The Fruitfulness of Using Aristotle to Understand Buddhism

One of the classes I teach is Ethics from a Global Perspective. I usually begin the course with selections from Aristotle‘s Nicomachean Ethics. As I tell my students, I think there is much that Aristotle gets wrong, particularly his views on women, but his overall ethical framework, and the concepts and distinctions he employs, are extremely useful. While Kant is an obvious exception, Aristotle’s teleological approach can easily be mapped on to the other views we consider such as Hinduism and Buddhism. As with Aristotle’s ethics which rotates around the concept of eudaimonia, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, are centered around clearly identifiable ends. Where Aristotle asks: What constitutes eudaimonia? Buddhism asks: What constitutes enlightenment? So there’s a nice parallel structure, and I want to suggest that we can fruitfully use Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia and virtue to help elucidate important aspects of Buddhism.

I take it one of the caveats that most writers and professors make regarding eudaimonia is to point out how problematic the translation of it as happiness can be. While happiness is not univocal in English, my impression is that most folks associate it with a certain mental state, or feeling; moreover, one that can be assigned a specific duration. And so, we find other translations of eudaimonia in terms of a lifelong flourishing or well-being. However, given liberal (in the classical sense) and capitalist influences, it seems to me even flourishing and well-being are likely to mislead.

Emphasizing that eudaimonia is something applicable only to a whole life is a helpful start. Aristotle eventually identifies eudaimonia, flourishing/well-being, with virtue. Importantly, virtue for Aristotle is not a passive state, but very much an active one. In fact, eudaimonia consists in a lifetime of virtuous activity (which includes a number of “external” goods—one interesting question about these external goods is whether they are needed in order to be virtuous or whether they are needed in addition to virtuous activity; and, of course, it could be both). So what it is to have achieved a life of eudaimonia is to engage in a certain activity one’s whole life. In other words, eudaimonia is something you do. This is not to say, of course, that eudaimonia does not involve certain mental and affective states. The virtuous person enjoys being virtuous, for example.

I think what is sometimes the hardest thing to get across to students is that virtues activity is not a means to the end of eudaimonia. It is not that first you are virtuous and then you achieve eudaimonia. Rather, we must take seriously the idea that eudaimonia is virtues activity. Further, talking about virtuous activity as a means eudaimonia runs a serious risk of flaunting Aristotle’s admonition that one is virtuous only if one performs virtuous actions for their own sake or for the sake of the beautiful (to kolan).

Turning now to Buddhism, particularly the Zen Buddhism of Dōgen, we can appropriate Aristotle’s framework regarding eudaimonia as virtuous activity, mapping enlightenment onto it. In a paper I’m working on tentatively titled “Two Dogmas of Zen Buddhism,” I argue that the history of Buddhism, and particularly Zen, has committed itself to two problematic dogmas. The first is the idea that enlightenment consists in some sort of concept/language-free, unmediated apprehension of reality as it is in itself; the second is the idea that enlightenment is first and foremost to be understood in terms of a phenomenological mental state. The two dogmas are clearly connected: enlightenment is that phenomenological mental state that is the unmediated apprehension of reality as it is in itself.

Having been long-steeped in the later Wittgenstein, I am predisposed not to be sympathetic to the idea of some kind of unmediated, non-linguistic/conceptual apprehension of reality. With that background in place, I have been further much influenced by the work of Shōhaku Okumura Roshi and Kōshō Uchiyama Roshi, particularly the former’s emphasis on action in Zen. In his wonderful Realizing Genjokoan—a commentary on Dōgen’s fascicle by that name—Okumura writes:

…according to Goshō, the word kōan expresses the reality of our own lives; we are the intersection of equality (universality, unity, oneness of all beings) and inequality (difference, uniqueness, particularity, individuality). Reality, or emptiness, includes both unity and difference. … Dōgen, however, said that to see one reality from two sides is not enough; he said we should also express these two sides in one action. (18)

There is much to be said for understanding enlightenment (nirvana) as an activity, particularly an embodied one. Of course, just as with Aristotle, this does not mean there are not mental and affective components to enlightenment. But too often enlightenment is thought of as an experience of oneness—one loses oneself in the unmediated, non-conceptual apprehension of reality. Regarding this there’s a wonderful passage from Uchiyama Roshi:

