Hegel and the Buddha

Contrary to popular belief, Hegel’s dialectic has nothing to do with “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” The characteristic pattern is rather:

  • Consciousness: one experiences, thinks, and acts according to habit, custom, or instinct;
  • Self-consciousness: one becomes aware of one’s habits, customs, or instincts, leading to irony, discomfort, conflict, and creativity;
  • Reason: One chooses a particular way of thinking and being.

The cycle can repeat if one realizes that what looked like “reason” was, from a more distant perspective, an arbitrary choice.

I studied Hegel long ago and have found his structure widely applicable. Only lately have I paid serious attention to the thinker we call the Buddha. A characteristic pattern for him is:

  • Suffering: the experience of all sentient beings, which inevitably includes frustration, fear, pain, and loss;
  • Attachment: suffering that arises from wanting something that one cannot control (and often from knowing that what one wants cannot be had);
  • Cessation of suffering, which arises from renouncing attachment;
  • Equanimity, which is not complete dis-attachment or lack of concern but rather deliberate engagement with the world without a futile sense of frustration.

The parallels seem to me interesting and fruitful, although not exact.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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