Sometimes on this blog I write things very quickly without going over them with the kind of rigor I would when preparing something for a book or a magazine article. This is one of those times. It’s something I want to get off my chest right away without fussing over it too much and thus losing the spirit of it. As such there are bound to be mistakes and things that I’ll later realize I could have said a lot better. But here goes anyway…
I was just reading a thing by Sam Harris that says, “For beginners, I always recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course–and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of ‘spiritual’ instruction.”
Sam Harris is just one of many people in these here United States in these here modern times who hope to find that unicorn of unicorns, a form of meditation that “can be taught in an entirely secular way,” that is completely devoid of any taint of that most dreaded and feared of dreaded and feared things, the one thing above all others that is the cause of absolutely every problem in the world from the beginning of time – cue scary music here – religion!
I have been just as highly critical of religion as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or anybody else. I am not a religious person. I know very well the evils of religion. One of the very first things I ever posted on the Interwebs in my capacity as a Zen writer was a piece about how the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York were caused by religion and that religion was a festering source of evil and badness.
So I get it. I completely and totally get it. I understand why Sam Harris and so many others long for a completely de-religious-ized version of meditation.
The problem is that our definitions about what constitutes religion are so broad that, if we’re gonna be scared of religion, we’re going to be scared of a lot of the very things that make meditation work.
For example, now that I’ve introduced traditional Zen Buddhist chanting services into some of the events I host, lots of people have been put off by the supposed religiousity of chanting ancient sutras together. It’s too much like singing hymns at church. And all that bowing! Its horrifying! The next thing you know we’re going to be attacking the Muslims next door for being infidels. Something that atheists like Mr. Harris would never do…
So. OK. Chanting services. I get it. They are kinda religious. So maybe if we don’t have chanting services we won’t be considered so scarily religious.
Afraid not. Even the mere acknowledgement that we are teaching a meditation technique derived from the teachings of Buddha and from the tradition that grew up and was refined for 2500 years around that original spark is enough the make people turn away. When we insist that the posture one takes in meditation is important, there are folks who find that offensive and terrifyingly religious.
But what happens when we attempt to sterilize meditation practice of anything anyone could in any way, shape or form accuse of being religious? What do we get?
I suppose we get science. And science is nice, right? It involves no reliance at all on any sort of a belief system. Everything is testable, repeatable and contains no hint at all of superstition or anything supernatural. Phew! What a relief! Everything is OK then. Gosh. And that was so easy!
But is it?
Look. I like science. I like the scientific method. I agree that the rational, non-superstitious non-supernatural approach is best. In fact I agree with that old horrible religious Buddhist Dogen who said that nothing – nothing at all in the whole universe throughout all of time – is outside of the laws of cause and effect. Which, to me, is the scientific method in a nutshell and echoes very similar statements made by the Buddha himself.
But Dogen and the Buddha and all the rest of this tradition never abandoned all that religious poppycock completely. They still performed rituals and ceremonies, they bowed to icons, they even said things that could be defined as (gasp!) prayers.
Why? Why? Why? Why did you let us down Dogen and Buddha and Lin Chi and Nagarjuna and all the rest? Why didn’t you dump all that stuff in the fire where it belongs? If only you’d done that we wouldn’t have to make the whole thing up ourselves anew.
Yet what happens when we try to re-invent that which has already been invented? What does a totally sterilized version of meditation look like?
For one thing, you get a lot of people involved who don’t really grasp the fullness of what it is they’re working with. They ignore the tradition and teach meditation as stress reduction, only to find that for a certain portion of beginning practitioners, meditation actually seems to trigger an increase in stress and anxiety. Because they refuse to look into a tradition that sometimes talks in spooky terms of things like Storehouse Consciousness or even (oh save us!) demons, they don’t know how to deal with it when meditation gets a little hairy scary.
What will we do about that? We’ll have to invent new words and new methods to deal with that stuff. We’ll have to codify it… again.
Nor can we avail ourselves of the kinds of spaces that have been developed by centuries of people dedicated to coming up with the very best places most conducive to meditative practice. Because those spaces are (horrors!) temples! They have all those ghastly statues in them! There are weird rules about entering the space. You have to bow to it! You have to (say it isn’t so!) bow in supplication to something greater than yourself!
And there’s nothing greater than yourself.
And what about science? I mean, I love it. I honestly do. But I can’t do all that math. I don’t understand all those complex calculations. I don’t really grasp why the moon stays up in the sky except to know it’s not magic. But because I don’t understand the science behind it, I have to rely on a certain amount of (please don’t make me use this word) faith.
I’m not one of those weirdos who likes to shout, “Science is a religion!” whenever somebody suggests that dinosaurs didn’t all die in the Great Flood. But can’t we at least admit that even though our scientist friends say that anybody could do the same calculations and come up with the same results, most of us don’t really know that for sure? Is that too much to say?
That is, the general outlines of something like the Theory of Evolution are obvious and sensible. But once we get into the details of how evolution works we’re dealing with something very akin to accepting what the priest says because he’s a priest and therefore possesses knowledge unavailable to us. Notice, please (oh please notice!) that I’m not saying that therefore evolution is just a theory and we ought to give equal time in our classrooms to the ancient Buddhist cosmological theories because they’re theories too.
EVOLUTION IS REAL. Just so you know that’s what I believe. But I am asking, in all sincerity, can we at least admit that most of us who believe in evolution are pretty much as clueless about how it works in the details (not in the overarching theoretical structure) as we are about how Noah got all those animals in the Ark? And that this goes for a whole lot of what we call science? And that a lot of what gets called “science” is often kind of flaky? And that science can and in fact has been just as horribly abused as religion? Science gave us gas chambers and the atomic bomb and twisted proofs that certain races were superior to others for gosh-sakes!
Please (oh I beg you puh-leeeeeeaaaase) understand I’m not saying that scientific theory is therefore on an equal footing with religious dogma when it comes to things like how the Earth was formed. However, when it comes to explaining how meditation works, I would say that science is ages behind Buddhism and some of the other (oh my flying spaghetti monster~!) “religions” that have been working on the matter for centuries.
I like the fact that people want to pursue meditation in a rational way devoid of superstition and the supernatural. I totally support that. But I also think there’s a reason the Buddhist tradition has not thrown away every single thing that seems the least bit religious.
The Buddhist tradition has been corrupted and misused and there is misogyny and racism and all the rest of that bad stuff included within institutions and practices that fall under the broad heading of “Buddhism.” But at it’s core, it is highly rational and anti-supernatural, anti-superstitious. When we try to completely sterilize the tradition of all things that it seems to have in common with superstitious supernatural-based religions, we are in danger of losing something very important.
Uh. I’ll go back and fix this one of these days.
Good Saturday to you!
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I’m on my way to Europe soon. I’ll get paid for most of the events I’m doing, but often it’s just barely enough to get to the next place. Your kind donations help out a lot. Thank you!
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near WÃ¼rzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon — 5pm Manchester, UK