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The Agnostic Buddhist
An edited version of a talk given at the symposium "American Buddhism Today" to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Rochester Zen Center, Rochester, New York, June 22, 1996.
Something I've noticed over the years is how, although we may start out at a young age rebelling against Christianity or our Jewishness and then finding in Buddhism a vindication for our rebelliousness, as we grow older, we begin in a strange way to recover our past.
I was not brought up a Christian.
In fact, my grandparents on my mother's side formerly broke with the Christian Church, even though my great-grandfather was a Wesleyan minister.
Under my mother's influence I grew up in an anti-Church environment, one which might loosely be termed humanistic. Now I find that I am coming back more and more to that culture in which I grew up.
Although I admire many of Christianity's ethical values, I have no natural sympathy with the Christian tradition.
But I do find myself increasingly sympathetic to my own childhood experience as a humanist, a secularist, an agnostic.
I'm even beginning to reconsider positively what it means to be a materialist -- a term that has a rather bad press in Buddhism.
The term "agnostic" is the one I identify with the closest. Yet few people realise that it was only coined in the late 1880's by the biologist Thomas Huxley. And it was coined as a joke.
Huxley belonged to a small philosophical circle in London in which he increasingly felt out of place.
While everybody else in the group could readily identify themselves as a Christian or a Rationalist or a Schopenhaurian, or whatever, he felt perplexed that no such term seemed applicable to him.
So he decided to call himself an "agnostic" in order that he too could "have a tail like all the other foxes."
Huxley began to develop the idea. He saw agnosticism as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed.
But he refused to see it as a creed in the traditional sense of the word, and saw it far more as a method.
The method he had in mind is broadly that which underpins scientific inquiry.
It means, on the one hand, taking one's reason as far as it will go and, on the other, not accepting anything as true unless it is somehow demonstrable. Here there are very clear parallels with the Buddhist tradition.
Although we may not find it so much in Zen, in the Indo-Tibetan tradition there is a strong emphasis on rational inquiry.
I spent many years as a young monk not working on koans but studying formal logic and epistemology with Tibetan lamas.
It is a very strong, rational tradition and I'm immensely grateful to have had that training.
All traditions of Buddhism agree that one should not believe something simply for the sake of believing it, but only if it can somehow be demonstrated as true, if it can be realised in some practical way.
Huxley even described his view as "the agnostic faith," thus giving it the kind of seriousness that one might otherwise expect only amongst religious people.
And within fifteen years of Huxley coining the term, "agnosticism" was already being linked with Buddhism.
It was first applied by a man called Allan Bennett who became a bhikkhu in Burma in 1901 with the name Ananda Metteyya.
Bennett was the first Englishman to be ordained as a Buddhist and the first European who tried to articulate his understanding of the Dharma as a practising Buddhist rather than merely a scholar of Buddhism.
In a magazine he issued in Rangoon in 1905, he spoke of Buddhism as "exactly coincidental in its fundamental ideas with the modern agnostic philosophy of the West."
At the beginning of the century, when Westerners were only just starting to embrace the teachings of the Buddha, why would this young English monk have regarded Buddhism as agnostic?
I suspect that one of the key sources may have been this famous passage from the Cula Malunkya Sutta, the sixty-third discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali canon.
The Buddha says: "Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him.
The man would say, 'I will not let the surgeon pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a cross bow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed.'
All this would still not be known to that man, and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say, 'I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal; finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body;
whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,' that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha, and meanwhile that person would die."
This passage shows quite clearly both the pragmatic nature of the Buddha's teaching, as well as its agnostic bent.
It is important to distinguish between those questions that are addressed by the core teachings of the Buddha, and those which are not really of central concern. I was listening on the radio not long ago in England to a discussion about religious belief.
All of the participants were engaged in a heated discussion about the possibility of miracles.
It is generally assumed that being a religious person entails believing certain things about the nature of oneself and reality in general that are beyond the reach of reason and empirical verification.
What happened before birth, what will happen after death, the nature of the soul and its relation to the body: these are first and foremost religious questions.
And the Buddha was not interested in them.
But if we look at Buddhism historically, we'll see that it has continuously tended to lose this agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion, with all of the usual dogmatic belief systems that religions tend to have.
So, ironically, if you were to go to many Asian countries today, you would find that the monks and priests who control the institutional bodies of Buddhism would have quite clear views on whether the world is eternal or not, what happens to the Buddha after death, the status of the mind in relation to the body, and so on.
