Pragmatism in Einstein and the Buddha

A curious reader might wonder why I have juxtaposed Einstein and the Buddha in one phrase. After all, one is the legendary founder of a world religion and the other was a physicist. The kind of person who takes one seriously rarely take the other seriously, despite enormous amounts of new age ink spilled on the topic of science and religion, or for that matter, despite the Dalai Lama’s interest in science. Which is a pity, but also a historical reality. By the way, if you want to read how the western fascination with the occult and para-science has been closely intertwined with the interest in Eastern Religions, you couldn’t do better than Peter Washington’s book, Blavatsky’s Baboon, which shows that the quest to make religion more scientific is very much a part of the modern world — hence the attractiveness of Buddhism, which has been cast as a rational religion, grounded in experience, not dogma.

That said, Einstein and the Buddha share many interesting traits, including the curious fact that they both completed their most significant accomplishment at the age of 35: The General Theory of Relativity in Einstein’s case and enlightenment in the Buddha’s case. They were both agnostic about the existence of a Theistic God, and yet intensely religious (certainly in the Buddha’s case, and its no coincidence that Einstein’s white-maned visage dominates so many scientific offices, like a modern day saint) and they are both seen as philosophically influential, despite being outside any tradition or school of philosophy of the kind practiced by professional scholars, including later Buddhists. Which brings me to the topic of this post, that in both cases, you see great philosophical curiosity and sophistication combined with what could easily be termed as philosophical opportunism.

For example, Einstein, talking about epistemology, says (quoted here) “He (the scientist) must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appear to be a realist in so far as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception…….. an idealist in so far as he looks at concepts and theories as the free inventions of the human spirit…….” Similarly, Buddhists always stress that Buddhism is a-metaphysical, quoting the Buddha’s refusal to speculate about the existence of a soul or the origins of the universe, and his insistence that his teaching was about ending suffering and nothing else. These days, the a-metaphysical stance of the Buddha is often interpreted through a psychological and technical lens. The Buddha is reduced to a person who advocates a psychological goal, namely, freedom from suffering via a code of ethics and an introspective practice (such as Vipassana). Not that these are wrong interpretations, but one wonders if such a dry and technical routine would be taken seriously by thinkers anywhere. You cant elevate a person who advocates a technical practice and a code of rules into a person who has deep insights into Reality, with a capital R. It would be like taking Newton seriously as an investigator of reality because he invented a better telescope.

Perhaps, it is more useful to think of the Buddha as an “unscrupulous opportunist”, in the sense of the above Einstein quote, which is to say that the Buddha was quite aware of the existence of metaphysical assumptions and insights and used them quite freely, but he didn’t tie himself to any particular philosophical scheme. In this view, the Buddha keeps creative control over his task, using philosophical concepts and insights as he chooses and doesn’t impose an unified philosophical system on his existential awakening. That would be too premature for a radically new way of thought. Later generations would codify and systematize the Buddha’s insights, most famously in Nagarjuna’s (and other Mahayana Buddhist’s) claim that the concept of emptiness, Sunyata, is the central teaching of Buddhism. Whether that is true or not, it shows that deeply philosophical individuals might choose to stay away from creating a unified system of thought, a full worldview (so to speak) and prefer to be open ended about their metaphysical choices. Their “metaphysical opportunism” doesn’t make them any less metaphysical than your academic philosopher, it just shows that there is no more need to be tied down by arbitrary philosophical constraints than by anything else. Isn’t that what freedom is about?

Abraham Pais claimed that “Einstein was the freest man I have ever known”. Perhaps the most important similarity between Einstein and the Buddha is that in their own eras, they are powerful examples of radical freedom, a freedom that nevertheless sees deeply into reality.

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