Saturday, August 16, 2008

Is Buddhism a World-Denying Teaching?

Often times we hear people denouncing Eastern religions and spiritual teachings as being world-denying. Buddhism, being of Eastern origins, gets bundled into the same category of world-denying practices. I should like to add that these accusations often seem to originate from the Christian-based thinkers.

Obviously, Christianity itself could just as easily be accused of the 'world denying' propensities, seeing how eager Christian practitioners are to denounce the world, or as they call it, the valley of tears. Their teaching and practice is all about suffering and tolerating the unpleasantness of this world in order to earn the reward of life everlasting in Heaven (Heaven being, of course, the absolute denial and negation of this world.)

But here I want to ask the question what is meant by 'world' and what is meant by 'denying it'?

For most religious practitioners, 'world' is synonymous with 'creation', and 'world denial' is synonymous with destruction. The truth of creation is the highest value and the highest goal in the minds of the 'creationists'. Is there an equivalent to that in the Buddhist teaching?

Four Truths in the Buddhist Teaching

We as Buddhist practitioners are aware of four kinds of truths. These truths inhabit our practice, and are detectable at various times to variously trained practitioners.

The first kind of truth is the truth we tend to uphold while being in the state of sleep and dreaming some dreams. At that point, the content of our dreams appears to us as undeniable truth, something that is simply self-evident. We do not feel, at the time when we're engulfed in dreams, that we have to stop and step back and reevaluate the truth of what's unfolding before us in our dream.

However, when the conditions change, that is to say when we wake up, the simple truth that was so self-evident to us a moment ago, ceases to be the truth and turns out to be untrue. The states we were experiencing while dreaming did not continue to hold true when our conditions changed from sleeping to being awake. So that, for example, while I may have been unbearably embarrassed in my dream where I was under the impression that I have showed up at the office without wearing my pants nor my underwear, upon waking up I immediately realize the falsity of that fact and the foolishness of feeling embarrassed about something that never happened.

So we see that the first kind of truth is subject to conditions. At one point in time it appears to be holding true, but the next moment its truthfulness simply evaporates.

The second kind of truth that we can talk about in Buddhism is the truth of the optical or other apparitions, as they may occur to us while being awake. Thus a person could find himself wandering in the desert, not having any water to drink. At some point, that person may look toward the horizon and joyously discover that there is a little lake full of fresh water awaiting him. He may then rush toward that lake, hoping to quench his thirst. But sooner or later, the conditions will change for that person, and he will be forced to recognize the falsity of this, the second level truth. Such truth used to hold true for the time being and under certain conditions, but as soon as the conditions change, the truth evaporates. Therefore, the second kind of truth in Buddhism is also conditioned. It arises under certain conditions, and then it perishes when those conditions cease to be present.

The third kind of truth is the truth of the so-called normal waking living. This truth holds that there are space and time which possess certain attributes (i.e. up, down, left, right, west, east, south, north, before, now, after, etc.). Also, it holds that there are various objects that come into being, stay around for a while, and then vanish. All these objects are distinct and separate from each other.

What Buddhist practice reveals is that this third kind of truth is also completely conditioned. Same as the first two kinds of truth (i.e. the truth of dreams while being asleep and the truth of optical illusion while being under duress), the normal everyday truth of being born, growing up, aging, getting sick and dying is also applicable only under certain circumstances. Remove those circumstances and conditions, and the normal everyday truth evaporates in the same way that the truth contained in the dreams evaporates upon waking up.

The fourth kind of truth is the so-called ultimate truth, that is, truth of the totality. Unlike the first three kinds of truths, this truth is unconditioned. It is unborn and unperishable. Regardless of how violently and abruptly the conditions and the circumstances may change, ultimate truth cannot be affected.

What is being denied in Buddhism?

Buddhism negates and denies the unconditional validity of the first three kinds of truth (that is, the truth contained in dreams, the truth contained in optical and similar illusions, and the truth contained in everyday norms accepted by the consensus). Buddhism does not negate the validity of the absolute truth. But if anyone blindly believes that the first three kinds of truths contain immutable validity that is not affected by the changing conditions and circumstances, than such person is being delusional.

So is Buddhism denying the world? It would depend on the definition of the notion of 'world'. If by world we mean the world of dreams, then yes, Buddhism is denying the unconditional validity of that world. Also, if by world we mean the world of optical illusions, then the answer is also positive. Same for the world of socially constructed norms, such as our regular daily world of sowing seeds and harvesting crops, chopping wood and carrying water. Buddhism does indeed deny the unconditional validity of that world. In other words, Buddhism claims that such worlds are only relative, being dependent on conditions and circumstances, and thus being at their whims.

What is not whimsical, according to the Buddhist teaching, is the undeniable validity of totality, of ultimate truth. Buddhism does not deny nor negate this world. Buddhism only denies the world where the truth, even though appearing to be self-evident, cannot withstand protracted scrutiny.