Index to Current Series
“Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”
A visitor to Niels Bohr’s country cottage, noticing a horseshoe hanging on the wall, teasing the eminent scientist about this ancient superstition. ‘Can it be true that you, of all people, believe it will bring you luck?’
‘Of course not,’ replied Bohr, ‘but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe it or not.’
Last week we began discussing Rebirth. In the West we tend to get very edgy about religious doctrine, seemingly from the time Science began challenging much religious doctrine about four hundred years ago, but certainly with the rise of religious fundamentalism (and even the recent development of an equally fundamentalist atheism). I want to take a rest this week from the specific concerns of Karma and Rebirth to reflect on the general nature of Buddhist doctrine, since many of the same issues that have plagued religion in the West start to arise around Rebirth in Buddhism. The core of the issue is the existence of Pretense in Religious and in Buddhist doctrine: Just how much is just made up and how much of it is True in some kind of independently verifiable way, to what extend is what is Pretense distinguishable from what is True, and does it really matter?
Pretense in Buddhism. By and large many in the West have found Buddhism refreshingly free of doctrinal Pretense and much more in line with scientific thought than other religions. Einstein and others have declared Buddhism the religion most consistent with science. Even some of the militant atheists seem to have a soft spot for Buddhism. I think there are several reasons for this.
- Buddhism is very much about practice, about human beings acquiring and refining skills, that as a practical matter require tuning in to things how they really are and working with them on their own terms.
- The Buddha in his teachings explicitly discouraged philosophical speculation, he kept doctrine very lean and focused, specifically on the task of ending suffering. If something had no pragmatic value in terms of bringing one further on the Path, the Buddha would not teach it, as the Handful of Leaves simile (Simsapa Sutta, SN 56.31) shows.
- The Buddha encouraged personal investigation of the mind as leading to the highest level of conviction and of wisdom. This includes recognizing delusion the root of all as unskillful mental factors. In this way Buddhism has tended toward the deconstruction of Pretense, not only in religious doctrine but in its many common everyday guises.
It is true that the Suttas make many references to miraculous events, supernatural powers such as levitation, teletransportation, mind reading, meetings with devas and so on, but these are not matters of Buddhist doctrine. Most are almost certainly embellishments to give these ancient texts more color. If the Buddha or early Buddhists actually believed in such things, the Buddha effectively kept them outside of the scope of Buddhist doctrine and practice by asking that his disciples to give up interest in developing paranormal abilities, as distractions from the real work of ending suffering. One might conceivably imagine a Buddhist fundamentalism that insists that all these spurious things mentioned in the Suttas are to be taken literally as stated, but this fundamentalism would just seem silly in the light of the Buddha’s clear pronouncements (see 2. above) that if these things do not carry us forward on the Path they just don’t matter. I’ve never heard of such a fundamentalism.
Putting aside for the moment the question of Pretense in Buddhist doctrine, let me make some more general observations about Pretense in human affairs.
Pretense in Human Affairs. Pretense is a human capability, and humans certainly have this capability for practical purposes. Consider that all of fiction, including theater, movies, novels, operas, and so on, are Pretense. Entertainment without Pretense would be pretty slim indeed. Most children’s play is Pretense, and most mammals seem capable of play. Dogs pretend to fight with one another, to chase sticks as if they were chasing prey. This enables them to practice and develop skills prior to real fighting or real hunting. Humans do the similar things. Play also underlies many ritual or ceremonial enactments in religion, whose rationale is not necessary in the acts themselves but in their function in developing skill. In various schools of Buddhism, for instance, food offerings to Buddha statues are common, clearly a Pretense, but in Buddhism almost always recognized as such: The point is that offering food to the Buddha develops skillful states of mind, not that the Buddha is really going to eat what is offered. It’s play.
A baseball game, also a kind of play, is a Pretense, even for spectators. While there are real physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up, a running Pretense that accompanies the physical actions, a counting-for-something. Someone hits a ball with a stick and it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” and the other team comes up to bat. A sport, for many, one of the most tangible experiences in life, is Pretense.
