This is the final part of my Montaigne & Buddhism series. In this concluding video I attempt to answer the question “Why should Buddhists care about Montaigne?” Below you’ll find a rough transcript. Enjoy!
Recently I posted one of the videos from my Montaigne and Buddhism series in a Buddhist Facebook discussion group and the question “Why should Buddhists care about Montaigne?” was one of the first questions raised. I actually think this is a really great question. It’s an apt point and a reasonable concern. After all Montaigne is a French Renaissance philosopher, he was not a Buddhist, and there seems to be no evidence to support that he ever studied or encountered Buddhist thought and philosophy. So why the comparison? Why does it matter? And, to restate the question, “Why should Buddhists care?” In any philosophical discussion or conversation one of the most important questions to ask is “So what?” On one hand it is perhaps self-indulgent on my part, in that my academic background is in both religion and humanities and I relish the opportunity to put my interests into conversation. I think the work of comparative philosophy, putting cross-cultural and cross-contextual figures into discourse, can be quite helpful regardless of one’s predominant school of thought or regardless of the particular affiliation of one’s tradition. My aim here is not to use Montaigne as a referential point of legitimization or substantiation for Buddhism. There is no need to refer to Montaigne. But, because Montaigne did not study or write about Buddhism it makes the close parallels found between the writings of Montaigne and Buddhist thought all the more interesting. There is a fascinating simultaneity. The suggestion, here, is that, in Montaigne’s Essays, he seems to display many ideas that are both similar and conducive with many of the core tenets of Buddhism. Montaigne does seem to practice something closely akin to a mindfully meditative awareness concentrated upon the present moment (Dhyana/Jhana). Such a practice does seem to have cultivated in him ‘a special way of seeing’ into the nature of existence and reality (Vipassana/Vipasyana). Through such ‘insight’ he does seem to suggest that the world, and everything within it, is ultimately impermanent and in a constantly fluxing process of becoming and unfolding (Anitya/Anicca). As such, Montaigne does seem to propose that even the ‘self’ is not immune or exempt from the variable transience, or transitioning, of impermanence (Anatman/Anatta). Rather than being fixed or stable, Montaigne sees the human subject or ‘self’ as an intricately interwoven mass of interconnected substances and things subject to constant change (Skandhas/Khandhas).
However, one possible refutation of the project presented in this paper is that the comparisons outlined are merely a kind of grasping at straws. One could suggest that the proposed parallels between Montaigne and Buddhist thought have been read into, or posited upon, the text rather than actually interpreted from the text. Perhaps, this research has merely shined a Buddhist light on Montaigne’s thought, or perhaps it has only bent Montaigne in a Buddhist direction, forcing words or thoughts into Montaigne’s mouth and mind. Perhaps this is true. However, if, as Sarah Bakewell suggests, that one of the chief questions that fascinated and motivated Montaigne’s writing was the question of “How to live?”, then all subsequent investigations into the thoughts and ideas of Montaigne will be deficient if they are taken up only by a solitary stream of study. The question of “How to live?”, as well as questions into the nature of reality, are far too universal to be limited to a single field of thought. Ideas and insights are not limited to a particular time, culture, or context. Nor is the truthfulness of certain ideas and insights contingent upon the knowledge or familiarity of similar ideas and insights from a differing time, context, or culture. If anything, an unaffiliated, cross-cultural and cross-contextual, simultaneity of ideas and insights is evidence of their truthfulness, and the universality of the human condition. There is, then, a necessitation for comparative philosophy.
I just finished reading a book by Soto Zen priest, Norman Fischer called “What is Zen?” In the book Fischer writes that Zen “engages the large questions: Who are we? Why are we born? Why do we die? What is death? What is the good life?” In other words, Zen and Buddhism, also deal predominantly with the question of “How to Live?” There’s nothing specifically or particularly “Buddhist” about such a question or the effort of grappling with such a question. In fact, I came across a tweet from meditation and Dharma teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg. Scharpenburg posted the following quote from Zen master Seung Sahn:
Buddhism is not something categorically separate. It’s just a convenient name given to the practice of attempting to see reality clearly, it’s a name given to the act of grappling with the question of “How to Live?” Returning to “What is Zen?”, Norman Fischer notes that Zen, or religion, or philosophy, or etc. “cannot actually give us answers to such questions; rather, it gives us ways to grapple with them together, in communities that include not only living friends, but practitioners from the past, whose words and deeds still inspire us.” Here, Fischer draws special attention to what Buddhism calls the Triple Refuge or the refuge of the Three Jewels: “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher). I take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (the community). Fischer explains that “Refuge means literally, “to fly back,” “to return to,” to commit oneself to what is already a deep natural urge of the heart.” Fischer also explains that “A Zen teacher isn’t a person; a “Zen teacher” inevitably involves a world, a context.” Zen teaching is unavoidably engaged within and synonymous with the context of an immanent and material world. Similarly, Fischer not only highlights that “The word sangha…means “community” but, also that “the word sangha as used in Mahayana Buddhism means…the community of all beings.” Fischer goes on to say that In the relative sense, sangha is the people you practice Zen with” and In “the absolute sense, sangha is all sentient beings.” Perhaps, one could even distill that down even further and say that the Sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, or anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, or contributes to your Zen practice.
Is it any wonder that I find it difficult to separate my practice from all my other activities and interests, they are all deeply conjoined and interrelated. In Zen thought, there is no separation between one’s practice and one’s everyday life. Zen practice is life. In “What is Zen?”, Norman Fischer writes that “Zen…is about how we live, who we are, and how we treat others”. Fischer goes on to say that “there is really nothing else but practice. All our daily activity is practice”. It should then come as no surprise that one can find glimmers of the dharma everywhere, even in unexpected places.
Should a Buddhist care about Montaigne? Maybe, maybe not. Should a non-Buddhist care Montaigne? Maybe, maybe not. But why not explore the discursive potentiality? The Buddha seemed to suggest that the truths he discovered were not unique to him alone, but that anyone anywhere could discover what he had and that they could even do so without a direct affiliation to ‘the path’ he outlined. In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, writes that “[The Buddha] attributed all his realization, attainments, and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence” and that [The Buddha] taught, encouraged and stimulated each person to develop himself and to work out his own emancipation, for man has the power power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence”. As Rahula goes o to say “If the medicine is good, the disease will be cured. It is not necessary to know who prepared it, or where it came from.” I am someone who is attempting go deeper into Buddhist practice and to learn more about the Dharma. But, I am also still one who is steeped within the literary tradition of the humanities. I am hoping that attempts at joining these passions together will help to strengthen both. Perhaps, I’m not alone in such a pursuit and if I’m not I would love to be able to help spur on such a conversation. Perhaps those more steeped in Buddhism my find a few kindred spirits in the literature of western humanities and perhaps those more fluent in the literary humanities will see something synchronous in the middle path. In many ways, I think that thinkers, like Montaigne, help me to be not only a better person but, also a better Buddhist. Or perhaps one could say that because something or someone helps you to be a better person, it will also help you to be a better Buddhist, or a better whatever you are. Take refuge in the teacher, the teaching, and the community of anyone and anything that helps you better grapple with the question of “How to Live?”