Faith and Doubt

My wife Judy and I are at a 10-day Tibetan Buddhist retreat in San Diego this week (November 26 through December 6, 2010), run by Lama Sogyal Rinpoche and his Rigpa Fellowship organization.  We’ve been coming to these retreats for more than 20 years, and I have enormous respect for Rinpoche’s knowledge and compassion.  But many of the Buddhist teachings push my buttons about how much belief to give to them and belief versus doubt and skepticism in general, and I’ll write about some aspects of my concerns here.

These are various lines of thought that deserve more thinking, not final answers to anything…..An internal “debate-in-progress” as it were…..

Many Buddhist teachings do not create conflicts for me.  By and large, I can think of the Buddha as an early psychologist, and the central core of his teachings about why we go through a great deal of unnecessary suffering and what to do about it make excellent sense to me, as both a person with extensive life experience and as a modern psychologist.  I can confirm the usefulness of various Buddhist ideas and practices in my own experience, as well as drawing on the psychological literature.

One of those Buddhist teachings I’m thinking a lot about is how many of our doubts are intellectually bankrupt.  That is, we automatically and habitually doubt many ideas not because we have thoroughly, logically and carefully thought about them and studied what evidence there is for and against them, and reached the most rational conclusion possible, but because our society doubts these ideas and we have been conditioned to doubt them too, without actually thinking about them.  By (automatically) going along with our social conditioning we gain social acceptance, and think of ourselves as smart or “normal.”  I think of this as mechanical doubt: it has the same truth value or moral value as programming a computer to recognize, say, the word “Jesus,” and play a recording that says “He has risen” or “He’s a myth,” reflecting what belief you were brought up in.  Mechanical and meaningless.

There is also what I call, as a psychologist, emotionally-invested, defensive doubt.  Besides elements of mechanical belief or doubt, we have emotional investments in believing or denying A or B, and this makes us irrational when A or B comes up.  We may pretend that we are rationally supporting or denying the truth of A or B, but actually we hope or fear strongly and this warps our reasoning.

Bringing this back to a lot of my thinking on this retreat, Sogyal Rinpoche published The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in the 70s, and it has sold over a million copies in more than 30 languages.  As with most Buddhist ideas, I find most of the ideas in the book quite sensible, especially advice on how to live a good life, and can confirm their truth in my own experience.  But then there are many ideas – presented as truths rather than “ideas” – about the nature of the dying process, the after death state, and various ways of working toward liberation for oneself using the high-leverage process of dying, and/or helping those who have already died through prayer, phowa practice and the like that I cannot support or deny through my own experience.  Perhaps if I become a very accomplished meditative practitioner I will see the truth of these in my own dying process – but that possibility casts no light on things now, when I’m certainly not an accomplished meditator, and I’m not dead, surviving in some form and reflecting on how well these ideas were formulated.

At the same time, the Tibetan teachings on death maintain that it is of the utmost importance to practice meditation and related practices if I am to have any hope of getting a good (good conditions for spiritual progress) incarnation next time around or getting enlightened, so I’m not really offered the option that “These are interesting ideas, no need to think much about them or act on them.”  Do these or else!

As I’ve written in many places, while I’m not idolatrous about essential science, thinking it’s the only way to gain valid knowledge about things, it is very useful in so many ways, so I can’t help but think about these Buddhist ideas in scientific terms.   Buddhist beliefs and teachings on the nature of life, consequences of living in various ways, reincarnation, the death and dying process, etc., are theories about the way the world is.  As a scientist (and psychologist) I know that theories can be intellectual intoxicants, we get carried away with ideas we like, so the discipline of being a scientist is that you must keep coming back to examining the evidence bearing on theories and treat all theories as tentative, perhaps the best explanation we can give at this time, but always subject to rejection, modification or expansion as new evidence comes in.

So what is the evidence for these Tibetan Buddhist theories on the nature of death and dying and how to use them to become enlightened?

