Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Controversy

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, March 1954

One of the facts by which even the most casual reader of the Pali Scriptures cannot fail to be impressed is the singular urbanity with which the Buddha engaged in discussion with the rival teachers of His time, the unwearied patience with which He answered the questions and solved the difficulties of the Sramanas and Brahmanas who came to see Him, and the amazing tact and understanding with which He dealt with the more obtuse among His own disciples. However serious and important the subject under discussion, however greatly His doctrine differed from that of His interlocutor, the Buddha, while firmly adhering to His own position, invariably maintained a serene and dignified demeanour. However angry His opponent might become, He remained calmly smiling; in the face of abuse His affability was unshaken; in victory He was not elated, and defeat He never knew. The Buddha was indeed the ideal controversialist, willing to listen to points of view different from His own, courteous in rejoinder, pleasant and sweet of speech, of unrivalled clarity in the exposition of His own views, He provides not only to all Buddhists but to every person who engages in religious controversy a perfect model of thoroughly civilised behaviour.

That the refined qualities displayed by the Buddha in debate were not universal in India, even among His own disciples, is shown by a stock passge which is often repeated in the Pali Scriptures, wherein quite a different manner of conducting religious controversies is described. The Buddha's term for such undignified debates is 'wordy warfare', and this is the description He gives of how a wager of wordy warfare speaks: 'You know not about this Norm-Discipline. I do know about this Norm-Discipline. How could you know about it? You have fallen on wrong views. I have come by right views. You speak last what should come first, and first what should come last. I am speaking to the point: you are not. What you have thought out so long is quite upset. Your view is confuted. Go, explain yourself. You are shown up. Clear yourself if you can!' (S.N. iii. 11.). Needless to say, this description of wordy warfare is repeated so many times in the Pali Scriptures with the object of showing how a follower of the Buddha should not speak when engaged in religious controversy.

 

One of Addison's essays in the celebrated Spectator (No. 239. Tuesday, December 4, 1711) is on 'Modes of Disputing'. After mentioning the 'catechetical method of arguing' introduced by Socrates, and 'the great variety of little weapons, called syllogisms' invented by Aristotle, he goes on to mention 'the Argumentum Basilinum (others write it Bacilinum or Baculinum), which is pretty well expressed in our English word Club-law. When they were not able to confute their antagonist, they knocked him down'. This species of argument was apparently held in high esteem in the universities of mediaeval Europe, and is not unknown in certain countries even today. After making mention of 'the logic of kings' (i.e. war), and of arguing by poll and by wager, Addison gives a lively description of what he terms 'arguing by torture'. The whole passage deserves to be quoted at length, but we have room for the first part only.

'But the most notable way of managing a controversy is that which we may call arguing by torture. This is a method of reasoning which has been made use of with the poor refugees, and which was so fashionable in our country during the reign of Queen Mary, that, in a passage of an author quoted by Monsieur Bayle, it is said the price of woood was raised in England by reason of the executions that were made in Smithfield. These disputants convince their adversaries with a sorites, commonly called a pile of faggots. The rack is also a kind of syllogism which has been used with good effect, and has made multitudes of converts'. Those who read last year the reports of the treatment meted out to Protestant minorities in certain South American 'republics' will know that the method of arguing by torture is as popular in the Roman Catholic Church today as it was in Mary Tudor's time. Unfortunately, however, the lack of understanding shown by most European states prevents the Church from making as extensive a use of this kind of argument as it would like to do.

'There is another way of reasoning which seldom fails, though it be of a quite different nature to that I have last mentioned: I mean, convincing a man by ready money, or, as it is ordinarily called, bribing a man to an opinion. This method has often proved successful when all others have been made use of to no purpose. A man who is furnished with arguments from the mint will convince his antagonist much sooner than one who draws them from reason and philosophy. Gold is a wonderful clearer of the understanding: it dissipates every doubt and scruple in an instant; accommodates itself to the meanest capacities, silences the loud and clamourous, and brings over the most obstinate and inflexible.' This method of arguing is extremely well-known in all Asian countries, where it has been widely used by Christian missionaries of every denomination. The method has various subsidiary forms, such as arguing by education, arguing by employment, and arguing by medical treatment. The expansion of Christianity in India, Ceylon, China, Japan and other Asian countries undoubtedly owes more to these irrefutable arguments for the truth of the Christian religion than to all other reasonings in the whole armoury of Christian theology.

