I’ve been practicing Buddhism, and meditation, for some years now. In that process, I search for teachers, and it’s not easy finding a teacher when I’m not living in a Buddhist country. And I guess one should examine the teachers out there in the searching process. I’ve been reading some of your blog post, and listening to some of your talks.
But why Sam Harris? Please don’t take this personal. But for all the years I’ve been searching for a teacher, trying out different kinds of meditation etc. I try to solve different problems in this process, and one is how to combine the intellectual with non-intellectual etc. The reason why I haven’t been consistent in my practice is because I’m also interested in learning about the world, and how to combine theory/practice in activism. I think intellectualism, historical enquiry, and collective action is important in an activist, and learning endeavour. The neoliberalism that’s been dominating the West at least since Thatcher and Reagan is among many things characterised by being anti-historical (“there’s no alternative”, according to Thatcher), anti-intellectual, and individualistic. When I have been practicing buddhism/meditation, it feels more like practicing neoliberal values, and it’s like it’s the opposite to being intellectual, historical, and collective activism.
Here’s some of my concerns regarding Sam Harris. Michael Brooks talks about it in this video. By the way, he also mention Ken Wilber. Wilber, and Cornel West, were the main philosophical inspiration behind “The Matrix”, and the directors of “The Matrix”.
Thank you very much for your letter and your question about my appreciation for Sam Harris. I have received similar questions from people over the years, so there is zero reason to take anything personally. I have not replied to any previous letters, because for me to reply to every letter (or even most), in addition to being a massive investment of limited time and energy, is just engaging shamelessly in the ephemera of thinking, adding more waves to the endless waves on the sea: it’s not true swimming.
Due for some reason to your letter, I will reply just this once to the matter of my deep and abiding respect for the thought and activity of Sam Harris, for whatever it is worth. Then, thanks to your invitation, there can maybe be a benchmark explanation that I can point others to in the future whenever they have a similar question. It is not a matter one needs to visit again. That is just time away from my most precious primary job of waking up and helping others to wake up. So thank you for this opportunity.
There are many, many people out there who comment on our current social problems, on our culture and politics, on religious belief, and on our existential threats, etc. It seems these days that everyone has a podcast where they can talk on about anything that comes into their head. This is a wonderful time to live in – – the sources of information and commentary are wide and deep. But in an age which gave rise to the threat of “misinformation“ and “fake news“, what should we look to for healthy and useful additions to the conversation on these matters? Are we best informed by hewing with consistency to the thinkers/commentators who express back to us our own hard-fought views, our trusted tribe? The social media algorithms make this an especially dangerous and even destructive impulse. At some point, one needs to make choices,
This is especially true for someone whose life-work is as a dedicated meditator. I do not have much time to dive deeply into books or even many of these podcasts. I am not interested in widening my intellectual knowledge of things, or gaining more intellectual furniture for my life. I won’t ever want to pretend that I have some expertise or mastery of any of these social, cultural, or political subjects. However, I do like to “check in“, from time to time, with great minds who can refresh (disrupt) how I process and integrate some of the pressing matters of the day. Due to my occupation – – which is studying only the fundamental nature of mind – – I am often faced with a whole spectrum of different questions, from people across cultures and religions. I find it helpful, sometimes, to be conversant with at least some of the social/political/cultural matters that people are asking about, because these things seem to impact their own lives enough that they are fearful or confused about what to “do“ with them, and how to integrate a better understanding of those matters with the whole meditation projection which I might seem to represent to them. Merely me answering every question from people by quoting from the Buddhist sutras all the time will get very, very tired for people very, very quickly (and also extremely tiring for me!). The Buddha spoke to sentient beings according to the capacities and orientations of each. He did not have some cover-all answer. Baskin Robbins has 36 flavors for every different tongue. But at bottom, it’s all just ice cream.
So, I do a very, very moderate amount of exposure to the reflections of people who are adding substantial, worthy, thought-provoking things to the common conversation which informs many peoples’ lives. And I am especially open to great thinkers who might challenge the ways that I am seeing and expressing things.
Perhaps it is due to my quirky nature, but I find myself conferring with novel, unconventional thinkers, people who do not let their investigations become bound too much by the normalized (and often over-policed) rules and conventions of the thought-highway. I don’t know why that is so, it just seems to be that way. I’ve always cleaved strongly to people who have a view “outside the box“. Better yet, it seems there is a recurring affinity for the ones who actually break the box!
