Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 2, 1981


Michael Futrell, University of British Columbia

In the last pages of "The Diary of a Writer," shortly before his death, Dostoevsky declared: "Skobelev's victory resounded all over Asia to her remotest corners... Let the conviction of the invincibility of the White Tsar and of his sword grow and spread among the millions of those People - to the very borders of India and in India herself... The name of the White Tsar must soar above the khans and emirs, above the Empress of India, above the name of the Caliph himself... In our future destinies Asia is, perhaps, our main outlet... In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, whereas we shall go to Asia as masters." (1) A few months earlier, in the famous address on Pushkin, he had asked rhetorically: "What else is the strength of the Russian national spirit than the aspiration, in its ultimate goal, for universality and all-embracing humanity," and claimed that "the Russian heart is more adapted to universal, all-human brotherly union than any other nation." (2) In a follow-up article he opined that "only recently the people, though stinking in sin, drunkenness and lawlessness, the people, as a whole, were spiritually gladdened by the last war for Christ's faith of the Slavs trampled upon by the Muslims;" (3) and then, in the last issue of the publication, insisted that the "socialism of the Russian people" was expressed in their belief "that they shall be finally saved through universal union in the name of Christ." (4)

With such juxtapositions in mind, it may perhaps be conceded that Tolstoy's comment on Dostoevsky, as recorded by Gorkij, was not entirely outrageous: "He ought to have made himself acquainted with the teaching of Confucius or the Buddhists, that would have calmed him down. That is the chief thing which everyone should know." (5) Tolstoy in his later years was of course much concerned with, and impressed by, Confucianism, Buddhism and especially Taoism; (6) in the last year of his life he even said that if he were young he would go to China. (7) Dostoevsky had some contact with Muslims and some interest in the mystic and warrior Muhammad, (8) but the flag-waving and tub-thumping elitism of some of his publicistic pronouncements must seem far from Buddhism. However, it is rather for "The Brothers Karamazov" that Dostoevsky of his last years is usually remembered, and some features of that work do bear comparison with certain aspects of Buddhism.

Dostoevsky has been and is being read by people all over the world, many of whom are heirs to traditions neither Western nor Christian. One wonders how deeply a Hindu or a Buddhist is affected by Ivan Karamazov's anguished polemic about the Christian God and the world created by that


God, about the suffering of tortured innocent children and the suffering of intellectuals torturing themselves on account of the children. The Hindu or Buddhist might consider this, while perhaps fascinatingly exotic as literature, philosophically a non-problem, a problem created by some peculiarities of Christianity. According to a distinguished student of Buddhism: "The mentality fostered by both Hinduism and Buddhism is not such as to see a problem in evil or suffering, as happened elsewhere, because a sense of the relative and its ambivalent character, at once a veil over the absolute and a revealer thereof, of a reality at one level and an illusion at another, is too strongly ingrained in Indian thought to allow of evil being regarded as anything more than a particular case of the relative, viewed from its privative angle. Suffering in all its forms is then accepted as a measure of the world's apparent remoteness from the divine principle. The principle is absolutely omnipresent in the world, but the world is relatively absent from the principle; this apparent contradiction between 'essence' and 'accidents' is paid for in 'suffering'. By identifying ourselves, consciously or unconsciously or by our actions, with our 'accidents', whereby a specious selfhood is both created and nourished, we invite an inescapable repercussion in the form of the good and evil that consequently shape our lives for us while we are swept along by the stream of becoming. So long as that stream continues to flow, in the passage from action to concordant reaction, suffering will be experienced in positive or negative Form, as unwanted presence of the painful or else as absence of the desirable." (9) It is the discernment and diagnosis of this painful situation (the result of our lack of understanding), and advice for eliminating the pain by attaining correct understanding and behaving accordingly, that constitute the heart of Buddhist teaching.

