Of another era, complex and unalive: a critique of Buddhism today
Most critiques of Buddhism are written from a viewpoint that is humanist or anti-religion or science-holds-the-answers. These brief remarks are different in that I have a lifetime of experience of meditation. So unlike many critics, I have every trust in the underlying truth that Buddha pointed his listeners towards. Indeed I have immense respect and reverence for Gautam Buddha: he is a very, very great human being, one of the pillars of human consciousness. I would not dream of criticising Buddha or his teachings. My critique is that Buddha’s teaching belonged in a time long gone and in a place remote and alien. In a different world and 2,500 years later, I do not believe that Buddhism is any longer the best pointer to that same truth.
Be honest: if there was something every bit as good as Buddhism but simpler and more fun, wouldn’t you prefer it?
I’ve spent my whole life all over the world finding by much trial and error what type of meditation works for me and what doesn’t. Knowing what I’ve learned, I’m heartily glad I didn’t spend those 40 years practising modern Buddhism (still less the logarithmically dilute version espoused by the NHS.)
Now, it is a mystery why one person meditates and another person doesn’t. It is a mystery why one person chooses one school of meditation and another chooses another. If Buddhism works for you – excellent, no more to be said. In these posts I am presenting a whole variety of non-Buddhist meditation methods, including ones that I am hugely grateful that I discovered . And I’m aiming to show that things like “no-self” and “no-doer” are easier to grasp than they often seem, and you’ve probably had such experiences already. I do therefore feel the need to explain what it is in Buddhism that I think is nowadays done better elsewhere. This post contains a mixture of facts about the background to Buddhism, plus my own personal impressions and discoveries.
I am not criticising Buddha and his teaching! To criticise Buddha … it’s unthinkable. Buddha is one of the pillars of human consciousness. What I’m saying, is that Buddhism fits in a cultural climate now alien to us. In our cultural climate, there are, at least for some people, better routes to the same destination.
We have outer science, Buddha’s age had inner science
A luminous soul, a vast compassion, an intellectual giant, a long-lasting legacy of the greatest value: Gautam Buddha was a world-teacher who has no equals. Yet when he taught two and a half thousand years ago, the world was different.
In Buddha’s time, life was slow. When I watch films made even in the seventies, the pace feels deadly dull. Life when I grew up in the 1950’s seems already amazingly quiet. Buddha’s era, roughly 500 BCE, is exponentially more simple.
Think of how it was then. A life of direct physicality for all persons, ruled by the seasons and overseen by sunrise and sunset. All labour done by hand or by oxen. Your caste, and so your occupation, inherited from your family within a static, unchanging society. Even if educated, you’d be unlikely to read or write; the scriptures were transmitted through the centuries by trained rememberers. Travel at night only by the moon, and leaving home at new moon dangerously unwise. A good harvest brings rejoicing; a bad harvest brings death. News travels no faster and no further than a messenger can run. Travel beyond the distance of a few hours’ walk unknown in the lives of most men and women.
And for some reason that I’ve never seen well explained, Buddha’s world was filled with attempts to understand the nature of inner reality. (I choose that phrase to avoid the words “philosophy”, “spirituality” and “religion”). Buddha was by far the greatest of his contemporaries. But even in the small region of India where he lived, he was by no means the only teacher of the inner science of experiencing. The enlightened Jain teacher Mahavira was a contemporary. No-one knows if he and Buddha met, but they might have. Jainism and Buddhism share a common heritage and overlap in numerous ways. Other teachers include Ajita Kesakambalī (Ajit Keshkamblin), and Sañjaya Belatthaputta (Sanjay Villetheputta). Buddha’s contemporaries had worldviews (see link) which variously included: denying that either good and bad deeds have rewards or punishments; powerlessness and pre-destination; physical death as complete annihilation; avoidance of all evil; suspension of all judgement. These thinkers and their predecessors through the whole of India over millennia, were the fertile soil in which Buddha’s life-work grew. [For a jewel of an example, the ancient Song of Ashtavakra.]
I’m concerned not to trivialise things, but one could make an analogy between starting a new meditation religion in those times and creating an internet startup today. The climate was fertile, many people did it, Buddhism was the Facebook which grew and grew, Mahavira’s school was Myspace that became smaller, Ajit Keshkamblin is a forgotten also-ran.