To take a few examples: Within five minutes of first meeting me, one would definitely characterize my outlook as being strongly “progressive“. Yet I have, for many years, regularly checked in with (and deeply deeply admire) Andrew Sullivan, a conservative Catholic gay intellectual (as if any of those terms mean anything!) — he is one of the most compelling public intellectuals out there, and I benefit so much from him; although so much of Dr. Cornel West’s beautiful, inspiring “schtick” is often so predictably “woke” and relentlessly touching all the “correct“ buttons with a cringeworthy automaticity, virtue-signaling too much in the progressive-politics-way, I am still very moved and motivated by stuff I hear from him (full disclosure: I was arrested with him and spent some hours in a New Haven city jail cell when engaged in anti-apartheid protests back in university!), while also cringing at things he says which seem predictably knee-jerk; while having very little knowledge of science, I check in with thinkers on AI and machine-learning like Lex Fridman, Joscha Bach (recent discovery), and others, with Brian Greene and Sir Roger Penrose and Albert Feynman; while Arthur Schopenhauer wrote some pretty strongly demeaning, even atrocious estimations of women that were typical of his times (but definitely not typical for my thinking), and was even charged in a lawsuit for pushing his nosy landlady down a flight of stairs, injuring her head, he continues to blow my mind with the accuracy of his fuller insights into the human condition, and I check back in with him from time to time, and see my own intuitions about existence come blasting out of his writings in full technicolor as I read them; people regularly disclaim that Richard Dawkins is far too brutal and arrogant in his treatment of people who are informed by religious ideas, and his utterly devastating takedowns of the absurdity and idiocy of monotheism (especially Islam and Christianity) can surely produce winces in people, and yet whenever I listen to him, I notice a vast inner smile, a recognition of profound respect and gratitude which outshines any personality characteristics or painful aspects of his character; who could not be utterly transported by Beethoven (and I am, even shamefully so) —his music is one of the super-transcendent experiences that I could not imagine a single day of human life without it existing, even when I don’t listen to it! — and yet he was a horrible, irascible, arrogant, even violent person to others, raging at people, cursing others, even to the point of sometimes throwing urine from his chamber-pot on the street below to drive people away when they made too much noise while he composed the cosmic works that you and I both love, with one of the works composed by this crass urine-tosser even becoming the official anthem for the European Union!; even though I am not a Christian, and though I see “Christianist“ thinking at the root of so much confusion, injury, death, and annihilation throughout history (cf., the Inquisition, the live-burning at the stake of of independent women [so-called “witches”], European pogroms, Native American history, the enslavement of African peoples in the Americas, and the supremely toxic American conservatism, to name just the timeless Greatest Hits), up to and including the way it is used in this world today to deface and even delete whole cultures and alternative ways of emergent experience, and even though the founder of that system himself evidenced clearly racist/nationalistic tendencies (see Matthew 15:22-28 — https://biblehub.com/context/matthew/15-22.htm), I still check in with Jesus from time to time; although Slavoj Žižek seems much more an “intellectual performance artist“ than anything else, and in that sense even feels trite in his circular, clownish, conceptual prancing (which gets so tiring after a while, and leads to really nothing workable in the end anyway), I do get some real benefit from his immensely engaging and sincerely passionate locutions, that supremely dangerous jester par extraordinaire (though sometimes he dances on the edge of being a bomb-throwing Joker, a la Joaquin Phoenix, producing nothing but predictably snarky destruction); and the list could go on and on and on.
All of these people – – and there would be much more, if I had the time or the real hunger to read more deeply or widely, which I don’t – – have orientations or politics or limitations or blindnesses or excesses which I would not agree with. In some of them, there are qualities which I actually find to be detestable. There seem to be glaring inconsistencies and weaknesses. And yet, still, their insights give great benefit, and it is also benefit which helps my own dharma teachings.
You mentioned Cornel West: I once attended a visiting lecture of his at Harvard in around 1991/92 where he said some really, really wrong things about Buddhism. What he said was just flat out mistaken and even insulting. It wasn’t just my opinion. Several people near me (who were students and teaching assistants in some Buddhism classes I took) actually turned to each other with furrowed brows when he went on an anti-Buddhist rant during one session of a series of invitational lectures.
At some point in his discussion, some questions from the assembly referenced the impact of Buddhism on some modern thinkers. Maybe some student asked about the subject of insight into “emptiness“. Professor West’s tone turned immediately dismissive. He basically expressed that Buddhism is a kind of nihilism, a negative denialism, even a spiritual solipsism, and that, as a Christian, he could not really see the value of Buddhist insights into the nature of reality for helping the world, for functioning in social justice movements. He really went on a rant for some minutes, in the context of some larger discussion he was leading. I was utterly shocked. As a former student of his “Introduction to Philosophy“ and “Postmodernism“ courses in the Yale Divinity School, I was perfectly shocked to see his blindness and prejudiced mis-seeing! He was completely misinformed and even belittling, in his tone.
