Socrates, Buddha, and Thomas Paine

An Illustration of the Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell used as the cover of the April 1, 1961 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. In the public domain.


by Stefan Schindler

The failure of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to embody their ownmost message of peace partly contributes to the increasing appeal of Buddhism in today’s postmodern war-torn world. Also, there is something absurd – counterproductive, self-defeating, and morally obscene – about the profit motive that is the engine of war. We must put a stop to that engine, before it puts a catastrophic stop to us all.

Transforming swords into plowshares, peace is the fertile soil for the world our children deserve; where schools are gardens of learning and the streets are daily bedecked with festivals, fairs, and creative arts; where cooperation has primacy over competition; where truth and goodness combine to produce beauty for both young and old.

Such is the Buddhist social democratic vision for a peaceable kingdom, offered to the world in what the Dalai Lama calls “a common religion of kindness.” Practical; peaceful; communal. Guided by Socratic dialogue and debate; where “virtue is pursuit of virtue.” Guided by what Thomas Paine called “common sense” and “the rights of man.”

To recall what Chogyam Trungpa calls “the sanity we were born with,” is to embrace voluntary simplicity, lifelong learning, and compassionate service.

It is to take the heart of the Torah – the Golden Rule – and make it the guiding light of an awakening culture: a culture committed to an ethic of universal brother-sisterhood.

It is to recognize that to be is to interbe. That individual authenticity is a function of learning, self-discovery, creative evolution, and service to community.

The word “Buddha” means “awake.” James Joyce daily prayed that he “awaken from the nightmare of history.” Social democratic Buddhism – also called Engaged Buddhism – shows a path out of Plato’s cave.

Buddha’s “Eightfold Path” includes “right vocation.” Right vocation exhibits right thinking, right speaking, right intention, right action – for all of which, the guiding maxim is: “Do no harm.” Buddhism is therapeutic; and the world is much in need of healing.

Was it merely coincidence that the Spirit of The Sixties combined with the introduction of Buddhism to the West to plant the seeds of peace and love which still remain our best hope for a global civilization rooted in creative evolution?

Echoing the saints and sages of the ages, and their mythic tales of archetypes, Jean Houston forty years ago invited us to embrace the Aquarian challenge of “the possible human.” She invoked William Blake; and she embodied the pioneering spirit of Joseph Campbell, Buckminster Fuller, and Teilhard de Chardin.

Today, Richard Oxenberg invokes the spirit of John Lennon when he asks us to imagine “meanings beyond words to speak … where divinity graces humanity … agapic God of a thousand names and no adequate name … where the holy is healing and wholeness.”

Freedom from is freedom for. The enlightenment journey begins with disengagement from society’s Weapons of Mass Dysfunction, resounding through the land in what Howard Zinn called “declarations of independence.”

The enlightenment journey proceeds along what Carlos Castaneda calls “a path with heart.”

The enlightenment journey opens to the realization that the meaning of life is learning and service.

The two wings of Buddhism are wisdom and compassion. Wisdom and compassion are the twin roots of the tree of life of a culture that is civil, civilized, and awake.

Co-founder of The National Registry for Conscientious Objection, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a recipient of The Boston Baha’i Peace Award, and a Trustee of The Life Experience School and Peace Abbey Foundation, Dr. Stefan Schindler received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston College, worked one summer in a nature preserve, lived in a Zen temple for a year, did the pilot’s voice in a claymation video of St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, acted in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and performed as a musical poet in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City.  He also wrote The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Awards for Howard Zinn and John Lennon.  He is now semi-retired and living in Salem, Massachusetts. His books include The Tao of Socrates, America’s Indochina Holocaust, Discoursing with the Gods, and Space is Grace; his forthcoming book is Buddha’s Political Philosophy.


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8 Responses to Socrates, Buddha, and Thomas Paine

  1. Dot Walsh says:

    Beautiful article embracing the essence of our humanity connecting with our spiritual guides. And the closing words ring out clear “the meaning of life is learning and service”.
    Thank you Stefan for your gift of wisdom in the written word.

  2. Ricahrd Oxenberg says:

    Thank you for this inspirational piece, Stefan, and for doing me the honor of including some of my words within it.

    I think the “Weapons of Mass Dysfunction” of which you write have never been more apparent in our society than they are today. Just how to disengage from them is one of the more pressing questions of the moment. To call the great religions back to their “ownmost” visions of peace and compassion is certainly part of the work we need to do. And your efforts to bring the insights of Buddhism to bear on the social and political issues confronting us today is of great importance. I look forward to your forthcoming book on this subject.

    It is as if we are engaged in a great race between enlightenment and self-destruction – which will prevail over which? That is the question of our time.

