In the comment thread on rebirth and Thanissaro, Andrea has raised some important points that I think need addressing. They are not just about rebirth, but about our whole attitude to philosophical discussion in relation to secular Buddhism. Andrea wrote
Robert says: “What I mean is that we won’t be able to manage to avoid engaging in debates about metaphysical beliefs in Buddhist tradition just by ignoring the subject. Such metaphysical assumptions will affect us anyway..”
Why not? How will they affect us? Why can’t we just state our position of disbelief and let it go? Why must we keep engaging with this debate instead of focussing on the practice. Why must there continue to be so much discussion about the metaphysics and almost none about the practice and practical matters of starting up secular buddhism.
I think that philosophical discussion is not something separate from spiritual practice, but an important part of it. I am not ceasing to discuss “practical matters” when I discuss philosophy. There are several interlinked points I need to make here about the importance of philosophy for practice of the Middle Way. To try and make these clear I will put them under five headers:
- Neutrality of view is not an option
- Agnosticism takes work
- Metaphysical views form a basis of attachment
- Critical metaphysics needs to be distinguished from metaphysics
- Silence needs to be pragmatically judged
1. Neutrality of view is not an option
If we don’t express a view, we don’t thereby cease to have one. Beliefs can have implicit or explicit forms. Every single action we take requires beliefs about what is the case and/or what values we should apply to the situation, even if we don’t explicitly articulate those beliefs or reflect on them. For example, my action in making a cup of tea reflects my implicit beliefs that tea is safe and good to drink, that drinking tea would be pleasant and that such pleasure is good for me at this point. Obviously we don’t reflect on all our beliefs all the time, but discussing them and whether they are justified is an important way of gaining awareness of the conditions we work in. If we don’t do this, we are implicitly accepting the status quo – rather as people who claim not to be political tend to be conservative by default.
Philosophy is just systematic reflection on the justification for our beliefs, and everyone who tries to engage in spiritual practice is to some extent a philosopher, like it or not. You can just engage in the philosophical side of practice with more or less attention, just as you can with the meditational side of practice. Personally I’m better at the philosophical side of practice, but I don’t deny the importance of working at meditation, difficult as I find it. I think those who find the philosophical side more difficult also need to acknowledge that it is a necessary part of a balanced practice.
2. Agnosticism takes work
If we are trying to follow the Middle Way in avoiding metaphysical beliefs, this involves a demanding practice of letting go. Letting go of metaphysics involves a lot more than just “stating a position of disbelief”, because doing this unreflectively is likely to take one straight into the arms of the opposing belief, which is just as metaphysical and no more helpful in our experience than the one we started off rejecting. This is why, for example, I think it is important in critically discussing Thanissaro’s arguments about rebirth to also distance oneself from Thanissaro’s opposing target, the materialist view.
Finding that mid-point of agnosticism is a subtle business and it takes work. Partly it’s about seeing the limitations of the positions one is trying to avoid on either side, but also, more positively, consulting one’s experience and reflecting what beliefs one can really justify based on it. Philosophical discussion can be invaluable in finding that mid-point. It’s not primarily about attacking people or positions one disagrees with, but about finding a way forwards from the limitations of their positions. If you are really trying to find the mid-point and avoiding the opposing dogma, this will in any case make it much easier to see the complexity in the position of the person you disagree with – how they seem to be right in some ways but not others, and how their views relate to their context. All of these reflections have a close relationship with the arising of compassion.
3. Metaphysical views form a basis of attachment
Metaphysical views are so worth avoiding because of the ways they negatively affect ourselves and others. They do this by being a basis of attachment. If a belief is beyond all examination in experience it becomes apparently impregnable. All experience can be interpreted in a way that fits it. An obvious example of this is the way that theists can easily interpret every aspect of their experience as being compatible with God’s existence, whilst an atheist can just as easily interpret all experience as showing God’s non-existence. Since neither case can be proved or disproved, the arguments are interminable and the positions entrenched.
Metaphysics is associated with conflict – not just the obvious cases like the Crusades, but the person at work with the fixed attachment to a certain management theory who won’t listen to objections, or the psychological conflict one can discover in oneself between a belief in Romantic individual freedom and a belief in social responsibility. Wherever conditions are not being addressed as fully as they might be, there will be a dogma stopping us from examining those conditions, and wherever there is a dogma a little philosophical analysis can usually uncover a metaphysical belief. Avoiding metaphysics is centrally a practical concern if we want to address conditions better than we do, by forming provisional theories that are subject to examination in the light of experience and acting on them.
4. Critical metaphysics needs to be distinguished from metaphysics
Philosophical discussion is not necessarily metaphysical because it is philosophical. I make a distinction between metaphysics, which involves making assertions that lie beyond experience, from critical metaphysics, which uses philosophical argument to detach us from such assertions. The difference, in the end, is one of motive and mental state, so it has an inter-relationship with other aspects of spiritual practice. If we are using philosophy to try and get free of rigidity and narrowness, and to address conditions better as an aspect of practice, we are doing critical metaphysics. If, on the other hand, we are using philosophy to support a fixed position, develop a power base, or destroy an opponent, we are probably doing metaphysics. This distinction may not be immediately apparent to everyone, particularly online, but it is nevertheless a crucial distinction. It is a matter for ongoing self-scrutiny.
5. Silence needs to be pragmatically judged
Finally, there are also obviously some context and occasions when philosophising is more appropriate than others. There is a well-developed pragmatic tradition in Buddhism which talks, for example, of those “who have little dust in their eyes”. There is not much point in trying to persuade those who are a long way from even being able to understand what you are on about, let alone accept it. There is a case for pragmatic silence, or at least for building up a relationship first, before tackling philosophical matters with many people. However, I don’t think this is a reason for refraining from philosophical discussion where people are interested in it, where useful things might be communicated, learnt and shared, and where it does not interfere with any other important practical activities. This blog appears to meet all those conditions, so I do not see any case for philosophical silence, or for restricting myself to more obviously or immediately practical matters (as opposed to the long-term practical that philosophy is concerned with). Philosophical discussion of course does not exclude discussion of practice or inspirational material.
Where could it be more important to discuss philosophical principles than in the online discussion space of a nascent movement like secular Buddhism? No, we need more philosophy, not less, but we also need to do it with care and reflection.
Robert M. Ellis