A Strange Cocktail

Sunday May 23, 2010


Some months ago, I received a newsletter from a Buddhist retreat centre with information about recent events. And because this is a place where I have spent several very enjoyable retreats, I sat down with a cup of tea to read through. About half way in to the newsletter, I came across an article about some changes that were being considered at the centre. They were planning to dig a well somewhere in the grounds, and so they had called in the services of a dowser to find a suitable position.

At this point I recalled my own – admittedly rather limited – personal experience of dowsing. When I was about eleven, some friends and I attempted to dowse for Easter eggs during an Easter egg hunt. We picked up a forked twig and hurtled around uncovering chocolate eggs. Every one we found we took to be evidence of the power of the twig; nevertheless, by the end of the egg hunt, I do not recall us having found any more eggs than any other participants. I don’t think I ever tried dowsing again.

It seemed puzzling to me that this organisation should see fit to employ a dowser to find ground water, a procedure that soon after it was first described in the sixteenth century – not generally thought of as the most sceptical of eras – was already considered somewhat dubious. After all, the overwhelming evidence seems to be that, in testing conditions, dowsing simply does not work (there’s a summary on James Randi’s site here and another here). As a result of this mass of evidence, when an organisation like the British Society of Dowsers claims to be interested in exploring the “scientific principles” of dowsing, it is hard not to think that they are being a bit premature: we need to know that there is a phenomenon in need of explanation before exploring the scientific principles of this phenomenon.

Of course there’s probably no more harm in employing a dowser than there is in employing other more contemporary smoke-and-mirrors magicians, such as a branding or PR consultant. But I’m not sure there’s any point to it either. But leaving the supposed virtues or otherwise of dowsing (there will be comments, no doubt…) to one side, what I am interested in is another question: what is the connection between dowsing and a meditation retreat centre?

The answer, from the outside, is obvious: that Western Buddhists are part of a much larger world of curious beliefs, ranging from dowsing to homoeopathy to crystal healing to angel spirit guides, a well-meaning hodge-podge lacking in much rigour and in which it is possible to move seamlessly from talking about the neuroscientific evidence for the benefits of meditation to talking about ley lines, reiki and how to find your shamanic power animal. And in these kinds of situations, it is considered somewhat unseemly to raise questions about pesky things like evidence, or how all this is supposed to work or hang together. It is this hodge-podge that has, over the years, made me increasingly uneasy with the various forms of Buddhism in the West, and the broader cultural context in which Buddhist practice takes place.

Sometimes it seems that Buddhism in the West is a strange cocktail indeed: 1/3 Blavatskyian new age speculation; 1/3 distillation of Buddhist texts; 1/3 psychobabble; and a pinch of science for added flavour (optional). Shake vigorously, warm slightly over the fires of good intentions, and consume. There. Now don’t you feel better already?

# · Charles

Thank you for posting this, as it’s something that needs serious discussion. A friend of mine, a scholar of religion and media, gets upset when other scholars use the word ‘art’ to mean something that is always, umimpeachably good. Many ‘spiritual’ people I meet treat spirituality in the same way. It’s always good. It’s unquestionable. If you believe, that’s enough. But time and effort have value. Causes have effects. Actions have consequences. The periphery that seems harmless to you makes others dismiss out of hand the things that are worthwhile and central to your practice.

For this reason I rarely refer to myself as a Buddhist or tell acquaintances that I practice Zen because they make assumptions grounded in the dubious alliances of others who use the same words. I hesitate to even try to find a “sangha”, because when I have tried, I find that most of the people there are more interested in their use of words like “sangha” than in actually developing the community’s goals and strengths.

# · Pete D.

Will – thanks for this post. We host a sitting group (unaffiliated with any particular lineage) in our home twice a month, open to all. After we sit for 50 minutes, we share tea & discussion. Quite often someone mentions some new-agey thing as if it were a matter of fact (it usually includes some vague reference to ‘energy’) and I find myself in a pickle. To me the whole point of sitting meditation is to move away from the unfounded stories we tell ourselves and try, even for a moment, to see reality as it is. But I feel like a jerk if I question the stuff people bring up as to its authenticity, efficacy etc. So I usually just sit in uncomfortable silence.

