Buddhism and dialectics -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Buddhism and dialectics

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The period of the 6th century B.C. in India was a turbulent one. The primitive communal system was collapsing and being replaced by class society, the cleavage of society into rich and poor and the rise of an oppressive state. Such periods in human history are inevitably characterised by a crisis of ideology, and the birth of new schools of philosophy, politics and religion. Siddhartha Gotama, known to his followers as the Buddha (the Enlightened One) was the founder of just such a radical school of thought that developed as a reaction to the ossified form of the old Vedic philosophy

Born about 563 B.C., the son of a nobleman, Siddhartha is typical of the type of person who breaks away from the upper class and begins to reflect the protests and aspirations of the common people in a revolutionary period. Until he was 29 years old, he lived the sheltered life of a typical prince, with every luxury he could desire. According to legend, he saw a vision (the "Four Signs") which jolted him out of his complacency. He saw in rapid succession a very feeble old man, a hideous leper, a funeral, and a venerable ascetic monk. He began to think about old age, disease, and death, and decided to follow the way of the monk. For six years he led an ascetic life of renunciation, but finally, while meditating under a tree, he concluded that the solution was not withdrawal from the world, but rather a practical life of compassion for suffering humanity.

Buddhism is often thought to be a religion, and indeed over the centuries it has adopted the outward appearance of a religion. This is ironic, because the Buddha himself was opposed to religion. He rejected the authority of the Vedas and refused to set up any alternative creed. The old Brahman religion, with its rigid division of society into castes, its complicated rites and sacrifices to the gods, was becoming widely discredited. By contrast, Siddhartha's doctrine was direct and simple and eagerly accepted by the masses. He considered religious ceremonies as a waste of time and theological beliefs as mere superstition. In place of religious beliefs and religious ceremonies, the Buddha advocated a life devoted to universal compassion and brotherhood.

He taught that it was possible to gain liberation from suffering, not by changing society or fighting to dominate nature, but by withdrawing from life, seeking to gain moral perfection and submerging oneself in nirvana. Through such a life one might reach the ultimate goal, Nirvana, a state in which all living things are free from pain and sorrow. It is generally supposed that because Nirvana can be reached by meditation, Buddhism teaches a withdrawal from the real world. But this is debatable. A Buddhist might reply that the goal of Nirvana is not to be sought for oneself alone. It is regarded as a unity of the individual self with the universal self in which all things take part. Through living a life of compassion and love for all, a person achieves the liberation from selfish cravings sought by the ascetic and a serenity and satisfaction that are more fulfilling than anything obtained by indulgence in pleasure until everything that exists in the universe has attained Nirvana.

However, leaving aside the accusation that Buddhism involves a passive element, whereby men and women learn to accept their lot instead of struggling actively to change it, Buddhism, in its origins, undoubtedly contained an important critical and revolutionary element. Buddha denied the existence of god as the creator of the world. He rejected the teachings of the Vedas. He accepted the old idea of the cycle of births and deaths (sansara) and retribution (karma), but here it has a different sense. It meant that reincarnation depended, not on a man's caste, or on what rituals and sacrifices he performed, but only on his good or bad actions. In the realm of ethics, Buddhism advocated a morality based on selflessness and compassion for suffering humanity. The Buddha told his followers to think for themselves and take responsibility for their own future. The revolutionary implications of this idea, and its appeal to the masses at this time, is self-evident.

The new doctrine was argued in a highly consistent and logical way in the 2nd century A.D. by Nagarjuna, whose rationalism became the basis for the development of Buddhist logic. In common with the great idealist thinkers of the West, Nagarjuna, in defence of a false idealist theory (here carried to the extreme of a denial of the reality of the world) nevertheless pushed the development of logic and dialectics forward. The logic of Buddhism was later developed by other notable thinkers such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti (500-700 A.D.). This laid the basis for later idealist schools such as Madhyamaka, Vijnanavada, Tantric Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

However, the character of the new movement gradually changed. In the first period (the 3rd century to the 1st century B.C.) the Buddha's idea of salvation was based on the idea that the world and human personality constitute a stream of elements of matter and consciousness (the dharmas) which constantly replaced each other. The road to salvation lay in not disturbing the dharmas. But in the early centuries A.D. Buddhism was transformed. Before this Buddha was only a revered teacher. Now he became deified, and salvation had to be sought through the favour of the deity, by the constant repetition of the sacred sutras (scriptures). In this way, Buddhism was turned into its opposite. This new version of Buddhism (Mahayana) was radically different from the original version (Hinayana) taught by the Buddha himself. The latter taught that the material and psychical dharmas were real, whereas the doctrine of Mahayana maintains, not only the dharmas, but the whole world, is unreal.

Throughout the history of Indian philosophy there was always a struggle between materialism and idealism. Both Buddhist and Brahman writers denounced materialist philosophies like that of Samakara, the most outstanding Vedanta philosopher. They waged a fierce struggle against the materialist ideas of this school and also the empiricism of the Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools. Even within Buddhism itself there was a struggle between trends that leaned towards materialism or idealism, such as the struggle between the idealist Madhyamika and yogacara schools against the materialist doctrine of the Theravidins and the Sarvastivadins. Through such bitter internal strife and debate, philosophy develops and grows, creating the necessary tools in the form of logic, which experienced a certain development at the hands of such Buddhist philosophers as Dignaga and Dharmakirti.

However, towards the end of the classical period, Hinduism was fighting back. Janaism, that other great opposition trend in the religious world of the Indian Subcontinent, with its strict insistence on non-violence and respect for all life, was losing ground. And finally Buddhism itself, despite all its brilliant successes, was virtually ousted from India. The Buddha lived and taught in India, and so Buddhism is generally considered an Indian ethical philosophy. Yet, Buddhism did not sink deep roots in the land of its origin. Instead, it spread in different forms south into Sri Lanka and South-east Asia, and north through Tibet to China, Korea, and Japan. In the process, Buddhism suffered the same fate as the Vedic philosophy against which it had rebelled: it became a religion, often rigid, with its own sects, ceremonies, and superstitions -an ironic fate, if one considers the original views of its founder.

The dynamic element in Buddhism, its dialectical side, is shown by its view of reality as something eternally changing and impermanent. By contrast, for the Vedanta philosophy, only the changeless and eternal is real. Modern Buddhist thinkers tend to lay more stress on its "rationalistic" and "atheistic" character with the aim of making it more acceptable to educated westerners in search of a satisfying alternative to Christianity that is dying on its feet. But although it is true that Buddhism in its original form possesses a rational core, and that some of the elements of dialectics were present in it, they were present only in an extremely primitive and undeveloped form, as in Heraclitus and the early Greek philosophers. This represented the first faltering steps of dialectical philosophy, like the first steps of a child that is learning to walk. It is true that childhood has a charm all of its own, and all of us at times dream of returning to it. But to propose to go back to an earlier, undeveloped and embryonic form, when we possess the fully developed, wide-ranging and profound philosophy of dialectical materialism, is like proposing to a grown man or woman that they should revert to childhood. The real development of dialectics can be found only in the revolutionary philosophy of Marxism.

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