Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

world map made form  peasA recent article in the Guardian (that I read via a post about Buddhist Action Month) shares some new research about the environmental effects of meat and dairy farming compared to growing cereals and plants. The results are stark; “even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. In short, growing peas has a comparably miniscule environmental impact compared to raising beef. And the opening words of the article sum up the implications: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” So should we eat peas?

I decided to try being a ‘domestic vegan’ 18 months ago, following a hunch that it was time to give a predominantly plant-based diet a go. By ‘domestic’ I mean vegan at home, but not strictly outside. Previous attempts at veganism had been idealistic but short-lived, though overall I have maintained a mainly organic vegetarian diet for 32 years. This time round veganism is easier: it’s more popular, so there are more vegan dishes on offer in restaurants, and more vegan burgers in shop freezers. The invention of Oatly Barista means that vegan coffee drinking is actually pleasant. Still, as the narrator in Simon Amstell’s film on veganism, Carnage, jokes: “a breakthrough in the quality of nut cheeses” would really make a difference.

So I find myself wanting to encourage others to shift to a plant-based diet. As part of doing so, I’d like to present a way of thinking about the ethics of veganism, as it is important to pitch this appropriately. I will conclude that veganism is not an ethical obligation, but rather a reasonable consequence of valuing universal welfare.

From a Buddhist point of view, there is nothing wrong with eating meat. It is well known that the Buddha himself was not vegetarian. On occasions, I get offered cooked meat. If the alternative to my eating it is that the meat gets thrown away, I sometimes eat the meat. Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of not harming living beings, and having an attitude of kindness. What follows from that principle is that one should not act in such a way that animals are knowingly harmed. This precludes buying meat or choosing it on the menu. Vegetarians also avoid fish and seafood since these creatures are harmed by being caught.

Blacknose SheepBut what if the cow or chicken or salmon has been reared with care on an organic farm, and has been killed in a humane way? My brother has started breeding his own sheep for meat, on a very small scale. A lot of petting of happy lambs goes on. My feeling here is that eating carefully-sourced meat is much better than eating meat produced on big industrial farms which are indifferent to animal welfare. The maximisation of animal welfare should be an ethical priority. However, this leaves a residual ethical issue regarding what one might describe in terms of assenting to the intentional deprivation of life. No animal wants to die, but prefers to live and flourish in its own way, just like us. If there is an alternative to eating meat, is it right to kill an animal against its wish? However, the argument here is not straightforward, since domestic animals by definition come into existence by being useful to humans. One might therefore argue that it would be better if domestic animals did not exist. However, in terms of practical ethics, it is still good to maximise animal welfare, even if in theory it would be better still if animals reared to be eaten did not have to exist at all.

This way of thinking about Buddhist ethics does not directly entail veganism, though veganism is a way to contribute to animal welfare. A common argument for veganism among Buddhists has been an ethical perfectionism: that one ought not harm living beings, hence one ought to avoid eating meat and dairy. This argument does not convince me. Ethical perfectionism may be admirable, but the environmental impact, and hence harm to living beings, of human life on this planet is complex. I would rather understand Buddhist ethical perfectionism in terms of working on deep-rooted mental states, as well as on speech and action. Dietary perfectionism is too narrow.

To put it more practically, one of the things that has held me back from turning to a plant-based diet was uncertainty about whether it was any better to eat imported soya beans than local cheese. The environmental impacts on rain forest life are unknown, whereas the positive effects of local organic farming are tangible. My scepticism about dietary perfectionism, together with uncertainty about environmental impacts, meant I had insufficient reason to become vegan. However, the new research presented in the Guardian is completely unambiguous. The evidence is clear that it is would be much better for the planet for human beings to be vegan.

This shifts the ethical emphasis away from animal welfare, and towards the health and diversity of the whole natural world. The human population is heading inexorably towards 10 billion, every one of us wanting to be well-fed. There is a corresponding pressure on land-use entailing environmental changes that are mostly detrimental to biodiversity. With this, the consequences of our continuing to eat meat and dairy will be the impoverishment and degradation of non-human habitats.

The ethical argument for becoming vegan that follows from this perspective is not based on dietary perfectionism, nor even from an ethical obligation not to harm living beings. It is simply an appeal to the welfare of all beings. The welfare and flourishing of the whole planet is good in itself. Human actions that diminish this welfare will harm humans too, for we exist as part of the living whole. From this positive appeal to universal welfare some simple practical reasoning follows. If we believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and environmental change (for which there is plenty of evidence), and if we value the earth’s biodiversity and flourishing (essential for our long-term welfare), then it is reasonable to shift to a plant-based diet, and we ought to do so. Whatever changes we make to our diets, away from meat and dairy, will be good ones to make.

It could be tempting to turn this into a Buddhist ethical argument. Since it is wrong to harm living beings, but right to practice kindness and compassion, then the wholesome or ethically skilful course of action, based on what we now know about the effects of farming practices, is to choose and to promote a vegan diet. But I don’t find it personally helpful to relate to food in terms of right and wrong. I would prefer to promote the positive value of universal welfare, and to invoke the ideal of the bodhisattva, who seeks the well-being of all. From these positive commitments, together with new evidence regarding farming, the practical conclusion rationally follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Eat peas!

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Buddhists and Stoics in the Philosophy Café

More Than Happiness

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age

by Antonia Macaro

Icon Books, London, 2018. £12.99 hb

I met the author of More Than Happiness, Antonia Macaro, at a mindfulness retreat in 2016 led by Ven Anālayo,[i] and then again in November 2017 at a Bodhi College weekend on ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’. An encouragingly large number of us listened to Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock talk on philosophy and Buddhism, before ourselves engaging in informed, lively discussion on the theme of the relationship between philosophy and Buddhism as ‘ways of life’. The kind of ‘philosophy’ we are talking about here is not the kind of analytic enterprise taught in modern universities, which is concerned mainly with abstract philosophical problems and arguments. Rather, it is philosophy (‘love of wisdom’) as the actual thinking and living and striving towards the best kind of life for human beings. This sense of ‘philosophy’ was brought to widespread attention by the scholar Pierre Hadot in his pioneering book Philosophy as a Way of Life.[ii] Macaro’s book is a very down to earth and practical introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism as two specific philosophical traditions of thought and practice, bringing into view their common features and concerns, and highlighting the value of a philosophical life.

