Category Archives: Spirituality & Religion
One of the cornerstones of all spiritual thought is the recognition of the fleeting nature of material existence. Eastern spirituality is known for its argument against attaching oneself too strongly to material existence because existence is constantly changing. This attention to “IMPERMANENCE” is a central teaching of the Buddha among other Eastern gurus. Impermanence is one of the principle focuses of the Buddhist Vipassana style meditation, the idea being that detachment to all types of “possessions” comes automatically as the impermanence or changing nature of all things is seen during meditation. This type of detachment frees us from suffering and opens us up to transcendental experiences and knowledge, so Eastern spirituality has repeatedly taught. I will add quotes from Eastern spiritual scriptures to support this later on. For now, I want to show how Socrates’ ideas are similar.
Before I list and explain quotes of Socrates however, I want to warn the reader that the connection between Socrates ideas and the similar ideas from Eastern scriptures is far from obvious. Socrates taught the idea of impermanence in his own way and the terms he used might not be immediately understandable to a person familiar with the corresponding Eastern ideas. In other words, I am not making a claim that the words Socrates used to describe impermanence are identical to the ones used in Eastern texts even after they have both been translated into English. If the similarity between the two were obvious it would have already been noticed by the perhaps tens of thousands of western academic scholars who have dedicated their lives to Plato’s writings and Socrates philosophy. No, the words are different but once a thorough analysis is performed one sees that the essence and practical import are the same in both. That is the conclusion that I want to share. Unfortunately, in order to see this connection a reader has to come to Socrates’ teachings with “new” eyes so to speak. Thinking that we already understand the import of Plato’s writings and Socrates’ teachings will surely make the task of seeing the connection with Eastern writings an impossible one. Even a reader with “fresh eyes,” so to speak, will not see the connection between Socrates and the Eastern writings unless a considerable amount of intellectual effort into the task of seeing the connection is made.
Not to sound negative, but I don’t expect many readers to follow me in these arguments because the readers who are oriented to this type of heavy intellectual analysis are most likely already prejudiced by the accepted (“academic”) understandings of Socrates and the potential readers who are not already prejudiced in this way are not likely to willingly put in the strenuous contemplation that both my arguments and Socrates’ arguments themselves require in order to understand fully. Nevertheless, the connection is valid and the argument for that connection is worth sharing.
The following quotes from Plato illustrate Socrates’ version of impermanence. Socrates explains that we perceive the phenomenal world through the use of sets of qualitative opposing ideas (hot/cold, etc.) but we don’t actually gain any real knowledge of those objects in that way. Socrates teaches that our world of objects is constantly changing and we know those objects in the present moment and only relative to the ideas we ascribe to them. Thus we really only know the mental ideals that we use and not anything absolute about the objects we connect them with. Objects change, only the ideas about them are not subject to change.
“For since things are being swept along, wisdom is the power to grasp, comprehend, and follow them. . . .if [an object] never stays the same, how can it BE something? Everything changes, moves, except the ideals.” –FROM Plato’s Cratylus.
In this quote Socrates undermines the conventional assumption that objects have fixed cores that allow them to clearly and solidly exist as the specific objects that we have named them as. For example, an apple on our desk surely exists because we can name it as an apple (using its prescribed characteristics) but Socrates shows that as the apple changes (gets chopped or cooked) we need to add other qualifying ideas to follow its changing nature. Furthermore, Socrates says, if we have to change the names or the ideas of names for an object in order to follow the changing of that object, can that object be said to have ever existed as anything we can fixedly name? If objects of our world are not so fixed then how can we claim to own them or even really know them? We know only the ideas or sets of opposite conditions that we use to describe objects and not the objects in themselves. This type of philosophical contemplation leads to attitude of detachment from material existence that Socrates repeats again and again throughout Plato’s dialogues and mirrors that emphasis within Eastern spiritual writings.
