Saturday, 16 August 2014

'Autoerotic Spirituality' - The Roman Catholic Understanding of Buddhism and Masturbation




Updated August 2014
 

'Autoerotic spirituality' is how Pope Benedict described Buddhism, according to a recent article by Catholic writer George Neumayr.

'Autoerotic' is Vatican terminology for masturbation, consequently the Pope is accusing Buddhists of self-grasping.  Autoeroticism (otherwise known as 'Onanism' or 'self-abuse') is one of the most heinous sins in Catholicism, which is why Catholic priests have traditionally employed altar boys to give them hand and mouth jobs so they don't have to touch themselves sexually and risk an eternity in hell.


(Contrast this Papal confrontationalism with the ecumenical attitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that it would be OK for Prince George, the future leader of the Church of England, to become a Buddhist.)




Getting a Grip on Buddhism
The Catholic church seems to be giving Buddhism a hard time (if you'll pardon the expression), with two anti-Buddhist critiques being published by prominent Catholic intellectuals in recent weeks.

As well as the Pope's description of Buddhists as compulsive masturbators, George Neumayr's article describes Buddhism as 'one of the world’s largest half-baked religions', 'absurd and dangerous', 'a more cushy false religion than Islam', and 'tends to make people indifferent, not holy'.   None of these allegations are supported by any factual evidence or reasoned arguments, and there is little logical progression in his narrative beyond the Pope's jacking-off jibe.
 

Neumayr then goes on to link Buddhism with terrorism, in the person of Aaron Alexis, a paranoid schizophrenic who attempted to control his mental illness by Buddhist meditation, but eventually went postal in the Washington Navy Yard   

In terms of a more detailed critique of Buddhist philosophy, Mr Neumayr contends that  'As a non-judgmental, navel-gazing religion, it asks little of its adherents and accommodates all sorts of wild contradictions, producing not a holy fear of God but sometimes just emboldened self-indulgence and a frantic search for fulfillment through willy-nilly negation'.


Dr Regis Martin's critical analysis of Buddhism.
The second and more academic article is by a leading Catholic theologian, Dr Regis Martin, professor of theology at the prestigious Franciscan University of Steubenville.
 

Professor Martin uses a similar line of argument to George Neumayr, consisting of unsupported allegations and attempts to link Buddhism to terrorism.

The first few paragraphs of the article are a discussion of how the Buddha never opened his eyes (however there's no historical evidence for this assertion). This is followed by a lament about the lack of Catholic intellectual rigor in the current generation of students.  


Professor Martin then goes on to construct his logical case against Buddhism by using ad hominem reasoning, starting with calling the Buddha 'a plump fatuous looking fellow, sitting cross-legged on the floor with eyes closed upon the world', and Buddhists as '...what’s wrong with these people?  How does one set about disabusing such folk of nothingness, nada?  Not only has their pilot light gone out, which would be deplorable enough, but they actually seem to prefer wandering about in the darkness.  Indeed, the darkness is the light.  Such sublime imbecility is no easy matter to overcome.'
 

Like George Neumayr, Regis Martin also tries to link Buddhist meditation with terrorism, in this case meditation on emptiness: 'In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, when the need to know why was on everyone’s mind, I remember reading about one of the teachers who had tried to tutor the young man, the student-turned-killer, but gave up because, as she put it, there was such an emptiness she felt whenever he came into the room.'

Dr Martin's understanding of Buddhist philosophy is summed up by his conclusion: 'And what does the Buddha give?  Nothingness.' 



Why Christians misunderstand Buddhism.
The critiques of Buddhism by these two leading Catholic scholars are unfortunately typical of many Christian attempts to understand Buddhist philosophy. They seem to have particular problems with the concept of emptiness, equating it with nothingness, as we have seen with Regis Martin's concluding statement.

It's not that there's anything difficult about Buddhist philosophy, it's just that it's very different from traditional Western philosophy.  But once the basis of the difference is understood, everything should become clearer.


Process versus Substantialist Philosophy
One of the main difficulties many Christians have with understanding Buddhist philosophy is that they don't realise that Buddhism is a 'process philosophy', which is radically unlike most Western philosophical systems. The mainstream Western philosophical tradition has been overwhelmingly 'substantialist' until the 20th century, and in most academic philosophy departments substantialist thinking (the opposite of process thinking) still dominates.

Buddhism is a process philosophy, in that it holds that the ultimate nature of reality is change and flux, with all functioning things being impermanent, and having no static intrinsic nature.  Everything interacts with something else, and whenever it causes a change it is itself changed.  All functioning entities are composite, and nothing at all exists independently in splendid isolation.

In contrast, from the time of the ancient Greeks until very recently, Western philosophy has been dominated by unexamined 'substantialist' presuppositions, which assume that there is some permanent stable basis for reality, including fundamental self-established entities, and unchanging 'essences' from which things (such as chariots and roses) take their form.

Buddhism states that no such self-established entities are to be found, and modern science tends to confirm this, in that there are no permanent unchanging substances or particles at the foundations of reality.   


Whether we look at the largest scales or the smallest, everything seems part of a process, and everything is impermanent.  Existence is impermanence in slow motion, and all composite things eventually disintegrate.  Modern science also casts doubt on the existence of essential natures, such as those that specify the characteristics of species.


