Buddha for Dead White Males
March 10, 2010 7:01 PM   Subscribe

What are some good resources on Buddhism for someone who wants to remain attached to Western scientific rationalism?

My worldview is naturalistic and scientific, but I am trying to establish a better sense of aesthetics and spirituality while doing so as someone consciously influenced by Western rationalism. Periodically, I find myself attracted to many of the concepts I see attached to Buddhism, and decide that I want to learn more from it. However, whenever I get started reading about Buddhism, I always think I'm going to like it until it starts getting into metaphysics and ritual. The shortest way I can express it is that I like Buddhism until it gets religious.

What I like about Buddhism is its psychology. When I read current Western literature in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, the pervasive idea that personal identity is an illusion is something that intrigues me, and Buddhism seems to be built largely around this idea, and Western tradition is very poorly equipped to grapple with this assertion. So much of our psychology, our ethics, and our language centers around trying to reconcile the Ego with the Other or the External World, but the best I get from Western writers who deny personal identity is some vague hand-waving at "Eastern traditions that embraced this idea millennia ago" or some inarticulate fumbling at what to do after we deny the existence of the self.

When I read about Buddhist meditative practice, I am attracted to the exercises that draw attention to consciousness as a void filled with experiences; the exercise of trying to clear your mind demonstrates the impossibility of the act while forcing you to confront your unconscious habits of thought and to examine your mind and self.

I approach these sorts of exercises from a self-consciously Western pragmatist point of view: it always sounds like it's going to be a careful empirical study of consciousness, and a set of practices developed to enhance mental health by cultivating discipline to control one's own mind and constantly increase awareness of how the mind can trick itself. It teaches an ethic of relinquishment of self-destructive tendencies. It sounds functional and insightful while emphasizing the personal and spiritual functions of being human.

I think there's something in that tradition I'd like, but I'm having trouble finding anything that approaches Buddhism this way. The moment I start reading about karma, rebirth and Nirvana, or spirits and planes of existence I lose interest quickly. If I can study the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path from a source that approaches them as hermeneutics for human psychology, or presents a comprehensive exploration of Buddhist psychology and ethics as it relates to correlative topics in Western psychology and philosophy, I'd be happy.

I understand that simply asking this question may mean that I'm simply missing the point of Buddhism, but if there's a resource for Scientific Buddhism out there, I'd like to see it.
posted by Lifeson to Religion & Philosophy (35 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor
posted by desjardins at 7:07 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stephen Batchelor is your man.
posted by headnsouth at 7:08 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: I'm not sure what it is you're looking for by way of "resources," but if you mean books there are a lot of those that may be of use, among them:

1. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective Mark Epstein
2. Psychoanalysis & Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue edited by Jeremy Safran
3. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist Stephen Batchelor
4. Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and WisdomRick Hanson
5. Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge B. Alan Wallace
6. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation & Consciousness James H. Austin
7. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction by Mark Siderits
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 7:16 PM on March 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

IMS. Or, if you're not in the US, there are several insight meditation centers in other parts of the world - France, the UK, Switzerland...

I've been going to retreats at IMS for a while and every teacher I've ever had has emphasized that it's not necessary - or even helpful - and in fact the Buddha recommended against it* - to have any particular "cultural attachments" or irrational "religious" beliefs. I'm a PhD student in the sciences who is VERY sensitive to religion in general (ie, can't stand to sit through a church service) and I've never once felt uncomfortable at IMS. It almost feels like a second home to me now, and I've never felt as though I were being rejected for being a scientist. In fact everybody's pretty excited about it. And it's done more good for my life than you can imagine.

*I'm not big on Buddhist texts, but I remembered hearing this somewhere, and I found a citation. The Buddha apparently said that once a person is enlightened, there are 10 (the Buddha was really big on lists, this is because all his monks had to memorize everything he said since none of them could write) attachments which that person has given up. They are:

1. The belief in a permanent personality, ego
2. Doubt, extreme skepticism
3 Attachment to rites, rituals, and ceremonies
4. Attachment to sense desires
5. Ill-will, anger
6. Craving for existence in the Form world
7. Craving for existence in the Formless world
8. Conceit
9. Restlessness
10. Ignorance
posted by Cygnet at 7:23 PM on March 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Huh, my link didn't work for some reason. I'll just paste it in: http://dharma.org/
posted by Cygnet at 7:24 PM on March 10, 2010

First of all, I'd present Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. He makes a point to suggest that Zen is for everyone, and doesn't really conflict with any beliefs.

But I'm having trouble really answering your question well, because it strikes me that a lot of Buddhism (in Zen at least) is about letting go of your conceptual models in order to experience what you're talking about in terms of:

the exercises that draw attention to consciousness as a void filled with experiences; the exercise of trying to clear your mind demonstrates the impossibility of the act while forcing you to confront your unconscious habits of thought and to examine your mind and self.

I believe that the mechanisms that Zen uses to do the above are emphatically counter to what it seems is your attachment to trying to map Buddhism to some Western model. It may be useful to you to investigate what happens if you can let go of that.

Or maybe not, and maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree, and some of the other books and ways of looking at Buddhism would work better for you, and maybe I have the wrong idea myself!

In any case, this is based on my experience of Zen Buddhism. Sincerely, best of luck to you in this endeavor. Buddhism has made my experience of life richer and more worthwhile, and however you find it I hope it does the same for you.
posted by dubitable at 7:34 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You will probably be interested in this TED talk from Jill Bolte Taylor.

When you're reading all the wiffly waffly stuff, the best way to approach it is not to take any of it literally. Most of that stuff is an attempt to describe, in words, concepts and experiences totally at odds with the linear, time-aware brain processes you're using to read those words. Instead, just read it in large chunks and see if you can then get some kind of sympathetic intuitive click with what you've just read.

If you can't, you need to read less and meditate more. A large part of the point of meditative practice is to help you learn that it's worth cultivating a specific skill: the ability to persuade your linear, logical, time-aware side to shut itself down while you remain awake and conscious.

The value of the wiffly waffly stuff is in its gestalt, not its specific details or seemingly counterfactual claims. The best of that stuff is poetry, not an instruction manual, despite being mistaken for the latter by many deluded writers, and none of it is to be taken seriously - that way lies madness.

What is to be taken seriously is the value of meditative practice, which is absolutely real.
posted by flabdablet at 7:37 PM on March 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

There are some really interesting perspectives in this book (edited by the author of Contemplative Science, mentioned above), which looks at the intersection of Buddhism and various more "western" and scientific modes of thought.
posted by cubby at 7:37 PM on March 10, 2010

Also: give up any search for strictly scientific Buddhism. Science is about what can be known. Buddhism is about ways to be. Knowing is only part of being, and it's not always the most valuable or appropriate part. There is no necessary or essential conflict between science and the parts of being that don't depend on knowing.
posted by flabdablet at 7:46 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't make any recommendations that haven't already been made, but I will say that you should be careful with your talk of the "Western rational tradition".

Rationalism hasn't exactly been the centrepiece of Western thought for most of its history. People get all haughty about the Enlightenment, but they forget the 1000 years before that when Western philosophy was based on theological premises, whereas the real heavy lifting in terms of "rational" knowledge was happening in the Muslim world.

And yes, there was Ancient Greece, but man, how long are we going to try to milk that as part of "our" culture?

Also, while countries in South and East Asia are being pretty pragmatic in their rise to global dominance, I don't see much practicality in our The Secret-style New Age culture.

I'll give you the scientific revolution. But again, the Muslims preceded it by centuries, and you forget about periods like the Romantic and neo-Romantic eras, when rationalism was out.

I only say this so you don't sound condescending bringing this up outside of AskMeFi.
posted by hiteleven at 8:03 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Further to hiteleven, there are also classical Indian and Chinese rational traditions, to name just two of the major cultures where Buddhism flourished, and explicitly atheist schools that Buddhist thought developed alongside and in dialogue with.
posted by Abiezer at 8:13 PM on March 10, 2010

You might enjoy books by Jon Kabat Zinn. He's taken a lot of ideas from Buddhism, and used them as the bases of treatment programs developed at U Mass Medical School. Wherever You Go There You Are is a series of reflections on meditation and mindfulness. His stuff is more about "Buddhist-influenced ideas about mind and consciousness" than about "this is buddhism". But maybe that's helpful in what you're looking for?
posted by ManInSuit at 8:21 PM on March 10, 2010

Critical thinking on Buddhism...


... emphasis on critical. The superstitious and not especially peaceful side of that religion. There are also some books on Buddhism in war time Japan.

My guess is my secular appreciation of Buddhism is probably me projecting. But I like what I like so I don't worry overly about it.
posted by eccnineten at 8:41 PM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

A good book that combines philosophy of mind and cognitive science with Buddhism is The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World by the philosopher Owen Flanagan.

Unlike some of the books above, this is not really about how to be Buddhist, or how to meditate, but about what Buddhism and similar practices have to offer in helping us make sense of human life without religion. It's really quite scientific and technical—maybe even too technical for some readers, because it tries to be a serious work of philosophy while remaining accessible to non-specialists (which is nearly impossible to do well).

I think Flanagan really comes from the same point of view that you do, and he does struggle a bit to extricate the "useful" parts of Buddhism from the more distasteful doctrines such as rebirth.
posted by k. at 9:27 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: I would create a MeTa thread at this point, but I've used up my post for the week, so...

I'm starting to find the premise of this question increasingly annoying, especially when talk turns to keeping the "useful" parts of someone's religion and tossing out the supposedly "distasteful" bits.

There are a few things to keep in mind, at least, before you dive into these materials. Buddhism as it is presented in the West is a new creation...we're talking about a centuries old, multi-faceted faith with many divergent denominations. Buddhism as it is described by Western authors has to be fit into the context of how the religion was introduced to Westerners mid-century, and how it is filtered to suit the needs of mass audiences (talking about the non-scholarly books here).

So you might think you're clever in reading some Westerner's take on a pragmatic approach to Buddhism, but what you're really getting, quite often, is a distorted perspective on an already distorted depiction of the religion. Sure, there might be some interesting ideas in whatever book you're reading, but what you are reading is a Western creation...a new faith from an old faith.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that there is little that is scientific about the scientific investigation of Buddhism. And also, you sound pretty condescending when you pretend that there is. I can't imagine going up to, say, a Tibetan follower of Buddhism and saying, "I like that meditation stuff you people do, but that reincarnation business is real bullshit." And I don't think the fact that this is the way this discussion is going is a bit troubling.
posted by hiteleven at 9:56 PM on March 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sorry, the last sentence of that post is junked-up, but I think you get my meaning.
posted by hiteleven at 9:57 PM on March 10, 2010

Rebirth is only problematic if you cling tightly to those aspects of you that you currently believe distinguish you from everything else.

From other people's point of view, you are only you because you're recognizable. My experience of you is even more fragmentary and discontinuous than your own.

So if I haven't met you for twenty years, and you turn up again, and you talk like you and think like you and act like you and smell like you, I have no prima facie reason to believe that it's not you simply because you look sixty years younger than you did when I saw you last.
posted by flabdablet at 9:58 PM on March 10, 2010

Buddhism is not a faith.

Buddhism is a practice.
posted by flabdablet at 10:00 PM on March 10, 2010

I can't imagine going up to, say, a Tibetan follower of Buddhism and saying, "I like that meditation stuff you people do, but that reincarnation business is real bullshit."

Try it sometime. You may learn something useful and interesting.
posted by flabdablet at 10:01 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Buddhism is not a faith.

Buddhism is a practice.

From the Wikipedia entry: "Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices..."

Feel free to edit.
posted by hiteleven at 10:01 PM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: This is great feedback, everyone.

I was worried that I was going to screw up the phrasing of my question, and I'm glad that the answers here cover pretty much everything I was hoping for even though I gummed up the asking portion.

Your point about emphatically rejecting frameworks in meditation is a good one. I think I'm trying to co-opt that approach as "empirical research unbiased by existing expectations" rather than respecting it as its own approach.

Thank you for taking me to task about the presuppositions in my question! My narrative of "Western rational" thinking is very much an artifact of the imperfect Dead White Males reading from my philosophy classes in college, and I know that there's plenty of non-"rational" bullshit in modern Western society. A better understanding of where I'm liable to run into distortions is important, since in some ways I think I sort of asked for deliberate distortions.

Apologies for condescension. Admittedly, your example sentence isn't too far off from "I like that 'love thy neighbor' stuff, but that transubstantiation business is real bullshit" that would have been more likely to trigger some self-filtering. I think exploring the intersection and significant contrasts between worldviews is my ultimate goal, and I did a poor job of being even-handed in conceiving this question.
posted by Lifeson at 10:18 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Buddhism won't conflict with your worldview.

I would recommend that you hold off reading anything about Buddhism at first - it would just be a distraction.

Instead, learn how to sit and how to breathe. Don't do this on your own, but try joining a Zen centre.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:30 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I first read this post, I had the feeling that you were using "Western rational thinking" as an awkward shorthand, and perhaps the problem was simply a bad use of words. Good to know I'm right.

I got carried away later on because of some of the responses...I shouldn't have called the question itself annoying. I understand what you mean much clearer now.

As a student of Western, mostly European history, I've been plenty indoctrinated into the world of Dead White Males. Sometimes that kind of thinking comes out even when you don't really mean it.
posted by hiteleven at 11:38 PM on March 10, 2010

Given your interest in the "psychology" of Buddhism and the practical application of certain approaches and exercises, I believe you would find The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield very useful.
posted by tigerbelly at 6:25 AM on March 11, 2010

This may sound corny, but I actually found Siddhartha to be a very approachable intro to Buddhist concepts.
posted by Citrus at 6:44 AM on March 11, 2010

"I like that meditation stuff you people do, but that reincarnation business is real bullshit."

Not a good example, I'd say. I've thought for a long time, and been told as much by native Tibetan Buddhists, that reincarnation is as much a metaphor as everything else. There is no suggestion of some kind of essence that will literally fly into a worm or some baby or whatever. Look at the sky burials. It's about the logical, inescapable return and dispersion into the world from which "we" came.

I see no problem with the OP's phrasing. I haven't run into anything in Buddhism that isn't completely logically cromulent, so I see no more reason to entertain Buddhist mystical ideas than Uri Geller's mystical ideas.

As far as suggestions, I don't know whether you'd like Alan Watts or not. He definitely goes into territory for which there are no words, but he breaks it down by analogy rather than magic. His lectures and stuff are commonly available. I don't think I've actually read a print book by him, but I should think it's very much like his lecture. Plus, he's very relaxing to listen to.
posted by cmoj at 10:53 AM on March 11, 2010

hiteleven: In the book that I linked above there is an article by the Dalai Lama about the intersections between Tibetan Buddhism and theoretical physics. Buddhism in the west may well be different than Buddhism as practiced in eastern cultures, but it's still fundamentally Buddhism. The history of the religion has been one of adaptation -- it changed radically as it entered every new culture. That's why today there's Tibetan practice, Zen, etc., all of which are radically different from one another. This is still an active discussion, and in the West the process involves the kind of intellectual, scientific approach mentioned in the original question. I think that this is perfectly in line with Buddhist doctrine, which (in some traditions, like Zen) values adapting teachings to suit the student's needs.
posted by cubby at 11:10 AM on March 11, 2010

When I read about Buddhist meditative practice, I am attracted to the exercises that draw attention to consciousness as a void filled with experiences; the exercise of trying to clear your mind demonstrates the impossibility of the act while forcing you to confront your unconscious habits of thought and to examine your mind and self.

This is a departure from the Buddhist tradition, but it directly addresses your interest above. Take a look at the website on Douglas Harding. He came up with a few intriguing experiments that help bring on an experience of the self as space, or capacity. Since you're interested in cognitive science, you may find Hofstader's chapter on him in The Mind's I to be worth your time. I've recommended him on here numerous times, check some past posts of mine for a bit more on the subject.

I'd also suggest taking a look at Advaita Vedanta, especially I Am That by Sri Nisagardatta Maharaj.

