By Ken Niemann
Many Americans are embracing Buddhism for a number of reasons. Chief among them, I suspect, is that this religion is just plain fashionable and is largely unencumbered by the moral and logical constraints found elsewhere (i.e. in Natural Law). The definitive source for a critique of Oriental religions is Stuart Hackett’s Oriental Philosophy: A Westerners Guide To Eastern Thought. Regarding Buddhism, he states:
“Both of these Mahayana schools share, as I have explained, the phenomenal illusionism and absolute monism of classical Taoism, for which, at the level of ultimate truth, the world of distinguishable things and processes is an illusory, easily misunderstood appearance of an indeterminate Absolute Reality which is totally devoid of distinct qualities that could define its nature from the standpoint of the principles of conceptual reason…. Individual minds are, by hypothesis, themselves aspects of the illusion and can therefore provide no basis for explaining it.”
Here, Hackett is offering that, in the Buddhist’s view, individual minds are an illusion. Problems arise, however, in that individual minds cannot be both responsible for and part of an illusion. Individual minds must have a real existence prior to the illusion, and not actually be an illusion, for one to say that they are responsible for an illusion. In other words, illusions have no causal powers.
The Buddhist concept of the Oneness is also incoherent. Hackett describes the Oneness as “totally devoid of distinct qualities”. But if this were actually the case, one could not know anything at all about the Oneness. We could not make any truth claims about it whatsoever. Anything that is truly qualityless is really nothing at all.
Buddhism, according to Hackett, holds that nothing really persists through the succession of moments. But if this is the case, how can we meaningfully hold anyone morally responsible? For example, the present Hitler would be a different Hitler from five minutes ago. And is this the way we really experience ourselves? On the contrary, we experience ourselves as a unified whole through time. Note what Hackett says regarding the candle analogy and passing on psychic essences to others:
“Is it reasonable or just to suppose that another phenomenal human person, however conceived, should be stuck with the cumulative effect of my moral choices? That I should bear the consequences of my own free and responsible moral decisions seems plausible enough; but that a phenomenally distinct individual, who by hypothesis can claim no firm link to me, should be bound by those decisions seems unthinkable. Yet without such a moral transfer, without fire passing from candle to candle, the whole notion of the cycle of births, and a way of release from it, collapses….it is hardly surprising that Mahayana thinkers not only sought for a principle of permanence but were willing….to consign the whole empirical world, with all of it’s distinctions, to sheer illusion in order to safeguard that appearance.”
If there is nothing persisting through the moments as the Buddhist maintains, what is it exactly that gets recycled or not recycled? And, recalling that the goal of Buddhism is a complete union with the One and that the One is without qualities, how is this any different from being just plain dead?
In terms of moral law, a belief in the Oneness is benighted. The view implies that Good and Evil have the same ultimate source. But if they have the same source and are ultimately One, why should someone pursue the good? In any coherent moral theory, the Good must somehow be greater. However, it isn’t the case in Pantheistic religions such as Buddhism. While many, if not most, Buddhists are wonderful, good people they really have no reason to be unless non-existence is something to be cherished. But being “good” also implies a standard that exists outside of Buddhism. Buddhism is not equipped to explain some sort of Natural Law that serves as standard for goodness.
Further, as Beckwith and Meyer argue in See the Gods Fall , the law of Karma violates our notion of free will. If one were to say that people in this life suffer because of evil actions they committed in previous lives, these actions must have been committed with a free will (why would souls be held accountable for actions in which they were not responsible?). To be held accountable for one’s actions, then, is to assume that one could have acted otherwise. However, this is logically inconsistent with the law of Karma. Let me use the following example to illustrate why this is the case:
Let’s suppose that in his previous life, Richard was almost a complete saint. Following the law of Karma, he’s born into excellent circumstances in this life-a lovely home, family, health etc. But Joe, by exercising his free will, can torture Richard and inflict undeserved pain and suffering on him thus nullifying the law of Karma. If one counters that Richard actually deserved this because of actions taken in a previous life then another problem arises. Could Joe have refrained from torturing Richard? If the answer is yes, then the Law of Karma can be overcome by free will and Karma is untrue since many people would not get what they deserve. If, on the other hand, the answer is no then we do not have a free will and cannot subsequently be punished in the next life for something we could not have helped.
Moreover, the Law of Karma impedes moral progress. It necessitates a moral dilemma such that either to take or not take an action promotes evil. Let us ask if one should interfere with the suffering of Richard who suffers due to bad karma earned in a previous life. If one alleviates his suffering, one would be dooming him to suffer more in this or the next life for not fulfilling his Karmic debt. One would be interferring with his purification and eventual absorption into being, thus making an evil decision. If one decides not to help him, however, he’s not acting in love and altruism and thus promoting evil. As one can see then, a belief in reincarnation/ karma intrinsically promotes or accommodates evil.
Now, if one responds by urging that altruistic actions make Richard get exactly what he deserves because he did not deserve to suffer that much, this becomes problematic as well. It makes any decision you make, to act or not to act, the morally correct action. This amounts to a belief that all actions are morally equal and hence morally empty.
The Law of Karma also does not account for the origin of evil and suffering, but merely pushes it back to a first life in which the evil in that life cannot be accounted for by appealing to previous lives or an infinite regress of lives that can not ultimately arrive at a cause responsible for evil. Now, if one claims that evil arose out of free will choices in that first life thus requiring a Karmic debt, this still does not explain how evil first arose. If we have the same nature and essence as God and can be thought of as pieces broken off from the One, then how can we commit evil if evil itself prevents unity with Oneness? In other words, how can I do that first evil act if I have the same nature as the One who is entirely incompatible with evil? Again, if everything really is One and good and evil come from the same source, why pursue the good? How is it greater or somehow better to pursue the good? (It was this question that drove Augustine from the Manachees.)
Further, if we are God and God is necessarily perfect, how can it be that God is illuded and cannot recognize himself? How strange, it seems, that we are under the illusion that we exist while God does not know he exists.
Here are some further questions one might pose to adherents of pantheism.
1) If God is all in all, then where did evil come from?
2) If everything is an interpretation of divine mind, then why do people have different understandings of God? This view turns God into a schizophrenic who holds contradictory beliefs about himself.
3) If our physical senses do not tell us the truth about the material world then how can we trust them when pantheist explains his or her view?
Finally, Buddhism’s explanatory power is trite and insignificant. It can’t tell us anything meaningful about the need, the origin, or the nature of mindless supernatural forces such as Karma- it just unnecessarily assumes them. Buddhism must show that a materialistic account of ourselves is somehow inadequate but it does no such thing.