Buddhist Philosophy and Its European Parallels
Philosophy East and West 13, p.9-23, no.1, January 1963.
© by The University press of Hawaii.
part two of this essay: Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy
The search for philosophical parallels is fraught with pit-falls. Some parallels are fruitful and significant, others incidental and fortuitous. I now propose to discuss the European parallels to Buddhist thought in two articles, of which the first is devoted to the true, and the second to the spurious, parallels.
As for my interpretation of the basic principles of Buddhism, I have recently given it in some detail in Buddhist Thought in India.(1) Since my views differ to some extent from those of my predecessors, I will briefly sum them up so that the reader can see what kind of "Buddhism" I compare with European philosophy.
The basic teaching of the Buddha can be expressed in one sentence: The conditioned world as it appears to us is fundamentally and irreparably undesirable, and salvation can be found only through escape to the Unconditioned, also called "Nirvaa.na." Everything else is elaboration.
All conditioned things are marred by having three "marks, " i.e., by being impermanent, "ill," and "alien to our true self."(2) Much thought has gone into determining the full meaning of those marks. "Ill," for instance, comprises not only pain and suffering, but also the unease which is nowadays known as "existential anxiety,"(3) and the mark of "not-self" has given rise to interminable discussions.(4) Human beings fret against a world which is impermanent, ill, and not-self and are not content to live in it, because they believe that in the core of their own being they are eternal, at ease, and in full control of everything.(5) This alienation of our empirical personality from our true being (i.e., from the "Tathaagata" within us(6) )is brought about by "craving."(7)
If we want to return to our original state of purity, we must first regenerate ourselves by developing five cardinal virtues,(8) of which wisdom is the last and most important. After these virtues have sufficiently matured, we can slowly attempt a break-through to the Unconditioned,(9) which, through the three doors of deliverance, i.e., Emptiness, the Signless, and the Wishless,(10) leads to Nirvaa.na,(11) which is a state in which the self has become extinct, in which none of this world is any longer extant, and which therefore transcends all words and concepts.(12) This is all quite simple to understand, though at times hard to believe. It is very much complicated, however, by being combined with an ontological theory of "Dharma" which requires a tremendous intellectual effort.(13) This theory distinguishes three levels of reality:  the one and single Dharma, which is the ultimate and unconditioned reality of Nirvaa.na; a multiplicity of dharmas, or momentary and impersonal events, which, though illusory compared with the one single Dharma,(14) are more real than the things around us; and  the things of the common-sense world, which are mere verbal constructions, in that they are combinations of dharmas held together by words.(15) The Buddhist "dharma-theory is unique, and has no exact equivalent anywhere else.(16)
So much for the tenets of what I call "archaic" Buddhism. They were probably formulated by the time of A'soka.(16a) Two centuries later the further elaboration of these ideas led to two distinct schools, i.e., the "scholastic Hiinayaana" and the "Mahaayaana," which, contrary to what is often said, did not significantly conflict in their doctrines but merely diverged in their range of interest. The "scholastic Hiinayaana" concentrated on the conditioned dharmas, systematized their classification, defined more precisely their particular attributes and general marks, and worked out the relations pertaining among them.(18) The creative contributions of the Mahaayaana, on the other hand, almost exclusively concern the Unconditioned. In particular, the notion of "Emptiness," which in "archaic" Buddhism had been one of the avenues to Nirvaa.na, was now immensely enriched.(19) It was also buttressed by a searching analysis of the traditional concept of the "own-being" of dharmas(20) and by a type of logic which in Europe we would call "dialectical."(21) Equally applied to conditioned and unconditioned dharmas, "emptiness" led to their identification. The result is a "monistic" ontology which shows many analogies to European metaphysical systems of the same type,(22) while the descriptions of the bafflement experienced by the intellect when confronted with this one and unique Absolute resemble the position of the Greek skeptics in many ways.(23)
Of special interest for the theme of these articles is the chapter on "Tacit Assumptions,"(24) in which I compare Buddhist with contemporary mentality, and try to establish that Buddhist thinkers made a number of tacit assumptions which are explicitly rejected by modern European philosophers. The first, common to nearly all Indian, as distinct from European, "scientific," thought treats the experiences of Yoga as the chief raw material for philosophical reflection. Secondly, all "perennial"(25) (as against "modern") philosophers, agree on the hierarchical structure of the universe, as shown in (a) the distinction of a "triple world" and (b) of degrees of "reality," and (c) in the establishment of a hierarchy of insights dependent on spiritual maturity. Thirdly, all religious (as against a-religious) philosophies (a) use "numinous" as distinct from "profane" terms, and (b) treat revelation as the ultimate source of all valid knowledge.(26)
This is not how everyone sees it, and the doubting reader must be referred to the arguments of my book.
