It might seem folly to bring the Buddha and Plato together, but I am going to do precisely that.
At the heart of Mahayana Buddhism is the notion that there is an ultimate reality and an apparent and conventional reality. In the Madhyamakavara (VI, 23), Candrakirti, a sixth century commentator of Nagajuna, writes:
All phenomena possess two natures:
That which is revealed by correct perception
And that which is induced by deceptive perception.
The object of correct perception is ultimate reality,
The object of deceptive perception is conventional reality.
The same phenomena can be according to his ultimate reality or by its apparent nature. The ultimately reality is called “emptiness,” which does not mean that all phenomena are nothing. It means instead that phenomena do not exist in themselves. Everything in the universe from the small atomic particle to all thoughts and all beings seem real to themselves, but they are not.
We all perceive the unpredictable flux of the world, the endless creation and destruction of everything from the galaxies above to the microbes that live our seas. Everything is in a transitory state, and its impermanence is the first sign of emptiness. When we look at anything, we think of it as solidly real, but this appearance is very ephemeral as the shape of a cloud. In effect, clouds, how they are formed, how they move, and how they disappear, depends on a many conditions, moisture in the air, the heat of the sun, the winds, and so on. These conditions are what we call interdependence. In this universe, everything is interdependent up on everything else.
Contrary to modern philosophy and science, when you ask “what am I?”seriously, we discover that we are a mass of interdependent forces, materials, sensations, perceptions, ideas, and so on. All these different conditions are in flux, and when one examines what I am it is impossible to say that what I am at one moment is the same as what I am in the next hour and what I was the hour before.
Modern philosophy also assumes that time has being, that there is a time that actually works on man. Buddhism does not. The succession of events provides an illusion of past and present through cause and effect. Our actions comes out of what was before, and thus becomes the basis for some act in the future. However, there is no future any more than there is the past. We live only in the eternal present.
Past and present exists only in our thoughts. A thought right now arises out of something thought in the past and forms a basis for a thought in the future. The past thought that vanishes before a future thought arises has no existence, no being at all. Thus, time and the past thought as well as the future thought do not exist. Only what we think in the eternal present is.
At first sight, so to speak, we perceive apparent or relative reality through convention. Our perceptions are so tied to convention that we begin to think of our perceptions as completely natural. But our perceptions are very relative, because our senses perceive things differently as we find in Magritte’s magnificent painting of a smoking pipe which has the caption: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”
In Buddhism, the mental disposition and karma determine our perception of the world. Karma simply means the all the conditioning created by our past actions. Our actions are causal in nature; positive actions give positive results; the negative ones give negative results. All our actions leave a trace in our consciousness and help form the way we think and perceive the world.
The individual is a vast complex of karma, actions. But all human beings have one common karma, the use of language, or in Greek logos, to communicate. Thus, we are able to see a table just as Socrates does in the 10th book of the Republic. We will agree that the table is painted green. However, when we judge the table to be good or well built or suitable for a banquet, we go into the realm of opinion where disagreements can naturally arise.
As our perceptions are conditioned by karma, it is also conditioned by ignorance, as all karma is connected to ignorance. Thus, we are constantly misunderstanding or seeing the world in relative terms. This lack of awareness is an evil, because we believe the world to be a certain way, when in our ignorance we do not see the world for what it is. For Socrates, this is the great inadvertent lie we hold inside our souls. That the apparent reality is different from person to person, it cannot be the ultimate or absolute or unique reality.
Nevertheless, the two realities are inseparable. Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra says:
Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. There is no emptiness other than form; no form other than emptiness.
Because we live in the world solely as appearances, we do not realize that these appearances are empty. They have no existence on their own. The apparent reality doesn’t become empty. It is empty from the very start. No matter how interdependent all the various aspects of apparent reality is, no component part of any appearance remains on the earth or in heaven, for that matter. Everything we perceive is constantly breaking down. All phenomena is not destroyed by emptiness; they are emptiness itself.
This emptiness is what is real, but as we continue to believe that the fleeting appearances of the world are real and not illusory, we mistake our world and our lives and that is the cause of suffering. Our mind is also essentially empty, but our mind is able to do remarkable things; it can create, know, perceive, think, analyze, and so on. Clarity and emptiness coexist in the mind, and it is that union that gives to rise to the seemingly infinite unfolding of appearances.
