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Socrates & Zen

Geoff Sheehan uses Buddhist parables to illustrate Socratic philosophy.

Many share a common picture of Socrates: a goggle-eyed, pot-bellied, barely clothed man, asking all and sundry difficult, and irritating, questions about virtue, a fixture in the public places, shops and gymnasia in and around the central market place of fifth century BCE Athens. What was he on about? One answer to this question, ‘searching for definitions’, seems on the face of it utterly inadequate: Socrates was tried and executed because he was searching for definitions!

Yet definitions are important. For Socrates, only if we make clear and distinct definitions which can illuminate all situations under discussion can we be said to know what a particular moral value is. So we can know what bravery is only if we can discern what the many acts we call ‘brave’ have in common, from the bravery of the soldier in pitched battle, to the bravery of the worker who stands up to bullying in the workplace, to the bravery of the depressive who crawls out of bed every morning despite every fibre of their being urging them to stay put. But simply to arrive at a common definition – even assuming that this is possible – seems to me to fall short. Socrates is after more than the knowledge enshrined in definitions; or rather, the knowledge he is after must be passionate knowledge.

It was this passionate search that led to Socrates’ death at the hands of a justly-admired democratic state. His search for the meaning of values like courage, justice and piety, values which Socrates himself demonstrated, and his attempt to make his explanations of those values clear and compelling to those with whom he conversed, made him deeply unpopular. He was seen as undermining the very values which Athenians regarded as being hallmarks of their society – even if they could not articulate them. “Of course everyone knows what bravery is, Socrates! Why do you need to confuse everyone by searching for a definition of it?”

Distant View of Mount Fuji
Distant View of Mount Fuji by Keisai Eisen, 1835

The Search For Wisdom

At the risk of turning Socrates into a closet Buddhist, there are some instructive parallels with that religion, particularly with some of the Zen koans or parables, which may help us to understand Socrates’ search for knowledge more clearly.

A key element in Socrates’ search for certainty involves preparing the ground: only by getting rid of the dead wood of opinion, prejudice or misguided beliefs can the student make progress on the path to knowledge. The Zen story ‘A cup of tea’ illustrates this nicely:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself: “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Although many of those whom Socrates challenges get no further than recognising their preconceptions, Socrates would see this as a boon, for now the ground is prepared for the journey to continue.

Perhaps Euthyphro, a religious ‘expert’ who has taken his own father to court on a charge of impiety, does not get even as far as this: by the end of the dialogue named after him he is repeating himself and seems incapable of seeing the implications of Socrates’ questions. His mind has been numbed in the manner noted by the playboy-general Alcibiades, who compares Socrates’ questions to the numbing effect of a stingray’s barbs (Meno, 80a). Most of those to whom Socrates talks end up feeling numb and at a loss, unsure how to continue. This state has been termed ‘aporia’ (‘impasse’) and Socrates sees reaching it as a vital part of his method. His skill as a framer of questions now comes to the fore, as he guides his interlocutor on to the next stage, towards knowledge – a stage which generally has very limited success!

A famous Zen parable which illustrates the importance of the search is ‘The sound of one hand clapping’. Twelve-year-old Toyo seeks enlightenment from Mokurai, the head monk at his local temple. Finally Mokurai agrees, and sees Toyo in the monk’s instruction room. Assuming that Toyo knows what sound two hands clapped together makes, he asks him: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ The boy retires to his room to consider. Over a long period of time (it is not clear how long), Toyo offers a variety of sounds to Mokurai, including the music of geishas, the dripping of water, the sighing of the wind, and the hooting of an owl. None of these, of course, is the answer. It is not until he meditates fully, and in doing so transcends all sounds, that he reaches the ‘soundless sound’ – the sound of one hand clapping.

Toyo achieves enlightenment. Socrates is seeking knowledge; or perhaps it is better to say that he is seeking wisdom, in that the values in question are not just an intellectual matter, but are values to be lived. In Socrates’ eyes, a man who claims to know what bravery is but does not act bravely would thereby prove that he does not know what bravery is.

