Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Plato’s Analogy of the Cave and the Buddhist Analogy of the Moon

The Allegory of the Cave, also entitled Analogy of the Cave, Plato’s Cave or Parable of the Cave is said to be presented by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the Republic to compare “the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature.” “Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”

Normally I find comparison risky for several reasons. But I venture here to draw at least some similarity between it and the analogy of the moon found in some Tibetan Buddhist sources such as in Mi-pham’s commentary on the *Guhyagarbhatantra. Also the  analogy of a dialogue between various sentient beings with regard to the perception of what is known as “water” (to human beings) discussed by Rong-zom-pa may be comparable. Likewise the analogy of two princes used by Klong-chen-pa may be comparable as well. Also my own analogy of “Magic Eye 3D Card” may work.

The Moon Analogy

Suppose person A has never seen the actual moon in the sky. Person B who has seen the moon tries to describe it to A in words. A then obtains an abstract understanding of the moon. B goes on to depict the moon with a sketch/painting. A gets even a better idea of the moon.  Likewise B shows A the reflection of moon in the water and finally the real moon in the sky. The moon is the true reality/luminosity. These stages are described as: go yul tsam gyi ’od gsal (tshogs lam), dpe’i ’od gsal (sbyor lam = ri mo bris pa’i zla ba lta bu on drod rtse gnyis & chu nang gi zla ba lta bu on bzod chos gnyis), don gyi ’od gsal (mthong lam), slob pa’i zung ’jug gi ’od gsal (sgom lam), mi slob pa’i zung ’jug gi ’od gsal (mi slob lam = sangs rgyas kyi sa).


  1. Hi,
    again I must split the message…;

    Plato´s analogy and probably similary subtle models of illustration in other cultures (as given your examples from the indo-tibetan perspective) try to orientate and (are hoping at best) to open our eyes for the existential enigma, namely: „The perception of what is known as such and such“ or otherwise said: „What is reality and how do we perceive it.“

    Can this ever be penetrated adequately/simply without philosophical perspicacity? Philosophers will get a good laugh by such an interrogation…

    But with this question in mind is associated a worrying dilemma: How far does and can a philosopher indeed go without falling in practical undesirable or even unnoticed behavior?

    So, if the philosopher focuses and believes „too strongly“ in this fantastic cognitive capacity „to go out“ of the designated prison (samsara) of reality-perception and with a certain blinkered attitude evaluates his/her (so-believed) „seeing of reality as it is“ (buddha-cognition) in contrast to „ordinary seeing reality as it is“ (prthagjana-cognition) he/she (the philosopher) unavoidably will again divide „mere“ reality-apprehension by his/her own subtle reality-cognition. That´s a very delicate point…, philosophy certainly becomes the liberator but simultaneously „can“ become the unconscious torturer of thought elaborations when not being brought to ultimate, appropriate dissolution. Sincerly, mikael

  2. continuation...;

    The „bodhisattvic-philosopher“ of course is (or should be) well aware of the meaning of soteriology supported by relative conceptualization, nevertheless he/she feels oblidged, owing to the dualistic thrownness of thinking as such, to use pedagogical/philosophical understandable (or perhaps often not immediately understandable…) concepts for bringing others and him/herself to the liberating cognition and existential fearlessness (sambharamarga / "path of accumulation").

    But again, here begins the philosophical divulgation of discreet, gradually envisaged soteriology and without enthousiastic inclination towards „study and practice“ („the effect of education“) how could one ever penetrate the self-imposed enigma?
    The „perplexing problem“ with „philosophy“ is just philosophy itself! Because ultimately we should never mind about philosophy and yet simultaneously it´s precisely philosophy itself which indirectly makes possible the „seeing of reality“ (prayogamarga / path of preparation/connection).
    So, indeed, philosophy can become the liberator but also the seducer, captivator and hence the entangler.

    The „authentic“ philosopher „sees“ reality (darsanamarga / "path of seeing" = shunyata direct-perception).

    But again the philosopher must be very carefull with this „seeing“. Because „seeing“, „when coming back (or coming out) from shunyata direct-perception“, at first, when „remembered and indirectly felt, catapults one out of natural acting since its precisely through „seeing“ (the remembered seeing) that one understands (or come to understand) acting. Yet again, even if one already sees reality (supported precisely by sporadic shunyata direct-perceptions), it takes a lot of time (in Buddhism even aeons of aeons from the bodhisattva perspective…) to adapt/adjust/habituate/conform/ ones seeing to acting (bhavanamarga / "path of cultivation/meditation").

    Finally, in the last instance, when shunyata direct-perception and conventional acting no more make any difference the entrance into the path of „no-more-learning“ (asaiksamarga) (soteriologically apprehended!) will be embarked (the increasingly felt reality-sympathy will become reality-empathy).

    Now, in a nutshell, for to bring about/“accomplish“ in ones stream of cognitions the liberating/omniscient overturning of mind (asrayaparivrtti) one must/should be very patient and endurant – the biotic pivotal central point of this inner revolution is bodhicitta!

    Hence bodhicitta is the (secret) protector (dharmaphala) of reality-engagement. Certainly, also for not falling/sliding in the exceedingly subtle trap of „philosophical overassessment and corresponding unnoticed behavor“ a Lama always ardently will favor bodhicitta-development! Look at the kind Lamas and their Lamrim teaching focus! Since its bodhicitta which offers the power/vigor to unify prajna (insight) and upaya (means), shunyata (voidness) and karuna (love), …; when bodhicitta-development goes in pair with the philosophical quest than no aberrations (our smart friend „Mara“ at work…) can fool us; sincerely, mikael.