I have provided the link above for an article in Slate magazine by the author John Horgan who details why he has given up in his pursuit of religion and Buddhism. In this article, Horgan posits many arguments for why Buddhism is “just like every other religion” and parallels its beliefs and principles with Catholicism. I found his perspective quite interesting. He is dealing with Buddhism from a Western perspective, and, much like I am with my thesis, interpreting Buddhism in Western culture. However, I found many issues with this article that make me doubt his actual devotion to understanding Buddhism.
Before critiquing his article, I would like to preface my post by saying that I do acknowledge that Buddhism, like any other religion, is not for everyone. People may not agree with its philosophies, beliefs, or practices and that is perfectly okay. I also do not believe that Horgan intended to offend or insult Buddhism, however, what I take issue with is his perception and critique of the religion which I will briefly detail in the following post.
The first instance that I take issue with in this article is when Horgan writes, “Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth; Buddhism’s moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science—or, more generally, with modern humanistic values.” I can understand this perception of Buddhism. At face value and with skin-deep exposure Buddhism may seem like a mystified “Oriental” religion practiced by gurus, lamas, and masters of spiritual enlightenment furthering philosophies of detachment, reincarnation, and karma. However, Horgan’s perception of Buddhism’s lack of scientific grounding is incorrect. In fact, he acknowledges earlier that Buddhism’s acceptance in the West may be related to Buddhism scientific characteristic and its debated interpretation. In fact, Tibetan monks seeking higher status within the religion are required to travel to many monasteries of various individual schools of Buddhism to debate with the lama of that particular monastery. Through these trials, the aspiring monk will be challenged both by other intellectuals and by individual experiences in their trek. These experiences are meant to challenge the monk to reason his spiritual guidance and beliefs in a humanistic reality of the world. Buddhism is very much based in science through scientific reasoning. If you listen to conversations with the Dalai Lama, he is very much a human being keen to the nuances of popular culture and colloquialisms. However, he stays true to his philosophies and will logically argue his beliefs in opposition to contrary systems.
A minor issue I have with this article is when he calls Hinduism the “parent religion” of Buddhism when in fact this is not the case. True enough, Buddhism and Hinduism share certain commonalities in their beliefs. However, Horgan neglects to comprehend the vast variety of Buddhist schools of thought and traditions. Buddhism is not a singular identity that can be generalized and assumed in such a manner. It is vastly different throughout the world and may not even share any commonalities with Hinduism depending on where you go.
Horgan argues the Buddhist concepts of enlightenment, anatta, and achievement of compassion. But again, he fails to recognize that Zen meditation is only one of many meditative practices. He also references a study entitled “Zen and Brain,” which I have read, and found that the claims that meditation can exacerbate conditions of depression and anxiety within test subjects may be misleading in their methodology. This study ignores the core concepts of Zen Buddhism which creates a false premise in methodological approach and the unintended manipulation of variables leading to a falsified conclusion. These test subjects were not trained in meditation, nor were they experienced enough to comprehend the fundamental principles of Zen meditation. These inconsistencies have altered the findings and falsely so.
Lastly, Horgan’s largest issue with Buddhism is with the detachment from worldly connections in achieving enlightenment. He doubts the essence of detachment from parenting and relationships as routes to salvation. While this is certainly a fundamental concept to Buddhist practice, it is difficult to argue a concept in which he has not openly explored. Horgan has not meditated or practiced a life of detachment from these connections. From a scientific perspective, it is easy to support the argument that the less you involve your mind, the less anxious, stressed, and depressed a person may become. By focusing on one’s self, you bring your mind into a unified existence above all suffering. Sure relationships and parenting bring miraculous joy to one’s life. But that ethereal joy is not without its negatives of stress, fighting, budgetary struggles, and any of life’s challenges. Horgan’s argument falls short in his western capitalist perspective on Buddhism. He attempts to apply Buddhism to western culture rather than applying western culture to Buddhism. He sees the two in binary opposition, and in a hierarchical structure that places western perspective as superior to Buddhist philosophies which causes his argument to falter.
It is for this principle reason that I take issue with his article and the fact that this is actively publicized worries me. Buddhism is becoming popularized in the West not just in adaptation to daily living, but also in critique. To liken this article to Said, Horgan plays the role of the Western scholar who views eastern culture as “Oriental” and inferior to his dominant western culture.