Comments on “Constructive religious disagreement”

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She-zer 2011-12-05

Great article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu - thank you for the link

Jayarava Attwood 2011-12-05

Hi David,

It’s been ages! I think this is a useful post from you and an interesting and sometimes fraught issue. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about.

I was recently invited to write a Buddhist response to a critique of anātman written by an eternalist for an ecumenical journal (it should be out early next year). Before agreeing I read the article and by the end was already formulating a devastating polemic. That side of things wasn’t hard as our predecessors have been rehearsing the arguments against eternalism for millennia.

But as I wrote I realised that though I disagreed with everything the guy had said (he made false assumptions, proceeded illogically, and came to erroneous conclusions) I found to my considerable surprise I could empathise with his plight. We none of us want our loved ones to die. I could feel the dread of death that seemed to underlie his belief system. I understood the underlying problem that he solved with the invented idea of the soul. In this I was helped along by two things: 1. the scientific rationalism of Thomas Metzinger and comments he makes in various sources about afterlife beliefs; and 2. my fundamentalist Christian missionary mother who spends most of her time in a village in Zambia doing what I can only describe as “good works” (we haven’t always seen eye to eye on her activities, but her Zambia work is admirable by anyone’s standards).

My conclusion was that arguing about mutually contradictory doctrines was probably not very productive. But that connecting on the basis of shared values with an open mind left open the possibility of empathy and communication across religious boundaries. The religious ideas we espouse often boil down to strategies developed to deal with problems we all suffer (death, illness etc) and to express values that we hold in common (life, love, family). Of course there will be barriers, and some fanatics won’t want to connect on any basis because they have invested in not connecting, but I think these will be the exception rather than the rule.

Another thought is that we need to distinguish the different functions of literal speech and metaphorical or allegorical speech. One of the main weapons of militant atheists is to take metaphors literally and apply reductio ad absurdum arguments - not helped by some religious people taking their own metaphors literally. Ironically one of the worst exponents of this is Richard Dawkins who absolutely relies on metaphor to communicate his ideas: like “the selfish gene” for instance. He gets very frustrated when people take his metaphor the wrong way - and his next book after the Selfish Gene, Unweaving the Rainbow, was all about how good he was at working with metaphors on the one hand (he just loves poetry you know), and demonstrating his unwillingness to work with religious or non-scientific metaphors on the other. Taking the example of Noah’s arc (and most of the Old Testament) it is metaphorical and allegorical - taking it literally, and using that to start, prosecute, and win an argument doesn’t really prove anything except that one is a blockhead.

Sabio Lantz 2011-12-05

(1) Religious Prescriptivism

Religious essentialism is, actually, a strategy for totalitarian control.

That is a great line, and a great phrase. I think religious essentialism is a common manipulation tool of what I call “religious prescriptivism“.

Saying “we should respect’ all religions” may be a way to start a conversation with religion essentialists, but I am not sure it is a good compromise.

Because every religion has value, we can respect it.

“Respect” is another word like “nice” that can be used poorly. By similar logic: I must ‘respect’ wife-beating because some men believe in it because it has value for them.

I think “respect” is a political, emotional word that is unhelpful in this situation.

“Respecting Every Religion” seems like “Respecting Every LifeForm” (which we certainly don’t do), or “Respecting Every Government” (again, few would agree with that).

A person could “value” a religion because it subdues their women or slave, it subdues the population in general, it helps them tolerate their own slavery or suffering or many other such “values” that I don’t “respect”.

(3) Respecting Goals
So, I think your logic here continues when you say:

For example, a common, useless Christian criticism of Buddhism is that it won’t save you from the eternal damnation that everyone deserves (because of Adam and Eve’s original sin). The criticism is useless because this is not the problem Buddhism tries to solve.

But I think the Christian criticism is spot on. Their logic is:
(i) The only goal that matters should be to avoid eternal damnation. Because eternity makes all other temporal goals look silly.
(ii) Religion is the way to gain salvation from damnation.
(iii) We can only have one religion so we must choose the best
(iv) Buddhism doesn’t even address salvation from original damnation, so Buddhism is useless for my goal.

You see, they don’t have to ‘respect’ a Buddhist’s goal or values, and they know it.

Religious systems with different aims can’t be compared against each other.

If I feel that not harming other and ideally not harming yourself is the highest social value, then I could use that to compare religious systems against each other. I don’t care if a wife-beater has brilliantly consistent internal logic.

So when you say:

Once you know how a system is supposed to work, you can ask: does it?

I agree, that such an approach is extremely useful, but I think it is also OK to drop to a deeper level of analysis and ask, “are its goals harmful” – if not, I do not respect them.

(4) Respect vs Understanding
I guess I can tolerate things which don’t harm others but only harm the practitioner – unless that self-harming practitioner is a friend. If a friend is practicing a kind of Buddhism that may help some people but is harming my friend, I may be OK with arguing against it. And so I could argue against any indiscriminate way of absorbing religion.

So I disagree with the word “respect” here but I agree with the notion of “understanding” at the level of analyzing the system first on its own terms – analyzing its stated goals and their methods and arguing from internal logic positions. But it is still OK to disrespect both goals and methods.

