buddha (face)palm

Posted on November 27, 2011


The following is a response to what I see as the key criticisms from this criticism of Buddhism by Vexen Crabtree which I found linked to from this blog post.

Vexen has conveniently arranged these points into sections so I can deal with each one in turn.

Nirvana and Reality

4.1. The First Cause Dilemma: A Fundamental Contradiction

Ultimate transcendental reality is nirvana, and a prerequisite of achieving it is the complete abolition of the self. But the same dilemma faces Buddhists as faces theists such as Christians and Muslims: Why is it that there are any beings at all that are not in this perfect state?

In Christianity and Islam, why did God create evil? If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t it just put everyone in Heaven?

In Buddhism, why is there a false reality at all? If there is no self, by what mechanism do “drops” of the ocean come to think of themselves as being individual?

A common defence is that it is somehow better if little bits of consciousness are deluded for a while, or that they have to suffer in the real world, before returning to Heaven or Nirvana. But if Nirvana and Heaven are perfect, why is it that anything needs to be done to improve on that state? The questions have remained unanswered by Christians and Buddhists for thousands of years. It seems that there is no logical reason, no theological reason, no rationality, behind this belief other than to say that it is connected with the Human fear of death but actually has no basis in reality.

This is all very far off the mark and yet more evidence, in my mind at least, that Buddhism is so deeply misunderstood that it is often re-presented to people in the world like this in such a way as not to resemble Buddhism in any way whatsoever. None of what Vexen is talking about here is Buddhist teaching, in fact I agree with the criticisms outlined here, if only because what they criticise isn’t Buddhism.

For starters: “ultimate transcendental reality is Nirvana”. Well, ok, if you want to say that. That’s not an original Buddhist teaching though so call it Buddhist at your peril, but the Buddha never said that. If you can find it in the Tipitaka, get back to me.

Continuing: “…a prerequisite of achieving it (Nirvana) is the complete abolition of the self.” The Buddha never taught that either. A cursory knowledge of the Sutta Pitaka would tell you that the Buddha avoided questions of self and non-self. He never taught anyone to ‘abolish the self’. You can go ahead and try to ‘abolish the self’ and perhaps some spiritual systems teach that. I guarantee you Buddhism, if you really look intoit, is not one of them.

Next point: “Why is it that there are any beings at all that are not in this perfect state?” This is simple really. To reiterate, the Buddha explicitly stated that Nirvana is not ‘the ground of being’ or ‘ultimate reality’, he avoided mention of these notions as they are unhelpfully speculative. In fact the teaching aims at dropping all notions of ‘beings in states’ as this mode of thinking is again, in Buddhist terms unhelpfully speculative. What he taught is suffering and the end of suffering, as this is the key concern for us. When there is no suffering there’s no need to worry about whether we are in one state or another, and while we are suffering, being concerned about being in one state or another is a form of suffering in itself anyway. Just drop the lot. The practice the Buddha recommended is actually the close and moment by moment investigation of reailty as it presents itself to our senses. There is no mention of or requirement to believe in some kind of vague metaphysical ‘ultimate reality’ or ‘truth behind all things’. The Buddha didn’t talk about a ‘false reality’, Buddhist practice is just about engaging with our direct experience of reality, as that is all we have, ultimately.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu has said, ‘cosmological or narrative’ approaches all still lead to suffering: something that Vexen has not grasped here. I’ll admit dropping these modes of thinking may seem obscure and unhelpful but in saying it is unhelpful to do so you will have completely missed the point. The point is not to believe that there are ‘states’ or ‘beings’ or ‘non-beings’ or ‘non-states’ or whatever. The point is not to speculate or ruminate about who or what exists in one way or another – this is still dukkha – unsatisfactoriness. The point is to follow the eightfold path, addressing reality directly, which does not encourage any of this kind of speculation at all.

