Large numbers of humans have turned their necks and settled their eyes and ears upon the words of Buddha, Socrates and Jesus. And there are others. But any one of these is in some sense enough. And while I do not now claim that they were essentially the same in their message, I assert similarity in several points.
- A warning against feeling which is equivalent to a radical detachment from the earthly.
- A characterization of the task with a rather vague set of recommendations.
- A promise that enlightenment, soul-health or blessedness await the one who sets on the vague and ill-defined path.
Below I present what I take to be evidence for #1 and #2 and a reason for the vagueness in the characterization of the path forward. In each case I rely on but a single text for focus, but I think the texts embody more general characteristics of their lives and teachings. From Buddha I take the sermon called “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma (dharma). From Socrates I take the dialogue “Crito’. From Jesus I take the sermon called “The Sermon on the Mount”.
Buddha’s sermon begins with a warning to not take the paths of sensual pleasure or self-mortification. My translation? Do not be guided by feelings of pleasure or pain. 99% of the human population struggles with the natural gravitation toward the pleasurable. Simply note the offerings at the local grocery store (sugar) or the third most trafficked website on the net (porn) for evidence. But the Buddha found himself in discussion with bhikkus (beggars) who were Hindu practitioners interested in being guided by pain. The difficulty of the way was the guide.
Socrates says to Crito, after Crito has implored him with his “reasons” to break the law and pursue exile as an alternative to death, that he is thankful for Crito’s “warm feelings” if they have any justification. The moment is simple, definitive for Socrates’ rejection of Crito’s concerns and their source, and marks Socrates as one who rejects feeling as the guide.
Jesus’ sermon is full of the claim that when feeling is the guide it leads to problems. Jesus connects anger with murder, lust with adultery. He commands no worry. No retaliation when wronged which is generally motivated by feeling.
What is connected with these rejections of feeling is a corresponding detachment from the earthly concern. Buddha recommends not grasping of craving. Translation? Letting go is the answer. Socrates does not say “let go”, but the entire scene is a picture of detachment from worldly concern. Socrates tranquilly accepts death over unrighteousness. This world is not worth living in if he cannot live well. Jesus constantly recommends turning the aim of the heart from earthly things to “heavenly” things. What these things are exactly is left to some degree undefined. Building treasure in heaven is juxtaposed to building earthly treasure. A choice between masters is presented, one of which is earthly and the other heavenly. We are not to worry about earthly matters precisely because our attention is heavenly. There is a promise that our needs will be met, like the needs of the lilies and birds, but a close reflection will result in the conclusion that this cannot bring assurance that things will go well down here. Some flowers get mowed over, lumberjacks and hawks mess with some birds. That the heavenly father takes care does clearly not mean meets earthly needs in the way we often want.
The recommended alternatives to following feeling are the following: The Buddha recommends the Middle Way: right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Very helpful, yeah? Socrates recommends never doing wrong which includes never returning wrong for wrong and keeping commitments. That’s it? Jesus recommends hungering and thirsting for righteousness and having purity of heart. The results are enlightenment (Buddha), soul-health (Socrates) and blessedness (Jesus).
My claim about why this is enough, why repetition is the next step, but further detail is both unnecessary and even counter-productive. The original emphasis on feeling in the soul has to do with desire and directedness of the soul. How one feels measures what one loves. What one loves radically shapes one’s clarity of view. The addict is moved by what he is addicted to. But to reason with the addict about what he should love has significant limits until the addict is at the place of repentance (sincerely ready to turn around). It is interesting that Buddha, Socrates and Jesus all discuss these matters in relations of trust with those who are interested. They leave the crowds who have their attention elsewhere to pursue their interests. And, what does the addict most need at the moment of turning? DON’T TRUST YOUR FEELINGS!
The result of detachment from feeling, and it could be discussed under the innocent attachment of the infant or the vicious attachment of the addicted, is clarity of view. It comes from the purification from feeling. I hope I will not be read as demanding no feeling. How absurd. All I intend to affirm is the recommendation to not be guided by feeling that has not yet come under the guidance of dharma (Buddha), reason (Socrates) or the heavenly (Jesus).
Buddha says that the beginning of the Middle way is right view. It is everything. The ancient Greek philosophers saw prudence or practical wisdom as the beginning of virtue. Clarity of view is not a bad translation. Jesus says that the pure in heart will see God. He thus connects seeing the best things with being in the best internal condition.
The desire for details or more from Buddha, Socrates or Jesus on how to attain right living is the desire for a recipe. But right living is not ultimately the result of external rule following. It is the result of soul-cleansing that comes from the removal of feeling as the guide. Once one takes the step and continues on the path of the removal of feeling for guidance the view will become clear. Then recommendations like “never do wrong”, “don’t grasp” or “love your enemy” become clear. To try and give content to those maxims from the position of an unclean disaster is simply to court misinterpretation.
All three say, detach from the earthly and conform to reason (Socrates), cosmic order (Buddha) or the heavenly realm (Jesus). What does it look like? How do I verify conformity? Start with detachment from natural earthly feeling as the guide. The rest will clarify.