How not to argue about Buddhism

The most common unproductive way to disagree is to attack your opponent, rather than what they have to say. (This is called “arguing ad hominem”—Latin for “against the person.”)

Ad hominem rarely adds to understanding—but it can be effective at silencing opposition.

Here are some specifically Buddhist forms of ad hominem I’ve encountered:

“You are being aggressive.” In other words, you won’t shut up when I tell you that you are wrong. “Aggression” is the worst Buddhist sin, so if I can make that stick, nice Buddhists will ignore whatever you have to say. (This also trades on the wrong idea that it is inherently hostile to insist that different Buddhisms are different.)

“Obviously, you don’t practice meditation much.” If you did, you would agree with me. Because meditation leads to the Truth, and I have the Truth.

“This is a bunch of academic/intellectual posturing.” I find what you are saying hard to understand. I don’t actually know much about Buddhism, but I’m totally sure I’m right. Rather than learning more—perhaps even from you—I will try to make you look irrelevant and out-of-touch.

“You have no right to say that.” As you know, we live in a totalitarian state in which The Buddhist Authorities determine who is allowed to say what.

“That’s not compatible with our Western values.” Naturally, all good Westerners have the same values, namely mine.

“That’s just a traditional view.” (The usual way for modernists to dismiss traditionalists.) As of last week, we’ve got everything figured out, so anything that contradicts our current belief is obsolete and should be forgotten.

“Your Buddhism is inauthentic.” (The usual way for traditionalists to dismiss modernists. What does “authentic” mean? In practice, nothing more than “my system, not yours.”)

“Yours is even worse.” You don’t believe that my meditation can make me One with The Entire Universe? Well, I don’t believe in your Tibetans’ flying lamas, either.

What other unhelpful Buddhist argument styles have you encountered?

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33 Responses to How not to argue about Buddhism

  1. Greg says:

    Good post. #2 and #3 often come in tandem.

  2. Ah, if only one could get only the ad hominem praise (which I’ll have seconds of, thanks … preferably from all those uber cool buddhist nerd personalities) but all the debators out there could be more well behaved when it comes to “constructive” criticism. I definitely feel your point here, even if on a bad day, maybe I’m just as guilty as the next guy is (about me) in wondering what kind of a pompous bafoon could go around thinking – that – which I just happen to disagree with. There’s a lojong slogan that says “don’t ponder others”. Funny thing, I heard that in one tradition of men-ngag-de that lojong is considered as principle practice disguised as a preliminary, but I digress… I have to say, enjoying now both sides of your conversation what debators should and should not do, the wisdom of my teachers utter lack of appetite for debate altogether is dawning on me. It will be hard, because I have conditioned myself to enjoy many different aspects of it, but I am considering, inspired somewhat in part by this dialog, to make not debating at all a demeanor that I would like to hold as (do I even need to say it) a method that I want explore the value of.

  3. Re #2 & #3: Yes… They can also have some truth to them. There seem to be two ways to “establish ground” as a Buddhist; to see oneself as “serious” or “advanced” or something. One is knowing a lot of obscure trivia, and the other is to have spent months or years meditating for twelve hours a day. Knowledge and practice are both necessary, but neither is sufficient, regardless of quantity.

  4. Sabio Lantz says:

    Great examples! I thought of some possible others:

    1. Appeal to Misleading Authority
    “The Dalai Lama says …”
    “Thich Nhat Hanh says …”
    “I can read Pali, you can’t …” (?Genetic Falla cy)

    2. Bandwagon Fallacy (Red Herring)
    “Every Buddhist I know agrees about the value of ‘mindfulness’.”

    3. Slippery Slope Fallacy
    “If you are going to question ‘enlightenment’, we might as well throw all Buddhism in the trash.”

  5. Matthias says:

    Hallo David

    How about the marry-go-round argument otherwise called The Infinite Loop of the Wise Ones?

