After inspecting Less Wrong for a while, and running off to buy “Confessions of a Philosopher:A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper” and “What the Buddha Taught” from a nearby bookstore (although I haven’t read even near a substantial part of them), it’s finally the time to examine what’s with this Buddhism, that is my state religion, and the source of the beginning of my sanity at 10-day retreat when I turned 20–2 years ago. And thus break the semi-vow that I won’t talk about Buddhism in English. I may not make myself that clear because I don’t want this post to be too long.
Science vs religion conflict is common in western society. One compromising is that science deals with how we do things and religion deals with what we should do. Religion is teleological in nature, or so we often say. It’s easier to believe in science (not by faith) because it is testable, and works. As a child, I had always doubt how can we conclude that there’s an objective reality that I almost became a solipsist especially with respect to the other minds problem, except that I didn’t think I could draw any conclusive logical argument from that viewpoint. So the first term I became a physics major was an intellectual liberation to me, that we can be satisfied with “a good approximation.” Since then, I has consciously advocated practicality.
Practicality is meaningful only when there exists a goal. Then I can use decision theory, Bayesian inference, or whatever to make a decision that works according to my goal. That’s science. But how should we determine the goal? especially the ultimate goal of life? I doubt that we’ll ever have the single governing set of criteria applicable to all possible situations, that is self consistent and never troubles the conscience of everyone in his/her right mind. But how can we make sure that we’ve the right mind i.e. we’re sane1, so that we can trust our conscience, or ready2 to act rationally and accordingly on the immediate situation? The practice of Buddhism, bhavana (ภาวนา เหมือนในภาวนามยปัญญาซึ่งหมายถึงปัญญาจากการปฏิบัติ ไม่ใช่ความรู้จากการปฏิบัติ อย่างทำโจทย์ทำแลบแล้วรู้มากขึ้นนี่ไม่เกี่ยวกัน): meditation, mental culture or mental training if you like, can make us sane. Bhavana is a mere observation of one’s own mind. It is not mystic or supernatual. As someone in Physics Forums said a long time ago: “it’s just physiology.”
Bryan Magee writes in his “Confessions of a Philosopher” (pp. 347-8) that,
…Buddhism came across to me as an agnostic religion, one that often did justice to the difficulty and complexity of fundamental questions facing human beings (which common sense realism hopelessly fails to do) without attempting to impose dogmatic answers. It occurs often in philosophy that there is more insight in the formalation of a problem than in any of the proposed solutions to it; and it seems to me that recognition of this was a distinctive characteristic of Buddhism.
But I have this problem… [all religions] tell us things that, but I find myself thinking: “How do they know? Perhaps what they say is true. I would like it to be. And it would be nice if it were true. But what reason do they have for saying that it is?” And I have never heard a convincing answer to that question.
I think he unfortunately misses the point. What Buddhism, with the misleading suffix -ism denoting a doctrine, really cares is practical methods e.g. bhavana, not the philosophical ideas that it entails. Like science, you cannot just think and convince yourself, you have to get your hand dirty and try it out with skepticism (do experiment). Then what you get is a working theory, and some philosophical implication, but science doesn’t work because of convincing philosophical implication. Some influential Buddhist monk such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu said, from his experience experimenting these methods, that scientific methods and Buddhism’s practice are alike because they’re both testable, and even reproducible. More importantly, he rejects purely philosophical thinking which can lead one astray. (Bhavana is not conceiving, but perceiving) Certainly I can’t believe him since I haven’t practice to that level yet. And indeed, the teaching of the Buddha himself warns us against various kind of belief, including believing because of authority. (Also whether Buddha existed as a historical person or not doesn’t matter. Buddhists don’t care.) Buddhism works the same way as science because they’re the methods that humans developed when we don’t trust our rationality.
Another drastic departure from typical religions that Buddhism makes is that it refuses to care about metaphysics. But why should we believe that their claim that it’s testable, or that what we usually do is insane, is not metaphysical? This question is unavoidable, but I think it’s actually the “problem of common knowledge.” For instance, it’s possible to conceive from all possible experimental loopholes a refute of the violation of Bell’s inequality, which turned a metaphysical argument into a testable experiment, but one has to accept that a majority of physicists will consider the attempt to be just a wishful thinking. Why, in this case, can we say confidently that it’s a wishful thinking? I think it’s because physics is already a common knowledge. (Most of us don’t even see the experiments by ourselves!) Like someone’s saying that the first reaction to a new scientific theory is wrong, the second is that it’s trivial, and the third is that it’s well known. How can one be so sure about one’s subjective mental state? Or that the majority of people live an insane, uncontrollable, and dishonest life? I view Buddhism like science; we can’t be absolutely sure about it until we try it out for ourselves, but it has proved itself numerous times (at least in Asia) that it can make what once thought to be impractical practical. I was just lucky to be in the right place and at the right time so that the practice of Buddhism is a relatively common knowledge. (Indeed, I doubt that most Thai people are aware of this.)
Buddhism the way I see it only offers us sanity, which is morally neutral. Bhavana makes it possible to overcome wishful thinkings or even hard-wired behaviors like fear, and ready to think, decide, and act accordingly. And since bhavana involves letting go of the concept of permanent self, there’s no point talking about the ultimate goal of life. We just do what works, on a case by case basis, but now with our unbiased perception and good conscience. (I’m being very brief here. “What the Buddha Taught” is a good primer/reference.) However, as it’s emphasized throughout the post, just reading and thinking about Buddhism’s philosophy does more harm than good. Talking further about how bhavana changes me positively is misleading. And I don’t have the skill to teach it correctly either. So I should end it here. If this post has introduced the reader to Buddhism, then I’ve gained more than I could ever ask for.
1. I once wrote down “the Ninnat’s principle” that peace/happiness comes from within and not without, and the goal of bhavana is to achieve peace/happiness. But I find the word peace/happiness superficial and too positive. Do you kill in order to gain peace? do you kill in order to gain happiness? Maybe, if peace/happiness worths the killing. Wars happen because of that kind of thought. (Believing in absolute good or absolute evil is even worse.) From the 10-day retreat I felt a kind of happiness that I had never felt before. That can be mistaken as the goal of bhavana, and we might wrongly equate happiness with practicality, almost like a utilitatian. But what I felt is not an arbitrary kind of happiness. It’s the happiness from constant self-respect, mutual respect for other people, and the potential to find something positive in any kind of situation, among other things.
2. A common misinterpretation is that Buddhism teaches us to annihilate desire, but how can we do anything at all if there’s no desire? But actually Buddhism teaches us not to find things attractive or repulsive, so that we’re ready to act appropriately. (Students’ prime example is procrastination caused by the view that studying/doing homework is not favorable.)
P.S. In spite of the book’s errorous viewpoint presented here, I’m sure “Confessions of a philosopher” will be enjoyable. I’ll save it for the 3-stop flight next week.