Bottom Line Spirituality: What Works, What Might Work Better

Bottom Line Spirituality: What Works, What Might Work Better

Charles T. Tart

I was reading along, without too much enthusiasm, a discussion held online by a group of informed people aiming to advance spiritual development a discussion about what various spiritual teachers, especially the historical Buddha, actually taught.  I say without too much enthusiasm, as the only material we have to work with are written accounts which were often not actually written until dozens or hundreds of years after the spiritual leader had died, from the memories of various followers.  This kind of discussion may be interesting in trying to figure out what was really meant by certain spiritual ideas, but without actual written expression by the person who said it originally, and a profound knowledge of the culture and language that it was written in, we’re pretty much just speculating.  That may help, that may not.  My enthusiasm waned more as I saw some of the people involved in the discussion beginning to manifest a sort of dogmatic quality, a largely hidden quality on the order of “My spiritual path is more profound than yours.”

Buddha and Jesus

Experts devoted to improving our spiritual life shouldn’t get caught up in that kind of sectarianism, of course, but, we’re human, it happens.  I wanted to steer the discussion back toward practical matters, so I wrote:

I don’t know what the historical Buddha actually taught, but the bottom line for me is that he essentially said that if (a) you hold a certain world view, (b) live by certain sensible and moral rules, and (c) sharpen your mind with specific, learnable skills involving concentration and insight, you can reduce a lot of the suffering that we humans are subject to.  Indeed he took the last part further and claimed you could eliminate ALL suffering.  I have no idea if that’s true, but personal experience and what I know of others says you can certainly reduce suffering a lot in this way, and, combined with the bodhisattva commitment to help others, it works well for at least a significant number of people – and that’s wonderful!!!

Whether it’s the ultimate truth about things, I have no idea, but it’s a good way for some people to live.  By my values, of course, which value intelligence, kindness, openness.  But what is the “best” spiritual path for particular individuals?  Wow, that’s a tough one!  Trial and error at this time, maybe someday we’ll know better and be able to test people and say things like:

“The odds for your particular kind of person are a 60% high satisfaction for Path A, but a 5% psychosis rate and a 19% disappointment rate that nothing worthwhile happens, while for your particular kind of person Path B leads to….

That sort of thing is not any kind of ultimate answer, but can be figured out empirically if we put a lot of effort into it and track what happens with a lot of people of different types on different spiritual paths.

This is the task of a transpersonal psychology, yet to be developed….

One of the discussants, who is a recognized Buddhist scholar, made me feel very good by commenting that my post was entirely synoptic with the Buddhist teachings, that it was Buddhavacana.

What could I say but thank you! Buddhist scriptures w out bkgrnd

Well, of course, there was a lot more I could say toward expanding this line of thinking.   And while I’m glad I understood this part of Buddhism correctly, I don’t know about its “ultimate” truthfulness…

Given how much I admire Buddhism as a spiritual path, I’m glad I’ve got at least some of it right!  And a real Buddhist scholar telling me that, wow!  With a really impressive word that I had to look up: Buddhavacana, consistent with what scholars understand the historical Buddha would’ve taught.

Meaning: We’ve Got to Have It!

To expand a little, what I said was my practical self writing.  If it’s one thing I’m pretty darn sure of, it’s that we human beings need to have meaning.  We need to feel that the world we live in makes some kind of sense and that we have a sensible and valuable place within that world.  Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a lot of ways for that to work.

Maslow hierarchy of needs updated

You can have a worldview that the universe is, as the poet Tennyson phrased it, red in teeth and claw, it’s all dog eat dog, and so your job and satisfaction is to gain glory by eating them before they eat you!  Since at least some of our human capabilities are things like bravery, cleverness, and fighting ability, that certainly produces at least partial satisfaction.  It also produces a lot of karma, karma in the sense of given the way we are, when you beat the shit out of other people they are just waiting for their chance to beat the shit out of you… That’s not my preferred worldview, but I understand how it can work for people.

I do have another self that looks for a deeper, truer understanding of reality, and that usually has to work in different ways than the self that likes to be helpful to other people.  If I have a Buddhist friend who is dying, e.g., I’m going to do chants and say prayers to Buddhas and bodhisattvas with her or him, and not talk about cultural relativity, that there’s a certain arbitrariness about the Buddhist worldview it could be constructed in other ways, etc.  If my dying friend is a Christian, I’m happy to pray with her or him to Christ or to God.  And I’m not going to engage in discussions with them about how much our concepts of God the Father (or God the Mother) are based on projections of our human biological characteristics, our history of being helpless and depending on a man and a woman who were godlike in their capacities compared to us as infants and children, etc.

In a general sense I think that almost all belief systems give power.  When you’re unsure how the world works, or what your capabilities are, or what you should do, there’s a lot of “stuttering” in your actions and reactions, such that they’re not very effective.  “I should, no, maybe I shouldn’t, but, and what about, why aren’t I actually doing it, but…”  When you’re ready to give everything for The Cause, for a particular religion that’s promised you salvation, it gives direction, courage, social support, etc.

