Wednesday, September 6, 2006

I sometimes wonder

I sometimes wonder. I see people writing, for example, about evolution, who think that it is a simple unified theory that explains all of biology if we only apply its basic principles and have sufficient data. Now, already, I know some readers may be gearing up in their heads for some kind of anti-evolution assault, or a call to add some kind of mystical revelation to the explanation of biological diversity. The assumption tends to go that A) evolution can only mean the model and theory most commonly presented B) anything else is wrong-headed and unscientific so C) any other model or theory of evolution is wrong-headed and possible unscientific (or at least based on bad or sloppy science). That is unfortunate when you look at the history of evolutionary ideas and, in fact, the shift that is taking place as more people wake up to the flood of articles which are now being introduced in summary form in popular books about our changing view of development and its impact on how we see evolution. Ironically many of these new ideas are not new, and were anticipated decades ago, though certainly those publishing the ideas would be just as amazed at what we are learning now. Yet, there is the desire to somehow keep the "frame" that already exists (everything in biology must contribute to fitness and so the bottom line is explaining how features are adaptive). I even read one journal article some months ago in which the author claimed that really these changes didn't have to affect such a "frame" and therefore it was safe.

I have spent nearly a decade studying evolution in graduate school and in my teaching and research. (I am on the job market, btw, if anyone reading is interested.) But there is this resistance to changing the frame with which we are comfortable. It isn't just the much talked about concept of paradigm shift, though certainly that is a factor. It's more about how we try to manage or control that shift. Because people have spent so many years with (natural/sexual) selection as *the* way to begin nearly any discussion of evolution, there is a tendency to want to somehow "reign in" these upstart implications for development and show that, when it comes to the "forces of evolution", selection is still in charge. Now, I bring this up because it reminds me a bit about the idea of Western Buddhism.

Ha! Betcha didn't see that one coming. But I see something similar. In the West, there is the long shadow of mytho-historical literalism mixed with the prophetic nature of revealed religion. Others can talk about basic individual and social psychology, sociological and cultural dynamics, historical factors, and how this is tied together to explain why Western religion tended to gravitate towards certain forms of belief. But, the reaction against this was to set up a dichotomy between faith and reason, religion and science, etc. This I believe contributes to what has been discussed before by many people in the emergence of so-called Western Buddhism. If we make sure we don't really believe in anything other than as symbols, and if we make sure we cleanse any ideas tainted with forces or actions that might be at odds with so-believed-to-be "empirically driven" rationalism, and as long as it has demonstrable benefits to the individual and society, then Buddhism is great. You don't have to pray to (a) God or feel the presence of the Divine. Naw, it's just a nice rational system of observations and applications that is practically a twin of what people tend to see as/think of as science. The science of suffering, maybe. I wouldn't be surprised to find that has been used already.

I find this interesting on many levels. No offense intended, but it sometimes reminds of the people who pick the right answer for the wrong reason. This happens a lot, for example, on multiple choice tests. Many of the favorite platitudes of Buddhism selected most often as used by Buddhists in the West strike me like that. I am not judging one single person, but like I said, it makes me wonder. Sometimes it doesn't matter "how" you got the right answer - just that you did. Other times it is the process of *getting to* the answer that matters. You can't skip to the end, even if you think you know what it is going to be, especially when what you think you know is the problem in the first place. This reminds me of my commentary on Mountains and Rivers, but I am not revisiting that here. I also have known many people have said the same thing about the spiritual journey. You have to leave before you can come home and realize what you had all along, even though it may seem simpler just to stay home (that is, you have to go off in search of something like "enlightment" before you realize the answer was all around you all along).

It all gets into how people view/conceptualize religion. In my view, people really are often talking about many interrelated things. For example, there is the idea of the self, which is defined as any individual by it's beginning and ending, birth and death. So the nature of the self, including questions about the afterlife, what does or doesn't remain after a physical life form "dies", etc, is one element. Then there is "God", or the Ground of Being, or the Divine, or the Tao - some reflection of a beginning and end - kind of like the issue of the self only on a universal scale of identity, birth, and death. There is spirituality, a sense of connection to something greater than the limited individual. This frequently (but doesn't always directly or obviously) ties into the Greater sense of self alluded to under the idea of God. Then there is faith and the supernatural, which frequently go hand in hand and which are, again, often tied (but not always directly or obviously) to these other elements.

