The Buddhist Philosophy of Disagreement

We’ve all had disagreements that feel irreconcilable. Are they? Actually, yes. Sometimes they are. A Buddhist teaching can help us understand why.

A Buddhist master and his student sit in a temple garden.

“What is Buddha nature?”, the student asks.

“Buddha nature is all things”, the master responds.

* the student spies a stray dog wandering into the garden*

“Does the dog have Buddha nature?”, the student inquires.

The master responds: “Mu.”

The story might seem vague, but it will reveal to us a profound insight. At the center of it all is the master’s final response: “mu”. In English, mu roughly translates to the following sentence:

In order to find the answer, you must “un-ask” the question.

In Buddhism, the essence of god (Buddha nature) is infinite and indivisible, making up all things. When the student asks if the dog has buddha nature, he is making an incorrect assumption that the nature of Buddha can be divided up into something like a dog. When in fact, Buddhism rejects the idea that Buddha nature can be categorized or quantified at all. The dog doesn’t have Buddha nature. The dog is Buddha nature. And because of this, the master is put into this odd but fascinating situation where, because of his beliefs, he can’t really answer the question. If he replies “no”, then he is wrong. If he replies “yes”, then he is also wrong. The only way out is “mu”.

So, why is this such an important idea? In the west, especially amongst educated people, there is a belief that disagreement can be reconciled through debate. There is a belief that logical discourse will lead to a single answer – the truth. But if we allow mu as an acceptable answer, it changes everything. Because when someone responds mu, they are admitting that there may be an inherent problem with the question being asked. Moreover they are admitting in general that questions can be wrong. If someone has a belief system in which mu is a common answer, in which questions can be wrong and answers irrelevant, then it is going to be impossible for that person to argue with someone who is purely logical. They simply have no mechanism for argument. This is the blueprint for impassible disagreement.

There are a huge number of conflicts that follow this blueprint. Whether its the war with radical islam or a common social debate, we spend a lot of time and energy to resolve conflicts. So, its worth knowing when a conflict is beyond reconciliation. Properly considered, the idea of mu can help us do just that.

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