(5)Your Tradition & Respect
One of the Vajrayana vows (your practice) is not to disparage other Buddhists (or religions), if I remember correctly. And I sympathetically understand the value in trying to stay positive but I see disvalue in tolerating abuse of both others and self. I see how such a vow could protect a minor religion because it helps them be seen as a non-threat – perhaps this vow evolved in that milieu and served (as a method) that goal.

(6)Arguing Trivia

The critic needs to understand the religion clearly enough that he or she can focus on its weakest central points. Objecting to trivia is unhelpful, even when accurate. (Yes, the Bible says Noah got two of every species into a 300-cubit boat, which may be impossible, but who cares? Debating this is a waste of time; it is not a good reason to reject Christianity.)

I disagree. Many Christians thing the Bible is infallible – this is a cornerstone of many of their central beliefs. Showing them, trivia-by-trivia, the ridiculousness of that belief can indeed be very helpful and has helped many a former Christian to escape their delusions.
What may seem nitpicking to you, may be crucial to the listener – especially if you don’t understand the world of the people talking. The debates between Theravada and Mahayana folks probably seems like nitpicking to Christians.

Greg 2011-12-05

Good article, thanks!

Mostly, they operate at the level of “you should be nice to everybody, and meditation makes you feel better, and in theory it leads to enlightenment, which is Becoming One With Everything.”

I have found this to be true. I’m particularly interested in the “in theory it leads to enlightenment.” This is a subject unto itself, but the last two years I’ve been very interested in the ways in for most Buddhists in the West, nirvana or the first bhumi or samyaksambodhi is discussed only theoretically (or at most in relation to elderly Asian teachers). To raise the issue as a practical concern for everyone tends to provoke embarrassment and outrage, or at least obfuscation.

Sengchen Dra-tsal 2011-12-05

David, thanks for the thought provoking article.

This video sets an important context for this serious discussion, and definitely forms a kind of core of my understanding:

I have heard our teacher say that in his view, the discussion of truth from a buddhist perspective would be the single statement: form is emptiness, emptiness is form. End of story. Everyone gets the Ph’D and can go home having mastered all the truth that there is really to “learn”.

Whereas, if we want to talk not about ‘truth’ but about ‘method’, ah… then we can be here practically indefinitely, talking about the veritably infinite varieties of methods that can be practiced. Methods come in as many varieties as there are bases, paths and results. If two methods differ in either base, path or result, they are different methods. In that sense, it sounds like you agree that this should just be acknowledged like acknowledging that this thing over here is called a squash plant and this thing over hear is called a banana tree.

The ‘debates’ about squash or banana are essentially never actually about the methods themselves, they end up being nothing but an examination (perhpas quite valuable) of the practitioners that are sizing up their appetite for either.

That seems very frequently missed, and the ardent argumentors of religion believe that what they are bandying about are questions of truth, and which are better truths that other truths, which may not just be deficient, they might be outrightly despicable falsities that ought not have the free reign of being entertained in any self-respecting mind.

I find it quite liberating to stop discussing religion in the context of truth, and to discuss it in the context of method, in the experience of practitioners. In the end, when I find really compelling aspirants of any religion or view, it is anyway their wordless experience that speaks most persuasively and compellingly about their knowledge (not belief) of the practical realities of the methods that they are practicing. So if you talk to a buddhist that meditates, if they actually know the value of that practice through direct experience, before word one of their platform speech, you can experience their actual appreciation of the principle and function of what they preach. And that goes with an ecstatic christian or anyone else, anyone that beyond enjoying a nice $10 argument, has some knowledge and experience of the practice of which they would preach or debate about.

Sengchen Dra-tsal 2011-12-05

At a teaching this summer, our teacher said - and I loosely paraphrase:

“Thervadins would not agree with this [view of Vajrayana]. They would maintain that for teachings to be authentic, they would need to have come from a verifyable lineage tracing back to the Buddha Shakyamuni.

And they would, from a certain perspective, be right about that.

I think our lineage might be unusual in it’s reaction to that statement in that it is absolutely fine with being part of a bogus lineage. We have these practices, we do crafts together, and we have a swell time. That’s it. “

Bogus . . . the lineage holder of a tradition confessing that his lineage surrenders to the Theravadin debate, and says - you are right.

So what that they are right? So what indeed, if you know the value of what his lineage is teaching. If you do, nothing could be less relevant than there is a perfectly valid Theravadin argument out there that the whole thing lacks authenticity.

Our teacher says that practice authenticates your relationship with the teacher. Without practice, you cannot know where the teacher is (if you are a non practitioner reading this, you should assume that you cannot understand that). That statement puts the experience of practice in the pivotal role of establishing authenticity, of knowledge of the value of the practice itself.

A statement like that is quite beyond the reach of what debates set out to supposedly do.

Sabio Lantz 2011-12-05

Fortunately, we have people who have been bold in fighting the abuses of religion over the centuries – and they continue. Whether religion tell their followers that sickeness is caused by demons (Buddhists and Christians) or that Mantras or Prayers heal the sick, they need fought. Religions need to be fought who use their teachings to suppress women, homosexuals, or non-believers. We often need fighters who are afraid to be strident.

Those who are willing to offensive, to create heat instead of light and challenge intentionally obstant, totalitarian forces give others the luxury of being nice, respectful and non-confrontive in their peaceful why-don’t-we-all-just-let-other’s-be religion. They can feel good about themselves and their spiritual peacefulness while others etch out safe survival for them.

