Sunday, July 14, 2013

More on the Conspiracy to Create an Unnatural Buddhism

Here's a spot-on blog in Tricycle from Lama Jampa Thaye described as "a scholar, author, and meditation master from the UK, trained in both the Karma Kagyu and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism." We Are Not Kind Machines: A Radical Rejection of Scientific Buddhism
This is welcomed push back to the widening conspiracy of the so-called "naturalizing Buddhism" movement that sees itself as the White Knight rescuing Buddha Dharma from superstition and supernaturalism.
Lama Jampa opens with the observation:
Science seems omnipresent in the modern world, and its explanatory force and benefits are hard to deny. Indeed, its success has even led some, including a number of well-regarded figures in the contemporary Buddhist world, to argue that the dharma itself must be made more “scientific” if it is to survive.
What this is responding to is the false thinking that (1) the Buddha Dharma needs protection to survive, and (2) that somehow making Buddha Dharma more scientific is the path to its survival. Both points are wrong. The question "on the ground," so to speak, is not about survival but about transplantation and acculturation. It is a given that as the Buddha Dharma comes to "the West" to be transplanted here, there must be some kind of acculturation of conceptualization so that people in the West can have the conceptual bridges to understand what the Buddha Dharma is talking about. Building the conceptual bridges is what is called the "accommodation" phase by Peter D. Hershock in his book Chan Buddhism .
Hershock points out that every culture has its generalized worldview and every worldview is based on polarizations which characterize the contours of the natural tensions in that society. To become transplanted and acculturated, the Buddha Dharma must address the particular and specific features of each cultural configuration with which it comes into contact.  For example, ideas about what is a person and what is death are central themes and axes of polarization in every culture, but the ideas are polarized in specific configurations somewhat differently in each culture.
To Hershock the process of assimilation is a two way street, the Buddha Dharma brings changes to the culture and the culture brings changes to how the Buddha Dharma is conceptualized.  The process of assimilation and acculturation takes place in two phases of accommodation and advocacy. Hershock notes that he is not proposing the two phases are strictly linear, but may be occurring simultaneously or in rhythm.  I would point out that as a precondition phase we can speak of the initial introduction phase before either accommodation or advocacy has occurred.
The accommodation phase requires that the strangeness of the worldview of the Buddha Dharma be made familiar in some basic ways so that the worldview of the new context can relate.  In this way, the Buddha Dharma accommodates itself to the indigenous cultural framework.  A past example of this was when the Buddha Dharma came to China, the word Tao was taken up and used as a bridge to explain certain features of the Buddha Dharma.  Some people mistake this aspect of accommodation, where the Buddha Dharma is accommodating itself to indigenous concepts, as being "influenced by" those concepts. In this way it is often said that Buddhism in China was "influenced by" Taoism. However, this is not actually the case. The use of the indigenous cultural terminology and frameworks does not mean that the Buddha Dharma has changed, because the Buddha Dharma is not dependent or established on words or cultural concepts. 
The second phase is the advocacy phase which begins after some measure of accommodation has occurred.  In the advocacy phase the now somewhat accommodated and familiarized concepts are reviewed with an eye to how they are actually distinguishable from the indigenous conceptual frame.  Using the example of the Tao in China, the goal is to show how the Buddha Dharma view of the Tao is distinguishable from the indigenous view of the Tao.
Here in the West we have two competing frameworks of worldview, religion (primarily Christian) and science.  So it is not at all unusual for the propagation of Buddha Dharma to begin by accommodating itself to these two worldviews.  This is analogous to the Buddha Dharma coming to China and having to accommodate itself to the two competing worldviews of Taoism and Confucianism. This puts us in the middle between the two contending worldviews where if we are perceived as being too close to one framework then the other framework will write off the Buddha Dharma with the same critique that it uses against the other.
For instance, followers of the Buddha Dharma, when speaking to Christians, may use the word God to explain that the Buddha Dharma does recognize a transcendent awareness. But in the advocacy phase, it is made clear that the Buddha Dharma does not look at God with an anthropomorphic eye. Then with a bit more accommodation we can explain that the Buddha Dharma conception of God is more like the Christian mystics' view of God as the infinite Godhead, or source of all reality, etc. Then with another turn at advocacy the conception of God is related to the Buddha Dharma conceptions of emptiness, Dharmakaya, True Suchness, etc. Likewise, in accommodating to the Christian idea of life after death, the Buddha Dharma says, "Yes there is life after death," but then in the advocacy phase, the Buddha Dharma distinguishes what it means by life after death as a cyclic process involving karma and rebirth and not the eternal cul-de-sac of either heaven or hell. This is a lively process, but if the life is removed then the propagation devolves into mere propaganda. 
