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Evolving Buddha

Universal Compassion, Yes. Reincarnation, Not So Much.


Saturday, December 29, 2012
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We find ourselves alive. And struggling to make sense of why we are alive, how to live, and where we go when this life comes to an end, if anywhere.

These are the big questions that spirituality and religion seek to address; they’ll never be answered definitively, this much we know to be true. There are, however, many answers available and it is up to each of us to figure out which answers are the most satisfying.

Tam Hunt

This essay will focus primarily on Buddhism’s answers to these questions largely because I have had the good fortune to be a member of an informal group of academics convening at UC Santa Barbara (where I teach part-time) each month for the last two years to discuss the interaction of Buddhism and modern science. I will also present some thoughts on how Buddhism could, and should, evolve to become more relevant and widespread in the modern world.

I am not a Buddhist, but I have read widely in Buddhism for some time. I have also dabbled in meditation, the key praxis (practice) of Buddhism, though I am very much a baby when it comes to realizing the benefits of a regular meditation practice. I feel much less a baby when it comes to the philosophy and intellectual coherence of Buddhism – and how Buddhist views mesh (or not) with modern science.

Buddhism is appealing to many people today because of its emphasis on practical spirituality, on living a better life through insight and regular meditation practice, and the compassion that these activities naturally engender. Buddhism is also appealing to many trained in Western science because Buddhism is far less about metaphysics, heaven or hell, spirits, God, than it is about how to live a better life in the present moment.

The key features of Buddhism, from my perspective, are the emphases on compassion and meditation. Compassion arises naturally from the understanding that all people and all things are mutually interdependent (the doctrine of “dependent origination”) and that all people are struggling with the same set of basic problems: the pains of birth, illness, death, relationships, and an ongoing search for meaning.

Alan Watts, a bubbling brook of wisdom through his books and audio recordings, described meditation as “the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” Meditation is the path to realizing the essential truths of Buddhism, though meditation is of course not exclusive to Buddhism. The essential truths of Buddhism relate to the impermanence of all things (the doctrine of “emptiness,” the flip-side of dependent origination), including our own selves, and the cessation of suffering that arises from this realization. Meditation is practice. It is through consistent practice, not only through seated meditation, but through every action we pursue, that we can realize the essential truths.

An emphasis on compassion is also not exclusive to Buddhism – most religions urge compassion toward others. Buddhism goes further, however, at least in its Mahayana form, in stressing compassion for all creatures and the Boddhisattva ideal, in which realized persons – Boddhisattvas – refuse to exit the wheel of life and death until all other beings are also liberated.

Another appealing feature: Buddhism generally lacks the more savage aspects we find in the Abrahamic religions. There are no rules regarding who gets stoned, or who gets burned to death, for adultery or wearing two types of cloth (read the Book of Leviticus to get a sense of how extreme the Old Testament view of the world was). There were no conquests by Buddhist rulers wielding swords to convert people to Buddhism. Rather, Buddhism’s success has come almost entirely through the power of its ideas.

A final feature of Buddhism that I’ll mention is its non-exclusiveness. To my knowledge, no strand of Buddhism has ever claimed to be the sole path to enlightenment. To the contrary, many schools of Christian thought do indeed claim that Jesus is the only path to salvation. This is a big turnoff to a lot of people who take a more modern view of spirituality, recognizing that no one religion/spiritual system/person has a lock on the truth.

It is for these reasons that I am personally sympathetic with much that Buddhists teach, even though I do not call myself a Buddhist. My views, sketched in two in-progress books (one draft of my book Mind, World, God is here), appropriate some ideas from Buddhism, but also from Vedanta Hinduism, and much from the process philosophy school of Alfred North Whitehead and David Ray Griffin. I would, however, expect the world to become a much better place if Buddhism’s key teachings, compassion and meditation, were adopted more widely.

Buddhism today: Only 0.7 percent of Americans self-identify as Buddhists, a little more than Muslims or Hindus, and much less than the 78% of Americans who identify as Christians. The fastest-growing “religion,” however, is no religion. That is, people are increasingly rejecting organized religion in favor of the “spiritual but not religious” approach to the big questions. Fully one-third of Americans under thirty are non-religious (“unaffiliated), compared to only one-tenth of those over 65. Clearly, transformation is afoot.