Anything which seems to touch on one or more of these elements, especially when it's more than one, is frequently tagged as "religious". And as mentioned, there is this idea, sometimes consciously manifested, sometimes lingeringly patently in our reactions and perceptions, that religion is just a failed way of explaining things, a primitive science that people cling to out of tradition and an inability to deal with reality as it is (cold, hard, impersonal). Hence the aforementioned cleansing to weed out the "troublesome" aspects of Buddhism so that it's true, nobler essence can be brought forth to shine a light of reason and compassion on all who gaze upon it.

No, I am not trying to build a strawman. You can say this isn't what you think or feel, and I'm not going to judge you. Like I said, though, I wonder. I'm going to wonder a bit more. I read an interesting book once called "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer. It is very interesting and worth a visit to a library. The premise, if I may simplify a bit, is that religion is, basically, supernaturalism. Supernaturalism is the result of ontological category violations. That is, we tend to have certain generic categories in our head in which we place phenomena and which govern our expectations of those phenomena. People can't pass through walls. Bushes don't talk. Hence, tales of such things tweak our brain's machinery, which is trying to sort and place things, and in so tweaking it sets off false signals that make such ideas remarkably fascinating and attractive. The other premise is that people remember bizarre things more readily than mundane things, and such stories involving ontological category violations are typically odd, hence they tend to have longer cultural transmission. So, then, religion are essentially the result of freaky stories that give us interesting brain sensations and are easily remembered. The deep sense of wonder and meaning felt with these brain tweaks makes them seem like they are powerful, and hence people give them meaning. Again, it's stripped down a bit, but there's the general idea.

I always thought a better title for that book might be "Supernaturalism Explained" given my view on the multiple elements that are associated with religion. But in any case, I think Boyer gets it a little right but then, as he doesn't seem to have any use for religion, he gets it wrong too. I am not critiquing the book here, which I read quite a while ago, and I want to focus on the part I think Boyer got right. I find the idea about ontological categories and violations interesting, though he doesn't explain very well their origin (lots of room for exciting research there). I think he is also right that this does tend to tweak our perception the world. The difference is that I think this tweak has value in some cases, rather than just being a design glitch of sorts in our brains cognitive machinery. This is where faith comes in, and why I paired it with supernaturalism.

It is very difficult to break out of our ingrained perceptual and cognitive routines. Even when we claim to be open-minded, that's usually just a polite way of begging the question or evasive posturing. It's damn hard to be *really* open-minded. We set up criteria that will generally only allow "facts" that will fit our preconceptions anyway, and we damn alternatives with faint praise. The rest is apologetics, whether it's for atheism, humanism, Christianity, science, politics, whatever. We may point to examples where evidence changed our minds and forced us to reconsider something, but notice that: A) it wasn't usually a massive reconsideration as it usually fits in our larger perspective nicely; B) if it was massive change, the odds are that it involved a change in our criterion for acceptable evidence - evidence for the old views are often now relegated to the less-than-desirable or second-hand rank. It wasn't just the evidence you accepted, but likely a whole suite of attitudes and assumptions. Now this is not always a terrible thing, but the idea that we are so "fair" and "open" seems, in my humble opinion, to often be more a case of wishful thinking. When we change one big thing, it isn't just that one idea or belief - we tend to swap for a whole new bag of goodies.

