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Author Topic: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 14, 2012, 11:03
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OK, guy here speaking with a philosopher's hat. There's one quibble I have with a lot of recent neo-Buddhist terminology. That's the use of the term "metaphysics" or "metaphysical theory" as some kind of epithet, related to the claim that "the Buddha had no metaphysical view", or some such thing.

Here's the issue.

Firstly, maybe someone can correct me here, but I don't believe it's accurate to claim that in the Canon the Buddha ever claimed not to have metaphysical views. It's well known that the Buddha refused to answer several key questions regarding the eternality of the world, whether the Tathagata would exist or not exist after death, etc. However AFAIK he is not recorded as ever having said that he refused to answer these views because they were "metaphysical"; what he said is that answers to them were irrelevant to the attainment of enlightenment, which is a different claim.

Further, it's pretty clear from the texts that the Buddha did have relatively robust ideas about certain things that ordinarily would be called "metaphysical": e.g., the way dependent arising worked; how the mind worked; reincarnation and karma. (Exactly how robust his views were on reincarnation and karma is a matter of disagreement around here, I know, but I don't accept the view that the Buddha was a 21st century naturalist, much less a pre-incarnation of Richard Dawkins).

:)

(Which, BTW, should make no difference to a committed secular Buddhist, since such a person should already be more than willing to deny that the Buddha was infallible).

Secondly, and more plainly, in philosophy the word "metaphysics" is generally taken to denote the objects and relations that one is committed to by one's theory. In that sense, every meaningful, consistent theory has its own metaphysics, the Buddha's no less than St. Thomas Aquinas's. Among the things the Buddha is committed to existing are such things as mental dispositions, feelings, dukkha, craving, hatred, meditative processes, the eightfold path, et cetera. That is his metaphysics.

Naturalism has its metaphysics as well: it is the metaphysics of science. As it is now, that includes such things as the objects and processes one finds in quantum mechanics; the various subatomic particles and fields. Being a bit more charitable, naturalism might include the objects held to exist in other sciences as well, such as chemical compounds, cells, and eyes. My point is not to provide a full picture here, but rather to say that all consistent, systematic theories have their metaphysics.

One may claim with some justification that (leaving aside issues about such things as reincarnation and karma) the Buddha's metaphysical system is relatively modest and compact, and requires no particular philosophical flights-of-fancy, the way so much theology seems to require. That's fine; I have no problem with such a view, and indeed tend to hold it myself.

But please, let's try to get away from the use of the term "metaphysics" as though it were something distasteful that must be got away from. That only confuses things, as it makes it seem as though the Buddha was doing something that he was not, and indeed that he could not have done insofar as he wanted to come up with a theory about how dukkha arose and how it could be extinguished.

As a footnote, I can envision a position saying that in the service of 'skillful means' one must be prepared to deny any given claim if it promotes clinging. This would be a methodological sort of anti-metaphysics, in the sense that it would counsel one to be prepared to reject any sort of view whatsoever, not only the 'wrong view' that the Buddha ordinarily opposed. I say I can envision this position, but although this might be one interpretation of Nagarjunian nihilism, I don't know that the Buddha anywhere actually claimed that this was a worthwhile methodology, and I have serious doubts about it, myself.

It is not typically seen to be right practice to deny, for example, that the path is a real and valid path, or that greed and hatred might exist in oneself, or that there is such a thing as wisdom. Insofar as one clings to those things, one must thereby in fact have wrong views about them; and then it is the wrong views that are the problem, not the things themselves. Further, it seems to me that if one were to engage in such a methodology, it would only be in the firm conviction that there were such things as greed and hatred, and that therefore to eliminate them one was pretending that there were not. If so, then the methodology would not itself have any bearing on the main issue.

Dana-
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Dana Nourie
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 14, 2012, 11:44
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Doug, thank you so much for this post! This is fascinating to me. I have to admit up front my ignorance of this metaphysics' definition, and probably have been using it incorrectly for a long, long time. I also have to admit a bit red-faced, that when I think of where I got my definition of metaphysics from, it comes from the organization of book stores. In the metaphysics section, or in metaphysics books stores, you won't find this wonderful description you gave, but you'll find books on ESP, Visiting Aliens, Astrology, Tarot Cards, Ghosts, etc.

This also shows how sad education is. I had one philosophy class in Jr college, have read snippets, and watched one DVD on philosophy. So I find your post really interesting!

If what you says is true, then you certainly make valid points, and our misuse of the term (by our I mean folks like me) may explain some of the confusion.

I'm interested in reading what others have to say in this thread before I say any more.

Thanks again, Doug, for bringing up this topic!

