Of mindfulness meditation, Buddhist and otherwise


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Until I began my 9-to-5 job in 2011, I had only rarely had to get up before 8 or 9 in the morning on a regular basis, which suited me fine since I am a night person. Now I need get up at 6:45, and it is a struggle to get enough sleep – and so I started worrying ever more about how little sleep I was getting, which gave me insomnia.

Fortunately the job has a good health plan (essential in the USA), and I was able to seek treatment for my insomnia at the highly regarded Boston Medical Center. They suggested a number of interventions to deal with the insomnia, several of which slowly came to prove helpful. The most striking moment among these interventions, though, was when they prescribed – mindfulness meditation. Continue reading

On the very idea of Buddhist ethics


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I’ve recently been reading Christopher Gowans’s Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. It is an introductory textbook of a sort that has not previously been attempted, and one that becomes particularly interesting in the light of David Chapman’s critiques of Buddhist ethics. While Gowans and Chapman would surely disagree about the value and usefulness of Buddhist ethics, they actually show remarkable agreement on a proposition that could still be quite controversial: namely, that the term “Buddhist ethics” or “Buddhist moral philosophy” names above all a Yavanayāna phenomenon. That is: the way that Gowans and Chapman use the terms “Buddhist ethics” and “Buddhist moral philosophy”, what they name is a contemporary Western (and primarily academic) activity, even if it is one conducted primarily by professed Buddhists. Continue reading

Why give Cthulhu a happy ending?


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A few years ago, Skholiast wrote a lovely post on the philosophical significance of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, two early 20th-century writers who shaped the genres we now call fantasy and horror, respectively. I was reminded of it this year at an enjoyable AAR panel entitled “Cthulhu’s Many Tentacles”.

Cthulhu Cthulhu, of course, is the best-known character (if that is the word) from Lovecraft’s stories, enough that the fictional pantheon he created has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Cthulhu is one of a set of “Elder Gods”: horrifying, vaguely amorphous, often tentacled monstrosities that have lain dormant for millennia and will soon devour humanity; their horror is such that the mere knowledge of them could drive one mad. The AAR panel gave recognition to many aspects of Lovecraft’s work: starting with a presentation on the man and his work itself, the presenters proceeded to examine the varied dimensions of the fandom that has grown up around Lovecraft (noting, in particular, that fan creativity has been greatly enabled by Lovecraft’s work rising into the public domain).

The most interesting point I took away from the panel came from a talk by David McConeghy (who also, coincidentally, was the respondent to my paper on teaching with technology). McConeghy noted that while a great deal of modern speculative fiction (he cited Mike Mignola’s comic-book series Hellboy) is clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and makes references to it, these works also typically have happy endings. Continue reading

Choosing a few traditions


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I have long had an ambition which, I am slowly realizing, is unlikely to be fulfilled. It is an ambition suggested in this blog’s title: the idea of putting together all the major philosophical traditions of the world into a full synthesis. Ken Wilber’s work has to date been the most valiant attempt anyone has made to fulfill that ambition. But I have argued in many ways that this attempt has failed. It must fail, in the perennialist form Wilber’s work takes: to claim that all the world’s wisdom (or “religious”) traditions are basically saying the same thing. That claim makes the attempt at putting the traditions together much easier. It is also false. Continue reading

The need for substantive standards of rationality


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I ended the last post with the question of how to put together the insights I have found from Western philosophies like Hegel’s, on one hand, and Buddhism on the other. That question is the twenty-year project that animated my dissertation, though it could not be the dissertation. There it was Martha Nussbaum rather than Hegel whom I juxtaposed with Buddhist thought, because she had engaged with key Buddhist ethical questions and taken opposed answers. (Engaging with Hegel at any length, on the other hand, would have required a whole ‘nother dissertation.)

But the dissertation, as noted before, ends on a “cliffhanger”: Continue reading

Bibliography and podcast



Taking a brief break from the posts on MacIntyre to let you know about two other things I’ve published recently. I now have an online bibliography on ethics available with Oxford Bibliographies Online, as part of their bibliography series on “Hinduism”. Most of the bibliography is behind a pay wall; I have less objection to this than in some other cases because Oxford Bibliographies actually pays its writers.

I’ve also finally restarted the podcast interviews I have done for the New Books in Buddhist Studies series. The first interview I’ve done there in years is up with Maria Heim, about her recent book on Buddhaghosa. It’s free, so check it out!

My first encounters with Alasdair MacIntyre


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In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.

Alasdair MacIntyre More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. Continue reading

The rejection of righteous anger


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Last time I began to propose an answer to David Chapman’s questions about what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics. I mentioned the classical Buddhist critique of politics and activism, and noted that I agree with some of that critique. Let me now say more about what I mean by that.

What first excited me about Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra was not the widely read eighth chapter (with its meditations on self and other and the deconstruction of the body that repulses many). Rather, it was the sixth chapter, on anger and patient endurance – when I responded to a student’s question about the text by saying “in this text, there’s no such thing as righteous anger.”

I do not think this is a message a typical secular North American liberal is likely to accept. Continue reading

Is “Buddhist ethics” Buddhist?


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David Chapman has on his blog a provocative new series of posts about Buddhist ethics. You can get a strong sense of the tenor of these posts from their titles: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud, “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics, Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system, Buddhist morality is Medieval, and How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics. Continue reading

The second Axial Age



In his 1953 work The Origin and Goal of History, Karl Jaspers created one of the more enduring concepts in the study of cross-cultural philosophy: the Axial Age (Achsenzeit). With this concept, Jaspers was pointing to the stunning outpouring of human creativity between 800 and 200 BCE. This was the era of ancient Greek philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic schools; of the Upaniṣads, the Buddha and Mahāvīra in India; and of the great Warring States philosophers in China (Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, Han Feizi), to whom nearly all discussions of Chinese philosophy return. Somewhat more controversially, Jaspers identified it as the age of Zoroaster and most of the Hebrew prophets.

The arising of the Axial Age is all the more striking because it would appear to be coincidence. Continue reading

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