Monday, June 05, 2006

Integral Buddhism

I've been thinking a bit about Sam Harris' article in the March issue of Shambhala Sun, "Killing the Buddha." I've argued repeatedly that Harris has a flatland view of the world as an atheist whose worldview is based in scientism. Harris has spoken highly of Buddhism on many occasions, and even in The End of Faith, but his reliance on the technology of Buddhism (meditation) at the expense of all its other elements, concerns me.

As usual, Harris argued in that article for an end to the religious elements of Buddhism, favoring instead the technologies Buddhism has imparted for transcending the little self. He would do away with all the traditional metaphors about Rinpoches having been born from a lotus flower, or anything else that seems irrational. There is no room for symbolic language in a world where scientism reigns as the dominant worldview.

But what if we take a step back from seeing the world through one limited set of lens and instead try to see the broader picture? What if we recognize that human beings develop through an ever more complex series of worldviews that allow for greater complexity and deeper understanding with each new stage? And what if we accept that each and every one of those stages is crucial to the development of individuals and cultures, and that we can never skip a stage or eliminate it from our experience, no matter how much we may find it distasteful?

If we can take this wider viewpoint in our understanding of Buddhism as well as in the rest of our lives, we will be approaching an integral worldview, and an Integral Buddhism.

As individuals and as cultures, we develop through a series of ever more complex and more compassionate understandings of the world. These stages can most simply be defined as egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric. Buddhism serves each of these stages in different ways.

At the egocentric level, people seek to understand the world through the lens of their limited ego-mind. Because ego sees itself as the center of the known world, emphasis is placed on kinship patterns, power needs, and a structured universe. These Buddhists engage in rituals, believe that there are god-like Buddhas who can intercede in human lives, and take literally the Buddhist version of heavens and hells.

To rational Western thought, these beliefs seem silly --and when seen in more militant religions, such as Christianity and Islam, even seem dangerous -- but they serve a vital function for those who live in the egocentric stages of development -- they provide structure to contain the power-needs of the ego.

At the ethnocentric level, Buddhism looks more like religions we are familiar with in this country. Karma is the law of cause and effect that can seem very much like Christian versions of sin and punishment. Reincarnation is taken literally and is not much different from belief in an afterlife. It is in the upper stages of ethnocentric belief that a rational scientism can take hold and try to eliminate all the "non-rational" elements of Buddhist belief. Scientism would reduce Buddhism to meditation practices that can be observed with the tools of science.

The important thing to understand about egocentric and ethnocentric worldviews is that each stage along the path thinks it has a monopoly on the truth. From its viewpoint, every other worldview is simply wrong. This becomes most problematic in the ethnocentric stages, where there develops an Us-versus-Them mentality. Even scientism is not immune from this polarized thinking. As much as it likes to think of itself as hyper-rational, it still buys into the duality of its viewpoint against all others.

At the worldcentric stages of development, people begin to be tolerant of other viewpoints and other ways of understanding the world. At the lowest stages, this looks a lot like postmodern relativism. But at the higher stages, we begin to see an integral worldview that can honor the truth of each earlier stage and see each stage as crucial in human and cultural development.

An integral worldview understands that as we develop, we transcend each previous stage as the new one emerges. But we don't lose those earlier stages -- they continue to live within us, and they continue to have needs for understanding the world. As we transcend each stage, it is included in our options for viewing and interacting with the world. If we are put into situations that mirror the life conditions we experienced when that worldview was dominant, it can be triggered into action in order to deal with the current situation, even if we transcended that stage decades ago.

An Integral Buddhism understands these truths. It can accept that the egocentric, pre-rational elements of Buddhism address needs within each of us, even if our rational minds can't grasp that fact. An Integral Buddhism understands that ethnocentric, rational elements of Buddhism are crucial to a well-rounded practice. An Integral Buddhism seeks to include elements from all of our previous stages into its practice, everything from ritual offerings to 100,000 bows, from prayer to Tara worship, from mindfulness practice to nondual consciousness.

