Spirituality Without the Spiritual?

My wife Judy and I have just completed a 6-day retreat on Dzogchen approaches to liberation with lama Tsoknyi Rinpoche, held at Mt. Madonna Conference Center.  Now it’s a couple of days of camping in a redwood park to cool down, before jumping fully back into ordinary life, but I’ve been reflecting a lot and want to share some thoughts.

One afternoon Rinpoche invited a few of us to meet with him privately and discuss what we saw as important obstacles to the introduction and growth of Vajrayana Buddhism in our Western culture.  Since he had touched, in passing, on the fact that Western science equates consciousness with brain functioning in an earlier teaching session, I focused on that, as building bridges between genuine science and genuine spirituality has been the focus of my half-century of scientific and personal work.

I have long been concerned that the prejudicial rejection of any reality to spirituality in orthodox science not only distorts the scientific understanding of our nature, it also seriously injures many people who have spiritual yearnings or who have been touched by personal spiritual experiences,  because They, The Authorities, those scientists who know what reality is, have “proven” that the spiritual is all illusion.  I and some of us know this attitude – I call it Dismissive Materialism, as it dismisses and invalidates the spiritual without going through the necessity in proper science to examine actual evidence – has hurt these people, for instead of feeling touched by Spirit and starting to grow, they think they must be stupid or a little crazy, and so squelch their budding spirituality.

Vajrayana Buddhism, like all the world’s major spiritual systems, is heavily based on giving reality, as much reality as the material world has, if not more, to a “spiritual” realm.  The idea of the Siddhartha Gautama, the  historical Buddha, or various Buddhas since that time, or bodhisattvas continuing after their physical death as real beings, real “mind streams” that can help us and bless us in our own spiritual search, is central to Vajrayana, as are acceptance of various god-like, non-material beings, dakas, dakinis, yidams, protectors, karma, reincarnation, etc.  In Christianity, comparably, we have God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, various angels, saints, all existing in a non-material way and able to help us.

Dismissive Materialism says all this is superstitious nonsense, of course.  Mind is nothing but a product of the physical functioning of the brain.  When the brain is badly injured or dies, that’s the end of consciousness.  So  Siddhartha  Buddha was a smart fellow who lived 2500 years ago and figured out some psychological techniques to reduce human suffering by altering attitudes and beliefs about who you are and the nature of reality.  But the Buddha’s “mind stream” ceased with the death of his brain.  The psychological techniques he created, like meditation, are still useful for reducing personal suffering.  Indeed they are especially useful to scientists studying brain functioning, as trained meditators can keep their minds still and focused much better than ordinary folks, which makes tracing brain circuits easier.  The result of such brain research, from the perspective of Dismissive Materialism, will be that eventually we will know exactly what brain circuits reduce suffering and produce feelings of happiness, enlightenment, etc., and then we will go on and discover more effective ways to activate those circuits, such as designer drugs, and we will no longer have to spend years and years meditating and doing other superstitious processes like Vajrayana rituals which are not guaranteed to work anyway, even within Buddhism.  We will have the Materialist version of Buddhism, drug X, Nirvanathene © which reduces your suffering.

If Buddhism or other imported spiritual systems follow the same historical path as Christianity and Judaism have followed in Western culture, what will probably happen is that spiritual systems will cede more and more territory to material science while claiming a certain mystery and exclusive territory, the territory of ethics, meaning, values, etc., that cannot be directly approached by materialistic science.  Christianity and Judaism have thus been marginalized in many ways as to contributing to our understanding of the world, although many social scientists will admit that research shows that belonging to a religion is good for your health.  It doesn’t matter that your core beliefs are false and nonsensical – God, heaven, hell, salvation, Buddhas, enlightenment, all that sort of stuff – belonging to any tight-knit social group gives you support mechanisms that are good for your ordinary health.

I believe that if Buddhism does not directly confront this invalidation from Dismissive Materialism, it will become like our home-grown religions.  There will be a few small groups of people who manage to have a lot of faith and get along largely ignoring this invalidation, and many, many people who have half-hearted religious and spiritual lives.

In the few minutes I had to mention this point with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, I gave a quick version of the above and added, again much too briefly, that when science is done properly – an emphasis of dealing rationally with all the data, not just that which fits what you want to believe – we find that there is actually plenty of high-quality scientific evidence that people sometimes manifest the kinds of qualities which we would expect genuinely spiritual beings to have. Telepathy may be a mechanism of prayer, e.g., or clairvoyance and remote viewing examples of psychic/spiritual interconnectedness of being.