While this is clearly relevant to the thought of Tolstoy, particularly from about 1880 onwards, it may seem remote from "The Brothers Karamazov;" Ivan Karamazov is trapped in what from this viewpoint is a non-problem, and Dmitrij Karamazov is changed by overwhelming shock and symbolic dream, not by meditation. However, diagnosis and advice concerning man's illusions about his painful situation represent only the starting-point of Buddhism. That is what impressed Tolstoy, and that is what until fairly recently comprised the general understanding of Buddhism in the West (except among a few specialists) - and probably still does for many people. Buddhism was regarded as a kind of therapeutic ethical psychology - which it is, though it may also be much more; and was sometimes acclaimed, in Tolstoyan terms, for its total rationality, its freedom from everything mystical and supernatural, which may be largely true of some kind of Buddhism, but is misleading about others.

The Buddhism of the more southerly Buddhist lands (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand) may indeed be presented as rational psychology and ethics. For many years, the Mahayana Buddhism of China, Japan and Tibet, some varieties of which abound in entities and experiences on many levels and in many modes, was largely unappreciated in the West (except, again, by a few specialists), ever, denigrated as serstition. Only in the last few decades has the prodigious cultural wealth of the Mahayana begun to be


more widely known, its subtle philosophies and psychologies to be explored in depth. (10)

At this point, one misconception should be mentioned. It is possible to call Buddhism in principle "non-theistic," but it is a gross error, unfortunately perpetrated by some propagandists on behalf of Buddhism, to call it "atheistic." This issue has been elucidated by many authorities, such as Edward Conze, (11) Frithjof Schuon (12) and Trevor Ling. (13)

The aim here is not a comprehensive comparison of Buddhism and the religious philosophy to be found in "The Brothers Karamazov." Dostoevsky was one of the greatest novelists, with astonishing penetration into the labyrinth of the modern psyche and a genius for dramatising its turmoil; intelligent books have been written on "the religion of Dostoevsky," including the useful study under that title by Gibson; (14) but serious comparison of Dostoevsky's thought (in all its captivating idiosyncrasy) with the doc tine of a traditional religion risks confusion of categories. Highly relevant here, but seemingly unknown to most literary critics, would be the writings of the leading twentieth-century exponents of traditional metaphysic Coomaraswamy and Guenon, and such recent examples of sophisticated expertise in the comparative study of religion as the books of Frits Staal, (15) Agehananda Bharati (16) and Steven T. Katz (17) - in none of which, seemingly, is Dostoevsky even mentioned. (18)

Nevertheless, turning now to "The Brothers Karamazov," it can be suggested that some of the most important themes in the life and teaching of Zosima might be sympathetically appreciated by a Mahayana Buddhist. They are the concepts of active love, of brotherhood and solidarity, of responsibility for everyone and everything; and the related notion of life as paradise if only we knew it.

Central in Mahayana Buddhism is the ideal of the Bodhisattva, whose aim is not just enlightenment, but enlightenment for all. Conze puts it clearly: "What a man should do is to make no discrimination between himself and others, and to wait until he had helped everybody into Nirvana before losing himself into it... Whereas wisdom had been taught as the highest, and compassion as a subsidiary virtue, compassion now came to rank equal with wisdom... The Bodhisattva would be a man who does not only set himself free, but who is also skilful in devising means for bringing out and maturing the latent seeds of enlightenment in others." (19) Between this ideal and the fundamental Buddhist analysis which dissolves not only people but all phenomena into a conglomeration of interacting impersonal forces is an obvious contradiction. However, as Conze observes, and here we may be reminded of Dostoevsky, "the Buddhist philosophers differ from philosophers bred in the Aristotelian tradition in that they are not frightened but delighted by a contradiction," (20) and he concludes: "A Bodhisattva is a being compounded of the two contradictory forces of wisdom and compassion. In his wisdom, he sees no persons; in his compassion he is resolved to save them. His ability to combine the contradictory attitudes is the source of his greatness, and of his ability to


save himself and others." (21) One wonders how Dostoevsky, the portrayer of Zosima's and Alesha's "active love" and Dmitrij's eventual realisation of Zosima's teaching that "we are all responsible for all" would have regarded the Bodhisattva ideal. Could even Dostoevsky, virtuoso in the rhetoric of universality, have formulated such a universal aspiration as that comprised by the first words of the vow of the Bodhisattva: "However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them."? (22)

