Buddha & Descartes, Thought & Thinker

The opening lines of the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha, read:

We are what we think.  All that we are arisBuddha Statue Taiwanes with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make the world.  Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart… Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.

Speaking and acting are the two ways one uses one’s mind to draw trouble or happiness from the world.  This fits with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, who said that when we speak, our words are our thoughts, with no separation between speaking and thinking.  The same applies to acts.  Perhaps all thinking is rooted in speaking and acting.  Perhaps picturing something in the head is rooted in the experience of looking, moving one’s eyes, head, neck and body such that a thing comes into view.

Descartes statueDescartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am”.  Both Buddha and Descartes reason that if there is thinking, then there is a thinker, but they see this relationship in opposite ways.

For Buddha, the thinking is the coming into existence of the thinker, such that there is no thinker without thought making it so.  The thinking causes the thinker to be a particular thing.

For Descartes, the thinking is evidence of the thinker, leading to the conclusion that there exists a thinker prior to and independent of the thinking.

3 thoughts on “Buddha & Descartes, Thought & Thinker

  1. Thanks for writing this – I think the subject of Descartes (especially his axiom, “cogito ergo sum”) is a nice entry point for a dialogue between Buddhism and Western thought/philosophy.

    I would suggest that the Buddha did not teach about the existence of a “thinker” – this would contradict his teaching of anatta (non-self). The Dhammapada verse you quote is about how the mind (intending/thinking) is the forerunner to all things…each being creates their own experience through intentional actions of body, speech, and mind. There is a moral quality to each intention, and this quality will effect the outcome of that action, as it is subjectively experienced by an individual. However, underlying this process of kamma (intentional action) and vipakka (fruit of said intentional action), there is no substantive entity/soul/person/”thinker”. According to the Buddha, the entire process (of our experience) is composed of causes and conditions which are themselves entirely impermanent, unsatisfactory, and neither constitute nor belong to a “self” of any kind.

    Descartes on the other hand, seemed to conclude that there was in fact a substantial entity/self/soul underlying his experience, and this was made evident by the fact of his thinking.

  2. This is really paradoxical when you think that Descartes takes the thought as a proof that you exist, while for Buddha we are beyond the thought, we are more than the thought. In principle the mind as an organ produces the thoughts but somehow we are something else.

    1. It is very much mind and thought. Everything is mind, for Descartes and the Buddhist, which is why things are simply there, without thinking. Also, mind, for us, are the moves of our minds and others’ minds moving from thing to thing.

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