Monday, March 01, 2010

The Buddhism of Bill Maher

'Brethren, if outsiders should speak against me, or against my teaching, or against my disciples, you should not on that account either bear malice, or suffer heart-burning, or feel ill-will. If you, on that account, should be angry and hurt, that would stand in the way of your own self-conquest. If, when others speak against us, you feel angry at that, and displeased, would you then be able to judge how far that speech of theirs is well said or ill?'

'That would not be so, Sir.'

'But when outsiders speak in dispraise of me, or of my teaching, or of my disciples, you should unravel what is false and point it out as wrong, saying: "For this or that reason this is not the fact, that is not so, such a thing is not found among us, is not in us."

- DN 1 (Brahmajala Sutta)

I was recently alerted via twitter to a Bill Maher article in which he does some pretty serious Buddhism-bashing. The alert came from this Buddhist blog, in the form of an open letter to Mr. Maher. I think the letter was quite well written, but not exactly how I would address this issue.

First of all, I don't think Buddhists should be at all shocked when we hear fellow Atheists bashing our religion. After all, they generally fall into the category of anti-religionists and materialists as well, and have already decided that if something doesn't fit with the axioms and proofs of modern science, it cannot be taken seriously.

Case in point, I recently had an email dialogue with the Atheist Society of Austin, Texas. I entered into the dialogue with the presumption that they were an open-minded and thoughtful bunch of people. I have to say I was wrong on both counts. They immediately dismissed meditation as a form of relaxation rather than scientific inquiry and placed my views in the categories of pseudoscience and newage (rhymes, as they pointed out, with sewage) nonsense. It is really sad to see this sort of thing take the place of honest and open discussion; categorization of this sort is just a sophisticated form of name calling similar to what bullies on the playground use when they don't have anything more clever to say.

Religion, to the materialist atheists, is rubbish, since this is the one and only life our body will ever live, and so it is of little wonder they have such a lack of respect for anything above and beyond the most crude forms of scientific investigation; there is simply no point in their minds.

For this reason, I don't think it is worth getting all upset about what Bill Maher said, though I agree he has done very well at making himself look like a bona fide idiot. It's not the first time for him, though, and surely won't be the last. I think the key is to stop thinking we share something in common with these people, be they comedians or politicians. If they are not meditating, there's not much chance of ever engaging them in anything approaching a profitable discussion about the nature of reality; these people are so mired in sensual intoxication (and proud of it), it's pretty unreasonable to think they will be able to understand something as sophisticated as the teaching of the Buddha. And as Buddhism is more and more brought into the spotlight, there will be ever further misunderstanding promulgated by the like of Bill Maher.

So, where did Maher go wrong? Let's see:

But before Tiger moves on there's one more apology he really should make, and that's to Buddha, for dragging him into this mess and proving once again, that whenever something unspeakably tawdry, loathsome and cheap happens, just wait a few days. Religion will make it worse.

Read this a couple of times... it doesn't even make sense. You don't apologize to someone for dragging you into a mess. But, to the point - religion, he says, makes problems worse. Why? Because it makes you feel guilty, of course. The whole thrust of Maher's article is that one shouldn't feel guilty for sexual promiscuity, and that Buddhism does exactly that. Which, of course, is so not true it isn't really worth commenting on, yet one can't help but point out that the real problem for Buddhists that Mr. Woods was addressing in his apology is not sexual promiscuity at all, it is sexual infidelity. The former is considered by Buddhists to be a relatively benign form of sensual addiction; the latter can cause people to commit suicide. Is Maher really so dense that he can't see the evil in what has been done to a wife and children who so depended on this man to be faithful to them? Or the real reason for Woods' inclusion of Buddhism in his apology? Again, it would not be a surprise.

And it really is outdated in some ways - the 'Life sucks, and then you die' philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn't all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it.

This is the paragraph that I find most objectionable; utterly objectionable. For an American in the 21st century to say that life doesn't suck as much as it did in India 2500 years ago is pure blind arrogance, and hypocrisy to boot. Maher is always going on about how stupid his country is, how evil are its elected officials, and how unfair is the treatment to the downtrodden, and here he does an about face and tries to say that everything is suddenly hunky-dory because, guess what America? You've got iPhones and James Cameron movies. I think, honestly, he's just joking here. I would bet he himself can see that sensations like Apple and Avatar are nothing more than crowd control keeping America's hungry (>10%), depressed (9.5%), unemployed (9.7%) and uninsured (15.4%) from actually thinking about the terrible situation they've been put in. But that just makes him a hypocrite. Instead of actually finding anything wrong with Buddhism, he starts refuting his own position that something is fundamentally wrong with America. Sure religion is a part of the problem, but religion isn't starving or torturing its people.