Talking about method vs results is fine if you think that religions are simply psychological techniques, but religious specialists with their supporters and flocks also use religion to control people. We need disrespectful, confrontive fighters who are willing to sacrifice their inner peace to help keep the world safe for the much more religiously tolerant folks.

I get a kick out the Buddhists who dislike Atheists without realizing how much they have benefitted from strident, disrespectful atheists.

I think David’s post points to excellent challenges to bring folks to a half-way point if they can’t serve as strong voices against abuse. Many feel that just cleaning their garden (their karma) is the best people can do in really changing the world. I am glad there are people who disagree with them.

boy 2011-12-05


Sabio Lantz 2011-12-05

@ Curt
I just want to be sure that it is obvious that:
David Chapman & Jayarava (commentor) are among two of my favorite Buddhist bloggers who I think both add fantastic correctives to Western Buddhism. This post of David’s offers fantastic insights and suggestions to Buddhists on inter- and intra- religious dialogue. I am perhaps just questioning some terms and not the gist of what he is saying. Further, I sort of suspect David may agree with the gist of some of what I am saying, though not perhaps with my style.

David Chapman 2011-12-05

Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments!

I’ve had very little time to write, in the past few months, but I have pushed aside some other responsibilities, and hope to post several more pieces over the next week or two.

@Greg — The issue of whether enlightenment is something “ordinary” people ought to pursue is one that the Buddhist Geeks community is particularly interested in. (Probably you know that; but if not, go check them out.)

I’m pretty confused about this myself. The epistemological issues (why should we even believe there is such a thing as enlightenment?) are problematic. I’ve been invited to participate in a public conversation about this, and am trying to figure out if there’s anything useful I can say.

@Sabio — what you say about “respect” being waffley may be right. I’ll think about that some more.

I agree that we can (and should!) disagree about values. I was unclear if it seemed otherwise.

I think you may be attacking a bit of a straw man at one point, though:

By similar logic: I must ‘respect’ wife-beating because some men believe in it because it has value for them.

I wasn’t talking about respecting all beliefs, only all religions. Logically I can imagine a religion which had absolutely no good features (in my eyes), but I can’t think of any in fact. (Can you?)

The other thing, when evaluating a religion, is we have to ask: relative to what? I oppose pretty nearly everything about fundamentalist Christianity, but there are people who before becoming fundamentalist Christians were amoral criminals, who did others a great deal of harm. Fundamentalist Christianity is useful because fear of hell does keep them from the most egregious forms of harm. Such people would exploit the loopholes and ambiguities in any more sophisticated ethical system to justify harm. So, for them, a liberal Christianity (or Buddhism) might be worse than useless.

Apropos the Noah example. You have far more experience with this than I do, and I defer to that. But: is it not more useful to point out the general fact that the Bible is full of factual inaccuracies? Or do you need to really pound on one specific example until you back someone into a corner where they admit there’s a problem?

I’ve actually done very little arguing about religions in general. I may have overgeneralized from my experience arguing about Buddhism, in which inerrancy is less of an issue. (Although of course there are Buddhist fundamentalists who think the Pali Canon is the Word of God; and maybe again pointing out that it’s got some obviously wrong stuff in it may be necessary.)

I agree strongly that harmful religious trends need to be opposed forcefully. I am doing that here—and some of the posts in this series have been harshly criticized elsewhere for not being sufficiently nice.

I’m not sure if this:

Those who are willing to offensive, to create heat instead of light and challenge intentionally obstant, totalitarian forces give others the luxury of being nice, respectful and non-confrontive in their peaceful why-don’t-we-all-just-let-other’s-be religion.

is addressed to me… But it seems like it may be a false dichotomy. I am absolutely against niceness, which I think is cowardly. But I also think creating heat rather than light is unlikely to be helpful. Pointing out what is wrong with a religion seems more useful than attacking its believers. Again, this is an empirical question, and you have far more experience than I, so your opinion is probably more valuable here than mine.

Sabio Lantz 2011-12-05

Hi David,
Though we agree on much, perhaps we do have significant difference. I am still not sure.

Concerning “Wife Beating” & Respect:
I actually had specifics in mind when discussing “wife beating”. I knew it sounded secular but I was hoping others knew how Islam viewed this issue:

The holy Qur’ān says a man should beat his disobedient wife.
So should we ‘respect’ this religion, the man who wrote it or the men who obey it?

See more from the Hadith about wife beating in Islam:

This happens to this day in many Islamic communities and is sanctioned by their religion.

It deserves no respect. I don’t care what their goals are and if the methods match their goals. “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form” just doesn’t help in this situation. (directed at Sengchen)

But David, I imagine your response would be as you said here:

I wasn’t talking about respecting all beliefs, only all religions.

I have no idea what “respecting a religion” would look like. Just like I have no idea of what “respecting a country” would look like. A religion is made of many different people, and as you pointed out, with completely varying beliefs – often contradictory. There is no ONE BUDDHISM to respect. There are only people practices beliefs – life wife beating. I can not respect a religion, I can’t even imagine what that would mean.

When a rioting mass is set on exterminating another people because of differences in their religions, am I still suppose to ‘respect’ that religion? Should I say, “Sure, they are going to hack all those women, children and men to death, but I’ll bet there is lots of good ways their religion is serving them. I respect the religion, I just don’t respect this act.” And yet, let’s say, their holy texts tell them to do exactly what they are doing. Am I still suppose to “respect” them?

