Book Reviews: Going Deep on Buddhism

From time to time I go deep on something. This is rare because I like the variety in my book selection as my interests are broad. Over the summer I dove deep into race and affirmative action. This time it is religion, and more specifically Buddhism.

I’ve always been fascinated by religion because there is simply no authority. Every religion is a leap of faith, which puts all of us on common ground, regardless of status or accomplishments. Over the past year I read Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (Anne Lamott), The Gita (the Hindu text), Under the Banner of Heaven (Jon Krakauer, a must read on fundamentalist Mormonism), The Secular City (Harvey Cox), When Jesus Came to Harvard (Harvey Cox), Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience and Other Confusions of Our Time (Michael Shermer), and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the End of Reason (Sam Harris).

Over the past few weeks I’ve read:

1. The World’s Religions by Huston Smith – this is probably the most authoritative and accessible text on contemporary world religions. It covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It’s essential for a broad understanding.

2. An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World by Pankaj Mishra – a more in-depth look at the Buddha’s life and Buddhism’s spread around the world.

3. The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama – a fantastic and humble look at why Buddhism embraces modern science and reason and how both spirituality and science can co-exist.

I do not currently subscribe to a religion. If I must put myself in a box, I check "Spiritual but not religious." I meditate and I have a value system. But I do not yet believe in all the tenets of Buddhism (such as total selflessness), which is why I cannot go all the way into that camp. Buddhism’s emphasis on reason and science (over scripture) is very appealing. Its emphasis on concentration and focus is also great. And it certainly kicks butt over, say, Hinduism, which essentially banishes a large part of the population from birth based on their caste system.

I was curious to hear what the only hard core secularist in my address book would say, so I emailed David Cowan for his thoughts on Buddhism. He replied that Buddhism is most consistent (with a rational world of physics) but still NOT consistent. He asked, "Why the need for etheral elements of any kind when the laws of physics explain everything so well?"

The Dalai Lama says: "Because scientific materialism upholds an objective world independent
of the preconceptions and perceptions of the scientist analyzing them." He says that it is dangerous if science is divorced from our common humanity; that is, humanity serves to advance scientific progress and not the other way around. That reductionism (psychology reduced all the way to chemistry and then physics) is problematic from a human perspective b/c it can impoverish the way we see ourselves. Not as beings endowed with consciousness and moral capacity but as random biological creatures. Are we the products of random gene organization with no imperative other than to reproduce? Is this ALONE a suitable worldview?

David’s response: "But we ARE random biological creatures. The fact that you may not like
it does not change it. Close your eyes and wish if you want, but it doesn’t change reality. If the worldview fits, wear it."

My explorations continue….

1 comment on “Book Reviews: Going Deep on Buddhism
  • Hello

    Just a thought…how can human beings be random – when everything else in existance is subject to the law of cause and effect?

    Take care, Sian (London)

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