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Buddhism in the News


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bill Maher: Buddhism is a Crock and Outdated.

The Worst Horse as usual is on its game in reporting another example of just how foreign Buddhism still is to many in the West. Bill Maher, the American comedian and t.v. show host (who I usually find hilarious) recently said some pretty uninformed things about Buddhism. His comments are in red and mine in yellow:

Maher: [Buddhism] really is outdated in some ways — the “Life sucks, and then you die” philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died – but now we have medicine., and plenty of food

(James::Not all of us Bill, a lot of people in this world don't know where their next meal will come from. And medicine? Americans can't even afford medicine these days let alone impoverished countries. Go to Africa where I lived for two years and tell me there's enough food and medicine for everyone. Then tell me that thus there isn't much suffering from it.)

Maher: and iPhones, and James Cameron movies – our life isn’t all about suffering anymore.

(James: And life wasn't all about suffering back in Buddha's time either)

Maher: And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it,

(James::Buddhists seek to alleviate suffering too but we also have had the revelation that no amount of "relieving" can end the suffering. What Buddhists are more interested in other than alleviating suffering is to END suffering once and for all through, what I would consider to be the first "12 Steps" program that is the Eight-Fold Path).
If Buddha saw life as hopeless as Maher believes he taught then why would he have even tried to develop a system to deliver himself from it?

Maher: Tiger said, “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves” makes us unhappy, which confirms something I’ve long suspected about Eastern religions: they’re a crock, too. Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life

(James: And despite its highlights, life is full of a lot of suffering Bill. There isn't enough money--even for a lot of millionaires who won't be "satisfied" until they get a BILLION dollars. Even those that spend their money can never buy enough houses, clothes, boats, vacations to feel satisfied for long. We lust after something until we get it and then quickly become bored with it and we return again to enslaving ourselves to crave once more. Buddha didn't say that we couldn't enjoy life but that we should enjoy life in moderation to reduce our suffering, and he laid out a path that many people have followed over the millennia toward lasting peace of mind and happiness.

And Buddha didn't command any of this, which is what I think separates Buddhism from many of the traditionally defined, "religions." Buddha encouraged seeing for oneself if his techniques do indeed bring about a greater peace and a life of less suffering by direct experience, which isn't unlike the scientific method where direct observations are the basis of knowledge. Pursue a life of constant seeking for the next "buzz of pleasure" and then live life for at time following the Buddha's guidelines and see, which way gives you the strongest feeling of satisfaction and happiness of life. If you find you think Buddhism is only causing you more problems then best of luck. Sincerely. A lot of people come and go with Buddhism. Buddhism doesn't want to force anyone to do anything. Buddhism would rather let the people come to it so that they are making a choice of their own free will and feel ready to follow such a path).

Maher: — I don’t want to learn to not want, that’s what people in prison have to do

(James: We're in a prison, now, Bill--look around you--We Want a better job, want a new car, want our body to heal quicker or look sexier, want our spouse to change to how we think they should be, and on and on. It's a prison without bars that lures us with shiny new distractions to keep us from finding a way out of the suffering. However, it doesn't have to be an either or proposition as you're stating. You're saying Buddhism says "life sucks, it has no meaning, purpose or value" but that is a common misconception. That isn't Buddhism--that's nihilism. Buddhism teaches that there is a way to live in balance with things of the world yet reduce your long-term suffering. That is what Buddhism offers).

Maher: And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn’t there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, “My name is Herb Zoller and I’m an accountant.” …something?

(James: First of all not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. A lot of Buddhists believe in rebirth and yet still others believe in neither. As for proof? Even science says that energy never disappears but simply changes form. There are many Buddhists who say that it doesn't really matter much what happens after death (if anything) because the only moment we have is this one. For these Buddhists they focus on the rebirth that happens within this lifetime. For example, I am a completely different person from who I was 10-12 years ago when I was an ardent Mormon who was politically conservative. Now I am a Liberal Buddhist!!

But the point of rebirth, in my view, isn't so much about whether we are reborn a slug, or even reborn at all but rather that we realize how our actions affect our future. It's about becoming aware of how we alone are the architects of our own life and what our life becomes is directly influenced by our actions. So, for me, it comes down to what you reap is what you sow. And if all you water are seeds of hatred, greed and delusion then you will reap a lot of misery but if you water seeds of love, compassion and patience then you will reap the opposite and leave a better world behind then when you were born into it.

