Education, discipline, and enlightenment in Platonism and Buddhism
To understand the world, one must go out of the world. This is the premise of the Buddhist faith as well as Platonic philosophy. The world in which we live is illusion, or maia; existence as we know it is suffering. To know these things is the first step in moving beyond them. Coming back into the world to effect these understandings in a purposeful way is to arrive at a virtuous way of life. Both Plato in his Republic and Buddhism (spoken for in this essay by the Chinese folk tale Monkey) promise this in their accounts of coming to understand. For Plato it is a method of education; for Buddhism it is a journey to this knowledge in a pilgrimage of the self as it relates to existential1 truth. Both of these paths to enlightenment involve a process of negation. The self is to be understood as another illusory product of worldly contingencies; the world is to be negated as a phantasm of appearances. In Platonism, the only reality is that of the Forms: everything in the world is but a copy of these forms. In Buddhism, the only reality is suffering and illusion in the world; it does not deal with Forms that explain metaphysical truths. Instead, there is only a unity of existence out of which false categories, distinctions and individuation arise.
In Plato’s famous cave example, we see how we are engulfed in a world of representations. He goes through a series of epistemological categories which correspond to degrees of entrapment and liberation. These categories are: Illusion, in which the individual is imprisoned in the cave; Belief, in which the prisoner has been freed from his shackles and is able to examine the cave and discover that up until now he has unknowingly been held in a state of appearances; Reason, in which the prisoner can see shadows of objects in the outside world reflected into the cave; Intelligence, in which he is able to withstand the dazzling light of the outside world and can apprehend its contents; and finally Understanding or Knowing, in which the individual can look at the sun directly and know the good directly (Plato, The Republic, 259n). As far as the method of arriving at this understanding goes, Plato prescribes that the individual must be trained such that his attention is directed at properly conceived accounts of the good (or God) and the nature of reality. The goal is to make the student understand why he is doing what he is doing, and some restriction on worldly influences is necessary to achieve this, in Plato’s estimation. Here I will turn to Wu Ch’êng-ên’s Monkey2, focusing mostly on the main character, to elaborate on the connections between Plato’s account of virtue and education in The Republic, and similar themes in Buddhism as they are presented in the novel.
If, in Wu’s Monkey, we look at Monkey himself, we see an individual engaged in just such a struggle to understand the nature of the existence and arrive at a virtuous way of life. Indeed, when we first encounter Monkey, he is a creature of ego and appetite who seeks fulfillment in holding dominion over earthly objects and beings. By heroic action, he becomes the Monkey King of a tribe of primates, with the assured reign of a thousand years; however, tension arises in short order:
the Monkey King had enjoyed this artless existence for several hundred years when one day, at a feast in which all the monkeys took part, the king suddenly felt very sad and burst into tears. His subjects once ranged themselves in front of him and bowed down, saying ‘Why is your Majesty so sad?’ ‘At present,’ said the king, ‘I have no cause for unhappiness. But I have a misgiving about the future, which troubles me sorely ... to-day I am not answerable to the law of any human king, nor need I fear the menace of any beast or bird. But the time will come when I shall grow old and weak. Yama, King of Death, is secretly waiting to destroy me. Is there no way by which, instead of being born again on earthI might live forever among the people of the sky? (Wu Ch’êng-ên, Monkey, 14)
Here is a primary problem which begins individuals on the journey for enlightenment: the anxiety concerning death, and the desire to escape it. Monkey, however, is also concerned with holding onto his self, and this immediately creates a barrier between him and what he seeks. He is attempting to seek immortality, which is a preservation of the earthly conception of identity. This desire to hold onto one’s identity is constitutive of the greatest anxiety of all, that is, the extinction of the self. In The Republic, Plato pinpoints this anxiety as a key problem for those in training to be Guardians3. If a warrior is afraid of death for fear of losing oneself in annihilation, then he will not march into battle so readily or so fervently.
In his account of education (Part 3, Book 2 of The Republic), Plato examines the work of poets such as Homer and Hesiod4 searching for the cause of this anxiety and fear. He finds that they promote the attachment of the self to worldly objects and ideals instead of virtues such as bravery or honour; in this way, they are unsuitable because they direct the minds of those who read them to corrupted values. Furthermore, the attachment to the world causes them to fear death, which is the utter separation of one from the world. “’Must we not,’says Socrates in his dialogue with Adeimantus, ‘extend our range to include something that will give them the least possible fear of death?’ ‘Certainly not’ ... ‘It looks then, as if we shall have to control story-tellers on this topic too. We must ask the poets to stop giving their present gloomy account of the after-life, which is both untrue and unsuitable to produce a fighting sprit” (Plato, The Republic, 81). Plato wants the minds of those initiated into his education to be focused on the good, which is the highest virtue and Form.
In Buddhism, the highest virtue is the escape from suffering ; when one has come back into the world from his journey into enlightenment, the highest virtue to which he can attain is the alleviation of the suffering of others either by right action or through teaching the way of Buddhism. In Monkey, the character Tripitaka5 plays this role as he makes his way to the West (as well as enlightenment itself) to collect the Buddhist scriptures. His character is similar to that of the prisoner who has escaped from the cave to stand in the light and look at the sun. For Plato, the philosopher is one who comes back down into the cave to help free the rest of the prisoners by making them aware of their entrapment in the world of appearances.
