A Lesson Contemplating A Contemporary View Of Agnosticism

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been ordained as an American Ch’an Buddhist monk, and trained in both the Chinese view of Buddhist principles, as well as influenced by Japanese Zen traditional styles of transmitting the dharma.  My Ch’an root teacher, the Venerable Shi Yong Xiang, was very scholarly in his approach to Buddhist philosophy, as well as teaching the importance science plays in informing us of universal realities, especially life-sciences.   I spent much time in discussing with him, and the other senior formal students, the logic and critical analysis of Buddhist doctrine.   I cherish those moments even today.  I came to understand how reason and my own experiences can form a new worldview based on these Buddhist lessons, both directly from primary sources, and through the legacy material that came down to us over the centuries after the death of Siddhartha Gotama.    What I was not aware of at the time, is just how future change works in this personal transformation.  I thought once I came to an understanding of a specific doctrine, that it became somewhat static.  Boy was I wrong.  The causal universe had some hidden lessons in store for me down the road.

What attracted me to Buddhism as a logical and spiritual path was that it did not rely on simple faith as my Christian one did, but required me to critically evaluate my own conclusions, and the importance of experiential verification.  The Buddha said, “…you should examine my words, and not just accept them because you have faith in me.”  The problem with this honest statement for me was in the reality of working with some of the principle doctrines.  How was I to achieve understanding when some of them were unknowable.  Like rebirth.  Being agnostic about it seemed a cop out.  Obviously in Buddhism there is no such kind of permanent entity that can go from one body to the next.  The principle of impermanence and not-self is very clear on this.  There seemed to be a contradiction in the very basic set of core doctrines.

Japanese Zen does not focus on the notion of rebirth all that much, like do some of the other Buddhist traditions, including Tibetan.  The early Chinese Ch’an practices did specialize on ritual practices associated with notions of how to comfort the dead, some in complex ways.  But anyone that reads both past and contemporary Buddhist literature will encounter the doctrine of rebirth frequently.  Over the centuries various traditions have developed ways to explain rebirth, generally in ways that consider how consciousness survives physical death.  These early dogmas also found ways to explain the continuity of individual karmic actions that come back to confront us as we appear in another universal expression.   A large majority of Buddhists see the idea of rebirth and individual-karma as simply non-negotiable elements of Buddhism.

Right from the beginning, I found a natural acceptance of Buddhist philosophy and practices.  But some of the doctrines when studied from a contemporary perspective became inhibitors.  Maybe because of my past spiritual training, and natural philosophical mind, I did not have a problem with selecting what principles to “set on the back burner” and work with those that had the most meaning for me.  In the first monastery where I studied, this set me apart from most of my follow formal students that took the position that you had to eat everything on the plate.  I spent many hours with my first teacher pursuing scholarly training analyzing the concepts and terminology of Buddhism through the Socratic method (as I did with my root teacher later).   They did not push my reluctance, and sometimes out-right skepticism, but worked to build a solid platform from which to explore deeper topics.  But this one area of Buddhist thought that stems from its pre-Buddhist encounter with  Hinduism was, for me, the elephant-in-the-room.  When I read how eminent masters ask us to accept rebirth it sounded like, “Don’t worry about understanding it, of course it is not obvious, but when you experience deep states of meditation, everything will become very clear for you.”  In other words, it is a mystical spiritual state, beyond normal experience.  There are practices in both Tibetan and Dzogchen traditions that help one to experience knowing this nature of consciousness and how the mind has to arise from a previous moment of mind.   What was interesting to me that after some time studying the Pali Nikaya’s the idea of brain was barely mentioned.

So I continued to find myself in an interesting dilemma, as a formal student training to become a professed monk and cleric, but reluctant to accept one of the core doctrines.  This bothered me, because I knew that when I started teaching, I would be ask to explain or give dharma talks on rebirth.   This was not just an academic issue as it effected my meditation practice.  It became distracting.  However, this inability to accept that doctrine did not affect my own intuitive belief and commitment to what I understood to be a Buddhist practice.   My major focus was on the ethical and moral philosophy, and the important of how the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path could enrich my life.  I awakened to the knowledge that even though there was nothing after death, that this would not effect my dedication to practice the dharma.   It was at this time that when I consider the question, “Is there life after death?”, I would just say, “maybe. Maybe not.”  And that is how I became an agnostic.

Agnostic simply means “not knowing”.  That was me.  And with this position I did not have to commit a wrong view.  Encompassing and corrective View would contain agnostic positions too.  I was not denying or affirming anything.  I was just bowing to how I was on this question.  But there was a big problem.  When I thought more about my position, I remember the lesson the Buddha described as “eel wriggling.”  Siddhartha said, “There are some monks, ascetics and Brahmins who are ell wrigglers.  When asked about this and that matter, they resort to evasive statements, and they wriggle like eels.”  Wow!  Was an agnostic such a person?  Oh well, I said, my position will allow be to continue.

