Dialogues with Death: The Last Days of Socrates and the Buddha

By Matthew Dillon

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 50, No. 4 (October 2000)
pp. 525-558

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

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The tiger, having taken the young bhikkhu [Buddhist monk] up to a rocky place, a broken edge over a hollow spot inaccessible to the bhikkhus, began to devour its prey from the feet upwards. The pursuing bhikkhus said: "Good man, there is nothing that can be done by us. The extraordinary spiritual attainment of bhikkhus is to be seen in such a place as that in which you are."
-- From Buddhaghosa's commentary [1] on the Satipatthāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 10)

Socrates, himself dying from the feet upwards, would have understood the monks' admonition in the opening passage above. In Plato's version of his master's final hours, Socrates emphasizes the point that "those who truly grasp philosophy pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead" (Phaedo 64a, cf. 67e). In the course of explaining this remarkable assertion, he goes on to develop at great length an even more remarkable thesis -- remarkable, at any rate, for one of the founding fathers of the Western philosophical tradition: after the death of the body, the immortal soul is reborn according to the merits of its former life, gradually purifying itself as it evolves into pure essence, leaving all corporeality behind. Not Buddhist doctrine exactly, but very much in the mainstream of Indian thought as it was developing more or less at this very time, the fifth century B.C.E., the heart of the so-called Axial Age. The similarity has not been lost, at least on comparative philosophers: recent articles have compared the doctrines of the Phaedo with the Katha Upanishad, Yoga, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. [2] The most obvious comparison, however, has not yet been attempted: the juxtaposition of the Phaedo with the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the canonical account of the Buddha's final days. [3] The present essay is intended to begin to fill this gap.

    Such a comparison becomes even more intriguing when we consider that these two great teachers were roughly, perhaps even exactly, contemporaneous. Lacking a historiographical tradition, Indian chronology is extremely difficult to establish, and in fact, despite India's reputation as one of the world's most ancient civilizations, the first historical event to emerge from the realm of legend is the death of the Buddha, and even that date is controversial. Recent scholarship has moved in the direction of downdating the Buddha's lifetime by a century or more from the standard 566-486 to circa 450-370 B.C.E., which would make him a junior contemporary of Socrates (whose dates are fixed rather firmly at 470/469 to 399 B.C.E.) or else, following the more traditional date, Socrates' predecessor by only one generation. [4]

    Moreover, both men must be seen against the broader background of their own culture and society, and here we are struck by a number of parallels. In both Greece and India around this time, a highly developed mythopoetic worldview, perhaps a

 

 

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thousand years or more old, was being challenged by a great flowering of philosophical systems. Opposing schools debated the nature of reality: some devised theories of the atom, and saw matter as the basis of the universe; others sought refuge in mysticism; still others rejected the concept of absolute truth and saw everything in relative terms. Taking a firm stand amid the welter of such ideas, Socrates and the Buddha developed a philosophy of the "Middle Way" and devoted their lives to teaching their vision of the Truth to all who would listen. Yet neither wrote down a word of it; in both cases we are dependent on texts composed by gifted disciples after their masters' passing. Most strikingly, these texts are recorded as dialogues, a form which allows for more dramatic presentation of character and theme, but perhaps also indicates something essential: for Socrates, the necessity for dynamic interaction with other minds as an approach to the Truth, and for the Buddha, the necessity to adapt his teaching by appreciating every individual's unique needs and capacities for understanding.

    Do such parallels imply historical connections? The "floating" chronology of India does not allow us to establish a priority that would in turn suggest a possible influence of one culture on the other at this early period. Cultural contact cannot be ruled out: communication over such great distances was greatly facilitated by the Royal Road of Persia, stretching from Ionia (cf. "Yona," the Pāli word for "Greek" in later Buddhist texts) to India, and the Greeks do show some selective knowledge of India and its culture at least from the late sixth century onward. [5] But as for the actual exchange of ideas, solid evidence is lacking prior to Alexander's invasion of northwestern India in 327 B.C.E. (According to Plutarch's Life of Alexander, chapter 64, he staged a debate between Greek philosophers and Indian "gymnosophists" or "naked philosophers" -- perhaps Jains. [6]) For the earlier period we are given some tantalizing hints: Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.E.) is said to have traveled to India, and to have espoused the theory of transmigration of souls. Even more to the point, an Indian is said to have had a philosophical conversation with Socrates at Athens. However, the testimony in both cases is highly suspect. For the Socratic dialogue with the Indian, the source is late (third to fourth centuries C.E.), and the anecdote is too brief to be of much value. [7] As for Pythagoras, he would seem an excellent intermediary, especially as he is usually said to have been an important influence on Plato (though not by Plato himself, who mentions him by name only once [8]), and particularly on the doctrines of the Phaedo, [9] but so little substance lies behind the famous name that no firm conclusions can be drawn, although we will inevitably be invoking his name frequently in this study. [10]

    In any case there is admittedly nothing to suggest a specifically Buddhist connection: Greek knowledge of India tended to be fairly generic and culturally focused on the Brahmin class; the word Buddha (in the form Boutta) does not occur until the third century C.E. [11] But Buddhism itself grew out of that milieu, and although accounted a "heterodox" movement (largely because it is not based on the authority of the Vedas), it shares much with mainstream Brahmanism. [12]

    The purpose of this study, then, is not to claim any direct influence of one teacher on the other, but rather to explore the affinity that seems to exist between

 

 

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them (and, by extension, between Greek and Indian thought), using two texts that conveniently coincide in subject matter. Of course, due allowance must be made for the vast difference not only in the nature of the principal characters (one a man who claimed to know nothing, the other an enlightened being with preternatural knowledge and power) but also in the texts themselves. Besides the fact that one is a literary work of the highest artistry and the other an oral text of composite origin, it is obvious that neither document can be accepted at face value as a historically accurate record of the events it claims to describe.

    Dramatically, the Phaedo represents not the actual death scene but a conversation some time after the fact between Socrates' pupil Phaedo, who had been present, and a certain Echecrates, who eagerly asks for a complete description. Surprisingly, Phaedo explicitly mentions that Plato himself was not present, apparently due to illness (59b). [13] Moreover, the composition of the dialogue is usually dated (admittedly by using subjective criteria like substance and style) to a vaguely defined "middle period" (380s-370s?), in the company of the Republic, Symposium, and Phaedrus, among other dialogues. [14] By this time most scholars would agree that Plato had matured as a philosopher in his own right, under the influence of other thinkers besides Socrates (in our context, especially Pythagoras) and that consequently it then becomes impossible to ascribe, with certainty, a given belief to the "historical" Socrates. [15] An even greater gap separates the date of the Buddha's parinibbāna ("final nirvana") from the ultimate form of the Mahaparinibbāna Sutta (hereafter MPNS), which, like all the suttas of the Pāli canon, purports to be an eyewitness account of the master's words and deeds, and begins with the words "Evam me sutam" ("Thus I have heard") -- the "I" being the Venerable Ananda, a favorite disciple of the Buddha. These recollections were then maintained entirely by an oral tradition, until they were finally written down in the first century B.C.E. in Sri Lanka, hundreds of years and thousands of miles from the time and place of the Buddha. [16] Even if we allow for the best efforts of Ananda and the recitation guilds, such a tradition is suspect and liable to contamination, especially with respect to additions and embellishments.

    Bearing such provisos in mind, we may begin our examination of these two extraordinary texts. Since the structure of the documents is not parallel (most notably, in contrast to Plato's careful observation of the unities of action, time, and space, the more diffuse MPNS covers the last several months of the Buddha's life and touches on a great number of doctrines, but most often in extreme summary form), the structure of our investigation must be somewhat arbitrary. I will follow the order suggested by the "Three Jewels" of Buddhism (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) -- the Master, the Teaching, and the Community of Followers.

 

The Master

Having briefly discussed some of the general questions regarding the figures of Socrates and the Buddha, it remains to be seen how they emerge as characters specifically in the two works under discussion. We will focus on the following three

 

 

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questions: what qualities do they display as teachers, how do they relate to the people around them, and how do they face their impending deaths? In all three respects, both men are characterized by an extreme openness.

 

Dealing with Students

As teachers, this openness extends first of all to their intellectual approach. Despite their own apparent conviction, they take pains to include interaction with their students -- this is, after all, the very essence of the dialogue form -- and make clear that no question is out of bounds.

    In the Phaedo, the first three arguments for the soul's immortality follow closely on one another, and their conclusion clearly marks an important stage in the dialogue; it is followed by a long silence, as most of the company are convinced (84c). Finally, two of the main interlocutors start a conversation between themselves. Socrates notices this, and asks:

Why, surely you don't feel my account inadequate? Of course it is still open to a number of doubts and objections, if you want to examine it in detail. If it is something else that you two are considering, never mind; but if you feel any difficulty about our discussion, don't hesitate to put forward your own views, and point out any way in which you think my account could be improved; and by all means make use of my services too, if you think I can help at all to solve the difficulty. [17] (84c-d)

In fact, after some hesitation, Simmias and Cebes make two elaborate objections so persuasive that not only is the previous sense of agreement thrown into confusion, but all hope of ever attaining certainty seems lost (88d). Socrates rises to the challenge. Says Phaedo to his companion:

Socrates had amazed me often in the past, Echecrates, but never did I admire him so much as at that moment. Of course, that he had something to respond was perhaps nothing unusual. But what astonished me most was first, how kindly and gently and pleasantly he took the young men's argument; next, how quickly he perceived the degree to which we were affected by their words; and finally how well he healed us and called us back, as it were, from our flight and defeat, and turned us around to follow him and join in examining the argument. (88e-89a)

Socrates in fact begins with a bit of misdirection: he toys affectionately with Phaedo's hair, and playfully compares their cooperation with the mythical duo of Heracles and Iolaos. At that point he begins a serious discussion of the power of argument and its dependence on the human factor: we must not reject logical analysis as a tool simply because we are not adequately skilled in its use. Under no circumstances should one follow those (evidently the Sophists) who believe that nothing is certain and everything fluctuates as the tide (89d-90e). In particular, he questions his own motives: in his present situation, it is to his advantage to believe in the soul's immortality, and such selfishness can cloud one's judgment (91 a-b). He concludes: "Follow my advice: think little of Socrates, and much more of the truth, and if you think what I say is true, then agree, but if not, oppose me with every argument you can" (91 c).

