Buddhism and Spinoza


Joseph B. Yesselman


Lecture 123, 4, 5, 6, 12.



1. Unless otherwise noted all material herein is taken from The Teaching Company's     "Buddhism"; 12 cassettes, 2 course guide books (CG1, CG2), and 2 transcript books (TB1 &     TB2); all authored by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel.  © 2001 The Teaching Company Limited Partnership

Only parts of seven Lectures (Lectures 1 to 6, & 12.) of a total of 24 Lectures are included     herein. I unrestrainedly recommend your study of The Teaching Company's "Buddhism" for     the complete 24 Lectures  

2. Symbols: 

    Unless noted, all comments are from The Teaching Company's "Buddhism" or Prof. Eckel.
   {JBY opinionor where, I think, Spinozism concurs or differs with Buddhism; or, Spinozism's world view.}
    R<comment from Robison and Johnson>R:Page Number
    S<comment from Strong>S:Page Number

3. My purpose is to show the insights of Buddhism and also where Spinoza's insights would,
    l believe, concur or differ.
I use the word differ instead of disagree because disagree implies     one or the other is wrong. Whereas differ implies they are both correct and useful for the         'world view' held. These different 'world views' are caused by differences of culture,     economic development, technological development, environmental conditions, climate,     personal disposition, etc., etc., etc. On the whole, I believe Spinoza puts into modern rational     language the insights of Buddhism and avoids unfamiliar parables and unfamilar catch-words     such as 'Emptiness', 'No {permanent} self", and 'Nirvana'. See Spinozism for some     concurrences and some differences. Again, over the centuries, like any other religion,     Buddhism has changed and evolved as conditions change, L12:II.


Lecture One 
What is Buddhism?

In its 2,500-year history,
from the time of the Buddha to the present day, Buddhism has grown from a tiny religious community in northern India into a movement that now spans the globe. It has shaped the development of civilization in India and Southeast Asia; has had major influence on the civilizations of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; and today has become a major part of the multi-religious world of Europe and North America. Through all of its many changes, what is Buddhism, and how should we study it? These lectures will explore the Buddhist tradition as the unfolding of a story. It is the story of the Buddha himself and the story of generations of people who have used the model of the Buddha's life to shape not only their own lives but the societies in which they live. 


I. Buddhism originated in northern India around 500 B.C.E..

II.     D. When we study the teaching of the Buddha, we will see that the diversity of the             Buddhist tradition is no surprise. 

IV. Finally, I hope the story of the Buddha and the story of Buddhism will in some way become      yours as well.


Lecture Two
 India at the Time of the Buddha 


The story of Buddhism begins in India in the sixth century B.C.E. with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who was known as the "Awakened {enlightened} One," or Buddha. What was the Buddha's religious and cultural background {Note 3}? What problems did he inherit? Why did he respond to them in the way he did? To answer these questions, we begin our study of Buddhism by looking back into the Vedas, the earliest surviving scriptures of the Hindu tradition. The Vedas tell us about the lives of Indian sages and about an Indian quest for wisdom about the nature of the world and the self. When Siddhartha Gautama "woke up" to the truth and became the Buddha, this distinctive insight made him one of the most eminent and influential of these Indian sages.

III. To unpack the religious history of India, we turn first to a body of texts known as the Vedas.

III. To unpack the religious history of India, we turn first to a body of texts known as the Vedas.

IV. The Buddha inherited this traditional Indian quest for knowledge.


Lecture Three
 The Doctrine of Reincarnation 


Along with the Indian quest for wisdom, the Buddha inherited a basic assumption about the nature of life: Human beings, like all other living creatures, lived not just one life, but came back into this world again and again in a continuous process of death and rebirth. This process is known in India as samsara, or "wandering" from one life to the next. At first glance, the idea of samsara may seem attractive, a chance to enjoy some of the things we missed in this life, but in ancient India, samsara was viewed as a burden. To escape this burden, a person had only two options: to perform {true} good actions (karma) and hope for a better rebirth or to renounce action altogether {see bodhisattva} and bring the cycle of death and rebirth to an end. 

{Cash value of reincarnation:
     1. The belief in being reborn evokes a close, personal, loving relationship (I-thee) with all life forms (the worm you          see could be your father reborn).
Also it evokes the knowledge that everything, animate and inanimate, is made          of One Eternal Substance. 
     2. Pedagogical; it is an incentive to true good behavior in order to be reborn to a higher station.} 

CG1:38 & 39
III. If samsara is considered fundamental and is also a burden, how can a person deal with it?     The answer is to follow the law of karma, the law that governs the passage from one life to     the next. {Good and bad are subjective terms; furthermore, in Spinozism there is no 'free-will and therefore
  no praise-no blame; Spinozism differs with the 'karma' hypothesis.

