Buddhist Sophistry

In the famous Chinese-Buddhist treatise, Mind Seal of the Buddhas (linked here and here), written in the 17th Century by a monk named Ouyi is the following quotation:

The Pure Land [Buddhist] teaching is profound and wondrous. It destroys all sophistry and cuts off all delusive views….Those of worldly intelligence, the followers of Confucianism and the devotees of Zen, may try to figure it out to the limit of their powers, but the more they think about it, the farther off they get. In terms of being able to reach the wisdom of the Buddhas and mesh with the wonders of the Path, such intellectuals are not as good as simple men and women who recite the Buddha-name in all sincerity.

Buddhism tends to be a pretty cerebral religion. It begins, first and foremost with the mind, after-all.

Furthermore, the intellectual history of Buddhism is long, and at times pretty torturous. In places where Buddhism flourished, such as India (until the 12th century) and China, numerous schools would spring up and scholarly debates were the norm. Debates between the Yogacara and Tiantai schools in China (and by extension Japan) were heated, convoluted and involved some theological hair-splitting at times. This was not even limited to the “scholastic” schools of Buddhism either. For anti-intellectual, more empirical schools such as Zen, debates and schisms happened more often than we’d care to admit. The image of the Zen master who is aloof from the world and one with everything was more often romanticism than actual reality.

Ouyi’s comment about sophistry, that is logical arguments that seem sound but have no substance, is interesting because it acknowledges this tendency, and the need to get to the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice. Ouyi seems to be making a jibe against the scholastic debates of his time (17th Century China) and asserts that Pure Land Buddhism is somehow above all this because it relies on simple, straightforward practices but with a profound underpinning. However, is Ouyi correct?

My experiences with Pure Land Buddhism have been mixed. It’s emphasis on faith definitely side-steps a lot of intellectual posturing and arguments. It appeals to the heart and not the brain. Its practice of reciting the Buddha’s name is very portable and easy to get started on, even for the “worst” Buddhist disciple. And yet even in Pure Land Buddhism, people can and do take things too far and get caught up so much in defending their particular doctrine that they are not above sophistry. Some of the teachings by certain Pure Land schools are perplexing, confusing and elaborate justifications for doctrines that are outmoded or don’t make sense in the wider Buddhist context. But such people have invested in them for so long that they can’t give them up. For me, Pure Land Buddhism has been no better or worse than other Buddhist schools.

So how does one make sense of it all?

The sutras are a good starting point, but they can’t be 100% trusted because they were composed so long after the Buddha, and often by different authors at different times. So even the sutras, the closest things we have to the Buddha’s authentic teachings, require a grain of salt.

Similarly, one cannot rely on one’s own intuition because there are many hidden biases we can’t see. The Buddha even warned against this in the Kalama Sutta (more on this later).

Teachers and doctrinal traditions similarly have to be viewed with a respectful, but critical eye. Like the sutras, they are formed from specific times, place and people.

Interestingly, the Buddha addressed all this and more in a famous (and often misquoted) sutra called the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.66). He was approached by a village of the Kalama people who were concerned about the abundance (glut?) of teachers and teachings in the area and couldn’t make sense of it all. The Buddha advised:

So in this case, Kālāmas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the observant; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’—then you should abandon them.

But, the translator, Ven. Thanissaro Bhikku, also warns that this is not a blank check to do whatever you feel is right:

Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha’s carte blanche for following one’s own sense of right and wrong, it actually sets a standard much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One’s own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one’s feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and—to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results—they must further be checked against the experience of people who are observant and wise. The ability to question and test one’s beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and chose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends.

The point of all this, I think, is that the key to getting past sophistry in Buddhism (or anything, really) is to use your head. Judge a Buddhist teaching or practice by its results in your life, and others, and not by how it sounds or feels to you or how rational it sounds.

If you look at the sutras more holistically, it’s clear the Buddha repeatedly advocated things like:

  • A wholesome, clean lifestyle that is free from blame, and respectable in the eyes of the community.1
  • A life of modesty and moderation.
  • Non-violence and goodwill towards all beings.
  • A life based on wisdom and insight, not irrational beliefs.

So, Buddhist teachings that work toward this end are obviously the ones you want to adopt, emulate, and practice. On the other hand, teachings that encourage the opposite, even if they are part of the Buddhist tradition and otherwise make sense, should be avoided. Even if they make you feel good or are somehow pleasing, in the long run, they are like a bag of chips in that give a short-term thrill, but no lasting substance.2

And, like Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

1 This goes double for Buddhist monastics, as evinced in the Dhammapada:

Restraint with the eye is good,
good is restraint with the ear.
Restraint with the nose is good,
good is restraint with the tongue.
Restraint with the body is good,
good is restraint with speech.
Restraint with the heart is good,
good is restraint everywhere.
A monk everywhere restrained
is released from all suffering & stress.

Hands restrained,
feet restrained
speech restrained,
supremely restrained–
delighting in what is inward,
content, centered, alone:
he’s what they call
a monk.

Verses 360-362, translation by Ven. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

But even for laypeople, he encouraged the same basic lifestyle (cf. the Sigalovada Sutta):

Killing, stealing, lying and adultery, These four evils the wise never praise.

translation by Ven. Narada Thera

2 A long time ago, when I was a teenager, I used to attend a certain Christian church, and I remember we had revivals and other faith-based gatherings. I had a lot of happy memories of those, and feeling very energized in my faith at the time, but inevitably when it was over, I would feel a sense of loss or withdrawal. I think

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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