HEBREW AND BUDDHIST SELVES:
A CONSTRUCTIVE POSTMODERN STUDY
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Published in Asian Philosophy 17:1 (March, 2007)
Linked with permission from Brian Carr, Editor, Asian Philosophy
"Body am I, and soul"--thus speaks the child.
And why should one not speak like children?
Our task will be to demonstrate that there are instructive parallels between Hebrew and Buddhist concepts of self. There are at least five main constituents (skandhas in Sanskrit) of the Hebrew self: (1) nepeš as living being; (2) răah as indwelling spirit; (3) l‘b as heart-mind; (4) b~Ń~r as flesh; and (5) d~m as blood. We will compare these with the five Buddhist skandhas: disposition (sa÷sk~ra), consciousness (vijń~na), feeling (vedan~), perception (sa÷jń~), and body (răpa). Generally, what we will discover is that both Buddhists and Hebrews have a “bundle” theory of the self; both see the body as an essential part of personal identity; both overcome the modernist distinction of the inner and the outer; and both avoid language about the will as a distinct faculty. In sum, both present us with a fully somatic and nondualistic view of being human.
Because the Hebrews sometimes used one word to describe the entire body-soul, we will find it difficult to find exact one-to-one correlations with the Buddhist skandhas. Accordingly, we will sometimes use the term “heart-mind” to indicate the affective-intellectual unity that both Buddhist and Hebrew selves indeed are. While both the Hebrew and Buddhist erect no artificial barrier between one’s inner and outer life, there are nonetheless strong indications of an inner spiritual life separate from public ritual. It is significant, however, that there were no Hebrew yogis, and it is in India’s ascetic tradition that one sees the first glimpses of modern psychology.
Buddhist and Hebrew views of the self are functional and holistic in the sense that the self’s constituents work together to produce a dynamic, nonsubstantial soul. This view is compatible with contemporary process philosophy in that it does not require the problematic assumption of material or spiritual substances. Furthermore, Hebrew and Buddhist selves are fully relational and social. (This phrase is not redundant. A Daoist mountain hermit can be fully related to his environment but reject society as a constituent of his being.) Some Bible scholars call this “corporate personality,” and while it differs from classical liberal views of autonomy, it is not inconsistent with current ideas of “situated” autonomy.
While we will focus primarily on Buddhist texts written in P~li (hence the term P~li Buddhism), it is the M~h~yana Buddhists, whose texts are written in Sanskrit, who would be most sympathetic to the concept of corporate personality, and this is seen most strikingly in some Bodhisattvas as Suffering Servants. In our analysis we incorporate the criticism of corporate personality if it means that people who think this way cannot conceive of themselves as responsible individuals. Indeed, even contemporary individuals can easily switch from a corporate identity in a group to radical individualism if that is their desire. There is of course a matter of degree with premodern people tending more toward group identity and moderns embracing personal autonomy.
The main difference between Buddhism and Judeo-Christianity is that the former is fully humanistic while the latter is heavily theocentric. This means that there is no Buddhist equivalent to răah, the indwelling spirit of Yahweh. Even nepeš in humans and animals is contingent upon divine power and grace. Hebrew souls are essentially divine breath/spirit and are temporarily on loan from God: "The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecc. 12:7). Combining divine spirit and breath the author of Job states that God “takes back his spirit. . . and gathers to himself his breath" (Job 34:14). Not only is the human spirit on loan, it can also be manipulated while embodied. Yahweh can harden the heart of the Pharoah but also give people a “new răah” that will soften their “stony hearts” (Ez. 11.19). All of this would be quite alien to Buddhists, except for those who embrace Pure Land schools.
Before we begin the analysis proper let us say something about methodology. Some may say that the term “Hebrew” is at least ambiguous and at most inaccurate, primarily because we are not sure if there ever was a distinct group of people who identified themselves in this way. From a socio-anthropological viewpoint this criticism is well founded. Our analysis, however, is first philological and then conceptual and theoretical. We are taking the Hebrew and P~li texts at face value and we are not asking the otherwise interesting questions about who their writers were and what their ethnic background was. From these texts we are extracting concepts related to what philosophers now call “moral psychology.” From this evidence we hope to draw some instructive lessons about the self and its moral agency from these two great religious traditions.
Finally, at least two biblical scholars--in response to the question “What good is this pre-modern self?”--have suggested that the Hebrew view (we add the Buddhist and the Chinese) can be used to counter balance the dysfunctional elements of modern selfhood. Both Robert Di Vito and Jacqueline Lapsley have called this move “postmodern,” based, as they contend, on the concept of intersubjectivity. In his interpretation of Charles S. Peirce as a constructive postmodern thinker, Peter Ochs observes that Peirce reaffirms the Hebraic view that relationality is knowledge at its most basic level. As Ochs states: “Peirce did not read Hebrew, but the ancient Israelite term for ‘knowledge’--yidiah--may convey Peirce’s claim better than any term he used. For the biblical authors, ‘to know’ is ‘to have intercourse with’--with the world, with one’s spouse, with God.”
The view that the self is self-sufficient and self-contained is a seductive abstraction that contradicts the very facts of our interdependent existence. Modern social atomism was most likely the result of modeling the self on an immutable transcendent deity (more Greek than biblical) and/or the inert isolated atom of modern science. Rather than a complete decentering of the self that seems to be the project of French deconstruction, we have proposed a reconstruction based on the intersubjective self found in both the ancients and 20th Century thinkers such as Whitehead, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Following the conceptual guidelines of the Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought at State University of New York Press, and synthesizing the best of pre-modernism and modernism, we will call this a constructive postmodern self. We will also propose that virtue ethics is the best moral theory for constructive postmodernism.