This has led to Buddhism as it comes into the West being automatically regarded as a religion.
The very term "Buddhism," a word for which there is no exact equivalent in an Asian language, is largely an invention of Western scholars.
It suggests a creed to be lined up alongside other creeds; another set of beliefs about the nature of reality that we cannot know by other means than through faith.
This assumption, though, tends to distort or obscure the encounter of the Dharma with secular agnostic culture.
And another problem is that today the very force of the term "agnosticism" has been lost.
If somebody says they're an agnostic, although they know it means that one claims not to know certain things, it usually goes hand in glove with an attitude that seems not to care about such things.
"I don't know what happens after death" becomes equivalent to:
"I don't care; I don't really want to know; I don't even want to think about it." Modern agnosticism has lost the confidence that it may have had at the time of Huxley, and lapsed into scepticism.
Buddhism too has lost that critical edge that we find in the early Pali discourses, and, of course, in the Zen koans. Very often Buddhism as an institution has tended to lapse into religiosity.
So, what would an agnostic Buddhist be like today? How would we even start to think about such a stance?
Firstly, I would suggest that an agnostic Buddhist would not regard the Dharma or the teachings of the Buddha as a source which would provide answers to questions of where we are going, where we are coming from, what is the nature of the universe, and so on.
In this sense, an agnostic Buddhist would not be a believer with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena and in this sense would not be religious. I've recently started saying to myself:
"I'm not a religious person," and finding that to be strangely liberating. You don't have to be a religious person in order to practice the Dharma.
Secondly, an agnostic Buddhist would not look to the Dharma for metaphors of consolation.
This is another great trait of religions: they provide consolation in the face of birth and death; they offer images of a better afterlife; they offer the kind of security that can be achieved through an act of faith.
I'm not interested in that.
The Buddha's teachings are confrontative; they're about truth-telling, not about painting some pretty picture of life elsewhere. They're saying: "Look, existence is painful."
This is what is distinctive about the Buddhist attitude: it starts not from the promise of salvation, but from valuing that sense of existential anguish we tend either to ignore, deny or avoid through distractions.
Buddhism is often misrepresented as something nihilistic or life-denying.
This fails to recognise that the project of the Four Noble Truths is about resolving the dilemma of anguish, not about indulging human suffering.
Again it's a praxis; it's something we can do.
It starts with understanding the reality of anguish and uncertainty, and then applying a set of practices that work towards a resolution.
But this kind of agnosticism is not based on disinterest; it's not saying, "I just don't care about these great matters of birth and death." It is a passionate recognition that I do not know.
I really do not know where I came from; I do not know where I'm going.
And that "don't know" is a very different order of "don't know" from the scepticism and fear of a superficial agnosticism.
This process of stripping away consolatory illusions by holding true to this agnostic not-knowing, leads to what we might call "deep agnosticism." I like to think of Buddhism as the practice of deep agnosticism.
This both leads away from the superficiality of contemporary Western agnosticism, and begins to tap a dimension that seems essential to the heart of Dharma practice.
To illustrate this, here is a koan; case forty-one from The Gateless Gate:
Bodhidharma sat facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said,
"Your disciple's mind is not yet at peace.
I beg you, master, give it rest." Bodhidharma said, "Bring me your mind and I will put it to rest for you." The Second Patriarch replied,
"I have searched for the mind but have never been able to find it." Bodhidharma said, "I've finished putting it to rest for you."
This deep "not-knowing," in this case the Second Patriarch's inability to find his anguished mind, takes the notion of agnosticism down to another depth. One might call it a contemplative depth.
Such deep agnostic metaphors are likewise found in such terms as wu hsin (no mind), and wu nien (no thought), as well as in the more popular "Don't Know Mind" of the Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn.
Another striking feature of this koan is its similarity with the process of understanding emptiness as found in the Madhyamaka philosophy of India and Tibet. "Emptiness" is a singularly unappetising term.
I don't think it was ever meant to be attractive. Herbert Guenther once translated it as "the open dimension of being," which sounds a lot more appealing than "emptiness."
"Transparency" was a term I played with for a while, which also makes emptiness sound more palatable.
Yet we have to remember that even two thousand years ago Nagarjuna was having to defend himself against the nihilistic implications of emptiness.
Many of the chapters in his philosophical works start with someone objecting:
"This emptiness is a terrible idea. It undermines all grounds for morality.
[It undermines everything the Buddha was speaking about." Clearly the word did not have a positive ring back then either.