After consider thought, as I trained as a Buddhist monk in a contemporary American Ch’an Order that valued a pragmatic approach to Buddhist scholarship, I came to realize that the belief in rebirth, in continuity, was just a denial of our death being a final act before our not-self form returns to emptiness.  As Stephen Batchelor stated it, “It allows a kind of worm-hole to wiggle out of — eel-like, perhaps — into another existence.”  But doesn’t the denial of death deprive us of some of the power and motivation that makes this short life of ours real?  Some Buddhist traditions emphasize that it will take multi-lifetimes to effect liberation.      Considering that humans are natural procrastinators, this is a lazy way to build a Buddhist practice.  For me, death seems to be a great motivator.   It forces us to realize that this may be the only chance for us to be here in human form, and to be conscious of the wonder and sense of spirit all around us.   It seems to me that any theory that diminishes the lesson death teaches, diminishes that experience and motivation to awaken to our full potential.

When I recite my monastic affirmation each day I am reminded of my connections and dependent relationships to the physical world I have come to know.  But my agnostic position also made me aware of the importance of not knowing too.  It is not just the absence of knowing something, but it is about my relationship to this life of mine.  Then I think about it, it is not just not knowing about what happens after death, it is about not knowing what this life is.  This chain of thought led me to narrowing my study of Buddhism to Zen.  I speak often about the important of learning the art of questioning.  Not knowing is the flip side of questioning.  When we ask questions, we are signaling that we do not know.  The question also indicates that we are serious about understanding something we do not know.  Questioning is an agnostic act, when you think about it.  In Zen, we practice and meditate with a mind reflecting great doubt.   You see, this “great doubt mind – this no-mind” is one that does not conform to a set of Buddhist doctrines, but pursuing the questions for which those doctrines may have had some answers.   When we only rely on understanding doctrine from a set of predetermined answers, we are practicing faith.  But in Ch’an and Zen that whole way of thinking is turned on its head.  We are given the question, and it is up to us to find the answers.  This is the reason why we place so much importance on validating our experiences, and the necessity of having a teacher/guide.  Our awakening as we gain insight is correlated to the level at which we craft questions.  This is how Siddhartha became a Buddha.  When he left his palace and saw the suffering of his people he began to ask questions.  He came to the realization that resolving this suffering could not be done by doctrine or beliefs alone.

When we work to build a useful and positive worldview, we learn to let go of those dispositions and attachments, and when we do, the world is somehow enriched.  What I like about Zen is that it discards all these preconceived ideas, and wipes the slate clear, in order to build on what achieves human flourishing.  The agnosticism that I first developed as a way to rationalize my doubt, became a deeper agnosticism that recognizes that not knowing something is not just an opinion.  The kind of not-knowing I am speaking of is what you cultivate through asking the question, “What is this?”

Interesting enough I have become less agnostic about rebirth these days.  I do not believe rebirth as found in the Buddhist cannon is valid anymore.  And it may just be that the word agnostic is not always that useful either.  What agnosticism is really saying is that the human mind is limited in what it can understand.  All metaphysical thought is really trying to answer the questions raised in an agnostic worldview, even though those that believe in rebirth do not consider it so.  Given what I know about how the world works, which is limited, and given what is philosophically coherent to me, the idea of rebirth is not something that makes any sense.  I find it pragmatic to commit myself to totally living here and now, with no thought whatsoever for any future existence.   My Buddhist practice has become that secure.

Let me quickly state that I am not suggesting that the Buddha rejected the idea of rebirth, or did not believe in it.  The Pali Canon does frame ideas in the context of multiple lives.  But I believe these notions have crept into the legacy teachings from pre-Buddhist practices.  Scholars have taken the view that there are to many voices in the Pali Cannon to make it a monolithic interpretation.  You get contradictory perspectives introduced all the time, which is part of the very richness of the Cannon as literature.  This may be a good time to mention the Kalama Sutta again.  The Buddha said, “Don’t just accept what I say because I am your teacher, because the tradition says it, or because it seems to be reasonable.”  At the end of this passage the Buddha mentions specific rewards that come from the practice of the dharma.  The first says that if there is indeed another life, if there is, indeed a law of karmic cause and effect, then after death, you will be reborn in a happy realm and benefit from the results of your present karma.  The second says, if there is no future life, if there is no law of karma, then too, practicing the dharma you will live happy and content, here and now, in this world.   What the Buddha seems to be saying that really matters is not what may or may not follow after death, but the quality of your experience, here and now in this very life, in this very moment.

It is clear to me that the Buddha sees his teaching not as the presentation or belief in certain theological doctrines, but rather as a methodology to remove what is causing us suffering and pain.  The teaching is primarily pragmatic.  Metaphysics is not the critical issue; suffering is.  Twenty five hundred years of philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and science we still struggle with the body-mind problem.   But most Buddhist traditions have adopted a body-mind dualism as dogma.  This seems to fly in the face of the very central part of the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence and not-self.

Finally, we come to the primacy of the lessons found in the Four Noble Truths.  This is the doctrine standing in contrast to all this metaphysical theorizing about the universe, about the mind and the body, and about rebirth or not.  The Buddha said, “Whoever in the past, the present or the future becomes fully awakened to things, does so by becoming fully awakened to the Four Noble Truths.”    This is the enlightened reality, and the core of what the Buddha was concerned with, is entirely something that does not entail any belief or speculation in past or future lives.

Copyright: OEB January 2014

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