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One City

Dharma Discourse: Plato

Teacher: What’s on your mind?
Student: Well, many things.
T: What would you like to talk about?
S: The view.  I would like to talk about the view.
T:  Okay.
S:  You see, I studied a lot of Western philosophy in college, so whenever I think about the view, I’m comparing it to what I already know, namely Western ways of thinking.
T:  Naturally.
S:  Right, so, let me see, for example, when I hear teachings about the absolute and the relative worlds, I think of Plato.
T:  How so?
S:  Well, Plato taught that there is a world of absolutes, of perfect forms, where Twoness or Circularity or Beauty or Goodness or Justice themselves reside.  And that everything we see in this life merely brings to mind or recalls those perfect forms.  So when we see a woman we find beautiful, this woman is actually bringing to mind our previous experience of Beauty itself, which we encountered before birth, before entering the relative world. 
T:  So the phenomenal objects of this world bring to mind some kind of perfect ideas, like Beauty itself? 
S:  Yeah, it’s like looking at a photograph.  If I look at a photograph of my friend Andy, I am reminded of Andy.  This only happens because I have previously met Andy.  In the same way, when I see a beautiful body, I am reminded of Beauty itself, because I have a previous acquaintance with Beauty itself.  That’s Plato’s argument. 
T: Interesting.  So what’s your question?
S: My question is how does such a view sit with the Buddhist view?


T:  Well, let’s think about it.  How does Plato explain his view?
S:  Though a series of arguments, such as the argument from recollection that I just explained.
T:  First, it is important to look at his method: Plato is using reason to
arrive at a certain conceptual understanding of the world, yes?
S:  It would appear so.
T:  Well, to a degree, that is fine.  For example, the Prasangika school advocates the use of reason, but its conclusions are vastly different from those of Plato.
S:  How so?
T:  Well, first, let me ask you, what do you feel like after you’ve read a Platonic dialogue?
S:  I feel excited by ideas.
T:  Yes, what else?
S:  I feel exhausted by thinking.
T:  Yes, what else?
S:  I feel exasperated with reason!
T:  Yes!  That has always been my experience of Plato’s dialogues,
too.  And in this way, I think they are very successful pieces of
S:  What do you mean?
T:  When we read Plato, we are at first excited by the ideas therein,
then soon we grow frustrated by Socrates’s relentlessly rational and seemingly roundabout
thinking, and finally, if we’re lucky, we come face-to-face with the
limitations of reason. 
S: I see.  And perhaps this is where we Buddhists think a little differently than Plato thought,
because I think it’s fairly obvious that Plato thought that reason was
the supreme faculty, that reason alone could effectively guide us, that our
rational faculties alone could govern our behavior and tell us how to
live a good life.
T:  And of course, the use of basic intelligence and importance of study are crucial on the path. 
S:  But the difference is that, in Buddhism, the use of reason in ultimately insufficient.
T:  Yes, meditation too is necessary.
S:  Right. 
T:  You seem unsatisfied.
S:  Well, I still don’t have the answer the my original question.
T:  Which was?
S:  How does Plato’s world of absolute forms map onto the Buddhist concept of the absolute world?
T:  Oh right, that one!
S:  Sometimes I feel like my questions are silly.
T:  But they are your questions after all!  So let me try to give you
some kind of answer, though I doubt that I even can.  As I see it,
Plato’s philosophy is similar to Buddhist philosophy in many respects.
First, he strongly advocates reflection.  The unexamined life is not
worth living, right?  That is very Buddhist.  Our primary duty is to
look closely at our own life, to examine the workings of our mind in
meditation, and to talk about all these things with our teachers and
with each other.  Second, Plato talks a lot about how life as it
appears to us is illusionary.  That what we see is like so many
flickering shadows on the walls of a cave, right?  That is very
Buddhist, in that we say, Regard all dharmas–the smallest units of
experience–as dreams.  And yes–and here I’m admittedly streching my understanding of things–I do think that the light shining
outside Plato’s cave–which is akin, as I understand it, to his
absolute world of forms–is similar to what we Buddhists might call the absolute
realm, or, to be more precice, perhaps it is akin to what we call the
S:  Hmm, I’ll have to think about that one.
T:  But the important difference between the Buddhist view and that of
Plato concerns the apparent solidity of his so-called Platonic Realm of
Pure Forms.  Plato, using reason to make his argument, seems to want to
posit the existence of a solid realm of absolutes, of Beauty and
Circularity itself, like you say, but in Buddhism, at the next level,
the exact opposite happens.
S:  What do you mean?
T:  Well, shunyata.  The second turning of the wheel teaches that the
nature of ultimate reality is emptiness.  That there is no inherent
reality in anything.  And what’s more, that this ultimate reality is
ineffable and utterly beyond concept.
S:  So then, no grand Theory of the Forms. 
T:  I don’t think so, not according to the Buddha.
S:  Okay.
T:  And keep in mind, all of this talk is merely trangdon.
S:  Trangdon?
T:  Yes, the literal meaning of the view, as expressed in words.
S:  I see where this is going.
T:  But in order to really see what is going on, you have to meditate. 
Only meditation brings ngedon, that is, true or actual meaning.
S:  Of course.
T:  Interestingly, Chogyam Trungpa used the same analogy that you
used–the one with the photograph–when speaking of trangdon and ngedon
Trangdon is the photograph of the person, while ngedon is the actual
person him- or herself.
S:  I’ve read that “Trangdon is like the finger pointing to the moon, while ngedon is the moon itself.”
T:  Yes.
S:  So then, time to sit.
T:  It is always good to sit.
S:  Thank you, teacher.
T:  It is often good to talk, too.

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posted July 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm

The radical potentialities of Buddhist practice and thought are located less in their denial of a Platonic realm of Eidos (form) located elsewhere than in their constitution as an alternative to both western idealism (Plato) and materialism (e.g., Berkeley) as they condition the way we (subjects) deal with stuff in our world (objects). As Nishitani has argued, idealism, no less than materialism, does not even begin to open a field on which immediate contact with the very reality of things through praxis would be possible. Idealism and materialism lose sight of the basic field where the reality of things and praxis initially come about—they lose sight of the field where things become manifest in their suchness, where every action, no matter how small, emerges into being from its point of origin.
Thus the significance of sunyata—which is hinted at in the dialogue—as that field going beyond consciousness and intellect (reason). It appears as the field of wisdom often called a “knowing of non-knowing”; in the field of praxis it is called “action of non-action.” And, most crucially, most radically, sunyata is that standpoint where knowledge and praxis are one, a field where things become manifest in their suchness.
Sunyata is passage beyond the whole field of the opposition of subject and object—either in the field of rational thought or sense perception. Whereas, in Plato, Ideas are represented as going beyond the opposition of subject and object through an orientation favoring the Eidos (form) of things appearing on the field of reason, aren’t we still left with the form of things as they show themselves to us, the subjects? Buddhist thought and practice offer us a way out of entanglement in the subjective and the objective in the positing of sunyata as that which unmasks what is said to be real or to exist on the field of reason. Sunyata unmasks reality as having emptiness as its ground, as lacking roots from the very beginning.

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