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by Colin Cordner

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is both simple in concept and potentially overwhelming in scope; it is to do no less than provide a brief comparison of certain schools of philosophy with a view towards examining their parallels in experiential and spiritual insight. An interesting enough task under most circumstances, to be sure, but one made all the more difficult when the subjects under scrutiny are separated by several thousand kilometers of geography, centuries of time, and the murky waves of cultural drift and distinction.

In this particular instance, the subjects of interest are the philosophical schools of the Buddhist faith and those of ancient Hellene origins -- two of the strongest and most venerable branches of human thought and speculation yet in existence. And yet, so venerable are these schools of thought that they are more aptly named “universities”, for many are the sub-branches and schools that they have inspired over the centuries. For the sake of focusing our scope then, we shall have to limit ourselves to examining only certain limbs to the exclusion of others, and for the sake of intellectual honesty we should compare exemplars from both philosophical traditions that seem most evidently to resemble one another.

It is for that reason that this essay shall focus on comparing only four ancient schools of philosophy -- two from the Buddhist tradition, and two of the ancient Hellenes. Of the former, we shall focus on the Theravadan school, with it’s close ties to the Pali Canon and the recorded doctrines of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, and the Madhyamika school, which owes great debts to the Indian philosopher-monk Nagarjuna. Of the latter tradition, we shall focus on the Platonic school of philosophy, which owes its heritage to the eponymous philosopher Plato as well as to his friend and teacher Socrates, and the Skeptic school, which owes debts both to the aforementioned Socrates and his contemporary philosopher Phyrro.1

Commonalities, Siddhartha & Socrates

If we may accept the 5th-century bhiksu Buddhashosa’s commentary on the Pali Canon sutras as insightful, then it becomes clear that a certain commonality of thought existed between the eponymous Buddha, and the Hellenic philosophers Plato and Socrates2. For our purposes, the primary parallel of interest is the concern that all four figures demonstrated for the spiritual well-being of human beings.

In merely penning the Visuddhimagga, his seminal commentary on the Pali Canon, Buddhaghosa is quite effective in demonstrating his concern for such matters -- for certainly there was no religious or doctrinal imperative upon him that demanded the massive exegenical effort that lay behind the tome. Certainly, if simple doctrinal conformance and personal enlightenment had been of chief concern, the authour would have been just as well served by strictly observing the less complicated task of following the vinaya rules of monastic conduct. Instead, his focus manifestly carried him towards the task of interpreting the Canon, and thereby shedding greater light upon the Buddha’s sutras concerning the well-being of humanity’s spiritual existence.

For evidence of this concern for human spiritual enlightenment, we may be required to look no further than the Visuddhimagga’s table-of-contents; for the very layout and selection of topics is quite effective in laying-out the authour’s priorities in penning the volume. If we consult a 20th-century, English translation-from-Pali as our source3 , we quickly find that the naming of the section and chapter headings of The Path of Purification are revealing; for instance:

Part I: Purification of Virtue
Part I: Purification of Consciousness
Part II, subsection I: The Benefits of Concentration
Part III: Understanding
Part III, subsection I: The Soil in which Understanding Grows
Part III, subsection III: Purification of View
Part III, subsection IV: Purification by Knowledge and Vision of What is and What is not [the] Path
Part III, subsection VIII: The Benefits of Understanding

When presented with such a suggestive choice of focus and titles, it seems fairly clear that the bhiksu was quite interested in laying out both the benefits and the necessity for the spiritual -- as opposed to purely physical, or sociological -- purification of the individual. Furthermore, given his choice of life as a Theravadan monk working with some of oldest sutras of the Buddhist faith, and his choice to produce a exegenical commentary rather than a theological or purely philosophical treatise, it is further revealed that the authour himself is convinced that The Path of Purification is but a particular illumination of the dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha, for whom spiritual enlightenment was a primary concern4.

As for the Platonic school of Hellenic Greece, much can, and has, been made of the professed concern of its founders for the well-being of human souls. Consequently, it is in that concern that we find the most evident parallel between Siddhartha Gautama and Buddhaghosa on the Eastern hand, and Socrates and Plato on the Western one.

Proof of the latters’ concern for personal spiritual development is perhaps a bit more difficult to evidence, given Plato’s preference for the dialogic form of philosophical writing over the treatise preferred by Buddhaghosa. The result of the former’s preference to write in this more complicated form -- not to even mention the preference of his friend and mentor, Socrates, to not write at all -- makes the consultation of a table of contents rather impossible.

