Am I a Buddhist? A ____ist? And/Or? Science and Spirituality

Am I a Buddhist?  A ____ist?  And/Or?  Science and Spirituality

Charles T. Tart

As I mix the scientific and spiritual aspects of myself more in later life, I think it would be useful, and honoring today’s wise trend for full disclosure, to write a note on where I am coming from, as it’s complicated, and may affect what people can get from my reflections.  The interaction of science and spirituality is so important, and so easily goes off in wrong directions, increasing our human suffering rather than our happiness.

What/Who “Charley” Is and Who Will Be Writing?

Zero Charley:  There is usually no Charley that I would call a conventionally “Devout Buddhist” or “Devout ____ist” or “devout any-spiritual-path-in-particular-ist” in the sense of my accepting that everything in a given teaching tradition is literally true, or the most useful thing that can ever be said.  I see just about all spiritual paths as attempts to express and realize deep, transpersonal/spiritual aspects of humanity, and, like all human attempts, a mixture of gems and inspiration and politics and error.  But I’m happy to call myself a student of spiritual paths, mainly Buddhism nowadays, for many reasons.

Of course in moments of great distress Zero Charley may be temporarily replaced by a more devout version: as the old saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes.

Buddhism’s psychological emphasis appeals to me, its promise of reducing suffering for me and others is very appealing, and while I certainly don’t understand or know how to practice within that system all that well, or be deeply devoted to try to “master” the system, I do know from personal experience that some aspects of Buddhism work for me and others.  And I draw, selectively, for better or worse, from other world spiritual systems.  But I do know that some of you are much more devout than me — I often envy you! – and sometimes we have to hold our faith tightly to endure difficult times, but if you don’t like people asking questions, it may be best if you didn’t read my comments and questions.  As a transpersonal psychologist, I hope to help refine our understanding and application of the spiritual: some aspects probably need to be questioned and discarded or modified, others amplified.

Sincere Charley:  There is someone usefully named Charley (or, given Buddhism’s insights about impermanence and that the way we reify things and identity leads to great suffering, I probably should say “someprocess,” named Charley, although it’s awkward English) who is deeply sincere about it.  When I’m manifesting mostly this way, I meditate most days, read and listen to teachings, attend occasional longer retreats, and routinely pray to what I hope and believe (as a working hypothesis) are real, existing spiritual entities.  I don’t get hung up on whether they are Buddhas, bodhisattvas, devas, God, Jesus, angels, whatever, I don’t know enough to make such discriminations or know if they mean anything).  I don’t know whether such entities really exist independently of us or are only useful psychological representations of our minds, and I am interested in the way some Buddhisms treat them as both simultaneously.

I’m no saint and I like my pleasures, but my most constant prayer is that I will grow in wisdom and compassion and be of some help to other sentient beings.  I don’t make that a formal Buddhist bodhisattva vow, though, as I consider that way too presumptuous for who I am.  I also usually take the traditional prayers that are about “I” getting wiser and more compassionate and change them to “we” getting wiser and more compassionate.  It’s a little psychological exercise on my part.  Being so self-centered, I need to practice remembering to think of others more.

Scientist Charley:  There is someprocess named Charley who works at being an open-minded scientist.  I seldom want Scientist Charley to manifest at spiritual teachings and retreats or sangha meetings, I’m there mostly as Sincere Charley, trying to learn, understand, and maybe on occasional help a little, and I also worry that Scientist Charley may say things that are just normal intellectual curiosity and work on his part but other, more devout people, may see as attacking.  Disciplined doubt and questioning are part of the scientific process, but can have unwanted emotional repercussions.

A very important point:  Being Scientist Charley does not mean I automatically try to force everything I learn about Buddhism or other spiritual paths into the current, totally  materialistic view dominating much of today’s social practice of science (namely that Buddhist enlightenment, e.g., is nothing but a particular electrochemical state of the brain and is over when you die, prayer is nothing but talking to yourself, etc.).  Rather

(a) I try to be open-minded and a good observer of the things that interest me (while watching out for barriers that keep me from noticing things I’m not interested in but should be), and I try to be aware of the limits of my observations and of ways to become a better observer.

