- Dialogues with Death:The Last Days of Socrates and the Buddha
The tiger, having taken the young bikkhu [Buddhist monk] up to a rocky place, a broken edge over a hollow spot inaccessible to the bikkhus, began to devour its prey from the feet upwards. The pursuing bikkhus said: "Good man, there is nothing that can be done by us. The extraordinary spiritual attainment of bikkhus is to be seen in such a place as that in which you are."—From Buddhaghosa's commentary1 on the Satipatthāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 10)
Socrates, himself dying from the feet upwards, would have understood the monks' admonition in the opening passage above. In Plato's version of his master's final hours, Socrates emphasizes the point that "those who truly grasp philosophy pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead" (Phaedo 64a, cf. 67e). In the course of explaining this remarkable assertion, he goes on to develop at great length an even more remarkable thesis—remarkable, at any rate, for one of the founding fathers of the Western philosophical tradition: after the death of the body, the immortal soul is reborn according to the merits of its former life, gradually purifying itself as it evolves into pure essence, leaving all corporeality behind. Not Buddhist doctrine exactly, but very much in the mainstream of Indian thought as it was developing more or less at this very time, the fifth century B.C.E., the heart of the so-called Axial Age. The similarity has not been lost, at least on comparative philosophers: recent articles have compared the doctrines of the Phaedo with the Katha Upanishad, Yoga, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.2 The most obvious comparison, however, has not yet been attempted: the juxtaposition of the Phaedo with the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the canonical account of the Buddha's final days.3 The present essay is intended to begin to fill this gap.
Such a comparison becomes even more intriguing when we consider that these two great teachers were roughly, perhaps even exactly, contemporaneous. Lacking a historiographical tradition, Indian chronology is extremely difficult to establish, and in fact, despite India's reputation as one of the world's most ancient civilizations, the first historical event to emerge from the realm of legend is the death of the Buddha, and even that date is controversial. Recent scholarship has moved in the direction of downdating the Buddha's lifetime by a century or more from the standard 566-486 to circa 450-370 B.C.E., which would make him a junior contemporary of Socrates (whose dates are fixed rather firmly at 470/469 to 399 B.C.E.) or else, following the more traditional date, Socrates' predecessor by only one generation.4
Moreover, both men must be seen against the broader background of their own culture and society, and here we are struck by a number of parallels. In both Greece and India around this time, a highly developed mythopoetic worldview, perhaps a [End Page 525] thousand years or more old, was being challenged by a great flowering of philosophical systems. Opposing schools debated the nature of reality: some devised theories of the atom, and saw matter as the basis of the universe; others sought refuge in mysticism; still others rejected the concept of absolute truth and saw everything in relative terms. Taking a firm stand amid the welter of such ideas, Socrates and the Buddha developed a philosophy of the "Middle Way" and devoted their lives to teaching their vision of the Truth to all who would listen. Yet neither wrote down a word of it; in both cases we are dependent on texts composed by gifted disciples after their masters' passing. Most strikingly, these texts are recorded as dialogues, a form which allows for more dramatic presentation of character and theme, but perhaps also indicates something essential: for Socrates, the necessity for dynamic interaction with other minds as an approach to the Truth, and for the Buddha, the necessity to adapt his teaching by appreciating every individual's unique needs and capacities for understanding.
Do such parallels imply historical connections? The "floating...