Unfortunately there is little evidence from a Western view.  The primary authority for these teachings is just that, Authority.  “The Masters say that….”  But basic science wants observable, empirical evidence for theories: that people designated Authorities in some social system believe them is not enough.  Indeed the emergence of science with pioneers like Galileo was due to a recognition that we must be able to examine phenomena and test theories, not simply believe authorities, as authorities can be wrong.  As to empirical evidence for the Tibetan beliefs here, there are stories that some of the Masters who died while carrying out these practices had their deaths surrounded by “miraculous” events.  Because of my knowledge of scientific parapsychology, I do not automatically dismiss these stories and I give them some weight, but it’s little weight by usual scientific standards.  And a general idea I apply to parapsychological events is that having a belief system that allows them makes them more likely to happen, regardless of the truth or falsity of the belief system.

So how do I and others prepare for death?  Western science offers no useful information or hope here at all.  Consciousness is nothing but the electrochemical action of your brain, your brain dies, life and mind are over, end of story.  Death is the final failure.  The best you can hope for is to die with good medical facilities available, so your personal death will be less painful than it might otherwise be.

The Tibetan Buddhist approach, on the other hand, offers a magnificent and appealing story of how we are inherently Buddhas, we survive physical death and reincarnate, albeit in different forms, that we can become enlightened through practices in life and/or during the dying process, and we can become bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who keep right on helping the rest of beings become enlightened themselves so they can stop suffering.  To say this is a more noble and appealing picture to me and to many people is to put it way too mildly!

But am I just kidding myself because believing this view lessens my fear of death and makes me feel better?

I certainly like to feel good, and I have observed innumerable instances in my life where wanting to feel good has warped my perceptions and judgments.  Is it happening here?

I also have a genuine desire to know more of the truth, whatever it is, and I have a genuine desire to help other people.  These desires can be warped or suppressed by hopes and fear and conditionings at times, but they are there, they are real.

I wish I had a perfectly clear answer to my questions.  Be a “normal” member of my materialistic Western culture and keep my medical insurance paid up to get the good drugs which will lessen my pain as I go into oblivion?  Take a chance on believing the Tibetan ideas and investing a lot of time in the recommended practices?

Doubt the Doubt!

Sogyal Rinpoche recognizes the existence of mechanical doubt and defensive doubt, and often admonishes students to “doubt the doubt,” to examine just why you tend to automatically reject some ideas.  He particularly wants students to apply this to the fashionable, automatic modern materialist doubting of spiritual realities.  I couldn’t agree more with this advice.  Whatever the ultimate nature of reality, being stuck in the automatic operation of beliefs you never examined or consciously chose in the first place will always be a hindrance to coming closer to truth.  To just mechanically accept what’s been conditioned in you is to be asleep, in Gurdjieff’s sense, to live in samsara in the Buddhist sense.

So I can readily see, after a long life, that many, if not most, if not practically all, of my beliefs and doubts have been mechanically or defensively conditioned in me in the course of socialization and in being a member of contemporary society.  And, perhaps even more importantly, I know that when science is properly applied we actually have lots of empirical evidence for a basic reality to the spiritual – that what my recent The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book was all about.  But there’s still a big gap between general support for the spiritual and the specific theories and practices of Tibetan Buddhism…..

Looking at this from a practical angle, I have no doubt that many Tibetans over the ages, practicing Tibetan Buddhism, became extraordinary people, spiritual people that I would like to emulate.  But how well are these practices, designed for a very different culture and time, going to work for me and my friends?

Ah, I suddenly realize one of the main things that has been bothering me is that the “doubt the doubt” injunction is not being applied evenly.  Yes, doubt the Western conditioning, the Western authorities.  How about doubt the Masters?

In his Sutta to the Kalamas, the Buddha takes a perfectly empirical and scientific approach to spiritual beliefs and practices, enjoining us to test everything, to take nothing on authority.  That attitude has been one of the major reasons I find Buddhism interesting and attractive, as opposed to the “Believe this completely or you will go to Hell!” attitude too often found in other religions.

Now I can understand that Tibetan lamas are under enormous pressure to preserve their ancient traditions: since the Chinese conquest, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism has slowly but steadily been being deliberately destroyed.  So it’s all too human to doubt those who undermine what you think of precious, and not doubt those who support it much: I do this all the time, in spite of an intellectual commitment to examine all my beliefs….

