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Monday, July 29, 2013

What's Your Problem?- Part 3: Buddhism

This is the third part of a series of posts that examine different worldviews' teachings about man's problem and solution to that problem. The introduction post may be found here.

Last week we looked at man's problem proposed by Hinduism and the four prescribed solutions. This week we will investigate the claims of Buddhism.

What's Your Problem?
The perfect condition of man, as proposed by Buddhism, is enlightenment*- the lack of life, which is suffering. The antidote to rid one of suffering is that a person must eliminate craving and desire. The proposed way of doing this is to have right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (this is called the Nobel Eight-Fold Path).

Is it possible for man to follow the Eight-Fold Path to the point of extinguishing desire? Does the problem and proposed solution have any merit in reality?

Life Is Suffering
Let's first look at the idea that life is suffering. Obviously, there is a lot of suffering throughout our lives. We see it all over the place. However, many people would recognize that life is not only suffering. Many things are to be enjoyed that may not be experienced outside of life. Buddhism asks the person to deny that life is useful or enjoyable (this would be an average; I don't believe they would deny spurts of fleeting enjoyment). Depending on how strictly you were to understand this doctrine, it could be considered false or true (life is only suffering vs life is suffering and enjoyment, respectively). Let's take it as true for the sake of continuing the conversation.

The Solution
If life is suffering, then (according to Buddhism) man can only escape it by practicing the list above. The Nobel Eight-Fold Path refers to objective truths and objective morality. A person must know the objective truths and live by them (right understanding, thought, mindfulness, and concentration). The person must also know the objective morality and live by it (right speech, action, livelihood, and effort).

The Objective Truths
Let's look at the objective truth requirements. Right understanding refers to understanding the world as it is versus as it appears. This would include that life is suffering and the only way out is to follow the other seven parts of the Nobel Eight-Fold Path. This states that there are two different ways to look at the world, the true way and the illusory way. However, to be able to see it the true way, one has to be outside of the illusion (appearance) to see it as it really is. Knowledge of the other three truths are dependent upon knowledge of this one. Like Hinduism, Buddhism holds that this existence (including the suffering) is an illusion. Three problems exist here: 
  1. In order to see the illusion that Buddhism holds, one must already be outside the illusion, and if we are outside the illusion already, then there is no need to go further on the Nobel Eight-Fold path. But Buddhists believe that we cannot escape the illusion without the rest of the Nobel Eight-Fold path. Neither is possible without the other, thus it is impossible.
  2. To be outside the illusion is to cease existence (Nirvana). So in order to recognize the illusion, we must not exist. If we do not exist, then we cannot recognize the illusion. If we cannot recognize the illusion, we cannot get outside the illusion, where we cease to exist. And on, and on.
  3. Buddhism believes that there is not actual "I" or "we". There is no essence or soul that can exist outside the illusion, anyway. If there is nothing to be outside the illusion, there is nothing to recognize the illusion that "it" is caught in.
An infinite regress is required to know objective truths in Buddhism. Infinite regresses are not possible. Further, that infinite regress must involve something, but that something ceases existence at the first step in the process before the first cycle in the infinite regress is even complete. Because of these two impossibilities, knowing objective truths in Buddhism is impossible.

The Objective Morality
The four moralities that are required are also dependent upon the first step on the Path. If we can't understand the world as it really is, we can't know what right speech, action, livelihood and effort are. Even if a person was able to escape the world of appearance and see the world as it really is, there is no guarantee that they would see it the same as what another person would see. The way the world "is" would still be subjective. Which means that the other truths and moralities are also subjective.

One Buddhist told me that the way to get out of the world of appearance to see the world as it is is to follow the other seven steps in the Nobel Eight-Fold Path. However, if knowing correct steps require the knowledge of the world as it is, and knowledge of the world as it is requires following the other seven steps, then we are in an infinite loop of agnosticism about everything. Man either starts inside the world of illusion or outside the world of illusion. If he starts outside the world of illusion, there is no problem (because he doesn't exist anyway). If he starts inside, then how can he know that he needs to get outside? Since man's mind is limited to the world of appearance (illusion), there is no way for it to get outside to see the world as it really is. Since we can't know anything, we are left helpless to determine what we should do (action). If the action is required to get outside the world of illusion, man is paralyzed. We can believe nothing; we can do nothing.

Even if Buddhism is right that man's problem is that he's stuck in a life that is only suffering, the prescribed solution still fails logically and pragmatically.

Next week we will look at the unique view of Islam.

I used The Illustrated World Religions by Houston Smith for the majority of the information in this post. More info was gleaned from the third-party site Wikipedia- articles here. Buddhanet.net was also used.

*This perfect condition only exists as long as the human is living. Upon death, the enlightened "being" realizes Nirvana, which is a sense of release from everything, including consciousness, all states, and senses. 

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