Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Buddha, Stoicism and Epicureanism

In my class on History of World Religions, we have ended our treatment of Hinduism and are starting Buddhism. The question I have is what makes Buddha a religions teacher, and not an ethical philosopher. Buddha offered a way of dealing with, and overcoming, human suffering and the transitoriness of human existence, and formed a group to pursue that end. But didn't the Stoics and Epicureans do the same thing? What property does Buddha have that makes him a religious teacher, and the Stoics and Epicureans philosophers instead. And not a property like "founded a movement that eventually became one of the world's great religions." I mean a property that you could have picked out when Buddha was alive.


HV said...

I would say Buddha was a mystic whereas the Stoics and Epicureans were not. He passed on to his disciples a way to realize the mystical or transcendental union that all mystics strive for.

Bill Vallicella said...

Is that you, Henry? Your point is good and needs to be addressed. Victor, I have responded to you on my blog, and have put you (or rather a link to your blog) on my sidebar under Chess Links.

Clark Goble said...

I'd be careful about saying the Stoics weren't mystic. There was a mystic tradition in Stoicism, just one that was somewhat different from say the various forms of Platonism.

I'd say Buddha is primarily a religious figure because a lot of what he taught was a reformation of existing Inidian religious belief. Admittedly at a point the distinction between religion and philosophy breaks down. Which is Zen Buddhism, for instance? It seems to have stripped off most religious trappings. What about some of the famous neoPlatonists like Iamblicus who clearly were closer to doing religion than philosophy? What about Christian neoPlatonists like say the mystic Meister Eckhart? What about the pseudo-Dionysus?

It seems there is an area where religion and philosophy overlap. Take two figures like Heidegger or Derrida, both ostensibly atheists, but who in several writings are hard to distinguish from religious figures.

HV said...

I agree, Clark, that there is a lot of overlap between philosophy, religion, and mysticism, and that is certainly true of the Greek philosophers.

Clark Goble said...

I should add a slight caveat to my comments. I believe that the neoPlatonic mystic movement was actually largely lifted from Stoic mysticism with a bit of neoPythagorean mysticism thrown in.

The Stoics are so interesting to me for a wide variety of reasons. One of them is that a lot of their doctrine comes from heavily allegorizing existing Greek religion. Thus they still talk of Zeus and so forth, but in a way in which it has become very abstract. That was probably easier within Greek religion since deities already partially stood for abstractions. (i.e. the God of War) But the Stoic actions set the stage for allegorizations of many other religions. This then becomes a way for people who don't really believe the religion to still be part of civic religion. That gets manifest over and over again through history. We see it a lot in modern liberal Christianity where most of the historic claims of Christianity are stripped out leaving certain abstractions.

I don't think Buddha went that far and still was keeping in with a lot of the tone of Indian religion. But certainly we can see, as I mentioned, Zen Buddhism following very strongly in those Stoic steps. Of course even within the more religious and ceremonial forms of Buddhism we have odd texts like the Lotus Sutra which suggest that a lot of the metaphysical trappings are just lies to get children out of a burning house. So it is often hard to know how to take it. Even within forms of Christianity where more commitment to scriptural accounts is accorded than in the most liberal forms, some people will acknowledge that accounts are sometimes stories making a point. So we have a continuum from the most liberal down to conservative innerrantist literalists. With, I suspect, most somewhere in between.

My ultimate point for droning on is simply to suggest that there is probably a continuum of "how religious" someone is. Even atheists can be quite religious and even religious people can be quite de-mythogized.

HV said...

Interesting points, Clark. I see a somewhat different continuum, one in which a person's style of religious committment varies in terms of distance from the source. Mystical insights or revelations are frequently described as "ineffable". So the original recipient of the mystical insight has a problem of communication if he intends to become a teacher and spread the message. Some disciples of the teacher might "get it", and so the transmission propagates as the mystical experience itself. But there is no guarantee that this will happen. For those who don't get it, there are allegories, parables, stories, folktales, epic poems, doctrines, etc., that may be used to propagate a conceptualized or encoded version of what is essentially unconceptualizable (is that a word?).

It is at this point that variations occur such as those you have characterized as liberal/demythologizing or conservative/literalist. Many people think of religion as a system of beliefs or doctrines, because this is the usual way the original principle is handed on. So a person's degree of religiosity would be seen as the degree to which the person believed and behaved in accordance with the doctrines.

Inevitably, because beliefs can either be believed or doubted, there will be skeptics, and at a far remove from the source, they may even come to dominate. Other variations are possible. Liberal religious people may be people who recognize that the stories and doctrines are pointing to some mystical principle, but being far removed from the source, don't know what it is.

Clark Goble said...

The whole "ineffable" part of mysticism is but one part. Many mystic traditions suggest there is a lot positive that can be said. Yet the unification with the highest reality is ineffable. In the west that comes out of the neoPlatonic tradition and its whole approach to semiotics. Yet, as we see in negative theology, even if it is ineffable one can speak a lot about it. That same tradition, while ostensibly not mysticism appears in Heidegger, Derrida and others who are a little more open to the mystic tradition. (And of course Caputo has written a lot on that with regards to both figures)

The problem is that for the mystic, the real mystic enlightenment is much more "mundane" than outsiders expect. It is both amazing and yet not "other" in the way the non-mystic expects. This can be seen in the famous Zen parable of the mountain. (A story that pops up in discussions of Heidegger as well) The story goes that when the pupil set out after enlightenment the mountain. While seeking enlightenment the mountain was no longer a mountain. After achieving enlightenment the mountain was once again just a mountain.

