Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reflections on Materialism, Karma, and Food (part 2)

     Instead of bashing Scientism systematically, as I've already attempted to do elsewhere, I will focus on a peculiar form of scientific materialism that is particularly prevalent in the West, even among good New Age persons who firmly believe in the healing powers of mantra and didgeridoo vibrations and who seek spiritual guidance from card readings and channeled utterances of the Archangel Metatron. In fact this type of materialism seems particularly prevalent in Western Dharma circles of all sorts. I am referring to what may be called "health materialism." 
     When I lived in Burma full-time and was hoping to return to the USA, I thought that in America I'd be eating Good Food (=Western Food) again. No more white rice with every meal, no more smelly bamboo shoots, no more plain boiled weeds, no more pale green eggplant glop (to say nothing of lizard tails, frog eggs, pig spleen, and fried insects). I'd eat bread! Cheese! Italian pasta! Ice cream! Guacamole! But upon returning to the West, I discovered that many Westerners who are inclined to feed monks are also strangely inclined to eat food just as weird, gross, and/or flavorless as the food Burmese villagers eat. While I was out of the country, American people started eating food I'd never heard of before, like quinua, chia seeds, and goji berries. Also they started eating food that I had heard of, but hadn't acknowledged as food, like flaxseed and kale—lots and lots of kale. Lots of it. Once I discussed this phenomenon with a Western monk I knew who had also spent time in the West recently; and he mentioned that while he was over there a lady invited him to a meal of spaghetti, which he accepted readily, since, like most Westerners, he likes spaghetti. But when it was served to him, he found that the "spaghetti" contained no actual pasta at all, but rather some kind of shredded squash. (Why, it's enough to make a tomcat talk French grammar.)
     The Western Dharma movement has progressed hand in hand not only with environmentalism, but with "healthfoodism" also. Most of these folks do not go so far as to be strict vegetarians, vegetarianism apparently being too inconvenient for most post-modern Americans to tolerate, although they prefer their hamburgers to be free-range and organic. Eggs, although uncontroversially considered to be deadly poison by healthfoodists 25 years ago, are now considered to be quite safe—it's the gluten in the toast that's the enemy now. Wheat, a primary staple for Western humankind for many centuries, now leads to gluten poisoning and "wheat belly." People may be very open-minded, in an abstract, philosophical way, about the power of mind in determining our reality, but they draw the line at food. Bread and cheese are junk food, non-organic vegetables can kill you, and steamed (or better yet, raw) kale is a kind of panacea. Sometimes I would amuse myself by pointing out to the new devotees of kale that it is laced with toxic oxalic acid. 
     This health materialism applies not only to food. Now people are afraid to drink from plastic water bottles for fear of "off-gassing." They carry bottles of hand sanitizer around wherever they go, for fear of invisible microbes. At one of the most famous meditation centers in America, incense and candles have reportedly been banned from the altars because people are so freaked out about breathing potentially carcinogenic fumes. A new enlightened strategy for health that I heard about in Bellingham was "pulling," in which one sits for several minutes every day with a mouth full of oil. Not only New Age followers, but also hard-headed, middle aged Vipassana meditators follow along with this materialistic stepsister of American spirituality.
     A typical example of the situation arose in 2012, when I advertised the upcoming second annual forest fast. One of the only official rules of the fast was that our only nutriment would be water from the White Chuck River (a relatively pristine river in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington state), filtering it, if at all, with nothing more than a piece of cloth—so in other words, technologically sophisticated water purification systems were forbidden. Almost immediately after posting the advertisement on the local Vipassana society's list serve, I began receiving complaints from people, most of whom had no intention of going on the fast anyway, requesting that the No Water Filters rule be revoked, and warning me of the dangers of giardiasis. The water of the White Chuck River is probably cleaner than that coming out of the pipes in town, but no matter: if it is not scientifically guaranteed to be safe, then it is unknown, unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and frightening. I tried to explain that if you look after Dharma, Dharma looks after you; and that if you have more faith in high-tech water filters than you have in Dharma, then something like the forest fast isn't for you anyway; but even teachers at the local Dharma Hall just couldn't see it that way. My attitude may have been viewed as fanatical, or just as unrealistically simple-minded. I refused to change the rule though; and after three annual forest fasts at the same river, nobody had any health complaints from drinking clean mountain water. I didn't even filter mine through a cloth.
     People in the West have been so thoroughly conditioned by Scientism, and their faith in materialism is so deep, that they do not recognize it as faith—they see it as simple truth, much in the same way that medieval Europeans considered their Catholic world view to be just plain, obvious Reality. Even most Westerners who consider themselves to be Buddhists have much, much more faith in materialism than in Dharma, and thus accept the concept of Karma in a lukewarm, confused way without looking at it too closely, or else they don't accept it at all beyond what is clearly compatible with scientistic dogma. Yet Buddhists who don't accept Kiriya-vāda, the doctrine of karma and karmic retribution, are rather like Christians who don't believe in God. Thus we have in the West a situation in which most "Buddhists" are really devout followers of Scientism with a smidgen of Buddhism added as flavoring, or as a relaxing hobby. 