I have written about the findings of scientific parapsychology (not New Age, unscientific beliefs calling themselves parapsychology) constituting a scientific basis for taking Transpersonal Psychology as the study of a real spiritual nature of humans.  My recent book The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together is an overview of the scientific evidence and conclusions I have come to about this from my own and others’ research.  I will be sending a copy to Tsoknyi Rinpoche, although I tend to doubt he will have much time to read in it, given the enormous amount of responsibilities he and other lamas have in preserving and spreading Tibetan Buddhism since the Chinese conquest of Tibet.

This is part of a general problem I see.  Western religious and spiritual leaders have taken quite a beating from materialistic science for a long time.  Often this was deserved – a lot of factually false or psychologically harmful ideas have been presented as religious truths.  But now the tendency is for spiritual leaders to pretty much ignore science, unless a particular, isolated finding happens to agree with their belief system, thus apparently lessening conflict.  But this does not solve the fundamental problem: Dismissive Materialism is one of the most powerful psychological, social and economic forces in the world and steadily undermines many genuinely spiritual aspirations and attempts at development.

Will Buddhism, or any other imported spiritual system, do any better than Christianity and Judaism have done in confronting Dismissive Materialism head on, instead of trying to pretend there is no problem?  I don’t know.

What I think would be very helpful will be for progressive spiritual leaders to be aware of the kind of high quality scientific evidence I talk about in The End of Materialism, and when attacked by Dismissive Materialists presenting themselves as “scientists,” be able to ask them if they are speaking as scientists, if they have actually studied this evidence?  Almost none of them have!  If they will honestly admit they haven’t, then they should logically admit that their dismissal of the spiritual is a personal conviction, but does not carry the prestige of Science.  Better yet, religious and spiritual systems should explore positive ways to join with open-minded sciences like parapsychology and Transpersonal Psychology to begin discriminating different qualities of knowledge in these areas, exploring how to more effectively encourage and aid healthy spiritual lives, etc.

I fear, though, that once spiritual leaders have fallen back on the “just have faith” defense, they themselves don’t want to associate with genuine science, as genuine science can question anything as part of refining knowledge, and that may mean some parts of spiritual systems will be found to be factually or theoretically inadequate and need to be replaced with better understandings and practices……This opens a whole area of how open minded science and the practice of humility can create progress in spirituality which I can’t go into here…..

And so these thoughts taper off in a quite unsatisfactory manner, no certain answers, lots of possibilities, and the human spirit being the most important thing in the world…..


  1. “This opens a whole area of how open minded science and the practice of humility can create progress in spirituality which I can’t go into here…..”

    I look forward to when you do go into it (some more) — I look forward to when MANY people start going into it, and the sooner the better. I have found that in ordinary psychology, it’s those systems that have been well-tested (John Gottman’s couples therapy, Robert Bramson’s “Coping With Difficult People”) that have aided me the most in my personal growth. Those that were not well tested (“Active listening” “Primal Therapy”) held me back the most.

    I was 42 before I discovered Gottman’s couples research, but it wasn’t until I started working on my master’s thesis using his model that I got happily married for the first time (at 45). Couples relationships are immensely important, but how much more important is it that we each learn to connect with the higher power early on in our lives, that we learn to get past the bumps and the delusions while we still have lots of time to do something positive on this planet?

    “I fear, though, that once spiritual leaders have fallen back on the ‘just have faith’ defense, they themselves don’t want to associate with genuine science, as genuine science can question anything as part of refining knowledge, and that may mean some parts of spiritual systems will be found to be factually or theoretically inadequate and need to be replaced with better understandings and practices……”

    There is hope. A quote from the Dalai Lama, New York Times, November 12, 2005:

    “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.”

    On this subject, I frequently come across an aversion to science among “ordinary” spiritually inclined people, too. My best guess, in their case, is that it is an understandable reaction to scientism, combined with a dearth of knowledge about scientific parapsychology. I always recommend your book “The End of Materialism” as an antidote.

    Dr. Tart, your work is so needed. It is continuing to have an immensely positive influence on my life, and I thank you for it, and for this inspirational rant.

  2. The smiley faces were accidentally put in. You can leave the one after Gottman, if you like, but the other one is completely out of place.


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