Skepticism, True and False

by Punnadhammo Bhikkhu

To do insight meditation properly is to practise a profoundly radical skepticism. One must confront each successive object of consciousness with absolute courage and honesty. Our habitual proliferations upon those objects must also be seen and understood for what they are. From a subjective point of view only our mental events are real. There is a very important sense in which we create the universe we live in .

To illustrate this with an example; if a meditator says he hears a bird singing, we can be sure he hasn't got the point. He has not heard a bird. There was hearing consciousness arising to a particular pattern and frequency of sound followed by the mental construction " bird." The ontological status of any existent bird " out there" is entirely a moot point, extraneous to the fundamental interests of Buddhism.

This is a level of useful and constructive skepticism that can only be attained with discipline and long practise. It requires considerable mental clarity and precision. To carry this state of mental openness into the life is to be " just seeing" or to have what Zen calls " beginner's mind." It is not that we dispense altogether with proliferation, which is an essential tool to function in the world, but that we are not fooled thereby.

We must be careful to distinguish this level of skepticism from a much shallower kind that is primarily a philosophic position; as for instance in " agnostic Buddhism." This agnosticism is a particular way of apprehending the teachings and the world and as such is a definite view that can be held to as tenaciously as any other. In that case, instead of being a tool to break out of our conditioned habits of thought, it becomes a further bulwark of them.

This limited type of skepticism does not face each phenomenon with freshness. Instead, it starts with a firmly entrenched paradigm into which all things must be slotted. Judging from the statements of agnostic Buddhists, this seems to be the modern scientific-materialist world-view. Much of the total picture is missed because anything which does not fit into this " reality" is ignored, dismissed or explained away.

If you want to be a truly sincere skeptic then you must question everything except that which is immediately and directly experienced. Far from doing this, the new school of agnostic Buddhism comes ready equipped with a whole agenda of beliefs (and I use the word advisedly) from outside Buddhism and subjects the Dhamma to criticism in terms of those beliefs. Since these beliefs are ones deeply conditioned from the surrounding culture, sometimes they are not clearly articulated or even fully conscious. Mental proliferations not seen as such but accepted as aspects of the real are hallucinations. If an ideology of agnostic Buddhism is articulated to legitimize these hallucinations, then it is a teaching that is very far from leading beings away from delusion.

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