This paper is 11,644 words long and is better read printed offor on a tablet with nice big print It is a fuller version of the paper first delivered to the South Somerset Humanist Group on 8-11-12,
Based on the paper first delivered to the South Somerset Humanist Group on 8-11-12,
Can you be a Buddhist and a Humanist?
The question I set out to explore was can one agree with both these two traditions or are they mutually exclusive? Some like me say yes, others, both Humanist and Buddhist, say no. Considering this however lead me down an apparently circuitous route. This is because developments in a range of fields during my own life together with personal experiences have lead me to sense that we are currently undergoing a major cultural, intellectual and religious shift, a shift in our understanding of who we are as persons and where we are going as a species. This shift I think increasingly involves a rejection of the supernatural in all its forms, not in favour of an unreflective secularism, but of a deeper grasp of where we are that I would call secular transcendence. In order to see how I reached such a point let us kick off with some definitions.
Go to the British Humanist Association website (http://www.humanism.org.uk/home) and you will read this: Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:
- trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
- makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
- believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.
You will also find a useful questionnaire on the site there to help you decide if you are really simply unthinking and confused, a supernaturalist theist, an unthinking selfish bar steward or a good, moral, altruistic, humanist either agnostic or atheist. An interesting set of options.
Joking aside I find these three propositions as stated above eminently sensible and very hard to contradict by rational argument. I also like the moral dimension in the second proposition which certainly excludes totally selfish immoral forms of atheism from the humanist fold as for example seen in fascists
When it comes to defining Buddhism things can be a bit fuzzier for the Buddhist tradition is ancient and embedded in many rather different Eastern cultures. In the Theravada tradition which has reason to claim to be the oldest and least changed and is to be found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, the definition is quite simple. One considers oneself a Buddhist if you have “turned for refuge” to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in a simple ceremony. This can be interpreted as seeking Awareness, Truth and Community. It also involves accepting for yourself five basic moral precepts as a guide to behaviour. (see also on this site The Buddhist World View and The Way of the Buddha for more detail)
Most Western Buddhists unlike most lay Theravadins would add to this undertaking the regular practice of meditation, particularly the practice of mindfulness or insight meditation kept alive for centuries in the monastic Order. This is as taught and practiced by Sidhattha Gotama the founder and historical originator of the tradition. He is of course usually referred to simply as the Buddha, the awakened or enlightened one. He is also commonly regarded as a “toally enlightened” or aware being who also achieved or entered the ultimate state referred to as Nibbana (Sanskrit Nirvana) Problem. Is such thinking compatible with Humanism?
So where to start? It struck me that a very down to earth and recent experience I have been having illustrates many of the points we need to consider.
For this past half-term week Elizabeth and I have had the privilege of having both our adult daughters and our three grandchildren wanting to come and stay with us in our not very large home. As a regular meditator and seeker after greater mindful awareness and a nice quiet life this was as you can imagine quite a fun test, challenging, at times fraught, sleepless and “full on”. It has also been wonderful and truly enlightening giving us all a rare opportunity to interact together and to see in the children the development of three very different stages and aspects of consciousness.
Lola. One Week Old
First there is Lola Rose. Five days old when she got here. Beautiful in the eyes of all of us, she comes across as a real personality and was born with a face and tiny hands that constantly signal to us drawing our attention to interpret her moods. These are simple and clearly expressed in grimaces, cries and wriggles. According to the best NHS advice she requires three weeks of demand breast feeding before the next step which means effectively little night sleep for mother who consequently needs support. Currently Lola lets us know if she is comfortable, uncomfortable, hungry or satiated. For her brief periods awake she gazes about, eyes unfocused, reacting to light.
The point is she is not in any sense self-aware and has when awake only the most rudimentary consciousness, her behaviour dictated by her inherited instincts. On top of these however are already being built patterns of learnt behaviour as she responds to her mother, and the rest of us as she breathes, drinks, adjusts and interacts with the new world around her.
Our reactions to Lola are also governed by instinct. She triggers a series of responses most powerfully in her mother , but also in baby brother, cousin and grandparents. We think she is beautiful but the most important response that we naturally give her is unconditional love and care. We also have given her a name and we all treat and think of her as a little person of enormous value. If for some reason we did not have these very strong inbuilt reactions and if we were not to carry out the extremely demanding patterns of care needed both now and for years to come, her chances of survival would be negligible.
Traditionally Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikhs and in practice Buddhists would consider that Lola is valuable because she is the bearer of an immortal incorporeal soul that has been hers since conception. That thinking also is what is at the root of religious objections to abortion.
Beau. Twenty Months Old
Second there is Lola’s brother Beau. He is now 20 months old and the difference between him and Lola is staggering. Beau can now walk, run and feed himself with remarkable precision and his head has grown to almost double the size it was when he was born. He has very clear ideas about what he likes and does not like in food, activities and people. Beau is learning to talk, and every day he uses new words with increasing accuracy. His memory is sharp and he can name every relative he has met. He also takes for granted Skype conversations with his cousin in Jersey, operates the TV to watches CBBC and is fascinated by technology and the ipad. He can identify himself in photographs unaided and so is quite obviously self-aware.
He mimics our behaviour and replicates it in play voraciously, setting out wooden bricks as a village populated by members of the family. He is also extremely emotional and expresses himself in loud screams if crossed or finds he cannot yet quite express what he wants. He has taken to Lola since he first set eyes on her with great enthusiasm and gentleness, “Ah”. Is this an instinctive reaction? He also identifies things he likes doing as “fun.” His awareness of the world around him and his enthusiasm to explore it and understand how to use it are wonderful and it seems boundless. “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” as Rabbi Yeshua reputedly said. Certainly Beau exhibits all the attributes of full self-aware personhood and consciousness.
Eleanor. Eight Year Old
Next there is Eleanor, Beau and Lola’s cousin. She is eight and at primary school. Extremely articulate, emotional and sensitive, she can also beat me at chess. She is a keen Harry Potter fan and has seen the videos and has had the stories read to her. While here I took her to Bath Theatre to see Clockwork Boy. This is a play for children about death, loss and mourning explored through fantasy which was really quite demanding. It took very little discussion with me for her to unravel what it was all getting at. She was keen to discuss it and on getting home explained and retold the story with surprising accuracy and maturity to the rest of us.
The point I would make is that by eight she is used to immersing herself in fantasy and supernatural stories. Some she sees are just entertainment, others she sees make a point about how the world works and how we should behave, yet she does not confuse them with the realities of everyday life. She is also aware and sensitive not to upset adults when she knows some believe in an invisible God who is everywhere and some do not. She is not sure.
