Scepticism & Buddhism

The opposite of what is written here may be equally true and useful

–  question, enquire, let go  –

Pyrrho - possible portrait

Pyrrho – possible portrait

By scepticism I refer to a tradition of positive doubt that can be traced from the early Greeks, Pyrrho of Elis (c.360-c.275BCE – possible portrait above) and Timon of Phlius (c.320-c.230BCE), to the Roman philosopher and doctor, Sextus Empiricus (c.160-210CE), and onwards to Montaigne, David Hume, Kierkegaard and more recent writers: John Dewey, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Richard Rorty, Don Cupitt and Stephen Batchelor.

Pyrrho and his successors were committed to open-ended enquiry about all matters and were reluctant to draw final conclusions, choosing instead to suspend judgment and to enjoy the freedom from anxiety and mental disturbance which ensued from non-judgmental enquiry. Pyrrho argued that while a person’s direct experience and appearances were valid for him or herself, any beliefs, interpretations and judgments about those appearances should be questioned and considered as inconclusive. For this reason dogmatic statements (opinions, beliefs, truths) of any kind should be avoided.

Enquiry, investigation

The word scepticism is derived from the Greek term skepticos, which refers to someone who endlessly investigates, someone who goes in for skeptesthai  or enquiry – an investigator who is always open to new knowledge and ready to revise their opinions. The sceptic in this sense does not have, or seek, dogmatic belief and fixed knowledge. The Buddhist parallel to sceptical enquiry can be clearly seen in the practice of vipassana or insight meditation – a form of self-observation or clear-seeing that was central to the Buddha’s teaching and continues to be practiced in different forms by contemporary Buddhists. Also known as mindfulness, vipassana involves a clear-sighted awareness of moment-by-moment consciousness, a non-judgmental and non-reactive observation of experience as it happens. Insight-meditation enables us understand more clearly who we are and how we are in the world through a disciplined process of investigation, a probing analysis of the complex, ever-changing stream of thoughts, emotions, perceptions and moods that constitute our experience. There is no end to the enquiry and no bed-rock or fixed essence to be found underlying our fluid consciousness. The investigator, whether Buddhist or sceptic, or both, finds equilibrium, understanding and compassion through the process of investigation, through clear-sighted observation – coming to terms with the complex dynamics of life as it lived, not as it is imagined, idealised or wished to be.

Between this and that, between yes and no


Thomas McEvilley, in his excellent book, The Shape of Ancient Thought, talks about scepticism as being an approach to life which develops and maintains a balance between yes and no, between opinions, positions and categories. He relates this approach to a Buddhist aspiration to be free of the burden of opinions and judgmental thinking. He quotes Buddhadasa: ‘Outwardly one may possess all the things that others possess, but the mind possesses nothing.’ In many Buddhist writings this state of mind is described using the metaphor of a mirror that is not stained by the views it reflects, or a pane of glass that does not retain an imprint of the view seen through it. The Chinese Zen teacher, Hui Hai (720-814CE), when he was once asked what the Buddha meant by the phrase ‘right perception’, replied in language that could have been used by Pyrrho the sceptic: ‘It means perceiving and thinking about all kinds of things without being stained by them because no attachment or aversion has arisen in the mind.’

McEvilley suggests that when the mind possesses nothing it isn’t inclined to lean toward either yes or no (this non-inclination is what sceptics refer to as arrepsia); it also means that the mind isn’t burdened by a heavy weight of opinion, commentary, judgment or assertion, and the desires and aversions they generate or reflect. In such a state of equilibrium the mind isn’t wrapped in a cloak of self-generated chatter that prevents us experiencing the fullness of each passing moment. Buddhists and sceptics share this aspiration to develop a state of mind in which we are not entangled in the habits of thought and uncontrollable mental activity that so often dominate our consciousness. In some translations of the Heart Sutra, a key text of the Buddhist canon, we are urged to ‘live without thought coverings’. We can interpret this as meaning that we can learn to experience life without projecting concepts on to it that are driven by our own desires and aversions. Paradoxically, in this way a mind that possesses nothing can become a mind that is open to everything.

