There is a tradition of interpreting Buddhism with the lenses of modern philosophies. In this process, Buddhism has been presented so diversely that sometimes their positioning are confusing and ambivalent- e.g. ‘ethical idealism’, ‘atheism’, ’empiricism’, etc. This paper, as an attempt to resolve the contradictory positions, engages conceptual analysis of ontology and axiology and come to portray as ‘ethical pragmatism’. The article at first describes the cardinal principles of pragmatism: multiple truths, verification of truths, changeability of truth; and then presents how these principles are embedded in the teaching of Buddha. It also claims that Buddha’s efforts on developing a new doctrine, constituting a Sangha, practicing sainthood, and defending against rival doctrines and organizations were just strategies of social reform via cultivating ethics rather than the objectives in themselves. As textual source, the original nikayas translated in English by PTS and the interfaces of the Eastern and Western scholars have been used as far as possible.
The teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha was organized as Dharma-Vinaya by his disciples after his death. Dharma-Vinaya was named as ‘Buddhism’ by Western scholars in the 18th century. Since the term, Dharma and Buddhism are found interchangeably used in literature to signify the teaching of Buddha. Buddhism has been interpreted hermeneutically and allies with almost major disciplines- cosmology, psychology, religion, philosophy, science, and the Buddha symbolized as peace, non-violence, nirvana, dependent co-arising, and timelessness, ethical leader, social reformer. Scholars view Buddhism with the lenses of modern philosophies and portrait diversely- ‘ethical idealism’ by Radhakrishnan (1989, p. 342); ’empiricism’ by Kalupahana (1969, pp. 65- 67) and Pannaloka (2009, p.1); ‘atheism’ by Hayes, (1988, p. 6); ‘social ethics’ by Rhys Davids, Universal ‘maitri’ and ‘ahimsa’ by Max Muller, ‘social reformer’ by Dr. Phramahachanya Khongchinda (1993, p. 218); ‘rationalism’ by Hoffman (2002, p. 99) and Narada (1988, p. 57); ‘Buddhism as a rationalist-atheistic, anti-Brahmanical, anti-caste and egalitarian religion’ by Max Weber (2001, p.1); ‘a realistic view of life’ by W Rahula (1974, p. 17); ‘pessimism’ by Schopenhauer (Wicks, 2008, p. 137); ‘nihilistic’ by Nietzsche (Russell, 1945, p.765) etc.
Buddhism has been labeled as ʽethical idealism’ by the prominent Indian philosopher Radhakrishnan, and, at the same time, allied to egalitarian, social welfare, atheistic, and anti-caste ideologies. The complex and controversial positioning for Buddhism such as appearing the same thing as both idealism and atheism’, and idealism working for social welfare has been taken as a research problem. I engaged in further review of the Buddhist texts to understand this complex idea as simple as possible form. By analyzing Buddhism with the lens of modern philosophies as other prominent scholars did, I observed adequate resemblance between the teaching of Shakyamuni and lectures of William James, the explainers of pragmatism. The teaching of Buddha seems as a guideline for cultivating the morality, compassion and empathy. Hence, this conceptual analysis suggests labeling Buddhism as ʽethical pragmatism’. Thus, this article helps to conceptualize the emergence of philosophy, ethical implication of philosophy in social context, and approach of analyzing ontology.
Research Questions and Methodology
As per the categorization of Kosterec (2016), this article features as conceptual analysis rather than empirical study. Study aims to answer the questions: (a) what is the ontology of the teaching of Buddha; and (b) what was the ethical implication of the teaching of Buddha to the then society. For the gathering concepts and ideas dispersed in different teaching of Buddha preserved in the original nikayas translated especially by Pali Text Society were studied. Interpretations of the texts by the Buddhist scholars of both East and West for the same opinion as far as possible are added. In this process, the ontological aspect- void (i.e. Dependent Origination) and axiological aspect- purposive (i.e. living of the holy life in MN 63: Thanissaro, 1998) embedded in the teaching became vivid. Since the content and ideas of these two aspects which impressed me are presented purposively and selectively.
