This post became much longer than I had anticipated, so I’m breaking it into three parts.
I just read an article by John Horgan (reprinted in an edited version in Slate this week) about his decision to give up being a Buddhist. In actuality, it seems like he gave up his interest in becoming a Buddhist, but that’s a bit of quibbling. Horgan is the author of a number of books, particularly, Rational Mysticism, which is an investigation into the science behind mystic and spiritual experiences. It’s an interesting read, even though I often disagree with his conclusions.
Horgan’s article got me to thinking about how easy to is to dismiss spirituality, and religion in particular, because of theological propositions that fly in the face of rational empiricism and scientific evidence. In Horgan’s article (and in another article where he is more specific about why he stopped practicing Buddhist meditation) I get the impression that his intentions for meditating were at odds with the results he expected. He describes how much trouble he had controlling his thoughts, but seems to revel in the idea of uncontrolled thoughts and find distain for taking time to still one’s mind. He also presents odd arguments as to why meditation may not bear the same fruit for everyone, even suggesting that it might be harmful.
From the significant amount of research I’ve done, I would say that the chances of meditation being harmful for anyone are very slim, and would probably only be an issue for those dealing with serious psychological and or neurological issues, and these very same people might benefit from the right kind of meditation.
Possibly Horgan was not trying the right kind of meditation for him. He was practicing Zen meditation. Maybe he needed to try Vajrayana meditations (which can be more imaginative and visual), Vipassana (watching the breath/mind).
From my own personal experience, I have found that a daily Vajrayana Buddhist meditation practice has left me a calmer, more patient person. It has helped me be more compassionate and loving. It has helped me look past my focus on Self and see the needs of others. It has helped me realize that happiness is all in my mind. My external circumstance my make my life easier, but they won’t make me happy. If I’m not happy, I need to change the state of my mind. To me that is the essence of spirituality. Does it make you happier, more compassionate, more loving, more at peace? Too often spiritual seekers become attached to the desire for spiritual experiences. They read about mystic visions and see them as a sign of progress, or of advancement, or they simply view the spiritual path as a competition with video game-like level to be achieved. If your spiritual path isn’t making you a better human being, you probably need a different path. Maybe that was why Hoagan ditched the school of Buddhism he was following.
The more likely reason, I suspect, is that he rational mind could not accept the claims made by his teacher and Buddhism in general. For that, it’s harder to fault him. Reincarnation and karma are two theological tenets of Buddhism (and Hinduism & Jainism) that are nearly impossible to verify in an empirically scientific fashion. Ian Stevenson did some good research on reincarnation, but while it is suggestive, it is not conclusive. Reincarnation suggests some essence of each living being (soul, atman, very subtle mind) passes into another at conception or birth. And karma, while it seems a simple reframing of cause and effect, requires reincarnation to explain cause and effect from one lifetime to another – a sort of impartial cosmic justice acting like a law of nature.
Now, I believe in karma and reincarnation based on both research (like Stevenson’s) and experiences arising from deep meditative states. But, I hold that belief provisionally, with the understanding that it may be wrong, much the way scientists accept the conclusions of research and experimentation, but revise their opinions in the face of evidence. Physicists and astronomers believe most of the universe is composed of matter and energy that can’t be seen or measured. They believe this because their equations of how the universe works suggest that it is true. Given new evidence, or new equations, they will likely change their minds. This is why scientists are not likely to change their minds about evolution – because the evidence is very solid, although they may revise their interpretation of evolution based on new evidence. An interesting question to raise is if one can believe (even provisionally) in evolution and dark matter/energy based not on direct observation, but on extrapolation and circumstantial evidence, whether is reasonable to believe (provisionally) in reported phenomena like reincarnation. Obviously, I think it is. (Yes, I know it’s not a perfect analogy – there is clear evidence of biological evolution happening all the time – bacterial resistance to over prescribed drugs for instance).
I think it is the inability of most people to change their minds, or to keep their minds open to alternate interpretations and possibilities, that makes religion and spirituality so unattractive as subject matter for science fiction and fantasy. Yes, I’m finally bringing this around to science fiction and fantasy. I’m very much interested in how I can address issues like religion and spirituality in the sci-fi and fantasy I write.
Science fiction and fantasy are the perfect genres for exploring the questions at the heart of religious belief and of spirituality in general. But is there a set of criteria by which this exploration can best be pursued? That’s a question I’m trying to examine as I write my novels and as I plan and plot future novels.
(more to come)
Interesting post. The scientific research done on buddhist meditators in the past couple of years has shown that it actually changes the brain so that we become wired for happiness and kindness to others. I too like to explore spirituality in fantasy, but I keep religious words out of my writing because peoople have reactions to anything that smacks of religion.
I have studied vajrayana buddhism and practiced it for years, but I hate saying ‘I’m a buddhist’ because people have concepts about what that means that just aren’t true.
You don’t have to ‘be a buddhist’ to enjoy the fruits of meditation and the understanding that comes from studying the dharma.
Keeping the religious words out is what I’m struggling with. It’s hard to talk about something without using the words for it. But you’re right, a lot of folks can have a close-minded reaction to anything religious. It’s something I’m trying to keep in mind while editing The Celestial Blade (The Starship Destiny). Currently there is a lot of talk about religion, but it’s central to the plot, so I’m hoping that helps mitigate any negative reactions.
Funny, I never have any problem telling people I’m a Buddhist. You’re right about preconceived notions though. Most folks aren’t too clear in the differences between Baptists and Methodists much less Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism.