Sam Harris has been engaged in spiritual practices for the past twenty-five years, received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University, and is currently completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His book The End of Faith (W. W. Norton, 2004) is a national bestseller. Visit his website at samharris.org.
Inquiring Mind: What do you think the teachings of the Buddha offer to humanity that is unique among religious or spiritual traditions?
Sam Harris: No other religious tradition offers the wealth of contemplative insight and methodological rigor that one finds in Buddhism. Hindu Vedanta presents similar insights into the nature of awareness, of course, but it does not offer as systematic an approach to cultivating these insights. And nowhere is the link between spiritual experience, ethics and compassion articulated with the kind of clarity one finds in the Buddhist tradition.
There is a politically correct myth that has taken root in the new-age community that all religions teach the same thing and teach it equally well. This is demonstrably untrue. You can go to Islam and find a Rumi—somebody who has great insights into self-transcending love, devotion and the nature of mind—but the truth is that Rumi is not a representative example of the teachings of Islam. You can scarcely strike a tangent from his poetry to the text of the Koran. And Sufism, of which he is the most famous exemplar, is considered a heresy throughout the Muslim world. So the fact that you can find people in the other traditions who seem to have something in common with the great Buddhists is not the same thing as saying that all the traditions articulate the same path or articulate it equally well.
Meanwhile, you can find beliefs and practices within Buddhism itself which seem demonstrably absurd. Consider some of the magical thinking of the Vajrayana tradition, for example, such as the belief that Guru Rinpoche was literally born out of a lotus. At least the virgin birth of Jesus involves a human mother. There are many other Buddhist doctrines, especially as it is taught in Asia, that are riddled with preliterate mythology and mumbo jumbo. Still, the wealth of rigorous, empirical teaching about the nature of mind that one finds in Buddhism is absolutely unsurpassed.
The case can be made that what the Buddha taught is not even a religion. The dharma is not a faith-based approach to spiritual experience, but rather an empirical discipline. Of course, most Buddhists the world over practice it as a religion. So the wisdom of the Buddha is to some significant degree trapped in the religion of Buddhism. If we want the teachings of the Buddha to inform our understanding of ourselves in the twenty-first century, students of the Buddha have to get out of the religion business.
IM: Are you encouraged by the meeting of science and dharma in the West?
SH: There’s a great difference between science, which wants to understand the mind as it is, and dharma, which wants to free the mind from ego-clinging. These two projects, while compatible, are not the same. I argue in my book that we desperately need a scientific approach to human happiness, but science does not necessarily have happiness as a goal.
That said, I think the meeting of science and dharma is very promising. The Buddhist tradition offers us a method of first-person inquiry that is far more rigorous and promising than anything the West has developed on its own. And to make any advance in the study of consciousness or human happiness you will need first-person accounts to correlate with the third-person observation of the brain-states.
I hope, however, that the dialogue between science and the meditative disciplines will quickly transcend any reference to Buddhism. After all, we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though Christians invented physics and the Muslims invented algebra. Important truths always transcend cultural context. I suspect that in fifty years we’ll be talking about meditation and how it affects attention and psychological states, or how spiritual insight might be linked to ethical behavior—all matters of serious scientific inquiry—but there will not be the slightest temptation to talk about “Buddhist” meditation. I hold out no hope for the idea that “Western Buddhism” or “engaged Buddhism” or any other variant of Buddhism is going to deliver the insights and transformations we need. If there is a way for human beings to really grow in compassion—to feel a deep commitment to the happiness of total strangers, for instance—we should be desperate to know about it. But knowing about it will not entail the perpetuation of Buddhism as a religious tradition.
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