Philosophy Magazine

Buddhist Philosophical Difficulties

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk
Buddhist Philosophical Difficulties

I’ve been reading about Vipassana Meditation this week.[1] This is a practical approach to finding peace and freedom from suffering in life. Given the fears many people carry around with them today (will I have enough to live on, will there be a war here, will my family be okay), I can see why a strategy for peace and freedom is attractive. 

The Buddhism on which Vipassana is based is one of the world’s oldest religions, starting somewhere around the fifth century BCE, although it is hard to be precise on those dates.

Vipassana seems to be built upon some core Buddhist doctrines. Oxford University Buddhist Scholar Sarah Shaw says that while there are many different schools of Buddhism, they tend to share these core tenants of the Buddhist dharma, or law:[2]

  • Impermanence (anicca). Huston Smith describes this as an ontology where nothing in nature is identical with what it was a moment before.[3] John Dickson suggests this means there is no Buddhist thinker, just thoughts.[4]
  • Suffering (dukkha). This is the first of the Siddhartha Gautama’s (the Buddha’s) Noble Truths. Everything is impermanent and imperfect, and it leads to suffering in our lives.
  • Egoless-ness (anatta). This is about an absence of self, or the illusion of self. The Dali Lama says this means people possess no immutable essence,[5] and Zen scholar Masao Abe notes that there is therefore no Hindu atman or eternal self, just anatman.[6]

The Buddhist dharma teaches that while there is no self, we are composed of five parts or skandas: matter, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness that appear together like grains of sand in a pile.[7] Our goal is enlightenment, and one way that many Buddhists work towards that is by following the eightfold path, which is moral instruction.

In this blog, I will assess the metaphysical problems that result from this ontology. I will argue these problems seriously undermine the rationality of Buddhism as a world view. Consequently, while it is right to seek peace and freedom in life, we need instead to find these important things in something which is solid and real.

The Problem of Buddhist Ego-lessness

Buddhist Philosophical Difficulties

There is a metaphysical commitment that seems to be held by almost everyone, including Buddhists. J P Moreland describes this as the absolute view of personal identity. A person moves through time and exists fully at each moment of his life, even though his physical attributes (e.g. height and weight) and mental attributes (e.g. understanding) change throughout the whole of life.[8] The Buddhist talks about achieving peace and freedom in life, and ultimately attaining enlightenment. So, the Buddhist makes the metaphysical commitment of “sameness through change.”

Yet there is a problem. On Buddhism, we are under the illusion that there is actually a self. There is no eternal self. Rather, there is a pile of parts. I am therefore defined by what my parts are now. I do not have a simple core essence, or soul, that defines me. If the Buddhist is right that I am an assembly of parts, then as one part changes, I therefore must necessarily become a different person. Why? Because I am defined by my parts. Once a part is different, so am I. Imagine swiping through a sequence of photographs of different people on your phone. That’s what change actually must accomplish on the Buddhist view of self.

The Buddhist talks about “my freedom,” and ”my enlightenment.” They apparently assume that the same person exists through all the changes that lead towards eventual enlightenment. So, they are committed to “sameness through change.” But their view of self does not allow for it. The idea that we are a collection of parts, and the idea we are a simple core self, are mutually contradictory. And “sameness through change” is only possible on the latter. This is a metaphysical problem for Buddhism.

Joe cannot become enlightened on the Buddhist view of the self. As Joe’s skandas change, his identity alters in metaphysical terms. Joe is no longer Joe anymore, his changes have made him into someone else. If Joe is Siddhartha Gautama, then Buddhism has a problem because Siddhartha can never attain enlightenment on his own doctrine of personhood.

So – there is a big problem with the doctrine of ego-less-ness. It makes the Buddhist aim at freedom and enlightenment impossible. But here’s a second problem.

Why Be Good on Buddhism?

Buddhist Philosophical Difficulties

There appears to be no absolute good or evil on Buddhism. After all, “all things … abstract concepts … are devoid of objective, independent existence.”[9] Abe notes that good and evil are co-dependent, they arise together, and the “distinction between [them] is not only relativised but the two values are reversed.”[10] If Buddhism recognises no objective moral categories, perhaps good and evil are just human conventions?

Yet at the same time, Abe requires the Buddhist to “seek good and avoid evil.”[11] And the Dali Lama agrees, seeing personal values as, “the basic, innate capacity for compassion in all human beings … [all people have] an equal potential for goodness.”[12] So – on the one hand, moral knowledge is available to Abe and Lama and moral statements are factual and have objective meaning. Yet on the other hand, they say moral categories do not exist in an absolute sense. If everything is impermanent, there are no absolutes, so it is not clear how Abe and Lama can legitimately require us to seek the good. Worse, if Abe is right that the meaning of good and evil is reversed on Buddhism, then we cannot objectively assess the rightness of anything. Including Buddhism!

However, in the real world, the problem of evil exists. We intuitively know the good we should do but tend not to do. And human beings recognize evil actions when they see them and rail against them, demanding justice to be done and for the evil to cease. We might disagree on what constitutes “evil,” but people don’t tend to doubt the existence of “evil” actions themselves. Buddhism therefore seems to be at odds with the intuitive understanding of people. Could this be a strength of Buddhism?

Perhaps not. Abe says the solution to the problem of evil is to recognize that we need to overcome good-evil duality. We must be freed from all desires and ethical demands. The Buddhist solution to the problem of evil is found in the realization of absolute nothingness; the awakening to sunyata.[13] But if he is right about that, why it is right for good actions to be prioritised on Buddhism anyway? Why should anyone want to be good on Buddhism? The answer seems to be that we must get past good and evil and achieve personal freedom from suffering. It is not about developing moral virtue. In that case the danger for the Buddhist seems to be moral indifference. If the Buddhist’s aim is to overcome thinking about good and evil actions, then this means Buddhism lacks the resources to justify ethical behavior. They can ask us to follow the eightfold path and be good, but in the end, there’s no ethical reason for it. 

This has an impact on how we view human atrocities on Buddhism. Think of the attempted genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. If there is no good or evil, there really is no difference between the perpetrators and the victims. If perpetrators are no different from victims, why should we do anything to stop the genocide? Why should we have a justice system that holds people accountable for crimes? This view is at odds with our deepest moral insights.

Why should we be good on Buddhism? There doesn’t seem to be a good reason. Abe admits that Buddhist doctrine cannot ground or motivate compassionate, moral behavior without Christianity. “Buddhism [needs] … a serious encounter with Christianity which is ethical as well as religious.”[14] Maybe this is required because Christianity is a closer account of reality than Buddhism.


Buddhist Philosophical Difficulties

Vipassana calls us to cultivate freedom and peace in our lives. This is also an important call in the New Testament. People who welcome Jesus to lead their lives can grow in the fruit of the Spirit. This includes love, joy and peace.[15] Both Buddhism and Christianity point us to these virtues, yet the core doctrines of Buddhism prevent a person from developing them as a Buddhist. 

Also, there seems to be no reason to prioritise these as good things on Buddhism. I suggest the Buddhist’s goal is right, but their means of getting there is not. Like Masao Abe, it seems like the Buddhist needs a genuine encounter with true Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ to effect real positive change in their life. Christianity is rooted in the historical resurrection of Christ, it offers an understanding of personhood consistent with the life change that it offers, and it also offers to solve the problem of evil rather than to claim the problem is of no ultimate importance.

[1] Vipassana Research Institute, accessed August 6th, 2023,

[2] “Episode 73 On Buddhism,” Undeceptions With John Dickson, last modified July 18th 2022, accessed August 9th, 2022,

[3] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, (HarperOne, 1991), 117.

[4] John Dickson, A Doubters Guide to World Religions, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2022), 76.

[5] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom How Science and Spirituality Can Serve Our World, (London: Little Brown, 2005), 49.

[6] Masao Abe, “The Problem of Evil in Christianity and Buddhism”, in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Mutual Renewal and Transformation, ed. Paul O. Ingram and Frederick J. Streng, (University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 145.

[7] Smith, 117.

[8] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, ed. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic), 535.

[9] Lama, 49.

[10] Abe, 145.

[11] Abe, 146.

[12] Lama, 206.

[13] Abe, 151.

[14] Abe, 153.

[15] Galatians 5:22.

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