     These good people (and I know they are good people) may insist that the existence of physical matter is a plain fact, and that scientific evidence is a juggernaut that it is foolish or stupid to resist. Even enlightened beings like Gotama Buddha were culture-bound products of societies that just didn't know the scientific truth. Obviously, some foods (for example) are more conducive to good health than others. Smoking tobacco clearly increases the likelihood of lung cancer and emphysema. There have been a few glitches in the system, like the completely uncontroversial knowledge 25 years ago, backed up by plenty of scientific experimentation and verification, that one's lifespan would be increased by an average of x number of years if one simply stopped eating eggs; but such snafus are trivial. Food materialism simply cannot be argued with, not even by New Age people, aside from a few breatharians. 
     Even so, I can still argue. I offer as a hypothesis for consideration another way of looking at what does and does not cause good health, which is much more spiritually-oriented than materialism, and takes karma into account much more comprehensively. It is based on the idea that we are literally creating our own versions of reality, that this world is a dream.
     First of all, it should be pointed out that we are imprisoned by our beliefs. Whatever we believe, especially if it is believed deep down, with profound faith, and is furthermore reinforced by the beliefs of practically everyone around us, becomes our reality, whether we like it or not. There are some, like the Christian Scientists to some degree, and also a multidimensional entity called Seth who allegedly was channeled through Jane Roberts during the early 1970's, who declare that in this world we all have a kind of subconscious, telepathic agreement with everyone else on certain rules, on a certain degree of law and order necessary for our stable, shared samsara to exist. (Even without the telepathy, this stability could be explained by something along the lines of, but more metaphysically potent than, Jung's collective unconscious.) The habitual, automatic, subconscious nature of these beliefs indicates that they are karmic. And karma, according to Theravada Buddhist philosophy at least, determines everything that we sense in our world, either pleasant or unpleasant. It is a manifestation of habitual beliefs coming from deep within our psyche. This idea serves as a kind of foundation, though, and isn't the main idea I'm getting at.
     The main idea is that, in any stable universe, positive and negative must remain in balance. A mind stuck in samsara is such a stable universe—not absolutely stable, obviously, but stable enough to persist over time. Thus pleasure and displeasure tend to balance out in the long run. So if we derive great pleasure from something, it eventually comes back to bite us, with that bite manifesting itself within the context of the underlying belief system. It is proverbial that what we love most is what hurts us most; and in Buddhism it is said that whatever a man delights in, that is what Mara, "The Killer," catches him with. So if we love good food it tends to result in obesity or other health problems like diabetes or bad teeth. We can stave off the pain of tooth decay by following the dull, not-pleasant ritual of brushing and flossing, by way of compensation. If we love our tobacco, our love for it creates the psychic imbalance that eventually levels out in the form of lung or throat diseases. If we love sex and indulge to excess, we can get big problems from that, like unwanted pregnancies, dysfunctional relationships, cancers of the sexual organs, or the more obviously retributive venereal diseases. Heroin, which induces profound euphoria, consequently messes its users up profoundly. And so on. And so, according to this hypothetical interpretation, health food is good for us not because it has this or that material nutrient, or because it is free from deadly cholesterol or gluten, but because it is bland, chewy, expensive, and somewhat inconvenient. We derive relatively little pleasure from eating it, so there is little negativity to be expected by way of maintaining a karmic, cosmic balance. Maybe if deep beliefs about nutrients shifted sufficiently, Vipassana meditators and New Age folks could thrive on lovely, flavorless sawdust. 
     Because of the communal, contagious nature of beliefs, it is to be expected that if we have a healthy attitude, we are more likely to stay healthy by avoiding the masses who are sure that we are poisoning ourselves, or that at our age we shouldn't be able to do such-and-such anymore, etc. If you're going to get old, you might consider moving to a society where old people are respected, and not viewed as decaying, burdensome wrecks with one foot already in the grave. Also, we should be careful that our own beliefs don't harm others. Recently an American friend of mine said that she considered dismissing her night watchman because he sits every night surrounded by lit mosquito coils to avoid the bugs, and she didn't want to be present while he poisoned himself to death. But it seems to me that her belief that he was poisoning himself was itself helping to poison him. If you believe that someone is going to get sick, it helps them to get sick; and if you believe that good things will happen, it helps them to happen. Our beliefs, especially our deepest ones, condition our reality, and influence the reality of everyone around us.
