Evaluating Wisdom Traditions

By wisdom tradition, I am including both religious and philosophical belief systems and practices. It should be obvious that not all wisdom traditions are true. The simple fact that they contradict each other is evidence enough of that. But the harder question is, how do you know what to accept and what to reject within a wisdom tradition. I want to answer that question now.

The simple answer is that it requires reason and skepticism. Reason helps to to think clearly and logically. But reason can be hijacked by blind acceptance of authority and tradition. That is why we need a healthy dose of skepticism. A questioning attitude is required to keep reason on the right track. We are aiming for truth, not the support of dogma.

Now in order to evaluate the beliefs and practices of a wisdom tradition, we need a criterion, a rule or test by which to judge them. Since our aim to to know the truth to the best of our ability, we must base our criterion on the available evidence.

Naturalism

Every belief and practice is seen through the filter of one’s particular worldview. It is impossible to not see things from a point of view. To think, we must think with a worldview. The worldview of Bodhidaoism is based on philosophical naturalism. The bottom line of naturalism is that only the natural world exists, either as a single universe or a multiverse. This conclusion is based on substantial evidence that we will not discuss here.

Since Bodhidaoism is based on philosophical naturalism, that means that we believe that only the natural world exists. Because this is our guiding principle, that means that, when evaluating another wisdom tradition, our first question should be, “Is the belief or practice naturalistic?”

I specifically picked Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, and Humanism as the four main traditions because they are more naturalistic than other wisdom traditions. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are among the least naturalistic, and therefore were not chosen. But Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism are not completely naturalistic. Therefore their beliefs and practices need to be carefully evaluated.

Take Buddhism for example. Buddhism talks a lot about gods and ghosts, rebirth, multi-life karma, after death Nirvana, and the six realms. All of this is supernatural, not naturalistic. Philosophical Taoism also drifts into supernaturalism sometimes when dealing with the Tao. And Religious Taoism jumps right into the supernatural, making Laozi a god, and adding many other gods and demons. Even Stoicism gets off track with some of their beliefs about God and Providence. None of this is really in harmony with philosophical naturalism. So we reject all of this.

Evidence

Bodhidaoism is based on philosophical naturalism because the evidence for the supernatural is non-existent. By evidence I mean empirical evidence, and inferences based on it. By empirical I mean that the evidence is based on experiment and observation, that is, science. Science tells us what exists. There is no better or reliable method of objective knowledge. Any belief or practice that contradicts science is wrong.

But science does not tell us about the subjective experience of the mind. This is the realm of introspection and reason. This is where the wisdom traditions come in. They help us form a spirituality, but which I mean the expanding and deepening of awareness of our union with reality. It is this subjective world that is the hardest to navigate. We begin with the scientific study of the brain and behavior, and move to introspection and intersubjectivity, which means evaluating experiences among many people. To these we add the tests of logical consistency, explanatory power, practical usefulness, and beneficial results.

So in evaluating a belief or practice we begin with science as the best evidence, then move to psychology and neuroscience, then to philosophy, and finally to spirituality (religion). Notice we move from the most objective evidence to the most subjective. Every belief or practice should go through this evaluation. Then we can assess the strength of the evidence for the belief or practice. Some beliefs or practices can be accepted, others rejected, and some we need to suspend judgment on until the evidence is sufficient.

Naturalized

As I have already indicated, Buddhism’s doctrine of rebirth, as it stands, cannot be accepted. We have no evidence that people are reincarnated. In fact, the evidence is against it. The mind is what the brain does, once the brain stops, the mind disappears. But does that mean that there are no insights in the rebirth teaching?

If a belief or practice is not naturalistic, the question becomes do we reject the belief or practice, or can we naturalize it? That is, can the belief or practice be reinterpreted to be naturalistic? We should try to naturalize a belief or practice for the sole reason that it may reveal a hidden truth.

Again, let’s look at rebirth. Is there any way that a part of us continues on after we die? The answer is yes, we continue in our DNA. The Buddha knew nothing of DNA, so maybe the fact that traits are passed down led him to believe that karma was true, and hence, rebirth. But this is not a very helpful interpretation for us.

Another reinterpretation is that our lives leave a lasting impact on the people and things we touch. We influence many lives, for good and ill, and this influence lives on after we die. We call this our legacy. Here is a more helpful reinterpretation of rebirth.