We could regard More Than Happiness as a contribution to what appears to be an emergent cultural engagement with what we might call ‘secular wisdom’. Western culture has become so post-Christian that there is a big hole where religion used to be; and meanwhile human beings have as great a need as ever, in the midst of scientific and secular culture, for ideas that might guide their lives. The steady growth of Buddhism in the west is one response, but another is a smaller-scale but significant resurgence of Stoicism. This philosophical tradition goes back to 4th c. BCE Greece. A philosopher named Zeno founded the Stoic school, named after the stoa poikile or ‘painted porch’, where they first met in the middle of Athens. The Stoicism that is resurgent today, however, is based on that of the Romans, especially of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, whose works have survived in a more complete form. When, in modern English, we say someone is ‘stoic’ or ‘stoical’, we mean that they endure pain and hardship without complaining. Such an attitude is not untrue to the what Stoics actually valued (while the word ‘epicurean’ is merely a caricature of the Epicurean school of philosophy), but there is also a complex ethical and metaphysical world-view behind Stoicism, of which a level-headed resilience is a useful outcome.

As a summary and comparison of two practical traditions of thought, Macaro’s book is excellent. It is very clearly written, without technical detail but never vague or unclear. Chapter 1 is a scene-setting, in which she gives an overview of Buddhism and Stoicism and explains her approach. I am not a scholar of Stoicism, but judging from her presentation of Buddhism, which I know more about, she has an exact and accurate sense of what recent scholarship reveals about the earliest phase of the traditions. She addresses the knotty problem of the degree to which traditions like Buddhism and Stoicism are religions. In their historical forms, both involve what we would call religious claims; but, for the sake of this book, she extracts useful teachings from each that are compatible with a secular or naturalistic worldview. She presents with an admirable economy the way both traditions have developed philosophical methods and frameworks for their account of the human condition and how to flourish in it.

In Chapter 2, she sets out the starting problem for any philosophy of life: the existential problem we face, called dukkha by the Buddhists, simply mortality for the Stoics. Buddhists and Stoics agreed that false conceptions about the sources of happiness and a misleading tendency to seek satisfaction in the wrong places leads to suffering, and that an attitude of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual life. In Chapter 3 she explores the shared idea of philosophy as healing, and spiritual practice as therapy. While the Buddhists proposed a deep transformative insight of our wrong views and emotions to be the basis of health, the Stoics proposed an examination of our faulty beliefs, which are the basis of emotions and decisions. In Chapters 4 and 5, she presents the goals of each tradition: the ideal of nirvāna for the Buddhists, and the particular kind of eudaimonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ cultivated by the Stoics, specifically, ataraxia or ‘tranquillity’, a state of emotional calm brought about by completely reclaiming responsibility for one’s own thoughts and beliefs.

In Chapter 6, Macaro turns to the theme which lends her book its title: how the goals of these traditions is ‘more than happiness’. Both traditions stress discipline and tranquility, but also ethics, meaning that the ideal for each is a way of living in relation to what is good. Chapter 7 turns to what each tradition proposes as the kind of appropriate view for the living out of their respective ideals. Macaro does not entirely accept the value of renunciation, as taught by both traditions, emphasising rather the ‘seeing clearly’ that allows us to see things in a correct perspective. In Chapter 8, she discusses the human ideals presented by each tradition: that of the ‘sage’ for the Stoics, and the ‘Buddha’ for the Buddhists. She notes the perfectionism of both traditions, and the difficulty of their ideals, but also how adherents can move incrementally towards emulating these impossibly far-off figures of the Buddha and the sage. Then in Chapter 9, Macaro turns to the kind of practices and spiritual exercises through which Buddhists and Stoics develop and grow. Both traditions involve training, through such disciplines as mindfulness. Chapter 10 summarises ‘10 meditations inspired by Buddhist and Stoic insights’ that we could take into our lives. Here we see what is really meant by ‘philosophies of life’: pithy themes for reflection, such as the advice to ‘consider the bigger picture’. Such themes are easily memorised, but are also tied into well-argued systems of thought, so that we can use them in day to day life, and also develop our understanding of what they entail through study and reflection.

I’ve summarised all this to give a sense of what the book covers. For someone new to the idea of philosophy as a way of life, More Than Happinessis a clear, accessible and accurate guide to both Stoicism and Buddhism. It doesn’t aim to raise too many questions, but rather to gather from both traditions what seems most useful for the contempory spiritual seeker. I would like now, however, to step back from the what the book says, to what it assumes and doesn’t say. In this way I hope to place the book in a bigger context.

The Buddhism that Macaro has chosen to discuss is, as she describes in Chapter 1, what is now called ‘early Buddhism’, which is the kind of Buddhism that is evident in the discourses of the Pāli canon. However, this kind of Buddhism is also something of an abstraction,  because it is a reconstruction by modern scholars and teachers of a way of thought preserved in early Buddhist literature. Since it exists as a reconstruction in the minds of modern western readers, it is a form of Buddhism that is especially attractive to those wishing to develop a secular form of Buddhist spirituality. But one might wish to contrast this construct called ‘early Buddhism’ with some actual Buddhist traditions, such as modern Theravāda, which revolves around the living tradition of monastic practice; or Tibetan Buddhism, with its extraordinary devotionalism and its philosophical debating culture; or with a modern Buddhist movement like Triratna, with its distinctive emphases on friendship and the arts. This contrast reveals how the ‘early Buddhism’ that Macaro assumes to be Buddhism in her book is a somewhat thinned-out and de-materialised version of the various existing traditions of Buddhism.