So Buddha lived in slow-paced times and effectively all intellectual life was devoted to “buddhist style” understanding of the nature of inner reality. We live in frenzied times with effectively all intellectual life devoted to the study of chemical reactions, genes, stars and suchlike outward science. Our intellectual roots are based in Greek science and middle-eastern belief systems, and are very different. Indian thinkers devoted extreme subtlety to inner subjective science. Greek thinkers devoted similar subtlety to external science and gave us gifts which endure. Eudoxus of Cnidus, for example, lived only a couple of hundred years after Buddha. Yet more than two thousand years later, the famous German mathematician Richard Dedekind found significant source material and inspiration in what is known as the Eudoxus’ theory of ratio and in the Eudoxus-Archimedes axiom. And Eudoxus’ “method of exhaustion” is the close intellectual ancestor of modern integral calculus. India and Greece gave the world divergently different gifts.
Western science is predicated on observers studying objects outside of them, objects which have real and objective existence outside of the observer. In the commonest areas of science, phenomena which cannot be seen and observed by many observers (“independent replication of experiments” , “peer review”, “double blind placebo trials”) are dismissed as nonsense. But my own inner phenomena of experience only I can observe, and your own inner phenomena of experience only you can observe. So the perceptual science of Kesakambalī, Belatthaputta, and the rest is automatically condemned in the West as unscientific.
For Buddha, it is nonsense that there exist objectively real objects or objectively real observers capable of observing them. But our whole daily lives rest on that assumption: you are real, your car is real, your cat is real. Aren’t they? (Fields such as quantum theory, consciousness studies, and astrophysics have a different and more Buddhist understanding. But the roots of our culture are so far not impacted by these discoveries.)
Buddhism rests in a certain cultural worldview. Notions like no-self (anatta) seem to us strange; or obviously false; or dangerous to mental health. But in Buddha’s time, discussion of this general type of notion was part of the small change of Hindu intellectual life. When Buddha presented the idea of no-self, it didn’t have anything like the shocking weirdness it has to us. It was probably more like if someone today explains to you something about, say, how the internet works. At the back of your mind you already had some framework to think of such things; after their explanation, you know a bit more about it.
Buddha would have needed a lot of conceptual translation to understand Amazon, Facebook and the internet. We need a lot of translation to understand anatta, no-self and non-doing. That makes Buddhism look very, very complicated. I have never found Buddha’s expression as being an easy or useful introduction to what I term radical meditation. Yes, Buddha is pointing to profound truths. But his is just one way of putting things. Other schools of radical meditation point to the same truth in very different ways. For example, Gurdjieff sacred dances don’t look remotely like Buddhism. But their end goal is the same.
On top of that there have been millennia of translation, re-translation, interpretation, accretion of culture and morality, removal of cultural accretion and morality, Westernisation, de-Westernisation, offshoots by different schools and secondary founders, and a dense thicket of philosophical hair-splitting. Endless articles and stories and myths have been created and they in turn have been translated and interpreted, contradicted and philosophised over. Yes, indeed, Buddhist teachings have an unparalleled richness of deep understanding. The problem is clearly getting hold of that in a way that you can make use of to go deep in meditation.
Not to mention the bodhisattvas that have crept in; I’ve even seen Buddhism described as “a polytheistic religion.” Buddha was a no-god, no-soul, no-worship atheist meditation teacher. Bodhisatttvas would make him turn in his grave (albeit slowly, gracefully and mindfully.)
Buddha did not intend to create a religion. He never intended statues to be make of him. He had no concept of any kind of god or higher power to be worshipped and would have been horrified to think that he was worshipped. He intended that people get enlightened – that each person plants the seed of meditation, grows the tree, harvests the fruit. And he has a fire inside him that this is possible. Somewhere Buddha’s fervent conviction in the achievability of enlightenment has got lost. It has got replaced with piety, with tradition, with morality, with worship. It has got lost in the ultimate dilution: practising Buddhism in order to become a better human being. It was not Buddha’s goal to create a low-cost mental health intervention. His goal was that we all get enlightened.
