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…..