Plato As A Western Alternative To The Buddha
Certainly, one can draw many parallels between Plato’s philosophy and ancient teachings of Budda. They include the following: an emphasis upon inner harmony as the means to enlightenment, a dismissal of the everyday causal world as impermanent and illusory, meditation on the eternal and pure essence of things (Plato’s so-called ‘forms’) as a means to increasing wisdom and awareness, as well as a belief in the immortal soul and reincarnation (the Myth of Er). Socrates, Plato’s own teacher, used to lapse into deep meditative states from which he could not be roused for hours or even days at a time.
If we take into consideration the fact that Siddhartha Gautama, the most recent Buddha, was born about 563 B.C., which is several hundred years before Plato, we will agree that it is not inconceivable that both Plato and his contemporaries had access to (or at least anecdotal evidence of) his teachings. These teachings also form part of a long spiritual tradition, reaching back into antiquity, which Socrates and Plato would have indisputably been aware of. Plato’s Republic seems to be an attempt to explain such conceptions using logical deduction and analysis, rather than relying upon the purely subjective personal experience that constitutes a large part of the method applied by the Buddhists.
However, this is probably not how Plato himself actually reached his conclusions, as his arguments seem more of a temporary platform surrounding the ideas than the solid foundation upon which they are built. Plato appears to be trying to relate in words, stories and analogies what is equivalent to a mystical vision, and in such a way that it will create a similar experience in the minds of the readers. Truly, Plato’s declared aim is literally ‘enlightenment’, the turning of the individual towards the light of knowledge, wisdom and good, which is regarded as the ultimate source of all human understanding. (The good ‘lights up’ the intelligible universe in the same way that the sun lights up the physical universe.)
The Issue Of Our Senses In Both Philosophies
The question of our mistrust or trust in our humanly senses remains a constituent for many philosophies. In Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” Siddhartha’s “Meditation: The Path to Enlightenment” both philosophers analyze the issue of our senses. Both philosophies are reasonably logical and realistic in their approach to the humanly senses and whether or not they should be trusted or mistrusted, though to some extent they seem to contradict each other.
In these two works, our senses are essential to reach our so called goals in life: In Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave”, our goal is to find Truth; and in Buddha’s “Meditation: The Path to Enlightenment”, to reach enlightenment. Plato’s philosophy considers our humanly senses to be of an untrusting or false guide to reality. The great philosopher states that everyone has different perceptions of their senses, and the reality would differ depending upon the individual. Essentially, he argues that our senses can be a distraction from the Truth, and that is the reason why they should not be relied upon. Siddhartha’s reasoning of the senses is slightly different. He prefers to emphasize not the falsity of our humanly senses, but the element of imagination and how that can change our perceptions. If we see something as it really is, without using our imagination, we get the chance to come to a true understanding of the world. Thus, Buddha suggests that we can trust our senses, however the imagination is untamed and when mixed with our senses, creates a distorted perception. The main difference between the two philosophers is that Plato believes that senses themselves should be mistrusted, and Buddha believes that only our senses combined with our imaginations are to be mistrusted. These two philosophers are only two of the many philosophers who discussed the issue of humanly senses, and announced their dangers to our perception of reality. Our humanly senses are a gift to us, however they can be damaging to our perspective of life if we ignore their potential powers.
Classical scholars do admit the importance of rebirth teachings among the Greek philosophers of Presocratic period, such as Pythagoras and Empedocles. However, they rarely do that for Plato. Plato’s reasoning must be viewed not in terms of a then-nonexistent European tradition but of existing thinkers in the then-known philosophic world, not just in the Greek world but the known contemporary world of which Greece was a part Plato, this theorist of rebirth and soteriologist, had a spiritual affinity with philosophers of the Indian subcontinent, especially the Buddha. The readers of the works written by the Buddha must surely recognise their stylistic resemblance to Plato’s dialogues although the Buddha was not interested in politics as Plato was. There is no necessity to posit actual contact between early Greece and India, although this was both possible and likely. We have only to aknowledge that Plato and the Buddha made sense in respect to their times and, given the power of their thought, had a great influence on human thought in general. From this perspective the rebirth eschatology of Plato is seen as central to his cosmology and soteriology, but not external or peripheral to it. It is unfair that the great majority of classical scholars tend to treat Plato’s rebirth theories as an allegorizing tendency or to simply don’t takem into consideration. It should be mentioned that Plato’s disciple Plotinus regarded his master’s rebirth theories as literally true and attributes to Plato that same belief. Consequently, there are reasons to think that Plato himself believed in the truth of rebirth. Nevertheless, it should not be a surprise that scholars have more or less ignored this aspect of Plato’s thought because of ethnographers who have hardly noticed rebirth eschatologies among the many groups they studied.
