16 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 3. Buddhism

In the first two parts of this essay I set up a scenario. I made a case for a mind-independent world, arguing that it is consistent with scientific knowledge and not inconsistent with early Buddhism. This dual approach hints at the overall purpose of the essay. I also tried to stress that I don't think we can project the human desire for perfection onto the mind-independent world, so that referring to it as Transcendental, Absolute, or even fair, is not warranted. The idea of an ordered universe is compelling; but why should it be ordered according to human standards? In fact, it isn't. Humans are only important to humans. An important and ongoing intellectual task is to identify the myths linked to such desires—just-world, perfect world, afterlife, immortality, supernatural, etc.—and reclaim them as human desires rather than as properties of the kosmos, per se. The world isn't like that, but we are. On a practical level, if we acknowledge our desires, we can figure out which are achievable and organise things as best we can to achieve them. It's not like fairness is a crazy idea, for humans.

Having established that there is a mind-independent world and that it is neutral with respect to our values, I tried to locate humans wholly within that world. Just because the world is independent of my mind, from my perspective, does not require that there is an ontological distinction between mind and world. There is an epistemological distinction due to the channels by which we gain knowledge. We tend to conflate the classic five physical senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) as providing us with information about the world and treat our mind-sense, that part of our mental activity which brings sensations and inferences to our attention, as providing a completely different form of information. Early Buddhists by contrast placed the mind-sense in the same category as the classic set of five senses.

The opening question of Part 1 was whether my experience was real or an illusion. I've been researching the history of the phrases from the Heart Sutra that begin "form is emptiness" (rūpam śūnyatā). These were, originally, a reference to that familiar Buddhist simile, "form is like an illusion (rūpam māyopamaṃ). There are two ways of looking at the skandhas: they can be seen as categories into which all phenomena—mental and physical—can be slotted; i.e., the skandhas encompass everything and are an ontology or a theory of existence. In some views, this totality (sarvam) is real and in others it is unreal, an illusion. The middle way is to say that this totality is neither real nor unreal, but because it is contingent and ephemeral, it is like an illusion.

Alternatively, the skandhas can be seen as the apparatus of experience or the experiencing apparatus and are concerned only with experience (i.e., with mental phenomena). In this case, the metaphysical question about real/unreal doesn't arise. Experience per se is like an illusion, because (in Western terms) it's all just representations in our heads. Experience is virtual - not real, not unreal. In this case the skandhas are not an ontology, but an epistemology; a theory of knowledge or of how we produce knowledge.

Sue Hamilton has made a good case for taking early Buddhism as referring to experience. And, over many years of reading early Buddhist texts, I have found this by far the most productive approach to them. It also works extremely well when reading the Prajñāpāramitā texts. Where an ontological reading throws up paradoxes and conundrums, many times an epistemological reading is far more straightforward. This impression has been reinforced by discovering certain modern approaches to ontology and epistemology. But all this begs the question...

So What?

What does this account of experience and a neutral mind-independent world gain us? Why insist on the epistemological nature of Buddhist insight, e.g., that the skandhas are experience? The reason is compatibility. And hence the title of the essay. Traditional Buddhism—e.g., the skandhas as ontology—is incompatible with what we currently know about the world. This can hardly be a surprise, since Buddhist ideas originate in Iron Age North India and are developed in a number of medieval Asian contexts. Very little knowledge about the world from these periods (ca. 500 BCE to 1800 CE) is considered accurate or reliable any more.

During the last 400 years in Europe and its imperialist enclaves around the world, we have discovered a great deal about the value neutral, mind-independent world. In 2003/4, Cambridge Buddhists went to India on pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha. Right here in Cambridge many of the giants of the Enlightenment have studied, lived, and worked. Not figures of myth, but genuine historical people such as Newton, Rutherford, Darwin, Krebs, Crick, Maxwell, Eddington, Turing, Goodall... to name a few personal favourites. People whose ideas helped me to make sense of my world. Hundreds of other luminaries across the entire spectrum of human knowledge (and folly) lived and worked just down the hill from here. Why go to India?

