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?
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