The Buddhist Paradox

In contemporary discussions of Buddhism we encounter those who interpret the anatta doctrine to mean there is “no soul” or “no self.” They put forth a version of Buddhism consistent with the philosophy of materialism. This interpretation contradicts the Buddha’s admonitions against materialism.

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The Christian Dilemma

In Christian theology we transcend earthly existence and transition to a spiritual realm where we reap the rewards of our past actions in heaven or hell. But what transcends to the spiritual realm? Who enjoys heaven or experiences torment in hell?

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Philosophy in Under the Tree

Three philosophers—the Buddha, Plato, and Bishop Berkeley—promoted the philosophy of Idealism.

Plato believed the world consists of imperfect copies of perfect ideas, or forms. A good exposition of Plato’s thoughts can be found in Fred Alan Wolf’s The Spiritual Universe.

For Plato, the soul was pure, unchanging, simple, invisible, coherent, and eternal. By simple, he meant not complex—made of many parts. Unchanging meant the soul was outside of temporal influence— in fact, eternal. The soul’s coherency meant it held together; it was incapable of fragmenting into separate parts. Most important, the soul was rational and, through its rationality, capable of a clear view of reality.

One of the earliest inquiries on the pure soul comes from Plato’s Republic. Plato saw the soul a something separate from the body. But, the soul was often confused by being in the body due to misguided thinking brought on by a confusion of the senses.”

Plato also wrote about the Near Dear Experience in The Republic, Book X. He writes about Er who was killed on the battlefield, spent time in the Afterlife, then returned to describe the Other Side.

He was slain in battle, and ten days afterward, when the bodies of the dead were taken up already in a state of corruption, his body was found unaffected by decay, and carried away home to be buried. And on the twelfth day, as he was lying on the funeral pyre, he returned to life and told them what he had seen in the other world.”

George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop, championed Idealism. He wrote the classic, On Idealism, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (Published in 1710. Hackett Publishing in 1982).

From the principles we have laid down, it follows, human knowledge may naturally be reduced to two heads, that of ideas, and that of spirits. Of each of these I shall treat in order. And first as to ideas or unthinking things, our knowledge of these has been very much obscured and confounded, and we have been led into very dangerous errors, by supposing a twofold existence of the objects of sense, the one intelligible, or in the mind, the other real and without the mind: whereby unthinking things are thought to have a natural subsistence of their own, distinct from being perceived by spirits. This which, if I mistake not, has been shown to be a most groundless and absurd notion, is the very root of skepticism; for so long as men thought that real things subsisted without the mind, and that their knowledge was only so far forth real as it was conformable to real things, it follows, they could not be certain that they had any real knowledge at all. For how can it be known, that the things which are perceived, are conformable to those which are not perceived, or exist without the mind?”

Buddhist Literature

Many good texts are available regarding Buddhism. A good “third person” historical view can be found in Karen Armstrong’s Buddha.

The yogin experienced progressively four mental states that seemed to introduce him to new modes of being: a sense of infinity; a pure consciousness that is aware of only itself; and a perception of absence, which is, paradoxically, a plenitude. Only very gifted yogins reached this third ayatana, which was called “Nothingness” because it bore no relation to any form of existence in profane experience. There were no words or concepts adequate to describe it. It was, therefore, more accurate to call it ‘Nothing ’ than ‘Something.’

Monotheists have made similar remarks about their experience of God. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have all, in different ways, called the most elevated emanations of the divine in human consciousness ‘Nothing.’ They have also said it is better to say that God did not exist, because God was not simply another phenomenon.”

The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard introduces Buddhism as part of a dialogue between a western philosopher and a Buddhist monk. Questions most westerners might ask are presented by Jean-Francois and answered by Matthieu.

What’s called wisdom in Buddhism is the elucidation of the nature of the phenomenal world, of the nature of the mind. What are we? What is the world? In the end, and above all, it’s the direct contemplation of absolute truth, beyond all concepts. That’s wisdom in its most fundamental aspect.

