PM3009: Deficiencies of Buddhism

Let me address certain deficiencies of Buddhism, at least in the forms which I am familiar with.

A common claim of Buddhism is anatman or anatta -- there is no atman. But what is an atman? Well, it is often equated to the Western concept of soul. And I believe in some notion of soul, so that would suggest anatman is contrary to what I believe -- but is it? Is the Indian atman the same as the Western soul? I think there is some historical connection -- the Indian term derives from a root relating to breath; although the origins of the English word 'soul' are unclear, the Latin and Greek terms it is commonly used to translate also originate in referring to breath -- but, even if there is some common origin, that does not prove the ideas are the same, for they may have evolved in different directions. But, to be honest, I am unsure of whether the Indian atman is or is not the same as the soul -- either as commonly envisaged in Western culture, or as I envisage it in particular -- as so, I am likewise unsure whether the Buddhist criticisms of atman even apply to my concept of soul.

The notion of anatman is often explaining as denying that there is any permanent or enduring or unchanging self. Is that something in which I believe? Yes and no.

Buddhism claims to deny the existence of a permanent self, but it actually is stronger in its belief in the permanence of the self than it likes to acknowledge, in my opinion. I think Buddhist impermanence is at times a half-hearted impermanence, a Clayton's impermanence, the impermanence you have when you're not having impermanence.

Why do I say this? Buddhists say they believe in rebirth; but their rebirth is linear. I have never heard a Buddhist speak of rebirth backward in time, only forward in time. Rebirth is seen as coming some short time after death - some days or weeks, possibly a variable period, but generally not aeons later. When one is reborn, one is reborn not as a multiple people simultaneously, but as a single person -- one will have multiple future births, but only successively, not simultaneously. Thus, it may be assumed, that of all the people alive now, they are not me, they have never been me, they never will be me. Although I have been and shall be others, I am eternally separate and distinct from them.

The Buddhist account of rebirth is often explained as, rather than some enduring substance, a flowing stream, or one candle being used to light another. But cannot streams merge and divide? Cannot one candle be used to light many? Why should I then assume I have only one immediate past life and at most one immediate future life? Might I not have many past lives and many future lives? And, maybe there is just one great ocean, from which all the streams proceed and return? Maybe one great fire, from which every candle is lit, and back into which every candle is thrown in the end?

Maybe everyone now alive is a past or future life of mine, either successively or immediately? But, then, I am not eternally separate from the others around me any more -- they are actually one with me, just different lives of myself.

So, Buddhism gives the self permanence -- the distinctions between people are seen as enduring. True impermanence would see people as merging and splitting, and thus the distinctions between people would be temporary, and even vague and ambiguous.

Buddhism needs this permanence, for the idea of karma, and for the idea that I can work to benefit myself. If I have many future lives and many past lives -- if every other life is an immediate past and future life of myself -- it no longer makes sense to think of my sufferings as a consequence of my own past misdeeds. I have done everything that anyone has ever done, or ever shall do - I have been Gandhi and Hitler, Mother Theresa and Jeffrey Dahmer - I have all possible karma, and what of it bears fruit in this life is entirely random. So ultimately, karma is no real explanation for what befalls me in this life - something which explains everything ends up explaining nothing. As an explanation for my life, my birth, my state, my condition, karma is so universal an explanation so as to be vacuous.

Likewise, as a motivation for action, based on hope of future reward or fear of future punishment, Buddhism needs this linear permanency of self. If I am reborn as everyone else, then it does not matter what I do, I will know both great joys and great sorrows -- regardless of what I do in this life. In my next life I will live as a great king, and die in the same king's dungeons. Any attempt to found action on hope or reward founders. What then is the value of karma, across lives? Within lives, the truth of karma is clear -- but across lives, without a linearity and permanence of the self, karma becomes so diffuse so as to be irrelevant.

That is not to say that one can have no basis for action, beyond the satisfaction of the needs of the immediate present. One can be motivated in action by a sense of transcendent duty, that what one does is right in an ultimate sense which is entirely independent of reward or punishment or consequences. One can be motivated in action by a belief in a governing force in reality which will ultimately vindicate one's actions. However, neither of these ideas are really Buddhist.

anatman, anicca. Yet I say, if a candle can light many candles, if streams can merge and divide -- well, so can souls merge and divide. Whether mind is a fire or a stream, or a mound of clay -- either way, merge and divide it may. Even if it is solid rock or metal, still may it merge or divide -- with enough fire to render it molten -- and what fire burns hotter than the fire of death? So, really, whether mind be fire or water or clay or metal or stone, it matters not, they are just different metaphors. But what matters is that it be non-linear and truly impermanent. In this way do Buddhists protest the metaphor even while denying the reality.

I deny there is an essence to myself which is different from the essence of any other self. Essentially we are all the same person; our separate and distinct personhoods are accidental, not essential. But I do not need to deny the existence of an ultimate essence which is common to all persons, by which the many persons are ultimately one person. Buddhists make a great show of denying the existence of an essence of the self, even while by their unmentioned insistence on its linearity they introduce an even worse essence -- not a single common and shared essence, but an infinite collection of them. They claim zero is better than one, but their zero is really infinity in disguise, and thus by the same logic worse than one.

Many Buddhists like to speak of emptiness, śūnyatā. But they are lacking in many ways in true emptiness. Two forms of true emptiness they are lacking - one is the emptiness of distinctions between persons, and the separation of persons -- by which I am you and you are me -- they lack this through their attachment to the linearity of the self. The other is the emptiness of universes, by which universes divide, and due to their division being progressive and gradual rather than instantaneous, the boundaries between them become vague and ambiguous, and we become present in multiple distinct universes simultaneously -- but, even when they admit of the existence of other universes, they are still attached to their linearity. So, their attachment to linearity prevents them from attaining true emptiness, yet they distract from this by vague and nonsensical talk of the emptiness of emptiness -- the true emptiness of emptiness is that their emptiness is empty, for their emptiness is not truly emptiness.

Absolute impermanence is impossible. If everything is impermanent, then impermanence would be permanent, and thus, everything cannot be impermanent. But let us have permanence in the single ultimate person, and impermanence in the many lives that person lives.