Buddhism and Platonism

The modern encounter of Buddhism and Platonism – Ratnagarbha asks what can contemporary Buddhists and others with spiritual aspirations learn from Plato? 

Clearly these two ancient systems of thought are two very different animals. The latter, many might think these days, dualistic, metaphysical, speculative… Buddhism meanwhile is often seen as essentially pragmatic, pointing beyond conceptual proliferations of all kinds… In fact such a stereotyped view does little justice to 2500 years of Buddhist history, and even less to the rich unfolding of Platonism over almost as many centuries. I would argue that these two ancient wisdom traditions, though separated by vast distances of geography and culture for most of the last two thousand years, have much to say to each other, now that a direct encounter is taking place. Furthermore, I believe that a Platonic – Buddhist dialogue has much to offer in our contemporary quest for meaning, balance and wisdom.

Speaking personally 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, starting with some corrections of common misunderstandings.  

Orientation – refuting common misconceptions 

1. Surely Platonism is not a living religion but an ancient philosophy? 

In fact Buddhism and Platonism are both, in the most general sense, living religious traditions. They offer some kind of ultimate explanation of, and solution to, the human condition. In this quest for meaning they seek to engage the entire human being – not just one particular aspect of our existence. Platonism to be sure never attained the status of a world religion. In the ancient classical world it was just one system of philosophy among several. It began as something more like a system of thought with religious overtones – pursued by aristocratic young men in the refined enclaves of the Athenian agora. However, it went on to profoundly influence the entire Hellenic world, and spawned an immense variety of mystical / religious systems, especially in the great city of Alexandria. We are left with a rich heritage of Gnostic, Hermetic and many other kinds of symbolic texts (see appendix) with a strong platonic philosophical underpinning and the flavour of a mystery religion. Clearly such texts emerged from groups of ardent devotees who were putting these ideas into practice. Scholars have aptly called this the ‘platonic underworld’. This rich strata of platonic religiosity existed from at least as early as the height of the Hellenistic period (around 200 BCE) onwards, until it was effectively driven out of existence or, so to speak, ‘under the underground’ by orthodox Christianity from around the time of Constantine the Great – 300 CE onwards. 

Nevertheless Platonism went on to give backbone to the more philosophical and mystical dimensions of two other world religions – Christianity and Islam. Whilst there were of course profound modifications during this historical process I would suggest that certain key aspects of Plato’s values and worldview were maintained unbroken, if sometimes disguised. Some sense of a Platonic tradition was maintained amongst the scholars of Byzantium for the entire middle ages, and was transmitted to the West around the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, especially in the person of Gemistos Plethon, the last great Hellenistic magister of Byzantium, and by all accounts a deeply impressive scholar and sage. Here is a brief excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:

Georgius Gemistus Pletho (c. 1355/1360 – 1452/1454) was one of the most renowned philosophers of the late Byzantine era. He was a chief pioneer of the revival of Greek scholarship in Western Europe. As revealed in his last literary work, the Nomoi or Book of Laws, which he only circulated among close friends, he rejected Christianity in favour of a return to the worship of the classical Hellenic Gods, mixed with ancient wisdom based on Zoroaster and the Magi. He re-introduced Plato‘s ideas to Western Europe during the 1438–1439 Council of Florence, a failed attempt to reconcile the East–West schism. There, Plethon met and influenced Cosimo de’ Medici to found a new Platonic Academy, which, under Marsilio Ficino, would proceed to translate into Latin all of Plato’s works, the Enneads of Plotinus, and various other Neoplatonist works.

The Florentine Renaissance precipitated, as well as exoteric scholarship, various secret sects and societies with Platonic leanings which then fed into western esotericism in the post-Reformation centuries. Some of the 19th century occult / magical societies are still active, as well as their more modern descendents. There are active today all over the western world various occult orders and Gnostic movements with strong platonic underpinning – such as for example the Aurum Solis Order, and the Noetic Society of Pierre Grimes  – both of which are based in california. So in these two senses – as western esotericism and as underlying much of Christian theology – Platonism, just like Buddhism, is a living, continuous tradition, albeit in a more scattered and underground manner.  

2. Wasn’t Platonism originally a theoretical, speculative metaphysical system? 

Clearly what was taught at the Athenian Academy, founded by Plato, was intended as a practical, not a speculative system. The Platonic dialogues are full of investigations which have profound practical significance for living a good life. Indeed, the whole point of platonic dialectic is to clear away ignorance and come to a direct knowledge of that which alone is good and true, and which alone can be the foundation of a good life. That is to come to knowledge of the eternal Forms that – according to the Platonic system – underlie contingent phenomena. 

Nevertheless all of this could be characterised as metaphysical in some sense of the word. In fact both Buddhism and Platonism are metaphysical systems in the general sense of referring to realities or modes of being or truths that cannot be directly accessed by ordinary sense perception and ordinary ‘common sense’ cognition. Buddhism, for example, divides the world in three realms or ‘lokas’, the kamaloka of sense perception, the rupaloka of pure or archetypal form, and the arupaloka or formless realm, where extremely subtle intuitions of pure, infinite space and consciousness are discovered. Each loka has characteristic beings which inhabit that sphere. Indeed, the arupaloka is not unlike the platonic sphere of Intellect, in its appearance (in so far as this can be hinted at), if not in its purpose and origin. 

It is sometimes held that Buddhism is non metaphysical in the sense that it does not suggest that there is some ‘other world’ of divine truth or being completely separate from this one. Nirvana, it is claimed, is simply the ability to cognise any object correctly – without attachment to independent ‘own being’. Whilst from a certain point of view this is perfectly true, it ignores the traditional view that the Buddha, or the Arahant who has completed the Way, is one who has escaped from the endless rounds of birth and death. After his Paranirvana, his apparent death, the five skandhas (the normal human psychological process of cognition feeling, volition etc) of the Awakened One cease to function. Indeed even in life they were not really what He was, and had ceased to define Him as this or that kind of being – so the ancient texts claim. And yet it is not correct to say that the Buddha ceases to exist after Parainirvana. He neither ceases to exist nor continues to exist… Even the mundane practise of meditation, pursued with sufficient ardour, is said by the ancient texts to give access to a conditioned but exalted post-mortem state of divine bliss in which such objects as ‘infinite consciousness’ are continually contemplated. 

To sum up: the branch of Western philosophy traditionally called metaphysics is the study of the ultimate nature of reality and questions of being, knowledge, causality and the relationship between mind and matter. It is clear then that in these terms Buddhism is a metaphysical system which has its own answers to some of those fundamental questions. In very general terms it rejects the category of Being whilst upholding its own form of causality. It agrees with Platonic teaching to the extent that mind cannot be reduced to a subcategory of matter. Causality is understood by the two traditions in very different ways but for both it is at root a mental phenomena. And in neither case does this imply anything like solipsism – mind being for both a universal category and not divided into isolated monads of experience. Platonism agrees with Buddhism that Being cannot be found in ordinary experience but seeks to identify ways in which it must be there in the background, so to speak, in order for any kind of cognition to take place at all. In order to explore whether these two very different approaches to ‘being as such’ can throw light on each other it will be useful to explain more fully some of the basic principles of Platonism. 