 

 

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    Socrates' humility here is partly ironic, after his fashion, but his point is of paramount importance: the truth is real, and logos is the best means to achieve it. And of course he does succeed, at least on an intellectual level, in vanquishing those formidable objections. But his manner is almost as important as his means: gentle, personal, unperturbed; wisdom blended with compassion.

    The Buddha is likewise determined to deal with any and all questions pertaining to his dispensation. Moments before his passing, he addresses the assembly of monks:

"It may be, monks, that some monk has doubts or uncertainty about the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, or about the path or the practice. Ask, monks! Do not afterwards feel remorse, thinking: 'The Teacher was there before us, and we failed to ask the Lord face to face!'" At these words the monks were silent. The Lord repeated his words a second and a third time [the lines are repeated verbatim in the Pāli text]. Then the Lord said: "Perhaps, monks, you do not ask out of respect for the Teacher. Then, monks, let one friend tell it to another." But still they were silent. (MPNS 6.5)

In fact there are no doubts. The Buddha knows that these monks have truly understood, and are on their way unfailingly to liberation (6.6). But he has kept open the possibility for dialogue until the last possible instant.

    Any such dialogue would have served only to clarify what had already been said. Earlier, the Buddha had made clear that he had withheld nothing of importance in his teaching, apparently in contrast to other teachers of his time. In response to Ananda's expectation of a final statement about the Order, the Buddha (referring to himself as the Tathagata, a frequent honorific title) replies: "But, Ananda, what does the order of monks expect of me? I have taught the Dhamma, Ananda, making no 'inner' and 'outer': the Tathagata has no 'teacher's fist' [18] in respect of doctrines" (2.25). Thus, according to this text, there is no esoteric side to the Dhamma; for those who have followed so far, there is nothing more to add. For others, the door is always open. On the very night of the Buddha's passing, a "wanderer" (i.e., one who has abandoned his home in search of truth) named Subhadda attempts to receive teaching from the Buddha, and asks Ananda for an audience. Ananda refuses: "Enough, friend Subhadda, do not disturb the Tathagata, the Lord is weary." This exchange is repeated a second and third time, until finally the Buddha overhears and bids Ananda to let the man in, since he is seeking enlightenment and will quickly benefit from the Buddha's replies to his questions (5.25).

    Subhadda is indeed quickly convinced, and ordained on the spot (the usual formalities are waived) by the Buddha himself -- the last disciple to be so honored. True to the Buddha's prediction, he swiftly attains perfection.

    We should also note that the substance of Subhadda's conversation with the Buddha concerned the "rival" teachers of the day, six of whom are mentioned by name. The key question: "Have they all realized the truth as they all make out, or have none of them realized it, or have some realized it and some not?" The Buddha's response is interesting: he refuses to criticize the other teachers personally, yet makes it clear that their doctrines will not lead to liberation:

 

 

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Enough, Subhadda, never mind whether all, or none, or some of them have realized the truth. I will teach you Dhamma, Subhadda... In whatever Dhamma and discipline the Noble Eightfold Path is not found, no ascetic is found [who will reach enlightenment]... Those other schools are devoid of (true) ascetics; but if in this one the monks were to live life to perfection, the world would not lack for Arahants [enlightened beings]. (MPNS 5.26-27)

As with Socrates, the truth admits no compromise: openness to question does not imply that all paths are equal. But again we should note the manner in which rival doctrines are rejected: there is no rancor, no sectarian jealousy, no ad hominem attack. The teacher is subordinate to the Dhamma; what counts is the Dhamma's effectiveness; it is a very practical matter.

 

Dealings with Others

The openness in the teacher-student relationship is extended also to those beyond the inner circle of devotees (on the Greek side, we may contrast the extreme secrecy surrounding the teachings of Pythagoras, Empedocles, and the Orphics [19]). For example, both men behave in exemplary fashion toward those who provide their last meals. The circumstances are of course quite different: the executioner has deliberately prepared the hemlock for Socrates, while Cunda the smith is unaware that the dish he has specially prepared for his honored guest is actually poisonous; but both masters know that the dish is fatal.

    Socrates bears his executioner no ill will; as the fellow gratefully acknowledges, Socrates has treated him nobly and kindly, in contrast to the usual curses from other prisoners; indeed, he knows that Socrates is not angry with him. He leaves the hemlock and departs in tears, amid elaborate praise from Socrates (Phaedo 116c-d). Similarly, the Buddha graciously eats his portion of the "pig-delight" (sukara-maddava, the exact nature of which is unknown) offered by Cunda the smith, but bids the others refrain, and the rest of it should be buried (MPNS 4.19). Of course, there is no question of evil intent on Cunda's part, but the Buddha is concerned lest the man feel guilty, and consoles him with the remark that Cunda should rather be praised, because "the Tathagata gained final Nibbana after taking his last meal from you!" (4.42). Since neither man feels that his impending death is an evil thing to be avoided, it is only natural for them not to resent the proximate causes, but the sensitivity with which they communicate this to the persons responsible is indicative again of the compassion that characterizes both men.

 

Facing Death

Certainly one of the most inspiring features of the Phaedo is the confidence and good humor with which Socrates faces his imminent demise -- an attitude consistent with that expressed in the Apology and Crito, two dialogues likewise set in the final days but presumably written a decade or two earlier. In this regard Socrates yields nothing to the supreme equanimity of the Buddha, who is of course ontologically beyond fear and doubt. Both of our texts also deal at some length with the contrast

 

 

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between the serenity of the teacher on the one hand, and the doubts and emotional distress of his followers on the other; the latter, through human frailty, have not realized the truth of the master's teaching. Further points of comparison are offered by the actual deaths of the masters and the descriptions of the funeral arrangements.

    Socrates' composure is stressed by Phaedo at the outset:

I felt such strange feelings when I was there. Pity didn't arise in me, as it otherwise would at the death of a friend, because he seemed happy both in his manner and his speech, so fearlessly and nobly did he die, such that it appeared to me that this man was not going to Hades without divine providence, and would fare well when he arrived, if anyone ever would. (Phaedo 58e)

Exactly what Phaedo means by divine "providence" (moira, often translated as "fate") is not explained, but Plato certainly portrays Socrates as exceptionally pious with respect to the traditional gods -- perhaps as a corrective to his conviction on a charge of impiety. It is in response to a repeated dream vision (which demands "Make music, and practice!") that Socrates composes his only written works: a hymn to Apollo (whose festival, currently in progress, has postponed the execution) and poetic versions of Aesop's fables. In the past, Socrates has taken the vision's message as a command to practice his own brand of "music," that is, philosophy, but now he takes it more literally, just to be sure (Phaedo 60e-61b). Such a reaction is typical of "popular" piety, which presumes that we must obey the gods, but does not pretend to understand exactly what they want from us. [20] But Socrates is certain that whatever they want, it must be for our own good. Later, as an argument against suicide, he endorses the statement that "the gods are our caretakers and we humans are one of the gods' possessions" (62b), and then expresses confidence that he is going to gods who are "wise and good" (63b) and "good masters" (63c). It is interesting that not only the existence but, even more, the goodness of the gods is taken for granted here; his interlocutor Cebes also agrees that they are "the best overseers there are" (62d). This is no common article of faith in fifth-century Athens, yet it is basic to the arguments of the Phaedo, which presumes a just universe as a backdrop for the soul's journey. Not much more is made of the master-slave metaphor as the dialogue proceeds, however: the soul is seen as very much a free agent as it works its way to liberation, not from the gods, but from the physical world of the body.

    This is indeed one of Socrates' main points: the reason that the "the man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is courageous when about to die, and optimistic that he will achieve the highest good there when he dies" (64a) is because "death is the separation of the soul from the body" (64c), and only when the soul is unencumbered can it be truly free and pure; it is in this sense that "those who truly grasp philosophy pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead" (64a). But it is one thing to construct rational arguments to this effect -- even convincing ones -- and another to have the courage of these convictions. In the Phaedo, all wind up agreeing with Socrates on an intellectual level that the soul is immortal, and that he is headed for a better life, but only Socrates succeeds in acting in a manner consistent with that belief. In such matters, logos takes you only so far.

 

 

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    The characters, especially Socrates, are aware of this gap between intellectual agreement and true belief. At the end of a long "proof" that the soul is imperishable, Simmias admits that while he cannot refute the arguments, both the magnitude of the problem and human weakness leave room for doubt (107b). Earlier, when Socrates ridicules as "childish" the fear that the soul can be blown away by the wind,

Cebes laughed, and said, "Socrates, try to persuade us as if we had that fear, or rather, not as if we were afraid, but perhaps there is a child within us, who fears such things. So let's try to persuade that child not to fear death like some bogeyman." "Well," said Socrates, "you must chant a spell over him every day, until you charm it out of him." (77e)

The charm wears off quickly. Socrates twice remarks on his failure to persuade his companions, despite his best efforts: once to Simmias (84e) and once to Crito (115c); both times he does so "with a laugh," showing characteristic good humor rather than disappointment or annoyance. He can overcome their minds with dialectic; apparently he has no illusions about winning their hearts. Devoted friend that he is, Crito (in some ways the counterpart of Ananda) in particular cannot learn the lesson. Shortly after the passage just cited, he pleads with Socrates to postpone drinking the poison: it is not yet sunset, others have put it off till late, there is still time. Such conduct, Socrates patiently explains, is fine for others, but not for him; he has nothing to gain by so doing, and would only appear ridiculous to himself; he orders the poison brought without delay (116e-117a).

    The contrast between perfect master and flawed pupils culminates at the death scene. When the cup is brought, Socrates takes it "very gently, without trembling or changing color or expression" (117b). With a prayer to the gods that his departure to the next life be fortunate, he drinks the hemlock "very calmly and contentedly." Phaedo then describes the entire group's gradual breakdown into tears, except for Socrates himself, who rebukes them, adding "I have heard that one ought to die in silence. Keep quiet and be strong!" Ashamed, they finally gain control of themselves (117c-d).

