Reflections on the Interaction of Buddhist Philosophy and Other Philosophies
Elista, Kalmykia, Russia, October 2009
Thank you. I’d like to speak this afternoon about the interaction of Buddhist philosophy with other philosophies. When we speak about Buddhist philosophy, there is not just one type of Buddhist philosophy. If we look at the historical development of Buddhism in India, then we find that many different schools of Buddhist philosophy developed and, although they are talking about the same issues, they each have their own interpretation. This becomes even more confusing when we turn to Tibetan Buddhism because within each of the four Tibetan traditions, each of them has their own interpretation of each of the Indian Buddhist systems. Even within the Indian schools, even within the Tibetan schools, there are many different authors and each of these authors has their own interpretation. So, when faced with the question of the interaction of Buddhist philosophy with other non-Buddhist philosophies, this becomes very complex because one has to ask which type of Buddhist philosophy are we talking about? But one thing that makes the task a little bit easier is that there is a great deal of emphasis on definitions.
The study of philosophy in the Buddhist monasteries is actually referred to by the Tibetan word “ definitions,” tsen-nyi in Tibetan. This, I think, is the most crucial aspect of looking at the interaction of Buddhist philosophy with other non-Buddhisttheories . This is to look at the definitions of the terms, because just the translation of the philosophical term is not enough, because very often just from the name of the term one has very little idea of what it actually means. If you don’t have a clear definition of the original term, when you translate it into another language you often think it means something quite different. The study of comparative philosophy becomes a very, very broad topic requiring very thorough knowledge of the two systems that you are comparing. One of my teachers in India, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, used to criticize Western students on several points. One of them was that we were always asking, “How does this compare with that?” He said that you can only compare two systems when you have studied each of them very thoroughly on their own. If you try to compare two systems, neither of which you really understand fully, you are only left with confusion. This is certainly very true.
Also, when we look at any particular school of Buddhist philosophy, they don’t exist in isolation from other aspects of the teachings of that particular school. So, we need to study all the various aspects of a particular school in order to understand just one aspect, because when we look at, for instance, the assertions about reality, this has to be understood in terms of that school’s explanation of perception. Perception has to do not only with our visual perception, sensory perception, but also mental perception. That means that we need to understand both conceptual and nonconceptual cognition and that then is very much connected with the method of meditation that’s taught in that school and it also affects the method of logic that is taught in that school. All of these things fit together and, if you just look at one piece without looking at the whole, one gets only a very partial picture. So, one needs to see the entire context, the entire picture, in order to understand each of these elements.
There are two functions which are involved when we start to get into a different culture. One is how do we translate the Buddhist philosophy into another language coming from a different cultural and philosophical background. The other is how do we understand this in comparison to the cultural and philosophical tradition of the target language. These two issues actually are quite related because it affects the choice of terminology for translating philosophical technical terms from the original Buddhist languages into new languages. Now, I don’t want to go, in this talk, into the whole discussion of the possibilities of translation, I’ll speak about that tomorrow, but the main principle is to try to find something in the new language that actually means what the definition is talking about.
When going into Tibetan, there weren’t already established philosophical terms from its own tradition, Bon. It was not such a complicated task to make up new words, which did not already have a connotation from their own philosophical system. In the early Chinese translations they used philosophical terms from Chinese philosophical systems and this probably caused a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Therefore, in later translations they replaced those terms with other terms. There is also of course the possibility – and this was used in many different languages – of just retaining the original Sanskrit terms. There was also the possibility of keeping the Sanskrit terms in transliteration and not translate them into another language. So, people just needed to learn these new words.
Buddhism itself, if we look at the early history, did not evolve or develop in isolation, but developed in dialogue with other Indian philosophies at the time. So we find many common features in Jainism with Buddhism, and many of the issues that were discussed in various Upanishads we find also in the Buddhist material. But one thing that is noteworthy here is that they’re talking about the same Sanskrit terms, but each has their own definition and each has their own system built around it. Then, slightly later in Indian history, we find a great deal of dialogue and debate among the various Indian philosophical systems. The participants in these debates were the Buddhists, the Jains and many of what can be loosely called Hindu philosophies. Again, they shared common terminology, but with these different definitions, and although there are slight differences in the presentation of logic and debate in these various schools, they had a great deal in common. So, this made dialogue quite possible. It is taught by one great Indian Buddhist pandit, Shantideva, that in order to have a dialogue or debate, the two sides need to agree on a type of logic and they need to have some common terminology, otherwise it is almost impossible to dialogue.
This was possible in the Indian context, but when Buddhism went to China, it faced very great difficulties because, although there is a very, very minor school of logic in traditional classical Chinese philosophy, nevertheless for the most part the discussion of logic and debate we find missing in Chinese thought. So, when there was a famous debate in Tibet during the latter part of the eighth century, in which a great master of Indian Buddhist logic and debate was debating against a Chinese master to decide which form of Buddhism would be the main form that would be adopted in Tibet, then no wonder the Indian style won, because the Chinese side did not really have such a developed form of debate and logic. There were, of course, political considerations that affected that final decision of who won, but I think this debate illustrates the difficulty of having a dialogue between the philosophical systems of two cultures that are so different.
