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Alasdair MacIntyre, especially in his Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, has frequently tried to make the case that adequate moral inquiry needs to be embedded within a tradition. In the book he makes the case by arguing that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris shows a fuller and more adequate understanding of the attempts to get beyond tradition (Nietzsche’s genealogy and the Ninth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica) than they show of themselves or each other. I’m not going to address the details of his case here. But I want to note one point that MacIntyre frequently seems to shy away from: for Leo XIII and the Catholic tradition that precedes him, it is not the case that adequate moral inquiry must take place within a tradition. Rather, it must take place within this tradition, the universal and apostolic Catholic Church. The inquiries of the Confucians or Muslims are not significantly better, in this respect, than those of deracinated cosmopolitans like the Encyclopedists or Nietzsche.

In this, MacIntyre skirts around on an idea that endures through the history of the Abrahamic traditions: that the ultimate truth is tied to one single historical event, time, place and/or people. It begins with the idea recorded in the Book of Exodus that the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews are God’s chosen people, and continues with the idea that the single human person Jesus of Nazareth was the only begotten human son of God. The Qur’an, too, is a single set of revelations made in a small geographic area to one human person, not adequately translatable (so the claim goes) into a language other than the original, which is better than any other revelation that has been or will be made.

It is in this context that I am intrigued by the Buddhist claim that there are multiple buddhas. While this claim is much more pronounced in the Mahāyāna, it is clearly there from the early Pali Buddhist texts. The Pali texts speak all the time of buddhas at different times and places in the universe. These buddhas include many pratyekabuddhas – people who attained liberation on their own, but didn’t teach it to anyone else.

What is striking to me about this view is its universality – comparable to the universalist self-conception of modern science and liberalism. Like early Buddhists, liberal scientists believe that the most important truths happened to be found in one particular historical context – the enlightenment of the historical Buddha or the experiments of Westerners from the 16th century or so onward – but there is nothing necessary, or essential, about these events happening in this particular place. Anybody who had done the right experiments with the right equipment could have found out the truths of science – and anyone who had done the right earlier experiments could have made the right equipment. So too, it happens to be that in our era Siddhattha Gotama was the only one who found out the truth on his own, and the only one who can let us find out the truth in our lifetime. But it’s not only possible that people could have done the same in other eras, it’s already happened. Even we could do it – but it would be much, much harder than listening to his teachings. (The idea that we not only could but should do it is what led to the birth of the Mahāyāna, a far more universalist tradition.)

In this way the Buddhists are distinct not merely from the Abrahamic traditions, but from the Vedic traditions they reacted against. In the Brāḥmaṇa texts, the Sanskrit sounds and words of the Vedas are absolutely central to the truth of the universe; and the brahmin varṇa (caste) has privileged access to it. Buddhism was not only more egalitarian about caste; it was also more egalitarian about linguistic and geographic origin, which is surely among the reasons it spread far wider than the Vedic traditions did.

So as it turns out, we see a tension between universal and particular views of truth (and our relation to it) in South Asia as well as the West. I don’t know as much about the East Asian case, but I suspect the same issues were faced there, since early Confucians had a tendency to treat non-Chinese as barbarians.

In nearly all of these cases, the universalist side looks far more sympathetic than the particularist – at least to those of us who are outside each particularist tradition that claims the truth as its own. But the particularists still may be on to something, as MacIntyre notices; I don’t think his way of generalizing from “this tradition” to “a tradition” succeeds, but we may need to think along similar lines. One should unhesitatingly grant the important point of modern scientists, that there is no inherent link between their historical circumstances and the truths they have found. Aliens could have discovered the same ideas, as other buddhas discovered the truth of the dharma. But just as in our age (according to the Pali tradition) only one person actually did find out the Buddha’s truth, so on this earth only the West actually did create modern science, and the various liberal modern ideas that came along with it. There were preconditions in Indian culture that made it possible for Siddhattha Gautama to be liberated there; he only meditated on enlightenment after he’d been a monk for a long time, in one of the relatively few cultural contexts that made monasticism possible at the time. So too, the particular situation of Renaissance Europe made the Western Enlightenment and the growth of modern science and liberalism possible. As I noted last time, our access to universal truth can only come through our particular, historically conditioned, human minds.