The modern human is conditioned to think in terms of strict dichotomies.
News reports must be judged as real or fake. One’s political beliefs must belong exclusively to the left or the right. The existence of a higher power must either be constantly affirmed or vehemently denied.
We’re forced to choose between two extremes. And led to believe that a refusal to endorse one position is tacit support for its opposite.
This kind of thinking stems from an intuitively sound principle, known as the law of excluded middle. It asserts that if a proposition isn’t true, its negation must be true — there’s no other alternative. But, what if we unexcluded the middle?
For some perspective, let’s wind the clock back to the time of the Buddha, around 600 BC. During this period, the Indian subcontinent is rife with competing philosophies that conflict on a number of positions.
Among the major ideas under deliberation was the concept of other worlds.
On one side, there were materialists, like the Cārvāka, who denied the existence of anything outside of our physical world. And on the other side, were sects, like the Vedic Brahmins, that preached of the existence of beings and the possibility of rebirth in other realms, like heaven (svarga) and hell (nāraka).
The battle lines were drawn and most major schools were compelled to pick a side. When someone asked the famous ascetic (śramaṇa) teacher Sanjaya Belatthiputta what his views on the issue were, he is reported to have said.
evantipi me no, tathātipi me no, aññathātipi me no, notipi me no, no notipi me no
I don’t say it’s like this. I don’t say it’s like that. I don’t say it’s otherwise. I don’t say it’s not so. And I don’t deny it’s not so.
Sanjaya was a leading member of the Ajñāna school, which promoted a variety of skeptical thought. Unfortunately, little is known about his life and no primary sources of this school survive. Its philosophy is only known through secondary references in Buddhist and Jain literature.
Two of Buddha’s prime disciples Sariputta and Moggallana, were both said to be followers of Sanjaya before they switched camps. Some Jain texts also claimed that Sanjaya was inspired by their doctrine and a follower of their tradition.
When evaluating these sources, however, one must also keep in mind that these commentaries aren’t truly objective. Since their actual aim was to establish the superiority of their view by criticizing the doctrine of the Ajñānikāhs.
Regardless, the influence of Sanjaya’s ideas is clear in the early Buddhist texts. In the Buddhist Pāli cannon, his view is described as being one of “eternal equivocation” (amarāvikkhepavāda). The Brahmajālasutta goes on to list four reasons as to why someone would subscribe to such a view.
The first, is a genuine lack of knowledge. To claim complete knowledge about a topic when you just have a surface understanding, is deceptive and tantamount to lying. How many fields in which we hold strong positions are we truly experts in?
Modern psychologists have discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which we grossly overestimate our own cognitive ability when judging ourselves. Perhaps it’s better to critically question your own expertise, the next time you feel justified in having a strong opinion on something.
Second, was to relinquish grasping (upādāna). Grasping to a view leads to craving (rāga) and aversion (dveṣa), which are considered unwholesome mental qualities that are meant to be avoided.
Our views are generally based on limited information and riddled with biases. Despite this, we believe that our view is sanctified and that the other side is corrupt. Kicking off a metaphorical crusade against the heresy, that just perpetuates anguish.
Third, is the urge to avoid confrontation with others who enjoy arguing. This motivates those who value mental equanimity more the praise and validation gained by engaging in polemic debate.
It’s hard to find any position that is universally agreed upon. Holding a strong opinion on a particularly contentious topic, is bound to evoke an equally strong response from the other side. The best you can do in such heated situations, in order to maintain tranquility, is to refrain from picking a side.
And finally, some followers of this sect are rather uncharitably described as simply being dull and stupid.
The Buddha also adopted a similar strategy when dealing with abstract metaphysical speculations. He refused to endorse any alternative when presented with questions on the eternity of the universe, the nature of the soul or the state of a liberated person after death.
One interpretation is that these questions weren’t considered relevant to the ultimate goal of ending suffering.
This point is illustrated in the parable of the arrow. The story describes a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow. When a doctor arrives to treat his wound, he refuses treatment until someone tells him the name, caste and appearance of the person who shot the arrow first.
Metaphysical questions are considered similar to those of the wounded person refusing treatment. They distract from the more immediate task at hand, which was to renounce all craving and clinging. Including the clinging to absolutist metaphysical views.
A different kind of justification is found in another discourse, when a disciple isn’t satisfied by the Buddha’s lack of endorsement of any major metaphysical theory.
In response, Buddha uses the example of a fire. He asks the disciple if a fire was extinguished, and someone asked him in which direction the fire went — north, south, east or west — how would he reply?
This is analogous to the contemporary philosophical notion of a category mistake. It’s pointless to try to affirm the truth or falsity of a statement like, “the number seven is green”. Because, the statement itself is based on a fundamentally flawed presumption — the idea that numbers have colors.
The influence of the Ajñānikāhs is also evident in later Buddhism with the development of Madhyamaka thought. It’s interesting to note that Nagarjuna makes use of a similar kind of fourfold negation (catuṣkoṭi) as Sanjaya in his denial of intrinsic essence.
Nearly one and a half millennia after the time of Sanjaya, the commentary of the Jain philosopher Silanka on the doctrine of the Ajñānikāhs, hints at the development of a much stronger flavor of skepticism.
These skeptics targeted not just metaphysical speculation, but also began attacking foundational epistemic theories. Bringing into doubt, the validity of all knowledge. They believed that all claims of knowledge were inaccurate, and opted to stay undecided on all matters.
So, is it appropriate to suspend judgement at all times? Well, if you asked Sanjaya what he thought, he’d probably say that he neither agrees nor disagrees.