Secular Buddhism is often described as a kind of materialism, so it might be helpful to investigate what that meant during the Buddha’s time. The Buddha’s references to the ascetic Ajita Kesakambalī are the place to look. Kesakambalī was the first recorded materialist in India, and perhaps the first in history.
His view is expressed in several places in the suttas (E.g., Dīgha Nikāya 1.3.10-15, 2.23, Majjhima Nikāya 60.7, Saṃyutta Nikāya 24.5), but nowhere more deeply than in the Sandaka Sutta (MN 76, paras. 7-8)*:
… some teacher holds a doctrine and view as this: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. A person consists of four great elements. When he dies, earth returns and goes back to the body of earth, water returns and goes back to the body of water, fire returns and goes back to the body of fire, air returns and goes back to the body of air; the faculties pass over to space. … Giving is a doctrine of fools. When anyone asserts the doctrine that there is [giving and the like], it is empty, false prattle. Fools and the wise are alike cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body; after death they do not exist.
About this a wise man considers thus: … ‘If this good teacher’s words are true, then both of us are exactly equal here, we stand on the same level: I who have not practiced here and he who has practiced. … [I]t is superfluous for this good teacher to go about naked, to be shaven, to exert himself in the squatting posture, and to pull out his hair and beard, since I, who live in a house crowded with children, who use Benares sandalwood, who wear garlands, scents, and unguents, and accept gold and silver, shall reap exactly the same destination, the same future course, as this good teacher.’ … [W]hen he finds that this way negates the living of the holy life, he turns away from [Kesakambalī].
I’ve already dealt with one form of the Buddha’s argument against Kesakambalī, given in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta. However, the argument in the Sandaka Sutta is also subtle and deserves attention.
To begin with, the name “Kesakambalī” in Pali means “wearing a hair blanket” (“Kesa” = “hair of the head”, + “Kambala” = “woolen blanket”). Basically, he was a hair-shirted ascetic, and it’s not too much to assume he would have observed the other practices listed above: he would have been otherwise naked, shaven, and so on. Yet the argument against Kesakambalī is that his view “negates the living of the holy life”: if Kesakambalī is right, by his own lights he should not need to pursue any particular ascetic practices, since doing so could make no difference to his “future course”. On his view, both he and the non-practicing layman “reap exactly the same destination”, that is, “after death they do not exist”.
Contemporary Materialism and Kesakambalī’s Nihilism
Kesakambalī’s position is often described as “materialism”, yet the Buddha doesn’t use that term. He calls it either “annihilationism” (ucchedavāda, cf. DN 1), or “nihilism” (natthikavāda, cf. MN 60.9). The former description relates to the materialist claim that the self does not survive the death of the physical body, but the latter description is quite a bit stronger. It reads almost like a straw man: how is Kesakambalī a “nihilist” given that he asserts the existence of material stuff? To figure out why the Buddha might have used such a term, it might be helpful to consider modern versions of materialism.
“Materialism” is roughly the view that all that exists is matter, or the material world. For Kesakambalī, as we saw above: “A person consists of the four great elements.” That is, a simple materialist will say a person exists of those four elements and nothing more. Nowadays, of course, our picture of matter is somewhat more complex, but the general picture is the same. (Nowadays the description “physicalism” often substitutes for “materialism” given that our most basic science is physics).
There are two reasons to make this sort of philosophical move. The first reason is simplicity: we aim to explain a lot of phenomena by reference to a small set of causal principles. This is arguably why early philosophers like Kesakambalī, as well as the Greek atomists like Democritus and Epicurus, were drawn to one or another version of materialism.
The second reason for being a materialist is more recent: because of the clear predictive and explanatory success of the material sciences. This is not a reason that existed before Newton, and certainly not before Galileo; predictions and explanations of phenomena were too sketchy and unreliable to have been much reason for acceptance of materialism before the European Renaissance. But after that point, and particularly with the technological successes brought about through our understanding of phenomena at the atomic and even subatomic levels, materialism has become a position of some importance among the scientifically informed. It doesn’t hurt as well that predictions of psychic phenomena have proven utterly bootless.
To clarify: as a general strategy, we are best off believing those methods that provide best, most secure access to knowledge. As the Buddha said in suttas such as Cankī or the Kālāma, there are better and worse methods for coming to true beliefs. We cannot expect the Buddha to have considered statistical analysis, repeatability, and antagonistic peer review. That said, if one wishes to find a strategy most likely to provide knowledge that can be successfully “tested by the results it yields when put into practice; [that can] guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results” in Thanissaro’s words, the methods of science come out on top.
Recourse to science is a double-edged sword when it comes to strict versions of materialism. Established sciences do include physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biochemistry, and biology, which may all in some sense be understood materialistically. However, they also include social sciences such as psychology, sociology, economics, archaeology, and anthropology. One subject for philosophers of science nowadays has been to consider the relationship between these various branches of science. For they do not all use materialistic concepts. If there really aren’t any non-material things such as mental states, then what is the subject matter of psychology?
So one of the main contemporary supports for materialism — success of the sciences — seems also to support accepting at least some non-material states, such as states of mind, of societies, of economic systems.
Nowadays philosophers distinguish various, more sophisticated forms of so-called “reductive” or “supervenient” materialism. A “supervenience” materialist will say, for example, that mental states are real, but that for any given mental state, there is some physical state that underlies it, upon which it supervenes. Any difference in the mental state must entail a difference in the material state. This adequately expresses our current best understanding of the mind from neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
There are also other, stronger options open to the materialist, however. They could variously be termed “eliminativist materialism” or in philosopher Dan Dennett’s terms, “greedy reductionism“. These views have it that our ordinary concepts are so broken, so out of touch with what we know to be the case with physical reality, that they cannot be said to refer to anything real. Supporters of these views typically claim to eliminate mental states in particular, however since all our ordinary concepts of the world are in some sense operations of the mind, it is hard to see how the problem for eliminativist theories do not ramify.
