March 11, 2010

Batchelor’s "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" examined by Mark Vernon

Here’s a review of Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist from The Guardian's Mark Vernon.

Since publishing his best-selling Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen has become somewhat controversial in Buddhist circles for his Western approach to the Buddha’s teachings. Stephen points out, however, that "the great strength of Buddhism throughout its history is that it has succeeded many times in reinventing itself according to the needs of its new host culture."

Stephen will be leading a 4-part Tricycle online retreat entitled “Buddhism for This One and Only Life,” starting in April.

Read the current Tricycle interview with Stephen here.

UPDATE: More thoughts on Vernon's review of Batchelor's latest book here at the Progressive Buddhism blog.

MORE: ABC News interviews Batchelor.

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zardoz's picture

I liked Stephen Batchelor's latest book - he writes plainly and clearly. I enjoyed his talk in Wellington recently, and I appreciate his approach to Buddhism. The world seems to have many people willing to suspend rational belief and clutch hold of one of many versions of an after-life on offer. And of course, each and every one of them has the 'right' answer. I hope this gives them comfort, but for me, this life is enough.

Mujaku's picture

I hope Mr. Batchelor's next book will be entitled, Confession of a Buddhist Hedonist which will try to show that Siddhartha, before he became the Buddha, was a party animal; and that Buddhism is really about having a good time.

Don Salmon's picture

The Buddha answers!

Steve Paulson
This raises some interesting questions about Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion or is it something else? Because there are some people in the West who say we should strip Buddhism of any vestiges of the religious or the transcendental. For instance, Stephen Batchelor, in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, writes, “The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendental truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Is Stephen Batchelor right?

B. Alan Wallace
[Laughs] I've known Stephen Batchelor for almost 35 years. We were monks together for years, both in India and in Switzerland. To come up with this picture of the Buddha, you have to bring out a carving knife and chop off great sections of the most authentic accounts we have of the Buddha's own teachings. You simply have to ignore and pretend he never said an enormous number of things he did say. I think Stephen, my dear friend, has recast the Buddha in his own image as an English skeptic who was raised in an agnostic background, who really doesn't believe in anything nonphysical.

Steve Paulson
So we should forget trying to strip Buddhism of its transcendentalism. You haven't quite come out and said it, but you're suggesting we should stop saying Buddhism is not a religion.

B. Alan Wallace
Well, we have to be very cautious when we take these Western categories–religion, science, philosophy–which are deeply and inextricably embedded in our Judeo–Christian and Greco–Roman heritage. But I have to add a footnote to our conversation about reincarnation research. The Buddhists have been looking at this critically and empirically for 2,500 years. They're not waiting with bated breath to see what the people at the University of Virginia come up with. They, unlike psychologists and neuroscientists, have been exploring mental phenomena directly. And they have specific strategies for going into a deep meditative state, directing your attention backward beyond the scope of this lifetime, directing it back to past lifetimes and coming up with memories. So you have a template here.

This could be studied, together with skeptics. Train very advanced contemplatives to tap into this substrate consciousness–this storehouse of memories from past lives, if it in fact exists–and do this in conjunction with neuroscientists and psychologists. If I had unlimited funds, I'd say this is one of the most important questions we can ask. Make this a 20-year research project, well funded, with all the skepticism of science. Make sure you have some hardcore atheists involved, but ones who are open-minded and not just knee-jerk dogmatists. And then put it to the test. In 20 years, I think you could come up with something that could repudiate or validate a startling, truly astonishing hypothesis that there is such a substrate consciousness.

http://www.templeton-cambridge.org/fellows/showarticle.php?article=18
donsalmon7@gmail.com

don Salmon's picture

An essay by Stephen Batchelor describing his beliefs about not having beliefs (capitalized words added)

I BELIEVE THAT Self-conscious life has somehow come to flourish in the biosphere enveloping this planet. That is all I know about it with certainty. I BELIEVE THAT Human beings like us may never have evolved before and may never evolve again in this or any other universe. As far as anyone knows (NOT JUST ME, STEPHEN BATCHELOR, BUT ANYONE – THAT MEANS I KNOW AS MUCH - WELL, ACTUALLY, MORE - AS ANY BUDDHIST ABOUT THIS), I BELIEVE THAT we are alone in an inconceivably vast cosmos that I BELIEVE has no interest at all in our fate. I do not believe that I existed in any meaningful sense before my birth or will exist again after my death either here on earth, in a heaven, a hell or any other realm (OR TO REPHRASE, I BELIEVE THAT I HAVE NOT EXISTED BEFORE AND WON’T EXIST AGAIN). I BELIEVE THAT All that will survive from my brief spell here as a rational animal (WHICH IS WHAT I BELIEVE I AM) will be the traces I leave behind in this world and the impact I have through my words and deeds on the lives of others.
This might strike you as a depressingly bleak picture that excludes any possibility of hope or redemption. I disagree. I BELIEVE THAT Such spiritual shudders of distaste are a reflex of that primal human longing for there to be more to life than just this. But this, I would argue, is where the religious quest not only begins but ends. I BELIEVE THAT God, the devil, heaven, hell, rebirth, karma are human inventions that we have projected beyond ourselves and invested with a separate reality of their own. I BELIEVE The PHYSICALIST view of reality THAT I PERSONALLY BELIEVE IS disclosed through the natural sciences evokes feelings of awe WHICH I BELIEVE ARE incomparably greater than anything religious or mystical writings of any tradition can inspire. Far from being just dumb, inert stuff, I BELIEVE THAT matter is wondrously, abundantly, profusely alive (I BELIEVE THIS IN SPITE OF THE WIDELY RECOGNIZED FACT THAT NO EXPERIMENT IN PRESENT DAY SCIENCE CAN SHOW THIS TO BE TRUE OR FALSE, SINCE AT THE PRESENT TIME THERE IS NO SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT TO DETERMINE IF MATTER IS ALIVE, JUST AS THERE IS NO SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT THAT CAN WITHOUT DOUBT ESTABLISH THE EXISTENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE, INCLUDING WITHIN OUR BRAINS). I BELIEVE, REGARDING WHAT MY BELIEF IS ABOUT WHAT SCIENCE SHOWS ABOUT THE NATURE OF MATTER, THAT The more we understand it, the less there appears any need for a divine spark or immaterial consciousness to animate it.
Let me repeat. I do not know if this is true; I just believe it is. (THOUGH IN MANY OF MY WRITINGS I SIMPLY PRESENT THIS AS THE TRUTH.) Among all the accounts of the origin and nature of life currently on offer, I BELIEVE that of modern science is by far the most convincing and compelling THOUGH COME TO THINK OF IT, SINCE I WAS BORN AND RAISED TO BELIEVE IN THE VIEW OF MODERN SCIENCE, WHAT WOULD REALLY BE A SURPRISE WOULD BE IF THROUGH INDEPENDENT, CRITICAL THINKING, I HAD COME TO THINK THE SCIENTIFIC VEW WAS NOT THE MOST CONVINCING . Therein also lies its danger. One can be as inflexibly dogmatic about a scientific worldview as a religious one. THOUGH I MAKE NO ATTEMPT TO EVER THINK THROUGH, IN MY WRITINGS, WHAT SCIENCE MIGHT LOOK LIKE IF IT EVER CONTRADICTED MY PRESENT DAY BELIEFS ABOUT WHAT SCIENTIFIC FINDINGS MEAN IN TERMS OF MY OUTLOOK ON THE NATURE OF THINGS. Today’s understanding will probably turn out to be partial and provisional. We can no more anticipate what Copernican revolutions future millenia hold in store than our forebears could imagine the ground beneath their feet to be the surface of a globe rotating in space around the sun THOUGH I’M NOT EVEN GOING TO SUGGEST THAT THE FUTURE VIEW MIGHT IN ANY WAY LOOK LIKE THE TRADITIONAL BUDDHIST VIEW. How we picture the universe now may represent only a few scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that we cannot possibly conceive.
I BELIEVE THAT By abandoning religious cosmologies and metaphysics, one is able to see more clearly the transformative role spiritual practices can play in this life EVEN IF IT TURNS OUT THAT SOME COPERNICAN REVOLUTION CENTURIES FROM NOW VERIFIES THE THINGS I CAN’T PRESENTLY BRING MYSELF TO BELIEVE, LIKE REBIRTH. Long before embracing agnosticism, my doubts around karma and rebirth were resolved when it dawned on me that even were they not true, I BELIEVE that would not affect the commitment to a Buddhist practice, BECAUSE I SHARE THE STRANGE MODERN IDEA THAT IT IS POSSIBLE TO HAVE CONSCIOUS THOUGHTS THAT ARE NOT IN ANY WAY SHAPED OR AFFECTED BY NON-CONSCIOUS ASSUMPTIONS. To live according to Buddhism’s ethical precepts, to apply its instructions on meditation, and to engage with its philosophical ideas seemed sufficiently self-validating and worthwhile in themselves. None of these activities needed to be justified or motivated by arcane theories of multiple lives and karmic causation.
Practices such as generosity, tolerance, compassion, non-violence, detachment, mindfulness, concentration and enquiry into the nature of emptiness and contingency were not only compatible with my post-Christian, secular humanism and its scientific worldview, IN OTHER WORDS, THE WORLDVIEW WHICH I HAVE BEEN CONDITIONED TO BELIEVE IN SINCE MY BIRTH IN ENGLAND, THE VERY HOME OF POSITIVIST THINKING but appeared to enrich and enhance them. In its unique configuration of these values Buddhism introduced an entirely new perspective on life and the world. It suggested the possibility of a culture of awakening ACCORDING TO MY BRITISH/SECULARIST/POSITIVE UNDERSTANDING OF AWAKENING, WHICH, IMPLICITLY, AS IMPLIED IN ALL MY RECENT WRITINGS, I BELIEVE TO BE FAR SUPERIOR TO THE ANCIENT INDIAN VIEW OF AWAKENING. And, crucially, it provided a systematic body of practices whereby that perspective and culture could be embodied and realized. In the unfamiliar soil of a Western value system and cultural outlook, however, these practices began to yield unorthodox results. Meditation on impermanence, suffering and no-self, for example, did not — as Buddha insisted it would — lead me to disenchantment, dispassion and a resolve not to be born again, but to an ever deepening awareness of life’s infinitely poignant beauty, FURTHER SUBSTANTIATING MY POSITION AS A SUPERIOR, MODERN, BRITISH FREE THINKING, SECULARIST, POSITIVIST, RATIONAL ANIMAL.
– Posted Apr. 12, 2006