“We must understand this account as applying in the same way to hard and hot and everything else: nothing, as we were saying before, is in itself any of these. All of them, of all kinds whatsoever, are what things become through association with one another, as the result of motion. For even in the case of the active and passive motions it is impossible, as they say, for thought, taking them singly, to pin them down to being anything. There is no passive till it meets the active, no active except in conjunction with the passive; and what, in conjunction with one thing, is active, reveals itself as passive when it falls in with something else. And so, wherever you turn, there is nothing, as we said at the outset, which in itself is just one thing; all things become relatively to something. The verb ‘to be’ must be totally abolished.” — FROM Plato’s Theaetetus.
“One cannot understand them [objects] as fixedly being or fixedly not being or as both or as neither.” — FROM Plato’s Republic Chapter 5.
Socrates teaches that philosophers are just like Eastern spiritualists in that they are searching for what is stable, what is dependable, what is Eternal in life. That quest is initiated as a search for truth and nothing more. Both Eastern spirituality and the dialogues of Socrates are obsessed with truth and that obsession has led them both to examine the very nature of “being” or existence. And the foundation of that inquiry is the realization that in our everyday lives we treat the objects of our world as “existing” or as “being” in a fixed stable way and that habit is not justified by the careful observations and analyses of “philosophers” or “spiritualists.” One of the central teachings of the Buddha’s discourses or sutras was that to hold any “extreme view” about the nature of any object is a sign of complete ignorance. In other words, the Buddha also taught that we cannot go around thinking that we know the “reality” of the objects that we perceive in the world. For the Buddha, suffering comes from the very belief that we can know about the world and its objects. Without this belief, all of our evil and unwholesome habits come to an end:
“Monks, as to the source through which perceptions and notions born of mental proliferation beset a man: if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion, of the underlying tendency to [having fixed opinions or] views, of the underlying tendency to doubt, of the underlying tendency to conceit, of the underlying tendency to desire for being, of the underlying tendency to ignorance; this is the end of resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words, and false speech; here these evil unwholesome states cease without remainder.” FROM the Madhupindika Sutta (MN 18) emphasis mine.
In other words, the Buddha taught that the changing nature of everything means that there is nothing within anything to “delight in, welcome and hold to.” When we no longer feel confident that anything “IS” and we admit that “the verb ‘to be’ must be totally abolished,” just as Socrates teaches, then our evil tendencies end along with the suffering that they cause.
Of course, this teaching has led to criticism of both teachers. Some criticize the Buddha’s teachings as being nihilist and anti-life, even pro-death. IN THE SAME WAY, Socrates can be wrongly criticized. But the truth is that both teachers were leading others away from valuing life for the wrong reasons. Both teachers were attempting to turn our attention from things that change and are unstable towards what is unchanging and eternal.
“Philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying.” FROM Plato’s Republic ch. 7.
In my attempt to show the connection between the teachings of Socrates and those of so-called “Eastern Spirituality” I zeroed in on 8 different themes. These were eight statements about life or aspects of life that seemed to me to be nearly identical to what I have found in Eastern religious/spiritual scriptures. It was very easy for me to pull out an assortment of quotes from Plato’s writings to support these 8 themes and I could have included many more than I did. Although I see the connection between Socrates and Eastern spiritual gurus to go beyond these 8 themes, I decided to start the discussion with them. I will use the next blog posts to go through each of these themes in detail. These 8 themes are:
1. EVERYTHING is CHANGING, MOVING (Impermanent)
2. Virtues or Qualities of the “GOOD”
3. The Importance and True Nature of LOVE
4. ROLE of the true PHILOSOPHER
5. DESCRIPTION of a true PHILOSOPHER
6. The ESSENCE, or the FORMS, as Key to the ETERNAL
7. The Importance of SELF-INQUIRY or The Examined Life
8. The Analogy of the CAVE, or THE DECEPTION of APPEARANCES
SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru
In the summer of 2016 I gave a presentation on the teachings of Socrates as a type of “spirituality” to The Santa Fe Philosophical Society Meetup. My argument to them was, in essence, that the so-called “philosophy” of Socrates, as described by the ancient Greek author Plato, is the same as what was taught by Indian gurus of the ancient world. I boiled down all of Socrates teachings to the idea that “Doing and being ‘GOOD,’ in the highest sense of that word, leads to the greatest of all possible lives.” This is, of course, an over-simplication of an incredibly profound body of teachings, but it is, I believe, still valid with that caveat.
