Friday, December 14, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: Radically Empirical Spirituality by Olav Bryant Smith

Radically Empirical Spirituality
Olav Bryant Smith

PHOTO: Nicolo Corrado

Originally Published in the June 2012 Issue of Empirical

In the first issue of Empirical, I wrote about how we understand this term “empirical” in the radically empirical sense suggested by William James. It is an empiricism that is always open to the full range of human experience, as opposed to self-limiting, inherited narratives. Due to this openness, radical empiricism offers the hope of reuniting the scientific and religious (or spiritual) points of view. Due to this openness, radical empiricism takes no final shelter in received dogmas of any kind—religious or scientific. The essence of this radical form of empiricism, also, is a tolerant and ever-exploratory openness to the diversity of evidence presented in the variety of narratives that come to us from around the world.

Spirituality, like many words, is difficult to define. It means different things to different people. I am using the term spiritual to describe a way of living and being in the world that transcends mechanistic, traditionally materialistic descriptions of the world. Spiritual being is not completely determined by prior causes. Spiritual being is a life lived in an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things. Spiritual being recognizes value and meaning in the universe including, but not limited to, the values and meanings we finite mortals ascribe to it. The spiritual life is lived as an adventure with purpose.

The life of the Buddha offers us one model, amongst many, of the spiritual life from a radically empirical perspective. I do not intend to suggest by using the Buddha’s life as an example, that a radically empirical spirituality is necessarily Buddhist. But the Buddha’s life and teachings are indeed very suggestive of the radically empirical model of spirituality. Whatever tradition you come from, atheistic or theistic, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pagan, Indigenous, or other, if you seek to understand and participate in a world of value and meaning beyond pure self-interestedness and skeptical nihilism, I want to suggest that you either are, or are a candidate to become, a radically empirical spiritual seeker, and that we can learn—if we have open minds from the Buddhist tradition.

PHOTO: Sam Szapucki

The Buddha: A Radically Empirical Model for Spirituality

Siddhartha Gautama was raised in the lap of luxury at his father’s palace in what is now Nepal— at the northern end of India in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. It was prophesied at his birth that he would be a great world leader someday— though it was not certain whether he would be a worldly leader like his father King Suddhodana, or a spiritual emancipator.

King Suddhodana did not want his son, Prince Siddhartha, to “flake out” and become a spiritual leader. He wanted him to stay at the palace and follow in his footsteps. So he surrounded him with every pleasure imaginable. He lived in a luxurious palace, ate scrumptious food, drank the finest beverages available, wore fine clothing, and enjoyed the entertainment and attention of the most beautiful dancing girls.

PHOTO: Sham Banerjee
His father arranged a marriage between Siddhartha and the beautiful Princess Yasodhara. And finally, Yasodhara bore him a son whom they named Rahula. Suddhodana was counting on the fact that the empirical evidence presented to Siddhartha would lead him to believe that the world was just fine the way it was. 

The young prince did not want to stay in the palace all of the time, so Siddhartha would venture forth sometimes into the surrounding city. Anticipating every event that could alert Siddhartha to the truth of the world, and destroy the illusion of worldly perfection, King Suddhodana would send an advance party out to clean up the city to make sure there were no disturbing sights. This went on for years, but could not go on forever. At long last, we are told that Siddhartha saw the Four Sights that changed his entire perspective on the world: old age, sickness, death, and the poverty of an ascetic seeker.

Empirically realizing the suffering of the many, Siddhartha was unable to continue on with the illusion of perfection at the palace. His worldview had been altered by this new evidence. The palace was the unreal illusion of the few within the larger sea of universal suffering. Also, Siddhartha realized that his royal family was not immune to this suffering. They, too, would grow old. They, too, could become ill. They, too, would die. Lasting peace, which the liberation Hindus know as moksha, was not to be found in the luxurious palace life. As a result, he realized that his great mission in life was to conquer the greatest enemy of all—the suffering of humanity.

PHOTO: Enkhtuvshin

With this as his aim, Siddhartha left the palace and his family and spent six years in the forest learning at the feet of the most experienced gurus there. It is said that he mastered all that they could teach, and went beyond them. In the knowledge of the gurus, Siddhartha found, there was no liberation from suffering. He then took on the most extreme ascetic disciplines, doing without clothing, shelter, and food. It is said that he reached a place where he ate only one grain of rice per day. It was then, on the verge of death, that he realized—empirically—that this was not the path to liberation from suffering either.

Siddhartha had not found peace in the luxury of the palace. Nor did he find it in the extreme asceticism of the forest. This led Siddhartha to conclude that the Middle Way was best. It is worth noting that Aristotle and Confucius came to the same conclusion in other ways.

PHOTO: Giles Clark
The Middle Way philosophy, or Madhyamika as the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna would come to call it, has had great appeal to many of the greatest minds of the world. It is a simple philosophy, but like many simple and true things, it often escapes the recognition of those who are caught up in the cyclic patterns of suffering in the world. In many situations in life, the goal must be to find the excellence (virtue) between the extremes (vices) of too much and too little.

Upon the path of the Middle Way, Siddhartha soon found that he was on the verge of Enlightenment. He sat down under a fig (peepul) tree in Bodh Gaya and vowed not to move until enlightenment came. He underwent three temptations—much like Christ—meant to deter him from reaching his goal, but Siddhartha maintained his proper focus and achieved an enlightenment that is a model of a radically empirical spirituality.

He did not maintain his focus in the face of his temptations because of pure resolve, or because of a dogmatic belief system. He overcame the temptations because his analysis of experience told him that they did lead him to moksha—the liberation from suffering that he sought.

