Monday, August 2, 2010

Fast Thoughts on Buddhism!

Just finished scanning over a comments thread on another site, where Buddhism came up.

I admit, I've always had trouble taking Buddhism too seriously. Partly because it seems that Buddhism doesn't take itself too seriously, and the Buddhists I've run into don't take Buddhism seriously.

There's a few aspects to that. First, Buddhists in general seem allergic to definitive statements or rational discourse, to the point where their whole religion seems very fideistic. I've run into very little in the way of defending or even explaining buddhism philosophically, etc, certainly in a definitive manner. Oh sure, there are some core principles - the four noble truths, the eightfold path. But beyond that?

For instance, I've heard - repeatedly - that Buddhism is an atheistic religion or philosophy. That's far from apparent, even after setting aside all the small-g god / Buddha / boddhisatvas. Apparently Buddha had a bone to pick with Hinduism, but didn't lay down a teaching about God's existence or non-existence, regarding the question as a distraction. Belief in some kind of theistic ultimate ground of being is not only possible, but it shows up in some Buddhist schools and Buddhist thought.

But hey, that's besides the point, right? Buddha just regarded those questions as distractions. Buddhism focuses on important things, the matter at hand - enlightenment, extinguishing the self! But then you're going to find that there's wide disagreement over what this damn "self" or "no-self" is. Which I suppose is fine, since you can also expect to be told "There is no self, and there is no no-self." As usual, the Buddha didn't seem too concerned with making this question clear, and again that helps to explain the various traditions. It isn't like this is a minor question either, since the issue of self is central to the entire philosophy and approach.

And this is all just as well, since the earliest Buddhist scriptures are dated to roundabout the first century AD. And when did Buddha live? Roundabout 600 to 400 BC. So take all the various hyper-skeptical views you see people subject Christianity to and multiply it by ten or so. And it's not like you can say "Well, Buddha's word for word teachings aren't important. Buddhists have experienced what he taught for themselves!", because there's disagreements between various Buddhists over some damn essential issues.

I'm not mounting anything approaching a serious argument against Buddhism here, and I'm being very damn cursory as I give my impressions of what I've read about it. And I'll say right away that Buddhism, in terms of moral teachings, has quite a lot in common with Christianity. There's a lot of common ground there. But it seems like, more than any other major religion, Buddhism does not even attempt to provide a rational argument for or defense of itself. It's almost purely a matter of accepting it at face value and committing without argument to one of a number of views that fall under its banner.


Ilíon said...

And, to add irony to the dish, the sort of folk who tend to accuse Christianity of irrationality also tend to point to Buddhism as what a rational religion would look like.

Crude said...

I always wonder how much of that tends to be the result of people having only the most shallow exposure to Buddhism. Or worse, thinking that whatever they personally think up is what Buddhism "really is". I'm thinking here of a specifically western, niche version of Buddhism I've read of - basically a kind of Buddhism matched with radical materialism, devoid of reincarnation, of mind, etc. Naturally, actual Buddhists and monks from overseas seem to regard it with utter horror. As for me, I can't take it seriously at all, since "Desire is suffering" + "There is no reincarnation or desire upon death" would = "Gun in mouth, now" for anyone who was serious. Or even "Gun in everyone's mouth, now".

Regardless, yeah. One contrast I've noted is that if you say something apparently contradictory and you're a "western" theist, skeptics will jump on you immediately and accuse you of being irrational. Say something blatantly contradictory and you subscribe to an "eastern" faith, and you're more likely to just be regarded as a deep thinker or Yoda or some other crap.

Ilíon said...

"Regardless, yeah. One contrast I've noted is that if you say something apparently contradictory and you're a "western" theist, skeptics will jump on you immediately and accuse you of being irrational."

It's even worse than that -- the "apparent contradiction" of what you (being a “western” theist) said doesn’t have to be *in* what you said; it is enough for these fools that what you said (about the nature of reality) contradicts what they say (about the nature of reality).

"Say something blatantly contradictory and you subscribe to an "eastern" faith, and you're more likely to just be regarded as a deep thinker or Yoda or some other crap."