I really don’t think is was a straw man at all, but maybe I am mistaken.

Concerning Fundamentalist Transformation:
I too have seen Fundamentalism used by criminals to transform themselves. I have seen secular mechanisms used by criminals to transform themselves. I’ve seen methadone used to get people off heroin too, but cold turkey can work for some also. I’d much rather they not be on methadone. I could look at the fundamentalism as a necessary evil – but it is still evil. “Evil” certainly has no connotation of respect.

When is Heat Helpful
Sometimes outright attacking evil practices of religion is the best thing to do. I don’t thing the gentle approach is always the best. It depends on what is effective. Sometimes effectiveness matters more than important that congeniality, respect and civility – depending on the offense (or threat of it).

David Chapman 2011-12-05

Hmm. All religions combine wisdom and and stupidity. I practice Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, whose canonical scriptures advocate all kinds of crazy, evil things—for example that you kill your parents. It’s hard to know what to make of that. In practice, Tibetan Buddhists find various ways to explain away and ignore scriptural passages that seems wrong; and the same is true in Islam, Christianity, and all the others.

The practice of wife beating deserves no respect. But does that mean we should dismiss all of Islam as irredeemably evil? There are liberal Muslims who find ways to explain away and ignore such things.

I am no friend of Islam—it very nearly destroyed Buddhism, by systematic slaughter of Buddhists, as my historical novel recounts—and it’s surreal to find myself defending it. But there are things in it I like… for instance, the doctrine that humans are basically and originally good. That is probably empirically false, but it’s aesthetically attractive, and I think far better, pragmatically, than the Christian doctrine of original sin. Through history, there are also many individual Muslims I admire, and they had great reverence for Islam, and they undoubtedly understood it far better than I do, so ceteris paribus I’m willing to take their word for it that there is much of value there.

To not respect Islam is to say “Islam advocates wife-beating, therefore everything about it is evil.” That’s a logical fallacy.

To respect Islam does not mean that I agree with everything in it, or even anything in it. Only that it does have some features that do function in ways I consider valuable relative to worse alternatives.

Sometimes outright attacking evil practices of religion is the best thing to do. I don’t thing the gentle approach is always the best. It depends on what is effective. Sometimes effectiveness matters more than important that congeniality, respect and civility — depending on the offense (or threat of it).

I agree with all of that. But “light rather than heat” is not the same as “gentleness”. Ideally, you understand the evil-doer’s false rationale so clearly that you can coolly make the critical point that is a sword to their heart. Or, since we are talking of “light”, maybe a better analogy is a megawatt laser to the heart. The wrong view just dies right there on the spot. Nothing civil about it.

This is precisely what is meant by “wrathful” in the Tantric tradition, by the way. A ‘controversial’ aspect of Vajrayana…

Gottheo 2011-12-05

Read a couple of your posts, very thoughtful and interesting and perceptive, clear, firm yet kind, but not “nice”. Hopefully what I write will also be that.

Here are some thoughts of mine in no particular order

The final refuge of those who want to say all religions are about the same thing is to presume a
hypothetical ineffable elephant that contains all the contradictions. The Hindu is touching and describing the broad flat side, the Christian has located three of the four legs, while the Jew grabs the fourth, the Neopagan has embraced the wiggly trunk and the Moslem is enamored of the tusks, and the atheist has grasped the skinny tail and says, “I’m sorry, but that’s all there is to reality!” I’m not sure how to fit in the Buddhist, maybe he -blindfolded like the rest - just misses the elephant and says it’s all emptiness. I don’t believe there is a higher elephant that will remove the differences, to say so is to smugly invalidate our neighbor’s beliefs and genuine experience and to play sophistical games to create a false peace and unity. Can we be brave enough to accept the ambiguity and real differences and with equanimity, make our own choice as to what we embrace, be bold and loving in expressing what we believe and express it with no compromise and yet do so graciously? Be big enough to accept AND disagree with love?

In theistic religions it is a sin to say you are God. In pantheistic religions it is a sin to say you are not God. In Buddhism it is a sin to say you are anything at all!

I once heard some one say in response to hearing some things taught by Christianity, “I may have to consider the possibility that God is different from what I want him to be.” I now realize this is an aspect of repentance. Most of us if left to our own devices would choose a God or “ultimate reality“ who is “I am whoever you think I am or want me to be” over “I am who I am” (The Lord’s words to Moses). I know I would!

I am a Christian, but I am pointing out the universal human propensity for self centerness. In other words I think our default setting is to think that for something to be true it has to fit us and be pleasing to us and be just what we want in every way. Even Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane had to pray “not my will but yours be done” and sweat drops of blood and pray in anguish to meet his Father’s will. Naturally I think the Triune God is the truth and I’ve had to pass through struggles of surrender in different areas, but I can see I would find struggles in fitting myself to any faith If I take that faith seriously and think it through. Unless I mix and match and pick and choose just what fits me and became a “buffet buddhist” or a “cafeteria catholic” or a “potluck protestant” or a “smorgasbord sufi” instead.