This, however, may be a little unfair. Perhaps the version of Buddhism that Macaro evokes is nowadays quite alive in the contemporary flourishing of insight meditation retreat centres, such as Gaia House, which are not tied to particular lineages of Buddhist practice, being more eclectic as well as oriented quite specifically to modern secular culture. But, even granting that ‘early Buddhism’ is alive and well in the form of insight meditation teachings, Macaro’s version of it stops short of exploring the crucial role of community or sangha for spiritual life. The versions both of early Buddhism and of Stoicism described in her book assume a reader interested in a sort of personal and private spiritual life, consonant with the privatization of religion in contemporary secular culture. It might be, however, that this misses out on how participation in spiritual community is the condition for personal transformation. When Buddhists ‘go for refuge’ to the Sangha, they acknowledge the role of the spiritual community in their Dharma lives. From what one can gather, the tradition of Stoicism was more of a personal and private philosophical orientation, but then again (especially in its Roman phase) the Stoic outlook was often most popular among those involved in public life, immersed in the social and political, such as the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

By drawing attention to the assumptions the author makes in her presentation of Buddhism and Stoicism, I do not particularly mean to criticise her aim or method, which is perhaps to address the contemporary reader in the comfort (or discomfort) of their secular homes. But I would like to prompt anyone who reads Antonia Macaro’s book on towards a deeper considerations of how either Buddhism or Stoicism might be successful philosophical ways of life – actually effective in ending dukkha or healing the soul. In this respect there is another factor, both for Stoicism and Buddhism, that Macaro does not discuss, which is that of commitment. It would not be unfair to say that More Than Happiness presents Buddhism and Stoicism as potentially useful traditions of thought and practice, from which a contemporary person might try to benefit.

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy For Life, an exploration of Greek and Roman philosophies as practical guides to life, distinguishes between two models of contemporary philosophical engagement. In the ‘liberal’ model, authors and teachers present ancient philosophies in their strengths and differences, to be considered and reflected upon.[iii] In this respect, Macaro’s approach represents a liberal model of philosophy as a way of life. But there is also the ‘committed’ model. In this model of philosophy, one may be attracted to some school, and then make a commitment to practice that philosophy (perhaps within its community of practitioners), and it is the existential choice and commitment that is the condition for the transformation and healing that the philosophical life promises.[iv] The role of commitment is central too to Buddhism. Having heard the Dharma one may commit oneself to practice it, and this emotional commitment becomes (along with participation in spiritual community) a condition for success. One commits to practice the precepts, and perhaps to a daily meditation practice. Commitment is important in Stoicism too. I will end by mentioning two recent books, part of the resurgent ‘neo-Stoic’ movement: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine and How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.[v] These books represent less the ‘liberal’ model of philosophy, and more the ‘commited’ model: they are each by authors who have made the existential choice to live by Stoicism. In this respect, they communicate the philosophy of Stoicism in a living way.

[i] Anālayo is a Buddhist monk and scholar many of whose books are published by Windhorse Publications. Ālokadhāra reviewed Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna (2013) for Western Buddhist Review, and Sarah Clelland reviewed Emptiness and Compassion (2015).

[ii] I reviewed Hadot’s subsequent book Ancient Philosophy, and a related exploration of Hellenistic philosophical schools by John E. Cooper, on this blog.

[iii] Jules Evans, Philosophy For Life And Other Dangerous Situations, Rider, London, 2012, p.191.

[iv] Hadot explores the various existential choices involved in the different Hellenistic schools of philosophy: see Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002, ch.7.

[v] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, Oxford University Press, 2009; Massimo Pigliucci,How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, Rider, London, 2017. Pigliucci also blogs on ‘How to be a Stoic’.

The Veil of Love: Schopenhauer and the Upaniṣads

Schopenhauer's Compass

A month ago I gave a talk to a group of philosophers who had gathered for an Open University research day. My paper was an attempt to analyze, using some conceptual tools from contemporary analytic philosophy, the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering. In this course of giving this talk I said that we should distinguish the Buddhist concept of taṇhā, translated ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, from more metaphysical concepts such as Plato’s eros or ‘passionate love’, Freud’s libido or ‘sexual desire’ and Schopenhauer’s Wille or ‘will’. I wanted to argue that the Buddhist concept was quite a practical one – pointing to the fact that certain kinds of desire, the ones that involve an ego or self who tries to appropriate the object of desire, always run the risk of frustration, and such frustrated appropriative desires are certainly a kind suffering. I wanted to use Epicurus’ very practical distinction of kinds of desire to show what the Buddha might have meant, in line with my recent interest in Epicurean philosophy as a way of life. But one of my philosophical colleagues thought I had mis-represented Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of suffering and will was in fact, he thought, not much different from the Buddhist account I had given. So had I got done Schopenhauer a dis-service? Had I unfairly mis-represented him as explaining his pessimistic view of life as suffering through a quite speculative metaphysics of will? How did his thought relate to Buddhism?

Rather than re-reading The World as Will and Representation,[i] which is very long, and re-visiting where I stood in relation to what Schopenhauer writes there in his main work, I looked at a new book by Schopenhauer scholar Urs App called Schopenhauer’s Compass,[ii] which explores how Schopenhauer’s engagement with Indian thought informed the development of his metaphysics of will; of how the universe as it appears to us is the diversified manifestation of an underlying reality, which somehow wants to become diversity and multiplicity. The book turns out to be so good that I wanted to write about it.

It’s a book of what one might call ‘philosophical scholarship’ – not in itself a philosophical engagement with Schopenhauer, but rather a carefully researched account of where his philosophical views came from. The book’s thesis is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will come from his reading of the Oupnek’hat, a late 18th-century translation into Latin of a 16th-century translation into Persian of the Sanskrit Upaniṣads. It is well-known that Schopenhauer was a devotee of this version of the Upaniṣads, but it seems that nobody up until now had studied its very particular foibles, nor the very many markings and annotations he made on his copy of the Oupnek’hat. App’s study of all this is a revelation.

Up until 1814, Schopenhauer had not yet formulated the fundamental idea of his philosophy. He had found many clues in the mystical theology of Jacob Böhme, and in the philosophy of Schelling. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, on The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in 1813. Then, on 26 March 1814, Schopenhauer borrowed the two volumes of the Oupnek’hat from a library in Weimar (he later bought his own copy and wrote all over it – always a good sign). From the present point of view, the Oupnek’hat is a very bad translation of the Upaniṣads, not just because it came via Persian into Latin, but also because it introduces ideas which don’t belong to the original. But it’s also an example of a ‘creative mis-translation’, whose very mistakes became the seeds of Schopenhauer’s own forming vision.

