Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Fallacy of Doubt: A Book Review of "The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra" by Stephen Butterfield

Reading this book has been both one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences I had with Buddhist literature.

It was a fantastic experience because Butterfield is a great writer who articulated the conflict between western skepticism and Tibetan Buddhism better than anyone else.

The book was frustrating because I found his final conclusions to be ultimately misguided.

Nevertheless, by describing this friction so brilliantly, he has allowed me to resolve it for myself even though it is different from his resolution which (spoiler alert) was to eventually abandon the Buddhist worldview.

In order to elaborate on this topic I have to clarify my own opinions on Buddhism and western tradition of skepticism which are in conflict in this book (with western skepticism having the last laugh for Butterfield).

Buddhism is a system of teaching meant to make the practitioner happy and beneficial to the world. The ultimate state of happiness is called enlightenment. Buddhist teachings are meant to be practiced not just blindly believed. For example, Tibetan Buddhist believe that genuine compassion is essential for personal happiness, the happiness of those around you and the key to ultimate enlightenment.

Nevertheless, simply believing that compassion is essential is almost useless. Instead a Buddhist is supposed to build up the seeds of compassion within themselves by treating other living beings well and undertaking practices such as meditation, prayer, and mantra recitations to cultivate and flower the internal potential for total altruism that according to Buddhists all of us possess.

Obviously to practice compassion you have to believe that compassion is valuable and to believe that it is valuable you have to reason with yourself and establish rational parameters to your own satisfaction as to whether cultivating compassion for years (and even lifetimes from a Buddhist point of view) is going to make sense for your own happiness and that of others.

At this point the Buddhist notion of doubt comes in. The explain Buddhist doubt, let me quote the sage himself,

O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me.

My teaching is not a philosophy. It is the result of direct experience... 
My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold onto or worship. 
My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river. 
Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of liberation.

If you were to follow the Dharma purely out of love for me or because you respect me, I would not accept you as disciple. But if you follow the Dharma because you have yourself experienced its truth, because you understand and act accordingly - only under these conditions have you the right to call yourself a disciple of the Exalted One.    

So here it is, the Buddhist theory of doubt presented by Lord Buddha himself. It is important to distinguish this idea of doubt from one professed by Western skeptics including Stephen Butterfield.

When you commit yourself to buying gold you are committing yourself to exchanging a large amount of money for a metal. Thus it makes sense to examine this metal carefully to make sure it is real gold and worthy of money spent.

When you start practicing Buddhism, and here I mean really practicing as opposed to simply adopting a hollow identity of yourself as a Buddhist- you are committing to gradually but completely overhaul the way your mind works because as opposed to seeking happiness in the external world, you will focus inward, analyzing the very mechanism that registers happiness -the mind- and training this mechanism to produce happiness without external stimulation. This is a difficult but, for Buddhists- a rewarding journey. All Buddhist teachings are simply methods for doing so and are meaningless as mere conceptual systems without those systems being used for practice. Practice that is meant to result in a meta-conceptual end point which is enlightenment.

However in order to meaningfully undertake this path it has to make sense to you and in order for it to make sense to you, you have to question it and -in a sense- doubt it. However the purpose of Buddhist doubt is simple- to either validate or invalidate the teachings for yourself. If the teachings make no sense to you, you cannot meaningfully practice them. In the same way that if you believe that you will never learn to drive, it is pointless to go to drivers' school. Once you have resolved for yourself that you will practice Buddhism, constantly doubting them is idiotic, much like spending time learning to drive all the while doubting whether you driving a car is really possible. To cut it down to the essence, the question of Buddhist doubt is simple, "will practicing these teachings make me happy or should I seek my happiness elsewhere?"

Western doubt is different. Contrary to the assumption of intellectuals, doubt in the west is not a product of pure, primordial intelligence stretching its vast wings. Rather western doubt is a totally conditioned and learned phenomenon. It occurs only when certain segments of the population are taught to doubt because -as the traditional dogma goes- doubt is the cause of all progress in the world and doubt validates the intelligence of the doubter. In the western doubt dogma, to accept tradition -especially religious tradition- at face value is a sign of feeble intelligence.

Whereas the point of Buddhist doubt is to arrive at a decision relative to the usefulness of Buddha's teachings, the point of western doubt is to doubt perpetually to create progress in society and -on a personal level- to validate the intelligence of the doubter. The two ideals of doubt share similarities but also fundamental differences.

In Buddhism, you doubt and doubt vigorously but in the end you either buy or not buy the gold. In the west, you never buy the gold you just doubt its essence perpetually to learn more about it.