Years ago I had a life changing experience. I was spending a weekend at a Trappist monastery. A friend and I entered the church for the first time, We suddenly and simultaneously each had a marked spiritual experience. We stared at each other in shock and surprise. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit, fiery and enlivening. It lasted but a moment. What shocked me most was not the mere fact of experiencing “spirit” (I was used to that in my new age and eastern religious exposure) It simply wasn’t the same spirit as I had encountered in those arenas. I had been taught the cardinal principle that God or Spirit or the Absolute in every religion, despite different approaches and words, was the same in essence and taste. I could no longer think that, based on my experience and what I was reading in the Bible. I was undone. Unless I reinterpreted and redefined the words of the Bible in the light of systems alien to the Bible – making it say things it doesn’t. – I couldn’t blend Christ with Hinduism/Buddhism. I still had a way to go but eventually I left eastern and new age thought behind and became a Trinitarian/Nicene creed type as that understanding had the best fit to scripture and my own experience of the Three Persons of the Godhead.

A parable I wrote about this subject.

The coast of Namibia is the only place in Africa where elephants swim in the ocean. Two gnats went out to sea. One landed on an elephant; the other on a whale. Both returned to land and shared their experiences. While their respective accounts had differences both said something like this: “It was huge beyond understanding, wet, gray, and above all, alive!” Many gnat theologians decided the two gnats had experienced the same thing, while others disagreed. The discussion continues.
Obviously for me the whale is Yahweh. (Yahweh is a possible spelling of the Hebrew sacred word for God)

What is the experience of the elephant? I think the “elephant” is deifying and absolutizing via “spiritual” practices and teachings your inward awareness which is created in God’s image as Christians and Jews believe. Your inner awareness is Godlike and through proper training and continued mental programming you can expand it into an experience and perception of “absolute reality” or “emptiness” or whatever your goal is if you diligently apply Hindu or Buddhist methods. From the Christian perspective this is embracing the primal lie found in Genesis that you can be as God. Anyway, this is the conclusion I’ve come to in this area. I know this may be an “ouch” for those who read this. Thank you David for being willing to embrace real discussion.

Kate Gowen 2011-12-05

@Sabio: it is possible to respectfully examine the principle and function of even an abhorrent belief system, with the intention of understanding its adherents– without condoning any of the practice motivated by the belief system.

Did you know that the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ refers to the proscription in English common law against beating your wife with a stick thicker than your thumb. Islam is not the only religion to have practiced misogyny.

Quibbling, perhaps, but the Sam Harris school of antitheism that particularly abhors and denigrates Islam really bugs me.

Monkey Mind 2011-12-05

Hi David,

Actually, there is a common theme in all of religion: that religion is something worthwhile. You expressed it as “… every religion must have something of value in it, or else it would no longer exist”. And your essay is built on that assumption, or starting point, as call it yourself. And it’s a very nice exploration of how to deal with all the differences between religions, given that one uniting theme.

But on what grounds is it given? I’m writing down this question here because exploring it has been so much more profitable to me than trying to reconcile wildly disparate religious ideals in ever more ingenious ways. I’m not saying your essay should have covered that. I’m suggesting a direction this can be taken, by anyone interested who is reading this, starting out from your really quite good essay.


Sabio Lantz 2011-12-06

@ David:

It seems we largely agree but our divergence points were both the words “respect” and “religion”.

When I was arguing against respecting a religion, I was not saying religion should be disrespected. Indeed, I don’t even think about religion as a concrete thing – I rarely use the word. I argue against atheists who blanketly attack it, and against believers who blanketly defend it. (see my post: Religion doe not exist). [actually, it is funny, I find many Buddhists blanketly defending religion to deflect Atheists who blanketly attack, whereas I find Christians take another tactic and deny that they aren’t a religion – and some Buddhists do this too. Either way, they both recognize that talking about religion whole-cloth is a mistake but their defenses fail to recognize the mistake.]

I find that speaking about Buddhism as a whole is rarely useful except in a missionary sense or, as you wrote, in a totalitarian (prescriptive) sense. Likewise, speaking about Islam, Christianity or other religions as a whole cloth is rarely helpful. Instead, finding out what a particular person believes and how they use a belief is key to dialogue. (I think this is the gist of what you wrote – and partly the point of my much less respectful “Dissecting God” post).

So, I see no need (and actually see dis-utility) is having the notion of “respecting a religion” both because ‘religion’ is slippery and because ‘respect’ is slippery. But I think we agree on all else except that perhaps our temperament favor different angles of approach on the issue.

That some Muslims, some Fundamentalist Christians, some New Age Tree Huggers can use their religion to do good things, tells us more about that person than the religion, because around the corner one of their fellow believers is doing the opposite – so I don’t see how discussing anything but particular beliefs and practices as useful. “Respecting a Religion” seems mistaken.

You wrote,

To not respect Islam is to say “Islam advocates wife-beating, therefore everything about it is evil.” That’s a logical fallacy.

Again, I neither respect it or ‘not respect’ it – something as abstract and unattached to a person is not the kind of thing that ‘respect’ can meaningfully be attached. I neither respect democracy nor disrespect it. I have to find out what you mean by it. I neither respect America nor disrespect it. I have to find out what you mean when you talk about your love for America. I neither respect doctors nor disrespect them, it is the individual doctor than earns or looses my respect.

@ Kate,
I agree in part, and also agree that the “principle, function, goal” model used in Nyingma classification is extremely helpful to a point. But religions can not be analyzed only in those simple terms – it is much more complex and has huge political/power motives far beyond psychological methods. (this is what I was saying to Sengchen too).