Principles of Platonism

The basic notion behind the Platonic world view is that every level of reality is completely dependent on something more real ‘above’ it. Reality is a process of emanation. So for example we have the Divine Intellect whose thoughts are the eternal Forms. The forms are the eternal patterns behind all of the virtues, for example piety, and also the basic patterns by which we organise the world – such as sameness & difference, largeness & smallness, motion & rest. These basic notions gave rise to many rich reflections on the nature of God in later centuries, although Plato himself was content with a simple story or myth of the divine craftsman or demiurge as found in the Timaeus dialogue. The Divine Intellect, arising from the One, consists of the Forms plus the divine craftsman who uses the Forms as a pattern to create the material cosmos and the souls within it. The Divine intellect however always reverts to the One – that is, it eternally contemplates its source. This contemplation gives rise to the next lower level which is the world Soul – this Soul contains in temporal, active form the pure Ideas of Intellect. The Soul emanates Nature and human souls. The cosmos overall is not seen by Platonism as a prison or a dreadful mistake by a demented sub creator, as it was for the gnostics (who were active in the Roman empire at the same time as Plotinus). Although merely a copy of the divine fullness of Being, Life and Intellect, it is essentially good and beautiful – a fit place for human beings to live and work out their destiny. For most platonists this destiny consisted in repeated reincarnations during which the virtues were to be cultivated until one’s soul was fully purified and one could ascend to the stars – as explained for example in Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’ in the Republic. As well as ethical purity a key virtue was the practice of dialectic. This is rather more than clear thinking – in fact it is closely akin to the practice of Insight, vipassanna, in the buddhist tradition. In dialectic, in dialogue with a wise person, or internally with oneself, one hones one’s thoughts and discards false perceptions, until one’s whole being is aligned with the truth. 

This view of reality is very foreign to the modern mind. Indeed it seems that in some ways that the Buddhist view is easier for modern people to grasp. However to have the gist of it in your mind is essential if one is to compare these two systems. So it is clear now that Platonism has a deep concern with ontology, that is with pure Being, as opposed to the world of becoming, which can only be the subject of opinion and speculation, according to Plato. The Buddha, you might say, puts it exactly the other way round. This world of becoming can become the object of final and complete knowledge, albeit of a practical nature about how it works and how one can be freed from it. Instead of dismissing ‘the world’ one turns around to face the radical instability of things – in particular the fact that all mental phenomena arise out of many fluctuating conditions, such that there can be no fixed absolute self. One sees exactly how all of this works, how one kind of fettered mental event gives rise to another in an endless chain. To know this is a kind of complete knowledge, even if it must be expressed in negative terms. We see in an absolute, ineradicable manner the three marks or laksanas, that there is no permanence in the world. That there is no graspable self in the world. That conditioned existence is suffering. Furthermore one knows Nirvana which is the final, unconditioned liberation of mind. In a way one knows the unconditioned, but this is not an object with true Being. Nirvana too is lacking in permanent self, according to the early texts. To be sure some late, exotic, Mahayana texts decided for rhetorical purposes to contradict this key notion, and bring in the notion of a transcendental Self. However, this idea remained on the fringes of Buddhist philosophy. You will find many references to ‘Buddha nature’ in Zen teachings, for example, but this is always said to be sunya, empty of own being. 

So, in a nutshell, for Buddhism there is Truth to be discovered, but no true Being. Nirvana is neither being nor becoming. It is a state of liberation entirely beyond all conceptual constructions. Here there is a direct point of comparison with Plato. For his final absolute reality, the One, is said to be beyond being and non-being. And Plotinus, the most esteemed of his later disciples in imperial Rome, goes so far as to make the point that it is ‘one’ only by analogy, pure unity is in fact something we cannot conceive of. So both Buddhism and platonism have a supra-rational absolute. It is the realm of pure Form, with its true Being that has no analogue in Buddhism. In general there is no analogue to the platonic conception of the world soul either. The underlying storehouse consciousness – Alya Vijñāna – of the Yogacara school, is a form of spiritual psychology rather than ontology, although it is here that buddhism comes closest to Plato, as we will see later. 

No doubt the basic principles of Buddhism are well understood by any readers here. Just think of the four Noble Truths, and the three laksanas. One aspect of the Buddha’s genius was to boil down his subtle philosophy of life into lists of key principles that anyone could memorise. Plato did not choose to do this but perhaps we can do it for him. I would suggest that the three key principles of Plato are:

1. The self ascending soul. That one can by one’s own cultivated efforts, by ethics – practicing the Virtues, by dialectic, and finally by supra-rational contemplation ascend to the One or the ultimate Good. The soul is the immaterial aspect of the human being, the formative principle, and is generally held to by the tradition to be capable of transmigration from life to life, and finally into a liberated state among the immortal gods. 

2. The key importance of dialectic – that is intellectual debate, whether internally or with others, in which one’s limited views are constantly challenged and refined, enabling one to move from mere opinion to a firm grasp of the Forms of reality. 

3. A causative ontology of emanation. That there exist pure eternal Forms or archetypes, which alone have real existence or being. These give rise to the contingent, unstable world of becoming found on the earth and in human beings via a descending, diffusing process of emanation from these Forms. The world we know is in effect an imperfect copy of the world of Forms. Furthermore the Forms themselves are a many in one – they are derived from the primal unity of the One – Plato’s absolute – which is beyond being and non being. 

But what is Soul?

The concept of an immortal soul has been at the heart of Western spiritual traditions for over two millennia, and has of course changed over time. The Christian soul seems to be more or less an ‘eternalised’ immaterial copy of the entire psychophysical person – so it appears in Dante at any rate – which will be reunited with its body on the day of judgement. The Platonic soul, not surprisingly, is a more philosophical conception. For Plato the soul is something which is constantly evolving, or devolving, either ascending to the stars, or returning to earth when its destiny is not fully worked out – as pictured in the mythological story of the ‘winged soul’ contained in Plato’s Phaedrus. In itself it has no fixed identity, but it is derived from, or participates in, the eternal Forms. Furthermore it is not unitary, but has various aspects that vie for control, notably for Plato, the triad of the appetitive, the rational, and the status seeking / aggressive aspects of mankind. So the soul is a dynamic process with a transpersonal eternal essence. Like the mind stream or citta in Buddhism it undergoes a cycle of births and deaths, which the tradition encourages us to put a final end to.

To get a sense of what Plato was getting at it might help to read any sutta that mentions citta and replace this with the word soul (while putting to one side the Christian overlays on this ancient word). Citta, mind, is the Buddha’s way of referring pragmatically to that which can make moral decisions (has agency in contemporary parlance) and undergoes development or degeneration depending on those decisions. It is that which can remain bound in samsara or achieve liberation if the conditions are there. It is the immaterial formative aspect of one’s being, in the most general, pragmatic sense, putting aside (for the Buddha useless) questions about the ultimate, existential status of such an entity. There is a mind that makes decisions, and must take responsibility for those decisions, but ultimately, for the Buddha, one cannot find the essense of this entity. For Plato, by contrast, the soul and indeed everything else, does have an eternal essence – in the sense of being derived from the eternal Forms. 

