Why the Buddhist view of reality must be ‘true’ for it to be the Buddhist view of reality

dharma-wheel

It is sometimes thought that Buddhist philosophy is pragmatic in nature. From this it often follows that it is also based upon some form of scepticism. Reality cannot be known in its true detail and Buddhism uses various skilful teachings to overcome suffering and to end the endless cycle of rebirths. Though one can understand why such assumptions might be made, I think Buddhism loses some essential elements with such a bias in our understanding of it. I will offer some reasons on why in this article.

 

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested that a dichotomy between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, between fact and value, is a modern phenomenon. Indeed, MacIntyre argues that, until modern times, the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ was not made.[1] Western thought may then make a distinction between thought and action, between fact and value, that was not made in India. This point has been made by Paul Williams:

 

‘In the Indian context it would have been axiomatic that liberation comes from discerning how things actually are, the true nature of things. That seeing things how they are has soteriological benefits would have been expected, and is just another way of articulating the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ dimension of Indian Dharma. The ‘ought’ (pragmatic benefit) is never cut adrift from the ‘is’ (cognitive factual truth). Otherwise it would follow that the Buddha might be able to benefit beings (and thus bring them to enlightenment) even without seeing things the way they really are at all. And that is not Buddhism.’[2]

The uncoupling of the categories of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is usually traced to Hume. Since Hume, it has been questioned whether we can derive statements of value from statements of fact. Hume argued the following:

 

‘In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relation of objects, nor is perceived by reason.’[3]

 

 

Hume is arguing that a statement of fact, how things are, ‘cannot provide a logical basis for morality’.[4] In other words, we cannot derive what is of value from apprehending the true nature of things. However, as Paul Williams suggests, such a dichotomy may never have existed in India. It does, moreover, greatly alter our understanding of certain statements if the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is not made. One set of statements that do not make such a distinction is right-view which expresses both fact and value. Right-view is both an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’ statement.

 

Firstly, it is clear that without the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, statements of fact are also statements of value. This means that seeing things as they are is also soteriologically transformative. In the context of Buddhist soteriology, this is usually stated in terms of craving and ignorance being overcome by calm and insight. It is important to reflect upon what is being suggested by the interaction of calm and insight. Early Buddhist soteriology is both descriptive and prescriptive. These two methods are not mutually exclusive. What is of value is based upon seeing things in a certain way: it is based upon insight into the way things are. In the early Pāli canon, what we crave is inseparable from what we know, and what we know inseparable from what we crave. One of the conclusions we can draw from such an understanding is that thought affects action and action affects thought. This process is very clear if we look at the notion of ‘views’ (diṭṭhi). With the adoption of wrong-view an unwholesome course of action follows; with the adoption of right-view a wholesome course of action follows. Our understanding of how things are affects how we act. One of the reasons to adopt right-view and reject wrong-views is because right-view produces this wholesome course of action. It produces the cessation of craving. The reason for this, the early texts suggest, is that it is based upon a true description of reality. Through combining the notions of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ diṭṭhi encompasses a number of factors: the cognitive and affective; the descriptive and prescriptive; fact and value. The affective nature of things is not separate from what is cognitive. The conclusion that we may reach is that insight into the way things are has a transformative effect and that categories that we may normally separate are intrinsically bound and inseparable factors on the Buddhist path. By not separating the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’, the early texts are making an important point. This is that ignorance and craving are inseparable in producing unwholesome action and in turning away from the way things really are. In a similar way, the cessation of craving is caused by seeing things as they are.

 

Two theories may be proposed as to the nature of seeing things as they are. These are the strong and the weak theories. [5] The strong theory would hold that statements of the way things are are not, in fact, statements of the way things are, but are value statements. Much of Buddhist discourse should be understood as evaluative and prescriptive. Their value is based upon their transformative effect. When the texts speak of seeing things as they are, we should not understand this literally. Such statements produce the cessation of craving, therefore they are true. The weak theory holds that statements of the way things are are, quite literally, statements of the way things are. Further, seeing things as they are produces a radical change in one’s actions. Apprehending things in a particular way is transformative. The strong theory emphasises the ‘ought’, the weak theory the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. It is the weak theory that I am arguing for in this book. As I am suggesting, the ‘is’ cannot be divorced from the ‘ought’ without undermining the purpose of Buddhist doctrine. The seeing of things as they are is a statement of fact and value.

 

If the notions of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ are not uncoupled, the idea that Buddhism is pragmatic in nature loses much of its fizz. Further, the idea that the Buddha was sceptical as to the true nature of things no longer holds. The basic premise of all mainstream Indian philosophy and religion (if they were separate entities) is to ‘see things as they are’ (yathābhūtadassana). Without ‘seeing things as they are’ the overcoming of suffering is not possible.

 

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (South Bend, Ind, 1981), pp. 54-57, 80-81; see W.D. Hudson, ed., The Is/Ought Question: A Collection of Papers on the Central Problem in Moral Philosophy (London, 1969).

[2] Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (London, 2000), p. 40.

[3] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature: Books Two and Three, ed. by Páll Árdal (London, 1972), pp. 203-4.

[4] W. D. Hudson, in Hudson, ed., The Is/Ought Question, p. 16.

[5] I am grateful to Paul Williams for his help in clarifying my thinking on this issue.

2 thoughts on “Why the Buddhist view of reality must be ‘true’ for it to be the Buddhist view of reality

  1. “‘In the Indian context it would have been axiomatic that liberation comes from discerning how things actually are, the true nature of things.”

    But what is meant by things here. It’s abundantly clear in early Buddhist texts that by “things” we actually mean dharmas qua objects of manas. Which is to say we’re not concerned with ontology. This is made explicit in a few places, particularly in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (Sn 12.15). Neither atthitā nor n’atthitā apply to loka, where loka refers to the experiential world that arises in dependence on sense-object striking sense-organ and being registered by sense-awareness to produce contact.

    In other words “things” are neither sense-objects nor the mind that perceives, but what arises in dependence on both. When we understand these “things” the knowledge is soteriological. To my mind this makes all the difference in understanding and interpreting the Buddhist project.

  2. Thanks Jayarava, your comments are ever so helpful and I think spot on in contextualising what ‘is’ in Buddhist philosophy, namely, dependent-origination. The Kaccānagotta-sutta (S II 17 might be an easier reference) a Sutta about dependent-origination, famously quoted by Nāgārjuna, is a really excellent place to look into what I am discussing – thanks ever so much.

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