The central message of the Upaniṣads themselves is that there is an essence of consciousness, called the Self (ātman), which in its essence is identical with the essence of reality, which is called Brahman. Hence, ‘you are that’ (tat tvam asi). The Upaniṣads were set down in Sanskrit and are regarded among Hindus as preserving the final teaching of the Vedas (hence they were called Vedānta, ‘end of the Vedas). Meanwhile, Prince Dara was the eldest son of the 16th c. Moghul emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal). Prince Dara was a Sufi, of a universalist and mystical bent, and gathered Sanskrit scholars to help him translate the Upaniṣads into Persian (the language of the rulers), which he published as Sirr-i Akbar (The Secret of God). Prince Dara, however, added some commentary, which interpreted the essence of the Vedas in terms of Sufi mysticism. Two novel interpretations stand out in Dara’s commentary.

First, he translated the concept of maya or ‘illusion’ as ishq or ‘love’. The term maya, as it is used in Advaita Vedānta to interpret the Upaniṣads, names the result of the superimposition of desire out of ignorance onto the unity of brahman, to create the familiar appearance of multiplicity. The term ishq, in Sufism, points to the mysterious way the unity of God becomes, through emanation, the multiplicity of creation. The concept of ishq was itself the result of the Sufi theologian Ibn-Arabi’s incorporation of Neoplatonic ideas about the emanation of the world from the One, which had by the 16th c. become part of Sufi thought in India. Second, Prince Dara understood the return to brahman, the lifting of the veil of maya, which is everywhere the aim of the Upaniṣadic sages, in terms of fanā, the self-annihilation of the ego in Sufi mysticism, and of the realisation of tauḥīd or divine One-ness. Hence the Persian version was already quite a work of cultural translation.

Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron was one of the first European ‘orientalists’; his translation of Prince Dara’s Persian translation of the Upaniṣads into Latin as Oupnek’hat was his main contribution. But not only did he not distinguish in his text between the translations of the Upaniṣads themselves and translations of Prince Dara’s commentary upon them, but he also added a huge amount of his own commentary and interpretation. So this was what Schopenhauer encountered in 1814: what sounds like a mash-up of Upaniṣadic thought and Sufi mysticism in a translation steeped in Neoplatonism. Late in life the philosopher was to write:

“How entirely does the Oupnekhat breathe throughout the holy spirit of the Vedas! How is everyone who by a diligent study of its Persian Latin has become familiar with that incomparable book, stirred by that spirit to the very depth of his soul!”[iii]

And in his philosophical notebooks from 1816, just before composing The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer wrote:

“I confess that I do not believe that my teaching could ever have come into being before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant cast their rays simultaneously into one man’s mind.”[iv]

From Kant’s philosophy, Schopenhauer derived the basic critical framework for his ‘transcendental idealism’ and for the distinction of a world of objects and appearances (or ‘representations’, Vorstellungen) from a world of things-in-themselves, as they exist independently of subjects. From Plato, Schopenhauer took the concept of the Ideas or Forms, those archetypes of experience such as goodness, truth and beauty, which are like doorways from the world of multiplicity into the reality behind it. And in the Oupnek’hat, Schopenhauer discovered an account (which he believed to be extremely ancient and an authentic expression of Vedic thought) of the way this world of appearance has manifested – as that love (ishq) or will which is the world of illusion (maya) we take to be real. And (according to Schopenhauer) it is through the self-negating of the will (through participation in art, through the ethics of compassion, and through mystical vision), a seeing-through of the ego, that there is some access to truth, and there is salvation for humanity.

Such is the background to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will as sketched out by App in Schopenhauer’s Compass. One pole of the compass points south, to appearance, to illusion and to will; the other pole points north, to reality, wisdom and the quieting of the will. What Schopenhauer meant by ‘will’ is not really there in the Sanskrit Upaniṣads, nor in Sufism, nor in Neoplatonism, but is rather part of Schopenhauer’s own visionary metaphysics. But Schopenhauer’s vision depended, in its actual genesis at least, upon this particular encounter with a bad Latin version of a Persian Sufi interpretation of the Upaniṣads. Thus from great mistakes does the creative mind leap. It is tempting to think of Schopenhauer’s devotion to the Oupnek’hat as another symptom of the veil of love.

Urs App tells this whole story with economy, precision and enough sympathy and depth to draw the reader in. The book is also an excellent introduction to Schopenauer’s philosophy, for a certain sort of person, who likes to mix their philosophy with a little Indian wisdom and a lot of mysticism. Going back now to my philosophy talk in Milton Keynes back in July, another comment made in response to what I said about the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering, was that my attempt to analyze the Buddha’s teaching in a very practical and empirical way had its limits. Given that the life of desire goes so deep in human experience, the kind of transformation of desire that the Buddha recommends does seem to need some kind of metaphysics, some account of what is going on in the experience of desire, and how it is connected with life, sex and the universe. I am not sure I believe that Schopenauer’s metaphysics of will is exactly what the Buddha had in mind when he said that desire was the cause of suffering; but I am beginning to think that there is more room for visionary metaphysics in my account of Buddhism than I had previously supposed.

[i] The new translation of The World as Will and Representation, by Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman, edited Christopher Janaway, published by Cambridge University Press, 2010, is standard. But there is a nice abridged version, The World as Will and Idea, translated by Jill Berman, published in the Everyman library by Dent, 1995.

[ii] Urs App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, University Media, Wil (Switzerland), 2014.

[iii] From Schopenhauer’s collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, §184, in App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

[iv] Also from Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

Philosophy and Buddhism as Ways of Life

Socrates

Back in the late 1990s there was some excitement in the Buddhist community in which I practise, then known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, prompted by the publication of Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life.[i] This collection of essays by an eminent scholar of classical Greek and Roman philosophy revealed, as if for the first time, that ancient philosophy was not quite like modern philosophy. Whereas philosophy since Descartes has mostly involved the study of difficult problems concerning knowledge, reality and ethics, for the sake of gaining a theoretical clarity and for informing one’s life and values, ancient philosophy was itself the love, the longing, for wisdom. It involved a fundamental commitment to examine one’s thoughts, one’s values, one’s actions, to submit oneself constantly to searching investigations, to practice spiritual exercises that inculcated the attitudes necessary to bring about transformations of thought and life. All this was philosophy – in contrast to the theoretical discourses about philosophy which the various philosophers and schools produced to explain, justify and communicate their ways of life and practices – their philosophy.

