Because the Four Noble Truths were my introduction to Buddhism, and the first two are clear enough to verify for myself (and I did); and the third and fourth truths when investigated also turned out to be valid, my initial understanding of the sort of person the Buddha was, was that he had an excellent grasp of critical thinking, and that he grounded his teachings in everyday evidence of our lives.
This is why when I read
“Whatever in this world – with its devas, maras, and brahmas, its generations complete with contemplatives and priests, princes and men – is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect, that has been fully awakened to by the Tathagata”
I read that as a statement that this man has considered it all and knows the truth of these — but I don’t see in there a statement that these things have real-world validity, only that he understands them as they are. He doesn’t say in there whether these are beings with physical existence, or a separate existence on some cosmic plane, or whether they are just given reality in our minds.
That quote comes as part of B. Allan Wallace’s unfavorable comments on agnostic and atheist approaches to Buddhism, initially centering on Stephen Batchelor’s words, and he cites this as evidence against Batchelor’s comment that the Buddha “did not claim to have had experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Mr. Wallace seems convinced that the Buddha did.
What I find interesting is that this is another example of the point made in “What Do You Know?” that our preconceptions strongly influence our understanding.
Presumably Mr. Wallace has background that disposes him to an understanding that the Buddha did gain such privileged, esoteric knowledge; my preconception, initially based on just the simplest teachings, and then influenced by Mr. Batchelor, who inspired me to read the suttas directly for myself and see what’s there, gives me a view that looks at the quoted texts quite differently.
For example the next quote Mr. Wallace provides is: “the world and its arising are fully known by a Tathagata and he is released from both; he also knows the ending of it and the way thereto…” As evidence of esoteric knowledge of cosmological workings, this has to be read literally — and yet the Buddha was still on the planet, so at least in that sense we have evidence he was not released from the world. But then perhaps it’s release from the cycle of births tied to “the world” that’s meant. If we assume the Buddha is being literal, shouldn’t he have said, “released from the cycle of rebirths” since he had the language to do so? We can’t take “the world” literally because his release from the world would be evidenced by him vanishing from it; so any other interpretation has to reach into “the world” of metaphorical speech, and from there the only good options for interpretation are to look elsewhere for referents that might give us insight.
Having read enough of the Pali canon to get a feel for Gotama’s rhetorical style, and studied the Brahminical way of seeing things around his time, it’s pretty clear to me that “the world” is indeed a metaphor but for our self-created world. That is what he saw the arising of, and through his release from it, saw its ending. For example in SN 12.44 “The World” we have “And what is the origin of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact…” while in the sutta just previous “Suffering” we have “And what is the origin of suffering? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact.” “The world” is being equated with “suffering” specifically anchored by our personal, sensual experience, in the ways we cause suffering ourselves, and there is no need in this sutta to apply to it any literal sense of “the world” unless one is predisposed to see it that way by previously developed views.
When we leave the literal definition of “the world” behind and step into metaphor, my interpretation becomes just as good as yours and the only way to sort it out is to provide evidence of our interpretation. Even then, it may just be that either understanding will turn out to be well supported, and neither side will ever convince the other to change their views. Then what do we do?
The Buddha spoke a great deal about being very clear about where we get our views from. We need to always question what we have as a basis for our understanding of the world, what are our views and what are the facts.
This is the point I’m making (again) by highlighting Mr. Wallace’s understanding of what the Buddha says in his arguments against Mr. Batchelor’s approach. Wallace seems to feel that Batchelor is too heavily influenced by his own worldviews. Batchelor’s view that the Buddha didn’t awaken to great cosmological insights does indeed come out of his background of rebellion against religion in general; but Mr. Wallace’s view that the Buddha did awaken to great cosmological insights didn’t arrive in a virgin flash of insight from beyond, either; it will have come from context provided by his experience of the world.
I don’t have information on what Mr. Wallace’s background is, but since one of the examples he gives for the way to bring a “groundbreaking recovery of the historical Buddha and his message” to us would be based on “unprecedented historical research by a highly accomplished scholar of ancient Indian languages and history” it’s clear that in his view, no ordinary person can see in these historical texts something others have not — it requires either new facts in the form of new texts, or years of scholarship for there to be any possibility of having an accurate but fresh insight. His view is clearly a conservative one.
And there is nothing wrong with that. All praise and blessings on conservatives and I mean that with all my heart and mind.
You may have noticed I have a fondness for TED.com talks, which often point to the need for balance, and offer insights stated concisely and clearly. Here’s one that shows the basis for respecting both views, liberal (for change) and conservative (for preservation):
Of the many points made in the video, the preciousness of order — in this case of the knowledge passed on to us — is critical to what I’m saying. Without the conservative Buddhists who cared for the canon and brought it this far with as much skill and understanding as they could bring to the task, we would not have anything to study or debate, much less these wonderful, liberating insights. Absolutely all praise and blessings are due there. But just as important as the historical transmission is the value of the conservative tradition’s outspoken stance against change right now. Without someone demanding that we back up with some facts what we say is true — that what the Buddha taught might not have required a belief in rebirth — Buddhism would indeed be thrown open to the chaos of cafeteria style Buddhism, perhaps confused to the point where it would lose all coherence and use in the world, reduced to a mish-mash of misquotes of what the Buddha taught and a few good techniques for stress reduction. Any evolving understanding that we might have misunderstood parts of what the Buddha taught absolutely requires that there be checks and balances, that we be pushed to be rigorous in supporting change with evidence.
But these things don’t come easy. While we need scholarly study building evidence — and the times we live in have many fields that can be applied, linguistics and philology, understanding of memes, archeology, and combining the efforts of Vedic scholars with Buddhist scholars — the support for people to do such studies doesn’t come from a virgin flash of insight from beyond that magically brings in funding — it does start with a voice, like Batchelor’s, standing up for what he sees. That act — of simply speaking up — calls on others to look and see if they can see it too. Only with the building up of voices will there come enough energy to support the need for organizing cross-discipline searches for evidence — hopefully not for evidence of what we want the Buddha to have taught, but of what he did.
And a postscript.
There are so many different points I might respond to in the article “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist” for example in arguing that it’s illegitimate to rewrite history the author states that “A legitimate option is simply to adopt those theories and practices from various Buddhist traditions that one finds compelling and beneficial and set the others aside.” I argued two posts back that no Western Buddhist who really understood what the Buddha taught was doing this, picking and choosing, having found no evidence of the commonly stated complaint that The Kalama Sutta was being used to endorse this — and here I find someone who wants to preserve the traditional understandings of the Buddha’s teaching encouraging the rebellious to do just that. Or I might address the contention that to separate religion from its cosmic content and work from a purely secular “false facsimile” puts us at risk of going the way of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. But I’m not sure anyone is interested in hearing what I’d have to say on these subjects (the first of which I feel I’ve already hammered into the ground).