As for Sam Harris: I am extremely glad for his voice, that of Dawkins, Hitchens and many other atheists. Some people can’t hear respectful analysis [and for most, ‘respectful’ means ‘polite’ or ‘nice’] – often respectful analysis is ineffective. But again, I am against whole-cloth condemnation of religion as much as I am against whole-sale defense of religion.

The “rule of thumb” point was interesting – thanks. I agree that bad beliefs, bad practices are not the privy of religions at all. That is why I am for less broad analysis.

boy 2011-12-06

My interpretation of your mysical exerience in the Trappist Monistary Church:
A. You (all humans) are being watched.
B. You (all humans) are getting your (their) chains yanked.
C. Now this one is stretching it a bit It (our life here on planet Earth) is all a virtual reality sick joke and simultaniously a sacred mission for educational(as in research) and or entertainment purposes.
The timing of events says it all, 4 July 1826.

Sengchen Dra-tsal 2011-12-06

Respectfulness is a moral approximation of the enlightened state. If you are not enlightened (and who is, really . . .), concentrate on respect and kindness. If you were enlightened, those would be effortlessly natural.

Respect is also method, not truth. If you practice respect, you know the value of that. It’s actually far less important to Hitler that he is respected. After all - Hitler has to be Hitler, which is actually it’s own punishment enough. But if you practice that respect, how you look at humanity might be transformed in a way that is as marverlous as it is utterly uncommon.

boy 2011-12-06

Oh but I should add, I say that IT is a sacred mission not because I have even a shred of real
evidence for that, I say it only because I find drama much more interesting than comedy.
I did like Laurel and Hardy, I really Loved the movie Tootsie but overall I find drama stories
more interesting than comedy
I like to pick and choose becasue if I find something does not appeal to me like killing children who have dishonored the family then It does not matter a whit to me if there is a God in heaven who approves of it or not it is my will that ís important not hers. It is her DUTY to place herself at MY service not the other way around.
It is true that to say that is only an opinion. But it is an opinion that can not be argued against with
even an unlimited amount of facts.

Greg 2011-12-06

@David - I’m familiar with BG, thanks! Their open discussion of the topic of enlightenment was a big influence on me, despite the fact that my background (like yours) is Tibetan Vajrayana. Incidentally, I recently saw that Ken Folk has been invited to speak at Dzokchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s center - very interesting (

There are a number of interesting dimensions to this question, following in part from the epistemological issues you mention. If we don’t have any reason to believe that the traditional purpose of our tradition is real or possible (nirvana, and/or Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings), then what is our raison d’être for continual involvement in this whole business? I’m not asking rhetorically - I’m suggesting that each one of us has to reflect on this question - and it might be fruitful to discuss it amongst ourselves more often.

A related question issue is, on what basis are people qualified to be teachers? Presumably some people are and some aren’t, and some are more qualified than others, but what is the yardstick exactly? Again, another subject that I wish would come up more.

Greg 2011-12-06

PS - I see your recent podcast gets into these issues somewhat - particularly the issue of authority, where it ought to lie and on what basis it is to be awarded. What do you see as the basis for the asymmetry/inequality that exists in the asymmetrical relationships that you think are so valuable?

I’m not arguing against that proposition, for the record - I’m just advocating greater clarity on this point.

Curt 2011-12-06

I sometimes ponder how people can see wisdom in some parts of holy books that I find nonsensical. But at times like these I try to remember, if there were no ardent Cathoics,
and no ardent Baptists, and no ardent Lutherans, and no ardent Salafis and no ardent
Sufis, and no ardent Buddhists, and no ardent Hindus, and no ardent athiests what would
happen to my smorgasboard of ethical teachings.
A person might respond that we can figure out the ansgars to questions without refering to
any of these previuosly developed traditions. My response to that is, perhaps we could
but reading the thoughts of those who came before us might help us figure out thiings faster.
Sometimes people are slowed down by the traditions though because the traditions have a
classic psychological defense mechanism. That is they say, in the future someone will come along and try to convince you that some part of these scriptures are in error. It is vitaly important
that you close your ears and minds to such critisism. Only a deamon would dare to critisze a
work of perfection therefore anyone who criticises this work proves themselves a deamon who is
only interested in leading you away from the truth. I like you also reconize that although althiest
do not have a set of holy books they do have their sacred cows that can not be denied, like a belief that there are no miracles for example.
(Although I do agree with the point that we could never know if a miracle was an event caused by
a God or a sufficiently scientifically advanced civilization.) ( Could a God be the product of a sufficently scientifically advanced civilization?)

David Chapman 2011-12-06

@ Greg — all good questions; ones that seem to me to have no definitive answers, but require both personal and collective chewing on. You can, actually, find them discussed frequently and at length in Buddhist internet forums—as you probably know! The debates often seem pretty sterile because there are a small number of well-known positions and justifications, and they seem to talk past each other.

I’m not sure I have anything to say about those questions that hasn’t been said many times in such contexts. But… I probably will write something about the nature of spiritual apprenticeship at some point. And, perhaps I will express my confusion about enlightenment in the possible upcoming podcast, which will make me seem like an idiot, but at least others who are confused will know they aren’t the only ones!

boy 2011-12-07

Why do my posts look so much different when they appear than they do when I write them?
i am not talking about the words. I am refering to the spacing. When I write soemthing it has normal looking paragraphs but when I hit post comment and then look at what I wrote the spacing does not look anything at all like it looked when I was writing it.

boy 2011-12-07

The post above is from Curt. sending it from boy was a freudian slip of his other personality.

