Let’s begin with a simple question. What is a belief?
A belief is simply a claim we accept as true. And a claim is a statement that is either true or false. So if someone makes a statement that we accept as true, we have a belief.
So does Buddhism makes statements that people accept? Of course, many of them. Can we practice Buddhism without believing anything Buddhist?
Buddhism Without Beliefs
Well, Stephen Batchelor claims we can have Buddhism without beliefs, which is actually the title of one of his books. I enjoyed the book, but I am not sure such a thing is really possible.
I often hear that Buddhism is not a belief system. This is absolutely not true. Buddhism is a belief system just as much as Christianity, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. You can’t live life without believing things.
The difference is that Buddhism has less metaphysical baggage than some religions, and the metaphysical parts are not absolutely essential to the practice of Buddhist morality and meditation.
Now if you said you can have Buddhism without metaphysical beliefs, then yes, such is possible. But every philosophy, including Humanism, has beliefs (“Humanism believes,” Humanist Manifesto I).
Four Wise Beliefs
The Four Noble Truths, which might better be called the Four Wise Beliefs, form the core of Buddhism’s belief system.
Belief one, all unawakened people suffer and are dissatisfied (Pali, dukkha).
Belief two, the cause of this suffering and dissatisfaction is selfish desire (literally, “thirst”).
Belief three, selfish desire can be eliminated.
Belief four, the Eightfold Noble Path can eliminate selfish desire and hence end suffering and dissatisfaction.
The Four Tasks
Now do the Four Wise Beliefs stop being beliefs to be accepted, if they are turned into tasks to be accomplished?
Stephen Batchelor turned the Four Noble Truths into the Four Tasks. First, fully know suffering. Second, let go of craving or selfish desire. Third, experience the cessation of craving. and four, cultivate the eightfold path.
The first task is to fully know suffering. Why? Yes, it is a task. But it is a task without a reason to pursue it. And the reason to pursue it is a belief.
Stand on your head. Why? Because I said so. See, it makes no sense to issue a task without a reason to do the task. And the reason to do a task is a belief.
Why Embrace Suffering
So why should we embrace suffering? Because suffering is bad and unnecessary, which is a belief. So the first task assumes, at least two beliefs, first that suffering is a bad thing that we should not want. And second, that suffering is, at least to some extent, unnecessary. In other words, we don’t have to suffer and be in this bad circumstance.
So you can’t have Buddhist practice without believing, or at least assuming, Buddhist beliefs. Otherwise, you have a task without a reason, a practice without a purpose, and a meditation without an objective.
And before someone objects that you shouldn’t meditate with a goal, remember that you started meditating for a reason. That reason is, or at least was, your objective.
Personally, I think it is quite alright to see the Four Noble Truths as four foundational beliefs to Buddhist practice. In fact, I think this is the most rational and logical way to see them.
Doctor Treating a Patient
The Four Wise Beliefs are similar to a doctor diagnosing and treating a patient. The First Belief is the diagnosis of a problem, humanity is unhappy and dissatisfied. This has been empirically verified, and you can see if it’s true in your life as well. Psychology says the first belief is true.
The second belief is concerning the cause of the illness. The Buddha taught that the cause of unhappiness was selfish desire, which takes three forms, attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Is the Buddha right? We can judge this by personal experience or we can see its truth in the latest findings of Psychology. Psychology says the second belief is probably true.
The third belief is that there is a cure. The jury is still out on whether we can only lessen suffering or whether we can completely cure it. I happen to believe the Budhha here. But psychologists cannot be dogmatic either way. We can only say what works for us. Psychology says the third belief is probably true, at least to some extent.
The fourth belief is the prescription. This is the how-to part. It involves forming wise views, wise intentions, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise mindfulness, and wise concentration. Psychology says the fourth belief is producing results in the lives of millions.
A Healthy Dose of Skepticism
So is Stephen Batchelor wrong? I prefer to see him as a finger pointing at the moon. We need to come to Buddhism with skepticism and a desire to live an evidence-based life.
The evidence is in favor of Buddhism’s core principles. Whether it is the complete story, I am not so sure.
So can we have Buddhism without any beliefs? No. But people can have a secularized Buddhist practice without the metaphysical parts. And that, I believe, is the spirit of what Stephen is getting at.
However, as I have given up my faith in naturalism, I have embraced the fullness of the Buddha’s teaching. I believe in karma, samsara, rebirth, and nirvana. The metaphysical perspective of Buddhism has opened my eyes to the incredible depth of the Buddha’s teaching.