copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 6

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The trouble with Reality

In several of the chapters so far, I have already discussed some of the drawbacks of basing Buddhism on metaphysics. At the centre of these drawbacks is the idea that Buddhism is about breaking through to Reality. Note the capital “R” here, which distinguishes metaphysical talk about Reality from other uses of the word in everyday conversation. Talk of Reality with a big “R” involves misleading claims which, though they may seem abstract and irrelevant to some, are the basis of other mistaken thinking in Buddhism that does make a big practical difference. Talk of reality with a small “r”, however is just a common way of talking about conditions that we need to face up to (e.g. “She just won’t face up to reality”, meaning that she is not addressing some important conditions).


To get to grips with what is problematic about Buddhist ideas of “Reality” it is necessary to do some critical metaphysics. However, the goal of this endeavour is ultimately practical. Critical metaphysics is metaphysical discussion engaged with in order to help get rid of metaphysics, rather as a trainee doctor studies diseases with the goal of eradicating them. It may sometimes take a practised eye to distinguish critical metaphysics from dogmatic metaphysics, just as some cures superficially resemble the diseases they tackle, but the intention behind the two types of metaphysical discussion is quite different.


What is even more confusing is that Buddhism contains both critical metaphysics and dogmatic metaphysics. This chapter attempts to unravel them a little more.

Click on the summaries below to see full text of each section:

a) It's all in the mind

Buddhism is an idealist philosophy because it consistently asserts that ordinary experience is deluded, and only the enlightened have access to Reality. This is unhelpful because it makes wisdom an all-or-nothing affair: either you know Reality or you're deluded. Our experience, instead, is of becoming aware of degrees of delusion, but never having justifiable grounds for knowing ultimate Reality.

b) The emptiness of the emptiness of emptiness

The Mahayana doctrine of emptiness in theory offers a critical metaphysics that can overturn all attachment to ideas of Reality. However, in practice it is much recited and studied rather than applied. Instead, the doctrine of conventional vs. absolute truth often allows Buddhist thinking to remain metaphysical, and to use the doctrine of emptiness as a spoiler for criticism of those metaphysical assumptions. 

c) Reality is here and now

A third approach to Reality in the Buddhist tradition is offered by the Zen insistence on dramatic breakthroughs to Reality through direct experience. However, this approach prevents us from actually engaging with conditions because it is so discontinuous and offers no grounds for ethics in our ordinary lives prior to sudden breakthroughs. As in the earlier doctrine of emptiness, the critical metaphysics to be found in Zen acts mainly as a spoiler to prevent us recognising all the metaphysical assumptions found in Zen practice.

d) Quantum irrelevancies

Although quantum physics seems to give some useful evidence of the effect of the viewer on observation, Buddhists who have tried to adopt quantum physics have often made the mistake of drawing metaphysical lessons from its conclusions. Quantum physics does not tell us anything about Reality, and is completely irrelevant to the transformation of our egoistic energies.

e) Nugatory nature

Some Western Buddhists have also taken an unhelpfully metaphysical path when they have appealed to nature. We have no way of identifying what 'Nature' is as Reality, and it is an infinitely manipulable term, much better avoided altogether. Instead, environmental issues need to be seen in terms of conditions that we need to address.


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