    The famous death scene that follows immediately presents two questions. First, as to the manner: as the poison takes hold, it has a numbing effect on Socrates; the chill spreads from his feet upwards until it reaches his heart; he shudders and is gone (118a). The description of a gentle, painless death seems appropriate for such a man, "the best and most intelligent and most just of all we knew," in Phaedo's concluding words. But it is also apparently pure fiction. Comparing other ancient and modern accounts of hemlock poisoning, Christopher Gill has documented that its effect is quite the opposite of the peaceful, regular process described by Plato: typical symptoms include distortion of speech, vomiting, and convulsions. [21] Plato has evidently sanitized the gruesome details to harmonize with the atmosphere of dignity and consolation that he has been at pains to create. In Plato's ideal vision, the soul sheds the body like a cast-off skin -- a perfect death calculated to allay any "childish" fears the reader may still entertain. Dramatically, the scene is a triumph. But in using such license to manipulate the truth, Plato shows himself more a poet than a philosopher.

 

 

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    Second, there are Socrates' famous last words: "Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please pay it off and don't forget" (118a). Asclepius is a god of healing, but exactly what Socrates means here has escaped everyone, starting with Crito himself, who seems to be expecting more: "It will be done," said Crito, "but see if you have something else to say." No reply, and no comment by Phaedo or his companion. Few can doubt that Plato, consummate artist that he was, could have passed up this ultimate opportunity for a major statement, and so modern opinions have searched for hidden, perhaps mystical, meanings: Socrates is referring to an unknown incident in the past, to his gratitude for being healed from the sickness of life, to Plato's illness, and so forth. [22] Rather than offer another key to the puzzle, let us leave it at that: it is a puzzle. Simple or esoteric, Socrates' last words remain a mystery to us; if we are looking for a final nugget of wisdom, we are disappointed. It may be part of Plato's art to leave us baffled, rather than to rest content with some inspirational message, although such a strategy seems at odds with the otherwise uplifting and satisfying atmosphere of the final scene. For the purposes of our contrast, it will suffice to note that the words convey no obvious lesson.

    Like Socrates, the Buddha made a conscious choice to die at a specific time, but the circumstances were quite different. The Buddha never ran afoul of the authorities; quite the contrary, his advice was eagerly sought by heads of state (MPNS 1.1 ff.), and various ruling clans mourn his passing and compete for the honor of enshrining his relics (6.24 ff.). Instead, the Buddha voluntarily decided to relinquish his life in a rather elaborate series of episodes; natural and supernatural forces conspire to bring on the end, but the Buddha is depicted in complete control throughout. The first evidence of decline occurs at 2.23, when "the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness, with sharp pains as if he were about to die." With great effort, he recovers. Later, he tells a relieved Ananda:

Ananda, I am now old, worn out, venerable, one who has traversed life's path, I have reached the term of life, which is eighty. Just as an old cart is made to go by being held together with straps, so the Tathagata's body is kept going by being strapped up. It is only when the Tathagata withdraws his attention from outward signs, and by the cessation of certain feelings, enters into the signless concentration of mind, that his body knows comfort. (2.25)

The homely image of the worn-out cart stresses the inevitability of a process naturally approaching its end. The body of the Buddha has almost outlived its usefulness; as its functions are impaired with age, only increased meditative techniques provide relief, "strapping up" the physical side of the mind-body entity. Yet there is no evident antagonism toward the body, as is occasionally found elsewhere in early Buddhism. [23] We may contrast Socrates' repeated metaphor (borrowed from the Orphics? [24]) of the body as a prison from which the soul must escape (Phaedo 62b, cf. 67d, 81e, 82e, 92a), as something that hinders our search for truth (66a, d), that enslaves us with its needs (66c-d), or even as an evil by which the soul is contaminated (67a; cf. 83d).

    As in the Phaedo, the MPNS presents the same sharp contrast between the

 

 

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serenity of the master and the dismay of his followers, who have yet to realize the truth of his teachings. Consonant with the oral nature of the sutta, the "thematic" sequence of grieving outburst/didactic response is usually presented formulaically, with only minor changes from scene to scene. Only Ananda is granted a certain amount of individuality in this complex. After the Buddha's recovery from the initial bout of illness, Ananda exclaims: "Lord, I have seen the Lord in comfort, and I have seen the Lord's patient enduring. And, Lord, my body was like a drunkard's. I lost my bearings and things were unclear to me because of the Lord's sickness" (2.24). Later, near the end, Ananda "went into his lodging and stood lamenting, leaning on the door-post: 'Alas, I am still a learner with much to do! And the Teacher is passing away, who was so compassionate to me!'" (5.13). This elicits a tribute to Ananda's virtues, but not before the Buddha issues the following admonition:

Enough, Ananda, do not weep and wail! Have I not already told you that all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other? So how could it be, Ananda -- since whatever is born, become, compounded is subject to decay -- how could it be that it should not pass away? (5.14)

    The lesson of impermanence (anicca) is in fact one of the leading motifs of the sutta. The crucial test is one's reaction to the Buddha's passing: the unenlightened grieve, the enlightened accept. Notably (and in sharp contrast to Greek thought), this distinction is more important than that between human and divine; the gods (devas), too, themselves impermanent, fall into the same groups, as the Buddha explains:

Ananda, there are sky-devas whose minds are earthbound, they are weeping and tearing their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning, crying: "All too soon the Blessed Lord is passing away, all too soon the Well-Farer is passing away, all too soon the Eye of the World is disappearing!" And there are earth-devas whose minds are earthbound, who do likewise. But those devas who are free from craving endure patiently, saying: "All compounded things are impermanent -- what is the use of this?" (5.6)

On the human plane, the exact same reactions ("weeping and tearing their hair, etc.") characterize the response of the Malla clan (5.21) to the news that the Buddha will soon enter final nirvana, and again after the event (6.12). With appropriate adjustments, the sequence is repeated twice more to describe groups of monks following the final nirvāṇa (6.10-11, 6.19-20).

    The point in both our texts is basically the same: grief is misplaced and betrays a lack of understanding of the master's teaching. The difference in style may be related to the manner of composition (oral versus literary). In particular, we may contrast Plato's dramatic economy, building to a crescendo in the final scene, with the more diffuse didacticism of the MPNS: the lesson is profound, but not subtle; verbatim repetition hammers it home. Only Ananda grieves uniquely and stands out a bit from the crowd, adding a touch of that human pathos so abundant in the death scene of the Phaedo. Note also that the enlightened response of certain devas and monks finds no counterpart in Plato: apparently none of Socrates' devotees made quite the

 

 

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breakthrough to reach his level of awareness. In this respect the Buddha succeeded where Socrates failed, and this has some bearing on the question of the Sangha, the community of disciples committed to carrying on the teaching of the master. We will return to this in the last section of this essay.

    One might expect that, out of respect for the greatness of the Tathagata, the physical details of his demise might be suppressed, much as Plato apparently censored the effects of the hemlock. Certainly the sutta does not dwell on grisly details, but neither does it ignore or falsify them. After the Buddha consumed the indigestible (for ordinary humans) "pig-delight" offered by the smith Cunda, "the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhea, and with sharp pains as if he were about to die. But he endured all this mindfully and clearly aware, and without complaint" (4.20). Further references to purging (4.20), exhaustion (4.21, 4.39, 5.24), and thirst (4.22), however brief, make clear that there is no attempt to portray the Buddha as beyond the weakness of the flesh. In this respect the MPNS shows itself to be the more realistic of the two texts. Yet the parinibbāna itself is presented as a spiritual event in the yogic tradition: the Buddha enters the series of four lower meditative states known as jhanas, followed by the four higher "spheres" (6.8). So subtle is the last of these (the "Cessation of Feeling and Perception") that Ananda mistakes it for the end; he is corrected by the more insightful Anuruddha. Finally, the Buddha descends through the same sequence, then ascends again to the fourth jhana, and "leaving the fourth jhana, the Lord finally passed away" (6.9: Bhagava parinibbayi). As at the moment of his fatal decision, a thunderous earthquake marks the momentous event (6.10; cf. 3.10).

    Just prior to these meditative exercises, the Buddha utters his final words: "Now, monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay -- strive on untiringly." [25] Commentators may haggle over nuance here, [26] or even question the text, [27] but their basic meaning is quite straightforward, emphasizing both doctrine (vaya or "decay" is a variation on anicca, so important in this sutta) and practice (root: sampada, "success," "happiness," "attainment"; appamada, "attentiveness"). Appropriate as they are in context, they are not new or unique: the same phrase occurs earlier (3.51) as the Buddha announces his final decision to the monks, and is found elsewhere in the canon. [28] Nevertheless, they fulfill admirably the typical role of famous last words, to be recalled as a source of inspiration, and as such contrast sharply with the enigmatic utterance of Socrates in the Phaedo.

 

Funeral Arrangements

The cornerstone of Socrates' positive attitude toward death is the immortality of the soul (with which the self is identified) and the corresponding devaluation of the body. Consistent with these beliefs is his indifference to the matter of burial. The issue arises in the first exchange with Crito cited above. When Crito asks how they should bury him,

"However you want," he said, "if you can catch me and I don't escape you." And he laughed quietly and looked at us, saying: "I can't persuade Crito that the Socrates I am is

 

 

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the one who is now conversing and constructing each of the arguments, but he thinks me to be the one he'll see as a corpse a little later, and so he asks how to bury me... But you must assure him that I will not remain behind when I die, but will take leave and depart, so that Crito will bear it more easily, and not grieve for my supposed suffering when he sees my body being burnt or buried, nor say at my funeral that it is Socrates he is laying out or bearing to the grave or burying... You must be courageous and say that it is my body you are burying, and bury it however seems to you proper and most customary." (115d-116a)

To appreciate this passage we should recall the crucial importance of funereal ritual in Greek society. Already in the Iliad it serves as a major theme, in both the breach (the mutilation of Hector's body) and the observance (the elaborate funeral ceremony for Patroclus). In begging Achilles for proper burial, the ghost of Patroclus makes the reason clear: "Bury me as quickly as possible, and I will pass through the gates of Hades. The souls, the ghosts of the dead, keep me at a distance, and don't allow me to join with them beyond the river, so I wander alone by the wide gates of Hades" (Iliad 23.70-74). The ghost of Elpenor makes a similar plea in the Odyssey (11.71 ff.)