Nothing I know of illustrates the usefulness, and at the same time the palpability, of Pretense as well as money. Money, as we know it today, believe it or not, does not exist! Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running Pretense of counting-for-something was critical, in this case having a certain value in commercial exchange. The physical part has gone almost completely by the wayside. The physical money we carry in our pockets now is a very small portion of the money supply. The rest is not backed by tangible gold or silver, but created at will by banks, as something that is measured and tracked, nowadays in computer memory, but does not actually exist in any material form whatsoever. It only exists in terms of the relationships humans assume they have to it. Yet few things are as real and as important to people as money. An interesting question is, To what extent do people have to believe in money in order to use it? Does it lose its usefulness if people recognize its Pretense? An article in The Onion imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.” On the one hand, I am sure most bankers are aware that money does not exist, yet have no problem with using it, or with getting rich. Meanwhile, most of the rest of us attribute some substantial reality to it that is not there. We think it is gold or silver, for instance, that the bank is keeping for us in a box labeled with our account number, or that the bank keeps a record of which particular bars of gold at Fort Knox belong to us, or who the back lent our money to.
Human interpersonal affairs are riddled with Pretense. For instance, respect seems like something substantial, insofar as emotions are real experiences. But I don’t think respect works that way. Our society teaches who we respect, for instance in Burma children are taught to respect parents, teachers, monastics and old people. On encountering such a person I would allocate a certain level of respect; He’s really really old, so I will give him a lot of respect. Then I would proceed to enact that respect, and that will indeed give rise to a certain emotional state. But respect as something you can give has no tangible existence in itself, it is more like the Pretense of keeping score in a game. Of course we often allocate respect to those who can potentially benefit us, such as rich people, or withhold respect in order to express our disapproval of something they have done. Much of our social and cultural behavior is determined by Pretense, and with tangible results.
Pretense is something we use to manipulate others, especially children and the gullible. Children are told for their own safety that the Boogie Man will “get” them if they get out of bed at night, or to ensure their good behavior that Santa Claus is keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice. Usually children only half-believe these untruths til they turn them back on their parents, pretending to believe them to their own advantage. We also tell ourselves falsehoods, without having to actually believe them, to invoke certain behaviors. If you are afraid of public speaking you might imagine that instead of standing before an ocean of attentive faces you are standing in a cabbage patch, with maybe one attentive crow. Pretense may be how we psych ourselves up for various tasks, like imagining yourself as a modern Cary Grant in order to phone up the woman you just met to ask for a date. It might work, so why not?
Pretense in Religion. Since Pretense plays a role in so many human affairs it is hardly surprising to find it in religion. A Religion is a recommendation for a Way of Being, where a Way of Being is how we choose to live our lives, both internally and externally. It is a framework that integrates worldview, attitudes, goals, values, habits, comportment, activities and relations of one’s life into a particular form. It is the basis of how we value what we do in our lives. A religion supports a Way of Being through teachings and practices, often rituals and ceremonies, images and myths, a program of religious education, and so on, Doctrines are typically a part of the mix since what we believe, or at least accept as a working assumption, shapes how we are. Whether the function of religion is best supported by Truth or Pretense is a matter of investigation.
Nowhere is Pretense more prominent than in God. (I hope I am not stepping on readers’ toes when I describe God as a Pretense.) He exists only in the relationships that people of faith have to Him. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, according to God the central role in the universe, and to oneself a subservient role, interpreting other things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes quite palpable. Like money, God does not actually exist, yet most people of faith attribute some substantial reality to Him that is not there, they imagine, nay are convinced of, an actual living being, human in appearance, masculine in gender, who lives in a realm somewhere in space; or they imagine a presence found in all things and manifesting all things. How He exists does not matter so much as His function in the lives of people of faith.
Like money, God has a function. The most immediate function, as I understand it, is that God dethrones the Self from the center of the universe, He represents something greater than the Self, so that one’s actions can then be valued not in terms of seeking personal advantage but in terms of serving God. This can make a huge and beneficial difference in how one leads one’s life, a function comparable to that of the Buddhist teaching of non-Self.
Other examples of Pretense in religion are Heaven, Hell and an eternal life in one or another depending on your behavior and your beliefs while you live on Earth. They also can become quite palpable if you orient your life around this set of views. I think of this kind of Pretense as like the Boogie Man, as a determinant of behavior that relies on Greed and Fear along with a degree of conviction in the Pretense.
