Cleaning Up the Buddhist Clutter

Buddhism starts off simply with the 4 Noble Truths and then gets much more complex, introducing things like the 8-Fold Path, 3 Marks of Existence, 12-Point Chain of Dependent Origination, 4 (or 9?) Jhanas, 5 Skhandas, 5 Hinderances, and much more. This complexity irks me as it means more chances of missing the point, messing up practice and getting overwhelmed.

Furthermore, I find teachings on “no-self” (anatta) confusing or irrelevant. For instance, what does it mean to say all things exhibit anatta when such things include inanimate objects like rocks?  Why would I even care?  Why tell me I can’t find a self in a sensation when I never thought I would anyway?

Hence, I seek simplification.  Unfortunately, time, place and competing agendas have all shaped Buddhism so that many of the teachings and practices seem to contradict.  Therefore, I don’t try to find a unifying principle for Buddhism and instead seek a subset sufficient for a complete practice in itself.

This subset should avoid the supernatural (no gods, past lives, karma, etc…).  It should remain firmly within psychology — addressing a psychological problem (suffering) with a psychological solution (mental practices designed to ease the thought patterns that lead to suffering).  As a practical matter, it should yield results within a relatively short period of time (not overnight, but certainly not over years).  With that in mind, the following fits the bill: Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as me or mine.

This teaches an attitude or a way of experiencing designed to reduce my dissatisfaction.  This way of experiencing requires viewing all things — sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, insults, etc… — impersonally, like I would watch clouds in the sky. Yes, I view even “personal” things like thoughts impersonally.  I take the stance of a passive, neutral, detached observer and observe all these things come and go, never trying to flee or hold on to any of them, never thinking that I own any of them or that any of them define me.

In this view, anatta specifies an impersonal way of experiencing, and not a claim about the nature of things.  The anatta of impersonal objects (like rocks) and sensations prescribes the attitude with which I perceive them.  Deconstruction (via labeling or Skhandas for instance) aids in this observation in the same way that knowing a magic trick aids in dispelling the illusion of the trick.

Meditation improves my skill in this impersonal perception.

“Right action” covers all of my life, not just the parts with moral import.  Further, it says nothing about morality; rather, “right” prescribes acting from an impersonal attitude. I take an impersonal view of past hurts, grudges, preferences, my agency (ownership of action), praise, blame, the results of my actions, etc… I act based on the dictates of the situation and always with an impersonal attitude, in which I cling to nothing as me or mine.  Granted, these actions often lead to a higher standard of moral behavior by removing the motivations to be immoral, but that’s a happy coincidence, not the point.

Nirvana vanishes as a goal.  Rather, I live in greater or lesser degrees of Nirvana, depending on the extent to which I takes things impersonally.


28 thoughts on “Cleaning Up the Buddhist Clutter

  1. Buddha did a pretty good job cleaning it up…If you notice his early efforts , right after his enlightenment, the first few of his teaching efforts were not successful. And he had to convince/convert some hard core vedic/hindu brahmins who had pretty complex doctrines themselves. So you can imagine his struggle to make his teachings concise, precise and effective.

    I think, he did a pretty goog job already summarizing everything into four noble truths. That is all there is. The noble path (4th truth) is also well organized , at a high level, into 3 categories – Conduct, Wisdom, Concentration, He got all bases covered.

    Everything else is just a commentary on the four truths.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! There’s some debate about whether The Buddha actually taught the 4 Noble Truths. But setting that aside, they are still too complex. For instance, the 4th truth relates 8 more things, and some of those 8 things relate yet more things (for instance, wisdom relates at least 3 other things). In fact, the truths form a tree which only looks simple at the surface, but gets overly complex as you head down the branches.

  2. Nice post BR.

    The Indian mind is a great classifier and categoriser so maybe this explains some of the complex sytematisation. (You don’t even mention the Abhidhamma literature, which is worse than biology). But don’t forget Zen. I also dislike complexity and have no memory for all these lists of names so find Zen practice and ideas most suitable.

    I once spoke to someone who claimed to be a Buddha and he remarked that 80% of Buddhist teachings are bull. He did not mean useless, but didactic rather than ‘true’ and thus bypassable where not found useful.

    Buddhism can appear to be fabulously complex, completely simple and all points in between. For some the Zen way would be too simple. Anyway, I would strongly agree with keeping it all as simple as possible and especially in relation to practice.

