Copyright Thomas Gramstad 2003
This article suggests a few exploratory notes of comparison between Objectivism and Buddhism, a potentially fruitful territory hitherto uncharted.<1> These notes are not intended to be conclusive. Rather, they suggest a few points of departure for future comparisons, explorations and developments in a Buddhist- Objectivist dialogue, primarily in the fields of ethics, epistemology and psycho-epistemology.
Buddhism seems to have several general similarities with Objectivism. It is about making the best out of one's life here on earth, there is nothing supernatural (or if there is, it is considered unimportant) and little or no interest in any afterlife. Buddhism is about self-improvement. Buddhists perceive the founder of their religion as nothing more than a human being, although one with an exceptionally clear and developed mind, a spiritual genius. This perfect human being often becomes a house god for the atheist Buddhist, revered with the help of statues, pictures and books. This too seems more than a little similar to the average Objectivist reverence for the genius of Ayn Rand and the interest in Rand paraphernalia. But are there more specific similarities and commonalities than these general ones?
I did combined web searches on Objectivism and Buddhism, Rand and Buddha and soforth. I was able to find one reference - to a lecture about Buddhism given by Susanna Fessler at the 1997 IOS summer conference. That's kind of weird, because I was at that conference, but I don't think I attended that particular lecture. The conference program contains a summary description of the lecture:
Why has Objectivism not spread in East Asia? Susanna Fessler, assistant professor of East Asian Studies at the State University of New York at Albany, will explain how the core beliefs of Buddhism contradict Objectivism theory. Because Buddhism lacks even the partial individualism of western Christianity, effective dissemination of Objectivism in East Asia would require a different focus than in the West. Prof. Fessler is a specialist in Japanese culture, language, and literature.<2a>
There is also a post-seminar report, that describes this lecture:
Susanna Fessler initiated the "History and Culture" program by raising and answering a question that has surely occurred to many Objectivists: If the East Asian states are developing dynamic capitalist economies, will their populations become more receptive to Objectivism? According to Fessler, prospects are dim, owing to the region's tradition of Buddhism, a religion that holds egoism is the source of suffering. Nevertheless, Fessler said, some hope is offered by a sect known as Pure Land Buddhism and certain developments within that sect that encourage a focus on materialism.<2b>
The Fessler lecture summary doesn't exactly lool like an invitation to dialogue, does it? How can anyone believe that the anti-reason and slave morality mentality of Christianity is more conducive to individualism and an independent mind than the first-hand independent psycho-epistemology that Buddhists exercise and cultivate on a daily basis? I believe this is an example of a fallacy fairly common among Objectivists, one I refer to as hierarchical context dropping - the mistaken belief that an idea from a theoretically more fundamental discipline is always more important or more influential on an individual than any idea from a theoretically less fundamental discipline. In this case, an "individualist" metaphysics (the Christian doctrine of individual souls surviving death and continuing as saved or condemned individual entities after death), combined with epistemological and psycho-epistemological subservience and dependence is believed to be more rational and individualist than an individualist epistemology and psycho-epistemology combined with metaphysical beliefs about deep similarities and connections between all humans (and even all life) - just because "metaphysics is more fundamental than epistemology". I would also argue that the Christian soul metaphysics is atomist rather than individualist, but I digress. Let us consider some areas of intersection between Buddhism and Objectivism.
In his paper, Buddhist Ethics as Virtue Ethics,<3> comparative philosophy scholar Nick Gier compares Buddhist ethics with Aristotelian ethics, noting several similarities due to the fact that Buddhist ethics as well as ancient Greek ethics in general and Aristotelianism in particular all are virtue ethics<4>. Gier also suggests one significant difference.
In his open letter (see note 1), Savaka Sukhothaia says that "Aristotle's 'megalopsychia' is familiar". Gier argues that this is in fact an important difference between Buddhism and Aristotelianism: the Buddhist emphasis on modesty or humility as opposed to Aristotle's emphasis on the "great-souled man" and pride. In fact, pride is considered a sin, or opposed to dharma (one's moral code) in Buddhism - except that, strictly speaking, Buddhism doesn't have any concept of sin, only of making mistakes (another similarity with Objectivism), so what Buddhists call pride would be considered a mistake in one's moral code and conduct.
While Gier does not address Rand or Objectivism, his argument can easily be transposed to Objectivism versus Buddhism. Objectivism advocates the ego and its development and expression, as the fountainhead of creativity, values and progress. Buddhism advocates and works towards freedom from the ego and nullification of the limits of ego. These sound like diametrically opposed positions.
However, there is a possible way out of this dilemma: Buddhism and Objectivism don't have the same ego concepts, so they are talking about (somewhat) different things. The Buddhist concept of ego seems to have similarities to the psychoanalytic one, referring mostly to internalized limitations, habits, tastes, conventions, taboos and soforth that have been automatized and learned by social osmosis from childhood and on. These are self-reproducing and self-maintaining limitations on everyone's cognitive and behavioral functions, preferences and values, preventing people from living consciously and first-hand. Also Objectivists and Randians are opposed to such limitations.
