Naturalizing Śāntideva’s eudaimonism


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My disagreements with Charles Goodman continue with his contribution to Jake Davis’s thought-provoking volume A Mirror Is For Reflection. (I’ve previously written about Jan Westerhoff’s chapter in the same book.) Just like Westerhoff, Charles is exploring the important question of naturalizing karma. He does so with particular reference to Śāntideva. He opens with a beautiful reading of Śikṣā Samuccaya chapter 4’s graphic descriptions of the punishments a wrongdoer will face in the hells, reading them in terms of the actions’ psychological effects on the wrongdoer.

The problem with this reading is that it doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading

Śāntideva vs. Singer


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I’ve been fortunate in the past year and a half to meet Charles Goodman at three different conferences, and to have long and stimulating discussions with him. Since our researches have both focused on Śāntideva’s ethics, we can critique each other’s ideas at a highly detailed level – one that has often involved whipping out a physical copy of Charles’s excellent new translation of the Śikṣā Samuccaya to confirm our points.

Probably our central point of disagreement: Charles is known for presenting a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, and especially of Śāntideva; in his talk at the IABS, referred to Śāntideva as “the world’s first utilitarian”. Since I discovered Buddhism in part as an alternative to an unsatisfying utilitarianism, this has not sat particularly well with me. Continue reading

Verifying normative claims


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Several months ago I wrote a post defending scholars’ normative (“should”) claims, in response to Craig Martin’s attack on them. Craig responded right away on Facebook with what he described as “initial, provisional responses”. My reply to these replies is considerably more tardy, but here it is. First, Craig’s provisional replies (which he graciously gave me permission to quote):

1) I think you’re wrong that should statements are as intersubjectively verifiable as empirical statements. Even if you hate my politics you can see that, given a shared definition of “cat” and “house,” it’s clear that I have 3 cats in my house. Should they be declawed? How would answers to the latter question be equally intersubjectively verifiable?

2) Of course the methodological principle I advance is itself a normative claim. Two things can be said about this. Continue reading

The political path vs. the Buddhist path


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I presented about Disengaged Buddhism at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference in August. My talk was paired with a presentation by Frédéric Richard on a topic that did not initially appear to be related: the Tibetan government in exile. As it turned out, the papers proved fascinating mirror images of each other. Continue reading

Beyond the removal of suffering


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Last time I discussed Jan Westerhoff’s potent objection to naturalized Buddhism: if there is no rebirth then we can end our suffering simply by committing suicide. Westerhoff takes this objection as a reason to accept rebirth. I do not. Rather, I take it as pointing to a deeper problem with some core Buddhist teachings as they are usually understood. Continue reading

In defence of Buddhism without rebirth


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A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus. Continue reading

The saksit of Notre-Dame


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Basilique Notre-Dame. Photo by David Iliff. Licence: [CC-BY-SA 3.0](

Basilique Notre-Dame. Photo by David Iliff. Licence: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Basilique Notre-Dame – one of the most magnificent cathedrals in North America – was the first work of architecture to leave a real impact on me, as an undergraduate in Montréal. I visited it again recently for the first time in a long time, and this time it made me think: saksit. Continue reading

The Indian theory of taste


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I am an amateur at Indian aesthetic theory. I have not studied it much; I can read its Sanskrit source texts, but with some difficulty given how much they allude to literary and dramatic works I don’t know. As with Confucianism and Islamic Aristotelianism, it is a field where I cannot claim significant expertise. Yet I continue to find myself drawn to it, finding ideas that strike me as valuable and relevant – most recently reading Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful Rasa Reader, right from the first excerpt .

The earliest known extant text of Indian aesthetic theory is Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra. This text, circa 300 CE, sets out the concept of rasa, central to nearly all later Indian aesthetic thought. Rasa, roughly, refers to the emotion involved in a dramatic or literary work. The tradition often disagrees on where this rasa exists: the actor, the audience, the character, the author or even the work itself. But they all know that the Sanskrit word rasa literally means “taste”; it continues to refer to the sense of taste long after it has developed this more dramatic sense. And this meaning matters. Reading Pollock’s excerpt from Bharata, I am struck by the passage in Bharata’s chapter 6 where he defines rasa:

Here one might ask: What does ‘rasa’ actually mean? Our answer is that rasa is so called because it is something savored. And how can rasa be said to be ‘savored’? Just as discerning people relish tastes when eating food prepared with various condiments [vyañjana] and in doing so find pleasure, so discerning viewers relish the stable emotions when they are manifested by the acting out of various transitory emotions and reactions and accompanied by the other acting registers (the verbal, physical, and psychophysical), and they find pleasure in doing so. Continue reading

What’s eating Michael Pollan?


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One of my greatest passions in life is food, trying out new cuisines and spices in unusual restaurants. In a certain way, a love of food was central to my philosophical development; part of the reason I went to work in Bangkok, where I discovered Buddhism, was my love of Thai food.

So I’m interested in philosophical treatments of food. Recent treatises on the subject, though, have proved disappointing. One of the worst is Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul, a work that tries to think through just about every aspect of eating except for the pleasures of taste. He mentions them very briefly on pp. 90-91, where he dismisses them as ephemeral, disappearing once enjoyed, and therefore “closed to the permanent or the eternal” – just like music or drama, though this parallel goes curiously unmentioned. Kass admits that he “cooks little” and “has unsophisticated tastes” – basically, it would seem, he doesn’t enjoy food very much. Which makes The Hungry Soul comparable to a treatise on music written by the tone-deaf.

But Kass may be a bit too easy a target. He has already been the target of much ridicule on the Internet for his pompous pronouncements on food etiquette, most notoriously his condemnation of the act of licking an ice cream cone, as “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.” I know few who take him seriously.

Far more of a hearing is given to Michael Pollan, whose recent work seems to echo Kass’s puritanism in language more acceptable to educated left-wingers. Especially, his work In Defense of Food seems rather to be an attack on it. Continue reading

Karmic punishment is not a good thing


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I’m continuing to examine Justin Whitaker‘s interpretation of Pali Buddhist ethics as Kantian moral law. I argued last time that the concept of dhamma does not serve in these texts as a universal, trans-human moral law. Here I want to take a similar look at the concept of kamma – better known in English as karma.

Justin claims that for Kant “the Moral Law is universal, concerned with all (rational) beings, and is holistic in its conception of morality as a guarantor to a just realm of ends (supported by the moral argument for belief in God).” (47) I think this interpretation of Kant is missing something in that Kant does not view the moral argument as demonstrating that there actually is a guarantee of cosmic justice, only that we must act as if there is (it is a regulative ideal). But I’ll leave that aside here because I want to focus on the comparison to Buddhism. Continue reading

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