Dana Nourie
All Around Geek Girl

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 06:20
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Quote from Dana Nourie on May 14, 2012, 11:44
I also have to admit a bit red-faced, that when I think of where I got my definition of metaphysics from, it comes from the organization of book stores. In the metaphysics section, or in metaphysics books stores, you won't find this wonderful description you gave, but you'll find books on ESP, Visiting Aliens, Astrology, Tarot Cards, Ghosts, etc.

Don't I know it! This makes us philosopher-types very, very sad!

;)

Dana-
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Dana Nourie
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 07:01
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I'll be careful to use supernatural when referring to rebirth, ghosts, heavens, and the like.

So instead of saying Buddhism doesn't have metaphysics, which clearly from the definition I read is wrong, that it would be more accurate to say we are practicing naturalist Buddhism, Buddhism minus the supernatural elements.

Dana Nourie
All Around Geek Girl

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 07:06
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Exactly, Dana.

I think that's why some guy on another blog posted about secular Buddhists having an "ideology". I'm not entirely sure what he meant by that term, but it sure seems to me the secular Buddhist metaphysics (= ideology?) is naturalist, or vaguely science-generated. I say "vaguely" because there's some supposition that the Buddha's psychological theory is going to be a good rough-fit with scientific psychology.

After all, what would we think if it turned out that scientific psychology showed that the Buddha had got something very wrong?

Candol
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 08:39
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Doug are you a philosopher because i find your description and definitons quite confusing. I went ahead and read what it said metaphysics was on wikipedia and its much more clear htan what you write.

IN particular its very helpful about what it means since the advent of modern science.

By the end of the 18th century, it [ natural philosophy] had begun to be called "science" to distinguish it from philosophy. Thereafter, metaphysics denoted philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.[6]

(my italics)

I can be sure that this wiki entry has been written by philosophers so I would suggest anyone not sure about what is meant by metaphysics consult that to begin with.

I am not a philoospher either. I have studied it for only a couple of semesters.

Candol
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 08:47
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There's another entry on wikipedia that is helpful. its called. Intro to philosophy/what is metaphysics? And quite a bit of its early part is about religion and metaphysics. But this quote below is helpful.

Metaphysics is concerned with explaining the way things "are" in the physical world. It is concerned primarily with 'being as being' i.e. with anything in so far as it has act of existence. However, metaphysics is not concerned with examining the physical properties of things that exist, but is, instead, the study of the underlying principles that give rise to the unified natural world. As such, the statement that "Evil does not exist" is metaphysical because it is a statement that deals with the object 'evil' as opposed to 'good' which is a metaphysical subject, whereas the statement that "all things are composed of atoms, which are in turn composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons" is definitely not metaphysics, utmost a concern of physical sciences.

Mark-
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 08:49
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Doug, thanks for starting this discussion. I confess to being most greviously in error on this one, despite the fact that I know that, strictly speaking, any statement about the world is grounded in some set of metaphysical assumptions. It is often easier to use the shorthand meaning, especially since there aren't a lot of useful alternatives. I've been trying to use "supernatural" instead; the problem is that many adherents of supernatural beliefs will insist that there is nothing super-natural about them (our old friend Deepak comes to mind).

Re: ideology, they're using the term in the way neo-Marxist philosophers have been using it since Louis Althusser, i.e., a set of assumptions about the means of production in a society from which all discourse is produced. So if I say something like "dharma practice offers us a way to reduce suffering," it expresses the assumption that suffering ought to be reduced and that personal action is necessary to do so, which is consistent with the consumerist individualist ideology of Western capitalism -- or so such a critique might run.

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 08:56
Quote

Quote from Candol on May 15, 2012, 08:39
Doug are you a philosopher because i find your description and definitons quite confusing. I went ahead and read what it said metaphysics was on wikipedia and its much more clear htan what you write.

I can't speak to the clarity; I was trying to be as clear as I could. If there is something you need clarifying, please let me know.

FWIW I do have a PhD in philosophy, yes, and in fact studied with one of the people mentioned on that Wiki page re. metaphysics when I was an undergrad.

Quote from Candol on May 15, 2012, 08:39
IN particular its very helpful about what it means since the advent of modern science.

By the end of the 18th century, it [ natural philosophy] had begun to be called "science" to distinguish it from philosophy. Thereafter, metaphysics denoted philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.[6]

(my italics)

I can be sure that this wiki entry has been written by philosophers so I would suggest anyone not sure about what is meant by metaphysics consult that to begin with.

I am not a philoospher either. I have studied it for only a couple of semesters.

I am not sure what you are getting at here, Candol. If you mean to be claiming that metaphysics is always non-empirical in character, then there is a way that is correct and a way it is not correct. It is correct in that metaphysics asks the questions of what the presuppositions are of the theory: what it presumes exist, and how its presumptive existents interrelate. (E.g., in the case of physics, which are the fundamental particles and how do the forces work on them?)

It is not correct if you mean to suggest that in order to "have a metaphysics" one cannot be involved in anything empirical. All sciences have metaphysics; indeed, all theories do.

