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Sam Harris, Buddhism Doesn’t Want You Either

Responding to: Student Interfaith Reflections on Social Justice through Dialogue

By: Nicholas Scrimenti

November 27, 2017

Sam Harris has infamously made his career bashing religion, shrugging it off as nonsense and ignorance, and advocating a worldview where supposedly nothing is taken on faith. He envisions a world where the great menace of “religious sectarianism” is finally extinguished. He is one of the “four horsemen” of New Atheism and is certainly proud of his membership in this fraternity (he annoyingly refers to Christopher Hitchens as “Hitch” throughout his book Waking Up). He has nonetheless ventured quite closely into what he calls “the religion business” by promoting vipassana meditation and a “spirituality without religion.” What is remarkable is that, perhaps through his arrogance, he has failed to see not only the nonsense of his position, but also the colonial overtones of his Buddhist-meditation-without-the-Buddhism. He has certainly “killed the Buddha,” as the old koan goes, but he has not killed his Buddha: a worship of secularism at all costs.

The entire phenomenon of “McMindfulness”—the fad that has allowed outlets the likes of the Huffington Post to get away with such garbage as “Mindfulness for Mind-Blowing Sex,” as well as enabled Silicon Valley to engage in what I call “mindful exploitation”—has, I think, come to be recognized as something pernicious by experienced practitioners and beginners, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, and, hopefully, by CEOs and corporate executives. Nevertheless, I think it is important to look at how figures like Sam Harris have contributed to this development. For one thing, take the religion “business” out of meditation and you get just that: a business. A business and industry that, according to some studies, raked in over $1 billion in 2015. Without the ethical codes and moral precepts of religion, specifically Buddhism in this case, you get a bastardization of mindfulness that is used for ends of efficiency and production instead of spirituality or enlightenment, and which reinforces our shared ethic of profit-over-people. The hand of the free market is no longer just invisible; it is now mindful, too. This is why Bikkhu Bodhi, a respected American Buddhist monk, says “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” It is naïve to think that meditation alone is going to transform or has transformed companies such as Target, Ford, Yahoo!, and Goldman Sachs into bastions of workplace justice. It has more often been used to maximize productivity and efficiency under the guise of well-being and health.

Sam Harris and others, by stripping meditation of its “ludicrous and divisive” Buddhist doctrines, forget something as obvious as the fact that the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, also includes Right Action and Right Livelihood—these are all interconnected parts of the same path. Because of these ethical codes (not even to mention the precept for monastics to abstain from sensual misconduct), the very idea of “Mindful Sex” or “Mindful Business” would be preposterous to any serious Buddhist. I think Harris himself recognizes this point, but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. He writes in Waking Up, "Most traditions of spirituality also suggest a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically. Not all good feelings have an ethical valence, and pathological forms of ecstasy surely exist. I have no doubt, for instance, that many suicide bombers feel extraordinarily good just before they detonate themselves in a crowd."

This is true. Religions have ethical precepts precisely for this reason: to control bliss and pleasure so that it doesn’t turn into anything antinomian. Bliss must be married to insight. Dhyana has to be combined with vipassana. The suicide bombers he mentions are themselves examples of what can happen when religious practices become detached from their corresponding ethical precepts. Yet, perhaps Harris does include Buddhist ethics in his secular mindfulness program seeing as how it doesn’t quite fall into his category of “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” religious mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless, he has seriously enabled the “McMindfulness” movement by deliberately dismantling the respectable religious traditions that support and explain meditation practice.

The motivation and justification behind Harris’ removal of Buddhist tradition from meditation is equally as ridiculous as the idea of mindful capitalism. The driving force behind his project is not, as I see it, a rejection of irrationality, but the incipient fear of so-called “religious sectarianism.” In his essay "Killing the Buddha," Harris writes about this topic saying, “I believe that merely being a self-described ‘Buddhist’ is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.” What he is saying is that even if you are not the violent kind of Buddhist (or Christian, Muslim, or Hindu for that matter), but are even just nominally religious, you are culpable for all the violence done in the name of religion. To me, this is the equivalent of saying that because you identify as Latino or Asian or Black, you are enabling racism (and may even have had a hand in slavery!). What is most remarkable is that even those Buddhists whom Harris learned from and whom share much of the same outlook are lumped in the same heap as violent religious extremists!

Harris exaggerates this threat of religious sectarianism by boiling down complex geopolitical conflicts to a black-and-white, one-crazy-religion-fighting-another type of situation. He has a long list of conflicts starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending with Iran, Iraq, and Caucasia as evidence of how religion is the main, if not sole, motivator of conflict. I’m no expert on international politics, but it seems plain to say that just because religion is, in Harris’ words, the “explicit cause” of a conflict, this does not mean that is the actual or only cause. Furthermore, if identifying with a religious group, or any group for that matter, contributes to sectarianism, then Harris’ ideal world is ultimately a nihilistic one. Everyone would either believe the same thing or nothing at all, but the effect would be the same: dilution of culture to the point where nothing is left. It is interesting to note that this is decidedly different than the vision of the religious mystic. Although both the mystic and Harris preach a certain oneness of humanity, the mystic reaches this conclusion by transcending superficial identities, while Harris simply wants to get rid of them.

