0

I think I've noticed some conceptual overlaps between Buddhism and Western Philosophy and Science. What are good sources for comparing and contrasting Western ideas and Buddhism? What are suspected sources of eastern ideas appearing in Western works?

I list some speculated commonalities below by my admittedly incomplete understanding. What knowledge I have of Buddhism primarily comes from books by Thich Nhat Hanh and Alan Watts. I also attended Pure Land services for a while.

PSYCHOLOGY

For example, Mindfulness has a bit in common with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Meta-Cognition. Mindfulness is, in part, awareness of ones thoughts. Meta-cognition is awareness and control of one's cognitive processes. One's thinking isn't dominated by random firing to which the thinker is oblivious.

The Second Nobel truth relates suffering to delusion, CBT relates emotional suffering to "Cognitive Distortions". These distortions are typically lack of present-mindedness, obsessing over past and future. They also involve a general failure to consider events in their full context.

LITERATURE

'When Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why they would volunteer to come to a prison, they respond that they don't think of Denmark as a prison. Hamlet explains, “[T]here is / nothing good or bad but thinking makes it / so.” '. Here the 'good' and 'bad' are pleasure and pain and the degree to which they are experienced. CBT says something similar- one has emotional suffering because of thinking one way about them as opposed to alternatives. Buddhism says suffering is due to various delusions. CBT faults "Cognitive Distortions".

In his The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde says, "To become a spectator of one's own life is to escape the suffering of life.” One can be self-aware, aware of oneself in a third person sense, and one can be aware of one self in the first person, as an 'I'. Here Wilde seems to be relating reduction of suffering with reducing ego. Just prior to writing this book, he wrote the forward to a friend's book on The Tao Te Ching. His line might also might touch upon a mindful self-awareness as well as a capacity to be amidst unfortunate events and yet not suffer, at least emotionally.

William Blake speaks of The Human Form Divine which seems to overlap with Blessed Human Existence. "To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour" speaks to a element of timelessness. Apparently Blake was familiar with Vedic works- Awakenings: Blake and the Buddha

PHILOSOPHY/EPISTEMOLOGY

More significantly, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics approaches ethics with an emphasis on character development as opposed to focusing on only individual acts. One is less ethical than ideal if one does the right things for the wrong reason, if they have the wrong motivation. Western philosophy categorizes ethical theories which emphasize character as Virtue Ethics. So both Aristotle and the Buddha would fall into this category. Also, Aristotle is notorious for advocating Moderation in All Things, similar to The Middle Way, very similar to the Dharma Seal - Nirvana is Beyond Extremes.

Buddhism also seems to have a lot in common with Stoicism which teaches something very similar to "All Emotions Are Pain"- The Second Seal of Dharma as discussed here by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Four Seals of Dharma.

Science strives to be objective and not subjective. A subjective experience is very personal, ego-centered. Personal stake in an experiment's outcome one tries to avoid. Go where the evidence leads and don't shoe horn it into a pet theory, which admittedly may be going on here. There are some elements of experience which are more or less universalizable. There's a distancing of ones understanding from the self or personal stakes. Data is assessed by means of an impersonal method of evaluation. One doesn't have a gut feeling that there is a correspondence in the data, one has methods for proving a correspondence with statistical significance, e.g. Statistical Hypothesis Testing.

Are these all just a coincidences? Superficial linguistic commonalities?

Are humans in touch with something that speaks to them about Buddhism regardless of their background? I've read that the Dharma is everywhere. Emerson speaks of The Oversoul like some speak of dharma.

