Passivism and Pyrrhonism in Buddhist Ethics

Passivism and Pyrrhonism in Buddhist Ethics April 30, 2010

The Journal of Buddhist Ethics is out with the start of it’s 2010 offerings now, including a fascinating book review about Pyrrhonism and Buddhism (.pdf). And be sure to check the 2009 page for Rev. Danny’s excellent book review (.pdf) there.

In my years studying philosophy I’ve read and heard countless times the critique of Buddhism as being overly passive, even by prominent Buddhists. At times I’ve bought into this criticism, at times opposed it. The following paragraph illustrates well the power of Buddhist practice (and Pyrrhonist as well it seems) to release one from the bonds that actually paralyze a person from acting.

What… would a Pyrrhonist do in the face of a totalitarian regime such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Ger-many, or in the face of human injustice and corruption more generally? Without a belief in the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or the “master race” or the “free market,” he, suspending all such concepts, would use none of them as a criterion of action. Rather, he would act out of direct experience, i.e., he would react to the involuntary sensory aspectsaround him. In the absence of any rationalizing dogmatic beliefs about the kinds of activities going on around him, presumably all that would remain for him is revulsion or disgust. This, it is expected, is sufficient for him to turn away from such acts and regimes or even resist them. As such, it is claimed that there is nothing passive or paralyzing about the Pyrrhonist lifestyle. Both Pyrrhonists and Buddhists, Kuzminksi claims, are similar with regards to their way of life. In both traditions, views are suspended, leaving the subject free to experience the natural flow of thoughts and sensations. The subject is able to react spontaneously and, presumably, appropriately, to the stimulus offered by appearances free of distortion. (emphasis mine pp.65-66)

Sure, such dogmas as the “master race” or “free market” can drive much activity, and some of it even of lasting good, but due to the ignorance inherent in all concepts, the good can easily be perverted leading to the destruction of both others and oneself. (yes, “master race” and “free market” are lumped in the same category here, discuss amongst yourselves)

Action in Buddhism may, too, be based on personally-held dogmas such as karma and rebirth (such terms are woven through the very fabric of the tradition). But ultimately one should step beyond these, and in fact the Buddha is described precisely as having gone beyond such concepts.

Just about as often as I hear the mistaken notion that Buddhism is a form of passivism, I hear the parable of the raft and the other shore misused to argue for an ad hoc suspension of thinking (a.k.a. dualism). The Buddha didn’t teach us not to cling to the teachings. He said to think of the Dhamma as a raft to be used to cross to the other shore (awakening). First we go through all of the effort to make a raft – akin to our efforts to learn and understand the Dhamma. Then we use this to cross a great expanse of water. Then we let it go.

The footnote in the AtI translation of the raft parable is instructive:

According to SN 35.197: “The great expanse of water stands for the fourfold flood: the flood of sensuality, the flood of becoming, the flood of views, & the flood of ignorance. The near shore, dubious & risky, stands for self-identity. The further shore, secure and free from risk, stands for Unbinding. The raft stands for just this noble eightfold path: right view…right concentration. Making an effort with hands & feet stands for the arousing of persistence.”

The whole image is one of great activity. And like many of the great Buddhist teachings, each part ‘unpacks’ to reveal depths of concepts (eg. the flood of views can unfold into the 62 wrong views described in the first discourse of the Digha Nikaya, or to the two wrong views of the self: eternalism and annihilationism, etc.).

Of course there is a place for cultivating calm and concentration in Buddhism, and of letting go of false views and habits. But, as should be clear, this is not a passivity or a case for abandoning the raft midstream.

Returning to the review, I found it well argued and very helpful. I don’t think I’ll buy the book, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism any time soon. Aside from the concerns expressed by the reviewer (about whether Pyrrho was influenced by Indian philosophers at all), I have always taken Diogenes claim that Pyrrho met with Gymnosophists (naked philosophers) and Magi to refer to Jains, a statue of one pictured above, and Zoroastrians.

“Afterwards he (Pyrrho) joined Anaxarchus (an older contemporary), whom he accompanied on his travels everywhere so that he even forgathered with the Indian Gymnosophists and with the Magi. This led him to adopt a most notable philosophy…” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Vol. 2, trans. R. D. Hicks – from the review, p.62).

While the reviewer questions the force of this single quote (the only evidence we have that Pyrrho even went to India or that his philosophy derives from there), I find it equally dubious that the book’s author takes it yet further to tie together Pyrrho’s philosophy and that of Buddhism. This is especially eggregious when we find that the Buddhist philosophy compared to Pyrrhonism, and that which supposedly influenced him, is Madhyamaka philosophy, which wouldn’t be formulated until at least three centuries after Pyrrho’s death.

I haven’t read Kuzminski’s book, so perhaps the author is making less of a causal claim than this. Likewise he may be claiming that Pyrrho and Madhyamaka have common philosophical roots, which is not terribly problematic. Borrowing from yet another review, we see that  Kuzminski “records an impressive number of parallels between Greek and Indian philosophy, and in particular his analysis of the analogy between Pyrrhonist/sceptic ataraxia and Nagarjuna’s “emptiness” is notable. However, analogies, similarities, parallels or whatever you will call them are one thing, concrete proof of influence and interdependence is another.”

Even if there is a mistaken causal claim made, the book will be very beneficial for its cultural and philosophical comparisons. He also discusses later philosophers including Berkeley and Wittgenstein, which is sure to spur discussion and thought amongst historians of philosophy. But beyond this discussion and thought should hopefully be a little personal reflection, as, “According to Kuzminksi (sic), nonviolence and peace can come about only in the absence of belief, when we adopt something like the Pyrrhonist or Buddhist attitude towards experience” (p.67).

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