buddhism

Book Review: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse


Siddhartha is the tale of a man driven by an insatiable desire for truth. Unlike the great mass of men who live and have ever lived (and, no doubt, who will live) the eponymous character is unable to bury the innate human desire for truth, transcendence, and eternity beneath the morass of material things and temporal (and therefore temporary) concerns. He is unable to forget that man, however pervasive illusion and delusion might be, was placed into this world for other and better reasons than the satisfaction of ultimately meaningless desires, enjoyment of passing pleasures, and obsessions with works the effects of which will hardly outlast the moment of their performance.

It is rather, as Siddhartha knows and cannot force himself to forget, that man was created for something altogether of another order. He was created to seek after what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. The highest end of man and the purpose for which he was created surpasses the merely earthly and the merely momentary.

Only after years of struggle with his self and his world is Siddhartha able to realize that he had been seeking since his youth had been with him — in him — all along. It had, in fact, been him — and everything around him. It was — it is — the all-pervasive presence of the divine, which encompasses, unites, and yet exceeds the entire created order.

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An argument for the existence of God from mystical experience (part 3)

Religion is at the core of nearly all of the world’s civilizations. It hardly needs to be argued, for example, that Indian culture, in its food, dress, custom, and other features, is in large part a derivative of the Hindu belief system. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are quite obviously the formative elements underlying Chinese and Korean culture. The synthesis of Judaism and Hellenism within the context of Christianity is quite obviously at the heart of Western Civilization. The modern Middle East would be altogether different were it not for the cultural predominance of Islam in that region. In turn, the root and stem of each of these various religious systems is an experience like that described by William James. Nearly all of the world’s major religions have as their source a claim by their founder to have directly experienced something divine and transcendent, to have attained a suprarational awareness. In short, a claim of mystical experience is at the beginning and center of each of the world’s cultures. It is these experiences that will now be turned to as evidence that mystical experience is a widespread and innately human phenomenon that must be accounted for in any coherent belief system that remains true to reality.

The experience of the Buddha is the source of the central doctrines and practices of Buddhism, one of the most popular religious systems in the world and one that has had a major formative influence on nearly all of East Asia. While there are no firsthand accounts by the Buddha concerning his experience, early Buddhist documents like those contained in the Sutta Pitaka, a collection of sutras the contents of which have traditionally been attributed to the Buddha and his closest disciples, provide insight into the nature of the Buddha’s experience.

The descriptions of this experience meet all four criteria employed by William James to describe mystical experiences. The Buddha’s employment of the ambiguous term “nibbana,” meaning “extinguishing,” to describe his experience indicates the ineffable nature of the experience. Throughout the important Buddhist texts, nibbana is consistently described in terminology that is often obscure and almost always phrased in the negative, indicating what it is not rather than what it is. The Nibbana Sutta, for example, records that the Buddha claimed,

There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support. This, just this, is the end of suffering.

Similarly, the second century AD Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna wrote that, “The [Buddha] has declared that earth, water, fire, and wind, long, short, fine and coarse, good, and so on are extinguished in consciousness. … Here long and short, fine and coarse, good and bad, here name and form all stop.”

The enlightenment experience of the Buddha also possessed the noetic quality of a sudden flash of insight or illumination. The Mahasuccaka Sutta features a dialogue that claims to record the words of the Buddha himself. In the course of the dialogue, the Buddha reports that as he grew closer to enlightenment multiple insights “spontaneous, never before heard” became apparent to his mind. These insights finally culminated in a vision like the cosmic vision reported by Benedict and Arjuna. The Buddha says that he saw all at once “many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion.” The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the teachings of the Buddha which form the core of Buddhist belief and practice, were then revealed to him as flashes of insight. The Buddha concludes, “Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose.”

The Buddha concludes his description of his experience with an indication of its transient quality: “But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” The language used throughout the description, in which the Buddha indicates his passive reception of the insights and experience, demonstrate also the fourth of James’s criteria, passivity.

The far different cultural context of the Ancient Near East was the home of men whose similar experiences gave birth to a quite different system of religious thought. The first two books of the Bible record the experiences of the two founding figures of Judaism, Abraham and his descendent Moses, each of whose experiences bear the same qualities delineated by James.