To summarise; Lola shows us how consciousness is not there when a baby is born, but we are strongly programmed to treat the newborn as a valuable person with developing consciousness so consciousness can grow properly. This observation may give us a good reason for rejecting the idea that Lola or any of us actually has a soul or that the “pro-lifers” are right.
Mother Love and Our Tendency to Anthropomorphise
It also struck me that not only is mother love a strong and fundamental instinct, but together with the love of fathers, grandparents, extended family and siblings we see in play a basic set of reactions or instincts without which our successful reproduction would be impossible – being born as we are exceptionally helpless, vulnerable and slow to mature. What is more our necessary reaction of treating the new-born like Lola as being an actual person long before she is capable of responding in a self-aware way like Beau in order to trigger her growth into self-aware personhood may also be the root for our general tendency to react to other beings, including pet animals and even forces of nature as if they too are persons.
This vital instinctive reaction we have to the newborn may thus explain why in general we have an inbuilt tendency to anthropomorphise or personalise our experience of nature and the world around us to create spirits and gods and in the end God. (see Primal World View http://www.johnbaxter.org/world-views/the-primal-world-view/
Moving on then to Beau, he demonstrates vividly how quickly and voraciously a lively boy with stimulating parents reacts to this treatment and becomes self aware long before the age of two using play as a tool to sort things out and make sense.
Our Need for Fantasy and Supernatural Story
Eleanor goes further and underlines the extremely important part fantasy and supernatural story play in the emotional life first of a child and on reflection I think in the life of almost every adult.
In discussions of religion and culture I am surprised how often a simple fact is ignored. This is our need to fantasise, day-dream and opt out of our everyday world and enter an alternative world of game playing and fantasy. Going along with this is the enjoyment and fascination we find in stories that make use of the supernatural. When one looks at the books, media and video games on offer for Eleanor as those for adults we see they are not just works of fiction like Oliver Twist but instead many are stories that make use of the supernatural, as in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and many, many more. This love of supernatural story and myth we also see at work in all the religions, Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, African, Aboriginal. In fact this tendency is true globally for all forms of human culture, contemporary and ancient.
And what do I mean by supernatural? Those stories that assume the existence of an alternative world “real” or imagined or the intrusion into this world of people and events whose behaviour is not constrained by the consistent predictabilities of everyday life, but who are endowed with incredible powers. Such supernatural fantasies and mythical stories, together with our imaginings and dreams remain a significant part of our mental life as our leisure and viewing habits show. I think our brains are hardwired to operate in a dualistic way like this, always have been and probably always will be. That does not of course make the supernatural a reality apart from our minds and imaginings. It does though make me wonder why such dualistic mental activity is so pervasive. It must have a purpose or several purposes.
Transcendence or transcendence? Alastair Kee
The occasion of Lola’s birth did however vividly remind me of the day, in 1972 when I had been present at the birth of her mother. I was then teaching Religious Studies at Bristol Grammar School and was an ordained Anglican. Elizabeth remembers the occasion because between her contractions I was reading a book which turned out to have a profound effect on my life. Its title was The Way of Transcendence, Christianity Without God by Alastair Kee. Written in 1971 it was causing quite a stir in theological circles and not just with me. The best of a flurry of “Death of God” books around at the time it was a demanding read in which Kee, a very bright young academic theologian, carefully analysed all the main figures from the 19th to the 20th century who had tried to modernise Christian theology and came to very negative conclusions about how consistent and believable they had been.
Later that year, 1972, armed with the notes I had made on Kee’s book I attended a conference for RS teachers in Oxford put on by the Theology Faculty. It was entitled The Intellectual Foundations of Christian Belief. We were lectured by several of the leading theologians and philosophers of religion of the day (including professors John Macquarrie and Basil Mitchell.) Rather to my surprise I found all the speakers were pre-occupied with attempting to refute the criticisms Kee had made of contemporary theologians. The more I listened to them however the more I found them unconvincing. In fact I found myself coming to the conclusion that traditional Christianity had no “intellectual foundations.” For me this was rather devastating for it confirmed in my mind my doubts that belief in God as a loving heavenly father aware of my every thought and act and who reveals himself through supernatural experiences, words and acts simply is not rationally sustainable. “He” is not there. It was also notable that no mention was made of non-Christian religions.
Last year 2011 Alastair Kee died, a well respected Emeritus professor of Theology at Edinburgh. Free of theism and supernaturalism he continued to see himself as a Christian and follower of the Way of Jesus and what he saw as his “transcendent” teaching and example. He spoke of secular transcendence in contrast to supernatural transcendence as a way of saying he found the quality of Jesus’ life and example deeply inspiring. For him it remained a path worth following in the here and now. Just what he meant by this however, I found unclear and quite confusing but his use of the word transcendence I found had resonance. It struck me as a good way of speaking about what is most valuable and important in human experience. I think now many others use the term in a similar way.
Here it is worth pointing out that the Oxford dictionary says transcendence can be used in at least two different ways. In speaking of secular transcendence Kee used it to mean that which goes beyond the ordinary and everyday, that which is uplifting and really special, possibly even life-changing . Such a use we will not capitalise. This he contrasted with Transcendence (capitalised) as referring to that which is wholly independent and removed from the material universe and so can be described as supernatural. That way of thinking Kee rejected as unsustainable.
Dualism and Non-dualism
This ambiguity also applies to several other key words in philosophical and religious dialogue and the cluster of ideas that go with them. Soul, Spirit, Self and Mind can and usually are used pretty interchangeably as applying to a non-material, non-physical, non-mortal essence of a person which should not be confused with the body, the brain or matter, in other words soul, spirit, self and mind can be seen as applying to a supernatural reality. Such thinking is described by its opponents as dualistic while the dualists label those who oppose them “reductionists” or when feeling really nasty “materialists,” the label, shock horror, Marx and the Communists embraced.
The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) expressed the dualist point of view most impressively and marked it with the phrase, “I think therefore I am” and his understanding of consciousness has been called that of “the ghost in the machine” and was widely accepted well into the 20th Century. It is that each person is thought of as having an immortal spirit which is in but not the same as the brain. Descarte was brilliant, but few philosophers think he was right today.
At the same time soul, spirit and self can be used in a different non-supernaturalist or metaphorical way so soul, spirit or mind can be seen as that which is most important and valuable, as most characteristic about someone, as that which can be seen as the root or fundamental pattern of their personality. This way of talking and thinking about our “spirits” sees us as mortal body-brains that have evolved into consciousness through our interaction with other body-brains and the world we are part of and makes no claims to us having an existence beyond or outside this world.
