Friday December 2, 2005
I have been reflecting a little recently on the connections between Buddhism and Western philosophy. When I am not working on thinkBuddha and doing other Buddhist things, I am also trying to get a Ph.D. in philosophy written up at Staffordshire University. At first, when I set out on the Ph.D. some four years ago, I had planned to write about Buddhism in relation to Western philosophy, but very quickly this didn’t seem either very necessary or very urgent. The intersection of the two in the abstract seemed, personally speaking, a fairly dull and arid area of speculation. What seemed much more important was to think about Buddhism in relation to life, and to think about philosophy in relation to life, rather than to see the two things in relation each to the other. Or, to put it another way, it is here, within this body of flesh and blood and bone that the two converge, that they can be most fruitfully and meaningfully related, and not in the more abstract realm of ideas. So I simply plunged into the Western philosophical tradition and let my Buddhism look after itself, so to speak.
When I say that it is in this body of flesh and blood and bone that these two converge, what I mean is that they converge not, first and foremost, on the level of ideas, but on the level of practice. Not so much a matter of thought, as of doing. Perhaps it is not a case of looking for glimmers of some jewel-like thing we call the dharma in the pages of Plato or Aristotle or even Karl Marx, recently voted on the BBC to be the nation’s favourite philosopher; nor is it the reverse, trying to find within Buddhism thoughts that look superficially similar to those of Descartes or Hume. Because this doesn’t really do anything. To be sure, one could feel pleased about one’s intricate theory concerning the relationship between Yogacara thought and Husserlian phenomenology, but if one is only drawing lines of connection and nothing more, then this would ultimately be a fairly hollow pleasure. To say ‘this is like that’ does not illuminate very much. Instead my approach is closer to that of Levinas when he says in reference to the very different tradition of the Talmud that he is preoccupied, ‘in the face of each of these apparent news items about the beyond, with what this information can mean in and for man’s life.’ (Emmanuel Levinas: Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 14) And, for me, this apparent ‘beyond’ could equally well be found in the pages of Kant or in the pages of the Dhammapada. The real question is what bearing it has in and for this very life.
For me, then, both Buddhism and philosophy are practices. They are ways along which we may be fortunate enough to stumble upon truths that speak to us about what it is to be human. It is a question of stumbling more often than walking, because the path is not clearly laid out, and every step opens up the space into which we move: unless we start walking, the path often doesn’t seem apparent at all. It also seems to me, given that we do not really know what lies ahead, that it is more a matter of finding than of seeking. And what we find are truths – many truths – insights into the world that are laid bare as we proceed, rather than one big, single, shining, brilliant Truth, with a capital ‘T’.
To consider either philosophy or Buddhism as palaces of truth in which it might be possible to set up a home and take up residence for the rest of one’s days seems to be to miss the point; rather they are both constant provocations towards a fresh attention to the world, towards rethinking stale and confining thoughts, towards a deeper identification with the complexities, sufferings and joys of existence, and towards a continual and impassioned liberation from the constantly shifting confines in which we are all – and in which may all, for all I know, remain – enmeshed.
Off the top of my head, it could be said that there are at least three ways in which philosophy and Buddhism could be seen as complementary practices. The first is that they can both function as practices of freedom. The second is that they can both function as practices of attentiveness. And the third is that they can both function as practices of both love and wisdom. I’ll post more about each of these over the coming days, but it seems to me that in these three ways both philosophy and the practice of Buddhism may allow us to move more fluently and sensitively through the realms of thoughts, ideas and through the thousand thousand dharmas that make up our world.
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