When sceptics refer to suspending judgment (epoché) as a necessary pre-condition for mental balance and peace of mind they seem to be anticipating the advice given by a contemporary Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, who suggests we should develop ‘don’t-know mind.’ Don’t-know mind is the mind that possesses nothing, that is not overwhelmed by compulsive chatter. Sahn speaks about it in his own distinctive way: ‘Don’t know mind is empty mind. There are no words, no speech. So there is no one, no God, no nothing, no mind, no emptiness…This is your true self….. I don’t know, but when I am thirsty I drink. I don’t know but when I am tired I rest. Only this.’

Michael-Biberstein D-3 2008

Michael Biberstein D-3 2008


We are enmeshed in our surroundings, implicated in the world, interdependent with everything we are supposedly not! Our breathing in and out is, practically and symbolically, an affirmation of relatedness and mutuality. We exist in a relational universe. We are unable to exist in a vacuum or in isolation from our surroundings. No entity has a fixed essence or existence independent from everything else – it is empty of self-existence. This interdependence and interrelatedness is what Buddhists refer to as sunyata – often translated as emptiness or the void. The indefiniteness of boundaries is what ancient Greek sceptics refer to as aoristia. Within both of these traditions relatedness and boundary-lessness are fundamental conditions of existence. To believe, and act on the belief, that we are separate from the world is to be deluded.

From the sceptical point of view the understanding that there are no clear distinctions to be made between entities, that there are no definite and fixed boundaries to things, leads to the understanding that we can never be certain about things, and that we can never be sure that our ideas, beliefs, perceptions and intuitions are true or justifiable, let alone absolute, permanent or universal. Indeed we have to recognise that all ideas, beliefs and facts or units of knowledge, are provisional, partial and ultimately unverifiable. For this reason it is sensible to suspend judgment, to always keep in mind that any assertion or argument is open to a legitimate counter-assertion or argument, and that any so-called truth is open to revision, qualification and opposition. The sceptical term for suspension of judgment is epoché. To maintain balance, equilibrium and relative peace are key intentions of sceptics such as Pyrrho, Sextus or Montaigne.

Sextus Empiricus

A middle way

Given that knowledge is always uncertain and relative, the sceptic considers his philosophy of life, his way of doing, as a process of open-ended enquiry, endless investigation – realising that there is always more to be found out – a life of questioning, positive doubt and imaginative re-interpretation.  This could also be seen as the artistic and scientific life. The Greek term for enquiry in this sense is, skeptesthai, and an enquirer or investigator is a skeptikos – from where we get the term sceptic. The purpose of scepticism is not philosophical enquiry but living enquiry (like Buddhism) – developing a way of living that is balanced, at peace, poised in the moment between past and future – the middle way. As Sextus Empiricus points out, there are dogmatic philosophers, who think they have found the truth; negative dogmatists, who believe that the truth cannot be found; and the sceptics, who are not committed either way – they are still investigating.

The scepticism of Pyrrho is, on one level, a profound critique of dogmatism. Employing logical argument, sceptics set out to demonstrate that all opinions, however dogmatic, are open to contention and counter-argument, and are therefore conditional and relative – unworthy of being given the status of certain or absolute truth. This leads a sceptic to acknowledge that all viewpoints, ideas and beliefs are worthy of respect or passing interest, yet it is best not to become attached to any in particular – a balanced and tolerant position, rather than a position of taking sides, intolerance and imbalance. This does not mean that the sceptic doesn’t have opinions or beliefs but only that he doesn’t consider them as absolute or universally valid – he is as sceptical of his own views as he is of others.

Don’t know mind

In the here and now there are no divisions, categories, dualities, opposites – there is only the here and now – the present moment – what IS. However we tend not to reside in the here and now, instead we slide into another realm of commentary, ideas, likes and dislikes, opinions and beliefs. These get layered on to our experiences, freighting our minds, perceptions and emotions with past and future, desires and expectations, preconceptions and prejudices – until we find it difficult to return to the here and now. The Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, said: ‘you must throw all … opposites away. Then the truth will only be like this [moment].’ He told his students to ‘always keep don’t-know mind’ – that is mind in a state of open curious non-judgmental enquiry: here and now mind – beginner’s mind – mind that is not over-burdened with attachments, dogmatic beliefs and rigid habits of feeling, thought and behaviour. This is advice that Pyrrho the sceptic would probably have given to his own students.

