What is Believable? (1/6)

Series Index

This is the first of a six-part series on coming to terms with Buddhist teaching, particularly where it seems to conflict with common modern predilections. It relates to issues in faith and reason, Secular Buddhism, Buddhism and science and modern attitudes about religiosity.

Introduction

The ancient teachings of Buddhism sometimes raise skeptical modern eyebrows. For instance, which of the following might the modern Buddhist or would-be Buddhist find believable?

  • Deities?
  • Supernormal physical powers such as levitation, appearing in multiple places at once or jumping up to touch the sun?
  • Supernormal knowledges, including reading minds or knowing others’ destinations upon rebirth?
  • Rebirth?
  • Heavenly realms or hell?
  • The law of karma?
  • Exalted states of consciousness, including complete awakening?
  • The efficacy of bowing, of taking refuge, or of monks, robes and shaved heads?
  • The admonition to cultivate renunciation, disenchantment and unnaturally wholesome qualities of mind?

I will assume that the reader finds at least consciousness and volition believable; otherwise your interest in Buddhism would have been very short-lived indeed (I have been told that there are behavioral psychologists who regard even these as unbelievable). In any case, all of the things in this short list are found in the earliest Buddhist scriptures yet commonly rejected in modern Buddhism, particularly eagerly in its “secular” wing(i). I will refer to these uniformly as “teachings,” even though some of are undoubtedly referenced casually in passing, until we can sort them out. My aim here is not to argue for or against any of these factors, but to offer practical advice on what considerations are important in integrating, or not integrating, such teachings into the understanding and practice of Buddhism as the student encounters them. Sometimes they ask to be worked with a bit. What I have to say belongs, to give it a fancy name, to prescriptive epistemology.

I should, before proceeding, acknowledge that eyebrow-raising seems to be relatively exceptional in Buddhism, in contrast to many other traditions of antiquity. Buddhism is sometimes described as thoroughly consistent with modern, scientific, rational thought, in spite of coming out of such a distant time and remote culture. There are a number of reasons that might be identified for this; it is not that the Buddha was a modern iron-age scientist. First, Buddhism’s concern is primarily in teaching a skill, as Ajahn Thanissaro(ii) likes to point out, in this case the skill of appropriate thought and action. This in itself makes it an empirically oriented endeavor, like woodworking or pottery, in which it is imperative to become deeply familiar with the medium as it actually presents itself, be it the grain and hardness of wood, the feel of clay between one’s fingers or the texture of human mind. Second, Buddhism’s empirical method is introspective rather than objective, which gives relatively little opportunity to disagree with results in modern science. Science has remarkably little to say about consciousness nor volition, nor about the other mental factors that form Buddhism’s primary subject matter, and Buddhism has little to say about the material world that forms the primary subject matter of science. Third, the Buddha scrupulously avoided pointless speculation about matters not relevant to spiritual progress.(iii) This gave Buddhism a relatively small footprint with which to step on modern toes. And fourth, Buddhism has often been intentionally repackaged for modernity for almost the last century and a half, to deemphasize those factors most likely to be found unbelievable by moderns.(iv) In spite of all this, Buddhism in its traditional and early forms has a distinctive transcendent dimension, much as pottery has an aesthetic dimension, as well as a characteristic dimension of ritual and communal religiosity. It is primarily in these dimensions that modern skepticism arises.

In approaching this topic, I want to focus specifically on unbelievability, which I take to be the phenomenon of rejecting something out of hand as an almost immediate response with little or no case-specific examination. Notice that something does not have to be unbelievable to be not believed, specifically when it is rejected after careful reflection rather than out of hand. Unbelievability is the “humbug” response, immediate and decisive, the die-hard skeptic’s first line of offense. Something might be deemed unbelievable, for instance, for being “paranormal,” “new-agey,” “woo-woo and way out there,” “religious,” “unscientific,” or for “going native,” and therefore deemed unworthy of further consideration. Of course, it might be likewise deemed unbelievable for exactly the opposite reasons, such as, “not woo-woo enough,” depending on the deemer. Standards of believability vary widely, though many are recurrent as modernity meets Buddhism.

As the reader might already suspect, I would like to discourage unbelievability in favor of careful examination. The danger of unbelievability is that something important might be inadvertently lost without due deliberation, to you and, in the case of wide-spread unbelievability, to future generations, something important to the functional integrity of the Dharma. I will assume that the reader would like to enjoy the fruits of Buddhist practice and understanding without hindrance, much in the way these were commonly enjoyed in ancient times when arahants roamed the earth.

