SPIRITUAL TRUTH CLAIMS

Traditional spiritualities tend to be organized around metaphysical propositions that can neither be convincingly demonstrated nor refuted. Stephen Batchelor (1) gives examples: ‘God is love’, ‘creation arose from the breath of the One’, ‘bliss is eternal union with Brahman’, and ‘you will only come to the father through me’.

In the specific case of Buddhism, Batchelor questions the classical understanding of how craving causes suffering: “Craving is the origin of suffering because … it causes actions that lead to your being born, getting sick, growing old and dying”. These existential realities in themselves, and not simply how we deal with them, are included in the word dukka, which we translate as suffering. The overall claim makes sense only within the metaphysical framework of karma and rebirth.

Batchelor worries that, with a proposition of this kind, “one finds oneself in the language game ‘In Search of Truth’.” If you believe them to be true, then you qualify to be a Buddhist. If you don’t, you don’t qualify. “One is thus tacitly encouraged to take a further step of affirming a division between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, between those who have gained access to the truth and those who have not. This establishes the kind of separation that can lead to cultish solidarity as well as hatred for others who fail to share one’s views. ‘When the word truth is uttered’ remarked the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, ‘a shadow of violence is cast as well”.

I have noticed for myself that even in modern paths, where experiential and inquiry methods are favoured over blind belief, there can be a powerful narrative of ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’. There is no recognised space for getting something else. To me this suggests a continuing immersion in the language game ‘in Search of Truth’. I follow Stephen Batchelor in taking a secular turn partly for this reason, and my solution is a stance of positive sceptical openness. An ancient Western tradition, Pyrrhonism, supports this view. Its founder, the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, developed this teaching after returning from India, where he had accompanied the army of Alexander ‘the Great’. Pyrrhonism was understood in the Greek world as a variant form of the influential Sceptic school. It has parallels with currents in early Buddhism, sharing the notion of an inner peace linked to freedom from attachment to beliefs. But Greek philosophers were not monks, and it did not create a renunciate religious culture of the Indian kind. I will look at this tradition more closely as part of my continuing inquiry.

  1. Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017