The encounter of Buddhism and Platonism – what can modern Buddhists and others learn from Plato?
A philosophical essay by Ratnagarbha
I have been interested in Platonism for as long as I have been a Buddhist. The two have always gone hand in hand for me. I find in Platonism a wonderfully articulated view of a sacred cosmos, in which number and harmonic ratios, in their more mystical aspects, play an important part. It is a cosmos imbued with living, divine forces that animate it and give meaning and purpose. Whilst I am well aware of the vast, rich heritage of imaginative mythological conceptions in Buddhism, for me still, even after several decades, it is the practical, existential aspect of Buddhism that is to the forefront of my mind. Renouncing attachment and cultivating concentration and wisdom. After many years of thinking about the differences and similarities between these two systems, and feeling it was important for me to honour both, I offer these reflections that may be of some interest to others… Posted here a seven point key summary of my conclusions. After these there is a link to a longer 10,000 word essay which explores Platonism and its parallels with Buddhism in more detail.
The question I ask here is what does Buddhism, as it unfolds in the modern world, have to learn from the equally ancient spiritual philosophy of platonism, the preeminent spiritual philosophy of the Western world – less public and institutionalised though it may be these days?
Some people (weaker spirits if you like!) may find the Buddha’s uncompromising rejection of the normal categories of grasping that make up one’s world – such as the self, fixed objects, existence and so forth – too much to swallow all at once. Particularly this may be the case given the contemporary crisis of meaning and values. The ‘void’ that opens up in Dharma practice may appear only empty rather than the utterly open fullness / emptiness lauded in the Heart Sutra. For such folk Plato may provide a useful halfway house. For Platonists ‘the world’ as we know it is not simply an illusion to be escaped from but a reflection or an imperfect copy of that which is ultimately true. Woven in with the pain and chaos there is much beauty and harmony here that can point to what is of ultimate value.
Here are my conclusions in more detail, condensed into seven key points:
- Both traditions agree that human experience is constructed in rational patterns which can be discovered. For Buddhism these patterns are of an epistemic, psychological nature. Normal perceptual categories such as ‘selves’ and ‘objects’, ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’ are rejected. Platonism by contrast extracts from those normal perceptual categories an underlying substrate of ontological truth – Unity / Oneness, Being / Intellect, sameness, motion, beauty, goodness, etc. Thus for Plato, much more than for the Buddha, the categories by which we perceive the world are affirmed, but at the same time spiritualized, seen as reflections of something eternal and ideal. In any case for both traditions such patterns are not arbitrary products of an isolated individual mind forever enclosed in its own skin, but how the world works; they are mental but not purely individual. Mind, in its broadest, most profound sense, is behind everything. In the modern West, we have the view that the rational patterns discoverable in the objective world are purely material – even if physicists refute common sense ideas of solid matter they deal exclusively with mathematical patterns of material forces. (In fact in quantum mechanics both matter and energy are reduced to fields of probability governed by the same kind of equation that would determine a vibrating rope or a ripple on a body of water – the basic trigonometric sine wave equation. One imagines that Plato would have been deeply fascinated and satisfied by the discovery of the trigonometric equations, that the ratios of angles in triangles, as the lengths of the lines change, can be described by equations that model exactly the behaviour of all oscillating systems. And it is sometimes said that quantum mechanics makes the observer part of the system as if this was something spiritual and philosophical in nature. However, in terms of scientific consensus, the observer’s mind and values are not contained within the quantum mechanical equations, it is just that the act of measurement triggers a certain kind of event, the theory is essentially one of vibrating fields of probability which have no consciousness.) Buddhism meanwhile has very little to say about the objective material world, beyond noting that there are certain regularities of causality, such as the turning of the seasons. So for a modern person one’s attitude to the material world is likely to be conditioned by science. Platonism, and more generally the Western esoteric tradition, offers an alternative to this. A vision of the material world as fundamentally of mind, and informed by archetypal patterns. Patterns which may contain or express sublime mathematical ratios, but which are at root ethical and spiritual rather than material. One need not stick with the ancient thinkers in this regard. There are modern philosophers with platonising tendencies such as Alfred North Whitehead in the last century with his organicist view of physics, or the scientific idealism of a figure such as Schelling in the 19th century, all of whom are well worth exploring.
- For both traditions human destiny is not a purely material one, it extends over many lifetimes. Human beings can remain below in a cycle of rebirth. Or they can leave behind attachment and ascend to some kind of absolute felicity, in which all distinctions and limitations are transcended. If you are a modern Buddhist who is inclined towards this traditional view of the world, it may be reassuring to know that it is something on which both East and West have been agreed in the past. That the ‘one life’ model of both Christianity and modern materialism is in a certain sense an aberration.
- This ultimate state, the One, the Good or the Unconditioned is necessarily beyond being and non-being and all other possible conceptions, or constructions of thought and language. For Plato the supreme principle is a development of a category of thought we already have: Oneness, Unity, Integration. The more unified or whole something is the more real it is. Living structures are more unified than stones and so forth. Unity itself, being without parts, goes completely beyond ordinary dualistic thought. The Buddha’s ultimate principle is more pragmatic, Nirvana is the end of suffering and the end of grasping at thought constructions. Nevertheless clear thinking plays an instrumental part in coming to know this ultimate as both traditions agree. In Buddhism we have the importance of samyak drsti, right view; in platonism the importance of dialectic. However, the skill of clear thinking, while a universal human good, is to some extent culturally conditioned. One thinks in the style of the culture one was brought up in. Thus, if you are going to learn how to think clearly you may find it helpful to find exemplars from your own culture, and to understand the philosophical tradition that underlies the culture and civilisation you were brought up in. If you are a westerner this means understanding Plato and all that followed him. This is a tradition of probing, of asking questions, where the philosopher is not a guru who provides answers, but has the function of being a Socratic ‘midwife’, bringing to birth an enquiring mind. Such an enquiry is said to reveal a holistic universe built on archetypal patterns, where ethical virtues and harmonic ratio are not two separate things. To then bring this tradition into dialogue with other traditions with different premises, such as Buddhism, may be especially fruitful in stimulating deep, independent thinking.
