Thursday, November 20, 2008

White noise

Just got back this evening from a series of presentations at my university. Three 3rd-year PhD students gave their presentations on different aspects of Buddhist Studies. Some of the presentations were mildly thought-provoking but nothing really eye-opening.

Buddhism has a long history, and an incredible variety of philosophical speculation has been done in its name. But it strikes me that this speculation is nothing more than that--just empty speculation. The worldview of Buddhism could be seen as being internally consistent, but that is not saying much. One has to accept on face value the existence of certain propositions to make the system seem viable. This is what bothers me about Buddhism and the field of Buddhist Studies.

Another thing that gets on my nerves is that many scholars of Buddhism see it as something with great significance for our so-called "material" age. They have the attitude that there is something really meaningful that Buddhism has to say, and we should get down to the bottom of it. So many of us are programmed to see the "spiritual," whatever that is, as all that is meaningful and good in the world.

A surprising number of humanities scholars have views about human nature that don't stand up to what modern scientific research is uncovering about us. Buddhism essentially sees the human mind as something that can be freely molded through certain processes of mental training, a process that leads, according to some sects, to complete emancipation from subjective forms of suffering. But is this really how the mind and our subjective states really are? Are there actually "enlightened" people? It seems like so much empty speculation, but it is something that so many people want to believe is true. We want to believe that it all has a meaning and that we won't have to face annihilation.

The rhetoric of Buddhism is misleading. By creating a detailed fantasy realm with concepts about the world and human experience, by giving complex definitions and classifications of concepts that have no real referents and then debating and refining these concepts over the course of history, Buddhism gives the believer the illusion that these concepts are describing an actual reality. If you repeat the memes over and over again, they start to take on a life of their own!

But all of this is just white noise to me now. And it seems pointless to research white noise. While I grant that studying Buddhism academically is important to find out about how people have thought about things over time, in terms of relevance to real life, it is like painstakingly researching the history of the hobbit community in the Lord of the Rings series. I simply can't help but feeling this way about religious white noise such as this.

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