Candol
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 08:57
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I am not sure if i have quite what you are alluding to below but what it brings immediately to mind is the sutta about the raft. Buddhism ie all the teachings are the raft and we can let go of it once we have got to our destination and we don't need to drag it across the land as it will jsut be a burden. I don't think that means we get attached to thinks like whether greed exists or not. I think its more this endless debate to some extent and on the other hand, anything "holy" that we cling to purely for the sake of its being holy.

s a footnote, I can envision a position saying that in the service of 'skillful means' one must be prepared to deny any given claim if it promotes clinging. This would be a methodological sort of anti-metaphysics, in the sense that it would counsel one to be prepared to reject any sort of view whatsoever, not only the 'wrong view' that the Buddha ordinarily opposed. I say I can envision this position, but although this might be one interpretation of Nagarjunian nihilism, I don't know that the Buddha anywhere actually claimed that this was a worthwhile methodology, and I have serious doubts about it, myself.

I didn't think nagarjuna proposed nihilism either for that matter.

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 09:02
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Quote from Mark Knickelbine on May 15, 2012, 08:49
Doug, thanks for starting this discussion. I confess to being most greviously in error on this one, despite the fact that I know that, strictly speaking, any statement about the world is grounded in some set of metaphysical assumptions. It is often easier to use the shorthand meaning, especially since there aren't a lot of useful alternatives. I've been trying to use "supernatural" instead; the problem is that many adherents of supernatural beliefs will insist that there is nothing super-natural about them (our old friend Deepak comes to mind).

No worries, Mark. I recall reading a number of people using the term loosely in discussions on Buddhism here and elsewhere. (I think Kalupahana may misuse the term as well, though it's been awhile since I read his stuff).

Re. "supernatural", I see your point. There is a sense in which one could make a theory of the supernatural -- were it to exist -- and then it would become 'naturalized'. I guess I use the term "supernatural" in the everyday sense we understand the term; forces, relations and objects not included in the sciences.

Quote from Mark Knickelbine on May 15, 2012, 08:49
Re: ideology, they're using the term in the way neo-Marxist philosophers have been using it since Louis Althusser, i.e., a set of assumptions about the means of production in a society from which all discourse is produced. So if I say something like "dharma practice offers us a way to reduce suffering," it expresses the assumption that suffering ought to be reduced and that personal action is necessary to do so, which is consistent with the consumerist individualist ideology of Western capitalism -- or so such a critique might run.

OK, thanks so much for the clarification. That sort of approach confuses me (I think the Buddha believed dukkha ought to be reduced, and he wasn't involved in Western capitalism), so I'll leave it to others.

:)

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 09:09
Quote

Quote from Candol on May 15, 2012, 08:57
I am not sure if i have quite what you are alluding to below but what it brings immediately to mind is the sutta about the raft. Buddhism ie all the teachings are the raft and we can let go of it once we have got to our destination and we don't need to drag it across the land as it will jsut be a burden. I don't think that means we get attached to thinks like whether greed exists or not. I think its more this endless debate to some extent and on the other hand, anything "holy" that we cling to purely for the sake of its being holy.

Could be. In that case you're saying the Buddha is only promoting a methodology, and actually has no views about the way the world is or the mind works. As I say, I see problems with that view.

Quote from Candol on May 15, 2012, 08:57
I didn't think nagarjuna proposed nihilism either for that matter.

Well, either he proposed nihilism or he proposed some kind of universal Kantian-esque Absolute about which we could know and say nothing. I tend to think that as a good Buddhist he probably intended the former rather than the latter.

:D

Candol
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 10:22
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Yes i think he did have a view about the way the world and the mind works but he does himself seem to say that you can ditch the lot when you no longer need it. I can't recall all teh sutta and i don't feel like digging it up to study it for the sake of this discussion but you could if you like. I am sure it would be easy to find "sutta raft" should just about get you there.

It wasn't so long ago that i read it but i can't remember the wider context of the story. I think its in the digha nikaya. I think if you read it you will understand.

Do you say you have problems with him not having views. Oh yes i think he does have views. But i think he may be saying that views do not matter so much as what do you do! views are just part of the raft. If your views end up being different to his after you've crossed the shore it hardly matters. But i also think the buddha thinks that you'll come to the same conclusions as he did. But i don't know if he'd say that today. Who knows.

Linda
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Linda
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 11:20
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Hey Doug, glad you're joining the conversation.

I abandoned Philosophy after high school, and (incidentally) Physics after the first course in college, and I often rue the fact that in the latter half of my life, these are two fields of study that are much discussed in my current field of Buddhism. I'm not going to attempt to argue philosophy with a philosopher (nor will I bring up quantum mechanics to support my views <-- entirely gratuitous asides on QP brought to you by/inspired by past participation in Second Life discussions).