- The Buddha found no intermediate eternal ratios or Forms between Nirvana or the Unconditioned and contingent human consciousness. However, he did think that certain structural processes are always found in human consciousness. To discover those processes is to know something which is always true. So both Buddhism and Platonism hold up the possibility of true knowledge, unaffected by time and place, although the content is somewhat different. In our age, in which knowledge has increasingly been seen as something relative – a purely human construct, infected by economics or social power dynamics – this is worth dwelling on. Knowledge is not only a constantly mutating expression of social power. Its expression in words must be conditioned by time and place, but that expression can point to something timeless. In this postmodern era, in which overarching meaningful patterns, or meta-narratives are regarded as intrinsically suspect, a dose of platonism may be the required medicine.
- In the contemporary world we so often experience ourselves as isolated, subjective cells of feeling, making up meaning and purpose as we go along, in a universe which is essentially a dead, unfeeling mechanism, with no ontological ground – consisting of vibrating fields of probability. This is what John Vervake and other contemporary thinkers with platonic leanings have called the ‘modern meaning crisis’. To continue the medical metaphor: the Buddha strips away superstition but injects meaningful pattern and purpose into individual psychology; Plato meanwhile brings pattern, purpose, order and ratio into the overall constructs we find in the external world – a world which for him is objectified, not merely a subjective construction, but arising from Mind or Intellect in a transpersonal, unitary sense. In a civilisation which is perhaps fatally split – neurotically subjectified and at the same time in addictive love with the objective material world – Buddha and Plato, I would suggest, are urgently needed to reform both inner and outer worlds.
- Later Platonism distinguished between civic or social virtues and theurgic virtues. These latter practices recognised a divine presence in material objects and worked with material symbols and sacred sound in order to invoke the gods and eventually to unite with the One itself. There are strong parallels with the Mahayana and particularly tantric Buddhism here. Some western Buddhists have difficulty working with Eastern symbols and deities in meditation, because they seem culturally distant – the link, the connection, has not quite been made. In such cases the theurgic tradition, although sadly it only comes down to us in fragmentary form, may provide some invaluable inspiration. The platonic model of the universe, which underpins such practices, is one of ontological emanation in descending levels from a transcendent source. This is not entirely compatible with Buddhism, but nor is it entirely incompatible. I believe that modern Buddhists can draw inspiration from the platonic hypostases, even if the exact notion of causality found there might be questioned. At the very least one can contemplate the platonic model of the universe not as philosophy but as a kind of beautiful mythological painting, gilded and studded with gems, with many hidden levels of meaning, ancient and mysterious. Yet also as a model which has many parallels with traditional Buddhist views. Particularly the tripartite model of Mind found in the Yogacara. Furthermore, certain tantric models of the universe begin to look very platonic indeed when studied in depth, particularly the Atiyoga cosmogony. Certainly both traditions envisage a hierarchical universe, with stratified levels of being. For the Buddha in the earlier texts this is more of a bottom up vision, the deva realms depend on virtuous practise in lower realms, or there will be no angelic beings reborn there to inhabit them. Nevertheless the conditioned and the unconditioned are not entirely separate – conditioned perceptions within time and space are but provisional constructs, sankatta, and in the Enlightened mind they are seen as sunya, without basis. Plato’s vision of the role of mind, consciousness in constructing ‘the world’ may not be completely the same, but for some people it has a particular imaginative appeal and is very much worth exploring, for its cultural interest at the very least.
- For the Buddha, and for the Platonic-Socratic tradition, ethics is of cardinal importance in human life. To be truly human is to live an ethical life and to cultivate various ethical qualities towards their fullest and perfected extent. In both cases this is a virtue ethics. It consists of qualities to be cultivated, leading towards a super-human state of philosophical wisdom, and perfected virtue. Neither tradition upholds rationalist ethics, they are not ultimately utilitarian, or rule based ethical systems. With this common background one can be confident that there is much in the greco-roman ethical tradition which may be fruitful for modern Buddhists to explore. Some modern cognitive therapies, for example, draw strongly on both Buddhist mindfulness and stoic virtues and clear thinking. Then there is the great virtue of courage, upheld throughout the ancient world, but which seems to find a fuller treatment in greco-roman ethics than in Buddhism. As we have seen, beauty is another virtue particularly explored in the platonic tradition. How material beauty has its own value, uplifting us and pointing towards the most profound spiritual goals. Then there is Plato’s vision of the tripartite human soul, in which both physical appetite and spirited ambition are governed by reason. To identify the quality of spirited, assertive ambition, distinguished from mere hate and rage which we find condemned in all traditions, is potentially very useful for ethical life. Spirited ambition, thumos in Greek, is one of those mundane qualities which can be very potent if sublimated and redirected, whether one pursues the platonic triad of goodness, truth and beauty, or Buddhist Nirvana…
Link below to an in depth essay which corrects some common misunderstandings of Platonism, explains what Plato really meant by the theory of Forms, and explores in much more depth parallels and contrasts with Buddhism.