Doubts about revelation

Doubts about revelation

Indian Buddhist scholastics took the position that the most reasonable view is that everything spoken or written in a human language has its origins in a human mind. While there are people who make the claim that what they are saying is the word of God or comes from some repository of eternal non-human wisdom, there is no good reason to believe that they are not either simply mistaken about the origins of their thoughts, or being deliberately deceptive.

Thoughts are constantly popping into one’s mind, often seemingly coming out of nowhere. Everyone has the experience of feeling as though they are thinking something they have never thought before and that does not obviously follow from something they have thought before, but there is no obvious reason to believe that such thoughts were put into one’s mind by something from outside. Moreover, there are charlatans in the world who stand to benefit financially or to gain influence and power over others by encouraging others to believe that some messages have come from an unquestionable source. Rather than believing such people uncritically, it is best to seek some independent way of examining whether what they say is true. The position recommended by Buddhists, therefore, was to avoid thinking “I know this is true, because I learned it from the scriptures” and to think instead “I know through sense perception or inference that this is true, and therefore any scripture that expresses this truth is expressing a truth.” Observing that a body of scripture contains true statements about some things that one has independently verified does not warrant believing that other statements in that same body of scripture—statements that one is not in a position to verify—are also true.

Not only is there no good reason to believe that unverified or unverifiable claims in a body of scripture come from a non-human source, said the Indian Buddhist scholastics, but there is reason to believe that everything communicated in a human language came from a human mind. One good clue comes from an examination of the language itself that one finds in scriptures. That language has all the features of all ordinary human language—the same vocabulary, the same rules of syntax, the same kinds of figurative speech, even the same tendency to change over time as human beings invent ways of talking about new things and invent new ways of expressing old things.

If everything spoken in a human language comes from a human mind, and if human minds are fallible and prone to all kinds of misunderstanding, then what good are Buddhist canonical texts?How is studying what the Buddha said any different from studying a text about which the claim is made that it is the word of God, or a bit of information from a repository of superhuman wisdom? To see how some Buddhists answered this question, we return to examine the epistemological guidelines of Dharmakīrti on the Buddha’s authority.

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