Twenty five hundred years ago, Gautama Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, had some deep insights and created powerful techniques that would allow major reductions of human suffering. Traditionally the Buddha is said to found a total end to all suffering. Perhaps that’s true, perhaps it’s not. I don’t know, but certainly Buddhist meditation techniques and related practices can greatly reduced individuals’ suffering.
From that time on, to greatly oversimplify, you can talk about two main streams of Buddhist activity. The heart of Buddhism is the monastic tradition, monks and nuns so dedicated to achieving enlightenment for their own sakes and for the sake of others that they devote their entire lives to living in ascetic conditions and practicing meditation and prayer. The other main stream is the beliefs of the common people, in essence, that the Buddha was some kind of god, or at least had supernatural abilities, as the monks and nuns also do to various degrees. These people were too busy trying to survive and earn a living, and so could not meditate very much themselves, but they could earn merit, which would go toward improving their future lives, by worshiping the Buddha and by supporting the monks and nuns with alms and other donations. I’m speaking very generally, of course, and you can find many variations on these themes.
As Buddhism moved into cultures that were radically different from the Indian culture Buddhism originated in, it often had to make various and sometimes major adaptations to fit into its new culture. One of the major adaptations some teachers of Buddhism are making in bringing Buddhism to the modern world, particularly the West is to try to reconcile it with what we know from science and psychology. This has interesting results, some of which will probably make Buddhism more effective in the long run, and others which can greatly undermine the historical form of Buddhism. In terms of the latter, I’m especially thinking of the way science is so frequently equated with an overarching philosophy of materialism. It’s not essential to equate science with materialism, of course – see my “The End Of Materialism: How Evidence Of The Paranormal Is Bringing Science And Spirit Together” book- but science has had, by far, its greatest successes in learning about the material world. We all like success, so an attitude of materialism, only what is material – known physical objects and physical energies – is real, pervades most of modern life.
From this materialistic perspective, Buddhism may be psychologically effective in reducing individuals’ suffering, ultimately through meditation’s physiological effects on the brain. But it carries an enormous amount of superstitious baggage with it. There are no divine beings, Gautama Buddha is not some kind of god, e.g., or bodhisattvas may be real historical people who reduced their own suffering and helped others, but they have not become minor gods that are worth praying to, or worshiping the Buddha is a useless and misleading thing to do except insofar as it may psychologically sooth you – albeit at the cost of having a fundamentally wrong belief about the nature reality, which will probably lead to a variety of negative consequences.
Incidentally, I have nothing against materialism per se as a philosophical approach to the world. What I object to is the shortsightedness and arrogance that allows too many believers of it to believe that all truth is encompassed by this view, and thus that there’s no need to actually check in with reality to see how well this kind of explanation actually works. Many things can be explained completely and controlled effectively by material means, and I’m all for progress continuing on these fronts, but many important things can’t be.
What led me to these thoughts today is thinking about the idea that traditional Buddhist monasticism is tremendously threatened by an attitude of materialism. If you’re very rich, of course, it’s no big deal to help to support a few monks or nuns. But for the majority of people, why should they spend significant amounts of their very limited resources supporting people who sit around trying to get enlightened and pray, when prayer is one of those superstitions we need to discard? From a materialistic point of view, praying is talking to yourself. Perhaps psychologically the monks praying is good for them, even if it involves a major illusion about the nature of reality, but why should we give donations for them to pray for us? Wouldn’t it be better to spend our money on socially useful projects, building schools and hospitals, e.g., or on our own security and pleasure?
My own understanding, drawing from my 50+ years of knowledge of research within scientific parapsychology, is that we have very high quality, scientific evidence that, for example, our minds are more than just the material functioning of the brain, that some things like prayer and psychic healing can sometimes have real effects in the real world, or that telepathy could be a mechanism for prayer to have real effects beyond the person praying, and so materialism is only a partial view of what reality is, it’s foolish and unscientific to discard everything spiritual in a wholesale manner.
All religions, including Buddhism, are undoubtedly full of superstitions that are factually wrong, but to totally throw them out, to assume that anything about the spiritual is inherently nonsensical, is a major mistake. It’s not only a mistake in scientific terms – you don’t ignore or irrationally reject data just because it doesn’t fit with your other beliefs – it’s something that psychologically harms many people. That’s because many people have various kinds of spiritual experiences, and to then have scientific Authority Figures say this is all error and nonsense on their parts is to devalue and reject some of their most essential aspects of their lives. I’ve spoken and corresponded with innumerable people who have had this happen to them. It hurts!
