By James Haught
I’m intrigued by Zen meditation as a supposed path to enlightenment. I’ve tried repeatedly — lying silent in bed, blanking out my mind, hearing nothing but the rhythm of my breath, seeing nothing but dark blurs behind my eyelids. But all it does is put me to sleep. In the end, I never get a smidgeon of enlightenment. I’m still just the same old me.
I wonder whether anyone finds enlightenment — or whether the quest is self-deceptive, a fantasy leading nowhere?
I never knew any meditator who seemed enlightened — did you? Did you ever see amazing insights or remarkable creative output by an enlightenee?
American Buddhism is a billion-dollar field with many gurus. It’s followed by intellectuals such as brilliant atheist Sam Harris. Researcher John Horgan says:
“The number of Buddhist centers in the United States has more than doubled to well over 1,000. As many as four million Americans now practice Buddhism, surpassing the total of Episcopalians. Of these Buddhists, half have post-graduate degrees.”
Horgan wrote in Slate that he plunged ardently into the exotic pursuit, but –
“Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth. Buddhism’s moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science — or more generally, with modern humanistic values.”
Buddhism’s insistence that suffering is an illusion theoretically could make followers less concerned when bigoted white police kill unarmed black men, or women are victimized by male predators, or other outrages occur.
Horgan added that supposedly enlightened gurus can be unappetizing: “Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987.”
Another guru, Bhagwan Rajneesh, created an Oregon commune that committed the worst bioterror attack in American history. Trying to control a local election, Rajneesh followers cultured Salmonella in a lab and sprinkled it in salad bars at ten restaurants in The Dalles in 1984, hoping to make townspeople too sick to vote. It worked, and 750 became ill. Forty-five were hospitalized, but none died. Two women leaders of the commune were convicted, and Rajneesh was deported to India, where he died in 1990.
Dr. Robert Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, made an intense study of meditation gurus and their adoring followers. Writing in Psychology Today, he summed up:
“Getting a close look at several individuals who were advertised as enlightened led me to conclude that there’s a lot of hype and hypocrisy in the business. A good many of them, not unlike a fair number of academics I’d known, seemed to be in it primarily for the lifestyle. Many gurus are treated like deities and hold absolute power over their devotees. As ‘enlightened beings,’ they’re accountable to no one, and their foibles, appetites and excesses are given a pass.”
“Fraud is a stranger to neither science nor religion. Its presence invalidates neither, but its ubiquity warrants skepticism…. The language of enlightenment tended to be esoteric, obscurantist and elitist, and the teachings attracted more credulous dabblers than credible seekers…. In my quest, I did not come across anyone who could be said to dwell in a state of permanent enlightenment.”
Writers shouldn’t pontificate about subjects they don’t understand. I truly don’t understand meditation and enlightenment — but I wonder whether anyone does. This essay can serve as an invitation for some Ph.D. Buddhists like Sam Harris to write a rebuttal saying how ignorant and shallow I am to ask whether meditation is a trip to nowhere.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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Image Credit: James Haught.