Friday, August 13, 2010

Buddhism & Greek Philosophy

Many people who travel to Kathmandu at least have a passing curiosity in the Buddhism that they encounter here. My first trip here in 2002 was my first real exposure to it, following up on the month I had spent looking at Buddhist temples in Thailand. My view of Buddhism then was rather clouded by what I had learned about it via Hollywood and New Age garbage. As someone whose two least favorite actors include Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Gere their speaking up for it didn't increase my interest any. On top of all of that the pop-culture fetish in the US with Buddhism and especially phony causes like Beastie Boys and the whole Free Tibet thing did nothing more to kindle my interest. In fact all of this worked to create a bias in me that would keep me from seeing Buddhism as it should be seen, on its own terms as a serious philosophy.

My trips through Buddhist countries in Asia did very little to change my opinion either. To an outsider, the forms of cultural Buddhism that are practiced through Asia can seem rather odd. Be it offerings of beer and whiskey to divine protectors, or the thousands of divine entities that are present in Tibetan Buddhism all of this works against  seeing Buddhism as a rational philosophy of life, at least it does to me. Touts and hawkers in the tourist districts of these countries don't help any either as they try and "sell" Buddhism through the trinkets that western patrons will buy, be it prayer wheels, crystals, thanka paintings, beads, even whole monk outfits. Some of this can be relevant to philosophical Buddhism, like the thanka paintings, and some can be nonsense, such as the crystals. More importantly though, because tourists regions sell what westerns want to buy, the things that they already think Buddhism consists of, your view of it is unlikely to change passing through these regions.

So strangely my introduction to Buddhism came to me through the Greeks. I have a long standing interest in Alexander the Great, as is evident in some previous posts. That interest lead me to study what happened to the far Eastern Greek Kingdoms after his death, especially the regions of Bactria (present day Afghanistan) and Greek India (essentially modern Pakistan). Many people are unaware that the Greeks and Greek influence would have a major role in this region for about the next three hundred plus years. These years include the rise of the Indian King Ashoka who is credited with being one of the greatest Buddhist proselytizers, as well as the fall of the Maurya dynasty only fifty years later to the Sungas. In fact many beleive that the Greek conquest of India that happened under the Bactrian King Demetrius and later Menander (Who is featured as King Malinda in the Buddhist Malinda Panha) were done on the grounds of defending Buddhists from their new Hindu rulers.

Anyway the mix is not only historically interesting (at least to me) but it also allowed for the transmission of ideas to flow even more readily than they did before between east and west. Historical texts are very clear that many Greek settlers in this region converted to Buddhism, and some texts suggest that the Greeks sent many ethnic Greek Buddhist monks to Sri Lanka and others as far north as the Tarim Basin. No doubt some also traveled back to the Mediterranean to Anatolia, Greece, and Egypt.

It was while reading about some of these transactions that I came across text that showed philosophical Buddhism to be the serious work that it really is. I began to see that there were very strong connections between what it prescribed as a way of dealing with the world around us, and what the Greek stoics taught. In the most basic sense both philosophies teach that since we can not always change the world around us, we must change what we can, which is our opinion and perception of a thing. Both the Greeks and the Buddhists saw that we are not offended by a thing if we remove from ourselves the sense of offence. This got me interested enough to do a good amount of reading to see where Buddhism stands on its own. My misconceptions of Buddhism were plentiful, and this post is long enough without going into full detail.

All of the preceding text was to get to one of the books I just recently read which is one of the better I have read in a long time; Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism. Now I was vaguely familiar with Greek Pyrrhonist philosophy, but I had always thought it was very similar to the other schools of Greek Skepticism. The excerpts I had seen were from Sextus Empiricus and usually his arguments against the dogmatic beliefs of the stoics. Although i am often a fan of much in stoic thought, the line of attack from Sextus was usually demolishing some part of their line of thinking that I was also not a fan of, such as their teleological outlook or some other claim about nature.

This book shows clearly why Pyrrhonism is not just another branch of Academic Skepticism and instead expounded a philosophy that does not infer the negative from those things we deduce that can not currently be known but instead advises a suspension in judgement about all things non-evident. The parallels with early Buddhism are quite striking, and one could easily view Pyrrhonism as an adaptation of a western form of Buddhism. As someone who has always struggled with epistemology in philosophy as the more problematic field that derailed just about any philosophical endeavor, section three of this book on things evident and non-evident was a real joy to read, and gave me one of those rare "aha!" moments that make the world seem just a little more clearer.

As a quick example, in the west when we experience an apple, we take it that underneath all of our perceptions is a form that actually is an apple. It is from this form that exists in the "real" world that the "real" apple transmits to us the look, touch, taste, and sound (if you tap it) and smell of an apple. The Pyrrhonists (and Buddhists alike) do not assume that there is anything beyond experience itself, that what we experience as an apple is merely a bundle of sensations that are consistently correlated, there is nothing in anyone of them that dictates to the others a sense of "appleness". Put another way if you were blind, you could not infer a visual apple from a tactile, or audible apple. Basically there is no common quality that one can observe in which all these modes of sensation adhere, no underlying substance or form.

Another book that has made it on to my reading list because of this book is Buddhism Without Belief, which seems to be very much in line with Pyrrhonist thinking. Although this will have to wait until I finish A New Stoicism which at this point I unfortunately can not recommend all that highly. While it is a well argued book the author has a way of making even interesting topics excruciatingly boring. It's written in a format that is the result of a terrible habit of spending too much time talking and debating with people only in academia.

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