Could the Buddha Have Been a Naturalist?

Sophia 59 (3):437-456 (2020)


With the naturalist worldview having become widely accepted, the trend of naturalistic Buddhism has likewise become popular in both academic and religious circles. In this article, I preliminarily reflect on this naturalized approach to Buddhism in two main sections. In section 1, I point out that the Buddha rejects theistic beliefs that claim absolute power over our destiny, opting instead to encourage us to inquire intellectually and behave morally. The distinguishing characteristics of naturalism such as a humanistic approach, rational enquiry, empirical observation, as well as a pragmatic and realistic outlook can all be seen in the Buddha’s teachings. In section 2, however, I advance arguments to show that while the Buddha is opposed to theistic doctrines, his views are not entirely in accordance with the presuppositions of naturalism. Firstly, the Buddha’s foremost concern is not purely intellectual in nature—the purpose of his teachings is to realize a soteriological goal through spiritual practice. Secondly, naturalism tends to subscribe to ‘self-being,’ while the Buddha holds all things to exist conditionally and impermanently. Because of the dependent nature of all things, it is not possible to discover their essence through reduction. Thirdly, naturalized philosophy would be a kind of belief-habit that follows from certain preconditioned assumptions. But the Buddha encourages us to re-examine our conceptual proliferation leading to biased views, as that ultimately leads to suffering. I conclude by proposing a broader naturalist outlook that would allow for a more inclusive conception of the natural world that would take the axiological dimension of human transcendence into account and increase an overall understanding of human potentiality.

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Kent Lin
Buddhist Tzu-Chi University

References found in this work

Word and Object.Willard Van Orman Quine - 1960 - Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
Mind and World.John McDowell - 1994 - Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Word and Object.Willard Van Orman Quine - 1960 - Les Etudes Philosophiques 17 (2):278-279.
Mind and World.John Mcdowell - 1996 - Philosophical Quarterly 46 (182):99-109.

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