    Example. In a german forum somebody wants to know about tibetan reincarnation? I give as one example one of my favorite citations of the so called Sogyal Rinpoche: “Once we have a physical body, we also have what are known as the five skandhas – the aggregates that compose our whole mental and physical existence. […] All of these components will dissolve when we die.“ (Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 2002 edition, p. 254) From there the text goes on to describe being after physical death from a first person perspective – like „we will experience this and that“ and so on.

    I remark that there is obviously a contradiction in this ,reasoning‘. Not the „we have the skandhas“ – that‘s strange enough – I ask who is left experiencing when „ all components dissolve when we die“?

    The answer is: „Apart from the supposed inconsistency in the logic, the wise one will understand.“

    I ask: „ How do I know if somebody is wise?“

    The answer: „Only the wise ones know the wise ones.“

    Matthias

  6. Pernicious Emptiness:
    “Oh well, everything is empty, so it doesn’t matter.” Commonly applied to disturbing emotions, someone else’s insight or idea, or anything else one wishes to get rid of. Can be applied to one’s own unpleasant experiences too: “I’m feeling anger, but anger’s empty, therefore it doesn’t exist, so I must not be feeling it.” The practice of “letting go” is usually only applied to unpleasant experiences.

  7. Sabio Lantz says:

    I thought of two more:

    4.Anti-Intellectualism

    “You are confusing the finger for the moon it is pointing toward.”

    This is one of the most common intra-Buddhist, anti-intellectual, all-purpose argument stoppers — a favorite in Zen circles.

    5. Sutta Cherry Picking

    “The Buddha did not teach us to follow tradition but to test everything for ourselves.”

    This is one of the favorites to support pro-individualism & anti-tradition (from the Kalama Sutta). No one likes context when it harms their argument.

  8. 1. “You are being arrogant” (variation on aggressive – but this assumes that having an opinion and stating it without equivocation is a character flaw)

    2. “You are obviously mentally deranged” (Buddhists all seem to be amateur psychiatrists)

    3. “All is one” and if you say different then you are deluded.

    4. Various forms of patronising – “Oh if only you could see a. the error of your ways, or b. the superiority of my understanding” etc

    5. “You’re a materialist” (frankly I think this is intended to be worse in the Western Buddhist world than aggression).

    6. Your argument is unethical (or variation on 1. your style of argument is unethical).

    7. As a member of X group you have been brainwashed and are incapable of thinking for yourself and anything you say is just propaganda.

    8. In arguing this you are “harming the dharma”

    9. Why don’t you become a real scholar or leave it to us professionals?

    I could go on, but recollecting the various forms of this that I’ve encountered is not giving me much joy.

  9. Kate Gowen says:

    I think you’re choosing too narrow an investigation, myself– as if only the religious side of the debate, or only the Buddhist side of the debate– employs such shoddy rhetoric. That certainly hasn’t been my experience. I’d say that some of the slipperiest arguments are made upholding views that deny that they are religious. Apparently out of genuinely not seeing the views in question as being anything like ‘religion.’

    Any discussion that posits only two possibilities, and eschews nuance, is going to produce a great deal more heat than light.

  10. Kate Gowen says:

    Hmm- I’d add ‘guilt by association’, coupled with attribution errors. To be more specific: ‘Religious people are credulous and easily manipulated; you are defending a religious point of view that doesn’t meet my ‘scientific’ criteria; therefore you are simply gullible. Just like people who use crystals, believe in UFOs, prefer medical systems other than those certified by the AMA, thump Bibles, or are enthusiastic about Sharia law.’

    I think the trouble is that there don’t seem to be agreed criteria for evidence or criticism– in an area about which people have strong feelings. The Dalai Lama isn’t my ultimate authority; but neither is any atheist I’ve encountered so far– or the AMA or NASA, for that matter. I’m not sure there IS an ultimate authority, or whether there needs to be.

  11. roni says:

    Great post. great comments!

  12. Rob Hogendoorn says:

    All too often ‘Metta’ turns into yet another ad hominem argument. More than a few Buddhists sign their e-mail messages, web posts and letters with ‘Metta’, suggesting that they – unlike the reader – have somehow transcended (passive) aggression, so that their opinions – unlike the reader’s – are bound to be objective and beyond reproach.

