Is the Buddha Anti-Intellectual?

One remarkable feature of spiritual practice today in both East and West is widespread anti-intellectualism: thoughts are only creations “of the mind” and have nothing to do with the things that matter, so one must let go of the mind and find ways to still the thinking process. Obviously –so goes the dogma — it is futile to think about or verbally express God, the Dao, and Enlightenment. Doubts and skepticism are only the mind’s wheels cranking away, and the generating of questions and opinions is simply what the mind does, automatically. One hears this in dojos, ashrams, and churches all over the world. This version of anti-intellectualism is cognate with the normal moral and political anti-intellectualism we encounter every day: We don’t need any of your learning or evidence, you’re just experts unnecessarily complicating things that are simple and obvious, you think you’re so smart…In all cases, vehement anti-intellectualism results in obedience to strong leaders and in social cohesion through the nourishing of passions like fear and anger. 

   Occasionally in the Pali Suttas the Buddha comes across as anti-intellectual. He can seem dismissive of speculative activity and uninterested in philosophical “big questions” — but does he in fact believe that thinking is in itself worthless? In the Middle Length Discourses, we meet the earnest monk Malunkyaputta, who suddenly finds himself stirred up and riled by metaphysical questions:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then, as Ven. Malunkyaputta was alone in seclusion, this train of thought arose in his awareness: “These positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One β€” ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’ β€” I don’t approve, I don’t accept that the Blessed One has not declared them to me. I’ll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. If he declares to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ that ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ that ‘The cosmos is finite,’ that ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ that ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ that ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ that ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ that ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ that ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ then I will live the holy life under him. If he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ then I will renounce the training and return to the lower life.”

Questions of this sort preoccupied the philosophers of the orthodox Hindu schools to such a degree that they would write lengthy tracts arguing for their own views and refuting, with vigorous logical fisticuffs, the views of all opponents. In a few of his discourses, the Buddha himself engages such questions directly — for example, in the great Brahmajala Sutta, where he lays out sixty-two different speculative views. Thus, for a man of his time and place, to be concerned with metaphysical questions would not have been thought unreasonable; nor would Malunkyaputta have been seen as blameworthy for abandoning a guru who couldn’t answer his pressing life-questions.  How does the Buddha respond?

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”


“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?

Answering questions of this kind was never part of the deal, he says: I never promised to, and you never requested it of me — so why are you suddenly so insistent? Clearly the disciple has been seized by a philosophical anxiety attack, in which he feels that he can’t go on, can’t breathe, can’t find any sense in things, unless the Buddha delivers conclusive answers that can give meaning and direction to his spiritual life. People commonly go to gurus with questions about eternity, infinity, and immortality, and feel soothed when an answer is given that they can understand. The Buddha’s refusal to give Malunkyaputta any answer to these is a deliberate denial of intellectual comfort; this disciple is not allowed the great speculative safety-nets that will rescue him from his fall into meaninglessness. Why not? 

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

Like all of us, Malunkyaputta is in trouble: he is unhappy, dissatisfied, not getting what he wants and getting instead what he doesn’t want, and secretly in dread of debilitating illness and mortality. His pursuit of grand speculative answers is a distraction from the urgency of his real plight, which involves the removal of the poisoned arrow of his suffering. What he needs to do is to continue practicing mindfulness and to understand the true causes of his discontent, and not waste time with enthralling intellectual puzzles that go nowhere. 

   Can Malunkyaputta be satisfied with a response like this? The Buddha’s advice at first sounds similar to the typical anti-intellectual’s exhortation to “do, don’t think,” and the active man’s preference for real work as opposed to mere thought or study. Yet such a view rests in a false separation of thought and action; after all, is there any human action that does not depend on a thought concerning how things are and what is worth doing? All our actions stem from some opinion or assumption about ends. Furthermore, do our views about ends not depend on our thoughts about matters like eternity and the nature of the soul? How can a thoughtful human being not think about such matters and not try to seek answers to them? The mind cannot just stop — especially if it thinks it has good reason to keep thinking.  A person of nobility and integrity would never just take someone’s word that speculative thinking is a wasteful distraction — because how could you know, without actually taking the effort to know, that a clear and definite conclusion could not be reached? Malunkyaputta himself seems more eager to have someone “declare” the truth to him than to struggle for the light himself, and this may be why the Buddha is intentionally thwarting and provoking him. His next statement deserves careful chewing.

