The Bodhisattva Spinoza is Born

The Bodhisattva Spinoza is Born November 24, 2017







Benedito de Espinosa was born on this day, the 24th of November, in 1632. He would later be known as Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza.

Raised in a Jewish family in Holland, Spinoza would become one of the foremost thinkers at the dawn of the Enlightenment, sometimes called the prince of philosophers. For me his rational mysticism has provided a bridge between my Western upbringing and my maturing (liberal and rational) Zen Buddhism.

While arguably the greatest mind of his generation and several more, Spinoza made his living as a lens grinder, a trade that probably contributed to his early death from a “lung disease,” possibly tuberculosis, or possibly silicosis at the age of 44.

A radically original thinker he would be excommunicated from the Jewish community and his writings would be put on the Roman Index of books prohibited to any Catholic. He was once assaulted by a man wielding a knife shouting “heretic!” He survived the attack, but interestingly, did not have his slashed cloak mended, choosing instead to continue to wear it as a reminder – I, suspect, of many things.

Already deeply familiar with the Hebrew Bible, and with a lot of dissident Christian thinkers, through Descartes, Spinoza began to turn his attention to classical Greek philosophers and his vision of the world and humanity began to take shape. He has been described as a “classical pantheist,” advocating an approach to this world with which I find profound resonances.

Similarly, Spinoza’s “neutral monism” helps me to understand the dynamic universe that is not merely a materialist reductionism. Rather we can look at it as material. And, we can look at it as spiritual. And, clinging too tightly to either perspective will betray us. In our times I find a helpful metaphor as I read about quantum scale objects, where from one angle they can be described as waves, but from another as particles. This. That. Not this. Not that.

And, critical for me, is how this analysis is not simply an abstraction, it points to who we are as individuals. This. That. Not this. Not that. Wave. Particle. Multiply caused. And yet existing in a way that demands we make decisions and act.

The unsigned article on Spinoza at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us, “His extremely naturalistic views on God, the world, the human being and knowledge serve to ground a moral philosophy centered on the control of the passions leading to virtue and happiness. They also lay the foundations for a strongly democratic political thought and a deep critique of the pretensions of Scripture and sectarian religion. Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth-century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza.”

And, personally, I find Baruch Spinoza’s actual lived life critical. Bertrand Russell said of Spinoza that he was “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.” In a review of Steven Nadler’s biography of Spinoza, Anthony Gottlieb tells us the master “not only preached a philosophy of tolerance and benevolence but actually succeeded in living it.” He lived a modest life, and he passed on offers of academic appointments preferring to earn his living grinding lenses and toiling as an independent scholar.

For me these perspectives inform my experience as a Zen Buddhist. And, I am not alone in this. I just googled the two terms “Spinoza” and “Buddhism.” It instantly provided 367,000 results. There I found a blog quoting an interview with professor of philosophy and Spinoza biographer Rebecca Goldstein, which spells out succinctly what the deal is:

“Interviewer: ‘Spinoza’s philosophy has strong similarities to Buddhism – most notably the concept that any notion of a separate and distinct self is an illusion. Buddhism’s method for understanding that truth is to turn off the mind, while Spinoza’s is to rigorously engage the mind. 

“Goldstein: “The final viewpoint that Spinoza comes to has a great deal in common with Buddhism. (A friend to whom I was once explaining Spinoza quipped, “Oh, you’re telling me that Baruch was the first Bu-Jew.”) But of course Spinoza’s methodology is entirely different, as you point out, placing all its trust in the deductive processes of logic. Since the world itself is woven of logic–really is logic–then that’s the one and only faculty of our minds that can penetrate beyond the appearances into true being. ‘For the eyes of the mind, whereby it sees and observes things, is none other than proofs.’ Spinoza’s entire system in fact unfolds from what I call his basic Presumption of Reason, the belief that the world is entirely intelligible, that every fact that truly is a fact has an explanation. From this intuition of his (which he seems to regard as itself true by logic) he deduces the full sweep of his system. His system is supposed to be as inextricably woven of pure logic as reality itself.'”

“East is East, and West is West” sang Rudyard Kipling. “And never the twain shall meet…” While I think Kipling had more insight into the human heart than he is generally credited with, this is one moment where he missed the mark about as widely as is possible.

For me Spinoza is not so much the first “Bu-Jew” or “Jew-Bu,” he is a Western Bodhisattva.

One of my most deeply held beliefs is that if every single Buddhist of every single school was killed today, tomorrow, or the week after, or, maybe in fifty years, the basic insights would be re-discovered. They would be given new clothing, new metaphors, new songs.

But, the great way would rebirth. It won’t be quite the same. And it won’t really be different. Given that he died so young, I find myself thinking every once and again, what would have come of another decade or two or three of that fertile mind approaching the great mysteries?

Still. All by itself. That in the 17th century in Amsterdam an independent Jewish thinker, working from wildly different postulates than someone at the Himalayan foothills living fourth or fifth or sixth century before the common era would come so close in such important ways is just as it should be.

The great heart, the bodhisattva Baruch Spinoza…

(And, here’s Professor Goldstein talking a little about the master…)


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