Maher: People are always debating, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy: it’s a religion. You’re a religion if you do something as weird as when the Buddhist monks scrutinize two-year-olds to find the reincarnation of the dude who just died, and then choose one of the toddlers as the sacred Lama: “His poop is royal!” Sorry, but thinking you can look at a babbling, barely-housebroken, uneducated being and say, “That’s our leader” doesn’t make you enlightened. It makes you a Sarah Palin supporter.

(James: Bill, I like you--I really do, and while I think your usually well informed, on Buddhism you're quite ignorant. Only one school of Buddhism believes that their teachers are reincarnated, and that's Tibetan Buddhism. If you have a problem with Tibetan Buddhism then take that up with the Dalai Lama, but I would have expected you to know better than to lump all Buddhists together. I didn't want to write this to defend Buddhism so much as to explain it, as best as a common practitioner like myself can to those who aren't familiar with Buddhism so they, can hear both sides).

~Peace to all beings~

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dharmamonkey said...

Thanks for the constructive response. I was pretty shocked at the amount of -- don't want to say ignorance -- un-informed-ness that he displayed. He typically makes a very educated, well-reasoned argument, but not this time.


Jacob Duchaine said...

Agreed. I've found much of what he's said in the past funny, well researched and pointedly logical. This time it looks like he just wanted to skip it and so didn't bother to do his research. =( Quite disappointing.

David said...

It has often surprised me when people seem to equat Buddhism with politically liberal positions...and how many have gone from one extreme to another in their lives.

That said, next time could you kindly use another color other than yellow for your comments? While it looks great on your website, those of us subscribed via RSS feed find it nearly useless.

Professor Of Pop said...

I am the only person I know who does NOT find Bill Maher funny, and not because he says silly (and true) things about Buddhism but because most of his material is cheap, easy laughs for liberals, and Mr Maher is a bit of a demagogue, isn't he? Sitting through one of his HBO shows, now *that's* suffering.

Olivia Magdelene said...

I take most comments by comedians with a grain of salt anyway. He's looking for laughs. Religion of all stripes is open season for Maher. He holds no sacred cows when it comes to such things. What I can say is "to each his own." I do agree that he doesn't have the gist of the philosophy down right but to a good section of his audience, that doesn't matter. There is a large anti-religion movement growing and he's a part of it. Just another aspect of the Great All.

Riverwolf, said...

Sounds like ol' Bill is caught up in some suffering himself--otherwise, he really wouldn't be all worried about whether someone follows Buddhism or not.

Carlon Haas said...

I think it's a win for Buddhism that someone's actually making fun of of us.

The only problem is that guys like Maher don't know anything about Buddhism except what they've read in a book of inspirational quotes.

But Bill is right on about something. Craving things outside ourselves is what makes life life.

And life is suffering. Looks like he agrees with the Buddha without even knowing it.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

I'm hopeful that it's just a case of - as Richard Harold pointed out and Jacob here suggests - a let down by his writing/research staff and not willful ignorance and distortion on his part.

Bill seems like a pretty good guy, from what I've seen - let's hope he takes this opportunity to say he was wrong and how cool Buddhism is and how cool he is in the process :)

Jacob Duchaine said...

Well, although it'd be nice if he said Buddhism was cool, I think it'd be more in line with his style if he took another try and poking fun at it, and this time did his homework. I'm sure he can find something to poke fun at.

C1 said...

I would also add that debating whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is a bit of a false choice. In my mind it can be either. People can choose to follow it to the letter and believe everything with faith the way other religions work or they can simply follow the practice and philosophy of it and think rather freely. The thing about Christianity for example is that you have to believe in God to be a Christian, but in Buddhism you don't even have to necessarily believe that the Buddha even existed, you could just simply choose to follow the philosophies which have been tested for over two millennia.

Jacob Duchaine said...

Right, that and numerous oversights, like the aforementioned summing up of Tibetan's Lama's with all of Buddhism, I fully respect the Dalia Lama as a wise, well educated, and masterful Buddhist leader, but that doesn't mean I necessarily believe he's the incarnation of the previous Dalia Lama. And many of the points he made either didn't delve deeply enough, and just made a straw man of the surface of some teachings without looking any deeper, or more frequently took the isolated beliefs of a small group of Buddhists as the beliefs of the greater whole. With only a little research his comedic analysis of Buddhism could have been much more accurate, and much funnier, for everyone.