I suspect that it might have been used quite consciously as an unappealing term, which cuts through the whole fantasy of consolation that one might expect a religion to provide.
Perhaps we need to recover this cutting-edge of emptiness, its unappealing aspect.
Let's go back to Bodhidharma and his disciple, the Second Patriarch.
It seems as though the pain of the disciple's dilemma was so extreme that he was prepared to cut off his arm to resolve it.
This pain was centred around some kind of nugget of anguish within his own mind, his most intimate sense of who he was.
Yet by inquiring deeply into this painful, isolated self-identity, he could find nothing he could ultimately grasp hold of and say: "That's my mind.
There it is. I've got it. I've defined it. I've realised it."
Instead, he discovered the ultimate unfindability of the mind, and by implication the ultimate unfindability of self and things.
And this gives us an important clue to understanding the notions of emptiness and "no mind."
They do not mean that there is literally no mind; they're saying that if you try to understand the nature of anything in the deepest sense, you will not be able to arrive at any fixed view that defines it as this or that.
The Dalai Lama uses a quaint expression in colloquial Tibetan: dzugu dzug-sa mindoo, which means literally: "there is no finger-pointing-place." Or as we would say: "there's nothing you can put your finger on."
Again this does not imply that the thing in question does not exist at all.
It simply exposes the fallacy of the deeply-felt, almost instinctive assumption that our self, the mind or anything else must be secured in a permanent, transcendental basis.
Yet the uniqueness of a person's mind or identity, the uniqueness of a flower that's growing in the garden outside, does not require any kind of transcendent basis that's peculiar to that thing.
Emptiness indicates how everything that comes about does so through an unrepeatable matrix of contingencies, conditions, causes, as well as conceptual, linguistic and cultural frameworks.
Everything arises out of an extraordinarily complex combination of transient events that culminate, in this particular instance, in my saying these words to you.
Now, whether we follow the Indo-Tibetan analytical approach or the Zen approach of asking a koan like "What is this?," such meditative inquiry leads to a mind that becomes more still and clear.
But paradoxically this does not mean that things then become more clear-cut, that you reach some final understanding of who you are or of what makes the universe tick.
Because, at the same time as such things become more vivid and clear, they also become more baffling. One encounters, as it were, the sheer mystery of things.
A deep agnosticism would be one founded on this kind of unknowing: the acknowledgement that, in terms of what life really is, I really do not know.
And in that unknowing there is already a quality of questioning, of perplexity.
And as that perplexity becomes stabilised through meditation, one enters increasingly into a world that is mysterious, magical in a sense, and not containable by narrow ideas and concepts.
But this is not where the practice ends.
This is only half the project.
What we also discover in this open space, in this mysterious experience of non-self, are the wellsprings of creativity and imagination.
In Mahayana Buddhism particularly the Buddha is not just someone who had a wonderful mystical experience, whose mind is freed, but also this being who spontaneously and compassionately manifests and is embodied in the world through the nirmanakaya ("transformation body").
I like to think of the Buddha's awakening under the Bodhi tree not as some kind of transcendental absorption, but as a moment of total shock.
Neils Bohr once said about quantum mechanics: "If you're not shocked by quantum theory, then you don't understand it."
I think we could say the same about emptiness: If you're not shocked by emptiness, then you haven't understood it.
The Buddha's awakening is followed by this strange period where, according to tradition, he hesitates for about six weeks before being prompted, by a god in this case, to go out into the world and do something.
This process is similar in many respects to the process of artistic creation.
When faced with the task of articulating a deep intuitive vision in words,
clay or paint, one might experience that same intense trepidation that one finds in meditation when the mind is very still but at the same time tremendously resistant about pursuing the inquiry any further.
At this point the meditator usually lapses into fantasy and daydreams and drowsiness, which you're probably familiar with.
The writer (one of my other personae) usually has an urgent compulsion to tidy up his desk.
But it's the same kind of evasion; it's the same kind of hesitation in face of what is rather awesome.
For here we stand on the threshold of the imagination.
We are challenged to imagine something that has never quite been thought of in that way before.
The Buddha's genius lies precisely in his imagination.
I don't believe that when he experienced awakening, suddenly the Four Noble Truths appeared -- 1, 2, 3, 4 -- in words of fire in the sky, or anything like that.
Rather, his awakening did not become real until he had to stammer it out to his first disciples, the five ascetics, in the deer-park in Sarnath.
The model of awakening in Mahayana Buddhism is that of a process which is perhaps never completed.