Article begins with depicting the resemblance between the basic premises of pragmatism and the teaching of Buddha. At the second part, discussion concentrates to make an argument of all the teaching of Buddha focuses on ethics- moral standards, ways and motivation of cultivating morality. Both concepts are synthesized to labeling Buddhism as ‘ethical pragmatism’ at the end. Argument stands on historical religious texts since bears the intrinsic limitations. Thus, that are not claimed as final and stable, but something that is continuously open to new insight and interpretation as opined by Henriksson & Friesen (2012).
Basic Premises of Pragmatism
Peirce coined the word pragmaticism/pragmatism from the Greek word pragma (act or deed) and presented his idea of pragmatism as a rule or method for clarifying ideas and concepts. He pointed out the concept of praxis by stating- ‟beliefs are really rules for action” (Peirce, Jan.1878). Hence, from the beginning, the term pragmatism holds the concept of praxis. Later, William James (1922) defines the concept of pragmatism as ‘radical empiricism’:
… empiricism because it is contented to regard its most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypothesis liable to modification in the course of future experience; and I say radical because it …does not dogmatically affirm monism as something with which all experiences has got to square (preface, vii & viii)
William James in the process of explaining his idea ‘Pragmatism: a new name for some old ways of thinking (James, 1922)’, credits to Pierce for the beginning of the idea of pragmatism and made references of other philosophers such as John Dewey, F. C. S. Schiller, Papini, Blondel, de Sailly, J. Milhaud, Le Roy, Serie. From his explanation, pragmatism is understood as a philosophy that accepts subjective and multiple truths, and as a yardstick for categorizing dogmatic and pragmatic theory. A theory that meets the criteria of changeability with empirical data or facts and usability with relevant to the field is called pragmatic. For James, (a) truth is multiple: pragmatism is ʻradicalʼ because it stood for pluralism against the traditional trend of monism (James, 1922, p. 161); (b) truth as verification: true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify (ibid, p. 201); and (c) truth is useful: truthiness of any idea is assessed with its usability. Since the credo for it is: “it is useful because it is true” or that “it is true because it is useful (ibid, p. 203)”. Paragraphs below further discuss each of the criterions.
Peirce (Nov. 1877) the originator of pragmatism opines that inquiry begins with doubt and belief and finally ends to the truth. For him, any inquiry is guided with old belief and ends to a new fact, however, this process continuously goes ahead:
… the irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief, and hence begins an inquiry. Thus, our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true (p.4 &5).
Truth, for the pragmatist, is never absolute but always provisional, due partly to our fallibility as human beings, as well as the sheer amount of knowledge and understanding that we simply cannot access in one lifetime (Plowright, 2016, p. 22). Pragmatism insists that truth in the singular is only a collective name for truths in the plural, these consisting always of series of definite events (James, 1909, p. 202). Truth or any idea must be practical in solving problems otherwise it cannot alive enough ever to have been asserted or questioned or contradicted (ibid, p. 206). Since truth or idea goes into the continuous change as per the contextual practicality. Hence, a stream of new problems emerges, the truth of an idea developed accordingly as the streams of new solutions or truths. This approach of sequential changeability of truth leads to ʻthe world as the infinite, changing, growing and elasticʼ. As Peirce introduced the idea of ʻpragmatismʼ with the belief of multiple shaping of both actions and truths, in the same line, James (1909, p. 166) opined ‟we find that our pragmatism, though originally nothing but a method, has forced us to be friendly to the pluralistic view. ˮ For James (1909 b, pp. 225-26), the truth is always a swim in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy; “the notion I have taken …through-and-through union of adjacent minima of experience, of the confluence of every passing moment of concretely felt experience with its immediately next neighbors.”