A lot of Buddhists, especially Buddhists I know, are powerfully influenced by Romanticism. As such, they can be carelessly dismissive of the European Enlightenment; some of them, rather ironically, use the internet to devalue science and technology. They seemingly forget that, though the Enlightenment did go down some culs de sac from time to time, it did a huge amount of good. For example, the Enlightenment effectively broke the power of the church over all our lives. It extracted concessions for ordinary people in the form of basic freedoms and rights for the first time. Nor did these freedoms exist in any Buddhist country, where totalitarianism was the norm. Power shifted away from ecclesiastical hierarchies to democratic institutions. As new, more reliable ideas began to emerge, superstitions lost their grip on our lives, particularly the big superstition, God. Nietzsche announced the death of God, but it was the great figures of the Enlightenment who killed him. And a good job that was. The Roman Church and its Protestant spin-offs subjugated the people of Europe and the people conquered by Europe for more than a millennium.

But things were no better in Asia or India. Buddhist nation states routinely denied citizens basic rights and freedoms; they substituted the kinds of religious ideologies that made subjects content to be subjects. The idea of karma was used to undermine Buddhists' sense of agency in the present, by insisting that what is happening now is a fate predetermined by how we lived our previous lives. We need to be clear that traditional Buddhism seeks to turn back the clock and take us back to a medieval worldview. The risk with this is that we relinquish the basic freedoms wrested from the church and put an ecclesiastical hierarchy back in charge. The level of sycophantic deference directed towards "venerable" monastics suggests that many Buddhists are all too willing to be subjugated by them. Just as it's important to resist the rise of the far-right in France, the "moral majority" in the USA, and the right-wing nationalists in the UK or India, we have to recognise the regressive and backwards social and political organisation associated with Buddhist nation states and Buddhist monasticism.

What I hope to show is that there is a middle way between embracing the intellectual slavery of religious ideology and the complete, nihilistic rejection of Buddhism. In other words, acknowledging the kind of world we live in, both in a physical and political sense, I want to show that we can easily imagine a Buddhism which is compatible with the modern world, but still worthy of the name "Buddhism".

Buddhism as Epistemology

The account of Buddhism as concerned with epistemology is consistent not only with key features of early Buddhist and Prajñāpāramitā accounts of experience, but also with a number of post-Enlightenment accounts.

On the Buddhist side, I associate the ideas most strongly with Sue Hamilton but, for example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has also commented that the world with which the Buddha's teachings are concerned is the world of experience. It is also a view that seems to resonate with those people I personally know who have made most progress with meditation and insight, though not always with the people who have adopted so-called "direct pointing" methods, with whom I am still out of step. The latter still seem to believe that they have discovered "reality" in their experience, and while this is an understandable mistake, it is a mistake and only sets back the project of modernising Buddhism.

My approach does undermine those streams of Buddhism which purport to be about reality or metaphysics. Buddhism has nothing of interest to say on matters of existence, causality, space, or time. Nor does any religion. Buddhists may have a major contribution to make on the nature of experience and on the role of the first-person perspective in organising experience, but only if we can disentangle it from our narratives about "reality".

Buddhism as ontology is not compatible with what we know about the value-neutral, mind-independent world. When some Buddhists assert that the mind creates the world in the sense that "mind precedes matter", they are clearly at odds with most of philosophy and all of science. Those Buddhists are asserting a form of causality for which there is no evidence, and which appears to go in the opposite direction to "reality". Worse, Buddhist narratives about reality are not even supportable on their own terms (as I have been pointing out for some years now in considerable detail on this blog). When they come into contact with modern methods and knowledge, these narratives cannot compete, except where people positively want magical explanations and are thus willing to be fooled (and I know plenty of people like this). However, if we interpret "world" as the early Buddhists texts clearly did, as "world of experience", then yes, the mind does create that world or, at the very least, is a central element in creating that world. (Note, it's not that Buddhist texts lack a social world, or a physical world. In fact, they use the word loka for all three. But the world we gain insight into is specifically the world of experience). 

This epistemological account of Buddhism is compatible with basic, macroscopic laws of nature because it says nothing about them and nothing that is at odds with them. There are other accounts of Buddhism which have similar compatibility. This is not a monolithic argument for Jayarava-ism. It's a general argument in favour of compatibility, using my ideas as an example of a compatible account.

When we confuse experience and reality, then the result is usually inconsistent with laws of nature, because the contents of our minds, as virtual representations, are not constrained the same way that physical objects are (I illustrated this in Part 2 using the image of pigs with wings). When we correctly distinguish experience and reality, then we gain some wriggle room. Unfortunately for Buddhism, science is very accurate when it comes to the human scale physical world. At the scales of length, mass, and energy that we work with in our daily lives and which our naked senses can take in, science makes predictions far more accurate than our ability to perceive them, and in some cases more accurate than our ability to measure them at all.

When we take Buddhism to be concerned with epistemology we gain in two ways:
  1. we gain an internally coherent reading of doctrines that are incoherent under an ontological reading;  and 
  2. we gain an accommodation with science as the leading knowledge system of any time or place by stepping out of its way.
Taken together, I submit that these two factors make a compelling case for adapting Buddhism towards an epistemological reading. This is the essence of what I wanted to say with this essay. So the reader could stop at this point. In what follows, I try to characterise in more detail the situation we Buddhists face in the modern world.


Some years ago I was obsessed with the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy. I emulated his efforts, often using discarded objects to create ephemeral sculptures. I began making freestanding arches out of whatever was at hand. A big feature of my four month ordination retreat was using my spare time to create arches from the abundant local stone (some pics here). I also got into making tall thin spires of stone, but I want to focus here on arches. A stone has certain properties: rigidity, density, external texture, colour, etc. The stone I was working with was weathered from surrounding cliffs. Individual stones tended to be fairly flat and had a rough texture. Now, a simple pile of stones does not have rigidity as a property, it is less dense than the stones that make it up, and doesn't really cohere into an object. It's more of an aggregate. When you make an arch you create something more than a pile of stones. You create a new kind of entity that has properties that piles of stones don't have. Archs are structures with emergent properties. 

My method was to erect two towers of stones that curved toward each other until there was a final gap that could be plugged by one more stone - the keystone in arch-making jargon. Up to that point neither tower would be capable of supporting itself, but relied on a substructure to hold it up. Inserting the keystone to complete the arc feels a bit like an act of magic (I know). The two unstable structures become one structure that is stable, there is a palpable shift in the distribution of forces as two things that feel inherent unstable, become one that is stable. The best arches are lifted off their support a little by wedging in the keystone, so that the arch is already free-standing at that point.

No investigation of the properties of the stones would throw up the possibility of making arches if one did not already have the idea of an arch as a structure in your head. The building blocks do not enable us to predict the architecture. This is the fundamental limitation on reductionism with respect to structure. On the other hand, one can analyse arches to see how the properties of the stones, assembled in a particular way, create the new property that enables the freestanding arches to remain standing. 

King's College Chapel
The basic principles of arch-making are old. The Romans were already experts at making them. The physics is all quite well understood and can be described in classical terms. Cambridge and the surrounding area are home to some spectacular medieval architecture. The fan-vaulted ceiling of King's College Chapel is an apotheosis of the architectural arch. The Norman cathedral at Ely is a classic of the type and full of spectacular arches and a dome. However, these days we have pre-stressed, reinforced concrete, steel beams, lightweight metal-alloy cladding, and toughened glass. It's nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing, but to some extent it democratised grand spaces.

Architecture tells us a lot about a society. For example, the periods of self-indulgent monumental architecture in Britain, associated with the Normans and later with the British Empire, were signs of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny ruling elite at the expense of both British workers and the indigenous people of the various colonies. During the height of the Empire, for example, typical housing for working people was rows of tiny, small-roomed houses, crammed together; built at minimal cost, with the cheapest materials, and little or no decoration. Walls were thin, the houses were not insulated, and many had little or no garden space. Socialising in such houses was next to impossible, so this was done at the local pub for adults, or out in the street for children (weather permitting). Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie were building a network of country mansions, each with vast landscaped gardens, and a staff of peasants, many of these establishments on what was once common land, previously owned by no one but used by peasants as back-up for when work dried up. The huge dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London represents, as much as anything, the cruel inequality of British society, and the avarice of the Church of England at the time. You also learn a lot about British society by noting that the statues lining the walls inside the cathedral are mostly military figures, rather than saints. The role of the military is to protect commerce.

We need to be clear that the meeting of Buddhism and modernism is not like two leaning towers of blocks coming together with only the keystone missing to join them into one harmonious whole. No. While Buddhists are hunting around for just the right keystone to complete the arch from the ancient past to the present, secular modernists have already just dropped a couple of massive steel beams across the gap, bypassing our religion entirely. Mindfulness is already a secular commodity and enlightenment is about to become one (Look up Jeffery A Martin for one version of how this might look, complete with hi-tech gadgets).

Once people realise that they can have the enlightenment experience without the burden of memorising a bunch of words in a dead language, a load of ancient Indian myths, some rather doubtful "history", and incoherent ancient philosophical speculations, then "Buddhism" is going to become an even more niche activity; a theme park attraction or a Asian fetish. Like most people, while I do appreciate the elitist grandeur of the Norman Cathedral, I mostly just want an affordable roof over my head.

As beautiful as arches are, and as fascinating as it is to make them, they no longer serve as structural features in buildings. Where arches are used, they are merely decorative rather than functional. Load -bearing is handled by modern materials in modern configurations. We might mourn the loss of the arch, but no one is arguing that we stop using steel beams or prestressed concrete and go back to using them as functional features of our buildings. Idea on the value of arches in structures is pretty much irrelevant.

Buddhism and Modernism

Some critics of what they call "Buddhist Modernism" complain that the values being promulgated by Western Buddhists are just modern liberal values masquerading as Buddhism. I suppose, to some extent, this is true, but what is the alternative? Look around at societies in which Buddhism is the dominant religion. Look at their values. Most are nominally democracies, but until very recently most have also been dictatorships, very often military dictatorships. Most have been engaged in civil wars recently; many in wars with other nations. Democracy and human rights are not so much embraced by nominally Buddhist nations, as they are imposed on them by external, secular influences (one of the main ones being the cultural imperialism of the USA). 

Here in the West we now take liberal values—such as democracy and human rights—for granted. A couple of weeks ago, 68% or around two-thirds of eligible voters turned out for an election in the UK and this figure was considered "high". A third of the electorate not voting is outrageous when you consider what people went through to get the right to vote in this country! Ironically, traditional Buddhism, unmolested by modernism, might never have produced the kind of liberal values that we hold dear, if traditional Buddhist countries are anything to go by. Traditional Buddhists are likely be fatalistic about their lot in life, about the unfairness of the system, and about who is in power. As often as Buddhist monks protest oppression, they are the oppressors.  

If Japan had won the Pacific War, for example, and subjugated Asia and the USA, leaving the Germans a free hand in Europe and Africa, would we expect to have the UN declaration of human rights? History makes it fairly clear that the authoritarian, imperialist, militaristic government of nominally Buddhist Japan, with support from Buddhist clergy, was not heading in that direction. Communist China was brutal in Tibet, but it would have been much worse if Buddhist Japan had completed their conquest of Asia (which had begun some years before WWII).

So, yes, we Western Buddhists have created a Buddhism that is consistent with our liberal values. But to be fair, we have created it from an idealised version of morality as found in Buddhist scripture, not from the historical values of Buddhist societies. Critics can be grateful for that, because in most Buddhist regimes, critics are not tolerated! We Western Buddhists may be religious, but we're not idiots. To argue that this is a form of modernism rather than a form of Buddhism is to ignore the highly eclectic intellectual history of Buddhism. The critique of Buddhism seems itself to be motivated by Protestant ideas about what a religion ought to be like. Sometimes I think it is ironic that my friend David Chapman touts a modernist version of tantric Buddhism, itself a syncretistic amalgam of various elements of medieval Indian and indigenous Tibetan religion, as a better "alternative" to what he calls 'consensus Buddhism'. On the other hand, he is probably right that embracing the hedonistic tendency of the West is more likely to be successful than the suppression of it required by renunciation-focussed forms of Buddhism. Puritanism still has its appeal to many Europeans (especially in the colonies they founded to allow Protestants to follow their religious ideology unmolested), but it's never been a realistic alternative to the way of life most people prefer.

The Protestant trend in religious critique, combined with simplistic readings of Foucault and others on the idea of power and society, has made Westerners overly suspicious of community. Indeed, it seems to be de rigueur for critics of modern Buddhism to define the social aspects of Buddhism as not Buddhism. Modernists' Buddhism is sometimes narrowly defined in terms of a few elite practitioners with on-going non-symbolic experiences. Which excludes 99% of Buddhists from the category of "Buddhist". Pop psychology buzz-words like "group-think" or "echo chamber" seem to be over-worked at the expense of any attempt to understand humans as social animals. Still, I think Buddhists embracing Protestant attitudes is probably neutral. At least, in Protestantism, fatalism is undermined by the imperative to actually do something about one's faith, something sorely lacking in traditional Buddhism.

It is essential for any modern critic to acknowledge that human beings are social and hierarchical by nature (which is, incidentally, why I am a socialist and not an anarchist). The same is true for all social mammals and many social birds, as well. Yes, some social situations are open to exploitation by sociopaths, but a human set apart from society, alienated from society, is far more vulnerable than one in a group. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment for a reason. Alienated individuals are prone to addiction and mental illness.

Foucault's notions of power embrace the role of the subject in hierarchical relationships. As social animals we instinctively subject ourselves to the group norms in a trade off for the protection and other benefits that community membership (ideally) provides. Some of the happiest people in the USA live in strictly religious communities. Amongst the Amish, rigid social norms constrain the behaviour of individuals in ways that look oppressive to outsiders. However, an Amish knows that they can rely on their community to a much greater extent than any outsider can on theirs. And in most cultures, this tradeoff of conformity for a very high degree of support is the norm. It is ironic that in secular society, with all its freedoms, inequality is orders of magnitude greater, and so many people appear to have no support at all. The destruction of the union movement, for example, has decoupled employment rates from wages. Employment is at record highs in the UK, while wages have been falling in real terms for 10 years and continue to fall. Divided, we fall.

The embracing of Romanticism and the rejection of science, however, seem positively detrimental to me. Of course, alpha-critic, David McMahan, highlights ways in which he thinks Buddhists have embraced science, but my observation is that the influence is tiny in practice. Those Buddhists who do embrace science are few, and have started to form breakaway movements, though it remains to be seen how well they can integrate the two. They often fail to make the corrective move away from ontological readings of Buddhism, leaving them attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. Or else they throw out far too much in an attempt at reconciliation. 

More interesting are those who have some ongoing non-symbolic experience and have either modified or largely abandoned the tradition to focus on just the elements that appear to directly contribute to non-symbolic experiences. This exacerbates the old tension (I almost said, the old injury) already mentioned, in which the social and cultural aspects of Buddhism are devalued in favour of isolated people doing specific meditative techniques. One of my friends characterises this as the distinction between Buddhism and the Dharma. Some movements are teaching people how to be Buddhists; others are solely focussed on creating non-symbolic experiences. I think we need both.

If a Buddhist group is only teaching people how to act like Buddhists (which, of course, may include a regular meditation practice) then they would seem to be guilty of the complaint often laid at the door of secular mindfulness teachers: i.e., that their program is incomplete. On the other hand, a group that only offers intensive meditation instruction, and no pastoral care or community support, also seems to be incomplete. On one side is the danger of fatalism, complacency, and formalism; while on the other the danger is solipsism, alienation, and delusions of grandeur. Is there a keystone waiting to be inserted? I'm not convinced there is one. I suspect this will be another case of steel beams making keystones irrelevant.

Buddhism and STEM

The rejection of science is particularly problematic for Buddhism. It is true that the scientific project is incomplete. There is a great deal that is not understood. And it is problematic that so much of science is dominated by reductionist ideology, which ignores structure and emergent properties. This seems to be changing. It's mainly physicists and neuroscientists who are obsessed with reductionism. A lot of other branches of science, such as biology, AI, or cosmology, understand that anti-reductionism is required where structures and systems are concerned. Chemistry is somewhere in the middle. We chemists know that everything is made of atoms, but that the really interesting objects are molecules and macromolecules, because they have properties and variety that are not found in atoms. No one designing a semiconductor or superconductor can afford an ideological commitment to reductionism, because the very properties that they investigate are systemic and emergent. Imagine if an architect only ever studied bricks and thought houses (let alone mortar) were not relevant because, being composite, they are not real. That's where a lot of science is right now. On the other hand, it's also where Buddhist doctrine has been stuck for 2000 years or more.

In the clash of Buddhism and modernity, Buddhism stands to lose unless Western civilisation collapses and we go back to medieval or earlier forms of knowledge. I suspect that, in fact, the tipping point has been reached and traditional Buddhism has peaked. Buddhism as a religion is going to be gradually eclipsed by recycled secular presentations of our best ideas (few) and practices (many). However, if we cede the domain of reality to science we gain in two ways. We are still the experts in understanding the world of experience (for now) and we are seen not to insist on the kinds of obviously false claims about reality that religieux typically make.

In his first book on Buddhism, authored from notes for a series of talks delivered in 1954 in India, my first Buddhist teacher, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, wrote that he prefered Buddhist doctrine to rational inquiry, in all things (A Survey of Buddhism, Chp 1). Even then, the romantic influence on this thinking is apparent. For example, describing Wong Mow Lam's translation of the Platform Sutra he says:
"Despite bad grammar, faulty syntax and wrong use of words (to say nothing of printer's errors, coarse paper and unattractive binding of the original edition) there shines through its pages a light which is not of this world... (Survey 42; emphasis added)
Sangharakshita studiously ignored science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) throughout his long teaching career despite the advances that occurred during his career, including the discovery of DNA, the integrated circuit, space flight, personal computers, organ transplants, brain surgery, and so on. None of this ever seems to attract his attention. Even when he spoke about evolution (a 19th Century theory) in the 1960s, rather than citing Darwin, Sangharakshita innovated a teleological and vitalist approach to evolution that was completely out of touch, not to say at odds, with the science of his own day (let alone the science of our day). Sangharakshita's layered approach to "reality" under the rubric of niyāma (an unfortunate misnomer that considerable effort from scholars of Pāḷi in the Order has been unable to shift), recently reiterated and elaborated on by Subhuti, incorporates elements of the 19th Century Western thought of Comte and Mill, via the Edwardian figure of Caroline Rhys Davids. However, again, Sangharakshita incorporates no insights from the STEM fields, but simply reiterates his vitalist teleology.

I know I find this frustrating and I'm sure many of my STEM educated friends and colleague do also. I seldom make the challenge direct and personal, but I think this time I have to. The idea of a value-neutral, mind-independent world eviscerates Romanticism. My whole approach is anti-Romantic. And it is a considered stance that I believe is necessary, however confrontational it appears (my motivation is not to provoke confrontation, it is to rescue Buddhism from obscurity). While any influence is unconscious, it is potentially pernicious. This seems to me to be consistent with the early Buddhist criticism of dṛṣṭi or "views".