While Genesis records several interactions of Abraham with God, God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three travellers is particularly exemplary in its exhibition of all four characteristics typical of mystical experience. The three visitors arrive suddenly and unexpectedly. Genesis 18:1-2 reports that “the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.  He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth.” As in the case of the Buddha, a profound insight is granted. Unlike the Buddha, the insight does not arrive in the form of a cosmic vision or a sudden flash of doctrinal truth. Rather, the insight granted is that Abraham’s wife Sarah will conceive and bear a son, Isaac, through whom Abraham will become the father of a great nation of people dedicated to the worship of the one true God, an insight the ramifications of which continue to be exhibited today in the adherence of half of the world’s population to a religious tradition which traces the origins of its most basic beliefs to Abraham.

The Book of Exodus records the experiences of Moses, a descendant of Abraham and, in a sense, the foundational figure of Judaism, as the prophet through whom the law was given to the Jewish people. Two incidents in the life of Moses are especially exemplary of the nature of mystical experience, the incident at the Burning Bush and the giving of the commandments on Mount Sinai. Exodus 3 reports the former incident as an entirely unexpected and profoundly life-altering event. As Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law, says the Exodus 3:2, “He looked, and behold, [a] bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” As Moses approached to investigate this strange phenomenon, a voice suddenly called his name from the bush, ordering him to remove his sandals out of reverence for the holiness of the ground on which he stood. With Moses prostrate on the ground before the bush, God then provided the unexpected insight that Moses was to act as a prophet to free his people from slavery in Egypt. The ineffable quality of this already stunning event is further exhibited in God’s self-description of “I am that I am” (Exodus 4:18), a profound phrase that continues to be the subject of controversy and contemplation in the several religious traditions that claim the story of Moses as part of their spiritual lineage. The Christian mystic Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on this passage in his Life of Moses, summarizes the profound insight granted to Moses:

It seems to me that what the great Moses learned in the theophany is simply this, that neither those things grasped by sense, nor those that the mind can understand, have a real existence. The only reality that truly exists is the one that is above all of them, the cause of all from which everything depends.

The later self-revelation of God to Moses on Mount Sinai also exhibits the qualities described by William James. Moses is called by God in Exodus 19:20 to ascend Mount Sinai and there to meet with him. It is on the mountain that God reveals the law for the Jewish people to Moses. That Moses must meet with God in a cloud on the mountain is indicative of the ineffability of the experience, as is the later revelation, in Exodus 33:23, of God’s back to Moses, whereas God refuses to reveal his face to him.

The experience of the apostles Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor as recorded in Matthew 17 follows the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai as its model and again exhibits the qualities described by William James. Matthew 17:1 reports that Jesus selected these three apostles and “led them up on a high mountain by themselves.” There, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). The passivity of the three apostles is indicated in their being led and being shown; rather than acting as active agents in the experience it is something that is revealed to them by a power much greater than all of them.

Peter’s bewildered and bewildering reaction to the vision is indicative of the ineffability of the experience. While James and John remain altogether silent, Peter bizarrely offers to build tents for Jesus as well as Moses and Elijah, who have appeared alongside him. While commentators have noted, in the way of an explanation for Peter’s strange offer, that it is tradition to build and dwell in tents on the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, the offer, made at that moment, has a ring of the absurd and can only ultimately be explained by Peter having been so overwhelmed at the vision he was witnessing as to lose the power of coherent, rational thought and speech. Before Peter can finish his sentence, the voice of the Father spoke from a cloud that surrounded them, granting the flash of insight, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Finally, with the apostles unable to bear it any longer, the vision ends, as Jesus tells them to rise, “and when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (Matthew 17:8).

The famous appearance of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus also exhibits the qualities described James. As Acts 9:3 records, “as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.” This unexpected light stupefies Paul and knocks him to the ground. He is then granted the profound insight that the very Jesus whose followers he was persecuting is his God. Stunned by this experience and the insight it gave him, Paul remained blind and refused to eat or drink for three days after the experience, says Acts 9:9. Paul, of course, later became the most prolific and well-travelled of the apostles, writing the majority of the books that now comprise the New Testament and travelling nearly the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean in search of converts to Christianity.