Processes and functions that Objectivists consider cognitive aspects of an independent, self-made value-based ego are differently conceived by Buddhists, as processes and functions that liberate an individual from a more static or locked ego created and maintained by involuntary social conditioning. Similarly, when Buddhists criticize pride, they seem to be mostly referring to what Aristotelians would identify as conceit, boastfulness, and a lack of sensitivity, rather than nobility and the great soul. Once one starts speaking about what nobility consists of and what capacities and characteristics a great soul must possess, previously obscured similarities between Buddhism and Objectivism may emerge.
One such example is the Buddhist emphasis on ending dukkha, or "craving" or "attachments". Most Buddhists do not advocate putting an end to all wishes and desires. While different Buddhist schools differ in what cravings and attachments they want to end, one common Buddhist understanding of dukkha that is compatible with Objectivism is the one that perceives dukkha as wishes and cravings that cannot be obtained or realized because they are incompatible with the nature of the individual in question. In this view, the nature of dukkha is false wishes or self-destructive values that are not rooted in reality. Attachment to dukkha will lead to unhappiness and unfulfillment of the individual. The concept of dukkha also seems to have similarities to the ancient Greek concept of hubris.
In Objectivism, this part of reality is addressed by two different concepts. The first is identified as a type of context dropping, evading one's own nature, especially one's own limitations. Some Objectivists have actually argued for introducing "humility" as an Objectivist virtue.<5> Personally, I find that the term "humility" calls forth the image of Christians, kneeling and crawling on dirty floors - an idolization of self-abasement. Hubris and humility (aka debris and debility :-) are both at odds with Objectivist virtue. Instead, context sensitivity, or even just sensitivity, sounds much better and accurately reflects a Randian virtue.
The second Objectivist concept is the distinction between the metaphysically given and the (hu)man-made. While theoretically clear, this distinction is notoriously difficult to apply to human nature and one's individual nature: which parts of oneself can be changed, and which cannot? There are different answers to that question both within Buddhism and within Objectivism/Randianism. Even though Buddhism and Objectivism apply somewhat different concepts, it is clear that they address the same aspect of reality, and that they agree both about the basic layout of that reality, and about the effects of faking it.
So the Buddhist dukkha is a self-image that may be static or it may be locked in a self-destructive dynamic pattern of repetitive attachments. Dukkha is a result of mental passivity and of a second-hand approach to one's life. It would seem that Objectivism and Buddhism agree about the nature and effects of this phenomenon.<6>
Is it the case that Buddhists often emphasize and concentrate on avoiding negative states of mind, while Objectivists emphasize and focus on attaining positive states of mind? If so, what consequences does this difference in orientation lead to?
Another related topic of interest is Buddhism's and Objectivism's relationships to what has been called spiritual titanism. According to Gier: "Titanism is an extreme form of humanism in which human beings take on divine attributes and prerogatives."<7> An example of Objectivist titanism is ascribing too much "concrete reality" to Rand's fictional heroes and heroines, and being too literal and too eager to emulate them in real life. Titanism, as the concept is explored in Gier's book, suggests an atomist and anti-social form of individualism, unlike the zoon politicon of Aristotle, and unlike the social virtues frequently practiced by Rand's heroes. Yet social virtues are underrepresented and underemphasized in Rand's explicit philosophy<8>, and a danger of titanism seems to be present. Buddhism seems to have better inbuilt ways of defeating titanism, and maybe Objectivists have something to learn here. The same goes for atomism, since Buddhists do not have an atomist self concept. While some Objectivists seem to fall prey easily to atomist tendencies, perhaps being influenced by a Christian culture in general and Christian soul metaphysics in particular.
The primary goal of Buddhism is the attainment of enlightenment or awakening - a mental state of clarity, alertness and undistorted perception. Objectivism aims for an active, first-hand mind, with a clear focus and rational purpose, and without evasion, the greatest sin in Objectivism and the opposite of mental clarity. How similar is Buddhist clarity to Objectivist focus? Do they reflect the same kind of psycho-epistemology, and the same ideal of living consciously? Is Buddhist awakening and the Objectivist art of living consciously<9> essentially the same thing? Even if that is the case, their methodology seem to be different. Objectivism advocates the use and training of logic and cognitive skills of reasoning, while Buddhism employs and trains non-rational skills related to conative, affective and perceptual aspects of the mind, through meditation and other mental techniques. Are these different emphases, methods, goals and skill sets incompatible, or are they complementary so that they may supplement, support and balance each other?
In his works Chris Sciabarra has identified the importance of dialectics in Rand's thought.<10> Buddhism has dialectics too, including one logical form that is very rare, if present at all, in classical Western philosophy: the neither/nor dialectic.<11> The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki provides an example:
Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular.<12>
In this quote, Suzuki uses neither/nor dialectic to reject a false alternative ("not two, not one"). Then he integrates the mind and the body, they are a unity. But they can also be experienced as two (or more) separate parts of that unity. So the neither/nor dialectic is a method for rejecting false alternatives and then integrate the true aspects of each alternative. One of Buddhism's strongpoints is relational thinking and real or apparent paradoxes associated with it.
