Friday, May 4, 2012

Is a desire for enlightenment (in the Eastern sense) consistent with Enlightenment humanism?

‘The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh – gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between the mind and body, don’t try to resist the temptation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments calling it good or bad.’
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor from 161 to 181 AD).

‘Every sensation arises and passes away. Nothing is eternal. When you practise Vipassana you start experiencing this. However unpleasant a sensation may be-look, it arises only to pass away. However pleasant a sensation may be, it is just a vibration-arising and passing. Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, the characteristic of impermanence remains the same. You are now experiencing the reality of anicca [impermanence]. …
Only this experience of anicca will change the habit pattern of the mind. Feeling sensation in the body and understanding that everything is impermanent, you don't react with craving or aversion; you are equanimous. Practising this continually changes the habit of reacting at the deepest level. When you don't generate any new conditioning of craving and aversion, old conditioning comes on the surface and passes away. By observing reality as it is, you become free from all your conditioning of craving and aversion.’
S N Goenka, leading teacher of Vipassana meditation, from aspeech in Bangkok in 1989.

I have chosen the quotes to illustrate the similarity between an important strand of Western philosophy, stoicism, and Buddhist meditation practice. Goenka seems to me to be an appropriate source to quote because his courses attract students from a wide range of different religious backgrounds all over the world (and I have rudimentary personal experience of Vipassana meditation).

In a comment on my last post Ramana asked: Should civilization be devoid of a desire for enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the word? I have changed his question because it seems to me that the critical issue is whether particular ideas are consistent with Enlightenment humanism. Some ideas that are broadly consistent with Enlightenment humanism might nevertheless not survive the competition of ideas in modern societies. I have in mind, for example, a range of different beliefs about life after death.

In my view a desire for enlightenment, in the Eastern sense, is highly consistent with Enlightenment humanism because the people who have that desire are usually inclined to respect the rights of other people and seek to live peacefully with them. That doesn’t mean that I accept that people can actually achieve some ultimate state of complete enlightenment through successive reincarnations. In my view, the desire to walk the path has merit at a human level, in terms of improved mental health and personal relationships, irrespective of the end point attained.

In his monograph on the merits of western civilization, which was briefly reviewed in my last post, Wolfgang Kasper is critical of adulation of Tibetan wisdom in the West:
‘At present, one can observe a certain cultural ennui among elites, who take prosperity and freedom for granted. Protest songs, adulation of Tibetan wisdom (which, with a big class of indolent monks exploiting the workers, looks not all that attractive from close up), and the nihilistic cult of dropping-out reflect a certain disenchantment, but also utopian assumptions about what humans can achieve’.

I know what Wolfgang means. There is a tendency in some quarters to put forward utopian visions of society that are inconsistent with liberty. Such a vision seems to be reflected, for example, in the introduction to the ‘World Happiness Report’, that I wrote about here recently. But, in my view Wolfgang’s remarks about Tibetan wisdom and indolent monks are inappropriate. Such remarks are analogous to questioning adherence to traditional Christian virtues on the grounds that church leaders have failed to protect children from molestation by predatory priests. The existence of indolent monks and predatory priests should not be a reason to reject either ancient Buddhist wisdom or traditional Christian virtues.

Wolfgang’s remarks about Tibetan wisdom are in a section of his monograph about ‘enemies of civilisation’. In my view such terminology would only be appropriate (in the context of a discussion of western civilization) when used in relation to people who are opposed to institutions such as freedom and democracy. Western civilization has nothing to fear from the Dalai Lama. He makes clear in his writings that although he is not a fan of many aspects of modern economic life in the West, his quest is for spiritual revolution in the minds of people all over the world. There is a vast difference between seeking to change behaviour by influencing the perceptions and beliefs of individuals and seeking to change behaviour by imposing restrictions on individual freedom.

The following account of historical links between Indian religion and western culture is based heavily on material written by Jean Sedlar, an American historian.

The most promising direct historical link between Buddhism and Stoicism seems to be via Pyrrhon of Elis (365-275 B.C.), the reputed founder of Scepticism, a forerunner of Stoicism. There seems to be fairly reliable evidence that Pyrrhon accompanied Alexander's army to India. Diogenes Laertios (2nd cen. A.D.) claims further that Pyrrhon's encounters with Indian wise men led directly to his love of solitude and to his formulation of the Sceptics' fundamental thesis: namely, that knowledge is impossible and that the truly wise man should therefore suspend judgment on all questions.

