Buddhism and Western Philosophy

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

St. Augustine (A.D.354-43) was the most important Christian thinker of the falling Roman Empire. He was secular in his youth. Although he was raised as a Christian by his mother St. Monica, a devout Christian in northern Africa, he became a Manichaeist while at school in Carthage (Near modern Tunis). Manichaeism was an ancient Persian Religion which consisted of Zoroastrianism (Another ancient Persian Religion), Buddhism, and Gnosticism (An early Christian heresy maintaining that matter is evil and Jesus had a natural corporeal existence). Once he moved to Rome he embraced Neo-Platonism (founded by Plotinus, A.D. 205?-270?). He became a Christian only after his conversion in a garden and in 387 he was baptized and took the vows of priesthood in 391. And in 396 he became the bishop of Hippo which is in northern Africa. (The American Spectrum Encyclopedia, by M.M. Harkavy, p. 84). He is also known as the father of Western Christianity throughout the Western world. In one of his works he writes that he once introspected or looked into his mind and saw an empty room in which there was no God. However, when he looked up [the Jacob’s ladder], he suddenly became dazzled by a lightning from on high and had, what later on was called, a beatific vision in which he experienced happiness in its fullest. At last it only lasted a moment. But, he said, we can enjoy this spiritual euphoria after death forever, if we are qualified of course. Perhaps this is where we see the influence of Buddhism on his thoughts. The Hindu idea of reincarnation influenced the pre-Socratic mathematician Pythagoras (c. 572-497) whose ideas in turn left their effects on Plato centuries after. Given this historical background, Buddha’s philosophy of ‘rebirth’ must not have sounded so strange in the mind of Augustine. But being a Christian he could not accept this doctrine. Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, believed that ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ were two real forces in the Universe and had always been at war with each other without any victory on sight for either side. However, for Augustine idea of light and darkness explained the problem of evil a lot better. Just as Plotinus, a century before Augustine, was fascinated by the Eastern wisdom, Augustine looked to Buddha and Plato in direct opposition to Mani’s thought on this matter. For Augustine ‘evil’ is nothing but the absence of ‘good’. But the word ‘absence’ itself has a negative connotation. Therefore, ‘evil’ has no substantiality like it had for Mani. By analogy ‘Evil’ is like a hole in a shirt, though nothing in itself, yet with its presence the shirt is not perfect. Perhaps this is what he meant by the ‘Original Sin’, which had been committed by Adam and Eve, the progenitors of our own race, according to the Abrahamic Religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We can cover this hole, for example, by a patch like ‘I love my shirt’ but we know the shirt is not as it was before. Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves, but they knew what they had done and were embarrassed before God. However, let us not forget that God had given them the freedom to reason and choose. But when they were asked not to eat from the fruits of that tree, they never asked God: “why?” Perhaps if they had, God would have given them the reason why. But why did not God give them the reason to begin with? Well, as a result, they disobeyed God just as Arjuna ,the hero of The Bhagavad-Gita, said ‘No’ to Krishna’s command. Of course, one can argue as to why God came up with such a show in the first place? If God would not be perfect without creation, then why blame Adam and Eve for their actions? Nevertheless, what happened in the Garden of Eden led to the duality between them and nature and them and God which have continued to the present time. However, Augustine knew that this very hole (evil) was necessary for the existence of ‘good’ if ‘good’ were to make any sense at all. After all what would ‘night’ be without ‘day’? Let us not forget that we are not in the Edenic state before the fall of Adam and Eve. We are in this world of opposites and contradictions. This is where the wisdom of the ancient sages come to our rescue. Buddha specifically spoke of ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Nothingness’. But for him this ‘empty hole’ was not the fullest because it is limited by its surroundings, namely, the whole shirt. It was negative like empty rooms of some buildings specially at night when they are usually dark, lifeless, and depressing. Buddha’s Emptiness, on the contrary, was absolutely positive, of course not the way we use the term ‘positive’ these days. The negative space here is defined by the walls surrounding a room. Perhaps that is why Augustine did not find God in it when he looked within himself. But the space Buddha spoke of was a room with no walls limiting it. Although the space in a barrel or a stupa symbolically represent what Buddha meant by ‘Emptiness’, in reality the Ultimate Empty space is defined by the stups itself and the presence of the Buddha’s statues. Here space is defined not by the walls surrounding a room but by the raised monument of the enlightenment. Likewise from the Islamic point of view, space is not defined by the emptiness within the Ka‘bah but the Ka‘bah itself defines the space here. Thus, when millions of Muslims pray towards this cubic stone structure in Mecca, which is believed to be the house of God, they are not doing so to the space surrounded by the four walls but rather to the space defined by this symbol itself. This is not the abyss of nothingness of the Existentialist philosophers of the 19th like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and the 20th century like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80). However, the only exception here is Martin Heidegger (1889-76), the 20th century German philosopher who wrote that we in the West have been so involved with things that have totally forgotten their ‘beings’. This very copula ‘is’, no longer has the same meaning it used to have among the philosophers of the medieval time or the middle ages. Of course, once we speak of the idea of ‘being’ we are bound to talk of its opposite, that is, ‘nothing’. But even Heidegger was not able to do what Buddha did with the idea of the absolute ‘Nothingness’.