The key teachings of Buddhism are well-suited to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. But my feeling is that these ideas could be a lot more appealing – and this is the key point of this essay – if modern Buddhism is willing to evolve further to reflect more scientifically-sound ideas about the nature of reality. There is clearly a large opening for Buddhism’s key teachings to find a wider audience as the radical generational shift away from organized religion continues.

Buddha changing: As is the case with all religions, Buddhism has evolved steadily since the Buddha first taught his insights. For example, I friended the Dalai Lama a few months ago on Facebook. I appreciate his regular status updates and posts, such as:

By implementing the practice of love and compassion, we will naturally live a non-violent way of life. Helping others and not harming them is the work of non-violence. We need to develop love, compassion and forgiveness to develop inner peace and that naturally gives rise to non-violent conduct.

Who could imagine even a few years ago that Tibetan Buddhism’s leader would be using social media to spread his message? Change has, however, been a constant in Buddhism, and with all religions or social movements more generally.

Buddhism’s oldest sect is known as Theravada and is today found primarily in Sri Lanka and southern India. Many found Theravada’s focus on personal liberation too narrow and urged a broader focus on the liberation (awakening) of all beings. This led to what is known now as the Mahayana (“great vehicle”) schools of Buddhism, which stress the Boddhisattva ideal of universal liberation. Tibetan Buddhism is generally viewed as a type of Mahayana. Zen Buddhism is also Mahayana but is the product of many centuries of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist thinkers. There are hundreds of other schools of thought in Buddhism, resulting from changing views, personality conflicts, changing times, etc.

I think it’s time for Buddhism to be further modernized, specifically by re-interpreting the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Karma is generally framed as a system of moral accounting where individual actions have repercussions that have both short and long-term reach. Wrong actions may lead, in some schools of thought, to reincarnation in a lower plane of being or as a lesser type of creature – a fly, for example. Conversely, right living will lead to reincarnation in a higher plane or better personal situation (or caste, which is the historical milieu of Buddhism in India, still extant today). Karma is thought to operate independently of the Western notion of physical cause and effect, as a parallel system of spiritual cause and effect.

This notion of karma is problematic for the obvious reason that modern science finds no support for this idea of a parallel system of cause and effect. Modern science seeks to explain all things through four fundamental interactions: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. This may not be a complete list, particularly because quantum entanglement seems to operate outside of these four interactions. But even if we add quantum entanglement as a new force there is still no room for karma as a parallel system of cause and effect in the Western scientific tradition.

Moreover, there is a fundamental tension between the idea of karma and the far more compelling Buddhist idea of “no self.” No self, or anatman, refers to the fact that if no things have any permanent existence, the self also has no permanent existence. It’s always changing and much of our unhappiness comes from grasping at a notion of a permanent self. Yet the idea of karma as attaching to individuals, even to the point where actions may affect how each of us is re-born, seems to go the opposite direction from the teaching of no self.

One reconciliation of this apparent tension rests on the idea that karma can attach to a non-permanent self, what one Buddhist scholar, Matthew Kapstein, has called a “continuant,” in distinction to a “soul,” which is thought to have some kind of permanent existence. Just as a candle’s flame is constantly changing, there is some continuity between the flame of one candle and flames on other candles that are lit from the first flame. The pattern of the flame remains somewhat stable and certainly recognizable as a flame. This is what a person is: a pattern that remains somewhat stable and recognizable.

This is also a rationale for reincarnation, a concept common to almost all Buddhist and Hindu schools of thought. The doctrine of reincarnation holds that at least some aspects of personality will continue between each incarnation, and the way in which this continuation occurs is guided by the karma of each individual. However, this concept again bumps up against modern science because the evidence for reincarnation is not very strong. Ian Stevenson, a now-deceased scholar at Duke University, and his successor at Duke, Jim Tucker, gathered data on reincarnation for decades. Stevenson’s book, Children Who Remember Previous Lives, is probably the best summary of this data.

I didn’t find this evidence convincing with respect to the reality of reincarnation, if reincarnation is viewed strictly as the recycling of a personality into a new body. There is, however, good data, including Stevenson’s and Tucker’s data, suggesting that some kinds of information may somehow be passed from the dead to the living, or between one person to another person. This itself is a very strange anomaly from the perspective of modern science, which may require profound changes to modern science. However, suggesting that some types of information may be recycled between lives, or between individuals more generally, independent of the known physical forces, is a far more parsimonious suggestion than the traditional Buddhist view that personalities may pass wholesale from body to body.