James (1892) as an extreme subjectivist equalizes the truth with consciousness and depicted consciousness as a continuous flux: “consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ʻstreamʼ is the metaphor by which it is most naturally described…. the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life”. He (James, 1922, p. 257) opines that reality for pragmatism is still in the making, and awaits part of its complexion as continuous flux where every part is a mediated connection; and truth as hanging together with its very next neighbors in inextricable interfusion, continuity, contiguity, or concatenation. Since, for pragmatism, the truth is not absolute and immutable, but made in actual real-life events; each person has his/her own truth; the truth is based on the stream of experiences that are sequential, a serial course of events; never terminates and becomes final. This view on reality and truth indicates that the universe (both human and material) is open-ended, pluralistic and in-process.
Verifiability of Truth
Peirce (Nov. 1877) categorizing four ways of fixing belief suggests testing the belief in real-life work. He opines that ideas or concepts cannot be separated from experiences; an idea or thought must be tested by experience to verify or validate (Peirce, 1878, p. 293). James (1907) accepts Peirce as:
…true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is, in fact, an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its validation (p. 133).
James (1909, p. 40) opines that metaphysical discussions are so much like fighting with the air they have no practical issue of a sensational kind; and on the other hand, admire, scientific theories, as always terminate in definite percepts. For pragmatists, any idea or theory must be deduced and taken into the laboratory and prove with sensations, and ʻempirical verifiabilityʼ is the hallmark of truth for any idea or theory. James (1907) says:
The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is, in fact, an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its validation (p. 133).
This excerpt suggests that any idea or theory is open to both verify and falsify. The events to prove or disprove any idea come via our experiences. As human beings, we experience the world and make sense of as best as we can. As our experiences changes across subjects, time places the agreement with idea too changes. Hence, the truth is a matter of changing, and it is verified or falsified with our experiences.
Applicability of truth
While defining ʽtruth’ concerned primarily with religion and morals, James advocates any doctrine which tends to make people virtuous and happy; if it does so, it is ʽtrue’ in the sense in which he uses that word. For him, an idea is ʽtrue’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives, i. e. ʽTruth’ is one species of good…. ‟If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true” (James, 1907, p. 299). He wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe. For James, the truth of any theory depends on its instrumental value; any idea remains true as long as it is valuable to the human being. He said-
Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally. This is the ʽinstrumental’ view of truth taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to ʽwork’, promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford (p. 58).
Pragmatism assumes that the rule of usefulness as the criterion of the truth. A theory represents truth to some extent. The truthfulness of a theory lies in its applicability or usability or practicality. Beliefs are considered to be true if and only if they are useful and can be practically applied. For James, “. . . the ultimate test for us of what a truth means is the conduct it dictates or inspires, …it is true because it is useful.” James (1909b) adds:
“truth here is a relation, not of our ideas to non-human realities, but of conceptual parts of our experience to sensational parts. Those thoughts are true which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not (p. 82).”
Compatibility of Buddhism with Pragmatism
This article revolves around the three cardinal principles of pragmatism to show how these features embedded in Buddhism. But now it begins with a brief discussion on the resemblance of these two isms in their origination.
Resemblance in Origination
There are some significant similarities between Buddhism and Pragmatism. The first similarity is the origination. Buddha developed his idea, established Sangha and started inculcating moral rules later it was interpreted and expanded to other disciplines too. Pragmatism too with the promulgation was applied in education as progressivism, and later it expanded to other disciplines and places. Buddha developed his idea or dharma from the jumble of 62 schools (DN: Brahmajaala Sutra), his was not one to make 63rd, his was different, originated with the significance of social application, not for metaphysical debate. Pragmatism too was developed in the searching of a more practical/ workable one by the Americans scholars who were not satisfied with various schools of speculative philosophies (that is indicated with the apologue of squirrel by James). Buddha established a Sangha (an organic society) and taught disciples to get cultivated ethics and get happiness. John Dewey too established a school to inculcate democratic culture in students (Fernandes, Araújo & Dujo, 2018). The second similarity is the multi-disciplinary interpretation. As Buddhism as philosophy (or idea in terms of Pierce) has been made clearer by interpreting it with empirical theories of diverse disciplines such as psychology, politics, science, religion, management, etc, pragmatism too has been interpreted with politics, religion, education, management, etc. The third similarity is the examples they used to justify the need of their ideas. Buddha suggested that metaphysical questions can neither be solved nor the solving of these questions lead to the elimination of delusion (moha) and achievement of enlightenment (bodhi or nibbāna). Buddha used the simile to clarify his idea to monk Mālunkyāputta:
It is as if a person were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison and his friends and companions, his kinsman and relatives brought a doctor to treat him and he should say to the doctor: ‘I shall not allow this arrow to be extracted until I know – name and caste of the man who wounded me; whether he was tall or short, he was brown or golden-skinned…’(MN 63: Cūḷamālunkya Sutta; Bomhard, 2010, pp. 170-172).
Similar to Buddha, James’s intention was to make philosophy practical against the tradition of ʽhair-splitting intellectual debate but no agreement in applying it in solving daily problems’ in contemporary philosophies- “theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest (James, 1907, p. 53)”, and “pragmatism is the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ʻcategoriesʼ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts (ibid, p. 55).” His simile is:
A live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly around the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: does the man go round the squirrel or not (ibid, p. 43)?
Pragmatism Embedded in Buddhism
Any idea or principle or theory explains the truth. Soundness of an idea, pragmatism assumes, depends on its practicality. Idea remains valid as long as it is found useful. Validity of an idea is tested in practice and revised with new experiences rather than holding it dogmatically. Thus any idea is considered tentative, changeable and contextual. The paragraphs below explain the openness to revision for practicality nature of Buddhism as an idea.
Multiple Truths in Buddhism
Buddha explained that there is no prime cause to begin this universe but all the human and non-human phenomena are ‘dependent co-arising/ pratītya-samutpāda’ (e.g. SN: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). He described the very ‘dependent co-arising’ as dynamic, interdependent and circular in fashion. He further elaborated the concept as the whole of existence is relative, conditioned and interdependent; there can be nothing absolutely free; physical or mental, as everything is interdependent and relative. The doctrine of non-self /anatta or egolessness suggests the relativity and conditionality of truths, and in another word, continuous change or multiplicity of truth. Buddhism further suggests that the sense-organs that makes contact and generate feeling to the external world and hence interpret truth too are co-constructed, conditional and can be ceased (SN: Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta). This view of Buddhism indicates that the universe both human consciousness and material form is inter-dependent/co-arising, becoming/ never-ending and pluralistic.
The pratītya-samutpāda, the very beginning of Buddhist ontology has accepted multiple truths: every existence is not independent but a conditional. These two concepts were later interpreted by Buddhist scholars as absolute (paramartha Satya) and relative (samvritti Satya) truths. Kalupahana (1991, p. 341) claimed that Buddha himself talked on samvritti Satya (worldly conventions) and the parable of elephant (in DN: Brahmajala Sutta): ʻthe conditional truth is like blind persons interpret their truths by touching different parts of an elephantʼ also indicates that Buddha was aware of the truths of whole and parts. Nevertheless, Nagarjuna is credited for categorizing and interpreting two truths. He explained two kinds of truths as those individuals who practice worldly life ethically can experience the truth for their life experiences is relative (samvritti Satya) and those individuals who are enlightened can realize the absolute truth: “understanding of samvritti (”worldly fruit, laukika artha) and, depending upon that, gaining some knowledge of paramartha (“ułtimate fruit,” lokuttara artha) could serve as a guide for the attainment of freedom (nirvana) (Kalupahana, 1991, p. 335). ”
In Buddhism, a practitioner bounded with limited perception and conceptions experiences multiple and conditional truths and an enlightened person realized the truth as universal flux, becoming and changing. Regarding both truths, Buddhism is against static and monist truths, and since, Buddhism and pragmatism interfaces in this point.