    So please keep inspiring us, Stefan, we need it – these days more than ever!

  3. LB says:

    Buddhism, when practiced by individuals in its most mindful and compassionate form has much to offer the world. The same could be said of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Maybe it’s not so much a matter of either-or, but of adhering to the profound truths and life-affirming messages of love and compassion found in each.

    We humans are capable of a range of emotions and perspectives and are easily influenced by collective thinking and values. Buddhists are not immune to the temptations of being human, as pointed out in the recent Counterpunch article, “Rohingya and the Myth of Buddhist Tolerance”:

    Here in the U.S., there are Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Jews who consistently support war and empire. And there are also those who don’t.

  4. LB says:

    Here’s a quote from the article I referred to in my previous comment, followed by the same link:

    ” ‘No religion has a monopoly on ‘violent people’,” Jerryson astutely concludes, “nor does any one religion have a greater propensity for violence.” All religions are vast complexes of thought and institutions and devotees of each can always find legitimacy for hostility or hospitality toward the other depending on mundane needs or wants. It is for this very reason that the apparent disconnect between historical Buddhism and the sustained Euro-American myth of its tolerance is as malignant as the perpetual dehumanization of Islam and Muslims is cancerous. These Buddhists have long been the good guys and those Muslims the bad in this lore. Each is a necessary fiber in the liberal fabric of Euro-American imagination that veils the gaze of international law when it comes to the murder and displacement of the Rohingya.”

    • Unlike Jews, Christians and Muslims, Buddhists have never conquered another nation (or culture) by force of arms. The spread of Buddhism was largely due to: 1) the medical expertise of its monks and nuns; and 2) the Dharma-teaching “good news” that equanimity, freedom and enlightenment are possible now, conjoined to a commitment (individual, social, and political) to kindness, humility, generosity, cheerfulness, and pedagogy. To say that Buddhism’s actual, historical practice of peace and tolerance is nothing more than a “malignant myth” is simply false. Yet it is indeed true that the history of Buddhism includes individuals and groups that have lost their way; individuals and groups that betrayed the spirit of Buddha’s life and teaching, succumbing not to the ethical discipline of enlightenment but, instead, to the temptations of dogmatism, fanaticism, hostility and violence (a function of the “three poisons” in Buddhist psychology and sociology: “greed, hatred, and delusion”). Certain contemporary episodes, such as the displacement of the Rohingya, all too tragically illustrate the point. Yet Buddhism, as a whole and for the most part, has been a force for good unequaled in human history. That’s a fact, not a myth. “Buddha” means “awake.” Awakening is freedom from what Kant called “our self-imposed immaturity” and Hegel called “the slaughter-bench of history.” Buddhism’s pragmatic appeal is as simple, ethical and potent as Martin Luther King’s observation: “We must choose between nonviolence and nonexistence.” Buddhism is pedagogy, not religion, although it performs a religious function. Yet, inevitably, some students leave before graduation, and, so, naturally, go astray. But, as Buddha said, “Is it the fault of the sun and the moon that the blind cannot see them?”

  5. LB says:

    In trying to understand the way we (as members of society) have been conditioned to view the world, Dutch author, Dirk De Wachter, compares it to the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder.

    Though the above linked article doesn’t discuss it, another common feature of BPD is the presence of a psychological defense mechanism known as “splitting”, which is a form of black-and-white/either-or thinking used to justify rage, aggression and/or a devaluation of others.

    In a large sense, and as part of the collective, it’s what we do whenever we over-identify with and idealize one group, political party, country or religion over another ~ which is something we’re generally encouraged to do and are rewarded for:

    “Borderline personality organization is characterized by lack of integration of the concept of self and significant others, that is, identity diffusion,a predominance of primitive defensive operations centering around splitting, and maintenance of reality testing. The defensive operations of splitting and its derivatives (projective identification, denial, primitive idealization, omnipotence, omnipotent control, devaluation) have as a basic function to maintain separately the idealized and persecutory internalized object relations derived from the early developmental phases predating object constancy: that is, when aggressively determined internalizations strongly dominate the internal world of object relations, in order to prevent the overwhelming control or destruction of ideal object relations by aggressively infiltrated ones. This primitive constellation of defensive operations centering around splitting thus attempts to protect the capacity to depend on good objects and escape from terrifying aggression.”

    While I understand, appreciate and share a deep respect for Buddhist tenets and the many courageous individuals who practice them in mindful and compassionate ways, it’s important to recognize no religion, philosophy or teaching is immune to this being human. It’s always easier to see the aggression in others than it is to recognize and acknowledge it in ourselves and in the things and ideas we love or strongly identify with.

    My intention in making this point, both now and in previous comments, was not to criticize the bulk of this post or teachings of the Buddha.

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