It takes the critical wit of a skeptical atheist to navigate the minefield of the spiritual marketplace. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find an exacting scientific mind that is also willing to apply that same mind to the ups and downs of a rigorous spiritual life. Sam Harris does just that in Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, which is worth the read.
Bona Fide Atheism
As one of the four horsemen of New Atheism, it’d be absurd to accuse of Harris of going soft on religion, and he holds no punches for institutional Buddhism. I more or less agree, but am willing to soften my position of a few issues. I remain something of an agnostic on literal rebirth: Whether it’s a useful fiction or something more ‘real’ doesn’t really change the outcome of anything.
What sets many Asian religions practices from Abrahamic monotheism is that the former present a wide array of useful tools that require no faith in order to be beneficial. Christianity offers precious little in terms of how to achieve any spiritual goal; in fact, any spiritual goal such as an ethical life, deepened compassion and personal transcendence are meaningless without faith in the God of Abraham. In contrast, a morning round of tai chi provides tangible health benefits regardless of whether you believe in the existence of some mystical life force pervading the universe.
Harris argues that, stripped of religious and cultural baggage, the core practices of Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta are worth pursuing for the modern atheist. I couldn’t agree more.
Cutting Through Delusion
Humans are distracted by the sense of an enduring self, which is ultimately a fabrication rather than something solid. The Buddha realized this was and bequeathed us with a set of tools to come to the same realization ourselves.
Harris dismisses the disagreements between modern traditions as semantics of minor consequence. I partially agree. There are real, albeit subtle, differences between complete idealism, non-dualism and the more pragmatic realism of early Buddhism. Nonetheless, all of these traditions chip away at the sense of the self and the world we hold to be instinctively true.
Science begins to unravel with the problem of consciousness. Much of the book is devoted to this enduring enigma: Through spiritual practice you begin to see that the ‘I’ is distinct from the consciousness that perceives it. Settling into this realization and integrating it into your life is waking up. Incidentally, Buddha means the awakened one rather than enlightened one—bonus points: the same Indo-European root bud has survived in modern Russian, hence будить [budit’]: to wake.
This version of waking up may seem far more prosaic than the romantic view of enlightenment and omniscience. Arguing from first hand experience, which I incidentally agree with, Harris says that living with this awaking brings tremendous psychological peace, acceptance and a deep sense of compassion.
Harris has practiced extensively in two traditions that I’m also familiar with: Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s Dzogchen and the Mahasi Sayadaw’s vipassana. My biggest quibble with the book is that Harris needlessly thrashes the Mahasi tradition of Burmese vipassana. Both of these traditions are valid spiritual paths that lead to the same goal. I’d argue that the reason why Harris took to Dzogchen is that he had years of intensive vipassana training under his belt. Joseph Goldstein and Harris hash this out in a long discussion on the later’s podcast; if you’re into the nitty-gritty of this stuff, it’s worth a listen.
Naturally, I was a bit disappointed to see no mention of the Thai Forest Tradition that forms the core of my practice. Ajahn Amaro’s brilliant work Small Boat, Great Mountain is the best examination I’ve read of Dzogchen’s relationship to earlier Buddhist practices such as those in the Thai Forest Sangha. This will leave you with a deep respect for both traditions.
The Irrelevance of God
A robust spiritual life need not contain any gods whatsoever. Non-theistic spiritual life has been practice for thousands of years in Asia.
My hope is that the violent of course Abrahamic religions of the West can cede their monopoly on spirituality in the coming decades. We’re in need of a true spiritual discussion in Europe and North America, but I don’t see this coming through Christianity. There’s also no reason that such a renaissance has to come through a moribund branch of Buddhism either. Instead Harris offers a wide range of tools from the East, Western scientific rigor and some psychedelics to wake us from our slumber.