Sky Serpent 2011-12-07

Nice blog post David. :)

A personal observation. I seem to end up discussing about spiritual matters with people who seem to be interested in such things. Most of them are (eclectic) Pagans - and one close personal friend is Christian. (I do not count Buddhist, all of them are Aro sangha members and that is a different thing.) What I notice is that it is easier to have a spiritual conversation with my Christian friend than with most of the pagans. Why? Because eclectic Pagans want to find the common ground with everything - but with my Christian friend, it is more possible to observe differences. And what does it matter? Eclectic Pagans tend the try to combine what you say into their personal theory of everything, which means that they try to put their words to your mouth - and it can become quite oppressive even - but when there is no need for building such all inclusive theory of everything, you can just agree to disagree and leave it at that.

David Chapman 2011-12-07

Hi Curt,

It’s a Wordpress thing. It turns single newlines (what you get with Return or Enter) into line breaks, and double newlines into paragraph breaks. It makes your text look ragged because you’ve put newlines at the end of lines in paragraphs; it wants you to run on to the end of the paragraph without Return or Enter. And it wants you to create a blank line (Return or Enter twice) to get a new paragraph.

(Would be nice if it explained this somewhere… )


Greg 2011-12-07

@David - Indeed, there are no definitive answers. However, I’ve seen a lot of internet forums, and aside from the Dharma Overground community I actually don’t often see these questions raised. My impression is that there are traditionalists who subscribe to the traditional model of realization in theory but are loathe to address the question of whether anyone is actually making any progress in that direction. This, i would venture, is the default position of most on esangha/dharma wheel.

And then there are people who are more casually involved with Buddhism who seem to aspire to modest improvements in their quality of life, without giving it a whole lot of thought. Shambhala Sun, Tricyle and the Consensus mainstream cater to this audience. But again, I don’t see much discussion of profound realization and the possible implications thereof happening here. It’s embarrassing because it doesn’t jibe with the “Buddhism is entirely rational and secular” ethos that prevails.

However, I wasn’t asking for definitive answers, I was asking for your thoughts - particularly with regard to the question of what it is you see as the basis for the asymmetry/inequality that exists in the asymmetrical relationships that you advocate. Especially in light of the fact that in your BG interview you push back against egalitarianism. I too am confused about this, so far from appearing idiotic, I would welcome your input. But I will defer to your possible upcoming missives on the subject.

David Chapman 2011-12-07

@SkySerpent – thanks, interesting observation!

@Greg – Well, I think I will probably have to write about this at some point. But, I don’t have anything new to say; I don’t have well-formed opinions; the issues are complex; and it can be highly emotional because of the ‘cult’ and ‘abuse’ issues. Those issues are real but not, in my opinion, overriding.

I am agnostic about enlightenment, but I am not agnostic about spiritual progress. (I would much rather not use the word “spiritual” here, but there’s no good alternative.) I often see specific ways in which my teachers have gone substantially further than I have. There’s no magic about that; usually they can demonstrate and/or explain it, and then I get it. At least conceptually; and then sometimes I can also do whatever the thing is. So, this is an asymmetrical teacher/student situation, and it is good.

Greg 2011-12-07

@David - Sounds very interesting. I’m not so much interested in the questions concerning enlightenment as I am in the “specific ways in which [your] teachers have gone substantially further than [you] have.” To the extent that people have motivations other than enlightenment, I’m very curious to hear more about those. It sounds like you are quite able to articulate that.

Curt 2011-12-07

I would like to second what Greg just said.

David Chapman 2011-12-07

@Gottheo – I like your parable. I am with you in rejecting the possibility that anyone can become God (or even “as” God). Nearly all Buddhists have also rejected that; it’s a Hindu idea. But it has become popular in certain Buddhist circle in the last ~60 years. (Of course, traditional Buddhists and traditional Christians mostly disagree, for instance with the existence of God; I’m just pointing out that this is one place they don’t.)

@Sabio – I find your approach of disassembling religions into components is productive and to my liking. (I am an engineer, after all! We like taking things apart. Cars, software, Gods…) I’m not sure how to communicate in that style to a Buddhist audience. I’ll continue to read your pieces on that with great interest, and may attempt to adopt more of that approach.

@Greg & Curt – Mmm… OK… Something to add to my already-long-past-infinite writing queue. I think I may be able to say something about “spiritual progress”, but it certainly won’t be easy.

There’s a word that is used technically in the Aro gTér, but means roughly what it does in ordinary English, namely “demeanor”, which is a visible way of being. Everyone has various demeanors, which come out in different contexts. With spiritual progress, you find your own demeanors – or someone else’s, who you observe – changing. And you may see that the demeanors of someone are quite unusual, in ways you would like to emulate. That’s not necessarily spiritual—it can just be someone who is unusually kind, or has a flair for humor, or for getting stuff done—but it can be.

Demeanors could be faked; that’s part of the schtick of being a cult leader. They may need to be very good actors. There’s no guarantees about this. However, I think that with common sense and a lot of close observation in varied circumstances, you can get a pretty good impression of someone.

Now Sabio is maybe thinking “WTF are you talking about, David; give a goddamn example, already!” That’s difficult, because ways of being are hard to describe. It might be much easier to point things out on a video.

