Buddhism and Pragmatism–Part 3

Buddhism and Pragmatism–Part 3

Buddhism and Pragmatism—the Correlations


We have set forth basic principles of both Buddhism and Pragmatism in the two previous articles. In the process, we gave some hints of the correlations between the two. In this concluding article we will elaborate on those connections. There is a long history of common conceptual understandings, even before the existence of Pragmatism as a philosophical theory. Most significantly there is a strong connection between the Buddhism practiced by Nichiren Buddhists as developed by the three presidents of the Soka Gakkai, the 12 million strong lay organization with members in 192 countries and territories.

Put simply, both Buddhism and Pragmatism place great stock in common sense. In fact, both Pragmatism and Buddhism in essence could be viewed as common sense, as noted in the first installment of this series. So let’s begin with a quote from the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of the sect of Buddhism on which we are focusing [See the May Eagle Peak Quarterly–Buddhism and Pragmatism-Part 1 for more on the development of and tenets of Buddhism]:

“In summer it is hot; in winter, cold. Flowers blossom in spring, and fruit ripens in autumn. Therefore, it is only natural to sow seeds in spring and reap the harvest in fall. If one sowed in autumn, could one harvest in spring? Heavy clothing is useful in bitter cold, but of what use is it in sweltering heat? A cool breeze is pleasant in summer, but what good is it in winter? Buddhism works in the same way.”[1]

            Similarly, William James, as we noted last time in regard to Pragmatism, offers his analogy of a lost person finding a cow-path in the woods as an example of how the truth of the cow-path leading to a dwelling has value only because the person is lost. To be fair, there is some what we consider to be minor quibbling over James’ linking of truth and value by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Makiguchi is the founder and first president of the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value Creating Education Society; later shortened to Soka Gakkai—removing the “Education” limiter). [See more on the development of the Soka Gakkai and its role in the expansion of Nichiren Buddhism throughout the world here] Makiguchi argues James’ point, that “You can say of it [an idea] then either that it is ‘useful because it is true’ or that it ‘it is true because it is useful.’ Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing, namely that here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified.” [See May Quarterly] Rather, Makiguchi says,

            “Saying that truth and value are in essence the same, differing in degree but not in kind, we have plunged into the worst sort of semantic morass. We will find ourselves confronting statements to the effect that on the scale of value, something can be true because it is useful. The imprecision here is obvious. To clear up this misuse of language, we must either demonstrate that utility in human life alone is enough to make things true, or draw a sharp line between truth and value so as to render them into distinct logical types or conceptual categories.”[2]

            As noted in the August article on the Beginnings of Pragmatism, a contextual analysis of the quote to which Makiguchi objected shows that James may have overstated his thesis; James went on to say that, “Grant an idea or belief to be true, . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in one’s actual life? . . . What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”[3] So, in our opinion, James is not actually asserting that truth and value are synonymous; simply that bare truths without connection to a present value are of little more than academic value—much like the rote learning to which Dewey and Makiguchi took great exception. But the fact is that Makiguchi, James and Dewey were all pragmatists in their own way. Dewey and Makiguchi were interested in making education a practical, value oriented pursuit—not a means of a packing rote learning into the heads of students. In a paper submitted to the Center for Dewey Studies, Daisaku Ikeda, third  president of the Soka Gakkai and current president of the Soka Gakkai International, had this to say:

            “As contemporaries, Dewey and Makiguchi shared and were shaped by the intellectual milieu of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the legacy of Durkheim, Darwin, Hegel and Kant. In particular, both struggled to come to terms with the influence of the idealism of the neo-Kantian and Hegelian schools, and to develop a philosophy capable of guiding actual life toward optimal experience. For Dewey, this signified continual growth; Makiguchi defined this way of life as one of ‘value creation.’

. . .

            There are important parallels in their attempts to extend the realm of pragmatic thinking; to take it beyond the classroom and the institutions of education to the broader framework of building communities and societies; to look with fresh eyes at the role of religion in propelling that effort. Both Dewey and Makiguchi focused on the growth and development of the student into a fully realized human being actively engaged in society and the world at large.”[4]

            Similarly, Professor Dayle M. Bethel said of Makiguchi and Dewey, “It is my view that Makiguchi stands today as the chief spokesman for Japanese pragmatism. . .The ideas of both James and Dewey were introduced into Japan as early as 1888. [5]

            More to the point, consider this passage from Daisaku Ikeda’s paper to consider how trivial the objection and how close the connection between the three,

“Central to Makiguchi’s Pedagogy was his theory of value. In his schema he modified the neo-Kantian value system of truth, goodness and beauty dominant in Japan at the time, and reordered it as beauty, benefit (also translated as gain or utility) and goodness.

. . .

