Why the Buddha Lied
by Francisca Cho, Searchmagazine.com
Getting beyond the literal, the metaphorical, and the rift between religion and science.
Francisca Cho is associate professor of Buddhist studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in the Dream of the Nine Clouds, Everything Yearned For: Manhae’s Poems of Love and Longing, and numerous articles on Buddhism and film. She is currently working on a book on Buddhism and science, from which the article appearing in this issue is excerpted.
The current conflict between Christianity and various branches of modern science centers on stories. The most important story is about the creation of the universe and human beings. This story is important because, depending on how one tells it, there are clear implications for the role and meaning of human existence within the universe, as well as the possibility of powers that transcend material and natural law. Everyone readily understands that religion and science tell different stories about creation—that is, stories with different and hard-to-reconcile content. What is not so obvious is that the tension between Christianity and science is rooted in a mutual agreement about the nature of stories. This significant agreement is the presumption that if there are many stories about the same event, then only one story can be true.
Other ways of thinking about religion and science call this assumption into question. Both Asian and western intellectuals have long noted the scientific aspects of Buddhism—its reliance on observation, its interest in the empirical world, and its rejection of metaphysical speculation. The claim that Buddhism is compatible with modern science goes back to the nineteenth century, when Buddhism first became the object of widespread western interest.
Recently, the dialogue between Buddhism and science has blossomed into scientific investigations of the “technology” of Buddhist meditation and its theory of mind. Much of this conversation has been initiated and sustained by the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The questions being asked are exciting and important: What are the neuro-physiological correlates of meditative states? What practical application does this knowledge have for enhancing our physical and mental health? Can Buddhist philosophy help us get past the mind/brain debate?
Such questions are inspired, in part, by the fact that there are substantial similarities between Buddhist and scientific views of the self and consciousness. Both reject as irrelevant the concept of the soul, or any idea of a distinctly immaterial entity at the center of the self. Instead, both look at the self as an integration of physical and mental processes, and see consciousness as a product of physical, environmental, and experiential factors.
Yet what will happen when the conversation expands beyond these topics, and the substantial differences between the two systems become unavoidable? As Franklin & Marshall College professor David McMahan notes, it is Western science that is determining the parameters of the dialogue between Buddhism and science, and thus the western scientist who is in the position of deciding whether or not the Buddha “got it right.” Despite the fact that Buddhism is a complete system of thought that resists being broken down into tidbits that can be chosen or rejected by scientific whim, it is not improbable that at some point scientists will decide that the Buddha indeed got it wrong.
Let us take a case in point: Buddhism does not believe in a creator God, but it does tell stories about the world that violate the sensibilities of modern science. The doctrine of karma, for example, is a source of discomfort for western rationalists, largely because of its idea of rebirth. Both good and bad actions result in consequences, the karmic theory goes. Actions generate a moral energy that drives us into endless cycles of death and rebirth. This circular cosmology is graphically pictured in terms of fantastic heavens and terrible hells that function as realms of reward and punishment for prior actions. The vast inequalities of fortune, beauty, and talent visited on people are understood as the effects of their individual karma.
Like the Christian concept of heavenly salvation, Buddhist cosmology is ripe for scientific skepticism in that it also affirms life after death (albeit of a very different kind). It is a cause of controversy for some Western Buddhists and an obvious source of conflict between Buddhism and science. If we follow the norms of contemporary western culture, two basic ways exist of dealing with the problem. We can decide that Buddhist heavens and hells are metaphors that have important lessons to teach but that should not be taken literally. The other option is to insist on their factual truth.
We are limited to these options if we force Buddhism into our standard ways of thinking about religious stories. But this ignores the fact that Buddhist cultures have their own ways of understanding the relationship between language and truth. What might we learn if we take the Buddhist perspective rather than that of the scientist investigating Buddhism? Taking the Buddhist perspective means using Buddhist thought to reflect back on our own way of understanding things, which may make our own ways of thinking seem downright strange.