As a religious tradition, Christianity in particular has continued to emphasize and focus upon mystical experience as the culmination of religious life toward which all should aim. In the fourth century, the influential Christian bishop Basil of Caesarea described the kinds of experiences reported by those adherents of the then-burgeoning monastic movement in Syria and Egypt, exhibiting once again the criteria delineated by William James:

Utterly inexpressible and indescribable is Divine beauty blazing like lightning; neither word can express nor ear receive it. If we name the brightness of dawn, or the clearness of moonlight, or the brilliance of sunshine, none of it is worthy to be compared with the glory of true light, and is farther removed therefrom than the deepest night and the most terrible darkness from the clear light of midday. When this beauty, invisible to physical eyes and accessible only to soul and thought, illumined some saint, wounding him with unbearable yearning desire, then, disgusted by earthly life, he cried: “Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!” … “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.” … Oppressed by this life, as by a prison, how irresistible was the striving towards God of those whose soul was touched by Divine yearning. Owing to their insatiable desire to contemplate Divine beauty, they prayed that the sight of God’s beauty should last for all eternity.

Such experiences, within the Christian tradition, are not confined to the fourth century. On the contrary, there is not an era within the entire history of the Christian Church that has not had its great mystics, including the modern era. Within recent history are mystics like the 19th century Russian monk Seraphim of Sarov, about whom a number of witnesses have recorded their own accounts. Seraphim himself related that one particularly striking experience came upon him unexpectedly while, like Thomas Aquinas centuries before him, he was performing the Eucharistic liturgy. Standing at the altar, he later reported, he suddenly saw an overwhelmingly bright white light, into which appeared Jesus surrounded by a multitude of angels “as by a swarm of bees.” The vision appeared to him only briefly, as in a flash, but so struck him that he was unable to continue with the liturgy. He had to be carried away from the altar to a place where he stood for nearly two hours until he could “come to his senses.”

While the origins of the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization are evident in the mystical experiences of prophets like Abraham and Moses and apostles like Peter and Paul, the mystical experiences which comprise the origins of the Greek roots of Western Civilization are often overlooked. While Plato offers no description of the mystical experiences of Socrates, he does indicate clearly in the Apology that Socrates, that founding figure of the Greek philosophical tradition, believed himself to be prompted to his philosophical inquiry by a divine entity. In the Apology, Socrates explicitly claims to have had “visions,” saying, “And this is a duty which the God has imposed upon me, as I am assured by oracles, visions, and in every sort of way in which the will of divine power was ever signified to anyone.” Elsewhere in the Apology, Socrates explains, “You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me … This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything.” While Socrates does not expand upon or describe these experiences, his words are indicative of mystical experiences. Like the Buddhist civilization of the East, then, Western Civilization has, at its roots, both Hellenic and Hebrew, in mystical experience.

At what might, without inaccuracy, be termed the outer boundaries of Western Civilization mystical experience took a quite similar shape and these experiences, in turn, gave birth to the unique and formidable civilizational bloc of Islam. On the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century a merchant named Muhammad reported that he had been the recipient of a number of mystical visions, the first of which took place while he meditated in a cave near the city of Mecca. According to Muhammad, an angel appeared to him in the cave and greeted him with an exclamation that permanently altered Muhammad’s own life as well as the course of all subsequent history:

Recite in the name of your Lord, Who has created all that exists. He has created humankind from a clot. Recite! And your Lord is the most generous Who has taught mankind by the pen. He taught humankind what he knew not.

Muhammad continued to receive these visions until his death, more than 20 years later. The early Islamic scholar Jami at-Tirmidhi recorded that, when asked by one of his followers what it was like when the revelations came to him, Muhammad described them by saying that

Sometimes it comes to me like the ringing of a bell and that is the hardest upon me, and sometimes the angel will appear to me like a man, and he will speak to me such that I understand what he says.

Jami also reports that Aisha, one of the wives of Muhammad, claimed to have observed him “while the Revelation was descending upon him on an extremely cold day.” When “it ceased,” says Aisha, “his forehead was flooded with sweat.”