I am personally open to the idea that modern science needs to evolve, and possibly radically, as well as Buddhism – more than open, as I’m actually a strong advocate that science needs to evolve. The process-philosophy views of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers are a richer and more comprehensive basis for an accurate and satisfying worldview than the overly-materialist views of mainstream science today. I’ve described various ways in which I think modern science should be re-thought in a serious of ten columns here (beginning with “Absent-minded Science”), as well as in my in-progress books.

That said, I don’t see any compelling reason why modern science should evolve to accommodate traditionalist views of karma and reincarnation. Rather, I think that Buddhism should evolve and re-interpret the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Who “gives” in the face of irreconcilable differences? In this case, I think it is Buddhism that should give, though modern science may also need to give some back.

Karma is just a name for the truism that actions have consequences. We can stick to a pretty traditional scientific view of reality and accept that any actions you or I take will have personal repercussions and repercussions on others. The difference between this notion of karma and traditional notions of karma is that there is no parallel system of cause and effect based on a hidden spiritual reality. There is, in the view I’m advocating here, one reality and it operates seamlessly through a single set of laws of cause and effect. Western science clearly doesn’t have these laws all figured out yet (see my above comments about quantum entanglement), but we’ve made a good start. And they aren’t really “laws of nature” per se, but, instead, habits of nature, to use Whitehead’s phrase.

As we learn more about the physical world, we also learn more about the spiritual world because they are the same world. There is no parallel reality. A single “deep science” should include physical and spiritual understandings, to use Ken Wilber’s apt phrase.

Reconciling reincarnation is trickier than karma because of the evidence I’ve already mentioned regarding the apparent transmission of some kinds of information in ways that our current scientific notions say simply can’t happen. For example: Stevenson writes in Children Who Remember Previous Lives about 14 cases selected from hundreds he’d collected, including those from nine different cultures (in order to counter the view that cases of reincarnation only happen in Hindu or Buddhist cultures): “In every case, the subject made statements about the life he claimed to remember while he was still a young child; in every case one or several adults corroborated that he had made such statements at that age.”

Stevenson and Tucker are clearly convinced that their evidence supports a traditional view of reincarnation as the passage of personalities between physical vessels. I was not convinced, as already mentioned, that this is necessarily the case. The accounts are always partial and problematic in various ways. And the idea of an incorporeal entity of some sort literally passing between bodies is riddled with logical problems that I’ve addressed here.

I’m always open to new evidence and I can’t say personally that the idea of reincarnation is clearly wrong. But I haven’t found the evidence so far convincing for the recycling of personality. It seems that the best reconciliation of reincarnation with modern science may be to reject the traditional view of reincarnation and continue to examine the evidence for transmission of some kind of information between minds and bodies that is not an entire personality.

A fine balance: Some modern Buddhists have suggested going much further than I am advocating here. Stephen Batchelor, for example, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, states “Buddha was not a mystic.” Batchelor generally rejects suggestions that the Buddha had anything to say about a deeper reality. Batchelor advocates an agnostic approach to karma and reincarnation: We simply don’t know if these doctrines are accurate or not, and they’re not crucial anyway. I agree with Batchelor with respect to karma and reincarnation, but I disagree that Buddha rejected all types of mysticism.

Entire sutras have been written on the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, which was profoundly mystical, if we are to accept the teachings of the sutras at all. The Avatamsaka Sutra, for example, goes into great and exhaustive (and repetitive) detail about this experience.

Moreover, we have little good information about what Buddha “really” taught because it was an oral tradition only for centuries after the Buddha’s death. The idea that early texts accurately captured all of what the historical Buddha taught is not very credible.

The Pew surveys indicate that about two-thirds of the “unaffiliated” believe in some kind of God. Buddhism is traditionally viewed as being atheistic or agnostic on the issue of God. My views on this important matter have changed much over the years, as I’ve described here. I am now comfortable labeling myself a theist, but my God is not a traditional god. It’s certainly not an angry dude on a cloud hurling lightning bolts at naughty humans. Rather, my process-philosophy view of God is summed up well by the American physicist Freeman Dyson: “God is what mind becomes when it passes beyond the scale of human comprehension.” Being a theist, atheist, or agnostic is not, however, key to living a better life today, through compassion and meditation; so debates over the existence or nature of God aren’t essential to the key points of this essay.