In that presentation I briefly went through a number of ways in which Socrates’ teachings match up with Eastern scriptures. I primarily used Hindu and Buddhist scriptures to make the comparison but I believe I could have just as easily used other Eastern sources as well.
The results of that talk inspired me to write a book outlining my point extensively and that inspiration to write a book has been reduced somewhat to write a series of blog articles. And so, this is the first in a series of articles in which I would like to share with you the details of this startling and exciting connection between Western and Eastern thought. For, if I am right and there is a strong similarity between the teachings of Socrates and what is considered Eastern “Spiritual” teachings today then a bridge is created. That bridge shows cultural unity instead of division and can help westerners to feel more at home following “spiritual” principles. If Socrates is truly a “guru” on par with the “gurus” of Indian thought then that East/West divide starts to look a bit artificial and “spirituality” in the form that is studied today can be recognized as the property not just of the East but of all cultures and all races.
What is SPIRIT?
Spirit is the term used to indicate the source of blessings or gifts which inspire, support and even push us to gain wisdom and the freedom that comes from wisdom. Wisdom can also be described as direct, dependable knowledge of the absolute truth of who we are, why we were born and why we will die.
What is GOD?
GOD (or GODDESS) is the term commonly used to describe Spirit as something we can have a personal relationship with, in which real two way communication can occur. Addressing (or praying to) God (or GODDESS) is a way of declaring that Spirit has the power to interact with us on our level.
Why do we need Spirit or God (GODDESS)?
Nothing in our physical world has the power to give us wisdom. Acquiring wisdom is a miraculous/mysterious affair that can only happen with the blessing of Spirit. This spiritual force is counter to the physical forces of the material world and that is why we can call it something special; that is,”Spirit,” or “God,” or “GODDESS.” Spirit teaches us about the value of wisdom, shows us the path to wisdom, inspires us to tread that path, assesses our efforts on that path and finally CAN reward us with wisdom for those efforts.
We need Spirit or God (GODDESS) because the natural influence of our physical lives is to push us away from wisdom and into greater and greater ignorance. We need Spirit or God (GODDESS) because wisdom is better for us than ignorance. Spirit or God/Goddess IS the natural attraction to wisdom that is at the center of everything. Wisdom is the greatest blessing because it creates love in our hearts and peace in our minds. Ignorance, however, creates anger in our hearts and anxiety in our minds. The benefits of spiritual wealth (wisdom) are therefore greater than the benefits of material wealth because only spiritual wealth actually gives us what we want: true happiness. No amount of material wealth can ever give us what we truly want, happiness, because that wealth can disappear as fast as it can be gained whereas wisdom, once gained, gives us happiness and cannot ever be lost.
What is Spirituality?
Spirituality is the choice to go after wisdom in spite of the physical/social pressures to go after immediate pleasure, comfort and security. Spirituality is the waging of a war against the pressures of material anxiety in order to attract and make the proper use of the blessings from Spirit. The specifics of that war, including the timing of victories and defeats, come from Spirit and the only choice we can make on our own is how fast we advance when we win a battle and how long we stay down when we lose a battle. That choice is a result of our attitude and can shorten or lengthen the duration of the war. The perfect attitude is infinitely patient and generous, courageous, indefatigable and zealously enthusiastic. Such an attitude is a certain sign that the war is almost over with Spirit, the victor, and wisdom, the prize.
