Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle valued reason above all other characteristics and argued that it separated human beings from plants and animals, and like Buddhist philosophy elevated spiritual truths over material concerns. The Greek idealist philosophy was not as completely divorced from the physical universe as Buddhism, however, even though both agreed that the soul was immortal. They also regarded virtue as being its own reward and defined it as seeking higher spiritual and moral values rather than money, power and physical pleasures. Often their ideas have been misunderstood in that they thought the highest level of knowledge involved God and spiritual matters rather than the physical or material world. Plato viewed philosophy as a spiritual quest and an activity of the soul’s longing and desire for God, while he disdained money, power, sex and fame that most mortals strive for all their lives. This does not seem all that different from Buddhism in its central message. In matters of love, Socrates and Plato elevated the conversation and steered it away from mere worldly concerns about the purely sexual side of love and beauty into the spiritual and transcendent levels. Buddha also demanded that those who wanted to find enlightenment should put aside worldly desires and attachments. For the Greek philosophers, only the educated elite would be able to achieve this high level of enlightenment, which is why Plato argued that they should be the rulers of The Republic. Buddha on the other hand was a Universalist and thought that salvation would be open to everyone. He was much less interested in government, politics and society than Aristotle, Plato or Socrates, since his main goal was to offer humanity an escape from karma and the endless cycle of death and rebirth. For the Greek philosophers, though, civic and political virtues were far more important, as was finding the best method to live in society. They argued that all citizens should be motivated by a higher type of morality than simply love of money, pleasure and the self, and follow the example of Socrates. To that extent, their ideas about ethics and virtues within the state and human society were more developed than those of Buddha, who was more ‘other-worldly’ than the early Western philosophers.
Buddha or the Enlightened One existed in many incarnations before his final lifetime as Siddhartha or Gautama Buddha, who was born in 563 BC in Nepal. He had already been a king in many of his previous lifetimes and he always “descended on earth like a religious, social and cultural reformer” (Sharma 18). Almost all of Buddha’s life is “legendary”, however, and based not on contemporary records but stories written down 800 to 1,000 years after his death (Lux and Michaels 4). His father was King Sudhodana of Sakya and his mother Queen Maya, had a dream that he was going to be born as a magnificent white elephant. According to legend, when his parents took him to the temple five days after his birth, all the other gods bowed down to him as the universal savior. Asita, the greatest ascetic of the age, also visited the infant and recognized his godhood when he rested his head against him. As a young prince, Siddhartha lived in a palace surrounded only by beauty, happiness and luxury, and his father arranged his marriage to princess Yasodhara, the most beautiful lady in the country. Yet Buddha was discontented with this artificial life, especially when he saw the suffering and misery of the common people outside of the palace, including hunger, poverty, disease and death.
Determined to find the cause of all these evils and a way to escape from them, he left the palace at age sixteen and took up the life of an ascetic monk and beggar. He did not achieve true enlightenment after five or six years, but one day while sitting under the sacred Bodhi tree of wisdom, he vowed to remain there until he died to find the truth. After being tempted and attacked by armies of demons, he learned about his previous incarnations and the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Buddha then discovered the Four Noble Truths that suffering was universal, and that it was caused by suffering, but also that it could be overcome by the Noble Eightfold Path that guided all speech, actions and thought. He also learned that Buddha-hood existed in all living things and that “anyone can potentially become a Buddha” (Schober x).
Buddha was then given the choice of entering Nirvana or remaining on earth to teach Enlightenment and he chose to remain. Over time, he gathered a group of disciples, including his cousin Ananda and his son Rahula, and he also accepted women followers. For the next 45 years, he travelled around India, spreading the teaching of the Four Noble truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. He advised his followers to avoid the extremes of hedonism and asceticism, and follow the middle path of knowledge and illumination. All Buddhists were to carry out works of charity, mercy and loving-kindness while they lived in the physical world, but not become attached to material things or desires. Buddha performed thousands of miracles and founded many monasteries, up to the age of 80, when he realized that his death was near. As he reclined by a river, he preached his last sermon and told his followers not to be sorry for his passing but to continue to seek Enlightenment and Nirvana. He died in the month of May in 483 BC and immediately transcended the earthly plane into Nirvana, never to be reborn in this world or any other.
Buddhism is not about competition, dogmas or a series of theological points that can be memorized but more a way of being. Thought or emotions cannot express the Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature, but only meditation and contemplation of the present moment. In reality, no past, present or future exist at all, but only the universal oneness of the Buddha Mind and understanding of it cannot be attained through struggle or setting artificial goals. Zen’s reality is thoroughly grounded on everyday life and routines like baking bread or watching a waterfall, which symbolizes life. Through practice and meditation eventually students forget about the self and the ego. Many people wrongly imagine that Zen is another religion, when it is only a method of achieving Enlightenment. This was Buddha’s real teaching, that in order to overcome karma and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, it is necessary to overcome material desires, selfishness and ego and return to the primordial state of Nirvana. Buddha was incarnated on earth for many lifetimes before he learned how to overcome suffering and attachment to the body and the material sphere. He was the first to see the universal Buddha Nature that existed in everyone and everything in the universe, and nothing exists apart from it except frauds and delusions. Zen Buddhism also teaches that all things reborn possess the Buddha Nature of wisdom and compassion, at least in embryo form, and that all can achieve Buddhahood (King 1).