Buddhism went under the European soil like some rivers do and resurfaced in the philosophy of the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). He tells us that it was after he had formed his philosophical ideas that he became familiar with the religions of India. Before him Hindu and Buddhist texts had not been known to the West, so Western philosophy had evolved up to that point in complete ignorance of these Eastern philosophical schools. Their texts became available for the Western philosophers only in the 19th century and were subsequently translated into European languages. An orientalist by the name of Friedrich Majer (1772-1818) was responsible for translating those texts into German and introducing Schopenhauer to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Majer’s works left an everlasting influence on Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Schopenhauer was in complete shock to find out that some of the central doctrines of these Religions coincided with conclusions that he and Kant had reached. Let us not forget that truth can be approached by different paths. Schopenhauer perhaps was wondering what took the Western intellectual community so long to come only close to what the Indian religious thinkers had achieved thousands of years ago! The difference, of course, is not that difficult to figure out. The Western philosophical tradition started with Greek rationalists, namely, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In Auguste Rodin’s statue of ‘The Thinker’ (1880) we see that…” man is a uniquely reflective and self-aware animal…” (B. Magee, The story of philosophy, pp. 7 and142). This thinking giant is none but Aristotle (384-322), the great Macedonian Greek philosopher. The Indian religious thinkers rather emphasized the method of ‘meditation’ called ‘Patanjali’, or ‘Ashtanga’, or ‘Raja ‘YOGA. Buddha chose this particular yoga to become enlightened as a result of which statues of Buddha were either sculptured or built. This yoga is about changing our state of mind. It is not based on thinking which is important in its own accord. We need to purify our mind in order to experience the Reality. Like the water of the Hudson River in New York our mind is polluted too. Unless our mind becomes transparent, we are unable to see the Truth. Schopenhauer realized that in the sacred Hindu text, The Bhavagad- Gita or the Song of the Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna about ‘Karma yoga’ in which you learn how to give without any expectation. This yoga became part of Buddha’s teachings such that the monks by their very receiving presence provide us with the opportunity to give. We offer them all the way from food, etc. In the Ten Commandments we have series of negative (don’t) moral precepts. But none of them correspond to ‘Karma yoga’. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher of the 18th century, came so close to what this ‘Karma’ is all about. In his “Categorical Imperatives” he argues that there are actions which are right in and of themselves regardless of their results. It seems as if he had seen the absence of such a Commandment in his Religion of Christianity and felt he had to come up with his own sets of imperatives. For example, we ought not to lie at all, whether it is good or bad for our business. Nevertheless many business men and women base their achievements in the business world on being able to lie as they go through the system. But there are also those who are honest because it is good for business and not because ‘lying’ is in and of itself a wrong thing to do. According to Kant we ought to be honest not because it is good for business but for the fact that truth telling is a right thing to do. This is exactly what ‘Karma yoga’ teaches us. We should not do things because there is something in it for us at the end. We ought to completely detach ourselves from the fruits our own actions. But there is a difference between these two approaches to this problem . In Kant’s philosophy there is no authority of Krishna (incarnation of God Vishnu) behind this method. That is exactly why Buddhism, in which there is no personal God, would have been attractive to Kant, had he had access to Buddha’s philosophy which he did not. In Buddhism there is no God to dictate what is right or wrong for us to follow, like in the Abrahamic Religions and even Hinduism. Nor is there such a thing in Kant’s philosophy. Are things right or wrong because God or gods say so or they are right or wrong in and of themselves? For instance, is ‘lying’ wrong just because God commands it or it is wrong in and of itself? It seems both Buddha and Kant would go for the second option. However, what is that which forces us to be moral and honest? For Buddha the doctrines of ‘Karma’ and rebirth are the driving force behind our actions which are absent in Kant’s thoughts. For Kant what is rational is moral and what is moral is rational. But once the unaided reason becomes the slave of passion, it cannot stop us from wrong doings? Kant wants us to ask: “Do I want everyone else to lie?” If the answer is, ‘No’, then that should stop me from lying. He again wants us to ask: “Would I want to treat everyone as means to my ends?” In other words, should I use people for my interests? If the answer is, ‘No’, then that should stop me from using them. As you can see, there is no guarantee that I would not do any of these things. Kant maintains that we might need another life time or more in order to become morally perfect which reminds us of Buddha’s past lives. However, Buddha would argue that becoming just morally perfect is not enough to become enlightened. This is where Buddha urges us to go beyond the ethical. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish religious philosopher and the father of ‘Existentialism’ also taught us to do the same thing. Because if we do not do that, we might become like those who were ready to stone Mary Magdalene based on their belief in the Ten Commandments which had been revealed to Moses by God. Therefore, meditation becomes very important for seeing the Truth eye to eye.