When you said, "...in philosophy the word 'metaphysics' is generally taken to denote the objects and relations that one is committed to by one's theory..." I think this matches up with the current definitions of metaphysics in popular usage if you end it with "that one is committed to in part by one's theory alone" -- in other words, some of the commitment to the theory lacks evidence and is purely in the realm of speculation. What makes metaphysics separate from physics (oops!) is that a significant portion relies on speculation.

The conversations we tend to have here are addressed to a very broad audience, not just philosophers, so I don't think it's reasonable to ask that we stop using the popular definition and substitute the philosophers' definition, nor that those who feel that speculative views don't provide a solid basis for deciding how to live a life hide the way they feel about such "metaphysical views".

I will also disagree with the implication that because I recognize that the Buddha was a human and not of divine nature, and therefore fallible, that this means that I need to accept that the insight he got and tried to pass on is likely to be flawed, or that his beliefs were more grounded in speculation than mine are. I wonder why you'd find it difficult to believe that he was as insightful as a 21st century naturalist or Richard Dawkins -- do you have some evidence that people back then were not as bright as we are? He didn't use the same language we did to express his ideas, and he didn't have the history of science to support his conclusions the way we do now, but that doesn't mean he was any less keen an observer of human nature: he saw the way we are, even if he couldn't explain all the whys of the way we are. As far as I can see, he did better than our modern thinkers who point to the reasons we behave as we do: instead of focusing on the past why's, he focused on the present hows and how to do something about it -- I haven't seen anyone come up with a better system.

Returning, at the last, to the use of "metaphysical" in popular culture, I'd point out the Urban Dictionary's entry:

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=metaphysics

The top entries support your philosophical take on its meaning, but I've found in my conversations I'm especially likely to be using meanings (of any given word someone tells me I'm misusing) down in ranking #3 or #4 if not lower -- I tend to use the newer or popular definitions because of the audience I'm speaking to, rather than using the precise meaning from its field of origin.

I'd say the second entry, the one that just reads "A branch of philosophy that deals with the study of nature regarding existence and the Universe. It tells you whether reality is real or an illusion" is the one that is the base reason it gets used in discussing what the Buddha did and didn't teach. He was not concerned at all with whether reality is real or an illusion -- he was concerned with only half of that: with our perception of everything as being exactly as real as we think it is, and the lack of evidence for our assumptions. He wasn't concerned with finding out what or whether reality actually *is* but with getting us to let go of our certainty that we know what it is. He focused on what we can see (how often we are wrong in our assumptions) rather than on finding exact truth.

Linda Blanchard
Buddhist History/Pali Nerd

Linda
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Linda
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 11:22
Quote

And my post on the simile of the raft (and how it is misunderstood):

http://secularbuddhism.org/2011/09/03/letting-go-of-the-raft/

Linda Blanchard
Buddhist History/Pali Nerd

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 12:16
Quote

Quote from Linda on May 15, 2012, 11:20
I will also disagree with the implication that because I recognize that the Buddha was a human and not of divine nature, and therefore fallible, that this means that I need to accept that the insight he got and tried to pass on is likely to be flawed, or that his beliefs were more grounded in speculation than mine are. I wonder why you'd find it difficult to believe that he was as insightful as a 21st century naturalist or Richard Dawkins -- do you have some evidence that people back then were not as bright as we are? He didn't use the same language we did to express his ideas, and he didn't have the history of science to support his conclusions the way we do now, but that doesn't mean he was any less keen an observer of human nature: he saw the way we are, even if he couldn't explain all the whys of the way we are. As far as I can see, he did better than our modern thinkers who point to the reasons we behave as we do: instead of focusing on the past why's, he focused on the present hows and how to do something about it -- I haven't seen anyone come up with a better system.

Hi Linda,

OK, I'm a little confused by this, since I think you may be taking me to have said more than I intended to say. I am not saying that just because the Buddha lived a long time ago his views were condemned to be incorrect. Nor am I claiming that the Buddha was less insightful than Richard Dawkins. (Though Dawkins has had several thousand years' worth of shoulders to stand on).

My point is that we are -- almost certainly -- engaging in anachronistic history if we think that the Buddha approached the world as a 21st century naturalist. The reason I bring up the Buddha's supernaturalist beliefs is that he actually seems to have believed them.

Now, very insightful, even brilliant people can have wrong beliefs. I don't know of a single brilliant thinker who didn't. (Newton believed in Biblical numerology. Einstein rejected quantum physics. Socrates believed he got insight from a supernatural creature that spoke to him regularly. Etc.)

So why the worry when I point to the fact that the Buddha got some things wrong? Why must I be taken to be denigrating his project when I say we should reject reincarnation and karma? If I thought the Buddha's general theory was worthless, I wouldn't be spending time on a Buddhist forum, secular or no.

