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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 151-165

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Santayana and Buddhism: The Choice between the Cross and the Bo Tree

Paul Grimley Kuntz
Emory University

Santayana honors Gotama Buddha as a profound religious genius as well as an original philosopher. Gotama's way is genuine spiritual wisdom, and constantly compared with Christian mysticism as a way of enlightenment. It is therefore understandable that a Spaniard, who learned his catechism in Ávila, and who was educated in the New England of Emerson and other Transcendentalists who honored Oriental wisdom, should have so much to say about the Buddha and Buddhism.

The effort of this paper is to gather many of the isolated passages to give a coherent picture of Santayana and Buddhism. One difficulty to be overcome is that the philosopher rarely quotes his sources (the exception is a single quotation from Dasgupta). Although Santayana has numerous opinions, he does not reveal on which translations he has relied. Nor does he contrast different traditions of Buddhists. To overcome the vagueness of scholarship, I have used the volumes found in Widener Library: the sorts of books known to Santayana's dissertation director, Josiah Royce, and those of a sympathetic sort that had led Santayana as early as the writing of his dissertation on Rudolf Hermann Lotze to reject the latter's defiantly Christian and Western contempt for oriental "superstition." The sympathy can be expressed as similar to that of Schopenhauer in reading the Upanishads or Wilhelm von Humboldt in studying the Bhagavadgita. Santayana's study makes him aware of his Catholicism but he is unlike the Jesuit Dahlmann who attacks Buddhism as Nihilism. Santayana is more like his contemporaries who worked in psychology and philosophy of religion. Although Friedrich Heiler's work 1 and writings of James Bissett Pratt 2 were a bit too late to have influenced Santayana, comparison serves to illuminate and strengthen Santayana's conclusions. Perhaps Heiler is even more appropriate because Buddhistic insights remind him of those of St. Theresa. Santayana would support Pratt's view that Nirvana is not the annihilation of all desire but the extinguishing of evil passions. What Santayana finds congenial in Christian Neo-Platonism and in Spinoza, as well as in Buddhism, is the achievement of freedom of the spirit. 3 It has become a commonplace of world history that the two greatest founders of religion whose ways of salvation triumphed in Europe and in Asia respectively are the Christ and the Buddha. Philosophers of religion like Heiler accept both as saviors with a universal message, one, Jesus "the master of prayer" ("der Meister des Gebets"), the [End Page 151] other, Gotama "the master of contemplation" ("der Meister der Versenking"). Santayana is not concerned with the fact of the success of their missions, for there are indeed other triumphs such as Mohammed's Islam, and if it be classified as a religion, Marx's Communism. Santayana is hardly offering his services as a philosophic mediator, as Whitehead tries to do in Religion in the Making, to bring the two communities of faith to a closer approximation of a truly universal religion. 4

Santayana reveals great personal depth as he ponders the contrast between the Gospel and the Fourfold Noble Truth. What is the appeal of Christ on the Cross dying "to save us?" What is the appeal of "the serene Buddha, lifting the finger of meditation and profound counsel?" 5 These questions are asked in a meditation in Soliloquies in England in the sympathetic way of those American philosophers who like Pratt have the option of remaining Christian or converting to Buddhism. William James might well have patted Santayana on the back for struggling with the alternatives, for wrestling with a live option. Probably because of Buddha's message of truth, Santayana has shifted from religion as poetry, which James considered "rotten," to how "a general truth about existence and experience" is symbolized poetically, which James would consider healthy.

In answering the question "What does the cross signify?" Santayana strips away the "various analogies, legal, sentimental, or chivalrous," and he...