Don Salmon's picture

I guess that's kind of like Stephen Bathelor writing a book about the beliefs he grew up with (empiricism, rationalism, historicism, positivism, etc) as a British lad, and calling the book "Buddhism Without Beliefs". If it wasn't so humorous and absurd, one might have thought he was inspired by Nagarjuna!

Don Salmon's picture

well, anyway, perhaps he didn't, but I didn't not hear it.

Don Salmon's picture

He didn't? What did his non reply sound like?

Komuso's picture

Phew... And Buddha didn't even reply...

Don Salmon's picture

Buddhist fundamentalism - The scientistic faith of Steven Batchelor.

i think there's probably nobody else coming on to this page, but if anybody ever shows up, as of this date (June 26, 2010) I'm thinking of submitting an article with this title to Tricycle - maybe later this year or some time next year. I might just put together a video for youtube on this topic instead, I'm not sure. If you have any ideas, please write me at donsalmon7@gmail.com.

If you're interested in the topic, look at the previous past (not too far above this one) where Frank Boccio posted a passage from Batchelor. See how many non-empirical (ie faith-based) beliefs you can spot in the passage. After a quick skim, I found more than 20.

One of the quotations that occurred to me in thinking about what an article might look like is from a psychiatrist quoted by world religions scholar Huston Smith. I can't find the passage - it may have been in "Forgotten Truth", I'm not sure. He said basically, that taking the DSM literally (the "bible" of psychiatry), a belief in materialism - the supposedly "required" belief underlying modern science - can quite literally be considered a psychotic delusion.

Another thought:

Owen Barfield, in "Saving the Appearances", opens his book with the questinon, "Is a rainbow really 'out there'?" He concludes by saying, not that it is "an illusion" (the widely held assumption about several Hindu philosophical 'schools') but that it has no inherent existence - that is, the experience 'rainbow' is no more (and no less) than an interaction between water and sunlight on the one hand, and the mind on the other.

The really neat thing he does next - I can't possibly do it justice here - is he then applies the same analysis to a tree. The result? A tree is no more (or less) "out there" than a rainbow. The color, sound, solidity, etc of a tree is the outcome of - SOMETHING, we, nor science, know not what - and our senses (or actually, our mind interpreting the messages of our senses).

I think, if you follow this through, for a number of days, or weeks, or however long it takes, with all the things, people, etc in your environment, it has the potential of completely turning your world - quite literally - inside out.

Barfield concludes the opening brief (5 pages) chapter by saying, all we know from modern science about the world is that there are certain quantifiable patterns related to our experience, but we have absolutely no idea what those are patterns "of", that is, what it is that triggers our experience.

He does suggest later in the book that there is a way to know what triggers those patterns, but the current scientific method is not the way to know (nor does the secularist meditation method that Batchelor teaches have a prayer (double meaning intended) of a chance of doing so either (well, that's my idea, not Barfield's:>))

Don Salmon's picture

hi again - just thought of a really simple way to say this (check out Donald Hoffman's articles on teh net - he's MUCH better at saying this than me.

Scientific data are equally compatible with materialist, dualist and idealist views (as well as many other philosophic views).

That's basically it. To my reading, at least - what I've read of Batchelor, he seems almost completely unconscious of his biased belief in physicalism. I'm not the least bit interested - in these postings - of convincing anybody that physicalism is wrong. Let's be agnostic - maybe it's right. But I don't think we're ever going to get any better understanding of it if we don't realize the metaphysical underpinnings of our views.

(I guess since Ken Wilber and the New Age has taken over the word "metaphysical" I have to mention something about my use of it - my understanding is that it applies to ANY kind of underlying belief - not just New Age metaphysical beliefs in angels, spirit guides, etc. So Dawkins and Dennett, just as much as Chopra or Dyer, are expressing a metaphysical view in their books. Like Batchelor, they believe they are simply describing "the way things are". That, to me, is the probem, not the particular view they're expressing. (OK, I admit - Batchelor is much more subtle, and you can find many quotes where he "claims" - "claims" being the operative word here - to be advocating being mindful of the beliefs that shape one's thoughts, feelings and behavior. But I think in spite of this, paticularly in his Confessions, he still much of the time falls into the same trap that Dennett and Dawkins (and Crick, and Stenger, and Alcock and Shermer and so many other skeptics) do.

but anyway, I guess we could go on about this forever. Meanwhile, I'm still grateful that I can do forward bends and twists and the rest with more mindfulness thanks to the work you've done. Jan and I have been incorporating improv singing, body percussion and Qigong in our "Meditation-In-Action" classes (see www.yogaforthemindandheart.com) and I often turn to Mindfulness Yoga for ways to inspire the class. Thanks again.

Don Salmon's picture

Hi Frank:

Thanks again for responding (you didn't mention anything about the very strong concerns you had about my crude joke in the previous post or the fact that I omitted part of Sagan's quote - hope my resonse took care of your concerns. I really didn't intend to convey anything negative about Sagan or Hyman, quite the contrary).

I've read Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist I'm sorry I wasn't clear, but i was referring to both books as well as Tricycle articles I've read, including dialogues and other articles. I've also read other articles and postings elsewhere.

In the mid 1990s, I led an 8 week dialog on Science and Spirituality with Connie Barlow at the New York Open Center. Connie and her husband Michael are now traveling widely, discussing their "creatheism", which, as far as I can tell, is essentially the physicalist picture of cosmology with "God" as "everything in the universe plus all we can't understand" - which as far as my small brain can understand, is a completely empty (not in the "sunyata" sense, of course:>) use of that word.

It seemed to me - as far as I could understand, that during our 8 week course, and in the books she writes with Michael, Connie is essentially promoting a belief system - that is, physicalism. But Connie, then and to this day, insists that she does not hold beliefs about the universe, that she only reports what scientists say (she's a very highly respected science writer as well as journeywoman-speaker).

When Paul Davies wrote a short op-ed piece for the NY Times saying that science involves faith, the outcry from believing physicalists was at least as strong as anything I've seen in response to Batchelor.

The thing is, people who believe that the way they see things is the "real' way things are, rarely think that they hold a belief system. I really don't mind at all if Batchelor writes a hundred books about his belief system. I'm not a Buddhist. Since I left the Unitarian Church in 6th grade, I've never belonged to any religion. As a little kid I thought that religion was responsible for most of the trouble in the world. Many decades later, my understanding is at least moderatley more subtle - I still think religion causes an enormous amont of trouble and the world would be better off without it, but it seems that there is something more fundamental about the way human beings are constituted that continues to cause problems apart from religion.

Anyway, I just mentioned my general antipathy toward religion (and I might add, toward strong belief systems in general) to let you know I'm not objecting to Batchelor believing what he wants. I'm primarily objecting to him claiming to have he doesn't have a belief system. (and yes, in the excerpt you posted, despite his protestations to the contrary, I think if you read it through a few more times, it becomes pretty obvious that there is an unstated metaphysical system which underlies his thinking - one which, as I said before, just coincidentally, is likely to be the very one in which he - like most of us - was indoctrinated as a child growing up in England.

According to my reading of "Confessions", this is what he implies - even when he says contradictory things (which I think he does) to the contrary. "I do believe that we should jettison rebirth and karma because [I'm not quoting, just paraphrasing] Buddhism doesn't need it + "I don't think we need to have any particular belief to be practicing Buddhists.'