Two quotations from Mahayana texts may help to fill out the concept of the Bodhisattva. "He becomes endowed with that kind of wise insight which allows him to see all beings as on the way to their slaughter. Great compassion thereby takes hold of him... he radiates great friendliness and compassion over all those beings, and gives his attention to them, thinking: 'I shall become a saviour to all those beings, I shall release them from all their sufferings!". (23) Again: "A Bodhisattva resolves: I take upon myself the burden of all suffering, I am resolved to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn or run away, do not tremble, am not terrified, nor afraid, do not turn back or despond... I have made the vow to save all beings. All beings 1 must set free. The whole world of living beings I must rescue, from the terrors of birth, of old age, of sickness, of death and rebirth, of all kinds of moral offence, of all states of woe, of the whole cycle of birth-and-death, of the jungle of false views... from all these terrors I must rescue all beings." (24)

Despite the Buddhist context and terminology, the creator of Zosima and Alesha and Dmitrij might have been impressed - or would he? His interest in Asia seems to have been largely geopolitical. On the other hand, one might imagine Dostoevsky's sensitivity to the emotional, aesthetic and visionary aspects of religion overcoming his Christian and Russian exclusiveness, had it been possible for him to know, not just the somewhat limited notions of Buddhism available to Tolstoy, but the wide and deep vistas of thought, experience and beauty opened by modern scholars and translators of the Mahayana.

The aesthetics of the later Tolstoy were narrowly puritanical and utilitarian; it is rather Dostoevsky, devoted admirer of Raphael's Madonnas, who could have seen the point of Govinda's question: "Is the smiling countenance of the Buddha, which is millionfold reflected by countless images in all Buddhist countries, the expression of an attitude that is inimical to life?". (25)

Zosima, and Dostoevsky, could have understood, and agreed with, the following passage from Govinda's account of the core of Tibetan Buddhism: "So long as this thinking, feeling and acting is motivated by the illusion of our individual separateness, we experience a correspondingly limited, one-sided and therefore imperfect world, in which we attempt in vain to maintain our self-identity, our imaginary ego, against the irresistible stream of eternally changing forms and conditions. The world, therefore, appears to us a world of impermanence, insecurity and fear; and it is this fear that surrounds each being like a wall, separating it from


others and from the greater life. The Bodhisattva, liberating the beings from this fear by the example of his own fearlessness and boundless devotion, breaks down the separating walls and opens a vision into undreamt realms of freedom, in which the solidarity of all beings is revealed and becomes the natural basis of mutual understanding. Then compassion, goodwill, selfless love, pity, etc., will no more be felt as Virtues', but as the natural attitude of spiritual freedom." (26)

That quotation concerning Tibetan Buddhism, omitting only the word "Bodhisattva," could go unchanged into the conversations of the young ex-officer Zosima and his "mysterious visitor". The latter told Zosima: "Today everyone is still striving to keep his individuality as fas apart as possible, everyone still wishes to experience the fullness of life in himself alone, and yet instead of achieving the fullness of life, all his efforts merely lead to the fullness of self-destruction, for instead of full self-realisation they relapse into complete isolation... Everywhere today the mind of man has ceased, ironically, to understand that true security of the individual does not lie in isolated personal efforts but in general human solidarity." (27)

There should also be noted the development in Mahayana Buddhism of the element of faith. The Bodhisattva "could not possibly confine his activities on behalf of the salvation of others to the advice to meditate... Otherwise the majority of the people would be left out, by their lack of metaphysical inclinations, their preoccupation with earning a living, and their deep-rooted attachment to property, family and home. Since, however, the layman also is involved in suffering, and, as originally divine, endowed with spiritual longings and potentialities, the word of the Buddha is addressed to him as well. Incapable of wisdom, he must use faith... If the Buddha's compassion is unlimited, he must save also the fools. If the Buddha-nature is equally present in all, then all are equally near Buddha-hood". (28) Here one may well recall Zosima and the peasant women.