Furthermore the Buddha never said ‘there is a false reality’ and he never said ‘there is no self’. Why did he not say these things? Probably because he realised they create the kind of problems that Vexen is criticising ‘Buddhism’ for. The ‘drop in the ocean’ metaphor is certainly an eyebrow raiser – again something the Buddha never said and never alluded to as part of his teaching. Why not? Because it still deals with categories of ‘self’ and ‘not-self’, whereas the Buddha was addressing suffering and the end of suffering. If anything the idea of ‘drops’ and ‘an ocean’ is a pre-Buddhist idea, whereby one aims to attain union with Brahman. The Buddha rejected this as a spiritual path; this is something that is common knowledge to a lot of Buddhists.

The notion of a ‘common defence’ being that certain beings have to suffer for a while before returning to Nirvana is something I’ve never heard before and again was never said by the Buddha. In short the criticisms here are certainly criticisms of something, but not Buddhism. Let’s move on.

4.2. World Rejection

The concept that all of our desires and attachments to the world are the things holding us back, and that reality is an illusion that we shouldn’t engage with, is a disastrous and potentially harmful doctrine when encouraged in some individuals. Although Buddhism teaches a “middle-way” inbetween complete asceticism and world-acceptance, it seems that the common-sense approach of renouncing Buddhism and merely striving to be a good person is more logical.

“During the whole of [The Buddha’s] ministry, however, he embraced a world-renouncing life which excluded sexual contact. The rules for the Buddhist monks reflect this example of the Buddha. Such rules are still applied in Theravada Buddhism, but married monks are found among Mahayana Buddhists.”

The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach“
Moojan Momen (1999)

Again this is way off the mark, although this is an incredibly common area of misunderstanding about Buddhism. Before looking at the issue of desires and attachments lets look at this: “reality is an illusion that we shouldn’t engage with”. This is almost funny. If anything, Buddhist practice is all about engaging directly with reality. After all, what else is there to engage with? Where does the Buddha say ‘don’t engage with illusive reality’? Again, he never said this. The core teachings related to mindfulness are precisely about nothing other than direct engagement with reality as it presents itself to our senses and intellect from moment to moment, in all its glory and banality. If you practice vipassana you know this. We’re not running from some conceived notion of reality, we’re examining it precisely, calmly and methodically. As Bhante Gunaratana Henepola says, we’re running straight into reality, not away from it.

Do our desires and attachments hold us back? Well, it depends how you relate to them. Certainly in the tipitaka there are plenty of references to the Buddha advocating seclusion from sense pleasures. But we have to strike a balance and look at the context. Firstly, a lot of the Sutta Pitaka is addressed to monks, those who have already ‘gone forth’ and are renunciates. There is also advice from the Buddha to lay followers too and here he naturally acknowledges that people have sex and make money etc.

The Buddha never said to overcome or destroy all desire, to be honest I really can’t believe that this view still holds sway in people’s minds about the dhamma. If anything the Buddha teaches us to arouse strong effort and desire and persistence to reach awakening. It’s not about not having desires, it’s about cultivating skillful, moral desires and skillfully acknowledging and handling so-called ‘unskillful’ desires. If you’re a lay person then fine, don’t give up all your money and relationships, there’s no obligation to do so.

Buddhist practice teaches us to have a realistic approach to our desires and attachments, simply put: you can’t always get what you want. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate this but through the practice (which is not about belief) we can still have desires and goals in life but we don’t cling on to them so tightly – that way we’re not devastated when they don’t work out. And if they do work out, then fine, we can appreciate them in that moment. It’s about having a balanced approach.

Yes, most traditions of Buddhist ordination have a rule of celibacy. This is one reason why people might practice jhana: the bliss of jhana, whilst categorically not the final goal or culmination of Buddhist practice, is far superior to sexual orgasm. This has at least two key implications: one, that the power of the mind can be harnessed in such a way as to produce exquisite bliss, and two, this bliss proves there are greater levels of pleasure available to us then the purely gross physical realm. Some people find this off putting or scary, so be it. Jhana is also not about belief; it’s a skill that can be developed. Going on a retreat where we abstain from sexual activity and other everyday aspects of life, whilst also engaging in meditation has an utterly profound effect on the mind. Again, this has nothing whatsoever to do with a belief system or a philosophy. It’s just something you do, like practicing scales on a piano or doing a workout. Stick to what the doctor says and the healing happens by itself.