# · Jayarava

So Western Buddhism is just like every other form of Buddhism then.

# · Doug

I think there is an interestig trend in Buddhism to adapt and “Buddhify” aspects of cultures it encounters. Many of today’s “deities” in East Asian Buddhism, especially esoteric Buddhism, started out as local deities in India or China and transformed thusly.

Trouble is, how to keep Buddhism grounded amidst this transformation. That’s why I suppose such lists as the Three Dharma Seals, the Five Precepts and the Four Noble Truths exist to provide a simply, clear-cut reality check. But have all Buddhist teachers in the West had sufficient training to keep things grounded as such?

In the US if you don’t like a certain church or teacher you can always go
next door and find a better one. But with so few qualified Buddhist teachers here can we Buddhists afford the opportunity to do the same?

Time will tell I suppose…

# · jr cline

I feel a lot better. Psychobabble always makes me feel better.

# · axel g

Mix and match!

I’ve observed that many seekers put together their own spiritual programs and the same holds true for holistic therapists.

The outer forms are of less importance, what truly matters is your mental state…

# · Malcolm

Laughing at Jayarava’s remark. I guess the question is what practitioners are to do about the hodge-podge? Holding out for a “pure” Buddhism is idealism, but there are difficulties in finding community.

# · Curt

Say, I guess the comment I mad e on the other thread about the new Koan that I developed for my own new Unitarian- Universalist Buddhist Marxist Libertarain (true)Conservative Faschist Sufi Bahai sect should go on this thread instead.
In addition, I have developed a new rule for how the shrine room should be set up. The Buddha statue should have a place of honor in the very center of the room. The Buddha statue should be the smallest thing in the room. It should be made out of simple play dough, but flexablity is allowed. Even a diamond Buddha statue will be acceptable.
I am still thinking about the rest of the room but I have not come to any firm conclusions. I like the idea of a well but the idea of a toilet system that composts human waste sounds even better.
Act (Reasonabbly) Now, Mediate Later.
with friendly greetings from Aachen,

# · Robert Ellis

Dowsing seems pretty harmless, because even if it doesn’t work all that happens is that you’ve failed to find water. However, widespread Western Buddhist attraction to homeopathy makes me much more uneasy. Not only is it fairly clear that homeopathy works no better than a placebo (see Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ book/ website/ newspaper column), but the consequences of it not working may be serious. For example, homeopaths sometimes advise people not to take anti-malaria prophylactics or not to have vaccinations.

There’s also the question of conflict between the Buddhist fourth precept, enjoining honesty, and any form of new age pseudo-science. Obscuring the relationship between claims and evidence by cherry-picking studies, doing experiments without control samples, or just being very vague, is dishonest. Still, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised if people who accept the authority of both ancient texts and modern gurus with insufficient examination also accept the authority of modern quack remedies.

# · Will

I’m just still bitter about my lack of success with the Easter egg hunt, Robert. I do agree that homoeopathy is a more worrying case (although have you heard Ben Goldacre’s radio shows on the placebo effect – really fascinating stuff). The broader question of the place – or absence of a place – for genuinely critical thought in the Buddhist world is an interesting one, I think.

# · ceci

Pete, as someone new to Buddhism who shares your wariness of fuzzy new-agey talk, I hope we can both find the courage to speak up in the future, rather than sit in uncomfortable silence. Respectful dialogue is possible if both parties keep open minds — the other’s view, with clarification, may prove valid once terms are defined, etc. That said, may we eschew obfuscation! :)

# · Jayarava

Actually if you believe homeopathy works then in many cases it does. The placebo effect is far more powerful than previously thought as recent research has shown. It’s easy to get hung up on factual truth, but as religious believers we often entertain ideas which cannot be “proved” but which have some other (often pragmatic) value. I’m writing about this on Friday, focusing on the karma belief. We cannot afford to simply write off anything which science can’t prove! And I write this as someone with a B.Sc in chemistry.

