A Thought Experiment in the Western Intellectual Tradition

Imagine Schopenhauer’s Satori

Schopenhauer saw in Buddhism the idea that life is suffering—something to break away from through death—and he wrote about this process in the most dramatically heavy terms:

As a rule, the death of every good person is peaceful and gentle; but to die willingly, to die gladly, to die cheerfully, is the prerogative of the resigned, of him who gives up and denies the will-to-live. For he alone wishes to die actually and not merely apparently, and consequently needs and desires no continuance of his person. He willingly gives up the existence that we know; what comes to him instead of it is in our eyes nothing, because our existence in reference to that one is nothing. The Buddhist faith calls that existence Nirvana, that is to say, extinction. (Schopenhauer and Payne 1966, p. 508)

In Buddhism, there is, however, a buoyancy and lightness that is largely absent from Schopenhauer. We can imagine a Schopenhauer who had come to make a pragmatic, joyous, and life-celebrating reading of Buddhism.

We can easily find a buoyant outlook on life in both Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, and also at the very core of the Buddhist tradition as a whole. There is, for example, a focus in most strands of Buddhism on practically alleviating suffering as being more pressing than working out a metaphysical understanding of the ultimate truths of the world. As Zen Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hanh points out:

Buddha always told his disciples not to spend their time and energies in metaphysical speculation. Each time he was asked a question of a metaphysical kind, he remained silent. He directed his disciples toward practical efforts. (Nhat Hanh and Kapleau 1975, pp. 38-39)

Nhat Hanh goes on to explain the practical orientation of the Buddha:

Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world he said, “Whether the world be finite or infinite, whether it be limited or unlimited, the problem of your salvation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a person should be struck by a poisoned arrow and that the doctor wished to take out this arrow immediately. Suppose that the wounded person did not want the arrow removed before having received certain information: who had shot it? what is the name of the bowman? his age? who are his parents? for what reason had he fired on him? and so on. What do you think would happen? If one were to wait until all these questions had been answered, I fear that the person would be dead beforehand.” Life is short; it must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculations which will not be able to bring us the Truth. (Nhat Hanh and Kapleau 1975, p. 39)

At the origin of Buddhism, there is the insight that alleviation of suffering must come first. Thus, from a Western perspective, Buddhism can be seen as therapeutic.

It is not only for practical reasons that therapy (the alleviation of suffering) ought to be privileged over metaphysics. Metaphysics is fallible and cannot explain ultimate reality. We can see similarities here with Kant and Hume. Reason, in its metaphysical mode, attempts to know more than it can. But what then is to replace metaphysical speculation (conceptual knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality)? Nhat Hanh goes on to explain:

But if conceptual knowledge is fallible, what other instrument shall we use in order to grasp reality? According to Buddhism, one can only reach reality through direct experience. Study and speculation are based on concepts. In conceptualizing we cut up reality into small pieces which seem to be independent of one another. This manner of conceiving things is called imaginative and discriminative knowledge (vikalpa) in the Vijnanavada Mahayanist sect. The faculty which, on the contrary, directly experiences reality without passing through concepts is called non-discriminative and non-imaginative Wisdom (nirvi- kalpajnana). This Wisdom is the fruit of meditation. It is a direct and perfect knowledge of reality, a form of knowledge in which one does not distinguish subject and object, a form of knowledge that cannot be conceived by the intellect and expressed by language. (Nhat Hanh and Kapleau 1975, p. 39)

From a Buddhist standpoint, Schopenhauer’s mind has realized some limitations of reason yet overemphasized metaphysical (conceptual) understanding at the cost of direct understanding. There is an unhealthy reliance on thought processes and the products of them to explain reality according to a complex system of thought or, to use Schopenhauer’s terminology, a system of ideas. Hume would likely have found Schopenhauer’s writings even colder than his own.