Note how this methodology leads Buddhism to the same view of the mind-body relationship as Objectivism - and this is a rare position indeed. This view of the mind-body relationship also naturally leads to an inclination towards perceiving questions about "life after death" or "reincarnation" as pointless or meaningless, a position held by many Buddhist traditions. Also, while Objectivism is virtually alone<13> to reject the is-ought dichotomy in the Western tradition, Buddhism rejects it too. How much common ground do these two important and rare agreements lend to Objectivism and Buddhism?
While I don't particularly believe in creating recombinant mutants or hybrids of Buddhism and Objectivism, and certainly not - Earth forbid! - a singular and official such hybrid, I still can't help myself from coining a term for such an imagined entity: Buddhjectivism. I'm not sure whether it's the natural heretic in me looking for a good way to ruffle dogmatic feathers in both traditions, or the writer looking for a captive headline, or if it's just the punster, but there it is. In any case, I do think that dialogues and comparisons between the two systems, noting similarities as well as differences, and enhancing the one where the other is stronger or unbalanced, is a possible, interesting and potentially fruitful prospect.
Most people interested in such an endeavor (and there are a few; perhaps one might talk about Buddhjectivists rather than Buddhjectivism) seem to prefer to create disjunct mental spaces for the two systems: one for politics (O) and one for spirituality (B); one for individualism (O) and one for awareness/mindfulness (B); or even one for the "left hemisphere" (O) and one for the "right hemisphere" (B), and so on. This approach is supported by the fact that Objectivism and Buddhism employ and train different parts and functions of the mind, different aspects of human consciousness. These efforts and the techniques supporting them are rightly perceived as complementary, both on the philosophical and practical level: it's difficult or impossible to successfully do both at the same time. Nevertheless, the individual is a unity, and also there is one, common, objective reality hiding somewhere underneath all the subjective experiences, realities, purposes and perceptions overlaying it. So if both Objectivism and Buddhism contain truth and value, there must be an interface between them, beyond the practical, encompassing (at least some) philosophical aspects. That's the fledgling theme I've been trying to explore in this article.
The creation of mutant strains, followed by the intermingling of these with old strains is a common theme in the history of ideas (indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of a living philosophy). Such developments have not only happened within Buddhism, but is already happening within the much younger Objectivism: different strains or schools separate out from the main branch, and then they start to influence each other and intermingle again. This can also happen between different traditions and philosophies, not only within them, something that is accelerating in a world going more and more global. This can be an exciting and fruitful process to engage in for an active, independent mind. It is my hope that dialogue may continue between Buddhists and Objectivists/Randians in various fora.
<1> I'm indebted to Savaka Sukhothaia's open letter to Objectivists and Randians calling for an outreach to and dialogue with Buddhists for the inspiration to engage in this investigation. See Savaka Sukhothaia: A Call to Objectivists and Randians For Dialogue With Buddhists. Open letter, June 2001. http://folk.uio.no/thomas/po/buddhists-and-objectivists.html
<2a> Objectivism: Theory and Practice. IOS 1997 summer seminar
program, available at
<2b> Summer Seminar Brings "Academical Village" to Life, http://ios.org/center/news/news_sumsem-academic-village.asp.
<3> Nick Gier: Buddhist Ethics as Virtue Ethics, http://www.its.uidaho.edu/ngier/307/buddve.htm.
<4> There exist some strains of Buddhism advocating duty ethics rather than virtue ethics, such as Christian-Buddhist hybrids that interpret buddhist dharma in accordance with Christian duty and slave morality. See for example the Church of the East, http://church-of-the-east.org/welcome.shtml.
<5> Karen Minto: Can Sacrifice Be Rational?, in Full Context Vol. 9 No. 10, 1997.
<6> Breaking out of destructive, repetitive or locked patterns is also a frequent theme in Nathaniel Branden's works.
<7> Nick Gier: Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives. State University Of New York Press, 2000. http://www.its.uidaho.edu/ngier/steab.htm
David Kelley: Unrugged Individualism. The Objectivist Center,
Nathaniel Branden: The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1984), http://www.nathanielbranden.net/ayn/ayn03.html.
<9> The Art of Living Consciously: The Power of Awareness to Transform Everyday Life is the title of one of Nathaniel Branden's books, reviewed by Carolyn Ray in Navigator Vol. 1 No. 10 under the heading Sleepers, Awake!, see http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/essays/text/carolynray/sleepersawake.html.
<11> See Nick Gier: Dialectics: East and West (1983), http://www.its.uidaho.edu/ngier/307/dialectic.htm.
<12> Shunryu Suzuki: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Weatherhouse, 1988. http://www.sfzc.com/Pages/Library/zmbm.html
<13> Apparently Epicurus rejected the is-ought dichotomy too. See Ray Shelton's two articles (1995), Epicurus and Rand, in Objectivity Vol. 2 No. 3, http://folk.uio.no/thomas/po/epicurus-and-rand.html (web version forthcoming), and Parallel Metaethics, in Objectivity Vol. 2 No. 4, http://folk.uio.no/thomas/po/parallel-metaethics.html.
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