The Buddha On Reincarnation
According to the Buddha, what happens to an individual after death is closely related to the way he or she has acted in life. Reincarnation and karma are usually spoken of together. The Buddha believed that we are born into a particular type of body with a particular perception of the world because of ingrained tendencies inherited from our previous life to experience reality in a particular way. These ingrained tendencies reveal themselves as our conscious view of the world develops. Every time we act in accordance with such a tendency we strengthen it. Every time we oppose our inherited tendency we weaken it, which may change our perception of reality. Therefore, we can alter our views by our own efforts, or by the influence of our surroundings. Consequently, at the end of our life, the set of views and tendencies with which we started may be considerably altered. The individual who dies could be quite different from the individual who was born. Then, upon the death of the body, these tendencies survive and, after a certain period of time create for itself a new body.
An important element of this doctrine, which differentiates it from those held by Hindus and some heretical Christian sects, is that the element of the individual that precedes birth and survives death is not a fixed and permanent entity. The tendencies developed and altered by actions in the course of this life time are passed onto the next, and that’s all. No fixed core can be called a ’soul’ or a ’Self’. The ’Self’ that we experience is nothing but our awareness of this complex set of inherited tendencies which have formed themselves into a kind of a knot. This ’knot’ passes from one life to the next, until Enlightment is reached.
As our next incarnation depends on the habitual tendencies that are strengthened in the course of our life, the way we act in this life is directly responsible for the type of life that we will experience in the future. Buddhist ethics is based on the correspondence between an act and its effect. A good act is one that ensures a happy future birth; unskilful actions lead to a painful future birth. Through our actions in this life we literally create the worlds in which we are to be born.
Commonly, beings seem to be born in the same kind of world as that in which they died. The habitual tendencies of the previous life are usually strong enough to ensure that they will ’choose’ to return to a similar way of being. However, humans are able to exercise a high degree of choice during their life. There are people with little self consciousness who seem to be interested only in sleep, food, and sex. They are very likely to have an animal rebirth. Other humans may purify their being and develop new tendencies, enabling them to be reborn in the higher realms of the devas, or ’gods’. A life ruled by acts of fiercel violence and utter disregard of the fundamental empathy between human beings could lead to rebirth in a realm of hell. If someone has a strong neurotic tendency, then they could be reborn as a hungry ghost’, always craving and yet never satisfied. A life ruled by aggressive competitiveness will lead to rebirth in a realm of warring gods.
The conception that habitual activities can create a world is of course observable within this life, at least on the psychological level. A kind person develops an openness and expansiveness in his or her nature, while regular miserly actions develop a closed and defensive personality. However, Buddhism takes this principle beyond the level of psychology and applies it to the individual as he or she goes from one physical existence to the next.
Generally, a being can be reborn in one of six realms: the human realm, the realm of the gods, that of animals, hungry ghosts, titans, or denizens of hell. In none of these realms is life eternal: the principle of impermanence holds true for them all. The worlds of gods and humans are said to be happy, but the remaining four are said to be painful. To be reborn as a human being is considered to be the ideal so far as spiritual life is concerned; the gods are far too happy to go searching for the highest happiness, while those in hell are too preoccupied and weakened by their suffering to raise themselves higher.
The Buddha’s conception of rebirth can be summarized in this way: Our actions in this life modify the unconscious tendency-patterns inherited from our previous life. We experience these tendencies as a sense of self which survives the death of the physical body. After a certain period of time these tendencies manifest in a new form by combining with physical factors. The process of life, death, and rebirth continues unendingly.
The spiritual life is lived within this framework. In this way, the individual makes an attempt to bring conscious awareness to deeper and deeper levels of the mind, thereby liberating himself from the dominance of unconscious tendencies and the fixed experience of selfhood that they produce. Our freedom can be gained by loosening the knot of unconscious tendencies. The unending cycle of rebirths does not come to an end, but dissolves into an experience of Reality which is beyond space and time.
