john horgan’s resistance to buddhism

John Horgan has been writing about his resistance to Buddhism for a long time. I was reading his profile of Thomas Kuhn, and there was a link at the bottom to Buddhism, the Good and the Bad. The occasion for reflecting on Buddhism was that he’d recently gone to a Dzogchen retreat, which affected him in spite of himself.

About 20 years ago, he gave Zen a shot, and that didn’t work out. I like his essays on this topic, because they illustrate the kind of personality traits Buddhism tries to eliminate. This was the beginning of his experience:

After we settled onto our mats and cushions, Sumi picked up a little bronze bell, walked up to a woman in the front row, and asked, “What is this?” The woman, smiling uneasily, said nothing. With the same grimace-grin, Sumi asked someone else: “What is this?” I knew the answer: The bell is a bell but it is also Ultimate Reality, Nothing, Everything. But I didn’t want to show off, not on the first night, so I remained smugly silent.

Pete, a rock-jawed karate enthusiast with a mane of heavy-metal-style hair, brayed out, “Are you asking, like, what’s the metaphorical meaning of the bell?” Sumi’s upper body jerked backward, as if buffeted by Pete’s words. Collecting herself, she spoke haltingly about how the words and concepts we attach to things keep us from seeing them as they really are. Zen helps us to see “this”—she held up the bell—for what it really is. Scanning our blank faces, she added mournfully, “It’s very difficult to talk about these things.”

He’s so sure of having The Answer! How could he learn anything more?

“What is this?” is a very traditional Zen sort of question. Focus on the moon, not the finger pointing to the moon. It’s not that there’s a right answer, in words or not in words. It’s that your spontaneous reaction to the question shows the teacher something about where you’re at. Notice how there were at least 3 reactions, each of which expressed something about the person’s personality. There’s a whole literature of koans and commentary on them, going back hundreds of years. But in his mind it’s as simple as “bell = Ultimate Reality”.

He starts meditating:

Sitting back on my heels, I felt itches on my face and scalp, a tickle in my throat. I wanted to cough, to scratch my head, but I remained silent and still, like Sumi. As other students squirmed and coughed, I felt a pleasant surge of superiority. After 10 minutes or so, the air glowed and hummed with energy, and faint auras appeared around Sumi and other objects in my field of vision. Cool, I thought. Satori, next stop.

At Sumi’s command we rose, eyes downcast, hands together, and walked around the room, once, twice. A muscle knotted in my lower left back. I trudged along, listing to the right, wondering if the man behind me noticed. I watched the short, sturdy legs of the woman in front of me go back and forth, back and forth.

He doesn’t know that Zen calls perceptual distortions and stuff “makyo” and discourages worrying about them too much. It definitely doesn’t mean “Satori, next stop.” He didn’t ask and find that out.

In subsequent classes, I found myself becoming increasingly critical of Sumi’s teachings. She told us about retreats during which she meditated for up to 14 hours a day and didn’t speak to or make eye contact with anyone else. After two weeks or more, these retreats sometimes left her wobbly-legged from all her sitting and averse to any human contact. To dramatize how she felt, Sumi scowled and pushed her palms outwards, as if fending off a repugnant suitor. What is the spiritual benefit of being repulsed by your fellow humans? I wondered.

I’ve never done a retreat, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the intended result of the retreat. Zen has many pitfalls, which are also the subject of a rich literature.

Sumi told us about a master who asked a monk “What is dharma mind?” and whacked him whenever he tried to answer. Why, Sumi asked us with a mischievous glint in her eye, did the teacher hit the student? I started to speak, but Sumi cut me off with a loud “Ahh!” Someone else spoke and again Sumi interrupted: “Ahh!” Her expression was tremulous, triumphant. Eventually she explained the master’s point: language prevents us from seeing the world as it truly is. I thought how tired I was of this Zen cliche. How many millions of words have Zen masters spouted telling us to get beyond words?

Clearly, despite all his reading on the subject, he didn’t get it. Maybe no one found the right words yet.

Sliding through the trees, my face pushing through my own exhalations, I thought about falling stock prices, about a local real-estate development my wife was fighting, about our daughter’s cold, about my Zen class. Abruptly I realized I wasn’t being mindful. My monkey mind was running wild, swinging through the trees, hooting and chattering, and I scarcely noticed where I was, what I was doing, where I was going. When I did focus on what I was doing, my thoughts tended to be exhortatory, goal-directed: Push harder. Not getting enough exercise. Watch out for that buried branch.