There is also inherent in Buddhism the idea of bringing conscious presence to everyday activities as a form of meditation. This is something that anyone, not only a select few, can do. Indeed many Buddhists de-emphasize the role of sitting meditation and instead seek awareness throughout all of life, effectively turning life into meditation. Such an understanding of the role of meditation and awareness opens up broad possibilities. The enlightened practitioner of Buddhism does not need to be a dedicated monk, but anyone can allow for greater awareness in life, no matter what role they have in society or what they do. One is reminded here of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith ( Kierkegaard and Lowrie 1994, p. 30), who cannot be identified through outward appearance or behavior. As Buddhist scholar Philip Kapleau points out:

In Zen it is said that more power is generated by the ability to practice in the midst of the world than by just sitting alone and shunning all activity. Thus, one’s daily work becomes one’s meditation room; the task at hand one’s practice. This is called “working for oneself.” (Nhat Hanh and Kapleau 1975, p. 3)

Schopenhauer could thus have found in Buddhism a universal way for all to become enlightened, not just a select, privileged few who engage in scholarly practices or daily long sitting meditations.

Finally, a great degree of the buoyancy of Buddhism comes from the Buddhist understanding of emptiness as elaborated in the Mahayana tradition (Robinson et al. 1997, pp. 86-90). According to the Mahayana tradition, reality is characterized by emptiness. There are no things or phenomena with stable identities. We saw earlier how Nagarjuna came to claim that “Everything is possible for someone for whom Emptiness is possible.” (Nagarjuna 1977). Once you see what previously looked like stable forms—yourself, your possessions, and all the rest of the form-based world—as impermanent, fleeting, and “empty” of identity, you are released from clinging to form. Living without attachment to form allows for a flexible mind open to the world, its change, and its dynamism.

Buddhist buoyancy has to do with how the Buddhist comes to see consciousness as a source of freedom in a world of impermanent forms. Within the Mahayana tradition, not only is the self empty but so also are all perceptions of the self and of the world. It is from this perspective that Nagarjuna claimed that:

There is not the slightest difference between cyclic existence and nirvana. (Nagarjuna and

Garfield 1995, p. 75)

Mahayana Buddhist Bhavaviveka chose to put it even more straightforwardly: “There is no difference between nirvana and samsara” (Eckel 1992, p. 6). Another way of looking at this is to say that the practicing Buddhist does not need to get anywhere to obtain enlightenment: the here and now is as good as it gets.

The Mahayana idea of emptiness leads to a nondualist view of reality. That is why Nagarjuna could make his claim that “the nature of the Buddha is the nature of the world: the Buddha has no nature and the world has no nature” (Eckel 1992, p. 6). The full realization of emptiness can lead to sudden laughter—satori—as one realizes the absurdness in transcending the world and that the longed for nirvana is here and now in the world of everyday life (Zimmerman 1993, pp. 254-255). Would Schopenhauer, having undergone satori, have changed his philosophy? I think it is fair to say that Schopenhauer missed many of the practical, joyous, and deeper philosophical aspects of Buddhism. Let us suppose that, contrary to history, Schopenhauer had undergone satori.

If Nietzsche had affirmed the buoyant power of consciousness and acceptance inherent in Buddhism, as communicated through a post-satori Schopenhauer, then he might have come to think of will to power as something to be transcended through consciousness rather than something to be affirmed or even cherished. But Nietzsche never thought of this possibility—or, at any rate, he did not work the possibility out in his philosophy. Instead he came to ridicule the meditative traditions and their practitioners as somnambulists. Nietzsche trapped himself in a perspective of will to power, just as Schopenhauer trapped himself in pessimism of nature. A Nietzsche who had affirmed the freedom of consciousness in contrast to being trapped in will to power—an ego-based activity—would have been a Nietzsche who could have communicated compassion and higher consciousness. He could have been one that put the whole of the Western intellectual tradition on the path of a deeper interest in consciousness and being rather than more thought, ego, and will to power. But, from Nietzsche’s point of view, compassion was an expression of weakness and meditative practices signaled inactivity. Instead he affirmed will to power and sought to become its highest human expression.

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