Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation

Great Minds Evolve Alike: the ancient wisdom of Buddha, Socrates and the Bible as a window into the evolution of society and the self

Something magical happened in Europe, Asia and the Middle East as humanity stepped out of the darkness into the ancient world.  Mankind crossed the frontier of the self and questioned who they were and where they stood in the world — lighting a path forward for the inquiring mind to explore the self, society and a life free from the suffering of our pre-history.

Contributing writer Jamie Baillie, is a Psychology and Philosophy student, from Dundee, Scotland: “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” On Twitter>>

As man’s antecedent Australopithecus stood upright for the first time four million years ago, the mind also “stood upright” for the first time. With new perspective, mankind cast its gaze over the landscape of the inner world. [1]

Between 800-400 BCE three extraodinary investigations into the self and society abounded with similarities. The Ancient Greeks including Homer, Socrates and Plato wrestled with the question of how to live the good and just life. Similarly, the Silver Scrolls written around 700 BCE, detailed how believers in Yahweh could lead a blessed life [2]. Across the world in ancient south Asia the Buddha endeavoured to cut through the illusion of the self and weed out the roots of suffering. [3] Three contemporaneous and independent enterprises to understand the social and inner-world converged on similar ideas of the self and society, for reasons previously unexplored.

Convergent evolution and convergent beliefs

By contributing writer Jamie Baillie

The domestic sunflower blossoms across the rolling and varied landscapes of North America adorned with delicate and vibrant petals and concentric circles of budding ray florets, each specifically adapted to track, absorb and convert sunlight into ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) and ultimately glucose. [4] Similarly, across the Atlantic Ocean, the pericallis cruenta takes root in the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, subject to a different evolutionary lineage from the domestic sunflower, yet bearing many resemblances to its North American counterpart, namely its dainty petals and budding ray florets. [5]

Together the sunflower and the pericallis cruenta exemplify a concept known as convergent evolution: the process whereby unrelated organisms independently evolve similar characteristics due to similar evolutionary pressures. [6] Moreover, more complex organisms than the sunflower independently evolve similar traits, as observed in the African and European moles and the great apes such as gigantopithecus which independently evolved small canines like those found in modern humans. [7]

 

 

The salience of convergent evolution is this: can juxtaposing more than just flesh and bone, flora and fauna, but the genealogy of independent values and virtues deepen and broaden our understanding of the self and society?

Why have independently evolving belief systems flourished on opposite sides of the globe and subsumed converging ‘traits’ in an age of limited intercontinental communication? Converging beliefs among divergent value systems can be traced back to the origins of Hellenistic philosophy, the first manuscripts of the bible and the teachings of the Buddha between 800 – 400 BCE.

Understanding the self

These projects attempted to precisely understand the nature of the self and how the individual ought to live in relation to it, how to live with their neighbours, and how the individual should orient themselves towards their state. All during an epoch bereft of seamless intercontinental communication. These projects, separated by land and sea, culture and communication, abounded with converging ideas of the mind.

The book of Genesis, written around the Babylonian exile in 539 BCE [8] details the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace as they ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge and succumbed to overwhelming shame. Clutching at fig leaves, Adam and Eve hastily covered up and comported themselves with the diffidence and shame of individuals that suddenly bore the weight of the “self”. [9]

 

Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, from a painting by Wenzel Peter (1745). Contributing author Jamie Baillie explains: “the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace as they ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge and succumbed to overwhelming shame, clutching at fig leaves, Adam and Eve hastily covered up and comported themselves with the diffidence and shame of individuals that had suddenly borne the weight of their own being…”

 

The philosopher Gorgio Agamben notes that for the first time, Adam and Eve were stripped of their “Clothes of Grace” and confronted with the self; becoming ‘naked’ through the denudation of their grace and fully aware of their own being crashing down on them. [10] The story of Adam and Eve exemplifies the individual coming to terms with their own being and learning the moral parameters of how to act in the world.

Most saliently, the book of Genesis does not simply position man as a mere serf, but places squarely the burden of our own choices on the individual: “And the Lord God Said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…” [11] In essence, man is becoming God, endowed with moral scruples and growing self-autonomy.

The “self” explored in Ancient Greece

The book of Genesis is among the first texts to explore the themes of the mind and self and quite possibly the first to do so on the Arabian Peninsula. But these motifs were not exclusive to the Kingdom of Judah, across the Mediterranean Sea, in the city-states of ancient Greece, ideas of the mind and the self similarly flourished during the Golden Age of Athens. Ancient Athens was the birthplace of individual liberty and direct democracy, the cradle of philosophy and Aristotle’s De Anima marked the origin of the empirical study of the mind. [12]

 

Socrates, famously drinking conium (hemlock poison.)