Right? :D

Oh, and my major point about the word "metaphysics" is that I think general usage is confused, and the more accurate label is "supernatural". But if you prefer a different, more popular usage, go ahead. I'm in no position to dictate norms, anyway. ;)

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 12:17
Quote

Quote from Linda on May 15, 2012, 11:22
And my post on the simile of the raft (and how it is misunderstood):

http://secularbuddhism.org/2011/09/03/letting-go-of-the-raft/

Thanks for that, Linda. It's very good.

(And yes, I have long been familiar with this story).

Linda
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Linda
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 20:38
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Here's the thing, Doug, I don't find that he *did* believe in reincarnation and karma, so I don't think you're denigrating the project if you think we should reject it*; I find that you're following the project better than most do, but you don't realize it.

Maybe I need you to define what requirements are necessary to define someone as a 21st century naturalist, aside from the time period they live in, because what I find in the suttas is a fellow who understood that we come into the world with a nature that gets us in trouble, and he observed how that nature works, and he taught how to get around it. Hard for me to imagine anything more naturalistic than that.

As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the world right now who believes as staunchly as I do that the Buddha did not encourage belief in rebirth, and that his "karma" had nothing to do with rebirth. I have good evidence, I think, for this belief, and had hoped that the paper I wrote that shows it would be out today -- but alas, it's been put off another week.

* with one little caveat, which is that the Buddha taught that it's not useful to reject anything that we don't have good evidence to reject (lack of evidence for contrary positions didn't count). He threw every speculative view into one big bucket and said, -"Don't go there, it only causes arguments."- So *rejecting* is not part of his program; focusing on what we can see cause and effect for, that's what he was aiming for us to do.

Linda Blanchard
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Dana-
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Dana Nourie
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 15, 2012, 21:39
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Quote from Doug on May 15, 2012, 07:06
...
After all, what would we think if it turned out that scientific psychology showed that the Buddha had got something very wrong?

I think it's extremely important for us to scientifically test all we can, and if it turns out that Buddha got something very wrong, we have to acknowledge that and set it aside.

That is one of the reasons I prefer to view Buddha as a myth. It gives me the freedom to look at some of the things he said as metaphor, such as some passages on rebirth, and to roll my eyes when he speaks of his past lives. Not everyone here agrees with me on this, and that's fine. I'm eager to read more and more what Linda has to say, as she is convinced he didn't mean rebirth from one life to the next.

So far, science is showing mindfulness and meditation to be very good for the brain. I like reading those studies, because honestly in the beginning I had concerns that it might not be good for the brain, that we were just creating some more delusion. But as years passed and I benefited, then read what studies are showing my concerns are now past and I'm confident meditation really is good for ya.

If it turns out some other aspect of the teachings has evidence that it's harmful, then I would drop it. I lean towards repeated studies over Buddhist texts:-)

Dana Nourie
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Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 16, 2012, 06:50
Quote

Quote from Linda on May 15, 2012, 20:38
Here's the thing, Doug, I don't find that he *did* believe in reincarnation and karma, so I don't think you're denigrating the project if you think we should reject it*; I find that you're following the project better than most do, but you don't realize it.

Maybe I need you to define what requirements are necessary to define someone as a 21st century naturalist, aside from the time period they live in, because what I find in the suttas is a fellow who understood that we come into the world with a nature that gets us in trouble, and he observed how that nature works, and he taught how to get around it. Hard for me to imagine anything more naturalistic than that.

Well, Linda, I'd like to believe that about the Buddha, and maybe you're right. It's hard to know. I've heard it said that in the early suttas one finds no references to reincarnation and karma, however that claim has two problems, as I see it. The first problem is precisely which suttas we are to decide are "early". Clearly, we can't do that in a circular fashion by deciding that only the naturalistic ones are early. Now, I've also heard it said that the Sutta Nipata is sort of considered the 'gold standard' of an early collection of suttas. I'm not very familiar with the Nipata, so I'm now involved in listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi's exegeses thereof. And I find in the first text in his audio series, the Ratana Sutta, what looks to me like clear reference to reincarnation. I'm talking about V9, which in Mr. Saddhatissa's translation reads,

Those who comprehend clearly the noble truths well taught by him who is endowed with profound wisdom, however exceedingly heedless they may be, they do not take birth for the eighth time.

This passage reads to me as a clear reference to the claim that the stream enterer is reincarnated at most seven times. If this is in the Nipata, then it must be early, right?

Of course, I look forward to any rebuttal you might have. I would like to believe the Buddha was a thoroughgoing naturalist, but I'm always hesitant to accept something just because I think it might make me happy.

And as a general matter, the distinction between 'natural' and 'supernatural' objects and properties is a recent thing: it can't be made simply by reference to what is seen and what is not seen, since so many people claim to see ghosts, demons, the actions of gods and their own past lives. So anyone claiming that someone living 2500 years ago had a sophisticated and modern view like that rejecting what today we consider supernatural ... I think has a high hill of skepticism to overcome.