Every religion seems to have a rich mythology, and most have an elaborate metaphysics, an easy target of ridicule for outsiders in this multi-religious world. The question naturally arises, Do the faithful believe all of this? Can one accept a Pretense as a working assumption and enjoy its benefits without actually believing it? Putting aside religious fundamentalists, my observation is that most faithful hold their Pretenses lightly, often regarding them as useful tools in negotiating life, much like money, but, when pushed, not literally true. This is why scientists can be Christians, Jews and Muslims. Karen Armstrong maintains that most people in most lands throughout history have simply never thought about the difference between Pretense and Truth, and would not particularly care. Fundamentalism, she maintains, is a modern phenomenon that has grown in frightened confusion about the challenge of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.
Pretense in Science. If Pretense plays such a prominent role in so many realms of human endeavor, does it also play a role in Science? Science concerns understanding the natural world in an independently verifiable way. As such, Science is probably the realm most concerned with a purity of understanding unblemished by Pretense. Science is commonly seen as concerned with putting Pretense completely aside in favor of Truth. But that is not so easy.
The idea that there is an purely objective Truth out there, and that the task of scientists is to describe that Truth has become more and more a quaint Nineteenth Century notion. It seems scientists never succeed in matching their descriptions to reality which proves rather ineffable; rather the best they can do is produce conceptual Approximations. This led Niels Bohr, for instance, to state, about his own field of research, “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…” Scientists are captives in the realm where they can only make things up, Pretenses which always have some distance from Truth, the more clearly formulated the more clear the separation, or as Niels Bohr also stated, “Truth and clarity are complementary.” He also made the very “Zen” (if you will allow me the use of this word as an attribute) statement, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.”
In short, scientists also depend on the human capacity for Pretense. The best Science can do is hold Pretense to a higher standards. The scientific method places strict restraints on the testability of Approximations. More and more, scientists speak in terms of models of Reality realizing that at some points their descriptions will fail to match puzzling new data, and will eventually give way to another model that makes a closer Approximation. There is an element of Pretense in every description and Science is not immune.
The Hazards of Pretense. What of the long-standing debate between science and religion? Science has higher standards of Pretense, reflective of its function of understanding of the natural world. Religion has varying often weak standards of Pretense, but reflective of its more pragmatic function of recommending a Way of Being that people actually live with. As we move from realm to realm, for instance from commerce to science, from science to sports, from sports to religion, and from one religion to another, our Pretenses become out of place. Science at least has a method of discussing and sometimes even resolving differences among alternative Approximations. Although these Approximations can be tightly held there is a awareness that scientific doctrine evolves, that there are no absolute unchallenged theories or models. Interfaith dialog and the study of Comparative Religion fosters a similar awareness that there are no absolutes in religious doctrine, highlights the Pretentiousness of much religion and encourages the faithful to hold on to doctrine a little less tightly. We have a long way to go. The problem with Pretenses, even if they serve a function in a religious or social context, is that they can go frightfully askew when applied to another context. They are, after all, delusions. For instance, the Pretense that money exists physically creates confidence but hides from public scrutiny how easy it is for banks to manipulate the money supply to their own advantage. The Pretense that anyone who takes his own life will go to Hell discourages suicide but creates distress should a family member nonetheless do so. The Pretense of Creationism applied to school board decisions interferes with Science education.
The delusive nature of Pretense is often exploited to manipulate others. The divine rights of kings, the idea of a better life hereafter, the battle of good and evil, the promotion of “free markets” as an unquestioned force for good, the equation of a brand of soft drink with sex appeal, and even a strict interpretation of the Law of Karma have all been used as forms of social control. I recently ran across a disingenuous twist on this recently. There are at this time some American Conservatives who seek to eliminate the Social Security trust fund. One of them made the argument that the fund does not have any “real money” in it, “only I.O.U.s.” Well, uh, nothing has any real money in it!
