The problem with cherry-picking is that it’s easy to give into our biases, so we don’t learn and grow. Our philosophy ends up describing life rather than providing a means to make it livable. Buddha didn’t recommend taking anything on blind faith or blind doubt.

 

By Upasaka Chushu 

Sometimes it’s easier to describe something by saying what it’s not—Buddhadharma uses that method a lot.

So, let’s use it on Buddhism! There are whole Suttas where the Buddha says what this Path isn’t. Then he lets people figure out what it is by the process of elimination. Here are six schools of thought that Buddha criticized.

Amoralism
Fatalism
Material hedonism
Eternalism
Jainism
Skepticism

1) Amoralism

Purana Kassapa, who claimed to be omniscient, taught that there was no such  thing as karma. Nothing is inherently good or bad, and there’s no such thing as merit or demerit. Actions still have consequences, but that has nothing to do with their morality. In the end, taking a life and saving one are equal. This is similar to moral nihilism or relativism which is common in these post-modern times.

2)Fatalism

Makkhali Gosala, of the Ajivika school, believed that everything came down to destiny. Free will is an illusion, so the most practical thing to do is surrender to the principles of the universe.

The Ajivikans believed that all things were made of atoms, and that atoms were created by cosmic laws. Since everything’s atomic, there can’t be free will—just cyclic cause and effect going on forever. Even liberation is predetermined and has nothing to do with karma. This is similar to physicalism, where everything is matter and energy. The mind, or consciousness, is an emergent quality of the brain. We’re expressions of the universe and shaped by nature.

3) Material hedonism

Ajita Kesakambali was a teacher of the Lokayata or Charvaka school. Charvakans were empiricists—they believed that valid knowledge can only come from the senses. Rationality can be helpful, but it’s unreliable.

Since they didn’t trust inference, they didn’t believe in reincarnation, karma, fate, liberation or the soul. They believed that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain was the key to a good life. There’s no point in abstaining from the pleasures of life since death itself is liberation.

This is basically material hedonism. The material world is the only world, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and live for today.

4) Eternalism

Eternalism is the view that the soul or mind survives the body. It’s a central part of Vedanta and it’s present in most world religions.

5)Jainism

Jains believe that the soul experiences rebirth based on its karma, and that ahimsa (non-violence) and restraint are keys to purifying the soul. One difference between Jainism and Buddhism is that Jains believe that the truth is pluralistic. Something can be yes and no at the same time. Buddha taught the Middle Way where it’s neither yes nor no.

Sanjaya Belatthiputta belonged to the Ajnana or no-knowledge school. They believed that all knowledge was impossible and that insight didn’t lead to liberation. If one doesn’t know something, because they lack adequate information about it, then they should suspend judgment. Since the Ajnanas believed that true knowledge was impossible, they suspended judgment indefinitely, including on metaphysical issues.

Since two “liberated” mystics can have different views on things, which one is right? It’s like with near-death experiences. One person might see Jesus and their loved ones in heaven, while others experience oneness with the Divine, a flock of unicorns, or nothing at all. Who’s right?

An Ajnana would say, “We can’t know.” They advocated unknowing as a way to a life free from worry.

What is Buddhism?

By using these six schools as comparisons, we get these six aspects of Buddhism.

Morality

Buddha taught that all intentional thoughts, words and actions were karmic. Pure intentions create good karma; impure intentions create bad karma. Karma determines the environment we’re born into and the being we’re born as. At its most extreme, karma determines every experience we have. Buddha taught that we should cultivate good karma, but the best thing to do is to escape the karmic wheel altogether.

Free Will

Buddha taught that all things are dependently arisen. If this, then that. If no this, then no that. By cultivating the Perfections, Immeasurables or Factors of Awakening, we influence dependent arising by changing the causes and conditions behind things. All beings have free will, but this will determines the future.

The Middle Way 

Buddha said that hedonism and asceticism were both extremes, as are eternalism and annihilationism. We can’t find freedom from suffering by indulging or starving the senses. Sensual enjoyment and restraint aren’t the issues—craving is the issue.

He also didn’t believe that the self or soul was permanent or impermanent. He just didn’t believe in it in general. “The self isn’t in the Aggregates, nor outside of them, and it isn’t identical to them either.” This puts Buddhism at odds with eternalistic religions like Islam and Christianity, as well as annihilationist views like eternal oblivion.

There’s no self, but there is karma, and karma creates the body-mind.

Knowledge 

Buddha taught that there are two valid means to knowledge: experience and inference. We need both reason and firsthand evidence to figure out what’s real and true. Inference started taking a back seat a few hundred years later, as seen in Zen and Tantra.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Buddha considered reason to be a vital part of practice. I’m a bit of a rationalist, so this is important to me. Experiences can be misleading, and good reasoning can still use weak premises, so we need both.

Conclusion 

Secular Buddhism seems to be anti-Buddhist at times. A generic Secular Buddhist believes that morals are relative, free will is iffy, that the material is all there is—the self disappears when we die.

As usual, I’m left wondering what value Secular Buddhism has since it’s basically just Stoicism with a Buddhist robe on. If you don’t believe in karma, rebirth, and enlightenment, then Buddhism probably isn’t for you. Your safest bet would be to take the best and leave the rest, creating your own kind of syncretist spirituality.

The problem with cherry-picking is that it’s easy to give into our biases, so we don’t learn and grow. Our philosophy ends up describing life rather than providing a means to make it livable. Buddha didn’t recommend taking anything on blind faith or blind doubt. That means that we need to find the logical or experiential flaws in karma, rebirth and/or enlightenment, rather than rejecting them outright.

If you reach a stalemate, Buddha recommended believing in such things if believing them makes life better. At the end of the day, the Buddha was a pragmatist. A helpful falsehood is better than an unhelpful truth. Buddha wasn’t a liar, but he was choosey about which “truths” he told because he believed, first and foremost, in the end of suffering.

 

Upaska Chushu is a Buddhist scholar, historian, and half-mad Zen hermit

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Pixabay

 

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