The cornerstone of my interpretation of Buddhism is the conviction shared by nearly everyone, that it is essentially a doctrine of salvation, and that all its philosophical statements are subordinate to its soteriological purpose. This implies, not only that many philosophical problems are dismissed as idle speculations,(27) but that each and every proposition must be considered in reference to its spiritual(28) intention and as a formulation of meditational experiences acquired in the course of the process of winning salvation. While I cannot imagine any scholar wishing to challenge this methodological postulate, I am aware that, next to D. T. Suzuki, I am almost alone in having applied it consistently.
Finally, any interpretation of Buddhism which goes beyond the indiscriminate accumulation of quotations and attempts actual1y to understand Buddhist thought involves an element of choice, in that one has to decide which one among the numerous presentations of the Buddha's doctrine should be regarded as the most authentic. Buston favors the Buddhisn of the Paala period, Frauwallner the Yogaacaarins, Oldenberg the Palii Canon (minus the Abhidhamma), Stcherbatsky the scholastic Hiinayaana and the later logicians, D. T. Suzuki the early Mahaayaana and Zen, some Chinese schools the Saddharmapu.n.dariika, and so on. With Professor Murti, I regard the Maadhyamikas as representing the central tradition of Buddhism, and believe that with them Buddhist theorizing reached its full maturity. This preference colors much of what I have to say.
What, then, is the relation of these Buddhist teachings to European philosophy? From the outset, I must admit that I do not believe in a clear-cut distinction between "Eastern" and "Western" mentality. Until about 1450, as branches of the same "perennial philosophy, "(29) Indian and European philosophers disagreed less among themselves than with many of the later developments of European philosophy. The "perennial philosophy" is in this context defined as a doctrine which holds  that as far as worth-while knowledge is concerned not all men are equal, but that there is a hierarchy of persons, some of whom, through what they are, can know much more than others;  that there is a hierarchy also of the levels of reality, some of which are more "real," because more exalted than others; and  that the wise men of old have found a "wisdom" which is true, although it has no "empirical" basis in observations which can be made by everyone and everybody; and that in fact there is a rare and unordinary faculty in some of us by which we can attain direct contact with actual reality--through the praj~naa (paaramitaa) of the Buddhists, the logos of Parmenides,(30) the sophia of Aristotle(31) and others, Spinoza's amor dei intellectualis, Hegel's Vernunft, and so on; and  that true teaching is based on an authority which legitimizes itself by the exemplary life and charismatic quality of its exponents.
Within the perennial philosophy Indian thought is marked off by two special features:  the reliance on yoga as providing the basic raw material of worth-while experience,(32) and  the implicit belief in karma and rebirth. Yoga, of course, has its counterpart in the West in the spiritual and ecstatic practices of contemplatives, and belief in reincarnation is nearly world-wide,(33) though rare among philosophers accorded academic recognition.
Then, after 1450, the East fell asleep and lived on its inherited capital, until in the end innate lethargy and aggression from the outside brought it to its present impasse. In the West, a large number of philosophers discarded the basic presuppositions of the "perennial philosophy," and developed by contrast what for want of a better term we may call a "sciential"(34) philosophy. That has the following features:  Natural science, particularly that dealing with inorganic matter, has a cognitive value, tells us about the actual structure of the universe, and provides the other branches of knowledge with an ideal standard in that they are the more "scientific" the more they are capable of mathematical formulation and the more they rely on repeatable and publicly verified observations.  Man is the highest of beings known to science, and his power and convenience should be promoted at all costs.  Spiritual and magical forces cannot influence events, and life after death may be disregarded, because it is unproven by scientific methods.  In consequence, "life" means "man's" life in this world, and the task is to ameliorate this life by a social "technique" in harmony with the "welfare" or "will" of "the people." Buddhists must view all these tenets with the utmost distaste.