So much of the Tibetan Buddhist (or any religion’s) approach to dying has not been subjected to scientifically satisfactory examination and refinement by Western standards.  Perhaps some or much of it involves imaginary, unreal elements.  And yet compared to what the modern West offers – take your pills and get on with dying before your insurance coverage runs out – what a wonderful alternative!

I’ve done moderately serious, personal study of several spiritual paths now.  I’ve never found any that triggered a total belief and ecstatic embrace by me, although they’ve all offered me much of value, both personally and for my work.  I’m 73 now, I don’t know how much time I have left, so I’m not going to be off hunting for some spiritual path that might be more satisfactory, especially in terms of preparing for death.  I’m not looking forward to death, but I do think the Tibetan approach will, at the very least, make it much more interesting as it nears, rather than just a “medical failure.”  And if I get more enlightened and spiritual before I die, avoiding thinking just what that means for now, all the better…..

These lines of thought to be continued in the future…..


  1. This post of yours made me smile.

    I’ve been practising qigong for 10 years now, starting at the same time as I started studying physics at university. At the time I had no conflicts, no problem taking the purely empirical approach to my practise. I was learning by experience. 5 years into my education I suddenly got deeply depression. What happened was that the materialistic assumption of my education had managed to infiltrate my mind to the point I had began asking:

    What if they are right? What if I am not even conscious? What if I am really a zombie?

    This change of mind had happened even though I had been aware of this world view existing in academia before I started to study. I had the view that experiment and experience were my guides in life, and I had thought quite deeply about the mind and consciousness before, and had a quite expanded and open view of the world, without any strongly held beliefs except for the fact that I was conscious and the mind could in principle could not be reduced away. I thought I could handle it. In the end I could not.

    After about a year of deep depression I managed to work my way out by showing my self scientific evidence of psi and adding this into the larger picture. What I had believed to be true because of anecdotes and intuition now had a scientific basis.

    Now to the point. During all this time I practised qigong on a daily basis. And I have suffered a lot during and after that period of depression while practising! Each time I closed my eyes and tried to get calm it was waiting for me. My own personal emotional demon. It was a show stopper, a monster I had to figure out how to kill before I could advance much further. But instead of managing this, most of the time it completely controlled my mind, making me embrace those emotional problems and forgetting that these emotions were something I had, not something I was. It was paralysing, knowing deep down that I in principle could choose not engage these emotions, but unable to do so.

    The social conditioning got me in the end. Even making me doubt my own experiences no matter how strong they were. The thing is that the qigong method I follow is a pretty powerful one. I know, since I have on occasions managed to let go of all the emotional blockage and open up my mind. About a year ago I managed to do so for about a month. My qigong practise completely changed, my consciousness changed (I went into what is known as the qigong state, what I would describe as an enhanced state of consciousness but also an enhanced state of the body), and I have never before felt as harmonious, compassionate and happy as as during that month. Phenomena happened on a very physical bodily level that I had no expectation of happening, stuff that no one had told me could happen. I had this state more or less for a whole month. I’ve later been told that this is part of normal progress. This state is the basis for the “real” practise of qigong.

    I eventually lost the permanent nature of this state, and I struggle today to go back there. Why? Because of my social conditioning eventually made me think I maybe was going insane and was having a lot of illusions. Was that a silly thing to think? Yes. Why? Because this state I had (apart from giving signs of qi-related internal changes) actually fixed chronic disease related problems in my body. It made me more physically and mentally healthy than I had been in my entire life, and was rapidly changing and enhancing other body related issues.

    Part of the problem in my social conditioning as I see it is that it contains a big part of self doubt. Or as I would call it; chronic skepticism about my own experiences. I mean, it is ok to be critical, but this goes towards the ridiculous. Logically and intellectually I know this. Emotionally when practising it is damn hard at times.

    So you are completely right. It can help a lot to somehow clean up your emotional issues, to understand and work on removing their source. We can do that by the method I follow itself, but it helps a lot if you can figure out how to remove some of these problems in some other way. It certainly can reduce your suffering and speed up your development.

