The dark night of Buddhism

IT’S rare for anyone to look at the dark side of Buddhism. We all know about the violence that can be engendered by various religions but people disillusioned by the great monotheistic religions often turn to what they perceive to be the the gentler vision of Buddhism. Indeed, there are some people, including Stephen Batchelor – author of Buddhism Without Faith – who argue that Buddhism isn’t even a religion and, rather, should be thought of as a guide for life. So, how are we to account for the way Buddhists treated the the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar?

There have also been well documented incidents during which individuals have appeared to experience severe mental illness particularly after periods of intensive meditations in retreats. In their book The Buddha Pill Doctors Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm unearth evidence that shows that many people can experience at least one negative effect – and a significant number who have ‘profoundly adverse effects’ following retreats. One particularly troubling case involved a psychiatrist called Dr Russell Razzaque who found himself ‘descending into a deeply meditative state; I somehow travelled through the sensations of my body and the thoughts in my mind to a space of sheer nothingness that felt, at the same time, like it was somehow the womb of everything’. Although he initially regarded this as a blissful state, things deteriorated in the following days as he was being pulled in the opposite direction into a manic state. Eventually, he managed to stay grounded, although as the authors point out, most people who meditate are not experts in psychiatric diagnosis.

According to the authors, western practitioners are ‘aware that not all is plain sailing with meditation – they have even named the emotional difficulties that can arise from their meditative practice as the ‘dark night’. Part of the problem seems to be the collapse of the ‘narrative of the self’ (the notion that the self is a narrative is itself contested, which will be explored in the next blog), which can result in a ‘sense of vertigo rather than blissful realization of the emptiness of the self’. And research has shown that adverse effects are not always confined to intensive retreats.

And then we come to the knockout punch – ‘meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing’. They add: “It’s primary purpose was much more radical – to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” This is not how we are encouraged to see meditation in the West where ‘meditation has been revamped as a natural pill that will quieten your mind and make you happier’.

Of course, in the wider context Buddhism is often regarded as being a peaceful practice and, like the early Christians, as a turn away from violence. “But a cursory glance at the news broadcasts about Buddhist countries challenges this peaceful image,” the writers observe. And this brings us back to the question at the beginning of this blog about the treatment of the Rohingya. Just as Christianity developed the notion of the Just War so Buddhism developed ‘its own theory of compassionate killing‘. In a bizarre twist in Buddhist thought – which Batchelor might argue coincided with it becoming seen as a religion – one consequence the idea of emotional indifference and selflessness is that practitioners are not ‘morally responsible for for their actions because they act without self-interest’. In other words ‘without clear ethical rules that very spiritual selflessness can serve all kinds of ill purposes’, as happened with Japanese Buddhism during World War Two.

According to Zen priest and historian Brian Victoria the ‘Japanese military used Zen Buddhist ideas and meditation techniques’ to support the war. He shows how Buddhist priests regarded ‘warfare and killing’ as ‘manifestations of Buddhist compassion, selflessness and dedication to the Japanese emperor’. There is literally nothing to lose in killing or dying once you realize the ’emptiness of the self’, an idea that becomes the equivalent promise of eternal life in religions like Islam and Christianity.

It is fair to say that all of this comes as a shock to anyone sympathetic to Buddhism and meditation, including the authors of the the Buddha Pill. But they are not about to dispense with meditation. They write: “Perhaps meditation was never supposed to be more than a tool to help with self knowledge; one that could never be divorced from a strong ethical grounding, who we are and the world we live in’. And as Batchelor writes: “A culture of awakening cannot exist independently of the specific social, religious, artistic, and ethnic cultures in which it is embedded.”

Furthermore, the authors write of meditation: “If we admit its frailties and limits, that it takes other things for the techniques to make real positive change – the right intentions, a good teacher and moral framing – they can still prove effective engines of personal change.”

