Tuesday, April 1, 2008



Burning Down the House: Buddhism vs. Hitchens

One of the problems in Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great," a wonderful if flawed "cri de coeur" which continues this past week to occupy my thoughts, lies in his dismissal of Buddhism. Now, even I fully know from reading all of, what, five books as of this morning on the topic over a quarter-century (!), that gods and goddesses exist in this "religion," for lack of a better term in English. I also realize that these deities, as Siddhartha Gautama preached, play a relatively lesser role in its doctrine. In fact, that such teachings turn much more inward and flexible for the believer. Above all, the practitioner emphasizes not vertical worship above but horizontal self-enlightenment. The ascension to higher states will come, and these do take the levels of cosmologies even more intricate than many Western stratifications. Yet, the Buddha, unlike God, directs one towards not eternal salvation or punishment within these realms, but a state beyond them, where like a flame one's soul's snuffed out. The indescribable then awaits. This gradual attainment of harmony while in our body, again contrasted with some Western models, does not rest within the "saved" person, but-- as the Buddha's example shows-- must then radiate outward towards fellow beings to guide them towards the same peace.

So-- as I suggested to my neighbor in a morning chat celebrating the sale to her of the lot she and her partner have saved for songbirds and cats next door from the developers who as I type are building two homes on our street and trying vainly to sell a third raw cut out of what was beloved if barren open space-- perhaps Buddhism's a "non-theistic religion," despite the etymological damage that term does to the Latin and Greek roots. I leave to scholars the precise language that fits best, but it's clear to me that Buddhism does not clearly compare with the dogmatic strictures of the monotheistic faith systems that take up 95% of Hitchens' attention. I wish he had taken more time to study Buddhism, for he could have used its contrasts to better suggest for humanists a promising integration of a spiritual system that detoured, if it didn't quite deconstruct the center of, traditional faith. Yet, it in my opinion offers a healing method for many who cannot find in meditation on the atom or a visit to the art gallery the same comfort they may obtain from cultivation of the soul along with a spirited exercise of good deeds.

This as before-- in three posts this past week-- does again drag me back to Ockham's Razor. Hitchens might respond that you can get psychoanalyzed without recourse to the Four Noble Truths, and that Nirvana might arise through existential courage to admit our loneliness in the universe, and that science can provide enough meaning for us to live up to a mature realization that no revelation, no gods, no gurus, await in this or other realms to lavish solace upon our planet's inhabitants. Yet, I continue my riposte that many of us, the way we are conditioned, need psychic and assistance beyond what the test tube or telescope might offer us intellectually as an object of natural wonder.

Mantras and mandalas serve this purpose for many who admire Buddhism. These may be like the "new toys" that the Buddha suggested in the Lotus Sutra will draw immature tots to look up from their baubles and see their house blazes and that they must escape. But, at their childish level, the best way to get them out of the fire is to tell them "new toys" await outside. Once safe from the conflagration, they can be told the truth. But first, they must be pulled away from "dukkha," the suffering that comes with misguided "tanha" or desire, and out of the house of "samsara," the mundane routine that we all keep running within. Eventually, even the mandalas and mantras will give way to a more profound "dhamma" for the skilled follower.

Finishing Damien Keown's "Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford UP, 1996), I compared his understanding to Hitchens. The latter writer fails to note the Dalai Lama's own insistence that if scientific inquiry proved false the words of the Buddha, he'd abandon the words; he also keeps, as Pico Iyer reported in the "Time" cover story I linked to recently, a model of the human brain on his desk. Certainly he's not the quasi-feudal potentate lording over theocratic serfs that Hitchens hints. Neither has modern Buddhism, as it evolves in the West, opposed to secular liberalism or psychological analysis.

Keown quotes the delightfully named Christmas Humphreys, a leading British pioneer in popularizing what he suggested a "new vehicle" of "Nava-yana" to "grow happily alongside, and even blend with the best of Western science, psychology and social science, and thus effect the ever-changing field of Western thought." He continued: "Just what it will be we do not know, nor does it matter at the present time. The Dhamma as such is immortal, but its forms must ever change to serve the ever-changing human need." (qtd. by Keown p. 121 from Humphreys' "Sixty Years of Buddhism in England," p. 80).