    Maybe you’re a bit quick to see problems with the teachings. If we take into account the different systems of teaching, their terminologies, methods, coneepts and emphasis, and also the potential confusion caused by the ‘three turnings of the wheel’, then usually everybody is found to be saying the same thing. After all nobody is disagreeing with the Buddha.

    1. Great points.

      I’m likely quite quick to see problems with the teachings. I think removing the unnecessary helps make practice more effective, so I’m generally looking at Buddhism with an eye towards simplification, pruning, or unifying principles.

  3. Thank you for this excellent and practical condensation of core Buddhist doctrines. One thing occurred though: When you say that your “subset should co-exist with a secular/scientific worldview”, then that on the surface places us firmly within the subject/object dichotomy, and is not that the very paradigm from which we seek escape? The actualisation of any posited non-duality, one might say, sees that dichotomy as the mind’s own construct. The dichotomy doesn’t disappear, but only because the rational mind evolved only to think, to perceive and conceive in such ways; and yet the actualisation understands that as a sort of lower-level fabrication – useful, but not the whole picture and not on its own true to actuality. How then, to reconcile a ‘scientific worldview’ with one which stands in direct opposition to it? Perhaps it is possible after all, given that the scientist, not in his worldview but in his specialism, sees the rock not as an ontologically distinct (self-like) entity, but rather as a localised, morphing energy display, or some such.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I actually see no contradiction between non-duality and the secular/scientific worldview. Science reinforces non-duality; every time I read about how the brain works, I read a hardcore non-duality in which the “self” and environment are not separate but an integrated whole. In fact, I find it utterly impossible to even make sense of how neural networks can lead to behavior and states unless I completely abandon the idea of a “self”.

      1. You’re not a contrarian at all. On the contrary, you bring up excellent points that are worth engaging. In fact, I’m considering doing a post on science, secularism and non-duality. It depends on whether I think I can say enough about it, but you’ve got me thinking.

        Keep the excellent comments coming!

      2. Thank you BIAR, and I look forward to reading any such article should it appear. I do think the term ‘worldview’ might best be avoided though, which is why I said in my original comment: “When you say that your ‘subset should co-exist with a secular/scientific worldview, then that on the surface places us firmly within the subject/object dichotomy”. Please tell me if I am incorrect, but the term ‘worldview’ denotes the fundamental presuppositions and interpretative prism of a person or group, and I cannot help but think the scientific worldview embraces a presupposed world of measurable and perceivable objects as discrete, distinct entities, and that the same is even truer for the secular worldview. Oh good grief, I am not only a contrarian, but a pedant too – ‘guilty m’lud!’

      3. Lol! I can see pros and cons to using worldview… I’ll see if I can rephrase to avoid some of the less desirable connotations. My view of science is that it just builds predictive models. Thus measurement, etc… all occurs within the context of developing a successful (e.g.: predictive) theory. I think real science stays away from metaphysics, although many scientists cross that line. This — in addition to science actually showing interconnection — is why I never thought of science as an issue.

  4. “Science reinforces non-duality”

    I couldn’t agree more, and would even go so far as to say that it is the only cosmological doctrine reinforced by science,

  5. Some years ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix about Buddhism. It seemed like an interesting concept. But then I read the Wikipedia on it and ran into all the things you list: 4 noble truths, 8 fold path, etc, and was bewildered.

    My impression of Buddhism is that the central tenet is that we can’t necessarily control reality, but we can control what it means to us and how we respond to it. I see a lot of wisdom in that. (Although I definitely think we should *try* to influence reality before we assume we can’t.)

    1. Hi SAW. I think a Buddhist would reply that we can’t hope to influence Reality, as opposed to interfere blindly with it, until we know what it is.

      When I came across Buddhism I also reacted badly at first to all the lists. They may have made a lot more sense in the oral tradition, when lists would be crucial for memory.

      Luckily there’s no need to learn them, albeit that knowing some of them would normally be helpful in daily practice and this would usually be their purpose. The Zen view, I think, would be that all this detail is unnecessary if we go straight to the source and beeome acquainted with Reality and Truth. I suspect that Lao Tsu would have found much of Buddhjsm hopelessly wordy and written a one page summary.

    2. Yes, generally speaking Buddhism says that, although its distinction is in how it says you should control your reaction. I don’t think Buddhism rejects the attempt to change conditions; in fact, some concepts — like Skillful Means — are precisely about that. However, it does discourage being attached to these conditions.

      Are you familiar with Stoicism? It also states that we shouldn’t emotionally invest in things outside of our control, but it takes a different tack and spends some time discussing concepts like what is or not within our control. It’s also much simpler than Buddhism and doesn’t have all the supernatural elements that Buddhism does.