And there’s another problem: Buddhism turns its back on life.
Austerities, renunciation and the Middle Way
In the time and place that Buddha lived, extreme asceticism in the name of religion was commonplace. The pre-Buddhist Ashtavakra Gita begins with the words: “If you are seeking liberation, my son, avoid the objects of the senses like poison …” The Jain teacher Mahavira, who was Buddha’s contemporary, wore no clothes his whole life:
Mahavira … walked about naked, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hand [Meaning: he did not even possess a begging bowl to put food in]. For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahivira neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; he with equanimity bore, underwent, and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals. — Kalpa Sutra 117 per Wikipedia on Asceticism
Buddha himself became enlightened after six years of extreme austerities such as Mahavira’s. But, unlike Mahavira, Buddha did not believe the austerities caused his enlightenment. He got enlightened when he relaxed and renounced austerities. From this discovery, he created a new system to teach meditation, based on some renunciation but not nearly as much as other schools demanded. Jainism, which has much commonality with Buddhism, was always far more ascetic. This new system is Buddha’s famous Middle Way.
The idea was that monks and nuns should have enough of life’s basics that they did not feel discomfort or survival anxiety and so be distracted from meditation. They shouldn’t seek out ascetic suffering, because that in itself is a subtle form of acquisitive greed for spiritual attainment. Equally though, they should make a firm tug away from seeking everyday pleasures, including sex.
This relative relaxation, along with the luminous clarity of Buddha’s teaching, was what made Buddhism, the reform movement, conquer the world, while Jainism, the old-style conservative path, remained a small local movement.
Yet while abandoning self-mortification, the lifestyle of Buddha’s disciples was still renunciation. The Middle Way is often defined as a path between self-mortification and “sensual indulgence”; you can hear the condemnation, even the loathing, of our physical life in the body in the very words “sensual indulgence.” Though he gave versions for lay disciples, Buddha’s most famous sermons were preached to monks and nuns who had given up their families, given up their occupations, given up sex, and adopted the life of a wandering beggar. Buddha’s monks and nuns certainly didn’t dance, cuddle or have parties round the campfire. They undertook the Eight Precepts, including “I will abstain from listening or playing music, songs, wearing flowers, jewellery and other ornaments.”
That climate surrounds all Buddha’s teaching. Sometimes obvious, sometimes covert, there is a consistent pulling back from life. In the time and place where Buddha lived, monasticism worked. Today, to me Buddhism is flavoured with a kind of toxic quietism. It’s not easy to put your finger on. But there’s a sense that being less alive is more meditative than being more alive. Or at least that being alive in a sober, thoughtful, restrained, “mindful” way is more meditative than being wildly and passionately in love with life. Here’s what one leading Buddhist website says:
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is the deathless condition of Nibbana, the sole reality. Hence, one who aspires to that state should renounce mundane pursuits and attachments, which are ephemeral, for the sake of that reality. But there are very few who are sufficiently mature to develop themselves to achieve that state in this very life. Thus the Buddha does not force the life of renunciation upon those who lack the spiritual capacity to embark upon the higher life. … in short, one should live a useful life of moral integrity, a life of simplicity and paucity of wants. (www.accesstoinsight.com)
In other words, renunciation is higher, and those who aren’t ready to renounce are less mature. You can hear a related echo in the current Dalai Lama’s advice that “Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.” Not by the obstacles you overcome, not by the determination you put into the journey, but by what you renounce.
I repeat my question from the top of the page: if you could have something which was every way as good as Buddhism, but was in addition joyful, fun and life-loving, wouldn’t you prefer that? I know what I would choose.
At the time is was created, Buddhism was a genius expression of radical meditation. Historical accretion makes Buddhism today bizarrely over-complex and over-philosophical. It was at home in the cultural climate of millennia-ancient India, but it is not at home in our world today. The fire has gone out: the energy that should go into life transformation, goes into the philosophy of life transformation. And somehow, somewhere, Buddhism is not in love with the aliveness of our bodies. (Body-oriented non-duality, Friday in heaven, Friday in hell.) My belief is that in time, Buddhism will come to be viewed much as we view Greek mathematics today: the close and revered intellectual ancestor of modern methods, but no longer the best way to do things.