This is the fifth in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.The interviewee for this installment is Jay L. Garfield, who has taught philosophy at several universities and is currently the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities, Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He is at work on a book called “Engaging Buddhism: Why Buddhism Matters to Contemporary Philosophy.”
Gary Gutting: Philosophy of religion typically focuses on questions and disputes about the ideas and doctrines of monotheistic religions, with Christianity the primary model. How does the discussion change if we add Buddhism, which is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, as a primary model of a religion?
Jay Garfield: What gets called “philosophy of religion” in most philosophy departments and journals is really the philosophy of Abrahamic religion: basically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of the questions addressed in those discussions are simply irrelevant to most of the world’s other religious traditions. Philosophers look at other religious traditions with the presumption that they are more or less the same, at least in outline, as the Abrahamic religions, and even fight about whether other traditions count as religions at all based upon their sharing certain features of the Abrahamic religions. That is a serious ethnocentrism that can really blind us to important phenomena.
For instance, I recently moderated a discussion in Singapore with the philosopher A.C. Grayling, who claimed that Buddhism is not a religion because Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme being. This simply ignores the fact that many religions are not theistic in this sense. Chess is a game, despite the fact that it is not played with a ball, after all.
Now, when we address Buddhism, we must be very careful. The Buddhist world is vast, and Buddhism has been around in various forms for two and a half millennia. There are many forms of Buddhist practice and culture, many Buddhist communities of belief and practice and significant doctrinal differences among Buddhist schools. So generalization can be dangerous. Just as we need to be careful about lumping Unitarians and Catholics together when we ask whether Christians accept the transubstantiation of the host, we must be careful about lumping together, for instance, Theravada monks in Sri Lanka with lay Zen practitioners in San Francisco. And there is no central doctrinal authority or organization that covers all of the Buddhist world.
Still, there are some widely shared features of Buddhism that would make a philosophy of religion that took it seriously look quite different. First, since Buddhism is an atheistic religion, it doesn’t raise questions about the existence of God that so dominate the philosophy of Abrahamic religions, let alone questions about the attributes of the deity. Buddhists do worry about awakening (Buddhahood). How hard is it to achieve? What is it like? Is a Buddha aware of her surroundings, or do they disappear as illusory?
Buddhists also worry about the relation between ordinary reality, or conventional truth, and ultimate reality. Are they the same or different? Is the world fundamentally illusory, or is it real? They worry about hermeneutical questions concerning the intent of apparently conflicting canonical scriptures, and how to resolve them. They ask about the nature of the person, and its relationship to more fundamental psychophysical processes. Stuff like that. The philosophy of religion looks different if these are taken to be some of its fundamental questions.
G.G.: Given these widely shared features, would you venture to say what, over all, it is to be a Buddhist?
J.G.: To be a Buddhist is to take refuge in the three Buddhist refuge objects (often called “the three jewels”): the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. To take refuge is to see human existence as fundamentally unsatisfactory and to see the three jewels as the only solution to this predicament.
The first refuge object is the Buddha: the fact that at least one person — the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama — has achieved awakening and release from suffering. This provides hope in one’s own future awakening, hope that through practice one can achieve a satisfactory existence. The second refuge is Dharma, or Buddhist doctrine. The third is the Sangha, or spiritual community, conceived sometimes as the community of other practitioners, sometimes as the community of monks and nuns, sometimes as the community of awakened beings. The project of full awakening is a collective, not an individual, venture.
G.G.: The first and the third refuges seem to correspond to a way of life, justified simply by its results in relieving sufferings. What’s involved in the second refuge, the doctrines?
J.G.: The foundation of doctrine in all Buddhist schools is the so-called four noble truths, explained by Siddhartha in his first talk after gaining awakening. The first is that life is fundamentally unsatisfactory, permeated by suffering of various types, including pain, aging and death and the inability to control one’s own destiny. The second is that this suffering is caused by attraction and aversion — attraction to things one can’t have, and aversion to things one can’t avoid, and that this attraction and aversion is in turn caused by primal confusion about the fundamental nature of reality and a consequent egocentric orientation to the world. The third is that if one extirpates these causes by eliminating attraction and aversion through metaphysical insight, one can eliminate suffering. The fourth is the specification of a set of domains and concerns — the eightfold path — attention to which can accomplish that.