I don't know. To my mind, those are contradictory ways of thinking.

When people expressing what appears to me to be a vewi completely in harmony with mainstream physicalism which many well-educated, upper-middle class individuals practicing meditation in England and American have absorbed from their childhood - when these people are equally ready to express skepticism about the nature of the chair they sit on, about neuroscientists' dogmatic claim that the mind is only what the brain does (in spite of the fact that at least some leading neuroscientists - Donald Hoffman for example - say there is not one shred of empirical evidence for that assertion - it's a philosophic, not scientific question), about the idea that psi experiments which have been proven according to the best standards of modern science are not proven because they require "extraordinary proof" - when along with that, the skeptic is able to provide at least one - just one - logical basis for the claim that psi is extraordinary - I think it would then be more reasonable to assume these skeptics are engaging in critical, rational thinking rather than simply substituing one belief system for another.

Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio's picture

Don,

I will admit, I've not read Stephen's recent book, but years ago he had already written that he'd gone beyond 'agnosticism.' So it's really a bit of a straw-man argument now to argue against his "Buddhism Without Beliefs" as you do above, isn't it?

You write, for instance, "I don’t think Batchelor has any idea how much his beliefs permeate his writing." But the point is, he does very much so know what his guiding beliefs are.

In fact, I include his complete blog post (along with the date) to show that he'd renounced 'agnosticism' as a viable position over four years ago. By the way, this blog was posted to the Tricycle website, and may still be available in the archives.

Apr. 12, 2006
Buddhism and Agnosticism
Stephen Batchelor

Many years ago I realized I could not accept the Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth. These two ideas provide the indispensable mythic foundation for traditional Buddhism. By questioning them one threatens to undermine not only the entire edifice of Buddhist ethics, doctrine and practice, but the authority of Buddha himself. For without believing in some kind of consciousness that survives physical death to be propelled by the force of its acts through a vicious cycle of rebirths, the raison d’être for embarking on the liberating path taught by Gotama Siddhartha and generations of his enlightened followers is lost. For orthodox Buddhists, this multi-life perspective is what endows the Dharma with its redemptive grandeur.

To resolve this dilemma, I opted for an agnostic position, which was outlined in my book Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead, 1997). It seemed to provide an appropriately “middle way” solution to the problem. As an agnostic, I did not have to accept or reject the doctrines of karma and rebirth. In affirming that I did not know (a-gnosis) whether or not they were true, I was able to leave them open as questions to be pondered rather than dogmas to be believed or disbelieved. That I was not alone in finding this position attractive was attested to by the considerable popularity of the book. But (naively in retrospect) I was unprepared for the ensuing backlash from various quarters of the Buddhist establishment. I was accused of severely weakening the thrust of Buddha’s teaching, of subordinating the Dharma to nihilistic Western views, of rendering a revered and ancient tradition banal.

I have now come to see more clearly the limitations of this agnostic approach. While agnosticism can offer a refreshingly open-minded contrast to the closed certainties of dogmatism, as a consistent position of principle it is both too broad and too non-commital. All believers, by definition, must be agnostics. The moment you declare that you believe in God or the law of karma, you are acknowledging that you do not know whether they exist or not. For if you did know, you would have no need to believe. Only fools, fanatics and omniscient beings would claim to know such things. To not know, to be agnostic, is nothing more than an honest acceptance of the limited human condition.

The strengths of agnosticism -- tolerance and openness, on-going enquiry, acceptance of uncertainty -- turn out to be its weaknesses. For human beings cannot afford the luxury of remaining forever ambivalent. We are repeatedly confronted by challenges which force us to take a stand, make commitments, defend what we value. We have to cast aside lingering doubts and decide to act in one way or another. We must be willing to take any number of leaps in the dark.

Self-conscious life has somehow come to flourish in the biosphere enveloping this planet. That is all I know about it with certainty. Human beings like us may never have evolved before and may never evolve again in this or any other universe. As far as anyone knows, we are alone in an inconceivably vast cosmos that has no interest at all in our fate. I do not believe that I existed in any meaningful sense before my birth or will exist again after my death either here on earth, in a heaven, a hell or any other realm. All that will survive from my brief spell here as a rational animal will be the traces I leave behind in this world and the impact I have through my words and deeds on the lives of others.

This might strike you as a depressingly bleak picture that excludes any possibility of hope or redemption. I disagree. Such spiritual shudders of distaste are a reflex of that primal human longing for there to be more to life than just this. But this, I would argue, is where the religious quest not only begins but ends. God, the devil, heaven, hell, rebirth, karma are human inventions that we have projected beyond ourselves and invested with a separate reality of their own. The view of reality disclosed through the natural sciences evokes feelings of awe incomparably greater than anything religious or mystical writings of any tradition can inspire. Far from being just dumb, inert stuff, matter is wondrously, abundantly, profusely alive. The more we understand it, the less there appears any need for a divine spark or immaterial consciousness to animate it.

Let me repeat. I do not know if this is true; I just believe it is. Among all the accounts of the origin and nature of life currently on offer, that of modern science is by far the most convincing and compelling. Therein also lies its danger. One can be as inflexibly dogmatic about a scientific worldview as a religious one. Today’s understanding will probably turn out to be partial and provisional. We can no more anticipate what Copernican revolutions future millenia hold in store than our forebears could imagine the ground beneath their feet to be the surface of a globe rotating in space around the sun. How we picture the universe now may represent only a few scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that we cannot possibly conceive.

By abandoning religious cosmologies and metaphysics, one is able to see more clearly the transformative role spiritual practices can play in this life. Long before embracing agnosticism, my doubts around karma and rebirth were resolved when it dawned on me that even were they not true, that would not affect the commitment to a Buddhist practice. To live according to Buddhism’s ethical precepts, to apply its instructions on meditation, and to engage with its philosophical ideas seemed sufficiently self-validating and worthwhile in themselves. None of these activities needed to be justified or motivated by arcane theories of multiple lives and karmic causation.

Practices such as generosity, tolerance, compassion, non-violence, detachment, mindfulness, concentration and enquiry into the nature of emptiness and contingency were not only compatible with my post-Christian, secular humanism and its scientific worldview, but appeared to enrich and enhance them. In its unique configuration of these values Buddhism introduced an entirely new perspective on life and the world. It suggested the possibility of a culture of awakening. And, crucially, it provided a systematic body of practices whereby that perspective and culture could be embodied and realized. In the unfamiliar soil of a Western value system and cultural outlook, however, these practices began to yield unorthodox results. Meditation on impermanence, suffering and no-self, for example, did not -- as Buddha insisted it would -- lead me to disenchantment, dispassion and a resolve not to be born again, but to an ever deepening awareness of life’s infinitely poignant beauty.

-- Posted Apr. 12, 2006

don Salmon's picture

Hi,

There are two extremely well-written, thoughtful articles over at the Brown University Contemplative Studies website. I've posted the link to Alan Wallace's article below.

I'm becoming more and more fascinated with the whole idea of Buddhism without beliefs, a la Batchelor. The thing is, it seems to me, nobody thinks that the way they see the world is a belief system. In the 25 or so years I lived in New York City, I don't think I had more than one or two conversations with Christian fundamentalists. in the 8 years I've been in Greenville, SC (sometimes called the Buckle of the Bible Belt) I've had dozens. I had always thought of them as having a bizarre belief system, but it never struck until I talked for awhile how much they take for granted that this is just THE WAY THINGS ARE.

I don't think Batchelor has any idea how much his beliefs permeate his writing. There's a sense in his interviews and writings - it's not necessarily explicit but seems always just under the surface that - well, I'll try and say it like this:

"Buddhism comes along with this heavy baggage of metaphysical beliefs. I struggled over the years to come to terms with them, but found that, when I was really honest, I couldn't accept them, and now I just practice without feeling the need to subscribe to any beliefs."

Does he ever question whether the chair in front of him exists? What about the TV, the computer, the person he sees, etc etc. Actually ,the things he questions - that he calls "beliefs" all end up having a certain characteristic in common - they all (appear to) defy the current consensus of physicalist science. I imagine it would be extraordinarily difficult for someone who shares that consensus to read this letter and not think that I am simply once again trying to support some belief system and am unwilling to face the "Truth". And even more difficult for them to even consider - not necessarily accept - that what they consider the "Truth" about things, "naturalism", for example (though not the "naturalism" that Henry Roth writes of in his article that is linked to the Wallace article) - might be a belief system. Wallace has, particularly in his 'The Taboo of Subjectivity" shown to what extent the current materialistic view draws heavily on both Christian and Greek assumptions about the world - assumptions that Wallace says were not held by many in ancient India and China. But this has been hard to communicate, Wallace says (in "The Taboo") because so much our understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism is filtered through these very same Christian/Greek presuppositions - which we don't see as presuppositions but simply as "the way things are".

http://www.brown.edu/Faculty/Contemplative_Studies_Initiative/downloads/...

