Category Archives: buddhism

Buddhism and Modern Psychology

So I’m taking a course on Coursera called Buddhism and Modern Psychology. As the course title might suggest, it’s a course about the intersection of Buddhist thought and modern findings in psychology. It’s a pretty interesting course, piquing my interest in Buddhism (again) and also learning some neat new stuff about psychology and meditation.

My first homework assignment is due pretty soon, so I thought I’d reblog (so to say) the work I’m going to submit here on my blog. The assignment:

The Buddha makes the claim, which may draw some support from modern psychology, that the self does not exist. Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha’s principal argument against it. Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position? Give two specific reasons for your view, and explain your reasons support either the existence of the self or the non-existence of the self, or why they explain why you are unable to take a position on the question.

The Buddha’s main argument is premised on his conception of the makeup of a person. That makeup is composed of the five aggregates. The five aggregates are form (physical body) feeling, mental formations (emotions, desires), perception, and consciousness (subjective awareness). Buddha goes through the qualities that are thought to be associated with the aggregates and says that the “self” cannot be made up of them.

Impermanence is his main argument against the self, so he must have thought the self has a sort of persistence; something that does not change through time and space. Additionally the Buddha thought of the self as being associated with being under control, however the Buddha argued that the self cannot control feeling or form (e.g. you can’t will yourself to be happy, or decide to grow an extra arm), or any of the other aggregates, so therefore the self as he conceived of it does not exist.

On the other hand, the self or something like it has to exist if you are being “liberated”. So it is argued that the Buddha wasn’t speaking literally about the self not existing but argued more from an instrumental perspective. In order to get someone to actually accept the impermanence of things, one has to understand the impermanence of the individual “parts” of a person like their form or mental formations. Indeed, the Buddha teaches that the self exists for karma purposes when making ethical pronouncements.

The Buddha’s formulation of the self as being composed of five aggregates matches with modern psychology’s view of the mind and brain. The brain might also be composed, not of five aggregates, but of modules; each module having a specific function. Beyond this, there doesn’t seem to be any further overlap. The modular mind view in psychology is much more specific than the Buddha’s general five aggregates; though both systems make it hard to pinpoint where exactly a “self” would reside. In both modern psychology and Buddhism, there seems to be a rejection of the Cartesian theater model of the self that most everyday people have of themselves.

I would have to say that I am convinced by the Buddha’s argument that the self doesn’t reside in any of the five aggregates, but not because the aggregates lack persistence over time. Even without his rationale that the self is supposed to have a sort of permanence or has the quality of being “under control”, it would be hard to locate a sort of CEO, king, or even Cartesian theater version of the self in any of the five aggregates. This is not the Buddha’s argument (or if it is, I’ve not heard it yet) but it very well could be that your form affects your feeling and mental state, or your mental state affects your consciousness/awareness and perception. Each of the five aggregates can influence any of the other aggregates so it would be hard to cordon off one aggregate and claim that that one in particular is where the self resides.

(Note: I didn’t put the hyperlinks in the one I actually submitted)

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Posted by on April 12, 2014 in buddhism, cognitive science


Why I Ditched Buddhism

An interesting article I read on Slate. Here's the money quote at the end:
All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel.
Αμην, Αμην. We should pursue the truth, no matter where it lies.
The author is right about one thing. Buddhism, while not as openly suplicative as Western religion, is not as atheistic as more intellectual people think it is. While there is no creator god in Buddhism meant for worship, there are other gods. Which makes sense, since Buddhism came from Hinduism. In Buddhism, these other gods (Devas) go through the same cycle of birth and reincarnation that we are purported to do. However, their arrogance prevents them from attaining nirvana. From this angle, one might even claim that Buddhism is anti-theistic.


Posted by on December 6, 2011 in buddhism


Judaism, Christianity… and Buddhism

A lot of former religious types (I like to include myself a bit in that box) usually turn to Buddhism once we leave the confines of the dogmaticism of Christianity. Quite a few of my earlier posts in this blog describe some Buddhist beliefs, but I don’t necessarily call myself a Buddhist any more (though I would liberally call myself this).

There are actually arguments that Buddhism is older than “Judaism”. For example, would anyone recognize a Judaism that worshipped Yahweh and his sister/wife/consort Asarah (or Asherah)? That flies in the face of the monotheism we expect from Judaism, but it was endemic to Israelite/Judahite or otherwise Canaanite religion prior to the “Jews” (the Persian nominated elites who governed Judah) return from exile c. 500 BCE.