G.G.: It seems then that the Buddhist way of life is based on, first, the plausible claim that suffering makes life unsatisfactory and, second, on a psychological account — again plausible — of the causes of suffering. But what’s the “metaphysical insight,” the truth about reality, that shows the way to eliminating suffering?
J.G.: Buddhist doctrine regarding the nature of reality generally focuses on three principal characteristics of things. The first idea is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, despite the fact that we engage with them as though they are permanent; the second is that they are interdependent, although we engage with them as though they are independent; the third is that they are without any intrinsic identity, although we treat ourselves and other objects as though they have intrinsic identities.
Now, many Buddhists and Buddhist schools are committed to much more extensive and detailed metaphysical doctrines, including doctrines about the fundamental constituents of reality, or dharmas, often conceived as momentary property instantiations, or about the nature of consciousness, or about cosmology. Buddhist schools and traditions vary widely in these respects. And of course there are vast differences between what lay Buddhists and what scholars understand about Buddhist doctrine. In Buddhism, as in Christianity, for many lay people the religion is about daily rituals and practices, and doctrine is left to scholars and clerics. And ideas that are complex metaphors to the erudite are literal for the laity.
G.G.: You haven’t mentioned what, to many outsiders, might seem the most striking Buddhist doctrine: reincarnation.
Given the radical Buddhist notion of momentary impermanence, we can say without exaggeration that one is reborn every moment.
J.G.: I would, first, drop the term “reincarnation,” which has a more natural home in a Hindu context, in favor of “rebirth,” which makes more sense in a Buddhist context. That is because we must understand this doctrine in relation to the central doctrine in all Buddhist schools: that there is no self or soul. So there is nothing that takes on new bodies as does the soul in the Hindu traditions from which Buddhism arose and against which it reacted.
Indeed, given the radical Buddhist notion of momentary impermanence, we can say without exaggeration that one is reborn every moment. Buddhism is an Indian tradition, and rebirth across biological lives is taken for granted in most classical Indian philosophical and religious traditions. Buddhism takes that over, and it is taken for granted in many Buddhist traditions that the same kinds of causal continuity that obtain among subsequent stages within a life obtain between stages of our current biological lives and those of past and future biological lives. Many Buddhists would even take this to be an essential commitment of the religious tradition. But in some Buddhist traditions, especially those of East Asia, this view plays no role at all, and many Western Buddhists reject it altogether.
G.G.: How do Buddhists think of other religions? On the one hand, there seems to be a tolerance and even an appreciation for a diversity of views. On the other hand, there is a strong history of missionary activity, aimed at conversion.
J.G.: Exactly right. And again, we must be careful about taking the Abrahamic traditions as a default framework in which to pose this question. The Abrahamic religions all prohibit syncretism, or the melding of beliefs from different creeds, but this is not a common feature of world religious traditions. Many Buddhists are syncretic to some degree. In Japan it is common to practice both Buddhism and Shinto; in Nepal many adopt Buddhist and Hindu practices; in China, Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism blend happily. And Thomas Merton was a Catholic priest and a Buddhist practitioner.
But Buddhism has always been missionary. Buddhists have always thought that their doctrine and practices can help to alleviate suffering and so have urged others to accept them. Sometimes acceptance of Buddhist practices requires one to rethink other religious commitments; sometimes the two can be integrated. Sometimes there is creative tension.
G.G.: I can see Buddhist missionaries making an attractive case for their practices of meditation and their ethics of compassion. But the doctrine of rebirth — which, if true, would make a huge difference in how we view human existence — seems very implausible. How do Buddhists defend this doctrine?