To think of philosophy in this way was a paradigm shift. We had grown used to philosophy as theoretical discourse, logical and often systematic ways of analysing the world, language, science, society, ethics; something that was most often a subject for academic study, something practiced in the academic context, an academic profession. This is what ‘philosophy’ means today, and, despite its often narrow concern and highly abstract and technical methods, there is much to appreciate in the study and practice of philosophy in this sense. My own studies in philosophy were mostly in the ‘continental’ tradition of phenomenology and existentialism, which is all quite theoretical despite its often practical orientation. Nowadays I teach contemporary analytic philosophy, which in fact I appreciate for its clarity and the communal, serious, humbling sense of working steadily on difficult problems. But Hadot’s book was a reminder of a quite different conception of what it is all about. To be a philosopher was to commit to an ideal of wisdom, and to practice a philosophical way of life among other such practitioners, in a community of those on the quest.

One of the best essays, in my view, in Philosophy as a Way of Life is ‘The Figure of Socrates’. Hadot brings alive how Socrates, who wrote nothing and whom we only know through the testimonies of Plato and Xenophon, was a true philosopher in that he knew that he was ignorant. He knew, that is, that he did not possess wisdom, he did not know what the human good consisted in, but he was impassioned in his desire for wisdom and for knowledge of the good. In his commitment to philosophy he engaged anyone willing to talk in searching dialogue. What is virtue? What is knowledge? What is the good life? But it was not as though Socrates even expected to find answers in his discussions. Rather, in a spirit of what appears to have been irony, he allowed his interlocutors to voice their thoughts, before asking questions which quickly showed they were as ignorant and confused as he was. But there was a love and longing, an eros in this constant questioning, which itself was Socrates’ way of life, and which had the effect of setting off the whole subsequent tradition of philosophical enquiry into the human good.

Hadot’s re-enlivening of the ancient conception of philosophy has prompted excitement among western Buddhists. Was the teaching of the Buddha, rather than being a set of systematic doctrines, more like the communication of spiritual exercises? Should we think of the Dharma less as doctrine and more as discourses or views that support and explain the essentially practical teaching of the path? Were there exercises and attitudes in common between ancient Greek philosophy and ancient Indian Buddhism? It turns out, however, that, whatever the similarities might be between philosophy and Buddhism, there are many differences. The ancient Indian context in which Buddhism arose starts from very different assumptions. Yet philosophically-minded scholars have begun making the connections more explicit.[ii]

Part of the reason, I think, for a kind of lull after the initial excitement, is that Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life does not do much more than open the door onto an interesting-looking garden. Hadot’s subsequent book, What is Ancient Philosophy?,[iii] goes the next step. It introduces the idea of philosophy as a way of life more systematically. Again, the whole tradition starts with Socrates. But this time we are introduced to the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism) where philosophy was practiced as a way of life. Hadot presents each school as representing an existential choice, and as developing its distinctive methods around the implications of that choice. For instance, Epicureanism represents the experience of the body (the “flesh” as Hadot puts it) as constantly in thrall to pleasure and pain. The fundamental existential choice that the Epicurean makes is to learn to find a constant reliable pleasure, for only pleasure is intrinsically good and only pain is intrinsically bad. This involves a philosophical therapy of our desires, based on a constantly practiced investigation of our pleasures and pains. All this has some close parallels in the teaching of the Buddha, about which I hope to write more elsewhere.

Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of the added detail of What is Ancient Philosophy?, the reader is forced back upon the conclusion that all this philosophy as a way of life is now history. The ancient schools which maintained the living practices and communities of thought are long gone. In fact, Hadot traces the eclipse of philosophy in the late Roman Empire and the transformation of philosophy in medieval Christian Europe into something rather different. By contrast, Buddhism is a living spiritual tradition, with continuities of practice and community that remain effective. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to explore ways in which Buddhist philosophy overlap at least in general ways with ancient Greek conceptions. The exploration might continue the cultural dialogue that is bringing into being western forms of Buddhist life.

While Pierre Hadot died in 2010, his work has prompted further explorations in uncovering philosophy as a way of life. I have recently read Pursuits of Wisdom by John Cooper,[iv] which takes off where Hadot ends. Cooper is a senior scholar of Greek philosophy at Princeton, hence immersed in the whole subject from an ‘expert’ perspective. He writes that he found the theme for his book after discovering Hadot. Although inspired and stimulated by Hadot’s approach, Cooper found two problems in it: firstly, that Hadot almost completely omits the central role of reason and argument in ancient philosophy, and, secondly, that he treats the very different approaches of the various philosophical schools as too much alike. So, he characterises the different nature of the aims and methods of six approaches to philosophy as a way of life (that of Socrates, Aristotle, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism). And, most valuably, he discerns for each the central role of reasoning and argument in explaining the basic existential choice of each approach, and in the ongoing communal philosophical life of each. Cooper’s book is not easy, but is designed to be thought over carefully, and is a rewarding read.

His chapter on Epicureanism, for instance, draws out exactly how the Epicureans analysed the nature of pleasure, to produce arguments that would help in the therapy of desire. They distinguished between two kinds of pleasure: ‘kinetic’ and ‘katastematic’. Kinetic pleasures are those we experience when actively doing something to avoid pain and gain pleasure, such as eating, drinking, having sex. Katastematic pleasure is that stable, constitutional pleasure or sense of well-being that comes from being free of bodily pain and aware of one’s own existence. Based on the fundamental recognition that pleasure alone is good, Epicureans therefore reasoned that we should train ourselves to identify the katastematic pleasure that is constant and reliable, while practicing the observation of the changing nature of kinetic pleasure, which turns to pain when satiated. The therapy of desire that follows this analysis of pleasure distinguishes between desires which are natural and necessary (like those for food and water), desires which are natural and unnecessary (like those for luxury foods) and desires which are groundless (like those for wealth and fame). To be truly happy, which is our human good, is to learn to rest in the stable katastematic pleasure that becomes possible when one’s desires are limited to those easy to acquire, simple natural pleasures such as nourishing food and good friendship. All this bears some comparison to aspects of the meditative culture of pleasure in Buddhism, which is intriguing.