Though the monotheistic faith and practice recounted in the Bible likely held sway among educated, elite men in Jerusalem, the heart and soul of Israelite religion was polytheistic, concerned with meeting practical needs, and centered in the homes of common, illiterate people. [emphasis mine]

– Product review of Ancient Israel archaeologist William G. Dever’s book “Did God Have A Wife?”

Judaism as we know it — or Judaism as Jesus knew it — was finalized during the Hellenistic era when the book of Daniel was written (between 167 and 164 BCE) and after the success of the Maccabean Revolt. (Rabbinic Judaism would be finalized around 200 CE, which I would argue is the same time Catholic Christianity was crystallized).

But by the time Daniel was written Buddhists had already had proselytizing missions to Alexander (the Great)’s Greek territories; which included Judea.

The Emperor Ashoka (304 BCE – 232 BCE) was a significant early Buddhist “evangelist”; the Buddhist equivalent of Constantine. He had Buddhist missionaries in the areas controlled by Alexander’s “successors” around the same time that the Greek version of the Torah/Pentateuch (the LXX) was being translated. So it stands to reason that there were already Buddhist influences in the melting pot of culture that Christianity eventually came forth from. Anyone who thinks that Christianity is a direct, pure descendent of Judaism would be wrong. Especially since a spiritual kingdom with a spiritual messiah was unheard of in Judaism prior to Christianity. I’m not even entirely convinced that Christianity was started by any Jews at all (enter Paul’s disdain for the “law”, Marcion his popularizer, and early 2nd century Roman reports of a new religion founded by a certain “Chrestus” [the good] instead of Christus [messiah] that historians conclude is about Jesus). Christians certainly didn’t get the virgin birth meme from Judaism; that was rampant in Greek and Roman myths.

Who knows, maybe Jesus himself was a Buddhist! lol We don’t actually know what the “historical Jesus” practiced or believed so that would be up in the air. Considering the myriads of “historical Jesus” profiles there have been – many of them contradictory – there’s nothing stopping someone from positing that Jesus might have had a bit of Buddhist influences on his teaching. R. Joseph Hoffman argues that each scholar and historian who offers a profile of the historical Jesus simply presents a Jesus made in their own image (which follows the trend for the general religious population). And as I pointed out in an earlier post, Christian Gnosticism and Buddhism have a lot in common.

In the early era of Christendom (after Constantine), a lot of Christian missionaries to the Eastern lands encountered Buddhists, and confused them for wayward Christians.

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Posted by on December 24, 2009 in 2nd temple judaism, buddhism, early Christianity


Christian Gnosticism

Back when I first started investigating early Christianity sometime around 2000 I stumbled upon Christian Gnosticism. “Stumbled” is the wrong word though; anyone who investigates early Christianity is going to come across that word. While I admired the fact that this was a branch of Christianity that was interested in “knowledge” (gnosis::γνωση), their theology seemed pretty “out there”.

Archons? Yaldabathoth (sic)? Demiurge? Plemora? Sophia?

None of that highly anthropomorphic theology appealed to me. So I kinda brushed it off and continued my studies. However, later on in life I discovered Buddhism. The message of Buddhism is that “salvation” comes from knowledge of self, and following the “Middle Way”. The Middle Way is basically a philosophy of non-extremism. So hyper-asceticism leads to Suffering just as much as hyper-hedonism. Though, at the same time, none of the theology of Buddhism appealed to me, either. It’s almost as convoluted as the various Gnostics. But the thing about Buddhism was that the theology was irrelevant to soteriology. The message is the same whether the Devas are real or not… and the message is still the same whether the Buddha lived or not.

Then I had sort of an “unveiling” (απόκαλυψις): Buddhism and Gnosticism essentially have the same soteriology; that is, the same framework of salvation. If I could do away with the wacky [anthropomorphic] theology of Buddhism and the message would still be the same, why not do the same thing with with Christian Gnosticism?

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Father’s kingdom is
within you and it is outside you. If you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty; and you are the poverty

– Gospel of Thomas, pericope 3

That is totally Buddhism and totally Gnosticism. Which still fits within a Naturalistic Pantheism theology. Even moreso, if the “Father’s” kingdom is inside of us, then not only should I seek to find the True inner “me”, but I should try to get to know others as well… since we are all made up of “the same stuff”. This necessarily leads to empathy. I think I’ll coin this extension of Gnosticism the “Gospel of Empathy”, since all morality comes from empathy.

So I guess from now on I’ll call myself a “Christian Gnostic”. Hopefully, I’ll be the change that I want to see in the world. A world where knowledge is seen as a virtue instead of faith.

