Pyrrho and the Buddha: Reasons to be Sceptical

Greek Buddha cover

Christopher Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, 2015.

my review copied over from Western Buddhist Review

Classical sources tell us that a young man named Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great and his army to north-west India in 324 bce. During their Indian sojourn, Pyrrho and his teacher, Anaxarchus, met Indian gymnosophists, ‘naked wise men’, and it is said that Pyrrho’s philosophy developed as a result of such meetings. When he returned to India, Pyrrho is said to have taught a philosophical ethics, in the sense of how to live the best and happiest kind of life, in terms of the ideals of apatheia, ‘being without passion’, and ataraxia, ‘undisturbedness, calm’. The way to these ideals is said to consist in a form of scepticism about the knowledge gained through sense perception and thought; rather than believe we might be able to attain certainty we should refrain from doxai, ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’, but maintain equanimity and hence undisturbedness.

The questions naturally arise of what Pyrrho might have learned from Indian thinkers, and whether his philosophy was perhaps inspired by Buddhists that he met in ancient Gandhāra. Unfortunately, answers to such questions are difficult. Pyrrho himself did not write down his philosophy, and what we know about it consists in fragmentary quotations from the writings of his pupil, Timon, plus various anecdotes and lesser fragments. Moreover, there is uncertainty about how to interpret these quotes and fragments. And there is no direct evidence at all for what, if anything, Pyrrho learned in India. Nevertheless, modern scholars like Thomas McEvilley and Adrian Kuzminski have found close parallels between Pyrrhonian scepticism and Buddhist Madhyamaka thought, with precedents in earlier Buddhist scriptures.[1] Take for example the following verses from the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-nipāta, regarded as one of the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching:

They do not formulate, they do not prefer:

they have not accepted any doctrines.

A brahman is not reckoned by virtue or vows.

Such a one, gone to the far shore, does not come back.[2]

In such teachings, as in later Madhyamaka, and as in Pyrrho, we see that the path of not holding to views and opinions is said to lead beyond suffering. Pyrrho, it would seem, may have brought the Buddha’s middle way philosophy back to Greece.

This is the exciting field of investigation into which Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha enters. Beckwith takes up the themes just outlined and runs with them – sometimes a very long way. The results are in my view mixed, some excellent and profound, some silly and self-contradictory. Beckwith comes across as one of those lone scholars, riding off into new territory alone and coming back with new insights, but out of kilter with everyone else.

I’ll start with the excellent bits in this book. Beckwith takes up the theme of interpreting the rather difficult Greek quotations of Timon’s account of Pyrrho’s philosophy. His book includes, as an Appendix, an article previously published in Elenchos (2011) on ‘The Classical Testimonies of Pyrrhos’ Thought’. His insights about how to understand some difficult words have evidently already become influential.[3] In Chapter One of the new book, Beckwith draws out the connection between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism. According to Timon, Pyrrho taught that:

As for pragmata ‘matters, questions, topics’, they are all adiaphora ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ and astathmēta ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measurable’ and anepikrita ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’. Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our ‘views, theories, beliefs’ (doxai) tell us the truth or the lie [about pragmata]. Rather, we should be adoxatous, ‘without views’, aklineis ‘uninclined [towards this side or that]’, and akradantous ‘unwavering [in our refusal to choose]’, saying about every single one that it no more is that it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[4]

Beckwith notes that the usual English translation of pragmata, ‘things’, misleadingly leads us to think that Pyrrho’s point refers to physical objects, whereas in fact pragmata are ‘(ethical) matters’. Pyrrho’s thought concerns the nature and characteristics of pragmata like anger or joy, not the nature and characteristics of air or rock. Beckwith goes on to compare the concept of pragmata with the Buddhist concept of dharmas, often translated ‘mental objects’, which are said to have ‘three characteristics’ (trilakṣana). He draws out how Pyrrho’s three characteristics of pragmata map onto the Buddhist three characteristics of dharmas:

(i) adiaphora means ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ in the sense of ‘without a logical self-identity’ – this is comparable to the anātman or ‘without fixed self’ characteristic of dharmas.

(ii) astathmēta means ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measureable’ in the sense of ‘unbalanced, uneasy’ – this is comparable to the duḥkha or ‘uneasy, painful, unsatisfactory’ characteristic of dharmas.

(iii) anepikrita means ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’ in the sense that pragmata are not permanently decided or fixed – this is comparable to the anitya or ‘impermanent’ characteristic of dharmas.

This work of careful comparison is immensely stimulating and, as far as I know, original. Beckwith goes on to outline the apparent similarity of Pyrrho’s philosophical path and the goal of apatheia or ‘passionlessness’ to the Buddhist middle way and the goal of nirvāṇa, although a great deal more on this topic could have been said.