     The philosopher David Hume was an abnormally open-minded person; but unfortunately he was involved in an intellectual movement called "The Enlightenment" which had a hidden agenda for abolishing religion from the face of the earth—i.e., to replace "blind superstition" (especially religion) with "reason and knowledge" (especially science). In his book An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding he included an axe-grinding chapter entitled "On Miracles," which was essentially an underhanded attack on the idea that miracles are possible, since Christians have used this idea in support of the truth, validity, and superiority of their religion—"Look at all the miracles!" Anyway, one argument Hume raised was that rumors of miracles (i.e. events which cannot be explained by empirical science, and which furthermore are not common and consistent enough to be uncontroversially nonfictional) have been most likely to arise in barbarous, ignorant countries—the implication being that the people's barbarous ignorance is what caused them to mistakenly believe in miracles at all. Thus, for instance, the legend of a sage walking on water arose among rustic Hebrews in backwater Galilee rather than among urbane Greeks or Romans. But there is another possible explanation for this same data: It may be that rumors of miracles are most likely to arise in culturally unsophisticated, more "magical" societies because the members of such societies have more faith in their possibility, and thus miracles are more likely really to occur there. I would not be at all surprised if supernatural phenomena really did occur with greater frequency in premodern times, in ages when people had much greater faith in their possibility. Our beliefs condition our reality. I also would not be at all surprised if the next Copernican revolution in science, which might cause scientific knowledge to evolve into something beyond mere science, will be the realization that energy and consciousness are one and the same; that what a physicist calls energy is just a very simple, elemental form of what a psychologist calls consciousness, and what a psychologist calls consciousness is a very complicated and organized form of what a physicist calls energy. This one realization, if proved sufficiently for enough people to believe it, might radically change this world, and probably very much for the better, let alone evaporate the mind/brain problem.
     Of course there's no proof of all this, but by the same token there's really no proof of material matter like omega fatty acids and poisonous wheat gluten either. None of us has ever seen a molecule of oxalic acid, but we have implicit faith that what our priests tell us is true—that not only does oxalic acid exist, but it exists even if no conscious mind is perceiving it, and is poisonous regardless of our mental states. Yet it may all be just an elaborate dream; and modern Westerners are, in their own way, too intellectually unsophisticated to see the metaphysical shifting sands upon which Scientism is based, or else too emotionally insecure and in need of a stable Samsara to want to see. 
     Even if my hypothesis is valid (and I'm certainly not the first person to propose it), there are admittedly some troublesome facts to consider. For instance, it appears that even enlightened beings are to a great degree enslaved by what appears to be a physical system. Ramana Maharshi died of cancer; and Neem Karoli Baba, who reportedly sometimes ate twenty full meals a day as a way of helping people work through karmic energies, and who was quite obese, died of heart failure and/or diabetic shock, despite the fact that he was apparently extremely highly advanced, and had astonishing psychic powers (regardless of materialists' refusal to consider this possibility). Mary Baker Eddy, who considered taking medicine to be a sin (because it demonstrated a greater faith in materialism than in the goodness and mercy of God), still ate food, which after all is a kind of medical prophylaxis against starvation. And Therese Neumann, a Catholic Franciscan lay sister who reportedly was so free of physical necessity that she ate only one communion wafer per day as her sole nutritive intake, plus maybe a little communion wine, still died, like everyone else. The Buddha died too. So ultimately we all appear to be enslaved to the system, or at least our bodies do, regardless of whether the system is physical, or a mentally generated illusion. This may be due largely to the overwhelming reinforcing effect of the beliefs of all the beings participating in the system.
     One thing is fairly certain, however: Positive mental states are more conducive to positive results, and negative mental states are more conducive to negative results. So it's probably much better to eat bread and cheese, or Snickers bars, or even lizard tails and frog eggs, with gratitude or equanimity, than to consume organic kale, chia seeds, and filtered, sterilized water out of worry and fear about being healthy.
     I haven't written all this to persuade you that physical matter doesn't exist. That would be pretty naive, wouldn't it, and foolish besides. I'm simply appealing to whatever open-mindedness you have, and challenging a huge, spiritually bankrupt prison of belief that captivates most of the people of the West, and more and more in the East now too. Just try to consider what I've said as a hypothesis. Actually to believe it would just be subjecting oneself to another imprisoning system, right? Whatever we believe will very probably be fundamentally wrong anyway. In fact it's pretty easy to demonstrate that all beliefs are fundamentally invalid. But don't believe that either. Consider the value of open-mindedness, and of suspension of judgement with regard to beliefs which potentially can enslave us, or even kill us. And be happy and healthy. 