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A prayer took shape within me last week while attending the U.N. Conference on Interfaith Harmony. What if there was a permanent standing body, just like the U.N., made up of representatives of all the religions of the world? Surely, such a council could do a lot to stop the use of religions to promote hatred and war.
The idea is that religious leaders would send a representative to such a United Religions Council and then all representatives would discuss matters related to their interactions and vote and pass resolutions. In my mind, this would lead to these representatives, sooner or later, admitting that their goals and orientations in life matched those of the other representatives. As a body, then, they would be able to publicly denounce any religious fraction that attempted to stir up hatred, intolerance and violence. The United Religions Council would have passed resolutions in advance defining such a group as ANTI-religious despite their claims. Such groups would be publicly castigated and called out on their offenses.
There are three tricky obstacles to creating such a Council. One is identifying the religious leaders and determining rank or power within the Council assigned to each denomination. Two is finding a permanent home for the Council that is agreeable to all religions and three is getting the religious leaders to commit to sending a representative.
The first problem could be solved by including all religions and all denominations of religions and giving them power based on the provable number of constituents that they have. The second problem is also solvable. Tokyo, Japan, seems like it would be amenable to all, as a relatively neutral place among the big religions. The third problem is possibly the toughest to accomplish but there has been no better chance for this than right now.
Right now, we have a Pope that is liberal and sensible concerning social welfare issues. It is possible that he would commit to participation in such a Council. Also, the Islamic denominations are under great pressure right now to connect with other religions because of the bad PR that ISIL is causing them. They would have much to gain from such a council. There is tremendously negative public opinion in the West right now not just for ISIL but also for Iranian Muslims. I imagine that Egypt and Turkey would love the chance to boost PR as well about their countries’ religion.
It boils down to Pope Francis, really. Without an amenable Pope there is not much chance of this Council forming. If the Pope joined, the other Christian denominations would have to follow suit.
The Hindu faith would also create a bit of a challenge as well because of its lack of clear central hierarchy but that would not impede the forming of the Council. That would give time for the Council to zero in on finding the Hindu leaders that the average Hindu would pay attention to; i.e.: who could credibly claim to have the ear of the Hindu people. Including all denominations of the Hindu faith would allow there to be many representatives, each with their own claim of followers.
Back to the UN Interfaith Council: thanks to all the groups that made this happen. Here are some links to the wonderful Interfaith efforts already happening in the U.S. and around the world that I made contact with through this UN event:
United Nations Alliance of Civilizations — the host for the Interfaith Harmony Conference
Even though the U.N. made this event and its success possible, interfaith issues should not be a long term subsidiary of the U.N. if real progress is to be made. The U.N. is very helpful in getting the idea going and gaining momentum but it is not a proper permanent location for these efforts. The U.N. has much in common with Interfaith Harmony but also does not share in some key issues. Where the U.N. and religions meet is obviously in charitable relief efforts. It is natural to religious persons to want to help the disenfranchised and the impoverished peoples around the world just as the U.N. has rightly focused on such issues. But religious people do so from a different standpoint and such charitable activity does not necessarily cause Interfaith Harmony. Two different religions doing the same disaster relief work in the same area may not cooperate at all without some additional prodding. An Interfaith Council can do such prodding but the U.N. cannot.
The simple fact is that a religion will never really feel bound by the U.N. This is because it is the UNITED NATIONS not the UNITED RELIGIONS. No one is more aware of the separations between Church and State that exists in most countries than the religions themselves. Many states are using this separation from religion to sanction the removal of any support for religions. The U.N. is a STATE body and not a religious one, therefore efforts at Interfaith Harmony must eventually find its own support and meet with the U.N. as an independent body not as a dependent one.
There are other good reasons for an Interfaith global council to distance itself from the U.N., eventually. These reasons stem from the limitations created by the politics that hinder the U.N. An Interfaith Council would want to be as free as possible from such politics.
In conclusion, I hope that you will join me in a prayer for the establishment of a permanent body representing the religions of the world, for greater peace and welfare for all peoples, all over the world.