As in the cases already examined, the visions and revelations experienced by Muhammad also meet the criteria elucidated by William James. According to the descriptions provided by Muhammad and Aisha of his state during the revelations, they seem to have come upon him suddenly and with great force, aspects of the experiences which evince the quality of passivity as described by James. Muhammad’s experiences also demonstrate the noetic quality James identified in that each experience was followed by his recital of certain poetic verses, later compiled to form the Qur’an, which had ostensibly been revealed to him by an angel. In addition, Muhammad’s revelations exhibit the criteria of transiency in their relatively limited duration. Muhammad’s experiences were not a sustained state but a frequent and unexpected break from his normal state of mind and conduct. Muhammad’s visions also bear the quality of ineffability. Those descriptions of his visions which Muhammad was able to provide bear a dreamlike quality which often characterizes descriptions of the ineffable. In his account of one famous vision in which Muhammad claimed to have journey through the heavens the early Islamic commentator Sahih Bukhari records that Muhammad described the vision beginning while he was “in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness.”  When “an angel recognized me as the man lying between two men,” he says,

A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and my heart was filled with wisdom and belief.

This dreamlike quality features in a number of descriptions of mystical experiences from various cultural contexts. A vision described by the Native American mystic Black Elk, for example, is similarly dreamlike. He describes being taken into the heavens by a horse that was able to speak and, once in the heavens, watching a variety of horses dance around him:

And when he whinnied to the east, there too the sky was filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails of horses, in all colors singing back. Then to the south he called, and it was crowded with many colored, happy horses, nickering.

Then the bay horse spoke to me again and said: “See how your horses all come dancing!” I looked, and there were horses, horses everywhere — a whole skyful of horses dancing round me.

“Make haste!” the bay horse said; and we walked together side by side, while the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins followed, marching four by four.

The dreamlike mystical experience of Guru Nanak Dev Ji in India near the end of the 15th century led him to found Sikhism, which is today the fifth largest religion in the world. According to early Sikh traditions recorded in the Janamakshi, a biography of Nanak, and other writings, Nanak was accustomed to bathing in and praying beside a river nearby his home early in the morning. On one such journey, Nanak disappeared for the duration of three days during which, he later reported, he stood as if in a trance in the presence of God. Even after reappearing, Nanak did not speak for several days and behaved strangely, having been deeply affected by his strange experience. When he did speak, finally, he proclaimed that God had revealed to him that “there is no Hindu and no Muslim.” In a radical departure from the notions that were current in his cultural context, Nanak spent the remainder of his life preaching a radical vision of absolute human equality before God that encompassed those of all religions, sexes, and races. Nanak later composed a number of poems and songs that reflect the tremendous and overwhelming power of the presence he had experienced during his vision, such as this from the Guru Granth Sahib, a massive compilation of all of the Sikh scriptures:

Were I to live for millions of years and drink the air for my nourishment;

Were I to dwell in a cave where I beheld, not sun or moon, and could not even dream of sleeping,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

O true Formless One, Thou art in Thine own place —

As I have often heard I tell my tale — If it please Thee, show Thy favour unto me.

Were I to be felled and cut in pieces, were I to be ground in a mill;

Were I to be burned in a fire, and blended with its ashes,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

Were I to become a bird and fly to a hundred heavens;

Were I to vanish from human gaze and neither eat nor drink,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

Nanak, had I hundreds of thousands of tons of paper and a desire to write on it all after the deepest research;

Were ink never to fail me, and could I move my pen like the wind,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

Before a man studies Zen

“Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains, and waters are water; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.” – D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Buddhism

Don Quixote: Eternity and Death

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”1 In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes presents a plethora of madmen of nearly every vocation and class, from priests and dukes to barbers and shepherds. All of these characters live in a world where the ordinary reigns supreme. In this ordinary world of the utterly realistic, time becomes a source of decay and death, an ever-present reminder of impending doom. The one sane man in the novel is Don Quixote, regarded by all of the others as a madman, who, through his embrace of the mystery of the world around him, is able to transform time from a sequence of events and inevitabilities into an eternal present which creates a self-renewing repository of surprise.