THE P}LI BUDDHIST VIEW OF THE SELF
The Buddha’s response to the Axial Age’s discovery of the self was strikingly unique: he proposed the doctrine of no-self (anatman), which literally means “no ~tman,” the Hindu soul substance. This conceptual innovation was so provocative that it was bound to invite misinterpretation, and unfounded charges of Buddhist "nihilism" continue even to this day. The Buddha anticipated David Hume's view that the self is an ensemble of cognitions, perceptions, and bodily feelings that is the center of agency and moral responsibility. The Buddha's view, however, is different from Hume's, primarily because the Buddha supported real causal efficacy among internally related phenomena. (Hume may have been misled by the current scientific model of externally related atoms.) While Hume deconstructed any theory of causality, the Buddha reconstructed causal relations with his theory of interdependent coorigination. The Buddha agrees with Hume about the absence of causal power, but disagrees with him about the absence of causal relations.
The Buddha rejected the soul-as-spiritual-substance view of the Upanishads, Jainism, and S~mkhya-Yoga, and he deconstructed the "spectator" self of these philosophies 2,500 years before recent thinkers dismantled the Cartesian self. As opposed to strict deconstruction, for example, P~li Buddhists hold that selves, though never physical nor mentally the same in their lives, nevertheless maintain their personal identities and are responsible for their actions. These selves are real in the sense that they are constituted by relations with their bodies, other selves, and all other entities. This is why the P~li self should be viewed in relational and process terms rather than the skeptical implications of the no-self doctrine, which some Buddhists support. The P~li self is relational primarily in the sense of its dependence on the five skandhas and the internal relations this dependence entails.
Another positive way to express nonsubstantiality is to describe the Buddhist self as "functional." In fact, each of the skandhas should be seen as functions rather than entities. In the famous debate between King Milinda and the monk Nagasena, the monk convinces the king that no soul substance is necessary to explain the human self. Notice the functional language in Nagasena’s argument: “Because of form (răpa), . . . because of sensation (vedan~), . . . because of perception (sa÷jń~), . . . because of the states of mind (sa÷sk~ra), . . . because of consciousness (vijń~na), --because of all these” we can say a living being (j§va) exists. David J. Kalupahana explains this functional view of self as follows: "Răpa or material form accounts for the function of identification; vedan~ or feeling and sa÷jń~ or perception represent the function of experience, emotive as well as cognitive; sa÷sk~ra or disposition stands for the function of individuation; vijń~na or consciousness explains the function of continuity in experience." Both Kalupahana and Peter Harvey describe the P~li self in the positive terms of psychophysical unity, process, and interrelation. According to Harvey, the Buddha never rejected the existence of a life-principle (j§va), which "is not a separate part of a person, but is a process which occurs when certain conditions are present. . . ." To anticipate our comparison to the Hebrews, Ludwig Köhler states that “a [Hebrew] person does not have a vital self [nepeš] but is a vital self."
From this analysis we can clearly see that the P~li self is a robust personal agent fully capable of maintaining its personal integrity and taking full responsibility for its actions. This view of the self is also fully somatic, giving full value to the body and the emotions. At the same time it is embedded in a social and organic nexus of cosmic relations. Hindu philosopher Surendra Verma is unduly puzzled when he asks how it was possible for the Buddha to be filled with thoughts and emotions and “at the same time preaching . . . the nonexistence of the soul.” Like many other commentators, Verma simply does not understand the meaning of the Buddha’s Middle Way, in this case the mean between what Kalupahana calls “annihiliationism” (no self at all–substantial or otherwise) on the one hand and “eternalism” (substantial self) on the other.
We will demonstrate is that the Hebrews also choose a middle way between these two extremes. What appears not only puzzling but impossible is for the Hindu ~tman or Platonic-Stoic-Christian soul--each pure spiritual substances--to have any relation at all with the finite world, let alone with the emotions and the body. For example, it is difficult to explain how the pure Hindu ~tman, if it is the only entity to survive death, is able to carry impure karmic debt into the next life. Even though the mechanics are not entirely clear, the Buddhist sa÷sk~ras, deeply ingrained dispositions, are the principal conditions that drive the dynamics of rebirth.
NEPEŠ AND J¦VA AS LIVING BEING
It is surprising to discover that the Buddhist skandhas are more mental in character, while the Hebrew self is more material in very concrete ways. For example, the Psalmist says that “all my inner parts (=heart-mind) bless God’s holy name” (103.1); his kidneys (=conscience) chastise him (16.7); and broken bones rejoice (16:7). Hebrew bones offer us the most dramatic example of a view of human essence most contrary to Christian theology. One’s essential core is not immaterial and invisible; rather, it is one’s bones, the most enduring remnant of a person’s being. When the nepeš “rejoices in the Lord” at Ps. 35.9, the poet, in typical parallel fashion, then has the bones speak for her in v. 10. Jeremiah describes his passion for Yahweh as a “fire” in his heart (l�b) that is also in his bones (20.9), just as we say that a great orator has “fire in his belly.” The bones of the exiles will form the foundation of those who will be restored by Yahweh’s răah in Ezekiel 37, and later Pharisidic Judaism speaks of the bones of the deceased “sprouting” with new life in their resurrected bodies. The bones of the prophet Elijah have special healing powers (2 Kgs. 13.21). Therefore, the cult of relic bones does indeed have scriptural basis, and we also note the obvious parallel to the worship of the Buddha’s bones.
With all these body parts functioning in various ways, it is hard to find, as Robert A. Di Vito suggests, “a true ‘center’ for the [Hebrew] person . . . a ‘consciousness’ or a self-contained ‘self.’” Di Vito also observes that the Hebrew word for face (p~n§m) is plural, reflecting all the ways in which a person appears in multifarious social interactions. The plurality of faces in Chinese culture is similar, including the “loss of face” when a younger brother fails to defer to his elder brother, who would have a difference “face” with respect to his father. One may be tempted to say that the j§va is the center of the Buddhist self, but that would not be accurate because this term simply designates the functioning of all the skandhas together.
