Early Buddhist skepticism

Skeptical tendencies in early Buddhism

The goal of all practice in Indian Buddhism is the eradication of all the root causes of unhappiness and distress. In most accounts, the principal root cause of misery is ignorance or misconception (avidyā), sometimes also called delusion (moha). That in turn is said to arise from unprincipled thinking (ayoniśo manaskāra), that is, the failure to invesitage matters throughly. This failure has as its natural consequence a painful superficiality in one’s outlook. This superficiality or carelessness in thinking is responsible for unwarranted, unfounded views (dṛṣṭi).

Early Buddhist literature is filled with descriptions of the dangers of unfounded views. One example of such a text is the Paramaṭṭhasutta of the Suttanipāta.1

796. A person who persists in opinions regards as a waste everything other than that which, thinking “it is supreme,” he regards as best in the world. Therefore he fails to get beyond disputes.

797. Then grasping at just that which he sees as commendable to himself in rules of conduct and vows and in what is seen, heard or thought, he regards everything else as a loss.

798. The experts call that a shackle owing to which one considers all else a waste. Therefore the monk should not pursue rules of conduct and vows and what is seen, heard or thought.

The message is clear enough. Human beings have a tendency to take their own experiences as the measure of all things. They trust their own experiences but are wary of what others have experience. People tend to trust their own reasoning but find flaws in the thinking of others. People think their own commitments and practices and vows are right not only for themselves but for all people. Taking themselves as the standard by which all others are to be judged, people tend to see others as deficient. Other people are seen as wasting their own time, and, insofar as one takes others seriously, they are also wasting one’s own time. But letting oneself see others as unworthy of respect is a trap. It is, in the language of the text, a shackle. The text goes on to say:

799. Nor should he form an opinion of people either through knowledge or through rules of conduct and vows. Nor should be present himself as an equal, nor should he think of himself as inferior or superior.

Any form of judgement whatsoever is a trap, because it inevitably takes oneself as the standard of comparison and reinforces the habit of focussing on oneself. The antidote to that disease is simply to let experiences register themselves and then check out. The text goes on to say:

800. Giving up assumptions and not taking them up again, he does not pursue even knowledge. Indeed, he does not side with any party in controversies, nor does he believe any opinion whatsoever.

As with the Skeptics of ancient Greece, the Buddha advises against taking sides in disputes. He also recommends against the pursuit of knowledge, since this too can be a source of self-importance that leads to disparaging others who are less knowledgeable than oneself.

Also like the Skeptics,the Buddha observes that overconfidence in the soundness of one’s own judgement is socially obnoxious. In another Aṭṭhavagga section of the Suttanipāta we find the Buddha summarizing his reflections in these words:

847. One who is free of judgements has no shackles. One who is set free by wisdom has no delusions. But those who take up judgements and opinions go about in the world being contentious.

These texts we have considered so far look at the pursuit of knowledge from what he might call a perspective of aesthetics or etiquette. People who become too attached to knowledge behave in ugly an impolite ways. This does not suggest that knowledge is impossible, but that there is something unseemly about allowing oneself to become conceited and judgemental as a result of having knowledge. To find a more radical questioning of the very possibility of acquiring knowledge, we must turn to Nāgārjuna.

  1. The following translation is my own and was first published in Richard P. Hayes, Dignāga on the Interpretation of Signs, (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988), 43. ↩︎

Work Cited

  • Hayes, Richard P. Dignāga on the Interpretation of Signs. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988.

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