  • What does "Mindfulness" mean and what bit does it have in common with CBT and Meta-cognition? – ChrisW Oct 17 at 22:09
  • 1
    The others aren't pointing at Buddhism. Buddhism points to something, which other people have also pointed at. (Or tried to) – Muuski Oct 17 at 22:20
  • Mindfulness is, in part, awareness of one's own thoughts and feelings. This is the definition of meta-cognition. The Second Noble Truth is, in part, the relationship between suffering and delusion. CBT contends that emotional suffering can be alleviated by avoiding "Cognitive Distortions". – R. Romero Oct 18 at 3:48
  • 1
    This is beginning to look more like a monograph than a question ;) – Andrei Volkov Oct 18 at 14:44
  • 2
    To the extent I thought the question wasn't clear, I asked for clarification and you did (after which I thought it was clear enough). After people have answered they generally tend not to edit their answers to match edits in the question ... and it's kinda bad practice to edit or change a question in a way which 'invalidates' existing answers (which answer a previous version of the question) -- you don't seem to have done that here, you added context to the question without changing it -- still if you want a more detailed follow-on answer about anything you might ask a new question about that. – ChrisW Oct 18 at 15:23
3

If there are overlaps, what are possible explanations?

It's natural that when you learn something new, you compare it with what you know already.

Not just "compare", but "see parallels" and "see contrasts" and "try to integrate with".

I'm not sure whether it's possible to do otherwise, but there are one or two mistakes to beware of.

One is to assume that the new thing is like the old thing -- like "Buddhism is a pre-scientific version of Physics" or "Buddhism is a pagan version of Christianity" -- which might be quite misleading and not a good way to learn the new thing. So try to learn the new thing on its own terms, based on what it says about itself, and as it's understood from the point of view of the 'professionals' or teachers people who practice and profess it.

Another mistake might be assume that because your own mind draws parallels (based on your personal experience), therefore those parallels 'really' exist, 'out there', 'in reality', in the things themselves. Whereas they are your projections, categorisations.

In particular it doesn't necessarily imply historical overlap. It might be independent i.e. convergent evolution. Or an only-superficial similarity. Or people will say, "they're both descriptions of the same 'world' so that's not surprising." Or, instead of "world", they might say "Well 'people' are like that, people are similar and think similarly."

I think the simplest explanation though might be, "It's because your mind is like that, drawing on your own experiences."

Please note well that I know little about Buddhism, psychology, or philosophy -- this is how I'd explain that though, based on my experience and what other people say, and as a type of sankhara.

Some people might deny your comparing Buddhism -- "No, Buddhism isn't like that: the Buddhist Dharma is much better!" -- and I think that's partially true, but anyway, as I said, beware of assuming it's no more than what you know already.

Maybe when you do compare it with something, it should be compared with your own experience, more than with other doctrines.

What are suspected sources of eastern ideas appearing in Western works?

Well I'm not a scholar/historian but I think the Greeks met eastern ideas e.g. when Alexander the Great went there (a generation after Aristotle, wasn't it). There are western ideas in eastern works, anyway, see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhist_art

And apart from that, Buddhism was introduced into the west, starting in about the 19th century https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_the_West I gather that some westerners tried to see or to describe it within a "universal religion" kind of framework -- for example why Christmas Humphreys split from the Theosophical society to found the London Buddhist society -- see also e.g. the Pali Text society -- also note that Buddhism too may have changed in recent centuries in its original countries.

Highly cross-cultural ideas like "Jesus of Nazareth trained as a Buddhist monk" seem to me ahistorical, idle conjecture; and shallow.

I think this topic is too large to answer with any justice, especially as a subquestion -- perhaps there are books about it ... I can't recommend any but if I were looking I might look into the references/footnotes of Wikipedia's Buddhism in the West article[s] for a start.

What knowledge I have of Buddhism primarily comes from books by Thich Nhat Hanh and Alan Watts. I also attended Pure Land services for a while.

Yes. I read some of the Pali suttas (in translation) to add to that, and what people have written on this site plus a few other book recommendations.

Mindfulness is, in part, awareness of ones thoughts and feelings.

I'm not sure -- in Buddhism, "mindfulness" might be remembering or keeping in mind, for example being aware of what the Dhamma (the Buddhist doctrine) says, about thoughts and feelings.

The Second Nobel truth relates suffering to delusion

Death for example seems real enough, when you experience it up close, so ... I'd rate that statement as "semi-true" and conditional on how you define "delusion" and so on.