More generally, understanding mind is the key to reconciling science and spirituality, as well as achieving a fine balance between the teachings of Buddhism and the understandings of modern science. We are now undergoing a renaissance in our understanding of mind and the brain, and our philosophies, religions, and cultures will surely change as a new understanding of the mind emerges from the current tumult. I’m an advocate of the panpsychist school of thought, in which all material things have some mind associated and vice versa. Where there is mind there is matter, and where there is matter there is mind. I’m very encouraged by some recent high-profile “coming out” statements on panpsychism, including in particular, Christof Koch’s recent book, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

I’ll close with a quote from Batchelor, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

An agnostic Buddhist vision of a culture of awakening will inevitably challenge many of the time-honored roles of religious Buddhism. No longer will it see the role of Buddhism as providing pseudoscientific authority on subjects such as cosmology, biology, and consciousness as it did in prescientific Asian cultures. Nor will it see its role as offering consoling assurances of a better afterlife by living in accord with the worldview of karma and rebirth. Rather than the pessimistic Indian doctrine of temporal degeneration, it will emphasize the freedom and responsibility to create a more awakened and compassionate society on this earth.

Related Links

This column was amended on December 31 to state that a greater number of Americans identify as Buddhists than as Muslims or Hindus.

Comments

Independent Discussion Guidelines

You got a bit turned around with the breakdown of non-Christians in the USA, Tad.

More Buddhists than Muslims, more Atheists than either (almost as many as Jews), and 6 times as many "nothing in particular/ don't knows" than all of therm.

Here's the data from Pew:

- Jewish 1.7
. . . Reform 0.7
. . . Conservative 0.5
. . . Orthodox <0.3
. . . Other Jewish groups <0.3
. . . Jewish, not further specified <0.3
- Buddhist 0.7
. . . Theravada (Vipassana) Buddhism <0.3
. . . Mahayana (Zen) Buddhism <0.3
. . . Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism <0.3
. . . Other Buddhist groups <0.3
. . . Buddhist, not further specified 0.3
- Muslim* 0.6
. . . Sunni 0.3
. . . Shia <0.3
. . . Other Muslim groups <0.3
. . . Muslim, not further specified <0.3
- Hindu 0.4
. . . Vaishnava Hinduism <0.3
. . . Shaivite Hinduism <0.3
. . . Other Hindu groups <0.3
. . . Hindu, not further specified <0.3
- Other World Religions <0.3
- Other Faiths 1.2
- Unitarians and other liberal faiths 0.7
. . . Unitarian (Universalist) 0.3
. . . Liberal faith <0.3
. . . Spiritual but not religious <0.3
. . . Eclectic, “a bit of everything,” own beliefs <0.3
. . . Other liberal faith groups <0.3
- New Age 0.4
. . . Wica (Wiccan) <0.3
. . . Pagan <0.3
. . . Other New Age groups <0.3
. . . Native American Religions <0.3
- Unaffiliated 16.1
. . . Atheist 1.6
. . . Agnostic 2.4
. . . Nothing in particular 12.1
- Don’t Know 0.8

* From “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” Pew Research Center, 2007
http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/rep...

binky (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2012 at 9:13 p.m. (Suggest removal)

OK wait a second...I have to write all this down.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 4:22 a.m. (Suggest removal)

interesting material, Tad... thank you.
Another emphasis in some Buddhist strands is to work at recovering your "beginner's mind". These directed efforts to regain a childlike wonder and feelings of innocence seem much-needed in our hectic, screen-obsessed, and fearful modern worlds. Pema Chodrin and Thich Naht Hanh are recent Buddhist speakers and writers who have important wisdom to share with those open to new ideas.
While I've gone back to Alan Watts a few times (my beat-up copy of THE TABOO AGAINST KNOWING WHO YOU REALLY ARE is right here), he does sound trippy and awfully gee whiz for 2012.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 4:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The concept of childlike innocence is also found in Christianity. To wit: http://bible.cc/matthew/18-3.htm

billclausen (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 5:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

First, if a spiritual discipline postulates an ultimate goal and teaches, "do this, and you will achieve this goal," the implication is pretty strong that if you don't "do this," you won't achieve the goal, which seems very much like a doubly exclusive claim to be the sole path to what that tradition defines as the only goal that matters.