But what are the Forms? 

Like his teacher Socrates, Plato’s central concern was with finding a firm foundation for knowledge. He was struck by the unstable, fluctuating quality of both material and mental reality, and in this he followed Heraclitus. But he was not content to rest with the contingent opinions about an unstable, confusing world, such as most of us settle for. There had to be some kind of basis for deeper, clearer, firmer understanding. The platonic Forms are simply a way of saying that certain knowledge is possible.

For example: we all think we have some idea of what good conduct is. That it is possible to recognise when someone is behaving with kindness, generosity, courage, discernment, prudence, integrity, moderation, truthfulness and other such cardinal virtues. And on the other hand, that it is all too easy to notice when someone is being vicious, untruthful, unkind, greedy, immoderate or simply foolish. But what is it that connects together these familiar lists of virtues and their opposites? What is it that all good acts have in common to justify using the same word of them? Is there anything there at all – or is goodness in general, virtue in itself, a mirage that dissolves when you examine it closely? Furthermore: what are we to make of the fact that different cultures have somewhat different lists of lauded ethical qualities with different emphasis – although there seems to be some degree of overlap – was cruelty (except to enemies) ever praised…?  But is this really an indication that in fact virtue, goodness, is the same everywhere, or is that wishful thinking? 

For Plato there was only one satisfactory answer to such questions. That there is such a thing as goodness and that it is always the same. A Form of goodness that is unaffected by time and space. And he held out a hope that humanity could come to recognise such absolute goodness – although clearly the way towards such knowledge was extraordinarily difficult and arduous. 

And this may explain why Plato was so entranced by mathematical knowledge, which for him was something mystical as well as rational. Here precise non-transient knowledge is possible. So, for example, one of the simplest mathematical distinctions is to say that one number is larger than another. This then translates to measurements of, say, the height of human beings. Clearly the mathematical concept is not the same as any example of ‘largeness’, which will always be relative. I am larger than a child but smaller than Arnold Shwartzeneger… But what is Largeness, or Smallness for that matter, in itself? There could be a technical definition in terms of number theory, but this will involve other mathematical imponderables such as ‘what is number’. Plato was content to stick with a simple linguistic definition – largeness is ‘the capacity to exceed’. Now we have a basic understanding of largeness, and we are on the way to truly grasping what it is – whole and entire, free of any reference to large things in one’s experience. For if there is not such a thing as Largeness, how could we ever recognise it in the world – in all its bewilderingly different manifestations?

Another example: one of the most basic aspects of perception is to recognise when different individual objects are all in the same class or set. I am small with brown hair, you are tall with red hair, I am old and quiet, you are young and fiery; but we are both human beings. Different in some respects but having something very important in common – humanity – whatever that is. Mixtures of difference and sameness: whatever fleeting, unstable diversified experiences and perceptions we have, they all have in common this mixture. Plato’s far from obvious proposal was that while ‘humanness’ might or might not be a fixed definable thing (Aristotle certainly thought it was) sameness or equality must be one of the fundamental building blocks of reality. We cannot have perceptions or experiences at all without being able to realise common classes of things, of inner objects or outer objects. It is not hard to see that there is a mystery here. As soon as you think about such questions as what is equality? Or what is sameness? You find yourself bringing particular objects or kinds of experience that are alike to mind. It seems to be impossible to think about what sameness is in itself. To be the same is to be the same, what else can be said? It is a basic factor of experience, an aspect of the sea we swim in. As is largeness, or motion in time, or unity, for that matter existence or Being itself. Buddhism, in its later history, became very concerned with a similar paradoxical question – what is consciousness? Can one be aware of being aware? Different Buddhism schools had very different answers to this question. Plato’s suggestion (quite tentative) was that Mind in its broadest sense (including individual human minds but intrinsically something much more universal than that) was built on eternal principles such as Sameness, Being, Oneness.

So to think of these as abstracted aspects of cognition, pointing towards mathematical laws discovered to operate in the world independently of mind, is to miss Plato’s point entirely. The Forms are set up as intrinsic aspects of reality, embodying a much fuller, more complete mental life of which our normal range of experience is only a partial aspect. They are not empty of content but full of all the possible individual examples in potential. And they point out this more complete mental life as having more complete order, structure and beauty than that which is normally available to us. This fuller mental life is not ‘somewhere else’ in a literal spatial sense, but ‘somewhere else’ inasmuch as we are not normally aware of its fullness. The later Neoplatonic thinkers made this more complete life more vivid and graspable by dividing it into the intellectual triad of Being, Life and Intellect, and celebrating the gods as those beings who both contemplated and embodied it. By including this polytheistic manifold thinkers such as Proclus brought back the principle of individuation, uniqueness (arguably missing in Plato’s account) explicitly as intrinsic to the absolute One or Good. Each god in the highest sense is both utterly unique and non-separate from all the other divine principles in being the One itself. 

For Plato, years of study of mathematics, together with deep thought and contemplation might get you to the point of really knowing ‘largeness’, ‘smallness’, ‘equality’, ‘difference, ‘oddness, ‘evenness’, ‘oneness’, ‘manyness’, ‘motion’, ‘rest’ and similar basic categories or qualities that are all interconnected and appear to be manifested ‘out there’ in the world. It is not so difficult to arrive at satisfactory definitions of some of these terms. The Pythagorean background should be born in mind here – for Plato numbers from one to ten, and ratios such as sameness, or the intervals on a musical scale, thirds, fifths etc, are something mystical and transcendent – the building blocks of reality so to speak. Nevertheless for practical purposes they can be defined. However, as Socrates was so fond of pointing out, our rule of thumb definitions of virtue itself, or a particular virtue, generally turn out to be self contradictory, infected by tautology, or mere catalogues of what we hope are examples of Beauty, Goodness, etc. 