Both David Kalupahana and Peter Harvey demonstrate how much influence material form (răpa) has on Buddhist personality, even at the highest stage of spiritual development. It is Zen Buddhists, however, who match the earthy Hebrew rhetoric about the human person. When Bodhidharma (d. 534 CE) prepared to depart from his body, he asked four of his disciples what they had learned from him. As each of them answered they were offered a part of his body: his skin, his flesh, his bones, and his marrow. The Zen monk Nangaku also compared the achievements of his six disciples to six parts of his body. Deliberately inverting the usual priority of mind over body, the Zen monk Dogen (1200-1253) declared that “The Buddha Way is therefore to be attained above all through the body.” Interestingly enough, the Hebrews rank the flesh, skin, bones, and sinews as the most essential parts of the body-soul. The great Buddhist dialectician Nagarjuna (2nd Century CE) appears to be the source of Bodhidharma’s body correlates, but it is clear that Nagarjuna meant them as metaphors. In contrast it seems clear that, although dead bones rejoicing is most likely a figure of speech, the Hebrews were convinced that we think, feel, and perceive through and with all parts of our bodies.
The Buddhist self is sometimes referred to as namarăpa--“name and form”--and let us call on the good monk Nagasena for another description: “Whatever . . . is gross and coarse, this is form (răpa=body); whatever entities . . . are fine, of the mind, mental, these are name (nama).” Walther Eichrodt offers the Hebrew equivalent of namarăpa: “Man on the one hand consists of earthly matter [răpa], that he is dust and ashes, and on the other that he can claim as his own a spiritual potentiality which alone makes him a conscious ego [nama]." In neither view are we to interpret this division between mind and body as a metaphysical dualism; rather, we are to conceive both of them as psychophysical unities.
The word flesh (b~Ń~r) not only denotes the physical part of the human body (Ez. 37.6, 8), but also it can refer to one's whole being (Num. 8.7). One’s b~Ń~r can just as well be singing for joy to the living God (Ps. 84.2) as much as it can hope or trust (Ps. 16.9) and long for God (Ps. 63.1). In Merleau-Ponty’s work this has sometimes been called the “body-ego,” a view of self in which the mind is coextensive with the body, even parts of the body that may be missing, as in the phantom-limb phenomenon. Even though most Christian theologians made the flesh the seat of evil, it was never seen this way by either the Buddha or the Hebrews. As Edmund Jacob states: “The idea that the flesh might be the principle of sin is foreign to the Old Testament.” Although Hebrew flesh is liable to corruption, it is not a source of evil as it is in Manicheanism, Gnosticism, and Jainism. Therefore, it must have been intervening influences that make Paul declare that “nothing good dwells within . . . my flesh” (Ro. 7.18).
Many passages attest that b~Ń~r can be both a source of spiritual strength as well as personal weakness: “A tranquil heart is the life of the flesh” (Prov. 14.30), and Yahweh substitutes a good “heart of flesh” for an evil “stony heart” (Ez. 11.19). Unfortunately, the Jains and many Buddhists devalued the body and the passions in a way that the Buddha would have disapproved, and the Essenes at Qumran saw b~Ń~r as completely negative, setting the stage for the demotion of the body in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even though Yahweh can be quite earthly at times, it goes without saying that b~Ń~r is never used with reference to the deity. Yahweh is a “living God” but never a God of flesh, and this makes the Incarnation--God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1.14)--an especially striking Christian innovation.
The fact that nepeš and l�b (Ps. 84.2; 16.9) function in the same way as b~Ń~r has been called “stereometric” thinking, and, as we have already mentioned, it makes it difficult to determine exact correlations to the Buddhist skandhas. Let us now turn to nepeš and see what the analysis will produce. In one sense nepeš can be viewed as a functional equivalent to the Sanskrit j§va, because both words can be translated as “living being.” Animals are included in both terms so we have warrant to declare all that lives is a moral and spiritual community. The fact that there is a unique in-breathing of the divine breath (neš~m~) (Gen. 2.7) plus creation imago dei (Gen. 1.26, 27) gives humankind a very special status. Nepeš is also related to two other great psychological words: the Sanskrit ~tman and the Greek atmos and psych�. Nepeš literally means “throat” and the other words originally mean “breath.”
While nepeš has moral and spiritual qualities, it is, much more than l�b and certainly răah, connected to what we might call animal desires and impulses. In Proverbs 8.25, for example, “the greedy person (nepeš) stirs up strife.” Nepeš can be frightened (Job 6.4), it can be the subject of loathing and weariness (Job 10.1; Jer.6.8; Ezek. 23.17f), and it can express hatred (2 Sam.5.8; Is. 1.14). In Buddhist psychology, this aspect of nepeš falls under the skandha of feeling (vedan~). Under vedan~ one finds basic impulses to act (vir§ya, piti, chanda) and the emotional polarities of raga and araga (lust and non-lust) and dosa and adosa (hatred and non-hatred). For P~li Buddhists it is cetana as moral choice that guides these basic feelings and allows people to develop the basic virtues. There will be more on cetana and the virtues in the next two sections.
Of the five Hebraic skandhas it is the blood (d~m) that has the least psychological significance. The blood, along with nepeš and răah, is the basis of all life. "The life of every creature (nepeš) is the blood” (Lev. 17.14; Deut. 12.23). Similarly, a person dies when nepeš or răah leave the body. The fact that there is a direct reference to a dead nepeš (Num. 6.6) and the plural nep~šÇt in Sheol (Ps. 30.3, a Hebrew equivalent of the shades of Hades) may indicate that the Hebrews had some notion of legal personhood, the type that we attribute to former persons for purposes of their estates. (From our discussion above, one could presume that burial bones could perform the same function.) But this would be a formal, legal designation, not an ontological one. As Hans Walter Wolff states: “nepeš is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being. . . .” This is why biblical theology can support at most only a “bestowed” immortality rather than the “natural” immortality of the Greeks, the Hindus, and the Jains. (The Sadduces were apparently true to the Hebrew scriptures when they rejected the Pharisees’ doctrine of personal immortality and the resurrection of the body.) The Buddhist j§va is also thoroughly mortal. That which drives reincarnation is not the presence of an immortal soul; rather, it is the presence of karma that must, by the Buddhist laws of causality, “ripen” in the next life.