Jamie said...

Poor bill... Ironic isn't it that the worst kind of suffering not even knowing that you're suffering!!!

Kboy said...

He is just trying to be funny and cute. Most people do not understand the Dharma and that is his target audience.
Big deal
No anger. Noble Truth my friends.

Modern Girl said...

As a Canadian with a comparative religious background but not much education on Buddhism specifically, I honestly don't see how your arguments really refute what Bill Maher is saying - other than the Dali Lama comment.

The whole idea of suffering is what drove me away from learning more about Buddhism, because it seemed very nihilst.

They call him James Ure said...


Yeah, no problem. I'd be happy to use another color. I was racking my mind to think of a color that went well with red on a black background but yellow was all that I could come up with. Any suggestions?

Professor of Pop:

Yeah, he can be a bit of a demagogue from time to time. I don't always agree with him.

Riverwolf: Exactly.


Yeah it's pretty funny how he comes around in the end to agree with Buddha!! Now THAT's funny!!


I don't think anyone was getting angry here--just disagreeing with Bill Maher.

They call him James Ure said...

Modern Girl:

Well, no worries. I don't expect everyone to agree with Buddhist thought and I appreciate you offering your views. Interesting how two people can see totally different things because I see Buddhism as anything BUT nihilistic.

Thanks for commenting and reading. All the best.

Alucinari said...

Bill Maher is not well-informed at all. Take for example his movie Religulous...I wonder if he actually did any research on religion before he even interviewed or made the movie. He just has a lot of assumptions without any actual training. He has categories and stereotypes in his mind and tries to make religion fit those categories through the lens of a bitter man. People don't disprove religion or put down other religions by showing what is stupid, funny, or ridiculous about a religion, rather, they put forth their own ideas and philosophies in order to show the questions that religion can't answer or hasn't answered. It was a funny movie, but ultimately it made me realize that he is really only poking fun at his preconceived notions. What bothers me about Bill Maher is that there are some atheists who actually listen to him as if he knows what he is talking about. Seriously?

tnattam said...

Thanks a lot for posting this entry. I'm a bit of a Bill Maher fan and a Buddhist, and I have to admit his little rant dissapointed me. I was pleased to see that Buddhism was notably absent in his movie "Religulous." I guess no comedian can resist the temptation of the Tiger Woods story, and he latched on to the mention of Buddhism in Tiger's apology, and decided to lump it together with the rest of his anti-religion stance.

I think it's important to also add to this response to him that the 'suffering' the Buddha talked about was not always so concrete and noticeable (like physical pain, sadness, hunger). My understanding is the word "dukkha" used in the Four Noble Truths can also be seen as the subtle, underlying sense of unsatisfactoriness and unfulfillment we sometimes feel. That translation is especially relevant to people in the West who have tons of money and material comforts (as Bill Maher no doubt has). Dukkha for them is much more subtle and harder to notice, because they have the means to endlessly distract themselves.

I hope people come to realize Buddhism is about joy; not suffering.

Jacob Duchaine said...


That is my understanding as well. I think that Buddhism, as well as addressing the fact that no matter how much wealth or love you have, you're going to grow old, get sick, feel physical discomforts, it primarily concerns the idea that if you have too much of those things, that causes the extra suffering that is the feeling of dissatisfaction that all to many lonesome billionaires on television lament late in the night sitting in an arm chair by a fire.

Buddhism doesn't say that you should make your life suffering either. It simply suggests that you realize that it already is, so you can start working towards alleviating it.

bill m said...

Jacob Duchaine took the words right out of my mouth. I was quite disappointed to see those words were coming from Maher's mouth. He obviously needs to do more homework before he opens his mouth about Buddhism; he hasn't even scratched the surface.

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Anirudh said...