From W. Norman Brown's "Man in the Universe"; ISBN: 0520001850; Page 39. 


Lecture Four
 The Story of the Buddha

Historians generally agree that Siddhartha Gautama was born
in a princely family in northern India about the year 566 B.C.E. As a young man, he gave up life in the palace and set out to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. After several difficult years of study and practice, he "woke up." not only to the cause of suffering but to its final cessation. He then wandered the roads of India, gathering together a group of disciples and establishing a pattern of discipline for the Buddhist community. Finally, at about the age of eighty, he lay down and passed gently from the cycle of death and rebirth. With the simple events of the Buddha's life as a guide, Buddhists have developed a rich tradition of stories and legends that tell us not only how they have understood the founder of their tradition, but how they have built lives of wisdom and freedom for themselves.

Book I:3 - Spinoza's "On the Improvement of the Understanding"Way to wisdom.
                        Spinoza's quest for enlightenment is equivalent to The Buddha's quest. 


Lecture Five
 All {Most} is Suffering 
See glossary for definition of 'suffering'. Important.}


Buddhist tradition tells us that the Buddha rose from the seat of his awakening and walked to a deer park in Sarnath, outside the city of Banaras, where he gave his first sermon. This event is called the first "turning of the wheel of dharma [teaching]." Accounts of the Buddha's teaching begin with the simple claim that "All is suffering." People who come to the Buddhist tradition for the first time often interpret this to mean that the Buddha was pessimistic and devalued human life. Buddhists say that he was not pessimistic but realistic. To see the world through Buddhist eyes, the first and most important step is to understand how this simple claim about suffering leads not to pessimism but to a realistic assessment {knowing or attributing to G-D the chain of natural causes and their natural effects and the knowledge that things could not come to pass different than they are} of life's difficulties and to a sense of liberation and peace {of mind, nirvana}. 

 Lecture 5 - CG1:5:21 & 22.
II. In the "Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma (Dhammacakappavattana Sutta),     the traditional summary of the Buddha's first sermon, the Buddha's teaching is summarized in     Four Noble Truths.

 S>1.6 The Four Noble Truths can be stated as follows:

III. The truth of suffering {loss of peace of mind} is expressed in the simple claim that "All is         suffering." 

IV. What do Buddhists mean when they say that there is no {permanent} self? 

V. Is this view of human life pessimistic? 

Lecture 5 - TB1:81 & 82.

And this is about as deep as you can go into the Buddhist concept of suffering. When they say that "All is suffering," they mean, of course, that some things are painful {because of the loss of peace of mind; this type of pain can be mitigated by understanding.}. They mean also that some things are impermanent; that all things are impermanent and pass away. But what they mean in the most fundamental sense is that there is no permanent reality that gives anything any identity that endures from one moment to the next. It's the great Buddhist doctrine of "no {permanent} self." So, the question that we posed at the very beginning of our discussion about suffering—this question about pessimism—comes down to the doctrine of "no {permanent} self." Are Buddhists pessimistic when they say that there is no {permanent} self? That's the question.  

In a way, you could say that they are, because obviously there are lots of things that we hold on to in this world that we really like, that are associated in one way or another with this personality we're terribly fond of and anxious to protect. And when that's stripped away it begins to feel like a negative experience; it can be harsh in some kinds of situations.

But it doesn't take too much thought, I think, to realize that it's not so much pessimistic as it is realistic. The truth is, we change. Life passes. The experiences of six months ago or ten years ago are gone, and if we try to hold on to them they're going to cause us some kind of suffering. 

It's this realization {assessment, understanding} that things are impermanent {because we are all a part of an infinite organism (G-D) and the interaction of the parts change (or deteriorate) each other}, and the ability to let go of stuff that has changed and become part of our past that makes the doctrine of suffering buoyant, light, and easy {to achieve peace of mind}, and can be expressed in one way or another in that exquisite smile the Dalai Lama brings to so many of his teachings. 

To recognize that there is no {permanent} self, in the end, is not to lose anything important. It's simply to let go of the frustration and the attachment that brings suffering to this world. And in that sense, this extraordinary claim, "All is suffering," becomes a claim about freedom, about buoyancy, about lightness, and about, in the end, nirvana. Nirvana will be the topic of our next lecture. 

Lecture 5 - TB1:79.

{The First Noble Truth - The truth of suffering caused by nothing being permanent.} 

These aggregates are only momentary; think of them like flickers on a video screen {one frame of a moving-picture roll of film}. They're only momentary {derivatives, infinitesimals }, but they group together to give an illusion of some kind of continuity or permanence. Buddhists traditionally use two comparisons to express this idea. One is to say that the personality is like the stream of a river, like the flow of a stream. In fact the word "stream" is often used to name the personality: the word is santana. The personality is nothing but a stream of aggregates flowing through the world.  

