A couple of years ago the journalist and author John Horgan wrote an article regarding his personal exploration of Buddhism, as well as the unfavorable view of Buddhist practice and philosophy that he had “regretfully” arrived at. Mr. Horgan, who being a writer specializes in covering the world associated with science, is also well-versed on the subject of religious enlightenment, having written an excellent book on what cutting-edge science has to say about the quest for transcendental experiences. Getting read a couple of his books, plus having a high opinion of your pet as both a writer and a person, when I recently chanced upon his write-up on Buddhism I was naturally willing to learn what opinion he had shaped.
Even though I don’t actually use the label “Buddhist”, my thinking and spiritual practice has a good deal in common with certain Buddhist schools of thought. And I’ve always had the greatest regard for dedicated Buddhist professionals. So I felt a little disappointed and defensive when I read some of Mr. Horgan’s critical thoughts. It’s not that will his thoughts, per se, took me simply by surprise. Some of his pet peeves against Buddhism are actually pretty traditional criticisms. Criticisms that chauvinistic plus racist Western opponents of Eastern religions first began to voice long ago in the late 19th century. But Mr. Horgan is not a racist, a cultural imperialist, or a closed-minded fundamentalist type. The fact that he can still entertain such critical views about Buddhism means that they need to be taken significantly, and thoughtfully addressed by each “card-carrying” Buddhists, and sympathizers such as myself.
To take on that task here, I’ll touch on each of the factors he makes against Buddhist values and practice, in the order they will occur in his article. The first point that he makes is that Buddhism is “functionally theistic”. That the doctrines associated with karma and reincarnation imply “the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness” to determine our next incarnation.
Even though, personally, I don’t subscribe to the particular doctrine of reincarnation, I find this first criticism to be fairly weak. Reading a belief within a man-upstairs kind of deity into the ideas of karma and reincarnation is obviously a result of our tendency to anthropomorphize, to interpret the impersonal because personal, to think in terms of humanlike people acting as agents behind natural forces and processes.
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Of course , the particular tendency to think in terms of a big-guy-in-the-sky God who micromanages the universe from the outside is also a legacy of two thousand years of Western religious training. Mr. Horgan seems to be subject to these two tendencies. But the Buddha, and several Buddhist denominations are definitely not.
What’s more, it simply does not logically and necessarily follow from the notion of karma that there must be an unnatural “cosmic judge” who makes sure that karmic law always serves up justice to us. I’m not going to go off on a digression here, and examine the thinking of great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers who’ve endeavored to explain just how karma might possibly work with no micromanagement of a judgmental Jehovah. It provides to suffice here to say that some brilliant Eastern minds have got in fact provided alternate explanations.
So , Buddhists are not actually guilty of dodging the “theistic implications” of their perception in karma and reincarnation. The Buddhist does not need to be intellectually deceitful with her/himself to avoid these expected implications. She/he merely needs to subscribe to one of the alternate explanations.