I’m hardly the first person to notice that these two extremes of uncritical credulity for anything labeled spiritual on the one hand, and total rejection of spirituality for materialism on the other hand, are not very healthy for the human spirit. Too many of our values are based in our spiritual and religious views, and to declare them all superstition is to reduce us to the level of animals. If we think we are nothing but animals, we are more likely to act that way, with the consequences of such actions. The founders of the Society for Psychical research in England, more than 125 years ago, saw this problem and advocated that the methods of science could be used to start separating the true from the false, the wheat from the chaff in the sphere of religion. I’m sad to say there has not been much progress yet. We have slowly accumulated high quality, laboratory evidence of the reality of things like telepathy, so I have argued in my “The End Of Materialism” book, that it is scientifically invalid to simply throw out all spiritual and religious ideas without examination. But there is so much more we need to know, so much more that research about the spiritual could clarify!
The basic theme running through my career has been to try to build bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality. Both these fields have much nonsense in them, although science has vital self-correcting mechanisms usually not found in religion and spirituality. I have basically proposed that the testing methods of essential scientific inquiry be used to refine and clarify religious ideas, but I suspect that this proposal is too threatening to many people. For those who have a strong investment in some religious or spiritual path, they may well see science as the enemy which has ridiculed their beliefs, and so want nothing to do with it. Further, because spiritual beliefs are so important to our emotional well-being, the idea that some of them might be wrong, or that all are subject to examination by scientific method, might be very threatening to people. Many scientists, on the other hand, have actively rejected religion in favor of a materialistic, but apparently scientific, worldview, and do not like the idea that they have been making a major mistake by not actually examining the phenomena of religion scientifically. Or they have not so much made an active decision to ignore or reject the spiritual so much as this attitude has been conditioned into them by modern life and their conventional scientific education.
Coming back to traditional Buddhism, Western ideas, with their heavy materialistic bias, are spreading more and more over the world. Traditional Buddhism, which supports monastics for the supposed benefit of their prayers, may go on for a long time in some parts of the world, but have little power to establish itself in the more modern world. Personally I think this would be a great loss. My best understanding of the parapsychological evidence to date is that monks and nuns praying for us may actually be doing something useful in reality, it’s not simply a form of delusion.
As a scientist, that view is, of course, always subject to further test. Some of what I believe along these lines may turn out to be correct, some research may produce further evidence supporting it, and, even more importantly, as we gain a better scientific understanding of what, for example, makes prayers (or psychic healing in general) more likely to be effective, we may be able to greatly increase the usefulness and efficacy of monastics (and us ordinary people) praying for the world.
Is there much chance of applying the essence of science, “essential science” as I called in my book, to improve our knowledge of and efficacy of spiritual work? Good question! I’ve worked to promote this idea in many rational ways, and I pray for it, in the hope that my prayers are somehow effective in reality, not just a psychological phenomena within me. The chance of success? Good question!
Finally I will note that my understanding of Gautama Buddha’s ideas is that they were compatible with a basically scientific approach to reality. In his Sutta to the Kalamas, for example, he constantly tells people to check ideas and beliefs against their experience, against what actually can be observed to work, rather than simply whether they are popular or supported by authorities (including himself), etc. That’s probably the most important part of essential science: all ideas must constantly be checked against observable, experiencable reality, and must be modified when new observations require us to go beyond the current conceptions. Unfortunately I often get the impression that as Buddhism as became an established institution for many centuries, this call to check ideas against reality has been turned into a too fixed belief that Gautama Buddha’s understandings were the last word on ultimate reality, he was omniscient, and so new observations and ideas are simply checked back for doctrinal compliance with what the Buddha thought about things, rather than against a wider observation of reality. This is one of the things that I’m sure will have to change as Buddhism becomes more important in modern culture and tries to be more compatible with science.
Some modern teachers promote an atheistic kind of Buddhism. Meditation practices have effects on your brain which make you happier. I am all for anything which makes people happier in a healthy way – but if you reduce the effects of meditation to brain functioning then, as a scientifically inclined Westerner, my response is fine, the drug companies should be able to develop a pill to produce the same happiness, I hope they develop it soon as all that meditation can be pretty tedious…… But all I know, my “best estimate” as a widely-informed scientist, is that there’s more to spirituality than nothing but particular electro-chemical patterns in the brain, and we need to understand that “more” to really benefit others and ourselves…..
A while after posting the above, I had a “vision” (small v, image arising, rather than big V, Vision from Above) of where Buddhism without any reality to the spiritual, Materialistic Buddhism, could go with the right research. It’s a sarcastic, critical vision in some ways, as well as humorous – but insofar as it could reduce human suffering, I’m all for it! As long as it doesn’t further distract us from the vitally needed research on what’s real about the spiritual and how to optimally live with it…..