Faith In Faith?
Andrew Cooper’s interesting article “Modernity’s God-Shaped Hole” [Spring 2003] concludes with the largely unsupported statement that “we humans are inescapably religious.” This declaration of faith in faith, which puts Cooper in the mythos camp rather than in the logos, or reason, camp, is a fallback position during these times of global multiculturalism and religious diversity. Since we really don’t know what to believe anymore, we’ll just soldier on anyway, by—rather abstractly—believing in belief itself.
This belief in belief is supported in the article primarily by the statement that “we possess an innate drive to experience the sacred.” Leaning on “innate” as an empirical-sounding term appears to help anchor Cooper’s overall position in factual evidence. But it is not clear how “innate” and “acquired” can be distinguished once you get beyond basic reflexes such as breathing. Some Christian groups similarly try to buttress their faith by adducing various scientific or scientific-sounding claims. Basically, Cooper’s article is a valuable statement of the divide between mythos and reason, combined with a personal reassertion of his faith in faith.
However, the hole in Cooper’s article may be that he does not evaluate his working assumption that Buddhism is essentially, rather than just historically, a religion. Of course, one might challenge the assumption that Buddhism could be anything whatsoever “essentially.” According to my understanding of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, Buddhism can be understood as a philosophy. In my personal view, Buddhism is a philosophy that accords very well with reason, that is, “reason” rather than “Reason.” The Reason of the Western eighteenth-century scientific Enlightenment, as articulated by Immanuel Kant, was framed with reference to the religious paradigm of monotheism and a nonmaterial soul. Reason was subsequently identified with History and then with Science—with capital letters all.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Reason has been increasingly replaced by a less aggressive “reason” (with a small “r”). Now, reason is understood more as a pragmatic, socially taught procedure for personal and group deliberations, as outlined in the most recent perspectives of German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. Science is just science; it doesn’t support or injure religion or philosophy. Buddhism as a pragmatic philosophy of life is in harmony with the late-twentieth-century understanding of reason as a pragmatic process designed to increase mutual understanding and minimize suffering.
Perhaps the search for religious meaning itself involves an unnecessary kind of suffering that originates from historical habits and vocabularies rather than from some postulated innate need. Perhaps the existence of this innate need is as foggy as the existence of an inner essential self that is denied in Buddhism.
The Buddha was practical. Perhaps Buddha himself would say: “If the search for meaning is an arrow in your side, then pluck it out.”
—Thomas Fischer, Ph.D. E-mail
Andrew Cooper Responds:
It always does the heart good to have something one has written receive a thoughtful response, and I thank Thomas Fischer for his. Having said that, let me respond to a few of his objections.
First, he takes issue with my treating Buddhism as a religion. But of course Buddhism is a religion. It has authoritative scriptures, which are formulated into a body of doctrine; it describes what constitutes a well-lived life, the goal of such a life, and the means to make that life one’s own; it has teachings meant to promote social cohesion; it has ritual forms, styles of iconography, and hagiographic texts that link the individual with tradition and link tradition with the transcendent; it has a rich mythology, which connects quotidian events with the deeper designs of the cosmos; it has—well, you get the point. One might say, as some do, that some or all of these things are incidental, and one could find support for such a claim in isolated sayings of the Buddha or from an eminent Zen master. But that would, I think, entail a highly selective and polemical reading of Buddhist tradition.
On a deeper level, like other religions, Buddhism views its own teachings—moral, intellectual, and spiritual—not as arbitrary but as having a basis in the very structure of reality, however elusive that reality might be. This is what religions do, and to borrow Forrest Gump’s eloquent phrasing, “religion is as religion does.”
Second, Mr. Fischer finds me remiss in providing little support for saying that I believe that we humans are “inescapably religious.” Perhaps I have should have taken more time to make the case. Certainly, it has been made well by many others, some of whom I cite. One can readily find an abundance of supporting evidence in historical and anthropological study. And the idea that humans are possessed of a transcendent imperative is hardly foreign to Buddhism, though that particular way of stating the matter may be. But granted, the issue is, finally, not provable. Ultimately, one chooses whether or not to believe it to be the case. Which brings us to the main point: faith.
Faith, as distinct from belief, was really the crux of my concern in the article. I mean here something akin to Coleridge’s famous definition of poetic faith: the willing suspension of disbelief. But that formulation lacks a certain sense of urgency that is, well, urgent. Living in a world in which stable beliefs, whether traditional or modern, are continually overturned, we postmoderns abide in the sensibility that we are not impartial observers of an objective world. The world we perceive is one we participate in creating. Which, if you think about it, is another way of saying that, whether we like it or not, we live by means of faith. We toss our perceptions and intuitions, however vaguely articulated, into the abyss that lies before us, and then, so to speak, we leap in after them. If our leap is true, the world we have cast is enriched, elaborated, and ratified. Religious tradition still guides us in this mysterious process. It gives us better footing, it helps us jump further and land better, and it makes the world into which we cast ourselves more gracious, precious, and luminous than we could ourselves imagine. So it seems to me that, while our point of departure today is in crucial ways different from, and far shakier than, that of our religious forebears, our encounter with the sacred still begins, over and over, with a leap of faith.