Stop! I chided myself. Pay attention! Be here now! So I stood in the middle of the path, leaning on my poles, expelling great plumes of mist. I gazed around me at the still, snow-dusted trees, the gnarled mountain laurel, the animal tracks criss-crossing the trail. What are those? That’s deer. That’s rabbit. That’s…what, racoon? Stop! I told myself again. You’re not being here now!

Then I rebelled against this drill sergeant in my head. This exercise in self-discipline is absurd. Every time I order myself to be here now I’m not being here now. I’m thinking about being here now. It’s self-defeating from the start, like trying to remember to forget. In heeding the command, I violate it.

LOL welcome to meditation practice. Don’t give up before you really get started.

It’s good that noticed those things. In practicing mindfulness, we notice things. He was on his way to noticing how some of his suffering is self-created. Why all the exhortation? Why can’t he be content? Does it feel good, getting lost in worries in the middle of skiing? Nobody has to tell you to work on the stuff you find, if you don’t like it.

He even realizes the source of his resistance:

My rebellion spread to other spiritual truisms, to Sumi’s injunction to be child-like. Childrens’ spontaneity and joy spring from their self-absorption and ignorance. What do they know of death, suffering, the woes of the world? A spirituality that denies these realities is shallow, escapist. And what’s so great about being in the moment, anyway? We should revel in our minds’ ability to range freely through space and time rather than being trapped like animals in the here and now.

Wait, another voice countered. Am I just rationalizing, justifying my habits of mind to myself, out of laziness, or timidity? So that I can stay sealed inside my cozy intellectual perspective and avoid a deeper confrontation with reality?

As this argument raged in my head, my body stood silently. Blood pulsed in my temples, beads of sweat inched down my forehead. A tree creaked, and the chill, colorless air hissed into my lungs and out again, in and out.

Soon after this episode, I stopped attending Sumi’s class. I no longer have a spiritual practice.

The point about children is the kind of bad faith “Gotcha!” that makes people annoying to argue with. There’s a point about being spontaneous and unself-conscious. Flow. Wu-wei.

Instead of letting the metaphor work as far as it goes, he accuses Buddhism itself of not knowing about the First Noble Truth…of Buddhism. He clearly isn’t connecting with the teachings on an emotional level, out of avoidance.

His objections are all about being better than children and animals, and lots of children know plenty about death, suffering, and the woes of the world.

But 20 years later, he went on a retreat (described here) and had “further reflections.” Like this one:

Western Buddhists insist that Buddhism is not a religion, it is a science, an empirical method for analyzing the mind and its relation to the world. This claim is disingenuous. Like the monotheistic faiths, Buddhism espouses unprovable supernatural doctrines, namely reincarnation and karma.

I wouldn’t call Buddhism a “science,” but I’d consider myself to have a Buddhist practice. It’s something you do. You can get something perfectly meaningful out of it without accepting the literal reality of reincarnation or karma. If there’s faith to it, that’s more about the faith that improvement is possible, that suffering and relief from suffering work as claimed. But you can see the truth of it in your own daily life.

And Buddhism is arguably anti-scientific, or anti-intellectual, in that it avoids wrestling with big “why” questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is life this way and not some other way? Why is life so unfair and painful? Buddha supposedly discouraged this sort of metaphysical speculation. He merely accepted that life is hard and prescribed methods for making it more pleasant.

He doesn’t see that “why” is something he’s bringing and trying to impose. When there’s metaphysical speculation, that’s bad. When metaphysical speculation is discouraged in favor of addressing human misery, that’s bad, too.

It’s my observation that I worry about stuff like “the meaning of life” when I’m feeling like shit. The reasons for feeling like shit are probably unrelated to the general meaninglessness of life. The way to feel better isn’t to answer the question, it’s to remove the conditions causing the suffering. Your own and other people’s.

The retreat has forced me to reconsider my doubts about whether meditation makes you nicer. As I said in my last post, meditation and other spiritual practices can help you savor each moment, no matter how tedious or annoying, for its own sake. A side effect of that perspective is seeing all people as ends in themselves. Even those who bore, annoy or enrage you–spam callers, car salesmen, rude students–deserve your respect, at the very least.