Yet Cooper’s work is essentially that of the reconstruction of ancient thought. How we might practice philosophy as a way life today – that is a different question. How we might commit ourselves to an existential choice that leads to the possibility of an ongoing philosophical quest for the human good – that is an exciting question. It is one that Buddhism is already answering, in its own way (or ways). To bring Buddhism into dialogue with the ongoing research into how philosophy was once a way or ways of life is very exciting indeed.

[i] Pierre Hadot, 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Arnold Davidson and trans. Michael Chase. Oxford: Blackwell. The introduction by Arnold Davidson is worth reading for itself.

[ii] A couple of recent contributions are: Matthew Kapstein, 2013. ‘“Spiritual Exercise” and Buddhist Epistemologists in India and Tibet’, in Steven Emmanuel, ed., A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.270–89; and Douglass Smith and Justin Whitaker, 2016. ‘Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher’, Philosophy East and West 66:2, pp.515–38.

[iii] Pierre Hadot, 2002. What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[iv] John E. Cooper, 2012. Pursuits of Wisdom. Princeton University Press.

A 21st Century Pudgalavādin? Evan Thompson and the Enactive Self

waking-dreaming-being

A Review of Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia University Press, 2015.

Evan Thompson is a philosopher working at the University of British Columbia. I am not sure if he calls himself a Buddhist, but he is a meditator and long-time participant in the Mind and Life series of dialogues between the Dalai Lama and western scientists and philosophers. He is involved with science too, especially through his work with Francisco Varela.[i] He has brought together this set of interests – philosophy of mind, neuroscience and Buddhist meditation – in his recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being, which ranges over a number of philosophical topics in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, presenting the basic arguments without underplaying the difficulties. He explores the nature of consciousness, the significance of dreaming, the nature of lucid dreaming (he is a keen lucid dreamer), the explanation of out-of-body and near-death experiences, and finally the reality of the self. Each chapter (there are ten) is self-contained, like a series of connected essays, which works well for such a wide-ranging book.

I don’t want to try to review or even summarise most of this book, but I would like to express my whole-hearted approval for his nicely balanced approach. I can give two examples. In his discussion of lucid dreaming in ch.6, he not only draws on his own experience to bring the topic alive, but he draws expertly on some neuroscientific research to highlight the extraordinary nature of how our minds construct their reality. But in doing this he avoids two extremes. Firstly, he denies that lucid dreams are hallucinations, or hallucinatory perceptions. Hallucinations, by definition, are false perceptions, but in a lucid dream the dreamer is aware that she is dreaming. Rather, he says, they are spontaneous mental simulations of sensory perceptions, ways in which the dreamer imagines a world. They are marvellous reminders of human imagination. This kind of conceptual clarity is refreshing. Second, he denies that lucid dreams are spiritually superior to non-lucid ones. (This is relief to me, as I never lucidly dream and don’t feel very inclined to try). He refers to the Tibetan tradition of sleep yoga, in which the yogi cultivates lucid dreaming as a way to become aware of the true nature of perception as fabricated. Thompson’s view is that, while lucid dreaming is fascinating, so is non-lucid dreaming, and we can become aware of the fabricated nature of perception without lucid dreams.

Similarly, in his discussion of near-death experiences in ch.9, he presents the evidence for the persistence of consciousness after the ceasing of neural activity with great enthusiasm, endeavouring to find some objective evidence for the possibility of the kind of post-mortem experiences of lights, journeys, divine beings, etc., described in the Bardo Thodöl. But after all this he subjects the best-documented cases of near-death experiences to scrutiny as to the evidence they provide for the claims made about them. And he concludes that, without exception, there is not the slightest piece of convincing evidence that the subjectively reported experience occur in the absence of objectively observed neural activity. And, further, he rightly concludes that this does not imply that consciousness depends on the brain, only that there is as yet no evidence that it doesn’t.

But here I want to present the argument of ch.10, the longest of the book, which explores the question of whether the self is an illusion. This chapter begins from the well-known Buddhist denial that there is a permanent self existing independently of the changing constituents of experience. This denial itself is, of course, difficult to put precisely into words, and even more difficult to fully understand, because of what appears to be the deep-rooted human tendency to appropriate experience in terms of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. He then makes the point that Buddhists do not thereby deny that there is a self, which would be the wrong view known as ‘annihilationism’. But some contemporary philosophers of neuroscience have come to the conclusion that the self is an illusion, that there is no self.[ii] Thompson calls this view ‘neuro-nihilism’, and describes it as a contemporary version of annihilationism, amounting really to no more than the view that there is an absence of a real existing self in the brain, so that its appearance is an illusion. He then sets out to show how the self is real but dependently-arisen, which is the Mādhyamika view within Buddhism, and to show this in a way that is consistent with contemporary science.

He does this through his own theory of the self as ‘enactive’: the self enacts its own existence as a process. The smallest units of life, cells, do this by specifying boundaries between themselves and what is not the cell, in this way implicitly defining itself as a ‘self’ in the activity of maintaining itself. Leaping to the human organism, we explicitly define ourselves through thought and action in the very enacting of thoughts and deeds along with the natural self-designating of this activity as our selves. Hence we are the subjects of experience and the agents of deeds. This can be directly experienced in sensorimotor activity, such as reading these words, when efferent nerve signals leading to action stimulate re-afferent nerve signals sensing that action, making sensory experience a self-specifying process, one’s self directly experiencing itself as, for instance, reading. Thompson presents more layers of such directly-experienced self-making processes, within the body and in a social world.

His argument now turns to an analysis of the self from the Yogācāra tradition of Buddhism. This tradition of thought relies on the distinction of three layers of mental activity, alongside the five sense spheres. There is a mental awareness (mano-vijñāna) which is aware of sense experience as well as its own states. There is a preattentive kind of awareness (manas or the kliṣṭa-manas or defiled mind). And there is a repository of tendencies called the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). When we experience something like aversion in relation to a sense experience, we are aware of a mental state afflicted with aversion by means of the preattentive mind, which however mistakenly identifies the store consciousness (where the tendency to aversion was ‘stored’ as a ‘seed’) as a self, a substantial ego, experiencing the store consciousness as an ‘I’ that owns its tendencies as ‘mine’ and experiences its states as ‘me’. But really this substantial self is superimposed on the stream of experiences, including the manifesting contents of the store consciousness, such that ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are all mental constructed.

