“Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris

October 6, 2007

“There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.” Killing The Buddha, by Sam Harris, Shambhala Sun, March 2006. [emphasis not present in original]

I’m not affiliated with any religion at this point in my life, but there once was a time when religion was a hot issue for me. What I recall from that time is this: it was practically impossible to have an open-hearted conversation about religion with someone once the possibility of “killing” their religion got placed on the table.

So I might have expected Mr. Harris’ suggestion to be anathema to Buddhists. I certainly didn’t expect a magazine like Shambhala Sun, which subtitles itself, “Buddhism Culture Meditation Life,” to publish his article.

Mr. Harris’ argument resonates with me because I have been drawn to the Buddhist understanding of mind and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness this past year, yet I am hesitant about the religion itself. I’ve been involved with religion before. Do I want to go there again? Can I approach a practice and an understanding that are rooted in a religion, yet distance myself from that same religion?

“Killing Buddhism” might be a practical solution for my problems, but I don’t think it will catch on with most Buddhists. Many factors determine how effectively an idea can compete with other ideas for survival and growth. When it comes to religion, history seems to tell us that religious organizations have a way of perpetuating themselves and their ideas, while unorganized groups of people who are only united (if that is the correct word) by a common philosophical understanding are much less successful. While we may prefer a world that contains only ideas that are true, elegant, and internally consistent, the real world allows all kinds of ideas to flourish, both good and bad, and religion can help promulgate ideas.

So Mr. Harris may prefer to divorce understanding from religion, but religion is almost certainly here to stay. Rather than doing battle with religion, it might make more sense to find room inside the religious community for different points-of-view.

Reading recommendation: “Super-replicators” in Chapter 11, “Reporting Live from Tomorrow”. Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert. “If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds.”

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