I experienced this feeling on my first day back from the retreat. Veterans had warned me that re-entry, especially to a clamorous city, would be jarring. But I was fine, more than fine. On my first evening home, I strolled beside the Hudson on a promenade thronged with people of all ages and ethnicities. I found everybody, even vain young men strutting their stuff, fascinating, funny, adorable.

There is a downside of this hyper-appreciation. When I encounter someone who is obviously suffering, like a homeless person with swollen, diabetic legs, it’s harder than it used to be to coldly ignore him. But what should I do? It’s one thing to feel compassion, but when and how should you act upon it? Should I volunteer at the homeless shelter down the street from me? Donate half my paycheck to the poor? Fortunately my compassion feels shallow, so I probably won’t have to make these tough choices.

Stuff like this is disturbing to read. Is this how other people’s minds work?

He’s saying that he didn’t really see people as ends in themselves, deserving of respect before. “Treat people with dignity” is new to him, even though it’s the basis of moral behavior per se.

His minor moral awakening is an annoyance, getting in the way of his right to coldly ignore suffering people. Why shouldn’t he volunteer at the homeless shelter? Why shouldn’t he spend some of his rich white guy money on helping people left behind by the system that made him a rich white guy? If he acted on feelings of compassion, that would be inconvenient and threaten the basic social order. Fortunately for him, he has the privilege of looking away.

But fear also serves a social function. It keeps us from acting badly toward others, because we fear social disapproval or punishment, or simply the sting of conscience. Sociopaths lack fear. Buddhism’s ethical precepts—right speech, right action and so on—are intended to keep liberated practitioners from becoming fearless, nihilistic jerks. But some people, freed from fear by Buddhist practice, become jerks anyway.

Your innate temperament might determine how you respond to fearless enlightenment. If you have a strong predisposition toward empathy and compassion, you become a good guru, a bodhisattva, who cares for others. If you have an innate desire for sex and power, if you love messing with people, you become a bad guru, de Sade in a saffron robe. Enlightenment, according to this view, might not transform us as much as we’d like. First there is an asshole, then there is no asshole, then there is.

Again, it’s remarkable that he can’t think of a reason not to hurt others except fear. It’s like he lacks the capacity to just feel empathy for them, so it would hurt him to hurt them. He’s not fully on board with “suffering is bad.” He misses the point that Buddhism is about changing your predispositions.

The phrase “if you love messing with people” is something you’d say if you love messing with people. It’s not accidental that the fun-sounding phrase is linked directly with sexual sadism.

Think about what these essays say about our culture, or at least what’s expected of white men. He admits, clearly, that he fears social disapproval. But he writes about actually-horrible character flaws shamelessly, gleefully. “Good thing I don’t have to give a fuck about homeless people LOL! I’m so much better and smarter than everyone else.”

“He thinks it’s cute,” as my dad liked to say.

The truth of our society is that this kind of moral imbecility is cool, sexy, funny, masculine, and “dominant.” Buddhism is traditionally vegetarian.

Past research has highlighted links between meat consumption and masculine gender role norms such that meat consumers are generally attributed more masculine traits than their vegetable-consuming counterparts. However, the direct link between gender roles and men’s food choices has been somewhat neglected in the literature. Three studies conducted in Italy investigated this link between meat and masculinity. Studies 1 and 2 analyzed female mating preference for vegetarian and omnivorous partners, confirming that women preferred omnivorous men (Study 1 and 2), rated them as more attractive (Study 1 and 2), and felt more positive about them (Study 1) than vegetarians. Moreover Study 2 showed that the attribution of masculinity mediated this relationship, such that vegetarian men were considered less attractive because they were perceived as less masculine. Study 3 tested the relationship between the endorsement of food-related gender norms and food choices in a sample of Italian men. The results showed that men who perceived vegetarianism as feminine preferred meat-based dishes for themselves and expected their female partners to choose vegetarian dishes. Together, these findings show that gender role norms prescribing that men eat meat are actively maintained by both women and men and do in fact guide men’s food choices.

This is a very effective way of preventing social change across the board. That’s the why of the suffering he’s looking for. It’s cool for white men to be dicks. Donald Trump is America.

Existing in our society requires being cut off from basic human compassion. It’s the common factor underneath all the social problems.