Similarly, in the West we who are followers of the Buddha Dharma must accommodate to the framework of the worldview of science.  It is when trying to accommodate to the polarized framing of the scientific worldview that we are seeing the "naturalizing of Buddhism" idea come to the forefront.  However, followers of the Buddha Dharma need to be most vigilant at this point in order to remain centered in the Buddha Dharma for the purpose of accommodation and not become co-opted by the scientific worldview and lose touch with the Buddha Dharma. Lama Jampa's blog post is on this concern.
Too many people, even some who have more than a passing introduction to Buddha Dharma, have become confused and conflate the Science Dharma with the Buddha Dharma.  In both Dharmas, there is reason, inquiry, a basic acknowledgement of the value of empirical experience, but how these polarized issues are dealt with is importantly distinguished. The Buddhists who are involved in the so-called naturalization movement are lost in the accommodation phase and have lost sight of the advocacy phase. The naturalization movement has two general proponents, those who are advocates of science and those who are Buddhists. The advocates of science are not interested in the Buddha Dharma per se, and instead they want to incorporate Buddhism into a subservient branch of science. It is from this point of view that the naturalization movement wants to alter Buddha Dharma to meet its own criteria. Followers of the Buddha Dharma need to be most aware of this. It is for this reason that Lama Jampa  writes,
While science itself is not dangerous to the dharma, the appeal for a “scientific Buddhism,” an insistence that Buddhism must accord with the materialist propositions often paired with scientism, most definitely is. Such a Buddhism is not the dharma.
The followers of the Buddha Dharma who think that they are helping the Buddha Dharma be transplanted to the West by being co-opted into the naturalization movement are simply being duped and pulled away from the Buddha Dharma. Many, if not most of them, do not understand what is transpiring in the Science Dharma itself and do not perceive the fight about materialism that is taking place among the followers of the Science Dharma.  Instead of aligning themselves with the materialists wing of the Science Dharma, the followers of the Buddha Dharma who want to engage in the legitimate accommodation with the Science Dharma must do so with full understanding of the polarizations and the framework of those polarizations that are within the Science Dharma itself, and chief of these is the question of materialism. 
Materialism affects (infects?) both science and religion.  Both scientism and creationism are materialist.  Buddha Dharma is not materialist. In the accommodation phase, Buddha Dharma must speak to both religion and science in terms that are not materialistic in order to speak in their own terms to those who are within the religious and scientific worldviews without being materialistic.   In the field of religion this means speaking to the contemplative practitioners of religion and not buying into the materialistic doctrines of religion. In the field of science this means speaking to those who value the scientific method of inquiry and hypothesis and not buying into the materialistic doctrines of the philosophy of science, or those of pseudo-science.   
One example is the subject of Lama Jampa's blog: the neuro-science of meditation.  To study meditation from the perspective of measuring brain activity is a science that is usurped by materialistic view of the psyche that only sees mind as physical brain activity.
Lama Jampa writes,
Now, it may very well be that brain activity changes during meditation. But it's difficult to see how knowing this could contribute anything significant to the process of dissolving the twin obscurations of disturbing emotions and nescience, a dissolution that alone brings about enlightenment. Would, for instance, Jetsun Milarepa have achieved decisive realization more swiftly if he had possessed a knowledge of neurology? The plain unvarnished truth is that while a variety of physical effects—from the modification of pulse rate to altered frequency of brain waves—may accompany meditation, these effects are not the source of the experience of the meditating mind any more than a lessening of indigestion.
This paragraph makes a point that is very important. It is the essential difference between neuro-physiological science and psychological science. Today, we have mostly lost this distinction and mistake neuro-physiological science as if it is psychological science, which it is definitely not. The physical sciences may approach the physical world and study it, but that is not the same thing as approaching and scientifically studying the psychological world. Those who have lost this distinction I would put into the camp of scientism. I have nothing directly against neuro-physiological science in itself, except that it has usurped the field of psychological science by calling neuro-physiology the real psychology and denigrating real psychology by calling it "subjective" or even worse, such as "mysticism."

I take Lama Jampa to be saying that the study of brain activity should not be confused with the study of the psychological activity of mind. To view the world as if the brain is the ground for explaining the world is the physiological leaning view that is all too often stained by materialism.  To view the world as if the mind is the ground for explaining the world is the psychological view. Brain activity is an objectification of mind activity. To the extent that the objectification of mind activity is taken literally and mind is being explained by the activity of brain physiology, then to that extent the view is materialistic. Objectification is to mind what literalization and materialization is to the practice of the Buddha Dharma, i.e. false thinking about mind.


Jayarava Attwood said...

I've yet to see any Buddhist demonstrate what is wrong with scientific materialism (which describes the world in terms of waves, forces and fields). It is clearly not the so-called materialism of the Pāli Canon, or any other phenomenon previously encountered by Buddhists. Scientific materialism (such a gross misnomer) is not something that Buddhists of earlier centuries could possibly have met with; and it seems to me is something that it very poorly understood by the vast majority of Buddhists that I come across.

The main problem with science seems to be that it undermines certain tenaciously held, but totally unprovable views related to Buddhism. For example Buddhists like to believe in an afterlife. In particular, a modified version of an afterlife belief born in Iron Age India from interactions of Munda speaking animists, Vedic speaking eternalists, and Iranian migrants who had Zoroastrian influences. But when you take all the afterlife beliefs of the world (including no afterlife) and line them up beside one another there are no objective criteria to chose between them. They all have the same standard of proof, and are all vehemently supported by anecdote masquerading as "scientific fact". There is no reason to believe in one form of afterlife versus another except for uncritical, irrational, blind faith. There is no rational argument for an afterlife, but there are very good psychological explanations for why people maintain such irrational beliefs.

So when I say, on the basis of a basic education in the sciences, that an afterlife seems implausible to me, and that I can't see a way to rule out, say, the Christian afterlife versus the Buddhist afterlife, then that seems to upset other Buddhists (I still consider myself to be a Bauddha).

I have no problem with people maintaining afterlife beliefs if that feels OK to them, but they can't make truth claims on the basis of blind faith. The simple fact is that no one knows what happens when we die. And what's worse is that taken as a whole the Buddha's sāsana seems to be about paying attention to what's going on right now, and all the afterlife stuff is a sop to laypeople and those who can't sustain an intense enough practice to attain what the Buddha attained.

I've had people tell me I'm not a Buddhist if I don't believe in rebirth. But science and even metaphysics are against such irrational beliefs.

Science casts grave doubts on the survival of memories, for example, separate from the brain. This does not argue that we are our brain, but simply points out that if you destroy parts of the brain associated with memory then you can't remember stuff. The worse the damage the worse the memory problems - we know a great deal about the process of remembering just from the specific problems caused by specific damage. Now death involve the death of the entire brain. So what is the medium which stores the memory? Why can't brain damaged patients simply tap into that and overcome their brain damage? So many good, but unanswerable questions.

Metaphysically all afterlife beliefs rely on some kind of continuity between lives. But the Buddhist explanation of this continuity is incoherent. In order not to violate the limit of eternalism the other person is not us - which robs the theory of karma of almost all its moral force. In order for karma to have moral force we must identify with the future being we are condemning to hell. Which breaks the principle of anātman. I have come across no explanation of the Buddhist afterlife which does not break one of other of the principles.

What the scientific method does is point to the inconsistencies and ask the obvious question. If Dharma really is truth then we need to work out which of the contradictory messages is right and which wrong. Science also offers a tried and tested method for deciding such questions should we wish to avail ourselves.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

Well from your first paragraph there seems to be the obvious ambiguity around the word "materialism." You say scientific materialism is not a problem in the way it describes the world, and then you say that it is a misnomer. Which is it? I have been writing from the perspective that science is not materialistic in itself, but the term "scientific materialism" is a misnomer of a kind in that "materialism" is not really scientific and science is not really materialistic.

As I use the term “materialism,” I am referring to the definition of: “(1) preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values; (2) the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies.” And of course, the notion of “matter” presupposes that there is a corporeal substance of which things are composed or consist.

