Buddhism with Belief

Stephen Batchelor’s argument that the Buddha was a secular agnostic, denying knowledge of such questions as what happens after death, is based on two points: (1) a quotation from the texts in which the Buddha states that he taught nothing but dukkha and the ending of dukkha, and (2) an assertion that the Buddha would have approved of T. H. Huxley’s principles “Follow your reason as far as it will take you” and “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated and not demonstrable.”

As for the first point, Batchelor gives an existential slant to the Buddha’s statement by translating dukkha as “anguish,” but a quick look around the texts will show that the standard definition of dukkha includes “rebirth,” and that the path to the end of dukkha begins with the belief that good and evil karma bear fruit, that there is a life after death, and that there are meditators who have directly known these facts for themselves. These are hardly agnostic positions.

As for the second point, there are many passages in the texts where the Buddha speaks derisively of doctrines “hammered out on the anvil of logic,” and where he makes the point that nirvana, the whole point of his teaching, is beyond the sphere of logical inference. Nirvana can be demonstrated – in fact, directly experienced – but only by putting into practice certain working hypotheses that few agnostics would be willing to hazard. The statement that “the dharma is not something to believe in but something to do” makes a specious point, for it is impossible to act without accepting at least some things on faith. You’re not going to take a step on a ladder unless you believe it will support you and take you someplace worth going.

People who want to design an agnostic Buddhism for their own consumption are free to do so, but they are limiting the benefits that they would have otherwise gained from the dharma. They may find it easy here in America to sell their product as the only authentic Buddhism, largely because so few Americans have any idea about what the Buddha actually taught, but they are doing themselves, their audience, and the dharma a great disservice.

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