According to Plato and Socrates as well philosophy was a spiritual quest and an activity of the soul’s longing and desire for God. They disdained money, power, sex and fame that most mortals strive for all their lives. Plato argued that the world was made of Perfect Forms, of God and the soul, and was eternal and unchanging. It was far more important to seek these ultimate spiritual truths (wisdom) than material things that are perceived through the senses. These Forms truly existed on some level, even if they were invisible to the senses and perhaps not made of any material substances. They were mental constructs that could be discovered through reason, but in Plato’s dualistic and idealistic philosophy they were ultimately more ‘real’ than anything that existed on the physical level. Since Plato was an idealist, the world of perfect Forms was the ultimate reality and existed in the mind of God long before being manifested in the physical world. Material objects are imperfect, temporary and transitory, and they will change and decay, but this will never happen to God, the soul and the perfect Forms. These will continue forever, while all bodies and objects in the material work will decay and die.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the prisoner is like a blind person living in a world of illusions and false consciousness. He imagined that the physical world he perceived with the senses was the real world—the only world—but for Plato this was completely untrue. Only the philosopher can bring wisdom and enlightenment to the blind, foolish prisoner in the cave, although the masses or ordinary humans will never achieve this. Sense perceptions were not knowledge for Plato in the way that they always are for materialist philosophers. At best they provided only limited information about the physical universe but this has nothing to do with the ultimate reality, which is spiritual and non-material. According to Plato, only the crude, ignorant, slave-like masses believe that they can perceive all of reality that exists with their senses (Plato 2008). For Plato, appearances are definitely not real, but simply manifestations of the divine or the eternal. They are not perfect or eternal but temporary and transitory, while God and the soul last forever, so while he may not go so far as to deny their existence, they are only a starting point for the true philosopher, not an end in themselves (Ahbel-Rappe 2009).
In the Symposium, the most important aspect of the discussion was to explain how the other participants defined love before Socrates weighs in with his more philosophical and spiritual explanation. All of these participants were wealthy, privileged young men from the aristocratic class, except of course for Socrates who comes from the artisan class. They were arrogant, shallow, and narcissistic, and mainly in love with themselves, and also defined love as Eros or erotic, physical and sexual experiences, and of course love of money, fame and physical beauty. Sometimes they also realized that philos or friendship could also be a form of love, with which Socrates certainly agrees, although he then carried it to the higher level of agape or universal and God-like benevolence, understanding and virtue (Gil 1999). Like Alcibiades, they were a wealthy ruling class with contempt for those not as privileged as themselves, but that is never the political and moral position of Socrates.
All the wealthy young men gave their own narrow and materialistic definitions of love and beauty while Socrates says nothing and pretends that he has never heard any of this before. At the end, though, Alcibiades makes it clear that he has already dealt with these questions many times before. Phaedrus commented on famous lovers in history such as the beautiful, young Achilles and his older mentor Patroclus. This gave him the idea that all soldiers should be lovers, since they would fight to the death for each other and generally show great courage in battle. Pausanias praised Eros and Aphrodite as well, cautioning that “the Eros we should praise is the one which encourages people to love in the right way”, which is not simply the sexual act but a love between minds (Gil 19). He also valued the love of boys higher than that of women, but “only with boys old enough to think for themselves” and which develops into friendship or philos (Gil 20). He noted that fathers will protect their sons from male lovers and not allow them to meet, while other boys will sneer at them, and this was a way of testing whether the older man “loves the body rather than the mind” (Gil 23). Socrates his own encounter with a wise woman named Diotima when he was their age. According to her love should not simply be and erotic desire for the beautiful bodies and material things of the world, all of which were temporary and transitory. Instead, the highest form of love is that of wisdom and truth, which were eternal, and the love of the immortal soul in seeking after God. This same lesson could easily be applied to political or economic life rather than simply the relations between individuals, for Socrates also feels love for the beautifully constructed state and its laws. For this reason, Socrates he refuses to be seduced by the rich and beautiful young man Alcibiades, who was also quite arrogant and conceited about himself until Socrates showed him higher truths. Alcibiades and his aristocratic friends disdain the democracy of Athens, for example, and prefer an oligarchy of their own kind, but this is definitely not the political and moral position of Socrates.