Prominent in Zosima's transformation from military officer to monk was his realisation that "we don't understand that life is paradise", repeating the declaration of his dying elder brother that "life is paradise and we are . all in paradise, only we don't want to know it", or, as recalled by Zosima, "Every man is responsible for everyone, only people don't know it. If they knew - it would be paradise at once;" similar words are uttered in turn by Zosima's mysterious visitor, who adds: "Paradise is hidden in everyone of us." (29)

Nowadays, thanks to a number of enthusiastic and sometimes superficial popularisers, the Zen Buddhist term "satori", meaning sudden, selfless, total awareness, has become widely known, and trivialised (as indeed happened with the fundamental Buddhist term "Nirvana"). As Zen is Buddhist or it is nothing, in order to avoid the undesirable associations of recent vulgarised Zen, it may be preferable to suggest that the crucial experiences of Zosima and those closest to him might be meaningful in other (i.e. not Zen) contexts of Mahayana Buddhism. A Western student


received from his Tibetan teacher three injunctions: "Recognise everything around you as Nirvana; hear all sounds as mantra; see all beings as Buddhas". (30) The student explains: "In the carrying out of these injunctions, a dual process is at work. Intent on causing his mind to leap into another dimension wherein he perceives things not as potentially but actually perfect, the devotee first imagines them so; and thereby promotes the influx of intuitive wisdom which causes him to see them so. The first process involves an element of make-believe; the second is intensely real. As time goes on, he reaches a point at which he sees each grain of sand as containing the entire universe. This blissful vision... becomes a permanent possession - the adept's only mode of vision". (31) Underlying this is what Conze has called "the most startling innovation of the .Mahayana... the identification of the Unconditioned with the conditioned", in Buddhist terms, "the identity of Nirvana and Samsara". (32)

It is with such teachings in mind that a Mahayana Buddhist, while compassionately lamenting Ivan's over-intellectual dilemmas and Dmitrij's over-emotional confusions, could probably readily comprehend and sympathetically respond to much in Dostoevsky's portrayals of Zosima and Alesha.

At this stage, rather than plunging into Nirvana, that most elusive topic, (33) one may conclude by taking refuge in authentic Zen, quoting the beginning and ending of a famous poem by one of the greatest Japanese Zen masters, Hakuin, an approximate contemporary of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in the eighteenth century. His poem begins: "All beings are from the very beginning Buddhas/ It is like water and ice/ Apart from water, no ice/ Outside living beings, no Buddhas," and ends: "What remains to be sought? Nirvana is clear before him/ This very place the Lotus paradise, this very body the Buddha". (34) As Zosima insisted: "we don't understand that life is paradise."

Nowadays, dialogue between Christians and Buddhists quite often occurs. (35) One can regret that Dostoevsky had little opportunity to discuss the phenomenology of salvation with a Tibetan lama and a Japanese Zen master. If such a discussion had taken place, perhaps then his notions of Asia might have outgrown the confines of nineteenth-century geopolitics; however, as regards the ability to combine contradictions, he probably had little to learn from Buddhists.


  1. "The Diary of a Writer", January 1881, ch. II (the translation by Boris Brasol, New York, 1949, p. 1044 omits the phrase "above the Empress of India").
  2. "The Diary of a Writer", August 1880, ch. II.
  3. "The Diary of a Writer", August 1880, ch. III (Brasol, p. 986, has "sinking" for "stinking" - Russian zasmerdev).
  4. "The Diary of a Writer", January 1881, ch. I.
  5. 161