When a person recognizes the nature of the minds, he becomes enlightened, a Buddha. The Buddha sees all phenomena as empty and as interplay of the mind in a non-dualistic way. Hence, the enlightened one is not limited by opinions and by the emotions and suffering whose root is ignorance. This is the state of Nirvana, where the mind and the one are truly one, unconditioned by any limitations. It is a state that is truly ineffable, and cannot be spoken. It is a state where the emptiness, the very essence of everything is known and the appearances are known to be what they are.
This enlightenment eradicates the false sense of individuality that we have in our ignorance. When we believe that there is an “I” and “others” to which we attribute a false existence, we begin to create a duality and inevitably cause man to desire an attachment to this false existence and to the duality itself and we judge them the others as pleasant or unpleasant or of no interest. In Buddhism, there are five passions: ignorance, anger, desire/attachment, pride, and envy. When we are possessed by passions, they become a part of our thoughts and ultimately our actions, karma. This difficulty is most interesting set forth by the Buddha, when he told some of his followers that they have become too attached to non-attachment.
Because we unceasingly experience our past karma and continuously create new karma, we chain ourselves to a vicious circle of existence known as samsara. In that state, we continuously affirm the falsity of the “I” and the “others” creating so much karma that we can longer recognize how deeply enmeshed in illusion we are. This karma we take from life to life until we finally see what the mind is and that it alone is responsible for everything that is. The reason we must end our attachment to what is illusory is that samsara is the cause of all our suffering.
In the original one unconditioned mind, there is no nirvana and no samsara. Ignorance is the cause of samsara, while nirvana is the extinction of samsara. By ridding ourselves our ignorance and illusion, by developing a deep compassion for all suffering beings, we can dissolve the solidity of our karma and restore ourselves to what is true and real.
In Plato’s Philebus, Socrates leads the discussion to the Good, and in that dialogue we discover that the Good is the most perfect of all things; that the Good is completely self-sufficient, i.e., it differs from all beings in sufficiency (the Good is the whole). Most importantly, however, Socrates notes that every intelligent being desires the Good, wishes to catch possession of it (20D).
The ultimate reality of the Buddhists and the Good of Plato are the same (as is the Dao of Daoism, which we will leave for some other time). The Good is one, i.e., perfect. The Good does not need anything; it is simply the whole. The Good is not a being, and because it is totally beyond all being, all beings are radically defective. Every being needs another being and can only be understood in terms of other beings. While the Good is the source of all beings, each being is defective because it needs the Good to complete it. Only when a being possesses the good can be said to be complete, one, and self-sufficient. The Good is also formulated to be logos worthy. We speak of the Good in relation to being known, and hence it is the Good that induces desire not only for the Good, but also for the transitory appearances of things. The Good when it appears in the world of becoming, the world of samsara, so to speak, becomes the goods. Of course, when we desire the Good we treat it as if it were torn apart from the whole of things. That’s the falsity of things, because the Good is spoken of as if it were object, which at best it is just completer of all, as well as the source of all.
The radical defectiveness of all beings in Plato is the same as the karmic being of the Buddhists. When we attach ourselves to what we think is good but is not the Good, then we are living the lie or living in the vast flux of continuing dependence on what is not good for us. Ignorance is not bliss.
Much is said about Plato’s “theory of the ideas.” The conventional and not true view of Plato is that he believed that there are universal forms for such things as justice or for tables. These forms are somehow wrapped up in some kind of heaven.
Leo Strauss, the greatest of the commentators on Plato in modernity, has an interesting approach to Agathon’s speech in Plato’s Symposium. Strauss quotes Agathon:
Otherwise, he [Eros] would not be able to fold himself about everywhere, any more than he could, if he were rough, be unobserved in entering every soul and exiting it. His gracefulness is a great piece of evidence for his commensurate and fluid form [idea] and this is agreed upon by all to be something that Eros has to an exceptional degree, for there is always a mutual war between gracelessness and Eros. The god’s way of life among the flowers signifies the beauty of his complexion, for Eros does not settle in a flowerless body and soul or in anything else whatsoever that has faded and lost its bloom; but wherever there is a place of flowers and sweet odors, there he settles and remains. Now about the beauty of the god these things suffice, but still much is omitted.
