I KNOW NOTHING!!11

Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about Socrates (or “So-crates” for those who remember Bill & Ted), and I went back and watched this old video by 8-Bit Philosophy.

Socrates was a pretty interesting figure if even half of the stuff said about him was true. Socrates was highly influential and responsible for deflating the egos of other philosophers at the time, which is of course how he ended up persecuted. But his life (and death) illustrate how powerfully people cling to beliefs even when their beliefs are just a house of cards.

Consider this old sutra from the Pali Canon where a wandering mendicant named Vacchagotta queries the Buddha on a long list of philosophical questions:

As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: “How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is not eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“…no…”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is finite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“…no…”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is infinite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“…no…”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul & the body are the same: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“…no…”

translation by Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Over and over, Vacchagotta asks the Buddha on his position regarding certain, pressing philosophical concerns, and each time the Buddha simply replies “no”. Finally, the Buddha explains:

V: “Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”

The Buddha: “A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata [Buddha] has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

translation by Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Buddha isn’t trying to play mind-games with Vacchagotta, but pointing out that all these different philosophical positions are just speculation and hubris (e.g. “I-making”). Instead, he falls back on the simple, empirical observation that all things both physical and abstract arise from other external causes and conditions, and ultimately fade. By making this the foundation of one’s beliefs, the rest eventually falls into place.

Later Mahayana Buddhism really explores this further especially through the writings of Nagarjuna who started the Madhyamika (“Middle-Way”) school in India, and beyond. In his famous shastra or Buddhist treatise, the Mulamadhyamakakarika, he writes:

sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyatesarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate

All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.

Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura, source: Nagarjuna’s Middle Way: Mulamadhyamakakarika

In other words, because nothing is static, because everything is “empty”, everything is possible.

This is even further expanded upon in a series of sutras called the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, which include the Heart Sutra and the more expansive Diamond Sutra. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha is deflating conceptions and notions over and over:

“What do you think, Subhuti? Can someone meditate on the Tathagata [Buddha] by means of the thirty-two marks?”

Subhuti said, “Yes, World-Honored One. We should use the thirty-two marks to meditate on the Tathagata.”

The Buddha said, “If you say that you can use the thirty-two marks to see the Tathagata, then the Cakravartin [ideal Buddhist king] is also a Tathagata?”

….

Then the World-Honored One spoke this verse:

“Someone who looks for me in form
or seeks me in sound
is on a mistaken path
and cannot see the Tathagata.”

translation by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion

The point is, I believe, is that like Socrates, it’s better not to rely on one’s own hubris and beliefs and calmly observe things as they are, rather than chasing after validation of one’s beliefs. That’s a very hard thing to do, and even when you think you’re doing it right, it’s possible you’re not.

Or, as Rev. Shun’ei Tagawa wrote in Living Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism:

Despite the lack of evidence to support this case, we tend to feel rather stubbornly that our own view of things is undistorted.

translation by Professor Charles Muller

If anything else, remember the words of Socrates during his trial:

ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ

[and] the unexamined life is not worth living.

Plato’s “Apology”, 38α, source

In other words: get over yourself. 😋

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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