Saturday, September 15, 2007

Religion: End of Faith?

Usually, to decide if I should read a book on religion, I would refer to its index page to check how the Buddha and Buddhism are depicted. If the descriptions are lame, I would chuck the book aside – because it betrays the lack of accuracy, and possibly, that of the writer's missing objectivity. Why do I check only Buddhist references? Because it is the religion I’m most familiar with.

There is quite a fuss over “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” by Sam Harris. I could not resist seeing what he had to say about Buddhism. The below is what Harris wrote. Inserted between are some of my personal comments. I’ll be sending this article to Harris. (By the way, it’s interesting that during a talk, Harris mentioned that he practises meditation. Could it be Buddhist meditation?)

Harris: Even the contemporary literature on consciousness, which spans philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience, cannot match the kind of precise, phenomenological studies that can be found throughout the Buddhist canon. Although we have no reason to be dogmatically attached to any one tradition of spiritual instruction, we should not imagine that they are all equally sophisticated. They are not. (p.217)

Comments: Fully agree.

Harris: Buddhism, in particular, has grown remarkably sophisticated. No other tradition has developed so many methods by which the human mind can be fashioned into a tool capable of transforming itself. (p.283)

Comments: Yes, thus the saying that Buddhism offers 84,000(denoting many) skilful means to liberation.

Harris: (Continued from above) Attentive readers will have noticed that I have been very hard on religions of faith – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and even Hinduism – and have not said much that is derogatory of Buddhism. This is not an accident. While Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence, it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense. (p.283)

Comments: Buddhism is a source of ignorance and violence only when its adherents stray away from its core teachings, which obviously emphasise on the importance of objective wisdom and universal compassion (the opposites of ignorance and violence). Buddhism does require faith as a spiritual faculty, though generally, it is more experience-centric and wisdom-centric, than faith-centric. Some faith is after all required in oneself's potential, in the Buddha's enlightenment being supreme, in the efficacy of his teachings and the reliability of Buddhist teachers. Perhaps, technically, Buddhism is not a religion, but if loosely defined, it can be considered a religion too, as worship has evolved to be a facet of Buddhist practice. However, in other aspects, it can also be considered a form of spiritual psychology or practical philosophy.

Harris: (Continued from above) There are millions of Buddhists who do not seem to know this, and they can be found in temple throughout Southeast Asia, and even the West, praying to Buddha as though he was a numinous incarnation of Santa Claus. This distortion of the tradition notwithstanding, it remains true that the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma. (p.283)

Comments: Many nominal Buddhist do pray for boons. Granted that the Buddha’s teachings are for much more than the mere fulfillment of worldly prayers, it is nevertheless true that the enlightened can help facilitate good-hearted requests to some extent. This is attested by countless miracles experienced by devoted Buddhists. The ultimate aim of Buddhism though, is to lead its practitioners, using its many methods, to liberation of the mind – which is true salvation itself.

Harris: (Continued from above) It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of the Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe. This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhists are not saddled with certain dogmas (so are physicists) or that the Bushmen could not have formed some conception of the atom. Any person familiar with both literatures will know that the Bible does not contain a discernible fraction of the precise spiritual instructions that can be found in the Buddhist canon. Though there is much in Buddhism that I do not pretend to understand – as well as much that seems deeply implausible – it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge its preeminence as a system of spiritual instruction. (p.284)

Comments: Difficult not to agree.

Harris: Without denying that happiness has many requisites – good genes, a nervous system that does not entirely misbehave, etc. – we can hypothesize that whatever a person’s current level of happiness is, his condition will be generally improved by his becoming yet more loving and compassionate, and hence more ethical. This is a strictly empirical claim – one that has been tested for millennia by contemplatives in a variety of spiritual traditions, especially within Buddhism. (p.191)

Comments: Agree too.

My conclusion so far? Being relatively fair and insightful in his views on Buddhism, the above got me interested to know what he thinks about other religions. Harris' book on the potential hazards of blind faith (which Buddhism strongly discourages) should be worth a read.


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