(b) I try to understand my observations, make “sense” of them.  In the usual scientific way of talking, I try to come up with theories about them, creating logical concepts so that my observations hang together and have meaning, they appear to be lawful results of some deeper principle than the observations themselves.   I  then try to remember that

(c) my mind is a world-class rationalizer and can always make any set of ideas sound sensible, whether they actually are or not.  So, when I can, I try not to be too enamored of my theories.  That’s hard when you have a clever idea!  I’m so smart!  But a basic rule of essential science that gives science its power is that scientific theories should have a testable outcome: what do they predict in the observable world?  You make predictions and then go out and actually test them, see if your predictions come true.  If so, good for you and your thinking so far, nice theory, you should work on extending it.  If your predictions don’t come true, it’s probably time to modify your theory or perhaps reject your theory altogether, no matter how intellectually and emotionally appealing it is, and start over on understanding what you’ve observed.  And

(d) you freely report on and exchange all aspects of this process, observation, theorizing, prediction, and testing with peers who can check on your accuracy of the observing, thinking and testing, and come up with related ideas that can be of help to you.

That’s an idealization of the process, and, of course, being carried out by human beings like us, you can get all sorts of weird snags and distortions.  But eventually, when essential scientific method works, you start from crude observations of something, you did not have very useful ideas of why they happened, your ideas and beliefs weren’t very accurate for prediction or usefulness, but you end up with gradually more accurate observations, theories, predictions, and shared knowledge.

A classic example of this is the geocentric theory of the world, where God created the Earth at the exact center of the Celestial Spheres, and all the lights you could see in the sky, including the daytime sun, went around it in perfect circles, representing the perfection of God and His Creation.  When observation was not much better than what you could do with your naked eye, this theory worked pretty well, except for a small number of lights in the sky that would occasionally seem to stop their perfect circular orbit every once in a while, move backwards a bit, then move on.  “Who can understand the mysteries of God’s Creation?” might allow you to not worry too much about that little detail.  But as we got telescopes, then better and better telescopes, we got more and more precise observations of just how those lights in the sky moved, this geocentric model got incredibly complicated and then looked pretty miserable when it came up against the heliocentric model, that things revolved around the sun in ellipses, not circles, including the Earth.  From a proper scientific point of view, we don’t “know” as some kind of Absolute Truth that it really is like that, but this theory sure fits the data enormously better!  The heliocentric view is the best we have, but, in principle, it is subject to change or modification as more and better observations are done.  This is true of any scientific theory: no matter how well it’s working: fact, observations have primacy and theory is always subject to change. 

The current social climate of science as a profession tends strongly toward the example I gave above, viz. namely that Buddhist enlightenment is nothing but a particular electrochemical state of the brain and is over when you die, as there’s no more mind when the brain is damaged or dies.  In my functioning as a scientist though, I’d say this is a very poor theory, as it’s based on ignoring or misinterpreting a lot of observations.  And there are unacknowledged hopes and fears affecting it that further distort this current apparently scientific theory.  This is detailed in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book.


How do these two different Charleys interact?

When the someprocess Scientist Charley wants to connect this with Sincere Charley’s  interest in Buddhism, he refers back to the Sutta to the Kalamas.  Here’s my favorite translation:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Like essential science, this is an idealization, and I’m sure we humans, even when we think of ourselves as spiritual people seeking Truth, frequently bias and distort the process.  It’s much easier, for example, to assume that Gautama Buddha and his successors already discovered and passed on the most truthful possible understanding of anything and everything of importance, so you can just accept that and you do not have to work things out for yourself.  Insofar as this assumption is true, it saves you an enormous amount of time!  If I want to learn to repair my car, it would be very smart of me to take some courses and read some books on automobile repair taught or written by experts.  Insofar as it’s not perfectly true though……

Gurdjieff’s ideas on spiritual development can also connect Scientist Charley and Sincere Charley, as Gurdjieff insisted that his teachings be tested in personal experience, not accepted on authority.

Note also that there are someprocesses named Charley manifested in particular emotional states and circumstances, but two is enough for now!

Sometimes these various Charleys operate relatively independently, sometimes they get mixed together.  When I recognize they are interacting in potentially confusing ways I try to do something about it, but I’m sure I don’t always recognize or do something helpful.  So please cut me a little slack if I inadvertently say something offensive in future writings or past writings.  I do want to be wiser and more compassionate, I’m just not skilled at it… but hopefully getting better….

Most of what you’ll read on this blog and in my professional writings is from Scientist Charley.  He’s got some expertise that makes many of his observations and ideas useful.  Sincere Charley goes to teachings, meditates, reads, tries to learn from life, but doesn’t say much here, he is no expert on spirituality and shouldn’t talk much.  When I can separate the two voices for greater clarity, I will.





One comment

  1. hi there. a nice blog you have. my only thought to share with you is that i think it might be time for you to start your sitting practice. forgive me if i missed that you already do. from what i read, you have the subject fairly clearly, but you cannot attain enlightenment from the intellect alone! the key point is to allow whatever arises to come and go without clinging. then the teachings start to make sense: you see the nature of the mind, which has always been there, but is obscured by clinging.

    best wishes,

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