Thursday, July 3, 2008

My Problems With Buddhism

[Disclaimer: I have not studied Buddhism as much as I would have liked. It may be that I am falsely representing certain Buddhist doctrines (and yes, I realize that they vary from sect to sect), but this is all to the best of my knowledge, and I believe it corresponds to the common grounds of the different sects.]

Problem One: Unwarranted Claims

My first complaint about Buddhism is that it makes unsubstantiated claims about the nature of the universe: karma as a force exists and influences us (e.g., what form our next life will take is dictated by our karma); there is an endless cycle of birth and rebirth for an individual soul; there are six states of existence (Gods, demigods/Asura, humans, animals, ghosts, beings in hell), and then three higher realms of existence (the Realm of Desire, the Realm of Pure Form, the Realm of Formlessness); in some sense, the soul persists throughout its rebirths, even while the individual dies; and so on and so forth.

There is a wealth of these metaphysical assertions. Yet for all that, the Buddha never provides us with evidence or any good reason to support the above claims! What do we have instead? Mystic revelation. The Buddha, as he sat and meditated under the bodhi tree, apparently tapped into a deeper source of knowledge - a source inaccessible to the rest of us - at which point he discovered The Truth. Presumably, then, we must trust the Buddha's word that things really are as he claimed. We cannot experience The Truth As Revealed To The Buddha ourselves until we achieve a similar state of enlightenment (if we ever manage to), and there is no way to either vindicate or falsify his "Truth" otherwise.

If you are like me, that alone will not feel particularly satisfying. When they are of such an extraordinary nature, I find it difficult to take anyone's claims on faith alone. I imagine most Buddhists would adopt an "If you don't believe it, try it yourself" attitude, saying that I too would eventually experience The Truth if I got to that point myself. But, attaining nirvana is supposed to be incredibly difficult; and, there is no way to know that one is doing the right thing until one actually reaches the end (nirvana). We are told that one can spend one's entire lifetime (and more! So many more lifetimes) seeking enlightenment unsuccessfully. If we could conceivably waste the rest of our lives pursuing nirvana without success, should we not want a little more assurance than "You will see it once you reach enlightenment ourself"? Since we cannot prove that the soul exists or that reincarnation works as advertised, then for all we know we only have one life to live. Would it not be more worthwhile to spend this one life in other pursuits, striving for things we are reasonably likely to achieve in one lifetime?

Many or all religions suffer from this problem of unverifiability. So this is not anything particularly special by itself. At any rate, the Buddha himself discouraged speculation and arguments about metaphysical issues beyond what he laid out himself. So let me move on to reveal the more grievous problem with Buddhistic doctrines.

Problem Two: Self-Undermining Beliefs

The four noble truths of Buddhism are as follows:
1. Existence is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire/attachment.
3. It is possible to escape desire (and hence suffering).
4. The way to escape desire is through the Eightfold Path.

The the first truth - to exist is to suffer constantly - is pretty uncontroversial (isn't it?), but the second - suffering is caused by desire and/or attachment - might be less obvious. Is it really the case that all suffering results from desire? Well, when we look at examples of suffering, they are invariably accompanied by a desire to relieve that suffering in some way or another. Moreover, the ostensible "cause" of suffering (as understood by the sufferer) always stems from desire or attachment itself. For example, I may feel upset that a friend snubs me - this is because I wanted her to treat me otherwise than she did. I may feel hurt that my son dies, and this hurt derived from my feelings of love and care - my attachment - that I experienced toward him.

So, to cut to the chase, Buddha's strategy is pretty simple. We just found out what causes suffering: desire and attachment. So, let us rid ourselves of those things. The fourth noble truth points us toward the Eightfold Path, and we are told that practicing the Eightfold Path will lead to a gradual lessening of our fixation on transient things. The eventual aim of Buddhism is to realize that we are all nothing (or "no thing" - nothing we can comprehend); Buddha advocated the belief of anatman - that there is no self. Furthermore, everything changes and fluctuates, and so it is folly to become attached to anything and treat it as permanent. Permanence, for the Buddha, is an illusion.

What is so wrong with all of the above?

If there is no self (since my "I" changes from moment to moment), how can I really do anything, much less seek enlightenment? If there is no self, what precisely is being deluded and subject to suffering?

If all desires lead to suffering, what is the worth of compassion? Buddhism emphasizes compassion frequently, and Buddha himself remained in our plane in order to spread his words and alleviate our suffering. But how could he have been motivated to do so? At the point of enlightenment, he would have seen that all desires are pointless or harmful, including the desire to help others. In essence, I deny that Bodhisattvas (those who attain freedom from desire/attachment yet remain in the world anyway to help others) are possible.

Finally, let us suppose for an instant that the Buddha is wrong, that reincarnation is false, and in fact, there is no afterlife whatsoever. If so, should not death be the easiest way to achieve this sort of state - where one has no more desires or attachments, where one is free from suffering? Why do Buddhists not kill themselves, but for the threat of incurring bad karma?

And, on that note, is it even possible for a sentient, conscious being to still exist without desire? I would think such a being must want to remain free from desires and attachments in order to continually effect that state. The want to remain aloof from desires is still a want.

That is the true problem here: Buddhism entices us to accept its tenants in order to be free of suffering. Yet, that desire to be free from suffering was itself an attachment, an attachment to our own egos. At the least, some desires seem to lead us away from suffering - such as the desire to know The Truth. If so, it is not actually true that all desires or attachments cause suffering. Hence, Buddhist beliefs undermine themselves.