      1. Thanks BIAR. I am somewhat familiar with Stoicism. Massimo Pigliucci, whose writings I often follow, has done a lot of writing on it recently.

        I’m actually impressed with how much overlap Buddhism, Stoicism, various other philosophies, and approaches in clinical psychology seem to have in many matters.

      2. Yes, I follow Pigliucci’s articles too :).

        Yes, I agree on the overlap, and I’ve learned a great deal by exploring the overlap. I’m fascinated by the overlap of Buddhism’s emptiness with Bundle Theory. Buddhism’s main principles could be derived from that, and Buddhism could be presented as a wholesale rejection of substance/essence ontology. The result would be a presentation of Buddhism in purely Western philosophical terms, using concepts familiar to Westerners, or at least Westerners versed in Western philosophy.

      3. It wouldn’t quite work though, BIAR. Western philosophy has no equivalent for the principle of nonduality. This is what makes it characteristically ‘western’ in the first place. Because of this, we see people like Kastrup, Melhuish and Priest interpreting Nagarjuna as rejecting all possible metaphysical positions. In fact there is one position that Western thought does not allow, and this is the one that Nagarjuna proves is the correct one. The near total confusion that ensues when East meets West is inevitable.

        Jay Garfield’s book on Nagarjuna may be the most serious attempt to rephrase Buddhist philosophy in Western academic terms, but I hesitate to recommend it. I admire it, but it is massively complicated, so much so that I never finished it and never will. I think Buddhist philosophy is fine as it is, and it is up to the rest of us to learn the language and concepts. Converting them fully into the language and concepts of a failed philosophy cannot be a good idea.

        Thumbs up for Massimo P. I’m a fan. One of the most sensible and honest scholars I’ve come across. The overlap between his Stoicism, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, advaita and so forth would be (in my opinion) caused by them being the same doctrine. Stoicism ditches the cosmology but retains the ethics. Thus Massimo is almost a Buddhist. albeit he would probably not agree. But it could only be a nondualistic philosophy that grounds Stoic ethics in logic and reality.

        The axiomatic principle at the heart of Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way’ philosophy would be ‘nonduality’. Without this principle the entire doctrine falls to pieces and makes no sense at all. This is what we would have to translate into our own language in order to translate the rest of the doctrine. This is the principle proved by Nagarjuna. The trouble is, if we endorse this principle then we will have become an eastern philosopher.

        The final hurdle would be that besides the problem that nonduality cannot be handled properly in the subject-predicate non-paradoxical language of our western academic philosophy, it cannot be handled properly by any natural language. Every person has to make the translation for themselves because really it’s the comprehension of the concept that is the problem and not the language.

        Sorry for all the words but I’ve been wrestling with some of these problems for a long time and still am. How can one make Buddhist philosophy seem plausible in western-style philosophy when it requires a paradigm-shift to even see what it is?

      4. Western philosophy needn’t have an equivalent of non-duality; it needs only to present it in a more accessible fashion to Westerners. I believe it can.

        I’ve already learned far more about emptiness and no-self from Western sources than I have from all other Buddhist sources combined.

        If nothing else, Western skepticism and pragmatism represent a welcome improvement to the stereotypical Buddhist institutional attitude of taking a text, treating it as sacred scripture and then chanting it.

        I like to learn from texts, not worship them.

      5. I’m sorry that you have such a low opinion of Buddhism BiaR. I hadn’t realised that you were a critic. Your posts usually suggest you share about the same view. I wouldn’t have written all that stuff above had I known. Apologies.

        Your final sentence reveals nothing but incomprehension. Maybe you should cut Buddhism some slack and admit that you don’t actually know your enemy.

        I have ncver knowingly met a Buddhist who worships texts, although they may often be revered. Note that I specifically referred above to ‘Middle Way’ Buddhism, for which Nagarjuna’s logical proof of nonduality would be the central text for learning purposes. Nobody worships it and they’d be thought a damn fool if they did. It’s purpose is entirely didactic, as are all the other texts.

        Why make a distinction between Western sources and Buddhist sources? A source could be both or neither. For a Buddhist all that would matter is the level of realisation of the author.

        I’ll happily leave it there. I thought you were sympathetic towards Buddhism and trying to sort out the details of these things so misjudged my comments.

        At any rate, your post got a good discussion started as usual.

