For me most of the book is just a rehash of ideas that I have had for years, the last chapter is probably the most important but also the most difficult to understand. Meditation is a technique for investigating the nature of body and mind, it is something that each individual can do for him or herself. You don’t have to take anyone else’s word about any of it, just do it and see for yourself. Unfortunately meditation is simple but not easy and most people will lose interest before they progress very far. What one sees in meditation is difficult to explain to anyone who has no experience with it, this is the way it is with all experience. How do you explain what a horse is to someone who has never seen one?
[quote author=“MJ”]For a very long time there has been speculation about how much Christianity was influenced by Buddhism, but it’s only recently that it has become possible to accurately research what that influence was. ...
One of the more delightful aspects of this is that the Buddha is actually a Roman Catholic saint!
This is quite fascinating. I am a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and I’d like to do further research on this topic. Can you give me any book or article titles, or web page url’s for this information?
Gozen, I’ll try to help, but as i said in my post I’ve just started looking into this myself. I’d been researching Western mysticism, which is quite different, especially in its early stages, than what most people consider “mysticism.” In the past I’d done a lot of research on the Egyptian desert saints. I got interested again while writing an article about Freud’s comments on the origins of religion, which he says comes from an “oceanic feeling.” While researching this, I began wondering about similarities between Christianity and Buddhism, and decided to use Google to see how much research has already been done. A lot, of course!
You can find the text for the story of Barlaam and Josephat at:
I haven’t started looking for books about this yet, but a very interesting scholarly book that I think opened a lot of eyes about how much exchange between East and West took place, and how early it started, is Religions of the Silk Road by Richard Foit, which was published in 2000. I think this research, plus parallel research by others starting around the same time, may be what made people start looking for evidence of Buddhist influence in Alexandria, Egypt.
Good luck, and if you find anything interesting, please let me know!
I agree with those commenting about the problems with Chapter 7. I can’t help but think that when Harris talked about self, he meant more than “self-interest.”
Fundamentally, I can’t see how Harris’ mediation-induced insights into the true nature of conciousness square at all with the reason-based framework that he operated on in the first six chapters. If I have a vision of Jesus and he tells me that he is my savior, why is it any less valid for me to present this as a fact than it is for harris to provide his own conclusions on the nature of self (whatever that may mean) based on his own visions. Simply saying that this is not something you can describe in words is not enough. This is the same argument that Harris spent six chapters refuting in regards to religion!
I am not schooled in philosophy so I may be missing something here, but I wonder what this lack of a self implies to questions like free will. Does Harris think that free will exists, or are we just here to experience actions that have already been determined by our genes, enivronment, etc?
Fundamentally, I can’t see how Harris’ meditation-induced insights into the true nature of conciousness square at all with the reason-based framework that he operated on in the first six chapters. If I have a vision of Jesus and he tells me that he is my savior, why is it any less valid for me to present this as a fact than it is for harris to provide his own conclusions on the nature of self (whatever that may mean) based on his own visions. Simply saying that this is not something you can describe in words is not enough. This is the same argument that Harris spent six chapters refuting in regards to religion.
Sam Harris is not necessarily promoting reason based religion, he is pointing out the problems with blind belief or faith based religion. If you have a conversation with Jesus and it changes your life that is fine, you can even tell others about it. It becomes a problem when others accept what you say without examing it and make rules based on it.
Meditation is a tool that you learn and use to examine the mind, there is no faith involved, you simply do the practice and see for yourself. You base your conclusions on your own direct experience, there is no need to believe or accept what anyone else says. Of course conclusions about the nature of self can be put into words but what good is that, if you accept those conclusions without verifying them for yourself then we are right back to blind belief or faith. The problem here is that most people are too complacent, they don’t want to put in the effort to see for themselves, they would rather have someone come along and tell them something that agrees with what they already know.
The fact that so many people are having trouble with Harris’s writing about mysticism is that it’s centered around what is a fundamentally individual conscious experience. It is completely different from religion in that religion only really involves listening to what someone else has to say and accepting it at face value. You don’t need to do anything else to “get” religion. You need to get seriously introspective on a level that most people don’t approach in day-to-day life in order to “get” mysticism. I can’t tell you how to “get” it using words anymore than I can explain what chocolate tastes like to a person who has never eaten any. I can use adjectives to describe its qualities, but those adjectives will not convey any sensory information relevant to the chocolate experience. In order to taste chocolate, you’ve got to put it in your own mouth.
To continue with the chocolate analogy, just because I say that I cannot describe chocolate using words does not mean that the experience of chocolate is an irrational one. An awareness of the flavour is completely within the conscious realm, no supernatural intervention required. To gain a real appreciation of it though, you need to savour - no quick chew and swallow… this is really as far as I can really go with the chocolate thing (if someone else wants to give it a go, knock yourself out ^_^).
The really frustrating thing is that if someone asks for concrete evidence that mysticism (I guess meditation is really more accurate, in terms of what I’ve been talking about) works, all you can really do is say “Try it out. Works for me.” Which is what Harris seems to be doing, which is what people are objecting to, which is why some of us are trying to elucidate, which is why… GAH! Anyway, I’m interested to see if anyone actually can make sense of this…
I don’t want to embarrass myself with a pedestrian comment, but here goes.
Sam says that interpersonal and intercultural approaches can be made in only two modes: conversationally or violently. And further, that conversation is trumped by faith; faith is a “conversation stopper” and thus, a precursor of violence.