An Integral Buddhism does not reject any safe and compassionate practice that addresses needs in the human psyche for transcending the ego. We do not need to kill the Buddha -- we need to honor the full spectrum of ways we can follow his teachings.


Mike said...

I agree with you fully about the importance of these symbolic, mythical aspects of the religion. I examine the same thing, from a different viewpoint, here. Mythological stories and symbols allow us to access those aspects of our psyche that are otherwise inaccessible. They give us a means to map that territory, understand how our minds function, how all our minds are alike. When we suppress those aspects of our religions, we lose our ability to understand and deal with our psyche in that manner. But that won't stop our inner mythology from playing itself out in our lives. We just suddenly have no means by which to understand and affect those archetypal drivers. A good writer on this subject is Stephen Larsen and, of course, Joseph Campbell.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Bill. I think the difficulty with scientism is that it doesn't deal with ambiquity very well. In my experience, Tibetan Buddhism has many examples where on the surface something appears to be more mythical, but it's true symbolism is of a higher nature. Other times, something is actually serving both capacities: mythical and higher/deeper. Scientism just throws everything out without checking. So, in addition to the failure to honor all levels, I think this confusion also exists.

Unknown said...

For the most part I agree with your assessment, taking the bird's-eye view to see Buddhism's path in all its colors and contours.

But while looking at the path from your treetop, you have to accept that others won't yet have the wings to avoid all the foolishness, mayhem and tumult of first-tier mud-wrestling. [First-tier worldviews are both accepted and not accepted. Your essay both rejects Harris's flatland approach AND accepts it as a necessary region of the spiral.]

The problem remains, it seems to me, that people plant a flag in a meme they've grown to love, build a farm there and set up housekeeping. Sam Harris has done this in the Orange Meme where he is growing corn and milking his cows and putting up barbed-wire fences.

What can be done, then, to keep things "fluid?" To prevent others, and ourself, from settling in and becoming rigid? To stop us from constructing our barns or feathering our nest?

For example, there is an Us-v.-Them mentality in rising above an Us-v.-Them mentality -- it rather unavoidably becomes an Us-v.-[Us-v.-Them] mentality. And, then, where are you!? Even a manuveur to make it an AllOfUs-v.-[Us-v.-Them] gently presented confrontation is too cute by half.

I'm not sure that awareness of the map that you get from your treetop actually can help matters much for those on the ground that don't have the 3rd-dimensional ability to look up to see the sky and the birds in the trees.

Steve said...

I'm sympathetic to Harris and to all of you. I believe that myths resonate with some people on a deep level that ultimately fosters their spiritual progress while, at the same time, many people mistakenly cling to myths as literal fact in a manner that acts as a lifelong impediment to spiritual progress.

I confess that I have a simple mind that doesn't seem to respond well to myth. It seems to me, mistakenly perhaps, that the meaning of any myth can be accurately expressed in straightforward, factual language with sufficient power to effect the same if not greater spiritual progress that myth can but without the aforementioned pitfalls of myth.

But it seems that all of you would disagree with me on this. I wish I could find the same uniquely transformative power in myth that all of you appear to. In that regard, I guess I'm more like Harris than I would like to be.


william harryman said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Very much appreciated.

Ryan, you raise a good point. It might be useful to raise an example of something like Tara worship, since that is something I'm studying right now, and show how it works for the egoic, the ethnocentric, and the worldcentric (and beyond). It might help gound the argument more.

ZU, you raise some good points. As far as the Us v Them issue, guilty. I'm not sure how to talk about this without creating a hierarchy of worldcentric being more expansive and compassionate than the earlier stages. Any ideas?

I'm not really arguing for the guy on the ground without the map. This is intended to be a response to Harris' article and a defense of Buddhism in all its compassionate, ego reducing forms. I think that we need the Buddhism, not just the meditation, and that is my point.

I do accept Harris' view as a necessary part of the hierarchy of human development. It's important to honor his view as necessary but partial. He has some solid truth in his stance, but it's a partial truth and I want to show how it is partial.

