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5/3/06

Mind Shadows      John Horgan: Why I Can't Embrace Buddhism

With diverse and far-ranging interests, John Horgan is Director of The Center of Science Writings at The Stevens Institute of Technology, and former senior writer at Scientific American. He has written for the New York TImes, Time, Newsweek, The London Times, and other periodicals. His books include Rational Mysticism, The End of Science, and The Undiscovered Mind. He appears on Edge, a web site and forum for leading thinkers who ask questions on the cutting edge of society, science, and culture.

"Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela* told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does." *(For Francisco Varela, see Inveterate Bystander, Cartesian Anxiety: Francisco Varela: The Emergent Self & Its Implications For Eastern No-Self, 6 January 2004.)

"Much more dubious is Buddhism's claim that perceiving yourself as in some sense unreal will make you happier and more compassionate. . . . Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous. . . . What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. . . . Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom. . . ."

"All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way." More

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