LEB AND CETANA AS MORAL CHOICE
Nepeš is linked to cognitive processes only nine times, so it is l�b that is most closely associated with thinking and moral choice. The words l�b and l�b~b--appearing 598 and 252 times respectively—make them the most dominant anthropological term in the Hebrew Bible, particularly as they are rarely used for animals (five times) and God (only 26 times). L�b frequently occurs in the wisdom literature where its cognitive function predominates. Best translated as “heart-mind,” l�b acts as a comprehensive term for the personality has a whole, its inner life, and its character (Is. 10.7; Prov. 3.1; 24.17). For the Hebrews an intelligent person is a man of heart (Job 34.10, 34), while a fool, as the one who said that there was no God, lacks heart-mind (Prov.10.13; Ps.14.1; 53.1) The Hebrew heart-mind is also the proper expression of the personal will. This basic meaning is seen in this passage: “Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant” (Ps.78.37). Curiously, none of the ancients that we know attributed thinking to the brain, so l�b expresses all the functions that we would now ascribe to the brain. Wolff lists them as “the power of perception, reason, understanding, insight, consciousness, memory, knowledge, reflection, judgment, sense of direction, discernment.” Always sensual and somatic the Hebrews thought that the main conduit to the heart-mind is the ear. This is the most dramatic way to understand the preference of orality over textuality in all ancient cultures.
In a very instructive comparison between Aristotle and the Buddha, Damien Keown proposes that the function of moral choice is found in prohairesis and cetana respectively. Both of these terms have been connected with the European will, but no simple identity can be assumed. Just like the Hebrew l�b, neither of them are exclusively emotive or cognitive; rather, all three operate as a fusion of the two. For Aristotle prohairesis is the act of moral choice that occurs after practical reason (phron�sis) has judged an action to be correct. Keown rejects the interpretation that the Buddhist cetana is purely intellectual. He maintains that it, just as the Hebrew l�b does, integrates both intellectual and emotional aspects of the soul; like prohairesis it is both deliberative thought and deliberative desire. It organizes the entire personality to focus on the task at hand, like a supervisor in the field of workers.
Wolff also demonstrates that heart-mind is also the source of the Hebrew virtues. As in our ordinary language, “to have heart” (l�b) is to have courage--even Yahweh “strengthens his heart” (Ps. 27.14)-- and to “lose heart” is the vice of cowardice. As Wolff observes: “If a man is overcome by fear . . . his heart ‘goes out’ (Gen. 42.28), it leaves him (Ps.40.12) and drops down (1 Sam. 17.32).” Again common discourse speaks of the “swelling of the heart” as pride (Isa. 9.9; Jer. 49.16), while Jesus shows the virtue of being “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11.29). Solomon’s “hearing heart” is the source of his wisdom (1 Kgs. 3.9-12), and the virtue of contentment is to have a “tranquil heart” (Prov. 14.30). This is the functional equivalent of Aristotle’s happiness (eudaimonia), the result of all the virtues functioning well, and the Buddhist sukha, the primary quality of nirv~Şa, Buddhism’s highest good. Sukhavati is the heaven of Pure Land Buddhism where everything will be “sweet” (sukha) as opposed to the “sourness” (dukha) of unmindful living.
Wolff argues that l�b can sometimes be translated as “insight,” a “permanent consciousness” of what Yahweh requires of his people. Closely related to this is l�b as conscience, for example, when “David’s heart smote him” (1 Sam. 24.6), in what must be one of literature’s most dramatic examples of a guilty conscience. To have moral precepts “constantly present to mind” reminds one of Buddhist mindfulness, the most comprehensive Buddhist virtue. While we would argue that all ancient ethics is best described as virtue ethics, Hebrew morality is less so, because of the duty imposed by divine norms. (As a result, a Judeo-Christian duty ethic dominates the tradition except for brief intrusions of virtue ethics in thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.) Because of their strong humanism, Buddhist, Confucian, and Greek philosophers thought that virtues are developed primarily by direct experience. The Buddha once said that “they who know causality know the Dharma,” which means that they who know their own personal histories well, and are mindful of the effects of their actions on themselves and others, will know what they ought to do.
The Hebrews, Aristotle, and the Buddha refuse to dichotomize the self and to compartmentalize a flow of experience that resists such divisions. (The debate between moral rationalism and voluntarism among European philosophers is simply not an issue for these seminal thinkers.) That is why cetana is sometimes identified with karma itself (only deliberate intentions count as karmic actions) or with the skandha of sa÷sk~ra, a person’s dispositions that carry karma from one life to another. Thinking like moderns, Buddhists believed that one is only responsible for those acts one intends, but the Jains argued that this was an arbitrary and unjustified break in the web of causality. (For them there were no accidental acts or events.) It is significant to note that the Hebrews agreed with the Jains on this point. As Di Vito states: “Identical [Hebrew] words come to designate both the agent’s sin and the agent’s guilt—even the punishment to which the agent is liable. The one inevitably goes with the other, regardless of the disposition or intent of the agent.”
