I’ve studied Buddhism for about five years, and although there are obvious benefits to Buddhism, I want to make some criticisms of it simply for the intellectual benefit, after all the Buddha himself tells us to investigate everything, including what he tells us.
1. although the Buddha was just a man, many of the Buddhist texts display him as a type of god-man. This is interesting since Buddhism is supposed to be against the God centered religions like Christianity, and yet Buddha is the all-wise, all-knowing sage, essentially, a God. And so even if you achieve or at least understand his enlightenment, you still will never reach Buddhahood. In official Buddhism, the next Buddha is Maitreya, so although Buddhism is supposed to bring you closer to enlightenment, you basically can never reach the true goal of Buddhism, that is, being Buddha. While some scholars of Buddhism will argue that enlightenment is all that is necessary, and to be a Buddha is just a useless mythological status, it still remains that many Buddhists have a hard enough time finding enlightenment, and are guaranteed to never receive the full privilege of being the Buddha or the next Buddha.
2. Buddhism’s first truth is “To live is to suffer” and it’s second truth is “Suffering is caused by desire.” This tells us right away that Buddhism does not view life as essentially a good, amazing, or wonderful journey, but essentially hell on earth. Desire, the cause of life and everything we know, is shunned by Buddhism as part of the second Noble Truth. So although it is a good idea not to desire too much, Buddhism tells us to not desire at all. Not only is this impossible, since we would have to desire to end desire, a blatant contradiction since desire would still remain, Buddhism is also self contradictory because the Buddha’s “middle path” otherwise called the “path of moderation” must be abandoned since the only way to reach nirvana is by completely destroying desire, which is an extreme view and thus not one of moderation. Moderation would involve desiring little, whereas Buddhism’s metaphysical philosophy would force us to give up desire completely and absolutely (an impossibility).
3. although Buddhism upholds many fine ideals, such as not stealing or not killing, the rules of being a monk are so rigorous that they also go against the way of moderation. It doesn’t seem very enlightening to essentially deny one’s self or one’s very life.
4. Metaphysically, although Buddhism has a good scientific basis since it believes that all things are relative and arise from a relative dependence on each other, the Buddhist idea of nirvana is essentially a “nothingness” by which all desire, life, and any concept of soul is wiped out so that nothing remains. Many Buddhist scholars will deny this type of Nihilism, assuming that there is such a thing as an immortal soul that is freed of suffering, they still can not prove that such a soul actually exists. This soul is also a contradiction to other points of Buddhism, which is why many Buddhists believe in the “no self theory” of Buddhism, because even if there were an immortal soul, it would have to have some type of life and desire, and thus some type of suffering. Plus, any one who says there is no self is making an absurd statement, after all, who is the one that says “there is no self?”
I can probably think of more, but that is enough for now. Any Buddhists or critical thinkers have any rebuttals to that line of reasoning?
1. The idea of obtaining Buddhahood as the goal of Buddhism came much later. In the earlier schools of Buddhism, such as Theravada, the goal was liberation from Samsara by destruction of the fetters (arhantship), which did not require one to become a Sammasambuddha like Gotama. As such, many people attained the goal. Some modern schools of the Mahayana traditions, such as Dzogchen, teach that you can attain full enlightenment in this very life, in effect attaining the goal of Buddhism. This is consistent wiht the teachings of the earlier school of Buddhism. The deification of the Buddha came later. The earlier texts, specifically Digha Nikaya 16 Majjhima Nikaya 71 and 72, specifically deny the Buddha’s deity, eternity, and omniscience.
2. It does appear self-contradictory. Many people look at Buddhism as a philosophy. When one looks at it this way, then it is self-contradictory. But look at the Buddha’s teachings as instructions for practice, and then the meaning of desire changes. Desire is the source of suffering, and the practice cannot begin and cannot exist without desire. Once the practice has reached its end, there is no desire, and there is no longer any need for the practice. This was taught by the Buddha in the simile of the raft. Once one has reached the other side of the river of samsara, you abandon the raft of the dhamma. You let it go. If you continue to carry it, it’s a burden. This is one of the Buddha’s most famous similes (Majjhima Nikaya 22). But seeing the dhamma as a philosophy in this regard would be wrong view since it lands you into a thicket of views and further suffering. It has been grasped wrongly (cf: the snake simile, also in MN 22). Yes, the Dhamma can be let go of, and so can desire. Meeting one’s needs can be met without generating further karmic formations–which is the outcome of desire and aversion.
3) How is being a monk denying oneself or his life? Some people are suited to monastic life, and some people are not. I myself am not well-suited to monastic life, so I would not take ordination. Others are ideally suited for it, and would not disrobe. Others take ordination and find that it’s not for them, and they disrobe. It’s all about exploration and finding where you’re best at. We all have our places and our roles to play. The denial comes when we try to play a role that we are plainly unhappy with and are unsuited for.
4) Nirvana or Nibbana as a sort of “heaven” makes no sense. It simply means the extinction of craving. It of course is used in the sense of some heaven one attains after-life, but it is not consonant with what the Buddha taught in the Pali canon, and is not consonant with with how he used Nibbana in his discourses.
Before we get into Nibbana, let’s deal with “anatta,” since it’s one of the most misunderstood ideas in Buddhism. Thanissaro Bhikkhu dealt with this issue in an essay entitled “Not-Self or No-Self?” or something to that effect. Through out the Pali Canon, never once did the Buddha say that there is no soul or anything to that effect. What he did say, and this formula was repeated over and over again, occurs as sort of a type again, in Majjhima Nikaya 22:
“What do you think, monks – Is form constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.” “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?” “Stressful, lord.” “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”
“…Is feeling constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.”…
“…Is perception constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.”…
“…Are fabrications constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.”…
“What do you think, monks – Is consciousness constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.” “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?” “Stressful, lord.” “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”
“Thus, monks, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’
“Any feeling whatsoever…
“Any perception whatsoever…
“Any fabrications whatsoever…
“Any consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’
“Seeing thus, the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
This formula doesn’t say that there is no self. What it says is to regard anything that is conditioned and compounded and impermanent as not-self. The distinction is important because by teaching that there is no soul or no self, one still becomes locked in identity view and therefore a Nihilism, which the Buddha condemned in Digha Nikaya 1. So it is important to remember the distinction. Anatta is best remembered as an exercise to reduce clinging to the aggregates. This the formula that the Buddha uses over and over in the Pali Canon.
This brings us to Nibbana. Is it really a sort of Heaven? The answer I think is no. Digha Nikaya uses a different word for what happens at death: Parinibbana: final Nibbana. One can obtain Nibbana in this very life, as indicated by the descriptors in the final paragraph of the long exerpt from MN 22 that I posted.
As far as who is making the statement that there is no self, the Buddha responded to the “who” question along these lines: that is not a valid question. “Who makes” is not valid because it leads to identity view and clinging. “What makes” is the valid question, and the answer is mental proliferation itself is what makes it. When we talk about “who,” we are using a convention. Mental proliferation is the process that leads to all these thoughts and questions, but there is no one behind the curtain formulating them. At least, there is no one there that we can point to. It goes back to that anatta thing again. There’s nothing that we can point to and say, “this is me.” It all (even our bodies) changes too quickly for us to take any such claim very seriously at all.