One last reinterpretation, which is actually taught by meditation teachers, is that each day we are reborn. Everyday is the beginning of a new life. We are free to make today what we want. This is another helpful reinterpretation of rebirth.

So if a belief or practice is not naturalistic, try to reinterpret the belief or practice into a naturalistic belief or practice. If you cannot naturalize it, or a naturalized version is not helpful, abandon it. There are plenty of beliefs and practices that are aligned with Bodhidaoism.

Coherence

Coherence, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is “the quality of being logically integrated, consistent, and intelligible.” Not all the beliefs and practices of other wisdom traditions will be coherent within Bodhidaoism. A belief or practice should only be accepted if it cohere with Bodhidaoism. If a belief or practice does not fit in the Bodhidaoism system of beliefs, then it should not be forced to fit.

All the beliefs and practices of Bodhidaoism are suppose to be logically integrated, consistent, and intelligible. If they are not, then we have a problem. That problem needs to be solved, whether by modifying the belief or practice, or by rejecting it.

Likes and Dislikes

One of the criterion that is not included is our own personal likes and dislikes. Just because you like an idea doesn’t make it true. Likewise, just because you don’t like an idea doesn’t make it false. We are aiming at a worldview that matches reality, not creating a fantasy land.

This is the problem with the New Age movement. People shop the spiritual market place looking for little trinkets to add to their spiritual shelf. This is why they run from one guru to another, from one spiritual practice to another. They are looking for comfort, not truth. They want the next spiritual high, not the hard and painful road to self-transformation. They want better lives, not to become better people.

Awakening to Reality as it truly is, is not necessarily a pleasant experience. But what do we want, the truth or fantasy? Bodhidaoism is not the path for those interested in illusions and feel-good highs. It is for philosophers, lovers of wisdom, people who want to know the truth as best we humans can. That means that we follow the evidence, not whims and wants.

The Four Wisdom Traditions

There are four wisdom traditions that Bodhidaoism draws on for inspiration. They are Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, and Humanism. You will see that I list them in chronological order, not necessarily in order of importance. Although Bodhidaoism takes its name from Buddhism (Bodhi) and Taoism (daoism), Stoicism and Humanism are just as important. I felt that listing them in chronological order was better than listing them in alphabetical order.

It should also be noted that just because I list only four wisdom traditions, I do not mean to imply that other traditions have nothing to say. Since I was educated in Christianity and sense the West is steeped in Judeo-Christian culture, it would be naive to think that it has no influence on me. Furthermore, I have also studied other spiritual traditions such as Neo-Paganism and Gnosticism, and they have insights to offer as well. My primary concern is to be true to my commitment to science and naturalism.

Buddhism (5th Century BCE)

Buddhism was started by a man named Siddhartha Gautama. Most scholars place him in the 5th century BCE. Scholars believe he was born in Lumbini and grew up in Kapilavasthu (near modern day Nepal), which was the capital of Shakya. His father was the ruler and stories tell of his attempt to shelter young Siddhartha from the harsh realities of life – old age, sickness, and death.

But he left his family on a quest for awakening and studied meditation from two Hindu masters, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. Although they helped him reach advanced states of tranquility, he did not find the awakening he sought. He then tried years of strict asceticism. This ended up to be more of a hindrance than a help, and he felt that a middle way between asceticism and indulgence was wiser.

It wasn’t until he was 35 years old that he discovered vipassana or insight meditation and experienced awakening. After this he gained the title of the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one.” Vipassana is a way of spiritual transformation through the non-attached observation of body, feelings, and mind states. It is commonly referred to today as mindfulness meditation. It is a method of learning how the mind causes its own unhappiness and how to stop it from doing this.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths of suffering (dukkha), the cause of suffering which is clinging, the end of suffering, and the Eightfold Noble Path leading to the end of suffering. The Eightfold Noble Path includes Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. He also the three characteristics of existence: not-self, impermanence, and suffering.

Taoism (4th Century BCE)

The term “Taoism” is the older Wade-Giles method of rendering Mandarin Chinese into English. The newer and officially recognized method by the People’s Republic of China, is the Pinyin or Hanyu Pinyin system. In Pinyin it is “Daoism” instead of “Taoism.” However, most people in the West still know it as Taoism, and so I use that to speak of it. But note that I use the new Pinyin system in Bodhidaoism.

Unlike Buddhism, Taoism was not started by a single person. It began as a movement. Until recently, the Tao Te Ching was the oldest surviving writing of this movement. It was said to have been written by a man named Laozi (which literally means “old master”). But most scholars reject this. It is more likely that the Tao Te Ching is an anthology originating in late 4th century BCE.