Second, not only is there is a fundamental tension between the idea of karma and the idea of “no self,” the latter notion also raises the question of how an entity that has no foundational identity can cultivate or ground an attitude of "compassion" (or anything else--why "compassion" in particular?) toward other entities that have no foundational identity. In other words, once you adopt an attitude that you have a "self" that ought to stand in a certain sort of relation to other "selves," you have contradicted what is supposed to be the core insight of Buddhism.

In any case, if the term "Buddhism" as currently construed doesn't capture your beliefs, why not leave Buddhists to believe whatever they wish, rather than asking them to “evolve”?

Finally, if “God is what mind becomes when it passes beyond the scale of human comprehension,” then Dyson's statement is God.

pk (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 1:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks Binky. You're right that I goofed on the stats and should have written "a little more" rather than "a little less." You've pulled up old stats, however. The link I provide shows the 2012 stats.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 4:15 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Dr Dan, Alan Watts' The Book on the Taboo... is my favorite of his and it was pretty influential on my personal development from when I first read it at the age of 20 or so. Yes, some of his ideas and presentation are a bit dated now, but in general I think his views translate very well 40 years into the future from when he died, and will very likely maintain relevance in perpetuity. His vision was very similar to mine, though he didn't seem very well-acquainted with the process philosophy school of thought that I find pretty compelling.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 4:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, I've never come across a Buddhist statement or teacher who claims that their particular methods are the only path to enlightenment or happiness. Let me know if you find anything that does.

Re the doctrine of no self, Buddhism doesn't claim there is no self at all, but rather that there is no permanent self, as I stress above and in the essay I link to in this present essay. Clearly there is a self who is an actor and is aware. But the no self doctrine urges us to contemplate what this self consists of, and we find ultimately that there is no essential permanent self or soul that IS us. Rather, we are nothing more than the sum of our sensations and history, which are constantly changing. We are a constantly changing pattern of awareness and nothing more. A better name would the doctrine of "no permanent self"

Last, I know you're just giving me a hard time with the Dyson quote, but if you're curious as to what he was getting at read his excellent book, Infinite in All Directions. What he is referring to is the idea that consciousness probably doesn't stop at the human level in that there are very likely higher levels of consciousness. These higher levels of consciousness may simply be more technologically or evolutionarily-advanced alien species elsewhere in the universe, or there may be processes that allow higher levels of mind to come into being in a hierarchical process of nested minds. Just as the cells of our bodies combine to form our bodies without losing their individual identity, perhaps there are processes by which humans and other types of consciousness can combine to form supra-human types of consciousness. This is of course speculative but under the panpsychist process view of mind there is no reason that higher levels of consciousness can't be formed in this manner, as I've written about in my essays on The Anatomy of God.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 4:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The link you provided uses the same data, just the article is recent. (Both links use “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” Pew Research Center, 2007.)

binky (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 5:37 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I may have missed it in your essay Tam, but my big take away from Buddhism is that life is suffering because humans have desire and all desire produces suffering and the only way to escape suffering is to escape desire, which is accomplished through meditation and compassion. I am drawn to Buddhism because it deals well with the crisis of sentience, which is the tension cause by the knowledge of our own death. The source of all religion and spiritural seeking is the knowledge of and fear of death. Buddhism does not offer the pabulum of eternity but rather suggests that we should just get over it, quiet our fearful minds with meditation, and focus our attention on the here and now by having compassion and doing good in the world. I believe that is good advice.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
December 30, 2012 at 9:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"We are all born to die".

dou4now (anonymous profile)
December 31, 2012 at 5:42 a.m. (Suggest removal)

'If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill the Buddha', as the koan runs.... Eck's correct, the First Noble Truth states that All lives involve (some, or a lot) of suffering, & Second NT states that craving/desire cause this suffering, & Third contends that controlling or shutting off these growing cravings is the only way to REDUCE the suffering...uh, so go to Fourth which recommends the 8-Step Path... It's a rich brew...

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 31, 2012 at 6:25 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I'll stand by my opening paragraph. One doesn't need to find an explicit statement by a representative figure of a spiritual discipline that his or her approach is exclusively valid; it's enough to consider how that discipline operates. Buddhism looks at the human condition, offers a diagnosis and a goal, and offers the means to achieve it. If you don't adopt the spiritual practices of whichever of the family of Buddhisms you prefer, you won't achieve what Buddhists claim is the true goal. If you don't take the Buddhist way, you suffer the Buddhist version of perdition. I'm not condemning Buddhism on these grounds; I'm just pointing out that in this regard, it's no different than other systems of belief.