And so, as Mr. Fischer says, we soldier on.
Not Naughty by Nature?
Although I am not an evolutionary biologist, I have done extensive reading in the area. I have found the books of Stephen Jay Gould, including The Panda’s Thumb, The Flamingo’s Smile, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory to be the best source of understanding the subtleties of evolutionary theory. Based on these readings, I have found a basic, but popular, misunderstanding of evolutionary theory in Robert Wright’s initial statement that “we were built by natural selection, which is all about self-preservation and self-interest” [“Darwin and the Buddha,” Spring 2003].
This comment, the essence of which permeates the rest of the interview, is only half true. Natural selection did build us, but biological evolution is all about survival of the species. All that it demands of individuals is that they procreate. Period. It therefore says nothing about the selfish or selfless behaviors of individuals of a species, or about their behavior at all. One may think, for instance, that monogamy is anti-Darwinist. But monogamy and polygamy are just behaviors, not fundamental attributes of our existence—and therefore not guaranteed survival or extinction. It is thus the same with selfless or selfish behavior. Evolution does not (and I venture to say cannot) put a priori limits on the extent of either. In our species, sentience pushes us into another realm: we have the ability to learn and unlearn at willselfish or selfless behavior.
It would take too long to go through each statement of the interview, but an answer to the most important one—does compassion make evolutionary sense?—can set the stage for readers to re-evaluate Mr. Wright’s subsequent statements. First, there is a caveat. Based on the true nature of evolution, the question of compassion making evolutionary sense implies a comparison between apples and oranges. Compassion is a behavior that we can accept or reject, while evolution is totally out of our control. Just because acceptance of compassion isn’t easy doesn’t mean that it has been hardwired into us by evolution. Indeed, the existence of utter selflessness and utter selfishness within our species means they are definitely not hardwired into us.
However, if Darwinian logic must be invoked, then it must be invoked exactly. Since the foundation of Darwinian logic is the survival of species, then it apparently makes sense that compassion or any other selfless act squares exactly with Darwinian logic. Lest anyone think that our choice of selfishness or selflessness will eventually wind up being genetically encoded, let us remind ourselves that giraffes didn’t get their long necks by willfully stretching up toward the leaves of trees. And, should their long necks suddenly inhibit adequate feeding, leading to ill health and lowered birthrates, they will become extinct (at least in the wild) no matter how well they get along with each other. The beauty of evolution is the subtle means by which it manifests itself (natural selection), yielding an incredible pervasiveness and diversity of species. It doesn’t condemn or bless us, it just allows us to be, for the time being. The yoke that Mr. Wright places on all of us in the name of evolution, namely that we must battle an inherently selfish nature, plainly and simply doesn’t exist.
—Greg Fleischman, Brookfield, Illinois
Robert Wright Responds:
Actually, Stephen Jay Gould’s emphasis on what biologists call “species-level selection” was very much a minority view. Most evolutionary biologists agree that organisms—including humans—aren’t designed by natural selection to do things for “the good of the species.” So we are not by nature infinitely compassionate and altruistic. However, it’s true—as I tried to stress in both the Tricycle interview and my book The Moral Animal—that people are genetically inclined toward compassion and altruism under certain circumstances. Indeed, one of the beautiful paradoxes of natural selection is how the Darwinian imperative of survival at the level of the gene can translate into self-sacrifice at the level of the organism. This is why people in all cultures routinely make sacrifices for family members and (on a more conditional basis) for friends. Still, it’s clear that we don’t extend altruism and compassion with equal ease to all members of our species. If you see a homeless man and realize he’s your long-lost brother, you’ll probably be filled with deep empathy, whereas normally a homeless man might elicit only mild sympathy—or might even seem like a mere annoyance, especially if you’ve had a bad day. This bias toward family members is a product of natural selection.
Of course, through philosophical reflection you may realize that you should be deeply compassionate toward people who aren’t kin or even friends, and following a spiritual discipline such as Buddhism may help you sustain that attitude. Still, the idea that there’s no innate natural bias—that we find it just as easy to care about other people’s offspring as our own, or that we feel just as guilty about neglecting a stranger as neglecting a friend—is inconsistent with both Darwinian theory and everyday observation. In the struggle for moral improvement, human nature gives us both great gifts and great handicaps. Acknowledging and fully comprehending the handicaps may make it easier to use the gifts wisely.
The interview with Daniel Goleman [“The Natural Scientist,” Spring 2003] about the growing scientific support for meditative practice as a way to tame destructive emotions and achieve sustained calm, compassion, and joy, was both fascinating and, in a scary moment in history, hopeful.