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Posted by on April 25, 2009 in buddhism, gnosticism, naturalistic pantheism


The Fifth Buddha

The Buddha to come, ‘the kindly one’, a principal figure in all forms of Buddhism; he is known as Mi-lo-fo in China and Miroku in Japan. Buddhists believe that a Buddha appears from time to time to maintain knowledge of the true path; Maitreya is the next future Buddha

Apparently there’s some sort of apocalyptic “fifth Buddha” that is sorta like the second coming of Jesus – except that the world doesn’t end. It’s really coincidental – I named my website “deus diapente” which is Latinesque for “fifth god”, only because my last name is Latin for “five”.

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Posted by on November 22, 2008 in buddhism, fifth buddha


The Problem of Evil

If a personal god created everything, then he’s responsible for all of the “evils” in the world as well as the “good”.

Tittha Sutta AN 3.61

Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that…
‘Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation,’
I said to them: ‘Is it true that you hold that… “Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation?”‘

Thus asked by me, they admitted, ‘Yes.’

Then I said to them, ‘Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being’s act of creation. A person is a thief… unchaste… a liar… a divisive speaker… a harsh speaker… an idle chatterer… greedy… malicious… a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being’s act of creation.’

When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], ‘This should be done. This shouldn’t be done.’ When one can’t pin down as a truth or reality what should and shouldn’t be done, one dwells bewildered and unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those priests and contemplative who hold to such teachings, such views.

Is god the fire or the one who lights the flame? If god is the fire then he’s in a constant state of battle against being extinguished. If god lights the flame then he’s also the one who extinguishes it.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.

In this, the Buddha says that our thoughts make the world. I agree with this, however, our thoughts are also created by the world leading to a paradoxical and/or symbiotic relationship. In biology, it’s stated that only 2% or less of our genetic makeup is what makes us distinctly human. I also contend that this 2% isn’t even what makes us an individual – it’s a lot less than 2% of us that is distinctly individual. We are products of our environment. Just by speaking English a bit of our individuality is absorbed by having to think and express ourselves using English. And then we’re taught society’s rules which takes away more of our individuality. This includes laws, religion, peer pressure, etc. I think the cause of suffering is this battle against the 99% of us that isn’t distinctly “us” as individuals.

This is the cause of suffering. Not just simply “desire”, but the “desire to fit in”. If it exists at all, the “real you” is buried somewhere deep inside of the 99% of all of your influences; and the only way to figure out what that 1% of you is *really* you (if it even exists) isn’t through prayer, but through knowing yourself. Probably by meditating.

“You try so hard to hide – to follow and fit in. But serving your life to the system’s shit won’t save you from your death”

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Posted by on September 10, 2008 in buddha, buddhism, problem of evil


The Middle Way

So because of my scientific-spirituality, when people asked me what religion I am, I always say “I’m a Buddhist”. Technically, Buddhism can be seen as nominally atheistic, even though there are “gods” in Buddhism, they’re more like supermen and/or advanced alien lifeforms and not anthropomorphized objects of reverence. They go through the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara) just like us.

Anyway, while describing my spirituality to people, I always talk about the need for “balance” and “non-extremism”. Christianity fails at this because it’s all about hating life/the world and seeking refuge from “bad” and trying to obsess over and revel 24/7 in “good”. My thing was that sort of mentality is just as damaging as consistently engaging in “evil” or “bad”. All things are necessary for life – like you can’t function if your world is 100% light and 0% darkness just like you can’t function if your life is 100% darkness and 0% light.

From a scientific or physics standpoint, the only way we can function in day to day life is maintaining balances – or equilibrium as it’s called in physics. When you lean on a wall, the wall also leans on you. If the equilibrium isn’t kept, either the wall you’re leaning on is going to collapse (bad) or you’re going to hurt yourself by pushing on the wall too much (bad). It’s like this in everything I see in nature – the sun is a huge ball of equilibrium which balances between gravity sucking in hydrogen and making explosions, which creates outward pressure. As soon as one of these things overtakes the other (gravity or pressure) the sun will cease to exist as it is. Even too much water is bad for you; people can die from water poisoning.

In Buddhism, apparently the Buddha (before he became “The” Buddha) tried overdoing the “good” in the Christian paradigm – fasting, exposure to pain, celibacy, etc. – and realized that this amounts to nothing more than self-hatred and self-mortification. You can’t grow spiritually as a person if you hate yourself. Just like you can’t physically grow if you deny yourself valuable nutrients. So, he discovered the Middle Way, which is a philosophy of non-extremism. A middle way between the extremes of self-gratification and self-mortification.

Balance. Equilibrium. The Middle Way.

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Posted by on September 4, 2008 in buddhism, Christianity, the middle way