PHOTO: Akuppa John Wigham

Having attained enlightenment, or what he came to call nirvana, Siddhartha was now the Buddha—the awakened one. We are told that Mara, the tempter, had told the Buddha that he should take his enlightenment experience and go, because no one would understand what he had to tell them even if he tried to explain it. But the Buddha said that some would understand, and so he went forth to preach for the good of the many.

There is truth in what Mara had said, however. No words that the Buddha could say would, in and of themselves, lead anyone to enlightenment. So, the Buddha realized that the trick was to find the words and symbols that would point to the experience of enlightenment. And indeed, if not all, some would understand.


Approximately twenty-five hundred years ago, in the clearest exhortation to use critical thinking I’ve ever read, the Dhammapada reports that the Buddha said:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

At the same time that it encourages critical thinking in the realm of spirituality, philosophy, and religion, this statement by the Buddha is also encouraging of a radically empirical spirituality. He begins this paragraph by telling us not to rely on dogmas, and by extension, it is implied that we should not foist dogmas upon others either. “But after observation and analysis,” he concludes, “when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept and live up to it.”

What we believe should make sense, and it should benefit everyone—including, but not exclusively, ourselves. One does not have to be especially “spiritual” to rise to this standard, but it helps to be. There are many people who do not understand this concept of “spirituality” at all—let alone self-identify as being “spiritual”—but who, nonetheless strive to live reasonable and good lives that unselfishly strive for the benefit of their families, friends, communities, and the world at large.

This life less self-centered and aiming toward a more common good—increasingly aware of the dynamic interconnections involved—is a radically empirical spiritual enterprise.

In the East, it is believed that we all, aware of it or not, are involved in karmic processes through which we increase our understanding and awareness over time— if we grow attentive. We act . . . and then there are consequences to our actions. When we do good things, we set up good circumstances for the future. When we do bad things, we set up bad consequences for the future.

It is the growth in our awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, and our participation in that process, that most singularly defines the spiritual experience. This interconnectedness transcends the ordinary and illusory view of the body as a self-contained object in space. The growth in awareness of that transcendence is a growth in awareness of one’s own spiritual nature.

These lessons are not Buddhist lessons alone. This is the universal message of all spiritual traditions. The various religions have their own mythologies and their own dogmas that point to the same universal truths. The Buddha talks of nirvana, which literally means the extinguishment of the ego. This extinguishment is necessary in order to live more fully in an awareness of the interconnectedness of Being. Shiva Nataraj dances with one foot on the back of a little figure that represents the ego, because it is only by putting the ego in its place that one can fully experience what Hindus call lila, or the divine play. Muslims prostrate themselves five times per day before Almighty God, called Allah (meaning “the God” implying “the one God” in Arabic), in order to put the individual self firmly in the service of that which is Greater. It is said in Christianity that Christ died on the cross for our sins. After many years of study and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this self-sacrifice of the Lord of Christianity is best understood as a high symbol and exemplar of the need for each of us to sacrifice our egos in the service of the greater good of all humanity.

There is one truth. There are many perspectives from which to view that truth. The Buddha told a story of several blind men and an elephant. One of the blind men felt the smooth, curved tusk of the elephant, and described the elephant as such. Another felt the big floppy ears and felt that he had ascertained the essential element of the elephant. Another felt the thick legs of the elephant and thought that this creature resembled the trunk of a tree, and so on. We all come to the essential reality of the immense, interconnected Universe from our own perspective. Let us learn from each other, understanding the limitations of our own perspective, and growing in our awareness of the interconnectedness of all that is.

PHOTO: Ingrid Taylar

Go for the Experience!

There is a final element that must be included in an overview of a radically empirical spirituality, and that is the fundamental importance of lived, felt experience, as opposed to abstract conscious thought processes, or analyses, about that experience.

A famous scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, was permitted as a young man to enter and go through the training of a Zen Monastery in Japan. In the Rinzai school of Zen, riddle-like koans are given to students to meditate on. Huston Smith’s own koan asked whether a dog has a Buddha Nature. The Buddha had said that everything has a Buddha Nature, so one would think that a dog also has a Buddha Nature. But in this koan, the Zen Master, or Roshi, in the story replies “Mu!”—which in Japanese means “No!”

Huston Smith talks about attempting through many days of meditation to come up with an ingenious answer to this koan. Why did the Zen Master say no?

After Smith presented his own Master with a particularly clever response, the Roshi cried out: “You have the philosopher’s disease!”

The Roshi then explained to Huston Smith that he himself had a Master’s degree in philosophy, and that he understood that philosophy has its place. But he directed Huston Smith to set all of that aside during his meditation and to “go for the experience!”

In a radically empirical spirituality, this is crucial advice.

The Tao Te Ching begins with the words, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” The author seems to be saying that “Yes, I’ll write this down, but don’t mistake the words for the experience.”

In the Torah, Moses asks his God in the form of the burning bush what name he should call him. And his Lord simply replied, Yahweh. This is usually translated as “I am that I am.” There is no predicate that can delimit the nature of this ultimate Being of all beings. This seems to signify also that the ultimate spiritual encounter cannot be expressed in words or thought with the mind. It must be experienced.

So, in conclusion, we could say that, in part, radically empirical spirituality involves transcending dogma, the illusory sense of the independent nature of things in the world, and the limitations of words. Radically empirical spirituality embraces openness, tolerance, an awareness of the interconnectedness of all that exists, and a willingness to go beyond words and preconception to embrace the fullness of experience.

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