really takes it out of Dawkins and Hitchens (amalgamated into Ditchkins). There’s a few reviews out there.
In my opinion there is something to be said about the New Atheism but everyone’s distracted by captious faith vs reason, science vs. religion etc. master terms.

report abuse

Anthony Federico

posted May 4, 2009 at 6:50 pm

That dude Florien’s blog looks dumber than Bill Maher
Also, seeing that you’re now on beliefnet, the Andrew Sullivan – Sam Harris debate on belief net has some good material and even more dazzline journalistic turns of phrase. Still, I was really disappointed here in their inability to get beyond “faith vs reason”or other dead ends.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 8:34 pm

@ Daniel Florien: Welcome, I look forward to looking at your blog.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 8:46 pm

@ Geoff, I agree about the importance of teachers (well, I sort of have to, since I teach Buddhism). Not sure if I agree that no teacher = no understanding though. Actually, I strongly disagree. Unlike you, I have met MANY self-taught or occasionally other-taught Buddhists (dabblers, I call them) who have gained a lot or a little from practice and study. Would it be better if everyone had a teacher or a core of teachers who they saw every week to ask questions, and meet mind-to-mind, face-to-face? Yes, much better. But that’s not what’s available to most people, and it’s not what many are interested in. In fact, the vast majority of folks interested in Buddhism are dabblers, or consider someone they’ve never met their teacher, like Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron. I encourage people to work with teachers. After the last year of my own life, I also think everyone should be in therapy, too :~)
I’d be wary of absolute statements like the one you seem to make. People sharing their opinions in community is how much of the learning process occurs.
I also never want to open the pandora’s box of “authentic” lineage holder. Every tradition has its own rules and definitions, and your definition of lineage holder is bound to be different than others.
The ignorance and wisdom of community mingling is what makes discussion so amazing.

report abuse


posted May 4, 2009 at 11:41 pm

The interesting thing about the science/spirituality debate is that it’s a debate. Sure science is important and critical in modern society, but spirituality is not obsolete. As a matter of fact science in exposing the quantum and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows us that spirituality is what creates science. When we live in a world where observation of an event determines it’s outcome it becomes obvious that consciousness or spirituality under a different name is central and key to our understanding of human existence.

report abuse


posted May 5, 2009 at 8:53 am

I don’t really understand that last quote. Where does science tell us that? Because I don’t think that’s an objective fact. The science vs. spirituality debate has always been interesting to me, especially because we commonly see those on the side of “reason” turning science into a religion with statements like that. Science doesn’t say anything about our place in the world.

report abuse

Paul Du Vé

posted May 6, 2009 at 12:20 am

thanks for commenting on opinions about detachment. I don’t find the word objectionable, as it is a part of practice. By cultivating mindfulness we cultivate a small very necessary detachment, and so see more deeply our thoughts, feelings, perceptions as we engage in life. We can then change ourselves by changing them. Sitting in meditation, we detach ourselves even if only temporarily from the hurly-burly of life. I am sure you recognise the benefit of detachment in this sense.
The Buddha in his life taught householders, encouraging a mindful and productive engagement with life. He also taught monks and nuns who detached themselves from the more absorbing social obligations to seek enlightenment. I remember reading a book by a lama (forgotten who) who said that there is a time in your practice when must go to a cave! I think that detachment is very necessary, from that moment of mindfulness of a busy engaged Buddhist to the secluded dedication of a monk or nun

report abuse


posted May 12, 2009 at 8:39 am

I’ve read that article once, a month ago. and myself, I find it a bit harsh to our great teacher, when Hogan say that Buddha ‘left’ his wife and his just-born son. I think Hogan was naively tried to put his feet on big shoes of the Buddha without thoroughly thinking about what he is trying to do. to say the truth, Hogan needs to study more about Buddha’s life before he come to the conclusion like ‘Buddha being irresponsible father’ and ‘his teaching is about isolation and turned away from ‘good stuff’ (from Hogan perspective) in life like sexual activity.
We all tends to have our opinions based on reasons and environment we familiar with and by being so We often find it’s easy to judge other based on our narrow perspective, as the Buddha has taught buddhists to beware about this kind of behavior so I did remain silence after I’ve read his article thoroughly. but as the story went on and on, I started to see many people who, with a little knowing about my religion, are taking it wrong way. so I like to share some of my knowledge here, It might be benefit to Hogan and others alike:
Firstly, Buddha did not left his wife, Princess Yashodhara, and his son, Rahula,
he did left his luxery life in palace in search of the real meaning of life that will be benefit to all mankind, and, later, after his enlightenment, he did come back and took his son to be ordian as a first Samanera in Buddhism. and, after years passed Princess Yashodhara herself also follow her son as she did ordian as a Bhikkuni and both of them after being in monkhood for a while, under the Buddha ‘s guidance, has reached Arhat and Nibhana. their story ended peacefully and happily. No one gets left behind.
Secondly, Buddha himself never encourage isolation, his foundation of ‘Sangha’ can be proof of this. but he did encourage us to retreat into nature or ‘Sappaya’ place when we really need to practice meditation in order to silence our mind, as in those place its easier for us to be serious with our practice, but by no means to isolate ourselves from reality.
Thirdly, Buddha did not encourage us to leave our life but he did encourage us to end suffering. what did he taught is that, we need to seriously look at our life as it is. to abstract it down to the point that we know what is really necessary, and what is really the meaning of everything around us. he also taught that we could find our very own version of Dhamma everywhere, not necessary in monkhood or celibacy or in the forest.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting One City. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Most Recent Buddhist Story By Beliefnet Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading!

posted 2:29:05pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Mixing technology and practice
There were many more good sessions at the Wisdom 2.0 conference this weekend. The intention of the organizers is to post videos. I'll let you know when. Here are some of my notes from a second panel. How do we use modern, social media technologies — such as this blog — to both further o

posted 3:54:40pm May. 02, 2010 | read full post »

Wisdom 2.0
If a zen master were sitting next to the chief technical officer of Twitter, what would they talk about? That sounds like a hypothetical overheared at a bar in San Francisco. But this weekend I saw the very thing at Soren Gordhamer's Wisdom 2.0 conference — named after his book of the same nam

posted 1:43:19pm May. 01, 2010 | read full post »

The Buddha at Work - "All we are is dust in the wind, dude."
"The only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing." - Alex Winter, as Bill S. Preston, Esq. in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"That's us, dude!" - Keanu Reeves, as Ted "Theodore" LoganWhoa! Excellent! I've had impermanence on my mind recently. I've talked about it her

posted 2:20:00pm Jan. 28, 2010 | read full post »

Sometimes You Find Enlightenment by Punching People in the Face
This week I'm curating a guest post from Jonathan Mead, a friend who inspires by living life on his own terms and sharing what he can with others.  To quote from Jonathan's own site, Illuminated Mind: "The reason for everything: To create a revolution based on authentic action. A social movemen

posted 12:32:23pm Jan. 27, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.