In a 2014 interview with Big Think, Harris pleads with his audience not to limit themselves to an “ancient allegiance to one accidental strand of human culture” when we have the combined wisdom of all civilization at our disposal in the twenty-first century. After all, we have the internet, so why just go to the church down the block for fellowship, moral teachings, religious experience, etc., when I can take the best things from all religions, secularize them, and adopt them as my own? Now, it would be ridiculous to tell a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, to stop spinning prayer wheels and reciting mantras and to give up an ancient religious lineage because it is limiting, and culture is, after all, just “accidental.” So who, really, is Harris pleading to? To me it seems clear he is pleading to the roughly 8 percent of atheists in America who lack a connection to lineage or a religious culture/community. These are really the only group of people who, because of a lack of religious affiliation, are compelled to pick and choose objects of culture from civilizations around the world that appeal to them. It is also interesting that atheists in America are 78 percent white, 68 percent male, and highly educated. This is instructive when looking at the colonial roots of the mindfulness movement and the neo-colonialism and secular appropriation present in Harris’ philosophy.

To be clear, the new mindfulness movement isn’t really doing anything new or inventive, although the main teachers and best-selling authors would have you think otherwise. In another Big Think interview, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about three habits of the mind that inhibit mindfulness and which must be approached with mindful awareness during meditation. The three thought-patterns he mentions are: aversion, greed, and fear/delusion. Although he passes this off as his own musing, any Buddhist would immediately recognize that these are the Three Poisons innate in our being, as taught by the tradition. So what is really a central teaching of the religion is being veiled by misleading secular rhetoric. Harris does something similar, though he claims he is only using those parts of the tradition which aren’t really Buddhist. After all, meditation was around before the Buddha, so there is nothing inherently “Buddhist” about it. The essence of the teaching, according to Harris, is empirical and universal; nothing spooky, irrational, or exclusively Buddhist about it. Harris and Co. fail to acknowledge that without the tradition, their success would not be possible.

The colonial attitude of this outlook is nothing short of amazing. Harris takes everything he likes about Buddhism and labels the rest as folklore produced by “ignorant and isolated peoples of the past.” The language he uses is often bewildering for how reminiscent it is of the slave trade and other colonial endeavors. It is worth noting again that Harris and his disciples are mostly white, highly-educated males. It is equally as remarkable when you consider the colonial roots of the mindfulness movement. It was the British deposition of the Burmese king, and the subsequent mobilization of the laity and inventiveness of figures such as Ledi Sayadaw, that created what we now know as mindfulness meditation. A meditation practice that is traditionally exclusive to monks who have led a life of renunciation and concentration for many years was now available to laypeople. And it eventually made its way to America, where the vacuum of Buddhist tradition birthed McMindfulness.

After all this, I do think Harris is correct on a few issues. First, he rightly criticizes politically-correct liberals and their vain cries for what they call “interreligious dialogue.” In "Killing the Buddha," he writes, “It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the occasions for interfaith dialogue.” He is probably right. However, Harris doesn’t realize that he himself has engaged in a form of interreligious dialogue, albeit a cynical and deceptive form. He has learned his craft from Buddhists but made a travesty of a very precious part of their tradition. Still, he is right in a sense: all religions are not the same nor even hold the same truths, and dialogue often just turns into kumbaya. We more often dilute and sanitize religions to make them look the same instead of celebrating their obvious and important differences.

On the issue of interreligious dialogue, the Dalai Lama, a figure both celebrated and disparaged by Harris, has said, “It’s much, much better to keep your own faith rather than change faith. That way we can promote genuine harmony among the different major traditions on the basis of mutual respect.” I think the major problem of interreligious dialogue today is not a lack of respect between traditions, but a lack of respect for our own traditions. Christians in the West find the contemplative, rationalistic side of Buddhism appealing, and so seek conversion or appropriation. A better response, which the Dalai Lama is hinting at, is to return from this interreligious dialogue to our own traditions, strengthening those aspects we find so appealing. Harris is correct in recognizing that mystics and contemplatives in Christianity are martyred whereas they are celebrated in Buddhism. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of Christians to change this feature. And indeed they have. Interreligious dialogue with Buddhism has sparked a renaissance in contemplative Christianity starting with figures such as Thomas Merton and today by Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Laurence Freeman, Rowan Williams, and others. We should take this as a model for how interreligious dialogue should be pursued.

Ultimately, I am not saying that Americans or Christians should not meditate or dabble in Buddhism. I am just saying that we must do so responsibly. Buddhism, for one, has had an enormous impact in my own life and helped to illuminate aspects of my Christian tradition that were either hidden or intellectually impenetrable before. I believe Harris’ dilution and appropriation of Buddhism is not just a local problem, but a threat and warning to all our storied, rich, and indeed necessary religious traditions. There is one saving grace, though: interreligious dialogue that is neither stale nor uninspired, but which illuminates and inspires a revitalization of our faltering religious heritage.

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Sam Harris, Buddhism Doesn’t Want You Either