So it would be a lifetime’s task to properly define the virtues, let alone to really know their Forms directly. Yet this is the hope that Plato held on to. Much was left uncertain and open to question. Plato himself, in the Parmenides dialogue, raises various possible objections. How can a unitary, eternal thing, be participated by all of its concrete examples. Surely, all large things don’t get a share of Largeness otherwise largeness will get smaller! Well then, perhaps Largeness is just a mental pattern, an ad-hoc means of comparison, Plato has a young and confused Socrates suggest. But in that case we cannot be sure it has anything at all to do with reality. This suggestion points towards the position taken up by Kant millenia later. For Kant our most basic categories of perception, such as time and space, are constructed by the mind and may indeed tell us nothing at all about numena or ‘the thing in itself’. This kind of position is rejected in the Parmenides as useless for philosophical thought that wishes to avoid extreme scepticism about the possibility of real knowledge. Then there is the question of what kind of things and relations have Forms? In the Parmenides the young Socrates is happy to admit the kind of basic mathematical relations I have already mentioned, plus of course the virtues. Forms of colours (Redness itself, for example) are often mentioned, but seem to be less fundamental than the mathematical relations. But is there a form of human? Of water and fire? Even dirt and hair? At this point in the Parmenides Socrates throws up his hands in horror. There has to be a limit somewhere – but where? The matter is left open. In the late dialogue the Timaeus the divine architect or demiurgos certainly finds in the world of Forms patterns or archetypes sufficient to create the entire cosmos and all living creatures – together with even the immortal gods of mount Olympus.  In another late dialogue as we will see, the Philebus, the Forms are effectively replaced by a simpler doctrine of just two fundamental principles, the limited and the unlimited or measure and unmeasure, Order and non order. These two, seen as aspects of the primal Unity, are not so fixed and delimited as the Forms (arguably their main problem), but more open and suggestive; both mathematical ratios and virtues can be seen as part of Limit, their interaction with the Unlimited producing our mixed, unstable world. Indeed if these two principles are seen as being tendencies in reality rather than fixed points (it is not entirely clear either way in the Philebus) then they bear a remarkable resemblance the key Buddhist duality of samsara and Nirvana.

After Plato’s death his Academy did indeed drift into a form of radical scepticism, questioning the possibility of any kind of certain knowledge, an extreme form of Socrates’ dialectic. Meanwhile Plato’s most gifted pupil, Aristotle, founded his own school and tried to deal with the problems and unanswered questions found in the Parmenides. Aristotle suggested that a coherent theory of rational Forms could only be upheld if they were seen as the systematic, functional activity of actual real objects, especially living objects. Any kind of object so defined would have a particular, unique telos or overall goal and purpose. Humanity is something we all have in common but it is simply the typical characteristics of how mental and physical systems are organised in human beings. The unique telos of humanity, according to Aristotle, is eudomia – to live a fully flourishing happy life in the cultivation of one’s character – in other words a life in which the various distinctively human virtues such as magnanimity, justice and wisdom would be fully expressed. 

The modern scientific worldview builds on this general notion of embodied form. All matter, for example, obeys the law of conservation of momentum, but no scientist expects to find that law in itself, separate from material things. However, as regards the overall telos of the world, confusion reigns. Generally to admit some kind of overall purpose to the cosmos at large would be considered unscientific in the extreme. Nevertheless to contemplate a cosmos without purpose is extremely unsatisfying and bewildering. There is, for us, no normative consonance between inner purpose and external attributes. For Aristotle even a stone had its own purpose – to maintain its structure and to keep as close to the Earth from which it came as possible. Furthermore, in his view, external causes, to avoid infinite regress, must finally rest on some kind of absolute divine cause or purpose.  Both the Aristotelianan and the Platonic view of the world are essentially rational, rather than material, in that a quest for meaning, purpose and understanding in one’s own individual life was seen to be reflected in the cosmos at large. 

But such a cosmos, taken literally on its own terms, is simply not credible to many modern people. Evolution might seem a more promising avenue in a quest for meaning in the scientific world view. However, evolutionary biologists generally refuse to see any overall telos in evolution; the development of increasing complexity merely happens through random mutations and natural selection. It is a happy accident not a sign of purpose though time. Some biologists are starting to question this assumption – but in any case the great Socratic questions about knowledge remain: how can we know, for example, what ‘humanness’ really is, or what the purpose of being human is, if all we have ever done is collect examples and look for some common patterns?  

Now, it is easy to make strong contrasts between Plato and Aristotle, and see the modern world as more inclined to the latter, but it is better perhaps to stress their points of agreement. Whether the Forms are essentially embodied or essentially non material the basic assumption is that rational knowledge of the world is possible. This then necessitates a certain kind of ontology, that there really are rational patterns with telos in the world to be grasped – they are not simply cognitive patterns, or linguistic structures that could equally well be entirely different. In essence, the more rational, organised structure is revealed the closer to reality you are. The Forms may be supra-rational, in the sense of transcending normal human understanding, but they are not irrational, quite the opposite. And they are certainly not merely personal or individual, to grasp a rational pattern in this sense is to know something that is always true, whether or not anyone at any particular moment happens to be grasping it…

Clearly in our culture such objective rational patterns are considered to be very much of the province of science. They are mathematical in nature and essentially purposeless, they do not have telos built into them. Meanwhile for us, the world of meaning and values, is a matter of shifting, unstable, subjective phenomena. Meaning and value are ‘in here’, known by me for myself, and other people are likely to have very different versions of them.

There is no space for details here, but clearly this subjectification of meaning, is a process that has deepened and accelerated vastly over the last few hundred years so far as Western civilization goes.

In the late Middle ages Thomas Aquinas declared that man’s rational faculties could give him knowledge of the natural world alone; although such knowledge comes from the light of Reason implanted by God its sphere is limited. So for Aquinus complete knowledge is dependent on faith guided by the scriptures. If the scriptures were to be questioned then the very basis of knowledge was too. The next generation of theologians produced William of Ockham who made the existing nominalist strand in medieval philosophy much more influential. Nominalism denies that there are universal rational forms in either the platonic or aristotelian sense. To discern a category, eg humanity, that exists in many individual examples, is always and necessarily merely a subjective convention of naming – at best something with pragmatic usefulness. Later, in the protestant reformation Luther declared that all external acts mediated by the church were essentially useless, salvation was a matter of individual faith alone. Here great pressure is placed on the individual’s own unaided faithful understanding of scriptures. It is a religious praxis of interiority, of subjectivity. Then as science advanced, and divine revelation receded in importance – to be replaced by pragmatic, empirical notions of truth about the objective world – at the very same time a current of deep scepticism about the possibility of true, or complete philosophical knowledge developed. Most notably, for Kant all knowledge is merely a reflection of the structures within the human mind. For Schopenhauer, building on Kant, all rational structures of knowledge are simply superstructures built on deep instinctive drives which are actually controlling everything. Postmodern philosophy has built on this existential legacy and refined it to the point where all claims of knowledge about objective meaning and purpose are seen as moves in a game of power. 

Much, much more could be said, of course, about all of these developments, but the main point is that to see what Plato meant by the Forms, we have to let go of the modern distinction between subjective meaning and objective truth I have outlined. The Forms are neither subjective nor objective. They are simply, for Plato, the underlying truth of any possible coherent, rational view of the world. For him, to separate out the mathematical forms and the virtue forms, and say that the former exist whereas the others are highly debatable, would be simply to give up the philosophical quest and say that proper knowledge is not possible. 

Some modern cognitive scientists have come to a similar position and acknowledged a debt to Plato, particularly the Canadian thinker and cognitive scientist (he is also a mindfulness teacher) John Vervake. Much of Vervaeke’s teaching is based around the idea of there being four different dimensions or modes of cognition: propositional, procedural, perspectival, participatory. The last of these makes clear that to fully know something you must participate in it. The splitting of subject and object employed in propositional knowledge is useful but limiting. 