    By the way, the American philosopher Owen Flanagan (author of “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized”) and I have coined the term ‘Buddshit’, i.e. self-serving Buddhist bullshit.
    To my mind, specifically Buddhist forms of ad hominem together clearly rank as a genus of Buddshit.

    Buddshit is no different from regular bullshit, though. Buddhists are just lucky to have their own word for it.

  13. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Rob Hogendoorn
    (1) I crafted a post called Treating Metta-mucil (a pun on an American laxative) that seems to fit with your comment and you may enjoy the graphic. That über-sweetness of _/\_ is something David addresses, in his blog. And it makes me think how Metamucil has sugar added for palatability.

    (2) I have heard of Flanagan’s book and thought it may be a bit too dry from me but after hearing you tell us about the sacrilegious, Shiva-purifying term of ‘Buddshit’, I am enticed more to reading it. Thanks. Glenn Wallis also writes in a unique style to challenge the self-hypnotic rhetoric of many Buddhists — you may enjoy him.

    (3) Clicking on your name’s link leads to a unstarted blog — we hope your start writing for us.

  14. Rig'dzin Dorje says:

    Here’s another one: “It’s very bad karma that you are making a problem about this.” I was introduced to this as a bizarre variant on “you don’t practice meditation much”. I’m assured the following rhetoric used to be overheard fairly regularly within A Particular Sangha. Buddhist A would tell Buddhist B that s/he was *really upset/ angered/ disturbed in their practice* by something B had said/done. This meant that B should go away and meditate more, so that B would not have such upsetting habits, which would be an act of compassion towards A and everybody else. It has taken considerable teachings on the principles and functions of karma to alleviate the guilt of Buddhists who used to find themselves fingered as person B in this model.

    Yet another, used as an intensification of your “your Buddhism is inauthentic” is the shocked-intake-of-breath-all-round-the-room-triggering “you are causing a schism in the sangha”.

  15. Matthias says:

    Here is another strategy which is often used. It is called „ducking puzzlement“.

  16. Nice humor piece with bite. Your #1 and Jayarava’s #1 (being similar) deserve a little more respect, though. I see nothing wrong with pointing out aggressive language — I’d want someone to point it out if I were being nasty — especially when aggression is the primary content of the post. Certainly talking about the dharma rather than the people considering the dharma is more constructive.

  17. Smirnoff says:

    all excellent reasons for a rule of silence.

  18. Glenn Wallis says:

    The four unhelpful accusations that I get most often are (though rarely to my face; hence, in the third person):

    1. He is incomprehensible and wrong in equal measure;
    2. He makes me uncomfortable; so, I’ll say he’s aggressive/unskillful/mean/scary/lacking compassion/scary/evil–therefore, wrong;
    3. His criticism of Buddhism proves only one thing: that he knows nothing whatsoever about Buddhism;
    4. He clearly doesn’t meditate (or meditate enough or meditate correctly, etc.).

  19. Lawrence says:

    One that I’ve had was “Eventually your going to want something that goes a bit deeper”

  20. shezer says:

    I don’t have many arguements with other Buddhists but I do encounter a lot of spiritual types in Aro Ling http://aro-ling.org/ who tell me what I believe (normally monist unity and oneness with the universe) and then I have to nicely (well I am English!) explain to them that I don’t believe that and it is not part of Buddhism. Sometimes they come back to hear more – but mostly not.

  21. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ SheZer
    Well, you could always direct those Unity seekers to other Buddhisms. For as David writes, Unity thinking is indeed part of some Buddhisms, though perhaps not yours. I think David is arguing that Buddhism should not be defined as one thing — it is a fuzzy multitude. So to say what is, or is not part of Buddhism is a venture frustrated from the onset. It all depends on what Buddhism you are talking about.

    The reason I think that is important, is because the “There is only one real Buddhism, and it is mine” is a common mistaken [albeit common] way to argue about Buddhism. As others have also said above.