The recommendations for Batchelor and Austin are on point. Steve Hagen's books might be worth a look as well.
posted by BigSky at 11:39 AM on March 11, 2010


Your point about emphatically rejecting frameworks in meditation is a good one. I think I'm trying to co-opt that approach as "empirical research unbiased by existing expectations" rather than respecting it as its own approach.

Yeah. For the record, I understand where you're coming from and I do think it's a totally valid way to approach meditation. But as far as a way to approach Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, I just don't know. I think that the thing about Zen, at least, is that so much of the practice is about clearing your mind of all the stuff that gets in the way (towards the goal of being a better Buddhist). Koans, for example, help do this by forcing you to try to grasp something that is essentially un-grasp-able. Simple focusing on breathing, on the other hand, does this by continually drawing your focus back from the repetitive thought patterns your mind engages in to something purely physical.

The thing about discussing it, even what I just attempted to lay out above, is that it's just "a finger pointing at the moon" (I'll let you google that if you aren't already familiar with the saying). I don't think there is anything wrong--at all--with looking at the benefits of meditation in a Western, scientific way, including evaluating the kinds of meditative practices used in Buddhism specifically, but I believe that, as far as Buddhists themselves are concerned, generally speaking, the point is the four noble truths, the way is the eightfold path--meditation is, in the end, besides the point. And inherent in an explication of these ideas is a certain amount of metaphysical language, and so you have to be able to stomach that to a certain extent...but if your attitude to Buddhism is just being able to "tolerate" these ideas without really being drawn to them naturally in the first place, then I would stay away from Buddhism as anything other than a case study for you: an religion or practice (I don't want to get into that debate, frankly I don't really care) that seems to produce interesting psychological and physical results in practitioners. I think there are probably plenty of books in this thread that approach Buddhism from exactly this angle. But this is essentially an outside perspective on Buddhism. It is not Buddhism. If you want to practice Buddhism, go for it. But if you just want to gain some of the benefits of meditation without all that "what is the cause of suffering and the way out of it" stuff (I don't intend my tone here to suggest I'm being judgmental towards you by the way, I'm just being lazily flip), see what about Buddhism you like and use it.

The interesting question, of course, is if the "full benefits" of a meditative practice like Zen can be achieved without adopting the full set of beliefs and practices along with just the meditation. I'm not claiming anything one way or the other, I just think it's an interesting question and one I've pondered myself. Maybe it's discussed in some of the books mentioned in this thread, I dunno.

Okay, that's enough pontificating from me...again, good luck with your search! This is a really interesting question and has made me think about this stuff in a way I haven't in a while. Thanks for that!
posted by dubitable at 5:01 AM on March 14, 2010

Also, what KokoRyu said was totally dead on, I think (and avoided being wordy): try it and see if you like it. Best advice yet.
posted by dubitable at 5:07 AM on March 14, 2010

I can't imagine going up to, say, a Tibetan follower of Buddhism and saying, "I like that meditation stuff you people do, but that reincarnation business is real bullshit." And I don't think the fact that this is the way this discussion is going is a bit troubling.

Actually, you can pick and choose all you want (to a certain degree), except you have to commit to following your choices.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:30 PM on March 15, 2010

read this awesome book.
posted by crystalsparks at 9:18 AM on March 17, 2010

Buddhism is scientific.

Buddha himself is reported to have said some thing like: "Do not believe anything merely because I have said it. Do not believe something merely because your elders and teachers say it. Do not believe anything because it is tradition. Do not believe anything simply because it is written. Instead, test everything for yourself and adopt those things that seem correct for you."

This makes Buddhism very individualistic. When I go to temple, I can participate as I wish. I am not forced to believe in or participate in anything I do not wish to.

Theravada Buddhism is the last surviving "school" of the 18 that formed during the time of Buddha. It survived by moving from India to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), Thailand (Siam), Laos and Vietnam.

Mahayana was founded by Theravadan monks who migrated into China then Korea and Japan.

These monks, like other religious 'leaders', learned that incorporating local religious customs into their practices. Mahayana even incorporated the concept of heaven and angels. Buddha never talked about what happened before we came into existence (creation) or what happens after death (heaven). His emphasis was solely on the journey in life while living.
posted by Handyman321 at 10:47 AM on March 24, 2010

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