Now Strauss comments that alleged beauty of Eros as described by Agathon “is something that we can translate as pliancy—the word means literally wet, fluid, and therefore also pliant, of languishing shape. Eidos, shape, which is the fore the Platonic idea, occurs here in the sense of visible shape. The eidos, the essence, of Eros himself does not become the theme of Agathon.”
Strauss has said many things about the Platonic ideas, most of which are dismissive of the conventional “theory of the ideas” that is attributed to Plato in academia even today. But he just tantalizes us here. So, we have to figure out what it is that Strauss is alluding to. He invites us to relook at the word eidos. He supplies two possible meanings: visible shape or essence, a popular Latin-derived term for what the true nature of something is. Other translations include: the external or outward appearance, form or figure, form, kind, species, looks, sight, and, of course, derivatively appearance.
If there are universal forms that transcend the materiality of the things themselves, they could not be like reality itself, the Good, as the Good, as we find in the Philebus is beyond all being or else reality would not be one and perfect. The Good, the absolute reality, the whole, must be seen as a non-numerical infinite that is ineffable (I can’t say anything about it) and completely unlimited. That makes the Good to be a true whole, i.e., it contains all that is, was, will be and that which will never be. The eidos, then, if it is a universal that can only be perceived by the limited mind in an unlimited way would have to be something completely empty or else it cannot contain incompatible materializations of it. For example, there is much discussion about justice as an idea in the Republic, but in the end we discover there are three basic justices that are incongruous to each other. I can take various shades of white and call them white, but is there is a pure white? A pure black? What about red? Is there a universal color? There is if the color eidos is completely empty.
While the forms may be on the high end of the divided line in the Republic, the geometric figure obviously shows that these forms cannot be divorced from mathematicals or the world of sense, and they are more like the lower part of the line, which is all shadows and mirror-like images.
The looks of all hummingbirds may allow us to create a species out of them, but no two hummingbirds are the same. In nature, individuality is always unique. There are no exact twins or generations. We might have to say about the forms, the eide, the ideas, is that not only are they empty, but they truly cannot have a reality of their own, but that they are the appearance of how we can imagine the Good is as the source of all beings. Because the Whole, the Good, or the Buddhist void or emptiness is beyond all sense and any limitation, we need a method of thinking that can bring us to an understanding of the wholeness of the whole, while at the same time finding a way to suspend the falsity of the universal we posit as an eternal form. In effect, the ideas of Plato work like the shadows or mirror-image; they mirror the whole, but are not the whole. They have no content, which allows for a myriad of individuals and appearances. Because, the Good is logos worthy, the appearances of it that are non-material show up not only as material individuals, but as images of the Good in the mind, but a mind that is unbounded by any limitations.
There are five genera of being:, being, motion, rest, the same, and the other, Plato says. Of course, these genera are contradictory to each other. How can something in motion be at rest at the same time, or how can something be the same and other at the same time? How do all the attributes of beings participate in a single unity that is their form? Well, perhaps the answer is in the “other.” The other is empty and it is non-being, and it runs through all things. It allows for diversity and relations between things. If there is a form of non-being it is the other. But what is that other? Evidently, the Good, the whole, or absolute reality. For it is other than all beings and it is not an appearance of any kind. It does not have a form.
One problem is that Socrates in the Republic speaks of the Good and the idea of the Good. I believe Socrates is actually saying that the Good, while completely beyond all being and beyond all ideas, is also one, a unity at the same time. It is that dyadic structure that gives it the perfection and self-sufficiency that it must have. While this unity may be a one, it is not a thought or knowledge per se. To know this one requires an identification of subject and object, which means, of course, that we would have make our minds completely empty, i.e., realize our oneness with the transcendent whole, a non-numerical infinite, that is a completely empty non-duality. That is nirvana; that is the wisdom of Plato.
Plato and the Buddha each are one, but both are two.