Hurrah for Materialism! (Part II)

Saturday August 6, 2005

I suspect that many of those who decry materialism at the same time are more strongly materialist than they might dare to admit. An example comes to mind, from a Buddhist study group I was once in. We were looking at a text from the Udana, one of the oldest texts in the Pali Canon. In this text, the ascetic Bahiya is visited by a certain devata. This is how it goes (quoted from Thanissaro Bhikku’s translation):

Then a devata who had once been a blood relative of Bahiya of the Bark-cloth – compassionate, desiring his welfare, knowing with her own awareness the line of thinking that had arisen in his awareness – went to where he was staying and on arrival said to him: “You, Bahiya, are neither an arahant nor have you entered the path of arahantship. You don’t even have the practice whereby you would become an arahant or enter the path of arahantship…”

Bahiya eventually goes off to meet the Buddha and attains insight, to be killed not long afterwards by a crazed cow. (I don’t know what this cow is up to. She pops up in several places in the Buddhist texts, unexplained, and mows down monks as if she bore a grudge against them…)

We were chewing over this text, and we fell to talking about what a devata was. A common translation is simply ‘god’, on the understanding that we are talking about a small, local god, anything but immortal, usually fairly cheerful in nature. Somebody in the group said that ‘we should not rule out the possibility that such gods really exist. I mean, as actual gods. Not just in stories.’
‘Why shouldn’t we?’ I asked.
‘Because we don’t know,’ came the rather mysterious reply.
‘We can be pretty sure,’ I persisted. ‘What colour are gods? How big are they? What do they eat? Do they need to sleep..?’
‘The trouble is,’ the study-group leader stepped in, ‘you are taking a rather materialistic viewpoint.’
‘I am?’ I was surprised by this.
‘You are. Perhaps gods exist, but not in a material way.’
‘For example, as literary inventions?’ I asked hopefully.
‘Or on another plane?’ somebody else added.
Another plane? ‘Where’s this plane supposed to be?’ I asked, sceptical.
‘Perhaps it can only be perceived by those, like Bahiya, who have practised a lot of meditation. Perhaps it is non-material…’

I have had many such discussions with fellow Buddhists over the years. I am happy to admit that my denials of such things as gods existing on other planes are rooted in one kind of materialism; but I think that assertions of their existence are rooted in another kind of materialism. Many want devatas and gods and deities to exist in the way that chairs and tables and cats and dogs exist, in the way that we ourselves exist, just elsewhere and out of reach. It is apparently not enough for these things to exist as a part of a story, as literary devices, as symbols, as bearers of meaning; they have to also be endowed with flesh and blood and bone (or the equivalent amongst gods – ichor and the like), with a material reality of their own, from their own side.

What is this, I wonder, if it is not a kind of materialism?

Image courtesy of HimalayanArt.org

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#1 · Robert Ellis

12 September 2011

A kind of materialism? A kind of metaphysics, yes, a kind of ontology, motivated by a desire to nail down a definite belief and hang onto it – but not materialism specifically. Of course, it depends what you mean by materialism, but it’s not a belief in the reducibility of all objects to ones of physical matter that can be explained using laws of physics of the dependable Newtonian type.
You seem to be admitting here – in effect – that materialism is a kind of metaphysics!

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