Jean Sedlar acknowledges that Pyrrhon could ‘scarcely have failed to notice’ the ‘mental impassivity and physical endurance’ of the Indian holy men. However, she questions whether a mature and well-educated Greek, with ideas presumably well-formed already, would be significantly influenced by talks with them. She also suggests that there were obvious prior causes within Greece for the ideas developed by Pyrrhon, so it would seem gratuitous to assume Indian inspiration. 

The legend of a meeting between Alexander and Dandamis, an Indian holy man, is also relevant. Sedlar describes several different accounts of this meeting. From the perspective of the influence of Indian influences on western civilization, the one that seems most interesting is the interpretation in terms of Christian monasticism of the 4th Century. The points emphasized are that the Indian ascetics advocated a life-style that satisfies only the minimum physical needs; they attacked riches, luxury, and the perversions of Greek life. According to the story, Alexander had to go to meet Dandamis because he had refused an audience, despite inducements and threats. Dandamis said nature already furnished him with everything he needed and he did not fear death. When they met, Dandamis invited Alexander to abandon the world and find tranquillity in a life of renunciation. Alexander refused, citing the responsibilities of his position.

Sedlar comments: ‘The message of the text is clear: Alexander approves of the ascetics' life-style. Only practical considerations prevent him from imitating it himself’.  She notes that this account of the meeting became favorite reading in Christian monasteries both West and East – providing ‘support from pagans in defence of a Christian-ascetic mode of life’.

However, in the late 4th or early 5th century the story was changed to provide the opposite message, ‘namely to deprecate the monastic ideal’. In this text, Alexander had the last word, expressing the view that the Brahmins' life of renunciation is due not to free choice, but rather to the conditions of poverty prevailing in India. He then praised the riches of Greece and the high morals of its citizens. But that was not the final version. During the medieval period, the text was again rewritten to exalt Dandamis' philosophy of asceticism.

I wonder whether the meeting between Alexander and Dandamis has been portrayed in any modern movies. Different interpretations of what could have happened at such a meeting might well have an ongoing influence on culture in the West and the East in the years ahead.

Jean Sedlar also refers to the links between Greek philosophy and Buddhism that are evident in ‘Questions of King Milinda’ (probably written ca. 150-100 B.C.) which is included in the Burmese version of the Pali Canon. The book is an account of discussions between Menandros, the Hellenistic ruler of part of India, and a Buddhist sage named Nagasena. It concludes with the king becoming the monk's disciple. As Sedlar notes, the book is modelled in some respects upon a Greek dialogue. An abridged version edited by Bhikku Pesala is available on the web.  


Evan said...

I do think a good deal of the ethics of the East and West are compatible.

The big conflict I think is the sense of self. I don't think only vipassna gives a sense of transience. And I don't necessarily the transient need be devalued (as most of Buddhism does - permanence being linked to realness and validity).

For the western enlightenment there was much about human assertion against tradition and institutions (especially religious ones). This is much less the case in eastern enlightenment traditions. There is much less sense of the prophetic in the eastern traditions - they tend to accept existing social practices. In this sense they are more individualistic than the 'individualist' west.

Count Skogg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Legal Eagle said...

Heh, I was just reading Marcus Aurelius and thinking that he sounded awfully Buddhist. I've never thought the East and the West are as far apart as they think they are. Of course, I think the pre-Christian Romans and the Japanese have a good deal in common too (imperial culture, worship of numen/kami, ancestor worship, big on filial piety, highly syncretic etc)

The problem with enlightenment humanists holding up Tibet as an exemplar is not that there are indolent monks exploiting the workers (as you note, there are always individuals of a given faith whose conduct is against all that the faith should stand for). It is the fact that previously, before the Chinese took over, Tibet was a theocracy (and thus its political organisation was highly inconsistent with enlightenment values which see the separation of religion and state as important). My understanding, for example, is that there was a highly stratified legal system whereby a peasant would be subject to the death penalty for a certain action, but a lama would be subject to a small fine for the same crime.

Naturally enough this is one of the things the Chinese used as an excuse for taking over Tibet ("we're saving the peasants"). I should make it clear that I don't think in any sense that the Chinese were justified in doing what they did (and are doing) to Tibet, and I think the notion of "saving the peasants" was an excuse for colonial expansion. All I'm saying is that it's complicated, and I understand where Kasper's call of caution is coming from.

Buddhism doesn't necessarily imply theocracy in any case, so Buddhism is not incompatible with Western humanism; but Buddhist theocracy is.

