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David Hume, the Buddha, and the Eastern roots of Western Enlightenment

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Interesting article in the Atlantic:
How an 18th-Century Philospher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis
David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment

In 2006, i was 50—and I was falling apart. 

Until then, I had always known exactly who I was: an exceptionally fortunate and happy woman, full of irrational exuberance and everyday joy. 

I knew who I was professionally. When I was 16, I’d discovered cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and knew at once that I wanted the tough-minded, rigorous, intellectual life they could offer me. I’d gotten my doctorate at 25 and had gone on to become a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC Berkeley. 

I knew who I was personally, too. For one thing, I liked men. I was never pretty, but the heterosexual dance of attraction and flirtation had always been an important part of my life, a background thrum that brightened and sharpened all the rest. My closest friends and colleagues had all been men. 

More than anything, though, I was a mother. I’d had a son at 23, and then two more in the years that followed. For me, raising children had been the most intellectually interesting and morally profound of experiences, and the happiest. I’d had a long marriage, with a good man who was as involved with our children as I was. Our youngest son was on his way to college. 

I’d been able to combine these different roles, another piece of good fortune. My life’s work had been to demonstrate the scientific and philosophical importance of children, and I kept a playpen in my office long after my children had outgrown it. Children had been the center of my life and my work—the foundation of my identity.

And then, suddenly, I had no idea who I was at all.

Continue reading...

RE: David Hume, the Buddha, and the Eastern roots of Western Enlightenment
Answer
10/26/15 10:12 AM as a reply to Andreas Thef.
A fascinating as well as intriguing historical lesson. Thank you for pointing out this article.
from the article:
In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.”

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

One of the realizations that had a personal effect on my thinking and practice was this implicit insight that Gotama taught without necessarily coming out and saying in so many words. After having spent some time (nine years, all totalled) associated with and in an old Catholic religious order, and having a skeptical (yet open) mind about things (that is, willing to change my stance or viewpoint on things when realizing it was in error), I found it particularly liberating and insightful to be able to appreciate the emptiness in phenomena rather than be influence by their supposed metaphysical meaning. This was one of the first things/insights I noticed/considered about what Gotama taught in his Dhamma: there was no metaphysics to it. Not only did it make sense, but it encouraged me to delve even deeper into what this man had to teach, because it was aligning with thoughts that I had had intuitively for years. 

from the article:
I discovered that at least one person in Europe in the 1730s not only knew about Buddhism but had studied Buddhist philosophy for years. His name was Ippolito Desideri, and he had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet. In 1728, just before Hume began the Treatise, Desideri finished his book, the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 20th century. The catch was that it wasn’t published. No Catholic missionary could publish anything without the approval of the Vatican—and officials there had declared that Desideri’s book could not be printed. The manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

Does this not teach us something about certain institutional demigods that roam this earth? Seeking to control what people see and think?

from the article:
A real miracle, he said, is by definition highly improbable, which means that deception or delusion is always a more likely—and therefore better—explanation.

Belief in or acceptance of miracles. One of the characteristics of "magical thinking."

Those who have been saddled with this mental mallady would do well to rid themselves of it. One way of accomplishing this would be to serious look into Bhikkhu Nanananda's book Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought. He has also written a companion book titled The Magic of the Mind, An Expostion of the Kalakarama Sutta. These are not easy reads, but for those who persevere and check into the sutta references in order to confirm the context of the thought being expressed, it should yield much in the way of liberating insight.

from the article:
For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that the Jesuits were retrograde enforcers of orthodoxy. But Feingold taught me that in the 17th century, the Jesuits were actually on the cutting edge of intellectual and scientific life. They were devoted to Catholic theology, of course, and the Catholic authorities strictly controlled which ideas were permitted and which were forbidden.

Books by Descartes, Malebranche, and Bayle were in the college library—although they were on the Index, the Vatican’s list of forbidden books. (Hume’s Treatise would join them later.)

More evidence for those with eyes to see!

from the article:
One of the footnotes in the Spinoza entry was about “oriental philosophers” who, like Spinoza, denied the existence of God and argued for “emptiness.”

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the Dutch philosopher, who some recognized was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment. It comes as little surprise that for his thinking he was branded a heretic by local religious authorities. "His books were also later put on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books."

A few quotes from his thought:
Spinoza:
Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.

The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.

No wonder the Catholic hierarchy sought to ban his books. The man made eminent sense.

i will read this in its entirty so thanks for the post. 

ian, you have planned my winter reading list i think.  i had done some reading several years ago on meister eckart who was also seeing and describing emptiness from a first hand perspective from his catholic perch.  he wasn't killed but his thoughts were heavily discouraged by the powers that were.

another bell rang when you mentioned desideri, namly, the desiderata, which literally means "desired things".  its more in the realm of "good advice" but has some redeeming suggestions.  i hope this isn't hijacking the thread.