Zen is often thought to be a state of mind in which you become one with your surroundings. There is an expression which says that mind and environment are one. Enlightenment is understood as falling entranced into some rapturous state of mind in which external phenomena become one with one’s Self. However, if such a state of mind were the spirit of Zen, then one would have to still one’s body in order to achieve it, and never move. In order to do that, a person would have to have a considerable amount of spare time with no worries about where the next meal was coming from. What this would mean, in effect, is that Zen would have no connection with people who have to devote most of their time and energies just to make a living. …

The expression “mind and environment are one” is accurate, but it does not mean getting lost in a sate of drunken ecstasy. Rather, it means to put all of your energy into your work.
(How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, 53)

This “putting all of your energy into your work” is the same thing that Okumura is referring to when he says we must express both sides of reality in one action. Enlightenment, as with eudaimonia, consists in a particular kind of activity—a certain way, or ways, of acting, or performing one’s actions. While what virtuous activity comes to for Aristotle is quite complex, it might well be the case that what Enlightenment activity comes to is even more complicated. But minimally we can say that the activity that enlightenment consists in is mindful, compassionate, and selfless (and much more).

Further, and turning now more specifically to Dōgen, not only does enlightenment parallel eudaimonia in terms of both being activities, but as virtuous activity is not a means to eudaimonia, but rather what constitutes it, meditation and the off-the-cushion mindful, compassionate, and selfless actions of a Zen practitioner are not means to enlightenment, but rather what constitutes it. While one would need to finesse this, the idea is simply that for Dōgen, Buddhist practice is enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment. One does not “wait to become a Buddha.” Moreover, for Dōgen, to view practice as a means to enlightenment is to defile it, surely in the way that Aristotle would see the idea of being virtuous in order to achieve eudaimonia as defiling virtue.

Another important aspect of Aristotle’s ethics is his emphasis that virtues of character, for example, courage, require habituation: one becomes courageous by doing courageous things. Similarly, one may habituate oneself to be non-virtuous. I think these basic ideas about habituation and virtue can be used to help understand and clarify what is often a misunderstood concept in Buddhism, namely, karma.

One way to understand the Second Noble Truth in Buddhism is that it says that suffering arises due to craving, which I understand as desire plus attachment. I don’t think it is helpful to construe the second Noble truth in terms of desire in and of itself. For one, if one is to stay alive, then one must engage in desire. The problem is not desire but rather desire characterized by attachment to the object desired. Attachment implies an inability to let go, an inability to relinquish control and the need to possess. I suffer when things don’t go my way, for example, and I am attached to them going my way.

Turning to the three explicitly ethical aspects of the Fourth Noble Truth’s Eightfold Path, I usually explain that it’s better to think about the admonitions to Right Speech and Right Action, for example, as a matter of skillfulness not so much of moral rightness. And that skillfulness is in relation to not producing suffering for oneself or for others. So when I ask my students why lying would be unskillful, the usual and understandable reply is that if one is caught, the person lied to suffers and you may suffer by way of retaliation or lost relationships. While that is not wrong, I don’t think it is the real reason why lying is unskillful in Buddhism.

Rather the problem with lying, stealing, and all other unskillful actions is that they produce problematic karmic consequences. Karma, i.e., intention/thought/action, that is marked by attachment is what produces suffering, as it is acting out of attachment, i.e., craving, that one suffers. Bringing in now Aristotle’s treatment of virtue, we can say that lying is problematic and unskillful because each time one lies one further habituates attachments (and since attachment presupposes a denial of no-self, i.e., the affirmation of a self, habituating attachment is to habituate the self/ego). The same thing for all the other unskillful actions. A case can be made, I think, to say that they are all marked by some form of attachment, such that in engaging them one is further habituating attachment and ego.

You “get yours,” i.e., you “suffer the wrath of karma,” not by some sort of magical tit for tat, but rather by habituating attachment and self, the very things that are at the root of suffering in Buddhism. The more you act out of attachment, the more you suffer.

Are there any other parallels between Buddhism and Aristotle? I’m guessing, and even hoping, that there may be. I find putting together these seemingly disparate positions from radically different cultural and conceptual backgrounds enormously fruitful for my thinking. I hope you may, too.

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