 

Meditations on the mind trace back to the works of Homer and the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Homer’s works Iliad and the Odyssey date back to 8th century BCE [13] recapitulating the events of the Trojan War and hero Odysseus’ triumphal adventure against embattled Gods and his own suffering.

Individuals not chained to destiny: Homer

The salience of Homer’s epics –resembling the truths of Genesis — lay in its analysis that individual actors are not chained to their destiny; that heroes are made of individuals who have a reason to live and can bear almost any form of suffering; that through their own self-autonomy and ingenuity people can navigate the world no matter what it takes, or conversely they can succumb to squalor and suffering of their own doing. Zeus remarks in the Odyssey [14] :

Interestingly, Vajrapani, the protector of Buddha was associated with Zeus by the Ancient Greeks, because he held the thunderbolt (Vajra) in hand. A Greco Buddhist sculpture of the 2nd century.

“Mortals! They are always blaming the gods when their own witlessness causes them more than they were destined for.”

The idea of an inner-self permeated ancient Greek culture — manifested in Greek tragedies — expressed the beliefs of Socrates and Plato, who proposed an immaterial soul at the helm of the material body. [15] The 5th and 4th century BCE philosophies of Socrates and Plato laid great emphasis on knowing self, whether it be the rich qualitative desires and drives of the individual to pursue a life of the mind or the body, or a topographic model of the self as partitioned into three distinct capacities of rationale, spirit and desire. This was symbolized in the analogy of a chariot pulled by two winged horses: one representing spirit, the other desire, with a charioteer at the helm representing intellect and rationale as he attempts to guide the horses to enlightenment. [16]

Critias, one of Socrates’ students, expounds upon the Greek concept σωφροσύνη, sometimes translated as ‘Sophrosyne’ in English, denoting a soundness of mind and control of the self. Critias and Socrates, attempting to deepen their understanding, assert that self-control is not simply excellence or moderation in character, but to know thy self, to know themselves and the value of their actions. This enabled the individual – akin to the parable of Adam and Eve — to live their life virtuously according to a set of moral parameters in the hopes that they would not corrupt their soul and suffer in Hades for the rest of eternity.[17] For Plato and Socrates, self-knowledge was critical in preserving the self. This was either to gain entry to an afterlife in the heavens — visualised by Plato in The Myth of Er as a panel high up in the heavens that renders a final judgement on the purity of one’s soul — or by avoiding the corruption of the self in exchange for material gain, as outlined by Socrates’ and Glaucon’s discourse on the ring of Gyges; that the individual who succumbs to avarice and crime lives as a serf to their appetitive desires even if they can elude incrimination. [18]

The Buddha

Siddartha Gautama grew up a prince in luxury, shielded from the suffering of the outside world by his father.

Early 6th century BCE, born the royal prince of Lumbini, Siddhartha Gautama lived a life of opulence and wealth, indulging in the warmth of luxury and leisure.

Siddhartha lived out his early years insulated from the depravity and suffering beyond the palace grounds. Until one day, Siddhartha left the sanctuary of the palace walls and rode on horseback to the deprived and debauched slums previously beyond the shelter of his youth, bearing witness to the abject suffering that would shake Siddhartha and shape his enterprise to understand the self — and led his realization of the impermanence and ultimate dissatisfaction of conditioned existence. [19]

When the princely Siddhartha left the palace, he witnessed the four sites: poverty, illness, old age and death. These horrors would cause him to embark on one of the most ambitious philosophical missions of our times; after seeking answers from different teachers, he finally settled himself under the bodhi tree determined to sit there until he unearthed the root of human suffering.

He spent 49 days and 49 nights meditating on the meaning of it all, gradually letting go of the world’s distractions. Siddhartha finally reached enlightenment and thereafter became known as Buddha ‘the enlightened one’. [20]

Like Adam and Eve — who partook of forbidden knowledge — the Buddha had his moral world turned right-side up and finally awoke to the full scope of individual suffering.

 

Siddartha leaves the palace and sees the four sights: poverty, illness, old age and death.

 

Transient desires of the self

Like Plato and Socrates, who laid great emphasis on living a life free of appetitive and bodily desires, the Buddha cut through the transient desires of the self.

He taught the ‘three roots of evil’ defined in the Pāli canon as desire, ignorance and hatred. [21]

The three poisons are represented in the hub of the wheel of life as a pig, a bird, and a snake (representing ignorance, attachment, and aversion, respectively). As shown in the wheel of life (Sanskrit: bhavacakra), the three poisons lead to the creation of karma, which leads to rebirth in the six realms of samsara. 

