“Waking Up” by Sam Harris

Sam Harris, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” (2014).

1. I am quite encouraged by the fact that many people are beginning to see through something that is contrary to the basic human instincts: That it is possible to find a different and more permanent form of happiness that is not related to material things.

  • Right at the start of the book, when he talks about his first “meditation retreat” at the age of 16 under harsh conditions in wilderness, the author says he was puzzled by the positive reaction of the older people in the group, “...How could someone’s happiness increase when all the material sources of pleasure and distraction had been removed?” (p.2).
  • But now with many years of experience in meditation and studies on human nature as a neuroscientist, he can understand it: “..Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave ride to world’s religions. Despite the painful results of my first few days alone in the mountains of Colorado, I later studied with a wide range of monks, lamas, yogis, and other contemplatives, some of whom had lived for decades in seclusion doing nothing but meditating. In the process, I spent two years on silent retreat myself (in increments of one week to three months), practicing various techniques of meditation for twelve to eighteen hours a day” (pp. 13-14).

2. Harris, like many others, has found that there is something about human life that cannot be explained away just in terms of the workings of the material world, but cannot quite pinpoint to the source of that “something extra”.

  • Modern science has obliterated the concept of a “divine influence” as has been put forth by various religions, as Harris explains. So I was quite interested to see what his conclusion would be as to the “source of this extra something”.

3. On p.8, he makes a very valid statement: “Spirituality must be distinguished from religion – because of people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences….Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience – self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light – constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work”. (my highlighting).

  • This is exactly what I have been trying to emphasize at this website.
  • In the next very paragraph, he says what he found that deeper principle to be: “That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion” (p. 9). This is probably the “no-self” theory that is erroneously presented as Buddha’s concept of “anatta”; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • However, on that same page, he also summarizes most of my own conclusions about religions in general, including “Buddhism” the way as it is practiced by most in both Theravada and Mahāyāna sects.

4. I am just going to quote the relevant sentences from pp. 9-10: “I am often asked what will replace religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines….But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people will imagine that religion is the true repository of their virtues. To change this we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free as the best science already is”.

  • And through the rest of the book he does go through that process. I agree with most of it, except of course that while “Buddhism” may be a religion, Buddha Dhamma is certainly not (if religion is defined as one providing salvation via following set rituals or having blind faith in an entity or a supreme being).

5. The key to Mr. Harris not understanding of Buddha Dhamma becomes apparent on p. 28: “We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts. In fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world’s largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule. Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery. Nevertheless, there is something to the notion of uniquely Eastern wisdom, and most of it has been concentrated in or derived from the tradition of Buddhism”.

  • The problem here is that Mr. Harris has not had exposure to Buddha Dhamma, the “non-religious” original teachings.
  • The focus of Buddha Dhamma, as delivered by the Buddha, was not on enhancing the mundane life and on building a better society. It was focused on the fact that it is in fact a “waste of time” to try to build large cities, develop technology, and in general to spend too much time on “making things better for this life”, because this life is only a brief stop-over in a much longer journey.

6. If one really understood the key message of the Buddha, one would see that this life is too short to be “wasted” on such things. This is due to three key foundational aspects of Buddha Dhamma:

  • Human life, even though wrought with some suffering, is the best in all of 31 realms of this world for attaining Nibbāna; see, the description of the wider world of 31 realms in, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma”.
  • In the process of rebirth we spend only a tiny amount of time in this life of about 100 years; see, “Evidence for Rebirth“.
  • And immersing in mundane sense pleasures becomes only a hindrance to attain the “true and permanent happiness” of Nibbāna; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha”, and “Niramisa Sukha?”.
  • Of course, especially the Mahāyāna version of “Buddhism”, or even the Theravada version, has veered away from this key message of the Buddha.

7. Yet, I must hasten to point out two additional points:

  • The Buddha stated that not everyone is able to comprehend this key message. Thus, for those who did not wish to pursue Nibbāna, and asked for advice on how to live a moral and fulfilling family life while enjoying sensual pleasures, he did provide advice. In Chapter IV of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s popular book, “In the Buddha’s Words” (2005), such advice from different sutta have been extracted to one place; this book also has other categories separated out like good rebirths, mind etc.
  • The Buddha never tried to change or influence the political systems that were in place, even though he praised the democratic system that was in place in the small autonomous region of Vajji , which was really a republic similar to the one we have now in the United States. Other than openly criticizing the caste system, he stayed away from politics.

8. I am impressed that Mr. Harris has been able to catch at least a glimmer of the uniqueness in Buddha Dhamma despite the fact that he has not been exposed to the true teachings of the Buddha: “Buddhism in particular possesses a literature on the nature of the mind that has no peer in Western religion or Western science. Some of these teachings are cluttered with metaphysical assumptions that should provoke our doubts, but many aren’t. And when engaged as a set of hypotheses by which to investigate the mind and deepen one’s ethical life, Buddhism can be an entirely rational enterprise” (p. 29).

  • The author is highly impressed with the Buddhist “vipassana” meditation. However, what he describes in just breath meditation or “samatha meditation”; see, “Bhavana (Meditation)”.

9. And he has the concept of Enlightenment (Nibbāna) all wrong (this says a lot about the Mahāyāna “Buddhism” that he has been exposed to): “...the state of “full enlightenment” – is generally described as “omniscient”. Just what this means is open to a fair bit of caviling. But however narrowly defined, the claim is absurd” (p. 43).

  • To understand the concept of Nibbāna, one must understand the world view of the Buddha as described in the above mentioned posts, and then one needs to read other posts at this site on describing Nibbāna (just do a search with the key word Nibbāna at the top right box on Keyword Search).

10. Interestingly, there is no mention at all about purifying the mind of defilements, which is key to true Buddhist meditation; see, “The Importance of Purifying the Mind“.

  • I do not blame the author of course, but it is sad to see how far “Buddhism” has veered off from the original message of the Buddha.
  • It is these three root causes greed, hate, and ignorance (and the counterparts of non-greed, non-hate, and wisdom) that clarifies the basis of morality that he has puzzled over in two other books, “The Moral Landscape” (2011) and “Free Will” (2012).
  • As Mr. Harris correctly points out in “The Moral Landscape“, ‘there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality“.  There is no “Buddhist morality” either. Morality is universal and comes out naturally on the basis of benevolence, compassion, and wisdom having precedence over greed, hate, and ignorance; see, “Origin of Morality (and Immorality) in Buddhism“.

11. Chapter 2 is on consciousness. The author has a good introduction and his own thinking about consciousness may be expressed here: “I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have suggested that perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms” (p. 57).

  • Consciousness has also been fully explained by the Buddha. Consciousness is NOT an emergent property, it is a fundamental entity. I have several introductory posts on consciousness at the site; see, “What is Consciousness?” and follow-up posts.
  • I hope those who are interested would read the comprehensive description of the mind provided by the Buddha in the Abhidhamma section of this site, which may not be ready for an comprehensive analysis for several more months. But there are a few introductory posts there.

12. The rest of the book is about the author’s experience with trying out different types of meditations. It is too bad that he was not exposed to real Buddhist meditation. On the other hand, even in countries where the Theravada Buddhism is practiced, it is the breath meditation that is widely taught.

  • Overall, I am impressed by the fact that even with the minimum exposure Mr. Harris had to Buddha Dhamma, he has been able to see there “there is something hidden there”.  I am glad to say that the Buddha did teach a much more deeper doctrine, and I am sure he and many others in the West will be enthusiastic about finding the true message of the Buddha.
  • The author knows that as an atheist, he was treading into unknown territory in talking about spiritual experiences: “…….many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available” (p.11).
  • However, once one understands the true message of the Buddha, one can clearly see that there is nothing in his doctrine that goes against the beliefs and convictions of most atheists; Buddha Dhamma describes the Nature’s laws at a fundamental level.
  • The only difference between science and Buddha Dhamma is that science assumes that mind phenomena can be derived from material phenomena, while in Buddha Dhamma mind is at the forefront; see, “Philosophy of the Mind“.

13. I encourage those who are interested to read the book because the author has not only contemplated deeply about the subjects of morality, questions on existence, world religions, etc, but also has tried to experience different meditation techniques. I only wish he had been exposed to the true teachings of the Buddha, so that he could perhaps make more stronger statements about the value of the Buddha Dhamma in addition to finding much more benefits for himself.

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