Some Buddhist teachings are unbelievable to some Buddhists. This section discusses the first of three strategies for reconciling this eventuality, short of simply rejecting the teaching.
How to contextualize a teaching
The method here is “lighten up” with the realization that truth is relative, that there is no irrevocable commitment in “belief.”
Every statement has its context, which is why we add qualifiers like “scientifically speaking,” “from an ethical perspective,” “in the Lord o’ the Rings,” “according to Newtonian physics,” or “in baseball,” when its context is not otherwise clear. We humans are also quite adept at jumping from context to context, seeing “Sherlock Holmes was a smoker,” as an irrefutable truth one instant, and acknowledging that Sherlock Holmes never existed in the next, without contradiction. “According to the Buddha” is also another context.
Buddhism is not a creed; it is only indirectly about belief at all; rather it is about how we live our lives. At the same time, it includes teachings, with seemingly propositional content, that inform and shape our practice lives. Typically these are held loosely or somewhat tentatively, at least until higher stages of development where they may become known or awakened to (anubodha) on the basis of personal experience. Cognitively a belief is a complex thing and rarely absolute. Recognition of this tends to make our believability criteria much more permissive. (I focus here so much on belief because that is the level at which traditional teachings are sometimes regarded as unbelievable, the level at which the “Balderdash!” response arises.)
Perspectives. The eminent behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner held firmly that mental states are imaginary, a kind of superstition. For him psychology was strictly the study of behavior insofar as it can be described in purely physical terms. Think about this: when he returned home from the university, with its pigeons and students, did he never delight in joyful moments spent with his wife and two daughters, worry when they felt sad? Did he never notice the arising of anger or notice that his own lust was a strong predictor of imminent mating behavior? A string theorist similarly lives by day in a world unfamiliar to the rest of us, yet by night and weekend doesn’t she live in the same world of potato salad and a car that stops when she presses on the brake that most of us do? Almost half of American scientists believe in God, who nonetheless virtually never appears as a factor in their published work. How do people do this, that is, live in two such conceptually distinct worlds at almost the same time?
Science and religion provide the most prominent example of divergent worlds in the public mind. In spite of its many successes, science fails to provide an account of the values, meanings and norms, of the ethics and aesthetics intrinsic to everyday human reality. (As far as I can see, it even fails to provide an account for how there can be something as hugely normative for science as mathematics.) In spite of its ubiquitous role in human culture, religion does not enjoy the reassurance that the scientific method gives science. When scientific push comes to religious shove, science generally wins in public discourse, religious scientists quickly admitting that much of their own religious belief is not literally true.
If this were not enough, critics of religion often expect religion to uphold the same empirical standards as science, a requirement not imposed on other realms of human culture. For instance, an artist is not expected to provide independent verification of his aesthetic choices, nor to reduce his art to a set of beliefs. Buddhists generally find answering the frequently posed question, “What do Buddhists believe?” quite awkward because it misses the point.
Interestingly, analogous tensions can be observed within science as we move from one competing paradigm or conceptual structure to another. For instance, Newtonian and quantum physics have conceptually distinct belief structures, yet the practicing physicist can be quite adept in jumping from one to another, as one is often more practical for a particular realm of analysis. When quantum push comes to Newtonian shove, quantum physics generally wins in scientific discourse and scientists admit that the Newtonian system is a simply a quick and dirty expedient in certain cases. This works as long as each is contextualized into a different realm in which their conceptual structures don’t need to contradict one another. Quantum physicists have furthermore lived with the dilemma of two irreconcilable conceptualizations of light and matter for over a century, treating these as waves or as particles according to context. Every context is an expedient of some kind.
