From the outset I will state that I find the philosophy of Buddhism fascinating, and also that there several points of convergence and divergence between it and African deep thought. I will start with the points of divergence.
First, the Buddha’s departure from his family is pursuit of enlightenment is not consistent with African conceptions of family life or enlightenment. In the traditional society, conditions of enlightenment would be expected to be established in the milieu of normal life, not seclusion. This is reflected in ptH htp’s (Ptah Hotep) sbAyt (instruction). “lf you are parents of worth and wisdom, train your children so that they will be pleasing to nTr. And if they do what is right, following your example, and handle your affairs as they should, do for them all that is good.” ptH Htp adds (and this is most important to my point here), “For they are begotten of your own heart and soul, Therefore separate not your heart from them.”
Secondly, the focus and pursuit of individual enlightenment is not really central in African cultures, as enlightenment is generally regarded as a collective condition. In commenting on Kemetic governance, Jacob Carruthers’s writes, “The Niswt’s overall function, like that of Wosir, is the establishment of Maat in Tawi, i.e., to establish conditions where enlightenment will prevail over ignorance.” The point here is that enlightenment is a matter of the social conditions of the masses of people, rather the domain of an ascetic minority. Thus, those in pursuit of it are compelled to establish Maat in society. A second example can be found in the wisdom of the Yorùbá people, which enumerates the things needed to establish “the good condition in the world”, which are wisdom, sacrifice, good character, and the love of righteousness.
Thirdly, some of the modes of practice that are articulated by the Buddha are absent from African thought in an explicit sense–such as various forms of meditative practice for instance. It is not to say that meditation did not exist in traditional African societies, but I have never found any instruction for it as one finds in Buddhists texts.
In terms of points of convergence there are several. First among these are the ethical discourses of both traditions. African thought emphasizes ethical behavior as a core and most critical element.
The second is with respect to the need to cultivate wisdom, and the essential nature of such wisdom to one’s path. One can think of wisdom as “a deep well” as Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers would say, from which can renew oneself. Wisdom is articulated as that which illuminates one’s path or one’s presence in the world. In fact the Yorùbá wisdom states, “If one’s destiny is unfortunate, perhaps one’s internal wisdom is not sufficient.”
A third point of convergence is the emphasis on contentment. The Swahili proverb “Contentment is better than wealth” illustrates this. One is compelled to find satisfaction in what one possesses, as dissatisfaction is often a source of great suffering.
A fourth point of convergence is the idea of causality, that is that one’s condition is a consequence of one’s actions. Consider the following Wolof proverb, “He who dives in the water will get soaked.” Thus, consequences are both inescapable and apparent.
Finally, I think that one finds a recurring emphasis on what is commonly referred to as mindfulness in Buddhist discourses. The Yorùbá wisdom provides an example of this.
“Let us not engage the world hurriedly.
Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently.
That which should be treated with mature judgement,
Let us not deal with in a state of uncontrolled passion.
When we arrive at a cool place,
Let us rest fully
Let us give continuous attention to the future.
Let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things.
And this because of our eventual passing.”
This text reminds us to be fully present in our lives, to be mindful of the impact of our actions and the world that they inevitably give rise to. Here we are encouraged to apply wisdom to those things both grand and minute.
Overall, I think that much of the beauty that one finds in Buddhism can also be found in African thought–in African proverbs, in sacred texts of the Yorùbá and Kemet, and even cosmologies–such as among the Kongo people. One merely must be resolved to find and reflect upon them. Also, notable differences remain, such as the in conceptions on the nature of enlightenment and also development of meditation as a type of practice.