“Malunkyaputta, it’s not the case that when there is the view, ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ there is the living of the holy life. And it’s not the case that when there is the view, ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ there is the living of the holy life. When there is the view, ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ and when there is the view, ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ there is still the birth, there is the aging, there is the death, there is the sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, & distress whose destruction I make known right in the here & now.”

This looks like the kind of thing a classical Skeptic would say. For one thing, whenever we convince ourselves of the truth of one of these positions, our minds still doubt and cannot avoid considering arguments to the contrary — unless of course we forcefully suppress the thought that we could be wrong, in which case the act of suppression requires more energy than would have been spent on the doubting. Whether doubting or suppressing doubt, the mind is not at peace and therefore cannot offer intellectual foundation for a good life. Moreover, would thinking that the cosmos is eternal or non-eternal have any effect on your decisions in this life? Does the thought that the soul is the same as the body make you more or less likely to lead a good life? — after all, if it dies with the body, you might make this short life the best and most beautiful possible, or you might become callous and indifferent to good or bad and simply seek pleasure. And if the soul is different from the body and does not die with it, you might become a better person in order to nurture the long-term good of the soul, or you might not be too concerned with how you live this tiny life because “deserts of vast eternity” stretch out before you. More empirically, we also know very good people who believe the soul to be different from the body, and very bad people who believe the same thing. A cocaine addict, even when convinced of what perfect health might look like, might still sink deeper in his addiction — not because he doesn’t have the correct view of health, but because the correct view of health is irrelevant to the decisions he is capable of taking at the moment. Therefore the particular lives we lead seem to have very little to do with our speculative views, which have power to fascinate with the lure of distant possibilities but very little power to touch us where we live. 

“And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.
“And what is declared by me? ‘This is dukkha (suffering),’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.”
Such views have no practical effect on the state of our soul: whichever speculative view we hold, the decisions that affect our happiness or unhappiness do not depend on them, and it is those decisions that are undertaken on the Buddha’s path. It is not an anti-intellectual path, because the decisions that genuinely affect us require careful thought and a good deal of insight into the workings of heart and mind — but it is also not a path that has much patience for abstract theorizing and speculative “play.” In many cultures the opposition to speculative thinking springs from materialistic assumptions that only physical things are real and that financial realities are physical, but the Buddha is not a materialist. All practical activity comes from ways of thinking and prior states of the soul, and these have to be perceived, understood, and addressed if we wish to free ourselves from agitation and distress. This is not anti-intellectual, but it is pragmatic in a way that involves a comprehension of intellectual activity.

   In other discourses, the Buddha or one of his close disciples will amplify on why it is that many thinkers cling to broad speculative views and why they are wrong to do so — for example, when the monk Moggallana replies to the Brahmin ascetic Vacchagotta with the exact words the Buddha has used elsewhere:

“Now, Master Moggallana, what is the cause, what is the reason why β€” when wanderers of other sects are asked in this way, they answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is finite’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite’ or ‘The body is the same as the soul’ or ‘The body is one thing and the soul another’ or ‘The Tathagata exists after death’ or ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death’ or ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death” or ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death,’ yet when Gotama the contemplative is asked in this way, he does not answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is finite’ or  ‘The cosmos is infinite’ or ‘The body is the same as the soul’ or ‘The body is one thing and the soul another’ or ‘The Tathagata exists after death’ or ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death’ or ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death” or ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death’?”
   “Vaccha, the members of other sects assume of the eye that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ They assume of the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the intellect that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ That is why, when asked in this way, they answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’… or that ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.’ But the Tathagata, worthy and rightly self-awakened, does not assume of the eye that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ He does not assume of the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the intellect that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ That is why, when asked in this way, he does not answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’… or that ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.'”
 