This non-dualism then sees no ghost in the machine, no soul and is generally the approach of contemporary neuro-science which is enlarging our understanding of how our brains function and is investigating how consciousness actually works, often with the help of the latest brain scanners which are getting increasingly precise in what they can track down. Still, while currently making great strides in doing so the neuro-scientists I am told are very aware that we are only at the start of the most fascinating and mysterious project science has ever confronted.
Back in Bristol while teaching I undertook further studies at the University, first of the radical theologians Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire and then analysing the work of a range of thinkers and philosophers who had examined the nature of religion and of ideology. (M.Ed. Philosophy of Education1977) While seeing that both ideologies and religions are prescriptive belief systems, religions have a focus on the transcendent (in both senses). This work also lead me to conclude that theism and supernaturalism are so imbedded in the Christian tradition that I could no longer operate at ease within it and I decided that for me the only honest step was to resign from the Anglican priesthood.
That was not an easy or simple decision, but I was also influenced by the broadcaster and Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt. He was then often on TV where he attempted to put across a “demythologised” non supernaturalist version of Jesus. This was not to everyone’s taste and he faded from our screens. A bit later In 1984 I read and was impressed by his book The Sea of Faith which came to the same conclusions as Alastair Kee – that belief in God and the supernatural is unsustainable though strangely he never referred to Kee who made much the same case more powerfully and systematically I thought. Like Kee, Cupitt continues to see himself as a Christian. As with Kee however I found this position hard to accept and simply saw myself as an atheist who rejects all forms of supernaturalism.
From Christian to Atheist and meeting John Crook
At this time I also got to know Dr John Crook, then lecturing and researching in the Psychology Department at Bristol. His field was Ethology, animal behaviour, and he also “was the first scientist to try to tell the story of the Evolution of Human Consciousness in a groundbreaking book of that title published in 1980, at a time when, somewhat paradoxically, the academic discipline of psychology avoided the issue of consciousness almost entirely.”( http://www.westernchanfellowship.org/lib/wcf////johns-life/.
My rejection of the supernatural was strengthened by hearing of the collapse of parapsychology as a respectable intellectual field of study within the British Psychological Association and on one occasion I met and talked to a young Dr Susan Blackmore who had come to the conclusion after years of studying the paranormal and earning an Oxford DPhil ( see her talking about this in a recent video ) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Pxd1F5AAS0 ) that however hard she tried she could find no objectively verifiable para psychological phenomena to investigate. Subsequently she gave up on parapsychology and has researched and written on Consciousness and Memes. (See her recent TED lecture. http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes.html)
I also learnt that John Crook was an enthusiastic teacher of Buddhist meditation in the Chan/Zen tradition. I did not get deeply into this however, only going to a single meditation session which was when I met and spoke to Susan Blackmore. I was put off by Crook’s emphasis on koans the enigmatic short sayings much used in the Zen tradition. She however did learn to meditate with John Crook and continues to practice meditation and considers in her 2005 OUP book A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness that Gotama’s insights into consciousness and his rejection of the idea of the soul or self were uniquely insightful and ahead of his time. She does not however like to be “pigeon-holed as a Buddhist” and is, as we shall see, a convinced atheist, anti-supernaturalist and non-dualist. It is though significant that such distinguished psychologists as her and Crook moved to adopt the key Buddhist practice of meditation. In fact John Crook resigned early from his university post to devote himself to Buddhist teaching and practice until his death last year (2011) In his final book he described himself as a Buddhist Humanist.
An Atheist Finds the Way of the Buddha via Walpola Rahula and Ajahn Sumedho
To continue with my journey though, while I found leaving behind attempts to believe in God was both a relief and intellectually liberating, it left me confused and far from being a happy bunny and I must have been very difficult to live with. The turning point came a couple of years later when we had moved to North Devon and a new school when quite by chance I bought Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught. Previous outlines of Buddhist teaching had impressed and intrigued, but this little book by this top Sri Lankan Theravadin monk and scholar written in 1959 and still considered vital reading by scholars, took things to quite a different level.
Here seemed to be a rational religion free of the need to accept supernatural or theistic beliefs. Instead it recorded how the historical Gotama example he quoted the Buddha as saying) Instead it recorded how the historical Gotama had emphasized the need for each person to seek the truth for themselves and promised peace, joy, equanimity and a key to happiness in this life in return for following the path he indicated. It describes his way as a practice, a system of moral and mental training which is the necessary preliminary for seeing how things are in an unbiased way.
I was a keen jogger and this approach immediately made sense to me. Only someone who is prepared to take exercise and train can ever know the enjoyment and sense of well being that comes with achieving physical fitness. The unfit just do not know what they are missing. This remains a powerful illustration of the need for practice to precede proper understanding of who we are and how things are.
This meant I knew I needed help for simply reading about meditation just made no sense. As a result I made contact with the new Theravada monastery Amaravati lead by Ajahn Sumedho being opened in Great Gaddesden and in 1985 I “ turned for refuge” at the opening ceremony. A year later after attending several one day meditation workshops to calm my terror of spending days sitting in silence, I undertook my first one week retreat. This was lead first by Ajahn Sumedho and then Tan Amaro ( now Ajahn Amaro and abbot of Amaravati.)
Instead of it being stultifying or unbearable I found the experience extremely powerful, helpful and fascinating and afterwards wrote it up with care. It will soon be on my site. I learnt so much about myself, my body and the workings of my own mind. It was both a revelation in self-discovery and an experience of peacefulness and joy.
After that I meditated daily, and in the context of family life and working as a teacher of RS in a large and very demanding school I found it a life-line. In fact I am sure I would have cracked up without it. I also learnt to see that morality is certainly not dependent , as so many Christians keep saying on belief in God. Instead what is needed – and it remains a challenge – is to be open to being prepared to reflect on the consequences of thoughts ,words and actions that increase the suffering of oneself or the suffering of others.
Meditation I learnt is not about achieving some special unusual state of consciousness, but is simply the development of a habit of disciplined reflection, a focus first on the breath and the body and then the mind in the present moment. This process of developing awareness is the key practice taught by the historical Gotama. It is called sati in Pali and translated as mindfulness or awareness in English. We will return to this later.