  6. M. Gorkij, "Pol.sob.soch.", XVI, 1973, p. 299;" Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Andreev", London, 1934, pp. 64-5.
  7. See Derk Bodde, "Tolstoy and China", Princeton, 1950.
  8. V.F. Bulgakov, "L.N. Tolstoy v poslednij god ego zhizni", Moscow, 1960, p. 173; "The Last Year of Leo Tolstoy", New York, 1971, p. 93.
  9. See M. Futrell, "Dostoevsky and Islam (and Chokan Valikhanov)", Slavonic and East European Review, 57, 1, London, 1979, pp. 16-31.
  10. Marco Pallis, "Is There a Problem of Evil?", in Jасоb Needleman (ed.), "The Sword of Gnosis", Baltimore, 1974, pp. 246-7.
  11. This is not the place for a bibliography of Mahayana Buddhism, but as outstanding attempts to make pioneering scholarship accessible one should commend, besides the writings of Edward Conze, those of Anagarika Govinda and Herbert V. Guenther on Tibetan Buddhism, "the last living link that connects us with the civilizations of a distant past" as the former put it ("Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism", New York, 1969, p. 13). In the extensive (and very uneven) recent literature on Zen Buddhism, the essays of Toshihiko Izutsu ("Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism", Teheran, 1977) are uniquely valuable.
  12. Edward Conze, "Buddhism: Its Essence and Development", New York, 1959, pp. 38-42.
  13. Frithjof Schuon, "In the Tracks of Buddhism", London, 1966, pp. 18-23.
  14. Trevor Ling, "The Buddha", Harmondsworth, 1976, pp. 16-25.
  15. A. Boyce Gibson, "The Religion of Dostoevsky", London, 1973.
  16. Frits Staal, "Exploring Mysticism", Harmondsworth, 1975.
  17. Agehananda Bharati, "The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism", Santa Barbara, 1976.
  18. Steven T. Katz, "Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis", New York, 1978.
  19. Only in one book by Frithjof Schuon (the most formidable successor to Coomaraswamy and Guénon) does Dostoevsky receive a rather severe footnote ("Stations of Wisdom", London, 1961, p. 42n.). Certainly the insights eventually attained by Raskolnikov, Stepan Trofi-movich and Dmitrij Karamazov may be related to the traditions of "Self-Naughting" and "Self-Sacrifice" expounded by Coomaraswamy. in his magisterial studies under those titles ("Selected Papers", ed. Roger Lipsey, Princeton, 1977, II, pp. 88-106, 107-47), as has been done for some of Shakespeare's central characters by Martin Lings in his remarkable attempt to show in Shakespeare "a prolongation of the universality of the Middle Ages" ("Shakespeare in the Light of Sacred Art", London, 1966, p. 13); but one must agree with Schuon (in the above-mentioned footnote) that Dostoevsky's vision is affected by what he calls "bizarre qualities", even though its depths may not be (as he implies) "imaginary".
  20. Edward Conze, "Buddhism: Its Essence and Development", New York, 1959, p. 128.
  21. Ibid., p. 129.
  22. Ibid., p. 130.
  23. Edward Conze, "Buddhist Scriptures", Harmondsworth, 1959, p. 183.
  24. 162

  25. Edward Conze, "Buddhist Texts Through the Ages", New York, 1964, pp. 127-8.
  26. Ibid., p. 131.
  27. Anagarika Govinda, "Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism", New York, 1969, p. 273.
  28. Ibid., pp. 234-5.
  29. The Brothers Karamazov", bk 6, ch. II (d); Pol. sob. soch., XIV, Leningrad, 1976, pp. 275-6.
  30. Conze, "Buddhism: Its Essence and Development", pp. 144-6.
  31. "Pol. sob. soch.", XIV, pp. 272, 262, 270, 275. "Paradise" is indeed a revolutionary notion. When in 1886, at Tolstoy's suggestion, it was proposed to publish the part of The "Brothers Karamazov" concerning Zosima as a booklet designed to be read by the ordinary people, the censor in his negative report took particular exception to Dostoevsky's passages on the nearness of paradise, and commented that the moral-religious teaching in "The Brothers Karamazov was "almost identical with the latest views of Count Lev Tolstoy" (V.K. Lebedev, "Otryvok iz romana Bratja Karamazovy pered sudom cenzury", Russkaja literatura, Leningrad, 1970, 2, pp. 123-5).
  32. John Blofeld, "The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet", New York, 1970, p. 76.
  33. Ibid., p. 78.
  34. Edward Conze, "Buddhist Thought in India", New York, 1967, pp. 226, 228.
  35. With a formidable literature, in which Conze's "Buddhist Thought in Idia" is conspicuously lucid.
  36. Trevor Leggett, "A First Zen Reader", Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1960, pp. 67-8; see also Heinrich Dumoulin, "A History of Zen Buddhism", Boston, 1969, ch. XIV.
  37. See e.g. Aelred Graham, "Zen Catholicism", New York, 1963, and "Conversations: Christian and Buddhist", New York, 1968; and William Johnston, "Christian Zen", New York, 1974.
University of Toronto