Suppose you encounter a teaching that stretches your personal standards of believability. I want to offer and discuss five fundamental strategies – all of which I have personally tried, I think with some success, in my own Buddhist practice and understanding – to try out in order to ensure that that teaching receives due consideration:

  • Accept it,
  • Reject it,
  • Contextualize it,
  • Reconsider your standards for believability, or
  • Upgrade its interpretation.

You might even apply more than one of these options at the same time. For instance, you might upgrade its interpretation to understand deities as referring to wandering cows, such that what was earlier solidly unbelievable becomes marginally believable, then accept or contextualize that. These strategies are widely applicable outside of Buddhism as well, in other faith traditions, in forming political views, or even in the study of science.

My intent here is not to advocate or indict particular options, but to make as much open-minded room for personal predilections as possible, with minimal offense to the functional integrity of Buddhist understanding and practice. My intent here is also to encourage deep processing of the Buddha’s teachings, not to readily accept or reject each teaching on first exposure, but to turn it over in different ways, to understand the variety of ways it might be understood, to understand its meaning and purpose, to integrate it into the overall body of the Buddha’s teachings, to integrate it into one’s personal world view and to resolve inconsistencies and make adjustments here and there. These things require a healthy, but not a die-hard, skepticism. Moreover, my intention is to avoid deal-breakers, the reaction to certain teachings that induce one to throw up one’s hands and abandon the Buddha way altogether, perhaps in favor of fly fishing or Sufi dancing.

I do not consider here the question of authenticity, that is, whether or not an encountered teaching has been correctly transmitted or interpreted – for simplicity I will assume that it has been. I have discussed the issue of authenticity elsewhere.(v) I should mention though that the kind of turning over and reflection advocated here for considering and integrating teachings in practice goes hand in hand with evaluating the authenticity of teachings as they are presented in texts that may have suffered unskillful reworking. Ultimately, if rejection of a given teaching seems unavoidable, it might not be because the student is unprepared or under the influence of modernity, but because it is something the Buddha never would have taught.

In the following sections I consider each of the five strategies in turn.

To be continued.

Endnotes

i. A particularly strong instance of this is the definition of secular Buddhist found at https://secularbuddhism.wordpress.com/definition/, though I imagine few secular Buddhists would actually endorse all of these points.

ii. For instance, in “Questions of Skill” (2001) available online.

iii. Consider, for instance, the “handful of leaves” simile in SN 56.31.

iv. Cintita, 2014, 104-107; Protero, 1996; McMahan, 2008; Snodgrass, 2003.

v. Cintita, 2014, 5-9.

6 Responses to “What is Believable? (1/6)”

  1. Jacques Says:

    You might be interested in Ajhan Sujato’s Blog and Workshops on the myth busting of kamma and rebirth:

    http://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/workshop-1-myth-busting/68

  2. Ross David H Says:

    A good topic.

    I often am reminded of an example from science. The model of the atom where electrons are small points whirling around little solid spheres called neutrons and protons, is known false. The more accurate model(s), though, are kind of mind-bending. Oftentimes you can get the right answer by using the simpler model of the atom. In fact, most people can always get the right answer, since you need to be in a fairly specialized field before you need to use the quantum physics model.

    However, saying that the Bohr model of the atom is “wrong”, is kind of like saying that Newton’s Laws are “wrong” because they don’t include relativity. If they get me the right answer, then I just kind of keep in mind that there is a more complex model if I need it, but this one will work for getting the right answer.

    This works especially well for me since quantum physics, relativity, and advanced Buddhist teaching all feel like they’re right at the edge of what I can hold in my mind can hold, so most of the time I need to “fall back” to a simpler model that still gets me the right answer. 🙂

    I look forward to your posts in the rest of this series.

  3. Barbara Foot Says:

    I think we’ve all been far too much influenced by the nineteenth-century European view of Buddhism, which does indeed turn the Western study of Buddhism into a rationalist and intellectual pursuit. My impression from brief visits to Asia is that this is PART of what Buddhism is about, but only part. The lived reality is much richer.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Barbara, I agree with this and will touch on this issue indirectly in future posts to this series. My experience is similar to yours: A Westerner generally finds aspects of Buddhist life in Eastern traditions that one does not find in the Westernized counterparts. What’s more, these aspects have been there from the beginning and were certainly part of the Buddha’s intention in defining the Sangha the way he did. My book, Culture of Awakening, deals with this issue head-on.

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