Two conceptual structures that do not mix well are the Buddhist and that of mechanistic materialist view of the universe that developed in the nineteenth century and that, outside of physics, dominates scientific thinking and popular science to this day. Early in that century Laplace proposed, on the basis of the success of Newtonian physics, that the universe is entirely governed by physical forces and that it is thereby entirely deterministic. Helmholtz’ conservation of energy proposed in the middle of the century seemed to exclude all nonphysical causation. Determinism means that there is no free-will, no volition and therefore no karma, no practice and no results of practice. Materialism means there is no mind-made world; the mind cannot even be taken as real, much less as primary. Therefore Buddhism makes little sense in such a world.
If it is any consolation, almost nothing else humans do makes sense in such a world either –engineering, for instance – since we don’t really do anything there. This does not prove that such a world does not factually exist, but that humans spend little time in the context of such a world, even those who believe that it is the realest world. We simply do not know how to live in a mechanistic materialist world! This world and the world of mind and volition therefore belong in different contexts, just as science and religion generally do. (I’ll point out later, in the context of the reconsideration strategy, that case for mechanistic materialism in fact fell on its face in the twentieth century.) Even die-hard mechanistic materialists must make concessions to free will. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “You have to believe in free will. You have no choice.”i Recall, once again, that the Buddha’s primary criterion for embracing a teaching is benefit, not objective truth. Benefit cannot be practiced without free will.
Fiction. The surprising thing about fiction is how powerfully real it can be for us. We sit in a movie theater (to see Rambo II, say) and become entirely immersed in the lives of the characters, their ups and downs, their frustrations and successes. We cry, we cringe, we share their pain, we leave the theater with our hair roots trying to stand on end. Often we learn moral lessons or develop attitudes that, for better or worse, we take with us into our own lives. And yet we know all the while it is fiction and should touch us only indirectly. Entertainment without our capacity to take it as real (within its proper context) would be very slim indeed.
I imagine that the primal source of fiction is play. Even puppies pretend to do mighty battle with one another, chewing one each others’ ears, swatting each others faces and leaping one upon the other. At the same time, they are mindful of their context, a context in which they are to do no real harm. They later grow into beasts that could easily dismember a human child, yet continue to engage in the same play with them as well, growling, gnashing their teeth, but drawing no blood, or chasing sticks as if in pursuit of prey. This is all expedient, for they take the results of play into their realer lives as they develop skills they can apply more violently in real fighting or real hunting. Human play is much the same: if children did not spend endless hours playing video games, where would the drone operators of the future come from?
Myths in the Buddhist or religious context make use of the ability of fiction to reach out from another reality and touch our realer lives. They can provide powerful teachings by analogy, inspire and their entertainment value makes them easier to assimilate for both young and old. In place of the remnants of doubt in the mind of the Bodhisattva, the demon Māra appears with his fearful hordes and temptress daughters attempting to dissuade the future Buddha from his rightful path as he sits under the bodhi tree, who then for his part touches the earth that it shake and rumble to bear witness to his determination. Each of us is a sucker for a good story. Although this myth was a later embellishment of the Buddha’s own account, the Buddha himself was a skillful myth maker. In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27) the Buddha spins an origin story of the world, and it’s a whopper, yet serves a real function in providing an alternative to the Vedic origin story, particularly with regard to the origin of the caste system, for the benefit of two monks who were born brahmins and are now criticized by more traditional brahmins for abandoning the purity of their caste. Gombrich (2006, p. 85) considers this a satire on brahmanical ideas, even playing on the word ajjhānaka, which generally means “reciter (of the Vedas)” but can also mean “non-meditator.”
Counting as. A fiction can tell us something about, or train us for, a more solid reality. “Counting as” is like a fiction, but it is a running interpretation or narration overlain over a more solid reality. A primary example is a sports game, such as baseball. While there are physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up and agreed on by convention to accompany the physical actions. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because of where it goes it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” ends the half-inning, and the other team, who knows that, will come in from their dispersed position on the playing field to coalesce at one corner. One of them will then count as being “at bat.”