[Whoops, I accidentally posted as my husband's alter ego - that's what the deleted comment is about]

Winton Bates said...

While it is true that people in the West tend to be more individualistic, I am not sure that this difference stems from religion. I wrote something about this here ,with particular reference to Buddhism.

Winton Bates said...

Sorry, I meant to agree with your second point. What we refer to as the Enlightenment was certainly about science and reason, and questioning of traditions. However, in the case of the Scottish Enlightenment there was a great deal more understanding of the value of evolved institutions than in Europe.

I don't think the revolution in thinking that accompanied the Enlightenment should be seen as a peculiarly western phenomenon. It started in Europe but has now spread over most of the world.

You may well be right about there being less sense of the prophetic in eastern traditions, but it is obviously difficult to generalize. I would not have thought that it would be true of Islam.

Rummuser said...

I practice Vipassana. I am of the firm conviction that all the "paths" lead to the same end, and finding MA and Goenka similar is not surprising,

Ethics, based on one simple motto, not to do anything to anybody/thing that I would not like done to me, is universal and as long as this is the bedrock on which behaviour is built, I have no quarrel with it.

Ethics based on any other value, say like manipulating a system to benefit particular interest group/s would certainly fall out of the field of ethics, but that seems acceptable in various contexts from the age of enlightenment. That behaviour, over a period of time has become accepted as justifiable and that is what troubles me.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Legal Eagle
Thanks for visiting. I am planning to return the visit when I finish reading 'The Better Angels ...' to see whether I agree with the comments you made on that book a few weeks ago.

I agree with all your comments above. Nevertheless a strong case can be made that the Dalai Lama has been a force for modernization in Tibet. In terms of his writings he is very much in the Enlightenment humanism camp and seems to have a fascination for science. A cynic might say that it is in his interests to present such an image to win support in the West, but his actions seem to be consistent with his writings. For example, I seem to remember reading somewhere that he has now relinquished a political leadership role among the exiles.

Winton Bates said...

Our views don't seem to be too far apart, Ramana.

Regarding interest groups manipulating the system, I would argue that representative government is a big advance on the systems it replaced because it enables tyrants who enrich themselves at the expense of the public, or grossly favour particular interest groups, to be kicked out of government in a non-violent manner. (Hmmm, I am still using the language of violence to describe non-violent action!)

At the same time, representative government still suffers from interest group politics. In most democracies it seems to me that a few interest groups tend to wield disproportionate power. One mechanism to deal with this, which has had modest success in Australia, is to ensure that the arguments for government intervention are subject to systematic public scrutiny. (We have a Productivity Commission that tries to perform that role.)

Jim Belshaw said...

One interesting point that Toynbee makes, Winton, is on the Greek influence in India including aspects of Buddhism.

Winton Bates said...

That is interesting, Jim. I had thought the flow of ideas would have been in the other direction.
However, it is likely that there was an interchange of ideas, with trade links as well as the invasion by Alexander.

Rummuser said...

Greek thought resonated with Indians for the simple reason that it was based on spiritualism rather than organised religion. Exchange and interchange of ideas would have certainly flourished during the flowering of Buddhism in India which was when Vedic religious ritualism was overthrown by Buddhist emphasis on individual seeking. It was later that Adi Shankara retrieved Vedic and Vedantic influence.

Such polemic still begs the question of enlightenment meaning, bringing light to the age of darkness rather than the Eastern idea of individual lightening/shedding of the burden of conditioned existence.

My and many of my contemporaries here in India question the idea that bringing enlightenment in the former sense is the Western/Christian prerogative. This implies of course that the East is still in the dark ages!

I am aware that the word Christian can raise shackles, but use I must as the influence of Christianity, even in this day of secularism/atheism in the West, is overwhelming. For instance, let us take the use of the word "tolerance" in dealing with other religions and cultures so often
bandied about. Should this word not be replaced with "Respect"? I have tried that argument with secularists and atheists who bristle at the very thought, because, respect would imply conceding at least equality if not superiority to "other" religions.

Winton Bates said...

I don't accept that all religions are equal. For example, in my view religions that require their followers to engage in human sacrifice are inferior. Religions that favour suppression of other religions are inferior. Religions that do not recognize equal rights of women are inferior.

I would argue that when there is a conflict between respect for the rights of individuals and respect for religious beliefs then individual rights should prevail.

That said, respect for the rights of other people provides a basis for progression to understanding of the importance to them of their religious beliefs and possibly respect for those beliefs.