But just as he opens up this quite fascinating field of comparative thought through the careful study of words and ideas, Beckwith manages to veer off into scholarly fantasy of the most disreputable kind. To take a small example: in order to make his point about the similarity of the astathmēta ‘unstable, uneasy’ characteristic of pragmata to the duḥkha characteristic of dharmas, Beckwith takes to task the way Buddhist scholars have translated duḥkha: ‘the term is perhaps the most misunderstood – and definitely the most mistranslated – in Buddhism’ (p.29). Never mind what anyone else says, Beckwith proposes that duḥkha is a Prakritisation of Sanskrit duḥstha, literally ‘standing badly’, hence ‘unsteady’ and ‘uneasy’, so that, as he tells us, Pyrrho’s astathmēta is ‘in origin a simple calque [loan translation]’ (p.30). However, according to Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli, there is indeed a Pāli word duṭṭha (the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit duḥ-stha) that means ‘uneasy, unhappy’,[5] but nobody seems ever to have confused this word with dukkha, with its (untranslatable) range of meaning, from ‘pain’ through ‘suffering’ to ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Beckwith’s proposal is just wish-fulfilment. This does not exclude the possibility, of course, that Pyrrho might have been translating a difficult Buddhist concept into a Greek equivalent as best he could.

I’ve outlined Beckwith’s main proposal about to some hitherto-unrecognised similarities between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism, suggesting that Pyrrho learned about Buddhism in India. Beckwith’s book, however, concerns not only this proposal but a re-thinking of the whole nature of early Buddhism that his proposal suggests. This re-thinking depends upon his employment of a particular method of investigation:

My approach in the book is to base all of my main arguments on hard data – inscriptions, datable manuscripts, other dated texts, and archaeological reports. I do not allow traditional belief to determine anything in the book, so I have necessarily left the topic out, other than to mention it briefly in a few places’ (p.xiii).

What this method means in practice is that Beckwith ignores Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism. For Buddhists, knowledge of early Buddhism comes from the records of the teaching of the Buddha preserved in Pāli and other languages, that were preserved orally at first and then in written form. The degree to which these records are accurate is uncertain, but Buddhist textual scholarship continues to sift and argue about what might count as earlier and later doctrines. Beckwith’s method is to totally ignore Buddhist texts and base his investigation on ‘hard data’. The result is silly and self-contradictory.

According to Beckwith, the earliest reliable evidence (‘hard data’) for early Buddhism is the records of visiting Greeks, especially Megasthenes, who visited the court of Candragupta Maurya in 305 bce, and whose observations have survived as quotations in Strabo’s work on geography. Megasthenes described Brāhmaṇas (‘Brachmanes’) and Śramanas (‘Sarmanes’) and some of their habits and beliefs. Unfortunately Megasthenes does not specifically mention Buddhists, and one can imagine that as a visiting Greek he may not have easily been able to differentiate Buddhist monks from other participants in the Indian religious scene. Beckwith, however, in a marvellous feat of self-justification, proposes that Pyrrho’s philosophy (as interpreted by Beckwith) is in fact an even older piece of evidence for early Buddhism (p.62), and he goes on to solve various difficulties in interpreting Megasthenes using his own version of Pyrrho and hence early Buddhism. A taste of the silliness involved: the Buddha was not Indian, but Scythian, which explains why he was called ‘Śākyamuni’, the sage of the Śakas (i.e. Scythian). The Buddha’s Scythian (i.e. Iranian) origin involved his exposure to Zoroastrian ideas about escatology and monotheism, hence the Buddha’s introduction of his modification and rejection of these ideas into India. Early Buddhism hence has nothing to do with Brahmanism or the Upaniṣads, which are Indian. Later Buddhist tradition (which Beckwith calls ‘Normative Buddhism’ though he does not explain why) made up all the stories about the Buddha’s life in India and all the encounters with Brahmanas and other Indian thinkers.

In fact there is some interesting scholarship on the topic of the Buddha’s possible Scythian origins: Jayarava has written about how the Buddha’s tribe may have been called ‘Śākya’ just because they were ‘of the Śakas’, i.e. Scythians, who had migrated into northern India in the preceding centuries, possibly bringing with them some Zoroastrian ideas that may still be visible in the background of the Buddha’s teaching.[6] But Beckwith does not engage with this kind of scholarship. There is a sort of wilful perversity in the way he pushes on with his ideas, despite what anyone else might think. There is self-contradiction at the heart of it all too. In Chapter Four we discover that Beckwith himself is a sceptic of the Pyrrhonian sort. He values the Pyrrhonian rejection of perfectionist and absolutist thinking, in favour of the putting aside of fixed views and the embracing of a sceptical method that leads towards a calmer appreciation of what really is. Robert Ellis over at the Middle Way Society has reviewed Beckwith’s book very positively from this philosophical angle, and his perspective helped keep me reading when the book’s silliness was getting too much.[7] Nevertheless, Beckwith’s own method, far from being Pyrrhonian, is an example of dogmatic scepticism at its worst, that is, the kind of scepticism which looks at the evidence and concludes that we can know nothing. In this way, Beckwith’s method of dogmatically ignoring Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism is self-contradictory.