Another comparison they use—quite common—is to think of the personality as a flame, as a fire. This is actually useful because it also suggests at the same time that the personality is "burning" in a painful way. It's a fire that we fuel by all of the karma that we produce; all of the actions that we perform to achieve a certain goal or to avoid a certain unhappy state. All of that karma is like throwing logs on a great bonfire, and it burns—burns constantly—changing from one moment to the next. So, Buddhists think of the personality as flowing like a river and burning like a fire. 


Lecture Six
 The Path to Nirvanna  

After describing the truth of suffering, the Buddha went on to describe the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The cessation of suffering is also called nirvana, the "blowing out" of desire. Like the concept of suffering, nirvana can seem very negative at first. In some respects, this is inescapable, Nirvana constitutes the definitive end of the cycle of rebirth. But nirvana does not need to be viewed in a purely negative way, especially when it is understood not just as the end of life, but as realization {the intellectual love of G-D} that infuses and enlivens the Buddha's experience from the time of his awakening to the moment of his death.


I. The second Noble Truth is the origin or arising of suffering.

ll. The third Noble Truth is cessation, or nirvana.

III. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path. 


 Lecture Twelve 
     {Think of 'emptiness' as a mind empty of (false) subjective thoughts; but instead, filled with
(true) subjective and objective thoughts—with understanding. See
Britannicapure consciousness.
I dislike the word 'emptiness' because 'EMPTINESS of all thought' implies a robot—no emotion, no understanding.}


At the heart of Mahayana practice lies the paradoxical and elusive concept of Emptiness. When they speak about the nature of reality, Mahayana texts claim that nothing exists in its own right. They say, in other words, that everything is "empty" of identity {because it is constantly changing}. Like many Buddhist concepts, Emptiness seems at first to be very negative, but the Mahayana tradition claims that it is exactly the opposite. Mahayana texts insist that "everything is possible for someone for whom Emptiness is possible." To understand how this can be true, we need to consider the doctrine of two truths: 

Learning to distinguish {reconciling, synthesizing Truths 1 & 2} between the ultimate and conventional {everyday} perspectives is one of the most important and liberating skills {in achieving peace-of-mind} in the practice of the Mahayana {and is Spinoza's Dictum's equivalent}.

{Everything is "empty" of identity because it is constantly changing
but at any one instant (dP/dt) there is a real and important change in the probability of your perpetuating yourself (conatus) that results in an emotion that is real at that instant (you are being run down by a car, a loved one dies  (sorrow = -dP/dt); you escape being run down, you have a new healthy child (joy = +dP/dt). Knowing G-D (equivalent to what the Buddha taught) means understanding Truth 1. You can then achieve Peace of Mind in either sorrow or joy by understanding the cause(s); or, if beyond your knowledge, by a leap-of-faith (hypothesis) attributing the understanding to the infinite intellect of G-D; i.e. the chain of natural causes and their natural effects and the knowledge that things could not have been different than they are. Causes are in G-D, are knowable now, or will be known some day. Example—losing an arm. Thus, Truths 1 & 2  are reconciled and synthesized and result in having great practical value—the possibility of achieving a modicum of Peace of Mind.}  
{change 'emptiness' to 'understanding' in order to better understand the teaching. Understanding things constantly change, helps taking (where possible) the momentary events too seriously and getting upset.} 

I.  The Mahayana introduced many important changes in the Indian Buddhist tradition, but      none was as profound or as far-reaching as the concept of Emptiness. 

II. Emptiness can be understood as an extension of the traditional Buddhist doctrine of
   "no {
permanent} self."  

From John S. Strong's "The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1995; Chapter 3 - The Dharma: Some Perspectives of Nikaya Buddhism; Page 87-88.

Lecture 12 - TB1:181 

III. The concept of Emptiness has important negative consequences. but it has a positive      dimension as well.


Essential Reading:
Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion, chapter 4, section 2, page 69.

{Spinozistic Summing-up Lecture 12Emptiness: 


Unless otherwise noted all material herein is taken from The Teaching Company's "Buddhism";
12 cassettes, 2 course guide books (CG1, CG2), and 2 transcript books (TB1 & TB2);
all authored by Professor Malcolm David Eckel.
© 2001 The Teaching Company Limited Partnership.

Only parts of seven Lectures of a total of 24 Lectures are included herein. I strongly recommend your study of The Teaching Company's "Buddhism" for the complete 24 Lectures.


Since September 1, 2004  hits.

Buddhism and Spinoza 
Revised: March 9, 2005 


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