copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 2

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The sources of justified belief in Buddhism 

This chapter offers a criticism of the way in which traditional Buddhism has appealed to metaphysical sources of knowledge, supporting instead reliance on the Middle Way as a source of justified belief.

Click on the summaries below to view full text of each section.


a)  The confusing of sources of knowledge in Buddhism 

It is argued here that Buddhist claims to use experience as the main source of knowledge are misleading because of their constant reliance on the remote and unfalsifiable experience of enlightenment. Appeals to enlightenment amount to revelatory claims that are no better justified by experience than theistic appeals to God. The claim that the Buddha's words are only a source of advice is also misleading when this 'advice' is given so much priority over competing advice.


b) Justified beliefs from the Middle Way

Here it is argued that the ways our beliefs are deluded by greed and hatred cannot be avoided by trying to go beyond our experience, at least not without self-deception. The Middle Way provides justified beliefs because it involves navigating between positive and negative types of metaphysical belief (eternalism and nihilism), each offering different kinds of delusion. If we can avoid these sources of delusion we are driven back to the incremental judgements of our own experience. The Middle Way offers a completely universal approach, but we should not assume that the metaphysical extremes we need to avoid are the same as those the Buddha needed to avoid in his context.


c) The trouble with Buddhist metaphysics

Here it is argued that the very idea of 'Buddhist metaphysics' should be seen as contradictory if it follows the Buddha's agnostic rejection of metaphysical dualisms. The insights offered in the Buddha's 'silence' on metaphysical matters should be applied to a wide range of metaphysical dualisms used today, and also provides the justification for rejecting a range of teachings in the Buddhist tradition that are inconsistent with it.


d) The trouble with gurus

Although the tradition of the authority of teachers in Buddhism provides a helpful recognition of the power of the personal, much of the way it is appealed to in the Buddhist tradition requires a degree of faith in fallible human beings that goes beyond the justifiable and helpful trust in others we can build up from experience.


e) The trouble with scriptures

Buddhists in practice give unjustifiable authority to scriptures because the whole idea of a scripture being canonical requires an appeal to an enlightened source. They cannot consistently treat scriptures only as sources of advice, taking into account their fallibility, whilst giving them canonical status and ranking them beyond other sources of advice. Scriptures do not represent the unmediated personal voice of the Buddha, but rather tradition's account of that voice, so personal trust in scriptures is misplaced. Scholarship can also have the negative effect of reinforcing the canonical status of scriptures whilst offering only marginal help in understanding the issues they raise.


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