Money is another example of socially agreed counting-as. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running interpretation as counting-for-something defined this as a medium of exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks merely pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account to count as money, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. A satirical news article imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”
Although sports and money are a kind of fiction overlain on a more solid reality, they are for many people the most tangibly real things there are, matters of perpetual fascination. As real as sports and money are the many mysterious forces that mankind have habitually seen to underly observable events, the work of gods and demons, spells, forces of good or evil. The belief in such forces has been generally supplanted for moderns by scientific explanation, but persists in modern political and economic in which mysterious forces thrive: national interest, freedom fighters, terrorists, manifest destiny, chosen people (or exceptionalism), wealth creation, free markets, natural economic forces, our values as a nation, national security. Scientific theories actually seem to have much in common with the imputation of mysterious supernatural forces, except that they are much more principled and constrained and seek triangulation through independent verification. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football.
Faith and Working Assumptions. Here the Buddha provides clear and abundant guidelines. In the Caṅki Sutta the Buddha remarks that anything accepted through faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoning or pondering may or may not turn out to be true. At this Caṅki asks how, then, truth is to be preserved:
Kittāvatā pana bho gotama, saccānurakkhanā hoti, kittāvatā saccamanurakkhati? Saccānurakkhanaṃ mayaṃ bhavantaṃ gotamaṃ pucchāmā’ti.
Saddhā cepi bhāradvāja, purisassa hoti, ‘evaṃ me saddhā’ti iti vadaṃ saccamanurakkhati, na tveva tāva ekaṃsena niṭṭhaṃ gacchati: ‘idameva saccaṃ moghamañña’nti. Ettāvatā kho bhāradvāja saccānurakkhanā hoti. Ettāvatā saccamanurakkhati. Ettāvatā ca mayaṃ saccānurakkhanaṃ paññāpema. Na tve tāva saccānubodho hoti.
“But to what extent, Master Gotama, is there the preservation of the truth? To what extent does one preserve the truth? We ask Master Gotama about the preservation of the truth.”
“If a person has faith, his statement, ‘This is my faith,’ preserves the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ To this extent, Bharadvaja, there is the preservation of the truth. To this extent one preserves the truth. I describe this as the preservation of the truth. But it is not yet a discovery of the truth.”
The Buddha then repeats this formula with regard to a person who approves something, who holds an oral tradition, who has reasoned something through analogy or who has views he has pondered out, just as with regard to a person who has faith. In our terms, when a thesis is accepted, it is not true absolutely by itself but is true relative to its context. The thesis along with the context preserves truth. The Buddha then shows how truth is discovered and then finally realized, the implication being that if a correct teaching is accepted as a working assumption, it will eventually be seen directly as one’s practice progresses.
This passage is a remarkable illustration of the care the Buddha accorded faith and other ways of accepting beliefs that fall short of realization in direct experience, that we not take these as conclusive, but rather keep their context, and thereby their provisional nature, in mind. Under these conditions we accept them.
The Appaṇṇaka (Incontrovertable) Sutta (MN 60) describes a purely pragmatic condition for accepting one of two alternative theses on the basis of a kind of cost-benefit analysis, or a means of covering one’s bets that by itself justifies its acceptance as a kind of working assumption.
santi gahapatayo eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino: natthi dinnaṃ natthi yiṭṭhaṃ, natthi hutaṃ, natthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko, natthi ayaṃ loko, natthi paro loko, natthi mātā, natthi pitā, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi loke samaṇabrāmhaṇā sammaggatā sammāpaṭipannā ye imañca lokaṃ parañca lokaṃ sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedentīti.
“There are some contemplatives and brahmans who hold this doctrine, hold this view: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.’
He then points out that this view will condition the behavior of such contemplatives and brahmins:
Tesametaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ: … yamidaṃ kāyaduccaritaṃ vacīduccaritaṃ manoduccaritaṃ, ime tayo akusale dhamme samādāya vattissanti. Taṃ kissa hetu: na hi te bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā passanti akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ ādīnavaṃ okāraṃ saṅkilesaṃ. Kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ nekkhamme ānisaṃsaṃ vodānapakkhaṃ
It can be expected that … they will adopt and practice these three unskillful activities: bad bodily conduct, bad verbal conduct, bad mental conduct. Why is that? Because those venerable contemplatives & brahmans do not see, in unskillful activities, the drawbacks, the degradation, and the defilement; nor in skillful activities the benefit of renunciation, as cleansing.