The Scientific case for Process Philosophy
Process philosophy is counterintuitive, because the human perceptual system has evolved to present substantialist delusions to the mind.  However, a careful examination of modern physics will show that the universe and everything in it are indeed processes. 

At the topmost level, the universe as a whole is a process of expansion and cooling, with matter being constantly recombined, transmuted and recycled by stellar subprocesses.

At the bottommost level, fundamental particles
, which in classical physics were once thought of as little pieces of matter, are now regarded as processes consisting of continuously evolving and changing wavefunctions.  These processes give the appearance of discrete and localized particles only at the moment they are observed. 

So particles are forever changing, and lack any inherent existence independent of the act of observation.    Consequently, everything composed of particles is also impermanent and continually changing, and no static, stable basis for its existence can be found.


In the late nineteenth century, the theory of evolution made processes rather than static species the fundamental realities of biology. A similar transformation of thinking was to affect physics with the negative result of the Michelson–Morley experiment.  

Until the nineteenth century, it was thought that all waves must propagate through matter. In other words, processes such as sound and water waves needed some substance to support their existence.   It was therefore assumed that space was filled with a 'luminiferous aether' through which electromagnetic waves such as light, heat, radio waves, X-rays etc propagated like ripples on a pond.  But the Michelson–Morley experiment demonstrated that this aether did not exist, and thus electromagnetic waves were standalone processes with no supporting substance.

Therefore, at a very generalized level, since the nineteenth century the scientific view of the world has converged with the Buddhist view.  The underlying basis of reality is change, process and impermanence.
  In the transition from classical to modern physics, atomic theory has changed from traditional substantialism, to being in agreement with the Buddhist 'process' view of reality.


The logical fallacy of regarding things and substances as the building blocks of reality is known as 'substance metaphysics' or reification.



Mind and Soul in Buddhism - Extinction or Purification?
The aspect of Buddhist philosophy and psychology that most perplexes Catholics is the status of the mind and soul in Buddhism.

Professor Martin demonstrates this confusion is his comment on nirvana:
'Why would any sane person want nirvana anyway?  I mean, look at the etymology of the word: it means being extinguished, vaporized, the sheer evacuation of existence.  From the Sanskrit verb nirva, which is the act of being blown out like a candle, the word implies a state of complete cessation, of no longer being there, a condition of absence, vacancy.  How can this be bliss? '


And in a later article he totally misunderstands Buddhist psychology:

'And if they still persist in the blindness of their belief that the only way to escape suffering is to extinguish desire, and thereby embrace the nothingness of nirvana, are we not obliged to point out the sheer suicide of the self such madness invites?'  
 
In fact, nirvana refers to the blowing out of the fires of attachment, hatred and delusion, not the total cessation of consciousness.  The Buddhist doesn't seek to extinguish all desire, but only those desires for ephemeral worldly things which can ultimately never be satisfied, and which are the cause of suffering.  


When a Buddhist takes the Bodhisattva vow, she promises to increase her desire to liberate all sentient beings, both human and animal from suffering. This is the 'Superior Intention' - the desire that is not extinguished by Buddhist practice, but burns all the brighter as the Bodhisattva progresses along her path.     

"Desire is a natural part of life that provides the motivating force for our achievements,” says Dr. Arthur Zajonc, Mind and Life’s president.  “Our highest aspirations are animated by desire. Yet, when desire becomes obsession or craving, we cross over into the territory of suffering. What before was an aid to accomplishment can devolve into a source of personal anguish and social violence."

In Catholic theology the soul is believed to be the seat of consciousness that only humans but no other animals possess.   Animals are automata put on earth by God to be used by humans. They are machine-like entities with no consciousness in the human sense, and their minds cease at death.  The difference between humans and animals is absolute, and there is no continuity.

This discontinuous view of humans and animals has obvious problems in terms of evolution.  When and how did God equip the ape-men (and ape-women) with souls?   Did it happen all at once, so every living ape-person from the youngest to the eldest was equipped with a soul on one particular day in the distant past; or were all ape-infants born after a certain date given souls, so during the transition period  soulful ape-kids would be parented by soulless adults?


Physical and Non-physical processes
Buddhism doesn't have these problems, because it doesn't regard the soul as a 'thing' but as a process. (Buddhist philosophers tend to avoid the word 'soul' because of its reifying connotations, and use the terms 'mindstream' or 'mental continuum'  instead, to denote that the mind is a process, albeit a non-physical one.)

The great Buddhist philosopher Alan Turing established a clear demarcation between physical processes (including chemical and biological processes)  and cognitive processes (including qualia and intentionality).  Those processes that can be modelled, predicted and understood in terms of Turing machines (or algorithms) are physical. Those that cannot in principle be thus modelled are cognitive or 'mental'.   


The interface between these two types of process is very much a mystery, and is known by modern Buddhist philosophers as the Hard Problem, (not to be confused with the hard problem that the Pope had in mind with his comments on Buddhists bashing the bishops, or when Buddhists hold their own in debates with Catholics... anyhow, enough of these standing jokes,  I really must get a grip on myself... 






Read more at Buddhist Philosophy






1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you are a very intolerant person. It's the 3rd article I read on your blog, and always the anti-christian obsession. The picture you've posted with the masturbation threat is photoshoped (by you?), could you include, if you are honnest, that is a fake to mock christians?