All of which puts the Western appropriation of meditation – what Ron Purser dismisses as McMindfulness – and its decoupling from any moral and political context under severe scrutiny. It’s the idea of self-optimizing and using mindfulness as a way of helping us to cope with the stresses of modern life without tackling the socio-political causes of that stress – including the atomization of society – that needs to be addressed by the mindful community. Social change requires collective action, not meditation, which should, it could be argued, be put to use to sustain that action.

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  1. It seems to me that your Self is the very entity that you need to be responsible for. You should learn to Realize it fully: be aware of it. Because you live in Time, of course it has a Narrative: of which you should have control, by awareness of your own true motivations. We could sort these motivations as benevolent to self and benevolent to others (because we live among Society); or, of course malevolent. Our self-purification ( to resolve confusion of the Self’s Ongoing Narrative and it’s true Self-awareness) is surely the point of Meditation. To get rid of destructive and conflicting ideas and feelings, by recognizing them for what they are, and Realizing the unburdened Self. The imperfect self needs Life, as time and opportunity, to improve its Narrative and purify itSelf. The attachment to Life ceases to be necessary to the perfected Self. Though whether a perfect Death is quite attainable may be doubted. Perfection doesn’t seem to be a Realistic concept, really, does it: looking at Life as we know it? C.Browne

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  2. Hello Christopher, many thanks for your comment. The problem is the assumption that there is such a thing as the Self, which begs the question against those who argue that there is no such entity. Is there a core ‘me’ something that exists once we have stripped out our immediate identities like our names, address and occupation or are we nothing but a bundle of experiences, as David Hume suggested, or character traits? As the authors of the Buddha Pill put it the aim of meditation is not to reinforce our sense of Self but to ‘shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is nothing there.’ The problem of the idea of a narrative – which I explore further in my latest blog – is at least in part to do with the danger of infinite regression. If there is a narrative then there has to be a narrator and where does s/he come from? And so on. Another problem, also looked at in the next blog, revolves around the question of whether or not a narrative or ourselves leads to an inauthentic notion of the Self and whether we should, instead, be looking to discover ourselves. But what if there is nothing to discover? What if our sense of a Self is just a ‘ghost in the machine’ as Gilbert Ryle put it in The Concept of Mind? Of course, one solution would be to say the narrative of the Self is not, initially at least, in our hands but is entirely created by our social being – by our upbringing and environment but that as we grow older and develop self-consciousness we are able to begin to mould that Self. Some fruitful research in this field has been carried out by Kristina Musholt in her Thinking about Oneself in which she writes: “I acquire reflective self-awareness in considering how I am being perceived – and turned into an intentional object – by the other.” The intentional object, presumably, could be characterised as something resembling what we like to call the Self.


    1. Upsetting to find in the dictionary that, yes, a narrative does have to have a narrator. Story, a less philosophical- feeling word, is apparently more useful. Unexpectedly history is better: “aggregate of past events” not requiring an external mind to relate it.
      I think the difficulty is with regarding self as having definite boundaries in both space and time, plus fixity of constitution. Surely a fertilized egg doesn’t have a self yet, does it? Not seriously. Does a new-born, etc? Assuming Self does exist at all, surely you would expect it to evolve, just as the personality and the emotional and rational capacities and physical abilities evolve? The physical body takes in new material all the time (air, food) and excretes it too; the mind takes in ideas and information, and forgets or changes track; why wouldn’t the cultural and spiritual side of a person progress (without anyone necessarily writing the History)? Why need anyone define what is or is not contributing to the Self of a given moment?
      Take a test case: what is happening if a person undergoes a “mental breakdown”? Or has schizophrenia.
      Any adequate description of the Self needs to provide a good answer to those two questions, doesn’t it?
      And then there’s senile dementia: just to keep philosophy busy. Yours ever, Christopher.


      1. Hi Dickie
        Just to note that American buddhists do seem to be embracing the political and social contexts in which they live, judging by their blogs on `Lion`s Roar,` whilst focusing at the same time on what we might call `personal salvation`.
        More on this later. Best wishes, Trevor


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