More Pretense in Buddhism. Buddhism is a recommendation for how we choose to live our lives, both internally and externally. It is a framework that integrates worldview, attitudes, goals, values, habits, comportment, activities and relations of one’s life into a particular form. It is the basis of how we value what we do in our lives. Buddhism does this through teachings and practices, often rituals and ceremonies, images and myths, a program of religious education, and so on. Ven. P.A. Payutto, a Buddhist scholar-monk, gives one specific example of what he calls a “Buddhist attitude”:
If you see your friend walking towards you with a sour look on his face, a common non-Buddhist attitude would think he was angry at you. This would evoke a negative reaction, maybe thinking, “He can get angry, well so can I” and wearing a sour expression in response. A Buddhist attitude, on the other hand, is not to look with an aggravated state of mind, through liking or disliking, but with the objective of finding out the truth according to causes and conditions … “Hmm, he’s looking angry. I wonder why my friend is looking angry today. Maybe somebody said something to upset him at home, or maybe he’s got no money, or maybe … ”
That is, you look for the real causes for his expression in order to respond appropriately, seeing the world as it presents itself, as a network of interdependent conditions and consequences, rather in terms of a fortress self waiting to defend itself from the next attack in a mass of emotional and instinctual drives. This illustrates the habit that Buddhism cultivate of probing always further, asking what has not been asked before, seeing beyond our narrow interpretations of things. This even goes so far as developing the skill to go beyond conceptual understanding to comprehend things directly in an intuitive way.
In this regard, Buddhism has understood for many centuries what Western science began to suspect only around the turn of the Twentieth Century, that no description is ever True in an absolute sense. At best it is an Approximation. This is the teaching of Emptiness, most thoroughly elucidated by early Buddhist philosophers like Nagarjuna, but directly flowing out of the Buddha’s teachings. The Self is also an Approximation, not only useful but necessary as such, and one that would generally meet the Scientific standard of a good model, but an Approximation that ultimately fails to accord with reality, and according to Buddhism thereby becomes the cause of human misery. As stated above, the doctrine of non-Self serves much the same function of God in other religions in dethroning the Self from the center of the universe, thereby developing humility. Notice, however, that the Buddhist teaching does this by removing a pre-religious Pretense rather than by adding a religious one. In fact, if Buddhist doctrine contains Pretenses, these are more than outweighed by the common pre-religious Pretenses that it challenges.
Nevertheless, it would be surprising if the Buddha were to have adopted a perfect European post-Enlightenment or scientific notion of truth as a foundation of his thought. To begin with, he lived twenty-six centuries ago. To end with, his interests were not in Science or Philosophy, but in the practical skill of living this human life in the most worthwhile way. It is significant that in the Kalama Sutta, often quoted by Western free thinkers,
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them. AN 3.65
This leaves open the question of whether these things are independently verifiable. In fact, if it were the case that humans were incapable of acknowledging impermanence, death and the suffering of life these criteria would recommend a more Pretentious Buddhism. However, the Buddha, and many generations of his disciples have shown that this was not the case. But it is no wonder that the Buddha endorsed many elements of religiosity, for instance, gestures of respect and rituals, that have a degree of Pretense, but are more in the spirit of play than doctrine. Without the attribution of paranormal powers to these activities, these lead to benefit and happiness in helping to develop skillful states of mind. It is significant that if a teaching led to harmful exploitation, as in social control, it would have to be abandoned by these criteria.
Nevertheless, the Buddha realized his teachings were often at odds with speculative philosophy. In the Apannaka Sutta (MN 60) the Buddha considers four theses that according to him are false, but which he realizes many consider may be truthful, for instance, that there is no outcome of evil, so it does not matter what actions to perform, or that there is no opportunity to correct defilements or to purify the mind because everything is predetermined. He then recommends that, unconvinced, the practitioner make the Working Assumption that these are false, because no harm will result from this working assumption if the thesis is true, and great benefit will result from this working assumption if the thesis is false. One of the theses is annihilationism, its denial, which the Buddha endorses, is Rebirth. Rebirth is recommended as a working assumption because it provides incentive to practice.
In summary, I hope I have made room for two criteria for evaluating the assumption of Rebirth. First is the pragmatic criterion of whether this assumption leads to benefit and happiness. If it did not, the Buddha clearly would not have endorsed this assumption, according to the Simsapa and Kalama Suttas. Second is the objective criterion of whether this assumption can be independently verified, or is simply Pretense. This criterion reflects modern Western predilections more than any explicitly stated criterion of the Buddha. Nonetheless, the Buddha’s method elsewhere so effectively undermines doctrinal Pretense that it bears careful investigation. Next week I will write on “The Pragmatics of Rebirth” and the following week ask, “Is Rebirth Independently Verifiable?”