-----------------

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible,without surrender,be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dulland the ignorant, they too have their story.

Av
oid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be
greater and lesser persons than yourself.

En
joy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in yo
ur business affairs, for theworld is full of trickery.

But let not this
blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.

Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of
all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the
years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself
with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no
less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Th
erefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all it
s sham drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

RE: David Hume, the Buddha, and the Eastern roots of Western Enlightenment
Answer
10/26/15 1:48 PM as a reply to tom moylan.
tom moylan:
i had done some reading several years ago on meister eckart who was also seeing and describing emptiness from a first hand perspective from his catholic perch.  he wasn't killed but his thoughts were heavily discouraged by the powers that were.

Yes, I'm familiar with Meister Eckart. I don't recall exactly when I first was introduced to his thought (maybe in the mid to late 1970s), but certainly by the time I got around to reading D.T. Suzuki's book Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist (in I'm guessing the mid-1990s, if not before) in which he talks extensively about Eckart's thought, I had long been looking into the parallels between Eastern and Western enlightened thought. I hadn't quite gotten past the "religion" aspect of that thought; that wasn't to come until after I had begun to delve more deeply into the discourses where it becomes obvious (at least to me) that what Gotama was speaking about in terms of his Dhamma was not the founding of any religion per se, but the clearing and purification of the human mind in order to be able to "see things as they are" more clearly and honestly, without the interference of metaphysical-thought hindrances to such clarity.

tom moylan:

another bell rang when you mentioned desideri, namly, the desiderata, which literally means "desired things".  its more in the realm of "good advice" but has some redeeming suggestions.  i hope this isn't hijacking the thread.

From my standpoint any ideas that complement the OP is fair ground. And these ideas that you have shared certainly show an historical connection as coming from a diverse number of sources. My only point was that these sources, over the centuries, have been actively suppressed by the "powers that be" in the world. And that these institutions were the creation of men seeking power and control, and not of any divine entity, and therefore in no manner of speaking part of a natural authority coming from on high. 

quote from Desiderata:

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.


These "dark imaginings" could be suggestive of the concept of papanca-sanna sankha, which concept Bhk. Nanananda brings to the fore in his book Concept and Reality. The word papanca itself refers to the idea of mental proliferation or "prolificity in ideation," as when the imagination begins to run wild in speculation about things and events that have yet to occur, placing the mind in any place except the present in reaction to unwholesome imaginings. Therefore, it can bring on "feelings" (vedana) of angst, fear, sadness or any number of other emotions about matters at hand. Which is why I harp on necessity that practitioners become aware of the affective nature of the arising of vedana within their experience in order to preempt its negative effect (dukkha) upon the mind and emotions. It is a direct approach to be sure, but one's disciplined awareness of the triggering mechanisms accompanied by the arising of these unwholsome reactions can go a long way, with practice, toward reducing their effect on the mind and psyche over time.

As Nanananda writes: "Hence papanca-sanna-sankha can mean concepts, reckonings, designations or linquistic conventions characterized by the prolific conceptualizating tendency of the mind." He quotes a passage from, I think, the Samyutta Nikaya (S. N. III 71) to illustrate this phenomenon (his sutta designations are from a different publication than the Wisdom Publication volumes I use):

"Whatever material form, O monks, that is past, has ceased, has undergone change, its reckoning, its appellation, its designation is: 'has been'...

"Because of eye and material objects, O brethren, arises visual consciousness; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement, because of sensory impingement arises feeling. ...

"What one feels, one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates conceptually...

"...What one proliferates conceptually, due to that, concepts characterized by the prolific tendency assail him in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye, belonging to the past, the future and the present..." 

you are a treasure trove.

i agree with your emphasis on the vedana patthana and have contemplated it to good effect. 

at the bottom of your post you write about (or quote about) the proliferating mind.  i have been listening lately to ajahn succito and find his take on sankaras really interesting.  i encourage anyone reading this to take a little time and selectively listen to his dharmaseed.org talks on this subject.

he uses as analogies to sankaras things such as:  programs, energies, impulses  .. and breaks down the proliferating nature of these karma-building-blocks, these fabrications, these formations, from a standpoint unique in my experience.

be well

tom

RE: David Hume, the Buddha, and the Eastern roots of Western Enlightenment
Answer
10/27/15 6:45 AM as a reply to Andreas Thef.
Andreas,
thanks for this.  this article is fascinating.  that such forensic work can still be done is really inspiring. and the story itself is an important view into the blossoming of humes' philosophy.