So in becoming involved with the Buddhist community, a Sangha or symbiotic community of monastics and their supporting householders devoted to Awareness, Truth and Community (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) and through the personal practice that inspires I certainly feel I have discovered the key to a much happier and fulfilled life and have a clear “moral compass.” This of course does not make me perfect, always sensitive and aware. It does however mean I feel my practice keeps nudging me in the right direction and helps me develop the insight to choose the “skilful” response or action and let go of heedless and unreflective ways of thinking and acting.
And What of Humanism and Buddhist Supernaturalism?
Certainly on coming out of Christianity I had been thinking of myself as a secular humanist, someone with respect for others who should perhaps get involved in politics and in supporting Amnesty. It did not however seem enough. In comparison I felt my Buddhist practice was giving me much more while in no way contradicting a basically humanist and non-supernaturalist approach to life.
And what of Nibbana, and what of Gotama being the fully enlightened Buddha? What of the gods, devas and demons referred to in the Buddhist scriptures, of the heavens and hells and their inhabitants and what of the cycle of rebirth, of millions of incarnations in animals, spirits, ghosts and human forms those scriptures describe and many traditional Buddhists are quite happy to accept? Had I given up on my strong sense that there is no god and my complete rejection of the supernatural, of a non-physical sphere of being, or the existence of a soul or a set of spiritual beings or of an all encompassing and aware divine spirit? Certainly not.
My first question when I spoke to the first Buddhist I met and then to Ajahn Sumedho was, “Can I be a Buddhist and an atheist and can I be a Buddhist and not believe literally in rebirth? The answer to both questions was, “Yes you can.” And Ajahn Sumedho made no bones about suggesting that the gods, devas and spirit worlds referred to in the Buddhist scriptures should be interpreted as metaphors and images to help us come to terms with who we are and where we are in this present moment.
I also learnt that Gotama obviously was a man of his time and place, North India approx 400 BCE. It is clear he NEVER worshipped any god or devas and referred to them with humour and gentle deprecation. He also used teachings to fit his audiences which of course meant using stories, metaphors and folksy humour as well as rather sharp rebuttals. From this it appears he saw the cosmos as unending and so uncreated and so not the work of a creator god. Does this make him an atheist or an agnostic? It seems he considered the question unimportant for his focus was practical, how to live a life of equanimity, free of excessive positive or negative desires , (greed/lust/covetousness , hatred/aversion/ anger) and the distortions these bring to understanding, compassion and being open to the taste of Nibbana or could we say to transcendence. He certainly used the language of rebirth but also pointed out that the practical consequences of a considerate and compassionate moral life are usually as rewarding for the doer as for the receiver and so a chance worth taking – like Pascal’s wager some have said.
Gotama and the Illusion of the Self
In fact one of the elements in Rahula which had most impressed me was Gotama’s teaching that if you examine the elements which make up each one of us, he described five, each of them is constantly changing and our identity and sense of self is no more real or unreal than a flickering flame or a waterfall. Everything about us is in a constant state of change and inter-relationship. Our awareness allows us to reflect on this and see how to guide this flow, but that is the extent of the reality of the self.
It surprised me that despite this strong, clear teaching Rahula following what has become the common tradition sought to insist that somehow our accumulated energies could go on and take up residence in a future life form rather than be scattered at the time of physical death as they are during life into all the forms we continually encounter and influence.
Supernaturalist and Fundamentalist Thinking, Not Atheism is the Issue
Please check out my sheet The General Supernaturalist World View Before reading further. http://www.johnbaxter.org/world-views/the-general-supernaturalist-world-view/
September 11th 2001 was my sixtieth birthday and while treating myself to a computer in a store surrounded by TV monitors I saw the world change as two airliners crashed into the twin towers. No longer was atheistic communism the threat to world peace. Now all could see a dangerous clash of cultures fuelled again by simplistic, uncritical fundamentalist religion, Islamic, Jewish and Christian. This has placed us on a long and dangerous road whose end is not yet in sight. Karen Armstrong’s groundbreaking book The Battle for God, Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam published in 2000 explained what has been happening. In all three traditions intolerant forms of supernaturalism have become increasingly prevalent and politically powerful in the US, Israel and the Muslim world. These are the forms of religion Richard Dawkins has been most effective in criticising, but the refutation of such twisted thinking is not easy to achieve in the face of deep seated and fearful prejudice.
Ever since reading Kee – in fact before that, I have been interested in looking hard at the place of supernaturalism and theism in the Christian tradition. Why is it so pervasive? As a post-Christian my thinking is set out in the article Christianity and Supernaturalism and in my second more recent article Clearing the Way for Rational Non-theistic Religion (on my site www.johnbaxter.org) I argue that the big issue is not whether or not there is behind the cosmos some sort of ultimate intelligence we might call God – because that is something we cannot know for certain one way or the other – but whether or not supernaturalism is credible or a serious barrier to understanding what the world we live in is like.
John Burton in his elegant paper Physics and Spirituality (http://www.johnbaxter.org/rs/physics-and-spiritualiy-by-john-burton/) in which he summarises recent thinking in the sciences gives us two good reasons to surmise that “there might be some giant intellect outside our Universe which is beyond human knowledge.” These he summarises as, “The existence and intellectual enormity of mathematics and the possibility of multiple universes and recycled universes.” At the same time he also gives us good reasons for thinking that this conclusion is not and may never be certain.
If however we were to accept this and be happy to see ourselves as agnostics or event theists in the Burton sense then I would assert – as I am sure he would – that on the basis of everything else we know and in particular what we know about the relentless and mindless process of natural selection in the evolution of species, memes and yes consciousness itself, there is absolutely no room at all for “intelligent design”, “miracle” as scientifically inexplicable phenomena, spirits, ideas of us having an immortal soul or a non-physical substrate of consciousness . There is also no room for belief in a literal rebirth or re-incarnation or for that matter heaven or hell or any other form of non-physical afterlife. Why is this so? This is because as I have said in Clearing the Way that the fundamental truth Science shows us is that he cosmos we inhabit is remorselessly and unremittingly consistent. This is something we can say – without any reasonable doubt – as being something we KNOW.
From nano-particle to galaxy all our observations have lead us to conclude that there are no exceptions to this. This means that the developments that have taken place in our understanding of logic and mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and the workings of matter in space and time we must recognise apply throughout the knowable universe – however much some may wish it were otherwise.
Consistency, the Assumption Behind Science
It has taken us some time to accept the conclusion that we live in a totally consistent universe because for a long time it was not obvious. There still seemed to be many weird and unexplained phenomena that some thought might turn out to be scientifically inexplicable. Note for example the interest of many 19th Century scientists and other intellectuals had in Pyschic Research, Spiritualism and the paranormal as did Susan Blackmore.
