Serving up some cynicism about Buddhism

I’m deep enough in to the atheist whateversphere that I know minutia about how a fair number of prominent atheists have occasionally criticized Buddhism. I’ve written up a summary of the details here, and I suspect those criticisms are mostly correct. But thinking that didn’t prepare me for an experience I had the other day.

I’m in Hong Kong right now, last stop in Asia before I head back to the US. One of the things I’ve done here is go to Lantau which, according to Wikitravel, is home of “largest, seated, outdoor bronze Buddha statue in the world.” Here are some pictures I took of it, first from far away while riding the cabal car on the way there:

And close up:

I’ve seen a fair number of these religious monuments in my travels around southeast Asia, and on the whole I’m fond of them. Intellectually, I realize they’re all probably the result of various kings wanting to show off how rich and powerful they were, and to that end spending a ton of money that probably could have been used for a better purpose. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying how pretty they are.

There is one thing that threw me, though: at the village near the statue, I went to a short presentation on Buddhsim because it was included in the price of the cable car ride so hey why not. It consisted mostly of a few short animated film clips, spread out through multiple rooms, with everything decorated in a way that I guess was supposed to put us in a spiritual state of mind. And to my complete surprise, I was totally creeped out by it.

In theory, there should have been no surprises, because there was nothing I hadn’t been told when I learned about world religions in grade school/middle school. But hearing it again as an adult, I was struck by how totally generic the story was: “Siddhartha was raised a prince, but was unhappy, so he went off to seek enlightenment. Once he got out of his sheltered princely life, he realized everyone dies eventually. He tried starving himself for awhile, but then realized moderation was better. Eventually, he sat down to mediate under a tree and became enlightened.”

Hearing that, I thought, “wow, it would be so easy to change the names and incidental details and make this story about L. Ron Hubbard, or the Rev. Moon, or Kim Il-Sung.” Like, you could tell a story about how L. Ron Hubbard was dissatisfied with his life, went on a quest for answers, and then in a flash of insight discovered the key principles of Dianetics.

Heck, the basic outline wasn’t all that different than what you hear in a lot of Christian “witnessing” narratives, except that “witnessing” doesn’t involve claiming you discovered anything original (though there’s a tendency to play up the personal discovery aspect, rather than admitting you converted because of your wife or a girl you had a crush on or whatever).

What makes this creepy is the claiming to have discovered ultimate wisdom, juxtaposed with the total lack of any significant content that would justify the claim. The presentation was clearly done in a way meant to convey how awesome the Buddha was, but the only “spiritual truths” he was said to have discovered were banalities: everyone dies, moderation is good. That means the tropes in the presentation could be used to sell any leader or ideology.

After the cartoon clips, we were directed to walk past a series of plaques with Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” and “Eightfold Path” written out. Again, I’d heard it all before, but had an unexpected “lol wut?” reaction to it all. I wish I’d taken pictures of the plaques with the versions of the “Four Noble Truths.” They struck me as exceptionally annoying, in ways not captured by the versions I’m finding through Google right now. In any case, I remember thinking, “how about a better way to avoid suffering is to give people food and medicine and then work on radical life extension?”

But the “best” (and by “best” I mean “worst”) part was the Eightfold Path, which was presented in a way pretty similar to what I can find online:

That seems ripe for some mockery in the style of George Carlin’s “Ten Commandments” routine. “So basically what you’re saying is I should do things the right way? Gee, thanks Buddha, I never would have figured that out without you!”

Final thought: maybe we should just feel sorry for the Buddha, who apparently lived such a sheltered life when he was young that when he finally found out about suffering, it seemed like a profound revelation.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    After the cartoon clips, we were directed to walk past a series of plaques with Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” and “Eightfold Path” written out.

    Apparently Buddhist monks have nothing better to do than sit around enumerating things. So check out this photo of a butterfly sculpture next to the Great Buddha of Nara. Count the legs.

  • Andres

    Well, there’s a “deeper” element to it if you bother to look. It sounds to me like what you saw was Buddhism stripped down to essentials and simplified for the common man. You could do the same for something like Aristotle’s virtue ethics and come away thinking it’s all obvious banalities, but when you read the source you see that it is anything but simplistic banalities. Buddhism has quite a few rich philosophical traditions, traditions that we as Americans haven’t been exposed to, and traditions which you wouldn’t find in a tourist center. You’d have to hit the books for that.

    Owen Flanagan has a great book called “The Bidhitsava’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized”.
    I recommend it.

  • Tommykey

    I rode the Ngong Ping 360 crystal cabin to the Big Buddha statue in August of 2011. By the time I made it to the top of the stairs in that heat, I was like, “Yeah, life is suffering. LOL!”

  • Yvain

    Think you’re being kind of unfair here. Yes, the subheadings for the principles are obvious, but the philosophy itself is not at all obvious. Think about an analogy to utilitarianism: if you were summarizing it to the common person with no interest in philosophy, you might say “greatest good for the greatest number”, or something like that.

    To which a skeptic could reasonably reply “Oh, wow! Jeremy Bentham was so brilliant! He’s saying we should try to maximize GOOD, instead of maximizing BAD. Wow, I never would have thought of that on my own!”

    Or rationality: “You’re saying we should make rational decisions, rather than stupid ones based on no evidence? Great idea, Einstein.”

    There are two ways you can get beyond these kinds of platitudes. First, you can be a smart person who studies the philosophy very deeply, preferably from within a cultural background that allows you to be “primed” for it. Second, you can hang around with groups of utilitarians or rationalists and notice they do things a lot differently than everyone else.

    The same seems to me to be broadly true of Buddhism. Not only do a lot of those boring “rights” consist of some very revolutionary ethical insights (like “be vegetarian”), but I think they’re probably just standins for yama and niyama which are mentally necessary to engage in some very powerful and counterintuitive mystical practices.

  • Chris Hallquist

    @Anders and Yvain:

    Fair enough – this was mainly just about the one presentation, and similar stock presentations of Buddhism for westerners. Most people who hear (or read) such presentations probably know nothing about the “deeper” aspects of Buddhism you talk about, but swallow them automatically so long as they’re multiculturally inclined. I think it’s that realization that I was creeped out by.

  • Oligopsony

    Is there any philosophy whose mass presentation isn’t insipid? Buddhism seems at least ahead of the pack in that there is a there there – contrast Protestantism.

  • Bronze Dog

    Eightfold path kind of reminds me of Ultima’s eight virtues by way of Venn diagram. Love by itself = Compassion, Love + Courage = Sacrifice, Love + Truth = Justice, etcetera. It’s the kind of thing that’s fun for fantasy worldbuilding where you can have symmetry, symbolism, themes, and such. The annoyance I have with doing that sort of thing in real life, however, is the possibility that such categorization could end up as a sacred cow at the expense of ideas that don’t neatly fit in.

  • Stephen

    Consider what “suffering” means to you. Then explore the way Buddhism defines “dukkha”. Contemplate the differences, then see how this might allow you to re-visit the rest of the Four Truths.

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  • Kaiser

    It’s obvious that you don’t know nearly enough about Buddhism to make any sort of reasoned critique. Its arguments are quite subtle and nuanced.

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