The process of articulating the Dharma goes on and on according to the needs of the different historical situations that it encounters.
We could read the whole history of Buddhism, from the moment of the Buddha's awakening until now, as a process of seeking to imagine a way to respond both wisely and compassionately to the situation at hand.
All of us have experiences of what it means to imagine and create something.
In Korea, after sitting for three months in the zendo, struggling with a koan, we would then have three months when we would sit much less, without a formal schedule, and I would write. It struck me very forcibly one day,
as I was sitting at my desk in front of a blank sheet of paper, that preparing myself to put into words what had not yet been put into words was to enter a very similar frame of mind to that of sitting on a cushion in a zendo, asking: "What is this?"
The creative process seemed very comparable to the meditative process. Awakening is only complete -- in the same way that a work of art is only complete -- when it finds an expression, a form, that translates that experience in a way that makes it accessible to others.
That again is the balance between wisdom and compassion.
The creative process of expressing the Dharma is not just a question of duplicating in words something etched somewhere in the privacy of my soul.
The living process of understanding is formed through the encounter with another person, with the world.
You've probably all had the experience of someone coming to you in a state of distress and blurting out their problems, and you suddenly find yourself saying things that you were quite unaware you knew.
The process of awakening is one of valuing and connecting with that capacity to respond in authentic ways to the suffering of others.
The imagination is the bridge between contemplative experience and the anguish of the world.
By valuing imagination, we value the capacity of each person, each community, to imagine and create themselves anew.
Dharma practice is like creating a work of art.
Our five skandhas -- body, feeling, perceptions, impulses, consciousness: they're the clay that we mould and form through our practice into a bodhisattva, or whatever we aspire to.
Our very lives become the raw material of our imagination.
In the contemporary world Buddhism encounters a culture that places a positive value on the power of each individual's creativity and imagination.
It's interesting that in most Buddhist traditions these things are not strongly encouraged, or, if they are, it's usually only within highly formalised settings.
I like to think of Dharma practice today as venturing into a world of imagination, one in which each individual, each community, seeks to express and to articulate their vision in terms of the particular needs of their own situation.
Buddhism would then become less and less the preserve of an institution, and more and more an experience that is owned by ordinary people in ordinary communities.
Of course, there are dangers here.
But these are hardly new. Historically, Buddhism has always had to find ways of responding effectively to the danger of becoming too acculturated, of becoming too absorbed into the assumptions of the host culture.
Certainly such a danger exists here in the West: Buddhism might, for example, tend to become a kind of souped-up psychotherapy.
But there's the equal danger of Buddhism holding on too fiercely to its Asian identity and remaining a marginal interest amongst a few eccentrics.
Somehow we have to find a middle way between these two poles, and this is a challenge which is not going to be worked out by academics or Buddhist scholars; it's a challenge that each of us is asked to meet in our own practice from day to day.
Buddhism is not some ethereal thing that is magically transferred from Asia and then one day appears in the West.
Titles of books like The Awakening of the West might suggest that Buddhism is a thing that has this almost mystical capacity.
But what is it that is transmitted?
The only thing that is transmitted is the understanding and the way of life of those people who practice it, people like you and me. No one else is going to do it for us.
The responsibility is ultimately our own.
We need to be particularly wary today of the modern conceit which assumes that because of our broad education, our easy access to information, and the sudden emergence of a readily available literature on Buddhism,
that this is somehow going to speed the process up; that we'll arrive at an American Buddhism or a Western Buddhism or a whatever Buddhism much more quickly than in the past.
I think this is a serious misreading of cultural transition and change.
A culture like Buddhism is something organic.
For example, we may have a great deal of scientific understanding about oak trees, but that knowledge in itself, and our access to that information, is not going to speed up the growth of oak trees.
Historically, we can see that Buddhism has never managed to root itself in any culture until several generations have passed.
This is a sobering reminder for individualistic Westerners who are proud of their capacity to solve problems quickly.
We prefer to think that some bright spark will sooner or later figure out what needs to be done to create a Western Buddhism, rather than emphasising our own doing of it, our own cultivation of the wisdom and compassion that are at the core of Buddhism.
Perhaps we have really to trust in the practice and find the humility to accept that we will probably not live to see a Western Buddhism.
Maybe our children will, or our children's children.
We need to acknowledge that we live in a time of transition, a time in which the Dharma is in crisis in Asia, and yet has not really found its feet here.
It's an exciting time to be in: one in which something is being created, and we are the participants in that creation.