The Forms and the Dharma 

Given all of this, however, the question remains as to what practical psychological or even spiritual benefits Plato’s ideas might still have. And for contemporary Buddhists there is the additional question as to whether the Forms are simply a form of eternalism – of no practical relevance to a non-theistic spiritual path… In these deep and difficult matters let me start by observing that the Buddha as he has recorded in the suttas certainly sees rational patterns in human experience. He does not find meaningless chaos nor does he regard his own ideas about the functioning of the human mind as arbitrary constructions. The Dharma, in the sense of doctrinal formulations, is regarded as being as close to the truth as you can get in conceptual terms, and having ‘right view’ as opposed to ‘wrong view’ is considered to be highly important on the Buddhist path. Whilst there is much doctrinal variance between schools there is a commonly agreed core of ideas and approaches, a praxis as you might say, that constitutes the heart of Buddhism. Such matters as the importance of mindfulness and of investigating one’s experience to discover the absence of any fixed, eternal essence in the flow of mental states. One highly important formulation is the analysis of all human experience into five categories, the five skandhas: form, perception feeling, volition and consciousness. You will not find a buddhist school that throws out this formulation even if there are differences of interpretation. So we have here intelligible categories which are said by the tradition to be in some sense eternally true, they are always found in human experience if one investigates, they always and necessarily underlay whatever we have constructed as ‘me and my world’ , or ‘us and our world’. And it is the abandonment of clinging and attachment to the five skandhas that constitutes the path. Only an Awakened one can no longer find the five skandhas in their experience, what replaces them is essentially unsayable, but can be hinted at as the fullness of wisdom and compassion. Indeed for the tantric tradition the five skandhas are replaced in a Buddha by five kinds of wisdom. 

So, whilst there is nothing exactly like a form in an aristotelian or platonic sense, certainly in Buddhism an intelligible process, with its own telos, is said to underlie the chaos of experience. The overall driving factor behind the five skandhas is of course karma and karma vipakka, volitional choice and karmic results. Karma occupies something of a middle ground between a teleological view of the overall cosmos and a materialistic one. In a certain way it is a little bit like that put forward by modern existentialism. For existentialism there is no outside or given purpose to the cosmos but it is up to human beings individually and in cooperation to create purpose, to carve out a destiny so to speak. For Buddhism karma operates rather like this, it is a force arising from the human mind and its own decisions for good or ill. It can be highly creative or highly destructive depending on the choices you make. In the end one’s life path is the creation of one’s karma, although very simplistic renderings – such that everything that happens to you has a direct karmic cause are quite wrong. However, in Buddhism karma has a kind of cosmic force to it which goes way beyond anything envisaged by the existentialists. Any particular world or loka, for example the human world, only comes into existence because of the shared karma of the living beings that live there. The human world is peaceful and harmonious to the extent that human beings have good karma, and disharmonious and painful to the extent that they have evil karma. In general it seems that even natural phenomena like earthquakes and pestilence were included in this karmic analysis. They are ultimately a reflection of karma – even if proximate natural causes can be identified. The suttas do not seem to go into this in detail but this kind of karmic cosmology was developed in the Abhidharma, and taken up with enthusiasm by the Mahayana. 

Furthermore in the Mahayana the Bodhisattva’s vow takes on a kind of soteriological force for ultimate good, infinite merits can be transferred to suffering beings and even entire worlds created where beings can practice religion in peace and harmony – in the Pure Lands of the Sukhavativyuha, and similar sutras. According to the White Lotus and the Avatamsaka – two seminal Mahayana sutras – this imperfect saha world here and now is in reality the Pure Land of Shakyamuni Buddha, replete with jewel trees and golden lakes. Here the Buddha sits eternally preaching the Mahayana – if only we could open our eyes and see him! 

Thus in Buddhism we have an intelligible and a semi-teleological universe. Its purpose comes from that given to it by the living beings who inhabit it, but not from an outside divine cause like that of Aristotle’s Prime Mover. In most cases this will only extend to the unconscious creation of a more or less satisfactory, temporary loka, human or divine. Nevertheless, potentially, conscious intention, or Vow, extending as it does over millions of lifetimes, can go far beyond a limited human purpose. In this view of things the cosmos is essentially a magical creation maintained by the volitions of myriads of sentient beings – perhaps this is not so far from Schopenhauer’s view, but with a far more optimistic outcome… For once unconscious volition becomes conscious intention the universe responds, so to speak. Such telos is indeed far from being a desperate, existential gambit set up in challenge to a vast, essentially purposeless material universe. 

The Buddhist and the Platonic cosmos

As we have seen Buddhism posits a rational order to reality. The focus of this account is the mind and mental events of the individual sentient being. The patterns held up for expiration are, in a broad sense, psychological. They are conditioned tendencies, for example that craving will lead to grasping, which are not inevitable if the path is practised. They are to be replaced by such luminous things as compassion, awareness, serene detachment, true seeing, which also arise in an ordered progression. The connecting thread from one mental event to the next is the moral weight of actions, karma vipakkas, which remain as seeds in the mind and will ripen at some point in the future. Aggregated over millions of sentient beings this karma takes on a cosmic force, it is that which underpins all the world in its broadest sense. Indeed according to the Aganna Sutta, of the Pali Canon, the creation of a new universe – within the endless, blind cycle creation and destruction – results from a very high sphere of gods or brahmas exhausting their heavenly karma to the extent that they look down and take an interest in the residue of materiality. They look down with misguided curiosity at the dark chaos of almost non beingness at the opposite ontological pole of an otherwise empty universe. Such an act of attention is said to be sufficient to catalyze a new world cycle.

The Aganna was clearly intended as a satire on Brahminical accounts of creation. It is not clear if the details were intended to be taken seriously, but no doubt the general principles indicate how the early Buddhists regarded the cosmos. The parallels with Plato’s Timaeus are very interesting. For Plato also the cosmos has a rational structure; but, drawing on the pythagorean tradition, it is inherently mathematical. The divine craftsman, or demiurge, uses the world of Forms as a pattern or model to establish a perfectly circular universe in which the heavenly bodies follow ordered courses. Just as individuals have a soul he gives the cosmos itself a ‘world soul’ , which maintains the world of matter in ordered motion, from the planets right down to the smallest living thing. Even the invisible atoms in this ordered cosmos are constructed as perfect, platonic solids. Human beings also are given organic structure and rationality by the world soul. Just as with the Aganna Sutta this is all an illustrative myth, a likely story as Plato says, and not to be taken literally; but certainly the underlying principles were meant with great seriousness. The destiny of individual human beings is within their own hands in this universe, depending how they live their life they may go up to heaven or down to the underworld. So something like karma is implied, but it is not the force that creates the cosmos. The creative force, personified as demiurgos, is the natural tendency of the perfect world of forms to overflow into a sphere of lesser ontological status – an imperfect copy of the pure Being, Life and Intellect which are above. However, the preexisting space in which this creation by fiat takes place is a kind of unformed potential for materiality, or ontological space in chaos, waiting for the demiurge to do his work and give it form. There are distinct parallels here with the residue of materiality found in the Aganna Sutta, albeit in that account the creation is by accident so to speak, which has a flavour more of Gnosticism than Platonism. 