This view, says Thompson, though sophisticated, is rather like annihilationism and neuro-nihilism in that it concludes that the self is a cognitive error or illusion foisted upon an impersonal stream of experience. Thompson argues that this conclusion is unwarranted and unnecessary by running through an argument put forward by Candrakīrti, a 6th c. Indian Mādhyamika.[iii] According to Candrakīrti, we should rather say that the self appears in experience, for instance as averse or as the person who has the thought ‘I hate this’. While we do not attend wisely to the nature of this self as an appearance, we mistake the appearance for the manifestation of a self who exists in the way he or she appears, such that we impute existence to ourselves as someone enduring through time, and prone to such thoughts as ‘I hate this’. However, this is to mistakenly suppose the self exists as it appears, whereas in fact its appearance is dependently arisen, as a concept naturally belonging to experience. It is like an image in a mirror. According to this way of thinking, the self is not an illusion or a cognitive error, but rather it is the mistaken imputing of existence to what appears, for instance, as the thought ‘I hate this’, and the awareness of being that kind of person.

The upshot of Candrakīrti’s argument is that there is no Self, no permanent substantial underlying substance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, but there is a self or person who exists conventionally as the dependently-arisen ‘I’ or subject of experience and agent of action, and who experiences the mere appearance of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Thompson puts together Candrakīrti’s extremely elegant argument with his own view of an enactive self to produce what I propose to call a 21st c. form of pudgalavāda – the view that the self or person is conventionally real. The Pudgalavādins of Buddhist India were able to explain the persistence of personality without appealing to ideas like the store-consciousness. Instead, they argued that it is the person, who is neither the same as or different to the constituents of experience, who is the locus of identity. Likewise, Thompson believes that the self is the subject of experience and agent of action who enacts his or her identity in the dependently-arisen processes of living, the self appearing as independent of those processes as a mental construction based on the enactions themselves. Since the bases of the enactive self are the biological and neural processes underlying conscious experience, Thompson does seem implicitly to argue that the self, as it appears based on the activity of the brain, has a real basis.

I find this an appealing argument, and a satisfying basis for a 21st c. interpretation of Buddhist teachings. The appearance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are the natural arisings of a complex self-specifying enactive organism, and the unconscious tendencies of an unawakened person are preserved through time in the neural system, rather than in such supposed entities as the store-consciousness with its ‘seeds’. Maybe we should call it Pudgalavāda 2.0. I’m certainly feeling clearer for this particular update.

[i] As a young man he co-wrote The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch (MIT Press 1991).

[ii] He mentions Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, Basic Books, New York, 2009, p.6: ‘There is no such thing as a self’. One could also mention Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, Constable, London, 2012, which definitely argues for annihilationism as Thompson defines it.

[iii] A very good article laying out Candrakīrti’s argument in full is by James Duerlinger, ‘Candrakīrti’s Denial of the Self’, Philosophy East and West, 34:3 (1984) pp.261–72.

The Brexit: a pseudo-Socratic dialogue

The Brexita pseudo-Socratic dialogue about democracy and reason

CharactersGrexit: an Athenian, friend of Socrates; Brexit: friend of Grexit, a foreigner; and Socrates, returning from the gymnasium.

Socrates

Grexit: Hello, Socrates! I might have guessed we’d meet you here in the Agora. Anyway, I was hoping to bump into you. Let me introduce my friend Brexit. He and I were just discussing a referendum result in his city. His people have voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the Spartan League. Brexit wants this as well, but the city and its leaders are in complete disharmony about it all. We were wondering what the right thing for Brexit and his fellow citizens to do in the circumstances, and we thought you might be able to help us think it through.

Socrates: Well, Brexit, I don’t know why you are asking me, as I know nothing about politics. But, I have to say, I was surprised to hear that your city voted to leave the League. Surely it was a source of unity among previously warring city-states and a means of encouraging trade and prosperity for you all?

Brexit: Socrates, don’t say you are a supporter of our staying in the League!

Socrates: Nothing of the sort, Brexit; I was simply reporting what I have heard from others. Here in Athens, the Spartan League is held up as something of a model.

Brexit: You Athenians have no idea. Anyway, the votes have been counted and the people have decided to leave. Doesn’t that mean that our leaders should now change the law?

Socrates: That assumes that your government has an obligation to do what its people say.

Brexit: Of course! You’re not an opponent of democracy are you, Socrates?

Socrates: As far as I know, democracy is the least bad form of government, so, no, I am not its opponent. But can I ask you a question? Why is your city now leaving the League? What reason would you give for this decision?

Brexit: That’s a straightforward question, Socrates. 52% of us voted to leave the League; that’s the reason we’re leaving.

Grexit: Is that true, Brexit? You told me that 52% of the 72% of those registered to vote wanted to leave, which is 37% of the citizens, many of whom did not make their opinion known.

Socrates: If only 37% voted to leave the League, Brexit, then it would appear that not even a majority of you want this result. So I don’t think that this explains why you think the city’s leaders must now change the law.

Brexit: No, no, Socrates; that is not how our democracy works. If people don’t vote, that is their own choice. The government meanwhile has to abide by the result, which in this case was clear. It is the will of the people to leave the League.

Socrates: I’m surprised to hear you say that, Brexit. If there is any such thing as a ‘will of the people’, it is a confused faculty indeed, since it is 37% in favour of leaving the League, 35% against doing so, and 28% unsure. It is like three horses tied together, one pulling in one direction, one in another, and one not sure where to pull. If my physics is correct, Brexit, such an assembly of strength would not move.

Brexit: Surely the strongest beast would pull the other two in its preferred direction?

Socrates: The strength of the 73% who wish to stay or are unsure should be combined against the 37% who wish to leave. Since 73% is the larger amount, the horse that wants to leave will not be able to shift the horses of staying. The ‘will of the people’ is not going anywhere, my friend.

Brexit: You can’t fool me so easily, Socrates! Obviously your horses are just an analogy, and arguments from analogy, as every student of philosophy knows, can be misleading.

Socrates: I’m sure you’re right, Brexit. So let me try again. The three of us stood here talking – are we one will, or three?

Brexit: Why, three, of course.

Socrates: And the people of your city – are they totally different from us, being one will instead of many?

Brexit: No, no, Socrates. They do not literally have ‘one will’ – it is a figure of speech.

Socrates: So really they have many wills? They are like us three, each citizen having his or her own will?