Doubt is extremely important to science and technology. Science is the study of the material world. Thus any scientific theory must have utility of expanding our understandings of the processes that define the material world. Nevertheless, the scientific ideal is that any theory is only believed in so far as it is not shown to be no longer valid by a new theory that is supported by new evidence. Thus in science there should be no genuine dogma. Doubt backed by evidence can overturn any theory.

Anyone who looked at the history of science knows quite well this this ideal is seldom realized in practice. When a radically new theory arrives on the scientific scene, often a kind of reactionary hysteria breaks out in a part of the scientific community that opposes the new theory and the evidence backing it, because this theory in effect can invalidate all their professional careers that were based around the old theory. Then a political struggles ensues withing universities as to whether or not to teach the new theory and personal insults are often exchanged between the competing camps. Nevertheless, the scientific ideal usually prevails and the new theory is taught. This process can take years or even decades, depending on the theory. My father -who is a theoretical physicist- is fond of quoting one professor who told him that for progress to take place in physics the generation holding the old beliefs simply has to die out.

Anyway, the ideal of science is to exist in a state of perpetual doubt, because abandoning doubt is to abandon the possibility of progress.

I don't have any objections to doubt as it is practiced in science. I do look down on total doubt when it is taken out of context of science, seeing this skepticism as cowardly and irrational when it is turned against religion.

That is a strong statement so let me explain myself.

What is religion? The common definition of religion is a belief in a creator God. Judaism sees this God as the creator and lawgiver. Christianity sees the God as manifesting in the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit. Islam worships the creator God and his prophets with Mohamed as the chief among his prophets. Hinduism sees God as a cosmic consciousness that cannot be conceptually defined but manifests withing each one of us and in a pantheon of deities.

The bummer with Buddhism is that we do not believe in a creator God nor that he manifested in a form of a book of law or spoke through the prophets.

In order to capture Buddhist into a an all-inclusive definition of religion along with theistic faiths, religion would have to be defined as a metaphysical worldview that gives meaning and practices to its adherents.

The western skeptic then criticizes religion based on the fact that the meanings and practices of the religion do not withstand the onslaught of total doubt. This is often the case. As a Buddhist, perhaps the egotistical part of me wants to believe that the onslaught of modern doubt can do less damage to Buddhism that to other traditions, but in the end all religions would suffer.

The skeptic than becomes a sort of a hero, who has invalidated that which others hold so dear, thus proving himself to be more intelligent and rational than religious people.

My problem with this modern skepticism is that it is cowardly due to its incompleteness. Because no human system of meaning can in the end withstand total doubt. What is the purely scientific reason for living life and not committing suicide? What is the purely scientific reason for adhering to any moral system? What is the purely scientific reason for condemning religion? What is the purely scientific reason for continuing with scientific progress?

If as I write this I have a cup of poison next to my keyboard can you give me a purely scientific reason not do drink it?

If you say that doing so would hurt my family and friends then you have to establish why this is to be avoided. If you say that if everyone were to do so then human society would cease to exist then you have to establish a fundamental scientific reason as to why human society needs to exist. Haven't we caused considerable damage to the planet by being here, haven't we caused multiple species to go extinct, don't we slaughter millions of animals today to uphold our dominion over the planet? Why are we more important? Because we have intelligence? Can you establish a purely scientific reason for why intelligent animals are better than less intelligent ones? Can you provide a purely scientific definition of "good" and "evil." Isn't saying religion is bad the same as saying, "one unscientific system of meaning is inferior because another unscientific system of meaning says so?"

Skepticism at its origin in Greek philosophy was an honest philosophical system. It was a system that stated that a skeptic is someone who never arrives at solid conclusions. Where as skeptics today question the conclusions of others without leaving their own totally unexamined while using "science" as their their weapon for self-validation.

Religion then proves to be an easy target because it lays out its meaning rather thick and builds temples and has clergy to uphold it. But does having a different system of meaning without those explicit attributes makes it more scientifically valid or more rational?

In the case of this book the author voluntarily joins a Buddhist group, he does extensive practices prescribed by the group's leader, he benefits from these practices- he gains a new perceptive on life, he is able to move on from a painful divorce, he is able to deal better with his medical condition and with the death of his parents, he feels profound happiness during some of the practices. Nevertheless during all of this he maintains his western skepticism and says that maintaining it is crucial to his understanding of what is a good Buddhist student, he repeatedly compares his experience with being in a cult (though no one ever forced him to join, stay there, do harm to himself or anyone else as happens in actual cults), he is invited to take the highest (Tantric teachings) and explicitly told that he doesn't have to take them and that the tradition dictates that in order to take them you have to have faith in your teacher. In spite of his reservations about the teacher, he tells them that he is committed to him, continues to do tantra for sometime all the while doubting the teaching, comparing his experience with being in a cult, and then eventually decides that Buddhism is not for him (at which point no one prevents him from leaving or does anything negative to him which would happen in an real cult) feels a certain relief at not having Buddhist belief system hang over him and yet continues to do certain Buddhist practices because they feel good and help him in his life.