The Problem of Karma
The doctrine of karma is one of the oldest and most prominent in the history of Buddhist thought. Its moral concept of action as entailing consequences that are expressed as rebirth in a potentially unending cycle of lives is an Indian idea that predates the Buddha. It was imported into the Buddhist system with significant alterations. Through Buddhism, it was widely transmitted to new regions like China, Korea, and Japan, where fear of rebirth in the graphically depicted hells of Buddhist cosmology took a decisive hold on the popular imagination. Now that Buddhist tradition has become a part of contemporary Western culture, karma theory poses a problem for our rational sensibilities. The issue is not simply that it clashes with science. It also appears to contradict the Buddha’s own famous command not to bother with metaphysical and speculative ideas.
The discomfort Western Buddhists feel toward this doctrine is expressed pointedly by Stephen Batchelor in Buddhism Without Beliefs. “It is odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to adopt ancient Indian metaphysical theories,” he writes. At the very least, he concludes, we should be agnostic about karma theory, as “Dharma practice [should] never be in contradiction with science.”
Speaking for the other side of this discussion, Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American monk ordained in a Sri Lankan order, voices the fear that Western Buddhists are too willing to give up “inconvenient” elements of Buddhist tradition, causing Buddhism to lose its integrity in the process. According to Bodhi, “Batchelor is ready to cast away too much that is integral to the Buddha’s teaching in order to make it fit in with today’s secular climate of thought.”
Here we have it: proof that Buddhism is no more immune to the acid of scientific and rationalist critique than any other religion, dashing this particular hope of bringing religion and science together. Here we have another battle in the mold of struggles within Christian communities regarding how much to give up in the name of modernization and how much to retain in the name of tradition. But this is precisely the point: We merely seem to have the same old dilemma because Buddhism is shoehorned into the contemporary Western struggle between reason and faith.
Buddhists, however, have not traditionally looked at religious claims this way.
Beginning students of Buddhism immediately fixate on the concept of rebirth as a metaphysical story because they are trained to view religion primarily as the making of supernatural claims. A large part of the problem of karma arises from a limited interpretation of it. Nevertheless, let us begin by conceding that most Buddhists in the course of Asian history have understood rebirth in Buddhist heavens and hells quite literally. This tendency is aided by graphic and detailed descriptions, particularly of hell. Buddhist literature describes how those who are reborn in hell are stabbed with red-hot pokers, hacked by axes, made to climb mountains of live coals, dipped in boiling water, and thrown into piles of excrement where worms bore into their flesh and eat their marrow.
The religious function of Buddhist hells is all too familiar. Stories about potential terrors that await one in hell frighten people into doing good, particularly by being charitable to Buddhist monks. The emotionally manipulative, as well as institutionally self-interested, nature of Buddhist cosmological narratives is difficult to deny.
But there is more to this story. The most important change the Buddha made to the Indian concept of karma was to shift our attention away from the external actions committed by the body to the internal mental states that drove them. In a word, the Buddha “psychologized” the concept of karma so that the intention and psychic thrust behind actions, rather than the actions themselves, define a person and determine his future.
It does not take much of a leap, then, to suggest that hell is in your own mind, created by the karmic base of your own anger and hatred that generates a world from these mental states. To be “in” heaven, hell, or anywhere else in the Buddhist cosmos is a direct result of the degree to which the mental defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion are present.
Although these observations are useful, it is ultimately a mistake to apply our distinction between literal and metaphorical truth to explain the two different ways of talking about karma. To begin, Buddhist sources speak of hell in both “literal” and “metaphorical” language, but they do not make a distinction between more or less correct ways of understanding hell.
Overt inconsistency is a common feature of Buddhist texts from the Mahayana school. One dominant and obvious example is that Mahayana philosophy generally preaches the “emptiness” of all of our human constructions—hells are our insubstantial mental creations. But then they go on to proclaim that reciting and memorizing even a few lines of the Mahayana text in question will bring you countless merit—the merit you need to make sure you will avoid all those awful hells!
