Buddhism & scepticism

My comments about Buddhism are particularly focused upon the practices and ideas of Soto Zen, the approach of Thich Nhat Hanh and aspects of Theravada practice – especially mindfulness.

Buddha sculpture, Angkor Wat, Cambodia c.1130-1150

Buddha sculpture, Angkor Wat, Cambodia c.1130-1150

Buddha and the three marks of existence

We know little about the historical Buddha. It is quite likely that he belonged to a tribal group – the Shakya or Sakya, hence his name Shakyamuni – and may have been the son of a tribal elder. This was before the time of palaces and cities. He probably lived in a large thatched dwelling in the forest, surrounded by his extended family. However according to popular legend, as a child the Buddha was a pampered prince living in wealth and seclusion on his family estate. His parents seem to have done what parents are advised not to do with their children, which is to spoil them with an inordinate amount of love, comfort and security. He was shielded from anything that might suggest that life was anything other than a long holiday. His every need was satisfied and nothing disturbed the cosseted harmony of his life. It was only as a young man that he ventured out into the world beyond his royal estate. What he encountered there came as a great shock to him and prompted questions that he sought to explore for the rest of his life. This traditional narrative, no doubt developed over hundreds of years, may not tally with the historical evidence but it is a useful lens through which to view some key insights of the Buddha.

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Diagnosing and treating suffering

One of the aims of the Buddha (like many teachers, artists, philosophers and doctors) is to help us to wake up to this very life – to experience life in all its ineffable beauty and mystery. One of the main methods used is to enquire into the nature of being alive, by asking, what is this? What is this reality that unfolds every second? What is this thing I see before me? What, or who, am I? Like the sceptic, who is always investigating but never reaching a dogmatic conclusion, the Buddha challenges us to ponder on the imponderable, to encounter the koans of everyday life – the puzzling and paradoxical nature of being.

Coming to a realisation of what this is, involves understanding that if we don’t wake up to how the world is, and we are, we will inevitably suffer, because we are attached to false ideas and beliefs about reality. We come to recognise that there is a fundamental mismatch between our ideas and beliefs about the world, and how the world actually is. This mismatch, or misunderstanding, is the cause of much dissatisfaction, conflict and suffering. Identifying this suffering, its causes and cures, is central to the Buddha’s teaching and therefore to Buddhist practice. The cure involves a re-alignment of our ideas, beliefs and understanding so that they are consistent with how the world is, not how we would like it to be. For reality is in process – its primary characteristics are impermanence, change, the mutual interdependence of all phenomena and the absence of a fixed essence to any entity. Our tendency, on the other hand, is to desire permanence and certainty by identifying transcendent orders, hard and fast rules and dogmatic beliefs, and by dividing and classifying the world into solid objects and things – things and categories which are resistant to change and are clearly defined as separate entities. The Buddha spent his life pointing out the incompatibility between our views of the world and the world itself.

The Buddha often talks in terms of diagnosing an illness (suffering), identifying causes (our inability to accept and deal with the conditions of existence by attaching ourselves to false beliefs about reality) and prescribing a cure (what Buddhists call the Eightfold Path – which is an ongoing process of careful observation, experiential enquiry and re-alignment). In this sense we can consider the Buddha as a physician, a doctor. It’s worth remembering that one of the main articulations of sceptical philosophy comes from Sextus Empiricus (writing in the second or third centuries CE) who seems to have been a physician as well as a philosopher. One of Sextus’ main concerns was to bring others to a state of well-being, health and wholeness. This can be seen as an aim of many sceptics in relation to the advice they give to others – advice that is usually offered as provisional and open to further enquiry and revision – for sceptics tend to resist the temptation to be dogmatic in their assertions and tentative in their teachings.

Teacher as liberator or dictator

As far as we can tell the Buddha was concerned not to have students who blindly accepted everything he said. Unthinking attachment to a teacher – whoever he or she was and however eminent or celebrated they might be – was a hindrance to liberation and insight. Any teachings need to be tested within the laboratory of everyday life, tested by each individual to ascertain how effective they may be. Joseph Goldstein, quotes the Buddha as saying: ‘Don’t believe anyone. Don’t believe me. Don’t believe the teachers. Don’t believe books or traditions. Rather, look to your own experience. In that way we become our own refuge, not dependent upon any external authority or system.’ (This is Goldstein’s own version of an extract from the Anguttara-nikaya – quoted by Goldstein in: Susan Walker, ed. 1987. Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way. New Jersey: Paulist Press.)

The Buddha, like Pyrrho or Sextus and other sceptics, urged students to question and to make up their own minds about the efficacy of any teaching, only in this way would their own understanding and wisdom be developed. The real value of any teaching is measured by the degree to which the student gains independence from the teacher and is able to stand on his or her own two feet. Gratitude and respect to a teacher are quite distinct from over-attachment and dependence. Without questioning and testing against one’s own experience any teaching can become a dogma to be unthinkingly followed and any teacher can become a dictator to be submissively obeyed.