    To grant final rest to the departed imposed a sacred duty on the survivors: Sophocles' Antigone is perhaps the most famous example. Nor is this merely a literary motif; there is ample evidence for the extreme care taken in such arrangements by average citizens. [29] Socrates' lack of concern for the fate of his corpse sets him apart from the mainstream of Greek culture, and testifies to the depth of his convictions about the nature of death and the afterlife of the soul, which has nothing to do with the state of the body. At most, he allows for the proper ritual as a consolation for his friends and family; it will not affect him in any substantive way. This confident and courageous stance in the face of ancient (and practically universal) sanctions would seem to accord well also with early Buddhist ideas of impermanence, but we will see that in the MPNS there is a pronounced ambivalence with respect to the dispensation of the Buddha's remains.

    The emphasis on the impermanence of compounded things that we have seen so far would seem to imply that the Buddha would have no great concern for his bodily remains; "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." In fact, the relevant passage of the MPNS begins very much with the same attitude of indifference so nobly maintained by Socrates in the Phaedo: Instead of Crito, it is Ananda who says:

"Lord, what shall we do with the Tathagata's remains?" "Do not worry yourselves about the funeral arrangements, Ananda. You should strive for the highest goal, devote yourselves to the highest goal, and dwell with your minds tirelessly, zealously devoted to the highest goal. There are wise Khattiyas [warrior or princely caste], Brahmins and householders who are devoted to the Tathagata: they will take care of the funeral." (5.10)

But the text does not stop there. Ananda repeats the question, and this time the Buddha instructs Ananda that his body "should be dealt with like the remains of a wheel-turning monarch": this includes two cloth wrappings "five hundred times each," two iron chambers, a funeral pyre with various unguents, and a stupa to be

 

 

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raised at the crossroads. "And whoever lays wreaths or puts sweet perfumes and colors there with a devout heart, will reap benefit and happiness for a long time" (5.11).

    The funeral is eventually even more elaborate than that. The Malla clan of Kusinara organizes a magnificent ceremony at which "they honored, paid respects, worshipped, and adored the Lord's body with dance and song and music, with garlands and scents, making awnings and circular tents" -- and this goes on for six days (6.13). On the seventh, the devas (whose will is interpreted by the adept Anuruddha) direct that the body be carried through the city in a certain way, at which "even the sewers and rubbish heaps of Kusinara were covered knee-high with coral-tree flowers" (6.16), and the body is prepared exactly as the Buddha had prescribed (6.17). Miracles also attend the cremation: despite great effort, the pyre cannot be lit until Kassapa the Great arrives, after which it bursts spontaneously into flame (6.21-22). Of the burned body only the bones are left, all else "vanished and not even ashes or dust remained"; thereafter "a shower of water rose from the sky, and another which burst forth from the sal-trees extinguished the pyre" (6.23). As for the relics, a great dispute arises among the claimants; a Brahmin eventually divides them equally in eight portions, with the urn making a ninth and the embers a tenth; all these are enshrined in stupas (6.24-28). [30]). With that, the sutta comes to an end.

    Given the Buddha's great fame and favor, it is not difficult to imagine the Mallas conducting a lavish funeral along the lines described above. What strains credulity, however, is the attribution of such precise instructions to the Buddha himself, especially after his earlier statement of indifference, a statement that in fact accords better with the doctrine of impermanence that is one of the hallmarks of the Dhamma, and of this sutta in particular. The devotional strain that is everywhere apparent in the development of Buddhism quite naturally finds a place also in the Pāli canon, and we may well suspect some such process at work here. In this reading, section 5.11, with its description of the obsequies for a "wheel-turning monarch" and the merit attached to the ritual adoration of the relics, will have been a later addition by way of magnifying the founder and encouraging the formal worship of the laity. Of course the murky textual tradition precludes any certainty in these matters, but the tension within the text at least justifies some suspicion. If this is accepted as plausible, it is worth noting that the later devotional passages did not displace the presumably earlier section, with its more austere indifference, but were simply appended to it. Thus the sutta seems to have grown by accretion rather than consistent editing, and if this is the case, it increases its value as a source for original doctrine.

 

The Teaching

It is our duty to do one of two things: either to ascertain the facts, whether by seeking instruction or by personal discovery; or, if this is impossible, to select the best and most dependable theory that human intelligence can supply, and use it as a raft to ride the seas of life -- that is, assuming that we cannot make our journey with greater confidence and security by the surer means of a divine revelation. (Phaedo 85c-d)

 

 

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    Simmias' comment to Socrates seems remarkably close to the well-known Buddhist image of the Dhamma as a raft on the sea of saṃsāra, the cycle of life, to be clung to as long as necessary but discarded when no longer helpful. [31] Both Socrates and the Buddha saw their teaching as essentially a practical matter, as a means to an end. The whole process is described by Socrates as the grand conclusion to the first three arguments for the immortality of the soul, namely the cyclical argument (69e-72e) that opposites come from opposites, and thus the living from the dead; the recollection argument (72e-78b) that all learning is a recollection of knowledge that must have been acquired in previous lives; and the affinity argument (78b4-82c) that the nature of the soul is more like the unchanging essence of reality, while the body is more like the constantly changing phenomenal world. At the end of this last section, Socrates takes the affinity argument one step further, claiming that the nature of a soul's rebirth is directly related to that soul's previous behavior. He then embarks upon a very important description of the philosophical soul's progress toward liberation:

[The souls of "inferior" people] continue wandering until at last, through craving for the corporeal, which unceasingly pursues them, they are imprisoned once more in a body. And as you might expect, they are attached to the same sort of character or nature which they have developed during life... [T]hose who have cultivated gluttony or assault or drunkenness, instead of taking pains to avoid them, are likely to assume the form of donkeys and other perverse animals.... (81e-82a)

But no soul which has not practised philosophy, and is not absolutely pure when it leaves the body, may attain to the divine nature [theon genos, "race of gods"], but only the lover of learning... (82bc)

And so, Cebes, those who care about their souls and do not devote themselves to the body dissociate themselves firmly from these others... [T]hey believe that it is wrong to oppose philosophy with her offer of liberation and purification, so they turn and follow her wherever she leads... (82d)

Every seeker after wisdom knows that up to the time when philosophy takes it over, his soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars, and wallowing in utter ignorance. And philosophy can see the ingenuity of the imprisonment, which is brought about by the prisoner's own active desire, which makes him first accessory to his own confinement. Well, philosophy takes over the soul in this condition and by gentle persuasion tries to set it free. She points out that observation by means of the eyes and ears and all the other senses abounds with deception, and she urges the soul to refrain from using them unless it is necessary to do so, and encourages it to collect and concentrate itself in isolation, trusting nothing but its own isolated judgment upon realities considered in isolation, and attributing no truth to any other thing which it views through another medium in some other thing; such objects, she knows, are sensible and visible but what she herself sees is intelligible and invisible. Now the soul of the true philosopher feels that it must not reject this opportunity for release, and so it abstains as far as possible from pleasures and desires and griefs... (82d-83b)

 

 

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    Now there is an obvious and significant series of parallels between the terminology of this excerpt and that found in Indian texts of the same general period, Buddhist and otherwise. To begin with, in asserting that the form of the newly born soul depends on its nature in a former life, Socrates comes close to the doctrine of karma (Pāli: kamma), namely that action bears consequences and that these are worked out over time "on the wheel of birth." "Liberation" (Gk: lysis, "release" [82d]) recalls the Sanskrit moksha (Pāli: mokkha, vimokkha, vimutti), the release from saṃsāra that constitutes the ultimate goal of Brahmanism and Buddhism alike, while "purification" (Gk: katharmos [82d]) would correspond to the Pāli visuddhi, a concept inherent in the buddhadhamma, but best known through the massive compendium of the fifth-century C.E. commentator known as the Visuddhimagga, the "Path of Purification." We may compare Socrates' statement about "ignorance" (Gk: amathia [82e]) distorting the imprisoned body's view of reality with Nyanatiloka's comment on the Pāli avijjā (Skt: avidyā) as "the primary root of all evil and suffering in the world, veiling man's mental eyes and preventing him from seeing the true nature of things." [32] That the cause of this imprisonment is our own "desire" (Gk: epithymia [82e]) accords well with the Second Noble Truth, that the cause of suffering is desire (Pali: tanha, "thirst").

    Personified Philosophy warns that the reliance on the senses (Gk: aistheseis [83a]) leads to "delusion" (Gk: apate [83a]), just as we hear frequently that the "sense-bases" (Pāli: indriya, ayatana) likewise lead to delusion (Pāli: moha). As an antidote, Philosophy urges the soul to "collect and concentrate itself in isolation" (Gk: auten de eis hauten ksyllegesthai kai athroizesthai), an apt description of the Pāli samādhi ("concentration"), the last element of the Eightfold Path. [33] The soul should trust only in its "isolated judgment" (Gk: ho ti noesei aute kath' auten), just as the Buddhist relies on the knowledge derived from samatha-vipassanzza (Pali, "tranquility and insight"). The Platonic philosopher will thus abstain "as far as possible from pleasures and desires and griefs" (83b) just as the Indian aspirant cultivates an ascetic lifestyle (brahmacarya) characterized by equanimity (Pāli: upekkha).

    These remarkable similarities suggest just how much common ground exists between Greek and Indian thought in the Axial Age, the main difference being that such ideas belong to the Indian mainstream (found -- with individual nuances, of course -- in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gītā, and the sūtras of Jainism, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, and Buddhism), while in Greece they are confined to a minority of philosophers and sects on the periphery (e.g., Pythagoras, Empedocles, Orphism). Two concepts in particular deserve special notice: the doctrine of reincarnation and the emphasis on purification.

    Earlier in the dialogue, Socrates introduces the concept of transmigration [34] as part of his "cyclical" argument for the soul's immortality; at that point he recalls "an ancient tradition" (palaios ... logos [70c]) that souls are born from the dead, which implies a source older than either of the two Greeks credited with being the first to circulate such ideas in Greece, Pherecydes of Syros [35] and Pythagoras. [36] The historian Herodotus, a contemporary of Socrates, attributes the belief to the Egyptians (2.123), his standard source for ancient doctrine, but this claim is usually rejected for

 

 

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lack of evidence. [37] M. L. West rightly points out that Herodotus must have based his statement on personal knowledge gained during his stay in Egypt, [38] but that trail has left no traces; he also states that the precise form of the doctrine "of the soul's progress through many thousands of years" "is found, outside Greece, only in India, and it is found there in a form strikingly like the Pythagorean." [39]

    It is somewhat surprising to learn that even in India the belief in transmigration is attested only in the later scriptures. The Rig Veda contains only brief hints that could scarcely be so construed without the benefit of hindsight; [40] not until the Upanishads do we stand on firmer ground. [41] As usual, dating is approximate at best, but we are probably not far from the beginnings of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which presume highly developed theories of rebirth, as do the classic later strains of Hinduism. Thus, the doctrine seems to have been introduced rather late (eighth-fifth centuries B.C.E.?) but then to have rapidly, widely, and firmly been accepted by just about every major system of Indian thought.