"Sciential" philosophy is an ideology which corresponds to a technological civilization. It arises in its purity only to the extent that its social substratum has freed itself from all pre-industrial influences, and in the end it must lead to the elimination of even the last traces of what could properly be called "philosophy" in the original sense of "love of wisdom." For centuries it existed only blended with elements from the traditional "perennial" philosophy. As philosophies, both the "perennial" and the "sciential" systems possess some degree of intellectuality, and up to a point they both use reasoning. But considered in their purity, as ideal types, they differ in that the first is motivated by man's spiritual(35) needs, and aims at his salvation from the world and its ways, whereas the second is motivated by his utilitarian needs, aims at his conquest of the world, and is therefore greatly concerned with the natural and social sciences. Between the two extremes there are, of course, numerous intermediary stages. They depend to some extent on the quality of the spirituality behind them, which is very high, say, in Buddhism, slightly lower in Plato and Aristotle, and still quite marked in such men as Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, and Bergson. The general trend, however, has been a continuous loss of spiritual substance between 1450 and 1960, based on an increasing forgetfulness of age-old traditions, an increasing unawareness of spiritual practices, and an increasing indifference to the spiritual life by the classes which dominate society.
Leaving aside the relative merits of the "perennial" and the "sciential" approaches to philosophy, all I want to establish at present is their mutual incompatibility, which is borne out by their mutual hostility. Our "sciential" philosophers are well aware of this. We need only peruse the writings of empiricists, logical positivists, and linguistic analysts, and it will become obvious that the animosity displayed toward a philosopher is almost a measure of his spirituality.(36) And, in a way, the moderns are quite right. For "perennial" and "sciential" philosophies represent two qualitatively different kinds of thinking which have almost nothing in common, except perhaps for a certain degree of respect for rationality. Our contemporaries continually assure us that the spiritual philosophers of the past are not "philosophers" at all, but dreamers, mystics, poets, and so on. All we can conclude from this is that the word "philosophy" is being used in two quite disparate senses:  as the pursuit of "wisdom," and  as a "rigorous" academic exercise without much ostensible purpose. The "wisdom" meant here is compounded of knowledge and a "good life," and to it apply the words of Proverbs: "Blessed is the man who has found wisdom. Her ways are good ways, and all her paths are peaceful. She is a tree of life to all that lay hold upon her."(37) It is not easy to how such words could be used of "philosophy" in the second sense.
Having stated the general principles on which the comparison of Buddhist and European thought must be based, I now speak of the only three currents of European philosophy which can significantly be compared with Buddhism, i.e.,  the Greek Skeptics,  the wisdom-seeking mystics, and  the monists and dialecticians.
 The European system nearest to the Maadhyamikas is that of the Greek Skeptics. In my Buddhism,(37a) I have shown their close similarity, both in intention and structure. They also agree in that the history of skepticism exhibits the same tendency to deviate into a purely theoretical intellectualism which has continually threatened the integrity of Buddhist thought. Greek Skepticism went through four stages, which R. G. Bury(38) has called the practical, the critical, the dialectical, and the empirical. The parallel with Buddhism is closest in the first stage, i.e., with Pyrrho (360-275 B.C.).In the last, with Sextus Empiricus (A.D. 160-210), it is barely perceptible. Indeed, taking the later developments as his norm, Bury can affirm that Pyrrho "was probably not at all a full-blown Sceptic, but rather a moralist of an austere and ascetic type who cultivated insensibility to externals and superiority to environment."(39) It was only in the New Academy, with Arcesilas (315-241 B.C.), that Skepticism "ceased to be purely practical and became mainly theoretical."(40) "Thus, while Pyrrho had renounced and Timon flouted the Dogmatists, Arcesilas started the practice of refuting them scientifically and systematically, and earned thereby the abuse of Timon for his lapse from pure Pyrrhonism."(41) In fact, when we read Sextus Empiricus, we find that, although some of the original message has remained intact,(42) it has been overlaid by a vast technical apparatus accumulated over five centuries and by numerous concessions to common sense. The bulk of Sextus' work is parasitical on the dogmatic philosophers, and seems to be motivated more by disputatiousness and the desire to score debating points than by a positive interest in mental repose. In many ways his attitude resembles that of the later Buddhist logicians.
At the time of Cicero, halfway between Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, this loss of spiritual earnestness had not gone quite so far. Some of the statements which Cicero makes in his Academica,(43) on behalf of or in response to the Skeptics, are indeed strikingly similar to the teachings of the Maadhyamikas and other later Buddhists.
