I should begin by saying that myself and ErikE started a conversation on a question on the Buddhism Stack Exchange that moved to a chat room (I don't know if others can see it, apologies if not). I referred him to The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Nagarjuna which explains Madhyamaka, and it is where I should resume, but I don't think it is necessary for you to look at the previous conversation to understand my answer. He was kind enough to ask me to look at this question too, which no doubt means I'm one of the (or the only) nihilist/Buddhists that have wound him up so.
Because it's pertinent, I will summarise the whole of Buddhist thinking as quickly as possible for those who are impatient! Luckily, The Buddha (allegedly) did it himself in just 2 lines:
Because of this, that.
Because of that, this.
Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans
By Richard Shrobe
Yes, it's all in that and I will now show how this means the kind of "truth" that ErikE is looking for in Buddhism and failing to find is unnecessary, irrelevant, and inimical to the goals of Buddhist practice.
A middle way between reification and nihilism
A couple of definitions from my Mac's dictionary:
reify |ˈriːɪfʌɪ, ˈreɪɪ-|
verb (reifies, reifying, reified) [ with obj. ] formal
make (something abstract) more concrete or real:
these instincts are, in man, reified as verbal constructs.
noun [ mass noun ]
the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.
• Philosophy the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence
Both reification (which I'll produce a better explanation of, but in the meantime, you may think of Abrahmic religious thought, or Platonian perfect objects) and nihilism are rejected as extremes in Madhyamaka thought (which I will use as a general representation of Buddhist thought), which proposes a middle way between them. To explain this, the first 2 of the 4 Noble Truths:
- There is suffering.
- All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.
So, the first point: "There is", this is the opposite of a denial of existence, not nihilistic at all.
Secondly, The Buddha only taught suffering, and non suffering. The whole point is to be happy (i.e. free from suffering). That's the first thing on the list and it's there because "to be happy" is the primary wish of all sentient beings and the goal of Buddhist practice. Therefore, meaningful (unless you wish to argue that striving for happiness and being happy is meaningless, good luck with that:)
All conditioned phenomena are impermanent means that all phenomena are subject to conditions. They arise through conditions, they continue due to conditions, and when those conditions are removed, they end. An example is the classic from school science lessons, the plant. With sunlight, good soil, water, air and a seed, a plant will arise and sustain. When these conditions are removed or not present, the plant will not arise, not sustain, will die.
Since all phenomena are conditioned they are dependent on other things for their existence. They do not exist independently. This idea is known as dependent origination. It precludes souls, causes, powers to cause, creator gods, essential nature. So this is where Buddhists reject something, they reject a description of existence that relies on things like an everlasting soul. Phenomena are empty of inherent existence. This is not the same as saying existence is meaningless (far from it, and western style atheists will recognise this "life is meaningless without God" straw man argument). It also does not reject existence, it just says that unneeded explanations are… not needed. I'm sure everyone on these boards is aware of Occam's Razor, and it's the same in Buddhist thinking - there is already enough to explain how things are working without recourse to essential nature. Special pleading requires a special justification, not the other way round.
In the same way that you are you even though you change from second to second, from year to year, Buddhism accepts this as a convention (known as conventional truth). You have no essential nature that makes you you, no I-ness, no soul, no Platonian perfect you wandering around the cosmos. You are a collection of aggregates that are conceived to be you. Your existence is not denied, just rid of extraneous and incorrect explanation. Same for anything (unless you can show otherwise).
The map is not the terrain
Buddhism is not a philosophy. It makes observations that you are to investigate for yourself, not to create a map, but to see that the map is just the map and instead experience reality directly for yourself. Truth is found in life, not in a doctrine (even those 4 Noble "Truths" are only accepted as true if you find them true through investigation, same as everything else I've stated. Note that Truths is the word used, they are relative too). This goal to experience reality directly is explored in different Buddhist sects, like in this zen koan:
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.
At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!
In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
She was experiencing the reflection of the moon, not the moon. When the water broke, all she had left was the moon. She could look up and experience it directly. Bruce Lee echoed this in Enter the Dragon :)
No doctrine and no ultimate truth
The Buddha also compared his teaching to a raft. When you cross the river you abandon the raft, you do not carry it with you. Buddhism is like medicine for a deluded view of reality. Once you are "cured" you may give it up, there is no need for it. Thus, Buddhism is not a doctrine of "truth", there is no need or desire for it beyond that which is efficacious. The ultimate truth that all things are one, that they cannot be differentiated essentially (a corollary of dependent origination), means that the ultimate truth is there is no ultimate truth. And frankly, unless it's some use in the goal of achieving happiness, who cares anyway?
- Buddhism is not nihilistic (even the Mind Only school, which sounds somewhat nihilistic, is only using this stuff as a explanation, not to create an ontology)
- It's not self refuting (what does that really mean anyway?)
- It doesn't lead to a meaningless life or outlook necessarily. Maybe I'll watch some rubbish TV, I doubt it was Buddhism that made me do it ;-)
- Buddhists don't argue about their views as some kind of public intellectual masturbation process any more than anyone else. I'd say it's more likely we are doing it because we sincerely hold that view.
- ErikE is holding onto a view that there must be an absolute truth and my failure to accept his assertions is obviously irritating to him. Well, that's life with other people, what am I (or his opponents in this) supposed to say? Someone has a too strongly held view that's been unthoroughly examined, could be me and the other so-called nihilists and Buddhists, could be ErikE. Maybe my fellow (fake) nihilist Satre was right, Hell is other people.