    In Greece the time frame is comparable, though the reception is not. Pherecydes and Pythagoras belong to the sixth century B.C.E. In the early to mid-fifth century, the doctrine appears not only in the Presocratic Empedocles [42] but also in the lyric poetry of Pindar (Olympian 2.55-56, frag. 133), which indicates some exposure outside philosophical circles. [43] Yet none of these would seem to justify Socrates' calling the tradition "ancient." That word points in the direction of Orpheus, the legendary poet-priest, whose myths would place him some time before the Trojan War (ca. 1200 B.C.E.?). In fact, the cult of "Orphism," of which he was the reputed founder, seems also to date from the sixth century B.C.E., [44] but his mythical associations were sufficiently "ancient" to warrant that epithet for the cult's beliefs. [45] Just what those beliefs were is very difficult to say with precision. There is a great deal of confusion between Orphism and Pythagoreanism, partly at least because both sects were compulsively secretive, partly because the Pythagoreans also laid claim to the Orphic texts. [46]

    For us it is less crucial to separate the strands of similar systems than to point out that the Orphics, Pythagoreans, Empedocles, and Plato were all expounding doctrines of a cycle of rebirths from which the soul is striving to gain release. The degree of influence each of the others may have had on Plato is arguable, but no one would claim that he was ignorant of them, and it may be relevant to note that (according to most chronologies) Plato spent some time in Italy and Sicily before writing the Phaedo, and both places were major centers for both Pythagoreanism and Orphism. [47]

    The emphasis on purity is nothing unusual in Greek religion, [48] but combined with the doctrine of metempsychosis it acquires new meaning, as the requisite for progress toward ultimate release from the cycle of rebirths. Here, too, the Orphics and Pythagoreans had already broken ground: followers of both sects practiced an ascetic lifestyle that has been characterized as "puritan." [49] The point may be grasped from Empedocles' Katharmoi ("Purifications"). The fragments of that poem seem to indicate that the soul moves upwards through various incarnations: "Already I have once been a boy and a girl/and a bush and a bird and a silent fish in the sea" (frag.

 

 

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117) -- until finally: "In the end they are seers and hymn-writers and doctors/and princes among earth-dwelling men;/ and then they arise as gods, highest in honor." [50]

    This accords well enough with Socrates' views about the ascent of the soul to the "race of the gods" in the passage quoted above. The ultimate release into divine nature can also be paralleled in Indian sources, as the Self (Ātman) realizes its identity with Godhead (Brahman). [51] This does not exactly describe final nirvāṇa in Buddhist terms (the doctrine of anatta asserts that there is no self, no atta [Skt: ātman]), but the precise difference defies definition, and the overall concept of the process is rather astonishingly similar in both the Greek and Indian sources of this period.

    It is somewhat ironic that the passages above from the Phaedo, which, more than any other in Plato, justify our comparative approach, find almost no direct counterpart in the MPNS. In fact, the sutta presents no sustained discussion of any individual point of doctrine, but rather attempts to summarize the Dhamma as a whole, most often by shorthand references, via numerical lists (e.g., the "seven factors of enlightenment" [1.9], the "four foundations of mindfulness" [1.17], etc.), to important teachings that are more fully explained elsewhere in the canon. Even more tantalizing is the repeated reference to the Buddha's "comprehensive discourse," which he delivers on seven different occasions, but only in the following summary form:

This is morality, this is concentration, this is wisdom. Concentration, when imbued with morality, brings great fruit and profit. Wisdom, when imbued with concentration, brings great fruit and profit. The mind imbued with wisdom becomes completely free from the corruptions, that is, from the corruption of sensuality, of becoming, of false views and of ignorance. (1.12, 14, 18; 2.4, 10; 4.4, 12)

Morality, concentration, and wisdom are the traditional divisions of the Eightfold Path, the last of the Four Noble Truths, but these also are alluded to only briefly (e.g., 2.2, 3.50) and with little elaboration. Their relative importance may be judged by the frequency with which the Buddha delivers this sermon, but the substance is taken for granted. There is no problem finding counterparts to most of the features of Plato's "Path to Purification" above, such as concentration (samādhi, in the "comprehensive discourses" noted above), equanimity (upekkhā, 1.9), ignorance (avijjā, 1.12), liberation (vimutti, 1.16, 4.2; vimokha, 3.33), delusion (moha, 2.7), desire (tanha, 4.2), and so forth. But these are scattered and not fully developed.

    There is, however, one extended discussion of rebirth (punabbhavo) in which the Buddha seems to follow a more "orthodox" conception of a transmigrating entity, rather than the more typical (and more difficult) doctrine of no-self/soul (anatta). At 2.6, Ananda asks about the rebirths of various followers, monks, nuns, and laypersons who have died at Nadika. The Buddha gives precise information: one individual achieved the perfection of an Arhat, another reached the stage of Non-Returner, another will be born but once more, another is assured of salvation as a "Stream-Winner." Further, various groups are mentioned: over fifty are Non-Returners, over ninety Once-Returners, over five hundred "Stream-Winners" (2.7). Finally: "Ananda, it is not remarkable that that which has come to be as a man

 

 

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should die. But that you should come to the Tathagata to ask the fate of each of those who have died, that is a weariness to him" (2.8). The Buddha then goes on to teach the "Mirror of Dhamma" by which disciples can discern when they have reached the stage of Stream-Winner, assured of final liberation (2.9).

    These passages assume a continued identity between the deceased person and the one reborn -- very much as in Hinduism or Plato. This does not accord with the more rigorous view of anatta, which holds that there is no such continuum, no one-to-one correspondence between past and present incarnation. "This is the central doctrine of Buddhism," says Nyanatiloka, "without [an] understanding [of] which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible. It is the only real specific Buddhist doctrine, with which the entire structure of the Buddhist teaching stands or falls." [52] Be that as it may, a more casual attitude prevails in much Buddhist literature (perhaps most notoriously in the Jātaka tales of the Buddha's early incarnations; typically they end with his statement "And I was so-and-so in the story"), and the almost total absence of the term in the MPNS, which might provide a showcase for such a doctrine, cautions us against ascribing any sort of dogmatism to the Buddhadhamma.

    Far more than anatta, the doctrine of anicca ("impermanence") provides one of the most important leitmotifs of the MPNS, as we have already noticed. It leads the list of the seven "principles of perception" (1.9), but is more fully elaborated at several points later in the sutta. Following the long catalog of Ananda's failures to ask the Buddha to postpone his parinibbāna, the Buddha instructs: "Ananda, have I not told you before: All those things that are dear and pleasant to us must suffer change, separation, and alteration? So how could this be possible? Whatever is born, become, compounded, is liable to decay -- that it should not decay is impossible" (3.48). The same words are repeated twice more, when the Buddha consoles the weeping Ananda (5.14) and again when Kassapa the Great restrains the sorrowing monks (6.20). In announcing to the monks his decision to pass away in three months, the Buddha declares: "All conditioned things are of a nature to decay -- strive on untiringly" (3.51), a pronouncement that gains in importance when repeated as the Buddha's final words (6.7). As noted above, in reacting to the Buddha's passing, the acceptance of impermanence distinguishes enlightened beings from all others; as a contrast to the latter's emotional outbursts, three times we hear the standard refrain: "All compounded things are impermanent (anicca samkhara) -- what is the use of this?" (5.6, 6.11 [devas]; 6.10 [monks]).

    Impermanence as a doctrine in Greek philosophy is above all associated with the name of Heraclitus (ca. 500 B.C.E.). Here the usual term is "flux," based on his image of the river that cannot be stepped in twice -- although this in turn is based mostly on Platonic quotations from Heraclitus. [53] It may be that Plato has overemphasized that aspect of Heraclitus' thought, [54] but for our purposes it will suffice to note that the doctrine intrigued him, and perhaps Socrates before him. [55] Socrates admits freely, and in so many words, that all compounded things are subject to decomposition, but -- here departing radically from the Buddha's doctrine -- he also recognizes a second category of the uncompounded:

 

 

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"Would you not expect a compound (suntethenti) or a naturally composite object (sunthetoi) to be liable to break up where it was put together? And ought not anything which is really incomposite be the one thing of all others which is not affected in this way?" "That seems to be the case," said Cebes. "Is it not extremely probable that what is always constant and invariable is incomposite, and what is inconstant and variable is composite?" "That is how it seems to me." "Then let us return to the same examples which we were discussing before. Does that actual nature of things (aute he ousia, "very essence") -- their true being which we try to describe in our discussions -- remain always constant and invariable or not? Does equality itself or beauty itself or any other thing as it is in itself ever admit change of any kind? Or does each one of these entities, being uniform and self-contained, remain always constant and invariable, never admitting any alteration in any respect or in any sense?" (78c-d)

    "Yes" is of course the expected answer to this last question -- and is the answer received -- and the argument then develops that the body is compound and naturally perishes, but the soul is not and will not. [56] Clearly the second category of essences is more important to Plato -- this is in fact one version of his celebrated theory of "ideas" -- and for that reason his doctrine is rather one of "Permanence," in direct contrast to that of the Buddha. This contrast is even more striking if we are justified in emphasizing a key element of Plato's terminology: the word autos to designate the invariable essence of the thing "itself" (thus auto to ison, auto to kalon, auto hekaston ho estin, to on, "equality itself or beauty itself or any other thing as it is in itself" [78d; cf. also 75c-d, where Socrates talks of "setting the seal of reality" on things like "the beautiful itself, the good itself, etc."]). Semantically, autos is the equivalent of the Pāli atta ("self"), and so Plato is actually asserting a doctrine of "self-ness," precisely the opposite of anatta, no-self.

