When the Buddha first taught his doctrine or better said, Dharma, he wasn’t the only kid on the block. He had a lot of competition. There were, in fact, many diverse creeds including atheism and materialism also being taught. Of the latter, which is materialism, it is perhaps the most pernicious of philosophies because it involves the arbitrary reduction of psychical processes to physical processes. In other words, this reduction is a leap of faith, but one that requires a brutish sort of intelligence—a kind not in short supply these days.
Not unlike present day materialism, the materialism the Buddha encountered, viz., cârvâka, believed the human body was simply made of matter—or we might even say, biological matter. The Dhûrtta Cârvakas, for example, believed that there was nothing besides the four elements such that the body was only a combination of various material atoms. As such, there was nothing beyond the body not subject to destruction such as a Self. Indeed, materialists were adamant there was no eternal Self or atman. Hence, there was no afterlife or any such thing as karma and rebirth.
These same ancient materialists didn’t believe in the Vedas or any kind of religious scripture for that matter. Religion played no part in the materialist’s life, in fact, the sole purpose of life—and its only purpose—is to enjoy life for as Jabali, the materialist reminds us in the Ramayana, “at death one meets the inevitable end.” Nothing really matters—life is cheap, in other words.
If any of this sounds familiar and reminds you of what today is palmed off as Buddhism, you have a pretty good understanding of just how pernicious materialism can be—more importantly, you also see how it can tyrannize the purely psychical processes.
For a number of years I have been aware of the infiltration of materialism into Buddhism. It appears in the form of “no-self” or, for example, the questioning of rebirth and karma, or getting in bed with neuroscience which, I would argue, seems bent on a quest to reduce all psychical processes to little strands of molecules.
All this, incidentally, is the result of a serious failure of many modern Buddhists and scholars to read the canon correctly having beforehand (and I would suspect in a trance) put on blinkers to make sure they can’t read Buddhism any other way than being a form of materialism! As proof, look at this example of materialist trash passed off in some of our universities as representing Buddhism.
“The Buddha’s psychological principles [are] derived logically from his materialist metaphysics. Lacking soul or permanent entity, distinct individual personality is an impossibility. What is mistaken for self is only a bundle of attributes (the senses and consciousness) held together temporarily as the spokes of a wheel are fastened around the hub” (World Civilizations, Volume 1, ninth edition, p. 114).