What's Pragmatism Got to Do With Buddhism?


Actually, most philosophers agree that Buddhism is the most pragmatic of religions. Usually they point to the passage in the Kalama Sutta when the Buddha tells the people of the Kalamas:

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.”

This is certainly a very pragmatic passage. Why? First let’s look at the epistemology (theory of the validity of knowledge). The Kalamas are told not to trust in things just because they’re tradition, or because they make logical sense, or just because they were told it was so by a certain teacher. They’re told to apply three criteria: experiential verification (“know for yourself…skillful…blameless”), the testimony of appropriate authority (“praised by the wise”) and social consensus (“lead to welfare and to happiness”). These are exactly the qualities required by Western Pragmatism to define the propagation of valid knowledge. As pragmatic as this passage is, I like to point to another verse from the same sutta.

After telling the Kalamas how they should decide on right actions the Buddha answers the question “why do we care?” Most religious teachers throughout history would answer this question by either talking about the rewards (for following the teaching) or punishments (for failing to follow the teaching) that will be visited upon the person after death by the God or gods of that particular philosophy. The Buddha however goes full on agnostic when he tells them that they will accrue the following assurances “in the here and now”:

"'If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.' This is the first assurance he acquires.

"'But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.' This is the second assurance he acquires.

"'If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?' This is the third assurance he acquires.

"'But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both ways.' This is the fourth assurance he acquires.”

He neither promises a world after death nor denies it. He neither judges actions to be evil nor judges them free of evil. He presents a completely agnostic reasoning for doing what is right. This to me is the heart of Pragmatism; neither veering into atheism nor into mysticism and metaphysics.

This is why I believe that Buddhism fits so well with the Western philosophy of Pragmatism and why I’m happy to call myself a monk in the school of Pragmatic Buddhism.

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