That said, I am in complete agreement with you when you say that the Buddha seems to have been "a fellow who understood that we come into the world with a nature that gets us in trouble, and he observed how that nature works, and he taught how to get around it." I don't think that claim conflicts with the claim that the Buddha also believed in reincarnation and karma.

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 16, 2012, 06:54
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Quote from Dana Nourie on May 15, 2012, 21:39

If it turns out some other aspect of the teachings has evidence that it's harmful, then I would drop it. I lean towards repeated studies over Buddhist texts:-)

Me too, Dana. FWIW I find that Buddhist meditation techniques seem very useful to me, which is why I keep doing them. They seem to work.

But always I have a skeptical part of my mind that tells me to keep checking, and that we are much better at deluding ourselves than we would have thought.

Linda
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Linda
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 16, 2012, 11:01
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Quote from Dana Nourie on May 15, 2012, 21:39
That is one of the reasons I prefer to view Buddha as a myth. It gives me the freedom to look at some of the things he said as metaphor, such as some passages on rebirth, and to roll my eyes when he speaks of his past lives.

This is the point I keep arguing, and I *will* keep making it until folks get it. As long as people see the Buddha as mythical or lost in history, and just roll their eyes at references to rebirth, those people don't have any interest in doing the research to see if maybe that's not what he was conveying.

It's only by being willing to accept the possibility that he actually was as clear-thinking as you and I are that it becomes worthwhile to look more deeply at what's there. And if no one ever bothers to *look* then we can't ever see if maybe he said something *really helpful* that we're missing. Which, as I'm sure you know, I believe he did, with dependent origination. I want us to *stop discouraging* people from looking with all the "really, he was deluded by the convictions of his time" talk and the "he never really existed, he was mythical" talk and the "suttas are so messed up no one can sort them out" talk.

(Not that, Dana, I would assume if you did have an open mind about the Buddha as I did and do, that you would dive in the way I have, but I feel sure there are people out there who *would* if they didn't keep hearing people imply it's not worth the effort.)

Linda Blanchard
Buddhist History/Pali Nerd

Linda
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Linda
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 16, 2012, 11:35
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Doug said:
I'd like to believe that about the Buddha, and maybe you're right. It's hard to know. I've heard it said that in the early suttas one finds no references to reincarnation and karma...

It wouldn't surprise me if there were suttas that had no reference to reincarnation and karma because there were people in the Buddha's time who didn't believe in them. My observation is that he spoke to people from their own perspective. Rather than telling them "everything you believe is wrong -- believe what I tell you" he tended to say, "Yes, yes, that's very good; I see that. But look at it this way, if you *just* change the meaning of this one word a *little* bit, you can see that..."

What would surprise me is if the Pali canon had very many suttas that left out karma and rebirth; or more to the point, if there were any that were explicit denials of the usefulness of karma and rebirth in liberation that couldn't be ALSO be read as endorsing them. The Theravadan canon is clearly transmitted to us by a lineage that believed the Buddha meant for us to believe in karma and rebirth -- so texts that would contradict that would not survive the handing-on process (unless, like MN 117, they could, with a few small twists, be interpreted as supporting those beliefs).

Some of the suttas in the Pali canon may well have come from different lineages and been picked back up by the Theravadan schools -- so some texts that have a different "sound" to them might well be in the canon for this reason -- as long as they never had the Buddha saying "I never experienced rebirth, and you shouldn't waste your time on it..." (which is something he wouldn't do, because that's not the approach he took -- he took the gradual approach I mention above) or anything too strongly suggesting that rebirth wasn't really his thing.

But when speaking to people who didn't believe in karma or rebirth, he would talk to them from the perspective of whatever their beliefs *were*, so if we had all the sermons he ever preached, I'd expect we'd find at least a few more from non-rebirth perspectives. Still, rebirth was the dominant belief system of his culture, so there is a lot of it (and, I believe, this dominance is why he used rebirth as his model for dependent origination).

This view of things totally circumvents concerns about what is "early" and what is not.

Doug said:

Those who comprehend clearly the noble truths well taught by him who is endowed with profound wisdom, however exceedingly heedless they may be, they do not take birth for the eighth time.

This passage reads to me as a clear reference to the claim that the stream enterer is reincarnated at most seven times. If this is in the Nipata, then it must be early, right?

It is certainly a clear reference to *something*. I will admit up front that the seven lives thing still has me puzzled. But then Dependent Arising (DA) had me puzzled at one time, too, so I still hold out hope that either I will find the reference that gives the Buddha's "seven lives" a sense of him having something very explicit in mind, or perhaps someone else will be inspired enough to search and figure it out. But as for rebirth in general, he is making a clear reference but not to re*incarnatation* but to the birth he is pointing out in DA which has nothing to do with re-entering the "carne" at all.

