Do Buddhist teachers in North America affect thaumaturgy? If so–and, bear with me; this is not meant as a nasty question–how would they compare to the Wizard of Oz? With the aid of high sensory pageantry and other catalyzing paraphernalia, the Wizard of Oz affected wonder-working powers. Do North American Buddhist teachers do so as well? (See links to movie clips at the very end of this post.)

Recent research in cognitive science, suggests that they do. The evidence suggests, however, that they do so in subtle, barely discernible, ways. In the article that I present for you here, “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion,” Justin Barrett presents evidence that “the cultural phenomenon typically labeled as ‘religion,’ may be understood as the product of aggregated ordinary cognition.” Barrett asks, for example, whether God concepts are really all that different from guerrilla concepts, or whether performing a religious ritual is fundamentally different from sending a greeting card to a friend.

Data from cognitive science answers “no” to these questions. I hope you will use Barrett’s article to give thought to various aspects of Buddhist practice, including devotional rituals, the treatment of artifacts, and the efficacy ascribed to meditation practice. Here, I would like to give some thought to how the findings in cognitive science bear on our understanding of the teacher. My question, again, is: Do Buddhist teachers in North America affect thaumaturgy?

Before I present some suggestive evidence in this court of inquiry, I want to frame the issue within my project of Speculative non-Buddhism. First, a reminder that the pervasive concern of my entire project is encapsulated in this question: to what extent can knowledge be incorporated into “Buddhism”? Knowledge is whatever contributes to perspicacity concerning our human situation. In the present case, we are considering knowledge given us by cognitive science. Knowledge is not doctrine, not faith, not belief, not the claims of your teacher. Is “Buddhism” a form of knowledge?  On the face of it, “Buddhism” names nothing in life. At least, I am suggesting, we cannot know what in life it does name until we find ourselves involuntarily, spontaneously performing the following: devitalizing Buddhism’s voltaic network of postulation; canceling its warrant to truth and certainty; and, finally, vacating its protective refuge. Only once “Buddhism” lies prostrate and deflated (hence “non-Buddhism”) can we begin to give calm thought to its charge.

And what now becomes clear? It becomes clear that Buddhist teachers are a sub-type of specialist. Whether they present themselves as religious specialists, spiritual specialists, ritual specialists, specialists in life wisdom, meditation specialists, or specialists in being “ordinary,” they are creating an aura of expectation for something special. But are they affecting thaumaturgy? Pascal Boyer offers the following powerful prism through which to speculate on this question. Boyer writes:

 “Notions of ritual specialists are based on non-religious notions of causal essence. People think of such ritual specialists as having some internal, vaguely defined quality that sets them apart from the common folk. Learning to perform the rites [is secondary]; what matters most is possession of that internal capacity, conceived in quasi-biological terms. This is where, once again, what may have seemed a specifically religious phenomenon is derived from common cognition. The notion of a hidden causal essence that cannot be observed yet explains outward form and behavior, is a crucial feature of our spontaneous, intuitive way of thinking about living species. Here, it is transferred upon a pseudo-natural kind, as it were: a sub-kind of human agents with different essential characteristics.” (Pascal Boyer, “Out of Africa: Lessons from a By-Product of Evolution,” p. 33; in, Religion as Human Capacity [Leiden: Brill, 2004].)

The notion of “enlightenment,” is a prime example of “hidden causal essence.” Why does the Dalai Lama act the way he does? Because he is, of course, an “enlightened” being. His actions are impelled by this  “essence,” hence it is “causal.” The essence, moreover, is invisible to us; hence, it is “hidden.” Being hidden, how are we affected by it? Below, I offer some telling signs that spark our imputation of special qualities onto a person. An all-too-common result of this imputation of hidden causal essence is that we easily—indeed, spontaneously and “naturally”— elevate certain humans to an exclusive status. Cognitive science aims to show that such a move results from the habits of everyday cognition. We assume that entities, whether human, animal, or even imagined (such as “God”), possess qualities that are intrinsic and, indeed, essential to that kind of entity. The question here is to what extent Buddhist teachers in North America excite and encourage assumptions of their special, hidden, causal essence (as enlightened, wise, possessing special curative powers–of, in short, having the answer.) Given the fact that teachers here do all of this and more, I think we need to consider that they do indeed affect thaumaturgy. A question that should follow on this one is to what extent, and in what specific ways, that stance is salutary or harmful to their students.

Telling signs of thaumaturgical display among North American Buddhist teachers include: masking identity with special naming, clothing, and hair styles; exalted utterance, verbal demiurgy; narratological seizure; assumption of privileged status as ritual officiate; wielding unique power objects; functioning as high pageantry eminence; serving as guardians of the axis mundi. As my readers know, we could add much more. (Please do so in the comments section!)

In a matter such as this, it may not be imprudent to cast the issue in more personal terms. May we ask the following questions as illustrations of the issue: Why does Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche dress up like a medieval Tibetan princeling? Surely he understands that he is living in a twenty-first century western democracy. Why does Lama Surya Das—a man who preaches “the natural, primordially pure nature of mind”—go by that Tibetan/Hindu hybrid name, rather than his given name, Jeffrey Miller? Why does Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara dress up in the glorified garb of a medieval Japanese farmer? Why does Sharon Salzberg present herself as “an intensive meditator since 1971” (and why the ever-present smile)? I do not mean for these questions to be cruel. I am genuinely curious about the answers. And I don’t mean the easy answers about, for example, the upholding of tradition, the value of received forms, the rhetoric of “this is just how we do things.” I am curious about a more reflective answer. Would the students of these teachers be disappointed if the teachers appeared in everyday clothing, everyday hairstyles, using their given names, speaking everyday English? What do the teachers fear would be lost in the foregoing of traditional forms? Is it possible that something of even greater value may be gained? Is it not ironic that Buddhist teachers, who, ostensibly, espouse  values such as  ego reduction, commonality with others, freedom, and simplicity, burden their students with new, albeit Buddhist, forms of neurotic attachment? Teachers: why don’t you step out from behind your curtain?

In other words:

Pay no attention to the person behind the curtain

What you’re seeking already lies within you

Here is Justin Barrett’s article: “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” It first appeared in Trends in Cognitive Science, volume 4, number one, January 2000.

Justin Barrett is a professor in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. Here is his webpage.

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