Something there is in human nature – or at least, in the nature and/or inclinations of some humans—that predisposes toward nonsensical beliefs. Not surprisingly, Buddhism and Buddhists are not exceptions. Thus, even though the Buddha made it clear that he was not a god, and should not be worshiped as one, many of his subsequent followers have done so, and continue doing so, to their discredit … or at least, to the discomfiture of those, like myself, who cherish a scientific world-view.
In my recent book, Buddhist Biology, I revel in the parallels and convergences between Buddhism and biology. But in order to do so with a clear conscience, I think it behooves us to confront and disassociate ourselves from the silliness that is sometimes associated with Buddhism, and which is no more “scientific” than Jewish insistence on the reality of Moses having been given the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone by God, Christian belief in Jesus’s virgin birth, or the Islamic contention that Mohammed took dictation from Allah via the angel Gabriel.
It may appear that I am making fun of what I irreverently call “Buddhist bullshit,” and in fact, that is what I am doing! My goal, however, is not to be sarcastic or critical for its own sake, but to distinguish genuinely useful and powerful conceptual approaches – of which Buddhism has much to offer—from fundamentalist fairy-tales, which abide in Buddhist religiosity just as they do in other forms of stultified religious dogma. Here, therefore, is a brief and admittedly incomplete catalog of nonsensical Buddhism, weedy mythological overgrowth that I reject (and which I encourage all Buddhist sympathizers and wannabes to treat similarly):
Certain practitioners maintain that by virtue of their meditative skill, they can remember their existence in prior incarnations, or that they can envision their forthcoming experience after their (next) death. Others claim that by ritualistically chanting the name of a particular version of the Buddha, they can achieve literal immortality, freedom from pain, cures for life-threatening disease, and so forth.
High on the list of absurd Buddhism are the phenomena of iddhi, supernatural events that are supposed to be generated by extremely skillful and committed meditation. They appear often in Buddhist texts, and I don’t believe a word of them. Among the more widespread iddhi is the phenomenon whereby enlightened meditators are ostensibly capable of creating illusory duplicates of themselves or of other things. There seems little doubt that such events—the creation of illusory manomaya—are themselves examples of manomaya.
In addition, higher meditators are claimed to possess various supernatural abilities, such as becoming invisible on demand, walking through walls, on water, through the air, being able to hear people and other beings very far away, to mind-read, to recall their past lives, and/or possessing “divine eyes” that permit them to see the arising and passing away of karma. We are told, as well, that when the Buddha was born, celestial maidens proceeded to scatter flowers from the sky and nine dragons spouted water to bathe the body of the newborn prince. Monks who die while abiding in a specially blessed meditative state translated as “pure light” are said to remain “uncorrupted,” i.e., free from rot.
By the same token, immediately after he was born—via his mother’s thigh, mind you!—the Buddha ostensibly stood up, took seven steps and announced that this was the last time he would be reborn. And when, eighty years later, he died, lying on his side between two Sal trees, they immediately and miraculously burst into bloom, although this was out of season. Yet, the Buddha made it clear that he had no evidence for the existence of a personal soul (atman) nor for its more generalized, cosmic counterpart, Brahman.
Traditional Buddhist cosmology is far removed from anything approaching scientific validity, holding that the world is flat, with a giant mountain—known as Meru—at its center, and similarly, that insects are born from droplets of water. The Dalai lama (a self-proclaimed admirer of western science) has recently admitted that he no longer believes that Mount Meru is the center of the world; I don’t know about the beliefs of other leading Buddhists in this regard.
The traditional Buddhist cosmology is, however, very specific, and more than a little weird, with the world composed of thirty-one levels. The lowest is a kind of hell, followed in turn by animals, ghosts, titans, humans, five different tiers of lesser gods, fifteen of higher gods, after which one encounters, in turn, “infinite space,” “infinite consciousness,” “nothingness,” and finally “neither perception nor non-perception.” Of these, the lowest eleven encapsulate the sphere of sense-desires, the next fifteen constitute the “sphere of pure form,” and the final four, the sphere of formlessness.”
Historian of religion David McMahan describes what he calls “Buddhist modernism” as departing from traditional, originalist Buddhism in several respects, one of the most important for our purposes being “demythologization” in which traditional deities and practices are de-emphasized—most often, ignored altogether. For example, so-called “hungry ghosts” (pretas) are traditionally thought to have arisen because of the greedy karma accumulated via their past lives; they are pictured as having skinny, pencil-thin necks, bloated bellies and incessant, unsatisfied hunger. In traditional Buddhist practice, food is ceremonially offered to them so as to buy off their good will, thereby preventing them from doing harm.
These days, especially in the West, hungry ghosts are mostly considered (when they are considered at all!) to be unconscious manifestations of one’s own dissatisfactions and neediness; that is, they have largely been reinterpreted as psychological entities rather than “genuine” ones. This is another aspect of Buddhist modernism: Reinterpreting what had been taken literally as reflecting, instead, psychological but not physical truths.
Similarly, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar Do Thos Grol), deceased people are said to pass through three distinct stages (bar dos) between their demise and their next reincarnation. Among Tibetan Buddhists, these intermediate stages are populated by various Buddha images, some peaceful and serene, others threatening and wrathful. For Buddhist modernists—notably Carl Jung and his followers, but including non-Jungians as well - these encounters reflect various deep-seated psychological “archetypes,” i.e., our own internal psychic forces, rather than “real” entities. Traditional Buddhists would disagree.
As McMahan writes, “For traditional Himalayan Buddhists, the world is alive not only with awakened beings but also countless ghosts, spirits, demons and protector deities. These beings are prayed to and propitiated in daily rituals and cyclical festivals, and they figure into one’s everyday life in very concrete ways.”
A final example of nonsensical Buddhist Bullshit is doubtless considered the most necessary and fundamental, utterly essential and incontrovertible … at least to Buddhist True Believers: the doctrine of reincarnation (more accurately translated as “rebirth”) and its close colleague, karma. This topic deserves a post of its own, not only because it is so important to most Buddhists, but also because – as we shall see – once divested of its abracadabra absurdity and modified by a hefty dose of biological reality, it actually offers some of most intriguing , scientifically valid correspondence between Buddhism and biology.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is “Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science, just published by Oxford University Press.