With eliminativist materialism perhaps we get at some form of Kesakambalī’s “nihilism”. If he were to have claimed that our ordinary conceptions of things were completely broken, and that the picture of reality given by contemplation of the four elements alone (perhaps by meditative insight) was sufficient to understand the world, he might well have claimed that quite literally:
There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.
That is, our ordinary conceptions of “things” such as offerings, sacrifices, fruits, actions, worlds, parents, recluses, and so on, are completely empty of referents.
Given, however, that the four elements themselves are part of our ordinary conception of the world, it is hard to see how Kesakambalī’s theory, at least on this interpretation, does not collapse into self-refutation: by his lights, terms such as “earth” and “water” should be as empty as “fruit” or “father”. If so his theory would collapse into a form of literal nihilism: nothing could ever truly be said about anything. This is not a charitable interpretation, but at least it accounts for the Buddha’s description of his view in the Apaṇṇaka.
For the Buddha, the crucial problem for Kesakambalī’s theory comes in his elimination of ethics and ethical action. Some contemporary materialists make the same move, claiming that since ethical value cannot be explained solely in material terms, it must be empty of any reality. Ethics, such as it is, then becomes a species of mere opinion. In that case, of course, the Buddha’s objection as a teacher of right action is apt: the wise man will say that by Kesakambalī’s lights there is no difference between one who follows his teaching and one who does not, since there is no fact of the matter about what constitutes fruitful and unfruitful action.
The Buddha puts this as an issue of the wise person and the fool “reap[ing] the same destination, the same future course”, that is, kammic reward in future lives: Kesakambalī has no room in his theory for rebirth, so no room for guaranteed ethical desert. I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that one does not require guaranteed desert in order to have a robust notion of ethical action. Indeed, I’d argue that ethical action is best interpreted as not requiring knowledge of secure desert. (If it did, all ethics would become a species of egoistic prudence).
While the existence of objective ethical value is not consistent with all versions of materialism, there is room for a “good materialism”, in line with Dennett’s “good reductionism”, that says that materialism gives proper descriptions while ethics gives proper values, and that the two lines of inquiry need not conflict. Indeed, the Buddha’s investigations into proper (skillful and unskillful) forms of action point the way to their compatibility: knowing the descriptive, causal influences of our actions helps us decide which ones are of more or less value.
It’s true that on this picture the materialist will lack a complete justification for ethical claims. One can say that all alike pursue happiness and avoid dukkha, so we ought to behave in ways that reinforce such basic needs. But at some level this remains a species of brute fact. Of course, the same is true for the Buddhist, and indeed any ethical system will require certain such facts. Complete, foundational justification for all our beliefs will forever remain a mirage.
Any contemporary materialistic reformation of the dhamma will have to come to terms with the Buddha’s arguments against Ajita Kesakambalī. Of course, there is no way we can know precisely what he believed and argued; all we have are scraps provided us in the suttas. However, we can at least attempt to reformulate his position through those scraps, and see if we can work our way around some of the Buddha’s counterarguments.
As we’ve seen, these counterarguments turn on a couple of main issues: first, that Kesakambalī may have been a literal nihilist of some sort, one who denied the existence of offerings, fruits, actions, parents, even worlds. While on a traditional interpretation his arguments are understood to be only ethically nihilistic (cf. “annihilationism” rather than literal “nihilism”; “worlds” meaning “worlds available for kammic rebirth”, for example), I think there is room to interpret Kesakambalī on more radical grounds. He may have been an eliminativist materialist, who believed that our ordinary words and concepts were empty of real referents. Thus he would have been, in the Buddha’s eyes, a literal nihilist.
He was certainly also an ethical nihilist, who saw no point to ethical action (“Giving is a doctrine of fools”) because he saw no guarantee of ethical desert in the next life. Yet he went about pursuing ascetic practices such as wearing a blanket made of human hair. Something doesn’t quite add up: one wonders whether we are getting the whole picture about Kesakambalī. At the very least, his rejection of ethical merit lead the Buddha to believe that his path “negates the living of the holy life” since there were no distinctions to be made on ethical grounds, and no real path to pursue towards ethical betterment.
We have also seen, however, that contemporary and more sophisticated forms of materialism do not need to collapse into one or another form of nihilism. We may say, for example, that while many ordinary conceptions of the mind are faulty, nevertheless they are recoverable in a suitably reworked scientific psychology. Eliminativism and “greedy reductionism” are not requirements of any sophisticated materialist theory.
Further, sophisticated materialism works perfectly well alongside a realist ethical system: materialism describes, ethics pre- and proscribes. A secularized Buddhist practice can work perfectly well given this background.
Would the Buddha have accepted such a reformed materialism? I have my doubts. But at the very least his arguments against Kesakambalī would not have had any particular force against it. For on our updated system there really are sacrifices, fruits, and results of actions. Though they may not be guaranteed to bring happy results, there are skillful and unskillful ways to believe, speak, and act. There really are parents and teachers who, while they may not have seen rebirth into supernatural realms, at least have provided guidance towards the elimination of dukkha and thereby “the living of the holy life”.
* In the Sandaka Sutta it is actually Ānanda who gives the lesson, not the Buddha. However I take it in what follows that this could well have been stated by the Buddha himself, and is not in any way dhamma exclusive to Ānanda.