Western scholars of Buddhism tend to deal with such problems by polarizing Buddhism between its pure teachings, on the one hand, and the messiness of its social reality, on the other. Rather than bisecting Buddhism into opposed “ideal” and “socially real” segments it is possible that Buddhist theories themselves are capable of explaining Buddhist practices. Perhaps hard philosophical reasons exist why Buddhist tradition is generally not bothered by apparent contradictions and inconsistencies, and why it does not debate if the Buddha was really immaculately conceived when his mother dreamt that an elephant entered her side, as the texts say, or if he really walked and talked immediately when born, proclaiming his destiny to become an enlightened being, or if lotus flowers really sprang forth in the wake of his footsteps.
To be sure, Buddhist reformers since the nineteenth century have rejected the so-called superstitious elements of their tradition as inauthentic growths that obscure the true, rational heart of Buddhism. This apologetic bid in the court of western rationalism overlooks an essential point made by Buddhist theory itself: We can never be confident that we have the “real” story in contrast to the fairytales embraced by the naïve masses. To quote one observer: “In the Buddhist view all human speech is a form of deception and it is merely a matter of degree.” You might paraphrase this to say that all speech is a form of lying.
The Meaning of Buddhist Words
When contemporary Christians and scientists assert their stories are literally true, they presume the ability of words to describe the world in a direct and objective way. They trust that words encapsulate and correspond to what is “out there.” But as the British Indologist Richard Gombrich has observed, the Buddha explicitly rejected this idea. The Buddha never confuses the way we think with the way things “objectively” are. For this reason, Gombrich writes, “his very presuppositions about the relations between what goes on in our heads and what is ‘out there’ may have been unlike ours.” Put another way, “We may ask ... whether the Buddha literally believed in the existence of gods or heavens. But is it sure that he would have understood what we mean by ‘literally’?”
The technical distinction between the “literal” and the “metaphorical” goes back to the Greeks, particularly Aristotle, who made the distinction between a strict use of a word and a word whose sense is transferred to another domain. Although he lists four different kinds of metaphors, Aristotle gives most attention to the analogical or “proportional” kind, giving the following example: “old age is to life what evening is to day; and one may speak of evening as ‘the old age of the day’ ... and of old age as ‘the evening of life’ or ‘the sunset of life.’”
Aristotle’s distinction between the literal and the metaphorical serves two functions. The first is purely literary in that it simply observes differences in the way language can be used. When we refer to old age as the “sunset” of life, the use of “sunset” is qualitatively different from its direct, literal use. The second function is philosophical and much more to Aristotle’s purpose: the two kinds of language are presumed to have different purposes and values. Aristotle, in fact, is the primary source of the idea that metaphors possess a lesser truth. He states that “every metaphorical expression is obscure” compared to the direct and unvarying meaning of literal words. For that reason, metaphors are great for poetry, but they must be banned in the pursuit of logic and natural philosophy and science for they are “not adequate for understanding the nature of a thing.”
Most scientists and philosophers of science today follow the principle of realism that is implicit in Aristotle’s distinction between the literal and metaphorical. Realists think that the world of nature exists independently of us, in contrast to the laws, customs, and conventions created by human beings.
For Aristotle and contemporary science alike, it is the language of science that provides reliable descriptions of nature. Some philosophers hesitate when it comes to unobservable entities like electrons and quarks, and they debate among themselves whether such things really exist or if they are convenient fictions made up by science. But when it comes to the plainly observable world of trees, fossils, planets, and human bodies, no debate is needed. Some trees may be so magnificent that they inspire poetry and even worship, but that is not the language of science. The ancient Greeks pursued scientific description in a systematic and self-conscious way, and Aristotle claims its superiority to other discourses because of its strict and literal use of language.
Something like the distinction between the literal and metaphorical is also present in Buddhist ways of looking at scriptures. The term nitartha refers to texts of “precise meaning” and corresponds closely to our notion of the literal. Texts that are designated as neyartha require interpretation and hence are “indeterminate” in meaning. The category of neyartha was created to explain why the Buddha made apparently contradictory statements.
