SB001 What Is Skeptical Buddhism

Posted By on August 21, 2019


Hi, my name is Star, and I hang out inside of Second Life. I’ll be hosting this little series of talks, so welcome to a Skeptical Buddhist channel in which we try to blow just a little dust off some very ancient and obscure writings to present the essential teachings of the Buddha in simple language. We’ll start with the very most basic terms and concepts and over time work up to some of the deeper and more complex ones. Sometimes we’ll talk about the past, sometimes we’ll talk about the present, sometimes about the future, but we will always keep to the very heart of what the Buddha taught. Just the basics will give us plenty of depth and breadth and enough mind-bending concepts to keep us busy growing in wisdom and insight. In today’s short introduction we’ll just cover a few of the most basic terms you may need to know, and describe what we mean when we call ourselves Skeptical Buddhists. Let’s start with the big one: What is Skeptical Buddhism? I sometimes get asked, “Didn’t the Buddha say that skepticism is not good for his followers?” Yes, we do see “skepticism” used in that way in the Buddha’s talks, but he was talking about being skeptical in the sense of being negative about his teachings, of having no trust and relentlessly questioning. He explained that the cure for that sort of thinking was for his potential followers to “Come and see” for themselves. This is very different from most religions which ask their followers to not ask questions and instead “have faith”. So right there we can see one big difference between Buddhism and the rest of the world’s religions, that Buddhism encourages you to ask smart and thoughtful questions, and to look deeply into your actual every-day experience and see for yourself if there is clear evidence for what it describes. When the Buddha said we shouldn’t be skeptical he was saying that rather than just questioning in a negative way, we need to actually understand what’s being said and try it out. Then we’ll have useful questions that increase understanding, rather than negative questions that distort understanding. The “Skeptical” in this form of Buddhism refers to a school of philosophy in which skeptics choose to critically examine whether their knowledge and perceptions are actually true, with the aim of reaching relative certainty. This questioning of what we believe, and what we think we know, is the central practice that the Buddha taught in order to give us a more accurate insight into the ways in which our own fuzzy thinking trips us up. The Buddha talked a great deal about “views” which translates very well to our modern times. We all have views – also known as opinions – on just about everything! What Skeptical Buddhists do, then, is question whether they are basing their choices on opinions or on facts. Actually that is what any Buddhist should do. So there is something Skeptical Buddhists do that many traditional Buddhists don’t do – we question Buddhism itself. But didn’t I say the Buddha said not to be skeptical of his teachings? Yes I did. But once we have understood the core teachings, and seen them for ourselves they don’t need constant questioning. We aren’t questioning his core teachings, we’re questioning whether what’s part of the very broad mix of philosophies and religions under the name of “Buddhism” are verifyable or not. For example: Is karma verifiable? Do we have direct evidence in our experience for rebirth? Have we got good evidence that doing meritorious deeds will improve our lot in future lives? We will talk more about what Skeptical Buddhism questions in future talks, but for now it’s enough to understand that as skeptics, we find there are very few things we can say we know for sure, and a whole lot that we must accept that we don’t know and may never know. This makes us pretty firm agnostics. In just this brief talk I’ve introduced a few terms we’ll use again so I’d like to clarify those, and define a few more. Most of them have made it into common usage in one form or another so those may be familiar. It helps to understand that we base our understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on many volumes of texts written centuries after the Buddha died. His followers tried to preserve his teachings by memorizing them and chanting them, and when writing became common, they were written down, but as you might expect they are not a perfect transmission of what he said. The term for this body of writings is one that’s used throughout religious discussions, and that is “canon” spelled c a n o n, with just one “n” in the middle instead of the two used in the middle of the big gun. There are many definitions for this word but we use it here to mean a blend of these three definitions 7. any officially recognized set of sacred books 8. any comprehensive list of books within a field or 9. the works of an author that have been accepted as authentic. The oldest parts of the Buddhist canon come down to us in two languages: Pali, which is thought to be pretty close to the language the Buddha actually spoke, and Sanskrit, which uses the same alphabet as the main language now spoken in India, Hindi, but Sanskrit is far more formalized and limited than modern languages. So you will hear references to the “Pali canon” which is thought to be the oldest texts, and the “Sanskrit canon” which might not be as old but is still ancient! Most of the words that have moved from Buddhism into English are here in their Sanskrit form – for example “karma” (“kamma” in Pali). In English it is understood to mean a sort of bank of good deeds and bad deeds that gets totalled up when you die and buys you a good birth or a bad birth next time around. When we don’t apply it to rebirth, we Americans use it in a “what goes around comes around” sort of way. In the Buddha’s day, this was not its meaning, so in later talks we’ll try to define it a bit more. Because of the way the teachings were preserved orally, lots of things got numbered to help make sure nothing was missed, and one of those things was the three biggies deserving of respect, known as “The Triple Gems”. These are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddha, you know, is what we now call the fellow who taught what we now think of as Buddhism. It wasn’t his name and that description wasn’t used in his time. People who fully understand the teaching so deeply that they can live their lives in ways not based on opinions are buddhas with a little “b.” The Buddha with a big “B” is the fellow who figured out a better way to see ourselves and the world and managed to develop enough of a following to be sure that that insight would be passed on. Dharma is the insight, what he saw. Because what he saw is what he teaches, the word “dharma” also means his teachings. It can also be extended out to mean “the way things actually are” or “reality” or even “the laws of the universe” (though we are, of course, free to question whether there is such a thing as one reality or fixed laws of the universe, or whether these are concepts views, Opinons! – created by humans). Sangha is the community of people who practice Buddhism, who support each other in their practice and try to share the insight with those who want it. Welcome to my Sangha!

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 7 comments

  1. It reveals a misunderstanding to declare that skeptical Buddhism, uniquely among religions, asks of one to test every idea or element of dharma, while all other religions demand faith as a starting point. This claim simply confuses the original teacher with the derived centuries of dogma which have been interpreted. In John 1:39 "Come and See", we find the exact same injunction, or if you like suggested approach. All esoteric traditions which are not corrupted insist upon individual testing.

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  2. @blackcherries4rings. Yes, it would be a misunderstanding, had I actually said that Skeptical Buddhism is unique in asking one to test every element of dharma.

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  3. "Canon" it's spelled "c-a-n-o-n"…with just one "n" in the middle instead of the two n used for the big gun.
    I stopped watching right there.

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  4. Great video Star.  I like it.  Not too sure about "Skepticism" these days, but as a Taoist I can definitely go along with Skeptical Buddhism's try-things-out attitude towards life.  Very similar to my own approach about "seeing things for yourself." and what I gather of Casey Kochmer's Personal Tao.  Anyway, loved your video here.  Thanks for sharing it.  Best!

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