But, to try to say something – at a time when I ought to be doing the laundry and going to bed instead of rambling on about this – I’ll give the example of Lama Bar-ché Dorje. I first met him a dozen years ago. Nice guy; nothing special; he wasn’t teaching yet; I wouldn’t have said he was any further along the path than I was, although maybe he had qualities I wasn’t seeing.

Anyway, during those dozen years, he did several years of solitary retreat, and spent a great deal of time getting intensive individual instruction from both my lamas (Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen) and their lamas (Künzang Dorje Rinpoche and Jomo Sam’phel). Apparently that worked, because his demeanors are entirely different, and far beyond anything I could fake, much less produce authentically. For instance, he can (and does) manifest in the demeanor of a general. That might not sound interesting, and it would be impossible to describe, although you might get an impression from a video. However, within the “warriorship” strain of Vajrayana, to be a general is an extraordinary thing; very few people could pull it off.

Greg 2011-12-08

Thanks David. Very interesting. This is something worth exploring in greater detail, I would venture. This is the heart of the matter entirely, is it not?

David Chapman 2011-12-08

Well… yes… but it is hard to know how to proceed. There’s one line of thinking that “spiritual progress” is about having certain kinds of experiences, which might show up as brain states on fMRI, and that could be helpful. If progress is more about changing ways of being, then even if those ultimately depend on brain states they are probably far too diffuse to show up.

So possibly poetry is more useful than science here… with all the issues that come with that.

David Chapman 2011-12-08

I am working on a piece about spiritual apprenticeship which draws an extended analogy to the PhD candidate / thesis advisor relationship. One of the points I will make is that what you learn from your doctoral advisor is not facts, concepts, or methods, but a way of being. You learn how to be a scientist or philosopher or whatever, which is something that cannot be gained from books, or any other way than apprenticeship. It’s tacit knowledge, largely inarticulable, felt senses. Reflexes, habits, attitudes, stances, ways of holding body and mind.

I am not sure how useful this can be, since relatively few people have had the experience of going through a rigorous PhD program. But maybe it’s something.

Greg 2011-12-08

Sure, there is no reason why it need be science. I wouldn’t be one to argue that an outcome need be scientifically quantifiable for it to be the focal point of an aspiration that is subjectively valid. But I’d be curious to hear more about why his new demeanors are impressive to you, and why you seek to emulate them.

The main reason I think it is good for us to be more explicit about our desired outcomes is – in keeping with others have said – it makes it easier to clarify what traditional aspirations and traditional models of progress may or may not be relevant to us.

Greg 2011-12-08

Yes, that sounds great, and I have some sense of what you mean. Looking forward to it.

Gottheo 2011-12-08

Yes, David,
The question of God, whether all the different permutations of Theism through time and all around the world represent a primal intuition to be followed or a primal delusion to be left behind.

The following is a true and strange story of inter-religious dialog.

l once taught adult school classes for people to finish their high school diplomas in a poor California Central Valley town. In one evening class it seemed appropriate in the curriculum for me to ask the religious affiliation of the students. We went around the classroom - Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian, and then Buddhist!!!! from a very unlikely person, last name Garcia, farm laborer background, forced to drop out of school at age 14. One young woman was so shocked, she couldn’t help herself and started making aggressive comments on the weirdness. Mr. Garcia, a man in his late twenties started to get angry, I settled things down quickly and moved on with the class. I gave Phil Garcia rides home after class as he had a back injury and often had to use a wheel chair. The following week I asked him what Buddhists did, I expected the usual meditate/be a good person, what I got was this. “Well, you take a chicken and cut its throat”, then he said something about pouring out and lighting a liquor of some type. You then had a big meal with the family. The ritual was done for good luck or if someone was sick. I thought quickly and said, “We Christians do much the same. I talked about communion and Jesus being the sacrificial Lamb, and how in some churches a potluck follows the service. Being a protestant I explained it wasn’t a repeated sacrifice, but a remembrance of the once for all sacrifice on Calvary. He nodded his head. I asked him how he had become Buddhist. He had been married to a Laotian woman and was converted at her grandfather’s funeral when some poltergeist phenomena had broken the grandfather’s chair which was sitting there in memory of him. I was knew of poltergeist phenomena from some very strange things my son had gone through in his late teens. I then told him about the miraculous healing of my wife’s heart that allowed us to disobey the doctor and have three more children. I dropped him off and a few weeks later he gave me some tamales made by his grandmother, the best I’ve ever had.

David Chapman 2011-12-08

Goodness… that’s a remarkable story!

My next post will be about the diversity of Buddhisms. The very little I know about Laotian peasant Buddhism is plausibly consistent with this… It’s not exactly what the average American Buddhist does :-) and it’s useful for us to know how different Consensus Buddhism is from what is actually practiced in Asia.

brad 2012-03-26

I didn’t get this part:
“Current ethical dogma is that everyone and everything is as good as everyone and everything else. Everyone is special, and everyone must get a prize. “

I’ve never encountered this ethical dogma. No one I know and no one I’ve ever heard espouses this view. However, it does sound like the stereotypes of ethical dogma I’ve heard in the mainstream media to denigrate egalitarian and/or liberal views.

Yagendhren Govender 2012-10-18

Hey David. I know you said you are Buddhist but, judging by this article, are you sure you are not secretly a saiva sithaandhan?:-D

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