By and large, however, we see more contrasts than similarities. The Buddhist tradition has very little interest in what the external world appears to do independently of the individual mind. And so far as I can discover no interest whatsoever in finding mathematical patterns in external events. The categories of existence and non-existence are said by the tradition to not apply to either our contingent experience or the ultimate experience of a Buddha. There is no such thing as ‘being as such’, although in meditation one may experience temporary but very refined mental objects such as, ‘infinite space’, ‘infinite consciousness’ or ”no thingness’ . Such ‘cosmic’ experiences appear, while one is in them, to transcend temporal limitations. In other words they feel like ‘being as such’ and may well give rise to all sorts of religious views about heaven and the gods and eternity and so forth. This is all dealt with in great detail in the extensive Brahmajala Sutta.

In this light the Platonic tradition might be seen as the locus of error and disaster in the history of Western thought. Following a trail from Nietzsche, and on into postmodern critiques of rationality, one might regard the logos of Plato as the fulcrum where western culture tipped over into a fatal tendency to reify concepts, to oppressively replace actual experience with ideas about experience. However, in Heidigger we find a somewhat different line of thought, which suggests that the Eleatic-Platonic-Socratic approach was originally concerned with the mystery of ‘Being as such’: what is it actually to be alive and know things, in a world which is frequently chaotic and yet has pattern and order? In this reading it was with a later descent into scholasticism (which for Heidegger began with Plato himself!) that the Forms became removed from actual experience, and paved the way for the modern attempt to dominate and exploit nature.

Such reservations however, apply more to the Forms which are, or appear to be mathematical ratios, rather than the overall trinity of goodness, truth and beauty, which are ideals that draw us towards them but can never be fully known as objects.

In any case no means all contemporary thinkers agree with this kind of anti-essentialist criticism – see for example the work contra Heidegger of James wood. And the contemporary Canadian philosopher and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke, has a very different approach to these issues. Following Jung he takes a psychologist’s view of the Forms and the process of emanation. For Vervaeke the Forms are simply a way of saying that human consciousness constantly seeks after ratio and pattern, and that this patterning cannot be reduced to the merely subjective nor yet to abstracted externality. They are part of the fabric of reality, whatever that might be ultimately. Furthermore for Vervaeke the Neoplatonic movements of precession and reversion, the process by which a higher ontological over-flows into a lower, is something that happens in individual minds. It is a function of what he calls participatory knowing: from a state of heightened consciousness one sees the material world not as dead and alienated but as participating in the whole process of the evolution of life and consciousness, one ‘flows into the world’ . This is emanation, or precession, in the individual psyche. Aspects of material experience taken in this sense become symbolic – they cannot be fully grasped and known as objects but point beyond themselves back towards that more integrated state of mind from which they were seen, and urge the one who contemplates them onwards in that ascent. This is reversion. Vervaeke notes that in the Republic as well as the symbol of the cave and the sun, Socrates himself fulfils a symbolic function as one who has made the journey from the cave to the sunlight outside. This somewhat phenomenological take on Plato might seem to make the dialectic process much more like that of Buddhist meditation although Vervaeke himself does not make that claim.

This is a persuasive reading of Platonic emanation that fits well with contemporary assumptions, however it misses something vital. Lloyd P. Gerson’s commentary on the dialogues is helpful here. Gerson discovers throughout the dialogues, early and late, a bedrock of anti-materialism, that never wavers whatever positive doctrines are put forward in different dialogues – whether of the Forms or questioning the Forms, or perhaps prior to the Forms in the more Socratic early dialogues. To be more specific there is for Gerson a bedrock of anti-materialism, anti-mechanism and anti-nominalism. Mechanism is the idea that the material world can be fully explained as an unconscious process obeying mathematical laws. Nominalism is the idea that seat order structure and categories we found in the world are imposed by the perceiving mind, and are merely a survival mechanism or an expression of social pressures or whatever. Positively it can be definitely stated that neither Platonism nor Buddhism are any of these. The Buddha and Plato find order in the world but it is an order fundamentally of mental life, soul life in Platonic terms, which for both figures had the power to extend beyond the grave. Materiality for both the Buddha and Plato being not the primary reality.

Yogacara and Platonism

Be that as it may, about 1000 years after the time of the Buddha, with the arising of the Yogacara Mahayana school, Buddhism itself took an ontological turn, towards Plato from the opposite direction so to speak. For the Yogacara one thing alone has true Being or existence: Mind itself, consciousness as a flow of experience, in which nevertheless selves, subjects, and independent objects are not to be found. (Quite how this flow of experience can be individualised and yet contain many, indeed infinite, numbers of sentient loci of experience is never explained.) Within the flow of mental experiences – that is the paratantrasvabhava, or dependent Mind – the most important aspect is the alaya, or storehouse consciousness, which stores the seeds of impressions and volitions, and which continually throws up new combinations of these, to be erroneously constructed as self and world by hapless sentient beings. The alaya is mainly construed as something individual, to be discovered in meditation, although to the extent that it gives rise to a shared, interpersonal reality of objects you and I can see, it must have a collective dimension. The Yogacara texts talk about this in terms of similar karmic seeds in individual beings giving rise to a shared world. These seeds are not perfect and pure like the platonic forms but they are what gives rise to what we know as ‘the world’. The alaya then is a bit like the platonic world soul, it is the mental underpinning to material reality. However it is a much more pessimistic (or realistic?) conception than found in Plato. The seeds in the alya motivate the constructed illusion of self and world that keeps us entrapped. They are psychological forces – good or bad, or mixed, but never pure and free of error. This is a vision more akin to Gnostic dualism than the platonic veneration of a divinely founded cosmos, ‘a shrine for the eternal gods’, as the Timaeus says. 

Somewhat later in the history of the Yogacara (especially notable when it arrived in China, as transmitted by the great scholar Paramartha) the platonic parallels became even more pronounced, although this is usually put down to Vedantic influence and not anything from further West. The Yogacara, as just mentioned, entertained something like an ontology underlying evanescent events. That there really is a non-dual, conditioned stream of consciousness, consisting of the Alya Vijñāna, which stores impressions and volitions, but contains no external objects, plus the six kinds of sense consciousness that arise from it. Some Yogacara exegesis, especially that in China, went further and suggested that the immaculate Buddha consciousness, purified of conditioned delusions, luminous and full of virtue, was the only true reality. In this view even the Alya only has a provisional, conventional ontological status. 