But Buddhists add that what guides the workings of the brain and its decisions is the nonmaterial consciousness. …By its very nature, consciousness escapes the methods of investigation used by physical scientists. But not to be able to find something is no proof of its nonexistence. Buddhism’s choice is based upon experience acquired through contemplation.”

Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism, by Carl Becker of Kyoto University, explains Buddhist concepts in a clear and easy to understand manner.

The Buddhist view is that this life is but one of millions of continuous lives of suffering, destined to continue indefinitely until the cycle is broken. This necessitates a path of selflessness and discipline that leads to enlightenment and freedom from the wheel of rebirth. Thus, not only death but the inescapability of survival is essential to Buddhist philosophy.

He [Buddha] said that his understanding of rebirth was gained not from metaphysical speculation nor from Hindu mythology, but from direct paranormal perception of the workings of the universe.

The Buddha maintained his teachings were completely empirical in the sense of being experience-based. He invited his students and followers to come to their own conclusions based on their own meditations. Today, most modern people seem to lack the meditational and parapsychological abilities that the Buddha gained through long years of asceticism.

The Book of the Dead, then, is not a Dantean description of eternal heavens and hells. Rather, it is a chronological review of the gateways to numerous postmortem levels of experience during the intermediate state between incarnations, usually lasting twenty-eight to forty-nine days. Its imagery incorporates all of the afterlife possibilities that Buddhists have yet envisioned. …based…on a profound philosophy of idealism buttressed by a long tradition of experience in yoga meditation.”

The Lotus Sutra (translated by Burton Watson) sheds light on the confusion surrounding the contradictory messages of the no soul (anatta) doctrine and reincarnation.

The Buddhas in their capacity as leaders
preach nirvana to provide a rest,
But when they know you have become rested,
they lead you onward to the Buddha wisdom.”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche may be the best introduction to the more transcendent aspects of Buddhism.

In the near death experience, the mind is momentarily released from the body, and goes through a number of experiences akin to those of the mental body in the bardo of becoming.

The near death experience very often begins with an out-of-body experience: people can see their own body, as well as the environment around them. This coincides with what has already been said about the Tibetan Book of the Dead.”


Idealism provides the philosophical foundation for Under the Tree. In this philosophy, the thought or idea is primary and the material is secondary.

God or Spirit precedes any and all material conditions; the material realm arises from the Mind of God or Spirits. “In the beginning was the Word” expresses the same concept.

Idealism thus posits a supernatural cause behind the origin or creation of the universe. It postulates material conditions emerge from the realm of the supernatural.

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Survey of Philosophy

For those interested in the broader scope of philosophy, I recommend Common Sense, Science, and Scepticism by Alan Musgrave.

Berkeley called his idealist metaphysic ‘immaterialism,’ because of its denial that matter or material objects exist. Most of Berkeley’s readers think that immaterialism is an absurd philosophy. Berkeley claimed that it was the only philosophy which could avoid an even greater absurdity, namely scepticism. As he saw it, the choice lay between materialism and scepticism or immaterialism and certainty.”

Philosophy & Science

A text that looks at the philosophy of science is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its ‘real’ counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle.”

Discussions of Buddhism and Science can be found in Alan Wallace’s collection of essays, Buddhism & Science.

It is true that Buddhism fails to fit neatly into any of our categories of religion, philosophy, and science, for the simple reason that it did not develop in the West, where these concepts originated and evolved. Buddhism offers something fresh and in some ways unprecedented to our civilization, and one of its major contributions is its wide range of techniques for exploring and transforming the mind through firsthand experience.”

Another excellent look at Buddhism and Science can be found in the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom.

The notion of a pre-given, observer-independent reality is untenable. As in the new physics, matter cannot be objectively perceived or described apart from the observer—matter and mind are co-dependent.”