Verified Truth in Buddhism
Buddha’s time was a period of self-questioning and self-testing. He followed the path of auto-ethnographic research with the experience of two extremes: comfort and lust at first, and misery and celibacy at later (Narada, 1998, pp. 13-22). From the experiment, he learned- ‘healthy body is necessary to pursue wisdom’. Furthermore, he came to propose the idea of ʻmiddle pathʼ that would be a possible tool or workable idea as per his mission to cure of social pathology. Since, he not only pursued the middle path by giving up the speculative idea- ‘extreme asceticism is best’ of Upanishadic sages, (asceticism is the core of Upanishads, e.g. Katha Upanishad, I. 2, 1-2) however, that was the most dominant idea of the then time but also proved that experimenting oneself is valuable than following speculative ideas of the another (Gombrich, 2006, p. 5; AN: Kalama Sutta). His achievement of, re-discovering the path by his own efforts after lost into human society, made him ascended to Buddha from Siddharth Gautam.
Buddha advised verifying the practicality of an idea in own reasoning and judgment, i.e. contextualization (Bomhard, 2010, pp. 160-162). Buddha said to Brahmins name Kālāmas-
‟O Kālāmas, it is right for you to doubt, it is right for you to waver. In a doubtful matter, uncertainty has arisen….” As the wise test gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words [only] after examining them and not merely out of regard for me.”…“When you know for yourselves- these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, lead to well-being and happiness, then, indeed, do not reject them (AN: Kalama Sutta).
Buddha said his disciples that some sages hold the idea of eternalism and follow extreme asceticism, some hold nihilism and follow hedonism; but I hold ʻdependent coarisingʼ after experimenting it with the middle path (SN: Mahāvagga & Sacca Sagyutta). He said- no idea is here just for the sake of holding and practicing but must be practical in bringing happiness. Since you have no compulsion to follow mine, you are free to test and follow yours: “I preach you a Dhamma comparable to a raft for the sake of crossing over and not for the sake of clinging to it…”(MN: Alagaddupama Sutta). Hence, he suggested to others to verify the truth of any idea themselves before holding or following.
James’s philosophy is middle of extreme rationalism to extreme empiricism that emerged amidst from mere subjective abstraction of rationalism and objective truth/fact of empiricism. It believes in the trade-off between idea and action, i.e. praxis. He (James, 1907) said-
Pragmatist clings to facts and concreteness, observes truth at its work in particular cases, and generalizes (p. 68). Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences (p. 80).
Buddha taught ‘how the validity of an idea is tested’. One of such examples is his analysis of the idea of Verna system- ‟if Brahma is permanent, eternal, complete and a not changing thing it should not born, decay, die, re-born and if it is non-living how can it generated living…, if four Verna were layered as per their birth from Cosmic Purusha, why then Brahmin women get pregnant (DN: Brahmanimantana Sutta) ˮ and hence, proved that the assumption of Verna system was false. As a leader of the campaign of social change, Buddha identified the bungles of two dominant ideas of the then society: (a) priestly superficial religion that fosters discriminatory Vernashram dharma (Warder, 2004, pp. 31-36; Davids, 2000, p. 54), and (b) Jain doctrine that encourages just external purification through self-mortification and eternalism (Narada, 1988, p. 98; Shah, 2006, p. 24), and at the same time, he suggested a practical way of life to follow moral conduct: ʽSangha life for monks and family life for lay practitioner’ with different kinds of moral rules for Sangha and family life.
Buddha after realizing the causes of the turmoil of the then society went among the people. He used intervention for social transformation. He, as a provocative action researcher, dealt with political and moral theories (Robinson & Johnson, 1970, p. 25). Buddha, on the one hand, conceived that human can have knowledge of one’s own ability and develop right desires for social order (e.g. parable of queen- ‟Thus, monks, must you train yourselves, SN 47.20ˮ), and on the other, encouraged to test validity of the doctrine of middle path (Kalama Sutta).