CBT relates emotional suffering to "Cognitive Distortions"

If you say so (I haven't experienced it).

Hamlet says " for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

It's been a while since I ever studied Hamlet, forgotten the context of that quote.

The Buddhist suttas at least are keen on ethics, so there's absolutely "good and bad" in that sense -- killing is wrong, and so on. They're also keen on what's "skilful" -- which is another meaning of "good and bad" (i.e. "ept and inept)" -- as well as "liberating", which provides a motive or goal, kind of axiomatic that liberated or awake is "better" than not.

If Buddhism agrees with Hamlet that there is no "good and bad" (I say this without researching the context to see what Hamlet meant by it), it might be to do with the "desire and aversion" kind of meaning of "good and bad" -- where "desire and aversion" are kind of unskilful and even among the three poisons.

These distortions are typically lack of present-mindedness, obsessing over past and future.

I've heard of that in the context of modern-day (non-Buddhist) therapy for PTSD -- like I said though, no first-hand experience.

To become a spectator of one's own life is to escape the suffering of life.

I guess I'd rate this (and your quote from Blake) as partially true. Buddhism has more to say about that, and contradicts some of the detail.

For example I think you're assuming that, because there is "spectating" therefore there's "a spectator".

Whereas an important part of the early doctrine is that there is no self, no permanent or unchanging self, nothing to call "me" or "mine".

Reifying or personifying "awareness" is part of other Hindu doctrine, isn't it? But Buddhism contradicts that, saying that any view of self (including "I exist" and "I don't exist") is unsatisfactory, leads to or occasions suffering.

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

I don't want to compare Buddhist with Aristotelian ethics (but given the batting average so far, it seems likely that I wouldn't wholly agree) -- I haven't read Aristotle -- I did read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the protagonist reckons that Aristotle missed the point.

I find Buddhist ethics more wholesome, practical, helpful, better-explained, more personal and less theoretical, than the little I remember Plato saying about it.

Aristotle is notorious for advocating Moderation in All Things, similar to The Middle Way

I don't think that's what middle way means.

"Moderation in all things" -- isn't there a saying somewhere about how it's hard to be content with even just a moderate bit of shit in your food?

I think that "middle way" might mean "not left and not right" but also "not middle" too, so, avoiding fixed views.

The advice (the discipline) for monks seems to me more about whatever's necessary than about whatever's moderate.

All Emotions Are Pain

I'm not sure that's Buddhist. "Joy" and so on. And "lack of remorse as a result of ethical conduct", if that counts as an emotion (though maybe it's a non-emotion).

There's canonical justification for "birth" is painful and "being" is painful, that might be to do with a unenlightened mode of cognition, and "identifying" (self-view) and attachments (the "clinging-aggregates").

1

I think I've noticed some overlaps between Buddhism and Western Philosophy and Science. I'm wondering if I'm misreading.

In human attempts to examine reality, obviously there are overlaps. However, it is unlikely Western Philosophy and Science have clearly determined the ultimate reality of suffering, not-self (anatta) & Nirvana (perfect peace).

If there are overlaps, what are possible explanations? In some cases, there is little evidence of interaction.

Obviously, the reality of some things are plainly obvious, thus overlap. However, since Buddhism is 2,600 years old, obviously there is no evidence of interaction between Buddhism and Western Philosophy and Science.

For example, Mindfulness has a bit in common with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Meta-Cognition.

Buddhism is 2,600 years old, therefore it has nothing in common with 20th Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Meta-Cognition; although Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Meta-Cognition may have something in common with Buddhism.

Hamlet says " for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Unrelated to Buddhism because Hamlet is 1600 AD. Also, Buddhism says there is good & bad.

In his The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde says, "To become a spectator of one's own life is to escape the suffering of life.”

Oscar Wilde was a dreamer who died with lots of suffering and was so deluded he sent for a Catholic priest to bless him probably due to personal fear about his promiscuous homosexual life.