The perfected aspect of the paratantrasvabhava, the parinispannasvabhava, had always been included in the threefold Yogacara formulation of Mind (the third aspect of course being this murky, defiled world of erroneous subjects and objects, the parikalpitasvabhava). The perfected aspect was the dependent aspect purified of its fond delusions. It would arise, pure and resplendent when all of the seeds of error in the alaya had been exhausted or overcome. However, for these later Yogacarans the perfected, consummate aspect of Mind, pure, luminous non-dual consciousness was the only true reality. This was then related to the Tathagatagarbha idea found in several Indian Mahayana sutras, the immaculate Dharmakaya, or body of truth, that constitutes the essence of all sentient beings, which is covered over by defilement yet remains hidden as the Buddha seed or Tathagatagarbha. The dependent aspect and then the defiled aspect of mind are thus seen as progressively further from truth and of lesser ontological status, never really there in a certain sense. The parallels here with the platonic hypostases of the One, the Intellect of ideal Forms and the World Soul, are striking. Furthermore it should not be forgotten that whilst the seeds in the alaya are not very much like the pure platonic forms, many of the platonic forms are virtues, moral qualities in pure eternal form. And as Plotinus made explicit, none of the Forms are ultimately separate, they form an integrated divine system. Similarly the perfected Mind of the Yogacara is replete with all the virtues, individual and yet non-dual.

The late Yogacaran Hypostases – as per Paramartha

Parinispannasvabhava – immaculate non dual awareness, fully real

Paratantrasvabhava – dependent Mind, Alya seeds, provisionally real

Parikalpitasvabhava – illusory world of subjects & objects 

So, in very general terms, one can say that both Buddhism and Platonism have an idealist bias, or flavour, even if the details differ widely. Both traditions regard the mind as fundamental. In Buddhism the emphasis is on the epistemic constructions of your mind and my mind – here and now. This is then generalised to some extent to conclusions about the universe as a whole. Platonism however, concerns itself with modes of mind beyond the individual. The divine Intellect and the World Soul as informing principles behind both individual minds and the universe as a whole. Nevertheless these divine hypostases are reflected in some way within each individual human heart. Everything is wholly of and from the One, as Plotinus says.


One of the most prominent of the Forms, mentioned in many of the platonic dialogues, is ideal Beauty. There may not seem to be any obvious parallels with Buddhism here, but the 20th century Western Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita has written about a deep underlying sympathy in this regard between the two traditions. He sees the Buddhist path to Nirvana as in some sense a quest for absolute Beauty, and likens the progressive stages of the path to the famous platonic ascent to Beauty as found in the Symposium. He draws out those rare passages in the Pali Canon where the Buddha does seem to appreciate sensual beauty, and notes that a lesser known list of spiritual qualities in the Pali Canon includes something called ‘the release known as the beautiful’. Much more could be written about this but it must be left for a future essay.

The theory of Forms is provisional

It should be noted however that Plato himself appeared to abandon the details of his theory of Forms late in his career. We have already mentioned the severe objections found in the Parmenides dialogue. Nevertheless Parmenides is made to maintain that there must in some sense be a One, a form of Unity, since degrees of integration or unity are undoubtedly to be found in the world. In the late Philebus the Forms individually are sidelined in favour of two principles to be found making up ultimate reality: limit and unlimited, or measure and unmeasure, or the finite and the non-finite, or simply order and chaos ( there are many possible translations of the two terms). Their mixture is what constitutes our world, and that which does the mixing is the demiurgic Intellect, king Zeus, in Socrates’ mythological language. Here we have the precisely articulated universe of descending hypostases, as found in later neoplatonism, in germinal form. Limit is the One, the ruler or mixer is Intellect, that which results from the mixture is the ensouled universe, and the unlimited is the primal matter of Plotinus, Philo and other Middle Platonists. The focus of this dialogue however it is not a set of cosmic levels but the principles that apply here and now to real things. Heat and cold for example are said to be of the unlimited – they can go up and down as far as you like, but in the healthy body they are limited and kept in bounds and in harmony (within less than 1 degree as we now know). Likewise with sound which can be high and low, slow and fast, with no particular measure, but in music it is kept within certain patterns and ratios. 

SOCRATES: Whether all this which they call the universe is left to the guidance of unreason and chance medley, or, on the contrary as our fathers have declared ordered and governed by a marvellous intelligence and wisdom? 

PROTARCHUS: Wide asunder are the two assertions, illustrious Socrates, that which you were just now saying appears to be blasphemy. While the other assertion, that mind orders all things, is worthy of the aspect of the world, and of the sun, and of the moon, and of the stars and of the whole circle of the heavens; never will I say or think otherwise. 

(Philebus, Jowett’s translation)

It has often been observed that Aristotle’s Golden Mean of ethics, where for example valour is midway between rashness and timidity, is somewhat reminiscent of the Buddha’s middle way between aeceticism and hedonism. Here, however we see Plato’s ontological middle way, that the sensible world is a mixture of Limit and the Unlimited, the One and the Many. It was the Eleatic Parmenides, from the previous generation, who in his great philosophical poem had proved to his own satisfaction that diversity, manyness was illusory. Parmenides observed that non-being is literally unthinkable. When we think of something as not then we replace it with something else, even if it is just a mental picture of blackness and empty space. For Parmenides if something cannot be thought of then it cannot be. Therefore our world in which things appear to appear and disappear must be illusory. There is in fact only Being itself which is One. Meanwhile disciples of Heraclitus maintained that all is flux and the strife of opposites. Heraclitus is famous for his quote about not stepping in the same river twice, but for him the more dynamic movement of fire was the key, as in this Heraclitan fragment:

This world-order [Kosmos], the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.

Plato’s beautiful doctrine of participation is an attempt to reconcile these two strands of Greek thought. This world of ours is not either change or stasis, oneness or manyness, sameness or difference but participates in both. The Buddha’s ontological application of his middle way was to say that things of themselves neither exist nor do not exist. Aware of things passing away we will reject the category of existence. Aware of them appearing we will reject the category of non-existence. The suttas are very simple and direct here, recommending an application of mindfulness to the fact that things arise and cease. Plato’s formulation is more abstract but similar in spirit. His is a cosmos which only exists by participation, the less ordered, the material, participates in the more fully ordered and unified. It was only many centuries after the time of the Buddha that a similar principle of participation was revealed – especially in the Avatamsaka Sutra, where all phenomena are said to be inter-penetrating and imbued with the Buddha nature.

Summing up differences and parallels in the Buddhist & the Platonic cosmos

However, such Mahayana developments notwithstanding, I can find no trace any of the reverential Platonic concern with ratio and harmony in the Buddhist tradition. And especially not with seeing the universe itself as some kind of divine shrine in which such harmony is mysteriously expressed. Gods and goddesses, to be sure, appear in the Buddhist scriptures from time to time, but never do they bring order and divine ratio to the material universe. They are simple mythological figures who arrive to hear the Buddha’s teaching, then applaud and promise to protect it, before  returning to their heavenly abode. Mathematics would appear to be far from the concerns of Indra or Brahma, as they appear in the suttas and sutras. The Buddhist universe itself is generally a manifestation of primal ignorance, to be escaped from as quickly as possible.