The open letter was pretty clear in making the points that (a) sophisticated electronic gadgets and fake alternate realities don't really do anything to alleviate suffering, they just add to the problem of addiction and withdrawal, and (b) the whole of the Buddha's teaching is DEDICATED to the alleviation of suffering. So is Bill Maher on crack or something? No, you say, he's just being funny. I disagree. Funny has to include that kernel of reality to provide the irony necessitated by humour - Maher has missed the nail entirely and there is nothing funny about straw man arguments. Rather than make your victim look ridiculous, you just wind up looking silly.

Tiger said, 'Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves' makes us unhappy, which confirms something I've long suspected about Eastern religions: they're a crock, too.

Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life - I don't want to learn to not want, that's what people in prison have to do. Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. The only thing that's inevitable is that if you have fake boobs and hair extensions, Tiger Woods will try to **** you.

Okay, we know, he's just shooting from the hip, nothing new here. We all know that Buddhism does not teach that suffering is inevitable, but Maher again looks like an idiot here. Tiger is telling him that it is craving that leads to suffering and Maher is saying therefore suffering must be inevitable, since he himself is not interested in giving up craving. Of course craving leads to suffering; look at drug addicts or addicts to anything. If one cannot be at peace with oneself, how can one possibly hope to be satisfied by the ephemeral pleasures of external phenomena? It's also pretty clear that he, or his writers, is just pulling quotes off the Internet in his search for what Buddhism teaches; when he couldn't find a way to attack Woods' statement about craving, he provides a totally unrelated "teaching" that suffering is inevitable.

In fact, Maher's whole premise that Buddhism teaches "life is suffering", one that the author of the open letter sadly picks up and runs away with, is currently the biggest myth about the Buddha's teaching in circulation. Let me say it again, as I have said many times before: the Buddha never, ever, ever, ever said that life is suffering. Get it straight. He said old age is suffering. He said sickness is suffering. He said not getting what you want is suffering. He said getting what you don't want is suffering. He said sorrow, lamentation, despair, pain and displeasure are suffering. He even said the process of birth is suffering. He never said life is suffering. Never. Not once. You can be sure he didn't, because he would have to be stupid to do so, for the obvious reason that Maher points out. It's a terrible way of approaching the problems in life, and it implies the inevitability of suffering.

Straw man argument

And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn't there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, "My name is Herb Zoller and I'm an accountant." ...something?

It's worth pointing out that by now Maher has left the whole Tiger Woods thing behind and is going after the bigger target. Woods' apology had nothing to do with reincarnation, he didn't even mention it, and it is not sure he even subscribes to it as a description of the nature of existence. But, as mentioned, it should come as no surprise that Buddhism will inevitably receive the same rough treatment by these people as faith-based religions have, and will be invariably placed in the same metaphorical rubbish bin.

First off, there is a great deal in the way of proof available at present in the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his associates; lots of "raccoon spelling out in acorn" type cases of children relating things they could not know otherwise. But the real reason there is no "proof" of rebirth is that it has nothing to do with the physical world and so the methods of material science are inapplicable, leading material scientists to sweep it aside with labels like "newage pseudoscience". It is, of course, relatively easy to prove beyond doubt the theory of rebirth for oneself, but that takes meditation practice and, well, you know...

People are always debating, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy: it's a religion. You're a religion if you do something as weird as when the Buddhist monks scrutinize two-year-olds to find the reincarnation of the dude who just died, and then choose one of the toddlers as the sacred Lama: "His poop is royal!" Sorry, but thinking you can look at a babbling, barely-housebroken, uneducated being and say, "That's our leader" doesn't make you enlightened. It makes you a Sarah Palin supporter.

Yes, that's right. Religion = weird. First, religion is a word that simply means adherence; it says nothing about what one is adhering to. If you adhere to certain dietary principles, you are eating religiously, whether it is because some ancient book tells you, or Mr. Slimfast. In certain cases, it may serve no purpose, in others it may be vital to one's mental wellbeing. Just because something is religious doesn't make it weird.

But the point, of course, is that Maher has again made himself look silly. Tiger Woods is half-Thai on his mother's side. The Dalai Lama is from Tibet Before you start trashing someone's religion, make sure you research the right religion - the search for reborn religious leaders is almost exclusively a phenomenon of Tibetan (i.e. not Thai) culture and has little if anything to do with the Buddha's teaching.

In the end, it is clear that Maher is doing what he gets paid to do; make jokes about things others wouldn't dare and further his hypothesis that religion is, well, ridiculous. In this article, however, he fails to appear clever or witty at all because, let's face it: Buddhism is a scientific inquiry into reality with verifiable results that can and regularly do change people's lives from hopeless and desperate to confident and contented. It is a system free from blind faith and dogma and offers rational, logical explanations of how and why reality works the way it does. But my point is we shouldn't look to people like Bill Maher to accept such statements or even suspend their disbelief long enough to conduct an honest investigation. Just because someone is funny and occasionally even witty doesn't make them in any way wise.