The Skeptics were people who "sanctioned nothing as proved" (qui nibil probarent(44)). "All those things you talk about are hidden, closely concealed (occultata) and enfolded in thick clouds of darkness, so that no human intellect has sufficiently powerful sight to be able to penetrate to heaven and get inside the earth."(45) Though "it is possibly the case that when exposed and uncovered they change their character" (quia possit fieri ut patefacta et detecta mutentur).(46) The Skeptics "have a habit of concealing (occultandi) their opinion, and do not usually disclose it to any one except those that had lived with them right up to old age."(47) And the opponent says, "What pray are those holy secrets (mysteria) of yours, or why should your school conceal (celatis) its doctrine as something disgraceful?"(48)
"It is the wise man (sapiens) that we are investigating,"(49) and it is on him that "all this enquiry turns."(50) He "avoids being taken in and sees to it that he is nor deceived."(51) They hold that "nothing can be perceived,"(52) or grasped (comprehendi, anupalabdhi),(53) and the "wise man will restrain all acts of assent" (adsensus, abhinive'sa).(54) There is also a reference to the "perversity" (pravitas) of seeing the non-real as real,(55) and to arguments against the senses, which are said to be "full of darkness,"(56) and against "everything that is approved in common experience" (consuetudo = sa^mv.rti).(57) And, as though he had read the Praj~naapaaramitaa, an opponent points out that "as for wisdom herself, if she does not know whether she is wisdom or not, how in the first place will she make good her claim to the name of wisdom? Next, how will she venture with confidence to plan or execute any undertaking when there will be nothing certain for her to act upon?"(58)
 Secondly, there is a close similarity with those ascetic, other-worldly, and "mystical" thinkers who assigned a decisive importance to "spiritual experience." They are represented by four main trends:
(a) First, there are the Wisdom speculations of the Near East between 200 B.C. and A.D. 300. Their conception of chochma and sophia is closely analogous to that of praj~naapaaramitaa, and some of the similarities are really quite startling.(59)
As he himself said, Schopenhauer continued the triple tradition of "quietism, i.e. the giving up of all willing, asceticism, i.e. intentional mortification of one's own will, and mysticism, i.e. consciousness of the identity of one's own inner being with that of all beings, or with the kernel of the world."(79) He shows that life in the world is meaningless, essentially suffering, and bound to disappoint the hope that our desires might be fulfilled. He attributes this suffering to "the will to live," which is the equivalent of t.r.s.naa, and which "involves us in a delusion." He looks for salvation from this world by way of a "denial of the will to live," which is a "consequence of the dawning of better knowledge,"(80) and by an asceticism and self-renunciation exemplified in "the lives of saints, penitents, sama.nas, sannyaasins, and so on."(81) We may add his atheism, his denial of an immaterial, substantially unchanging, soul, his belief in reincarnation, his stress on compassion as the basis of morality, his indifference to the "achievements" or "rhythm" of human history,(82) as well as his insight into impermanence(83) and into the reasons why Nirvaa.na can be described only negatively, and yet it is not nothing.(84)
It is only on two points that he differs from Buddhism.
(A) He fails to appreciate the importance of disciplined meditation. Educated non-Catholic Germans of the nineteenth century were quite unfamiliar with the tradition of spiritual contemplation. On the other hand, for relaxation they habitually visited art galleries and went for walks in the countryside. It is no wonder, therefore, that Schopenhauer sees the foretaste of "the exalted peace" of Nirvaa.na, not in trances (dhyaana), but in "pure esthetic contemplation." Although the contemplation of beauty has some analogy to the conditions prevailing in trance, it is on the whole an undisciplined faculty, and its results are rather fleeting and have little power to transmute the personality. In this respect, the German bourgeois town-dweller was a lesser man than the Indian man in the forest.
Parmenides (ca. 480 B.C., nearly the Buddha's contemporary) and his successors assume a radical difference between appearance and reality, between surface and depth, between what we see (phainomena) and what we can only think (noumena), between opinion and truth. For Parmenides, opinion (d.r.s.ti) is derived from the senses, which are deceptive and the basis of false information. Truth is derived from the logos, which has for its object Being (that which is and has no other attributes but to be). Being is, non-being is not; and that which Is can never not be, either now or later (as in change). Nothing that Is can either arise or perish.(90)
All monistic systems are remarkably uniform, and they are all equally beset by at least four unavoidable difficulties. They must, first of all, try to guard against the misunderstanding that the One might be a datum within the world, or a part of the conglomeration. Both East and West acutely felt the difficulties of finding an adequate verbal expression for the essentially transcendent and elusive reality of the One, and both made many attempts to circumvent them by the use of paradoxes, absurdities, contradictions, tautologies, riddles, negations, and other devices. Secondly, the monists must attempt to maintain the simplicity of the One by redefining the meaning of predication in regard to it. In this context, scholastic philosophers explained that God is each of his predicates, whereas creatures have them, and that the predicates of God are not different from one another, since otherwise he would not be simple. "The absolute essence is not in one respect different from what it is in another; what it is, it is in the totality of its being."(91) Everything plural is itself and in addition something else, and only the completely free can be itself pure and simple.