 4.3. Buddhist Psychology is Too Idealistic

You can spot Buddhist psycho-babble from quite a while off, there is a distinctive feel and look about Buddhist therapists and self-development. The truth is that Buddhist psychology is like Communist ideology or Christian guilt methodology: It only suits a particular type of person. Buddhist practices are not a universal solution to social ills or spiritual problems, but a certain type of solution catering for only certain types of person.

For a religion that makes universalist claims about the enlightenment of all beings, it is stuck with a mythology about Indian, Chinese and Eastern-style sages, teachers and students; when it is only a certain portion of humanity that can exist in those roles. The rest do not fit into the Buddhist mould, and Buddhist advice and counsel is counterproductive.

Ken Jones notes the real dangers that Buddhist ego training presents to certain types of people, producing neurotics and psychotics at worst, and mental imbalance at best. He notes the difficulty of adapting traditional Buddhist methods to swathes of society who do not conform to the model of the ego that Buddhist psychology requires of students.

Buddhism unfortunately, for a religion with so much social potential, falls over its own dogma and mythology when it comes to individual, personal development of people in general. It operates best as a peace movement, as a mediator, as an intelligent social commenter rather than a personal religion.

Those who do take earnestly and naturally to the methods of Buddhist self-development are those who are already more developed and already more intelligent Humans. Lower Buddhism, of the masses, is dumbed-down and mostly useless as a unique tool, functioning as a smotherer just like popular religions do in all countries. Higher Buddhism caters for those who are already on a higher level, just like scholarly Christianity suits the intelligent and elitist Satanism suits the naturally strong and mature, Buddhism doesn’t offer much insight into how the masses may improve themselves beyond offering the same social programs that socially aware governments offer.

It strikes me that what Vexen is criticising here are recent developments in the self-help or personal spirituality market-place that have attempted to adopt elements of what is perceived to be Buddhism. To be honest, these are things that I would also be suspicious about and not least because they actually in no way accurately represent what the Buddha taught.

‘Buddhist Therapy’ and ‘Buddhist Psychology’ may well be to actual Buddhism what chalk is to cheese. I have no idea what ‘Buddhist ego training’ is supposed to be, although given that this is not something the Buddha ever talked about, tacking the word ‘Buddhist’ to the phrase does not mean it has anything to do with Buddhism. There is no ‘model ego’ required by Buddhist practice, you just have to be human. Furthermore, the notion of sages and the Eastern style master – student relationship is not necessarily a relevant issue. Certainly, some Buddhist groups in the west have set themselves up in this way, and some forms of Buddhism play this hand a lot more heavily than others. But that does not mean it is right, in either the east or west. And if we look at the actual example of the Buddha himself, as he was dying he refused to appoint ‘a leader’. He saw his teaching, the dhamma, as key, and was not interested in any kind of cult of personality. I would be suspicious of any group, one that purports to be Buddhist or not, that takes an approach of personality cult.

The notion that Buddhism doesn’t offer much beyond social welfare programs put forward by modern governments shows a complete misunderstanding of what Buddhism is about. Although, I would freely admit that Buddhism is not for everyone and it would be naïve to say it could help all people in all situations.  Things like social welfare programs are very important but on the personal level the practice of Buddhism is really down to gaining skillfulness in life through meditation. Unfortunately Buddhist meditation is widely misunderstood beyond Buddhist circles, to the point where most people assume it is all about samatha or tranquility practices. And just because some groups calling themselves Buddhist emphasise practices that might look authentic, it doesn’t mean they are. It just takes a bit of reading and self-education to learn what is more likely to be authentic.

As a final point I think it’s hard to say that it is those who are more developed and intelligent who take more easily to ‘personal development’. This is potentially a very patronising way of judging people; and who lays the benchmark for these things anyway?

Overall, Vexen’s comments are interesting but again show a woeful ignorance and misunderstanding of what Buddhism is really about. It is really unfortunate if these kinds of views are widely held, not because they are badly argued, but because Buddhism does not advocate the things that it is being criticised for here.

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