Belief, doubt & enquiry

Belief doubt enquiry

In many ways the Buddha can be considered as a sceptic, with many similarities to the ancient Greek sceptics – particularly Pyrrho of Elis (c.360-c.275 BCE) and the later Roman philosopher, Sextus Empiricus (2nd or 3rd century CE).

Like the Greek sceptics the Buddha emphasised open-ended enquiry (as in mindful meditation) rather than the development and holding of fixed beliefs or opinions – he was wary of dogmatic statements of any kind – not surprising given his view of the universe as fluid, impermanent and conditional. A dogmatist believes he/she has found ‘the truth’, a sceptic is always investigating.

Our word, sceptic, comes from the Greek, skeptesthai, ‘to enquire, investigate or reflect’ – hence, skeptikos, ‘an enquirer or investigator.’ Pyrrho and Sextus considered the purpose of scepticism to be ‘living enquiry’ – a way of living based on balance and equanimity – a middle way between past and future – an active open-mindedness, open to each moment and what it may bring. Beliefs should always be open to revision in the light of fresh evidence and changing circumstances. Dogmatic belief is the opposite of open-ended enquiry.

Thomas McEvilley: ‘The study of counterarguments to one’s own opinions was meant, according to Sextus, to lead to a general state of epoché, ‘suspension of belief,’ which could in turn lead to a state of inner freedom from the domination of linguistic categories (aphasia), which in turn will steady into an effective balance or composure (arrepsia) which is naturally and effortlessly followed by a state of imperturbability (ataraxia)’. (McEvilley 2002: 420) The sceptics, like the Buddha, emphasised contingency and conditionality – what the sceptics called, aoristia: the indefiniteness of boundaries.

The Buddha once said: ‘relate to everything in the universe with neither attachment, aversion or indifference.’

Sextus writes: ‘The sceptic’s attitude is quietude in respect of matters of opinion and moderate feeling in respect of things unavoidable”. (Sextus Empiricus 1990: 23)

The American poet, Robert Duncan (1919-88), wrote that in his view the goal of poetic composition is “not to reach conclusion but to keep our exposure to what we do not know.” (Duncan 2010)

There are echoes here, of Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn: ‘don’t know mind.’


Sextus Empiricus. 1990. Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Prometheus Books.

Thomas McEvilley. 2002. The Shape of Ancient Thought. Allworth Press/School of Visual Arts, N.York.