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Buddhist Retreat

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Buddha: a pragamatist focused on reducing suffering

For a 2,500-year-old religion, Buddhism seems remarkably compatible with our scientifically oriented culture, which may explain its surging popularity here in America. Over the last 15 years, the number of Buddhist centers in the United States has more than doubled, to well over 1,000. As many as 4 million Americans now practice Buddhism, surpassing the total of Episcopalians. Of these Buddhists, half have post-graduate degrees, according to one survey. Recently, convergences between science and Buddhism have been explored in a slew of books—including Zen and the Brain and The Psychology of Awakening—and scholarly meetings. Next fall Harvard will host a colloquium titled "Investigating the Mind," where leading cognitive scientists will swap theories with the Dalai Lama. Just the other week the New York Times hailed the "rapprochement between modern science and ancient [Buddhist] wisdom."

Four years ago, I joined a Buddhist meditation class and began talking to (and reading books by) intellectuals sympathetic to Buddhism. Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth; Buddhism's moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science—or, more generally, with modern humanistic values.

For many, a chief selling point of Buddhism is its supposed de-emphasis of supernatural notions such as immortal souls and God. Buddhism "rejects the theological impulse," the philosopher Owen Flanagan declares approvingly in The Problem of the Soul. Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word. Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

Western Buddhists usually downplay these supernatural elements, insisting that Buddhism isn't so much a religion as a practical method for achieving happiness. They depict Buddha as a pragmatist who eschewed metaphysical speculation and focused on reducing human suffering. As the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman put it, Buddhism is an "inner science," an empirical discipline for fulfilling our minds' potential. The ultimate goal is the state of preternatural bliss, wisdom, and moral grace sometimes called enlightenment—Buddhism's version of heaven, except that you don't have to die to get there.

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TAGGED: RELIGION


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