      I had discovered that I had diabetes and wasn't supposed to eat anything spicy, starchy, greasy, or sweet. Right after that, I went to Kainchi for the first time and was served a big plate of puris cooked in grease, same halva, and some spicy potatoes—all precisely the things I shouldn't eat. The doctor had told be that if I ate such things I could get very ill. I thought about what the doctor said and looked over at Maharajji, who was twinkling. I was trying to decide whether to have faith in the doctor or faith in Maharajji. (At that time I didn't even know if he was my guru.) It was my first day "on the job" as Maharajji's devotee.
     I finally decided to eat the food. In fact, I was so hungry I ate two big plates of it. Every day thereafter, I would come and stuff myself. After a few weeks, I went to Nainital and had my blood-sugar level tested. It was down to borderline low. The doctor said, "I don't understand how this could have gotten so low so quickly. This doesn't make sense."
     I said, "Well, I think I know what happened."
     (—from Miracle of Love: stories about Neem Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass (Hanuman Foundation, 1995))


  1. Dear Bhante,

    Why is it that when a spinal cord is cut, the person's legs are paralyzed? Why can't consciousness directly communicate and control the legs? Why does it needs physical medium to travel?

    No amount of positive thinking will change this fact.

    1. How could you possibly prove that a physical spinal cord even exists? No amount of thinking, positive or otherwise, will possibly prove that. We live in a world in which we believe that people can't walk with a severed spinal cord, and that's about as far as it goes.

    2. How can you prove that Arahatship exists?

      Maybe, for example, Christianity is true, and all evidence to the contrary is Satan's tricks to deceive and mislead us. Or maybe God sends evidence contrary to his existence to test our faith in Him.

      Do you see where I am going?

    3. Sure. As I've said before, utter skepticism (in the classical sense of totally suspending judgement) is the only really unimpeachable philosophy. Even some schools of Buddhism deny the existence of Arahatship, on the grounds that an absolute state would transcend the duality of existence and nonexistence. Besides, with no self there is no one to be an Arahant. Even Theravada could easily be interpreted this way.