      6. I think there’s good stuff to be had in Buddhist teachings, but also a lot of nonsense. I also think getting to the good stuff requires a critical attitude. We not only need to sift through the nonsense, but we need a critical attitude to really understand what the good stuff’s about.

        I’ve practiced Buddhism, read texts, studied, and dedicated most of this blog to Buddhist topics. So I think it’s obvious that I think there’s much in Buddhism that’s worthwhile and that I do have an informed opinion about it.

        However, there’s a HUGE difference between honestly engaging with a body of thought and uncritically swallowing the Kool Aid. And being critical does not mean putting things down, although there are “Buddhist” practices about which I have nothing good to say, and unlike the stereotypical apologists who try to find some kind of justification — no matter how contrived — I call it like it is.

        Also, the key here are the teachings. The Buddha is irrelevant. Nagarjuna is irrelevant. All these supposedly enlightened Arhants are irrelevant. What’s relevant is what they had to say, and it’s only relevant insofar as it has value, and the value comes independently of them.

        This means that their words can be put in other languages and frameworks. Putting things in a Western context is not an attempt to denigrate the East; rather, it’s an acknowledgment that people in the West have been conditioned to Western forms of expression, and therefore the most impactful way of passing Buddhist teachings on is to use that framework. It’s absolutely silly to expect Westerners to adopt the mindset of a time and place far removed, or to spend time in figuring out the nuances of Pali terms.

        If Buddhism is universal, then it’s part of the human condition, which means all people in all times and places have hit upon some of those truths. So unless Gotama had some magical insight, or Westerners simply can’t “get it”, it makes a lot of sense to look for parallels. Such a claim is not an attack on Eastern forms of expression, but an acknowledgment of the universal nature of these truths.

        I’ve been very clear about my stance on Buddhism. In fact, if you think my response was critical, you should read a series I did a long time ago called “Buddhism without the Bull”.

        I think Buddhism has a lot to offer, but we need a DEEP translation of Buddhism. Please don’t confuse the teachings of Buddhism with the packaging. The packaging is irrelevant; whether it’s Western packaging or Eastern doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if it’s called Buddhism or something else. As long as one is attached to the packaging, one’s practice is flawed.

      7. Fair enough. most of what you say is said by Buddhists. I can’t imagine where the Kool Aid comment comes from.

        I have no problem with translating the doctrine and it’s what I spend a lot of time doing. My point was simply that to make the translation we must introduce certain ideas for which there are no common ‘western’ words or equivalent concepts. So a straight translation using common western philosophical words and ideas would not be possible. If it were I’d give up on my blog tomorrow. It’s the concepts that are difficult, not the language.

        As far as I can see the linguistic translation has already been achieved and the bookshelves are groaning with good books. A new one comes out almost every day. But you don’t agree, so I’m wondering what else needs to be translated.

        I see a real dislike of and even disrespect for Buddhism in your comments here, which may not be intended but it comes across. It’s no problem, each to his own, but it makes me want to argue so I’d best back away. We can agree to differ. I am trying to give up arguing.

        But if you ever want to dismiss these things in detail elsewhere I’d be up for it.

      8. “Drinking the Kool Aid” is an idiom for uncritically accepting any set of beliefs. More details on this idiom and its history can be found here:

        I welcome your comments; whether or not I agree with what you say, by saying them you are putting valuable information that others can read, and you are challenging me to evaluate my views. So please, feel free to keep commenting here.

        My ideal translation would not have a single Pali term, would not mention the Buddha, Nagarjuna or anyone else, would not mention Karma, Rebirth, or Sutras.

        The teachings would have the useful content from Sutras, etc… but that’s as far as it goes.

        Basically, it would get rid of all of the baggage.

      9. That’s good then. I’d prefer to keep commenting and enjoy your posts. Regrettably it means I have to disagree here.

        I meant earlier that I couldn’t understand why you’d think that a Buddhist would ever uncritically accept a set of beliefs. The texts in any language make is perfectly clear that this would be a completely daft thing to do, It is what only a non-Buddhists would do. Every Buddhist you read will advise you not do not do this, whether in Pali or English. This is the entire point, to find out for oneself and not to accept information second hand.

        Do you not know the raft metaphor, where the Buddha likened his teachings to a raft, and asks whether we would bother to keep carrying the raft once we have crossed the river? Buddhist teaching’s are like Wittgenstein’s ladder. to be dispensed with if one is successful. And whatever works for you is useful, regardless of whether it’s useful to someone else. Everybody is different.

