- Buddhism and Scepticism: Historical, Philosophical, and Comparative Perspectives ed. by Oren Hanner
The present book is true to its title. A collection of articles that stems from a symposium of the same name at the University of Hamburg in 2017, the authors here bring different perspectives to bear on the philosophical and historical relations between Buddhism and scepticism. Though this is relatively well-trodden ground, the insightful studies here shed new light on the matter. We find historical studies of the possible links between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism (Halkias and Kuzminski); a defense of Nāgārjuna's philosophical scepticism as of the Pyrrhonian variety (Mills); considerations of the role of sceptical doubt in less expected places, such as in Dharmakīrti's (Eltschinger) and Vasubandhu's (Hanner) approaches to scriptural authority and hermeneutics; a fascinating look at the uses of scepticism in the works of Buddhist modernists, from the Critical Buddhism of Matsumoto Shirō and Hakamaya Noriaki to Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without beliefs" (Shields); and a provocative critique of the whole project of comparing Buddhism and scepticism in the first place (Siderits). Hanner's introduction lucidly sets up the volume and briefly summarizes each essay, and each contributor is keenly attuned to the many senses "scepticism" might have, carefully discerning Pyrrhonian scepticism, radical or Academic scepticism, religious scepticism, and so on. Whatever your proclivities, there is something here for anyone interested in Buddhism and scepticism.
Yet that conjunction--Buddhism and scepticism--should strike us as odd. The volume highlights this strangeness: a question that recurs throughout a number of the contributions concerns just how philosophers belonging to a religious tradition, one that variously defines itself by ethical and soteriological claims (not to mention claims regarding rebirth and the authority of the Buddha's words), can be usefully characterized as "sceptical." Take, for instance, the most prominent member of the so-called epistemological tradition of Indian Buddhist philosophy, Dharmakīrti. In his contribution, "Beyond Reasonable [End Page 1] Doubt? A Note on Dharmakīrti and Scepticism," Vincent Eltschinger finds Dharmakīrti to be squarely opposed to forms of radical scepticism in at least one fundamental sense: his view of knowledge is optimistic (p. 38), in that the way things really are is ultimately knowable "by various types of personalities, from omniscient buddhas to much lower types of mystics and spirituals" (p. 44). Yet there is nevertheless an acknowledgment in Dharmakīrti's work that that way things really are is, for our ordinary, unliberated cognition, radically imperceptible (atyantaparokṣa). This means that the "judicious person" (prekṣāvat) inhabiting saṃsāra has no choice but to rely on religious revelation that will remain characterized by a certain degree of uncertainty until it bears fruit in some form of extraordinary gnosis. Framing Dharmakīrti as ultimately opposed to the sceptic, and yet in a comparable position regarding scriptural claims and religious practice, complicates our picture of an epistemologist whom we might expect should be exclusively opposed to sceptical doubt.
The consideration of doubt and scripture is picked up again in Oren Hanner's insightful and detailed treatment of Vasubandhu in "Scripture and Scepticism in Vasubandhu's Exegetical Method." Quite unlike the case of the Pyrrhonian sceptic, Hanner shows that doubt is, for Vasubandhu, an eminently undesirable and unpleasant mental state (pp. 140–141). As Hanner sums it up, "Vasubandhu is far from being an adherent of an all-embracing sceptical worldview" (p. 156). Yet doubt has an important place in Vasubandhu's hermeneutics. So long as it is properly directed, doubt can be put into the service of religious devotion. The Buddha's words themselves are flawless and perfectly reliable. Vasubandhu is clear on this. Yet the Buddha is gone and his "teachings are thrown into disorder by poor, careless dialecticians" (p. 135), and so our reception of the Buddha's words is anything but perfect. Entertaining sceptical objections, then, leads to a refinement of our interpretation of scripture. Vasubandhu's is...