William Blake speaks of The Human Form Divine which seems to overlap with Blessed Human Existence.

Born: 28 November 1757. Unlikely said much close to Buddhism.

More significantly, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics approaches ethics with an emphasis on character development. As such both his ethics and the Buddha's are categorized as forms of Virtue Ethics. Also, Aristotle is notorious for advocating Moderation in All Things, similar to The Middle Way.

Virtue is unrelated to Buddhism's unique character.

Examples go on and on.

Actually, no other doctrine has been the same as Buddhism's anatta (not-self) and its role in ending suffering and finding Nirvana (unless the other doctrine copied Buddhism).

Are these all just a coincidences?

There are no coincidences.

Are humans in touch with something that speaks to them about Buddhism regardless of their background? Emerson speaks of The Oversoul like some speak of dharma.

Sounds like the above does not understand Buddhism very well, or at all.

  • To overlap, ideas need not be identical. Ideas from 2600 years ago can influence ideas today. Meta-cognition is non-passive awareness of ones thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is more than this, but contains this. Hamlet's line associates suffering with perspective and not guaranteed by external events. Buddhism says one can avoid Dukkha in the presence of misfortune. Wilde speaks of awareness resulting in alleviation of some suffering. – R. Romero Oct 18 at 3:56
1

I'm sure the west has basically all the same wisdom but the Buddha had a very focused & practical path towards emancipation. I'm not sure the west harmonized all the wisdom they had into practices that could show one the depths of the mind like the Buddha's teaching does.

  • 1
    Yep. I think what might be in common isn't tied together coherently. – R. Romero Oct 18 at 4:14
1

There are endless conceptual overlaps between Buddhist and 'Western' philosophy. There is only one Reality so philosophers are forced to normalise on Truth at least to some degree.

Kant's 'thing-in-itself' would be a classic case. A minor tweak to his idea and we arrive at the idea that Reality is beyond conceptual fabrication. The Buddhist philosopher-monk Nagarjuna proves the absurdity of positive theories and so do most Western thinkers. Their absurdity is simply a fact and our approach to philosophy will not change this.Thus Kant states 'All selective conclusions about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable. This is all that Nagarjuna proves in Fundamental Verses in order to demonstrate the philosophical foundation of Buddhism.

Then there is Spencer Brown's calculus in Laws of Form, which shows how Form arises from Formlessness, or differentiation from the undifferentiated. F.H Bradley's metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality is a discursive reproduction of Nagarjuna's logical proof. Heidegger's explanation of altruism a the 'breakthrough of a metaphysical truth' indicates his endorsement of the unity of Being. Then there is the materialist apologist Daniel Dennett's idea that the self is a mental fabrication. The list goes on. The truth will out, as they say.

Anyone who investigates philosophy will end up discovering all sorts of 'Buddhist' ideas even if they don't realise it since philosophy is philosophy. If we 'shut up and calculate' then it matters not whether we are a Buddhist philosopher or a Protestant evangelist, the logic forces us to converge.

Or, it does if we are dispassionate and rigorous. These qualities are often sadly lacking among Western thinkers, who tend to be trapped in dogmatic views that prevent them following the logic to its natural destination.

  • About your last paragraph, any point of view in this world has its share of dogmatic followers. I believe there is a buddhist word for that; upadana. – Erik Oct 20 at 10:09
  • @Erik - You're surely right, For every possible view there is share of dogmatic followers. Logic and reason seem to have little to do with anything. . – PeterJ Oct 21 at 11:08
0

I forget the exact details but, I read a book on Existentialism a while back and it struck me as the ying to buddhisms yang. Existentialism was all about working 24/7 to be an existentialist while buddhism is about being in the moment.

-1

Hamlet says " for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." CBT says something similar- one has emotional suffering because of thinking one way about them as opposed to alternatives. Buddhism says suffering is due to various delusions.

this is the same appalling claim made by people who invented mahayana and visuddhimagga and that's definitely the opposite of what the buddha claims. Those people say that because puhutjjanas addicted to forms, sensuality always try salvage what they crave ie forms, sensuality, entertainment, art, movies, music, philosophy and say they are good people for doing just that. Some of them even say that they can be enlightened by a special object, like a special sound, typically the sound Om that they love hum so much.