    Plato's dualism pervades the Phaedo and leads to a thoroughgoing devaluation of the concrete, visible world in favor of the abstract and invisible world of essences. The dichotomy is most acute in discussions of the body/soul antithesis. As we saw above, the body is nothing but a hindrance to the soul in its pursuit of purity and truth; it can "infect" the soul with its corporeality and delude it through untrustworthy sense perceptions. The philosophic soul naturally wants to be freed from its bondage, and so philosophy is properly the "practice of death." A similar sort of dualism can be found elsewhere in early Buddhism, but, as we noted in our discussion of the body above, the MPNS does not exhibit any pronounced antagonism to the material side of existence. On the contrary, there are some passages that seem to celebrate the vitality of the mundane.

    As Māra tempts the Buddha to enter parinibbāna prematurely, so the delights of the physical world seem to tempt him to linger. This, at least, is implied in the train of thought that leads up to his "broad hints" to Ananda that he might be prevailed upon to prolong his stay on earth "for a century." It should be pointed out that in each case the "broad hint" at longer life is immediately preceded by a recognition of the delight afforded by each of the sixteen localities where the hint is offered. Thus at 3.2: "Ananda, Vesali is delightful (ramaniya), the Udena shrine is delightful, the Gotamaka Shrine is delightful, the Sattambaka Shrine is delightful, the Bahuputta

 

 

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Shrine is delightful, the Capala Shrine is delightful." The same catalog is repeated twice at 3.5 ("And a second time..., and a third time..."), and with appropriate variations later (3.41, 3.43, 3.47). The insistent repetition of the word ramaniya ("delightful") to describe so many places implies not that these spots in particular are more delightful than others, but rather that this delight is ubiquitous: the world is delightful; one might well want to live in it "for a century, or a remainder of one." The Buddha even seems to acknowledge a trace of nostalgia at 4.1 when, "[h]aving returned from the alms-round and eaten, he looked back at Vesali with his 'elephant-look' and said: 'Ananda, this the last time the Tathagata will look upon Vesali. Now we will go to Bhandagama.'" The Commentary explains that "the Buddhas, when looking back, turn the whole body round as an elephant does." [57] The stately gesture adds a note of solemnity and finality, but perhaps also of poignancy. The moment grants validity to the world.

    By far the most enthusiastic endorsement of corporeal existence occurs when Ananda begs the Buddha not to pass away in Kusinara, "this miserable little town of wattle-and-daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond" -- it would be better to go to one of the big cities where "they will provide for the Tathagata's funeral in proper style" (5.17). But the Buddha corrects him: once in a previous age this hamlet was the vast city of Kusavati, ruled by a great and righteous wheel-turning king; it was

rich, prosperous and well-populated, crowded with people and well-stocked with food... And the city of Kusavati was never free of ten sounds by day or night: the sound of elephants, horses, carriages, kettle-drums, side-drums, lutes, singing, cymbals and gongs, with cries of "Eat, drink and be merry!" as the tenth. (5.18) [58]

Not only does this teeming vision of the past ennoble the present wretched town of Kusinara, but it does so using as positive values the earthly pleasures of wealth, food, and drink, frankly appealing to the world of the senses.

    Where, one may ask, in all this is dukkha, "suffering," the first of the Four Noble Truths? The term does occur in the MPNS (e.g., at 2.1, the most expansive listing of the Four Noble Truths in the sutta, and at 3.51, 4.3, both in summary verses), but, like the doctrine of anatta, it receives very little emphasis. There is, of course, no suggestion that the world of saṃsāra should be embraced: to escape the "cycle of rebirths" one must have a proper understanding (of morality, concentration, wisdom, and liberation); with this "the craving for becoming has been cut off, the tendency towards becoming has been exhausted, and there will be no more rebirth" (4.2). My point is rather that instead of constructing a rigidly dualistic scheme pitting liberation against saṃsāra (as Socrates pits the body against the soul), the MPNS, somewhat illogically to be sure, allows the two to coexist without explicit antagonism. Choosing to be consistent, Plato's Socrates rejects the corporeal in no uncertain terms; choosing perhaps "compassion for the world" (lokanukampaya [3.4, 38, 50]), the Buddha of the MPNS not only refrains from condemnation, but even pays quiet homage to nature and to human existence.

 

 

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The Community

Socrates and the Buddha continue to influence the thoughts and actions of people today because their message was carried on by their immediate followers and transmitted to posterity through various "schools," many of which differ considerably in style and belief. If the "founders" themselves had any intention of deliberately passing the torch of their teaching into the future, it is reasonable to expect some expression of this testament in the dialogues dealing with their deaths.

    Here immediately a vast difference emerges between Socrates and the Buddha. Socrates in fact did not "found" any school of philosophy [59] or propound any consistent system of thought; even the so-called "Socratic method" is poorly understood. Nevertheless, schools loosely known as "Socratic" were established by various followers, including three who appear in the Phaedo: Antisthenes, Euclides, and Phaedo himself. [60] In hindsight, given that little of these and other "Socratics" remains, it seems obvious that Plato is Socrates' true successor, and his Academy (founded some years later, ca. 387?) was indeed a formal school and incorporated not only classes and lectures but also certain rules of conduct; the whole was dedicated to the Muses, "patrons of education"; [61] we are reminded that the site itself was sacred, and had various cult associations -- not a monastery, not even a secretive sect like the Orphics or Pythagoreans, but not an entirely secular institution either.

    But Plato's Socrates has no such intention to establish a formal institution under his auspices, although both Cebes and Crito give him the opening. After Socrates lightheartedly suggests that people who fear death need an enchanter to charm away their dread, Cebes asks where they will be able to find one. Socrates replies that they must look the world over, for nothing is more valuable, "and you must search also by your own united efforts; because you may not find anyone better fitted for the task than yourselves" (78a-b). At a much later stage, just before the execution, Crito's question receives a similar response:

"But have you no directions for the others or myself about your children or anything else? What can we do to please you best?" "Nothing new, Crito," said Socrates; "just what I am always telling you. If you look after your own selves, whatever you do will please me and mine and you too, even if you don't agree with me now. On the other hand, if you neglect yourselves and fail to follow the track that we have spoken of both now and in the past, however fervently you agree with me now, it will do no good at all." (115b-c)

Not even for the education of his children does Socrates have any specific recommendations. Both passages insist on the supreme importance of the endeavor; the former implies the importance of an appropriate teacher, while the latter speaks of a "track," a direction set by arguments laid out in dialogues past and present. Most importantly, both passages agree in laying full responsibility ultimately on the searcher: we will find no one fitter for the task than ourselves; if we look after ourselves, all will be well. Stark, uncompromising advice, fully in keeping with the individualism of Socrates and the admonition of his guiding deity: know thyself. And

 

 

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yet, without a system behind it, without a map of the dialectic track to be followed (which is nowhere given in the Dialogues), it leaves us, very appropriately, with more questions than answers. Perhaps this is one reason why the historical successors of Socrates set out along such different paths.

    By contrast, the Buddha had a system to offer and an organization to maintain and propagate it: the Sangha, the Order of monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikkhuni). Indeed, it is expressly stated in the MPNS that the Buddha had resolved not to enter parinibbāna until the Order (along with lay followers) was firmly established (3.7, 35). The Order began officially with the conversion of the five wanderers who heard the Buddha's first sermon, and had grown substantially over the forty-five years of his teaching career, so it was already well-defined by the time of his death. Moreover, the formal regulations of the Sangha (the patimokkha: 227 rules for monks, 348 for nuns) are cataloged in another portion of the Pāli Canon, the Vinaya Pitaka ("Basket of Discipline"), and so it is not necessarily the task of the MPNS to repeat this information. Nevertheless, the future of the Order after the passing of its one and only leader might well weigh on the minds of the members. The Buddha anticipates such a concern (parallel to Cebes' question to Socrates above) at 6.1:

Ananda, it may be that you will think: "The Teacher's instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!" It should not be seen like this, Ananda, for what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline [vinaya] will, at my passing, be your teacher.

Despite this disclaimer, the Buddha then does add three brief addenda: the monks' casual manner of calling each other "friend" is to be replaced by a more formal distinction between junior and senior monks (6.2); the Order may abolish the "minor rules" if it wishes (6.3); and one monk is penalized with the silent treatment for an unspecified offense (6.4). Points 1 and 3 seem rather trivial at this juncture (the parinibbāna is imminent, occurring at 6.9), but point 2 is interesting. Obviously the Buddha regards some of the code as expendable. But since no one bothers to ask which are the "minor rules," the commentators note that the Order eventually decides to abolish none of them. The Sangha is thus more strictly regulated than really necessary. Freedom is offered, but not taken, either because of extreme caution or else to avoid endless debates. In either case, the outcome shows that a certain flexibility has been lost in the transition. The text is certainly not meant to convey this impression, however; quite the contrary: in the next section the Buddha asks if there are "any doubts or uncertainty about the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, or about the path or the practice" (6.5), and, as we saw in our discussion of this passage above, there are none. We are left with the confident image of the Sangha's complete unanimity just prior to the master's departure.

    A free-for-all of questions and answers would certainly have been inappropriate at that solemn moment, but on that occasion we know that such unanimity was more apparent than real: not too long after the parinibbāna, eighteen different schools of Buddhism are known to have existed. The Dhamma and discipline lacked the direction provided by a single authority; like Socrates, the Buddha anoints no appointed successor to take his place. [62] He does, however, anticipate doctrinal dis-

 

 

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putes; he supposes four sources that a monk may cite to validate a given claim: the Buddha himself, an organized Sangha, a community of elders, or a single elder. In such cases, the disputed doctrines must be "compared with the Suttas and reviewed in the light of the discipline" (4.8-11). The reference to the Suttas and the discipline as the ultimate authority seems to presume a fixed text (not necessarily written, of course), and so we might suspect the MPNS of an anachronism here, but not necessarily. Certainly some of the Buddha's discourses must have been circulating before their official compilation after his passing, and the discipline obviously was set up during his lifetime. What is evident is the impulse to establish the criteria for orthodoxy, and to invest this authority not in any living individual or established institution, but in a text that derives ultimately from the founder: the Buddhavacanam, "Word of the Buddha." [63] We may contrast Socrates' injunction to "follow the track that we have spoken of both now and in the past" (Phaedo 115b), where, characteristically, there is no investment of any authority whatsoever in the word of Socrates, but only in the method and results of dialectic.