Truly, Buddhists and Hindus find it difficult to discuss such matters with European intellectuals not familiar with the subcontinent. For instance, for a human being to be reborn as a dog or a bird or even as an insect or worm is something horrible or funny. Therefore, Walter Burkert could say that for the Greek people the teaching of reincarnation is in essence not theologia but anthropology, fantastic and yet recalling alleged experiences and predicting future ones. Moreover, he suggested that reincarnation beliefs remained a kind of foreign body in the framework of Greek religion. Such attitudes are only a small part of a larger theme that appears in the classical version of Greek history and thought: a distinction between a rational Milesian tradition representing the Greek civilization at its best, and a tradition of Western Greeks, who were influenced by a variety of “oriental” beliefs and also orgiastic rites associated with Orphic and Dionysian mysteries.
Belief in reincarnation not only makes the Greeks a part of a larger chain of being but it was also not incredible for those Greeks who believed in their reality. Consequently, like Plotinus, we should take seriously Plato’s view that hardworking bourgeoisie could be reborn as industrious creatures such as ants and bees. Even if this Greek philosopher was ironic about such matters, his irony did not exclude commitment to the truth of these beliefs. The mere fact that such great teachers like the Buddha and Plato interpreted some myths allegorically, while deconstructing others did not mean that they did not believe in some and invent new ones, just as present-day deconstructionists do.
Plato on Reincarnation
Plato postulated the belief that education enfolds a kind of recollection of forgotten knowledge. He apparently adhered to a doctrine of reincarnation, according to which the human soul (psyche) moves to a new body after the death of the body previously occupied by the soul. Like his contemporaries, he considered as real that the universe has planes that transcend the sensory or material plane. In his Phaedo, Plato describes the eternal soul, imprisoned in the perishable body, as longing to come back to its origin.
Undergoing amnesia upon being born into a new body, the soul cannot easily recollect its divine origin, but instead becomes spellbound with sensory and sensual phenomena in a way that ties the soul ever more to the body. Plato implied that philosophy involved the process of recollecting what the soul knew before birth and an accompanying process of lessening one’s attachment to the body.
Plato gives evidence that the soul is related with the eternal domain. He notes that we have knowledge of truths, for example in geometry, that can never be perfectly represented by a concrete or tangible example in the material world. In his dialogue Meno, Plato presents an absolutely uneducated slave boy having no mathematical background whatsoever, with a series of simple geometrical diagrams and questions, asking him to make basic conclusions after each. In essence, this boy, having no mathematical training, manages to prove the very theorem which had puzzled the great minds of their time. Therefore, according to Socrates, as the boy could not have acquired the knowledge of how to prove this theorem during his lifetime on earth, the only way that he could have done this proof is to have had the knowledge of it available to him before he was born. Socrates infers that as he is not learning something new, he is just recollecting the information he had known before being born, when his soul dwelled in close proximity to the eternal patterns or forms of which material phenomena are but imperfect replicas.
Socrates expands his argument by introducing his theory of forms. What he suggests is that, underlying the physical and solid elements of our world exist abstract entities to which we have no access through our senses, namely, the forms. Their constituents are such things as Beauty, Justice, Circularity, Equality, and the concept of two. As these entities are comprehended by all of man, man could not have become acquainted with them in the way that he gets acquainted with ordinary physical entities. For example, wee can know what a circle is because we can see a circle and even can hold one, but it is impossible to learn of Circularity in this manner. A circle in Mexico and a circle on mars both have Circularity, and perhaps a sentence or a musical phrase being repeated over and over again has a sense of Circularity; it is an abstract essence that many things have in common, but it has no definite place or absolute distinct feature. Since we have no access to the Forms through our senses we have no way of encountering or learning about them in this manner. Hence, Socrates poses the question: How did we come to be acquainted with these Forms if it was not through our senses? His answer is that we come to know and understand the Forms in the same manner that the slave proves Pythagoras’ theorem, by recollecting knowledge we had of them before this lifetime.
Plato’s Meno begins with a question. Can you tell me, Socrates, is virtue (true “SELF,” prior to ego) to be taught? Socrates answers that virtue is not taught but “recollected” (recognized as “SELF”).