As time has gone by however and scientific knowledge has accumulated at a progressively increasing rate, it has become clearer that this consistency is not just a conclusion scientists make, it is also an assumption. In fact we can now see that it is the fundamental assumption upon which all scientific investigation depends. This is because every scientist assumes it to be true when, as constantly happens, new discoveries reveal anomalies and inconsistencies in their current thinking. They then assume that somewhere there is an answer to be found, an answer which will make sense of the problem and be consistent and coherent with what is known or will throw up a new paradigm of consistency.
And the Alternative?
To see how vital this assumption is one only has to try and imagine an alternative scenario. This would be to assume that we do not live in a totally consistent universe. That would mean that some events at least would not just be unexplained, they would be essentially inexplicable. If this were to be the case how would anyone know which problem was susceptible to investigation and which problem would not be? Surely the only conclusion for the would be scientist in that situation would have to be that we appear to live in a quixotic, often chaotic and unpredictable universe. That would make the endeavours of scientists and technologists to find consistent solutions simply stabs in the dark, an enormous waste of time and effort. In other words what the scientists at Cerne have been doing searching for the Higgs bosun could be better carried out by the alchemist, shaman or priest who is not worried or constrained by the search for consistency, but is ready to turn to “the occult”, non-material spiritual reality, magic and answers to prayer. It would certainly be cheaper.
Frankly it seems to me this option so beloved of many members of the religions including Christians and Buddhists, is no longer an option for those prepared to look hard at the accumulated evidence. As regards all the Christian claims of non mental “miracles” let us not forget that we have no more than doubtful, second hand hearsay evidence for believing such events as the empty tomb and the “nature miracles” actually took place. Certainly the records we have cannot be regarded as evidence for the occurrence of scientifically inexplicable events. We also have to accept, as Gotama was the first to point out, that we have no soul, self or substrate of consciousness and that means when we die our present being and consciousness ceases – even as our actions, thoughts, achievements and mistakes continue to have consequences and ripple on in and through the lives of others.
The Secular Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor
Preparing this paper has made me aware of how little I know and how quickly things are changing. In Buddhist circles the death of the God of Kee and Cupitt has been mirrored in the work of the former Tibetan and Zen monk Stephen Batchelor and set out in his fascinating, honest and moving book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. In this he has asserted that Buddhism too needs to shed all traces of supernaturalism if it is to have long-term credibility in European culture. This year at the invitation of London Insight ( see website) he and Don Cupitt came together, Batchelor presenting a paper entitled Secular Buddhism
http://www.globalbuddhism.org/13/batchelor12.pdf and Cupitt a paper entitled Secular Christianity. I missed attending that but have read their papers and subsequently spent a day hearing Stephen Batchelor and we have since been in touch thanks to the wonders of Skype. He has since shared with me a paper in which he questions the common interpretation of some Buddhist texts which seem to have the Buddha assert the presence of an ineffable absolute reality that exists apart from the mundane world and is the goal of Buddhist practice. In his paper he (I thought very plausibly) argues that what the text is actually saying when it refers to the “unborn” and the “uncompounded” is that it is possible to reach a state where one is not constrained by greed, hatred and delusion – quite a different thing.
Batchelor is a scholar with a deep knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures and he shows meticulous care in marshalling evidence. He is also an experienced teacher of meditation and I have found myself agreeing and encouraged by almost everything he says, for I have always been, as I have made clear, what he calls a secular Buddhist. At the same time I think the establishment of the monastic Sangha of monks and nuns in this country and in the West by Ajahn Sumedho and those who have trained with him is extremely important and valuable for the whole Buddhist tradtion so I am happy to support the monastic Sangha and feel Western Buddhists should recognise the value and pleasure to be had in associating with traditional Buddhists (particularly the Thais and Sri Lankans who have been such generous supporters) who live here and who continue to find traditional teachings and practices important for themselves and remind us by their example that the first step on the path is the practice of dana, generosity.
It also seems to me that the Theravada Forest Monastery tradition which places its emphasis not on the common acceptance of beliefs, but on the path being a system of moral and mental practice which is the key to deeper happiness and awareness, regardless of our inevitably differing beliefs and ways of seeing things is a very strong and resilient model. As an atheist and non-supernaturalist this approach makes better sense for me and provides a more compatible “spiritual home” than I feel the Christian Church can currently offer, although the Quakers get close with very similar values and an openness to both non-theism and Buddhism.
Still I hope I could be wrong about the C of E and may yet see traditional Anglicanism become more accepting of those who are openly non-supernaturalist , non- theist or agnostics. I think there are actually many who appreciate and are inspired by the figure of Jesus, by Christian values of love, compassion, forgiveness and service to others and see these are communicated through traditional Christian story, ceremony and symbol in the practice of the worship and life of the Church who nevertheless doubt the existence of God and cannot accept supernaturalism. They are looking for or do not want to leave a Church they see as a supportive and compatible community that they relate to. Without such an accommodation of non-supernaturalists I fear the future for Christianity in this country is to continue to wither and die while a minority take the fundamentalist path so beloved of both Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. They I fear often seem in the name of “faith” to be in danger of denying the very values or truth, openness, respect for persons and compassion for those who suffer that can make the Christian path worth while.
Keith Ward and Objective Spiritual Reality as the Heart of Religion
Stephen Batchelor certainly has stirred up many Buddhists, including some leading Western Buddhists who accuse him of throwing the baby out with the bath water in his rejection of “real “ rebirth and Nibbana as a non-physical spiritual reality as opposed to an experience of deep insight and awareness of the wonder of the present moment. The distinguished scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodi says, “Batchelor is ready to cast away too much that is integral to the Buddha’s teaching in order to make it fit in with today’s secular climate of thought. I’m afraid that the ultimate outcome of such concessions could be a psychologically oriented humanism tinged with Buddhist philosophy and a meditative mood.” (www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha106.htm) We will return to look at that comment later after exploring Mindfulness, but first let us look at the rather similar disagreement Professor Keith Ward of Oxford has had with regard to Don Cupitt’s views on Christianity.
I met Keith Ward at a conference for RS teachers at Warwick soon after I had attended my first Buddhist retreat in the eighties. Carried away with the enthusiasm of one who had only recently experienced something I had found very special, I actually suggested he try visiting Amaravati to explore Buddhist meditation. He thought – wrongly, I was trying to convert him and brushed the idea aside. At the time that saddened me but I think it was understandable. In those days Christian theologians were only beginning to wake up to the necessity of studying other religions carefully and sympathetically if what they had to say was to have any general intellectual relevance. In this I think many professional RS teachers I knew were often ahead of them in their attitudes if not in their scholarship..