Brexit: That’s right, Socrates. Each of us came to our own decision, to leave the League, to stay, or not to vote at all.

Socrates: If you each came to your own decision, please answer me this: did those of you who voted to leave the League all have the same reason for your decision, or did you have different reasons?

Brexit: That’s a difficult question to answer, Socrates. I can only guess at my fellow-citizens’ thinking.

Grexit: I have heard it said that many people who voted to leave did so because they think that too many foreigners have come to live and work among them. You yourself told me, Brexit, that this was also among your reasons for voting to leave.

Brexit: It is true that many of us hold this view, yes.

Socrates: Are you sure, Brexit, that leaving the League will reduce the number of foreigners coming to live in your city? Surely it is simply a reality of life in the civilized world that people move around in search of peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. If your city leaves the League, would you be able to stop this ceaseless movement?

Brexit: We have to do something, Socrates. Too many foreigners wish to live with us. Leaving the League will give us control over our borders, and that is sure to help.

Socrates: I asked you the reason for your city’s decision to leave the League, and you have told me that there is no single reason, but that one reason that many of you would give, when asked, is that leaving the League might help you reduce the numbers of foreigners coming to live with you. Is that correct?

Brexit: That’s correct, Socrates.

Socrates: And this reason follows from the connection between leaving the League and being able to control your borders, is that correct?

Brexit: Quite so.

Socrates: Now, Brexit, do all the citizens of your city share this thinking, that the way to reduce the number of foreigners coming to your city is to leave the League, because doing so would enable you to control your borders?

Brexit: Unfortunately, not at all Socrates. Many of my fellow citizens hold completely different views.

Socrates: So I asked for the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, and you have given me one reason that some of you hold, but it seems that not only are you not sure who holds this view and who does not, but you are certain that only a minority of citizens hold it. Surely in these circumstances it is no surprise that there is widespread disagreement about what your city should do. Brexit, is it possible for anyone to be sure that they are making the right decision if they cannot give a reason for it?

Brexit: I am beginning to see why you are so irritating Socrates! But never mind all your talk of reasons. That is quite beside the point. The result of the referendum of my city is clearly that a majority of us want to leave the League, and that should be enough for our law-makers to start work on making the changes required.

Socrates: Brexit, you asked me if I was an opponent of democracy, but now I see that it is you who wish to bring democracy into disrepute.

Brexit: What on earth do you mean, Socrates? My intention is the very opposite.

Socrates: When I asked you to give me the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, we came to the conclusion that there was no one reason, but that the democratic decision of the citizens was enough. Now, doesn’t that imply that the rule of the people amounts to doing whatever the people want, irrespective of whether their wishes are reasonable or not? Suppose that your people were asked whether they wanted to keep taxation or abolish it, what would they vote?

Brexit: That is hardly the same sort of question, Socrates. But, obviously, they would vote to abolish taxation, because they hate to have what is theirs taken away from them.

Socrates: Whereas they ought to vote to keep taxation, not because they like it or want it, but because there is a very good reason for paying taxes, which is that they support a government that arranges security, justice, education and the distribution of resources. Likewise, when it comes to politics, we all ought to vote, not for what we individually want or like, but for what makes most sense for the prosperity of the whole community. Democracy is only a good form of government when it is beneficial for the community as a whole. Otherwise, it is no better than the rule of a tyrant, who only wishes to benefit himself.

Brexit: But, Socrates, it is just because we want the prosperity of the whole community that I and most of my fellow citizens wish to leave the League!

Socrates: Just now you told me that it does not matter if you can give no reason for your city to leave the League, because a majority vote is enough, but now you tell me that your decision is reasonable after all. Are you now saying, Brexit, that whatever is best for the prosperity of the whole community is what you should want and vote for?

Brexit: Yes, of course, that goes without saying.

Socrates: And what is best for the whole community is not what is of benefit only to individuals, because they want it or like it, like paying no taxes?

Brexit: Where is this all going, Socrates?

Socrates: Well, it seems we agree that a political decision should not be the product of personal desires, and we also agree that there would be a reason for your city to leave the League, if it was the case that doing so would increase the happiness and prosperity of the whole community. But, Brexit, from what you have said, everyone in your city has voted according to their own personal opinions, which differ, so that you can only guess at the reasons many of your fellow citizens have voted the way they have. It seems to me that your city does not have a single reason for leaving the League, and the individual citizens have their own views about what will be for the greater prosperity of the whole.

Grexit: If I may interrupt here, my friends, surely one could argue that, irrespective of these fine points of reasoning, the government of Brexit’s city were elected on the promise of a referendum which, they said, would determine the city’s future membership of the Spartan League. So now they have an obligation to follow through on the result of that referendum, just as if one of us were to make a promise and were then held to it by our friends. The keeping of promises is necessary for there to be trust among human beings, and it is a foundation of life in civilised society.

Socrates: Do you agree, Brexit? Had the result of the referendum been the opposite one, would you hold, as Grexit has explained, that your government has an obligation to fulfil its promise, even though that would be the very opposite of what you yourself believed?

Brexit: I feel that whatever I say now, Socrates, I am done for.

Socrates: Please, Brexit, I am simply asking you questions. If you were to hold that your government had an obligation to fulfil its promise, and at the same time you held that if it were to do so, it would be acting to bring about the impoverishment and unhappiness of your community, wouldn’t you find yourself in a difficult situation? And by your own account you have admitted that many of your fellowe citizens, holding a view different to your own about what is in your community’s best interest, will now find themselves in just such a state. It seems to me, Brexit, that we are never obliged to do what we believe to be wrong, even though we made a promise to do so, and I am sure you would agree.

Brexit: But if you are right, how on earth can we ever come to a decision about whether or not to leave the League?

Grexit: My friend, your government could call a general election, with the instruction to the citizens of your city to elect representatives according to their stated view on membership of the League. In this way, the new government would have no doubt about whether or not it should change the law, and it would not need to ask its people by means of a referendum.

Brexit: But the people have already decided what they believe!

Socrates: I am wondering, my friends, whether referendums and elections can ever replace reason and debate for communities wishing to live together in peace. But that is a topic for another time. Brexit, I wish your city well in its deliberations; and, Grexit, do be careful to think for yourself…

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/.