August 22, 2014

#SamHarris dives deeper into the empty pool of faux #Buddhism

Without explicitly seeing the "Buddhism is just a psychology" comment from his "End of Faith," that appears to be part of the general thesis of Sam Harris' new book, "Waking Up," which gets a long overview at his site.

For example:
One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics. 

One can, but that's not true to the spirit of Buddhism. In fact, riffing on "The Lotus and the Robot" by Arthur Koestler, Sammy undercuts himself:
While now generally viewed as a system of physical exercises designed to increase a person’s strength and flexibility, in its traditional context hatha yoga is part of a larger effort to manipulate “subtle” features of the body unknown to anatomists. 
On the flip side, Harris then says he won't entertain such discussions about traditional Eastern belief. Well, sure, if I use a chainsaw as an ersatz scalpel, I can call any religion a philosophy, Obama a liberal, or other mush.

Besides, contra this:
One can speak about Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions. The same cannot be said of Christianity or Islam. 
I can practice Stoicism out of Judaism, via Ecclesiastes, or even, just barely, some sort of pre-Rawls moral philosophy from Christianity via the Sermon on the Mount. Also, Harris ignores the likes of Reform Jews and Unitarians.

Of course, it's full of other stereotypes about Buddhism, namely that Buddhists are never violent in the name of religion. And that is incredibly untrue.

The 969 Movement in Burma is murderously Islamophobic; more here. And Bodu Bala Sena is an Islamophobic movement in Sri Lanka.

In addition, contra Harris, Buddhists have even persecuted one another for "heresy." Hindus and Taoists have persecuted Buddhists. Say what you will otherwise about Chris Hitchens, but he gets the reality of Eastern religions right in "God is Not Great," devoting one chapter to Eastern religions. Buddhism and other Eastern religions are also, in their way, as anti-intellectual as traditional Western ones, and, "detachment" aside, as capitalistic as Western ones.

Unfortunately, Harris has read Hitchens, without comprehending, understanding or accepting:
I will have something to say in this book about many of the things that might have justified Hitch’s opprobrium, but the general thrust of his commentary here was all wrong. Several Eastern traditions are exceptionally empirical and exceptionally wise, and therefore merit the exceptionalism claimed by their adherents.

Harris' chainsaw at work again. 

And it gets worse.
And when engaged as a set of hypotheses by which to investigate the mind and deepen one’s ethical life, Buddhism can be an entirely rational enterprise.
The first claim, about "investigate the mind"? Tosh. It's not rational at all, because those hypotheses are built on metaphysical claims. Above all, they're built on an explicitly anti-naturalistic stance that not only goes against philosophical naturalism, but also against the methodological naturalism that underlies the scientific method.

In short, because it's a LONG piece, I'll summarize by saying that Harris seems to be doing a long-winded, attempted but not succeeded version of what many a first-generation Western Buddhist convert does, and that's in ultimately making this statement:

"Item or Action X is not 'real' Buddhism."

Combine that, the chainsaw as scalpel, and the fallback on ineffability (which Harris seems to circumspectly hint at in spots), and sure, "Buddhism is just a philosophy" or "Buddhism is just a psychology."

As for the idea that it takes any religious, or even "spiritual," discipline to reach certain mental states? More tosh. I've "gone deep" myself in self-hypnosis. Deep enough to "see" spiraling mandalas. All with purely Western, secular mental techniques. If one wants to read more along this line, without Harris' mumbo-jumbo, I recommend John Horgan's "Rational Mysticism."

Meanwhile, it gets worse:
In one sense, the Buddhist concept of enlightenment really is just the epitome of “stress reduction”—and depending on how much stress one reduces, the results of one’s practice can seem more or less profound. 
What pablum. 

And, I've covered some of this in a more generic sense here, just recently.

More scary is the hypercapitalist side.

Harris talks about having journal-type exercises in the book. Can a workbook be next? CDs? DVDs? He is offering lectures, after all.

It is reminding me of a less intellectual, though vaguely similar new book, "10% Happier," in which the author also offers a "franchise" of additional tools, all at the right price, to help with meditation, etc.

1 comment:

Ron Krumpos said...

In "Waking up" Sam Harris uses the terms 'spiritual' and 'mystical' interchangeably. Just as he says that you do not have to be religious to be spiritual, so too you do not have to believe in God or be religious to be a mystic.

In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "The Greatest Achievement in Life," I summarized many similarities, and some differences, among the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Ironically, the man who personally introduced me to mysticism was an atheist who once wrote "God is man's greatest invention." Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.