The Buddhas’ Wager

I was introduced to Pascal’s Wager by my college statistics professor. An evangelical Christian, she placed a short version of the wager not-so-discretely on her professional website: “If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing.”

The beauty of Pascal’s argument is that it avoids labeling the opposing viewpoint as being either essentially true or false. Instead, he provides a simple risk analysis should each view be true or false. If God happens to exist, then the risks of non-belief and benefits of belief are on the ultimate scale. Other perspectives are valid, they just aren’t a better investment of one’s belief. It’s all about what’s ultimately best for you. (You can read more discussion on your own.)

Unbeknownst to me was that Lord Buddha had his own version of Pascal’s Wager. You can find this argument sprinkled throughout the canonical suttas, but my favorite is the Kalama Sutta with its explanation of the Four Assurances.

The Kalamas were not disciples of the Noble One, but they wanted to know how to differentiate which sages were teaching the truth and which were not. One response could have been to cast all who espoused conflicting views as charlatans, but Lord Buddha chose another tack. Instead, he presented some basic Buddhist teachings with reasoning very similar to what Pascal formulated over two thousand years later. These are, in short, the Four Assurances.

The noble disciples whose minds are free from hostility, ill-will, undefiled and pure acquire four assurances in the here and now.

‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.

‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.

‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance he acquires.

‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance he acquires.

One who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires these four assurances in the here-&-now.

To recap more closely in line with the version of Pascal’s Wager above: If karma and rebirth are real, then a mind free from hostility, ill-will, undefiled and pure will land you in a good place—while if karma and rebirth are not real, then you still have the benefit of living a life with a mind free from hostility, ill-will, undefiled and pure.

Likewise, if evil is generated through karma, then you have nothing to fear with a mind free from hostility, ill-will, undefiled and pure—while if there is no such connection to karma, then you still have nothing to fear with a mind free from hostility, ill-will, undefiled and pure.

For those who find themselves asking questions about the reality of karma or rebirth, Lord Buddha’s answer is that the practice of the Noble Disciple is efficacious regardless of either reality. Even in a world without karma or rebirth, you will still benefit from the cleansing of your own mind.

Indeed, Lord Buddha’s argument falls victim to some of the same rhetorical flaws that plague Pascal’s Wager. But I find this logic still puts me at ease when my mind goes wondering about whether there really is such a thing as karma, or what rebirth actually means. Why am I Buddhist? The reality of Lord Buddha’s teaching is that in freeing my mind of hostility and ill-will, leaving it undefiled and pure, I will free myself from suffering either way.

3 Replies to “The Buddhas’ Wager”

  1. I appreciate the “wager” approach for its intense clarification of the importance of intention and action.

    However, both Pascal’s Wager and the Kalama Sutra passage focus on personal outcomes – which seems to me to be the key weakness in each.

    From a Mahayana point of view, we live “upright” lives (in both intention and action) because such lives benefit all beings – not because we might personally benefit from living with wisdom and compassion.

  2. Both wagers are aimed at people who doubt, not at those who are already convinced enough to devote themselves deeply. Pascal’s wager too is offensive for serious Christians -after all, doubting His existence at all is sacrilege.

  3. Not a valid weakness. One can only benefit others by living life morally and with wisdom and compassion ousrselves. On the path, we hold hands and pull people in when they go astray, not walk on selfishily. I’m sure this is true regardless of what tradition you follow. There is a greater stress on compassion in Mahayana I believe but like everything on the path, it has to be balanced with personal growth also. Simply being comapssionate without taking care of one’s own practice will eventually lead to suffering.

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