Neither deny nor affirm

The Buddha (like the sceptics) often seems to balance on the cusp of affirmation and denial. For instance, he seems to have neither denied nor affirmed the existence of God or gods – he suspends judgement on such matters, directing his attention to other matters. It is as if he considers the question of whether God(s) exist as being peripheral to the real question as to how we can find some level of peace, composure and equanimity in the face of life’s difficulties and uncertainties. He does seem to suggest that gods and other ideas and linguistic categories are constructs of our own making or made by others and as such they are never absolute in terms of truth value, verifiability or usefulness. All such ideas can only be provisional, conditional and relative. He tends to adopt a similar view of the self.

Andy Goldsworthy: Balanced Rock, Misty Cumbria 1977

Andy Goldsworthy: Balanced Rock, Misty Cumbria 1977

Finding a balance

Seung Sahn has an interesting perspective on Zen practice – often sounding like a teacher of scepticism. I’d like to consider a few of his comments, beginning with some advice he gives to a student who is feeling very unsure about whether he is making progress or not. Sahn begins: ‘You say that in the beginning you were enthusiastic and now you are discouraged. Both extremes are no good. It is like a guitar string: if you make it too tight, it will be out of tune and will soon snap; if you make it too loose, it will still be out of tune and will not play. You must tune it just right. Too enthusiastic is no good, too discouraged is also no good.’ For Sahn it is the point of balance to which we should aspire, a state of equilibrium in which we don’t lean too far in either direction.

When Sahn talks about ‘don’t-know mind’ he is referring to a non-discriminating way of thinking and being. He isn’t suggesting that discrimination, the ability to make judgments and to differentiate between things, isn’t useful and necessary at times. What he is pointing to is the fact that we have a tendency to over-discriminate or to discriminate willy-nilly – categorising, judging and commenting as a habitual and compulsive reaction to events and experiences. This kind of compulsive discriminatory thinking gets out of hand and clouds our perceptions, preventing us from seeing things in a fresh and clear way. We have to counteract this compulsion by developing a less reactive way of relating to the world, a mode of experiencing which is non-discriminatory and direct. This is what Sahn refers to as ‘don’t-know mind’ or clear mind or, using a traditional Buddhist term, ‘original mind’. The non-judgmental mindfulness exercised by ‘don’t-know mind’ is an antidote to the overly reactive and discriminating habits of thought, feeling and perception which, when out of control, often generate tension, conflict and dissatisfaction in our lives. In Sahn’s words: ‘Zen is not difficult. And it is not easy. It is only as it is. Don’t make difficult, don’t make easy. Just practice.’

What is the self?

The Buddha neither affirms nor denies the existence of the self as such, what he does question is any idea or belief that the self has a fixed essence – for how can the self be any different to the rest of existence which is always in flux. Thus the Buddha talks about anatman/anatta the absence of an enduring essential self, as against the prevailing view in his time that all entities did have an enduring (and defining) essence – atman. This marked a very significant distinction between the Buddha’s teaching and the orthodox Indian beliefs of the time.

For the Buddha what he perceived when he watched carefully his own mental and emotional states was that they were ever-changing processes, a fluid continuum of moods, emotions, thoughts and images – he could find no evidence for an unchanging nucleus, soul or ego – only the river of experiences. Thus the term skandhas/khandhas refers to this shifting cloud of aggregates – usually five kinds are described: form/matter (rupa); sensation/feeling (vedana);perception/cognition (samjna); mental formations/impulses/will (samskara); consciousness/discernment (vijnana). It is the interplay of these aggregates that is the self-process – an activity not a thing – maybe selfing is how we should describe the unfolding of our being.

For these reasons some Buddhists refer to the self which is denoted with the terms, I, me or ego, as the empirical self – the river of self as it appears to us from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, the self as a procession of phenomena.

Monet Waterlilies c1910

Monet Waterlilies c1910

Conventional reality and actual reality

In Buddhist thought and practice a distinction is often made between conventional reality and the way things actually are. In western philosophy a similar distinction is made, usually described as a contrast between the evanescent ever-changing veil of appearances and the unchanging transcendent reality beyond it – the realms of the ideal or absolute set against the actual or relative. In Buddhism we find almost an opposite distinction being made. A conventional realm of apparently substantial, fixed things – a world of enduring objects, beliefs and ideas – hides an actual reality of flux, impermanence and process. The conventional realm of apparent substance and permanence is an illusory realm – an illusion to which we cling. It is our belief and attachment to the illusory realm of substance and permanence, that is delusional and a source of dissatisfaction. Buddhists refer to this incorrect view of how the world is, as avidhya – ignorance, misunderstanding or false knowledge.