Though Buddhists have long been familiar with the Socratic and Aristotlean modes of disputing, the various Christian methods of arguing described by Addison have been quite unfamiliar to them. Partly as a result of the Buddha's personal example, and partly as a result of His teaching on the subject of Right Speech, the third stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, controversies between Buddhist and Buddhist, or between Buddhist and non-Buddhist, have generally been conducted with dignity and restraint. There is no record that Buddhists have at any time endeavoured to prove the truth of the doctrine of Anatta by resorting to the Argumentum Basilinum, or that they have sort to demonstrate the superiority of Buddhist compassion over Christian love by means of 'arguing by torture'. Though Buddhism has spread widely in many Western lands, it has convinced people, not by ready money, but by the purity and excellence of its doctrines.

With such a tradition behind them it is not surprising that even in modern times an exchange of views between Buddhists of different schools is marked by good humour, mutual respect and an attempt to understand the opposite point of view. Controversial articles published in magazines, however vigorously the views of the author are expressed, seldom overstep the limits of decency. To every rule, however, there is an exception; in every flock there is at least one black sheep; and we now have to direct our attention to a certain fortnightly paper published in Colombo which has thought fit to ignore the example and teaching of the Buddha with regard to the right way of engaging in religious controversy. This paper has discovered a mode of disputing unknown to Addison, which we may call 'arguing by abuse'. Whoever disagrees with its narrow, dogmatic and intolerant views is at once attacked in the vilest and most virulent language imaginable. 'Heretic', 'pseudo-Buddhist' and 'Devadatta' are among the milder epithets with which it favours anyone whose ideas do not coincide in every particular with its own. The leading Buddhist layman of Ceylon, who has done more for the revival of Buddhism than any other Sinhalese since Anagarika Dharmapala (who, by the way, had to face similar attacks even on his death-bed), is assailed with accusations so wild and abuse so gross that one wonders how the paper concerned can venture to describe itself as Buddhist. Of course it is not difficult for ill-nature to disgiuse itself as zeal for religion, or dogmatism to pose as 'saddha'. In fact, the paper's official description of its mud-slinging policy is 'radiating Metta'. To quote once more from Addison ('On Zeal', Spectator no. 185. Tuesday, October 2, 1711): 'Ill-nature is another dreadful imitator of zeal. Many a good man may have a natural rancour and malice in his heart, which has been in some measure quelled and subdued by religion; but if it finds any pretence of breaking out, which does not seem inconsistent to him with the duties of a Christian [or a Buddhist], it throws off all restraint, and rages in its full fury. Zeal is therefore a great ease to a malicious man, by making him believe he does God [or the Dhamma] service, whilst he is gratifying the bent of a perverse revengeful temper.'

As might have been expected, the journalistic vipers who discharge their venom in the pages of the paper under review generally prefer to do so from behind the slimy stones of anonymity and pseudonymity. Rarely, if ever, do they come out into the open and sign their names to their attacks. Though they are loud in their protestations of orthodoxy (whenever we read them we are reminded of the old adage that orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is your doxy), they do not appear to have understood the Buddha's teaching on the subject of Right Speech. The language of their paper is a deplorable lapse from Buddhist traditions of courtesy in discussion; in fact, it appears to be a remarkably faithful version of the 'wordy warfare' described by the Buddha in the passage quoted above. We sincerely hope that this paper will in future express its views in a more truly Buddhist manner, and that at least a modicum of the Metta of which it speaks so often and so loudly will find its way into the controversies for which it appears to have so great a prediliction. Meanwhile, we recommend to the Editor and his associates a careful consideration of the following passage on 'The Ariyan Speech':

They who talk angrily, full of wrath and proud,
Carp at each other's failings when they meet,
And take delight in blame and finding fault,
And in their rival's fall. But Aryans
Will never follow practices like these.
If there be one, a wise man, fain of speech,
He knows the proper time, and speech concerned
With righteousness and practice of right talk,
Thus speaks a sage, not angry, well restrained,
With humble mind, not laying down the law,
Not curious; but wisely speaks fair speech,
Welcomes the kindly word, rejects the cruel,
Knows no resentment, does not carp at faults,
Does not retort nor crush his rival down,
Nor from the issue speak. O true it is
That Ariyans' words alike instruct and please!
Thus Ariyans speak, such is the Ariyan talk;
And knowing thus the wise should humbly speak.'

ANGUTTARA NIKAYA, i, 199