Experiencing those comments – – and his palpable derision of Buddhism, which I distinctly remember brought nervous titters from the packed audience– – made me feel so disappointed in his attachment to his Christian vision. Until that point, he had to been godlike to me; from that point, I saw that he, too, is like a frog trapped in a well, who thinks that what he sees of the sky is the very reality of the sky itself. In talk after talk after talk, in TV interview after TV interview after TV interview, barely 5 minutes go by when he is not asserting the degree to which his whole identity as a thinker-activist comes from the “Christian prophetic tradition“ or the “Christian truth-telling tradition“, things like that. He must constantly hold this identity out, and proclaim it, and exalt it, and this self-identification colors so much of what he sees and expresses. Good for him! He does lots of really, really great work with it. I cannot help but celebrate the great work that he does.
And yet, he holds the completely nonsensical view that the Buddhist insight into “emptiness“ is a kind of nihilism. At least that is what he was thinking in 1991 or 1992, when I attended his lecture at Harvard where he made those comments. One can only hope that he is better informed by now. And yet, despite that – – or maybe, in a perverse way, because of that – – I can still get enormous benefit from him, even while perceiving some manifest in-built limitations, some blinders on his supremely mind-blowing head.
Tribal identifications never interested me. I have never found it helpful to publicly identify myself as a “Buddhist“. I certainly express profound admiration and gratitude for the teachings of the Buddha, and clearly announce that I am a student of his path. But the conceptual over-identification with the packaging of this practice is something that I have striven – – and often imperfectly, as it sometimes turns out! – to not be too bound by any label or tribe, to the extent that it is possible. At least not as much, it seems, as my former professor!
I am forever grateful to my Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, for the extraordinary clarity of his transmission of the technologies for me to arrive at my own true self.
So, I’m not going to go into a disquisition about the merits and demerits of Sam Harris’s thinking on this or that subject or guest (the former might be needlessly long, the latter laughably short!). He is a brave person who has conversations and opinions about an incredibly wide spectrum of issues. He has precise, challenging conversations even with people with whom he disagrees, on subjects which might sometimes be considered untouchable, even dangerous. But everything he teases out through these statements and conversations, you always feel that this is — whatever the flammability of his own opinions – – the movement of a mind which is earnestly, almost painfully desirous of finding the truth, wherever and however and whatever that might be, given the subject and the interlocutor. And he certainly has his own ideas about where the truth might tend to be found! But he is always fully open to challenge, and it is not a few times when I have heard him express a change in his thinking, right on the spot, due to someone else’s better argument or data or presentation.
Part of my affinity for him might be the experience of pure intellectual sensuality: I truly appreciate the functioning of his rationality, his calm and careful, even surgical movement through the way a thought, a belief, or some social or intellectual shibboleth is unduly held sacrosanct. Listening to him, I might be brought back to the feeling of sitting in a classroom with one of my better professors at Yale. There is often with him the simple enjoyment of watching a great and fantastically tuned mind unfold before the eyes.
I appreciate profoundly his intense passion, even his neurotic obsession with certain subjects and fears (also, his passionate defense of his own views when they are, as usual, improperly re-presented in media or in other forums, cf. Ezra Klein et al.). I find “him” to be a preternaturally clear, meticulous, laser-like mental functioning who is exactly the kind of public intellectual I would have wanted to become, had I not chosen the path of meditation. (I could never have attained his level of understanding, not least because of the vast amount of absorption in books and conceptual ideas and and thinking, thinking, thinking that would have been required.)
I feel in him almost unbearably intense true and almost painfully sincere search for meaning – – real, substantial transcendental meaning – – amidst the endless dump-heap of cheap cultural, religious, social, and political conventions, prejudices, and tribal allegiances that guide the thinking and actions of the mass of society. When listening to him, it is less important for me to “learn“ the points that he arrives at. I notice myself sometimes simply enjoying — yes, even quietly enthralled by — the smooth, meticulous, earnest flow of an intellect guided solely by the hard journey of arriving at truths that are normally too difficult or sensitive for people to really look at, or – – if not arriving — just the journey itself of the flow of his relentless truth-seeking mind gives me great calm and inspiration that intellectual thinkers can use “dry cognition“ (as my Teacher used to call it) truly in the work of awakening. And I am fully aware of this irony as I listen to him: I, who have benefitted from years of completely letting go of the maintenance of the tools of the fantastic education I received and the powerful intellectual habits that it built, and who has been fully immersed for over three decades in a meditative, monastic life which bends to the power of “not knowing” — the before-thinking original nature, or “don’t know,” as my Teacher would call it, Osho Rajneesh’s “no mind” — I am still inspired profoundly by a man whose entire life is centered around the play of these illusory and empty ideas, the false substance of logical argument, the pointless pursuit of some “understanding” that can be gained through mere words and concepts, knowledge and analysis, critique and counter-argument.
And yet, perhaps alone among prominent public intellectuals (along with Yuval Noah Hariri), Sam Harris seems fully aware of the trap of “mere” thinking.
