The Problem With Buddhism

Sri Lankan blogs that criticize Buddhism and Islam have been under attack during the last couple of weeks. In light of these recent developments I realized that I have a huge problem with Buddhism (not that I’m okay with Islam but lets get to that in due course). I’m outraged at the spiteful behavior of the Sri Lankan Buddhist. This is not the first time that they have tried to stifle the criticism leveled against their dogma and practices. 1992 was historical year. In 1992 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, a notable Sri Lankan anthropologist wrote up a series of essays and published a book called Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka. I’m outraged that this book is still banned in Sri Lanka. Forget the politics and the ethnic hyperbole for a moment. Banning an academic monograph is disgusting and vile and we should be ashamed of it. Dr Tambiah must be applauded for fearlessly pursuing the publication of this book during such a volatile period of our history. This inanity that equates criticism with “blasphemy” must end. Does Buddhism even consider “blasphemy” as some sort of offense or affront? I think not.  I have not read this book, it is currently unavailable in libraries and most people my age are unaware that such a book even exists. This is truly a sad state of affairs. Google books does provide a small excerpt here. In and age where one cannot even examine an academic publication in order to agree/disagree with the authors claims, building a movement that actively engages the religious becomes a pointless exercise.

Okay so I have a lot of problems and in order to get a hold of what I’m dealing with here I’d like to examine two aspects of Buddhism, break it down and analyze each aspect:

1. The original dogma as preached by Buddha

2.  The Theravada Buddhist philosophy as practiced by a majority of Sri Lankans. Something we shall refer to as “Mainstream Buddhism”

Having a background in Science and Mathematics it is natural that I analyze these issues using the lens of Science and I think this is justified. It is justified because Buddhism claims to be an examination of human existence (what are we here for? what is our place in the universe?) such a claim must be scrutinized carefully for it provides an all  encompassing world view which essentially tells one how one should live one’s life. The danger with such a complete and all encompassing world view is that any new knowledge which contradicts portions of this world view is met with the utmost of hostility from the adherents of said philosophy.

Such strong claims must be subjected to testing and verification and the truth value of these claims must be examined. In short Buddhism must first be able to be falsified. Falsifiability means that a particular statement could be shown to be false by providing a counter example, often physical and experimental in nature. If a statement cannot be falsified it has no value with regard to the seeking of knowledge and truth. The statement may be comforting from a psychological standpoint but has no value for someone seeking knowledge about said system of knowledge. Karl Popper had the same view with regard to scientific assertions. He was of the opinion that scientific claims must be falsifiable (that is provide an inherent condition so that it can be disproved), he also believed that such standards should not be applied to religious and metaphysical systems of knowledge. This division troubles me. Buddhism (metaphysical and religious) claims to have the answers to our existence and to our ultimate liberation. I would like to know if this system of knowledge really does deliver before say I devote my whole life to practicing Buddhist preaching and doctrine. Is that too much to ask?

I don’t think that this is an unreasonable request on my part. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I must agree with Carl Sagan. One does not call it the burden of proof for nothing. If you present to me “the path to liberation” you better damn well be sure it is true and that it works. How better to test for truth utility and effectiveness than falsification? My next post will consider several aspects of the foundation of Buddhism and question the nature of their falsifiability. The samsaric cycle, reincarnation and karma will the subject of the next post.

Related – Review of  The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism In Sri Lanka, By H. L. Seneviratne, written 7 years after Buddhism Betrayed, it picks up the trail from Dr Tambiah


10 Responses to The Problem With Buddhism

  1. R says:

    I am not an expert in Buddhism. But from what I have been thought Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion which simply sell a set of beliefs and rituals. But from what we see every day ‘Mainstream Buddhism’ is nothing by just a bunch of rituals. Problem with falsifiability and religions is that its next to impossible to define a fallible experiment with an objective observer, which is common with all religions. Probably you will have to do it with only thought experiments. But can you really prove anything with thought experiments? And will the people who has the knowledge (the original pure form of it) be available to do those. Will there be any point of doing any from of experiments based on teaching or dogma (as you would like to call it) which has been distorted over thousands of years.

    • AncientGlory says:

      Why is it impossible to define a fallible experiment with an objective observer?

      • rationality says:

        This article shows ignorance on your part. (no offence) The core of buddhism is Anicca, Dukka, and Anathma (impermanence, suffering, selflessness – not sure these are the best english words). These 3 are evident in our everyday life. Every hour, every minute, every second, every moment. If one needs to attain enlightenment one should contemplate (ie: meditate) on this track. And you too can try it 🙂

  2. Vichara says:

    “Buddhism claims to be an examination of human existence (what are we here for? what is our place in the universe?)”

    This is a very distorted (unscientific) understanding of the essence of Buddhism which is contained in the four truths of human existence i.e.

    1. Life means suffering.

    2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

    3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

    4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.

    There is no dogma in Buddhism. It is there to come and see (ehipassiko)

    • PravNJ says:

      Well when you say look here these are the “4 truths” you are being dogmatic. Period.

      Lets break down these “truths”

      1. Life means sufferring – Buddha wasn’t talking about suffering in the narrow sense of the term i.e the problems we have to face during our daily grind, sickness, old age etc. No the suffering he is talking about is much broader being the samsaric suffering of being born over and over again and having to go through the natural processes of life over and over again.

      So if Buddhists are to take 1. seriously they must acknowledge that rebirth/reincarnation does in fact happen for it is the basis on which this dogma is built. No rebirth –> nothing interesting happens when we die, things end and hey presto theres no such thing as samsara. No samsara implies that all of the teachings are rendered null and void. So my question is do you take rebirth seriously?

