Pyrrhonist Connections

I’m fascinated by an ancient Greek therapeutic practice called Pyrrhonism.  The practice is simple, the potential enormous, and the light it sheds on Buddhism is fascinating.  And the way it’s been neglected and twisted is maddening.

First thing’s first — what is Pyrrhonism?  An introduction and analysis is here, but here’s a briefer overview:

Pyrrhonism is a way of achieving tranquility and freedom from worry (Ataraxia) by avoiding assertions about the nature of any experience (Epoche).  That is, we simply take experience as a given and don’t add anything to it.

Epoche sounds a lot like Buddhism’s mindfulness — a non-judgmental awareness of whatever presents itself to us.  In fact, Buddhism has a more explicit connection — the “Fetter of Views” from here:

Views also become a fetter when they cut off further seeking. Once we are certain we know something, we’re closed off from learning more. Indeed, we humans tend to block out new information that contradicts what we think we know.

And certitude is no guarantee of truth. There’s a saying I heard once — A man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure. In this case, wisdom lies with uncertainty.

In Zen Buddhism, teachers refer to beginner’s mind or don’t know mind as a mind that is open to new perspectives.The late Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “In beginner’s mind we have many possibilities, but in expert mind there is not much possibility.

Is Buddhism’s “Fetters of Views” restricted to a limited domain or is it a fundamental teaching and a complete practice in itself?  Adding some weight to that view (ahem) is the classic “Verses on the Faith Mind“, which equates the path with not clinging to views.  In fact, here’s one of its stanzas that sums things up nicely:

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.

Are these connections coincidental?  Apparently not (from Wikipedia):

Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BCE) is usually credited with founding the school of skepticism. He traveled to India and studied with the “gymnosophists“. From there, he brought back the idea that nothing can be known for certain. The senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires.

Since Buddhism came from India, the connection is pretty clear. Yet it’s not clear who exactly Pyrrho encountered.   Nor is it clear why Pyrrhonism didn’t adopt practices like meditation. The closest thing to meditation in Pyrrhonism is a very intellectual approach called “The Ten Modes“.

Why did Pyrrhonism focus on Epoche?  Was this distillation, misunderstanding or selective application?  Or was the Indian practice that simple, and it only got more complex later on?  Or maybe it was the other way around — maybe there was more to Pyrrhonism, but it’s lost to us?

Then there’s the most tragic question of all: Why did Pyrrhonism change from a therapeutic practice to an intellectual one? Googling Pyrrhonism or even Greek Skepticism reveals the depth of the tragedy; the overwhelming impression is that Pyrrhonism is a criticism of epistemology!

In fact, just when Pyrrhonism arose again (as Husserl’s Phenomenology and Epoche), it sent straight for the academic (from Wikipedia):

In phenomenological research epoché is described as a process involved in blocking biases and assumptions in order to explain a phenomenon in terms of its own inherent system of meaning. One actual technique is known as bracketing [Epoche]. This involves systematic steps to “set aside” various assumptions and beliefs about a phenomenon in order to examine how the phenomenon presents itself in the world of the participant.[6]

Even those who have found an affinity between Husserl and Buddhism have focused on how they studied consciousness!  Considering that Buddhism IS therapy (see the parable of the arrow for a criticism of the non-therapeutic view), this shows that perhaps the issue is that people insist on turning therapies into objects of study, thus missing the point entirely.

Wittgenstein is sometimes described as holding Pyrrhonist views which are meant to liberate us from philosophy. Now this is fine if we regard philosophy as views about what underlies our experience.  However, if we regard philosophy as the dry academic discipline it’s become, then his views become nothing more than a critique of philosophy, and not a therapy.

Perhaps the problem is with philosophy itself.  As philosophy became more academic, so did all the therapeutic philosophies.  Soon, what was a way of achieving greater well being became a dry subject, divorced of all human concerns.  Practice becomes dogma, and the philosophy becomes some fossilized thing we study instead of a way to live and see.

6 thoughts on “Pyrrhonist Connections

  1. This is the second thing I’ve read this week about ancient Greek philosophers being influenced by Indian thought. Interesting. I may have to do some reading on this at some point.

    In an article I read the other day, it referred to religions “such as Stoicism”, which made me stop for a second. Stoicism as a religion? It made sense, although I’d always just thought of it more as a philosophy. But then you have to ask: what is the differences between a philosophy, a spiritual outlook, and a religion?

    In many cases, the distinction may be semantic and historical. Which is why so many modes of thought, such as Buddhism, Pyrrhonism, or Confucianism often fall in that gray area between. Religion may be a bit easier to segregate since it usually has a ritual and social aspect that the others usually lack.

    Given the fact that Greece already had a religion, I wonder if the Indian ideas got packaged as academic philosophy rather than overtly spiritual to sneak them in under the covers. An academic philosophy might be regarded as just obscure scholastic talk, but a spiritual movement might be a threat to the social order.

    1. Interesting; what did you read?

      I agree that the line between religion and philosophy is unclear, and I also read someone refer to Stoicism as a religion. I try to draw the line based on how much they rely on the supernatural for their practice, but that’s not perfect.

      Two good references on the Greek/Indian connection are…

      1. Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism. The full book is here:

      2. The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilly covers Greek/Indian connections.

      Also, Plotinus is interesting as he seems to have practiced a meditation/contemplation that brought him to a state of unity with the divine — a state similar to Indian religions.

      1. Thanks for the book references! I’ll have to save them for later.

        On Indian influence, nannus commented on one of my posts and briefly mentioned that Pythagoras might have been in India:

        On Stoicism as a religion, it was an side remark in this article (linked to by the above post):

    1. Thank you for reading, and I loved your Husserl post! In fact, I may have actually read it a while ago as a re-blog. It looked familiar when I (re-) read it.

      The sotoriological potential for Husserl was even more apparent when I read that part of his bracketing involved finding out who is the “I” — a common theme in Eastern philosophy and the whole spiritual search in some schools.

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