Socrates rejected the conventional laws and customs of Athens in favor a philosophy of radical self-examination, and denied that myth and tradition were guides to questions of justice and moral conduct. For Socrates, justice was determined by “thinking and talking about questions of principle” even if that meant questioning one’s most fundamental beliefs (Wilson 34). Both agreed that “doing wrong hurts the perpetrator, by deforming his or her moral character” (Wilson 49) and that the worst evil was to copy the actions of those who commit evil. This definition of justice is extremely radical and has nothing to do with inflicting physical harm, punishment, prison or execution, for the only real injustice was that committed against the soul. As Plato noted in his account of the Trial and Death of Socrates, sin was more harmful than physical suffering, and the persecutors of Socrates injured themselves far more than they did him. Socrates accepted death cheerfully and told the court that condemned him to death that “I will never behave differently, not even if I were going to die many times over” (Wilson 50).
In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers several definitions of virtue and happiness (eudaimonia) which can exist at the level of physical pleasure, a life of civil involvement and practicing virtue, or the ultimate form of happiness which is the contemplation of God and spiritual and eternal matters. Just as there are degrees of pleasure and pain, so there are degrees or happiness and virtue. Happiness is the supreme good and the ultimate goal of life, but not all individuals define it in the same way and it appears that only a few truly reach the highest levels. Most people confuse happiness with physical pleasure and carnal gratification, including food, alcohol, sex, and accumulating money and material things, but Aristotle does not regard this as the supreme good. Far from it, although it probably seems satisfying enough for the great majority of humanity that happiness should be identified with a life of abundance of physical pleasure and the absence of pain. Many people are slaves to passions and pleasures, so the glutton who finds happiness with consumption of food will have no higher goal than good food, and the alcoholic will be happy with an abundance of intoxicants. Even animals exist this way, but for Aristotle humans are rational beings with immortal souls and were therefore created for a much higher and transcendent form of happiness. Aristotle privileges the higher or rational part of the soul (nous), which able to have communion with the divine, rather than the lower, animalistic lusts and instincts.
As Aristotle explains in Chapter 7, the happiness associated with the contemplative life is by far superior to that associated with the civil or political life, no matter how virtuous. In fact, he even refers to the superhuman quality of this type of life, which might be beyond the capabilities or ordinary mortals. He also explains that this type of life requires more leisure than the life of politics or military service, but it is still the best life and brings the greatest happiness. Since the nous of humanity is also divine, it has a natural longing for transcendence to the spiritual level, which is the greatest good. Aristotle seems to be saying, however, that in order to fully live in this way, the individual will have to withdraw from the day-to-day concerns of politics, public service or civic duties. Certainly the base and animal-like majority who spend all their time dwelling on food, sex and physical desires can have no part of this higher spiritual happiness. Perhaps the true contemplatives would have to live secluded lives as monks, nuns or hermits, away from all the cares and temptations of the world. In this area, later Christian theologians and philosophers found much in Aristotle’s Ethics that was congenial, especially his contempt for the life of hedonism and physical pleasure and the deliberate cultivation of virtues. In their case, though, the main goal was salvation of the soul rather than happiness.
Despite all the great scientific and technological advances over 2,500 years, much of the Buddhist and Socratic ideas about virtue and their analysis of humanity and society still hold true in the modern world. The main difference between them is that the Greeks devoted more attention to social and political life and the virtues associated with this while Buddha fundamentally rejected the world and described the method by which the soul could be freed of it. Both Buddha and the Greeks agreed that the life of contemplation and enlightenment was the most worthy, by the Westerners devoted far more thought to existence in the material world—inferior as that might be to the eternal life experienced by the soul. Fundamentally, most people today do exist on the rather low level as consumers of pleasures and avoiders of pain. Indeed, mass consumer society treats this type of mindless hedonism as a virtue and even a necessity to stimulate the economy. Mass media and culture encourage this type of immersion in pleasure and self-indulgence that Buddha and Socrates would have despised as animal-like. Certainly modern society also places very high value on money-making and idealizes the wealthy in ways that they would have found repugnant. They probably would have viewed contemporary American society as a kind of oligarchy rather than a republic or aristocracy, which could only survive if middle class citizens and nobles had a high degree of civil virtue and considered the needs of society over their personal pleasures and desires. Buddha and Socrates would also have found a definite lack of civic virtues in the politicians and leadership class, who definitely do not regard virtue as its own reward and view high office as a means of obtaining power and wealth. By their standards, then, it is neither a very virtuous nor a happy society, and the young are being trained to turn out base rather than noble. Even in religion and spiritual life, all too often those lacking in virtue use this as a path to acquiring wealth and power. Aristotle would probably have had the most respect for those who withdrew from this society to live lives of contemplation and meditating on the divine or spiritual and transcendent matters. Of course, this is not exactly a common type in the present-day culture, and probably was not even in his time.
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