    Just wanted to share that 🙂

  2. Tor, I always enjoy hearing about how you are dealing with being scientist who is interested in spiritual experiences. I still struggle with those issues myself. I’ve always thought of science as being far superior to religion, and when I started having anomalous experiences I felt badly because I was under the impression that only crazy people had those experiences. That’s what I thought any good scientist would think.

    Then I started reading the literature on parapsychology and was so shocked to find out that real scientists were interested in this stuff. I wondered why this was such a big secret, it seemed like this was information that everyone should know about. When I found out how legitimate research had been marginalized and often actively suppressed, in addition to being underfunded and pretty much ignored, I started to feel betrayed by my mainstream science background. There was all this information that would have saved someone like me so much grief, and hardly anyone knows about it.

    I still blame my experiences for causing me problems. It’s hard on my marriage and I’ve had to take time away from my studies. But I’m finally starting to understand the experiences are just experiences. They don’t make me crazy, possessed, or even unscientific. They don’t define me at all. How you deal with life’s challenges is a better way to define yourself. I don’t want to be a “pk agent”. I want to become someone who understands as much as possible about the pk and deals with it in a positive manner. I guess that’s my New Year’s resolution. 🙂

    Happy New Year!

  3. Sandy, Happy New Year back at you! 🙂

    I like to hear about your experiences too. Some of it is a bit similar.

    I remember some years back when I was complaining about why I had to get all these emotional reactions while practicing. I mean, I wanted to get results, not be at a stand still banging my head against an emotional wall of crap. I got one simple reply: “Great resistance gives great master”. I stopped complaining then. I got the point.

    It is true as you say Sandy. We grow by our experiences and how we deal with them, and some of the biggest potential for growth happens when we face up to our inner demons. If we never do that, we will continue being slaves of whatever goes on at the deeper levels of our psyche. To become true masters, to become truly free, we can not hide away.

    1. Thanks, Tor! 🙂

      I had three lights go out all at the same time today. A little unusual, even for me. At first I was a little bit confused and maybe even upset by that occurrence. I thought things were going much better lately with the pk. I wasn’t upset or feeling emotional about anything before the lights poofed, so it didn’t make any sense that it happened. Particularly three at once. That sort of thing usually only happens when I’m very unhappy about something.

      The holidays this year were fairly relaxed for a change. Last year things were not going so well for me at home and I ended up replacing almost every light in the house. I actually hid light bulbs around the house so I could fix things discretely before my husband could notice and get angry about the weird occurrences that seem to follow me around. This year things were much happier. My husband was on his best behavior and I was very careful not to have anything weird happen around him. Nothing moved that shouldn’t, the walls didn’t start banging loudly in the middle of the night and only a few lights had to be replaced.

      I guess I thought that meant I was getting a handle on things and learning to control the pk. So when those three lights went out today, I was worried that I’m losing ground again.

      The things is, I was so relaxed today. Hubby went back to work this morning after a few weeks leave, and this is my first bit of alone time in quite a while. I felt so relaxed… and then poof… the lights went out. I think it was kind of a sigh of relief. I’ve been so careful not to have anything weird happen around my husband and it’s been working. Now that I’m alone, a few things have been happening. Maybe it isn’t a matter of losing ground. Maybe I am learning enough control to only have things happen when I’m alone and it won’t bother anyone. When I think about it that way, it’s OK.

      1. It is OK. All this “weird” stuff is just a normal part of the world. It is just too bad that most other people don’t see it that way yet. I will change with time I hope.

        I was having lunch yesterday here at work when the subject of dowsing came up (amongst a bunch of M.Sc and PhD colleagues). So I shared a story about my own experience with this, which amongst other things ended up with a golden ring hanging from a thread and attaching itself to a coffee cup against the force of gravity (something I can not physically explain). Most of them didn’t say anything, but the comment I got was “Heheh… It’s the mental asylum for you next!” And that was that. I usually shut up about these topics at work. But sometimes I just have to test the waters. The taboo is quite obvious. I’m just not certain how deep it goes. I’m not going to probe too much though. You easily get the stamp of a kook if you do. Most don’t listen to what you are saying anyway.

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