J.G.: Once again, there is diversity here. Some Buddhists don’t defend the doctrine at all, either because they take it to be the obvious default position, as it is in some cultures, particularly in South Asia, or because it is not important or taken seriously, as in some East Asian or Western traditions. But others do defend it. One popular approach is an empirical argument, to wit, that some people have clear memories of past lives or make clear and accurate predictions about their next lives. One sees this primarily in the Tibetan tradition in which there is a widespread practice of identifying rebirths and of rebirth lineages for high lamas, such as the Dalai Lama.
G.G.: I suspect that people not already culturally disposed to accept rebirth aren’t likely to find such evidence convincing.
J.G.: Another approach is that of the Indian philosopher Dharmakirti, who argues for the necessity of believing in rebirth, though not directly for its reality. Dharmakirti argues that given the stupendous difficulty of achieving full awakening, the cultivation of a genuine aspiration to achieve awakening, which is essential to Mahayana Buddhist practice, requires one to believe in future lives; otherwise, one could not have the confidence in the possibility of success necessary to genuine resolution.
This is worth comparing to Kant’s argument that one must believe in free will in order to act and in order to treat oneself and others as moral agents, which nonetheless is not a direct argument for the freedom of the will, only for the necessity of the belief for moral life.
G.G.: Kant’s argument has received a lot of criticism from philosophers. Do you think Dharmakirti’s works?
J.G.: No, I have argued elsewhere that this is a bad argument for its intended conclusion. It confuses a commitment to the existence of future lives with a commitment to the existence of one’s own future life, and a commitment to the attainment of awakening with a commitment to one’s own awakening.
But I do think it’s a good argument for an important conclusion in the neighborhood. For the aspiration for awakening — for a complete, liberative understanding of the nature of reality and of human life — need not, and should not, for a Mahayana Buddhist, be personalized. Just as a stonemason building the ground floor of a medieval cathedral might aspire to its completion even if he knows that he will not personally be around to be involved in its completion, a practitioner who aspires that awakening will be achieved need not believe that she will be around to see it, but only hope that her own conduct and practice will facilitate that.
So, this suggests one way for a Buddhist not taken with the idea of personal rebirth across biological lives to take that doctrine as a useful metaphor: Treat the past reflectively and with gratitude and responsibility, and with an awareness that much of our present life is conditioned by our collective past; take the future seriously as something we have the responsibility to construct, just as much as if we would be there personally. This makes sense of the ideas, for instance, of intergenerational justice, or of collective contemporary responsibility for harms inflicted in the past, as well as our current personal responsibility to future generations.
As Buddhism takes root in the West and as Asian Buddhist traditions engage with modernity, we will see how doctrines such as this persist, fade, or are adapted. One thing we can see from the long and multicultural history of Buddhism is that it has always deeply affected the cultures into which it has moved, and has always been transformed in important ways by those cultures.
G.G.: Won’t the fundamental denial of a self be hard to maintain in the face of the modern emphasis on individuality?
J.G.: I don’t think so. For one thing, note that the view that there is no substantial self has a history in the West as well, in the thought of Hume, and of Nietzsche. For another, note that many contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers have either rejected the view that there is such a self, or have defended some variety of a minimalist conception of the self. So the doctrine isn’t as secure in the non-Buddhist world as one might think.
And this may be a good thing, not only for metaphysical reasons. A strong sense of self — of one’s own substantial reality, uniqueness and independence of others — may not be psychologically or morally healthy. It can lead to egoism, to narcissism and to a lack of care for others. So the modern emphasis on individuality you mention might not be such a good thing. We might all be better off if we each took ourselves less seriously as selves. That may be one of the most important Buddhist critiques of modernity and contributions to post-modernity.
More positively, the Buddhist tradition encourages us to see ourselves as impermanent, interdependent individuals, linked to one another and to our world through shared commitments to achieving an understanding of our lives and a reduction of suffering. It encourages us to rethink egoism and to consider an orientation to the world characterized by care and joint responsibility. That can’t be a bad thing.
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series were with Alvin Plantinga, Louise Antony, John D. Caputo, and Howard Wettstein.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The Stone.