    Based on a passage like MPNS 4.8-11, it seems that Buddhism might threaten to become a doctrine "of the book," concerned with the letter rather than the spirit of the Dhamma. Ultimately, however -- and not without numberless disputes and rival interpretations -- the Dhamma itself proved resistant to dogma, and even the "canon" of the Pāli Scriptures could not contain it.

    Lest the question be seen in strictly Theravāda-Mahāyāna terms, however, it should be emphasized that the MPNS weighs in one more time on the question of ultimate authority. We must recall the passage where Ananda reacts to the first onset of the Buddha's illness: "The only thing that was some comfort to me was the thought: 'The Lord will not attain final Nibbana until he has made some statement about the order of monks'" (2.24). One part of the Buddha's response was quoted earlier as evidence of his openness: he has made no "inner" or "outer," no "'teacher's fist' in respect of doctrines." But the response continues:

If there is anyone who thinks: "I shall take charge of the order," or "The order should refer to me," let him make some statement about the order, but the Tathagata does not think in such terms. So why should the Tathagata make a statement about the order? (2.25)

In this radical statement the Buddha himself claims no authority for the Sangha. [64] The Order is on its own. But the shift in responsibility is even more drastic in the famous lines of the next section:

Therefore, Ananda, you should live as islands [dipa; or: "lamps" [65]] unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge. (2.26)

The "triple refuge" of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha is here revised and reduced to the barest minimum: oneself and Dhamma. However much support may be offered by teacher and community, it all comes down to You and the Truth.

    How is the truth to be found? The Buddha goes on to recapitulate the meditation

 

 

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exercises known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (body, feelings, mind, "mind-objects"): "That, Ananda, is how a monk lives as an island unto himself, ... with no other refuge" (2.26). This emphasis on solitary introspection reminds us of Socrates' advice at Phaedo 83a: that the soul should "collect and concentrate itself in isolation, trusting nothing but its own isolated judgment upon realities considered in isolation." But the theme of self-reliance is even more fundamental, and remains the great challenge laid down by great masters who, understanding their pupils' inclination to latch onto the teacher for support, ultimately refused dependence. It contrasts sharply with the insistence on the absolute authority of the teacher/guru more commonly encountered in Greece and India. [66] And this is not simply for the student's own good, but, they would say, because there is no choice. Socrates would have understood the traditional Buddhist image of the finger (the means) pointing at the moon (the end); as he tells his companions: "If you take my advice you will think very little of Socrates, and much more of the truth" (Phaedo 91 b-c). If an organized system grew up around the Buddha and not around Socrates, that is understandable, for reasons we have already touched on, including the testimony of other sections of our sutta. But if we (along with many others) are justified in emphasizing the statement of 2.26 as the true essence of the Buddha's last testament, then here, too, we have found vitally important common ground on which to build our own refuge.

 

Conclusion

The juxtaposition of two great teachers like Socrates and the Buddha might be justified even by a naive impulse, akin to that which inspired Plutarch (second century B.C.E.) to write biographies, not just singly, but in parallel pairs of "noble" Greek and Roman leaders whose careers presented to him a certain resemblance, the better to inculcate their virtues in his readers. So, too, in our account of parallel deaths, we might point out the inspiring qualities shared by Socrates and the Buddha: their openness, their equanimity, their supreme confidence in their beliefs, and their insistence that their followers pursue like-minded paths with their own two feet. For both, the truth meant freedom from delusion and fear toward a state of pure goodness. Their teaching had a concrete, practical purpose, meant to change lives. It is more important to learn from them than about them, and any reader of the dialogues or suttas who is moved to make radical changes in thought and behavior, far from being naive, has got the message more clearly than the merely erudite. Plutarch, a moralist with Platonic leanings, would surely agree.

    Yet there is also a valid intellectual curiosity that should be piqued to explore further the affinity not just between Socrates and the Buddha, but between Greece and India. For, as we have seen, behind the character of Socrates lies Plato, and behind Plato lies the whole world of Presocratic inquiry, much of it willing to question the basis of ordinary reality in terms that seem more acceptable to Eastern than traditional Western thought. Likewise, the Buddha is only the most individualized of the Indian thinkers of his age; we have few names to associate with the competing schools of Brahmanism, Jainism, and Yoga, but their influence is evident throughout

 

 

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the scriptures of early Buddhism. The enormous diversity of opinion in both Greece and India at this time makes it difficult to sort out the influences, but is in itself added justification for further comparative research. Rarely in human history has the intellectual enterprise been so wide open. Socrates' fate sadly confirms how threatening this openness can be, but it does not close the chapter on the history of Greek philosophy: Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, and the important schools of Cynicism, Skepticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism were still to come. Of these last two, the former develops a theory of world cycles and the latter an application of atomism, both of which again bear comparison with ideas concurrent in India.

    None of this is to deny the unique greatness of either civilization, or to ignore the great differences between them, or to claim that one was dependent on the other for inspiration. Rather, the greater purpose is to gain new perspectives from meaningful juxtaposition: to establish (in very rudimentary fashion) a dialogue between Socrates and the Buddha, to read one in the light of the other, so as to see more in both. We are accustomed to view history diachronically, but for the remarkable Axial Age (at least) it makes more sense to study the world synchronically, as an ancient "Age of Enlightenment" at least as profound and far more widespread [67] than its modern European counterpart.

 

Notes

1. Translated in Soma 1981, p. 23.

2. See, respectively, Singh 1994, Gold 1996, and Cohen 1976.

3. Dīgha Nikāya 16, translations by Vajira and Story 1988 and M. O'C. Walshe 1995, pp. 231-277. Unless otherwise noted, I will cite from Walshe's translation, whose paragraph references conveniently coincide with those of the Pali Text Society edition of the Dīgha Nikāya, ed. T. W. Rhys-Davids and J. E. Carpenter (London, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 72-168.

4. Both the "long" and the "short" chronologies dating the Buddha's lifetime are based on a complicated series of much later chronicles whose accuracy is highly suspect at best, demonstrably false at worst. Bechert (e.g., 1982) is currently the leading exponent of the later date. For what it is worth, a recent article by Erdosy (1993) argues that the archaeological evidence supports Bechert's view. Given the hopelessness of early Indian chronology, one can appreciate one scholar's statement that "it is quite remarkable to have dating theories fall into such a limited difference of merely one century" (Nakamura 1977, pp. 12 ff.). Unfortunately, of course, that happens to be the decisive century for our discussion. However, it is not my intent to prove influence one way or the other, so the exact chronological relationship is not crucial. Accepting the earlier dating of the Buddha, Fries (1933) argued for Buddhist influence on Plato's dialogue form. Though unconvincing in its main thesis,

 

 

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Fries' pioneering article remains the closest comparison of Platonic dialogues and the Pāli suttas.

5. The most accessible account of contacts between the cultures is given by Sedlar (1980); cf. esp. chaps. 1-5.

6. For a full discussion of this incident, see Stoneman 1995.

7. "Aristoxenos the musician tells this story of the Indians: one of them met with Socrates at Athens and asked him what his philosophy was about. When Socrates said that he studied human life, the Indian laughed and said that no one could look into human matters if he didn't know about things divine." The story comes from Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica 11.3.8, but purports to derive from Aristoxenos, a pupil of Aristotle and a respectable scholar. However, the anecdote probably dates from after Alexander's excursion into India, after which it became fashionable to make such connections.

8. Plato Republic 600b. This near silence does not necessarily indicate lack of importance; Plato is similarly reticent about himself: his name appears only at Apology 38b and Phaedo 59b.

9. Besides the obvious connection with the doctrine of rebirth (see further below), the case is made that Echecrates of Phlius, Phaedo's companion in the dialogue, had Pythagorean connections (Phlius itself was known as a center of Pythagoreanism [Diogenes Laertius VIII.46]), as did Cebes and Simmias, the two most important interlocutors with Socrates in the dialogue itself, who are said to have associated with Philolaus (Phaedo 61d), a student of Pythagoreanism, who is supposed to have supplied these doctrines to Plato (Diogenes Laertius VIII.84). So, for example, Burnet [1911] 1953, pp. 1-2; Bluck 1955, pp. 6-8; Guthrie 1967, 1:307 ff.; and Stern 1993, pp. 10-11. Cf. Bostock 1986, p. 11: "Plato seems rather to go out of his way to give the Phaedo a Pythagorean setting." However, Rowe (1993) seriously challenges these assumptions (see esp. pp. 6-7, 115-117) with admirable caution. Nevertheless, there is a certain affinity between the ideas of Plato and those of Pythagoras, as Aristotle noted (Metaphysics 987b), just as there is between Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and Orphism, and this is not likely to be coincidence: Plato, at least, is highly conscious of Presocratic tradition.

10. Pythagoras figures little in Classical literature: only four other certain mentions prior to 300 B.C.E.: Xenophanes frag. 7, Heraclitus frag. 17, Herodotus 4.95, and Isocrates Busiris 28. In the absence of any writings of his own (even in antiquity it was not certain whether or not he wrote anything), much of early Pythagorean doctrine is actually extracted from Plato -- with care, given the latter's regarding Pythagoras' name. Plato would most likely have come into contact with Pythagorean societies in southern Italy during his stay there circa 387 B.C.E. See Guthrie 1967, 1.161 ff. for an overview, and also de Vogel 1966, esp. chap. 8, "Pythagoras and Plato." Pythagoras' trip to India is poorly

 

 

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attested: see Sedlar 1980, p. xx. Note, however, the opinion of Ferguson (1957, p. 82) that "the thought of the Pythagoreans has too close affinities with Indian thought for the resemblance to be accidental, and the similarity of the name with the Indian Pitta-guru 'father-teacher' is suggestive"!

11. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.15.71-72: "There are some Indians who follow the precepts of Boutta, whom out of excessive piety they honor as a god."

12. Coomaraswamy (1986) especially emphasizes the continuity between Hinduism and Buddhism; see also Oldenberg [1908] 1991.

13. Nothing is known of the circumstances surrounding this astonishing absence; Most (1993) speculates that only a life-threatening illness would have kept Plato away.