They fed and intensified each other: hatred feeding into ignorance, ignorance feeding into our desire and greed then circling back and completing the vicious cycle by feeding into hatred. This cyclical chain of misery and torment referred to in the Pāli canon as Samsara, binds the self to the mundane and miserable from one life to the next, unless the individual can follow the middle path between opulence and extreme asceticism and reach Nirvana. Although Nirvana is not easily defined, it can be described as the greatest spiritual flourishing, marked by compassion for all life and the quietude of negative thoughts, desires, follies and hostility previously clouding the mind. This is not dissimilar to the Greek concept of Sophrosyne. [22]

The teachings of the Buddha, contemporaneous with the book of Genesis and some one hundred years before the teachings of Socrates recapitulate many similar motifs found in ancient Greek and Arabic literature.

Each tradition, separated by land and sea, unaware of the others existence, converged on the idea of the self careening towards a fork in the road: one path leading to nirvana, the heavens or grace; and the other to unimaginable suffering in Hades, the denudation of grace or an existence condemned to a concatenation of inescapable suffering known as samsara.

Moreover, each tradition lays great emphasis on a self-capable of orienting the individual to the good life, to a life of the mind and justice by skirting past the pitfalls presented by the world. In essence, one must understand the self before they can understand the world.

Bridging ancient world and modern psychology

Mario Sigman

The neuroscientist Mariano Sigman developed a diagnostic tool intended to parse the written and spoken word of a patient assessing the link between their ‘conversational stability’ and their mental stability. This diagnostic tool appraises the individual’s mental stability by identifying keywords or concepts in their diction serving as a marker for mental instability. In essence, what can the words of an individual tell us about their mind and their potential to develop mental disorders? [23] Sigman’s diagnostic algorithm sifts through digitised text assigning keywords and concepts into ‘semantic neighbourhoods’ by searching for related words and the frequency of diction jumps. Words like cat, dog, leash, bowl and bone are all closely related whereas unrelated words and concepts such as ‘dog’ and ‘atomisation’ occupy distinct semantic neighbourhoods. [23]

The spoken and written words of an individual echo the mental state. Moreover, Sigman ran myriad ancient texts through this algorithm, finding that related concepts of the mind date back to the writings of the Old testament and Homer’s epics and exponentially populate the 5th and 4th century texts of Plato and Socrates were philosophies of the mind reach lift off. One can also surmise that a similar trajectory of inquiry into the mind can be found in other cultures, such as the contemporaneous works of the Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius in ancient Asia.

The salience of Sigman’s diagnostic algorithm lays in its capacity to provide an objective and quantitative relationship between the recorded word and the inner world of the mind and its continued development. Bridging the ancient world and modern psychology.

Just as the sunflower and pericallis cruenta convergently evolved similar traits to make most of the sun-soaked landscapes of the United States and the Canary Islands, one might extrapolate the truisms of convergent evolution to the ascent of self-awareness and philosophies of the mind between 800 – 400BCE.

Suffering — the common link

The beginnings of these great contemplative movements are marked by suffering, poverty, death, oppression in its various guises and occupation of one form or another.

The golden age — also a time of tyranny

The golden age of Athens was also a time of constant suffering, war and strife. The Battle of Salamis, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach.

The golden age of Athens, a microcosm of flourishing intellectualism and meditations on the mind beset by war, occupation and tyranny. The 5th century BCE gave us Socrates and Plato and a city-state limping from one fight to another, embattled with the Persian empire between499-449BCE resulting in numerous battles, the occupation and burning of Athens in 480 BCE, a quarrelling alliance of city-states known as the Delian League in 478 BCE and eventually defeat too and occupation by the Thirty Tyrants of Sparta in 404 BCE. [24] Despite turmoil and occupation, Athens made significant strides leading into the 5th century; the ‘seven sages’ were salient in tackling poverty, encouraging trade of olive oil and pottery, replacing Draco’s punitive laws and establishing the basis for direct democracy and a reliable minted Athenian currency. [25] Athens was on the up despite myriad setbacks during the lives of Plato and Socrates, portraying what Athens and society at large could be.

Biblical times — the great suffering

The siege and destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts (1850).

Similarly, the earliest books of the Bible, including Genesis, were believed to have been written in Jerusalem around the time of Babylonian exile. A time of persecution and oppression for the people of Judah living under the thumb of Babylon — an empire sprawling over much of modern-day Syria, Iraq, and Israel. An empire that had deported the people of Judah between 597-581 BCE from their home in Jerusalem and forcibly detained them in Babylon. Moreover, during the second Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the walls were breached, Jerusalem was razed to the ground, houses laid in ruin, Solomon’s temple was no more, and the Kingdom of Judah remained a vassal state with only enough people left to tend to the farms. Life was bleak. [26] Exile from Jerusalem lasted until the Persian king Cyrus the great liberated the Judahites from Babylonian serfdom and allowed them to return to Jerusalem between 539-538 BCE where they would ultimately build a second temple, ending Babylonian captivity. [27] Judah was wrought with instability and occupation, not unlike that experienced by Plato and Socrates, both Athens and Jerusalem were razed to the ground and occupied by brutal, tyrannical regimes. Indeed, suffering and devastation of one sort or another engendered a quest to find something more, to break free from a cycle of serfdom and misery and to ask what could be.

Buddha — and samsara

Ancient India also endured great suffering.

Like ancient Greece, India during the life of the Buddha was a patchwork of polities following the dissolution of the Paurava empire and wouldn’t resemble a unified kingdom until the reign of the Mauryan empire some one hundred or so years after his death. India underwent social change as the subcontinent stepped out of the Vedic period that brought with it the Aryan invasion and the seminal Veda texts; codifying the cast system, outlining Brahminism and identifying the self as one with the universe while imbuing a sense of social order and honour in the individual for performing their predetermined duties well. [28]

The authority of the Veda texts — which brought stability to much of the subcontinent — came under threat from multifarious spiritual movements flourishing across India; these movements endeavoured to reject the caste system, emphasising traditions with great emphasis on individual free will, asceticism and breaking free from the Vedic tradition. [29] Moreover, during the life of the Buddha the political paradigm across the Kosala and Magadha Kingdoms and the Vrij republic shifted as the growing merchant class became wealthier and more influential than the ruling Brahmans, engendering arbitrary restrictions on commerce and society in general. [30] Conflict ensued as the dominance hierarchies of the day played out in the polities dotted around India, resulting in a life of minimal freedom and maximal suffering for the many as spiritual figures such as the Buddha sought emancipation from their physical condition.

Buddha, and other great contemplatives of the ancient world, searched for a spiritual solution to their physical condition — to the suffering and instability that threatened to topple the promise of a better society and a more fulfilled self. These great minds took it upon themselves to precipitate the march to a more liberated world.

Various religious traditions and philosophies converge on many philosophical ideas, especially regarding suffering.

 

 

 

The rise of Dharma

What can the suffering of ancient contemplatives tell us about human nature and the forces of evolution? One thing to note across these traditions is the emergence of written texts, either just before, after or during the lives of these great contemplatives as they lived beset by restrictive and sometimes totalitarian regimes.

 

Dharma text.

 

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget took note of how children learned to live in the world and specifically how they organised themselves into roles during games. As he discovered, children follow their prescribed roles in the game but have a difficult time articulating the rules and roles of the game. Instead, the rules of the game emerge as a consequence of the group coming together. Moreover, Piaget noted that if children have the choice of playing one of two games, game A being voluntary and game B being mandatory, A will win out and be more efficient and effective over time at teaching children the rules of the game as game A will avoid the ‘enforcement cost’ of game B. [31]

Like the children in this experiment, ancient humanity before Homer and the Vedic period had little more than scattered oral rules about the game of life to guide them, perhaps no more complicated than ‘those that stay together thrive together’ and without complete knowledge of how society or the self ought to be.  A society that has quelled the immediate threats of mother nature, agriculture, and brutish tribal wars tends to become more efficient: cut costs, holster the whip and offer concessions to those that threaten instability.

Australopithecus, upright primate.

When Australopithecus walked upright for the first time, it freed up its hands for tool creation. When homo erectus evolved to perspire through the skin instead of the mouth, it facilitated the development of complex oral communication. Likewise,  freeing up the enforcement costs of brutish regimes may have an untold impact on humankind. [33] Society can change the game of life from a mandatory game along the continuum — to a voluntary game, one of lesser enforcement costs.

Indeed, it is the subjects of these regimes that serve as evolution’s gatekeepers, ensuring that no regime exerts its force inefficaciously for too long.

Convergence

These great contemplatives — who developed similar philosophies despite the separation of time and distance, would ultimately be a liberating force in society, leading to more liberal — perhaps even more democratic societies. Instead of rule by fear, tyranny and terror, the philosophies and codified rules presented a more cost-effective system living in the world.

Mankind stepped out of the dark ages into the promise of enlightenment and the scientific revolution. The Buddha, Socrates, and the Bible lead to the prodigious value systems and an understanding of the self that changed the world — the point in our history when the self-stepped out the shadow of the tyrant,  and the individual broke free of collective suffering.

 

 

Notes/References

 

[1] Smithsonian.com. (2012) Becoming Human: The Evolution of Walking Upright. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/becoming-human-the-evolution-of-walking-upright-13837658/ [Accessed on: 07/08/2018].

[2] BigThink.com (2017) How Old Is the Bible? [Online] Accessed from: https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/how-old-is-the-bible [Accessed on: 07/08/2018].

[3] Biography.com (2018) Buddha Biography. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.biography.com/people/buddha-9230587 [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[4] Nature (2011) The Con of Convergence. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110216/full/news.2011.98.html [Accessed on: 07/08/2018].

[5] Brittanica.com (N/A) Photosynthesis. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.britannica.com/science/photosynthesis [Accessed on: 18/08/18].

[6] Uniprot.org (2002) Pericallis cruenta (Cineraria) (Senecio cruentus). [Online] Accessed from: https://www.uniprot.org/taxonomy/98709 [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[7] Biologydictionary.net Editors. “Organ” Biologydictionary.net. 2014. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. Accessed from: https://biologydictionary.net/convergent-evolution/ [Accessed on: 07/08/2018].

[8] Biologos.com (2013) When Was Genesis Written and Why Does it Matter? Pp. 8 [Online] Accessed from: https://biologos.org/uploads/resources/enns_scholarly_essay3.pdf [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[9] Genesis 3:1-24 King James Version

[10] Genesis 3:22 King James Version

[11] Genesis: 3:22 King James Version

[12] Russel, B. (1946) History of Western Philosophy, Reprinted (1995) Milton Park: Routledge

[13] Scientific American.com (2013) Geneticists Estimate Publication Date of The Illiad. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/geneticists-estimate-publication-date-of-the-illiad/ [Accessed on: 07/08/2018].

[14] Homer (800 BCE) The Odyssey. Translated by E.V. Rieu, Revised by D.C.H. Rieu. London: Penguin Books Ltd (2003).

[15] Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Revised Translation by Hugh Tredennick. (1993) London: Penguin Books Ltd

[16] Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press. William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[17] Plato. Charmides. 164d – 167a. London: Aeterna Press

[18] Plato (380 BCE) The Republic. Second Edition translated by Desmond Lee. 10:612b. London: Penguin Books Ltd. Reissued (2007).

[19] Biography.com (2018) Buddha Biography. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.biography.com/people/buddha-9230587 [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[20] Biography.com (2018) Buddha Biography. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.biography.com/people/buddha-9230587 [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[21] Ven. Thera, N (1999) The Roots of Good and Evil. [Online] Accessed from: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/roots_goodevil.pdf [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[22] Ven. Thera, N (1999) The Roots of Good and Evil. [Online] Accessed from: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/roots_goodevil.pdf [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[23] Sigman, M (2017) The Secret Life of the Brain. Great Britain: Clays Ltd

[24] History.com (2010) Classic Greece. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/classical-greece [Accessed on: 24/08/18].

[25] Britannica.com (N/A). Solon: Greek Statesman and Poet. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Solon#ref161465 [Accessed on: 22/08/18].

[26] Britannica.com (N/A). Babylonian Exile.  [Online] Accessed from: https://www.britannica.com/event/Babylonian-Exile [Accessed on: 22/08/18].

[28] Mark, j. (2012) Ancient India. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.ancient.eu/india/ [Accessed on: 26/08/18].

[29] StudyBuddhism.co, (N/A) Indian Thought and Society at the Time of the Buddha. [Online] Accessed from: https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/history-culture/buddhism-in-india/indian-society-and-thought-at-the-time-of-buddha [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[30] StudyBuddhism.co, (N/A) Indian Thought and Society at the Time of the Buddha. (Online) Accessed from: https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/history-culture/buddhism-in-india/indian-society-and-thought-at-the-time-of-buddha [Accessed on: 23/08/18].

[31] Piaget, J. (1932/1965) The moral judgment of the child.

——— (1962) first published 1951. Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood

[32] Loizides, A (2015) Draco’s Law Code. [Online] Accessed from: https://www.ancient.eu/Dracos_Law_Code/ [Accessed on: 26/18/08].

[33] Noah Harrari, Y. (2014) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Vintage

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Jamie Baillie | Contributing Writer

Author | Buddha Weekly

A Psychology and Philosophy student, from Dundee, Scotland: "We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others."

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