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Buddhism in ‘The World’s Religions’ by Huston Smith Essay

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Updated: Jan 19th, 2022

Although in his The World’s Religions, Huston Smith identifies speculation as one of the religious constants (Smith 93), Buddhism views humans’ endeavors to ascertain the truth as meaningless and fruitless pursuit:

It is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair…. I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to the absence of passion, or to tranquillity and Nirvana. (Smith 96)

In order to enhance a reader’s understanding of Buddha’s attitudes towards theorizing and speculating, Smith provides the “parable of the arrow smeared thickly with poison” (Smith 95). The parable was told by the Buddha to his disciples who deluded him with abstract queries. As the story tells, a man wounded by a poisoned arrow did not allow a surgeon to heal him until he would obtain detailed information about his attacker. Replying to his numerous questions required much time that was necessary for healing and relief from suffering. Therefore, emphasizing the uselessness of such questions, the Buddha states that “Before knowing all this, that man would die” (Smith 96). However, in Buddhism, in accordance with the First Noble Truth, the concept of suffering or dukkha is much broader in comparison with painful sensations; besides physical manifestations, suffering involves all spheres of life (Smith 99).

According to Buddhism, questions insistently asked by the wounded man fall into the category of non-judged or not considered queries because of their uselessness for achieving relief from suffering. Questions that are merely speculative in nature, as well as answers to them, only lead to greater confusion. It is possible to deal with such questions for years but never come to the conclusion. People can only answer them grounding on their own imagination instead of complete comprehension. Answers given by an ordinary person who has not become enlightened yet will be simplistic conjectures (Smith 98). Furthermore, it is apparent from Smith’s interpretation of Buddhism that humans’ incessant search for truth is also useless because it can divert a person from practice into fruitless speculation (Smith 95).

Accentuating the uniqueness of Buddhism, Smith defines it as empirical, scientific, pragmatic, therapeutic, psychological, egalitarian, and directed to individuals’ religion (98). Although Smith substantiates every characteristic feature, some of them evoke perplexity. For instance, I have never associated pragmatism with any religion before. However, having explored the parable of the poisoned arrow and the wounded man and the Four Nobel Truths of Buddhism, I realized that the Buddha’s refusal to answer his disciples’ questions was really rooted in pragmatism.

In terms of philosophy, pragmatism identifies practice and experience as the main methodological principle and considers the practical effectiveness of theories to be the main criterion for their truth and reasonability. Coinciding with pragmatism in the orientation towards reasonable practicality and expediency, Buddhism goes beyond science and assesses the utility of a particular method from the point of view of its practical implications. Unless the Buddha’s “teachings were useful tools, they had no value whatsoever” (Smith 98).

Summing up, Buddhism significantly differs from the doctrines of Christianity and Islam. These religions promulgate unquestioning leadership of the divine essence over the human will. On the contrary, the pragmatism of Buddhism allows abandoning its postulates if they are beneath criticism and do not entail reasonable practicality.

Work Cited

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. HarperCollins, 1991.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Buddhism in 'The World’s Religions' by Huston Smith'. 19 January.

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