(Moggallana Sutta, SN 44:7, tr.Thanissaro, 2004)

In other words, these thinkers crave certainty with regard to speculative views because each one of them has in some way identified themselves with their aggregates, the fundamental constituents of what they take to be “who they are,” and are so powerfully invested in their identification that they unconsciously project it onto the larger-than-life screen of speculation. Thus the “solving of great questions” is often a form of spiritual ambition, which originates in habit and compulsion. If we could see into the activity through which a self and its projections are continuously made, our passion for far-flung speculation would naturally dissipate, like steam. 

The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya (MN 63, tr.Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1998)
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html

Moggallana Sutta (SN 44:7, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2004)

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn44/sn44.007.than.html

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Is the Buddha Anti-Intellectual?

  1. Krishnan,

    This article proves once again and confirms that you have this natural ability or flair to teach with elucidation and clarity, in the manner you can discuss explain and analyse Buddhism in Western epistemological soteriological or philosophical terms and sense.

    I fail in this regard as I have this expectation because I went through the long tedious process where I had to attain the ability to meditate and through that extricate myself myself from my worldly Ego of Self and achieve a state of equanimous awareness in numinous quietude and solitude before I succeeded in spiritual insight contemplation and thus I expect the same from my readers in all my numerous past writings – that they had to ‘let go’ of their human senses and emotions and conditioning. You have taught me that I have to accommodate my readers fir what they are – curious human beings!

    The starting point when we discuss the Buddha and his teachings is how did he or how do you deter or dissuade any seeker of the Truth or Eternal Life or Meaning to Existence or Worldly Life, any acolyte, any disciple any follower of any spiritual philosophy or religious faith from conceiving or conceptualising the profoundly inconceivable that is by definition beyond human knowledge and the understanding of or with a human mind?

    And that is why the Buddha was very insistent and pragmatic and practical when he was faced with enquiries from seekers who he could see did not have the spiritual wisdom propensity to transcend beyond the idea of an Ego of a Self, that such a premise or an idea was false and simply a mental or sub-conscious illusion – that mire productively, these people should just simply be told to focus on plodding on with life, with how to manage worldly toils and sufferings and worldly trials and tribulations, and the fear of death and the unknown – viz the Eight-fold Noble Path.

    But to those with spiritual wisdom perspicacity – i.e. those who could transcend above the Ego of a Self and beyond worldly intellect and knowledge – those with inherent spiritual holistic wisdom intuition he taught ‘the Middle Path’ – no, not in the worldly sense of being moderate in your personal (for then you still retain the Ego of a Self!) values or pursuits or undertakings or desires – but speaking spiritually or transcendentally in a mathematical or logical sense – All is ‘Neither X nor Not-X’. Yes, believe it or not, that sums up the Buddha’s teachings!

    In fact the Buddha was ahead of his times in hinting that all manner of worldly things and phenomena can be expressed mathematically – i.e. if we should ever get to the stage where mathematics can be as multi-dimensional as there are sands in the River Ganges – and guess what? I repeat – all worldly perceptions and conceptions are ‘Neither X nor Not-X’!

    With an Ego of a Self we are (through this medium of an Ego of a Self) looking for an answer externally or without or outside of our Ego of a Self, when we should be looking for an answer that, for it to be true, would have to co-exist within and without this Ego of a Self simultaneously! To cut a long argument or proposition short, this can only happen when there is no such thing as this Ego of a Self – that this Ego of a Self, this continuing metamorphosis of an ‘aggregate’ of sorts is just an illusion!

    For what is permanently true in the most outer layer or ring of an onion must also co-exist and be present in the most inner ring and in fact in every single ring of the onion (the rings metaphorically representing different or parallel dimensions in a multi-dimensional context).