Those people fail to understand that The delusion you speak of is precisely the detrimental effect of hyping sensuality, including thoughts (especially bad thoughtS) and the craving for [good] rebirth. Mindfulness is the beginning of the purification of thoughts first then of vedana and sanna when the citta is in samadhi, by forcing the view of anicca, dukkha anatta on the body, vedanna, sanna

The result of Minduflness is the restrain of bad things, ie mostly thoughts at first (because puthujjanas crave basing their life on their moronic thoughts, it is the citta which much be controlled and the pinnacle of this is samadhi http://www.themindingcentre.org/dharmafarer/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/41.16-Vasa-S-a7.38-piya.pdf )

[The Venerable Ajita:]

"By what is the world enveloped? Because of what is it not known? With what do you say it is soiled? What is its great fear?"

[The Lord:]

"The world is enveloped by ignorance, Ajita. Because of wrongly directed desire and heedlessness it is not known (as it really is). It is soiled by longings and its great fear is suffering."

[Ajita:]

"Everywhere flow the streams.[1] What is the obstruction for the streams, tell me the restricting of them, by what are they cut off?"

[The Lord:]

"Whatever streams are in the world, it is mindfulness that obstructs them and restricts them, and by wisdom they are cut off."

https://suttacentral.net/snp5.2/en/anandajoti

In order To be mindful, the focus is not on forms, objects and so on, contrary to people who love dry vipassana and their kasinas, but on whatever is not ''mara's domain'' ie what is ''your domain'', which is this stuff:

“And what is a bhikkhu’s resort, his own ancestral domain? It is the four establishments of mindfulness. What four? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings … mind in mind … phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. This is a bhikkhu’s resort, his own ancestral domain.”

https://suttacentral.net/sn47.6/en/bodhi

and being restrained means this

Venerable Kaccaana. In what way is one 'with sense-doors unguarded'?"

"In this case, Brahman, someone, seeing objects with the eye, is attracted to things that are pleasing, and repelled by things that are unpleasing. He dwells without mindfulness and his mind is restricted. He does not experience the emancipation of the heart through wisdom. And so those evil and unwholesome states do not cease without remainder. Hearing a sound..., smelling a scent..., tasting a flavor..., touching an object..., cognizing a mind-object..., he is attracted by things that are pleasing, and repelled by things that are unpleasing... And so those evil and unwholesome states do not cease without remainder. That is how one is 'with sense-doors unguarded.' Now in what way is one 'with sense-doors guarded?'

"In this case, Brahman, a monk, seeing objects with the eye, is not attracted to things that are pleasing and not repelled by things that are unpleasing. He dwells with mindfulness present, and his mind is unbounded. Thus he experiences the emancipation of the heart through wisdom and so those evil and unwholesome states that arise cease without remainder.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.132.wlsh.html

it turns out that sati has also a condition

The three kinds of misconduct, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the three kinds of misconduct? It should be said: non-restraint of the sense faculties. Non-restraint of the sense faculties, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for non-restraint of the sense faculties? It should be said: lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension. Lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension? It should be said: careless attention. Careless attention, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for careless attention? It should be said: lack of faith. Lack of faith, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for lack of faith? It should be said: not hearing the good Dhamma.

https://legacy.suttacentral.net/en/an10.61

and this condition has nothing to do with what puthujjanas have invented and call CBT.

And just like all other systems you mentioned, Stoicism is an invention of rationalists, the dhamma nothing to do with rationalism, no matter what rationalists, philosophers, intellectuals claim.

  • It's a shame so many hold this view. It often leads outsiders to assume Buddhist teachings are irrational. It seems it even leads some Buddhists to assume the same. It's hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of the teachings. – PeterJ Oct 22 at 10:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.