Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?

Georges Dreyfus came to Chulalongkorn University again for the third time, and this time he gave a public talk on “Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?” The talk was really interesting and touched upon some of the very difficult issues in Buddhist philosophy. He started by recounting the tenet found in the Madhyamika system, especially as propounded by Nagarjuna. According to the Madhayamika, a thing does not have its own ‘inherent characteristic,’ which defines what it is to be that thing and none other. Thus Madhyamika is contrasted with a branch of Indian philosophy that asserts that there is an inherent characteristic in everything that makes it the caase that that thing is what it is. One might compare this to the Aristotelian essence — whatever that gives a thing its defining characteristic. Thus a chair, according to this view, is a chair because it possesses something called ‘chairness.’ By virtue of possessing the chairness a chair is a chair and not, say, a table.

For Nagarjuna that is unacceptable. In his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), he presents a barrage of arguments intending to show that no thing whatsoever possesses this inherent characteristic. However, that does not mean that a thing can be anything else. It means rather than a thing is what it is, for example a chair, only through its being related to other things and through its being an extension or instances of concepts. In short, a thing is what it is simply because it is recognized that way. A chair is a chair because people sit on it and call it a ‘chair.’

A consequence of this is that, ultimately speaking, for Nagarjuna it does not make sense to say of any thing that it exists. On the other hand it also does not make sense to say that it does not exist. The chair in a sense does not exist because it lacks any inherent characteristic (the Sanskrit term for this is svabhava). However, to say that it does not exist does not make sense either because the chair is there. Nagarjuna goes on to say that it does not make sense to say that it both exists and does not exist, because to say that would presuppose that there is something the existence and non-existence of which is being asserted. Furthermore, to say that a thing neither exists nor does not exist does not make much sense either for the same reason.

This is known as the tetralemma. The idea is to exhause any and all possibility of saying anything about any object whatsoever. If it does not make sense to say anything in the four sides of the tetralemma, then it is clear that it does not make sense to say anything of anything at all. For example, Nagarjuna says somewhere in the Fundamental Verses that it cannot be said that the Tathagata (the Thus-gone, hence the Buddha) exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, and neither exists nor does not exist.

The  tetralemma has been a subject of intense interpretation. Dreyfus cited an example of a relatively obscure Tibetan translator and philosopher, Patrap Nyima Drak (I have to look up whether this is correct), who asserted that what the tetralemma says is true literally. Other scholars, such as Chandrakirti himself and Tsong Khapa, shied away from asserting baldly that the tetralemma is true literally. For them to do so is very close to being irrational, for it means that one can’t say anything of anything at all. If that is so, then why is one saying anything at all? Why don’t keep quiet all the time?

Dreyfus said that for Patrap, he held that no statement could be held and believed, because ultimately speaking any statement at all falls into one leg of the tetralemma and is thus untenable. So Dreyfus compared his position to that of ancient skepticism, also known as Pyrrhonism. According to Pyrrhonism it is not rational to hold any belief. All statements are ‘suspended’ because no statement ever acquires enough evidence to support it.

Nagarjuna himself also could be interpreted as supporting this view in a way, since he says at the very last stanza of the Fundamental Verses that in the end the goal of the Buddhist philosophy is to “relinquish all views.” So in a way this is not a philosophy at all, if you hold that philosophy is nothing but putting out words and more words. Since nothing can be asserted in any way of anything, then according to Patrap the only course left is to suspend any and all judgments. (But is this philosophy?)

So this comes to Dreyfus’s own question at the beginning. Can a Buddhist be a skeptic? Yes, because at least one Buddhist, Patrap Nyima Drak, was a skeptic. But is this a valid position to hold in Buddhist philosophy? It can be useful as a guide for practicing, and of course in Buddhism this is in the end what counts.

This leads to a very difficult problem for Buddhism. On the one hand, if you can’t defend any position at all, then how can you show that any of the teachings of the Buddha is true? How can one teach Buddhism to anybody? There ae a number of Buddhist teachings thatmany Buddhists take to be true, such as the law of karma, the Four Noble Truths, and so on. If a Buddhist can be a skeptic, then how can one come to believe the law of karma or the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teaching of Buddhism?

However, the advantage of Patrap’s standpoint (paradoxical again because the skeptic has no standpoint) is that it leads us to non-attachment even of doctrines and teachings. We realize that in the end these are only words and language, and being attached to them would only lead to suffering and further wandering in samsara, even though these words are the Buddha’s. The key is to ‘relinquish all views.’

So what gives? We have to wean ourselves from the belief that there is one true, correct version of things that we can arrive at. Language does not represent reality as it really is. Language is only a tool. The tetralemma shows that no matter how much we try, language still deceives us. The point is to get at reality without language. So practice is important, but philosophy and teaching the Dharma is important too. Otherwise how can we ever come to understand all this?

You can listen to Dreyfus’ talk right here on the podcast of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and the Thousand Stars Foundation.

 

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