However, so constant is the theme of personal spiritual care in the writer’s dialogues that citations of evidence is not difficult. We may for instance point to a particular passage in Socrates’ final defense before the jury of Athens as an indication of his prioritization of matters of the soul over material things, “If you doubt whether I am really the sort of person who would have been sent to this city as a gift from God, you can convince yourselves by looking at it this way. Does it seem natural to you that I should have neglected my own affairs... while I busied myself all this time on your behalf...urging you to set your thoughts on goodness?”(The Apology, 31b)

To this statement attributed to Socrates’ in this very early dialogue of his student and friend, Plato, we may also add many others dispersed throughout the dialogues.5

Clearly, these would be an indication of Socrates’ concerns with spiritual matters of a sort familiar to the Buddha or to Buddhaghosa -- or at least they can be taken as an indication of Plato’s concerns with such matters, and his conviction that the root of that concern lay with his mentor. Beyond the mere profession of concern however, we can also find suggestions of paths of purification that a reminiscent to those found by the 5th-century Buddhist monk within the sutras -- albeit the paths teasingly suggested by Plato are not unveiled in a systematic fashion6 7 .

Commonalities, Phyrro & Nagarjuna

Commonalities between Buddhist thought and Hellene philosophy are evidently not confined to the Theravadan and Platonic schools though; for it takes very little imagination to perceive similarities between the Skeptic schools of ancient Greece, and the Madhyamika school of the Mahayana branch of the Buddhist faith.8

To begin, there is the very pedestrian observation that founders of both schools, Phyrro of Elis in the 4th-century BC and the Indian Nagarjuna of the 2nd-century AD, had an obvious interest in employing the rhetorical device of reductio ad absurdum upon the unwary. Beyond that observation, however, we may observe a deeper concern with employing such methods as a means through which to destroy mental-formations or adherence to conventionalities which disrupt the ability of individuals to perceive reality as it really and truly is. In support of this, we have passages from Diogenes Laertius to draw upon with regards to the Skeptic of Elis:

“[74] The skeptics, then, spent their time overturning all the dogmas of the schools, whereas they themselves make no dogmatic pronouncements... they themselves expressed no determinate position, not even this itself [that they had no determinate position]...[78] The Phyrronican strategy, according to Aenesidemus in his Outline for Phyrronic Topics, is a kind of display of appearances or thoughts, according to which they are all juxtaposed and when compared are found to have much inconsistency and confusion. As for the contradictions found in their investigations, first they show the modes by which things persuade us and then how confidence is eliminated by the same modes...[79] They thus showed that on the basis of indications contrary to those that persuaded in the first place, [conclusions] opposite to those we accepted were equally plausible.” -- excerpt from Life of Phyrro, by Diogenes Laertius

As one might tell from the preceding passage, the Phyrronic approach to philosophical discourse was not only to attempt to induce a state of thaumadezein (“bewilderment”) upon the audience, but also -- by refusing to express a determinate doctrine or position -- to refuse to undo the confusion that had been caused. Indeed, it seems that it was the induction of a primal confusion -- a lack of any egocentric certainty regarding the nature of the phenomenological or noumenal order -- that was the primary goal of Phyrro and his immediate successors.9

Similarly, Nagarjuna , through his Madhyamika Sastra, can be credited with constructing similarly bewildering lines of argumentation that may serve to strip away the confidence of the reader in her ability to grasp reality-in-itself:

“Nothing comes into being
Nor does anything disappear
Nothing is eternal
Nor has anything an end
Nothing is identical
Or differentiated
Nothing moves hither
Nor move anything thither.”
-- excerpt from the Madhyamika Sastra, by Nagarjuna

The preceding is a classic summation of Madhyamika philosophy, but which, at first glance, seems to be no more than a verse of paradoxical nonsense. ‘Nothing’, it is asserted, ‘comes into being, nor does anything disappear’; an assertion that clearly implied the ontological non-existence of any ‘thing’. Upon a reading of such a verse, the reader is herself faced with an assertion that challenges a very fundamental experiential convention -- that ‘things’ exist10.

