When I was first reflecting on the essentials of Buddhism, I thought of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Then I realized, if we step back even more, the essential element of Buddhism is the Buddha. Who was the Buddha? From the IMS Website’s dictionary: “Fully awakened one (Sanskrit); specifically the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, who lived and taught in India 2,500 years ago” (more details are at Spirit Rock). So, this guy, Sakyamuni or Siddhartha Gautama, was the one who started it all. His teachings, the wisdom he gained from sitting under a Bodhi tree 2,500 years ago, is what is still today being taught as Buddhism. What evidence is there for this Sakyamuni? As far as I know, there is even less than for the historical existence of Jesus. So, zero. What happens to all the teachings if the teacher did not exist?
I suppose the argument that Buddhists might bring forth is that the teachings, the Dharma (“the Buddha’s teachings, truth, the basic building blocks of reality”), is so fundamental that it is just floating around to be glimpsed by any meditator who just sits long enough. When I was a child asking skeptical questions about Christianity, the answer often was “God’s ways are mysterious.” I quickly began to see that answer as a cop-out, used when adults just didn’t know what they were talking about. Floating dharma, truth that is out there to be grasped by anybody who wants to, sounds just like that. But aren’t scientists doing that as well, just searching for a truth that is out there? Well, no. First, they are not searching for The Truth, as the Buddhists do. Second, science is not searching for something predefined, again The Truth. They are open to multiple possibility, sometimes even contradictory explanations. Many Buddhists are claiming that the Buddha encourages scientific inquiry. They forget to mention that this inquiry is limited: We are to verify for ourselves that The Truth he discovered is really The Truth (and all Buddhist assurances are that it is). If we become skeptical, we are warned that this is a hindrance: skeptical doubt is “the kind of doubt that undermines faith.” That would be akin to a scientist having a hypothesis and only being interested in proving that hypothesis, any evidence to the contrary is dismissed as a hindrance. The Buddha’s ways are mysterious.
You might be wondering why I am so obsessed with questioning Buddhism, proudly preventing my enlightenment by embracing a hindrance. Actually, I reached enlightenment. Arrogant? Maybe. What did my enlightenment entail? Not a discovery of The Truth, just seeing things more clearly: There was no Buddha, hence his teachings are nothing sacred and can be questioned, there is more to suffering than what the Four Noble truths say, Enlightenment is some sort of elusive state nobody reaches anyways, and, finally, there is a ton of money involved. That’s what it always boils down to, isn’t it: money.
However, I am also disheartened by my fellow skeptics that they feel that there is value in Buddhism (like Sam Harris) or see nothing wrong with them (like Richard Dawkins) (there are a few exceptions, fortunately). What is wrong with Buddhism? I don’t see followers of Kant driving around in Audis financed by their students (actually, I don’t even know if there are people who are “Kantians”). Yes, money again. If Buddhism were just like any other philosophy, it would be taught like any other philosophy but it is not. It does not encourage critical thought, as I pointed out above and in my essay. It discourages it by putting doubt in the same category as anger. But more insidiously, I think skeptics’ focus on Buddhism prevents us from asking the most fundamental question that Buddhism claims to have answered: what is the origin of suffering? I agree that part of our suffering is created through our thinking: we can certainly add to our pain by fighting reality. However, there can already be a ton of pain in that reality. Reality is that there is poverty, that there is injustice, and that there is death of the innocent. That suffering exists without any mental add-on. That suffering ceases when we create a more just society. By claiming that we can cease to suffer by following an eightfold path, Buddhists willfully ignore the system side of suffering, which admittedly will require a lot more work to change than simply sitting on a cushion. That is the problem with Buddhism: Like all other religions, it cements the status quo by redirecting focus away from system issues to personal issues. And that is precisely why Buddhism is a religion, not a philosophy: Buddhism is not interested in discovering how things are, it is interested in teaching people one limited explanation of how things are and condemning doubt of that teaching and thus preventing change.