  1. Interesting points! You definitely hit Buddhism pretty well, it can seem totally contradictory if you take into account every teaching from the Buddha on down. If you're looking for evidence, all you really need to do is meet someone who is already enlightened, and all your doubts will be erased. Believe me, I was with you, and then I met a Japanese monk with such energy even a skeptic could tell.

    And of course, don't forget the famous zen koan, "If you meet the buddha, kill him." Words, explanations and discussions are moot, just sit. If you don't get anything out of it, no loss.

  2. you need to study Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika dialectic. As you probably know, there were three turnings of the wheel. As words are inherently dualistic and embedded in desire, the second and third turning teachings provide the 'footnotes' to be able to discern the proper context (ie; emptiness) and deeper meaning behind the seemingly 'problematic' formulation of the original teaching which you have attempted to address here.

  3. michael: Actually, I don't deny that pursuing Buddhist practices can have beneficial results from a practical standpoint - meditation, focusing on the moment, and recognizing the ultimately unfulfilling nature of desire are all useful techniques to incorporate into one's everyday life. I take issue with the metaphysical claims, however, particularly if they're intended to motivate us.

    Another perspective on the contradiction thing, following the Zen route a little further, is that maybe it doesn't matter in the first place. Maybe contradictions aren't necessarily a bad thing; Zen pedagogy uses explicit contradictions for their own purposes, after all. As you say, discussions are moot, and the important thing is the practice - so it may not matter how many apparent logical problems there are.

    craig: Thank you for the suggestion, I will try and pursue it further if I get the chance. I hadn't encountered the Madhyamika doctrines yet, and they look intriguing.

  4. As far as Zen Buddhism goes, I'd like to say something.

    In a Zen Buddhism, meditation uses the body and mind to achieve a stillness which would be complete lack of ego. You are awake and aware, but there are no thoughts. The reflection on what happened after you leave the trance would bind that egoless self to you just a little bit more. From his training, a Zen master would be more like his egoless self at all times (note: more like, not actually without an ego). This egoless self is the "enlightenment" and also the idea of "no self" you mentioned. Enlightenment is more or less understanding your own thoughts. The idea is that everyone is all reaction and emotion as they grow up, but the enlightenment is that understanding, whether its gained through meditation or not. It's not unique to Buddhism and it's always possible to deepen this understanding. By continuing meditation it becomes more ingrain into your nature and you become more "whole". Anyone can reach that simple egoless state with some training. It doesn't take long, and its not some exclusive club. One of the virtues of Zen is that nobody will expect you to believe something you can't prove yourself. So try it if you want. I can testify to it. The point is to be more whole and less based on desire. This in turn would lead to spontaneously helping people and not becoming attached, a happier life ect, ect.

    This, to me, is basis of Zen. And it seems worth it to me to practice it. But I agree with you on the reincarnation, 6 states of existence and all that. It's just superstitious belief. If you focus on any religion the way you did, it's going to end up in shambles :D. What I said above is probably the most practical and useful part of Zen.

    Lets be clear tho, not everyone agrees with me, and I'm not a Zen master. This isn't a standard to go off of, but hopefully its an insight. I'm still learning as I go too.

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Hi, I found your blog through philosophyforums :) I'm interested in buddhism, too, although I'm not a buddhist myself.

    "I imagine most Buddhists would adopt an "If you don't believe it, try it yourself" attitude, saying that I too would eventually experience The Truth if I got to that point myself. But, attaining nirvana is supposed to be incredibly difficult"

    You don't have to reach nirvana, buddhists claim that you'll understand correctness of anatman and other concepts long before you've reached nirvana (probably once you've experienced "emptyness"). So technically speaking, they offer you to suspend belief for a while and try to verify everything on your own.

    "Is it really the case that all suffering results from desire?"

    By suffering buddhists do not mean literate suffering. E.g. pleasant feelings are also considered to be suffering. In other words, suffering is a nature of ours that permeats everything, because we're attached to everything, starting from ourselves. Getting rid of attachment is supposed to eliminate this ever-present nature of suffering, but not an ability to feel!

    "I may feel hurt that my son dies, and this hurt derived from my feelings of love and care - my attachment - that I experienced toward him."

    Attachment is not love or care, attachment is an idea to signify that you're dualistic (i.e. you have "me " and "the world", and so you get attached to "the world" as long as you have the idea of a separate "me"). As for love and care, buddhists consider them to be very good emotions and even attribute them to the natural set of emotions of "the awakened mind".

    "If there is no self, what precisely is being deluded and subject to suffering?"

    The illusion of the self as a separate entity. The illusion of the self as separate is considered to be one of reasons for attachment, since there's something to attach to. If there wouldn't be (i.e. if you became non-dualistic), then attachment wouldn't happen either.

    "If all desires lead to suffering, what is the worth of compassion?"

    Why isn't suffering of others worth compassion? Besides, compassion is considered to be the inherent nature of "the awakened mind". So technically speaking, if your mind would become awakened, you'd feel it naturally, no matter if you wanted to :)

    "And, on that note, is it even possible for a sentient, conscious being to still exist without desire?"

    The awakened mind still has "desires", they're not tinged with suffering, though.

    "If so, it is not actually true that all desires or attachments cause suffering."

    As I mentioned above, suffering is not necessarily literate suffering, it's a quality of our feelings. Desire to get rid of suffering also stems from suffering, since it's caused by running from suffering that you're experiencing.

    I don't see any real contradictions in all of that, to be honest.

  6. interested: Thank you for the comment. You raise some important considerations for sure.

    I'm sort of wrapped up in some private concerns at the moment; but, hopefully I'll be able to give a more thorough response later.

    Thanks for reading, at any rate :)