[Buddha-l] Paul Williams

Erik Hoogcarspel jehms at xs4all.nl
Sat Dec 22 13:19:34 MST 2007

Ngawang Dorje schreef:
> Hi,
>   Sometime ago, Paul Williams conversion was slightly discussed.
> Has anyone read,"The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism" by Paul Williams.
> I would be interested if someone could provide a review or comment of the book. More spesifically, if someone could address Williams' critique of Buddhism, that would be great.
> Criticism 1:
> Williams writes: 'The question: why is there something rather than nothing? has become for me rather like what Zen calls a koan. It is a constant niggling question that has worried and goaded me (often, I think, against my will) into a different understanding, a different vision of the world and our place in it.'
> This question was first posed in a philosophically exact form by the great Catholic thinker, St Thomas Aquinas. Williams is dissatisfied with the answer of Buddhists (and other pragmatists) that things are simply the way they are, and that Buddhist practice involves coming to terms with this 'reality'. For Buddhism the world is an endless network of conditions, a process of actions and consequences, and it is meaningless to ask where, or why, it started. Williams doesn't deny the rationality of this position, but it does not satisfy him. He wants to know why things are this way, and he follows Aquinas' answer, that there must be a 'necessary being' whose existence is not conditioned or dependent. Enter 'God', the answer to all conceivable 'why?' questions.
I'll try to come up with some answers. First of all, to call Thomas a 
Catholic is misleading, because in his days there was no Protestantism. 
The question about being became prominent because of Leibniz, I never 
heard that Thomas discussed it. It supposes however that there is 
something rather then nothing, why is not clear.
Even if you go along with that, God is no explanation, because the cause 
of there being a 'something' has to be something or nothing. If it's 
nothing, there's no disagreement with Buddhism, if it's something, then 
the question repeats itself (Sextus Empiricus). To point to some special 
something and say that this something explains it's existence because it 
is the cause of all other things, is simply fooling yourself. And even 
it such a Unmoved Mover which essence would be it's existence would 
exist, it has nothing to do with the myths of the Bible, that describe 
Williams's God. Like David Hume said: I know this chair is made by a 
carpenter, but the existence of the chair doesn't give me a clue whether 
this carpenter is married or not or how many children he has. So even if 
a god made the world, he could be very different from the Catholic God. 
A Big Bang would do the job as well.
> Criticism 2:
> Williams is also dismayed by the implications of the Buddhist teaching that rebirth does not offer a solution to the problem of death. For Buddhism – unlike, for example, Hinduism – the being that is reborn cannot be identified with the one that dies. The ending of one life merely conditions the start of another. Where does that leave you, Williams wonders? 'Unless I gained Enlightenment in this life, I – Williams – the person I am - would have no hope. For the rebirth of Williams that follows from not attaining enlightenment would not be the same person as Williams... Thus Buddhism appeared to me hope-less.'
This is an 'argument at misericordam'. Another example would be to argue 
that climate change cannot take place because it would be very 
inconvenient for us all. Buddhism cannot be right, because my ego would 
be impermanent and that would be a disaster (only for me, that is, many 
people around me take great comfort from this thought :-) ).
If you believe in a Christian soul, something that garantees your 
identity and never changes, then the thought of an impermanent ego is 
unacceptable. But if you accept that nothing stays the way it is and 
everybody changes all the time, then there's nothing to loose. Besides I 
cannot think of a more cruel fate then to burn for ever in hell, or to 
have to bear for ever the company of Catholic believers in heaven. 
Heaven must be a truely horrendous place of boredom and no one ever 
could even vaguely describe it. So I cannot imagine that Williams knows 
what he believes. He probably just fell in love with the rituals and 
sacrifice and obedience-romanticism like Tony Blair.


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