Surely Hitchens might find in such an openness a fruitful intersection rather than a solid wall that he erects that halts traffic, given the failings of the Dalai Lama that he castigates amidst the larger stupidities of such as the Bhagwan or the Maharishi. The catalogue of idiocies that he for most of his book skims comes from the three great monotheistic faiths born from arid wastelands. But, in the single chapter he devotes to demolishing the Eastern alternatives, he does overlook the fluidity of Buddhism open to progress, a feature that distinguishes its practical nature from the otherworldly states that Hitchens like most of us characterizes as the salient, and often only, differing feature of the Far Eastern seeker from the Western (or Middle Eastern, if I may open myself to charges of geocentric Orientalism) fanatic.

Keown, by contrast, as his short study promises in its title, gives us a friendly entrance by portals we recognize into what for me's been a mysterious panorama. He compares human nature's "five factors of individuality" taught by the Buddha to five components of an automobile. The parts shift in motion, the car demands the fuel of "tanha," but all of its five parts eventually will break down. This gas-guzzling car's propelled by perhaps the wrong octane (my metaphor) of desire, which equates with the First Noble Truth that we depend on "dukkha." We will need to diagnose this flaw before we can repair our vehicle.

Likewise, Keown uses fire to explain the metaphor of "samudaya," the Second Truth of Arising. He then defines Cessation ("Nirodha") in the words of the Buddha helpfully: "asking about the whereabouts of 'an enlightened one' after death is like asking where a flame goes when it is blown out." (52) The flame has not gone anywhere; the process of combustion has ceased. "Removing craving and ignorance is like taking away the oxygen and fuel which a flame needs to burn." You can see, although Keown does not belabor the image, how the earlier automotive metaphors compliment the traditional ones of the candle-flame to explain for we moderns a venerable set of Buddhist core teachings--which forms Truth #4 of the Noble Eightfold path of the Middle Way of sensible moderation in daily practice, "Magga."

I found the chapter on the Four Truths enlightening, and his on the life of the Buddha summarized efficiently the little we know in fact well. Other sections examine Karma & Rebirth, the Mahayana school, and Asian varieties. A short reading list, maps, and illustrations have all been chosen sparingly but appropriately; the use of text boxes to summarize key concepts makes this book reader-friendly, although the handsome typeface may be too small for some readers. Valuable discussions of ethics and Buddhism as adapted to the West should counter claims of many about the supposed non-worldly withdrawal from relevant concerns of human rights, scientific advancement, and mental health that show how this ancient teaching can be well integrated into current knowledge at the most advanced levels in industrialized nations, ecumenical dialogues, and secular cultures.

(These last six paragraphs form the core of my Amazon US review, posted today.)

Image: Tate Gallery. 1908, by the Welsh artist Augustus John (1876-1961). "Nirvana"

2 comments:

harry said...

Hmmm. I'll defer to your wisdom in praising Hitchens (since you have actually read the book), but when I have seen him on cable talk TV he's seemed a self-satisfied besotted, self-satisfied prig, who demonstrates the arrogance of the atheist that precisely mirrors the arrogance of the kind of theist he criticizes. Bill Speckart, after decades of studying Tibetan Buddhism has frequently quoted the D. Lama saying 1) stay in the religion you were born into and 2) buddhism is an atheistic religion.

Fionnchú said...

H.R.H., I know that you know much more about this topic than lackluster me or smartypants Hitchens put together. Please keep responding. The whole situation in Tibet, as you can tell even if you don't read Irish on this blog, upsets me no end. C.H. smirks in his book about the feudalism and the backwardness pre-1959, but allows no tears for the genocide, and neither acknowledges (as I have in earlier recent posts) the Dalai Lama's advanced positions on science and progress that could have challenged Hitchens' reductive and ill-informed chapter. Patrick French's sober corrective to extremes of sentimentality and socialism, "Tibet, Tibet," I found necessary reading on the political and socio-cultural aspects of the recent situation the past decade.

I was resisting reading Hitchens (and Dawkins) as I too had heard them both pontificate. Yet, H's book appeared on the library's new acquisitions shelf, so I took a chance. Same at present with R.D. The books have much in common yet differ greatly in tone and scope. C.H. in Vanity Fair smugly saying I told you so to all the (a)theists he met on his book tours, and R.D. in an interview on NPR Layne & I heard driving from Seattle to Tacoma until the station gave way to static, in which the prof's confidence that moderate or liberal believers only play into the fellow travellers who are fanatics that the NPR-types then defend. This intrigued me, but then we entered non-NPR land, and you know who lives there.