What is Wrong With Buddhism?

Woman meditating on grassy field
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If there is one religion which at least receives significant sympathy from irreligious atheists, and may even be accepted to varying degrees by a large number of atheists, it would have to be Buddhism. On the whole, Buddhism is regarded by many atheists as at least being less superstitious and irrational than most other religions and perhaps to a certain degree being reasonable enough to adopt.

Are There Any Irrational Elements to Buddhism?

This perspective may not be completely unjustified, but it's not nearly as justified as many seem to assume.

There are in fact significantly irrational elements in Buddhism but far worse are some of the very anti-humanistic elements -- elements which effectively allow or encourage the anti-social and immoral behavior. People can try to eliminate these aspects of Buddhism, but they are likely to eliminate so much that it's hard to call the leftover very Buddhist.

The major vehicle for achieving enlightenment is meditation, touted by both Buddhists and alternative-medicine gurus as a potent way to calm and comprehend our minds. The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.

The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.

Much more dubious is Buddhism's claim that perceiving yourself as in some sense unreal will make you happier and more compassionate. Ideally, as the British psychologist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore writes in The Meme Machine, when you embrace your essential selflessness, "guilt, shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, and fear of failure ebb away and you become, contrary to expectation, a better neighbor." But most people are distressed by sensations of unreality, which are quite common and can be induced by drugs, fatigue, trauma, and mental illness as well as by meditation. ...

What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible--like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.

But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha's first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual. From this perspective, the very concept of enlightenment begins to look anti-spiritual: It suggests that life is a problem that can be solved, a cul-de-sac that can be, and should be, escaped.

Source: Slate

What Buddhism Shares With Other Religions

Although Buddhism seems so different from religions like Christianity and Islam that it doesn't look like it should be in the same category, it still shares with other religions a very basic element: a belief that the universe is in some fashion set up for our sake -- or at least set up in a manner conducive to our needs.

In Christianity this is more obvious with the belief in a a god that supposedly created the universe for our benefit. In Buddhism, it is expressed in the belief that there are cosmic laws that exist solely to process our "karma" and make it possible for us to "advance" in some fashion.

This is one of the most fundamental problems with religions -- pretty much all religions. Although it's more of a problem in some and less of a problem in others, it's still a fairly consistent problem that people are falsely taught that there is something in or above the universe that has picked them out for special protection and consideration. Our existence is a product of luck, not divine intervention, and any improvements we achieve will be due to our own hard work, not cosmic process or karma.