The paper I have coming out (I am relatively certain accurately) points out that we lost the structure of DA a long time ago; that the ground level structure definitely is about literal rebirth but the higher level structure (the Buddha's point in the lesson) is that what we think is happening (our beliefs about rebirth) is not what is happening at all, but something else entirely is going on (the way our beliefs about ourselves and the way the world works causes something else to be born and reborn). We kept our understanding of the obvious references in the terms (to birth, aging and death for example, as literal) but completely lost the more important part of the message, which was that he was *denying* that part's usefulness, and telling us that because of that part, something else happens than what we expect.

As a result, he makes many many references to rebirth, because he is using it as a model to describe what's really happening: the birth of what we mistake for a lasting self.

And as a general matter, the distinction between 'natural' and 'supernatural' objects and properties is a recent thing: it can't be made simply by reference to what is seen and what is not seen, since so many people claim to see ghosts, demons, the actions of gods and their own past lives. So anyone claiming that someone living 2500 years ago had a sophisticated and modern view like that rejecting what today we consider supernatural ... I think has a high hill of skepticism to overcome.

I don't mean "seen" quite as literally as that. I mean, I suppose, "evident" and not just evident to one individual -- the Buddha often counsels taking into account the opinions of "the wise" which I take to mean we need the "reality check" of others, and not just of those who believe exactly as we do.

Linda Blanchard
Buddhist History/Pali Nerd

Dana-
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Dana Nourie
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 21, 2012, 13:05
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Doug, I have to thank you again for clarification the term metaphysics. I was listening to an excellent neurobiology talk this morning on how the brain creates consciousness. Several times when the professor refereed to earlier theories and historical studies of the brain, he used the word metaphysics. I would have been confused had I not had this recent discussion with you. However, what he said not only made sense, but shed light on a few other aspects of previous views of consciousness for me in terms of the original intent of the word metaphysics. I would have been woefully confused otherwise!

Have you point out the original definition helped me in heaps for listening to more educated people than myself talking about one of my favorite topics: neurobiology. Nice to brush away a bit of ignorance:-) and gain clarification.

Dana Nourie
All Around Geek Girl

Doug Smith
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Doug Smith
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: May 21, 2012, 13:38
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I'm really glad that was helpful, Dana!

:D

Michael-
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: June 3, 2014, 18:53
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Since I'm sometimes guilty of loose talk about metaphysics, I wish I'd noticed this tread earlier.

First,an admission I -- and I think others -- sometimes do use "metaphysics" as a pejorative epitaph in casual conversation in an effort to communicate short-hand fashion. Sometimes this refers only to Gotama's tendency to reject Brahmin theology, as when he made fun of the Brahmin students who talked of union with Brahma, sometimes the target is other views that can be criticized in the same way -- but this loose usage can be misleading, I admit, maybe even dangerously so.

But when I'm serious about trying to argue that a position taken by Gotama can be called "anti-metaphysical", I mean something like Kant's notion of metaphysics. Thus the "unacertained" or "undeclared" questions." One reason for rejecting the questions is that they are misleading, based on misunderstanding. If there is no soul, it makes no sense to ask about the relation of body to soul; if there is nothing without a cause, the question of whether the universe had a first cause is meaningless. Most of the questions concern what Western philosophy calls metaphysics. They are (like Kant’s metaphysical antinomies), unanswerable in principle (though interestingly enough, Gotama and Kant would not have agreed on what questions belong on the list). The influence of Nagarjuna on my view of Gotama shold be, for better or worse, evident. Beyond that, I think it is legitimate to argue that Gotama preferred to base himself on experience, so that he shared something of the empiricist's suspicion of metaphysics as belief that lies beyond experience (as well as physics).

I don't want to push this too far. Metaphysics is not a precise term for what Gotama (sometimes) avoids. Gotama was certainly not strictly an empiricist (or phenomenologist) either in the sense of being consistent in appealing to experience, or, even when doing so, in regarding sensation or experience as the sole source of knowledge. In fact, I'm inclined to believe he "verified" some rather "metaphysical" notions by finding some support in experience for them. His concerns were different than those of modern philosophers who are concerned with the limits of knowledge, and he certainly did not attempt a theory of the limits, or perhaps even admit them.

There are limits on the utility of describing Gotama as anti-metaphysical, but I think it can be useful to do so, particularly to draw parallels with other philosophies. I remain unrepentant :)

Nick
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: June 8, 2014, 10:46
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Quote from Doug Smith on May 14, 2012, 11:03

OK, guy here speaking with a philosopher's hat. There's one quibble I have with a lot of recent neo-Buddhist terminology. That's the use of the term "metaphysics" or "metaphysical theory" as some kind of epithet, related to the claim that "the Buddha had no metaphysical view", or some such thing.