The sa÷sk~ras--best translated as dispositions–could be seen as a combination of both nepeš and l�b. The sa÷sk~ras cover both the disordered dispositions of vedan~ as well as the ordered habits that are the virtues. This makes the sa÷sk~ra s the locus of karma, character, will, and moral responsibility. According to Kalupahana, the sa÷sk~ras perform “a special function of process in the personality, that is, giving form, guiding or directing, setting up goals, and trying to achieve them.” As we have seen, Kalupahana attributes to the sa÷sk~ra s the "function of individuation" and they constitute, just as does l�b, our core personal identity. In the various realms of Buddhist Hell, people are grouped, just they are by Dante, according to their basic vices—for example, all those who lust, are greedy, or are gluttonous are found together in their own respective misery.
FREE WILL AS A MODERNIST INVENTION
The ancients, except for some indications in Roman philosophy, did not divide experience such that there ever arose a conceptual conflict between an internal freedom and external causality. Intellectual historians are now getting a better idea about why we find the first discussion of free-will, as Euro-Americans now debate it, in the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine also believed in the absolute sovereignty of God and the corollary doctrine of divine omnicausality. If free-will requires a power truly our own, then Augustine’s God eliminates any possibility of such freedom. Even though the will as he defines is not found there, Augustine appears to be reading his Bible correctly. Even though l�b is used almost exclusively for humans, Yahweh’s l�b (=will) is able to trump anything that humans decide to do. In Ezekiel Yahweh gives his people a “new heart,” one that is, as Wolff explains, one of “willing obedience.” The people of Israel are expected to follow of the “faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in [Yahweh’s] heart and in my mind” (1 Sam. 2.35). The author of Proverbs declares that “a man’s heart plans his way, but Yahweh directs his steps” (16.9)
In the Condemnations of 1277, the Church declared that God’s power was limited only by law of contradiction. The full implications of this view were elaborated by William of Ockham, who declared that it was logically possible (although not very probable) that while we assume that everything operates according to the laws of causality, God could in fact be causing all effects directly out of his potentia absoluta. It is important to note that, except for some Stoic discussions, divine power was generally not a prominent issue for Asians nor was it for Greek and Roman philosophers. Placing power first, even before divine goodness and wisdom, is the preference not only of Christianity but also Judaism and Islam. Anna Case-Winters observes that in Judaism “power becomes a paraphrase of the divine names, a kind of euphemism for God.” Even the delegation of divine power found in the operation of natural laws is only temporary, because God’s sovereignty will be complete in the end. The implication of the Lord’s prayer is clear: “Thy Kingdom come/Thy will be done/On earth as it is in Heaven. . .” (Matt. 6:9 -10). In Ockham’s terms what God has ordained for the world (potentia ordinata) will finally give way to absolute divine power.
The challenge posed by divine omnipotence, the most radical idea of divine power in the history of religion East or West, appears to be the catalyst for the problematizing human will power and its freedom. Commentators have also speculated that the paucity of psychological terms in Augustine’s Latin may have hindered his analysis. Sanskrit is much richer in this regard, so the writer is able to express will, intention, and choice in subtler ways. Even with their limited vocabulary, the genius of Hebrew writers lay, as Wolff explains, in the ways in which they “name things and particularly the parts of the human body, . . . and . . . express a multiplicity of fine nuances by extracting from the context of the sentences the possibilities, activities, qualities or experiences of what is named.”
These debates among European medievals could very well be the historical clue for the later development of distinctively modernist forms of thought. Because of Ockham the via moderna was in full bloom and Aquinas’ natural theology was in serious trouble. The resultant split in reason and faith gradually led to the other dichotomies of modernism, the seeds of which were planted in the late medieval period. Luther’s nominalist teachers would have flinched if they had known that he called reason “a whore,” but they had opened the floodgates for the radical fideism of the Reformation. Faith returned to the inner world, while reason found new triumphs in empirical science. The basic issues of early modern European philosophy arose out of this intellectual milieu.
Modernism gave new meaning to what it means to be a subject, and the primary source of this innovation was the ego cogito of Descartes’ Meditations. The pre-Cartesian meaning of subject (Gk. hypokeimenon; Lat. subiectum) can still be seen in the “subjects” one takes in school or the “subject” of a sentence. In this ancient sense all things are subjects, things with “underlying [essential] kernels,” as the Greek literally says and as Greek metaphysics proposed. After Cartesian doubt, however, there is only one subject of experience of which we are certain--namely, the human thinking subject. All other things in the world, including persons and other sentient beings, have now become objects of our thought, not subjects in their own right. Cartesian subjectivism gave birth simultaneously to modern objectivism as well; and, with the influence of the new mechanical cosmology, the stage was set for uniquely modern forms of otherness and alienation.
Modernism is a form of thought that loves to dichtomize. It separates subjects from objects, the inner from the outer, the private from the public, fact from value, religion and science, practice and theory. (Making these distinctions has great advantages but also, as postmodern critics have shown, profound liabilities as well.) If the freedom of the will is something subjective and causality is something objective, and if free-will happens only in an internal realm and cannot happen in an outer realm of cause and effect, then free-will and moral responsibility are indeed problems of supreme significance. It is no accident, then, that modern philosophy generated other related problems as well. The issue of the freedom of the will was joined with the problem of the ontological status of the external world, the problem of the knowledge of other minds, and the rejection of the idea of moral facts–in sum, the table of contents of an introductory text in modern European philosophy.
None of these problems and none of these modernist distinctions appear in any ancient writings of which we are aware. One could say that these people were philosophically naive, but is it possible that they were nonetheless truer to human experience? If one does not make a firm distinction between the inner and the outer, then there can be no talk about free events inside us and determined events outside of us. Neither can there be a problem of the ontological status of the external world and the skeptical impasses that arise from this. The Buddha’s empiricism--philosophically naive it was not--was first compared to Hume’s, but the most accurate parallel is to William James’ “radical” empiricism. The Buddha observed that basic experience does not divide into inner and outer; rather, the inner flows into the outer and the outer flows into the inner. It is only by some Cartesian method of systematic doubt that an inner world of ideas and perceptions is separated from an outer world of physical things. The Buddha also claimed that basic experience does not divide into facts and values, because as he said: “What one feels, one perceives; what one perceives one reasons about.” What one feels is obviously filled with values and emotions. Wolff observes that “the Israelite finds it difficult to distinguish linguistically between ‘perceiving’ and ‘choosing’” and this most likely reflects “the factual impossibility of dividing theory from practice,” a distinctively modernist strategy.