Don Quixote is separated from his contemporaries by his epistemology and his historiography, two elements of his worldview which are quite closely connected and which form the foundation for the rest. For Don Quixote, history is no mere reliquary filled with dry, old bones. It is, instead, a living reality. The stories of chivalry, courtly love, and knightly adventure are not records of a distant past, but invitations into a fuller experience of the present.

Before beginning his adventures, Don Quixote takes out his great-great-grandfather’s old suit of armor, which, “being mouldy and rust-eaten, had lain by, many long years, forgotten in a corner.”2 He cleans and restores this, preparing it for use as his own armor. In this action, Don Quixote takes an initial step toward redeeming the past from the decay brought on by ordinary time. In this act of redemption and transcendence, Don Quixote has brought two periods of time into confluence and thereby brought time and eternity closer together. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future).”3 God, according to Lewis, experiences time as an eternal now. Don Quixote, in salvaging the armor of his ancestor, has moved closer to a God’s-eye view of the cosmos and therefore closer to reality.

Don Quixote’s choice to adopt this God’s-eye view of time is also exhibited in his choice to become a knight-errant, a knight who travels about searching for adventure. This wandering life is a perfect embodiment of Don Quixote’s perception of time. For him, time is not linear but, in a sense, simultaneous. A pictographic representation of time for Don Quixote would not be a straight line but a scribble in which the line intersects itself at nearly every point.

This historiography leads Don Quixote to adopt an epistemology which refuses to accept the merely directly empirical as the sum total. For Don Quixote, there is always a deeper reality behind that which can be immediately observed. One of Don Quixote’s earliest adventures, for instance, pits him against a troop of giants disguised as windmills. Sancho, Don Quixote’s simpleminded squire, is unable to see past the immediately observable and peer deeper into the secrets hidden behind the apparent. For Sancho, the windmills are simply windmills. Don Quixote, however, is able to see past the apparent and stand in a world where the enormity of an other can still evoke awe. As an exasperated Don Quixote flippantly informs Sancho, “one may easily see … that you are not versed in the business of adventures.”4

Throughout the novel, Don Quixote is able to consistently maintain his devotion to his special insights about time and the world in spite of the persistent attempts of the novel’s many characters to drag him back into the ordinary through reason, deception, and mockery. Though Don Quixote is frequently shown to by his enemies and their schemes to be a less than entirely perfect knight, his resistance to their frequent assaults on his worldview is proof of his true heroism. A famous saying attributed to St. Anthony the Great, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, is the claim that “a time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”5 Grace M. Jantzen’s explanation of this saying is illuminating:

If sanity is defined by the conventions and expectations of a society preoccupied with defeating mortality first by securing their own welfare in food and material possessions and then by procreation and establishing households and families that would continue after they were gone, then those who defied these conventions – despised greed, renounced violence, defied death – were mad.6

In his preface to his English translation of Don Quixote, John Ormsby identifies the vocation of a knight-errant as “to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed.”7 To put such a vocation into practice, says Ormsby, the knight-errant must “cast fear aside.” In other words, Don Quixote has chosen to defy conventions, to despise greed, to renounce violence (that is, the use of force against others for one’s own gain), and to defy death. Significantly, Ormsby asserts of Don Quixote that “it is his madness [which] makes him virtuous.”8

It is only when he is finally defeated by the Knight of the White Moon and must renounce the life of a knight-errant that he begins to lose faith in his insight. At first, he attempts to hang on to his view of time as an eternal now. He proposes that he and Sancho adopt the pastoral life, telling his squire, “we will range the mountains, the woods and meadows, singing here, and complaining there.”9 Through their exploits as shepherds, Don Quixote assures Sancho, “we shall make ourselves famous and immortal, not only in the present, but in future ages.”10 This tenuous grasp on eternity, however, inevitably slips away and Don Quixote plunges headlong into the ordinary.

In the ordinary, Don Quixote’s immediate experience is like that of the young Siddhartha Gautama on his famous journey outside of his pleasure-palace. Don Quixote falls sick, experiences the decay of old age, and, finally, dies. The difference between Don Quixote and the Buddha, however, highlights what makes Don Quixote significant. Siddhartha’s timelessness was an attempt to rise above time by hiding from it, a project doomed to failure. Don Quixote’s timelessness, however, was an embrace of time. By gathering all of time into one embrace, Don Quixote had transcended time by entering into all of it simultaneously. He, like God, had no particular location in time because he was present in all of it at once. In other words, the difference between Siddhartha’s timelessness and Don Quixote’s timelessness is synonymous with the difference between the Buddhist idea of eternity as perpetual stagnation and the Christian belief in an eternity that is dynamic in its continual growth, newness, and surprise. To fall from this dynamic eternality into the ordinary is to fall into the inevitability of death as a final end rather than death as the great commencement of a new beginning.

1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 32.
2 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 1.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 169-170.
4 Cervantes, Part I, Chapter 8.
5 Anthony the Great, quoted in Grace M. Jantzen, “Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387.
6 Jantzen, 387.
7 John Ormsby, “Don Quixote – Ormsby; English Translation,” http://cervantes.tamu.edu/english/ctxt/DonQ-JohnOrmsby/DonQ-JohnOrmsby.html (accessed 5 November 2013).
8 Ibid.
9 Cervantes, Part II, Chapter 67.
10 Ibid.

A Chinese Buddhist monk visits India under the Guptas

The people are numerous and happy; they have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rules; only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the grain from it. If they want to go, they go; if they want to stay on, they stay. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances (of each case). Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off. The king’s body-guards and attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic.

Faxian (circa 400-412), quoted in Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, p. 26

Schizophrenia and Eastern religions

A Buddhist Zen master who lives in Tokyo wishes to fly to Kyoto on a private plane. When he arrives at the airport, he is offered two planes: one that is faster but aeronautically questionable, and one that is slower but aeronautically sound. He is informed by the airport authorities that the faster plane violates some of the basic principles of aeronautical mechanics, and the slower plane does not.

The aeronautical or technological deficiencies of the faster plane represent underlying mistakes in physics. The Zen master, in his teaching, asks his disciples questions the right answers to which require them to embrace contradictions. To do so is the path to wisdom about reality, which has contradictions at its core. But the Zen master does t waver from upholding this teaching about reality while, at the same time, he chooses the slower, aeronautically sounder and safer plane because it accords with a technology and a physics that makes correct judgments about a physical world that abhors contradictions.

If there is scientific truth in technology and physics, then the unity of the truth should require the Zen master to acknowledge that his choice of the slower but safer plane means that he repudiates his Zen doctrine about the wisdom of embracing contradictions.

He does not do so and remains schizophrenic, with the truth of Zen doctrine and the truth of technology and physics in logic-tight compartments. On what grounds or for what reasons does he do this if not for the psychological comfort derived from keeping the incompatible “truths” in logic-tight compartments? Can it be that the Zen master has a different meaning for the word “truth” when he persists in regarding the Zen doctrine as true even though it would appear to be irreconcilable with the truth of technology and physics he has accepted in choosing the slower plane? Can it be that this persistence in retaining the Zen doctrine does not derive from its being “true” in the logical sense of truth, but rather in a sense of “true” that identifies it with being psychological “useful” or “therapeutic”?

In other words, Zen Buddhism as a religion is believed by this Zen master because of its psychological usefulness in producing in its believers a state of peace or harmony. In my judgment, this view of the matter doe snot reduce or remove the schizophrenia of Zen Buddhism.

Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion, pp. 75-6

The Tao in Cross-Cultural Comparison

The idea of an objective, transcendent, and eternal force, law, or “way of things” is one that is found in nearly every culture of the world. In schools of Chinese philosophy such as Taoism and Confucianism, this idea has been called the Tao, or Way; in ancient Greek thought as well as in later Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, this concept was labeled as Logos, or Word; and, in Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as other varieties of Indian religion, the idea was first referred to as Dharma and later identified as Brahman. The content of these ideas as they were developed within their respective cultural, religious, and philosophical homes reflects both the diversity of cultural expression as well as a remarkable fundamental unity in thought across civilizations, geography, and time.

According to Alan Chan, a professor of philosophy, “a key term in the philosophical vocabulary, it [the Tao] informs early Chinese philosophy as a whole” (“Laozi”). The idea, however, “is interpreted differently” throughout the thought of the various philosophical schools of ancient China.

One of the earliest and fullest treatments of the Tao in Chinese thought is found in the philosophy of Kongzi (551-479 BCE), better known in the English-speaking world as Confucius (Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 1). For Kongzi, the Tao, as the Way of heaven, is largely a concept that reflects ancient Chinese morals and mores. He urged his students to “set your heart upon the Way, rely upon Virtue, lean upon Goodness, and explore widely in your cultivation of the arts” (Kongzi, The Analects, 7.1, in Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 21). In the thought of Kongzi, there was a golden age which had preceded the current age of decline. In that golden age, people observed all of the customs and conventions associated with propriety and virtue in ancient China. Since then, however, people had fallen away from observing the proper rituals and, as a result, Chinese society had entered a period of decline. While viewing the Tao in spiritual terms, as the Way of Heaven, Kongzi’s concern is largely social and political, rather than religious or otherwise metaphysical.

For Laozi (a legendary figure held by popular mythology to be a contemporary of Kongzi), the only other Chinese thinker whose ideas can be said to have had an influence equivalent to or greater than that of Kongzi, the Tao was something similar but simultaneously quite different (Ivanhoe, p. 161). Laozi maintained the earlier view, reflected in Kongzi’s thought, that the Tao is the Way of Heaven, the all-pervading and governing principle of the universe. He also maintained Kongzi’s view that there had once been a golden age during which people had been at harmony with the Tao, and therefore with themselves, with each other, with the world around them, and with heaven itself. They had lost their original harmony with it through too much ambition, striving, strain, and stress; they had thereby injured themselves by separating themselves from their nature and from the Tao. This is the point at which Laozi separates from Kongzi in his analysis and prescription. Rather than viewing the problem as fundamentally social and turning to traditionalism and social conservatism for salvation, Laozi viewed the problem as, at heart, a spiritual problem, a problem in the soul of man, and one whose only solution was in man’s soul and, according to Laozi, this solution often entailed a retreat from the social world altogether. According to Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy, in the view of Laozi, “man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole [the Tao]. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe itself is and moves” (Feng and English, Tao Te Ching, p. xiv).

In viewing the Tao in terms of nature, spirit, and the individual, Laozi’s thought departs widely from that of Kongzi, which viewed the Tao in terms of society, ritual, and organization. The two thinkers are agreed, however, in the fundamental assertion that there is a Tao, a Way of Heaven, a law, guiding force, and governing principle in the cosmos. In this harmony, they also find agreement with thinkers from a wide variety of other cultures; fascinatingly, many of these thinkers with similar ideas were their contemporaries and near-contemporaries.

In Greece, at the nearly the same moment that Kongzi and Laozi were developing and teaching their ideas of the Tao, the philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) introduced the concept of the Logos, a word meaning both “Word” and “Reason,” into Greek thought. According to Richard Tarnas, a professor of philosophy and psychology, in Heraclitus’s thought, the Logos was “the rational principle governing the cosmos” (The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 45). Frederick Coplestone, a historian of philosophy, describes Heraclitus’s logos as “the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43). This is an idea, developed nearly simultaneously with the views of Kongzi and Laozi but thousands of miles away and in a very different cultural context, that bears a remarkable resemblance to the concept of the Tao in Chinese thought, especially in the thought of Laozi. The views of Heraclitus in regards to man’s relationship with the Logos are also remarkably similar to the views of Laozi. According to Coplestone, Heraclitus urged that “man should … strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason [that is, of the Logos] and to live by reason [the Logos]” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43), a view nearly synonymous with those of Laozi.

The concept of the Logos would later be taken up by both Jewish and Christian philosophers in the Greek-speaking world. It would be identified in those religious traditions with the Word of God. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries in China recognized the notable similarity between the Greek concept of the Logos and the Chinese concept of the Tao, and took up using the word “Tao” as a Chinese translation for the word “Logos.” For example, a 1911 translation of the Bible into Cantonese by the American Bible Society opens the Gospel of John with the proclamation:

In the beginning was the Tao,
And the Tao was with God,
And the Tao was God.
The same was in the beginning with God. (Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 8)

The word “Tao,” of course, is here being used to translate the word “Logos” in the original Greek of the biblical text.