By the way, Brian Victoria's book Zen at War is a disturbing look at the complicity of at least this form of Buddhism in nationalistic violence.

To speak of the self-awareness of a non-self strikes me as, quite literally, a self-contradiction. In addition, if you have come across a text that explains how and why the value-laden attribute of "compassion" arises spontaneously as one of the elements of the non-permanent self, I really would like to see it.

Finally, I wasn't trying to bait you by my comment on Dyson. I really do find his statement incomprehensible, and nothing that you add makes it seem less so. Saying that probably there are higher levels of consciousness, or it's likely that there are, or there is no logical reason that there aren't isn't an argument for a finite stopping point to which one can assign a name that carries all sorts of traditional theological meanings. Or are we to take it that there is an infinite series of incomprehensible minds, each incomprehensible to the ones below it, each of which can be called God? Or if you intend to assign to the endless process itself the word "God" but strip the word of its traditional personalistic meanings, in particular as an entity that creates and tends to lower forms of being, then I see no point in calling this a form of theism simply because you've taken a word that traditionally applies to a particular sort of entity and attached it to something that isn't an entity at all.

pk (anonymous profile)
December 31, 2012 at 8:57 a.m. (Suggest removal)

It says "Buddism being spiritual rather than religious"...
And yet, I see Westerners arguing over it still!...
I hope now,you see why a good teacher is required who originates from the particular teaching in question,& not simply someone questing for fame.
Every culture has a belief system taught by their ancestors....find yours & follow it.
Cats don`t howl at the moon.

PeterPeli (anonymous profile)
December 31, 2012 at 9:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Interesting points of view. I think this sentiment (especially the more Vedanta-Hindu focused line of thought and our internal struggle in reconciling Buddhism with the Western way of life) has already been articulated quite lyrically in "I am not a Buddhist" by Charity Fields. The electronic edition of her book is called Battle Against Infinity. Goodreads has reviews of it here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15...

Bridgette (anonymous profile)
December 31, 2012 at 10:35 a.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, Buddhism and Hinduism come from a tradition that stresses many possible paths to the same goal. Hinduism often stresses different yogas (unions with God) for different types of people: karma yoga (the yoga of works or good actions), bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion to a sacred figure), and jnana yoga (union with god through insight). Raja yoga is often offered as a fourth path but that's always seemed to me essentially the same as jnana. The degree to which the various schools of Buddhism adopt these different paths as their own is debatable, but it seems clear to me that most Buddhists would agree that it is the clarity of intent and the diligence with which one pursues that intent that is important, rather than the particular path one pursues. And of course Buddhism doesn't generally discuss God, per se, so it would substitute awakening or enlightenment in God's stead.

Also, Buddhism has always stressed an empirical approach to realization: "try this and see if it works. If not, let's try something different." It's not a cookie-cutter approach to spirituality.

On non-self, again, it's a non-permanent self, not no-self at all. It's a crucial difference.

As for compassion arising naturally from Buddhism's insights, check out Being Upright by Reb Anderson.

My take on this issue is this: understanding the nature of reality, through study, discussion and meditation, naturally leads to greater compassion for those around us just as any kind of study does. We have more compassion for things we understand, and this is a traditional objective of better education in a secular context. Less traditionally, Buddhist training emphasizes mutual arising and the interdependence of all things. If all things are interdependent then each of us is as much or more all things, we are part and whole at the same time, and it is a misunderstanding of our true identity to place the emphasis on the part when it should more accurately be placed on the whole. This understanding will of course lead to greater compassion for the gazillion other parts that comprise the whole universe. The tricky part of this understanding is living it: where does natural and traditional self-interest give in to the interest of the whole and vice versa? This is why I write that all life should be viewed as praxis b/c all life becomes a training ground for this essential problem.

Last, you write: "Or are we to take it that there is an infinite series of incomprehensible minds, each incomprehensible to the ones below it, each of which can be called God?" Yes.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
January 2, 2013 at 9:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Anselm is not pleased.

pk (anonymous profile)
January 4, 2013 at 12:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

He'll get over it ;)

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
January 5, 2013 at 3:31 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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