Why Believe?

To trust the Buddha simply means to trust in your own experience and to find your own way

It’s time to stop treating the Buddhist scriptures as sacred truths and start judging them based on what they actually do. It’s unconscionable to keep believing in the Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path just because the Buddha said so. He also said we should judge his teachings by looking at their results, not their promises. It shouldn’t even matter that he said it. It’s just common sense.

Buddhism is growing in popularity among educated people while other religions decline because it’s known as scientific, rational and democratic—but that’s not really true. You’ll never be able to put the doctrines of karma and reincarnation under the microscope. Also, you can’t possibly measure meditation, notwithstanding all the ‘scientific studies’ on it. The contemplative life and scientific method are utterly different things.

And so what? It doesn’t matter. Why does anybody think it does?

Many converts to Buddhism have turned their backs on the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an, but still believe that Truth is embedded in scripture, that it needs to be defended and, most absurd of all, that it must be dialectically consistent. This religious notion of truth is as fragile as it is deluded. To trust the Buddha simply means to trust in your own experience and to find your own way.

The man may have left a rich legacy of teaching, but make no mistake: it’s been manhandled by generations of pious marauders who’ve used every trick in the book to make it look sacred. Meanwhile, truth is in the eye of the beholder.

We awaken to the only miracle that counts: being conscious of ourselves and of one another

That’s not to say that it’s all relative, but that we’ll only find it by following the evidence of our senses: the eye, ear, nose, tongue and touch. Sensory input and human intelligence may not have the stamp of divine authority—they’re shaky ground indeed—but they’re all we’ve got to go on. Starting from immediate experience, we who dare can rebuild our notions of what we feel, what we think and how we live. Understanding that, we awaken to the only miracle that counts: being conscious of ourselves and of one another.

When you’re awake like that, past lives, telepathy and mind over matter simply don’t matter. Age-old and new-age preoccupations with spiritual transcendence and saintly perfection are as much an obstacle to awakening as crass materialism; perhaps even more so because they’re mere vanities posing as spiritual goals. Consumerism at least knows that it’s superficial and soulless.

Human sensitivity: anyone can cultivate it; few do

Buddhist philosophers revel in their paradoxes and words of wisdom, but listening carefully to ordinary people in ordinary lives reveals that they too gain insight into temporality, contingency and love. Not everyone gets it, but neither do all Buddhists. It’s got nothing to do with what beliefs you subscribe to. It’s a matter of human sensitivity. Anyone can cultivate it; few do.

The Buddha’s path is an ancient one, something he claimed not to have invented but to have rediscovered. It didn’t end with him. We each have the opportunity to rediscover it anew. Whether it will finally put an end to human misery seems unlikely; at best, it’s a matter of conjecture. However, it’s worth exploring. What else are you going to do with your life? Why not something daring and grand?


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

3 thoughts on “Why Believe?”

  1. Yes, this puts Buddha with Socrates and Krishnamurti and the “pathless path” to truth. It’s where I started and, after experiencing the authoritarianism, submission, and obedience required by temple Zen, where I’ve ended up. The big mystery, wonder, curiosity, inquiry, open mind, reason, hypothesis, nonviolence, kindness, repeat—it feels right, it feels good. It always has.

  2. To imagine scriptures as divine and needing defense is, as you say, worse than counter productive. And as you say, the contempative life and the scientific method have no intrinsic connection. But perhaps the pradoxes of Zen are not trivial; perhaps they can generate thoughts not previously thought, and I personally find this true even of the oldest koan, what is the voice of one hand, listen to it! As Hakuin told his pupils.

    Buddhist scripture can be signs suggesting paths but not commandments. What we believe can make differences in what we might consider or assume. Everyone has the right not to believe in evolution but where will that lead? And can we be conscious of ourselves without being conscious of others? Kindess these days can be a kind of crime if it is kindness towards mass murderers in Nigeria or Afghanistan. If there are any anecdotes or perspectives on how Buddha would react to some of the recent horrific events, I would much like to learn.

  3. Hi Luther: I agree that, “the pradoxes of Zen…can generate thoughts not previously thought,” but I don’t think the goal is simply to come up with a novel answer. Rather, it’s to arrest the process of thought itself, at least for a moment.

    As for the acts of IS and Boko Haram, I dare say the Buddha would recognize them as typical acts of pre-industrial war. He might shake his head and retort as he did with King Viḍūḍabha, who won the throne by murdering his father King Pasenadi, and say they, “are done for,” meaning they have no hope of salvation. If he were to meet them, he would probably be civil rather than kind.

    Just my opinion, of course.

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