Taken by itself, and without the benefit of further erudition or the prior education of the reader, the statements that the passage assert may easily be regarded as so much poetic nonsense. In truth though -- when presented within the context of a greater corpus, argument, or lecture -- the passage may be more accurately regarded not merely as poetry, or even simply as a philosophical summation, but also as a rhetorical strategy of “begging the question” -- a skillful means (upaya) by which the audience may be drawn-into a dialogue with the authour in the goal of illuminating a series of apparently self-contradictory statements. Thus, already we are presented with one essential similarity between the philosopher of Elis and the Indian monk -- the intent to engage an audience. In neither case are we presented with individuals whom are solely concerned with the cultivation of personal wisdom via private contemplation -- theirs is a path that more closely resembles that of the missionary than the hermit.

Having thus engaged the audience, the matter then turns to unveiling the meaning behind the words. As we’ve already observed, if nothing comes into being, nor anything disappear, the immediate implication is that no ‘thing’ exists -- a seemingly counter-experiential argument which is literally non-sensical. However, within the context of the Buddhist experience of Dependent Arising, the nature of the assertion shifts; no longer does it appear to suborn nihilism or ontological solipsism, but rather to encapsulate a sophisticated epistemological observation. No ‘thing’ exists in the sense of existing as an independent phenomenon, nor does any such independent ‘thing’ come into being, nor, necessarily, can such a ‘thing’ come to an end. Thus, contrary to being counter-experiential or truly non-sensical, the audience has been presented with a sophisticated elaboration of a experiential reality. Rather than challenging the experience of ‘things’ or ‘thingness’ per se, it is the epistemological conventions that are mentally associated with the experience of ‘things’ that is challenged. ’Things’ are not as they seem; rather they only seem that way due to delusional mental-formations. Noumenal and phenomenological reality are one; the latter is but the product of an epistemological defect that causes the misapprehension of reality as it truly is.11 12 13

Thus, in both the cases of Phyrro and Nagarjuna, we are presented with a parallel conviction in the deleterious affects of false beliefs and false opinions upon both the human condition and the human ability to know things as they truly are. Just as importantly, however, we struck by their similar, implicit belief that a knowledgeable being may aid others to overcome such false beliefs through the skillful use of the means of logical rhetoric and dialogue.

Divergences

In spite, though, of the similarities in thought and experience that can be observed between the varied philosophical schools of the Hellenes and the Buddhists, it is perhaps important to take note of the significant divergences which set them apart from one another.

First and foremost, we may easily perceive that a great disagreement separates the Platonic philosopher from his Theravadan counterpart with regards to the nature and cosmic significance of desire. In the Theravadan school, desire or craving (trshna) is clearly to be avoided, being as it is, one of the principal causes of suffering (duhka) -- such a doctrine is clearly laid-out in both the second of the Four Noble Truths (“The source of suffering is craving”) and as the eighth of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising (pratitya-samutpada). Craving and attachment, therefor, is clearly something to be avoided by those seeking Enlightenment and Nirvana.

Contrary to this view of the wholly negative consequences of trshna, Platonic thinking presents us with the concept of the eros (erotic longing) for the Divine, and the philos sophia (the lover of wisdom). Contrary to laying out a path that seeks to extinguish longing in the fashion advised by the Buddha and so extensively commented upon by the Theravadan monk Buddhaghosa, the Platonic suggestion was rather to tame and re-orientate the erotic passion of living beings by encouraging the transference of that longing from the transitory world of Becoming to the divine world of Being14 . As a result of this transference of loving from the material to the divine, the philosophia enters into a relationship with the noumenal order which seeks to overcome all boundaries presented by conventional phenomena and ignorance. Thus, contrary to being perceived as a de facto obstacle to Enlightenment, it is rather considered only to be harmful if misdirected towards the phenomenological world of Becoming.

Similarly, despite the degree of agreement that may be observed between the schools of Phyrronic Skeptics and Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy, key, historical divergences in their goals distinguish them from one another. The Skeptical goal, was, in the words of Sextus Empiricus, citizen of the Roman Empire:

“[25]...We say most definitely that the goal of the skeptic is the freedom from disturbance with respect to matters of belief and also moderate states with respect to things that are matters of compulsion... [27] For the one who believes that something is honourable or bad by nature will be disturbed... [28] On the other hand, the man who determines nothing in regard to things honourable or bad by nature does not flee or go after them excessively. For this reason, he has a freedom from disturbance.” -- excerpt from Outlines of Phyrronism, by Sextus Empiricus

