Why I am a Buddhist

On Facebook, Seth Segall commented in response to my posts on Evan Thompson:

I agree with all the arguments you have made, but I think there is one maining major issue that divides you from Evan that transcends all the other issues. That is, as a “lover of all wisdom,” why would you define yourself as a Buddhist as opposed to someone who is informed by many wisdom traditions but holds a special place in his heart for Buddhism—in another words, how is your stance different from a more cosmopolitan one that is Buddhist-friendly, but not, strictly speaking, Buddhist?

I think I have answered this question before, but there is more to say on it. For a long time – including the first six years of writing this blog – I defined myself in just such a way, as Thompson does. Like Thompson, I went so far as to say I don’t identify as a Buddhist.

This all changed near the end of 2014. The immediate cause was the story I’ve told before: I was in the cancer hospital, I heard my wife asked what her religion was, and I realized that the kind of chaplain I’d want was Buddhist. But specifically, it was important to me that the chaplain be Buddhist because of the sort of relationship one has with a chaplain. One needs to give the chaplain a trust, the sort of trust one must put in a talk therapist for the therapeutic relationship to work: the trust that the chaplain may in important respects understand you, your values and your situation better than you do. The trust is tied to a hugely important humility, a recognition of our own limits. Buddhists traditionally refer to this sort of trust as śraddhā, a term often rendered in English with that much-maligned word faith. (I hope that this point will offer further evidence of why I am not a “Buddhist exceptionalist”.)

I believe that something like faith plays a role in a good human life for a number of reasons, all having to do with our individual limits. For one thing, we simply don’t have time to learn and know everything; there are many ideas on which we simply must take the word of reliable authorities. This is true with respect to science as much as anything else. (Do you believe that matter is made of atoms? Why?) Trustworthy instruction – the pramāṇa of śabda – is an inextricable part of human knowing. But crucial to getting this right is deciding who to trust. In acquiring knowledge about physics, we non-physicists put our faith in physicists, for the good reasons that they have studied past discoveries at length and make new ones in ways that follow reliable systematic methods.

In my case, it turned out that the chaplain question was not the end of the story. The following months were rough. Being the primary caregiver for a gravely ill person takes an emotional toll on oneself and on the relationship. My family and closest friends were far away, and I needed to spend enough time on caregiving that it was difficult to get out and talk to anyone. (This all took place during a winter when the Boston transit system shut down for a prolonged period because of heavy snow.) It was hard to know where to turn.

Where did I turn? Above all I read. Lover of all wisdom that I am, I sought out wisdom from many traditions in the hope that it would be constructively relevant. Zhu Xi and Paul Griffiths both identified the importance of reading with faith, reading in such a way that you make it a part of yourself. And I soon discovered that I didn’t have that faith in many of the traditions whose works I was reading. I couldn’t trust a Christianity that said the world was basically good, nor could I trust Daoism (and that’s a story for another time).

But Buddhism was a different story. When I picked up Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra – a text I’d read countless times before, having done my dissertation on it – suddenly its relevance hit me in a completely new way. Right in the first verses Śāntideva noted that “goodness (śubha) is weak indeed forever, but the strength of badness (pāpa) is mighty and terrible. What other good thing could overpower it, if it weren’t for perfect awakening mind?” This verse spoke to my situation like never before, and I devoured most of the book again in that night. Śāntideva was offering me advice I could trust.

This situation put a lot in perspective for me. One can, and I do, love all wisdom, but one can’t know all of it. Still less can one inhabit all of it. The many traditions of wisdom disagree with each other greatly, and one must choose where to stand – though the language of choice can itself be misleading. One must discover which traditions one finds persuasive enough to have faith in. This can be multiple traditions, and indeed it nearly always is. Alasdair MacIntyre sometimes suggests one must pick a single tradition to inhabit, but even he is happy to accept contemporary biologists’ word that humans evolved from chimps – a faith in considerable tension with his professed Thomism. And indeed, the more traditions we do inhabit, the more likely we are to encounter contradictions.

In my case, the tradition that nourished me personally, the one I was able to put my trust in, was Buddhism – including both Theravāda and Mahāyāna. I recognized that I might hold some beliefs at odds with the traditional Buddhism I was reading – beliefs I’ve discussed in the debate with Thompson – but in that period I bracketed them, put them aside, because I needed to put my faith in a single place. Since then I have worked on defining more clearly what my personal beliefs are (and thus my posts since 2015 have been both more to do with Buddhism, and more constructive, than the early ones that explored a wider range of traditions). Were I to be faced with a similarly trying situation again, I’d be clearer about the limits of my Buddhist faith – but it would still be there.

So in those days I took comfort from praying to Mañjuśrī as a personification of Buddhist wisdom, even though I didn’t and don’t believe Mañjuśrī exists. I came to refine those prayers into a nightly seven-part anuttarapūjā-like prayer, in which I could take stock of the ways I needed improvement. That was helpful enough that I still do it, five years later – which means I take refuge in buddha, dhamma and saṅgha every night. It was after all this that I started meditating regularly – but I still do that too, in a practice (Headspace) that is officially secular but whose Buddhist roots clearly show.

When a research study on young women’s cancer experiences asked me to share mine as a partner, it asked where I had turned to cope, providing a variety of options from friends and family to alcohol and other drugs. The answer that most described my coping mechanism was “religion and spirituality” – an answer that would have completely boggled my 20-year-old self.

I don’t find a pure cosmopolitanism helpful even in theory; one has to recognize some traditions are closer to the truth than others. But where one must really move beyond cosmopolitanism is in practice – in order to have faith. I have good reason to put my faith in the Buddha – to take refuge.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

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