In Bhagavad-Gita Lord SriKrishna says to Arjuna:
“I taught this immortal Yoga to Vivasvan (sun-god), Vivasvan conveyed it to Manu(his son), and Manu imparted it to (his son) Iksvaku. Thus transmitted to succession from father to son, Arjuna, this Yoga remained known to the Rajarisis (royal sages). It has however long since disappeared from this earth. The same ancient Yoga has this day been imparted to you by Me, because you are My devotee and friend, and also because this is a supreme secret”.
At this Arjuna said: You are of recent origin while the birth of Vivasvan dates back to remote antiquity. How, then, I am to believe that you taught this Yoga at the beginning of creation? Lord SriKrishna said: Arjuna, you and I have passed through many births. I remember them all, you do not remember.
1. Radha Soami Faith was founded by His Holiness Param Purush Puran Dhani Huzur Soamiji Maharaj on the prayer of His Holiness Huzur Maharaj who later on became second Spiritual Head of Radha Soami Faith. The prime object of the Radha Soami Faith is the emancipation (Moksha) of all Jeevas (Souls) i.e. to take the entire force of consciousness to its original abode. There is a tradition of succession of Gurus or Spiritual Adepts in Radha Soami Faith. I am one of them as is evident from the following facts or ….
“My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith.
Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”

It appears that I have been sent on this Earth by Almighty Lord to work for the emancipation (Moksha) of all jeevas.

Jeanne said...

Perhaps Bill thinks it is a "crock" (which is a bit simplistic indeed) because Buddhism, as well as many other beliefs, are seeking. Kinda like the carrot in front of the horse. What is there to "seek" if you choose joy...I mean really choose it in each moment and experience the magnificence of life NOW.
That's all anyone has anyway regardless of challenges, obstacles, differences, lack, illness etc. Buddhism may point you in the direction, but you have to get yourself "there."
My question is why are all the monks men? I guess there a few women allowed in now...Were we just supposed to just make the tea all of these centuries? It is just so obvious it makes me wonder if anyone has a brain.

DG Platt said...

As a (sort of) ecumenical person (I follow the teachings of Jesus without believing in every word of the Bible, plus I practise Zazen and read many spiritual texts) I have one comment for the people who are surprised at Maher's ignorance of Buddhism. If you look at Maher's opinions on other religions, he is often as misinformed. He has a very superficial view of the religions in which he was brought up (Catholicism and Judaism) and a worse grasp of anything outside those traditions.

I think Maher's "brilliance" is very questionable once you dig a little deeper.

They call him James Ure said...


Buddhism has indeed not kept up with the times on nuns. However, some sects and traditions have had a long tradition of nuns. Less so in Theravada but more so in Mahayana. At least that's been my experience.

DG Platt:

Prabhu Peiris said...

I think most of the weatern people are pretty uninformed of Buddhism because they think it is a religion that only describe about the uncertainty of life, but ther are wrong, because anyone who knows buddhism well would know that Lord Buddha has taught a lot of things that can be applied to our lives to make it more successful.

Prabhu Peiris said...

I think most of the weatern people are pretty uninformed of Buddhism because they think it is a religion that only describe about the uncertainty of life, but ther are wrong, because anyone who knows buddhism well would know that Lord Buddha has taught a lot of things that can be applied to our lives to make it more successful.

Prabhu Peiris said...

I thing most of the western people are uninformed of Buddhism is beacause the do not pay much attention to it. This is mainly because they think that Buddhism is a religion that speaks only about uncertanty of life, but the truth is, it is not. Lord Buddha has taught alot of things that we can apply for the success of our life.

Anonymous said...

I just came by this blog by googling Bill Maher on Buddism. I was not raised Buddhist but am very familiar with the religion. I am from Viet Nam, and going to pagodas and worshipping Buddha and Quan Yi were regular for me. With that said, I do like Bill Maher's comments and found them very funny. I do believe in some of the Buddhist teachings, but a lot of them are bullshit to me. I like Buddhism but do not blindly follow it.

Seng Shui said...

As you can see, only Buddhism can answer all the questions any man doubts of. I feel so lucky I am a Buddhist.

Anonymous said...

i personally have a lot of respect for bill maher. being a very brilliant man and putting most worldly religions in there place. but he has never had something strong enough to put buddhism anywhere but where it already is. a time tested self help philosophy.

Unknown said...

Actually, the first part sounded like irony to me - like he was actually a supporter of Buddhism. To me, nobody in their sane mind would seriously argue against the statement that "Life sucks, and then you die"

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