    When your spiritual insight is corrupted or clouded by the double vision of ‘duality’ or ‘plurality’, (insidiously brought about by this illusion of a false Ego of a Self or the elusive ‘monkey in your mind!) how can you see the clear answer that is standing right there when there is no ‘duality’ or ‘plurality’ or ‘opposites’ – that there is neither a beginning nor an ending, neither a birth nor a death (we are neither born nor dead, neither living nor not-living, neither dying nor not-dying – allegorically we are a ‘walking dead’!), neither right nor wrong, neither created nor uncreated, neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly …….

    When everything is relative and interdependent on another for a or its value – even time, space, dimensions and all other possible mental perspectives or perceptions – there is no absolute or a permanent state or entity! – everything is in a constant state of change and flux! – there is no meaning to what is past, present or future, nor what is the ‘now’ or the ‘present’! – everything is experiential in its perception and when perceived is factually already in the past or is history, like some of the stars in the night skies!

    Allow me to suggest that the amalgam of Buddhism from ancient India and the Tao from ancient China gave birth to Zen and if only the world should know or understand the “magic” that is Zen.

    Imagine and take the Taoist yin and yang sign as a mathematical symbol – you start off with the universal absolute self-containing symbol that is the ‘O’ of a circle. Then you introduce the Ego of a Self represented by the symbol of ‘I’. You then join the two and you get (looking at it for the moment as two-dimensional) a circle split into two hemispheres and thus a polarity or duality of sorts. That allegorically speaking, is how life or existence came about! You see that now in our quantum physics high tech IT world, in the binary genesis of artificial intelligence! You now imagine this circle bisected within itself as multi-dimensional and that it is spinning and rotating and revolving at ever-changing axis and then express or put this in a two-dimensional logo form and you will have the yin and yang symbol where the ‘I’ is now a ‘bend’. Every yin and yang symbol has a little circle in the heart or middle – this represents the core that is constant no matter what the state of flux is of this globular yin and yang as it revolves and spins at a different axis.

    We are symbolically speaking, caught up in the spin of the duality and flux of the globular yin and yang and yet in the absolute sense the totality of the O remains the same! In eternity, the apparent chaos is perpetual bliss!

    Nobody and nothing can understand the holistic spiritual teachings of any spiritual guru, siddhi, yogi, prophet or the Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad unless they transcend above their worldly Ego of a Self or in Zen terms – be a ‘No Mind’, be a ‘Nobody Going Nowhere’ – for it is only in this selfless egoless state of mind and perception will you have the spiritual perspicacity to understand that the spiritual meaning of the teachings or scriptures are beyond their worldly literal meanings and human language and words and intellect

    And that in this sense we have the Zen saying that the Buddha did not ever say a single direct word about what should lie ‘on the other shore’ and that all his sayings were like roadsigns, like ‘a finger pointing to the moon’, and even then the ‘moon’ we are talking about here in this expression, is only as real and as tangible as its own reflection on the surface of a pond – it is just an illusion. Life is just an phantasm or an illusion, i.e. beyond the perception of the experience. Beyond the experience, there is nothing permanent, there is nothing tangible to be grasped, to be clung to, nothing achieved or claimed or attained. There is no enlightenment, no Nirvana, no liberation. Within the cinematic reel of the ‘soap opera’ of our lives, nothing is real. But the experiential truth is that if you have an Ego of a Self would you like to be the detested villain in the Shakespearean play. For believe or not! ‘Thou shall reap what you sow!’ But if you are selfless and egoless and love every other sentient being in the world as you love yourself – you are at eternal bliss!

    Vince

    • Yes yes yes! Very well said, Vince. In a few weeks I’ll be writing on Nagarjuna and then the Zen masters, and we can nod laughing to each other from across the oceans. My own path was through literature first, then meditation, then the Suttas, all culminating in Dogen, who of all the teachers has the most exquisite literary sensibility. Then I realized that the loss of ego described, talked around, or pointed to by the sages — the greatest writers were already there! — although it felt either like being ravished by the Muse or flayed by Apollo.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s