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Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
A longtime debate over Buddhism's religiosity has drawn a line between metaphysics and action.
If you were to go by the stream of psychology and neuroscience books published over the last two decades, you'd think Buddhism is an intricate philosophical system designed by a man with a keen insight for the emergence of psychoanalysis and philosophy some 2,400 years down the road.
Indeed, Buddhism lends itself to emergent sciences in ways no other faith has. In fact, many modern thinkers, including Sam Harris and Stephen Batchelor, question if faith is even necessary to understand Buddhism. The question of faith is one Siddhartha Gotama generally avoided. As Batchelor writes:
Gotama's dharma opened the door to an emergent civilization rather than the establishment of a “religion."
In an early instance of transcending tribalism, Buddha opened up his teachings to the entire world; it was not a gender- or race-dependent practice. Monks and nuns were in a co-dependent relationship with the public: the clergy offered spiritual sustenance while commoners provided them with food and money. Anyone could partake in the Three Jewels, either for a lifetime or, in some nations (such as Japan), for a season: dharma, Buddha's teachings; sangha, the community; and the Buddha. Faith in these three aspects offers ground-floor entry into the Buddhist life.
Yet, if faith is required, how is it not a religion? There is a notable difference in the way that Buddha treated religion and the ways in which his followers translated his teachings. Buddha was skeptical of the Indian faiths surrounding him. Buddhism arose thanks to Siddhartha's incessant questioning of traditions and spiritual authorities. He abandoned his two yoga teachers upon realizing they wanted him to believe what they taught without experiencing it for himself. In Buddhism, faith is dependent on experience and reasoning, not unexperienced hopes or wishful thinking.
Yet in practice, Buddhism is very much a religion. As of 2010, there were 488 million Buddhists, representing seven percent of the planet's population. The bulk resides in Asia, some 481 million, with North America coming in second at just under four million. Half of all Buddhists live in China, with Thailand, Japan, and Myanmar rounding out the top four countries.
Within the teachings, there is plenty of examples of metaphysical ideology, which links Buddhism to other religions. One of the most relevant genres of Buddhist literature is Abhidharmakosa, or “metaphysics." The lessons inside of these texts were said to be spoken by Buddha directly to the gods—his deceased mother being the main listener.
Despite a growing pile of clinical literature regarding the efficacy of mindfulness meditation, Buddhist rituals and beliefs do not always jive with modern science. In the Agganna Sutta, a Buddhist origin myth, the gods live on Mount Meru's slopes and atop the summit; one part of the mountain is made of lapis lazuli, which is why the ocean is blue. For these deities, one year is equivalent to one hundred human years; they get a thousand god years until death.
There's also the most contentious philosophy in Buddhism, rebirth. Of the 14 questions Buddha refused to answer, whether the universe has a beginning or end comprise two. During the cycles of existence (samsara), “you" can be born (and reborn) a god, demigod, human, animal, ghost, or denizen of hell. Displaying charity during your life makes it likely you'll be reborn a god, some of which have no physical form but exist only at the level of consciousness—a direct contradiction to our current understanding of embodied consciousness.
There are plenty of taboos and praying going on in Buddhism as well. There's even a scam ring based in New York City's Chinatown (that has spread outward) in which “ghost marriages" drain money from susceptible parents and grandparents. Buddhist ghosts live 500 leagues beneath the surface of the planet, emerging randomly to toy with human affairs. Only monks with supernormal powers can spot them.
Despite the Buddha's refusal to acknowledge a beginning or end to the universe, Buddhist cosmology is intricate and intense. Eight hot and eight cold hells await those who don't follow their vows, and those aren't even the only hells. Sentences are everything but lenient: getting thrown into a hot hell costs you millions of years. You'll receive such a sentence if you kill your mother, father, or an arhat (an enlightened being that will achieve nirvana upon death). You'll also reach this blazing cauldron if you wound the Buddha or cause a ruckus amongst monks and nuns.
Since the Buddha taught for 45 years after his awakening, there is no “book" that represents the totality of his teachings. Buddhism is even called a “religion of the books." Just as the Bible was written by numerous people over the course of centuries, Buddhist texts better represent the mindset of each particular author than any comprehensive overview of what Buddhism entails.
Is Buddhism a religion? To many, certainly. Like other world religions, it offers a set of ethical codes to be followed, best practices used to instill empathy, calm, and compassion into your day. It also has its system of metaphysics. What follows life—the heavens and hells—is specific to Buddhism, yet every religious system has devised its own mystical taxonomy. In this sense, Buddhism is not alone.
Yet Buddhism is also uniquely positioned to impact the growing secularism manifesting across the planet. And for this, there is plenty to learn from Buddhist ideology. As the writer Pankaj Mishra notes regarding one of Buddhism's main exports:
As with any kind of mental training, the discipline of meditation steadily equips the individual with a new sensibility. It shows him how the craving for things that are transient, essence-less and flawed leads to suffering.
Instead of craving an afterlife, Buddhism's intensive focus on the present moment, as well as developing an awareness that your actions (karma) produce consequences, prepares the initiate to face any trouble life presents them with. In this way Buddhism is not tribal, even if it's been turned into in- and out-groups waging wars. The sangha is more a collection of individuals sharing the perspective that desire is the root of suffering and your accumulated actions affect the world we all inhabit. Personal responsibility and social decorum interact.
These are lessons as applicable to our world today as during the days when Siddhartha spent over half of his life teaching them. For the religious, there is plenty to contemplate in this tradition. Regardless of spiritual affiliation, the knowledge that we suffer and that techniques exist for overcoming this suffering is of immense value, no metaphysical beliefs required. The faith is in the proof.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.