A discussion of The Book of Atheist Spirituality By Arthur Wells

Posting this on behalf of Arthur, who had trouble signing in,,,, we’re still trying to sort out some teething problems.

A discussion of The Book of Atheist Spirituality: An Elegant Argument for Spirituality Without God, by Andre Comte Sponville (2006, tr from the French in 2007, published by Bantam Press, London).

Is Buddhism atheist? I don’t think we can confidently say so, because no vocabulary in our Western religious and philosophical traditions accurately characterises Buddhism, and especially Zen. Not even the language of monotheistic mysticism quite hits the mark. Do we therefore give up trying to discuss Buddhism in relation to Western ideas? I hope not. This book, although it barely glances at Buddhism, advances the discussion in many helpful ways. It is immensely fresh and lively, and friends to whom I have passed it are glad to have read it.

Why do I say that Zen Buddhism in particular has no true parallel in Western thought? Because Zen is the realisation of the non-dual nature of reality. Strange to say, such radical non-dualism is not cultivated in any Western system of thought or religious practice. Non-dualism does appear at times in Western thought, mainly as the polarised positions of Idealism and Materialism. No middle ground that would fit the Zen position has been well worked over in Western philosophy, although mystical non-dualism has a rich presence in Western literature, for example in the poetry of Wordsworth and Blake.

How is Zen radically non-dualist? Take Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen,” for example.  At the climax of the poem he says “Singing and dancing are the voice of the law…Nirvana is right here, before our eyes, this very place is the Lotus Land, this very body the Buddha.” This is clearly Hakuin’s expression of his religious ecstasy, but the content is completely of this world. No hidden world or level of reality is implied. This is the hallmark of Zen. Nothing in Zen is viewed as more real or valuable than that which is vividly apparent through our senses: “Great mystery, wonderful powers of mind, chopping wood and drawing water!” Or, as Ross Bolleter Roshi is fond of saying, “Nothing is more profound than breakfast!”

As a brief aside here, Zen is significantly different even from its closest relative in Eastern thought, Advaita Vedanta, because Vedanta maintains that the physical universe is illusory (the only reality being the spiritual substrate, Brahman, which from the Buddhist point of view is an example of the heresy of Eternalism). Hegelians wouldn’t have much trouble with that, but they would with Zen, because Zen, as Hee-Jin Kim says, is “mystical realism,” (the term is in the title of Kim’s book on Dogen). Here is the core of the problem – Kim has put together two terms that don’t cohabit in Western thought, because Western thought is still deeply mired in the dualisms of God and the world, spirit and matter, heaven and earth. I can find only a few contemporary scientists who in the way they think and write are getting close to the non-dualism of Zen.

I have said enough to make it clear that the title of this book is deliberately provocative. Comte-Sponville’s book, interestingly, appeared in the same year, 2006, as The God Delusion by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by the political writer Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking the Spell by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. These authors focussed on attacking Christian, Jewish and Islamic monotheism, and along with Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, they have been called “The Four Horsemen” (of a modern apocalypse!). Sooner or later we were bound to wonder what all of this means for Buddhism, and to ask ourselves more seriously than before whether Buddhism is a religion anyway, and what distinguishes religion from psychology or a philosophy of life, and does it matter?

Anthropologists think of religion as the attribution of intention to puzzling events, that is to say, if someone gets sick, it is understood to be because a witch or sorcerer has cast an evil spell over the person, or if someone’s crops don’t grow they are being punished for their sins. Religion, in anthropological terms, is seeking to win the favour and avoid the wrath of intelligent, invisible beings or forces believed to be behind what we cannot control, such as the weather, sickness and death, fertility and fortunes in war. Belief in gods, priesthoods, rituals and prayers, all developed because human beings wanted to remain healthy, succeed in hunting or agriculture, gain wealth, have abundant offspring, prevent natural disasters, win battles, and have a happy afterlife.

In that case, are classical Buddhism and Zen examples of religion? Obviously not, if importuning and manipulating invisible powers is the aim. But are there important kinds of religion that do not fit this anthropological description? What about the term “spirituality”? The term is growing in popularity, at the expense of the word “religion.” But if you don’t believe in invisible spirit beings operating behind the scenes, why use the term at all? (I smile when I remember that Aldous Huxley disparagingly called the belief in spirits “the gibber and squeak theory of immortality.”) To those of us who like precision in language, the term “spirituality” is annoying, dualistic in its implications and redundant.