Belief and Reality:

More deeply, I assume that in general the closer your belief about reality comes to the way reality actually works, the more likely it is to be effective.  I’ve read that in one of those colonial wars in Africa, e.g., the local shamans gave their people amulets which they promised would deflect British bullets so they couldn’t be hurt… and then the British machine guns mowed them down by the hundreds… So on a practical, everyday level I prefer to support people to reduce their suffering in whatever reasonable (my value judgment, of course) belief system they operate in, but as a caring being and as a transpersonal psychologist, I would like to understand reality more deeply so as to help shape belief systems to be more and more effective.  I consider “effective” in terms of my own values, of course, but that’s another issue to understand my own values, decide when they are helping me or others, when they are hindering me, etc.

As an example of applying this attitude to Buddhism, I notice that many of my Buddhist friends and a lot of Buddhist teachers believe the historical Buddha was fully enlightened, that Gautama Buddha at least knew everything that was important to human happiness, if not everything, period.  As an element of world view, of faith, that’s empowering!  Remembering those endless hours of attempts at meditation,  I was often convinced I would never get anywhere with it and wondered if this was all a lot of crap anyway.  The idea I tried to hold that the Buddha at least knew far, far more than me, and if I kept meditating it would eventually work, kept me sitting on the cushion.

CTT meditating from back

On the other hand, as an educated Westerner, as a trained psychologist, as someone who spent a lot of time trying to figure out how my mind works, I realized that Gautama Buddha lived at a particular period in history in a particular culture, and that the way he was raised and what he saw around him shaped his thinking and experiencing to various degrees.  The obvious difference I see from my own childhood was that I was raised in a culture that believed in Progress, and that belief has been validated strongly in my own life.  Yes, lots of bad things still happen in the world, but my ancestors were peasants and factory workers, and I’ve not only been to college, I’m a professor!  I like to learn about things, think about things, and share my understandings of other people—and, by gosh, the University pays me to do that!  That sure is Progress in my book!

As I understand it, Gautama Buddha, on the other hand, lived in a culture which was relatively static.  A few people got ahead in life, some people’s situation got worse, but, especially as Buddhism continued to grow over the ages, the caste system meant that most people were going to be doing the same thing all their life, which was the same thing their ancestors had done, which was what their children would do.  Particularly if you were lower caste, that easily leads to a view that existence is per se pretty bad, and the idea of getting out of here is very appealing.  Then you add in a common belief in reincarnation: not only are you inevitably suffering now, you’re going to continue to suffer lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, unless you really follow the Buddhist system to get enlightened, and that’s hard to do and may take many lifetimes.  Okay, let me out!

When I first heard about reincarnation as a Western child of Progress, my thoughts were more on the order of “I like to learn things, there’s so much more to learn than I possibly have time for in one lifetime, but wow, I’ll have lifetime after lifetime to learn more and more and get better and better!”  (Yes, I was one of those nerdy children who likes school.)  An attitude that was reinforced by my reading as a teenager about autosuggestion and actually practicing the system of autosuggestion developed by Emile Coué in 1922 a whereby many times each day you repeated the suggestion, like a mantra, “Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.  Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better… Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.”  And gosh!  I think it’s worked!

So when you have a deep belief in progress, you can believe Gautama Buddha knew a lot of very useful and valuable information, but it’s hard to imagine he knew everything.  And the kind of enlightenment that Buddhism may lead you toward, and possibly even reach, sounds like a wonderful accomplishment, good for all of us, not just the person who gets enlightened, but is it the ultimate possible for us?

In the everyday material world, old-fashioned Newtonian physics works just fine.  Solid objects are solid, you don’t have to deal with weird ideas that they actually are practically all empty space with incredibly infinitesimally small particles or processes or waves or strings or curves in space-time or whatever actually underlying it all.  Yet I doubt we would have developed computers and cell phones, e.g., if we continued thinking only in terms of Newtonian physics.  It’s a complex process, of course, but I really do think that with the proper application of open-minded science and scholarship, we can achieve deeper understandings of the spiritual as well as the rest of reality, and develop more effective ways of spiritual development.

Okay, my Buddhist scholar friend, I don’t know if this is wandering too far, but thank you again for a wonderful complement.  I’ll take as my preferred working hypothesis that Gautama Buddha himself knew that he had something great to share with people, but tried to stay open-minded about the possibility of more.  And I hope that the great religious figures of other traditions also remembered the virtue of humility, even if their teachings have way too often been distorted into tools for social control.

And I’ll admit that it’s not easy to switch between two or more perspectives, “This is the Holy Truth, I give it my Head and Heart and All!” and “Good, but let’s look deeper.”




  1. I really admire your ardent questioning of the spiritual path. I have been on the spiritual path for a decade now and am quite horrified by the incredible amount of confusion and all the dead-ends out there. It’s also very saddening to come across stories of people online who have spent 25 years in practice or whatever, gotten nowhere and are left feeling bitterly disillusioned. This is a state of affairs that has been tolerated for much too long.

    1. > This is a state of affairs that has been tolerated for much too long.< Yes, but easy on us all, I don't think we've known enough to do anything about it, like dedicate a culture not to defending its beliefs as The Superior Beliefs and Truth but to doing the research to find out what does and doesn’t work for particular people, what all the consequences of various spiritual practices are, not just trumpeting the good ones…. I’m glad we’re able to begin thinking about it!

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