So, what does this have to do with supernaturalism and faith and ultimately religion and Buddhism in the West? Well, I think that because it is hard to be really, truly "open" to the possibilities, not just in intellectual assent or lip service, but really open to what might be, the tweak we get from supernatural type stories/objects is like a jump start to breaking out of our ingrained preconceptions. There is a type of liberation, a feeling of excitement and freedom, that comes from actively and sincerely considering these stories. I think that's what a lot of new converts feel, that giddiness and wonder. Now, if we let it go at that, then it's just what Boyer implies it to be, a kind of high from tweaking certain centers of our brain. This sense of freedom and euphoria also has the effect of often assuring the convert that whatever sacred tradition they are entering must be the real deal, including any doctrines or dogmas. That's where I find the Buddhist/Eastern analogy of "fingers to the moon" to come in handy. We get caught up on the story or object and whatever "finger" (i.e. sacred tradition) it is affiliated with, and this jump start to true openness and awareness is then just fuel for fervent faith in said finger and its associated supernatural elements.

So, then, because of this, I think ideas like "God", rather than staying as a verb, a perpetual process of creation and unfolding, where phenomena arise and fade, emerge and recede, there is the tendency to take the unlimitable and limit it with names, values, desires, wishes, thoughts, feelings, even a distinct "body" of some kind. Just as we see ourselves as bounded individuals rather than ever-changing aspects of the whole, so too is our idea of "God". And, with so many people believing so many bizarre things in the name of religion, it gets tagged as something for the ignorant or feeble-minded. And so, again, spirituality and everything else becomes "tainted" as belonging to the realm of fools, the insane, the desperate, and those who would manipulate such people. Again, this isn't an unfounded or groundless characterization, but because it is so ubiquitously applied, there is no real discussion of how most of the "flaws" of religion are just manifestations of human nature, not some social illness that can be eradicated. Hence, instead of focusing on things which can infect any institution, and to which religions are particularly vulnerable, folks who do not count themselves as religious often just conflate it all as a nasty mess from the stone age that we should rid ourselves of. But they fail to see that even if you get rid of all the current religions, our religious nature and its pros and cons would remain.

Which takes us back to so-called Western Buddhism and what it should or should not be. And the aforementioned desire I suspect to be at work in some circles to "cleanse" Buddhism of any non-rational elements, with the caveat that rational often means what we think makes sense, hence what fits our current "paradigm", which for a number of potential or actual Western Buddhists is, again, the so-called empirically based rationalism which is often associated with the methodology of science but which is often co-opted into what is sometimes termed ontological naturalism, which means anything that smacks of supernaturalism is out. Which makes for an interesting dilemma.

If I am even remotely correct in my characterization of religion, its elements, and the connection between faith (taking a chance, truly opening your heart and mind, trusting that which seem at odds with our comfortable preconceptions, etc) and some of these other elements, especially that which seems supernatural or that which seems related to the supernatural, are we forgoing that trip from home alluded to earlier?

Now, I am not advocating people just start believing anything left and right and embracing all manner of supernaturalism such as magic, ghosts, etc. I count myself among those who are not supersitious. However, if we are saying that Buddhism is just the science of suffering, and only based on observation, what does that mean? Is it just a window dressing for our established preconception of reality? Oh, well, I embrace only empirical rationalism, and so my definition of "observation" technically is limited to that perspective? Or, when we talk about Buddhism being rooted in observation, is it observation freed from believing "this" or generally accepting "that" - a kind of wide open embrace of existence that does not rely on how we define this or whether we divide the universe like that?

In the end, are we just making a new, secularized, empirically-safe finger to latch onto? Does the nature of the Dharma change whether we call Shunyata (emptiness) the Tao or even God? Or if we fail to name it? Does it change if we believe in magic? If we do not? If we pray or do not? For who or what do we need to reinvent or reconstitute Buddhism "in the West"?

And, along those lines, what is this "benefit" of Buddhism of which many speak? Is it also rooted strictly in form? If we still get angry, or sick, or die, does that mean Buddhism isn't as valuable? Or can I still observe myself getting angry and yet be at peace in/one with Buddhanature (note I do not say "my Buddhanature" or "this thing/person's Buddhanature?")

I wonder.

I wonder where this idea of creating or fostering a "Western" Buddhism or Dharma will lead us, and how long it will take for us to recover.

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