Remember, the philosophers up to the time of Schopenhauer had always thought that a mathematically based physics was the only way to understand the empirical (based on observation or experiment) world. However, they had not believed that this world was all there was. Nevertheless, they kept their Religions out of their philosophical activities if they had any at all and tried to pursue their philosophical investigations on the ground of rational arguments alone. Schopenhauer discovered that Eastern philosophy was not science-based but rather it was grounded on Religion to the extent that it dominated philosophy just like the Middle ages in Europe when philosophy was but a handmade of theology. However, gradually Religion, philosophy, and Science went their own separate ways. Schopenhauer made parallels between his own philosophy and Hindu/ Buddhist thoughts. Some scholars believe that he must have been influenced by them. But for him this was nothing but a coincidence. Although East and west had gone on totally different journeys, they both reached conclusions very close to one another. However, there is no doubt that Schopenhauer became the first famous European writer to have raised awareness among many intellectuals who read his writings concerning these two Eastern Religions. He was also the first to profess he was an atheist.(B.Magee, pp.142-43). Perhaps it was his ‘atheism’ (Disbelief in the existence of God) which made Buddhism more attractive to him than even Hinduism. However, he knew that Buddhism was a non-theistic Religion. Because ‘atheism’ is not a Religion at all. Unlike Buddha’s prescription, the answer to the suffering of man, according to Schopenhauer, was only through art and music. Buddha’s cure for our attachment to the world was based on his experience of enlightenment. He had already tasted this knowledge and smelt its perfume. Perhaps that is why Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the great American political philosopher and writer left his home in Concord Massachusetts and went to Walden and into the woods to suck the marrow of life. He was very much influenced by the Indian Religions and thoughts. Buddha departed from his family at the age of 29 and became a ‘Sannyasin’ (ascetic or monk). This is the last stage in the four stages of life in Hinduism (Ashramas) which belongs to the elders of the family who gradually move to the forest and live an ascetic life. But Buddha went through this stage so early in his life and became a forest dweller which had been unheard of among the Hindus of his time. Very much like Buddha, Thoreau also went to Walden and became a woods dweller except the fact that he took a copy of ‘The Bhagavad-Gita’ (The essential text of Hindu culture) with him. There was freedom in America of his day at the expense of inequalities which directly contradicted the content of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 which writes “All men are created equal”. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the 3rdU.S.President was very much aware of this problem. He knew you cannot have your cake and eat it too. This contradiction reached its fruition in Andrew Jackson (1767-1848), the 7th U.S. President who expanded slavery to Mexico by starting the Mexican-American war. He moved Cherokee Indians from the land of their ancestors to the West and he supported African American slavery. By so doing he paved the way for the Civil war which was yet to take place between North and south. Thoreau, unlike the liberals of his day, believed a government governs best when it does not govern at all. Although he was against the institution of slavery, he was not like other abolitionists who still had faith in the State though they were against war and slavery. British thinkers by and large argued for the legitimacy of the State. These political philosophers maintained that a government governs best when it governs least. In The Bhagavad-Gita we find a dialogue between a warrior Arjuna who comes from the ruling caste (Kshatria) and his charioteer, the god Krishna. Once Arjuna… “surveyed his elders in both armies…, he told Krishna : “Krishna, I see my kinsmen gathered here, wanting war. … I see omens of chaos, Krishna; I see no good in killing my kinsmen in battle”. (The Bhagavad-Gita, trans by B.S. Miller, p.7). Here Krishna reminded Arjuna that he is a warrior and as a member of Kshatria caste it is his duty to go ahead and finish them up. However, Arjuna is reluctant to do so. Arjuna is a man of virtue not necessarily duty, although the latter is very important. He refuses to fight his own relatives, old teachers, elders, etc. He goes beyond his caste duty in order to remain a truly human being. He challenges Krishna, the avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. However, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. … “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…. (22:1-2), Abraham showed no objection to God and he obeyed his command. These two stories were remembered by Thoreau. Thoreau also recalled the story of Genesis when Eve did not follow the God’s Command and ate from the fruits of the forbidden tree. Therefore, he chose to become Arjuna, who like Buddha, had come from Kshatria caste and yet refused to fight his own people. For Thoreau State was not an agent of virtue but rather that which is to be avoided due to the unethical acts of the president and other politicians. State should finally be abolished. Therefore, he wrote his famous essay on civil disobedience. This radical departure from the status quo reminds us of Buddha’s refutation of the Personal God or gods of Hinduism. Buddha became Arjuna and in turn Thoreau became like Buddha. Right before the Civil War Thoreau warned us about its imminence. Perhaps he tried to stop us from all that bloodshed. But he died in 1862 and did not have the chance to see how Hell became unleashed and many on both sides fell to their death. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), student of law in England read Thoreau’s essay and he left South Africa for India. British rule in India came to an end. Soon after Martin Luther King, Jr. being influenced by Gandhi began his civil rights movement on America by passive resistance and civil disobedience.