Buddhist texts are indeed the product of various times and concerns, and hence it is not easy to determine what in them might really go back to the time of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is dogmatic to conclude that we should therefore ignore the whole of Buddhism in trying to understand early Buddhism. By contrast, a truly Pyrrhonian approach to the scholarly study of early Buddhism might consist in continually examining our views and beliefs as we study our texts, without supposing that we will ever really know for certain what the Buddha taught. This continual examination should involved us in questioning the dogmatism involved in our methods.

Beckwith’s dogmatic method in fact misses out on some nice evidence for what looks like Pyrrhonian scepticism in the Pāli canon. In one discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya,[8] the layman Anāthapiṇḍika talks to some ‘wanderers of other sects’ who want to know about the Buddha’s views and theories. Anāthapiṇḍika does not presume to tell them what the Buddha thinks, but gets the wanderers to tell him what they think. They hold different kinds of views: that the world is eternal, not eternal, finite, infinite, that the body and soul are the same, or different, that the tathāgata, the ‘realized person’, exists after death, or doesn’t, or both, or neither – the standard formula for a range of metaphysical views. Anāthapiṇḍika then tells them what he believes: that all these views have arisen through careless attention or another’s utterance, that these views are conditioned (saṅkhatā), a product of volition (formed in the mind) (cetayitā), dependently arisen (paṭiccasamuppannā), hence impermanent, hence unsatisfactory, and therefore those views are unsatisfactory (dukkha here has the connotation of ‘wrong’). Having clearly seen this, one will understand the non-self characteristic and the escape from dukkha.

In the following discourse,[9] these wanderers say that the Buddha is a nihilist (venayika) and one who refrains from making declarations (appaññattika). The Greeks no doubt criticized Pyrrho on similar grounds, understanding his scepticism to result in vagueness and ethical passivity. The question arises, for both Pyrrho and for the Buddha, of what is a criterion for practical judgement if all views and opinions should be put aside. Pyrrho scholar Richard Bett discusses some disputed lines attributed to Pyrrho which put forward what may record his view on this matter:[10]

For I will say, as it appears to me to be,

A word of truth, having a correct standard:

That the nature of the divine and the good is at any time

That from which life becomes most even-tempered for a man.

These lines suggest that for Pyrrho the standard for judging the good is not a matter of view or belief, it is not a based on a theory, but rather it is based on a continual empirical judgement of what helps make human life more ‘even-tempered’. Unfortunately, we do not have any further information about Pyrrho’s thought here. However, the discourse from the Pāli canon just discussed includes the Buddha’s standard or criterion for judgements about the good. In response to the wanderers’ complaint that the Buddha was a nihilist and one who refrains from making declarations, the householder Vijjamāhita tells them:

The Blessed One has validly declared, “This is wholesome (kusala)” and, “This is unwholesome (akusala)”. Thus, when he declares what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, the Blessed One makes definite declarations. He is not a nihilist who refrains from making declarations.

For the Buddha, the distinction of wholesome (kusala, what is good) and unwholesome is the basis for practical judgements about how to live, and the enquiry into what is wholesome continues into the investigation of mental states in meditation and eventually into insight investigations into the nature of things. In this way, we can see further parallels between Pyrrho’s philosophy in the surviving fragments and the Buddha’s teaching as recorded in the Pāli canon. These kinds of parallels add to those noticed between Madhyamaka, Proto-Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonian scepticism, and to those explored by Christopher Beckwith in his new book.

[1] Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Allworth Press: New York, 2002, p.450ff; and Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lexington Books: Lanham, 2008. Beckwith does not really discuss either of these works.

[2] Verse 803, my translation of: na kappayanti na purekkharonti / dhammā pi tesaṃ na paṭicchitāse / na brāhmaṇo sīlavatena neyyo / pāraṃgato na pacceti tādī. Louis Gomez has already discussed the apparent similarity of these early teachings to later Madhyamaka, in ‘Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli canon’, Philosophy East and West, 1976 (26:2), pp.137–65, which Beckwith discusses.

[3] See the references to Beckwith’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pyrrho/.

[4] Beckwith’s translation of Eusebius, p.23.

[5] Margaret Cone, Dictionary of Pāli, vol.2, PTS: Bristol, 2010, p.414.

[6] Jayarava Attwood, ‘Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2012 (3), pp.47–69.

[7] http://www.middlewaysociety.org/tag/christopher-beckwith/.

[8] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:93 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1464–7.

[9] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:94 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1467–70.

[10] Discussed in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pyrrho/.

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