Critics might agree with the Buddha that there are no ontological bifurcations in our immediate experience, but they still might object that even though their “inner” flows into their “outer,” their “inner” does not flow into another’s “inner.” The Buddhists disagree but for a reason that many Euro-American philosophers will reject outright. The Buddha and his disciples claimed to have ESP powers and they said that they could read the contents of other people’s minds. Specifically, the Buddha claimed to be able to determine the balance on anyone’s karmic mortgage. Quite apart from the validity of ESP, one could argue that we do in fact read other people’s minds through their body language, as many people do in fact carry their emotions on their sleeves. The Buddhists would say that this minimal capacity that all of us have is the simply the potential for anyone to use the faculty of mindfulness to a very high and sensitive degree. Although usually referred to as a virtue, mindfulness (s~ti) is more accurately called the faculty (indr§ya) by which the Buddhists control the six senses (the cognitive mind is included) and their moral development. We have seen that Hebrew heart-mind is extended throughout the entire body, so they, along with the Buddhists, would agree that it is impossible to separate feeling and thinking and the organic network in which they are embedded. The Hebrews speak of secret purposes–described as “deep waters” in Proverbs–but a mindful person of “understanding will draw them out”(20.5).
THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE COMMUNITY
The Sanskrit sa÷sk~ra literally means “to put together,” presumably in the sense of bringing together all the skandhas. Our basic dispositions pull our personality together and give it its distinctive style. This, too, is dependently arisen so there can be no strict autonomy but only at most a “situated” autonomy, a term some liberal theorists are now using to counter communitarian critiques of social atomism. The best philosophical critiques of social atomism is found in thinkers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Marcel, and Buber present a dialogical view of the self rather than the monological views present in most thinkers in the Cartesian tradition. The basic insight here is well supported in common sense and developmental psychology: namely, that our identities are just as much constituted by others as they are by ourselves alone. Ironically, 20th Century thinkers are simply rediscovering what the ancients already knew and wrote about in their literature and philosophical texts.
But P~li Buddhism and none of these more recent views appear as radically communitarian as the “corporate personality” of the Hebrews. Wheeler Robinson explains this now controversial concept: "The whole group, including its past, present and future members, might function as a single individual through any of the members conceived as representative of it" We need to look to Hinduism or M~h~yana Buddhism to find similar views of the corporate personality. Here we find functional equivalents of Paul’s “not I, but Christ [in me]”—“not I, but }tman in me” or “not I but the Buddha nature” in me. Another Pauline correlation is that all humans are one and equal in the body of the Buddha just as they are one and equal in the Body of Christ.
Buddhists, Jews, and Christians also share the idea of a redemptive Suffering Servant. Assuming that readers are familiar with the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah, here is Đ~ntideva's view of the Passion of the Bodhisattva:
By my own self all the mass of others' pain has been assumed: . . . I have the courage in all misfortunes belonging to all worlds to experience every abode of pain . . . . I resolve to abide in each single state of misfortune through numberless future ages. . . . for the salvation of all creatures. . . . I for the good of all creatures would experience all the mass of pain and unhappiness in . . . my own body. . . .
In Second Isaiah the Servant appears sometimes as an individual and other times as a group, most likely Israel itself. (It is significant to note that except for one late commentary, the Jews never identified the Servant as the Messiah.) Similarly in M~h~yana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva can stand for all sentient creation and take on all of its pain and suffering. New research on the imago dei shows that only Adam before the Fall and the restored Adam in Christ truly possess the prerogative to stand as the “image of God” for all humankind. This explains why the imago dei is attributed only to Christ in the New Testament and not to all human beings.
John Rogerson and Paul Joyce have criticized Bible scholars such as Robinson who have, in their support for a Hebrew corporate personality, strongly implied that ancient people could not conceive of themselves as autonomous individuals. Both contend that there are alternative explanations for the collective punishment for individual acts that we find in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Achan’s family is executed along with him for his theft of battlefield valuables, but Paul Joyce suggests that this was done not because Achan and his family was a corporate personality; rather, it was due to the fact that Achan’s family was his property.
Joyce produces evidence that the Hebrews had a clear idea of individual morality responsibility. Even in earliest texts we find, for example, Abraham negotiating with God about individual innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, strongly implying that Abraham thought that collective punishment for individual acts was unjust. There is also this passage: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for this own sin” (Deut. 24.16). This stands in contrast to the proviso of the Second Commandment where the “iniquity of the fathers,” presumably worshiping false idols, shall be visited “upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me . . . (Deut. 5.8). Rogerson proposes that this is due to the difference between sins and crimes, the former have collective effect and the latter based on individual responsibility. This appears doubtful, because of the reference to sin in Deut. 24.16 above; and because before the establishment of secular law, the Judeo-Christian tradition did not make a clear distinction between divine law and the laws of the state. The more obvious solution is to note that the children of idolatrous fathers of Deuteronomy 5:8 still hate God and are therefore culpable for their own offenses against him.
VIRTUOUS MORAL SELFHOOD
Those who have supported the Hebrew corporate personality have also claimed that the idea of individual moral responsibility arose in the postexilic era, most likely because of Zoroastrian influence. It is the Book of Ezekiel that some point to as the most incisive example of this turning point in the Hebrew mind. We have already seen good examples of preexilic expressions of personal responsibility, but Jacqueline Lapsley’s new study of Ezekiel demonstrates that there has been a major misunderstanding of this text. Lapsley argues that Ezekiel joins preexilic authors in affirming “virtuous moral selfhood, which assumes that human beings are capable of obedience, that is, that they are able to know, intend, and act for the good.” (We will call this the heteronomous theory.) Ezekiel offers another view of Hebrew ethics, one not new to him and one that usually came about when the people of Israel suffered a great crisis. Lapsley calls this a “deterministic” view that assumes a “neutral moral selfhood” that “does not presuppose any ability to know, to intend, and act for the good.” In the face of the severe challenge of this second view, Lapsley contends that Ezekiel proposes a theonomous solution whereby the right knowledge and intentions are supplied entirely by Yahweh by the infusion of “new hearts” that we discussed above. By the way, we find it curious why this strong theonomy is not also called “deterministic.” It may be more noble to be compelled by God rather than our passions, but both are equally deterministic.
Lapsley’s book is a sophisticated analysis that is not afraid to make some normative proposals, ones that require us to descend from the Ivory Tower and face the problems at hand. Her book is also philosophically nuanced, drawing as it does on best work in moral psychology and philosophy, particularly Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Taylor produces a critique of modern selfhood that is very similar to ours. Lapsley suggests that Ezekiel’s solution to the moral crisis of his time can be of some use to our contemporary situation. She notes that her proposal has some merit because Taylor’s suggests that some “vague form of theism” might serve as a framework for solving our problems. With all due respect to Ezekiel’s genius, there is an obvious danger in Lapsley’s proposal. It is Islamic, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalists who are calling for the theonomous solution that Ezekiel’s vision entails, “a rigorous Yahwism,” as Lapsley calls it. In addition to condemning other religions, these fundamentalists also call for a rejection of all secular solutions to the world’s problems. While theistic humanism may be weak and vague in its theological proclamations, it is at least a much better fit for our multicultural world.
Lapsley argues that a theistic framework is required because moral values would be not be “grounded in anything substantive other than moral obligation alone.” Lapsley apparently fails to see that the appeal to divine authority may also face the fallacy of circular reasoning, and she also forgets that both utilitarian and Kantian ethics claim nontheistic grounding. Those who promote virtue ethics, such as Michael Slote, have also try to justify the virtues on areteic grounds alone, while giving persuasive critiques of both Kantianism and utilitarianism. We believe, however, that character consequentialism, even though a hybrid view, is the most defensible basis for virtue ethics. A good argument can be made that the virtues came first, and that moral rules are abstractions from virtuous behavior. On the other hand, moral prohibitions have been drawn from the experience of the negative consequences of the vices. The long term value of the virtues is well attested and serves as a superior moral calculus than to speculations about hedons and dolors. Furthermore, moral rules and rights as abstractions still have normative force, so that the wide cultural variation in virtues and minor vices could very well be tolerated within the context of international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Buddhists and Confucians offer another version of virtuous moral selfhood, one that avoids the reference to divine authority and is therefore more compatible with the religious neutrality of liberal democracy. Hebrew heteronomy assumes that humans have the capacity to choose the good that Yahweh has chosen for them, whereas Ezekiel’s theonomy, similar to Paul’s, holds that humans are so corrupted that they have to be made into new beings. In contrast, the Buddhist and Confucian view is fully humanistic and autonomous, in the sense of the “situated autonomy” mentioned above. We have seen that the Greeks joined the Buddhist and Confucians in the belief that humans are capable of developing the virtues from experience alone and can achieve the good life by the practice of those virtues. In Taylor’s terminology this ethics is “substantive” rather than merely “procedural”; it rejects Kant’s view that a liberal democracy that respects human rights and autonomy could somehow pacify a race of demons. The “reformed liberalism” of William Galston and Stephen Macedo, one which calls for the rebirth of strong civic virtues, still requires religious neutrality but not moral indifference. Without the cultivation of personal and civic virtue, liberal societies that operate with minimal legal frameworks face the prospect of continued moral decline, the same type of crisis that inspired Ezekiel and leads today’s religious conservatives to call for his radically theonomous solution.
What we learn from this discussion is that we should be beware of anyone who tells us that past cultures are so different from ours that we cannot possibly understand them. Oswald Spengler’s claim that his nine basic civilizations were hermetically sealed influenced Wittgenstein, and prompted him to quip that “One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all the others in its own nasty way." The fact is, however, is that we do understand one another, even in our initial and continual misunderstandings. Despite many cultural difference and but thanks to excellent translations, there is indeed what Hans-Georg Gadamer called Horizontsverschmelzung. In answer to Kipling's famous "Never the twain shall meet," one could say that East and West did meet centuries ago just as they are meeting again today with more and more understanding. Goethe said it best: “He who knows himself and others will also recognize that East and West cannot be set apart.”
Comparative philosophy is a successful academic enterprise because of the very simple fact to which Goethe alludes. We are all homo spaiens spaiens and we all share the same brains and physiologies. This means that behind some very dense cultural constructions we can expect to find a basic core of human functions and concepts. In a seminal article on Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum argues for “features of our common humanity” that includes mortality, body, pleasure and pain, cognitive capability, and practical reason. On this basis, if a text or oral tradition contains elements of premodern, modern, or postmodern thinking (defined conceptually not chronologically), we can conclude that we have thinkers from different cultures conceptualizing things or events in similar ways.
The principal difference between the constructive and deconstructive postmodernist is that the latter rejects a common humanity and eventually lands in an extreme relativism and the cultural solipsism to which Wittgenstein attests. They also differ on claims of normative reason and the canons of evidence, with the former reaffirming these essential tools. Constructive postmodernists wish to reestablish the premodern harmony of humans, society, and God without losing the integrity of the individual, the possibility of meaning, and the intrinsic value of nature. They believe that French deconstructionists are throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. The latter wish to reject not only the modern worldview but any worldview whatsoever. Constructive postmodernists want to preserve the concept of worldview and propose to reconstruct one that avoids some of the liabilities of both premodernism and modernism.