  22. Dharmadhatu Daka says:

    I am not sure if anyone else has encountered this, but I hear it all the time. Someone will demand to see a scriptural reference. Many times, I’ve had to remind people that Buddhists are not a “people of the book” – maybe we’re a “people of the cushion”. However, “people of the cushion” might empower those people who fall back on the argument of “oh, you’re obviously not meditating enough, because if you did, you would understand X”. This insistence on scriptural authority is probably just a side-effect of living in a Judeo-Christian society (or one that started that way). Oddly enough, I get this from both the Buddhist and non-buddhist communities, e.g. Christians often want to see a text, a quotation, or something like that, and this, I understand. Although, when it comes from another Buddhist, I find it kind of confusing. It’s not that I find the texts to be irrelevant, on the contrary. It’s just that when I’m asked to make a specific reference, I have to ask “which one of the thousands of texts from the dozens of traditions would you like me to cite?”. It’s not that big of a deal when discussing a specific tradition, because then, the selection of texts is quite small. It’s more of a problem when someone asks how a certain practice “fits” into the general frame of Buddhism.

  23. Sabio Lantz says:

    The Other Side of the Coin
    All of us have gripes about some accusations by some commenters, even if usually we are extremely grateful for the comment of the vast majority our generous readers. Nonetheless, a post that will probably not happen here could actually be: “When accusations against Buddhist bloggers are spot on!

  24. She-zer says:

    @Sabio – I’m afraid I am just not nice enough to agree that Buddhism still is Buddhism if you include the four denials – terribly unpopular position though I know this is.

    As to refering people elsewhere – as others have commented on this site the Consensus holds less sway in the British Buddhist scene and I’m pretty sure the other Buddhist centres in Bristol also do not advocate monism – like I said I don’t have arguments with the Buddhists of other traditions that I meet through our centre – we all get on in face-to-face contact.

  25. Kate Gowen says:

    Doesn’t ‘how NOT to argue about Buddhism’ cut both toward and against Buddhist bloggers, if they are advancing arguments? My impression was ‘rules of engagement for Buddhists’– bloggers and commenters both.

  26. Indestructible Rig’dzin, being quite intimate with, even as I type this, “both sides” of the A and B person scenario you refer to, I can really relate with how ‘right’ one feels when one is person A, and how ‘wronged’ (not wrong, but *wronged*) one feels when one is person B.

    I note interestingly that in neither case did I feel actually mistaken about anything. [holds up mirror]

    There is indeed something actually wrong with the situation, which is not only as you point out the misunderstanding of karma as a codependent expectation of just-ice that is accepted in thinly veiled subservience to the needs of our addiction to the form definitions of emptiness, but there is also a complete misunderstanding of the principle and function of a sangha, and how the actual nature of that “irritation” whose principle nature is chang-chub sem (bodhicitta) – that so understood can serve as the ground for the exploration of non-referential compassion that functions within and beyond the stricture of discriminating wisdom.

  27. acutia says:

    This is a useful post with several illuminating comments. I am though underwhelmed by the way David has portrayed the motivations or orientations of these notional users of ad hominen attacks.
    Some of these gloss (after the bold quotations) seem unnecessarily intellectually mean-spirited. I see this where they assume and attribute the most negative personal motivations (narrow-mindedness, self-delusion, passive-aggression) to explain why someone would take such stances. In saying this , I’m not trying to go down some “Well… we all have a valid opinion” line. More that it may be more honest, fruitful and less self-congratulatory to consider that those using ad hominems might sometimes actually be motivated by a range of respectful and well intentioned impulses. My sense is that with that perspective discussants might be better able to see how so often we operate in such debates from fundamental and possibly incommensurate basic positions.

  28. Thanks, acutia, that’s helpful feedback. I see your point; I think I may have been trying too hard to be funny.

    Thanks to everyone else for all the fine additions! More are welcome.

