So I’m reading Genn Wallis’s attack on Buddhism. I can’t tell if he wants to shake it up and encourage someone to reform it, or if he wants to burn it like fire like Richard Dawkins and Episcopalianism. I don’t actually understand anything they say, so I’m just reacting to what occurred to me as I read.
#0 Science does it better
This is Dawkin’s thesis, too. Science works fine up to the point where the questions are about surprising things like that I’m conscious and capable of thinking. I see that it’s the end of a chain of events starting with inorganic chemicals ending in clever primates. I don’t see why I can notice it. It’s all tremendously surprising. Science doesn’t have much to say about it, western philosophy has nothing intelligible to say about it, mid eastern religion has nothing plausible to say about it.
Science doesn’t have anything especially effective to say about mood disorders, i.e. unhappiness & depression. Antidepression chemotherapy is about as effective for ordinary unhappiness as leeches. I don’t doubt that antidepressants do work miracles in cases of people who end up in hospitals. The talking cure likewise is primative and what are they talking about? Talk psychology is in the same bed as folk philosophy. Cogitative therapy shows some promise, but it isn’t a club, it isn’t a practice.
#1 Elitism in Buddhism
Unintelligible academic writing is elitist. I’ve read the kindle sample for Glenn Wallis’s earlier book, he can write clearly when he wants to. I’m not sure who the audience is. Are we dissuading smart people from engaging in Buddhism? Is this a reformed sort of Buddhism specifically for really smart people? I like that x-buddhism (to use Wallis’s term for the wide variety of Buddhisms) has a dumbed down version as well as a sophisticated version. For me, the things that religion does can’t be done on my behalf, I can’t leave religious activities to someone who is smart enough to avoid the traps of religion. And I get that they’re there. 1/4 of Buddhism thought is antinomialism* and self serving justification for the individual and organizational status quo. If it wasn’t, the Buddhism world would be a collection of enlightened beings (or more conservatively speaking, they got their act together).
*antinomialism — all those lines of thought that lead to the conclusion that ethics don’t matter
#2 Western Philosophers do it better
Yes, maybe, but they’re unintelligible and don’t entail a practice, nor “club” Somewhere on the site, he suggests Samuel Becket would be a better author to go to, than the historical cannon or the modern commentaries & pop-Buddhism, so on. There isn’t a Samuel Becket meetup group. There aren’t Samuel Becket practices.
I read that some western philosophers sparked cults, but they died out. No business model I guess.
#3 Ancient = Not as good as the new stuff
This is a variation on #2. This happens in economics. There were a bunch of economists before Smith & other & finally Marshall work out the contemporary model. Occasionally people go back to rehabilitate the whimsically strange models of economics who got it wrong. So why should anyone study or use anything but the latest? After all, philosophy can be done with symbolic logic now, a technologically superior tool for philosophy. You can even get the machines do prove theorems.
I would respond to this with the Proust effect. Someone who like Proust notice that Proust had said everything first. Over and over, they would see something and thing, “Wow, Proust said that!” In any large enough body of text, you have stories that match up with everything. I got the same impression with Bloom County. Everything I saw made me think of one or another Bloom County comic. Not all collections of text work equally well. Modern popular Buddhist authors work fine for me as a large body of text that appears to be relevant to everything. I don’t mind that it is the Proust effect. (So why not use Bloom County or Proust as the basis for meaning, morality and so on? No meetup group, no practices, not much to say about the topics of religion that science hasn’t taken over. BUT, if the Buddhist Cannon didn’t exist, we’d be using Proust and Glenn Wallis would be griping about what a lousy choice Proust was for the basis of religion thought)
#4 Ancient & modern Buddhism has a business model
My degree was in economics. Everything has to have a business model. If western philosophy or academic literature is to emerge as a *practice* that solves the same problems that people hope religion will solve, it too needs a business model. An idea without a business model is inert. Ancient Buddhism got the cost of religious practice down far enough so that they could trade a little teaching to the lay community for enough food to do religion full time. That business model isn’t going to work in the US, so we have a bunch of business models: Buddhism-as-therapy, Buddhism-as-anti-anxiety-stress, Buddhism-as-vacation (retreats), Buddhism-as-night-stand-reading (books).
#5 It’s frickin’ magic/There is no frickin’ magic/You say it isn’t magic, but you are practicing magic
Wallis’s books & website are not going to be read by simple devotional followers of Pure Land sects. The audience is secular Buddhists & hybrid Buddhist that borrow from all traditions including the ones that are too much magic (or not enough magic) for their tastes.
I like to define magic as anything that can’t be explained. The questions of religion haven’t been answered by science, else they’d be move to the science category.
Science, prestige literature & modern western philosophers don’t deal (i.e. provide prescriptions) with these:
- birth (… science is rather good at preventing it in the first place, doesn’t explain why we are conscious, nor what the implications are)
- marriage (except as a contract covering the division of the loot upon break up)
- death (except as a means of dividing the loot after death)
- community (sociology is doing a good non-normative job of observing, but doesn’t have much to say what the norms should be.)
- unhappiness (some promising work in cognitive therapy)
- ethics (Kant is unintelligible obscurantism. If there were a rule to prohibit unintelligible obscurantism, it would be a good thing applied universally & with deadly force)
So back to Buddhism.
We are born. We are immediately aware that we exist. We feel pain– often. We get married & have more kids. The cycle continues. We seek peace, but can’t find it. We learn (wisdom), and thus being smart, we see the need for some sort of ethics to bring enough peace to our life to make it possible to practice, we see that others exist and as far as we can tell appear to be conscious too. That other exist has certain implications– you can work hard to ignore their pain, or you can work do to something about it too. It sucks that we know that we’ll have to do some combination of the two, which gets us back to the “we feel pain” part. And the cycle continues, around and around. And if you’re lucky, you find peace, and if we’re all lucky, we find peace.
I took a philosophy class. I found it lacking. I keep coming back to Buddhism. If this vehicle has two broken axles, and a flat tire, it’s the best available. It beats sitting and complaining.
Anyhow, bed time. The thought train has been lost & derailed.