Comments on “The futile quest for certainty”


Language, the final deceit

"What we want from religion is guarantees."

I agree, many seek this. But many join simply for a supportive community, for morals for their kids, to still fears, to augment meaning and much more. I don't think a huge number are extreme in looking for guarantees -- they are much more pragmatic. People do want cushioning. As you say, since life is full of uncertainty, they have learned that cushioning is important. I don't mean to be picky, but in analyzing religion, it is important to be clear on why people do it.

I don't think most people are in a religion, having chosen it because they think they found one true path that really does have the answers. Most realize the accident quality of their "choice" but since they are their for community, sanctity, comfort and such, they can remain in spite of what others would consider cognitive dissonance.

But I totally agree with you that much of intellectual Buddhism (as opposed to incense-prayer Buddhism (my coin) is embraces uncertainty and shoves it in the believers face. But many Buddhist intellectuals simple make a subtle substitution as only a self-deceiving intellectual mind can -- they gain certainty finding a path or understanding mind or finding a way to commune with the Buddha-Nature or to see reality "as it really is". Arggggh. Nothing worse than sanctified hypocrisy. [btw, I have not seen you do that once here [yet]. And indeed I have heard you speak against it!]

Like you, I believe that learning to embrace uncertainty (or the "yellow light" that I speak about in this post) is an incredibly valuable skill.

I laughed at your criticism of "lineage" used in Buddhism as certainty. Just last night, after visiting a Nyingma group, I had the intuition that they use lineage like Christians use Creeds.

If we take emptiness seriously, we must realize that we cannot use Buddhism to confirm our selves.


The only problem I saw yesterday in visiting the Nyignma group was that perhaps "Emptiness" rolls of the tongue, mind and expectant heart of Nyingma aspirants as does "God" off the theists or "Mindfulness" off the Zen Buddhists. Language is a primal false comfort zone for us all.

Emptiness is not God

Yes... There is definitely a tendency in Buddhism to talk about emptiness as if it were a substitute for God. One sees this mistake being made often, in many different schools. There are explicit cautions against this in Madhyamaka; it has been going on for a thousand years at least. People really, really, really, really, really want some sort of Absolute... but there isn't one.

Yes, I have heard you speak

Yes, I have heard you speak against that monism is much of Modern Buddhism -- that agreement with my observation is what initially drew me to your site. I think it is largely an emotional draw and the mind quickly creates subtle philosophical twists to make it all comfortable. And the smarter the folks, the more obedient the mind to weave tight water-proof dharma clothing. smile


ElMarinero's picture

Is it necessarily true, as you suggest, that we must choose one religion and one only? Some say ours is an eclectic age, spiritually speaking, in which some people may choose to follow only one religion but others might choose to mix and match and combine aspects and practices of different religions according to what "works" for each of us.

This is less an eclecticism of belief, perhaps, than of approach. Why shouldn't we, for example, use Buddhist tantric approaches--for instance, the methods of deity meditation--with Christian beings such as Christ Jesus or archangel Michael? Why shouldn't Christians build a "field of merit" as the Bon do but instead of Shenla Oker at the center of it there is, as in the famous icon, the ascending Christ above the apostles, Mary, and two archangels--and then take refuge within it? Etc.

In an age when so many mystery traditions that were once taught only to monks are now out in the open--and in an age in which so many believe that the physical world is the only reality--why wouldn't we make it as easy as possible for people to pursue spirituality free of rigid rules about how religion should or must be approached?

Thanks for a great blog and here's hoping you will continue to build it out.


Hmm... I re-read this page and it didn't seem to me that it said one must choose only one religion. Clearly, many people do practice several simultaneously, or practice "serial monogamy."

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that; but there are trade-offs. One the whole, I do think it's best to practice only one (after a period of experimentation and investigation of various possibilities). Since we have limited time and energy, the more different systems that is spread over, the less intensely and deeply it is possible to practice any one of them. Some benefits may only be obtained with great concentration.

Also, different systems may have conflicting principles. Christianity is an eternalist system, which contradicts fundamental principles of Tantric Buddhism. The combination may simply not work. I can't be sure it will never work—but the evidence points that way.

Michael Roach and Christie McNally recently created a mash-up of Tantric Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. It blew up in their faces, and a lot of other people got hurt too. One died.

I don't think that has to happen—but it is a genuine danger.

we [should] make it as easy as possible for people to pursue spirituality free of rigid rules about how religion should or must be approached

That I agree with!

"Buddhism is unique, as far

Anonymous's picture

"Buddhism is unique, as far as I know, in insisting that the kind of answers we want cannot be had, anywhere."

Some interpretations of Pyrrhonian skepticism are similar. I tried to paste a link and excerpt here, but was flagged as spam. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Pyrrho.

Pyrrhonism and Buddhism

That's a very good point, thank you! Sorry about the spam thing; I don't have much control over that.

Here's the SEP article on Pyrrho for the benefit of other readers.

Thomas McEvilley's fascinating, eccentric book The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies suggests that Pyrrhonism was an influence on Buddhism and vice versa. Pyrrho himself is well-documented as having gone with Alexander to India and studying with "Gymnosophists," who were Indian sages. This was supposedly the basis of his philosophy. McEvilley argues that Sextus Empiricus—the main known Pyrrhonist—was, in turn, a major influence on Nagarjuna.

Christopher Beckwith

Anonymous's picture

Christopher Beckwith published a book this year titled "Greek Buddha" with a similar argument, judging by the descriptions. I haven't read it yet.

I'll have to check out the McEvilley book.

How can any certainty be claimed?

DEW's picture

You wrote : "We cannot rely on Buddhism to provide absolute certainty about anything other than the non-duality of form and emptiness.". How can this type of certainty be asserted and proven? Why isn't absolutely everything uncertain?


That's a sensible question... I wrote this nine years ago for a specifically Buddhist audience. I'd probably put the point differently now, and definitely when addressing a non-Buddhist audience.

I do not see how one can be

DEW's picture

I do not see how one can be certain about the nonduality of form and emptiness. One can have high probability at best. What am i missing?

A high probability at best

Well... these terms, "form" and "emptiness," are not very clearly defined. I think that, if you *could* be certain, it would be on the basis of their definitions—in the way that you can be certain all triangles have three sides. Basically the point I was trying to make was "no certainty."

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