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.