The sceptics try to maintain a state of not having made up their minds – keeping open to fresh perspectives, new information, changing circumstances, knowledge and needs. The sceptics see doubt as a positive virtue not a negative ‘failing’ and they argue against the false sense of certainty that comes when we think we have arrived at the truth – this is the dogmatism they criticise so often. And dogmatism can take many forms: including philosophical, political and religious forms. Dogmatic assertions, like violence, often provoke equally dogmatic (or violent) responses. The antidote to dogmatism is not another dogma but suspension of judgement, compassionate attention and more enquiry. The dangers of dogmatic conflict are as evident today as they were to the Greeks of the third century BCE.

Scales of Justice

Suspending judgement

One key aspect of Dogen’s teachings about zazen, is that when we sit and attend to what is going on within and around us, we can see clearly and precisely, with no secondary acts of discrimination and attachment clouding our perceptions. By attending to phenomena as they arise in consciousness, without attachment, we perceive the whole continuum and gain an insight into the harmony of the whole. The danger here is not that we can focus on parts of the whole, for it is necessary that we discriminate between things in order to negotiate our way in the world and to communicate with each other, the danger is that we come to believe that the world is actually fragmented and compartmentalised – Dogen argues that to believe this is to be deluded and Buddhism is, above all, a path to awakening from delusion.

Dogen writes in the Fukan Zazengi: “think of neither good nor evil and judge not right or wrong”. Here he advocates a course of action that is not unlike the injunction upon sceptics to suspend judgment, or to step sideways from the act of coming down on one side or the other of an argument or proposition. In a sense this teaching follows on from the previous one about becoming free of attachments. The Greek sceptics believed that as entities, including ideas and propositions, cannot be defined or precisely determined (aoristia, without boundary or limit) it is therefore ridiculous to act as if they can, by accepting one proposition or definition as if it was any more true or believable than any other. Dogen argues for a similar “suspension of judgment” (epoché, in sceptical terminology), and for similar reasons. If the universe as a whole is a manifestation of interdependence, mutuality and interrelatedness, then no part of it, be it a tree, a person or a proposition, exists independent of any other part. Thus any proposition (for instance, about good or evil) or judgment (about right or wrong) must always be to open to a contrary argument, and be uncertain, because propositions are always only partial and relative – they can never be absolute or complete.

Mindfulness and enquiry as tools

For the Buddha, as for Pyrrho, Sextus and Montaigne, meditation, mindfulness and analytical enquiry are tools not ends in themselves. These tools are used to develop the understanding and wisdom that will enable us to wake up to this present life in all its glory and to be less troubled, dissatisfied, anxious and tossed about by the flux of existence.

According to Thomas McEvilley:

The study of counterarguments to one’s own opinions was meant, according to Sextus, to lead to a general state of epoché, ‘suspension of belief,’ which could in turn lead to a state of inner freedom from the domination of linguistic categories (aphasia), which in turn will steady into an effective balance or composure (arrepsia) which is naturally and effortlessly followed by a state of imperturbability (ataraxia).

Buddhist teachers like Dogen and sceptics like Sextus remind us that we mustn’t attach ourselves to the belief that if we practice meditation or suspension we will become enlightened or at peace. If we practice in order to gain something, even something as worthy as enlightenment, we will be unlikely to achieve peace or satori – for these arise, if at all, precisely when attachments, and desires for gain, are left behind or given up.

The American poet, Robert Duncan (1919-88), wrote that in his view the goal of poetic composition is ‘not to reach conclusion but to keep our exposure to what we do not know.’ Many Buddhists and sceptics would agree with him.

Magnifying glass

Balance, composure, clarity

‘The sceptic’s end is quietude in respect of matters of opinion and moderate feeling in respect of things unavoidable.’ Sextus Empiricus.

In mindful sitting or walking or eating… the warm sunlight of undivided attention and non-judgemental awareness burns through the mist and fog of opinions, ideas, judgments and commentaries – what the sceptics refer to as, aphasia: ‘freedom from the domination of linguistic categories’.

Buddhists and sceptics argue that maintaining composure and clarity in the midst of pain, illness and uncertainty helps in being with, and handling, the pain, illness and uncertainty. Reducing the tendency to over-react, panic, judge and be stressed is a very positive therapeutic process. Compassionate and wise attention – non-judgmental and non-acquisitive – is a vital part of mindful meditation, it is not just concentrated awareness. Buddhists and sceptics tend to place value on having a balanced impartial view of what is happening, rather than an imbalanced partial view