Skeptic’s Dilemma

Find out for yourself

…is the oft repeated saying from the Buddha.

and don’t just believe me

A look around the world’s great spiritual teachers reveals something interesting – none of them really wanted to be worshipped. All of them had discovered something and wished others to recreate the experience. We might cite the exceptions of Moses and others, who claimed to be simply passing on a message whispered in their ear by God. But even they did not want to be worshipped. It is a curious trait of people in the world to venerate their teachers, rather than the teachings. Buddhism is no exception.

The Dhamma taught by the Buddha is supposed to be universal law. That means that it is the nature of the universe whether there is someone who understands and points it out or not. He claimed to have rediscovered it, like a traveller might rediscover an ancient path in the forest, that leads somewhere interesting (Buddha’s own analogy). That is: he rediscovered the Unconditioned or the Deathless (amata) base of consciousness.

In the way of a pure science, the experiments have been done, the conclusion reached and the details laid out for anyone to follow and recreate the results. Just like it is somewhat difficult to recreate nuclear fusion experiments, until you have learned all the necessary background (not to mention secured a big budget) it is also difficult to follow the advice laid out in the Suttas for how to reach this Unconditioned for yourself. Purification of morality, of view, of understanding, of knowledge and vision, of meditation etc.. this is a difficult experiment to replicate for those caught up in the world and in desire.

Yet along that path that you call difficult, the noble ones make their way

(advice to Kamada)

So if we are to take the path as a grand experiment, does that leave room for the skeptic ?

A student of nuclear physics must take a certain amount on trust and follow the text books. Doubting and arguing every step of the way will ensure they never reach the goal of recreating a nuclear fusion experiment by themselves. Similarly for Buddhism, while you should certainly keep your wits about you, and should never leave your intelligence or understanding far behind, you must at the same time take a certain amount on trust. To recreate the experiment you can’t rely on anyone else. You have to be willing to get on the cushion and put aside your thoughts and desires and train the mind in the way recommended. Only then can one go beyond skeptical doubting. Until then, the skeptic will always be faced by the classic dilemma:

The skeptic is unable to accept solutions to questions they are unable to dismiss as unsolvable


This Friday we will be joining Georges Dreyfus at Chulalongkorn univeristy for a lecture on Skepticism in Buddhsim. He is a warm and interesting speaker. Those who can join early – we will be meeting for lunch before hand at 10:45 outside the building where the talk is held.