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Absolute Dharma?

In his illuminating article “One Dharma” (Winter 2001), Joseph Goldstein rightly points out that non-clinging is fundamental to all Buddhist traditions. However, he misleads when he proposes that we think of Buddhism as a “basic pragmatism, rather than an adherence to some philosophical system,” and Buddhist teachings as “skillful means for liberating the mind, rather than statements of absolute truth.”

As presented in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon, the Buddha does express a pragmatic approach by giving primary emphasis to overcoming suffering. In the Culamalunkya Sutta, he declines to answer some metaphysical questions because the answers are not necessary to reach this goal. But he also teaches the Four Noble Truths because they are essential to attain Nibbana. This is the dual message of the famous simile of the man wounded by a poison arrow. These Truths are presented as absolute: their truth is not relative to a particular culture. This is why they are relevant to all human beings, including persons in the West 2,500 years later. And fundamental to the Four Noble Truths are the philosophical ideas of impermanence, dependent origination, and absence of self. Goldstein correctly maintains that the Buddha says we are not to cling to our views or to anything else. This is because it is problematic to regard anything as one’s own, including views. It does not mean there is no right view: the first step of the Eightfold Path is called precisely this. The Buddha’s teaching does not stress practice rather than absolute philosophical truths. It emphasizes practice on the basis of these truths.

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