The practicality of truth in Buddhism
“There is nothing more practical than a good theory” (James C. Maxwell). The Karmic theory seems the most practical idea to guide the then society. The statecraft was not systematic: the judgment was almost invariably associated with bribery, punishments were extremely cruel and barbarous, economical classes were formed with parity between rich and poor, and politics were guided by immoral anarchism and military war for power and money (Sarao, 2004, pp. 15&16). On the other, religion was not humanitarian: the Shakta tradition of Hindu pristine was practicing animal sacrifices to achieve heavenly joy considering that sin can be washed out with yajna (sacrifices); Upanishadic eternalists were inspiring individual purity rather than their ethical responsibility of structural change; Nihilists were just hedonist, their ethical fearlessness was a danger of social anarchism (MN: Alagaddupama Sutta). Therefore, Buddha realized the necessity of social transformation and beginning it with self-transformation.
Buddha interpreted the Upanishadic Karmic theory to make more practical after six-year-long effort/pondering to begin a social transformation. He realized that the cause of all the social and individual evils is craving and made ̒self-transformationʼ as his credo. Since, by elaboration of Karmic theory and direct preaching to all moksa seekers (Rewata, 1999, p. 405) and to the rulers, he suggested for suppressing their craving for power and property, not to abuse but benefit the people (Harvey, 2000, p. 118). Buddha suggested to follow only a practical theory- search for a beginning in a beginningless past is both useless/meaningless and impractical (Piyadassi, 2012; Tola & Dragonetti, 2007, p. 714, SN: Nidæna Vagga), and ideas of; ʽcreator of the universe’, ʽexistence of a Supreme Being’, and ʽpraise and sacrifices to gods as a tool of moksha’ etc. are meaningless (DN: Brahmajala Sutta). He proposed a practical theory of life: ʽidentityless and becomingʼ and ʻflux of psychological and physiological changes, a conflux of mind-body and aggregate of five segmentsʼ (SN: Anatta Lakkhana Sutta; Silananda, 1999). On the basis of this theory, he, at first, explained all the individuals are equal regardless of their birth, and, at second, created an egalitarian world/Sangha.
Buddhist ideas are open to change to make it practical. Sangha was open to all worthy ones, irrespective of caste, class or rank, since, the members were from a diverse background. To control their behaviors and maintain discipline Pratimokkha (code/rule): nearly 227 for monks and 311 for nuns were developed one by one as per necessity (Thanissaro, 2007, p. 11; Bhalerao, 2008, p. 4). He not only suggested harmonizing the rule and doctrine (theory) as per need of society, i.e. to establish different kinds of Sangha but also encouraged senior arhant developing attitude of flexibility and practicality to test, clarify, rearrange and interpret Dhamma–Vinaya themselves in the absence of Buddha (Narada, 1988, pp. 136&146). His practices were ethical pragmatism: on the one hand, it follows the contextual truths in the formulation of rules for Sangha and on the other, the criterion of amendment of an idea was cultivating ethics and bringing happiness (Durbin, 2009, p. 425). His teaching was a means to carry man to safety, peace, happiness, tranquility, the attainment of nirvana (parable of crossing raft: Rahula, 1974, p. 11; MN: Alagaddupama Sutta).