To avoid any hint of Orientalism we must emphasize that there is nothing “primitive” or “savage” about the premodern worldview. Rogerson is quite correct in his observation that premodern cultures are negatively judged by an idealized view of modern scientific worldview in which very few people, including scientists, live. (The best examples are the scientists, mostly engineers, who are creationists.) The constructive postmodernist recognizes great value in a worldview that sacralizes both nature and human community. These premodern values are still celebrated in ritual and myth, the effect of which is to sacralize the cycles of seasons and the generations of animal and human procreation. Myth and ritual facilitates the painful passage through personal and social crises, rationalizes death and violence, and controls the power of sexuality. One could say that modern societies are left to cope with their crises with far less successful therapies or helpful institutions.
As opposed to some premodern people, the Hebrews did not demonize the body and matter, and it might be argued that they anticipated the modernist view of history, certainly not a secularist progressive one, but one that rejected the idea that the arrow of time should be turned back on itself in annual celebrations of what Mircea Eliade called “the eternal return.” Therefore, let us celebrate what both Hebrews and Buddhists can contribute to the reconstruction of philosophy and theology. Let us commend them for their insights about a social, relational self that gives meaning to the human community, which social atomists see as an empty abstraction. Let us acknowledge that Buddhists and Hebrews were correct in their valorization of the body and the integral role that it plays in personal identity. Finally, we should, learning from these two great traditions, recommit ourselves to our daily and academic lives with our hearts and minds together.
Parts of this section are adapted from Nicholas F. Gier, Spiritual Titanism:Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000), chapter. 2.
Questions of Milinda, excerpted in The World of the Buddha, ed. Lucien Stryk (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1968), p. 93.
David J. Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987), pp. 20-21. Kalupahana's P~li has been changed to Sanskrit.
Peter Harvey, "The Mind-Body Relationship in P~li Buddhism: A Philosophical Investigation," Asian Philosophy 3:1 (1993), p. 31.
Ludwig Köhler, Old Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p. 142.
Surendra Verma, The Metaphysical Foundations of Gandhi’s Thought (New Delhi: Orient Longmans, 1970), p. 107.
Ecclus. 49.10. We are indebted to Graham J. Warne for these insights about Hebrew bones. See his Hebrew Perspectives on the Human Person in the Hellenistic Era: Philo and Paul (Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), pp. 70-73.
Di Vito, “Here One Need Not Be Oneself,”p. 62. See also Divoto, “Old Testament Anthropology and the Construction of Personal Identity,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61:2 (April, 1999), pp. 217-238.
Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology; and Peter Harvey, "The Mind-Body Relationship in P~li Buddhism," p. 34.
Dogen, Zuimonki II, 26; quoted in Arifuku KÇgaku, "The Problem of the Body in Nietzsche and DÇgen" in Nietzsche and Asian Thought, ed. Graham Parkes (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 220.
See Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, trans. Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), p. 8. Wolff’s classic study of Hebrew anthropology is still cited with great respect by contemporary biblical scholars, and we are heavily indebted to Wolff for insights and passages. Wolff’s book is one of the best interpretative philological analyses that we have ever read.
See D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series (New York: Grove Press, 1949), pp. 191, 365.
Questions of Milinda in The World of the Buddha, p. 99.
Walther Eichrodt, The Theology of the Old Testament: Part Two, trans. J. A. Baker (London: SCM Press, 1967), p. 147.
Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 158. Greek influence is given as the reason that the Songs of Solomon (9.15) is the only book that views the flesh as the primary cause of sin.
Wolff, p. 20.
Ibid, p. 51.
Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), pp. 220ff.
Wolff, p. 45.
Ibid., p. 48.
Đalistramba Sătra, trans. N. Ross Reat (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), §3, p. 28.
Di Vito, “One Need Not Be Oneself,” p. 68; see Lapsley, p. 9.
Kalupahana, Ethics in Early Buddhism (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995), pp. 50-51.
Parts of this section are adapted from Nicholas F. Gier and Paul K. Kjellberg, "Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will" in Freedom and Determinism: Topics in Contemporary Philosophy, eds., J. K. Campbell, D. Shier, M. O’Rourke (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 277-304.
Anna Case-Winters, God's Power, Traditional Understandings, and Contemporary Challenges (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), p. 27.
Wolff, p. 8.
Wolff, p. 51.
William Galston, Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), passim, p. 230 for a revised view of the self; Galston, "Liberal Virtues and the Formation of Civic Character" in The Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society, eds. M. A. Glendon and D. Blankenhorn (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1995), pp. 35-60. See also David L. Norton, Democracy and Moral Development : A Politics of Virtue (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991); and Stephen Macedo, Liberal Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), passim, pp. 220-221 for “situated autonomy.”
Quoted in Jacob, p. 154.
Đ~ntideva, Đik¬~ Samuccaya, trans. Cecil Bendall and W. H. D. Rouse (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971), pp. 256-257.
See Barry Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament (Belmont,CA: Wadsworth, 1995), p. 60-61.
Paul Joyce, “The Individual and the Community” in Beginning Old Testament Study, ed. John W. Rogerson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), pp. 74-89.
Lapsley, p. 4.
Ibid., p. 192.
Michael Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
See Gier, The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), chaps. 8 & 9.
Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans., Peter A. Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 86. Wittgenstein agrees with Spengler that Jewish thinkers like Otto Weininger should not be considered part of Western culture (p. 16); or that Mahler's art is "of a totally different sort" than Bruckner's (p. 20).
Quoted in David E. Shaner, “The Japanese Experience of Nature” in Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, eds. J. B. Callicott and R. T. Ames (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 181.
Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, eds. Peter A. French, Tjepdpre E. Uehling, and Howard K. Wettstein (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 32-53.
See Gier, Spiritual Titanism, chap. 2.
John W. Rogerson, Anthropology and the Old Testament (London: JSOT Press, 1984), p. 65.