Buddhism & Philosophy (Graham Priest Interview)

I was trained as a mathematician, so when I started teaching philosophy, I had a
fairly impoverished education, as a philosopher. And I’ve spent a lot of time over my working
life, educating myself and finding out what all the bits of philosophy
are and how they interact. And, in many ways, philosophy is
like a big and rather sprawling city. When you start as a professional philosopher
you’re very familiar with one part of it. As you’re around longer, you get to know
other parts. But it’s a bit like going on the subway, that you come up in various suburbs, and you know
them but you don’t know how they’re all connected. But gradually, as you’re around longer,
you start to see how all the suburbs fit together. And about ten years ago, I was starting to
feel that I knew how philosophy hung together, and then I discovered that there was
actually half of the city I was missing. It’s a bit like, you know, Berlin
before the fall of the wall. What happened on the other side I just had
no clue about. And as you pointed out, Western philosophers I think still often think of
Eastern philosophies as not really philosophy at all; they’re mysticism, they’re religion,
they’re not worth seriously engaging with. It must be said that if they have these views,
they have them largely from a position of ignorance because they’ve never read most
of it, and if they had, they really wouldn’t have this view. But that’s
been the traditional view. However, the Berlin Wall, as it were, is coming
down, and it started to come down for me about 10 years ago when I met people who knew more
about Asian philosophy than I did–which wasn’t hard actually at the time–and started talking
to them about it and discussing the ideas, and discovered two things. First of all, they were dealing with issues
that were very familiar to me from a Western perspective: ethical issues, God, the soul,
epistemology, logic, the standard canon in the West. So it was familiar to me. But they also had very distinctive takes on
certain things, which I found fascinating. So at that stage I decided to cross the Berlin
Wall and explore the other side, as it were. I think there are two questions
I want to ask arising out of that. One is, you say that the misapprehension
of Asian philosophy in the West is that it’s mysticism or it’s religion or so on. But it is the case, isn’t it, that ‘philosophy’ is
a European word, it’s a word of Greek origin, it defines a particular
sort of intellectual activity. There is no reason why other cultures should
divide up the world or the intellectual sphere in exactly the way that we do. So, it might not be surprising if we found
mysticism or religion adjoining what we might recognize as philosophy in their bodies
of thought; it’s simply a different way of portioning things out. Look, it’s certainly true that the word
‘philosophy’ is a Greek invention; so is the word ‘science’ for that matter. Science knows no boundaries, I think philosophy
knows no boundaries either, because in some sense doing philosophy is something that’s
integral to the human psyche, if I can put it like that; that it deals with issues that we
all as human beings and thinking beings must engage with. So I think one should expect to find
philosophy or something like it in most cultures. Now, having said that, it’s true that in most
Eastern countries, philosophy is still closely connected with religion. Of course it depends on what you call religion.
