Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Skepticism and Buddhism

Skepticism and an interest in Buddhism shows up in many of Robert Anton Wilson's writings. After reading a mention of the Greek Skeptic philosophers in Chapter 6 of Quantum Psychology, and a mention of the Greek Skeptic philosopher Pyrrho in a recent blog post at Overweening Generalist and looking up Pyrrho in my Oxford Classical Dictionary, I remembered reading a review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review of a book arguing that Greek Skepticism was derived from Buddhism. The book is Pyrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism by Adrian Kuzminski.

The reviewer, Jerker Blomqvist,  regards the thesis as interesting and plausible but not quite proven: "Undoubtedly, Kuzminski raises an important question regarding the ancestry of Western philosophy. He 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. We do not know enough about the contacts between Greece and India in order to make the interchange of ideas a proven fact. Explicit references in the preserved texts are missing and, unlike durable artifacts, ideas leave no traces in the archaeological remains. Traveling between the two regions obviously did take place. It is not unlikely that it had an impact in the intellectual sphere too, so, like genuine followers of Pyrrhon, Sextus and their adherents, we have reason to continue searching (skeptesthai) for reliable knowledge in these matters. Kuzminski's book points the way."

Pyrrho and other Greek philosophers apparently accompanied Alexander the Great, whose army reached India.

Blomqvist notes that while Kuzminski's book was the first in English to posit a connection between Greek Skeptical philosophers and Buddhism, two previous books had argued for a connection, one in Romanian and one in French.

Here is a publication at Project Gutenberg on Greek Skepticism.


michael said...

Ever since Bernal's Black Athena came out, I've been interested in ideas of diffusion that violated the eminences grises of 17th/18th c. Oxbridge and Ivy League and their biases, even if I find some claims wanting.

I found the passage you quote from Blomqvist on Kuzminski enthralling. Something may come up to make us consider much more strongly that Buddhists influenced Greek skepticism.

Not growing up in any religion, I was always delighted to read (fanciful? probably!) tales that Jesus got off, they faked his death, and he headed to Southern France to raise a family. Or that, before coming back to Rome, he'd traveled to India. I love that stuff, always remaining skeptical, skepticism being a Chinese invention that was brought to Greece in the 6th BCE, blah, blah, blah...of course!

According to the Loeb 1925 2-vol ed of Diogenes Laertius's Live of Eminent Philosophers, Pyrrho refused to make a choice between two things, even in daily life, so his friends had to guide him along so he wouldn't hurt himself.

The ataraxia as a moral stance thing seems significantly removed from what we think of as skepticism, and indeed, RAW would rather someone say something interesting than be a bore. His zeteticism seemed to fit within a larger artistic/esthetic framework, at least in my current view of him.

Oops: typed too much.

Thom Foolery said...

Frankly, I must admit to not being impressed by RAW's knowledge of Buddhism. I appreciate that he regularly turned to Buddhism, particularly Zen, as a complementary method to his zeteticism, but I don't get the feeling reading his books that he really had an understanding of Buddhism. For example, his comments on Shin Buddhism, as wonderful and insightful as they are, are also filled with glaring errors (like calling it "Shinran Buddhism").

That said, the possible connections between Greek and Indian philosophy, and other pre-Common Era "global village"-type stuff are definitely fascinating. Alexander the Great met with "naked philosophers," probably Jains or Buddhists. Jewish monastics, possibly inspired by Theravada Buddhists, established a settlement in Alexandria, Egypt. It's been a small world, for most of human history.

tony smyth said...

Shinran was Japanese monk who founded Jōdo Shinshū, one of the largest Buddhist scholls in Japan. IF RAW was refering to this version of Buddhism, and I think he was, then to me he was not in errror. Calling it Shinran Buddhism seems valid IMHO

Anonymous said...

Calling it "Shinran Buddhism" is 100% inaccurate and 100% inappropriate.

First, Shinran always said he was teaching only the "true" Pure Land doctrines of his master, Honen. That is, he was emphasizing a more interior approach towards "practice".

Second, he always said he had no disciples of his own as he only taught what his master taught.

Third, as a Jodo Shinshu priest, I can assure you that while there is a VERY small breakaway sect which used the name "Shinran -kai" (the Shinran "sect")Jodo Shinshu (The True Pure Land School) as opposed to master Honen´s group (Jodo-shu, Pure Land School)is the proper name. "Shinshu" or in English, "Shin Buddhism" refers to "Shin" an idegraph or kanji meaning "true" or "authentic".)

Both sects recognize that Honen´s original teachings emphasized nembutsu (Namo Amida Butsu) as a constant "practice" and that Shinran´s was a psychologically differing teaching which concentrated on the nembutsu as itself a gift of Amida´s and thus, should be said in gratitude only. Neither would accept a "Shinran Buddhism" as there is no such thing.

There is Buddhism as a whole, and there are the varying sects which emphasize this or that practice (Pure Land practtices, or Zen practices, etc.)

Also, Shinran was NOT a monk. Honen remained a monk. Shinran married and had children and this began the Japanese Buddhist distinction of married clergy (the Shinshu phrase, ondobyo-ondogyo is used here to mean, "fellow travelers" and described Shinran´s explanation that he was "neither monk nor lay person." This revolutionized Buddhism around the world after that (13th cent).