Returning to the character of Monkey, another important element to which he corresponds in The Republic, is that of the bad or corrupted Guardian. Essentially, the bad Guardian is one who is out of control; he has no discipline, and has sunk into concerning himself with power in the material world (just as Monkey does when he uses his skills acquired from various spiritual masters to launch an assault on Heaven). This arises from desiring earthly ends such as wealth and power. Just as the Guardians are trained in the State, so Monkey is trained by by various spiritual masters; however, he is overly ambitious and lets his appetite for power run wild. He subverts the order of Heaven, dubbing himself “Great Sage, Equal to Heaven”, and attacks it. This is an interesting piece of symbolism in that he is attempting to undermine a system from which he cannot escape6 ; Later, during his encounter with the Buddha, Monkey is faced with this same reality. He wagers with the Buddha that he can successfully jump off of the Buddha’s right hand, but is unpleasantly surprised when he attempts to do so: he finds that five pink pillars he arrived at at the end of his leap turn out to be the Buddha’s fingers, and that, in fact, he never managed to escape from the Buddha’s presence. This is a major turning point for Monkey7 , because he realizes that he cannot exist outside the order of things, and after his imprisonment (as per the terms of the wager in the event that he loses), Monkey becomes the servant of Tripitaka, and embarks upon his journey to enlightenment.
The magic pain cap which Tripitaka tricks Monkey into wearing is perhaps the most important piece of symbolism. At first, it causes Monkey to feel pain when he misbehaves; it thereby limits his range of activities and forces him to turn his mind to more virtuous things. In Plato’s Republic, we see similar limitations when Plato restricts what trainees can and cannot expose themselves to, and where they can and cannot flex their will to act.
We shall ... prevent our guardians being brought up among representations of what is evil, and so day by day and little by little, by grazing widely as it were in an unhealthy pasture, insensibly doing themselves a cumulative psychological damage that is very serious. We must look for artists and craftsmen capable of perceiving the real nature of what is beautiful, and then our young men, living as it were in a healthy climate, will benefit because all the works of art they see and hear influences them for good, like the breezes from some healthy country, insensibly leading them from earliest childhood into close sympathy with beauty and reason (Plato, 103-4)
So, for Plato, those being educated are to be restricted from wrong thought and action, until such time as they are able to understand why it is favourable to be in harmony with the good. At that time, they will be able to understand why corruption is an evil. Similarly, Monkey has restriction forced upon him in the form of the pain cap. At the end of the story, once he has made his way to enlightenment and acts rightly for the sake of right action, he finds that the cap has disappeared. The importance of this is that as Monkey has approached enlightenment, he has begun to act properly of his own accord. Thus, when he becomes enlightened, he has no need for further punishment, because to act in any other way has become absurd for him.
Both The Republic and Monkey show that enlightenment or understanding require self control and discipline. More importantly, the enlightened one must come back into the world to give content to his understanding and effectuate good in the world, rather than remaining a contemplative subject. As for the question as to whether or not wisdom obviates the need for punishment, it is clear that this is so. Wisdom provides a rational basis for never acting wrongly, and when one has attained this level of understanding, he will always follow the right path, and therefore not engage in actions which will require punishment to correct his deviations.
1Here I use the term ‘existential’ to mean ‘pertaining to existence’ - no Sartreanesque arguments will ensue.
2 Which is, of course, a synthesis of the folk tales themselves, rather than an original work bestowed upon China with the express intent of it standing as “the folk novel of China”.
3 Those warriors trained and designated to protect the Republic and its people. Plato requires that the Guardians embody such virtues as discipline, courage, and so on.
4 The Ancient Greeks did not have holy scriptures based on some sort of divine revelation in the same manner as the Judeo-Christian or Eastern faiths such as Hinduism. Instead, their collected myths and epic poetry served as a theological and ethical foundation.
5 Drawn from the historical figure Hsuan Tsang, who journeyed to India to collect Buddhist scripture and bring them back to China in a clarified form. ‘Tripitaka’ means ‘Three Baskets’, which refers to three forms of Buddhist teachings. Interestingly, the third basket, Abhidharma, is the “systematized presentations of the teachings” (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 226n). This seems to be in concert with Plato’s belief that teachings about the nature of God should be systematized and structured in a formal, consistent manner.
6 A good parallel here is that of St. Augustine and his “stealing of the pears” episode in The Confessions, in which he engages in thievery only to throw his ill gotten gains away. Augustine admits that he did this for no other reason than to oppose himself to God’s law and assert his freedom from that order. He writes, though, that he later realized the lunacy of this idea and eventually turned toward enlightenment.
7 As well as for Monkey: while Monkey has managed to disrupt the Confucian/Taoist system in Heaven, this episode points to the fact that Buddhism is superior, and is in fact the true Way to enlightenment.