Thus, to say that science describes the world in terms of waves, forces and fields is already to say that science is not describing the world in terms of “materialism.” The Buddha Dharma also describes the world in terms of waves, forces, and fields without relying on “substance” in the sense of being “matter.” In this way, Buddha Dharma is very accommodating to the Science Dharma at the level of deep physics.

Again, in order to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, we have to be aware that we need to compare the deep teachings of Buddha Dharma with the deep teachings of Science Dharma, not compare the superficial teachings of one to the deep teachings of the other. In this context, my railing against the “naturalization” of Buddha Dharma expresses my objections to this kind of category error in the comparison and discussion of the so-called “supernatural” aspects of Buddha Dharma.

The example of karma and rebirth is the most important one. To call karma “supernaturalism” based on the most superficial understanding of karma is like calling science “materialism” based on the most superficial understanding of Newtonian mechanics. I’m not against the Science Dharma or its scientific method. I’m against what the advocates of “naturalizing Buddhism” are doing when they seem to be stuck in the materialistic world view in which they misrepresent both science and Buddha Dharma.

(Continued in next comment..)

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

(Part 2 of comment.)

When viewing the so-called “objective world” in terms of “waves, forces, and fields” there is very little discrepancy between Science Dharma and Buddha Dharma. However, two primary and closely related turning points come up. First is about where the limits of “objectivity” and “objectification” are to be located, and second, is how followers of the Science Dharma speak about mind. These are intimately related issues because Buddha Dharma says “mind is unborn and undying” while Science Dharma essentially doesn’t accept the mind and doesn’t accept the idea that anything immaterial continues after “death” and therefore denies any rational argument for an “afterlife.” This is where the rubber meets the road in the question of materialism and science in relation to Buddha Dharma.

Science sets its own limits regarding “objectivity,” that is, first it defines being “objective” and then is says there is no going beyond that “objectivity.” Thus Science is inherently one-sided. Science therefore has very little it can say about subjectivity, or about the mind which the Science Dharma sees as the most subjective aspect of reality. So followers of the Science Dharma may believe that the lack of “objective criteria” tells them something about karma and rebirth but in fact it does not tell them anything but that they have hemmed themselves in by their own bias. Believing that karma and rebirth are based on an objective history of ideas stemming from “Iron Age India” is a good example of the false thinking arising from the bias of “objective” science.

Another way of understanding this is available by seeing that the bias toward “objectivity” becomes equated with being rational. To the degree that followers of the Science Dharma equate objectification with being rational, to that degree their science has become objectified and therefore psychologically materialistic.

The empirical observations in the science of Buddha Dharma that determine the views about karma and rebirth are not based on screening those observations through the polarity of “subjective and objective.” The Buddha Dharma may loosely be called the science of mind in the sense that the focus of inquiry is the mind, not a world called external in which the only view called rational is one that accepts unquestioningly the presumption of objectivity and externalization.

Take for example the notion that memory is destroyed with the brain. That is a belief that is based on a paradigm of polarization and objectification to pre-define what memory is and how it works. For example, if memory is only stored in the hard drive wiring of a brain, then the access to that memory dies with the hard drive becoming inoperable. But if the memory is stored in the “cloud” there is the potential of accessing that memory by a different interface. It is an act of belief to choose to believe that death destroys all memory because that belief is determined by the presumption that memory is only and exclusively stored locally in brain matter. This presumption about “brain matter” is exactly the result of the “materialistic” view of the mind.

(continued in next comment part 3..)

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

(part 3 of comment)

Thus the so-called inconsistencies presented by science are valid within the limits of external views of reality but they are invalid when attempting to address the non-objective and non-external reality. The truth that the Buddha Dharma is about points beyond the limits of Science’s view of “right and wrong” based on its “tried and tested method” for manipulating external reality within the paradigm of objective matter. Building the atomic and nuclear bombs using the truths of science provides a powerful means of affecting and manipulating external reality, but it fundamentally puts that same reality at great risk.

Within the limits of the Science Dharma, the key to understanding the question of continuity in karma and rebirth is found exactly where the limits of matter are. When matter is conceived of as a substance then continuity makes no sense. But when matter is conceived of as waves, forces, and fields, rather than as discrete entities or objects of matter, then continuity makes perfect sense. A wave is not a thing. When a wave travels through water, the water does not travel, only the force of the wave “travels.” This is the non-travelling of the wave that is also its continuity. Likewise, there is no rational basis to presume that there must be a physical or material “travelling” between lives in order for there to be continuity. To presume that there must be a physical or material “travelling” for there to be continuity is the expression of the hidden materialism in the science of mind.

john 'Genryu' said...

