Saturday, June 12, 2004

Den Beste and Buddhism

[UPDATE: Damn-- traffic! A hearty welcome to people visiting from Steven Den Beste's great blog. Yes, I rag him a bit here, and Mr. Den Beste would be right to complain I'm not seeing the forest for the trees since Buddhism doesn't figure much in his overall post, but I felt I had to comment because (1) I'm an eternal student of religion and I don't want misconceptions (however well-intended) to be spread about a major tradition-- especially not by someone with a huge readership who can spread a meme very quickly-- and (2) while there's little explicit mention of Buddhism in Mr. Den Beste's post, many of the questions he asks himself are precisely those posed routinely by Buddhist thinkers and practitioners: Who am I? What am I doing now? Some of you may already be well-acquainted with Buddhism; in that case, feel free to write me (contact info on sidebar) if you have questions or comments.]

I never thought I'd ever be in a position to say this, but...

Steven Den Beste gets it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This isn't a quibble with the entire post in question, but I have major problems with his formulation of the Buddhist point of view. Den Beste starts off well:

What am I? That can be answered in many ways. I am a particular human being; I am this body. But is the entire body really part of the essential me? I don't consider myself to be different – or to have died – if I trim my fingernails or get my hair cut. If I suffered a grievous injury and had a limb amputated, I would still be me. If I received a heart transplant, I would still be me. (And the donor of that heart would still be dead.)

We consider quadriplegics and "basket cases" (quadruple amputees) to still be alive and to still be themselves. So that means my first answer isn't correct. I am not this body. I must only be part of it. Then which part? What am I?

These are troubling questions for mechanistic atheists like me. We think of humans as walking fires, as complex biological mechanisms which exhibit properties of life, thought and self consciousness powered by controlled release of chemical energy through oxidation. But close examination of our conception of those properties makes clear that we don't really fully understand any of them. For each we have little difficulty describing paradigmatic cases which we are certain have the property in question, but around that center the boundaries are fuzzy. We do not really know where the boundaries are; we may never really be able to say.

I know that I am alive, but what is the dividing line between life and death? I have a concept of myself as existing, but what is the essential nature of that which makes me what I am?

Great speculation so far. But then he writes:

For believers in certain religions, the answers to these questions are much easier. For Buddhists, for example, the essential self is not an aspect of the body. A Buddhist would say that I am the spiritual essence which survives death and which is then reincarnated in the next turning of the wheel.

This is Hinduism, sir, not Buddhism. Many (but not all*) Hindus posit a solid, unchanging atman that is "unaffected by karma" (an idea which Buddhists find logically contradictory). Buddhists posit no essential self. If by chance Mr. Den Beste checks his site traffic and decides to take a peek at this blog, I invite him to read some of my essays on religion (Buddhism in particular), linked on the sidebar in the "Sacred and Profane" category. I also invite him to peruse blogs like Overboard, which do a better job of delving into Buddhist issues than I do (I'm not Buddhist). I also have some decent Buddhism references linked on my sidebar.

I don't usually find myself in extreme disagreement with Mr. Den Beste, but I couldn't refrain from commenting here.

[*The advaita vedanta school's "monistic nondualism," in which there is an absolute equation of atman (self) and brahman (ultimate reality), doesn't have a typically Hindu conception of atman, in my opinion. The usual conception of atman is dualistic in nature.]


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