Being a stereotypical Westerner who thinks too much, I lack the sort of faith that is richly possessed by the majority of people born and raised in a system like Buddhism. I look at Buddhism from the outside as well as the inside, and do not take the truth of the scriptures for granted (the taking for granted of which being practically required in more faith-based traditions). I attempt to use critical thought, compare Buddhism with other traditions, and indulge in some Devil's-Advocate-style skepticism from time to time. Although some conservatives might consider me to be a heretic, possibly not even a Buddhist, I consider a hard look at one's own philosophy of life to be vital for avoiding the unnecessary gambles of blind dogmatic belief; and the following paragraphs are a rather extreme hard look at something which, believe it or not, I consider to be sacred.
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Please consider that nobody on this planet can logically, demonstratively prove the following four points:
- That a great Indian sage called Gotama Buddha ever really existed;
- Even if he did exist, that he was a fully enlightened being;
- Even if he did exist and was a fully enlightened being, that he always spoke the truth (or that any fully enlightened being necessarily always speaks the truth); and
- Even if Gotama Buddha really, historically existed, and was a fully enlightened being, and always spoke the truth, that the Pali Buddhist texts accurately, reliably represent what he said.
As I say, nobody on this planet can really prove ANY of the above four points---yet most Theravada Buddhists, and of course most Asian Theravada Buddhist scholar-monks, take for granted the truth of all of them, and even most Western monks stubbornly persist in insisting on at least the first three. (A similar state of affairs is found in other traditions, like Christianity---for example, who can really prove that an ancient Galilean carpenter's son named Yeshua was the only begotten Son of God Almighty, or that he was borne of a virgin, or that he died for our sins?)
With regard to the first of the four points, I do consider it very likely that from the point of view of conventional truth (as opposed to Ultimate Truth) Gotama Buddha was a real historical personage. It does seem pretty darn likely. But a hardheaded skeptic could easily retort that even DNA analysis of the Buddha's relics, like pieces of charred bone dug out of a reliquary pagoda, would not really prove his existence. We cannot demonstratively prove even the existence of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, despite mountains of historical evidence, and in Churchill's case people old enough to have known him. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out, for all we know some deity with a strange sense of humor could have created this universe half an hour ago, and created us with memories implanted in our heads of events which never actually took place, along with bogus scars, a fossil record, etc. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but there is really no way to prove that it isn't so.
As for the second point, I admit that I use the Buddha's enlightenment as a very convenient working hypothesis; but I also admit that there is no way to prove it. Even if the Buddha were alive today and standing in front of a panel of experts they couldn't really prove that he was fully enlightened. How could anyone prove such a thing? Perhaps enlightened sages could clairvoyantly look into the past and clearly see that the Buddha really was a Buddha, but how could the sages prove it to anyone else? We couldn't safely take their word for it, partly because we couldn't prove that they were enlightened either.
The third point is more problematic. For example, in the Pali texts themselves there is some evidence which suggests that fully enlightened beings may occasionally be mistaken. For example in the canonical history of the First Council the members of the Council, who reportedly were all enlightened, did not agree on what constituted lesser, minor rules of discipline (and they presumably couldn't all be right); and in the rules of discipline themselves there is a story in which the Buddha allowed certain medicines for sick monks, but that these medicines, taken in the way the Buddha allowed, only made them sicker. The Buddha is also portrayed as endorsing ancient Indian cosmology with a flat earth floating on water…and so on, and so on. One may argue that with the cessation of delusion one would always know the truth; but perhaps the truth that is realized is largely irrelevant to the phenomenal world of delusion in which we are wallowing. Would an enlightened being necessarily know how to repair a carburetor? How to speak fluent Swahili? How to work out equations in integral calculus? Then again on the other hand, could an enlightened being deliberately tell a lie? The Pali texts say that one cannot, but the reliability of those texts is also at issue. One possible example of a "dishonest" enlightened being in modern times is Neem Karoli Baba, who, according to his own devotees, could not be trusted to keep his promises---yet who was extremely highly advanced spiritually. It would seem that an enlightened being absolutely incapable of lying would be thereby limited, and thus not entirely free. Or so it would seem.