On the other hand, I have never articulated a theory of aesthetics. Art and music do affect our states of mind. And, if we are in pursuit of altered states of mind, then, for this reason, aesthetics are important. The lack of an articulated approach to aesthetics is something I ought to address at some point (art and music have been important to me most of my life). In an environment in which aesthetics has become synonymous with Romanticism, what would an anti-Romantic aesthetic even look like? But if I have failed to engage with aesthetics, then I'm in good company, because neither has any other critic of traditional Buddhism. 

Buddhism and the Supernatural

A major remaining problem for modern Buddhism is the supernatural. I no longer find anything about the supernatural plausible - it is not required in a value-neutral, mind-independent world. But virtually all religious, and even some non-religious, people do. Many intelligent people are willing to remain, or insist on remaining, agnostic on this matter. I know that many of my Buddhist colleagues and acquaintances are fully committed to supernatural interpretations of experience and structure their self-views around supernatural narratives. The supernatural is a fact to many people and likely to remain plausible to them for reasons I have previously explored on this blog. I find the evolutionary accounts produced by scholars such as Justin Barrett, Thomas Metzinger, Robin Dunbar, and Stewart Guthrie compelling. However, if their accounts are accurate, then factual arguments will most likely never convince believers that they are wrong. The supernatural will remain plausible and will be impossible to eradicate from religion. It will continue to form the core of religion, but it also informs people's views about the world far beyond the religious sphere. Unfortunately, the supernatural involves built-in falsehood, and it can only hinder any attempt to free ourselves from harmful views. 

Meanwhile, our methods and insights are being repackaged even now and represented in secular terms that appeal to a growing number of people who are not otherwise interested in religion, let alone an exotic minority religion like Buddhism.

I suspect that at some point Western Buddhism will split into two broad factions over the issue of the supernatural. If this happens then a lot that is good about the tradition in terms of stories, myths, art, and so on, will be lost. I say this because I think that Buddhism, as presented to Westerners, is not sufficiently in tune with Western Values to ever be anything but exotic, with appeal to a tiny minority. As much as critics complain about the presentation of Western liberal values as Buddhist morality, in fact, many Buddhists are scornful and dismissive towards Western values. Politics (and with it concepts like freedom and liberty) and STEM are seen as outside the scope of valid knowledge. And the view seems to be that once one is enlightened one's values will be radically altered to be consistent with the sentiments of the English Romantic Poets (a bunch of degenerate freeloaders who spent a lot of time getting out of their skulls on opium).

Since science and technology more or less define our modern values, any religion which eschews them or demonises them, as Buddhists tend to, will not grow beyond the 1% that we have attracted to date. And we will watch in frustration as other supernatural narratives, particularly God's love, divine forgiveness, and everlasting life, continue to outperform ours. It's a lot of hard work for quite meagre returns, and not really sustainable. Of course, a diaspora who have nothing left but their deeply religious culture will probably keep the traditions alive for centuries. Judaism shows just how powerful cultural identity can be under extreme adverse conditions. 


In this longish essay I've outlined a view of the world that I think provides maximum compatibility between contemporary knowledge of the world and Buddhism. It requires a considerable compromise on our part. In this last part I've tried to make it clear, using the imagery of arch building, that the task is not simply finding the right "keystone" that will allow science and Buddhism to map onto each other. In fact, I think it far more likely that science will simply bypass traditional Buddhism and leave it behind as a curiosity or fetish for Asiaphiles. Instead, commodified, secular versions of our key approaches to experience will eclipse traditional Buddhism, making much of it irrelevant. All it lacks at present is a sense of communal values, though, of course, the very act of commodifying something strips it of much of its value; and the therapeutic model steers away from creating communities.

