My most popular Medium article, at least for now, is “Buddhism Is Wrong.” It was inspired by my spouse who sent to me a video of a lecture from a Hollywood celebrity. The article received many great, thoughtful, and supportive comments. It also received some rude and insulting comments.
The point of the article was to refute the silly advice by the smug celebrity that the way to achieve happiness is to admit that your thoughts are illusions. The celebrity exhorted people to reject your thoughts, especially that you are a self, and then you will find peace. The celebrity correctly attributed these ideas to Buddhism, and the video was sponsored by a Buddhist organization. In my article, I correctly pointed out the absurd self-contradictions of these ideas, explaining the philosophy of thinking, beliefs, and the self.
As I say, the vast majority of responses to my article were positive. The few rude and insulting responses to my article were from people who said they were Buddhists. The comments were shocking in their vitriol and ignorance. I am used to hatred being spewed at me from Fundamentalists and other right-wingers angry at me for being “woke” and not hating the people they hate. I was surprised to receive similar spewing from self-described Buddhists.
The angry Buddhists clearly hadn’t read past the first few sentences of my article, but nevertheless they declared that they “knew” I had never read anything about Buddhism. Two lessons could be drawn from the 26 rude responses (compared to 76 polite responses).
One is how common it is for people in all walks of life to not understand the ideologies they believe they are following. That some who believe they are following Buddhism don’t know its history is not surprising. We are all human after all. It’s highly excusable in the case of Buddhism because most people only have experience with New Agey Western forms of Buddhism that have sugar coated and whitewashed the tradition. Some of the rude people showed from their comments that they were coming from that place, and thus ignorant about Buddhist philosophy. Again, this is in no way unique to Buddhism. Pop culture has similarly sugar coated and whitewashed stoicism.
That’s part of why I wrote the “Buddhism Is Wrong” article, because although the celebrity was wrong about thoughts and the self, he was correct that these errors are Buddhist ideas. Despite some people insulting me for saying so, the truth is that Buddhism denies the self. I will link to two good scholarly sources on this: No Self and Emptiness and Self and Consciousness. I also can point the reader to Nagarjuna’s philosophy and the Pali canon. Original Buddhism teaches that we should see our thoughts as illusions and by so declaring them without value, we can reach the state of No Self and not reincarnate. Granted, some forms of Western Buddhism have abandoned the central principles of Maya (in both senses of illusion and deceit), though some, like the school I quoted that inspired my article, maintain the Buddha’s teaching that thoughts are illusions.
The other lesson is about the power of belief. That was one of the other themes of my article: thoughts are not illusions you can just dismiss because your thoughts are a big part of what makes you who you are. Even incorrect thoughts affect your perspectives and experiences. Some of the self-described Buddhists were angry at me for pointing out this reality. They ironically proved my point.
Your beliefs help form your identity. Most people, when they find their beliefs challenged, feel it as an emotional challenge to their identity. That is why so many people lash out at others who believe differently. From sports to politics to philosophies, some people get angry when their beliefs are challenged — even when they are in the wrong; perhaps especially when they are wrong.
Responding to my article, several people politely made the correct point that some schools of Buddhist thought reject the idea of an enduring self. True, but this view, though less extreme, is still wrong. That the self is constantly changing and growing does not mean there is no self that endures from moment to moment. A tree changes and grows but we do not conclude from that that there is no tree.
One thing that Buddhist philosophy does well — better than some Western philosophies — is acknowledge the complexities of human consciousness and being. We are remarkably diverse and vibrant beings, and the nature of our consciousness is difficult to grasp. Philosophies from all human cultures have acknowledged this. The complexities of the Abhidhamian categories within Buddhist thought respect that reality, but its complexities intimidate people who opt instead for the simplistic sugar coated and whitewashed forms of Buddhism.
Both over simplification and over complication obscure the fundamental reality of consciousness: a something is directed at another thing. Western philosophy has reduced that reality to subject and object, a mistake that phenomenologists have tried to correct.
It is the self that experiences and is affected. It is a foolish suggestion that because we cannot point to a single specific entity, we can conclude there is no self. David Hume made that mistake, one also made by many Buddhist philosophers. We cannot point to a single specific collection of water droplets, but it is foolish to then conclude there is no river. We are constantly flowing and changing. Our self, our beingness, is beneath all of the labels and attachments we find arise in daily life. “I am an illusion” is self-contradictory pop-psychology nonsense.
From Wrong to Correct
As a professor, I have researched and taught about philosophy and religion, including Buddhist philosophy. Unlike most of my academic colleagues, I am a spiritual person (but not religious, which is a whole other topic). I have had a meditation practice all of my adult life. I have tried various meditative practices, but always positive and affirming ones that uncover and enhance energy and connection with reality.
Buddhism is a philosophy based on negation — the desire to negate the self to escape Saṃsāra. In its desire to reach a state of no-self (or not-self) it engages in the circular reasoning of assuming that if we can convince ourselves we have no self we will indeed have no self and escape Saṃsāra. Pure assumption made all the more ironic because it further assumes that all thoughts are illusions, which is contradictory. “I do not want to be a self, so I will ignore the self, and claim all evidence of the self is an illusion.” Circular reasoning. Ironically, several of the rude commentators played the word game beginning with “While your thoughts definitely…” engaged in the same logical contradiction. The central point of my original article remains: the assertion, “all thoughts are illusions” is patently prima fascia absurd.
Your thoughts ARE you because we adapt, we grow, and we continually constitute ourselves with our thoughts and actions. Yes, there are many causes that affect us. Take that seriously and realize that the self is an effect of many factors, a very significant one being our thoughts about the world and ourselves. Even some Buddhists texts acknowledge this. “Our thoughts are shaped by our mind. We become what we think.” These are the first words of the Dhammapada. (Like all traditions, Buddhism has its share of divergent, contradictory opinions.)
Consciousness is a process. Our self and will are factors in that process as are myriad influences of the external world. We exist as living, thinking beings. As Ortega y Gasset said, we need to accept the radical reality that I am an “I” — a self — and that everything radiates from our unique self, our unique life. We construct our world and our orientation to it within our circumstances freely choosing our actions from the possibilities before us. One can develop a greater sense of existence by opening one’s consciousness; that includes opening to the reality of the Self. Buddhism’s focus on negation precludes such awareness.
The self is not a sequence of separate psychological states. We experience our self as a seamless totality — qualitative multiplicity. That self is really you. Why deny that?!? Our actions flow from our whole Self as free actions. We can encounter our real Self by, as Henri Bergson said, a sympathetic entering into what is observed. And it is a wonderful knowing.
What I do not understand about Buddhism is why it would throw all that goodness away for nothing.