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The death of metaphysics and the birth of the Middle Way
This is a version of a talk given to the regional men’s order day at the FWBO
Where I’m coming from
First a little about my own background. I first became involved in the FWBO whilst an undergraduate at
This led my to do a Ph.D. thesis which involved applying central insights of Buddhism to Western philosophy and other Western thought. I spent four years on this thesis (which turned into a 297,000 word monster) and the results seemed radical and important. However, I’ve spent five years since then gradually trying to disattach myself from the Ph.D. and learn how to communicate more appropriately what I felt I’d discovered. I’m now making the thesis available as a very short-run book to the few who will read it, but I also need to communicate my findings and their implications in other ways. [Update: it's now available on this website.]
The question I set out to answer in the thesis was that of the justification of moral objectivity. How do we know what is right, and how do we avoid the unscalable mountains of absolutism and the quagmire of relativism? To answer this question I found I had to address many other interlinked questions about knowledge, metaphysics and psychology and challenge many standard Western approaches. To make a new approach convincing I also had to show how most of the existing Western approaches had failed, resulting in a critique of Western moral philosophies. I was looking for a distinctively Buddhist answer to this problem, not just a rehash of existing moral philosophies in Buddhist terms.
My conclusion was that it is the Middle Way, used as a principle of judgement, which offers a distinctively Buddhist answer to the question of what is right and offers an understanding of moral objectivity which other ideologies have largely missed.
In my thesis my main task is the use of this central concept to differentiate Buddhism from other philosophies and to show how it can help solve our moral problems. However, since then I have also become increasingly occupied with turning the
I think reflection on the
To try to explain and support this view I want to explain my view of the
What is metaphysics?
Originally the term comes from Aristotle and means something like “beyond nature” or “beyond the physical world”. However, what nature or the physical world may be is itself a metaphysical question. In modern philosophy, it more usefully tends to mean something more like “beyond experience” or “beyond investigation based on experience”. This is the use of the word which I make myself. It is true that modern philosophers also often identify what can be investigated through experience with the sphere of science, but I would suggest that the sphere of experience goes beyond what can be investigated using the strict criteria of public observability often used by scientists. Metaphysics goes beyond not just what science can accept, but what anyone can experience.
Examples of metaphysical beliefs under this definition would include beliefs in God, the soul, freewill, determinism, the beginning or end of space or time, and absolute value (ultimate goodness). All these ideas are absolutes which go beyond what any individual may possibly experience
What these have in common is the appeal to a God’s-eye view to make absolute claims. We cannot have a God’s-eye view because we are relative and limited beings, with sense of a limited range, a single position in time and space, a single limited framework of understanding, and a constantly changing experience. We are not clairvoyant, omniscient, omnipresent or permanent, all of which we would need to be to know about the absolute, universal and timeless claims of metaphysics.
The fourteen indescribables
In a number of places in the Pali Canon the Buddha makes clear his view of metaphysics –e.g. in Culamalunkya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya). I mention this to make a connection rather than because I think it proves the point. The Buddha talks of fourteen “indescribables” (avyakrta): whether there is end of space or an end of time, or whether the Buddha exists after death (or not, or both, or neither) and whether or not the soul exists. There are many questions one could ask about the use of the fourfold logic and the rather odd selection of fourteen possibilities here, but I am not going to go into this. The main point is that the Buddha selected fourteen examples of metaphysical beliefs which were under discussion in his context, and refused to comment on them because to do so was not conducive to spiritual progress.
Why are beliefs about these things not conducive to spiritual progress? Here the answer I want to put forward is an interpretation of the Buddha, but it ultimately needs to be judged on its usefulness rather than on its debatable status as an interpretation of the Pali Canon. Because metaphysical beliefs are absolute, they don’t help us explain or comment on our experience, which is relative. The reason for holding views about what is beyond experience can thus only be attachment (e.g. it supports a position in a group, or it makes us feel unassailable). If we try to grasp something beyond our range we are bound to do so wrongly.
The Buddha’s fourteen metaphysical beliefs are examples showing the general principle, not a complete list. The reason why speculation about the end of the universe etc is not helpful is the same reason why speculation about freewill, ultimate value etc are not helpful. Though speculation about the end of the universe is still around today, assumptions about freewill, determinism, God, the self, absolutism and relativism are metaphysical beliefs which have much more practical impact, and if we want to apply the Buddha’s underlying point in different circumstances it is these we need to consider most.
