The Buddhist Psychology of Ideologies

Prof. Y. Karunadasa

(Prof. Y. Karunadasa is a well-known Buddhist scholar who was the Director of the Post Graduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies of the University of Kelaniya. He is now a Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong.)

Inaugural Address at the Fourth National Conference on Buddhist Studies held in August, 2008 in Colombo

By Buddhist psychology of ideologies we mean the Buddhist diagnosis of the origin of ideological positions by delving deep into their psychological mainsprings. This of course does not mean that the Buddhist critique of views is confined only to psychology. What this means is that besides many other factors based on logic, epistemology and ontology, Buddhism takes into consideration the psychological dispositions which serve as causative factors for the emergence of ideological positions. The idea behind this is that our desires and expectations have a direct impact on what we choose to believe in. When it comes to ideological stances we are inclined to reject what is unpalatable and disagreeable even if it is true and to accept what is palatable and agreeable even if it is false.

In point of fact, from its very beginning Buddhism was aware that all metaphysical ideologies, whether they are religious or philosophical, whether they are theological or cosmological, are but rationalizations of man’s deep-seated desires and innate anxieties. Some of these ideologies, as we know, are couched in beautiful captivating language Some appear very lofty and profound, incredibly magnificent and awe-inspiring. Nevertheless, the Buddhist position is that they are nothing but external man ifestations of man’s desire to satisfy his innermost yearnings and compulsive urges From the Buddhist perspective, therefore in any critique of ideological positions logical and philosophical arguments should be supplemented with a psychological diagnosis of their causal genesis.

The best evidence for what we maintain here comes from tne first Buddhtst Discourse in the first Collection of
Buddhist Discourses. It is called the Ail-Embracing Net of Views. And as you are perhaps aware, it is a survey of some sixty-two views, which is claimed “to go beyond the confines of any particular time and locale” and is therefore capable of embracing all actual and possible ideologies on the nature of the self (atta) and the world (loka) They all have as their epistemological ground either logic and pure reasoning (takka-vimamsa) or experience in meditative attainments, or a combination of both.

Among the sixty two views, there are (1) those dealing with the notion of a Creator God {issara-mmmana-vada).

(2) those pertaining to eternalism (sasanavada). i.e. the spiritualist view that the self (soul) is eternal while the physical body, in which the self is encased, is perishable,

(3) those pertaining to anihilationism (ucchedavada), i.e. the materialist view that the self is the same as the physical body and therefore it comes to complete annihilation at the time of death, with no prospect of post-mortem existence.

(4) those dealing with cosmological speculations: whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal m terms of time, or whether the universe is finite or infinite in terms of space.

(5) theories of fortuitous origination of the self and the universe, and

(6) theories of skepticism (amara-vikkhepa), the view that with our limited faculties we cannot fathom the true nature of the self and the universe and hence its refusal to commit itself to any ideological stance.

What is most interesting about the Buddhist approach to the sixty-two views is that it is neither argumentative nor confrontational. In point of tact, not a single view is rejected as false. What we find here, instead, is a psychological diagnosis of how these views arise and why they persist in the world at large, and more importantly, how they can be transcended by identifying and eliminating their psychological roots.

Buddhism distinguishes between two kinds of views. The first called “attavada”, is the belief in a self, the notion that there is a permanent individualized self entity within the empiric individuality. The second, called “ditthigata”, embraces all forms of speculative metaphysics Intended to explain the nature of the self and the universe. Of these two kinds of views, it is the first that is primary, because, in the final analysis serves as a base tor the emergence of all other views i.e those coming under the second category