And this brings me to the last wellspring of my respect for Sam Harris: He is (like Hariri) a dedicated, seasoned meditator. While slashing through the thicket of ideas and conceptual understanding with all manner of people, Sam has always revealed that he is clearly aware of the ephemeral, insubstantial, even non-existent reality of “thinking.” What fortifies my appreciation of him —immeasurably! — is his movement from being a great and influential thought-leader having a personal, private meditation practice, to his sharing this ancient mind-technology through his hard work producing an extremely helpful, practical meditation app: “The Waking Up App”. This has brought improvement to so, so many peoples lives. I meet or hear from people, all the time, who have derived real, tangible benefit from working with this app. It is truly impossible to describe for you the immense joy I feel that a person of his highly-tuned, supremely sensitive intellect, and absorption in the endless thicket of ideas in so many fields, chooses to devote the better part of his energies to getting people to realize the innately complete nature of their own minds.
And while this content-packed app justly comes for a fee, he offers the app and his podcast subscription for free to anyone people who is economically challenged — no questions asked. I don’t know of any other app — or magazine or newspaper — on the market that makes such a compassionate gesture. As Sam put it in a letter to his subscribers just today: “Please understand how we view this policy: We are working hard to continue to grow both Waking Up and Making Sense as businesses. But our primary goal is to help people. We really don’t want money to be the reason why you don’t get value from the work we are doing. So please do not hesitate to ask for a free account on either or both platforms if you need to. “ I wonder if the other popular meditation apps -– Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, whatever – – offer even a spoonful of this kind of practical compassion while they shamelessly neuter, repackage, and sell their watered-down versions of the Buddha’s precious teaching as something that helps you sleep better?
Perhaps the very palpable gratitude I feel for such bodhisattva-action blinds this meditator to areas where others have problems with the dangerous places that Sam enters (and often blows up completely!). So be it. That might be a point well taken. But I have been a subscriber to his podcast since nearly the beginning, some years before he ever came up with this priceless meditation app which has proven so immensely popular and useful all over the world. I have “gifted“ a subscription to his podcast to more people than I have fingers. (And if I had a better income, I would gift it to many, many more!) I don’t feel irrevocably tethered to “needing“ to agree with him, or promote him, or celebrate him, or even defend him. But his passion and rigor – – and yes, his authentic Bodhisattva mind, oriented to liberating other’s minds through the practice of looking inside, “before-thinking” – – are qualities which truly inspire me, and I feel compelled to share this possibility of his mind with other people.
One last point: As I tried to express with the examples of the bold-faced names shared above, all great thinkers, all truly consequential enlighteners or guides to the landscape of the human mind, tend to be marked by apparent contradictions. At least the truly interesting ones are. In the video link that you recommended to me, the late activist Michael Brooks spends his discussion picking apart seeming contradictions in Sam’s views and expressions. Brooks’s team on the video relish in picking out statements or views that Sam has expressed here and there, which seem to clash with things he has claimed or expressed in other contexts. The whole gist of this video is to make it seem like Sam wants to eat his cake and have it, too. In the arts of critique, simply cherry-picking a thinker’s seeming contradictions is the lowest hanging fruit of all. Didn’t our first great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously say, ““A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines“?
Listening to this discussion on that video was certainly very interesting, and I thank you for forwarding it. I could see how such a beloved and influential progressive thinker as Michael Brooks would find offense with Sam. But I know that Sam almost deliberately holds himself out for criticism, because while he personally embraces strongly the wishes and aspirations of progressive thinking, he is extremely critical of the excesses of that thinking, especially when, as a movement, it kneecaps itself through a predictable identity or formula, a litmus test or a homogeneity of allegiance. As any great mind will, in the search for truth, Sam is that very rare free mind which is not cowed in the least by the sacred orthodoxies of his own tribe, able to express, concurrently, seemingly contradictory views which might, in their hybrid consideration, produce an insight into something which might be more original, more authentic, more “disruptive“ to the “foolish consistency“ of what has heretofore come before it. I welcome that in him, as I welcome that tension of seeming contradiction in any of the other great thinkers who I respect.
But how many people truly have the capacity to continue reveling in the bone-shaking ecstasy of the “Ode to Joy“, just concluded, and still feel that ecstasy is true and real minutes later after its creator has dumped a chamber-pot of his own urine on their heads? Probably not many.
Thanks again for your wonderful letter. Good luck with your search for a teacher. There is an ancient Zen saying which goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Just keep your daily practicing strong, not absorbing yourself in too many needless intellectual distractions and concerns, and through this steadiness and clarity, a teacher will emerge in your Path. This is definitely how it has happened to me — with all of my teachers, not just the Buddhist-monk ones!
Very best wishes.
Yours in the Dharma,