In 1982 Ward wrote an attack on Don Cupitt entitled Holding Fast to God describing him as being “completely wrong” and “mistaken”. He also described himself thus,( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Ward) “I am a born-again Christian. I can give a precise day when Christ came to me and began to transform my life with his power and love. He did not make me a saint. But he did make me a forgiven sinner, liberated and renewed, touched by divine power and given the immense gift of an intimate sense of the personal presence of God. I have no difficulty in saying that I wholeheartedly accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.” He does not however regard himself as a fundamentalist and has written books criticising fundamentalism – which I have not read. For my response to this account of his religious experience see http://www.johnbaxter.org/rs/supernaturalism/ section 15 Resurrected and Born Again.
Around the same time it seems he became deeply interested in the study of non-Christian religions and comparative theology. The fruit of this work is to be seen when in 2004, the year her retired, he wrote an impressive and for many an influential work, The Case For Religion. This book shows just how far he has gone beyond Christian exclusivity to find in the world religions elements he regards worthy of respect. He has also carefully explored the various theories that have been put forward to explain and understand the general phenomenon of religion and I think he expounds them in an accurate and balanced way. At the end of all his study however he draws his own conclusion which is that what unites all religions and separates them from secular ideologies and belief systems like humanism and atheism is that they speak of the supernatural as a higher reality and this he sees not as something negative and flawed about traditional religion as Kee, Cupitt and Batchelor do, or simply as a description of how religions work, but as a pointer to the ultimate reality, or should I say The Ultimate Reality? He writes:
“Revelation can be seen as the self-disclosure of objective spiritual reality, which we apprehend by non-sensory perception. This sort of revelation is not likely to be inerrant or even very clear, since we can be aware of a reality that we cannot describe very accurately, and which appears to us as it does largely because of the limitations of our faculty of perception. When we come to describe such a revelation, our description may be limited and tentative, though the experience itself may be vivid and life changing. This opens the way to seeing the Bible as a record of personal experiences which, in the case Christianity, can be traced back to the foundational experiences of Jesus.” P171
His thinking here about religious experience is he points out based on that of the 19th Century German theologian Frederich Schleiermacher, but while Schleiermacher considered the Christian miracles stories to be based on “exaggeration and legend,” Ward is prepared to see them and certainly the resurrection of Jesus, as “objective events (not just states of mind) which manifest the presence and activity of God.”
Put briefly my reaction to this despite my respect for the breadth and depth of the work he has done, is that I think Keith Ward has got it wrong. His adoption of Schleiermarcher’s focus on religious experience and his extension of this to assert that all religions provide a more or less culturally and historically varied apprehension of an essential “objective spiritual reality” only makes it more obvious that what he is proposing is a closed system impervious to contradiction and dependent on “faith”. Why do I say this? Because who can possibly know what is an “objective spiritual reality which we apprehend by non-sensory perception” as opposed to a powerful subjective experience such as seeing a vision, hearing a voice or undergoing a conversion experience (as he says he did) or having a new and sudden experience of insight as I on my first retreat did?
His acceptance of “real” miracles as objective non-mental events is also a denial of the assumption of the scientific method that we inhabit a totally consistent cosmos and I fear brings back the shaman.
As I hope my very different understanding of the General Supernaturalist World View makes clear, few if any traditions that accept supernaturalism are ready to accept the authenticity of the miracles or religious experiences of other traditions, rather this use of supernaturalism is simply a common way of thinking (a meme?) that while widely adopted by the adherents of different religions in an attempt to cope with the march of critical science and secularisation, is applied by each one of them as pretty much or exclusively true only for themselves (eg Jews and Muslims arguing over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount hardly see each other as sharing belief in the same God) and results in a rejection of dialogue and openness in favour of “faith” and a spurious certainty.
Who is the Real Reductionist?
It also seems to me that if people disagree with Ward’s supernaturalist dualism he might simply write them off as “reductionist materialists” who refuse to see and perceive the Transcendent God behind everything. I however would say if I have understood him aright that he is the “reductionist” in confining experiences of transcendence to what he sees as “religious” “supernatural” experiences. To do so is to fail to recognise that transcendent experiences are open to all in this wonderful mysterious world if we are ready to open up and look, and that this can happen at any time in our lives and is not restricted just for those “granted the gift of faith.”
Transcendent (in the secular sense) experiences of wonder, awe and joy can and are part of the lives of most of us (and I would suggest are significantly enhanced by the practice of meditation) and take place in a huge variety of ways. Such experiences come in and through any number of situations and activities such as in and through the arts, music, poetry, work, relationships, communicating, understanding and helping others, through study and scientific research and the wonder of discovery, in the awe we can feel in appreciating nature and perhaps most commonly in deep and loving relationships as well as in awe inducing religious practice. In other words those experiences that lead us to say to ourselves, “This is as good as it gets. This goes beyond the meaningless and mundane, the trivial, the self-obsessed, the grasping. It even goes beyond the painful and the depressing. This is it. The whole of life and my experience may not be like this, but this is what it is all about.” Such experiences of happiness, fulfilment, and meaning, such tastes of “nibbana,” “the kingdom of heaven”or transcendence we find right here in this world without I think any necessary recourse to a mythical, supernatural fantasy world, or belief in one.
At the same time the use of myths, metaphors and supernatural fantasy stories which are as we saw with Eleanor deeply imbedded in our thinking. They can be effective ways for many of us to understand and express our transcendent experiences. This is not only because most people do not go in for philosophical analysis, but because many remain happy with traditional ways of thinking and talking to explain things as for example referring to an afterlife or to rebirth in vague terms or of the soul being something different from the body. They will happily continue to talk about the transcendent experiences that give their lives meaning as signs that what happens to them “was meant to be” or that God, Allah or Jesus or even the Buddha loves them or that they are getting close on the long path to reaching Nirvana, Heaven or Paradise. If so that is fine by me and I respect them so long as they do not write off others like me who use different stories or explanations of our experiences.