Theory for bringing happiness
Buddha proposed the Karmic theory which is metaphysical in form and ethical in purpose (in MN: Cula & Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta). He prescribed a set of behaviors with the explanations of their values and purposes to bring happiness as depicted the relation between values, purpose, and ethics in modern view (e.g. Malloy, 2003, pp. 60&61). His theory comprises of moral rules for daily lives became the most practical tool for the people who were eager to know the relation of ‘works in this life to result in next life (DN: Samannaphalasutra). ʽKarmic theory’ could explain: a) cosmogonic hypothesis how the material universe is created by karma (the volitional) of sentient beings, b) existential hypothesis for the varied states and conditions of sentient beings, i.e. why a human is neither a worm nor a Buddha and why worms are different from both Buddha and human, and c) a means of social control in Buddhist societies, why the lay human ought to support the monk and why s/he ought to live a moral life (Deitrick, 2005, pp. 7-9). The theory allowed freedom of the will to make choice and take responsibility on the base of the causal nexus of mind and body without calling upon an ultimate controlling agency. Theory, on the one hand, assumes “human can restrain, curb and subdue his/her mind by own mind, and thus check and eliminate evil propensities by her/himself”, and on the other, recommend revisable rules to harmonize with practice. He, along with defining karma as an intentional act through body, speech or mind, and that can be controlled by an individual with mental training (Wijesekera, 2008, pp. 4&6), encouraged practitioner by saying – ‟those disciples, who follow my advice and maintain purity in their mind, are closer to me rather than who follow me by holding my hand but their minds are not pureˮ. Buddha, as an omniscient, explained assertively – “all karma, whether good or evil, bears fruit, there is no karma, no matter how small, which is void of fruit (e.g. Jataka No. 390)”. Among the tripartite stands- metaphysics, morality, and mysticism, of Upanishads (Ranade, 1924, p. 325), he assumed morality the most worthy to making people individually responsible and moral, and emphasized- “whatever truths have been expounded to you study them well; practice, cultivate and develop them so that this holy life may last long and be perpetuated out of compassion for the world, and good and happiness of the many (Bomhard, 2010, p. 144)).
Nobody can claim, whether, the Buddha got nirvana or not, but anyone can argue with evidence that he guided people for individual transformation and social reform. The Sangha was the place where individuals used to gather to live with happily, cultivate ethics and prepare for eternal happiness. Besides the intrinsic, people with extrinsic motivation too entered into the Sangha: the afflicted people with the five diseases who could not get the attendance of the physician outside the Sangha (Maha Vagga I.39); the criminal, thief, jail breaker, debtor, slave etc. also joined the order of monks, and took shelter in the Sangha (Maha Vagga I.39-49; Theragatha: 84). Sangha, on the one hand, was a courtroom for confession, regret, and amnesty (e.g. Angulimala Sutta), and on the other, therapy lab for eliminating any negative emotions and cultivating moral values.
The discussion made in above paragraphs suggests that: a) Buddha adopted the policy of the methodological ʻideaʼ can be revised as per the need of practice which indents to bring human happiness; and b) for him, human happiness is the ends and the ʻideaʼ or ʻtheoryʼ is a means.
Attempts to understanding the teaching of the Buddha began the aftermath of his death. First, it was tried to preserve the teaching by writing what his disciples recited, at the same time understanding ‘what does it mean’ was practiced by interpreting the context (Wadner, pp.195&196). Abhidhamma Pitaka is supposed a collection of philosophical ideas interpretively extracted from the early two Pitakas since the reign of Ashoka. The present forms of the three Pitakas are the product of multiple writings, translations, and commentaries. As the emergence of new disciplines, Buddhism has been interpreted diversely and labeled with different phrases. As other historical researches, understanding of Buddhism is influenced with the availability of the original sources, quality of translations, perspectives of interpretations and etc., since the article accepts- tentative truth open to revising.
This paper as an attempt of resolving the contradictory positioning of Buddhism- e.g. idealism and atheist at the same time, suggests ontologically pragmatic with the support of some selected texts. The idea of Buddha carries the features of multiple truths- dependent arising, verifiability of truth- Kalama sutta, and practicality of truth- engaged Buddhism. Buddha made his idea as much practical as possible- he prescribes a set of moral rules depending on the ontological explanation which purposes to transforming individuals by inculcating values of social welfare, non-violence, compassion, and philanthropy. He cultivated the right ways of behavior in both individual and social level to make people happy personally and socially, and maintained the close and intermingling relationships of the Sangha and monks with society and rulers (Brekke, 1997). The purpose of engaging Buddhism into social matter was to solve the social problems. He developed an ethical standard and cultivated morality according to the pragmatics ontology. Thus, Buddhism as an idea bets fit to labeling “ethical pragmatism”.
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(AN=Anuttara Nikaya, DN= Digha Nikaya, MN=Majjhima Nikaya, SN=Samyutta Nikaya)