        I suppose one could have Christianity without Jesus. But why would one ignore the best teacher in the tradition, so good that he got it started? It’d be like shooting oneself in the foot.

        At the same time,. I can see that the ‘religiosity’ of Buddhism might be off-putting. But this is not Buddhism’s fault, it comes with the territory. It is a practice, and a practice needs routines and methods, and it is a religion, since it concerned with metaphysical and fundamental truths and with soteriology . There’s no way around this. Translate Buddhism into a pure philosophical language and it remains a religion.

        It would be perfectly easy to present Buddhist philosophy without mentioning the Buddha or Nagarjuna. or at least no harder then when mentioning them. Why would it be? What makes you think it would be? And what would be the benefit?

        Perhaps you’d prefer advaita, which is really honed down to the bone and is essentially the same d0ctrine, or Zen Buddhism, which bypasses all this stuff.

        Did you have a bad experience with Buddhism at some point?

      10. First, please don’t apologize for disagreeing. Of course we won’t see eye to eye on everything. One of the great things about comments on blogs is that a variety of perspectives are given.

        With that said, I don’t think we disagree as much as we seem to at first.

        First, on paper, Buddhism does have some teachings that are very much in line with what I want to see. There’s the Raft metaphor, the Parable of the Arrow and of course the Kalama Sutra.

        However, my concern is that there’s much on paper about merit, other lives and so on that are not relevant to (my concern at least with) psychological liberation. Furthermore, since the Buddha has been venerated, it’s hard to get around this veneration, as the moment “The Buddha said…” is mentioned, there’s almost a sense that the words should be given authority simply because he said it. It’s this sort of stuff that I’m trying to avoid.

        Then there’s the practice. In practice, there’s a lot of stuff that’s being swallowed wholesale and a lot of stuff being taken uncritically. Chanting is an excellent example.

        In fact, maybe I’m talking about 2 phenomena here. The first is Buddhism, the core teachings. The second is the packaging it’s in. When Buddhism came to the West, it came, packaging and all, and lots of people are obsessed with the packaging and haven’t bothered with the Buddhism.

      11. Oh, and to the last part of your question. Did I have a bad experience with Buddhism? It depends on what you mean by “bad”. I saw a lot of nonsense, hypocrisy and dishonesty at some of the Sanghas I attended. I’ll point you to my “Buddhism without the Bull” series, which has specific instances of things I saw at the Sangha which made me realize how much bull I found in Buddhism.

  6. By the way, I’m not trying to put you on the spot with these questions. I’m genuinely interested in your answers. I’m always interested in objections to Buddhism.

  7. Thanks. I read the first two. I stopped when I came to this.

    “Gotama’s enlightenment (if it ever happened) consisted of the removal of mental pain. However, people missed the point and treated it as cosmically significant, gave Gotama a whole bunch of titles (The Buddha, Lord, Blessed One, Tathagata), looked at his achievement with awe, and told themselves they could never do the same.”

    I have no sensible comment to make to this. You must think Buddhist are quite mad and that most of my blog is rubbish. Removal of mental pain? Is this really all that you think he achieved? Hell, even I hope to do better than this. Of course enlightenment has cosmic significance. This is inevitable. I think you definitely did have a bad experience, and a very unfortunate one.

    Best to leave this I think. I doubt I can say anything that would help. I’ll just register my amazement at your objections and hope sometime you’ll see they can be met. although with such cynicism I can’t quite see how you’ll ever get past it.

    Good chat but let’s not labour it since it will lead to aggravation. I’ll not leap in so quick to cause trouble next time now I realise our difference of views. Is this responsible blogging? Not in my view. Most of your objections are so wide of the mark they are almost objecti9ns to not endorsing Buddhism. I could get seriously hot under the collar at some of this and have no wish to do so.

    Sorry we have to be opponents but it is inevitable. Let’s accept this and leave it there.

    All the best and bye for now.

    1. Yes, Gotama only achieved the cessation of mental pain — if he even achieved that much.

      I have found that the secular, materialist, scientific worldview is the most logical one, backed by the most evidence, the best methodology and the best track record. This has always been my view.

      This means when Sutras contradict this worldview, I will consider the Sutras wrong.

      Buddhism is a religion like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc… The main difference is that Buddhism has some parts that can be adapted to my this worldview. Those are the only parts of Buddhism I care about.

      Yes, you have written things I disagreed with, but I didn’t argue because there was no need to. To each their own. I needn’t agree with everything you write to find some food for thought or to even find your articles stimulating. Nor do I find the need to get upset at your views.

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