Susan Blackmore Again. This time with Memes
Is that all? No. Go to the British Humanist Association web site and there along with Polly Toynbee and all the other luminaries (and an impressive list of movers and shakers they are) urging people to join is a picture and quotation from Susan Blackmore. Since I met her back in the eighties in Bristol (an event I am sure she will not remember) she has gone on to write a widely used university textbook on Consciousness and building on the work of Dawkins has been popularising his theory of the non-biological development of cultural, scientific and religious evolution through memes, a meme being anything that can be copied. In this she has the backing of the leading American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennet – someone else Keith Ward takes issue with because he denies the reality of the soul and is a strongly anti-religious atheist. Both of them are easily accessed on line giving their TED video lectures.
Susan Blackmore makes her case with powerful simplicity. She describes the Evolutionary Algorithm or Universal Darwinism. This states that if you have creatures that vary ( variation) and if there is a challenging environment for them to live in so that most of them die, (selection) and if the few that survive pass on to their offspring what helped them survive, then they will be better adapted to survive (heredity) and then you MUST get evolution or design out of chaos without the aid of mind. Daniel Dennet 1995.
So to summarise variation followed by selection followed by heredity always results in evolution which looks like design out of chaos but this is an immutable, mindless and automatic process completely separated from consciousness. My reaction to this is to find it elegant, powerful and convincing.
When it comes to memes Blackmore points out that Dawkins saw the gene as the primary replicator driving evolution, but he was the first to see that once humans evolved into conscious beings we became the creators of cultural replicators, what he calls memes, because we are uniquely good at copying and we copy anything we can – language, culture, music , religion, fashion etc etc, good, bad and indifferent. As a result we live in a sea of memes ready for our brains to replicate –and they do. Blackmore suggests we are almost at the point where our capacity to replicate as a result of our use of technology from pen to ipad has gone so far that soon these techno-memes or Temes may be able to replicate themselves without reference to our brains. That however is still SF. My reaction though is to be a little cautious about meme theory. Can it be tested?
If we apply what memetics has to say to Lola, Beau and Eleanor we see them developing from a standing start (Lola) to become ever more efficient and productive “meme machines”. Beau in particular is at the stage of being a voracious replicator of everything and anything that comes his way e.g saying “cheers” when we have a drink together or giving a “high five” to his dad. It would also seem that his and our growth in consciousness is closely tied up in all this.
In Eleanor as well as replicating patterns, reactions and fashions she picks up at school, she also laps up the supernatural narratives that are around for play and entertainment and is learning how to discern where they may provide relevance and insight to her life while clearly recognising that they are not “real.” Are these all memes too?
Apply what memetics has to say to Keith Ward and we might see that the study of the religions shows us how waves of replicators are sent out by the religion founders and their disciples and these go through a process of selection and further modified replication. What survives this process may not be the truest or most accurate versions of the founder’s message, but what works, what is caught, modified and copied into the minds of those affected or infected. Some replicators – say teachings about the need for generosity, or developing a habit of checking evidence carefully and honestly, or examples of acting with compassion and generosity may contribute to human well-being and the advancement of knowledge. Others such as human sacrifice and racial hatred or treating women as inferior get carried along like parasites with malign effects on individuals and cultures. Here using talk of memes seems to correspond with reality and rings warning bells.
It strikes me that what I have understood about memetics sounds rather like what Gotama had to say about samsara, rebirth. We are all constantly sending off through our actions and words replicators or memes which are taken up by others in a chain of causes and consequences. (Is this what Gotama was getting at when he spoke of the chain of Dependent Origination?) Many of these replicators may contribute to human well-being, but not all. Scientific method and reasoning and the cultivation of awareness can enable us to carry out some cleaning up of the unintended and malign effects of replication, but where this does not or cannot happen the results can threaten our very existence as a species, a situation we may be facing now as Blackmore wryly points out.
The point I think she is making is that this cultural Darwinism like biological Darwinism is relentless and mindless and we should not slip into thinking evolution will inevitably further human “progress” and the survival of our species. Being blind it will not. It could lead us over the cliff and we should never forget that.
Am I finished? No. Mindfulness and Awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams
There is another rapidly growing movement of thought and practice which it seems has so far been separate from the work of Crook, Blackmore and Dennet despite the recourse to meditation of Crook and Blackmore and that is the Mindfulness Movement.
In America a medical research scientist (born in 44) named Jon Kabat-Zinn took up Zen meditation and became Professor of Medicine and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.. He had learnt to practice yoga, Zen Buddhist and Insight meditation. This experience led him to try using meditation training to help patients cope with stress, anxiety, extreme pain and terminal illness.
In 1979 he launched a programme to teach what he called mindfulness meditation. Since then it has been taken up by some 200 American Health Centres. In addition and alongside teaching meditation he and his colleagues have been involved in researching the effects on the brains and behaviour of those who have undergone the training and the published research has shown “positive changes in brain activity, emotional processing under stress, and immune function.” He labels his courses MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and he also conducts annual mindfulness retreats for business leaders and innovators, and with his colleagues at the Centre For Mindfulness, conducts training retreats for health professionals . He has written a string of academic and popular books and has become quite a star with widespread celebrity endorsement. In particular Oprah Winfrey has become a keen meditator, promoter and disciple as has Goldie Hawn. Don’t knock them. They are intelligent and Oprah is enormously inflential. It just shows his influence is wide and growing.
Mark Williams is an English clinical psychologist and academic. As Research Scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge he decided to go to America and see if what Jon Kabat-Zinn was doing was truly scientific or based on hype. Working with him he became convinced that Kabat-Zinn was really onto something with his meditation training. In 91 Williams was appointed Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor, and there he founded the University’s Institute of Medical and Social Care Research (IMSCaR). He also set up the first Center for Mindfulness Research and Practice in the UK.
It must have done very well for in 2002 he was appointed Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Wellcome Trust Prinicpal Research Fellow. Here his research in clinical and experimental psychology focuses on understanding the psychological processes that underlie depression and suicidal behaviour and the development of new psychological treatments. He also set up the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre housed in an impressive building where his development of Kabat-Zinn’s eight week training course is now being run.
It is accessed by NHS patients referred by their GPs, but some of the courses are open for personal development or as a first step in preparing to be a Mindfulness trainer. I did the course there in March this year (2012) and found it excellent despite or perhaps because I was disabled by back pain at the time. This year he has also appointed Dr John Peacock a distinguished lecturer in Buddhist Studies at Bristol University to be Co- Director of the Centre. John Peacock is also a very experienced teacher and leader of meditation retreats and knows Stephen Batchelor well. From a brief meeting I had with him I learnt he is happy to describe himself as a Secular Buddhist.( http://secularbuddhism.org/2012/05/04/what-is-this-path-of-mindfulness-john-peacock-talk/)
As a result of these developments it is now possible for psychology graduates and others to do masters degrees in Mindfulness at Bangor, Exeter and Oxford and the NHS and Nice has accepted MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) courses as suitable for patients with a range of stress-related and other health issues.