For example, the teaching of “no self” (anatman), or the idea that there is nothing enduring and unchanging (such as a soul) in human beings, is fundamental to Buddhism.
At times, however, the Buddha referred to people as living beings and as individuals, as if they possessed an enduring soul. To resolve this problem, early Buddhists accepted that certain statements of the Buddha are valid on their face whereas others require further explanation. Although neyartha is not technically equivalent to metaphor, with its sense of transferring a word from one domain to another, it has the same connotation of being obscure and hence less desirable.
Yet, early Buddhists frequently disagreed over which pronouncements of the Buddha were nitartha and which neyartha. The distinction was primarily a way of privileging the teachings of one’s own school of interpretation. The Yogacara, for example, veered toward philosophical idealism, which rejects the existence of the external world. For that reason, it took the assertion of the Dasabhumika Sutra that the triple world is “mind only” as a literal, nitartha teaching. The Madhyamikas, however, rejected idealism and insisted that the “mind only” pronouncement was a neyartha teaching that requires interpretation.
In this way, the nitartha/neyartha polarity was a tool of sectarian arguments, somewhat similar to the polemics driving the Greek distinction between the literal and the metaphorical. The crucial difference, however, is that no Buddhist ever rejected “indeterminate teachings” (whatever he determined it to be) as untrue, for this would be tantamount to maligning the Buddha himself.
As time went on, Buddhists came to appreciate the importance of neyartha teachings because they exhibit the profound skills of the Buddha as a teacher. If no consensus existed about what neyartha teachings actually were, then at least Buddhists agreed that the Buddha had substantial motivation and purpose for speaking indeterminately. What he said was determined by who he was talking to and their particular needs. To speak of the “self” as if it is a real entity is a Buddhist heresy, strictly speaking, but, as the philosopher Candrakirti explains, the Buddha used this language with people who clung to harmful nihilistic views about the nonexistence of all things. We might say that the Buddha lied to people when it was good for them.
In Buddhist terminology, this use of “skillful” or “expedient” means is called upaya, which explains why divergent teachings do not compromise the unity of the Buddha’s message. The concept of upaya is a marvelous reconciler, used to great effect, for example, in the Lotus Sutra, as it resolves the tension between emptiness doctrine and merit-making devotional practices. Western interpreters, however, tend to view upaya as a pragmatic sleight-of-hand. For them, “expedient means” is an idea born of sobering necessity.
Sometimes our attempts to understand another tradition like Buddhism are hindered by our own philosophical assumptions. Because we think that the purpose of speech is to describe the world, and that speech actually has the capacity to do so, we assume that Buddhists use words in the same way. But the Buddhist categories of nitartha and neyartha do not operate within such presumptions.
Did the Buddha refrain from describing the world because the truth is beyond words? There have been many contemporary scholarly interpretations of why the Buddha was famously silent in response to metaphysical questions. All we can ascertain from the early texts is that when the Buddha spoke about the “world,” he referred only to how we perceive and experience our lives. The Buddha did not seem to be interested in the truth, if by truth we mean a discourse on what there “really is.” He proclaims to teach about everything that exists, but defines the “all” to be what we experience through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Anything beyond that is “engaging in mere talk.”
If the Buddha’s use of words is not philosophical, he still has rules about how to use them. In his description of the four different kinds of people who hear his teachings, the worst kind are those who “put the words first” and thereby know nothing of the Dharma even though they are capable of remembering, reciting, and preaching what the Buddha said. What does it mean to “put the words first”? It means to cling to words and language as if there is something innately holy about them. Simply put, words do not describe the world. The person who clings to speech is like the fool who stares at the pointing finger rather than the object the finger is indicating.