Recollection means gathering of one’s SELF together, a withdrawal “into” one’s soul. The teaching of “recollection” (to know-they-self to be eternal spirit) suggests that each individual should inquire within himself. He is his own center and possess the truth in himself.
What is needed is that he should have the will and the perseverance to follow it through. The function ofa teacher is not to teach (memorize only), but to help to put the learner in possession of “himself.” The studenthas the true answer in him, if only he can be delivered and directed to it.
Every individual is in possession of the truth (which is SELF, reality of BE-ING) and is dispossessed of it by his entanglement in the objective world.
When we identify ourselves with the objective world around us, we become ejected, alienated from our true nature and condition. Lost in the outer world, we desert the deeps. In transcending the object physical and mental, we find ourselves in the realm of freedom (heaven, Satori, Nirvana, Tao, Christ, at-onement, etc.). To know one-self is not an intellectual activity, it means to experience oneself as eternal spirit.
The absolute identification with the physical body brings about the loss of the remembrance that one is, in reality, a spiritual entity. The soul that has left the divine natural state is now exposed to the laws of karma and the laws of physics in the material realm.
This sudden loss takes place over a long period of time. Initially, the inner self (the real you) only uses the five senses from time to time. Then after many life times, there comes a time when the soul is between two conditions of being, and its remembrance of its original state is limited. If the soul assumes itself to be the physical body, it is mistaken. Its fallen state, according to Socrates, is called the “WRONG” state to experience life from, i.e., “no man does wrong knowingly,” or once an individual attains or returns to their original state they do not abandon the superior state for a lesser and limited state of existence.
Plato’s “The Cave” tells about of an individual who returns to the realisation of divine self and views it as the “new world of light.” Absolute love that comes with this new state makes the individual return to the cave of the unenlightened and “teach” them about the“new world.” The new state of being is the real state, and the cave with its lights and shadows (all of creation, the play of energy) is a secondary reality.
Another Plato’s work, the Republic, ends with a lengthy description of the near-death experience of a noted Greek warrior, Er, who awakened on his own (fortunately unlit) funeral pyre, 12 days after his supposed death, and told an astonishing story of the realm in which souls dwell before being reborn. The warrior described how souls were taken before one of the three Fates, Lacheles, who spoke to the souls through an interpreter in the following way:
Souls of a day, here shall begin a new round of earthly life, to end in death. No guardian spirit will cast lots for you, but you shall choose your own destiny. Let him to whom the first lot falls choose first a life to which he will be bound of necessity. But Virtue owns no master: as a man honors or dishonors her, so shall he have more of her or less. The blame is his who chooses; Heaven is blameless. (Translation by F. Cornford, Oxford Press, 1970)
Apparently, this experience changed the life of Er, who in his near-death condition encountered what others as a rule forget during the birth process. Some experiencers seem to view the “aliens” as interpreters of far higher powers, as mediators who try to help us recollect our true origins so that we may live in a different way in the time that we are incarnated. In the process of recollecting our true identity, we are also free to align ourselves with a destiny that would go unfulfilled under other circumstances.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Plato can be read almost as a Western alternative to the Buddha. He shows us a spiritual path by which we can move to the highest wisdom beyond worldly attachments. The techniques by which the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues leads his interlocutors out of their limited viewpoints towards wisdom often remind us of the Buddha’s responses to his various questioners in the Pali suttas.
Although many of Plato’s arguments are unconvincing when taken by themselves, his central message is fairly sound and very much in tune with what we know of Buddhist teachings. Where Buddha resorts to inner knowledge and personal experience, Plato resorts to the power of the intellect to distinguish truth from falsehood. Where Buddha stresses the importance of the spiritual path for liberation from suffering, Plato stresses the practical requirements for good government and individual morality. However, to large extent both of them appear to have a much deeper connection between the two than is generally appreciated.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, 298.
From The Ancient Greeks As Eternal Spirit: The Esoteric Teachings On Truth-Reality-Real God-Eternal Life. Research-Not-Religion, 2008
Hoonen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching, Translated by Harper H. Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka. Kyoto: Society for the Publication of Sacred Books of the World, l949, p. 430
Obeyesekere, Gananath. Reincarnation Eschatologies and the Comparative Study of Religions, foreword to Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit, ed. Antonia Mills and Richard Slobodin.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, xi-xxiv.
Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom,1995).