Buddhism and the Allegory of the Cave…

IMG_2747Plato’s ‘Allegory (or Myth) of the Cave’ is one of the great works of speculative philosophy, and very special to those who love his work, equal in thought and substance to Jesus’s parables, Einstein’s ‘thought experiments, or the Buddhist sutras, IMHO. This is the starting point to Platonic idealism, much of which was incorporated into Christianity in the early Roman era, until they finally got hip to the more worldly work of Aristotle. Hey, things take time…

Anyway, for the uninitiated, the gist of the work is the setting in which we are inhabitants of a cave, a fire as our only source of light, and unable to turn our heads, so essentially a black-and-white two-dimensional version of reality. But the prisoners of the cave don’t know that, so they assume that this is all there is, and is an accurate representation of reality. What they don’t know is that there is a big colorful world outside to which this internal world literally pales in comparison…
Of course, someone will inevitably escape, realize the truth, and scurry back inside to enlighten those who are still enchained. Care to know how that works out? Read the book. But the moral of the story is that there is always a higher truth, a higher reality ‘out there’, if only we put ourselves to the task of finding it, whether it’s windowless monads or ‘elan vital’, quantum mechanics or a Creator or just ‘spirit’. The point is: perceptions are flawed, and guilty of fraud. Knowledge and wisdom are capable of better than that…

Of course Plato’s pet project was his theory of Forms, or intrinsic Ideas, of which each material manifestation is but a pale reflection: get it? Like shadows in the cave. But the appeal to idealism is attractive and easily converts to metaphysics, and thus served as the philosophical backdrop to Christianity for about a millennium. So if my thesis that Buddhism is the extreme opposite counterpoint to Christianity in an ongoing dialectic of ideas and concepts, then how would that work? Imagine this:

Three-dimensional humans in a four-dimensional world full of lights and sounds and colors, instead of speculating on something higher and bigger ‘out there’ and possibly of more and previously unknown dimensions, and thus more perfect, instead would speculate on a reality smaller and more confined, of only one or two dimensions, ‘in there’ and thus more perfect. In effect they would fantasize of the cave, or some self-styled prison, and if that includes three meals a day, then so much the… better yet, let’s make it one meal a day, maximum two for slackers…

And there you have the life of a Theravada Buddhist monk, confined to his bunk, in a Buddhist monastery, and limited to one meal a day, procured from offerings of the morning alms walk. And to penetrate even deeper into that ever-narrowing vision of pure reality, you’d have to go into deep meditation for hours at the time, not only not thinking, but not even flinching, no itching no scratching no coffee breaks, just intense non-narrative focus on one thing, anything, nothing, or everything! But no thinking…

Now carry that analogy to its furthest extreme, and where the western Christian fanatic is envisioning a paradise of unbridled passion and ecstasy, a pure feeling of some sort, that eastern Buddhist fanatic might be envisioning not just a cave, but a cave down a long dark passageway, where no escape is even possible—nor desired! And any feeling would be but a mosquito buzzing around the ears, to be whisked away as expeditiously as possible…

And many Buddhist monasteries have historically been established in caves, or better still: consider the lone rishi, or rusi in Thai, hair grown long and baths not taken for ten, twenty, thirty years, eating only whatever food is brought to them by followers and fans. And these are the most revered figures in Buddhism—true story—the rishis that even senior monks look to for inspiration…

So was anyone surprised when our twelve soccer-boys and their coach were found safe-and-sound a few days ago in that flooded cave in northern Thailand, just sitting there like nothing’s the matter and when’s it time for dinner? I was—at first. And then I started thinking. No, it’s not that surprising, and not just because Thais can do nothing better than almost anyone (snark snark), but because this is what they’re trained to do. Back story: I’ve spent many years in Thailand, and have seen it inside and out over most of that time. So I’ve had my ins and outs, BUT…

I never knew what meditation was until I meditated with Thais at a meditation retreat there. It was literally unbelievable, hours at the time unflinching, and that’s not even the monks! The monks can go all day! So, in effect, the boys in the cave are just doing what a good monk does by choice, every day, day in day out, for most of his life. There’s no day or night in there, of course, so that’s the first thing they wanted to know: What day is it anyway? I wondered who guessed correctly? I guess the one whose watch is water-proof…

And apparently no one blames the coach for what is essentially an act of nature. In fact, he could be considered the hero, as much or more than any British divers. It seems he is an orphan, with significant monastery experience (very typical in Thailand), and he in fact had the kids meditating for much of the time they spent alone together in darkness—wow! And I have a stepson ready to lend emergency assistance at Chiang Rai general hospital. This is as close to tears as I usually ever come…

p.s. The first group of boys has now been rescued, fingers crossed for the safe rescue of them all…