Comparison of Buddhist Emptiness and the Socratic Knowledge of Ignorance Essay

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Spring 2005, Volume 4, Number 2

Comparison of Buddhist Emptiness and the Socratic Knowledge of Ignorance
Arthur E. Ianuzzi

Over two-thousand years ago great thinkers like Siddhartha Guatama and Socrates began to explore a new facet of human existence and truth. Although these brilliant minds were separated by thousands of miles, they developed similar philosophies. By observing the world around them they both came to the realization that people, in much the same way as they are today, are doing things the wrong way.
In an attempt to make sense of the calamity of the surrounding world they both explored the idea that the mainstream leadership of the day, as well as the paradigm by which they led society, had serious flaws. Carelessly allocated power and corruption of that power became apparent to philosophers like Siddhartha and Socrates as being one of the roots of discontent of society. In response, both began to formulate ideas that included freeing the mind of the turmoil and difficulty of society.
Siddhartha’s ideas, which evolved into Buddhism, were based on the idea that people tend to lead lives that dwell on the acquisition of money, material things, and power. His philosophy pointed out that the suffering of life is brought on by selfish craving, which can be eliminated by living a less materialistic life in which one eliminates the various uncertainties of life which create suffering.

The Buddhist philosophy goes on to outline eight key disciplines which must be acquired to relate to the world harmoniously. The first three principles – right seeing, right thinking, and right speech – bring into light the necessity for people to see, think about, and conduct themselves in a manner which is not predisposed to hate or ill will. If a person uses prejudice when looking at the people around them, then negative impressions begin to form before the truth can be realized. The same prejudice holds true for thinking and speech. If a person harbors ill will toward another person or group of people, then that negativity will be apparent in his or her verbal and nonverbal communication, even if the person does not intend to portray hostility.
The next three fundamentals of Buddhism outline a lifestyle and ethical system which allow a person to steer clear of many negative patterns of living. Right action, right effort, and right way of life all inspire people to be careful with regard to how they prioritize the aspects of their lives. It is easy for people to become obsessed with material things, power, and other vices which complicate life. In Buddhism, these illusions of happiness are exposed, and people can learn to live free from their allure.
The final two principles of Buddhism – right mindfulness, and right meditation – are perhaps the most important. These ideas contain the key to a harmonious life and peaceful co-existence with one’s surroundings. With these ideas comes the concept of emptiness. Only by seeing the big picture for what it is, can people achieve true peace. A full mind concerns itself with all of the petty conflicts of life. A full mind agonizes constantly about issues of which a person usually has very little control, and of which the outcome is not terribly important in the overall scheme of things.

Only and empty mind has the ability to come to terms with the harsh reality, unfairness, and suffering of the world in a way that allows for an acceptance of the bad, while at the same time inspiring good. A similar point of view was shared by Socrates, who pointed out the necessity for people to develop a sense of humility with respect to their knowledge and intelligence. Just as Buddhism inspires people to come to terms with how little they know, or are able to control; the Socratic notion of the knowledge of one’s ignorance allows for a person to clear his or her mind of the illusion that one is capable of a superior level of knowledge. Most people