A Response to “Against Cognitive Imperialism”
B. Alan Wallace
Abstract: The author condemns the “hegemony” of scientific materialism, comparing it to the dominance of scholasticism during the Middle Ages. He points out that if we are to regard religious entities and spiritual experiences as “supernatural” and imaginary on the grounds that they cannot be measured and described objectively, then we must regard all our experience of the world as equally supernatural and subjective, since all we have is the subjective experi- ence of the data of our senses. On this basis he seconds Harold D. Roth’s call for readmission of contemplative studies to the academy alongside the study of the “HChurch Scientific.”
al Roth has cogently challenged many of the unquestioned as- sumptions of postmodernism and scientific materialism that are commonly presented by their advocates as being so obviously
true that they feel no need to support their beliefs with either empirical evidence or rational argument. Scientific materialism dominates much of the thinking in the natural sciences and has made deep inroads in capturing the imagination of the public at large, while postmodernism continues to exert a considerable influence in the social sciences and humanities. Despite some deep ideological differences between these two belief systems, many intellectuals have adopted both of them, with the tenets of postmodernism laid over those of scientific materialism, like an eiderdown comforter laid over a granite mattress. With their combined domination of the sciences and humanities, they have turned modern institutions of higher learning into bulwarks of “unreflective ethnocentrism” and “cognitive imperialism.”

Don Salmon's picture

I think it might be time to give up on trying to come up with more and more complex epicycles, take a Copernican turn (as a Buddhist might say, in the deepest seat of our consciousness), look at what is - far from being transcendent – right in front of (or behind!:>))) our eyes, and let go of some beliefs that no longer serve us.

**********

“It is well that we should find time to pause and remember that the world as a thing in itself has no existence. We mean that there is no such thing as a solid globe of earth, spinning its way on an orbit round another lobe called the sun in a detached, self-existing, and quite impersonal manner. Notwithstanding all that may be written by scientists upon the nature of such a globe, there is no such thing.

“The name earth is given to a certain way of looking at reality, a certain partial integration fo reality, made under the forces of desire and therefore springing from ignorance. The descriptions of it as a globe and as moving on an elliptical orbit are convenient schematizations of our experience, but they are no more than that and should not be taken as such.” From Religion and Philosophy, by Sri Krishna Prem (aka Ronald Nixon), circa 1925.

Here is a view which I think counters in a beautiful manner, the pseudo-skepticism of Steven Batchelor.

“I believe in science, and I am confident that a science that can boldly contemplate the origin of the universe, the nature of physical reality 10-33 seconds after the Big Bang, anthropic principles, quantum nonlocality, and parallel universes, can come to terms with the implications of parapsychological findings — whatever they may turn out to be....

True skepticism involves the suspension of belief, not disbelief. In this context, we would do well to recall the words of the great nineteenth century naturalist and skeptic, Thomas Huxley: "Sit down before fact like a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly to wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads or you shall learn nothing."
-- Charles Honorton, from his essay, "Rhetoric Over Substance: The Impoverished State of Skepticism"

Don Salmon's picture

(continued from previous post)

OK, now onto a little more academic matters. Yes, I agree – the mindless, uneducated, etc quote was incredibly badly phrased. And I apologize for that.

Can I – without seeming to retreat from my apology – try again, with the same words? What if the words are taken, not as an emotional attack, but as a statement of fact.

Unless you think I’m brain dead, then I think it would be obvious that when I’m referring to them as uneducated, I couldn’t be meaning it literally, right? So let me try, hopefully a little more artfully this time, to clarify what I mean.

Often – not always – scientists who most vehemently attack parapsychological research haven’t read it. That means, they are “uneducated” with regard to the research. Ray Hyman has written (this is from memory, so please don’t hold me to the exact phrasing; I think it was some time in the mid 1990s) that most parapsychologists he has met are nice people, and most skeptics – at least when talking about parapsychology, can be cruel, unfair, and often misrepresent the research data. This is what I meant by mindless and unthinking. I said it VERY VERY badly, and I apologize again for that. But I think in regard to parapsychology, it is often – not always – factually the case. There are dozens of examples, and we included several in our book, but here’s one of my favorites. Jeremy Hayward was talking to a nuclear physicist, who was interested in Buddhism because it was “experimental”, like science. But when told about research providing strong evidence for precognition, he said, “There are some things we know are not true, and precognition is one of them; therefore, in this case, experimental data is irrelevant”. Mindless, thoughtless, and (with regard to the “experimental data”) uneducated.

Ok, that’s still probably not good enough. Susan Blakemore is much more articulate than I am. Here’s what I meant to say. This is her description of what she calls “pseudoskepticism” (many members of skeptics groups are scientists, by the way – being a member of PSICOP herself, she was, I imagine, aware of this when she wrote the following:

“There are some members of the skeptics’ groups who clearly believe they know the right answer prior to inquiry. They appear not to be interested in weighing alternatives, investigating strange claims, or trying out psychic experiences or altered states for themselves (heaven forbid!), but only in promoting their own particular belief structure and cohesion”

This brings me to the extra line you quoted from Sagan, “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true. These last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.”. I got the Sagan quote (in article I referred you to at http://integralworld.net/salmon2.html) from the book “Parapsychology and the Skeptics”, by Chris Carter, the best book I’ve ever read on parapsychology. Chris didn’t include those words of Sagan, so I didn’t know about it. But I don’t see that they change the essential meaning of the quote. I think the fact that someone like Sagan, who was so firmly and passionately skeptical, was willing to even tentatively reexamine his long-held beliefs was admirable. I find the last sentence to be equally admirable as the previous ones.

[Speaking of making myself clear, was it clear above that I’m not proposing that people should adopt a certain belief, only that there may be some unexamined beliefs among those like Batchelor claiming to be agnostic?]

OK, last thing. You mentioned Ptolemy vs Copernicus. This, I think, has a very strong bearing on the whole notion of “extraordinary claims”. When I was doing research for the psi section of our book, I was very surprised, despite having – I thought – kept up with both the psi and skeptic literature for more than 20 years, to find that in the entire realm of scientific experiment, there are none that have the strength – in terms of probability, not effect size – of parapsychology experiments (Chris Carter goes into great detail on this in his “Parapsychology and the Skeptics”).

So why is psi (parapsychology) considered extraordinary? 97% of Americans (and varying percentages of scientists – more among physicists, the least among psychologists) accept one or other parapsychological phenomenon. But of course, truth is not subject to vote. So that’s not enough to explain why Sagan or Wiseman think that psi research findings are extraordinary.

(One problem may be the small effect size. But I think, as Alan Wallace has pointed out, that early Theravada texts explain quite clearly why the effect size is so small. As Wallace has written somewhere (I’m only paraphrasing here, sorry), to obtain reliable psi results, with large effect sizes, the minimum requirement would be to maintain samata for at least several hours. That is, simply to recognize, while quietly observing the activity of the mind, non-identification with the rising and passing away of thought. For several hours. )

Nobel-prize winning physicist, Brian Josephson, who accepts (many of) the results of psi research, acknowledges that our understanding of the “laws of nature” will have to change to accommodate these results. But is this the root of the intense emotional reaction to psi research? Again, why is this thought of as extraordinary?

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says that the evidence is overwhelming that “mind” is nothing more than brain activity. But like William James over a century ago, a number of contemporary neuroscientists, like Donald Hoffman at Cal Tech or psychologist Ed Kelly at U Virginia, say that virtually all neuroscientific data is equally compatible with the purely physicalist view and with the (not necessarily dualistic) view that what we conceptualize as the mind-independent matter of the brain (I say “conceptualize” because we have no direct experience of anything mind-independent; rather, we perceive a certain form and conceptualize it as existing apart from our perception and conception). If we agree with Paul Bloom, then we might think that psi claims are extraordinary.

But William Roll, a parapsychologist at one of my alma maters, West Georgia College, has sought for years to find a completely physicalist explanation for psi. And I don’t see any reason why one can’t be found. In fact, I have almost no doubt that one will be found. At that point, we can start to consider whether we will need to continue adding Ptolemaic “epicycles” in order to account for all the things we can’t account for with a purely physicalist viewpoint

Sorry I can’t find the exact quote for this, but I heard that somewhere near the end of his book, “How the Mind Works”, Steven Pinker writes that there are 6 things that we still have no idea how to study, including free will and consciousness. I think it was Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist at Stanford, and one of the most highly respected brain scientists in the world, who said something like, we’ve been studying the brain for over 100 years, and we still hardly know anything about it. Psychologist Ronald Melzack said that after a hundred years of research, psychology is in “a state of crisis”, with “some neuroscience and computer technology… stirred in with the old psychological ingredients, but there have been no important conceptual advances.. We are adrift … in a sea of facts and practically drowning in them We desperately need new concepts, new approaches.” Pinker also said, in regard to how we might study consciousness, “Beats the heck out of me. I have some prejudices, but no idea of how o being to look for a defensible answer. And neither does anyone else.” My favorite is this from philosopher Jerry Fodor, about the study of consciousness: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious So much for the philosophy of consciousness.”