Having said that though many mystic traditions also allow more positive revelatory experiences - such that the whole category of mysticism (which typically seems focused on a kind of experience) becomes blurred. You can see this, for instance, in the forms of Kabbalism popular from I think the 17th and 18th century in Germany. There very positive claims of information were made. Clearly those weren't ineffable.

Also the very notion of the unio dei in the west was always controversial with both Jewish and Christian mystics often denying it was possible. Typically for different reasons. Within the Christian tradition there was great emphasis on keeping a distinction between creature and creator. However strong neoPlatonic influences often broke that distinction down, leading to charges of heresy and often a trip to a fiery stake. In Judaism the problems were slightly different and its been too long since I studied it. But in later Kabbalism they make a distinction within the One of neoPlatonism. The En-Sof or true nothingness can't be experienced or reached. Keter, which is sort of the supernal will can be to a degree. So as I recall the mystic union dei is usually of Keter rather than the En-Sof. Sadly I don't know enough about Islam to know similar issues there.

I believe that similar distinctions are made within many forms of Buddhism as well. The earlier Greek mystics are more complex since mysticism was so wrapped up in reason in ways that get complex. However there always was the neoPythagorean mysticism as well as strong influences from India. (I believe many scholars argue Heraclitus was influenced by Indian religion)

Regarding distance though, there would be various ways of talking about it. The pseudo-Dionysus in the west is the most famous example of this. But the various Zen Koans we all know, like "the sound of one hand clapping" function in a similar fashion. The point is that the experience is "beyond" what you can say. Thus language ends up becoming a kind of ritual to lead you to the experience. (And, of course, this is why such matters are of interest to modern philosophers I think - because of the language games which are quite interesting semiotically)

But I don't think allegorization or the like are really after the mystic experience. Rather they are after an abstract truth. But typically those abstract truths are quite expressible. Allegories and analogies are simply communication aids, just as they are with any modern technical field when communicating to students. But no physicist, for instance, would say quantum mechanics is unspeakable. (Well, Bell did have that famous book, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics - but that's really a different issue)

In a way what the Stoics were doing was looking at myth in a fashion more akin to what the mythic analysis from the 1930's - 1970's did. Figures like Jung, Campbell, Eliadi and others. Of course those figures largely applied both structuralism with a heavy dose of Freud to figure them out. But I think the Stoics were doing something similar, and then taking the philosophical ideas of these abstractions and discussing them. This was the rise of the notion of occult properties. In modern jargon they are simply theoretical entities. (The word occult brings up all sorts of negative connotations - but until around the 18th century they simply meant hidden theoretical entities)

Clark Goble said...


Anyway, certainly depending upon where on the continuum you are, you'll typically think that your position is right. Thus the literalist thinks the liberal rejects teachings they don't like and misses the point. The liberal thinks the literalist takes allegories literal and misses the point. I don't think talking about it in that fashion ends up being that helpful since everyone ends up comparing others to their own position.

HV said...

Clark, again, I have no essential disagreement with what you said, especially with regard to multiple forms of mysticism. Generalizations about mysticism and religion are always difficult. And I have no intention of taking sides here. More thoughts later if I have time.

HV said...

Clark, I take your point that theoretical entities were considered by the ancients to be hidden/occult and therefore part of mystical lore. I agree this is part of the meaning of the word mysticism. This is in contrast to the apophatic mysticism of pseudo-Dionysus or Buddhist mysticism, which are both anti-theoretical, and concerned in some sense with the absolutely real.

The Greek philosophers were of course interested in theoretical entities, including for example mathematical entities. And mathematics was the basis of Pythagorean mysticism. This is classic mysticism -- the mysticism of the hidden unity of the cosmos.

Another sort of occult knowledge had to do with psychology. An early science of psychology was undoubtedly the subject of a lot of ancient myths and allegories. I believe Wittgenstein said that the Freudian theory was a myth, but a very useful one because it allowed one to speak of things that were otherwise unspeakable, and thereby effect a cure. Many ancient myths undoubtedly operated in this way. The Christian hermits and monks of the Egyptian desert in late antiquity seem to have been much occupied with this introspective psychology, especially with the autonomous forces of the psyche, which they called "demons". These autonomous forces were responsible for temptations, but by observing them and making them conscious, their force dissipated. The Buddhists also have their doctrines about demons, and they seem to refer to the same thing. This would be a clear example of a connection between hidden knowledge (of how the psyche works) and the myths about angels, demons, gods, etc.

This positive mysticism with its practical knowledge of the workings of the mind complements the negative mysticism which seeks to go beyond the mind. What is interesting to me is how much of ancient mythology has its origin in these kinds of things, and how far back in time these myths originate. Probably impossible to know for sure.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Aside from the mysticism issue, I think the Stoics would have been surprised to find out that they weren't religious. "In him we live and move and have our being" was from Cleanthes' hymn of worship to the panentheistic god the Stoics worshiped.

buddhist amulet said...

Your post is good.

Badri said...

My 2 cents : Maybe a historic / cultural context.
In Indian society, Buddha had contemporaries / people who offered solutions to observed life (Eg. Carvaka, Sankya). History treated some as philosophers and some (Buddha) as a religious figure based on 'Future Success". The ideas which did not get a popular following remained just ideas, philosophical treatises.

This is also observed in another popular Indian religion / philosophy:
"Dvaitadvaita" & "Advaita"
Both philosophies argue the same premise, refer to the same indian texts. The founder of Advaita established a structure to take forward his ideas - he is now treated as a religious / Godly figure.

Blame it on History & its rewrites.