I want to finish with a different metaphor. In his book on the canon of Western literature, curmudgeonly literary critic, Harold Bloom (The Western Canon), turns the tables on Freud. Freud had infamously diagnosed many of Shakespeare's characters with psychopathologies. Bloom was of the opinion that Shakespeare had the greater insight into the human psyche, and argued that Freud probably agreed with this, at least subconsciously. Freud was reputed to be obsessed with Shakespeare. Where Freud had diagnosed Hamlet as having an Oedipus Complex—a rather simplistic and gross reading of the character—Bloom turns it around and diagnoses Freud as having a Hamlet Complex as a result of his feeling that Shakespeare had the deeper insight. However plausible we find this characterisation, the idea of a Hamlet complex is one I find useful in considering many things in life, but particularly the potential fate of Buddhism.

Hamlet discovers from his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius, at his mother's bidding, has murdered his father and usurped the throne of Denmark. The testimony of a ghost would not stand up in court, but the knowledge compels him to act. He knows his mother, Gertrude, is complicit, so to confront his uncle is also to condemn his mother which he recoils from. For a while he feigns madness, or perhaps is a little mad, and during this period rebuffs his childhood friend and sweetheart, Ophelia. Things go from bad to worse when he inadvertently kills Ophelia's father, Polonius. Ophelia is so distraught from Hamlet's rejection and Polonius's death that she kills herself. There seems to be no course of action or inaction Hamlet can take to relieve the unbearable tension of his knowledge. Hamlet's attempt to expose Claudius using the play-within-a-play only alerts Claudius to Hamlet's awareness of his crime. Claudius plots to kill Hamlet, resulting instead in the deaths of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the end, events overrun Hamlet as Ophelia's brother Laertes returns and, prompted by Claudius, accuses Hamlet of responsibility for her death. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel. At the duel Claudius offers poisoned wine to Hamlet, but Gertrude drinks it instead and dies. But not before Laertes cuts Hamlet with a poisoned blade supplied by Claudius, sealing his doom. Hamlet's dying act is to stab Claudius with his sword, a final act of justice. 

We can define the Hamlet Complex as, when one understands the situation, knows that action is required, but is prevented from acting, not simply by indecision or cowardice, but also by the terrible unintended consequences provoked by attempts at action, and by the machinations of opposing agents. Eventually, events overrun the protagonist, leading to the worst possible outcome. (I'm not sure that this applies to Freud, but I'll pass over that)

To me, Buddhism has a Hamlet Complex. I think deep down we all know that the world has changed and, indeed, is changing rapidly around us. I suppose we might go down the route of the Amish. We might reject the modern world, get off the internet, stop using electricity, motor-vehicles, and modern medicine; we might give up personal freedoms and adopt rigid social norms; and that might be a satisfying life. I've certainly dabbled in it, during, for example, my four month ordination retreat. But we'll never sell this as an ideal which modern Westerners can aspire to.

So here we are. We know that God is dead and religion is dying. We know that fewer and fewer people are religious. And yet, we who are still religious stand by as some promote an identical program but call it something else, and some pick out parts of our program and commodify it. We have good PR to an extent that we don't deserve, but we can't seem to capitalise on it, because we are promoting the one thing that no one wants any more. And yet,with some adjustments we could make it interesting to everyone.

On Twitter this week, David Chapman asked what Buddhists offer the world. We offer a vision of human potential; a practical path for realising that potential; and a community of people who want more from life than mindless consumerism and blind obedience to the dictates of commerce. These are our gifts (ratna) to the world. If we were more aware of the limitations of these gifts (particularly the powerful constraints on who can achieve their potential) and of what we don't offer (an ontology; politics), then I think we would be in a stronger position. Perhaps we can boil it down to the idea that, at our best, Buddhists offer a way for people to experience a powerful sense of interconnectedness; something they crave, but which modern life does not provide. Let's not allow ideology to get in the way of giving our gifts with an open hand. 

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