Indeed the main point of Buddhist cosmology seems to be to underline the bewilderingly vast size of the physical cosmos, with its myriads of world systems and unimaginable stretches of time, running to billions of years for each world system. In some ways this is a bit more like the cosmos as revealed by modern science, in which vastness – pure and simple – is the order of the day. The Harmony of the Buddhist cosmos is not mathematical but nevertheless patterned, like a mandala. Each individual world system is in mandala form, with rings of golden mountains surrounding the central Mount Meru, above which there are many layers or strata of divine deva Realms . This is a purely mythological picture which it is decentered – there are infinite numbers of such world systems. In some Mahayana sutras, most notably in the Avatamsaka, the entire cosmos appears as a glorious Pure Land, a playground of the Enlightened one. But this is an idealised image of jewel trees and so forth, it has nothing to do with this actual universe of earth, stars and wandering planets whose course can be charted, whose presumed divine occupants were regarded with reverence and awe. 

So following in the footsteps of Jung (and sidestepping as best one can the accusation of Orientalism) it seems reasonable to conclude that in terms of spiritual philosophy Buddhism and Platonism represent a polarity of introvert and extrovert respectively. At least as regards their attitude to the material universe. The Buddha, so far as we can tell, was simply not very interested in what the universe gets up to from its own side; he was interested in the human mind and its workings, and wanted to place that in as large a perspective as possible. His universe, based on vedic cosmology, was a simple mythological picture where each one of the infinite numbers of world systems where even the devas (gods or angels) are just ignorant conditioned beings like the rest of us, they neither contain nor know any divine ratios, or eternal ordering principles. This de-centred vastness – so different from the platonic universe with its single earth and surrounding divine spheres governed by mathematical ratios – only seems to increase the focus on the individual human mind as the locus of meaning. 

Where the platonic tradition concerns itself with ethics and mental cultivation it becomes much more analogous to Buddhism. In Plato we have the ascent of Eros in the Symposium, in the suttas the cultivation of the four immeasurables of love, joy, compassion and equanimity. In the Philebus the metaphysical framework alluded to is used to demonstrate that knowledge and wisdom are always better than pleasure. But that the best kind of life consists in some pleasure as well as the cultivation of wisdom. This is highly reminiscent of the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ between self-indulgence and self-mortification, which is said to be the best foundation for wisdom and liberation of mind. The Buddha taught simple practical ethical principles to be explored in one’s life. Socrates asked searching questions about what various ethical qualities really are in their essence. But the purpose of all that questioning was always so that ethical qualities such as courage, temperance or justice might be practised more effectively. A great passion and sense of urgency about the need for rigorous ethics comes across in the dialogues.

(See after the seven conclusions for Bibliography & Appendix on Neoplatonism.) 


What does Buddhism, as it unfolds in the modern world, have to learn from the equally ancient spiritual philosophy of platonism, much less prominent and institutionalised though it may be these days? To sum up my conclusions in a nutshell: some people 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. For such folk Plato provides a useful Halfway House. ‘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 ultimate. 

  1. 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 – sameness, motion, Intellect, beauty, goodness, etc. Thus for Plato, much more than for 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. 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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. 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. 
  1. 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. 

5. We find 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. 

6. 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. 

7. 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… 

Short Bibliography

Two modern platonist thinkers stand out for unrivalled explication of the tradition, stripping away some unhelpful modern assumptions. 

Eric D. Perl: Thinking Being, and other works. 

Lloyd P. Gerson: From Plato to Platonism, and other works.

An excellent very readable introduction to Neoplatonism is provided by the Cambridge University Press book on Proclus:

Radek Chlup, Proclus an Introduction, C. U. P. 

Very good for background on the whole classical tradition seen as spiritual practise rather than abstract philosophy:

Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as a Way of Life, and other works.

A good classic introduction to Plato’s life and work:

Plato’s life and thought with a translation of the seventh letter. R. S. Bluck. Routlege first published 1949. 

Appendix: later history of Platonism 

Aristotle and scepticism were not the only currents in the Hellenic thought world. Many platonic seeds were sown throughout the classical world. These found fruition in the cosmopolitan milieu of ancient Alexandrian in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Here Platonism became mixed with various kinds of Greek and Egyptian polytheistic devotion, together with an ardent mysticism  (especially found in the so-called Corpus Hermeticum of sacred writings from Hellenistic Egypt). People now longed to actually experience the eternal realities spoken of by Plato. Various other philosophical streams – especially those of Aristotle and the Stoics – were incorporated at this stage by syncretic thinkers, in what is usually known as middle platonism. Philosophical genius was required to distil all of this into a clear, rigorous, workable system. This was provided by Plotinus and his Alexandrian teacher Ammonious Saccus, in the 2nd Century CE. Although often referred to as Neoplatonism, Plotinus’ approach is simply the last great phase in a process of continuous development extending over a thousand years.

For Plotinus the ontology of emanating Forms is expressed at each level by a threefold process of precession, reversion and emanation. This gives rise to a cosmos with essentially a fivefold structure: firstly The Good or transcendent One, pure unity.  From this arises by precession the divine Intellect. This Intellect consists of the Forms, which eternally contemplate the One from which they derive their Being (reversion). As a by-product of this activity of contemplation the next lower and more differentiated level is produced by emanation. Thus intellect gives rise to the third level, the World Soul, which is the immaterial principle behind the entire cosmos. Within the World Soul contemplation becomes a creative act of awareness within time. Soul reverts to, or actively contemplates the Forms, and as a by-product continually creates by emanation the temporal world we know of nature and individual, rational, ensouled beings – which is the fourth level. Finally, the fifth level is unformed primal matter which the soul moulds as best it can in order to create the imperfect material and organic orders of the cosmos. 

Please note however that these five levels are my way of explaining Plotinus’s subtle system. He himself always spoke of the three hypostases of Soul, Intellect and the One. It should also be noted this is a system in which evil is an accidental by-product. The cosmos and all the beings within it are essentially good. Evil arises merely accidentally, because Soul is unable to form chaotic primal matter in a perfectly ordered and harmonious manner. It does the best it can, but it is inevitable that rational beings will be affected by this lack of perfect harmony and experience all kinds of chaotic perturbations of mind and body. And indeed to be tempted into all kinds of evil acts by that immersion in the materiality. The task of the would-be philosopher or sage is to free oneself from this immersion in matter and live at the level of Intellect so far as is possible. For Plotinus that alone was enough. For Proclus, two centuries later, who brought late platonism to its final elaborate perfection, the civic virtues were also part of the sage’s great task and not just preparatory. Like the gods themselves, the sage was to exercise loving care over that part of the cosmos on which they had influence. To the practice of dielectric was now added theurgy – ritual / magical practice designed to invoke the gods and ultimately raise one’s soul to their level. Another extremely productive innovation of Proclus (likewise drawing on his immediate teacher Iamblichus) was to expand on suggestions in Aristotle and divide the divine Intellect into the triad of Being, Life and Intellect. Intellect contemplates the Forms, which are Being in its perfection. This supreme contemplative activity is Life in its perfection. We are very fortunate to have many of Proclus’ works extant, to study him is to be initiated into the mysteries of Platonism. 

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