Here is the kicker: people of this view cannot win, whether or not their view turns out to be true:
Paro loko hotu nesaṃ bhavataṃ samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ saccaṃ vacanaṃ. Atha ca panā’yaṃ bhavaṃ purisapuggalo diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho: dussīlo purisapuggalo micchādiṭṭhi natthikavādoti. Sace kho attheva paro loko, evaṃ imassa bhoto purisapuggalassa ubhayattha kaliggaho: yañca diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho, yañca kāyassa bhedā parammaraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinīpātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjissati. Evamassā’yaṃ apaṇṇako dhammo dussamatto samādinno ekaṃsaṃ pharitvā tiṭṭhati. Riñcati kusalaṃ ṭhānaṃ.
Let there be no other world, regardless of the true statement of those venerable contemplatives and brahmans. This good person is still criticized in the here and now by the observant as a person of bad habits and wrong view: one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence.’ If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the observant here and now, and in that with the breakup of the body, after death he will reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Thus this incontrovertable teaching, when poorly grasped and poorly adopted by him, covers one side. He gives up the skillful option.
The Buddha then contrasts these contemplatives and with those of exactly the opposite views, who thereby engage in good bodily, verbal and mental conduct as a result. He demonstrates that these cannot lose, whether or not their view turns out to be true. He repeats the equivalent argument for each of a variety of views: that good or bad actions do not produce merit or demerit, that beings become defiled or purified without cause, immaterial realms do not exist and there is no cessation of being. Although the Buddha at the same time maintains that the more skillful view is also true, in spite of what other contemplative and brahmins might think, his final recourse is to what view is most likely to bring benefit. In either case truth is preserved, according to the Caṅki Sutta, by keeping in mind the context in which the view arises.
The Kalama Sutta employs the same logic to justify the benefit of karma and rebirth even as a working assumption:
‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him. ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him.
In this way, belief in karma and rebirth can be accepted, at least in a sense, that is relative to a context.
Let’s back up for a moment to the Caṅki Sutta and ask what the role of scientific evidence might be in the acceptance of karma and rebirth, as a particular example. The Buddha recommends that karma and rebirth are accepted as a working assumption by the skeptical, but is confident that their truth, which he endorses, will eventually be discovered and finally realized in the diligent practitioner’s own experience. The evidence here is quite different from scientific evidence, which is dependent on reasoning and pondering, on careful argumentation that itself can turn out either way; nothing is proved conclusively in science. A consequence is that even if the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports karma and rebirth, one has still not yet discovered (anubodha) and realized karma and rebirth, not until one has confirmed it in one’s own experience. It is still contextualized, as something like faith but with perhaps a lot of reassurance. The Buddha’s criteria are quite stringent.
Conclusions. By recognizing the relative nature of belief, more things become believable. We can believe in things that are fictional or mythological, conventionally or habitually imputed, accepted on faith or otherwise guessed at or accepted as working assumptions as the best bet for beneficial outcomes. We recognize that these things are not absolute truths and do not commit to them as such until we awaken to them. In the meantime, they make sense in their specific contexts. Nonetheless, these contextualized beliefs have a powerful influence in shaping our attitudes and behaviors, including the quality of our Buddhist practice.
Contextualization is likely to be useful for the agnostic temperament, for which the working assumption is likely to have appeal, since it is so noncommittal. It is less likely useful for the atheistic temperament that has already made up its mind. For this we will turn to the strategy of reconsideration as we navigate the space between acceptance and rejection of Buddhist teachings.
In this section we’ve explored a middle way between absolute belief and total rejection. Contextualization is one way to realize that middle way. Next we will look at the alternative of reconsideration, and following that, of update.