In addition to this similar idea from Western thought, Indian thought also provides examples of concepts very similar to the concept of the Tao in its ideas of Dharma and Brahman. According to James C. Livingstone, a professor of religion, “in the Vedas,” which texts represent some of the earliest developments in Indian religion and philosophy, “the word dharma stood for an eternally fixed moral law that underlies the universe” (Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362). So central to ancient Hindu thought was the concern for coming into concord with this law that, “in the later law books,” such as the Law of Manu, “dharma came to refer specifically to the duties and obligations of social life” (Livingstone, Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362).

Whereas from its inception the Logos of Heraclitus bore a similarity to the Tao as it was developed in the thought of Laozi, the Dharma in its inception bears a much closer resemblance to the Tao as enunciated in the thought of Kongzi. As in Kongzi’s philosophy, the earliest Indian thought on Dharma viewed it largely as a matter of social important, a set of laws, rituals, customs, and conventions to be followed in order for people to attain social harmony and person prosperity. In later Indian thought, however, the Dharma would come to resemble something much more similar to Laozi’s more spiritual and personal version of the Tao.

In Hinduism, for example, the Dharma would be associated closely with the idea of Brahman, the “God [who] is being, awareness, and bliss” (Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 60). Just as meditation on the self-identification of the God of Judaism and Christianity as “I AM,” or the root source, underlying principle, and governing force of existence, in Exodus 3:14 would lead later Jewish and Christian thinkers to an identification of God with the Logos of Greek thought, this very similar description of the Supreme Being in Hinduism demonstrates the similarities of Brahman, Dharma, and Tao.

Also remarkably similar is the Hindu treatment of the relationship between man and Brahman. According to Hindu thought as developed in the Upanishads, a set of mystical, theological, mythological, and philosophical texts, the most important of which were written between 1000 and 600 BCE, Brahman is also identical with the atman, the personal soul of each individual human being. This identification of the atman with Brahman sounds very much like the identification of the Logos, as universal Reason, with the reason inherent in each person, as well as with Laozi’s concept of each man as intended to be an embodiment and reflection of the Tao. There is also a further similarity with Jewish and Christian thought here in the biblical assertion that human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

Although the Buddha (563-483), a contemporary of Kongzi, Laozi, and Heraclitus, rejected the Hindu concept of Brahman, in splitting with the Hinduism developing during the period of the composition of the Upanishads, his ideas concerning Dharma also present a noteworthy comparison here. According to professor and spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran, in the thought of the Buddha, “dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole” (The Dhammapada, p. 12). Here again there is emphasis on an underlying principle which in some sense unites and governs the cosmos. And, in the Buddha’s thought, yet again emphasis is placed on the need for each individual to come into harmony with that principle and thereby attain peace for one’s self and for the world.

Across cultural boundaries and, in the ancient world, nearly insurmountable geographic expanses, at a point in time nearly simultaneous, several of the great civilizations of the world, China, Greece, the Middle East, and India, saw thinkers introduce and develop concepts that bore a remarkable similarity to each other. As Kongzi and Laozi developed their ideas of the Tao in China, Heraclitus expounded upon the Logos in Greece, Jewish thinkers developed their first ideas about a God who is Being Itself, and the authors of the Upanishads and the Buddha taught about Dharma in India. In these ideas, there is a display of cultural uniqueness and of divergence in thought, but also, and far more noteworthy, a fascinating similarity in their assertion that there is a uniting and governing underlying source which transcends and yet remains imminent within it and that man, for his own salvation both as a species and as individuals, must come into harmony with this principle.

ReferencesChan, Alan, “Laozi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Coplestone, Frederick. (1946). A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Damascene, Hiermonk. (2004). Christ the Eternal Tao. Platina: Valaam Books.

Easwaran, Eknath. (1999). The Dhammapada. Tomales: Nilgiri Press.

Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Translators. (1989). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Livingstone, James C. (1998). Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, Third Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.

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