      2. Again debatable. This is nothing but a viewpoint (cleverly disguised as a “truth”), these kind of austere viewpoints can be found in every culture of the world. The Greeks for example had several schools that advocated the cessation of attachment, the interesting thing is that most cultures also had many other opposing viewpoints that were very hedonistic. So tell me how is Buddhas teaching no different from the kind of preaching that was done prior to his birth by many Indian mystics and even certain Greek philosophers? why should I take this “viewpoint” any more seriously than say a hedonistic viewpoint?

      So basically Buddhists have to demonstrate to me and to themselves that reincarnation is a fact. This happens to be the very foundation on which these teachings are built. This is where it fails the test for falsifiability for we cannot have any knowledge of rebirth since to experience it we must a) Die (how very convenient) b) Provide evidence of past lives once reborn – which according to eastern teachings cannot be done since we magically “forget” our past lives and only certain individuals with “higher brain functions” can gain such knowledge. What utter tosh. Why should I take a fairy tale like this seriously? it insults my intelligence. However being the skeptic that I am, if provided sufficient evidence to back up the Buddhists claim that rebirth actually takes place I might take them seriously and leave my lay existence behind and join their ranks.

      One final question. If one takes these 4 statements to be true (and according to you all Buddhists do) why don’t all Buddhists become monks and lead an ascetic life? why the half assery? why not go all the way? This is what I cant wrap my head around. In Christianity for example it is not required that you give everything up and lead an ascetic life. All you have to do is prostrate yourself in front of God, help your neighbor, stick to the commandments etc and hey you get a ticket to heaven. You guys however, well it is REQUIRED that you give up everything, cease everything that attaches you to this world and meditate etc. So why half ass it? get on with the program, get busy, do it right, get your damn act together for god sakes!

      • R says:

        “You guys however, well it is REQUIRED that you give up everything, cease everything that attaches you to this world and meditate etc”

        That really depends on what you want to achieve right?. Have you met any Buddhists who want to attain Nirvana as badly as Catholics/Christians want to get to heaven?

        Also Buddhism teaches that attaining Nirvana is not something that is done in one life time. It is something you practice over multiple lifetimes. But again to prove that you have to first prove rebirth. Personally I have seen at least one discovery documentary that talks about this topic with some stories of it. But i don’t think they discussed it to a level of proving or disproving it.

        Good luck finding a Buddhist who will prove or disprove rebirth to you. If you really need proof the best thing to do is to hire some scientists and do an objective research. Can you even build a fool proof experiment for rebirth. There has been claims of people remembering their past life (not ppl with higher brain functions). Some of their ‘memories’ has been verified. But some one remembering something from a past life cannot be a fool proof experiment. Because you can come up with an incredible hoax if you just do some good research on your ‘claimed’ past life.

      • JohnAD says:

        1. Life means suffering: this is not the first noble truth. It is more like “this is suffering”, Buddhists are interested in analysing phenomena for which this statement holds true – as they arise, in this world, in this body. Grand considerations of samsara are not the focus of this enquiry.

        2. Buddhist are interested in a particular kind of suffering, that which is caused by unskillful desire, which is created by their own volition. If it is not caused by our own action there is nothing that can be done. But for a particular suffering, it is either true or not true that it is caused by our own desire and actions.

        3. The cessation of suffering caused by unskillful desire is therefore attainable. This can be true if the first two conditions hold. Buddhists believe this should be realised and that a person can purify themselves of many forms of suffering that they themselves have caused.

        4. There is a path – yes, a lot of useful advice exists about how to go about this.

        Lastly, Buddhists dont have to demonstrate that reincarnation is a fact. Everything does not collapse if they cant do that. If i am happy and content as a result of my practice, why should it concern me whether i can prove reincarnation using your Popper criteria. (Technically its rebirth). If you think there isnt rebirth, show us how you would apply your falsifiability criteria to your theory. You are into science and math, so i am hoping you wont avoid the challenge as i have been happy to do. The gauntlet is still on the ground.

  3. The majority of Sri Lankans do not practice Buddhism in the true sense of the philosophy of life that it was meant to be. Rather they have twisted and perverted it in order to create a religion. The outrage and violence we see expressed by the majority at the merest hint of negativity towards Buddhism is sufficient proof of this.

    • PravNJ says:

      They have created this “system” which has all the attributes of any other major “religion” so why keep up this charade that this is some kind of “noble philosophy” ? giving the veil of “respectability” to a system that is just as flawed and dangerous as the roman catholic church? There are a lot of parallels between the situation in Italy and Sri Lanka. The pope plays his hand in Italian social and political discourse, while the sanga of this country meddle in ours. Consider,

      1. Nonsensical rituals that take precedence over teaching and practicing the philosophy
      2. A hierarchical system of priesthood that wields a lot of political influence
      3. Dogmatic conservative preaching
      4. Aversion of and hostility towards dissenting viewpoints
      5. An indoctrination program whereby “the religion” is taught in schools and temples across the island

      Cut the bullshit. Drop the act. Own up

  4. JohnAD says:

    You are right. Your criteria of falsifiability cannot be used here, and since it is your criteria it makes sense that you are not a buddhist. It is unfortunate that your version of science is limited in this way as it would have been very useful if it could be used as an arbiter in more complex situations such as this. If you are true to your own beliefs as i imagine you would like to be, you would need to keep that falsifiability criteria in mind. For example, if you said something was “utter tosh”, you would be quick to provide us with your scientific experiment which had its potential “not utter tosh” conclusions. As for us buddhists, we will either need to keep our mouths shut, which many of us are well trained at, or some other better suited criteria is needed.

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