    Maybe it would be good to organize and summarize them all, and produce something more serious, like an actual guide to helpful Buddhist debate. (Anyone who wants to take that on—please run with it! Or I might do it at some point.)

  29. Curt says:

    I am not really sure which thread that the comments that am about to make belong on. I guess that they best fit here.
    Jews, Christians and Muslims all agree that we humans are being watched and by Angles and Demons and God who also gets to pass judgement on our behavior. Many Buddhists say that we are being watched by Bohdisattavas who are trying to save us from ourselves. Some athiests believe that we are being watched by aliens who are trying to guide human evolution. A few fiction writers say that we are inside of computer game and are being watched by other humans outside of the game, or that future humans are traveling back in time trying to correct previous human errors such as preventing WWIII.
    One ot the critisisms that I have often seen leveled by those who believe in God is that science which tries to explain everything without refernce to God unavoidably leads to Nihlism because it robs mankind of an ultimate purpose. I personallly do not see how belief in a God can solve that problem. If we can ask we am I here I can jsut as easily ask why is God or the alien or the human outside of the computer game or Bohdisattava here.
    I think that the answer that I am here to hlep save “others” from suffering is a better answer. But even that has a catch. Are these others infinate in number? If that is the case a person could easliy ask, so what is the point?
    Therefore it seems to me that the problem of nihlism could be inescapeable.

    Perhaps that was to big of a jump. I hope that the readers can follow it.

  30. Aren’t there particular reasons why Buddhists are more likely to get confused about ad hominem than anyone else? For an analytic philosopher, say, it’s pretty clear: any personal references are taken to be completely irrrelevant to what is considered a completely impersonal argument. However, Buddhism includes beliefs about the relevance of mental states to the justification of beliefs. For example, eternalism and nihilism are often seen both as moral habits and as philosophical positions, even though their precise relationship is extremely fuzzy. On the face of it, it would seem fair enough to make ad hominem criticisms on the basis of Buddhist teaching: e.g. “Your view is ‘materialist’, you must only hold it because of your self-indulgent psychological states”. I can see lots of unjustified assumptions in that example, but many Buddhists in my experience don’t seem to do so.
    So, much as I recognise and dislike the rhetoric moves David and others have noted here, it seems to me unclear on what basis anyone can object to them within Buddhist tradition. The separation of reason from rhetoric is a distinction from the Western tradition that goes back to Plato. In the absence of a widely-accepted clarification of what the Middle Way is about and how it works, I don’t see what there is within Buddhism that’s equivalent to it. But if someone else can suggest a Buddhist source I’ll be interested.

  31. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Robert Ellis :
    Philosophers’ writing is so hard for us mortals to understand. I read that 3 times and am still unsure what you said. I was hoping you could clarify for me.

    (1) Did you just say something like:

    Buddhists shouldn’t be surprise by ad hominem attacks against them or by the genetic fallacy because that is essentially how Buddhism approaches other philosophies.

    (2) You said:

    The separation of reason from rhetoric is a distinction from the Western tradition that goes back to Plato.

    Are you saying that separation is useful or confused?
    Do you feel the Greeks also separated emotions from reason in an artificial way that has falsely burdened our dialogue on that issue. (my last post touched on that issue and I am not sure I ventured too far on my point.)

    Thanks for your time Robert

  32. Namgyal says:

    I was interested in Robert’s question of ‘Aren’t there particular reasons why Buddhists are more likely to get confused about ad hominem than anyone else?’

    I think one of the things that we need to face up to is that a disproportionate number of active Buddhists in the West are converts. When you compare the share of converts in Buddhism to ‘the religions of the book’ for example, it must be pretty huge. There cannot be many adult Buddhists in the West who are second generation converts (i.e. their parents converted, and they were born and brought up Buddhist, and have remained so). I imagine there is a particular psychology of religious conversion. I wonder if converts represent a disproportionate share of zealots/idealistics/radicals/extremsists amongst spiritual types. I don’t meet many converts who are wracked with self doubt about their spiritual path and outlook. If you want self doubt find a 10th generation Anglican Christian – you’ll have much better odds. Indeed I wonder also if the convert population also carries a disproportionate share of people with borderline social/psychological disorders.

