Book Club: Waking Up The Buddha

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 30 2014 @ 2:21pm


Our first installment of reader commentary on Sam Harris’ Waking Up addressed the question of the self’s existence – or lack thereof. More emails along those lines here and here. Many of the following do the same, while offering clarifications and critiques from a Buddhist perspective. The first reader emphasizes the practical effects of rejecting our usual notions of the self:

Twenty years of meditation in the Dzogchen tradition have convinced me that the self, as it is conceived in the West, does not exist. With regard to your reaching different conclusions from Harris based on the same experiences, there is an old Zen saying “Words are a finger pointing at the moon – be careful not to confuse the finger with the moon.” I might describe the experience as one of realizing immaculate Buddha nature, but the important question is: what effect does this experience have? Am I a wiser, more compassionate human being because of it?

The concepts about the experience are just that – concepts. They no more objectively prove your experience of the love and existence of God than they prove Harris’ rejection of God. The experience belongs to no belief system. It is what it is.

Another reader wants “to clarify something about Buddhist (Mahayana) philosophy that Sam doesn’t explain”:

In Buddhist thought, there are two sorts of frames of truth. Relative truth is the truth of bookclub-beagle-trappearance, and absolute truth is how things truly exist. Computers are an excellent example of this; there’s an apparent reality to email, blogs, the internet, but we know that those things don’t exist in any true sense – they are just conceptual representations of electrical activity. The key point is that relative reality is still real, it’s just real as appearance, in the same way that a dream or videogame might be real as a dream or videogame. Relative reality from a Buddhist perspective is all of the stuff we relate with, self, other, trees, greenery etc. Ultimate reality is reality free from concept, which is therefore impossible to describe.

When Buddhists talk about the non-existence of self, what they mean is that self is a mere appearance. In particular it doesn’t have the qualities of separateness, permanence, or solidity that we ascribe to it. From a relative perspective, self exists as an appearance, but it has no reality from an ultimate point of view. Suffering arises because we try to relate with this ephemeral, shifty, appearance of self and other as though they were more than appearances.

The benefit of meditation from this standpoint is that you awaken to the unreality of self, other, and perception. This isn’t to say that those things vanish, just that are revealed to be stories we’ve told ourselves after the fact. Interestingly, this is the same puzzle that Heidegger, Heraclitus, and other Western philosophers ran into: Being seems to be fundamental, but we can’t investigate it without presupposing the verb “to be”. The Buddhist answer is that a conceptual description of being is impossible, but it’s easy to be.

This idea of ultimate reality as simply being, with no confusion about the nature of self or other, is probably compatible with certain notions of God. I can’t really comment on that, but it seems to be that if you hold the view that God is identical to reality (i.e. is not a personality) you might equate God with what ultimate reality.

I think a lot of the puzzles Sam points to are helpful in that they show that our notions of self don’t make any sense. You can do this without science by asking questions like “Where does the self reside? When did is start? When does it end?” The trouble I think is that he doesn’t take the next step and acknowledge that there’s something there, something meditating, something writing a book etc. This puzzle of how these appearances can arise from emptiness is a real conundrum, and it’s worth spending some time on.

Another questions Sam’s dismissal of the more speculative elements of how Buddhists understand the universe:

Harris basis his rejection of the “silly” parts of Buddhism on a kind of scientific rationalism. The parts of the tradition that accord with math and science get treated as truths, while the parts that don’t line up get discarded as ridiculous superstitions. The problem is that Buddhist thought profoundly disrupts these modes of thinking.

Consider the principle of non-contradiction. This holds that it’s impossible for a single mind to believe a sentence P and also believe not-P. This principle is a foundation of scientific thought, but really only operates within the borders of the self. If one person believes P and another believes not-P, they aren’t being irrational; they just disagree. The problem is that from a Buddhist point of view, the self is borderless. There’s no real distinction between a contradiction and a disagreement. Walt Whitman noted the same feature when he said “Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes.”

Now, admittedly, this make no sense conceptually. At the level of concepts, we have self and other, and rationality is important. Meditation starts from the notion that there’s actually a rich world taking place before concept, to relate directly to that world you have to have openness and curiosity.

For me, I think this is where faith comes into it, even when you don’t believe in God. There is a sense of uncertainty and wonder that takes place in genuine meditation practice, or when you interact with someone like Tulku Urgyen. The sense is that you’re relating with a world that is much much larger than the boxes you try to fit it into.

My advice for someone who’s starting to practice on the basis of this book is to not decide on anything ahead of time. It’s always possible that faith and sacredness are pointless, and that eventually we’ll invent an enlightenment drug, but it’s also possible that the lineage of meditators has some wisdom, and that you can’t really understand it until you try. I think a key to meditation is to stay in that uncertain place without collapsing into either view.

Every good meditator I’ve know has become softer, kinder, and more open as they’ve practiced. By contrast, Waking Up left me with this feeling that spirituality should be approached with aggression and intellectual fixation. I don’t think that’s right.

Another has more pushback on that front:

Sam Harris’s meditation is from the Theravadan Buddhist tradition of Vipassana. This is important. In this tradition, the dropping away of self and attainment of nirvana does not give one any insight into any wider story of meaning, or of origin, or anything like that. In the Pali canon, the Buddha is always either silent when asked metaphysical questions, or he states that the question doesn’t fit the case.

In one famous episode, some muckity muck said he’d study with him if the Buddha could tell him the origin of the universe and what happens when you die. The Buddha responded by saying that he was a like a man with a poison arrow stuck in him telling the doctor that he wouldn’t let the doctor take the arrow out until the doctor told him the history of his family, his families families, what he liked to eat, what tribe he was from, etc.

There are other Buddhist traditions, however. And there are non-Buddhist traditions that teach non-duality: Kabbalah, Vedanta, Christian gnostics, Sufism, Zen. In these traditions, when the self drops away what remains, the reality that one identifies with, is the manifestation of God. Jesus called it heaven on earth. Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, called it “It”.

Harris’ position is a minority position in contemplative traditions, and a minority position within Buddhism itself. Harris wants to argue that his position isn’t Buddhist, but that it is scientific.  But it’s not. It is a philosophical assertion.

Moreover, what Harris calls “waking up” is not the “waking up” of Zen, for example. What Harris has done is attained an absorbed state of concentration in which his sense of self drops away. But he then immediately conceptualizes it. He states that he is not sad, but that he is the observer of sadness.  But what is the observer?  He doesn’t get to this. He hasn’t gone deep enough. But the experience is so remarkable to him that he thinks he’s jumped into the deep end of the pool when he’s really just gotten his toes wet.

More readers on meditation here. Follow the whole discussion here.  And join in by emailing your thoughts to

(Photo: A bas-relief panel at Borobudur, Java, Indonesia, in which Prince Siddharta Gautama, who would become known as the Buddha, shaves the hair off his head as a sign that’s declined his status as part of the warrior class to become. an ascetic hermit. His servants hold his sword, crown, and princely jewelry while his horse Kanthaka stands on right. By Gunawan Kartapranata)