From this passage, we may easily deduce that by Empiricus’ time within the context of the late Roman Empire (c.200AD), the purpose of practicing the Skeptical lifestyle had, by that time, fully degenerated into what scholars have described as “a philosophy of consolation”. Rather than seeking to access the noumenal reality of Being, late Skeptics had adopted the practice as a means of Self-consolation in the face of adversity. Historically, then, by the time of Nagarjuna’s penning of his works, Skeptics in the Roman Empire had already begun to conceive of their philosophy as Self-orientated and anthrocentric -- a clear break with the no-Self doctrine of the future Madhyamika philosophers. While Skeptical practices remained in-tune with some doctrines of the Buddhist faith as a whole -- particularly with regards to the taming of desire and attachment -- it separated from that religion -- and particularly from the Mahayana sect of Buddhism -- through its concern for the Self and its maintainence.15

Conclusion

What, then, may we conclude from all of this? First and foremost, we might observe that there are significant parallels between the Buddhist experience and its Hellenic counterpart -- the fundamental interest in breaking-down mental barriers which separate the human mind and spirit from the noumenal order of the Other is a point of commonality is common to both and foolish to ignore.

Secondly, we might also observe that, in spite of the commonalities that existed between the various schools in their early stages, the affects of time, cultural drift and contextual changes have nevertheless drawn the schools in very separate directions. The reasons for these changes are varied and colourful -- and almost certainly worthy of a study unto themselves -- but can, with obvious caveats, be generally ascribed to the difficulties caused by miscommunication between teacher & student, misapprehensions within the same context, the reinterpretation of doctrines and beliefs in the face of political considerations, instances of dogmatic particularism, or simple egotism. As all of the founders of the surveyed schools have remarked however, change happens within the phenomenal world and should be expected as a consequence of phenomenological existence -- be the subject a living being or a dharma.

Lastly, it should be observed that a driving interest in revealing to humanity the nature of its separation from the world of Being is at the heart of all of these works. None of the aforementioned persons chose a life of serene contemplation in complete separation from society, though such a path was undoubtedly available to them. What is thus remarkable is the reasoned, yet still nearly missionary, impulse that seems to drive these individuals forward in their preaching of either dharma or philosophy. The reasonings behind these similar impulses appear complex, but, it must be said, are not simply the reaction of believers following the commandments of a higher power; the se philosophies are notably bereft of the sort of Divine positive law that is familiar to western monotheism. Rather, it is creative mixtures of belief in man’s radical insufficiency unto herself when daring to question reality as it truly is, the recognition of a radical interconnectedness between living beings, and a drive for the common good that seems to lie behind their actions and the paths of their lives.

What is then notable in all of this is the fact that such disparate number of people came to such similar conclusions regarding humanity’s fundamental relationship with the world, and that they came to similar conclusions as to the individual’s ability to harmonize that relationship. Whether the means was to learn and practice sila, samadhi and prajna, or the engagement in the Socratic elelenchus, the harmonious relationship of one living being to another -- be that other a teacher, student, or friend -- is essential, in the eyes of all four schools, for one’s enlightenment.

Footnotes

1. For a sampling of arguments asserting the independent arisal of these similar philosophical insights, consult The Spread of Aristotle's Political Theory in China, by Michael C. Mi, Political Theory © 1997 Sage Publications, Inc, and Early Greek Philosophy and Mādhyamika, by Thomas McEvilley, Philosophy East and West © 1981 University of Hawai'i Press (Hereafter EGP&M), as well as Eric Voegelin’s The Ecumenic Age and Karl Jaspers’ Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus : the paradigmatic individuals. All present differing hypotheses and theories regarding the occurance of indpendant parallels between western and eastern philosophical schools.

2. The spiritual mentors of the Platonic school of philosophy, c.5th to 4th centuries BC. Socrates were sentenced to suicide by the polis of Athens in 399BC. Plato, the fouder of the physical Academy, died under comparatively peaceful circumstances in 347BC -- a few before the Macedonian conquest of Attika.

3. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, translated from Pali to English by Bhikku Ñyanamoli, and published in 1976 by Shambala Press in Berkeley & London

4. As E. Conze put in succinctly, “The basic teaching of the Buddha can be expressed in one sentence: The conditioned world as it appears to us is fundamentally and irreperably undesirable, and salvation can only be found in through escape to the Unconditioned, also called ‘Nirvana’. Everything else is elaboration.” -- Buddhist Philosophy and Its European Parallels, by Edward Conze, pg.9, Philosophy East and West © 1963 University of Hawai'i Press. Hereafter BP&IEP

5. For example, Crito (47a-48a), Phaedo (64a-c), Gorgias (447a-466a), et cetera.

6. See, for instance, Phaedo, the Myth of the Cave represented in Book VII and the Myth of Er in Book X of Republic.

7. An alternate to the formal path to spiritual purification elaborated by Buddhaghosa is the Platonic conception of a divine dispensation or stroke of luck, which merely reveals the existence of the path without necessarily elaborating upon its function or necessity. This possibility is elegantly captured in words by Tyson Anderson at the bottom of pg.257 of The "Self": Idol of and Barrier to the Spirit,Buddhist-Christian Studies © 1995. Hereafter TS:I.

8. A view shared by E. Conze, see BP&IEP, pg. 15-6

9. In spite of the usefulness of Kant’s terminology, it should not be taken as an indication of complete agreement between Kant’s philosophy and that of Medieval or Ancient Buddhist thinkers; clear divergences exist between Kantian cosmology and its Buddhist counterpart. See Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy, by Edward Conze, Philosophy East and West © 1963, pg.107-10. Hereafter, SPtBP.

10. Compare Conze’s remarks on the Three Dharmas in BP&IEP, pg.10

11. For the Mahayana preoccupation with the “Unconditioned”, see BP&IEP, pg.10-11

12. Here again we may percieve parallels with Platonic thinking, particularly with the much-studied Myth of the Cave, and the Simile of the Divided Line, with their emphasis on the divergence between reality and perception (The Republic).

13. For a comparision of Madhyamika ontology and Greek monism,as well as an attestation for their seperate development, see EGP&M.

14. In spite of these differences in the purpose of the passions in the drive for knowledge of the world of Being -- whether they should be treated as either aids or hinderences -- it can be persuasively argued that both concede that for both parties, such a noumenal order both exists and is somewhat accessible to mortals; see BP&IEP, pg.12.

15. The depth of the divergence between 18th-century Skeptic David Hume and Nagarjuna is even more stirking. See SPtBP, pg.113-5.

Bibliography

Anderson, Tyson, The "Self": Idol of and Barrier to the Spirit, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 15. (1995), pp. 257-262, University of Hawai'i Press(http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0882-0945%281995%2915%3C257%3AT%22IOAB%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F)

Buddhaghosa, The path of purification : Visuddhimagga / Bhadant¯acariya Buddhaghosa ; translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Ñy¯anamoli, Berkeley, Calif. : Shambhala Publications : distributed in the United States by Random House, 1976

Conze, Edward, Buddhist Philosophy and Its European Parallels, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 1. (Apr., 1963), pp. 9-23, University of Hawai'i Press
(http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8221%28196304%2913%3A1%3C9%3ABPAIEP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-D)

Conze, Edward, Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 2. (Jul., 1963), pp. 105-115, University of Hawai'i Press (http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8221%28196307%2913%3A2%3C105%3ASPTBP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A)

Jaspers, Karl; Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus : the paradigmatic individuals, ed. Hannah Arendt ; trans. Ralph Mannheim; New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, [c1962]

Kasulis, Thomas P, On Knowing the Mystery: Kukai and Thomas Aquinas, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 8. (1988), pp. 36-45, University of Hawai'i Press (http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0882-0945%281988%298%3C36%3AOKTMKA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-2)

Marlow, A. N., Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Apr., 1954), pp.35-45, University of Hawai'i Press(http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8221%28195404%294%3A1%3C35%3AHABIGP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-U)

McEvilley, Thomas, Early Greek Philosophy and Madhyamika, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 31, No. 2. (Apr., 1981),pp. 141-164, University of Hawai'i Press (http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8221%28198104%2931%3A2%3C141%3AEGPAM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-K)

Mi, Michael C, The Spread of Aristotle's Political Theory in China, Political Theory, Vol. 25, No. 2. (Apr., 1997), pp. 249-257, Sage Publications, Inc. (http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0090-5917%28199704%2925%3A2%3C249%3ATSOAPT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-8)

Plato, The collected dialogues of Plato : including the letters / Eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Trans. Lane Cooper and others, 2nd printing, with corrections,Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press [1963, c1961]

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Voegelin, Eric; Order and history, vol. II, The Ecumenic Age; Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, c1956

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