I mean, is Confucianism a religion? It’s naturalistic, it’s atheistic. So we might
argue about what a religion is, but generally I think it’s fair to say that it’s
attached closely to religion. But then it was in the West for at least 1,000-
1,500 years, where philosophy and Christianity were tightly interlocked. The big difference, I think, a big difference between
Eastern philosophies and Western philosophies, was that the West had a scientific revolution
which had an enormous impact on philosophy and it became firmly divorced from religion. Now this never happened in the same way
in the East, or at least it hasn’t happened until perhaps recently. And so I think it’s still possible to look
over the Berlin Wall and just see that it’s connected to religion and
think that’s not philosophy. But you mustn’t forget that so much history of
Western philosophy was done in tandem with religion. But that doesn’t mean that
it’s philosophy of religion. It just means that a number of the issues
that are involved–the ethics, the metaphysics, the epistemology–are integrally linked with
issues that we might think of as religious. But that doesn’t mean it’s not philosophy,
it just means that it’s got religious connections in some sense. The other question that arises from what you
said is I suppose if I were to pick a philosophical tradition that you as somebody with a background
in mathematics might be attracted to amongst Asian philosophical traditions, I would’ve
thought you might have gone to India, which has a tradition of mathematics,
it has a tradition of logic. What was the appeal of Buddhism? Well, it’s true that I have a training in
mathematics, but all things philosophical interest me. There wasn’t actually an obvious place to go
for looking to mathematical logic in the East because that didn’t develop in the same
way that it developed in the West. I mean, there was a big revolution in logic
at the start of 20th century, there was nothing ever similar in the West, so there
weren’t any obvious places to go. On the question of Buddhism, one should remember
that Buddhism is Indian; I mean it developed in India about two and a half thousand years ago. But
just speaking of Buddhism is a slight misnomer in some ways because there’s not just one
Buddhism, there are many Buddhisms, just as there are many Christianities. And although there’s not much Buddhism in
India now, of course, it’s diffused throughout the Asian region. One enormous change that is undergone by
Buddhism was when it moves into China, and so whole new kinds of Buddhisms developed
in China, which in many ways are very different. Even with India there are different Buddhist
traditions, but I think a very major divide is between Chinese Buddhisms
and Indian Buddhisms. And interestingly enough, what we’re seeing
now is Buddhism enter Western cultures and I suspect it’s going to go in the same kind
of transformation that it underwent when it went into China, because it’s
absorbing new ideas and influences. Quite what’s going to come out
of that it will be interesting to see. A little while ago, I asked a friend, who is a
Buddhist about the Buddhist conception of the self. And she said, well there’s no self in Buddhism.
And then she spent some time explaining to me what this self that didn’t exist actually was. So, let’s begin with that. Given that consciousness is such a happening
issue in analytical philosophy at the moment, how do Buddhists approach the question
of the self and of consciousness? Well, your friend told you roughly the
right thing: there’s no self in Buddhism. I know that can sound kind of paradoxical ’cause
I’m sitting here talking to you, and in that sense, there clearly is some self.
But think of it like this. Think of your car, assuming you
have a car. I don’t but most people do. No, neither do I actually, so this is a
dialogue of the deaf, but never mind. Think of our hypothetical cars. Yes. What makes the car what it is? What makes it the same car from day to day? And you might say, well, it’s the same parts. But, as you replace parts, they wear out, the
parts change; well maybe it’s the registration plates, that’s what the Motor Office
defines the car to be. But then you can take the car in most States
and it gets new registration plates and so on. So in some sense, there’s a car there, but
really, calling it a car is just a conventional way of looking at a bunch of things that have
come together for a while, changed, hang together for a while and then fall apart. And the Buddhist conception
of the self is largely like that. We call someone Alan Saunders because it’s
a nice convenient way of referring to a bunch of things that have temporarily come together,
but they did come together, they’ll eventually fall apart, and that’s it. The parts that constitute you are
theorized in many ways in Buddhism. Your body is certainly one of them,
your mental states are another. But Buddhist psychology or moral psychology
has a long tradition of analyzing mental states and it makes many distinctions, much more
than just the crude consciousness states. I mean, it distinguishes between your emotions,
your drives, your thought processes and so on. And these are just some of the bits, like
the carburetor and the steering wheel and the chassis, which come together
to make what is temporarily “you”. Well let’s take a classic, crucial
argument from Western philosophy. John Locke, the late 17th century English
philosopher, argued that I persist in being because of my memory. And then in the 18th century, the Scottish
philosopher Thomas Reid said, well, imagine this situation: you have the young boy
who is told off for stealing some apples. He grows up, he becomes a military officer,
he captures the enemy’s flag, and then he pursues a distinguished military career
and becomes the Old General. Now the Old General remembers being the young
officer who captured the enemy’s flag, and back then, the young officer who was capturing
the enemy’s flag remembered being the young boy who stole the apples, but the Old General
doesn’t remember being the young boy, it’s too long ago. And Reid thought this was a real problem for
the notion of memory as establishing who we are because if the boy, A, equaled the young
officer, B, and B, the young officer equaled the Old General, C, we seem to have a situation
where A=B and B=C, but A doesn’t equal C, which is very very strange. Would this simply not be a problem in Buddhism? Well, this is an argument which would be very
comfortable to Buddhists just because there is no thing, no one constant remaining
thing which identifies the self. If you recall, the near contemporary of Locke, in
some ways held very similar views to a Buddhist view. I mean, it’s sometimes dubbed
‘the bundle theory’ of the self. So there’s just a bunch of mental states. I mean, Hume didn’t consider the body in
the way the Buddhists do — this is David Hume the 18th Century Scottish philosopher.
That’s right, yeah. And he said, well once you introspect, if you
introspect really hard, you don’t find anything, any constant “self”, as it were. All there is, is this bundle of things, and
that’s one way you could put the Buddhist view. But talking of Western philosophy, Wittgenstein,
the 20th century German-English philosopher talked about identity through time, like this:
take a rope, for example, one of these thick ropes that you might get at a wharf. And when you look at it, you tend
to think of it as a single thing. But if you examine the rope carefully what
you’ll find is that it’s made of lots of little strands, and some strands are longer than others;
no strand runs through the whole rope. But nonetheless, because they weave together
in a certain way, they constitute a single thing. And I think that’s actually quite a good analogy
for a Buddhist too because the little elements that constitute you are changing all the time;
some of them are long, some of them are short, but there’s nothing that remains
constant over the whole time. They’re just a sort of continuity, and
at both ends, as it were, the rope frays. On ABC Radio National, you’re with the
Philosopher’s Zone, I’m talking to Graham Priest, Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Melbourne about his encounter with Buddhism. Is my belief which, however much I read Wittgenstein
and however much I read Hume, and no doubt however much I were to read Buddhism, is
my belief that there is a substantial “me”, and certainly it is a belief that I find it very
difficult to eradicate: Is it an illusion? And is it an illusion which a Buddhist
would say I need to overcome? Absolutely. The view that there is a permanent self is
something that all of us have, but it isn’t correct because there is nothing
permanent in life, self included. And that’s one of the things you have to get
your head around if you’re a Buddhist; everything is impermanent and that’s you and
me just as much as anything else. And this fact is closely connected with some
of the more religious aspects of Buddhism, namely the fact that we don’t live in a very
happy place if you’re a Buddhist–maybe we should come back to that–but one of the things
which causes a lot of the unhappiness in life precisely is this illusion we have that we
have a self; that we’re very attached to ourselves and the attachment to the self
is a great cause of unhappiness in our lives. So this is an illusion and a very
important illusion in Buddhism. Given that I am just a rope made of various
threads, do I differ substantially from other apparently non-sentient things in the world? Oh yes, because you have sentient
aspects and other things don’t. So that makes you very different in many ways,
or makes the local conglomeration, which is currently you, very different. But my being is defined, is it, by the relations into
which various aspects of me enter with each other? It depends what you mean. Yes, in the sense that, I mean, the existence
of our non-existent cars, in whatever sense they do exist, to the relationship between the
various parts coming together in a certain way, and same for you and me. Is this a concept of internal relations? John Anderson, the famous Professor of
Philosophy at the University of Sydney, who’s very against European Idealism–when I first
encountered his work I was reading that he very much disliked something that he called
“internal relations”, and not having been educated in that aspect of philosophy,
I had no idea what he was talking about. But I now gather that what it means is:
an internal relation is a relation which defines the thing which enters into that relation;
it’s part of the description of that thing. And it immediately seemed to me that the
world was full of internal relations, that, just to get back to cars, an axle in a car is just
a bit of metal unless it has a relationship with a couple of wheels;
that’s what makes it an axle. So, that would be the
Buddhist account, would it? Yeah look, the jargon of internal & external
relations is not one that you find as far as I’m aware, in Indian and Chinese traditions,
but I think that their views are very similar. And I think you’ve put it well, that one
can think of the self as being constituted by these internal relations. Something very interesting happens in later
Buddhist philosophy, well I’m talking about around the rise of the Common Era. Early Buddhists are very concerned
with the self, for soteriological reasons. But then you get a rise of a whole new kind