Yes. Buddha did not teach 'metaphysics'.

It's well known that the Buddha refused to answer several key questions regarding the eternality of the world, whether the Tathagata would exist or not exist after death, etc.

Indeed, he did.

Further, it's pretty clear from the texts that the Buddha did have relatively robust ideas about certain things that ordinarily would be called "metaphysical": e.g., the way dependent arising worked; how the mind worked; reincarnation and karma.

Actually, it is not pretty clear at all, at least to you. :P You have commenced your inquiry with a fatal assumption, namely: "it's pretty clear from the texts".

Obviously, without any doubt at all, you do not actually understand how dependent arising works & how the mind works. If you believe dependent arising explains how reincarnation works then you don't understand it, according to the texts, because the texts only explain it is about how suffering, i.e., sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair, arise.

To quote:

Now, the Blessed One has said, "Whoever sees dependent co-arising sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees dependent co-arising." And these things — the five clung-to-aggregates — are dependently co-arisen. Any desire, embracing, grasping, & holding-on to these five clung-to-aggregates is the origination of stress. Any subduing of desire & passion, any abandoning of desire & passion for these five clung-to-aggregates is the cessation of stress.'

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.028.than.html

Buddha did not teach about 'reincarnation', which means a same substance (such as soul, atman or the pseudo-atman of relinking consciousness) leaving one physical body at death & entering another.

As for Buddha's teachings on karma, they are about the moral efficacy of karma, i.e., do good, get happiness; do bad, get unhappiness.

In short, there is no evidence Buddha's teachings on karma are metaphysical. Instead, they are inherently about the actions that result in happiness & suffering.

Regards :D

Sebastien
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Sebastien
Post Do we want to cover here issues like the ones above?
on: June 10, 2014, 08:49
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Hello
I appreciate discussions as the one above - we always learn to know each other this way.
But my counter-question is: do we want to spend time in this forum discussing topics such as "was the Buddha talking metaphysics?" "What was the Buddha saying about afterlife?" etc...
Please correct me but I thought "secular buddhism" was precisely about choosing not to look at the " (potential) metaphysics" of teachings. Not judging complex thought systems, or trying to make the Buddha say things about our current concepts, etc. but voluntarily limiting ourselves to a pragmatic approach.
Tell me what you think.

(PS - for people like myself who believe brain and body physical functions do explain our experiences, "metaphysics" really means "abstract philosophical studies" and "study of what is outside experience" ( merriam-webster dictionary definition) and as a consequence are not really so interesting to discuss in details)

Sebastien

Linda
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Linda
Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: June 10, 2014, 12:14
Quote

Sebastien: Yes, we really do want to spend time in this forum discussing the topic of whether or not the Buddha was talking metaphysics. At least I do. And apparently others do to. Why would we, you may ask? Why would we not! is my answer, when understanding fully what this great thinker was saying is the** goal, and understanding why he used the words he did is key to that understanding.

I find that the belief that the Buddha was talking metaphysics -- that he was telling people they *must* believe in rebirth -- has many followers engaged in a practice that is *precisely the opposite* of what he was trying to teach us. That, more than any other reason, is why I feel it is important to show that he was not endorsing metaphysical/beliefs that require faith.

** "the goal" in the sense of "the goal of the conversation" not "the goal of life" or "the goal of the Buddhist path." Understanding what the Buddha said is, however, very helpful in achieving whatever it is that might be conceived of as "the goal of the Buddhist path."

Linda Blanchard
Buddhist History/Pali Nerd

jos
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Post Re: Background issue: on "metaphysics"
on: June 11, 2014, 13:37
Quote

Sébastien,

I think we need metaphysics at a certain level of talk because human experience is more than just brain and physical functions. If we take the sense impressions away, something what (jhana) meditation clearly tries to do, what remains? What remains is something many people will never experience in their life, at least not conscious. If we practice more and the thought world collapses, what remains? Even less people will experience this conscious. Yet what's experienced there is underlying our every conscious moment.

Why is this important? Because on top of this there is the conceptual world of thought. And this is the world that the Buddha challenged many times. Metaphysics are part of this world, yet also every other kind of 'belief'. When we talk we communicate on the level of concepts. The Buddha (and many following him) could use these concepts to teach people. I can use the concept of classical physics to teach while knowing the concepts don't hold on larger or smaller scales. You see these levels often in the suttas, something true on one level is challenged on another.

Yet if we dive in strong and take only the 'advanced' teachings like non-self we will hit the water flat instead of diving in, causing serious harm. So when we discuss Buddhism we should use all the teachings and understand where they do apply and where to go beyond them. Just stating 'I belief there is no rebirth' (or something else) does not fit the inquiring nature of Buddhism. Either you know or don't know, belief is just a form of not knowing.

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