Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Compassion in Schopenhauer and Santideva

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Compassion in Schopenhauer and Santideva

Article excerpt

In this article I focus on compassion as presented by its strongest advocate, the Madhyamaka philosopher-monk Santideva, and cover four main areas: (1) previous general comparisons between Schopenhauer and Buddhism; (2) the specific relevant ethics of Santideva; (3) the specific relevant ethics of Schopenhauer; and (4) comparisons between Schopenhauer's and Santideva's moral philosophy. This will lead to my conclusion that, in a detailed treatment of ethics, the two are not compatible.

General Comparisons

Schopenhauer's philosophy has been compared to Indian thought (both Hindu and Buddhist) for some time. (2) There is an enormous variety of opinion and conclusion in this area. For example, Copleston and Kishnan have seen Schopenhauer's metaphysics as sharing only superficial features with Buddhism, whereas Muses and Dauer have seen it as the closest philosophy in the West to that of the Mahayana. Nanajivako thinks that Schopenhauer is comparable in certain areas to Theravadin Buddhism and in others to Tibetan Mahayana. Peter Abelsen seems to suggest that all comparisons are flawed and that Schopenhauer is not compatible with Mahayana or non-Mahayana forms of Buddhism; Nicholls specifically disagrees with Abelsen's view and offers a general comparison with the essential teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism. Welbon concentrates on Schopenhauer's interpretation of nirvana; Halbfass broadly finds similarities in Schopenhauer to "Indian" ideas; and Conze believes that Schopenhauer's work bears "numerous, and almost miraculous, coincidences with the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy" (222). In fact Conze, rather enthusiastically, claims that "[i]t is only on two points that he [Schopenhauer] differs from Buddhism" (223). (3)

Schopenhauer himself, rather than simply stating that his philosophy and Buddhism are comparable, gives some limited examples of where he thinks the similarities lie. For example, he is aware (by WWR2 in 1844) of the Four Noble Truths:

[In Buddhism] ... all improvement, conversion, and salvation to be hoped for from this world of suffering, from this Samsara, proceed from the knowledge of the four fundamental truths: (1) dolor, (2) doloris ortus, (3) doloris interitus, (4) octopartita via ad doloris sedationem (4) (WWR2 Payne 623)

These truths, of course, are common to all Buddhist schools and cannot be taken as anything more than evidence that Schopenhauer had a general acquaintance with Buddhism. Even by the time he wrote WWR2 it is still highly doubtful, in my view, that he would have known of the subtle differences between the major schools of Buddhism which later scholarship has afforded and it is therefore very difficult to ascertain whether or not he knew there were different schools; for example, he 3 4 tends to refer to Buddhism as it existed geographically (in Burma, Ceylon, China, Japan and Tibet) but it is not at all clear that he had a good grasp of the differences. (5) He is aware of the Perfection of Wisdom (prajuaparamita), and although (in this context) he mentions the Mahayana, there is no clear evidence that he knew what made it distinct from non-Mahayana forms of Buddhism or even if he knew that Buddhism was anything other than Mahayana even in Burma and Ceylon. In fact, he mentions the prajnaparamita as though it were generally Buddhist rather than specifically Mahayana Buddhist:

... to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies, is--nothing ... . This is also the Prajna-Paramita of the Buddhists, the "beyond all knowledge," in other words, the point where subject and object no longer exist. See I. J. Schmidt, Ueber das Mahajana und Pradschna-Paramita. (WWR1 Payne 412)

By the time he wrote WWR2 twenty six years later, he does not seem to have advanced his knowledge of the idea or the school from which it comes, nor does he mention that it is related to the Noble Eightfold Path (of which he knows by this time too; see WWR2 Payne 623), nor does he mention it in context with the other five Perfections (paramitas) of bodhisattvas. …

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