Don Salmon's picture

(I wrote Frank personally, asking him to respond to my letters - thank you so much for taking the time, I do appreciate it)

Hi Frank,

Wow, I guess I owe you – all readers here? an apology. Actually, I felt a kind of “scrunge” in my stomach as I re-read the line “unthinking, mindless, uncritical…semi-educated”. I meant something very different from the way you took it, but obviously I should have taken heed of the scrunge:>) I’ll explain a bit more below.

But the Hyman-Alcock comment? Gosh, am I really that bad a joke teller? I thought it was funny (someone else pointed it out to me, and I thought it was quite amusing then). I like Ray Hyman’s writing very much. I’ve followed his comments over several decades and generally (not always – I alluded to some of the exceptions) have found him even minded and reasonable. I didn’t think there was anything in the “God has a sense of humor” remark that had anything to do with them as people. But if you or anybody felt that, I apologize to both Ray Hyman and James Alcock.

The reason for responding to your post? I was responding only to the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” (actually, Sagan was quoting Marcello Truzzi, who was an unusually balanced and reasonable member of the skeptic community, much like Hyman. )

I don’t accept dualism (nor materialism, nor idealism – or the idea of “pure consciousness [neither did Sri Aurobindo] - nor non-dualism, though if you must pin me down to a philosophic position, I lean slightly – only very slightly - toward panentheism, though I have reservations about it as well). My basic intention in writing – the “extraordinary claims” quote was the occasion – was to point out my sense that Batchelor is not at all speaking from a position of not-knowing, but rather, very much from within the (usually not-conscious) belief system that almost all of us – fundamendalists, atheists, and all in between – grow up with – the physicalist “feeling” – feeling, more than belief – that, as far as I can see/feel, permeates the modern world. (see the Charles Honorton quote at the end of these postings)

I think this has a great deal of this-worldly significance for our practice.

I’m not sure I can describe it any better than I did in the last posting. It wasn’t intended to be a logical argument but a set of questions suggesting a way of looking at experience. Was it really that obtuse and mysterious?

I’ve taught people mindfulness of pain for about 15 years, I did my dissertation research on it, and I’ve used it myself for severe toothaches and back pain. The mainstream scientific view – much simplified here – is that there are cognitive and affective components to all physical pain. To dramatically oversimplify, there is a kind of cognitive-affective “schema” that is an overlay which intensifies – not only subjectively, but in a way which can be “objectively” measured – the experience of pain. It’s my sense that part of what makes that schema so difficult to unravel is the sense that the “physical” is so “real” – that is, mind-independent. I’ve found in some cases (I only hinted at this in the dissertation) that when the feeling (not belief) that the “physical” is “out there”, “real”, independent of mind, is somewhat lessened, it can have a dramatic effect on the pain. (In my experience, no philosophy or beliefs are needed for this to work – no talk of materialism, dualism, idealism, etc). I find that almost the exact same approach can be powerfully effective with emotional pain.

***

Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio's picture

Hello Don,
Thanks for writing your response to my comment above, and for writing me to tell you that you enjoyed my book. However, I am at pains to figure out why you felt the need to address my comment – and especially with the vehemence of your words!

My comment addresses someone who bemoaned the lack of sanghas that can meet his or her needs. As the Buddha often said, I have no argument with others. But I do wonder what is behind the angry – and often evangelical impulse of ‘true believers.’ WHy must everyone believe as they do. I screened “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” at our monthly film series and part of our discussion centered on this. Why must the pod people convert everyone? Why can’t they coexist with a minority of skeptics? It’s an unspoken assumption that they can’t; that the skeptical position is somehow a threat to their own beliefs. This goes for fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Communists, Materialists etc.

A central guiding point of our sangha, The Tucson Mindfulness Practice Community, is that we meet to practice together to mutually support each other in living an awakening life. We need not agree nor disagree with each other over perceptions, opinions, beliefs etc. All that is pretty irrelevant. As I mentioned above, many of my students believe in any number of ‘paranormal’ things like channeling, mind reading, rebirth. I don’t try to force my beliefs on them, and they are happy to have my teachings and support for their practice.

Interestingly, it used to be argued that a major difference between Christianity and Buddhism was that if it were ever proven that Christ had never lived, Christianity will fall. But that if it were proven that the Buddha had never lived, it would make no difference to his Dharma. Yet, so many of the ‘true believers’ who have written above seem to feel that you cannot be a Buddhist if you do not believe in ‘transcendent’ karma and literal rebirth. They assert that the whole purpose of Buddhism is negated if you do away with rebirth!

Nonsense! Even the Buddha repeated in the Pali Canon that practice leads to happiness in this life and in the next. AND, he went on to say, if there is no next life, at least you’ll lead a happy life now. My practice has made me free, happy, loving, peaceful. I am sorry if others’ practice can only do so if they hold fast to a belief in rebirth. It seems a shaky 'belief' and practice if it depends on one dogmatic assertion!

Now, to address some of your comments, Don.
1. I guess we’re going to have to disagree; if you claim some extraordinary ability, you’re going to have to show me some extraordinary evidence. Occam’s Razor has worked fine through the centuries, and is an important tool in the science kit. If you’ve got two explanations for something that both work (like the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system) and one is a hell of a lot simpler than the other, it pays to go with the simpler.

I noticed you fall into a less than honest use of Sagan, by the way, both in your comment and on your website. You write: “It’s particularly amusing that you quote Sagan, as he wrote, in his last book, that he believed that the scientific (note: “Scientific”) evidence for rebirth, telepathy and psychokinesis, though not strong, was sufficient to warrant further research”

That’s true, but even on your website, I find it “particularly amusing” that you conveniently omit the final sentences in the one paragraph he devotes to the idea that such topics should be further studied. To whit: “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true. These last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.”

2. I wish you had included references for what you contend Richard Wiseman has said regarding telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and precognition. I couldn’t find anything related to this on his website, but I did find an amusing story of a recent experiment with an alleged British psychic who failed to be able to ‘read’ 10 subjects correctly. In a familiar move for such alleged 'psychics,' she later wrote and claimed she got 10 out of 10 in what is a marvelous example of creative side-stepping of reality!

3. Don, ad hominem arguments hold absolutely no weight with me, so I must admit I turned a ‘deaf ear’ (metaphorically) when you make schoolboy snide remarks about Hyman and Alcock's names. Shame on you!

4. And the ugly kind of attack in the following quote from your letter seems utterly irresponsible. I recently attended the conference “Toward A Science of Consciousness” and I can tell you, plenty of people who do not accept your ideas are not “unthinking, mindless, uncritical…semi-educated people." Far from it!

5. Yes, William Lycan, the committed materialist has written a paper in which he argues that materialism in not logically defensible, and as you write, neither is dualism. Again, as you write, any critical thinking Buddhist would agree with this, primarily because whenever any situation is posited as either/or of two extreme positions, the Buddhist position is usually ‘the middle way.’ Not, of course as some kind of neutral, middle, compromised position, but as one that transcends the posited duality of extremes.

So, what’s your point? You like dualism. I don’t. Or, you like some kind of monism, with consciousness being the substrate of reality a la Vedanta. The Buddha rejected that position handily, as do I.

6. Let me offer some reason why I choose not to accept rebirth until I am offered some extraordinary evidence – and believe me, I’ve read many books, papers etc. and none have convinced me yet.

First, I actually don’t know why Batchelor’s work is causing such heat, because he’s certainly not teaching anything new. Here’s the respected (although he had his fundamentalist critics) monk, Buddhadasa:

"A single emergence of the feeling of 'I' and 'mine' is called one birth (jāti). This is the real meaning of the word 'birth.' Don’t take it to mean birth from a mother’s womb. A person is born from the womb once and gets laid out in the coffin once. That’s not the birth the Buddha pointed to; that’s much too physical. The Buddha was pointing to a spiritual birth, the birth of clinging to 'I' and 'mine.' In one day there can be hundreds of such births. The number depends on a person’s facility for it, but in each birth the 'I' and 'mine' arises, slowly fades, gradually disappears, and dies. Shortly, on contact with another sense object, 'I' and 'mine' arise again. (Buddhadāsa, 1994: 86)

Buddhadāsa also agrees with the understanding that it is clinging, specifically clinging to 'I' and 'mine,' that is dukkha:

“Anything that has no clinging to 'I' or 'mine' is not dukkha. Therefore birth, old age, sickness, and death, and so on, if they are not clung to as 'I' or 'mine' cannot be dukkha. Only when birth, old age, sickness, and death are clung to as 'I' or 'mine' are they dukkha…. Only when there is clinging to 'I' or 'mine' do they become dukkha. With the pure and undefiled body and mind, that of the Arahant, there is no dukkha at all. (Buddhadaasa, 1994: 17)

Such an understanding seems more life affirming in that it denies that life is inherently dukkha, and by establishing cessation within life and not as some transcendent realm. You see, the traditional mainstream Buddhist view is that life (samsara) is inherently suffering; that birth itself-- and the other aspects of life Buddhadasa mentions above -- are inherently duhkha and not merely so when we cling to them. It is taught that we were born into this life because of craving in a past life. The purpose of practice becomes the attempt to live in such a way that rebirth is ended once and for all. Such a view, despite all the talk of ‘this precious life’ is world-weary and life-denying. The best thing you can do with this 'precious life' apparently, is find a way to avoid being reborn because life is suffering. Whenever you have a spirituality that only sees this life’s value in relation to an afterlife, you have what I feel is a dessicated worldview, a life-denying spirituality.