Makiguchi removed “truth” from his list of values, seeing truth as essentially a matter of identification and correspondence; value, in contrast, is a measure of the subjective impact a thing or event has on our lives. While truth identifies an object’s essential qualities or properties, value may be considered the measure of the relevance or impact an object or event bears on the individual. Makiguchi explains that:

Value arises from the relationship between the evaluating subject and the object of evaluation. If either changes relative to the other, it is only obvious that the perceived value will change. The differences and shifts in ethical codes throughout history provide but one of the more outstanding proofs of the mutability of value [footnoted to Bethel’s book, Education for Creative Living, page 61; see endnotes]

Dewey expresses a similar sense of historical and social contingency: “No longer will views generated in view of special situations be frozen into absolute standards and masquerade as eternal truths.” (Public, 203 [see works cited in link to Ikeda’s paper]) This aspect of Makiguchi’s thought also parallels Dewey’s critique of the centrality of epistemology in traditional philosophy and his focus on honing the tools of practical inquiry.”[6]

            Regardless of whether the focus is on truth or value, the point of both Buddhism and pragmatism (in the lower case, practical application usage) is in a methodology that works. In other words, you take an action and expect that the desired results will follow. This should be obvious by now in the explanations of Pragmatism we have offered. Then too, in the writings of Makiguchi and the explanations of Ikeda. Going back to Nichiren, the founder of the school of Buddhism which we are discussing had this to say with respect to judging the merit of the various Buddhist doctrines, “I, Nichiren, believe that the best standards are those of reason and documentary proof. And even more valuable than reason and documentary proof is the proof of actual fact.” [7]

            As we said in the August installment, all of philosophy offers conclusions or perspectives on reality. Reality, of course is the nub. James says,

“[H]owever fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealings with them. . . We read the same facts differently. ‘Waterloo,’ with the same fixed details, spells a ‘victory’ for an Englishman; for a Frenchman it spells a ‘defeat.’

. . . “We receive in short the block of marble, but we carve the statue ourselves.”[8]

To the practitioner of Buddhism, this is a fundamental element of faith—the belief that given an apparent set of facts he or she can choose how to respond to that reality. The appearance of a wall suggests there is a room on the other side, which can be accessed through a door. It is not an impenetrable barrier. A fever could suggest a fatal case of Ebola or a run of the mill infection. Absent a trip to West Africa or a recent encounter with a traveler from there it is more likely the latter illness. But assuming the worst can adversely impact the body’s immune system through the effects of the mind/body connection and make even the simple infection more severe.  So one’s choice in carving the block of marble can be optimistic and purposive or pessimistic and resigned. Buddhism offers not only the perspective, but the tools by which to effect change. More on that below.

The pragmatic premise of evaluating truth by its consequences necessarily relies upon an understanding of causality. In August we cited this exposition by James on the conceptual view of novelty and causation,

“The classic obstacle to pluralism has always been what is known as the ‘principle of causality.’ This principle has been taken to mean that the effect in some way already exists in the cause.

            . . .

A cause and its effect are two numerically discrete concepts, and yet in some inscrutable way the former must ‘produce’ the latter. How can it intelligibly do so, save by already hiding the latter in itself? Numerically two, cause and effect must be generically one, [emphasis supplied] in spite of the perceptual appearances; and causation changes thus from a concretely experienced relation between differents into one between similars abstractly thought of as more real.” [9]

            This is yet another of the strong correlations between Buddhism and Pragmatism. The Lotus Sutra is so named for the lotus, which blooms in a muddy swamp producing a beautiful blossom (consider the discussion of the block of marble in that light). More importantly, the lotus has the unique quality of bearing both a blossom and a seed at the same time. The significance of this to Buddhism is that it represents the simultaneity of cause and effect. Embedded within the cause is the resulting effect, which James discusses. Two but not two; one of many dualities in Buddhism—oneness of mind and body, oneness of self and environment to name two others.

            In the first instalment of this series, we explained that the accessible practice of Buddhism introduced by Nichiren in 13th century Japan entailed the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. At once the name for the Lotus Sutra and the universal law of cause and effect, invoking this law through daimoku (the Buddhist chant) is what enables shaping all those blocks of marbles with which one is presented. It enables activation of the Buddha nature which allows one to see things the way they really are and to take the most appropriate action to effect a desired outcome or to overcome an obstacle in one’s path. Accepting such a notion, that the power of the chant, can have such an effect requires a leap of faith to be sure. But once again, it is the correlation with the pragmatic method and the words of Nichiren that supplies the conviction—either it works or it doesn’t. Of the three proofs, actual is the most important, says Nichiren. Read over what James says again; is there a practical utility or not?

            This concludes our series on Buddhism and Pragmatism. We hope you will agree that while this Buddhism we were discussing spread from India through Japan and seems foreign to Westerners in general and Americans in particular, the wholly Western and predominantly American philosophy of Pragmatism demonstrates it really isn’t so foreign at all.

[1] Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Vol. 1: On Practicing the Buddha’s Teachings [Page 394]

[2] Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Education for Creative Living, Page 59, Iowa State University Press, 1989. Translated by Alfred Birnbaum, edited by Dayle M. Bethel.

[3] William James, Pragmatism, page 573, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910, volume compilation copyright 1987 by Literary  Classics of the United States, New York, New York..

[4] Daisaku Ikeda,  John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi: Confluences of Thought and Action, paper submitted to Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, http://deweycenter.siu.edu/scholarship_papers_makiguchi.html

[5] Dayle M. Bethel, Makiguchi the Value Creator, pages 78-79. Weatherhill, New York and Tokyo. 1973.

[6] Daisaku Ikeda, John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, op. cit.

[7] Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1: Three Tripitaka Masters Pray for Rain [No.68, Page 599]

[8] William James, Pragmatism and Humanism, Lecture VII, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910op cit. pages 593-4.

[9] William James, Some Problems of Philosophy, Chapter XII Novelty and Causation, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910, op cit. page 1080-81.

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