Yet I wonder why Goleman suggests waiting until children reach school age to teach them these skills. In the field of infant mental health, neurobiological and psychological research show that the brain pathways that bring the primitive amygdala-based emotional responses under the control of the prefrontal cortex are first laid down in the first two years of life. And they are quite literally constructed out of the social and caregiving interactions the baby has with its parents.
Helping parents find the inner and outer resources to be sensitively present for their infants may be our most powerful way to raise calmer, kinder, and happier children. Perhaps we should consider that it was neither an accident nor an error that the Buddha’s parents were so very proactive and so very generous.
—Marian Birch. D.M.H., Clinical Coordinator, Center on Infant Mental Health and Development, University of Washington
Daniel Goleman Responds:
Marian Birch has a wonderful point, one I’ve spoken to in my book Emotional Intelligence: In the emotional realm, a child’s primary tutors are her parents. Every day, children learn from their parents—or fail to learn—a multitude of lessons about self-awareness, handling their troubling emotions, empathy and caring, compassion and cooperation. When I advocate school programs for social and emotional learning, I am advocating making sure that every child receives these crucial life lessons.
As Buddhism has long validated my belief in science, I enjoyed your Spring 2003 issue, particularly Daniel Goleman’s interview, “Taming Destructive Emotions.” The laws of karma are a fine, logical explanation for neuroplasticity [the ability of the brain to generate new nerve cells and neural connections, thereby altering emotions, behavior, and perceptions]. Several weeks ago, I was kayaking the Loxahatchee River in southern Florida when I passed what appeared to be a dead dragonfly floating motionlessly on the low tide. About fifty yards upriver, I decided to circle back and have a closer look at one of my favorite insects. When I scooped it up with my paddle, its transparent wings began to move. I brought him into the boat and maneuvered him onto my ballcap. I knew there was a sloped beach access by my put-in, and to there I paddled. The dragonfly, a green darner, recovered quickly, but showed no inclination to take flight.
I beached the boat, coaxed him onto my finger, and scrambled up the bank. The dragonfly wouldn’t budge. He dug in with six strong legs that worked like pinchers. We remained in a stalemate for a few minutes before I could maneuver him onto a palmetto frond. He seemed fine. One last look, then I returned to my boat.
Later that day, I sat in my meditation room, eyes closed, following my breath. This is typical weekend afternoon practice. When I gradually reopened my eyes, I saw endless woodlands out my back window. The vision stayed steady. I was seeing pines and wetlands through the compound eye of a green darner dragonfly. I blinked and repeated the process, and the endless woods remained. Then, like a morning fog dissolving, the insect vision evaporated.
Temporary states and transient rapture are not the goals of practice. But I sure do enjoy a good epiphenomenon whenever there is one to be had. Thank you for the wonderful reading material.
—Kevin McLaughlin, Palm City, Florida
As an enthusiastic Tricycle reader from day one, I have watched, with a mixture of support and amusement, Tricycle’s very admirable but very flawed, self-conscious attempts to engage a twenty-something audience. I am including in this attempt an interview with a Beastie Boy and his view of the bodhisattvas; an aborted column called “GenX” by a young Buddhist at Harvard who insisted on telling us about herself and very little about her studies or Buddhists of her generation; a self-described punk from Spirit Rock who bemoaned the absence of younger teachers; and finally, in your last issue, a second-generation Shambhala student who explains why he is not a “dharma brat,” although by the time we finish reading his article, his preachy arrogance begs the question.
What all of these twenty-somethings share is a much greater interest in teaching than in studying, which is not an optimistic vision for the deepening of dharma in the West. Yet I also feel that Tricycle must assume responsibility for providing a pulpit for those who have barely gotten their feet wet. Additionally, I think it is likely that the very offer of a pulpit to green practitioners sets them up for the embarrassing statements they make. You have successfully, I believe, included the voices of the new generation in many first-person accounts in which there is no attempt to preach the dharma, but rather to speak from personal experience and offer honest self-reflection. And when that comes through, questions of age or experience become honest intimacies of self-reflection.
—Cynthia Foster, E-mail
Hitting the Head on the Nail
Clark Strand’s retelling of “P’u-hua Departs to the Sky” [Parting Words, Winter 2002] poses a query: Who is the one, this passerby? Yes, “Who will nail it [the coffin] shut?” “Who is the one P’u-hua must rely upon at the last possible moment to deliver him, mind and body, to the sky?”
Given the koanic nature of P’u-hua’s story, I am joyfully reminded that a koan is a symbolic paradox of an essential nature to be recognized.
My response to Strand’s query: Alas, there is no independent existence. Perhaps the calligraphy in the accompanying artwork to P’u-hua’s story is more telling:
Alas, there is nothing.
—Will Svabek, San Geronimo Village, California
Tricycle welcomes letters to the editor. Letters are subject to editing. Please send correspondence to:
Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
92 Vandam Street
New York, NY 10013
Fax: (212) 645-1493
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.