14. In general, see Guthrie 1967, 4:41 ff., 324-325. There is no great controversy here, but Rowe (1993, pp. 11-12), does well to call attention to the tenuous basis of the allotment, and to the substantive differences on crucial points between the Phaedo, the Symposium, and the Republic, all supposedly in this "middle" group.

15. Vlastos (1991, p. 46), detects such differences between the "Socrates" of the early dialogues and the "Socrates" of the middle group that he distinguishes between Socrates[subE] and Socrates[subM], and claims that only a "schizophrenic" could hold such divergent views simultaneously. Other important studies of the "real" Socrates' views on the afterlife totally exclude the evidence of the Phaedo: see Brickhouse and Smith 1994, pp. 201 ff., and McPherran 1994, pp. 1 ff., including n. 1.

16. Geiger 1994, p. xxvi.

17. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the Phaedo are by Tredennick and Tarrant (1993).

18. Walshe (1995) translates literally the phrase acariya-mutthi; Vajira and Story (1988, p. 33) expand thus: "the closed fist of a teacher who holds some things back."

19. The secrecy of the esoteric Pythagoreans was emphasized in various Lives of Pythagoras: cf. Porphyry 19, lamblichus 199, and Diogenes Laertius VIII.15. Note also that Pythagoras' authority was absolute; his students had only to say "He himself said so" (Diogenes Laertius VIII.46). Empedocles advises a student to guard his teaching "with a silent mind" (Plutarch Moralia 728e). The Orphics preserved the secrecy natural to mystery cults: cf. Burkert 1985, p. 298. Note also Herodotus' reticence when discussing matters of reincarnation (2.123): "This theory has been adopted by certain Greek writers, some earlier, some later, who have put it forward as their own. Their names are known to me, but I refrain from mentioning them" (trans. A. de Selincourt [New York: Penguin, 1973, p. 178]).

 

 

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20. See J. Mikalson 1983, esp. chap. 9.

21. Gill 1973, pp. 25-28.

22. G. Most (1993, pp. 96-111) surveys the range of opinions over the years, and offers his support for the thesis that the mention of Asclepius refers to gratitude for Plato's recovery; thus Plato makes Socrates endorse him as chosen disciple.

23. P. Harvey ([1952] 1993, pp. 29-41), stresses interaction between the two.

24. Cf. Guthrie [1952] 1993, pp. 156 ff.

25. Pāli: Handa dani bhikkhave amantayami vo: Vayadhamma samkhara, appamadena sampadethati...

26. Rhys Davids' rendition of the last phrase, "Work out your salvation with diligence," has become "too famous" according to Walshe (1995 n. 453, ad loc.); he finds Brewster's "Accomplish earnestly]" "much better."

27. These words are not found in a later version extant in Tibetan translation, and are found elsewhere (Sutta Nipata 6.2.5.2) in reverse order; see Walshe 1995, ibid.

28. See the previous note.

29. See Burkert 1985, pp. 190-194, for a brief overview; Garland (1985) offers more detail.

30. Two of these reliquaries have been recovered by archaeologists (Schumann 1989, p. 254).

31. See, for example, Majjhima Nikāya 22.13 (Nyanamoli and Bodhi 1995, p. 228). In the MPNS (1.34), the image appears from the point of view of the enlightened one who no longer needs the raft.

32. Nyanatiloka [1952] 1980, s.v. avijjā.

33. This inward turning of the mind is characteristic of Plato's preference for the ideal as more real than the phenomenal: thus the true astronomer will not be led astray by the appearance of the stars, which, like all the forms, "can be apprehended only by reason and thought, but not by sight" (Republic 529d). So, too, in the Phaedo, the invisible is preferred to the visible, as the soul is to the body (Phaedo 79). Plato never describes the steps a student must take to reach this level of perception, although he does depict Socrates as capable of intense concentration: at Symposium 220c-d, Alcibiades relates how Socrates stood motionless for twenty-four hours "wrestling with some problem or other." Such behavior is typical, as Aristodemus notes earlier: "It's quite a habit of his, you know; off he goes and there he stands, no matter where it is" (Symposium 175b). In India, concentration techniques were, of course, highly developed in the Yoga tradition, in which the future Buddha Gotama was trained. His own method focuses on the "four foundations of mindfulness," which are alluded to at MPNS 3.50 and listed at 2.12. Specific instructions are given in Majjhima

 

 

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Nikāya 10 (repeated at Dīgha Nikāya 22) and Majjhima Nikāya 118. It is notable that the Buddha entered final nibbāna in the course of a series of meditative absorptions (MPNS 6.8-9).

34. Socrates uses no single technical term for transmigration; later he does coin the verb anabioskesthai, "to come to life again (Phaedo 71e-72a)." "Metempsychosis" is postclassical. A Latin scholiast (Servius on Vergil's Aeneid 3.68) notes that Pythagoras' word was palingenesia, which is roughly "rebirth/re-becoming," not unlike the Pāli punabbhava (e.g., at MPNS 2.2-3). Socrates comes close to this with the verbal phrase palin genesthai, "to be born/become again" (72a).

35. Pherecydes, one of the earliest prose writers, composed a lost cosmogonical work in the mid-sixth century B.C.E. For his teaching on the soul, the sources (Cicero and the Suda Lexicon) are late, and (as often) suspected of confusion with Pythagoras, but are accepted by West (1971, pp. 25, 61) and, cautiously, by Schibli (1990, pp. 104 ff.).

36. Porphyry, Life of Pythagorus 19. "Pythagoras seems to have been the first to introduce these doctrines into Greece."

37. Most recently in A. Lloyd's exhaustive commentary (1993, 3:59-60).

38. West 1971, p. 62.

39. Ibid., p. 61.

40. Rig Veda X.16.5 is cited as among the best early evidence: "Set him free again to go to the fathers, Agni, when he has been offered as an oblation in you and wanders with the sacrificial drink. Let him reach his own descendants, dressing himself in a life-span. O knower of creatures, let him join with a body" (trans. W. O'Flaherty [1981, pp. 49-50]). Even if the interpretation were clear, the conspicuous lack of emphasis in the early Vedas is decisive.

41. One of the earliest expressions is found in the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, IV.3.36: "When this (body) gets to thinness, whether he gets to thinness through old age or disease, ... even so this person frees himself from these limbs and returns again as he came to the place from which he started back to (new) life" (trans. by S. Radhakrishnan [1953, p. 268]; see also Oldenberg [1908] 1991, pp. 15-16, 63 ff.).

42. Cf. the fragments discussed by Barnes ([1979] 1993, pp. 103-104).

43. For a full discussion of the central texts, see Long 1948.

44. See Guthrie [1952] 1993, p. 11.

45. Burnet ([1911] 1953) notes that palai and palaios seem "to be the regular way of referring to the Orphic hieros logos" (in Phaedo 67c5, p. 38), although the passages he cites do not refer to Orphism specifically.

46. See Guthrie 1967, 1:198.

 

 

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47. Plato himself probably hints at an Orphic source when Socrates mentions "the doctrine spoken in secret, that we humans are in a sort of prison" (Phaedo 62b), and again when he refers to "initiation rites" in the context of purification for the afterlife (69c). The Orphics seem to have endorsed a radical body-soul dualism (summed up in the famous jingle soma-sema, "body-tomb," derived from Plato's Cratylus 400c), which is certainly prominent throughout the Phaedo (e.g., 66a-67b). For the most elaborate "Orphic" interpretation of the Phaedo, see Stewart 1972, pp. 253-259.

48. See Burkert 1985, pp. 75-84.

49. Ibid., pp. 301-304.

50. Frag. 146, both translations by J. Barnes (1987, p. 196).

51. Cf. Chāndogya Upanishad III.14, V.10; Brihadāranyaka Upanishad IV.4; Katha Upanishad, passim.

52. Nyanatiloka [1952] 1980, s.v. anatta.

53. Theaetetus 160d, 181a-182c; Cratylus 401d-402a, 440a-c.

54. As Kirk claims (1954 [1978], pp. 15-16; 369 ff.).

55. Allusions to Heraclitean flux in the Phaedo are seen by Rowe (1993) at 87d and 90c.

56. Rowe (1993, pp. 188-189), lessens the apparent contradiction of this argument with the tripartite (and therefore composite) nature of soul as developed in the Republic, but in the Phaedrus and Timaeus the soul also has three parts. Of course, Plato may well have changed his views on this point, or else simply adopts different strategies for different purposes. Dogmatism is a feature neither of Platonic nor Buddhist philosophy.

57. Cited in Vajira and Story 1988, p. 108.

58. The sensuous vision of Kusavati is spun out at much greater length in the Dīgha Nikāya 17.

59. In the Clouds (423 B.C.E.), the comic poet Aristophanes portrays Socrates as the head of a ludicrous "Thinkery." Few would accept this satiric portrait as reliable evidence for the historical Socrates, but it does introduce the concept of a philosophical school for the first time in extant Greek literature.

60. On the "Socratics," see Zeller 1962 and Rankin 1983, pp. 178-228.

61. Guthrie 1967, 4:20.

62. In any event, after the Buddha's passing, the Sangha was directed by Kassapa the Great (who appears at MPNS 6.19 ff.), according to the later chronicles. See Schumann 1989, pp. 258 ff.

63. A similar impulse is evident in the Pythagoreans' recourse to their founder's

 

 

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words as definitive: Autos epha ("He said it himself") was the ultimate argument (Diogenes Laertius VIII.46).

64. The point emerges more clearly from the Vajira and Story translation (1988, p. 32): "Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, such a one would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?"

65. Linguistically, there seems to be no way to decide between the two translations. But while the images are quite different, the underlying point is the same.

66. The students of Pythagoras were known to settle issues with the phrase "He himself (i.e., Pythagoras) said so." See Kirk and Raven 1971, p. 220 with n. 4. In India, the guru from Vedic times was often granted the obedience and respect due to a father or even a god; see Cenkner 1983, pp. 3-28, and Brent 1972, pp. 16-51 passim.

67. Of the many other cultures flourishing from the sixth to the third centuries B.C.E., China in particular displays a comparable blossoming of the intellectual enterprise, from Confucius and Lao Tze to the "Hundred Schools," which flourished until the "burning of the books" ca. 213 B.C.E. See Fung [1931] 1983, chaps. 4-8.

 

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