Buddhist Socrates
Buddhist Socrates © Steve Lillie 2016. Please visit www.stevelillie.biz

The World & Its Temptations

One of the ideas Socrates offers in the Apology would have been greeted by astonishment by the jurors and spectators at his trial: “I do not believe,” he says, “that the law of God permits a better man to be harmed by a worse” (31c). Socrates was no doubt making a barbed comment against his accusers here; but we can also understand this remark in a deeper way. The Zen story ‘Is that so?’ can help:

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbours as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him; but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbours, and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back. Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”

Hakuin is secure in his self-knowledge. What other people think of him is of no consequence. Similarily, Socrates knows that he is innocent of the charges against him, and he certainly doesn’t care how he is regarded by others.

Socrates was also not interested in worldly possessions or money. However, he lived life to the full: he enjoyed bodily pleasures, including drink – his capacity for alcohol was the stuff of legend. So it is a little surprising to find in the Phaedo [65 abc] that he gives the body a hard time. Its chief defect is that impedes the path to knowledge: our senses let us down, we suffer from pain, we get distracted by sex and other bodily pleasures, and by clothes and ornaments. in short, the body gets in the way of our reflecting on the things that matter – the wisdom Socrates is searching for – by tying us to its demands. Therefore it is the task of philosophers to distance themselves from their bodies. A Zen story helps us to see how this might be achieved:

Tanzan and Ekido, two monks, were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross the flooded intersection.

“Come on girl!” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night, when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself: “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “Especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous! Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Tanzan boldly carries the young woman over the mud, but his kind action does not lead to the sort of impure feelings which have presumably dogged Ekido since the encounter. Tanzan is able to put the encounter into perspective, and is grounded enough in his Buddhism for any sexual feelings he may have had to be of no consequence for him.

Socrates obviously enjoys the pleasures of this world, but he too can put them into perspective. When necessary, Socrates is able to escape the body’s demands. In the Symposium (‘symposium’ means ‘drinking party’) Alcibiades delights in telling his fellow guests how Socrates behaved during the siege of Potidea during the Peloponnesian War. Not only did he ignore the bitter cold during the winter months of the campaign, in the summer he stood on the same spot for a day and a night – lost, one might say, in Zen-like contemplation.

Living Knowledge

What then of the sort of knowledge or wisdom that Socrates is seeking? Perhaps we can approach this through one of Socrates’ most puzzling statements: “No one does wrong willingly” (Gorgias, 509e). For Socrates, if one knows the correct course of action, one undertakes it. The corollary is that if one doesn’t follow the correct course, then one simply did not know it (and therefore cannot be punished!).

Knowledge then is far beyond a question of definitions. We might say that wisdom is a matter of life or death. A Zen-like parable told by Mark Vernon may help in this regard:

One day a dispassionate young man approached the philosopher and casually said, “O great Socrates, I come to you for knowledge!”

The philosopher took the young man down to the sea, waded in with him, and then dunked him under the water for thirty seconds. When he let the young man up for air, Socrates asked him to repeat what he wanted.

“Knowledge, O great one!” he sputtered.

Socrates put him under the water again, only this time a little longer.

After repeated dunkings and responses, the philosopher asked, “What do you want?” The young man finally gasped, “Air. I want air!”

“Good,” answered Socrates. “Now, when you want knowledge as much as you wanted air, you shall have it.”

(from Wellbeing by Mark Vernon, 2008)

The response Socrates wants from those he questions is not simply a definition: that definition must be grounded in a passion for understanding the value to be defined, to the extent that a failure to live the value would be instant proof that it was in fact not known. To put the matter another way – only if we are as full of knowledge of our values as the young man wants to be full of air, can we be said to know their meaning.

We are no further along the road to the sort of moral knowledge which Socrates is searching for; but perhaps the koans here may make the path a little easier to travel.

© Geoff Sheehan 2016

Geoff Sheehan studied philosophy at the University of Auckland, and is an enthusiast of fifth-century BCE Athens, particularly its trouble-making philosopher Socrates.

• The Zen stories are taken from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps at terebess.hu/zen/101ZenStones.pdf.

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