The essence of the course is to introduce and train participants to develop the skill and make it habitual of focusing first on the breath and the body and then on what arises in the mind while sitting or lying in silence or using a few basic yoga postures to get going. They are then encouraged to explore and reflect on how they are experiencing their everyday lives and their pleasant, painful and neutral experiences. They learn to watch and become more aware of how the mind gets caught up in patterns of rushed, angry and obsessive thinking and how to learn to mentally stand back and become more aware of themselves. The course is very carefully structured to introduce each stage gradually and participants besides their weekly three hour sessions are given tasks and expected to practice meditation daily and report back on how they have found their practice.
I certainly found the effect cumulative and powerful. While the teaching was essentially the same as what I had received on previous Buddhist retreats, the focus was on developing habits of mind and body which help one deal better with the various issues that arise in everyday life. As I have mentioned my starting of the course co-incided with the unexpected onset of a pinched nerve in my spine. This meant nearly four weeks in a wheel chair, extreme pain and little sleep. The mindfulness course however really helped me to recognise and deal with my emotional reactions to what was happening in my body and helped me deal with the pain – not by fighting it, but facing it – and my recovery, with the help of a remedial gymnast trainer was I am told remarkably complete and rapid.
What has happened then is these two professors have introduced in the US, the UK but also in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Europe and Asia what is essentially a course on how to practice Buddhist meditation into the academic world of Psychology and the clinical world of medicine and health care. They have also encouraged the development of research by psychologists and neuro-scientists into the effects of this training on the brain and its therapeutic properties with impressive results. They are also carefully setting up training programmes both for those working within the NHS and voluntarily outside it so that MBCT can be more widely introduced, and they have backed the setting up of the teaching of courses in Mindfulness for schools.
For Kabat-Zinn faced with patients he wishes to help but who would run a mile at the thought of getting involved with some “pagan Eastern religion” he has to an extent played down the Buddhist roots of his work – though I think this is not true if you read his most recent book which shows he is deeply Buddhist in his thinking.(Mindfulness for Beginners 2012) The same goes for Mark Williams except that Mark Williams is actually, in addition to his other roles, an Anglican priest and Canon of Christ Church. Both of them however emphasise that the Mindfulness programme is essentially secular and science based and of use to people of any religion or none. Certainly there is in it no references to anything supernatural. Kabat Zinn has said that while Galileo was an Italian, that does not make his theory that the earth goes around the sun an Italian theory, it is simply scientifically true and the same goes for Mindfulness. Because it was developed within Buddhism does not make it exclusively Buddhist, it is simply true and works.
More time and more research will tell if the strong claims for the success of mindfulness training continue to be vindicated or if perhaps it might morph into something rather different. Who knows. Such success as it has already achieved however would I suggest provide a strong rebuttal to Bhikkhu Bodi’s criticism of Stephen Batchelor’s promotion of a secular understanding and practice of Buddhism which is what the Mindfulness course and movement appears to be. Remember the bhikkhu describes the secular approach as adding up to no more “ than psychologically oriented humanism tinged with Buddhist philosophy and a meditative mood”. If the scientific case for promoting meditation on the grounds that it really does make a difference to mental functioning and helps meditators improve both their subjective experience of happiness, fulfilment and transcendence and their objective capacity to function efficiently, creatively and successfully, then the case for recognising that Buddhist practice needs no reference to or dependence on the supernatural is strong.
Could Mindfulness Change the World?
A note of caution. Jon Kabat –Zinn and Mark Williams both make very optimistic claims for what the practice of mindfulness meditation could achieve. The say it could introduce a deep cultural change throughout society in almost every area of human endeavour as more and more people take it up and become more aware and better able to handle themselves and those they work and relate to in more compassionate and rational ways. That is a big ask, a big claim and sounds very optimistic. (I am sure Thailand is a great place, but it is not perfect despite having had mindfulness practitioners around for centuries.) As Stephen Batchelor said to me the power of our old enemies Greed Hatred and Delusion which Gotama saw as the mental forces stacked against mindfulness and awareness are pretty resilient.
Still, that does not mean training in mindfulness meditation is not worth while and will not be increasingly adopted as more and more people come to experience for themselves the benefits it brings them. Interestingly Kabat –Zinn has found that some 75% of those who do his course are still meditating regularly five years later even if they are still dealing with painful or terminal health issues, so we shall see. For myself I have no doubts about the value of the course which has helped me focus on my life in the present, deal with pain and recognise where I am with what I perceive to be greater clarity.
The effect then of the Mindfulness movement not just on health care but on schools and society, on our understanding and on the practice of the religions, on Buddhism and yes on Humanism is just beginning.
Given the prominence and position of Mark Williams it will also be interesting to see what influence he and the mindfulness movement will have on the practice of Christianity.
On 19th September 2012 at a meeting of London Insight(http://www.londoninsight.org/resources/audio-downloads/) Mark Williams and John Peacock addressed a packed meeting with the title Mindfulness (sati) and MBCT, The Meeting of Two Cultures. On being offered the questioners’ mike I suggested that it seemed to me Mark’s approach to Mindfulness resulted in a religion being seen as a system of mental and moral training and while I thought this fitted well when applied to Buddhism, how did he think such an approach might apply to Christianity?
Perhaps my question took him by surprise for after a long pause he replied that as the Buddha was not a Buddhist so Jesus was not a Christian and that around Jesus an obscuring miasma of practices and teachings have grown up which he likened to the attempt to put all the water from a wide river into a set of pipes which were then heavily guarded and access to the water restricted. He then went on to say that reading the Christian scriptures in the light of mindfulness practice brought them alive for him in a whole new way. These were surprising, fascinating and rather enigmatic answers, but by the time he had finished he said he thought he had spoken long enough and there the discussion had to end.
Who knows where it and Consciousness Studies, Memetics and Neuroscience working with or against each other will take us in our brave new Googled world where ideas and practices fly around globally at an ever increasing rate. Certainly we can expect rapid developments, changes and interactions. So there you are. You certainly can practice Buddhist meditation whatever your religion or lack of religion, be you atheist, Humanist, Jedi Knight or born again Christian and whether you see transcendence to be something supernatural or secular. What a future for Lola Beau and Eleanor.
John Baxter 12-11-12 See www.johnbaxter.org