    I’m not suggesting that all converts are nutters, but I certainly meet a much higher proportion of people with extreme personality traits and behaviours that dance on the extreme of socially accepted norms amongst Westerners who are ‘converted to XYZ spiritual path’ than I do amongst – for example – the shop floor in the steel plant I work in.

    And of course conversion is, by it’s very nature, a path of uncertainty. If you convert at 30 – 35 – 40 – odds are you’ve abandoning several decades of certainty and familiarity to go into an environment where everyone else knows more than you. That takes courage, but could lead to terror because actually everyone you meet is better read than you, better trained that you, has greater meditation experience than you, has a better teacher than you, from a more recognised/valued/established/accomplished lineage than you. . . potentially. And you cannot know. There is a big power thing going on there – if you want to engage with it. And, if converts are statistically more likely to be extreme personality types, then. . .

    I think the answer to Robert’s question might simply be buried in his question, and that ‘Buddhists are more likely to get confused. . . than anyone else’ because they are Buddhists. And as Buddhists, they are converts.

    I wonder if there are any academic studies out there on the psychology of conversion?

  33. Hi Sabio,
    I’m sorry if what I wrote was insufficiently clear. For starters I didn’t mean to imply that Buddhism was ‘essentially’ anything. Anything I say about Buddhism is a provisional generalisation. Also, the discussion so far as I understand it hasn’t been about ad hominem attacks against Buddhists, but rather by Buddhists.

    I was suggesting that we shouldn’t be surprised if Buddhists get confused about the whole issue of what is or is not an unjustifiable ad hominem attack, because in the terms of Buddhist teaching I don’t think it is very clear. If it is not very clear that might make it more likely that Buddhists will indulge in such attacks without fully realising how unhelpful they mght be. I suggested that lack of clarity about the Middle Way is the main reason why it is not very clear how Buddhists should deal with this issue. Since traditional accounts of eternalism and nihilism suggest a correlation between beliefs and psychological traits, you could easily interpret it to mean that someone offering a certain view must do so because of a certain set of necessarily linked psychological states (or vice-versa), which would make it justified to reject the person ‘s views ad hominem because you assume they must come from a certain kind of mental state.

    My mention of the separation of reason from rhetoric in the West was for the purposes of contrast. I’m pointing out that this distinction is a Western one, not one that comes from the Buddhist tradition per se. As to whether it’s a useful distinction, I think it’s a complex matter. Often the complete avoidance of anything even slightly ad hominem introduces a false neutrality and impersonality to Western academic discussion. Very often, in practice, the person who holds a view and their mental states are relevant to our assessment of them. That’s why I think Western discourse needs some ort of Middle Way analysis, in which we work out the relationships between beliefs and psychologies whilst taking into account their full complexity. This is the whole area I’ve been working on for the last 14 years.

    On the other hand, crude and rhetorical ad hominems are not helpful. I don’t think they’re unhelpful because the person is completely irrelevant to the belief and our assessment of it, but rather because most ad hominems involve a set of instant psychological assumptions that are too crude and inaccurate. Political ad hominems provide lots of examples of this – I expect there are lots of them on the airwaves of the US right now. However, Buddhist ad hominems might also be unnecessarily crude, for example in assuming that a materialist view was held because the person was self-indulgent. In this sort of case the ad hominem is not just due to the person being unreflective, power-seeking, narrow-minded etc as we might think in cases of political ad hominem, but also because Buddhist doctrine – or perhaps the failure of Buddhists to adequately clarify their own doctrine – has made a substantial contribution.

    @Namgyal: There may be something in your thoughts about the effect of conversion. However, this does seem a bit like a deflection (or at least a tangent) from the point I was trying to make. Recently converted Buddhists may use more ad hominems because they’re recently converted (and presumably recently converted Christians etc would be the same), but I’m suggesting that they may also use more ad hominems because they’re Buddhists.

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