The Truth about Right Views
One might very well protest that even if the Buddha refused to describe the world in any ultimate or direct sense, he still used words to communicate his essential truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering. One might add further that the immense success Buddhism has had in propagating its message around the world is evidence of the fact that words do indeed apprehend something. The Buddha relied on words and language, after all, and even claimed “right views” as essential to the path of enlightenment.
This distinguishing between right and wrong views, however, is in apparent tension with another prominent theme —the teaching that we must reject all words and conceptuality. In this respect, the Buddha is deemed to hold “no view” at all and that even Buddhist teachings are mere instruments, such as a raft for crossing a river, which must be abandoned once it has served its purpose. How can this be reconciled with the “right views” expounded by the Buddha? Are they not at cross-purposes with having “no views” and liberating oneself from words and concepts?
The Buddha makes it clear that attachment to beliefs themselves is a major source of suffering. Stubborn disagreements over who has the right beliefs typically cause interpersonal, social, and political friction—from the merely unpleasant to downright disastrous. So what justifies the Buddha’s own distinction between right and wrong views? Because, again, the actual content of belief affects our degree of attachment to it. One can become attached to a belief because it is self-serving or convenient. The teaching that the self is absolute tends to nurture our already selfish inclinations. The Buddhist teaching of “no self,” on the other hand, detaches us from the idea of self to transcend egotism and the suffering it causes. The process entails scrutinizing every aspect of the human person, from physical form to sensations, perceptions, dispositions, and consciousness, and discovering that there is nothing permanent and enduring there. The teaching brings us to doubt that “self,” understood as unchanging essence, refers to anything at all.
This teaching, for obvious reasons, has disturbed many Christian readers. Even for non-theists, it suggests a nihilistic worldview that denies the reality of the self. So Buddhist “right views” too, despite their intentions, can cause friction. But awareness of cultural difference is crucial. We tend to be very keen on metaphysical disputes, leading us to assume that the Buddha was also wrangling over such questions as the existence or non-existence of the soul. Hence it difficult for us to appreciate that “no self” doctrine is not a “belief” in the way we normally understand the term. Rather, it is a “linguistic taboo” that forbids all speculative propositions and theories about the self because they create nothing more than irresolvable arguments. In that sense, Buddhist ideology is, as Steven Collins has called it, “a social, intellectual, and soteriological strategy.” Buddhist tradition has found the doctrine of no-self very useful for overcoming speculative theories about the self, if it is taken in the right way.
In this sense, beliefs and stories matter because they formulate our actions, moving us to right or wrong. Built into this way of thinking is the additional recognition that we need to do different things at different times. What results is the ability to accept different stories, even contradictory ones, without any sense of cognitive dissonance.
It is this very practice, of course, that we have trouble dignifying in our own society. To us, it suggests a lack of intellectual seriousness and it unleashes the monster of relativism.
Should we, then, all follow the example of the Buddhists who tell multiple, irreconcilable stories? There’s no need to make such a recommendation because we already tell multiple, irreconcilable stories. Let us look at a simple example by going back to the sunsets that Aristotle used to illustrate the distinction between literal and metaphorical word usage. We know now, because of science, that there are no literal sunsets, and that the appearance of the setting sun is caused by Earth’s rotation. And yet, talk of “sunsets” persists, not because we are ignorant of the heliocentric model of the solar system but because sunsets and sunrises are what we see from our vantage point in the universe. Sunsets and sunrises give us a practical way of measuring our days and regulating the biological and social rhythms that go along with them. The drama and beauty of sunsets also inspire poetic observations, and only a terrible bore would ruin the moment with “correct” scientific language about Earth’s rotation. The proper time to invoke the heliocentric model is when we want to do scientific things like calculate the position and movement of the planets and predict eclipses. Our activities determine which story to tell.
The war between religion and science has deemed such purpose-driven storytelling “inconsistent” and a threat to truth. Hence scientists who are religious are put on the defensive for their inconsistency, and the religiously faithful who also accept science are driven to worry about its godless implications.
Hasn’t the time come to explicitly question the assumptions behind this demand for the single, “whole story”?
Front image via alexandereducation.org