Which rather indicates that these “skeptics” aren’t all that concerned with truth (nor logical and rational thinking), but with something else instead. Despite all their protestations of just wanting to get to the truth.

Drew said...

Crude, you hit the nail on the head with your comment about the gun in the mouth. Buddhism is the worship of death. And that holds true regardless of whether it's atheistic or whether it believes in reincarnation. Even under the reincarnation scheme, the whole goal of Buddhism is to die permanently. And to aid yourself in dying permanently, you're supposed to die a little bit more each day by intentionally making yourself miserable and pretending that your misery doesn't matter.

Crude said...


The only problem I have with endorsing that extension (That all of Buddhism is death-centric, whether there's reincarnation, whether it's theistic, etc) is that it supposes Buddhist thought is sufficiently clear on what the "self" (or even "no-self") is, what the ultimate goal of Buddhism is, etc. That's something I have serious trouble believing.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Talking about Buddhism is about as unwieldy as talking about "religion" or "humanity," not the least because it is one of the most primitive impulses in humanity's religious mindscape. Thus it's best to get acquainted with the strong and weak points of each general "brand" of Buddhism so one can engage "Buddhists" on a case by case basis. For example, for hardcore, egophobic, egocidal, "metaphysical Buddhists," it's best to target the inconsitencies of selfless selfhood, or, for that matter, selfish selflessness. Then again, for 'atheist', "homemaker Buddhists," for whom the Boddhisatva embody incarnate love as figures who left Nirvana just to aid lower souls to escape the karmic wheel, its good to focus on the implications of taking Love as the highest order of the world… yet without there supposedly being a Person ordering the world, or, for that matter, how plausible ultimate love is for selfless agents. For pantheistic, "green Buddhists," it's frutiful to pit a love for the world, on all sentient levels, against the proscription of desire, attachment, affection, and ambition. And so on, case by case.

In all events, it's delicious to cite, e.g. the (ahem) 'current' Dalai Lama's stern injunctions against abortion, among others supposedly "Western" moralisms. I have a draft of a post at FCA about mainstream Buddhism's opposition to abortion and its not too bashful anthropocentric hierarchy of sentience, but need to work it into readable form.

Two final things to consider:

1) Buddhism passed to China via Tibet and Tibet fundamental worldview still rests in the Book of Life and Death, viz. in a mindscape obsessed with the fitting consumption of life by its mother, Death. This is why Buddhism is much more austere and noble in Japan, which is a land with its own longstanding ethos of death.

2) When Buddhism hit China it spawned two things: kungfu and folk piety, i.e. Chinese-style "happy" Buddhism. The Chinese are too sensible and earthy a people merely to sit back and get slaughtered like glass-eyed "real Buddhists" or, by the same token, to forego the happiness of family, food, and fortune just because Prince Buddha got a bad conscience on his first trip outside the palace.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Ilíon said...

I agree with both Drew's comment at 5:19 and Crude's at 8:10.

To the limited extent that I understand Buddhism, I do not see how one can deny that it is the worship of death/non-existence; I do not see how one can deny that the whole point of Buddhism is to attain the “wisdom” that one does not oneself exist.

At the same time, to the limited extent that I understand Buddhism, I do not see how one can deny that as a “logical system,” there is no there there to Buddhism; I do not see how one can deny that Buddhism is utterly incoherent top to bottom. And that this doesn’t bother the Buddhists.

Crude said...


I should have figured you'd have some serious on-the-ground experience with Buddhism. Slipped my mind.

I think you're right that Buddhism is very much a 'case by case' thing, though. But then, I think that's (particularly with the western ones I've encountered) due in no small part to the whole thing being kind of "cafeteria Catholic" on steroids. With the added problem of being told a flat out contradiction may well be played off as a sign of mystic kung-fu wisdom.

I was somewhat aware the Dali Lama was rather conservative morally though.

Ilíon said...

The specificity with which I pointed to the two posts by Drew and Crude are not to be taken as implying anything about Codgitator’s post ... it simply hadn’t yet appeared when I wrote my previous post. I quite agree with what he wrote.