My spirituality is this-worldly. This life has intrinsic value, and through living an awakening life, we create meaning.

7. If proven wrong, I am more than willing to change my mind. I’ve changed it several times regarding these questions throughout my life. I used to believe much as you do, but now find such belief fairly groundless.

However, it must be said, the Buddha rejected the idea of “Pure Consciousness” that the Vedantins and philosophers such as Aurobindo speak about. Consciousness, as one of the Five Skandhas is completely conditioned. It seems to me, there’s been a lot of “Ptolemaic” nuts and bolt manoeuvring to make sense of some kind of in-between life state when consciousness has been defined as conditioned. Talk of “mind-made” and “subtle” bodies doesn’t cut it for me.

8. I must admit, Don, that much of your final long post seemed a bit jumbled. Lost your train of argument, so I cannot comment on it. All seems a bit confused, but hey, maybe it’s because I’m ‘uneducated.’

Finally, in answer to all those religionists who feel they have the ‘final word’ on the ‘T” (as New York transvestites would say regarding the truth of their biological sex) I would like to conclude with the following quote from Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures, where he succinctly states the position of scientific materialism:

"I think this search does not lead to complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."

This is the kind of Dharma I can fully accept and practice with integrity.

don Salmon's picture

(I shouldn't have said erroneous (in regard to physicists' assumptions) but rather, "baseless"

don Salmon's picture

what does this have to do with Buddhism?

what does "Buddhism" have to do with the dharma?

If the "dharma" means engaging with everyday life, I would think that it also means challenging our assumptions about what we "think" ("think" here meaning our non-conscious, conditioned assumptions") is going on around us and between us.

What does physics have to do with the dharma? well, you're using a computer. There are a large number of erroneous assumptions that physicists have about how the computer works, about how you right now are interacting with the computer, and most likely you and I and most people on this forum have imbibed these assumptions - we swim in them, as physicist Jeffrey Satinover has said.

If we didn't have those assumptions, we would immediately realize that Batchelor is NOT being truly agnostic when he suggests throwing out rebirth (rather than simply bracketing it and consistently saying - I know he says it sometimes - it may be true, it may not be true, but since I have no experience of it I can't comment on it).

But since virtually anyone well educated enough to read Tricycle has imbibed those same assumptions of modernity (and postmodernism as well) then it's most likely that all of us here share the same unexamined assumptions about what this computer screen is made of, about what it is that makes your fingers move when you have an intention to respond, about what is the nature of the ground or floor on which you stand.

And these assumptions - ephemeral though they seem - I believe, have a profound effect on our emotions, our thoughts, the way we talk to people, the level of compassion and kindness we express to others, the way we deal with physical pain and illness, etc.

Next time you have to take some medication (particularly when it is for physical pain), consider whether questions about psi, rebirth, consciousness, matter, have any direct, visceral effect on (1) the pain; and (2) the actual (measured, not just "subjective") effectiveness of the medication.

Think about the fact that "subjective" has quotes around it, and that one rarely has to put quotes around "objective". I don't think this is merely an academic matter, but goes to the heart of virtually all our societal problems - from health care to oil spills and environmental devastation to (so-called) terrorism (as well as "real" terrorism) to - all.

don Salmon's picture

hi sorry, the opening of the post for Frank Boccio should read "who have evidence for things that skeptics don't believe in"

don Salmon's picture

Hi again:

Whenever one writes about parapsychology on the net, someone always brings up Randi's "Million Dollar Challenge." It's a hoax. Randi has admitted as much: "I always have a way out." I've briefly detailed this here:
http://www.integralworld.net/salmon2.html but if you are interested in more detail, you can google "George Hansen". The best book on psi, I think - by far - is Chris Carter's "Parapsychology and the Skeptics", which came out in 2007. It was 2 years too late for me. I had already completed a book which included 10 pages on psi, and he did a much much better job. I have been following the skeptic literature for more than 30 years, and he had things in that book I had never heard of. what a delight it was to hear that PSICOP (the leading psi skeptic organization, which now has changed its name) was initially formed as a **research** organization. It's first project was examining some claims related to astrology. The research came out positive, and PSICOP immediately attempted to hide the results. Carl Sagan, among others with integrity, immediately resigned from the board. PSICOP then announced it would no longer do research, for fear (they actually said something like this, I don't recall now the exact words) they might come up with some more troubling results!!!

you can find stuff like this from all the skeptics. Susan Blakemore, when asked about psi, told people, "I don't know." In her autobiography, she wrote, "I don't know. I don't know! I don't know!!" How much better Batchelor's book would have been if he adopted Blakemore's attitude.

As for Ray Hyman and James Alcock, they have conspired together to suppress positive psi research on numerous occasions - in one case, doing so for a major project for the American government. And their names - for those of you who don't believe in God, isn't that proof enough that She has a great sense of humor?

donsalmon7@gmail.com
yogaforthemindandheart.com
www.youtube.com/user/yogapsychology1

don Salmon's picture

To Frank Boccio:

Sagan's statement: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is a completely empty (not in the Buddhist sense) statement. It is usually employed as a weapon against scientists who have evidence for things they don't believe in. It's particularly amusing that you quote Sagan, as he wrote, in his last book, that he believed that the scientific (note: "Scientific") evidence for rebirth, telepathy and psychokinesis, though not strong, was sufficient to warrant further research

Richard Wiseman, a psychologist who has carried out parapsychological research and for many years has been one of the loudest debunkers of parapsychology (in addition to Susan Blakemore) in England, just 2 months ago stated that by conventional scientific standards, the "big 4" of psi - telepathy, remote viewing (clairvoyance), psychokinesis and precognition - had been proven. That is, without fraud, with unassailable statistics, and yes - contra "The Amazing Randi", or Ray Hyman, or James Alcock (real names!) - replication, they have been proven.

BUT - he added, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", so he wouldn't accept the results as proving "anomalous cognition" (otherwise known as "psi").

So clearly, psi is no longer a matter of scientific dispute. Rather, it is a philosophic problem, as Wiseman (and Sagan, and Hyman, Alcock, Blakemore, McCrone, and an increasing number of debunker are starting to admit).

This leaves us with Batchelor. He enters into the Buddhist path as a dyed in the wool, stereotypical British agnostic/atheist (really, is there a substantial difference) and after years of training, comes out - a dyed in the wool, stereotypical, British agnostic/atheist. And people take this book seriously as a "challenge" for Western Buddhism? If so, then Western Buddhism doesn't deserve to exist.

Critical thinking would lead us to engage with Wiseman's comment, I think. But i'm sure that people who have never read the parapsychological literature, or conducted a scientific experiment, or read the many statements of committed, decades-long psi-debunkers who admit they can't find flaws in many **replicated** psi experiments, will feel qualified to side with Batchelor in unthinking, mindless, uncritical support of the defacto religion of modern semi-educated people - materialistic, positivistic/physicalist, 19th century scientistic thought, which as of at least 10 years ago, most philosophers of science no longer believed in.

I just heard recently that long time committed materialist philosopher William Lycan announced that materialism is not logically defensible (nor is dualism, he hastened to add, which i would imagine any critical thinking Buddhist would agree with).

donsalmon7@gmail.com
www.yogaforthemindandheart.com
www.youtube.com/user/yogapsychology1

Matt's picture

I really think he's on to something. Layers and layers and layers of additional material have been added over the centuries that might be obscuring the truth of what Buddha taught.

For example, in the particular school of Buddhism in which I am a lay follower, a monk may not look at big fish.

Makes visits to Seaworld a real drag, I imagine.

Meryl Steinberg ( @meryl333)'s picture

Religion is neither talk, nor theory, nor intellectual consent. It is realization in the heart of our heart, it is touching God/Self/Brahman/Emptiness.

Great teachers such as Buddha, Christ and Ramakrishna not only set an example, they share a variety of lessons and practices to help us open doors to ever deeper and more blissful experience of Truth. And yet, we can only know when we have the experience ourselves.

So much ado about Batchelor makes me smile. If Batchelor is convinced we are a lump of matter that comes & goes, so be it. Let him enjoy. We only know what we know.

We can stop half way up the mountain and be satisfied--or we can stay with it and go deeper. Until we actually get to the top of the mountain ourselves, we will have to trust the trail map makers and those who have been there before me-- or not go. We find our way in our own way and our own time.