# · Monica

I was just having the same thoughts. nebuddhist.blogspot…. Kismet? Or just coincidence? Or possibly this is a topic making the rounds in the blogosphere.

Right now I’m spending a few days at one of my favorite retreat centers. They like to decide where to site their buildings via feng shui, which makes me shake my head. I’m willing to give most things the benefit of the doubt, but when the feng shui expert’s recommendations clash with everything I’ve learned as an architect and planner about appropriate siting of buildings, I just want to scream. But, alas, there’s no use for it. Once someone high enough up the administrative food chain buys into something, be it dowsing, reiki, feng shui, or handwriting analysis (I had a boss who had all job applicants analyzed), then it become gospel. Maybe that’s what religion really is? ;-)

Thanks for the healthy skepticism.

# · roni

David L. McMahan describes the ingredients of this strange coctail thoroughly in his “The Making of Buddhist Modernism”. A great book, I think.

# · Robert Ellis

Jayarava, you are right that the placebo effect can be powerful, and it seems fine to me that we should use such effects if we acknowledge that that’s what they are. However, homeopathy makes a great many dishonest claims about its operation, and does not generally admit that it works through a placebo effect. This may be because the placebo effect does not work if people believe it is a placebo effect! Relying on placebo alone is thus necessarily dishonest. So, to avoid dishonesty the only feasible alternative is only to use remedies that have some evidence to support them beyond placebo.

The idea that critics of Buddhist tradition or its auxiliary pseudo-sciences are necessarily hung up on ‘factual truth’ or want ‘proof’ is a straw man. It is not necessary to compare homeopathy to an ideal level of proof to find it wanting, just to require a degree of justified evidence which shows its practical effectiveness in human experience. If we wrote off ‘anything that science can’t prove’ we would write off everything, since science cannot prove anything absolutely! The problem with homeopathy, as with karma belief, is nothing to do with whether science can ‘prove’ it, but that its lack of justification in our experience makes it useless to us.

# · Jayarava

Robert: It might be interesting to add up the lies told and the harm done by homeopaths, and weigh that against the lies told and the harm done by, say, the pharmaceuticals industry.

So far as I know the tests of the usefulness of homeopathy have not taken belief into account. This is presumably because the pharmaceutical companies, who invented the term “placebo effect”, do their best to eliminate it from their tests because it delivers so many “false positives”.

# · NellaLou

Can science prove itself? Only relatively and to a certain degree as Robert stated:

“If we wrote off ‘anything that science can’t prove’ we would write off everything, since science cannot prove anything absolutely!”

The yardsticks of proof can be as variable as the subject matter which is to be measured. Criticism seems to be a matter of most appropriately calibrating the measuring instruments including the attendant thought processes. The latter seems to be what sometimes lacks in the accretions of “woo” that come to bejewel the Buddhist endeavor.

“Arrrgh matey give them barnacles a scrape!”

# · andrew merz

buddhism in the west may often be “a strange cocktail,” in so far as the tradition has basically always been one, but i don’t think dowsing really falls into the same realm of spiritual belief as the usual new age litany. folk-science, maybe. in any case, it worked when my decidedly un-new agey new england-er engineer father hired a dowser when he wanted to dig a well.

i believe in the value of healthy skepticism, but I also feel that it plays in too easily to the ego’s desire for certainty as a strategy for comfort and control, and thus cuts us off from parts of experience that might challenge that illusion.

# · Robert Ellis

Lies told by the pharmaceutical industry do not make homeopathic ones any better – a tu quoque fallacy, Jayarava.

And what would it mean to ‘take belief into account’ beyond recognising its power, and trying to distinguish what is due to that power and what is not? Yes, our world is moulded by our beliefs, but it is not solely created by them. The only way we can get to grips with the conditions beyond those created by wishful believing is by thinking critically about what experience does or does not justifiably tell us.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles