Buber on Buddhism
Notes on a trenchant critique
The following quotations are from Martin Buber's I and Thou (tr. Walter Kaufmann, Scribner's, 1970, pp. 140-141):
Nor does he [Buddha] lead the unified being further to that supreme You-saying that is open to it. His inmost decision seems to aim at the annulment of the ability to say You . . . .
All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of human spirit bent back into itself — the delusion that spirit occurs in man. In truth it occurs from man — between man and what he is not. As the spirit bent back into itself renounces this sense, this sense of relation, he must draw into man that which is not man, he must psychologize world and God. This is the psychical delusion of the spirit.
The context of the above quotations is a section of I and Thou that runs from pp. 131 to 143. Here are some thoughts on this stretch of text.
Thanks for reading Philosophy in Progress! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
In this section Buber offers a critique of Buddhism, Hinduism and other forms of mysticism (including Christian forms such as the one we find in Meister Eckhart) which relativize the I-Thou relation between man and God by re-ducing it (leading it back) to a primordial unity logically and ontologically prior to the terms of the relation. According to these traditions, this primordial unity can be experienced directly in Versenkung, which Kaufmann translates, not incorrectly, as 'immersion,' but which I think is better rendered as 'meditation.' As the German word suggests, one sinks down into the depths of the self and supposedly comes to the realization that, at bottom, there is no self or ego (as Buddhism proclaims with its central doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal and universal Atman ( = Brahman) of Hinduism, "the One that thinks and is." (131)
Either way duality is overcome and seen to be not ultimately real. Buber rejects this because the I-Thou relation presupposes the ultimate ineliminability of duality, not only the man-God duality but also the duality of world and God, not to mention the I-Thou duality between finite persons when they are open to each other as persons rather than as things. Perhaps the underlying issue can be put, roughly, like this: in the end, does the One absorb everything and extinguish all finite individuality, or in the end does duality and (transformed) finite individuality remain? In soteriological terms: does salvation in the end consist in a becoming one with the One or is duality and difference preserve even at the highest soteriological levels?
Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more literal translation is 'soulifies.' Mysticism drags both God and the world into the soul where they are supposedly to be found in their ultimate reality by meditation (Versenkung). But spirit is not in man, Buber thinks, but between man and what is not man. (141). I take it that he means that spirit is not in an individual man, to be realized in the depths of his isolated interiority, but between individual human beings and between individual human beings and what is not human. Spirit is thus actualized only in the relation of man to man, man to world, and man to God.
At this point I would put a question to Buber. If spirit subsists only in relation, ought we conclude that God needs man to be a spiritual being in the same way that finite persons need each other to be spiritual beings? Is God dependent on man to be who he is? If yes, then the aseity of God is compromised. A Christian could say that the divine personhood subsists in intra-divine relations, relations among and between the persons of the Trinity. But as far as I know Trinitarian thought is foreign to Judaism. Anyway, that is a question that occurs to me.
The "primal actuality of dialogue" (133) requires Two irreducible one to the other. It is not a relation internal to the self.
Buber is not opposed to Versenkung as a preliminary and indeed a prerequisite for encounter with the transcendent Other. Meditative Versenkung leads to inner concentration, interior unification, recollectedness. But this samadhi (which is etymologically related to the German sammeln (to gather, collect, concentrate) is not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but is properly preparatory for the encounter with the transcendent Other. "Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. But he can also savor the bliss of his unity and, without incurring the supreme duty, return into distraction." (134)
Buber's point is that the mystic who, treading the inward path, arrives at the unitary ground of his soul and experiences sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) shirks his supreme duty if he merely enjoys this state and then returns to the world of multiplicity and diremption. The soulic unity must be used for the sake of the encounter with God, the transcendent Other. Samadhi is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
Buber seems to be maintaining that Buddhist and other mysticism is an escape into illusion, an escape into a mere annihilation of dual awareness for the sake of an illusory non-dual awareness: "insofar as this doctrine contains directions for immersion in true being, it does not lead into lived actuality but into 'annihilation' in which there is no consciousness, from which no memory survives -- and the man who has emerged from it may profess the experience by using the limit-word of non-duality, but without any right to proclaim this as unity." (136)
Buber continues, "We, however, are resolved to tend with holy care the holy treasure of our actuality that has been given us for this life and perhaps for no other life that might be closer to the truth." (136-7, emphasis added)
This prompts me to put a second and more important question to Buber. If there is no other life, no higher life, whether accessible in this life via Versenkung or after the death of the body, and we are stuck with this miserable crap storm of a life, then what good is God? What work does he do if he doesn't secure our redemption and our continuance beyond death? This is what puzzles me about Judaism. It is a worldly religion, a religion for this life -- which is almost a contradiction in terms. It offers no final solution as do the admittedly life-denying religions of Buddhism and Christianity. Some will praise it for that very reason: it is not life-denying but life-affirming. Jews love life, this life here and now, and they don't seem too concerned about any afterlife. But then they don't have the sort of soteriological interest that is definitive of religion. "On whose definition?" you will object. And you will have a point.
On my definition. "And where did you get it?" From examining the great religions, the greatest of which are Buddhism and Christianity. But of course I am presupposing what I admittedly cannot prove.
A Reader’s Response. Karl White comments:
I assume Buber and many strains in Judaism would answer that loving God for his own sake and the world for its own sake is the highest form of religiosity. To ask what 'use' is God would be tantamount to idolatry, as it consists in an instrumentalisation of God in order to serve one's own needs or less prosaically, to save one's own sorry ass.
Cf. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Those who would question, indeed those who lost their faith in God as a result of Auschwitz “never believed in God but in God's help . . . [for] one who believes in God . . . does not relate this to belief in God's help” (Accepting the Yoke, 21).
This is a very trenchant and very good comment that opens up numerous further cans of theological worms. I am immediately reminded of the the extremism of the Jewess Simone Weil. Here is part of what I say in the just-referenced entry:
Although Weilian disinterest may appear morally superior to Pascalian self-interest, I would say that the former is merely an example of a perverse strain in Weil’s thinking. One mistake she makes is to drive a wedge between the question of the good and the question of human happiness, thereby breaking the necessary linkage between the two. This is a mistake because a good out of all relation to the satisfaction of human desire cannot count as a good for us.
What “good” is a good out of all relation to our self-interest? The absolute good must be at least possibly such as to satisfy (purified) human desire. The possibility of such satisfaction is a necessary feature of the absolute good. Otherwise, the absolute good could not be an ideal for us, an object of aspiration or reverence, a norm. But although the absolute good is ideal relative to us, it is real in itself. Once these two aspects (ideal for us, real in itself) are distinguished, it is easy to see how the absoluteness of the absolute good is consistent with its necessary relatedness to the possibility of human happiness. What makes the absolute good absolute is not its being out of all relation to the actual or possible satisfaction of human desire; what makes it absolute is its being self-existent, a reality in itself. The absolute good, existing absolutely (ab solus, a se), is absolute in its existence without prejudice to its being necessarily related to us in its goodness. If God is (agapic) love, then God necessarily bestows His love on any creatures there might be. It is not necessary that there be creatures, but it is necessary that God love the creatures that there are and that they find their final good in Him.
The Leibowitz remark deserves to be mulled over carefully. Part of what Leibowitz suggests is right: Auschwitz is no compelling argument against the existence of God. (Sorry, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno!) But I humbly suggest that it is border-line crazy to suggest, if this is what Leibowitz is suggesting, that belief in God is wholly out of relation to the human desire for ultimate happiness and to belief in God's help in securing such felicity.
There is more to say but I must get on with the day.
Thanks for reading Philosophy in Progress! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.