He then writes a book about his experience and dedicates it to his Buddhist teacher.

I have no problem whatsoever with someone trying the Buddhist path and then abandoning it. My objections are different and I will list them below,

1) Presenting his continual skepticism as that of a model Buddhist student. From my perspective, you doubt Buddhism in order to accept it or reject it. Doubting it while continuing to practice makes no sense to me. Buddhism is either a valid way to increase happiness for an individual or an invalid one. Someone who questioned Buddhist doctrine in a monastery in old Tibet could indeed be described as brave. Someone who continuously questions the spiritual path he has voluntarily undertaken in modern America isn't all that brave or original. Mainstream western intellectuals are trained and conditioned to question and dismiss ancient religions thus the author traveled a quite predictable path for a smart white guy with the only exception being that he practiced Buddhism for so long and wrote a good book about it. Basically if a model Buddhist student doubts and ultimately rejects the Buddhist path, what is the reason for practicing it in the first place? My problem isn't that he used his conditioned Western skepticism to dismiss Buddhism, my problem is that he simultaneously presented it as the real Buddhism thus being a perfect skeptic and a perfect Buddhist.

2) Doubt is never questioned in on of itself. It is always turned on Tibetan Buddhism and never once turned on day to day life, an our everyday sense of meaning that -from my perspective- is in no way more rational or "scientific" then a spiritual path one voluntarily undertakes to increase one's well-being.          

3) Some of Butterfield's criticisms of Buddhism make no sense whatsoever. On account of his emotionally deep relationship with his dog, he criticizes the Buddhist worldview that the animal realm (in the context of reincarnation) is defined by ignorance and confusion. He states that -based on his experience- animals aren't ignorant or confused and "they aren't even animals" and that to have such view of them is a sign of human chauvinism. My view is that intelligence is defined by being able to understand cause and effect thus allowing one to expand one's understanding of reality. Some animals like dogs and crows can be quite intelligent and people can have emotionally satisfying relationships with them. Nevertheless, all must admit that no matter how amazing a dog is, it can never recognize itself in the mirror, count to three, or make a moral judgment if its master bends down to its level and tells the dog that he just killed three innocent children. Neither from the Buddhist or scientific point of view does equating the intelligence of animals to that of humans makes much sense.

Obviously, I am neither enlightened nor do I posses great spiritual realization. Nevertheless, Buddhism has brought great happiness to my life.

I have traveled the path of doubt further that most people who profess to be skeptics. I didn't merely use it to just question religions or political systems but I have turned it on my own life. I can tell you that existential doubt is not a pretty thing if you actually go all the way with it. You look at life as devoid of inherent meaning with people around you participating in inherently meaningless activities like hamsters running in a wheel. I am not being dramatic when I say that it brought me to a brink of self destruction. In the case of my life, Buddhism -to the extent that I can practice it- has shown me a way out. In then end, Buddhism is not an ideology or a religion that you blindly believe in or continuously criticism as some cultural anthropologist or a literary critic. Buddhism is something you either practice or don't practice.

Though Tibetan Buddhism is rich with concepts, it openly, repeatedly and explicitly states that those concepts are not true in on of themselves. They are a jumping off point for practice. They are like an instruction manual for fixing an out of tune piano. The test of their validity is whether you can eventually play a piece of music on it.

Instead of the piano, Buddhist are constantly tuning their mind. The test of the teachings -whether it is real gold or a forgery- comes from your internal experiences of greater or lesser happiness, greater or lesser awareness of reality. Buddhist is therefore like a science of mind, but unlike the western sciences we are familiar with, the experiments are internal and therefore subjective.

Nevertheless, even modern science has been able to validate some of Buddhist teachings like the value of compassion and meditation to health and psychological well-being.


In spite, of my sometimes harsh criticism of this book. I do believe it is a great one that I hope never disappears from bookshelves.

It poses a central question to doubt your spiritual path continuously or not to doubt it continuously. It also forces us to ask fundamental questions about the value of doubt and what doubt ultimately is. To me western doubt tradition is as conditioned as any religion but the author views it as a holder of ultimate knowledge. Thus he in the end abandoned Buddhism in favor of it.

I take the opposite view but am eternally grateful to Stephen Butterfield for elucidating the issue so clearly and for describing his experiences with Buddhism so eloquently.  

One way or another any intelligent follower of Tibetan Buddhism has to confront the issue of doubt and resolve it for themselves.


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