Buddhism and Philosophy Part II - Practices of Freedom

Tuesday December 6, 2005


In my previous post, I suggested that philosophy and Buddhism could both be seen as practices of freedom. It is well known that the Buddha spoke of the practice of the dharma as the practice of freedom, as in the following famous passage:

“Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this doctrine and discipline there is but one taste — the taste of freedom”

The practice of a dharma could be seen as a discipline that leads to freedom. Often we think of discipline and freedom as opposed, but this is not the case. There is no freedom without discipline or, to put it another way, there is no freedom without practice. To play the violin freely, to paint freely, to write freely, to live freely… all these take discipline and practice. And this freedom is the sole purpose of Buddhist practice. If it does not free us then we need to ask whether we are approaching it in the right fashion.

Whilst the connection between Buddhism and freedom is often reiterated, philosophy is not often spoken of as a practice of freedom; but I think that this is what philosophy can be, indeed what it should be.

In philosophy we often encounter thoughts that are alien to our everyday way of thinking. It is hard to plunge into these alien worlds of thought. To truly read Plato, for example, or to truly plummet into the depths of Descartes, requires a kind of departure from all that is familiar. To truly strive to understand another thinker, it is necessary for our own thinking to be changed. It is necessary to go forth from the safety of our own ideas and thoughts, and to swim in the swift currents of another’s thinking.

Philosophy, as I see it, is not about accumulating knowledge about what x or y thought about stuff. If philosophy was nothing more than this kind of idle pursuit, then it would a harmless exercise on the level of stamp collecting, but nothing more. But to me philosophy is more than mere stamp-collecting. When I say ‘more’ what I mean is that it places more demands upon us, it asks more of us. And, given that it asks more of us, the rewards too are correspondingly higher. In his book An Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin writes that,

“What we make of other people, and what we see in the mirror when we look at ourselves, depends on what we know of the world, what we believe to be possible, what memories we have, and whether our loyalties are to the past, the present or the future. Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable. The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices through which we can crawl.” (Zeldin, 1994, 13)

When I teach philosophy classes, this passage is often at the back of my mind. Philosophy, as far as I am concerned, is not so much about finding the right context as enriching the possible contexts that there are, so that one can view the same situation in a range of different ways, meaning that one is no longer bound to the apparent necessity of any given interpretation. Philosophy, properly conducted, liquefies thought, frees it up, permits what was once solid to begin to flow once more.

And, yes, there are risks. The Buddha, when he left his home on the plains within view of the Himalayas and headed south, did not know that he wasn’t going to be eaten by a tiger the following day – no doubt many ascetics were. He didn’t know that he was going to understand what he understood (whatever that is) or come to see the world how he saw it (however that was). He didn’t so much look for as stumbled upon his enlightenment. He only found it, the stories tell us, when he gave up looking. There may be risks with this approach to philosophy as well, intellectual tigers into whose maws we may fall. But the risks do not negate the value of the journey.

I want to finish with the following exhortation from the French philosopher Michel Serres, published in his wonderful The Troubadour of Knowledge . It is a call to action, a call to practice, one that, although it concerns philosophy, could equally be seen as speaking of the dharma :

Depart. Go forth. Leave the womb of your mother, the crib, the shadow cast by your father’s house and the landscapes of your childhood. In the wind, in the rain: the outside has no shelters. You initial ideas only repeat old phrases… Learning launches wandering.

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#1 · Nacho

9 December 2005

Will, very nice post again. I agree, Philosophy can be a wonderful practice of freedom. I remember well when I was quite young (early High School) reading Existentialist writers and my mind exploding with possibility – which led me to Zen, and many other places. The journey is indeed worth it, even if No Exit, Metamorphosis, The Myth of Sissiphus, Amerika, The Stranger, Fear and Trembling, and others left me somewhat depressed!

I try to instill in my students that love of learning, or that love of intellectual stimulation. My classes all start with my sharing with students how I really do not like intellectual laziness. I don’t get upset if they screw up, and I don’t mind that they struggle and come up with some strange explanations. That is all part of the journey and we can learn lots from reviewing them. But intellectual laziness, or dismissal of our capacity to ponder, contemplate, and wonder… (and not just as mentalese, but as an embodied experience) ah, that just hurts me.

I love the metaphor of liquefying! I’ll never look at my blender the same way!

Thanks again Will (oh, saw you at the Batchelor Pad! )



#2 · Erik

5 February 2012

Typo in second quote. Third sentence ‘are’ should be ‘our’

Well thought out post nonetheless.

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