Nobody at Home

Jon Elster

  • Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism by Steven Collins
    Cambridge, 323 pp, £22.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 24081 6
  • Le Bonheur-Liberté: Bouddhisme Profond et Modernité by Serge-Christophe Kolm
    Presses Universitaires de France, 637 pp, £150.00, January 1983, ISBN 2 13 037316 X

A few years ago I was flying from Paris to Copenhagen on a day of calm and perfect weather. The flight took me over the sea beyond the coast of Holland, and looking down I was able to see in full detail the landscape below sea level, with its hills and valleys and – astonishingly – a lake: an accumulation of dark-blue water at the bottom of a valley, sharply separated from its lighter surroundings and maintained by some unknown physical process. This lake at the bottom of the sea forcefully evoked the idea of an inner nature of things, normally hidden by an opaque veil and only occasionally discernible by the senses. It has remained with me as a moment of ultra-clear vision, an experience of being absorbed into the world rather than having it represented on a screen of consciousness.

Most people have had similar experiences, I suspect. In his book on Theravada Buddhism, Steven Collins refers to the ‘water imagery’ expressive of the state of mind of the meditator ‘in which all mental phenomena can be seen and classified “as they really are”... like a clear pond through which the stones, plants, and suchlike, on the bottom can be seen with ease.’ Part of the attraction of Buddhism comes from the promise it offers of making such extraordinary clarity of vision a permanently available ability. It shares this, however, with many other views of the world that promise mystical insight. In his powerful study of the Buddhist tradition, Serge Kolm argues that it is also uniquely suited to the rational scientific mind, by virtue of its emphasis on materialism, determinism and method. Both works underline the elimination of suffering as the goal to which the theory and practice of Buddhism are harnessed.

The two books are nonetheless strikingly different, and not always consistent with each other. They deal with the same subject-matter: the relation between Buddhism and Brahmanism, between the Theravada and Mahayana schools, between exoteric and esoteric forms, between non-self and moral responsibility, between freedom from illusion and freedom from suffering. Collins has written a scholarly study of Buddhism, without attempting to evaluate its central doctrines. His stated concern is a philosophical one, but he does not go beyond the clarification of the basic notions. In a sense, he does not even take it seriously as an intellectual endeavour, as, for instance, when he suggests that the ‘deep structure’ of Buddhist theory is to be found in various forms of imagery. Kolm, on the other hand, offers a passionate defence of the doctrine: too passionate, in fact, to be consistent with the doctrine he is defending, since Buddhism strongly warns against becoming too attached to ‘views’. He also makes many gestures in the direction of scholarship, especially in those chapters which argue that Buddhism had a profound influence on Greek thought, notably on Pythagoras and the Stoics. I have no competence to evaluate his argument, but I suspect that he may have taken too much on. He rests his case on the similarities between Buddhism and Greek philosophy, together with the material feasibility of travel between the Indian and the Greek worlds, but specialists would probably demand more detailed evidence, notably with respect to the earliest influence. My concern, however, is limited to his arguments for Buddhism as a solution to current intellectual and moral problems.

Le Bonheur-Liberté is an exceptional work by most criteria. Its author is an internationally known mathematical economist, with many publications in the domain of public economics and economic justice. Like most economists, he is a utilitarian, and this is evident in his interpretation of Buddhism. He does not, however, cite the version of utilitarianism which is beyond doubt closest to his own view: the version developed in the work of Derek Parfit. (Collins does refer to Parfit’s ideas, and in this respect the books can usefully supplement one another.) Kolm has also written important work on the transition to socialism, and is much concerned with the relation between individual liberation through Buddhism and liberation through collective action, although I do not think he succeeds in resolving the tension between these two tasks. He has proposed, moreover, a mathematical model of Freud’s theory of the mind which, while not very interesting in itself, has prepared him for the task of comparing Buddhism and psychoanalysis as strategies for liberation. Many readers will no doubt be put off by his somewhat sketchy scholarship, and his claims for Buddhism as being ‘infinitely’ superior to Western thought and the definitive solution to all sorts of problems. It would be a great pity if this led them to neglect the work. Though often repetitive, it contains pages that dazzle with insight. Though sometimes vague in the answers it offers, it shows an uncanny gift for singling out important problems. It is an important work of social theory.

Buddhism is in many respects a very elusive doctrine, and both books discuss in some detail why this is so. First, in order to survive in a hostile Brahminical environment, it had to camouflage its doctrines in a form that defused it as an ideology of revolt. It had to offer itself as an exoteric doctrine for popular consumption, while reserving its real meaning for a few scholars. In particular, it had to pretend to accept the doctrine of rebirth which was the ideological basis of Brahman rulership. The true or esoteric meaning of this doctrine within Buddhism is as a psychological theory, in which each ‘birth’ simply represents a new moment of consciousness, and the transmigration of souls according to merit (karma) means nothing more than the production of one state by its causal antecedents. While Kolm insists on these distinctions between conventional and ultimate truth, Collins finds that they ‘have the flavour of rationalisations after the event, rather than an original and determining influence on the development of Buddhistic culture’.

Next, the status of the esoteric doctrine itself novers ambiguously between the analytical and the purely instrumental. In the Mahayana tradition, Collins tells us, there is a strong tendency to disavow the doctrine’s claim to truth, and to insist on its purely instrumental efficacy in achieving liberation. Although the Theravada appears to be more genuinely concerned with truth, a central work of that school also contains passages which suggest that the value of these patterns of self-analysis lies only in their strategic function as instruments of mental culture.’ This is not to be confused with the general idea that doctrines, or ‘views’, must not become an object of attachment, that they are like rafts that should be discarded once the river has been crossed. A true doctrine may well be the best instrument, yet dangerous if valued as more than a mere instrument. This is nevertheless slippery ground, as is shown in Kolm’s argument that the ontological doctrines of Buddhism – as opposed to its empirical psychological theories – can be understood as mere ways of looking at things, and are to be judged only by their usefulness in reducing suffering. In any case, this strongly instrumentalistic attitude can be opposed to what I believe is a widespread Western idea: that happiness tends to arise as a by-product of the search for truth but will escape those who seek to harness truth to its purpose.

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