      On the other hand, if anything is true, then it is pretty certain logically that there is Reality. Also, some not very abstruse logical arguments can demonstrate that Reality is formless and infinite. And thus it follows that we are soaking in this absolute Reality. So the possibility of realizing this Reality would seem less far-fetched than, say, the idea that we have a physical spinal cord that will not allow us to walk if it is damaged.

    4. Bhante,
      I like reading your articles.

      However, science is about facts and evidence.
      Religion is about faith in what someone else has said and religious tenets are unverifiable.

      Furthermore, there are many religions who contradict each other. Even within one religion there is often disagreement, sometimes hostile, between schools (Sunni vs Shia Muslims, Catholics vs protestant Christians, etc) of a "same" religion.
      Jesus is viewed as son of God in Christianity, and whose words are final, but in Islam, Jesus is just a human prophet, and the words of Mohammed are final. There are many more examples.

    5. When you say "science is about facts," you seem to be implying that science is therefore about TRUTH, but that is not necessarily the case at all. And even if all scientists agree (which they don't), that still is no proof that they are right. It could be a matter of the uniform delusion of human mentality.

      Furthermore, I'm not talking about "religion." I don't really care all that much about religion. The lower aspects of religious systems may vary widely, but as they rise into the higher levels, i.e. mysticism, they become more and more alike. And a mystical experience, i.e. experiencing reality directly, without the symbolic intermediary of intellectual perceptions, is much less faith-based than is the church of Scientism.

  2. Bhante,

    Scientific method is the method for obtaining the best objective knowledge that we have based on evidence. Of course we don't, and might never have, the Absolute TRUTH. Science doesn't claim all the answers, but this isn't excuse for "God did it because science can't explain it".

    Faith is belief in something we don't have evidence for.

    Mystical experiences have neurological and biochemical explanation, and different people can interpret them differently. Some see God, some see Brahman, some perceive nimitta and make interpretations accordingly.

    1. This correspondence appears to be turning into a debate, and it might be best for me just to write another post on this issue rather than try to fit everything into a little comment box, but nevertheless I'll make a few comments.

      a) If different people interpret their mystical experiences differently, then it is likely the result of one or both of two reasons: 1. their mystical experience was not extremely deep, and was only partial; and/or 2. they attempted after the fact to interpret their experience in accordance with their belief system—which of course is exactly what scientists do also.

      b) Mystical experiences have two peculiar qualities: 1. the people that have them tend to have no doubts whatsoever that the experience was much more REAL than anything they have experienced in an ordinary, waking state of consciousness; and 2. the experience tends to have zero persuasive power over anyone except the person who had the experience. Hence one of the main reasons why Dharma is "ehipassiko," calling each person to come and see for himself or herself. To attempt to trivialize or invalidate profound mystical experiences without having experienced one oneself is simply speaking in ignorance, rather like a blind person arguing that there is no such thing as light.

      c) How on EARTH could scientists explain mystical experiences in terms of neurology and biochemistry when they have ZERO explanation for how neurology and biochemistry can affect consciousness at all? For that matter, they have zero explanation of how a physical brain could generate consciousness. Scientists may perform gruesome experiments on the brains of live monkeys and think they've figured stuff out, but they don't even know what consciousness IS. They will never know what consciousness is, because consciousness—the essence of pure consciousness, not the mere form of mental states—is beyond the reach of science. It is beyond the reach of intellection. It is beyond the reach of symbolic thought. If you try to understand consciousness intellectually, it stops being bare consciousness and starts being something else. (The same goes for Nirvana, enlightenment, and "God.") The only way really to know consciousness is to experience it directly, without the distortions of symbols, and that is mysticism. If you want to believe that that is impossible, and that full enlightenment is impossible (since after all, it entails transcending one's own brain chemistry), and that spiritual bankruptcy is "the best we have," then that is your choice.

      Science is a brilliant form of conventional truth, and is extremely useful for helping ordinary people navigate through their little piece of samsara, but it is not ultimate truth, and therefore is doomed always to be delusion, or at best illusion. The ostensive primary purpose of Dharma is not an objective explanation of reality, but a transcendence of the illusion.