The negative effects of dogmatic attachment to a metaphysical belief are well understood in the philosophy of science (a branch of philosophy which, despite my lack of scientific training, I find both helpful and fascinating). I am particularly fond of this example from the philosophy of science which shows the drawbacks of metaphysical belief very clearly. It concerns Galileo, the first scientist to make use of a telescope for astronomical observation. Galileo trained his telescope on the moon and observed mountains. However, according to the Aristotelian astronomical beliefs of his day (supported by the Church), the moon and anything above it must be perfect sphere. If the moon had mountains that would make it an imperfect sphere and challenge current belief. So one of Galileo’s contemporaries argued that the gaps between the mountains on the moon must be filled with a transparent substance which Galileo could not observe, allowing it to remain perfectly spherical despite the apparent mountains.
This is an example of a dogmatic attachment to a certain belief which leads one to interpret the experience to fit the theory rather than seeking a new theory which better fits the experience. Of course, it is not only metaphysical theories which one can be attached to in this way, but metaphysics has the particular feature of not being usable in any other way.
Positive and negative metaphysics
Metaphysics is equally unhelpful whether positive or negative, which means that it is equally unhelpful to claim that there is no God, no end to the universe, or no ultimate value. The Buddha not only puts the denial of metaphysical positions in the same category as their affirmation, but even the affirmation of both negative and positive positions at once or the denial of both! However, denying a metaphysical position needs to be distinguished from the more useful claim that it is unhelpful to hold that position.
Behind this is the deeper point that the distinction between positions that are positive or negative (in terms of logic, not in terms of emotion) is in any case only conventional. Any positive statement can be recast as a negative one, and vice-versa, E.g. “We are going to meet death” is a positive form of “We are going to lose our lives”; “These people are Hindus” is a positive form of “These people are not non-Hindus”. This point is encapsulated for me in “Form is emptiness, emptiness only form,” which challenges our attachment to positive or negative descriptions. Wherever we have a positive claim, we can reflect on its emptiness, but where we have a negative one, we can reflect on its form.
The role of interpretation and psychological state
Clearly also, whether a statement is metaphysical depends very much on its interpretation by the person who uses it. For example, for some people “God” may just mean an experience of awareness of interdependence with others, so “God exists” just affirms that experience and is not metaphysical. Nevertheless, it would be easy to creep unawares from a non-metaphysical position which uses language which is normally metaphysical, to a metaphysical position, so it is much more helpful simply to avoid claims which are normally metaphysical.
How damaging metaphysical claims are is also dependent on psychological factors. One could say that metaphysics attracts attachment rather as a magnet attracts iron filings, but the power of the magnetism depends very much on the mental state of the person holding the metaphysical view, how important it is to them, and how lightly or strongly they hold it and defend it.
Eternalism, Nihilism and the
I take these two Buddhist terms to describe two types of metaphysics, which are broadly positive or negative in emphasis. To make links with people’s experience of this I will start with traditional Buddhist accounts of the
The traditional Buddhist account of the Middle Way
Traditionally Buddhists often make a distinction between the metaphysical and the ethical
So, it is more plausible to see the belief or disbelief in the soul just as one example of an opposed pair of metaphysical views which we need to dwell between. The investigation of Western ideologies through the ages led me to conclude that the belief in absolute ethics was actually more central to eternalism than the belief in the soul, and the denial of absolute ethics more central to nihilism. However, any metaphysical view can be used as support for eternalism or nihilism, and the main point is that eternalism and nihilism both rely on metaphysical affirmation and denial.
From this it also follows that the idea that the
The other traditional Buddhist conception of the
So, what the two traditional accounts of the
The interchangeability of eternalism and nihilism
What does not seem to have been recognised in any traditional Buddhist account of eternalism and nihilism is that they are interchangeable. We cannot and ultimately should not try to distinguish them from each other, only to find a
That eternalism and nihilism should be interchangeable follows from my earlier point about positive and negative claims being redescribable in each others’ terms. A metaphysical claim that at first looks positive (e.g. God exists) may also be interpreted negatively (e.g. because God is the only true reality, the world does not really exist and has no value, so there is no such thing as ethics). Eternalists and nihilists regularly borrow each others’ clothing. I found a striking example of this in the thinking of the sixteenth century scholar, Erasmus. After considering the sceptical claim that we know nothing at all, he concluded that because of this we have no option but to put our trust in the teachings of the Church!
The traditional Buddhist mistake: bias in favour of eternalism.
If eternalism and nihilism are interchangeable it follows that it is a mistake to put eternalism first, as Buddhism traditionally does. The traditional view is that it is better to be an eternalist than a nihilist, because eternalists at least have a basic morality. This is mistaken because it involves a misapprehension of the nature of eternalism and nihilism. Nihilists still have values just as much as eternalists do: they are just group or individual values rather than ones which appeal to metaphysical absolutes. Relying on oneself or a group in this way can mean than one fails to grasp important conditions, but so can relying on an absolute which is remote from experience. Individualism or tribalism can create conflicts in society, but so can feuding between different eternalist groups who each believe they have the final truth.
So, eternalism and nihilism are unhelpful to an equal extent, and we need to be even-handed in our treatment of them. Being resolutely even-handed is also the best way of avoiding the suspicion each readily has that one is part of the opposite party. The Nihilism of modern society is no more nor less of a threat than the eternalism of traditional society. There is not much to choose between the Pope and postmodernism: both have positive things to offer and both also make basic mistakes.
The Death of Metaphysics and the Birth of the
The death of metaphysics and the birth of the
So why do Buddhists talk about and use metaphysics?
The false assumption that dualism is absolute
Despite the above points, metaphysics is rife in Buddhism. Scholars talk about “Buddhist metaphysics” and Buddhism is widely perceived to be a metaphysical doctrine. Buddhists themselves rarely do anything to overcome this impression because they themselves use metaphysical language and understand Buddhism in metaphysical terms. Why is this? It seems to me that the most basic reason is the false assumption that dualism is absolute.
What I mean by this is the assumption that we can’t break out of subject-object duality without an alternative “reality” to cling to, such as the absolute Word of the Buddha (in the Theravada) or the absolute experience of Insight giving authority (Zen). It’s as though we’re drowning in a sea of duality, with nothing to hold on to, so we have to grab a lifebelt sent to us by the Buddha or the gurus. This is what I call a revelatory view of Buddhism. The saviours give us the true dharma from beyond samsara so we can grab it and hold onto it. A lot of the language we use (for example in the Sevenfold Puja) encourages us to think in this way.
This false assumption is due to a failure to think incrementally or progressively. The idea of drowning in the sea of samsara is a false analogy for our situation, for it is not as though we don’t know how to swim at all or have nothing to hold onto. We can break out of dualities within our experience, and so make progress. We do this whenever we recognise a more complex picture behind a current conceptualisation. For example we can do this through reflections on impermanence and insubstantiality, giving us a different view of the objects we are experiencing; we also do this by overcoming a superficial idea of a person and appreciating more of their true complexity, as in the metta-bhavana. We can peel away layers of greed, hatred and ignorance bit by bit, and it’s this experience that gives us hope that the dharma can be practised. Slowly peeling away the layers of an onion is a better analogy for spiritual progress, or, to reverse the previous analogy and connect it with the famous one in the Udana, gradually going deeper and deeper into the ocean from a gently inclining beach. These metaphors accord with our experience because in that experience there are no instant universal panaceas, and when we think we’ve dramatically behind left behind one set of problems we find ourselves in another set. There are no absolute metaphysical solutions, only gradual ones.
Revelatory Buddhism is eternalist
Revelatory Buddhism is eternalist because it doesn’t take into account our human limitations in interpreting revelation. The Buddha’s words may have come from a place of deep wisdom, but we always work on the basis of our interpretation of the Buddha’s instructions. If we don’t accept, not just the idea of this, but the full implications, we are always in danger of turning the Buddha’s words into a metaphysical absolute. We don’t have to be issuing dogmas in a pope-like fashion to be doing this, just working on the basic assumption that our experience should be made to squeeze into (our interpretation of) the Buddha’s words, just as Galileo’s contemporary assumed that Galileo’s observations should be forced to squeeze into the Aristotelian theory, however badly they fitted. All we have to do to be revelatory, metaphysical Buddhists is to adopt a basically apologetic or defensive attitude towards the Buddhist tradition and to be reluctant to seek a better explanation when it fails to accord with our experience.
Denying revelatory Buddhism is not necessarily nihilism
There is a crucial distinction between rejecting absolute positions and denying value as we encounter it in action and experience. We do meet with emotionally positive values in our experience, and we may need to discuss and symbolise those values, but we don’t have to give them a metaphysical form to have them. The distinction I’m talking about is the same as that between two types of Sceptics in classical times. The so called Academic Sceptics, like Carneades, denied all knowledge, but the Pyrrhonian Sceptics (who may possible have been influenced by Buddhism), like Sextus Empiricus, merely doubted it, and saw their values as entirely practical. Followers of the
It seems to me that there is an astoundingly radical conclusion found in the dharma of the
Where is the Path going?
But without revealed Buddhism, some people ask, where is the Path going? Surely it could be going anywhere? Such people want a positive description of the goal which they can rely on, but unfortunately they’re never going to get one. They have missed the basic point that any such guarantee is going to be their own construction and does not offer a hotline to absolute reality. The nearest I can get to a description of where the path is going, is across a narrow bridge between eternalism and nihilism, in a direction symbolised as “nirvana”. We can say much more clearly where it is not going than where it is going, but to say where it is not going is also positive description. We need to bear constantly in mind that this description is merely logically negative and thus conventional and recastable, and its negativity should not be confused with emotional negativity.
Overcoming metaphysics or following the
1. A way of developing beliefs more adequate to conditions. Conditions change but metaphysics is static.
2. Closer to “Reality” as far as we can judge it. (“Overcoming illusions” is a negative description of “getting closer to reality”, and the two mean the same, though we have experience of overcoming illusions and not of absolute reality)
3. To speak more psychologically, a way of softening and extending the boundaries of ego-identification (we should talk of egos –self-perpetuating processes-, not selves). Metaphysics is the method the ego uses to cut itself off from other possible, “bigger” beliefs or desires in the psyche. There’s a whole alternative psychological way of discussing these points here which I’m just mentioning, but don’t have space to go into here.
Now we probably come to the most controversial part of what I want to say. If we think through the
1. The whole idea of “Buddhist metaphysics” (except as a critical metaphysics which just tries to avoid metaphysical claims).
2. The reification of enlightenment into a “state of enlightenment”. Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about the Buddha “attaining enlightenment” at all. Enlightenment is a way of symbolising a progression, not a state. “Attainment too is emptiness”, as it says in the Heart Sutra. It’s true that Bhante has talked of enlightenment possibly not being the end, but this hasn’t led to us changing our language or much of our thinking about it.
3. Viewing the historical Buddha as a source of revelation rather than an example of progression or a source of advice. I have already discussed revelatory Buddhism.
4. Seeing enlightenment as an absolute principle in the universe, associated with “Nature”. There’s a glaring example of this in the puja, “Protectors that guard the universe”. This seems very common, and leads to muddling with Deep Ecology thinking or with Natural Law. The term “Nature” is incredibly vague and can be used to mean almost whatever you want it to mean. Also the whole idea of the Universe being on our side is a vast delusion which creates a problem of evil similar to that faced in Christianity.
5. Ideas of “Sudden Enlightenment” or “Insight”. These rely on a metaphysical appeal to Reality rather than incremental progress. It’s not a question of whether these insights occur, but of how we interpret them.
6. “Insight” as a guarantee of the validity of ordination or of the sangha, used as a sort of spiritual kitemark like the one on fair-trade produce. Nothing guarantees ordination or the sangha absolutely. Spiritual practice guarantees it to an extent.
7. “Karma” and “conditioned co-production” as cosmic justice systems. This is an application of the kind of talk mentioned in no. 4. If our thinking about these involves the universe as a whole functioning in a particular way, we are talking way beyond our experience and doing metaphysics. The useful content of these ideas seems to be much more usefully and practically captured in the terms “consequences” and “conditions”, ordinary English words without any unnecessary connotations of oriental metaphysics. Why don’t we just use them?
8. Rebirth. Since few of us reliably or convincingly remember being reborn, this is beyond our experience. The evidence for rebirth is deeply ambiguous and could just as easily be used to support some weaker conception, like that of impersonal scraps of consciousness somehow moving between people’s minds. Personal rebirth also contradicts anatta, a problem long recognised in the Buddhist tradition but not resolved. There is much stealth personal rebirth in the Buddhist tradition, officially saying it’s not personal, then bringing in personal assumptions in, say, the Jatakas or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So the function of the official impersonality of rebirth seems to be to deflect attention from all the inconsistency. Whether or not it actually occurs, believing in rebirth depends on metaphysics and is not helpful. There is no reason to attempt to accommodate it in Western Buddhism, and much of the discussion of it in the Order seems to be basically defensive or apologetic, even if it is supposedly based on agnosticism.
9. The use of lineages and gurus as sources of revelatory authority (distinguished from spiritual friendship, which one could see as a tool for objectivity). Why do we need to trace lineages if it’s really the value of what they say that is important in Buddhist teachers?
Why do we hang onto all this metaphysical baggage?
They create major inconsistencies in Buddhism and confuse our thinking.
Inconsistencies are sometimes dressed up as “paradoxes”, for example that spiritual progress is both sudden and gradual. However, it isn’t, it’s gradual! Perhaps we should be less tolerant of paradox and work out whether they simply mask inconsistencies. We don’t have to hold an open mind on rebirth but at the same time “make it part of our mental furniture”, we just don’t have to believe in it!
They mask distinctive truths of Buddhism and confuse it with other ideologies’
For example, the belief in rebirth in traditional Buddhism makes it harder to separate from Hinduism, despite all Ambedkar’s efforts to do so. The appeal to “nature” with confuses Buddhism with deep ecology and/or with Natural Law teaching in Christianity.
They create a major barrier to the propagation of the dharma in the West
There is no need to tax Westerners with oriental metaphysics that may drive them away. Most people are simply interested in Buddhism as a useful practice. Of course some people work their way through it all and make something useful out of it, but how many disappear when they meet all this baggage?
Imagine a future beginner coming into Centre. Suppose it is made clear from the beginning that we are working on the timeless universal principles of the
We help many people at present, but how many more people could we be helping if we freed up our hands by putting all the baggage down?
The tool of the dharma in the FWBO is not completely adapted to the job
An analogy that springs to mind is that of digging a hole with shovel, or perhaps shovelling with a spade. You can do this, but you’ll certainly do the job less effectively with a slightly ill-adapted tool. Similarly, the dharma we’ve inherited is slightly ill-adapted to the job is has to do.
The practice of the dharma in the FWBO occurs despite rather than because of this baggage.
Addressing these conflicts
Finally, I will offer some practical proposals.
1. Recognise the Middle Way as the fundamental practice of the FWBO
The mainstay of the movement and the secret of its success is the practice of avoiding impractical over-idealism and maintaining values and ideals. We already do it but it’s hardly ever discussed. Can anyone name a dharma book based on
2. Admit the pragmatic basis of our selection from traditional dharma/ practices
We’re already choosing from the menu of traditional Buddhism on the basis of what works in modern Western conditions, but for some reason we keep pretending we’re not in a position to judge. This strikes me as false modesty. We are in a position to judge, and we have to judge because conditions require it. Stop making unconvincing lineage claims for Bhante.
3. Don’t feel any traditional practices threatened
4. Don’t apportion blame. The dharma has been corrupted, but it doesn’t matter who by. The corruption may have occurred in the Buddha, in transmission of his teachiongs, in later tradition, in Sangharakshita, in our minds, or a combination of these. All of these people have made progress and offered valuable examples or advice as well as less helpful things. If we rely on our own judgements we take responsibility and don’t need to blame anyone.
5. Beware of superficial pragmatism Is “do it if it works” just a lure for beginners, or does it run through the whole of what we do? I came across an example of this recently in a man I met at Buddhafield, a tough East Ender from a deprived working class background, who told me about when he had first been taught the metta bhavana by a dharmacharini (female order member). He told her it sounded like a load of **** to him (I couldn’t do justice to his language). He said he was then most impressed by the response he got, when the dharmacharini responded that he could use it if it worked for him, or not if it didn’t. This is obviously what made a key difference in getting him involved in the movement.
This kind of pragmatism is a great strength in the FWBO that we can celebrate. My argument here is that although we may pay lip service to pragmatism, it does not consistently run through all of what we do by any means. We should not be using it just as a rhetorical technique for recruitment, to lure beginners on until the point when they meet the metaphysics (by which time it may be too late for them to go back, for they’ll have been hooked by the sangha). We only have the right to appeal to it for beginners if we really follow it. It is for this reason that we need a thorough re-examination of the dharma in its own light.
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