There is a very famous story of a recent debate or discussion between a Tibetan Buddhist master and a Japanese Zen master. The Japanese master holds up an orange and says, “What is this?” trying to start a Japanese koan type of presentation. The Tibetan master turns to his translator and says, “What’s the matter, don't they have oranges where he comes from?” So, this, although, is told as a joke, it supposedly actually happened. Again, it illustrates how two totally different ways of thinking and presenting Buddhism, even within Buddhism, have such difficulty dialoguing.
So, if we ask the question about dialogue between Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy, we encounter many of the same problems, because just as it is the case in Buddhism, in Western philosophy as well it is not just one philosophy. There are many, many different philosophers over a very long period of history that have written extensively in our Western civilizations, going back to the ancient Greeks and all the way up to modern times. Although many of these Western philosophers have discussed the same issues among themselves, this has also been in a large variety of languages, and there have been problems associated with translating these key issues from one Western language to another. So, again, I think we need to go back to this principle that I discussed earlier, that we can only speak about one particular system at a time. We have to look at its own definitions and its own terms and the larger context of other aspects of thought that might be part of the same system and then we can compare one Western system with one Buddhist system. Otherwise, if we try to generalize, often it is not so productive. It may give a rough idea, but usually it is quite imprecise.
Of course there is value in an historical approach. In order to trace the development of certain terms and specific philosophical issues within, say, Indian Buddhism or in Tibetan Buddhism – this is something which is not part of the traditional methodology that we find in any of the traditional Buddhist areas, this is a Western methodology. It is something that certainly we could apply to our study of Buddhist philosophy and it’s something that helps us, as Westerners, to understand.
In Buddhism we speak about different types of what I call deep awareness. For those who know Sanskrit, this is the term jnana. Although that term has many, many different meanings in different contexts, one meaning is a system of five types of very basic ways in which the mind works, for everybody, including the earthworm.
One of these types of deep awareness is individualizing, to know the individuality of things. So, we can tell one thing apart from something else, and know the individual characteristics of one thing. If we look at the Tibetan Buddhists, we find that this type of way in which the mind knows things is especially prominent in their way of thinking. So, they are very, very good at describing things within one specific system.
Another of these five types of deep awareness is called equalizing deep awareness. With this type of way of knowing, we put things together into equal categories, equally into a category. We see what is the commonality of various things, so we can equalize them, in a sense. For instance, there are so many different kinds of dogs, but we are able to see them all as dogs. But, with individualizing we would know “this dog.” Our Western way of thinking is very good at this equalizing deep awareness. We can see patterns very well, and our education system teaches us that.
So, if we ask what type of Western methodology can be useful for studying Buddhist philosophy, I would not recommend trying to find equivalent metaphysical terms in the West for Buddhist terms, because they already have their own definitions in our systems. But rather we emphasize what we are especially good at, which is to see the patterns in order to understand the development of various thoughts, which helps us as Westerners, to be able to understand more fully and deeply.
Question: What about the three other types of deep awareness?
Alex: The other three types of deep awareness are, first of all, the type that is like a mirror, with which we take in information. It doesn’t mean reflecting like the mirror, I think our Western image would be much better a camera or audio recorder. And then there is accomplishing awareness. “Accomplish” means to do something, how to relate to things, what to do with them. And then, what’s called “dharmadhatu.” That’s a Sanskrit word, which means the awareness of the reality of things, what things are and, on a deeper level, how they exist.
If we take our friendly earthworm as an example, the earthworm will approach something and take in the information, for instance food, and it is able to put that information together with other information so that it knows that this is food, not a rock. It would individualize this little piece of food that is something to eat, not that one; and it knows what to do with it, namely to eat it, and it knows what it is. It does not have a word for food, but it has some sort of concept that it is edible. This is the way that the mind in general works according to this analysis for all beings.
Question: If we need to know a whole system in order to understand a particular philosophical term, then this means knowing the definitions of various terms and within the definitions are more terms and you have to know the definitions of that. It goes on and on infinitely. So how do we deal with this?
Alex: I think in terms of any definition, each word in the definition has a definition, it’s not just the technical terms. This of course poses a problem for communication in general. Is communication possible between two people? Because everybody has their private definitions as well as the dictionary definitions. But what I was referring to is the definitions of the major terms and the necessity to study broadly in order to understand the system.
I don’t think that translation is impossible, in fact I’m a big proponent that everything can be translated. But many of the terms which have been chosen by nineteenth century missionaries, etc. for translating Buddhist terms are not really appropriate. They don't fit the terms. So, we have to look at the definition and find something that actually means it. Thank you.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (05%)