C4, the man on all things New Atheist, with this quotation from Sam Harris’ End of Faith (although to be fair as C4 and Harris point out New Atheist doesn’t really work for him per se)
“Attentive readers will have noticed that I have been very hard on religions of faith–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Hinduism–and have not said much that is derogatory of Buddhism. This is not an accident. While Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence, it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense. There are millions of Buddhists who do not seem to know this, and they can be found in temples throughout Southeast Asia, and even the West praying to Buddha as though he were a numinous incarnation of Santa Claus. This distortion of the tradition notwithstanding, it remains true that the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma. It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe. This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhists are not saddled with certain dogmas (so are physicists) or that the Bushmen could not have formed some conception of the atom. Any person familiar with both literatures will know that the Bible does not contain a discernible fraction of the precises spiritual instructions that can be found in the Buddhist canon. Though there is much in Buddhism that I do not pretend to understand–as well as much that seems deeply implausible–it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge its preeminence as a system of spiritual instructions.”
Now, there’s a lot here, some intelligent, some less than.
The first point is that the comparison is not between say the description of meditation practices in the Buddhist Canon and the Bible. Particularly say the New Testament for the Christian Bible.
The comparison would be between the handbooks of Buddhist meditation and the Christian mystical corpus that does in fact describe the practice, the reality/recognition/clues of mysticism, and possible illusions-pitfalls on the path. Examples: Dionysius’ Mystical Theology. The Cloud of Unknowing. Gregory Palamas’ Triads. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila’s Inner Castle. Etc. etc.
Not to mention say an Eckhart who goes toe to toe with Padmashambhava, Hui Neng, Vivekananda.
To take a prosaic example, the letters of St. Paul. They are written to Christian communities about the problems they are having. They are pastoral letters not meditative manuals. Harris is comparing apples and oranges. Compare the apples and apples, or else how am I supposed to take this guy that seriously?
Likely some of the Christian ecclesiastics meeting with the Dali Lama are regular old “mythic believers.” The Dali Lama has his own mythic nonsense (as Harris sorta notes): e.g. homosexuality is bad karma, hurricanes hit New Orleans as a result of the evil deeds of the citizens.
Still, it is fair to say that Buddhism is the most complete of the mystical (and post-mystical/nondual) schools. The whole package, as it were, you can in fact get from Sufism, Kabbalah, or Christian nonduality. But again I think it’s fair to say it’s not been as strong a force as in Buddhism.
Which brings up another point worth asking—is that an all together good thing?
Buddhism failed politically. Buddhist countries were unable to handle the coming of Marxism (communism) and succumbed to its onslaught. Tibet home of the great Sky Yogis was also closed off and completely agrarian/medieval by the middle of the 20th century. High infant mortality rates, high rates no doubt of child abuse/neglect (as is common in agrarian societies), superstition and all the rest. Doesn’t mean they deserved the atrocities of the Chinese or were not a proud, beautiful culture, just to say let’s look at all sides here.
If you count modern China as more Confucian than Buddhist (as I would), than Huntington’s Culture Matters is right in pointing out that Buddhist countries (SE Asia, for example) score significantly lower in cultural factors of education, scientific spirit, political freedom, economic choice than the Protestant Christian and Confucian systems.
As Balder notes here (via Wilber), there is absolute and relative emancipation. Buddhism largely failed on the relative emancipatory scale. Politically, socially, economically. In relation to the modern world. Ashoka’s empire was a deeply humane and cultural literate one by ancient standards. But once modernity arrives on the scene, it’s a different story (imperialism included and not excused).
In that light, again seems like Harris is comparing apples (Absolute emancipation) with oranges (relative emancipation). Apples-apples and oranges-oranges.
Think Burma. In the news of late. Christianity is rightfully criticized for its history of violence and collusion with violent imperial projects. Buddhism is rightly hailed for its history and practice of non-violence. But that non-violence, that strict separation of the realizers to the woods, mountains, and retreats, leaves politics to be run by evil ignorant people often. Burma. Thailand. Cambodia. Laos. Vietnam. You get the point.
Aung San Suu Kyi represents a bridge with the deep practice of compassion and mindfulness but also tough minded liberal political thinking.
If all we ever practice is compassion and mindfulness, violence may not be increased by us, but violence is also allowed to flourish too often. By our inaction. In Christian theology, what we call a sin of omission (as opposed to commission).
This is a dangerous thought I’m letting myself think. This is not to be immediately taken as an excuse/legitimation for violence.
But as Augustine said, “Love and do what you will.”
Like the Gita: “Remember the Lord and fight.”
Absolute (Remember the Lord/Love) and Relative (Do what you will/Fight) emancipations.
Love is wanting the best for the other person in their otherness, uniqueness. Suffering with is profound (compassion) but it can also allow the cause of that suffering to remain as is.
I don’t think Harris per se is infected by this other-worldly, get off the wheel bug. Hopefully Western Buddhism can add (and is starting to) a more politically astute tenor to the way. It was Thomas Merton and Christianity that influenced Thich Nat Hanh to protest the Vietnamese War and to organize actions.
I just think as usual he’s on to something, but has it confused with extraneous and incorrect nonsense. As I’ve said before, I criticize him more forcefully because he is wiser than the others (Hitches, Dawkins, Dennetts of the world). He should know better. And because he is much more charismatic and much more likely to start a movement, become a religious leader. As such, he needs to be more careful with what he says.