A third problem concerns the relation between the One and Being. The old Eleatic school, which flourished between 540 and 300 B.C.,(92) identifies the two. One must bear in mind, however, that in doing so it uses a special archaic, pre-Atistotelian type of logic(93) which, among other things, employs "the principle of unlimited predication." This means that a predicate is either predicated without limitation of the subject or it is not valid at all. This logic only knows statements of the type "All A are all B," which predicate the entire P of the entire S, without any qualification as to time, part, or respect, without any distinction being made between total and partial identity of S and P, or between their partial and total difference. The Eleatics also "assumed that one speaks only in one sense (monachos) of 'one' and 'being.'"(94) The victory of Aristotelian logic changed all that. Plotinus describes the One expressly as "beyond being"; for Meister Eckhart, who said that "in the Kingdom of Heaven all is in all, all is one, and all is ours," Pure Being, as the most general, becomes the richest of all terms;(95) and Hegel, again, treats "being" as the initial and minimal definition of the Absolute, which is later enriched by many further "attributes." The Theologia Germanica(96) says that "he who finds satisfaction in God, his satisfaction is the One, and is all in the One. And he to whom the One is not all and all not the One, and to Whom something and nothing are not one and the same, cannot find satisfaction in God." The Buddhist non-dual One was in the same way by many devices transferred beyond all logical categories.
And, fourthly, monists must come to some decision on the status of appearance. It may well be that not all of them have, like most Buddhists, regarded appearance as a mere illusion, and it is probably true that' "there is never any suggestion in Plotinus that all things except the One are illusions or fleeting appearances."(97) But this is a distinction without much of a difference, because also in the Plotinian system the sensory and material world has an extremely low degree of reality, and is afflicted by a great loss of the original reality, near its point of extinction. In the same way, in the Hegelian system the natural world is a state of estrangement from the Absolute Spirit. In Eckhart, "all creatures, insofar as they are creatures, as they are in themselves (quod sunt in et per se), are not even an illusion, but they are a pure nothing."(98) And, for Spinoza, "a temporal existence insofar as it is purely temporal is the same as non-existence, and is perishing in proportion to its fragmentariness and exclusiveness; existence in every range insofar as it gains content move already towards an ideal of perfection which is one with eternity itself."(99)
The background of all "monistic" views(100) is a religious contempt for the world of ordinary experience, for that which is not One or not He who Is. That world is held to be unsatisfactory---partly emotionally as a source of suffering, and partly logically as self-contradictory, and as therefore either non-existing(101) or unable to abide in the state in which it is. In this way monism is apt to beget the dialectics out of itself, as in Zeno, Hegel, and Bradley, to name only a few. In the case of Zeno of Elea (ca. 460 B.C.), whom Aristotle called the founder of the dialectics, the "paradoxes" (aporiai) he devised aimed at defending by indirect proofs the view of Parmenides, which held local movement to be impossible in the ultimate reality of the true world of being. All Zeno did was to show that, on assuming movement, the consequences which follow are contradictory and untenable,(102) and that, therefore, the information derived from sense-data is patently false, since selfcontradictions are the marks of false appearance.
Zeno's dialectics has had many successors. Among them, Bradley seems nearer to the Maadhyamikas than either Hegel or Marx. Both Hegel and Marx make two assumptions which must irritate Buddhists. The first is the insistence on human history, (103) which Buddhists hold to be utterly pointless. The second is the constant introduction of the tripartite scheme of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which postulates a relentless "progress" from one state to the other, culminating in the tyranny of the Prussian state or of the U.S.S.R. On the other hand, Bradley is, next to Schopenhauer, the nearest representative in modern Europe of at least one side of Buddhist thought. Even the procedure of Appearance and Reality is the same as that of the Maadhyamikakaarikaa, in that one currently accepted category after the other is taken up and shown to be self-contradictory and untenable. Nor can I agree with Professor Murti's(l04) claim that they differ greatly "in their notion of the Real and its relation to appearance." In fact, they both treat the Real as ineffable, and "at once transcendent and immanent."(105) If Bradley takes care not to exclude entirely the appearance from the Real, and seeks somehow to identify the two,(106) then this is not a "rather inconsistent contention,"(107) but the exact equivalent of the Maadhyamika position ("Form is emptiness, " etc.). Both these books are essentially polemical treatises and their message seems to be identical.
part two of this essay: Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy
(1) Buddhist Thought in India (London: George Alien & Unwin Ltd., 1962). Hereafter BThl.
part two of this essay: Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy