5.) A Buddhist Reflection on the Western Intellectual Tradition

Two categories with which students of Buddhism are bound to become familiar, whether they focus on the Theravāda or the Mahāyāna forms of it, are prajñā and karuṇā. What follows are some observations on trends in Western intellectual history in the light of this distinction. In order for these observations to surface in the course of a general survey of modern intellectual history one might begin by rendering the word prajñā as cognition in English (in place of the more usual ‘insight’) and karuṇā as compassion. As a next step, one might then ask the question: What follows if we view compassion as a mode of cognition?

The suggestion is not as far-fetched as it might sound at first. It makes eminent sense in at least three ways. (1) Modern philosophical and scientific concepts of cognition are based on the subject/object dichotomy, with the implication that a conscious subject (the scientist) cognizes an object, if not inert then at least, radically different from the subject (matter, bacilli, etc.). However, the greater the extent to which the object of investigation possesses life or consciousness the more porous the distinction tends to become. (2) In the case of the study of human beings or shall we say, in the humanities, a very different view of the dichotomy needs to be taken. The psychiatrists represent the extreme case where the true scientific understanding itself consists of being able to cognize the inner mental and emotional states of the other human being. (3) There are some modes of knowing in which cognition presupposes compassion. In appreciating a dramatic performance, for instance, if one does not have com-passion for the suffering being depicted on the stage, the literary ‘cognition’ of the play itself would be impaired.

This prepares the ground for the following observations:

(1) While enlightenment in Buddhism involves the operation of both the factors, the Western Enlightenment, it seems, chose primary focus on only one of them: cognition.

(2) The synchronic presence of the two elements in Buddhism is replaced, as it were, by a diachronic movement in relation to Christianity. The emphasis on compassion in medieval Christianity was followed and replaced by an emphasis on Reason in the West. The recent questioning of the supremacy of Reason in the West is now allowing more room for the incorporation of compassion as cognition.

(3) Both Buddhism and Christianity, as well as the modern West, recognize the healing power of non-emotional involvement. This represents a striking fact. Thus we have the Arhat or the Bodhisattva who fully identifies with the suffering of the universe but never loses sight of the fact that the ultimate redemptive power lies in prajñā. In Christianity and the modern welfare state we have the social servants and the social workers who similarly do not allow the intense emotional involvement of the familial type to cloud their vision. The most concerned person, on witnessing an accident, calls the ambulance rather than jeopardizing the victim’s condition by spontaneous sentimental attempts to take care of him or her. The doctor, and further down the line, the scientist, similarly display a non-emotional involvement which does not preclude a humane sympathy from characterizing their actions, and even motivating their interest in medicine and science itself.

(4) In a sense cognition and compassion set the limits for each other. For instance, a sole focus on the cognitive aspect of the disease could make a doctor callous towards the patient. Similarly, an exclusively compassionate attitude, combined with lack of cognition, might cause one to give something to a patient which the patient craves but which will only serve to aggravate the illness. Similarly, these two—cognition and compassion—can be polarized or totalized. For instance, in the West, when it is Reason alone which was allowed to respond to the challenge posed by the quest for an ultimate reality, philosophy per se emerged. Then cognition and compassion, when the latter is represented by a confessional approach to reality, got polarized as philosophy versus theology. In India, when religion is regarded as the response of the entire human being (and not just Reason) to the whole of reality, then no distinction is drawn between the two—or even between philosophy and religion.

(5) The current movement known as “deconstruction” in Western thought leads one to ask the following question from a Buddhist point of view: If compassion had intellectually enjoyed as firm a place in Western thought as in the Buddhist, would a movement like deconstruction have emerged? The revolt of Reason represented by the Enlightenment was against revelation. If it now be claimed that reason has exhausted itself as a mode of knowing and revelation has already been discredited in this role—what does the West have to fall back on intellectually? This might not have been the case if compassion had been as primary a category in Western thought as revelation.


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