My hope for Buddhism is the same as it is for Christianity -- those who can see the whole hierarchy and understand that each lower truth is necessary but partial have a responsibility to work to create healthier manifestations of the lower stages. I'm not a position of power, but Harris is, and if he can expand his viewpoint even a little bit, he can do more good by creating a healthy Christianity or Buddhism than he can by trying to tear down the whole religion -- which is never going to happen.

Steve, I hear you -- for a long time myth didn't work for me either. That's cool, as long as we honor that others need it.

Mike, thanks for the link, but I had already read your post -- it's good. Campbell was an excellent defender of the role of myth in our psyche. And larsen does a good job, too -- I loved The Mythic Imagination when I first read it years ago.

Peace & thanks again,

Steve said...

"As far as the Us v Them issue, guilty. I'm not sure how to talk about this without creating a hierarchy of worldcentric being more expansive and compassionate than the earlier stages. Any ideas?"

Bill, in the final analysis, isn't worldcentric "more expansive" or inclusively "compassionate" than the earlier stages?


Unknown said...

Will, you wrote ...

ZU, you raise some good points. As far as the Us v Them issue, guilty. I'm not sure how to talk about this without creating a hierarchy of worldcentric being more expansive and compassionate than the earlier stages. Any ideas?
Since I am first-tier worldcentric, I can only report on what I know.

Worldcentric is more expansive in many ways, allowing room for the opinions and ways of others and being more likely to be charmed rather than repelled by others' excentricities or even brutishness.

Compassion should emerge naturally. I do worry that the study of the Spiral Dynamic can cause some people to push themself into a pose of a higher meme that they aspire to. I don't think this happens very often, but it does happen. People should "test" the higher memes, willfully being kind and egoless and ending the internal monologue of complaint for a day each week, say, but we should 'reside' in our authentic skin. And see if we can manifest being 'real' to our aspirations.

I think an important element in blogging can be being fair to all sides in regard to an issue one is discussing. I think if we can cease seeing only from 'the side' of an argument we favor, and instead accept the evidence as it is -- some buttressing 'our side'; some favoring 'the other side' -- then this acceptance of whatever is true can grease our path to higher memes.

Also, I think many people have a problem learning to rejoice in the genius of others -- to accept that others' amazing aptitudes, skills and accomplishments are gifts to us and not something to envy or strive to beat. We should find ways to squash our competitive zeal. Your 'gratitude' posts demonstrate a great exercise in this realm.

Anyway, these are my thoughts -- not that I live up to them, much.

Steve said...

"I think an important element in blogging can be being fair to all sides in regard to an issue one is discussing...Also, I think many people have a problem learning to rejoice in the genius of others."

I couldn't agree more, ZU. And, like you say it is for you, this is more of an ideal for me than the way I actually conduct myself most of the time. :-)


william harryman said...

Thanks guys, I appreciate the comments and the insights. I plan to rework and expand this a bit, and hopefully it will appear in a magazine or blog other than this one.


Unknown said... other than this one.

Fine. Just fine. So this is all just a scrimmage, a rough draft preliminary to the final draft that you turn in to Bri?

Oy vey. The golf courses are greener on the other side of the wall.

william harryman said...


The actual hope is that Shambhala Sun will run the article, since that is where Harris first published his article on "Killing the Buddha." If not, then I might try to get one of the bigger Buddhist sites to run it so that it gets some exposure.

This has nothing to do with Zaadz, and in fact I didn't even post this on my Zaadz blog.


Unknown said...

Speaking on behalf of the hoi polloi, we are comforted by this news.

So long as Shambhala Sun doesn't require us to perjure ourselves with a claim that we will fix the world before we read it, we think what you are doing in honorable.

rocket said...

I never read a word Sam Harris ever wrote ... but .... we had a brief email exchange. Honestly he went temporarily insane in the blink of an eye, exhibited tremendous ignorance about deeper meditative experiences and scary messed up emotional instability,

He's a colossal mess.

rocket said...

Re: Sam Harris .... it would seem he may have missed an early developmental milestone that interrupted critical formation of a functional intellect, emotional composition.