Ben Tremblay's picture

I got as far as "when I found myself trying to have a serious conversation with someone in Germany or Switzerland, I often felt a strong conflict between what I felt I was obliged to say as a Buddhist monk and what I actually felt to be the case on a particular issue." and had to stop.
He was a monk who didn't want to say what a monk would say?
Or he wasn't a monk, but he was dressed up as one?
Or he was a monk but just didn't "get it"?

An important figure, in terms of popular culture ... not sure it's an important text in any other sense.

bogheathen's picture

Therefore, Malunkyaputta, bear in mind what I have explained as explained, what I have not explained as unexplained. What are the things that I have not explained? Whether the universe is eternal or is it not eternal, whether the universe finite or infinite, whether the soul is the same as body or the soul is one thing and body another thing, whether the Enlightened One exists after death or does he not exist after death, or whether he both exists and does not exist after death, or whether he both does not exist and does not not-exist after death.

Why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained them? Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. That is why I have not told you about them.

Then, what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them.

OLGA-LEDNICHENKO-AND-SHASKE-REPORT-ON-REALTIME-WEB-PROPOGATI's picture

[...] Tricycle » Batchelor’s “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” examined … 11 Mar 2010 … FYI: Dalia Lama is on twitter – his previous account was a scam. a fake.. regards. Olga lednichenko. 32. BlindRob – March 18, 2010 … www.tricycle.com/blog/?p=1697 – Cached [...]

Richard Babcock's picture

"...But for the rest of your writings I really do not get what you are getting at at all..."

...and we leave it at that. Thank you for being - Victorious.

Victorious's picture

Yo Babs...

You persume right. millennia it is and I misread tout sorry. But for the rest of your writings I really do not get what you are getting at at all.

Getting a glimpse of Nibbana in the first-path moment has nothing to do with hope. Either you sit down and make it happen or you do not. I say leave the hope for the Christians. It is in their religion.

Complicating things by saying that there is more to this than "meets-the-eye" only creates an unnecessary obstacle. Doing so you will miss the easy part and the difficult part will show in the cultivation anyway as obviously being difficult.

I say find a good teacher and sit down and 2 years from now we will not need this discussion anymore.

Peace Out!

Richard Babcock's picture

One more note Vic...

I never used the word 'taunt', nor did I presume to disregard anything. I DO presume (hope! :-) ) however that you meant 'millennia' and not 'centuries' of practice. I don't disregard karma...not at all. It's real and an abiding force for any who fall under its sway, self included. It IS a principle of the samsaric / nirvanic types of existence. I DO hold the position to state however, that there's so much more to all this than 'meets-the-eye' and as Buddha also teaches, or, is obvious and readily accessible to thought and concept, and normal day-to-day human judgementality. Buddha himself indicates this in his "Ogha-tarana Sutta: Crossing over the Flood":

"I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Then a certain devata, in the far extreme of the night, her extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta's Grove, went to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down to him, she stood to one side. As she was standing there, she said to him, "Tell me, dear sir, how you crossed over the flood."

"I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place."

"But how, dear sir, did you cross over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place?"

"When I pushed forward, I was whirled about. When I stayed in place, I sank. And so I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place."

[The devata:]
"At long last I see a brahman, TOTALLY UNBOUND, who without pushing forward, without staying in place, has crossed over the entanglements of the world."

That is what the devata said. The Teacher approved. Realizing that "The Teacher has approved of me," she bowed down to him, circumambulated him — keeping him to her right — and then vanished right there.

Richard Babcock's picture

Well, seeing you directed your comment to me, all I can say is that I fully understand your position Victorious. (bows) Like you, I DO hope and pray that someday we all are able to understand and are able to actually experience the dimension -within and everywhere- which is truly beyond karma and concept. I believe this is what, or where (?), Stephen Batchelor's "new" and disturbing for many (as can be expected!) discourse emanates from. As always, I could also be terribly wrong...I never assume conceptual rightfulness.

There are 4 lines from one among many of the tantras...this one called "The Ornament of the Sutra Category" which states it quite plainly though:

"Because conceptual mind, reifying perceptions, and thought
have been transcended and thereby transformed, one abides, due to a fourfold power, in nonconceptual awareness, pure fields of experience, timeless awareness, and pure activity."

The 'dimension of existence' which one comes to abide in...then...is beyond karma and concept. It's not a physical 'place' which one can 'travel to' or even bring about by contortions and ascetic convolutions (as Buddha himself discovered and taught), but one which is of simple realization which is (at last) revealed after seemingly aeons of practice and dedication. I say 'seemingly' because THAT realization, once established, is also then realized as truly, timeless awareness. One cannot help but to wonder why it "took so long" just due to it's pure and innate simplicity.

Victorious's picture

No Mr Richard Babcock I am not presenting any 'theory' whatsoever about Nibbana. And I am not proudly taunting anything.

It is not a big thing to get what is called an intuitive grasp of Nibbana, therfore not much to be proud about. Most people could do it in a couple of years (at least within 5).

I am saying you should go ahead and at least get that before you persume to disregard more than 2 centuries of practise by some billions of people.

That behavior if anything seems to me to be the “ostrich-like” head-in-the-sand approach to something. :).

Richard Babcock's picture

Concepts such as 'nibbana' present a dualist view...even IF one attempts to present the "ostrich-like" head-in-the-sand approach in regards to it and any set of opposites. If one always has nibbana, then one always has samsara, and vice-versa. The path, when seen through to it's final state through cultivation which is so proudly touted here (ahem!) is meant to lead beyond concepts. If you have even one (concept) firmly established (no doubt through yet another of the obscurations, namely attachment), and regardless for however long a period of time, one creates it's opposite, even if only in it's potential. One still only presents what merely appears as 'the good side', iow, full-blown conceptual thought and dialect...while (blindly) thinking to negate it's opposite. All concepts are fraught through and through with dualistic thought. It IS their very nature. Conceptualism (which is dualistic thought BY it's very nature) itself is what Buddha always taught as being that which needs to be transcended.

A man, an author, while speaking with Mark Twain proudly stated that "the United States is a Christian Nation." To this Mark Twain replied, "So is Hell."

Victorious's picture

After reading this thread it becomes evident to me why christianity is such a muck of contradictory beliefes. You westerners really have a way of taking a good thing and mucking it up. Sorry for the french. :). But whit this idea you are actually for the first time in history introducing contradictions into Buddhism. And that is not a good thing.

The Dharma is a whole thing. Emotionally, logically, rationally. It has a Goal and a way to realise that goal. Trying to take rebirth and karma away from Dharma leaves Dharma broken. No longer usable to reach the designated goal.

Have you guys who represent this view even reached that mindstate that is called "a intuitive grasp of Nibbana" ? I would say not because if you had it would be self evident why this non-rebirth, non-karma talk is just vain talk. None of you (who represent this new age view) even seem to have nibbana (as understood through cultivation) as a goal.

Sorry guys. That just aint Buddhism. I feel sorry for you if you think it is.

You need to stop reading and start cultivating.

Good luck.

Richard Babcock's picture

To wit, in complete presence and (seemingly!) side-stepping or 'going-beyond' all 'set' tradition, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche has this to say:

"Habitual patterns and deluded experience are actually the most detrimental. Unless we are able to destroy these right now, later, after death, it is not possible to do so, because our karmas and disturbing emotions are too powerful.

"Sentient beings fixate on thoughts; the true yogi/yoginni does not. Sentient beings' thoughts are like carving in stone; whatever is thought stays, leaving a trace. Whatever the mental act, a trace remains. This is why we must accept that there is karma, there are disturbing emotions and there are habitual patterns. BUT, on the other hand, these thoughts occurring in the true yogi's mind are like drawings in the air. There is an apparent movement, but it is only seeming because yogi's/yoginni's perceive this true nature of mind. There is no dualistic clinging to perceiver and perceived and, hence, no karmic accumulation whatsoever. This is the meaning of unceasing, self-occurring self-liberation.

"It is not possible to be enlightened while still having obscurations and positive or negative karma. These need to be interrupted and purified, and this is why one does purification practices and apologizes for any negative deeds one has done. There is also a way to thoroughly and perpetually bring an end to negative karma and obscuration. The very moment of recognizing mind essence totally interrupts the karma and obscurations, for that moment. It purifies the karma which has been continued from the past and it interrupts any creation henceforth. As long as this recognition lasts, karma and obscurations are thoroughly and completely ended. Complete stability in this recognition of empty cognizance, therefore, involves the total elimination of all obscurations and karma."

Richard Babcock's picture

Hello to Mark & All.

I'm really quite surprised that the "named" yet necessarily nameless 'tradition' of Dzogchen hasn't been mentioned in these posts. It's tenets are undeniably in-synch with Stephen's way and proposal...and additionally, these mirror the Buddhist path and goal as (at last or, in the long run) one and the same 'thing'. As the pinnacle and open-ended final destination of all Buddhist thought and processes (because this true and empty-nature is revealed in, literally, NO uncertain terms), Dzogchen reveals to all who come to and apply it's tenets exactly what it appears (to me anyway) that Stephen, and Mark (who started this blog) and obviously yet unadmittedly some few others here have at least had some glimmmering glimpse of.