Now, this argument might have some traction among those whose faith is based solely on their family and community histories, that is, what ideas/faith they’ve been taught—their cultus — what their community finds acceptable and what makes their interpersonal relationships comfortable.
But what about those whose faith is based on personal experience of the mystical godhead, so interpreted by them. Such folks are not likely to give up what they view as penetrating insights into the meaning and telos of life just to deflect a bit of violence, violence which impacts them personally only infrequently.
For me, Sam’s argument with mystics is not namby-pamby as some have intimated. In all honesty, he must admit that “reason” does not have, presently, the tools to adequately challenge the “truth” of these personal, incommensurable psychological experiences.
His point is, though, that mystics have no more right to"stop the conversation,” than do those who base their claims to truth on faith-based historical documents.
I don’t think Sam’s argument requires a proof of the limits of subjectivism.
[quote author=“Alan Slipp”]The fact that so many people are having trouble with Harris’s writing about mysticism is that it’s centered around what is a fundamentally individual conscious experience. It is completely different from religion in that religion only really involves listening to what someone else has to say and accepting it at face value. You don’t need to do anything else to “get” religion. You need to get seriously introspective on a level that most people don’t approach in day-to-day life in order to “get” mysticism. I can’t tell you how to “get” it using words anymore than I can explain what chocolate tastes like to a person who has never eaten any. I can use adjectives to describe its qualities, but those adjectives will not convey any sensory information relevant to the chocolate experience. In order to taste chocolate, you’ve got to put it in your own mouth.
I can make sense of it (the first paragraph anyway) but I still don’t really understand what harris was saying, which is I suppose why I was drawn to this message board in the first place. You speak of “instrospection” - implying almost a self-discovery. This makes perfect sense and I am all in favor of it. But what Harris wrote about was not “self-discovery” but “self-illusion.” He implied that his personal mediations had lead him to believe that the thing we call a “self” actually does not exist, a belief that has all sorts of ramifications for free will, and for that matter your entire world view.
I don’t think anyone has any problems with the experiences harris may have when he meditates, we just have a problem with him trying to integrate those experiences into a reason-based worldview.
He implied that his personal meditations had lead him to believe that the thing we call a “self” actually does not exist, a belief that has all sorts of ramifications for free will, and for that matter your entire world view.
Very good, especially the part about ‘your entire world view’. People don’t react well to having their beliefs challenged, in this case it is even worse because what is being threatened is the ego or self. However Sam Harris doesn’t want you to take his word for it, he wants you to take a look for yourself.
Some people look around at the world and find it so complex and intricate that they feel that it had to have a creator, thus god is born. For these people this is the only reasonable explanation.
Most people look around at the world and they see cars being driven, houses being built, wars being fought, coffee being bought, games being played, donuts being eaten and on and on and on. For these people the only reasonable explanation is that there must be a self doing these things.
When I read this chapter, I thought it was the most important chapter and the key element to his whole message. He did say in that chapter that some of this would be hard for many people to assimilate and understand. However, when I read that part about how we have an illusion of our self and feel often shorn from our true self when we are entangled with the materialism of things, people, or our mundane affairs, I could personally feel exactly what he meant with my own life in the past. Much of my life had been spent withdrawing into a kind of shyness and fear to express myself and I often found myself so involved with doing things to only please others or following others demands what I seemed to always think I had to do. I completely forgot my self and what I truly felt inside me so much that I ignored my own cravings and desires. People sometimes would ask me what do I want and my reply was always “I don’t know, what do you want?” Now when I look back at it, I can see it was actually my own misinterpretation of all these dialogues and opinions presented to me as if they were facts. I know now how I am the knower (put into Sam’s words here) looking at the known, the subject/object point of view. We can learn to get back at a distance and look at all these things in our lives and be just an observer of our thoughts and feelings. Watch and wonder as your thoughts that come and flow through your body. As you re-experience all over again all the emotions and pains, reassessing your actions, letting go and replacing with better thoughts and actions that which builds character. That old personality you were is no longer as you watch these old thoughts dissipate and you begin to visualize something better to manifest that which now becomes your present reality. They are only thoughts and as we realize our own power to change these thoughts that we do not want to something we do want, we can change the bad thoughts to the good thoughts. When we are in this state of consciousness (which can be reached through practice and learned skilled), it is like looking from a distance into a “fog” which represents that illusory world we live in. This is that illusion of self, I think Sam is referring to which we must break out of to realize the truth. This is so hard to do for most of us as he explains in the chapter from the beginning when we were infants in the crib. Sam seemed to touch upon the idea that children are more attuned to this consciousness particularly when they are expressing their true nature in pure joy of living and being happy. As adults we have all been embedded with all these various ideas and opinions of others taught us that it has distanced us from our pure conscious state which we started out life in. :D
It seems to me that most of the posts above share a assertion that I still see as unsupported.
This is that since the mystical experience contains emotional content (we “feel” it) then it must be real. The “truths” we derive from meditation, unlike the data points we might acquire via other methods, are reliable and valid.
I see no reason this must be true. Just because we feel certain something has been revealed to us does not mean it might not be totally illusory. This is just a bit too New-Agey.
[quote author=“Iisbliss”]Seems to me the only “truths” meditation can reveal to you are truths about yourself, and your own perspective on the world.
I disagree. Meditation can be used to illuminate the workings of a mind. Comparative meditation can be used to take these observations, and extrapolate, from them, models of how human cognition works in general.
So, meditation is highly useful in the quest for internal truths. The problem, of course, is when people want to believe that purely internal revelations can be used to determine external truths.