Taoism can be divided between Philosophical Taoism (Tao Chia) and Religious Taoism (Tao Chiao). Some scholars object to this division, but it does represent a clear distinction between the naturalistic sense of early Taoism and the supernatural leanings of later Taoism. Taoism became an organized religion in 142 C.E. when Zhang Daoling founded the Way of the Celestial Masters. He claims to have received spiritual communications from the deified Laozi. To me, this was a corruption of the philosophy of Taoism and renders Taoism after this of limited worth.

Philosophical Taoism emphasizes living in harmony with the Way (Tao) of Nature. Taoism teaches the practice of wu wei, or effortless action, which is similar to Mihaly-Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow. It also encourages naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity. The Three Treasures of Taoism are compassion, frugality, and humility.

Stoicism (3rd Century BCE)

Stoicism began with a man named Zeno of Citium, who taught in Athens from about 300 BCE. It took its name from the Stoa Poikile or “the painted porch” where Zeno taught. Stories about Zeno say that he was a merchant. After surviving a shipwreck, he wandered into a bookshop in Athens and was read some writings about Socrates. When he asked how to find such a man as Socrates, he was directed to the Cynic Crates of Thebes. He studied many other philosophies until he started his own school.

The history of Stoicism can be divided into three phases, the Early, Middle, and Late Stoa. Unfortunately, only fragments survive from the Early and Middle Stoa. It is from the Late Stoa that we have Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics looked at philosophy as the art of living, not as an academic exercise or limited to intellectual puzzles. Philosophy was a way of life that affected every part one’s activities and relationships.

Stoicism aimed to provide a philosophy of life, a worldview, which would give a person a unified account of the world. It teaching was usually divided into three branches: logic, physics and ethics. It is its ethical teachings that are important today. It was based on four virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. It laid great emphasis on reason and the need to live in agreement with Nature. It also taught people how to achieve happiness (Eudaimonia) through spiritual exercises. It was a very successful school, becoming the dominant philosophy from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman era.

Humanism (20th Century CE)

Humanism is a modern philosophical and ethical system. Although the term was coined by theologian Friedrich Niethammer at the beginning of the 19th century, it was not until 1929 that modern Humanism began. At that time, Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York. The advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. In 1930 Charles Francis Potter and his wife Clara Cook Potter published Humanism: A New Religion.

The Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933 and marks the official beginning of Humanism as an organized movement. It says that, “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs. Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience.”
In the years that followed, Humanism took a turn towards dropping its original religious language and became more secular. It was itself “coming to terms with new conditions.” In its latest statement, the Humanist Manifesto III, it says that, “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Humanism emphasizes ethics and looking to science rather than revelation to understand the world.

The Four Compared

It is interesting that the four wisdom traditions tend to be more complementary than contradictory. Many have noticed the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. And who can deny the similarities between Taoism and Zen Buddhism. The odd man out is Humanism. Humanism would deny the God of Stoicism, especially in the providence that they claimed for Deity. Humanism would also reject Buddhism’s claims of rebirth and cosmic karma. There are also aspects of Taoism, especially Religious Taoism that Humanism would reject.

But I contend that Humanism is right to reject them. “The time has come for…. Religions the world over [to come] to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience.” But Humanism has been to reactionary, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It tends to be too human centered and neglects or denies the spiritual aspects of human existence. You don’t need to believe in the supernatural to know that there is a spiritual aspect to human existence, a need to connect with reality and find meaning and happiness.

Buddhism and Stoicism deal with becoming better and happier people. Buddhism does this by developing consciousness, Stoicism does it by developing reason. Humanism and Taoism deal with our relationship with reality. Humanism does it by a rational and scientific approach to the objective world, Taoism does it by personal and spiritual approach to the subjective world. Humanism is the yang, Taoism is the yin, but together they bring us into reality as it truly is.

Christianity has shaped the language and the social structure we live it. Paganism has shaped our superstitions and imagination. Both have positives and negatives from a Bodhidaoist perspective. There is no creator God or magical beings. But they influence us, our thinking and our lagangage. The keys is to become aware of these influences and be wise in dealing with them. Rejecting some, accepting some, and modifying others. Bodhidaoism is not a closed system, but is open to revision and modification as we receive further light. Evidence is our final authority.