Andre Comte-Sponville has chosen to capitalise on the current positive status of the word, but what is “atheist” spirituality? His title is a tease. Formerly a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, he wrote A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues which was an international bestseller. He says that although adhering to no religion, he feels closest to Buddhism. But he poses the question, “Was the original Buddhism a religion?” He continues:

“I’m not certain that it was. Buddha asserted the existence of no deity, and it is doubtful that the words ‘sacred,’ ‘supernatural,’ or ‘transcendent’ would have meant much to him, or to his least superstitious followers. Yet it is clear that, historically speaking, Buddhism became a religion—with its temples, dogmas, rites and prayers, its sacred and purportedly supernatural objects. Much the same thing is true of Taoism and Confucianism. Such wisdom at the outset!  So many superstitions over the centuries! Almost everywhere the need to believe seems to win out…”

This is very much to the point. Buddhism was atypical of religion at the outset, but human nature being what it is, it rapidly became a religion. There is an inexorable pressure to deify any important or prophetic historical figure, Jesus being the outstanding example. What drives this pressure? Think of the benefits of deification! As soon as we have deified the person we can ask them for their divine and powerful assistance. This is why it so quickly came about that, instead of regarding the Buddha as an awakened person to emulate, people began worshipping him. Other mythical beings such as previous Buddhas and non-historical Bodhisattvas were likewise elevated to godlike status, and people sought assistance from them for the difficulties in this life and reassurance of a better rebirth, quickly turning Buddhism into just another example of “generic” religion. Such religions spring up independently all over the world, throughout human history, because the biggest things that happen to us are beyond our control. We imagine someone must be in control of them, and are willing to go to great lengths to secure the help of these imagined beings.

Here is Comte-Sponville on death, the fear of which is of course the mainspring of generic religion:

“Atheists accept our mortality as best we can and try to get used to the idea of nothingness—death will take everything away with it, including the fear it instils in us.  But what about the death of loved ones?  Sometimes there is a faint sense of relief that the person is no longer suffering, but it takes a long time for our own pain at losing a person we care about most to attenuate and become tolerable.  Gradually, however, the idea of the person one has lost evolves from gaping wound to piercing nostalgia, to moving memory, to gratitude, and almost to happiness…At first, you thought, ‘How dreadful that (s)he is no longer here!’  But as the years go by you start thinking, ‘How wonderful that (s)he lived at all, and that we met and loved each other.’  That is the mourning process.  It takes time and memory, acceptance and fidelity…But at the wrenching moment of death how we envy those who do believe! … Religion also provides at the time of death a sorely needed ritual, a ceremony, a sort of ultimate courtesy which helps us to confront and integrate death…to humanise it, to civilise it.  A human being can’t be buried like an animal or burned like a log.  Ritual acknowledges and confirms the difference.  Funerals fulfil for death the same purpose as marriage does for love and sexuality….We now have secular funerals and weddings, but most people prefer to bring in religion at the time of death—the power of religion at such times is neither more nor less than our own powerlessness in the face of the void.  If necessary we could do without hope for ourselves, but faced with the unbearable loss of a loved one most people still turn to religion for rituals that comfort.”

The most compelling part of Comte Sponville’s book, and the most relevant to this discussion, is where he describes his own mystical experience, as follows:

“I was about 25, and was walking in a forest near the Franco-Belgian border with a group of my friends. Gradually our laughter faded and the conversation died down.  Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…. My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest (branches snapping, an occasional animal call, our own muffled steps) only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden . . . What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this.  A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object (no object other than everything, no subject other than itself). Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight…. It was as if a perfect chord, once played, had been infinitely prolonged, and that chord was the world… I can scarcely even say that I was walking –the walk was there, and the forest, and the trees, and our group of friends…. The ego had vanished: no more separation or representation, only the silent presentation of everything. No more value judgments; only reality. No more time; only the present. No more frustration, hatred, anger, fear or anxiety; only joy and peace. No more make-believe, illusions, lies; only the truth, which I did not contain but which contained me. It may have lasted only a few seconds. I felt at once stunned and reconciled, stunned and calmer than I’d ever felt before. I had a sense of detachment, freedom and necessity, as if the universe had been restored to itself at long last….There was no faith, no hope, no sense of promise. There was only everything—the beauty, truth and presence of everything. This was enough. It was far more than enough! … Words returned, and thought, and the ego, and separation. But it didn’t matter; the universe was still there and I was there with it, or within it. How can you fall out of the All? ”  (pp.155-158).

This is completely recognisable from the standpoint of Zen. Such experiences as this are entirely natural to human beings. Many people who are not religious at all have spontaneous experiences like this in which they become caught up in a profound and carefree joy and a feeling of belonging in the universe. (The great value of meditation practices is that they make such experiences even more normal and regularly available). Comte-Sponville says his experience conveyed to him a strong feeling that “this moment of being itself already is eternity”. This too is a feature of Zen experience, as most longtime Zen practitioners will personally attest. These characteristics are found throughout the literature of Zen, but are not confined to Zen — people have had this sort of experience on every continent, throughout every stage of human history. Having the experience does not depend on any specific kind of religious belief or disbelief.

The world seen from this vantage point is “why-less.” The mind only wants to remain still, to maintain silence in the face of mystery, so as not to lose the joy of this rapt attention. The French novelist Albert Camus called this kind of experience “a wedding with the world.”  In his novel The Stranger the hero is waiting for his execution the next morning.  He says:

“The exquisite peace of this sleepy summer flowed into me like a tide … Emptied of hope, as I stood there staring at the night sky filled with signs and stars, I opened myself up to the tender indifference of the universe for the first time.  Feeling it so like myself, so fraternal at long last, I realised that I had been happy, and still was.”  In another book, The Right Side and the Wrong Side, Camus wrote: “ When am I more true than when I am the world?  I am fulfilled even before I can long for anything.  Eternity is here, and I was hoping for it in the future!  What I wish for now is no longer to be happy, but only to be aware.”

What Comte-Sponville’s book leaves me with is a conviction that Zen Buddhism will never be a popular religion, precisely because it eschews the “generic” religious solution of elevating the Buddha into a god. Instead, Zen remains close to original Buddhism with its focus on how to deal with impermanence and suffering. Just as the Buddha himself taught, the Zen way is to learn how to be at peace with the moment-by-moment nature of experience. Enlightenment in Zen isn’t a matter of attaining supernatural knowledge or powers, or gaining the favour of supernatural beings or forces, but of stripping away illusions.

When we cultivate a still and calm mind, like a still lake that reflects its surroundings with fidelity, we realise that the answer to impermanence is to experience a falling away of self-centred concern, until we are able to enter fully each moment of being without “picking and choosing.” Nothing we see or touch, from the Zen standpoint, fails to convey the vastness that is our true nature. Since each of us, by virtue of our receptive consciousness, is already this entire universe that pours into us through our senses, Zen sets little store by traditional ideas of reincarnation or rebirth.

Accordingly, the Buddha, and almost all of the old Zen masters, denied knowing what happens after death. That was never the point of Buddhism until it became a religion focussed on gaining merit towards better rebirths. Zen sits firmly outside the accoutrements of such a religion, and has far greater kinship with contemporary atheists like Comte-Sponville. Yet still I am uneasy and unconvinced that Buddhism is atheistic. To me, non-dualism feels profoundly religious. I don’t accept that the terms with which we think about this should be dictated by Western monotheistic notions.


About Armin

Hermit, free-lance monk, laughing pessimist, hopeless optimist, standing upright after being bowled over too often, crawling when he should fly and flying without a pilot's licence. Clinging to bushes and grasses in his free time.
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One Response to A discussion of The Book of Atheist Spirituality By Arthur Wells

  1. Rodgers Adams says:

    Is it possible that “spirit and matter” represent different things, and are, in that sense, dualistic? What if “matter” refers to the physical world—to that which is controlled by the laws of physics? What if “spirit” refers to that which is not controlled by the laws of physics—that which cannot be observed or measured in the laboratory? It is my understanding that science (the realm of “matter”) has found a physical mechanism behind some human experiences, such as memory and certain emotions. So, to me, the key question is: When a human has a mystical experience (or even makes a decision to have eggs rather than waffles for breakfast), is the sense of encountering the All (and the sense of having a personal choice among true options) just an illusion created by the physical body? Perhaps this possibility does away with the problem of dualism, but it raises the possibility that Zen is no more than a way to create fantastic illusions, not unlike the way a piece of chocolate causes the physical body to trigger an experience of momentary pleasure? On the other hand, true meaning for human life and human choice may come only from a dualism that posits a reality that exists in harmony with the physical world but is outside the control of physical law. That is the basis for a personal morality that extends beyond cultural rules.

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