The fourth point is not all that controversial outside of very Theravadin countries like Burma, where faith far outweighs critical thought on such matters as Religion. Most Western Theravada Buddhists, including most Western Theravada monks, consider the texts not to be 100% reliable. However, many of these who have already renounced a fundamentalist belief in the infallibility of the texts as a whole fall back on a semi-fundamentalist belief in the near-infallibility of the so-called "core texts" which compose roughly one half of the Pali Canon. These core texts, though, also cannot be proved by anyone on this planet to be authentic teachings of a fully enlightened being. A belief in their reliability is essentially a convenient guess. My guess is that they are nowhere near to being 100% reliable. The reasons for this guess will be explained in a different place at a different time, as they are not necessary here. All that is necessary here is room for skeptical doubt, and of that there is plenty.
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So, a reasonable question to ask at this point is, If everything that can be reasonably doubted by a devout Skeptic is set aside, what remains of Buddhism? What aspects of Dharma are reliably true even without Dogma authoritatively backing them up?
Well, for starters, we could consider the Four Noble Truths. The Truth of Suffering is pretty obvious, at least from a practical, conventional point of view. Even if there is some real pleasure and happiness too, the presence of some degree of chronic unhappiness in everybody's life is pretty obvious, and becomes more obvious the more mindfully the mind is observed. Nobody, except for maybe a hypothetical fully enlightened sage, is always completely satisfied. Furthermore, the Truth of the Origin of Suffering is obvious to anyone who carefully examines his or her own mind---we suffer when things aren't the way we want them to be, or when we worry that before long they won't be the way we want them to be. Even the suffering of a toothache is not directly caused by the pain itself, but by the desire for the pain to stop. This can be seen clearly for oneself. And the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering logically follows from the Truth of its Origin: If desire causes all unhappiness, then the cessation of desire would cause the cessation of unhappiness. If the second Truth is true, then the third Truth is also true. It is really only the fourth Noble Truth, the Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering, that can easily be doubted by one who carefully observes the facts. We won't know if Right View and all the rest will enlighten us until we reach the end of the Path, if we ever do reach it. (Let us trust that we will.) But…a clever Skeptic may doubt such "truths" by appealing to mysticism and the limitations of human understanding, or some such.
Another self-evident teaching of Buddhism is Dependent Co-arising---so long as one's interpretation of it goes no farther than the idea that one's psychological, phenomenal world consists of states that are only relative, not absolute in and of themselves. "This being, that is; in the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that is not; in the ceasing of this, that ceases." This can be seen through deep mindfulness, and also can be demonstrated logically (as I tried to do in my article "On the Three Marks of Existence," readable on the nippapanca.org website). If we interpret Dependent Co-arising in terms of causation, which is the more orthodox way of interpreting it, we run into the wall built by David Hume, who showed that causation is merely an assumption and cannot directly, really be known. But perhaps determined skeptics could doubt the validity of any interpretation of Dependent Co-arising, for example by comparing them to some possible monistic Absolute Truth.
Yet there is one aspect of Buddhism that stands up to the most vehement skepticism, and that is Consciousness. No amount of doubting can make it go away. And this Consciousness is really the essence of Buddhism, and also its ultimate goal; so long as we have not achieved Bodhi, Awakening, then we are still to some degree unawakened, unconscious. It is the full awareness of our Consciousness that is the highest state attainable.
I hypothesize that the Buddha (assuming that he existed) was a kind of Skeptic himself, but it wasn't that he was an agnostic, that he didn't know the Truth; he knew that real Truth cannot be expressed in words, but must be experienced directly. And that, my friends, is mysticism. So Buddhism may have begun as a radical, yogic, relatively pure form of "mystical skepticism" before it was converted into a scholastic system and a popular faith. But one problem with mysticism, as William James pointed out in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, is that it has no persuasive power over anyone who has not experienced it. It cannot be demonstrated to anybody. So the essence of Dharma/Dhamma may not be demonstrable, but it can be experienced directly in this very life, if we set our heart on it.
A full experience of Consciousness is the ultimate Goal of Buddhism, which can be known more and more fully by those who cultivate it skillfully; and all the methods and theories found in the texts and elsewhere are hypotheses that presumably have worked for others in the past, and may work for us also. If they don't, we may skillfully seek out others that do.