I love the idea of starting a sangha of like-minded individuals. Such a following echo the very essence and goalless goal of Lord Buddha's discourse itself...to finally reveal this timeless, empty nature as very much alive, and purely so (!) within and about us all...and of course and also quite obvious...whether we realize it or not. And in that is also one of Shakyamuni's teachings...that the only difference between a buddha and 'ordinary' sentient being is this...that one realizes (iow, is aware AS) just simply this, while the other does not. All Lord Buddhas lead throughout all three turnings (vinaya thru Vajrayana) to this. If you'd like quotes from masters who also will back Stephen's discourse even without some kind of "defense" in mind...I'd be happy to oblige. :-)

Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio's picture

There ARE sanghas already in existence that offer a 'naturalist' approach to buddhadharma. I'm not about to get into long-winded arguments about what is or isn't 'true Buddhism' here, but simply invite those who find themselves unable or unwilling to buy the party line to start your own sanghas.

I have students who believe in literal rebirth. I don't reject them, nor do I expect them to accept all my beliefs, yet they find that very acceptance and inclusiveness welcoming. I myself feel no need to believe in literal rebirth, and find the evidence against such a belief convincing. I'd be willing to change my mind about this if the evidence warrants. To quote Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Poep Sa Frank Jude
www.zennaturalism.blogspot.com/

Josho Adrian Cirlea's picture

Thank you very much, Bill, for your comments. I bow my head when reading them. Please let me use some of them on my blog when I will post something on this topic.
Respectfully

Ron Stillman's picture

For those of you who may be interested in helping to develop some sort of 'sangha' based on Stephen's work, rest assured that this is being contemplated by some of his friends. Anyone interested in helping us would be welcome to send me their name/e-mail address with comments on what you would like to see happen. I will keep you updated on our efforts. My e-mail address is rstillman@cableone.net
Thank you.

James R. Martin's picture

PS--

Thanks, Matt, for the link -- which I shall try to look at soon.

James R. Martin's picture

"For the question is, WHAT is it exactly that you are practicing?"

It seems to me that the basic Buddhist practices are suchlike as (a) mindfulness and (b) loving-kindness (aka, metta).... These depend also on the deepening experience of insight into impermanence and non-separateness of self.

None of this requires that we believe in past or future lives, rebirth..., or a view on karma depending on past and future lives, rebirth, or belief in these.

Some of us are just temperamentally and philosophically inclined to have our dharma "straight up" -- without "metaphysical" beliefs of this sort.

I don't have much of a problem with the belief in rebirth and the associated conception of karma so long as dharma practice communities are welcoming to people like myself who find the "metaphysical beliefs" neither necessary nor helpful to the practice of dharma.

Matt's picture

James,

I can't help but think that Bill is a tad dogmatic in his approach. And I agree with you about the centrality of practice. Still, one's practice cannot be entirely separated from your view. For the question is, WHAT is it exactly that you are practicing? Even yogis cannot completely bypass these questions about the status of Buddhist doctrines like rebirth--though that is of course not to say we all most proscribe to a rigid set of religious beliefs.

In any case, there was a very interesting debate in Tricycle between Batchelor and Robert Thurman about the subject of rebirth (maybe someone already mentioned it above and I missed it). It's quite relevant to the discussion in this thread. www.tricycle.com/feature/3857-1.html

James R. Martin's picture

Bill,

Is the dharma primarily about what we *believe* or about what we *practice* (and the fruit of such practice)?

If it is mainly the latter, I'd think you'd welcome people into dharma practice who don't believe as you do about rebirth.

Bill's picture

I apologise, it was not my intention to cause upset to anyone. Anyone has the right to think of themselves as anything they wish.

James R. Martin's picture

4. "It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them."
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html

"'Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.' " http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html

Brandon's picture

@ Bill: it's one thing for us to disagree. I'm ok with that. It's something else entirely to tell someone, as you've told James, that he cannot be a Buddhist if he doesn't adhere to a set of beliefs. Respectfully, I have to ask exactly what qualifies you to basically label James a Buddhist heretic. And as far as James' view being the minority view, well that's irrelevant to the truth or substance of his or any argument. A majority of individuals thought the Earth was flat, that DID NOT make them right.

Tom P.'s picture

Bill,
About where I see Nagarjuna and Dharmakirti as contradictory—I’m home now, and having reread Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way and Seventy Verses on Sunyata, I cannot imagine how he could agree with the idea that “whatever is produced must be produced by something of the same nature,” much less that mind is unproduced or enduring.
In Seventy Verses on Sunyata, 36-39:

Karma is not born from conditions and by no means from non-conditions, for karma-formations are like an illusion, a city of gandharvas, and a mirage.

Karma has afflictions as its cause. Being afflictions, the karma-formations are of impassioned nature. A body has karma as its cause. So all three are empty of own-being.

Without karma, no agent. Without these two, no result. Without these, no enjoyer. Therefore things are void.

When—because the truth is seen—one correctly understands that karma is empty, karma does not arise. When karma is no more, what arises from karma arises no more.

Absolute sunyata seems incompatible with rebirth and with karma. Although I suppose we could understand this as being an epistemological limit, which we need to accept—in which case it would still say nothing of the ontological status of mind, soul, self, whatever.

You have raised my curiosity about Dharmakirti, though. I don’t know much about him, because I thought of him as a Buddhist logical-positivist, and we all know how fruitless (but persistent) that philosophy has been. Are there any available translations you can suggest?

If James R. Martin has “so spiritual path” because he disagrees with some orthodox view, then I think Buddha probably didn’t have one either.

Maybe this is becoming the “immoderate response” they’re talking about?

As for me, I’m still kind of looking forward to Batchelor’s online retreat.

Bill's picture

Dear James R. Martin,

Your view is not the mainstream of Buddhism. Anyone who denies rebirth and karma cannot be Buddhist because, if they doubt Buddha, how can they take Buddhist refuge? How can anyone say "I'm Buddhist, but I don't believe what Buddha taught?"

Traditionally, according to the Lamrim teachings of Venerable Atisha, the purpose of practising Dharma is accomplish one of three goals: 1. to protect oneself from lower rebirth and attain a higher rebirth in future lives, 2. To attain liberation from samsara, the cycle of contaminated rebirth or 3. To attain great enlightenment or Buddhahood to be able to liberate all living beings from suffering. Please notice that "being happy in this life alone" is not one of those goals. This is not a spiritual goal, but a worldly one. Everyone wants to be happy in this life, even dogs and insects, so what distinguishes you from lower forms of life? Working for the happiness of this life is not a spiritual aspiration.

The view that past and future lives do not exist is not a Buddhist one. It is a view held by an ancient non-Buddhist school called the Charvakas who believed you could only accept the evidence of the senses and that hidden objects such as enlightened beings, pure lands, karma and rebirth do not exist because they cannot be seen. The obvious rebuttal to this is "do things have to be seen in order to exist?". If the answer is "yes", this means that no one should believe in atoms, black holes or other universes because no one has seen them.

Those who deny the essentials of Buddhist view, meditation and actions should examine the valid reasons why these things exist, otherwise they have no spiritual path.

James R. Martin's picture

One of the respondents here has said, "I fail to see any relevance for a ‘Buddhism for this life alone’ - how can it benefit anyone if the end of this life is oblivion?"

I think this respondent perhaps means annihilation or extinguishment, rather than oblivion -- which refers to a state of forgetting or having been forgotten. But, nit-picking aside, I find it quite disheartening to see such a view and sentiment expressed on the dharma. For, as I see it and experience it, the dharma, stripped of 'karma' (of a certain metaphysical conception) and rebirth loses nothing of its real benefits. Practicing this dharma extends and expands our compassion, our loving-kindness, our awareness and presence (awakeness), our peace and joy..., all of which are real for us whether or not we believe in rebirth or 'karma'.

I do not practice dharma in order to escape anything, least of all an imaginary cycle of postmortum existences, or karmic debts from lives prior to my one and only ever birth. That is -- I presume these to be imaginary. It's my best guess that these are mythic imaginings. But it really doesn't matter to me, either way. The hypothesis of rebirth and 'karma' in no way assists me in my practice of dharma, and I therefore find it cumbersome and irrelevant. And thus it saddens me to see so many clinging to rebirth and 'karma' as if they were the very essential heart of dharma.

BlindRob's picture

@Tom: Not sure if 'anger' is the correct term, 'disgust' come closer to the mark, and 'burnout' closer yet. I'm tired of my perennially arrogant fellow Boomers who run around cramming large things they are basically incapable of comprehending through the knot holes of what they regard as their their broader viewpoints- and those particularly abound in N American Buddhist circles. And, being a tired old Boomer, I do by now recogise niche marketing when I see it. We have raised it to an art form.