the vehicle is not the end,
this is not that
truth is not Truth


Alagaddûpama Sutta (MN 22)

I have been doing some difficult reading  – difficult because I am not formally trained in philosophy, more difficult because it is non-western (Tibetan and Robert Thurman makes you work for every sentence). Anyhow- it is interesting to see just how different schools of Buddhism have been in their understanding of emptiness – it pretty much runs the gamut. The implications however are huge- including the idea that Buddha taught nothing. That is, in the end he absolutely negated anything that he had said that may have been taken as ‘True’ and therefore set him up as an authority expounding some sort of dogma. It is captured most succinctly by Yuan Wu

Old Shakyamuni appeared in this world and in forty-nine years never said a single word

and mirrored by Nagarjuna

No doctrine at all was ever taught by any Buddha to anyone“.

This is relevant to my reflections on the 4 Noble Truths because it suggests an approach to how to view them – not as ultimate unmovable ‘Truths’ (i.e. dogma) but something else. Interestingly, an email from a friend about Stephen Batchelor’s book ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’ could not have been more timely because Batchelor argues for an approach to the truths as ‘ennobling’ as opposed to ‘noble’ – thereby suggesting an approach that treats them as ‘calls to action’ as opposed to ‘propositions to be believed’ (hence one aspect of ‘Buddhism without Belief’). Regardless of what I think of Batchelor’s attempt to ”westernize” Buddhism and strip it of its cultural and religious heritage-or whether this distinction is ultimately tenable (can one act without beliefs?), in this respect I think the emphasis ‘on doing’ as opposed to ‘on believing’ is justifiable. Of course, besides outsider views of Buddhism, I am not sure how ‘lost’ such a distinction really is traditionally . Perhaps for Westerners approaching Buddhism, there would be the propensity to view the 4 Truths as beliefs and neglect the implications for practice. Nonetheless, Buddha made it clear that the ‘4 Truths’ were ‘things’ that you acted in respect to, namely that:

the noble truth of suffering is to be understood
the noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned
the noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized
the noble truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed

Buddha taught how to escape suffering and illusion. But one cannot come to ‘merely know’ how to escape suffering and illusion – one must realize it. Realization is experiential.

To bring this back to Batchelor’s book (because it may be attractive to those who, not steeped, in the tradition from which Buddhism arose)- it seems he argues for a raft but no shore (see also Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi’s review of Batchelor’s book for a similar conclusion). This is ultimately the danger of such enterprises that “modernize” traditional systems by cherry-picking or drastically redefining aspects of a system while leaving behind other aspects that do not agree with one’s culture or outlook. Ultimately we transform or ‘cleanse’ it into something less Other, less foreign, less daunting, less difficult. But we have to face the prospect that in doing so, we have made it sterile or ineffectual- we have accepted the truth of the raft, but reject the truth of the shore for which it had originally been built.