Nicely considered piece. I am often still taken by surprise by the unchallenged bias which lies behind much of the push to try and turn Buddhism in to some sort of neurologically based self help system. The bias is that 'us Westerners' are somehow special because we have science. That religious stuff is for Easterners who don't know any better. In the process there is the attempt to reduce the Dharma to some philosophy (aka mental masturbation) or a 'way of life.' What the hell is a way of life anyway? What does that even mean?

Harry said...

Hi there,

Interesting piece.

On Buddhism and materialism: Did Buddhism itself not seek to explain a law of materialist causation within the 5 niyamas. I'm thinking of no. 1, utu niyama on non-living matter, and no. 2 bija niyama that concerns living matter, as distinct from kamma niyama (mental volition) and citta niyama (concerning the mind)?

These distinctions are very important as providing explanations of other areas of causation avoids the commonly held (and distinctly un-Buddhist) grim view of karma (specified in the niyamas solely as the area of mental volition) as a sort of law-of-everything that sees people as being 'punished' by Aids and earthquakes etc.

Seems to me that science could offer some enhanced provisional legs to utu and bija niyama theory with no 'staining' involved. And where it would help challenge misguided 'theory-of-everything' views on karma it should be very welcome methinks.



Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Hi Harry, thanks for your comment.
The chain of causation and how that relates to karma and the "5 determinations," i.e., the "5niyamas" as the determining factors or "rules" within causes and conditions, is worth a whole blog or longer essay, if not a whole book. So I'm pondering how to respond in a blog.

Briefly, I would start off saying that the term "matter" as applied to the utu/rtu niyama and to the bija niyama is already an unnecessary addition and a misinterpretation of the seasonal or environmental (utu/rtu) and seed (bija) factors.

But yes, science has done a lot in exploring the manipulation of the utu/rtu niyama seasonal and environmental factors and now also of the seed (bija) factors with genetically modified organisms by the manipulation of the genetic factors.

The problem is of course that science (as a field of players) has toatlly ignored the other three factors of 3. Kamma/Karma Niyama – Action determinants; 4. Dhamma/Dharma Niyama – Dharma determinants; and 5. Citta/Citta Niyama – Mind determinants.

Harry said...

Hi Alan,

I think there's surely something in what you are saying there re science; although I think that when science is criticised it is often tarred with a very wide brush... I know some very ethical scientists with very broad views and a much more holistic understanding of their place in the world (in fact, some of the most aware people I have encountered in this regards have been scientists). Let's not forget that there is environmental science, social sciences, integrated psychological approaches etc etc. I think the 'bogey man' cartoon of the scientist as a Dr. Frankenstein seeking to overthrow nature should be treated with caution. I'm not saying you see it like that, but I have often encounter a similar sort of perception from people involved in alternative medicine who subscribe to what I can only describe as conspiracy theories about 'science' as if 'science' was one thing, or outlook, or type, and as if all scientists were people of ill intent. I'm all open to ethical questions on science on a case-by-case basis, but I'm also open to facts like that advancements in medical science have ensured that infant mortality rates and life expectancies have greatly increased in parts of the world over the last hundred years (and I happen to have been born in that part of the world and will likely live longer as a result... I'm inclined to be grateful for that!) Now there are whole other areas of ethical questions as to the availability (or lack of) of these advancements, but it's hard to deny that a lot of people will live longer. While I think about it, there is also the strange and ethically messy thing question around how the wars pushed scientific advancements forward: a lot of technologies that have proved beneficial (and some that proved very unbeneficial IMO) came about due to areas being explored for military applications.

Also, I have to question certain thinking around the natural/unnatural dichotomy. What is 'unnatural' about a person, or an animal, manipulating an environment to help it survive, or just to make it better for itself? I think this happens a lot in the world (with various consequences). I think it would be better, and less ambiguous, to look at such acts in terms of the intention behind them, not from a perception of a 'nature' that seems, to me, to be somewhat exclusive.



Harry said...

" ...infant mortality rates and life expectancies have greatly increased"

I meant there, of course, that infant mortality rates and life expectancies have greatly improved...