of Buddhism in India, called Mahayana Buddhism, who generalize the insight, as it were, that
exists in earlier Buddhism, not just to the self but to everything. So, probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher is
a man called Nagarjuna in the 1st or 2nd century– we don’t really know–who argued that
the kind of insubstantiality that earlier Buddhist philosophers talked of as
applying to the self, applies to all things. So, it’s not just that a person is divided into
parts, but those parts themselves only exist in the way that you just described,
namely: they exist only in relationship to other things. So the view becomes that everything is not
only impermanent but its properties, and perhaps more importantly, its existence itself, it is
and it has only in relationship to other things. So all things exist only in this related way,
and you can think of these as the internal relationships you’re talking about. What are the ethical implications of this? I can see that one ethical consequence that you
might draw from this is that nothing really matters. Another consequence you might draw, an alternative
consequence you might draw is that we owe something to everything. So where does Buddhism take us there, ethically? Well, that’s a very interesting question. I think we’ll have to backtrack a little bit
and talk about the ethical aspects of Buddhism at the beginning, because as I mentioned just
now, the Buddha formed the view that this is not a very happy place. I mean,
in that I think he’s on to something here. Look around the world with an unbiased opinion,
and you’ll see that as Mill put it, J. S. Mill, unless you look at the world in a very
strange fashion, the world does not seem to be built in such a way that it’s
conducive for human happiness. So in many ways, human life is unsatisfactory.
And one thing the Buddha did was to try a diagnosis of why this arises. And it arises because we are largely
ignorant about the way the world is. We don’t understand its impermanence, including
the impermanence of the self. And we get very attached to things, far too attached to things,
and of course when things disappear as they normally do, we get very upset. So the original ethical point of Buddhism,
as it were, was soteriological; it was to show people the world aright, again if I can
use a Wittengensteinian metaphor, so that they don’t experience the unhappiness
and the suffering that people do in life. So that’s the Buddhist picture up to about
the rise of the Common Era, so, 0 A.D. After the rise of the new form of Buddhism,
Mahayana, the older form survives in the form of Theravada, so it’s still around. But after
the rise of Mahayana, where people took this picture of the inter-relatedness of things
to heart, then what emerges is the thought that my well-being as a creature is integrally
connected to the well-being of other beings because of this doctrine of
internal relations, as you put it. So, in the end, I cannot rest content unless
all others sentient beings achieve the state of enlightenment as well. I mean, the word is ‘Nirvana’ in Sanskrit,
but ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’ is probably a better word. It’s a genuine realization of how things are,
and as a consequence of this the transcendence of the unhappiness and the suffering in life,
and in the Mahayana picture, because all things are connected, if I do this, then
everybody else has to do this too. So later Buddhism especially is a very compassionate
religion, because my goal is the awakening, not just for myself, but
for all creatures who suffer. You briefly used the word ‘Nirvana’, and you
then more or less translated it as enlightenment. This is a word that seems to be in various
sort of accounts of Buddhism that I’ve read, to be somewhat contested. Some people say that it simply means non-existence. What do you take it to mean? This is a word that certainly gets understood in a
number of different ways in the Buddhist traditions. You can see why it may be thought of as non-
existence sometimes, I mean, especially in the early Buddhist writings, the Buddha speaks of
the candle blowing out and things like that. But you must remember that you don’t exist
anyway, so to speak of non-existence in this sense is very misleading. I mean, there’s a rearrangement of stuff,
and what we conventionally call “you”, just all the parts fall apart and that’s it. That doesn’t tell you much
about Nirvana as such. Nirvana is this state you reach supposedly.
I mean, I’ve never tried to get it, but I doubt I ever will, in this lifetime anyway. Nirvana is this state where you see reality
as it actually is; you see how things are, you see their impermanence, you see their
interconnectedness. And as a result of this, you cease to be attached to things, and thereby
transcend the suffering, the unhappiness of life. And you can do this while you are alive in
conventional terms. I mean, you don’t have to wait til you die. The Buddha supposedly achieved enlightenment
in his lifetime and was able to see things like this. So, Nirvana is a certain state
that you reach in this lifetime. What happens after you die in conventional
terms, that’s another story and different Buddhists think about this in different ways. But Nirvana is just this good state that
you want to be in, where you’re suffering and your ignorance will disappear. Does this differ from just being totally absorbed
by some activity and not thinking about myself while I’m doing it? I know that when I was studying logic that
if I was working hard on a logical proof, or usually working hard on trying to understand
one, I wasn’t aware of myself, I was just aware of what was on the page in front of me. Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think it’s useful to think in terms of the
transition that Buddhism makes when it goes into China.
Let me explain. Meditation has always been a fundamental aspect
of Buddhist practice. And the point of meditation is to get you to see the world aright,
and then there are various things which people do to do that. And some of the phases of meditation are
this intense mental focus. And in the Buddhist context you tend to do this in a meditation
hall, a meditation sequence, so it’s something that is actually removed from the rest of life. Now when Buddhism goes into China it becomes
much more naturalistic in many ways. There’s an enormous influence of Taoism on
Buddhism, and it’s important for the Chinese that Buddhist practice is locked much more
into ordinary everyday life than it is in India, which always had a sort of priestly tradition
and a tradition of withdrawing from life. The Chinese are much more engaged in life. This is a sweeping and crass generalization,
but it’ll do for the moment. And there are many forms of Chinese Buddhism,
but probably the most famous in the West is Chang, or Zen, as it’s usually known
by its Japanese name. And in Zen, it’s very clear that this state
of intense focus and concentration doesn’t have to be found simply in sessions of meditation;
those are there as well, but it’s to be found in all kinds of things. There’s a famous question to some Zen master. What is awakening? And the Zen master said, well, it’s just growing
rice and making your meals and eating them and going to bed — which sounds kind of whacky,
but the point that he was making, as far as I understand it, is that it’s not the what
you do, it’s the how you do it. And all things are done with this focus on the present. The whole distinction between the thinker
thinking of something, & the thing thought about just disappear. This sort of fundamental duality in Western
philosophy between the subject and object just disappears. It’s a very distinctive phenomenological experience. I think actually most people have
had it who do long distance driving. If you drive a car for five or six hours out
in the country, after a while, if you’re not chatting or listening to music you just become
thoroughly absorbed in the driving, and it ceases to be “you” driving, it ceases to
be the driving that you’re conscious of; there is just “the driving”. And I think this is a very common experience
of this kind of state of intense focus in which the subject-object duality disappears. So, yeah I think the brief answer
to your question is, yes.


  1. Buddhism is NOT a philosophy. It's a religion. The "goal' of philosophy is to figure out what human existence/life is; not find happiness. The goal of Buddhism is to find happiness/nirvana/bliss. You have statues and images of Buddha being worshipped; there are no images and statues of Sartre being worshipped.Sick and tired of pseudo-intellectuals calling Buddhism a philosophy.

  2. Back in my college days, I fractured my upper body, and had a neck harness put in place. Whilst sitting in my room I noticed someone pacing each day in the opposite dorm. It was my first encounter with Buddhism. The student from Thailand explained the concept of self through the analogy of a bird flying past an observer. The bird passes through what seems to be a continuity of perception. Though his thesis was that this sense of being enduring is like the bird. The practice then was to observe every state of perception coming and going. What I noticed though was subjective states were ephemeral but not so the self that became constructed by institutions that in a sense anchors subjectivity into a narrative thread as name (nama) and form (rupa). So this made it clear that to taste the kind of freedom ascribed by Buddhism the participant of institutions within the nation state is an obstacle to a certain level of enlightenment. Though it was said that leas follow a dog if it leaves its master, and so leaving the institution may be a false positive.

  3. Stephen Hawking thinks that philosophy is dead, so yes, his science knows no boundaries. Only problem…that is his philosophy.

Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published