Resolving cliffhangers in a book

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For some time now I have realized: it is time for me to write a book. It’s time to take ideas that I have circulated in blog-post form and develop them into a more systematic, coherent constructive argument. It has now been about seventeen years since Robert Gimello told me that the project that I had wanted to do for my dissertation was a twenty-year project, and as it turns out, I have spent much of those ensuing years working toward exactly that.

The questions that drove my dissertation – the ethics of emotion around attachment, anger and external goods – have continued to drive my thoughts over the thirteen years since I finished it, through twists and turns like declaring myself Buddhist. The dissertation could not resolve them; it ended on a cliffhanger. Śāntideva had good reasons for his views; Martha Nussbaum had good reasons for hers; where do we go from here? By 2013 I’d been thinking here about ways to resolve that cliffhanger, but I now think the approach I took at that time was exactly the wrong one: I had tried to generalize Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s views, viewing them as exemplars of integrity ascent and intimacy descent worldviews respectively. As I said at the time, that approach helped me spell out my problématique – but it still didn’t bring me any closer to resolving it.

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Theodicy is not the core of karma

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I will close out this latest round of replies to Evan Thompson with a recap: It is simply not the case that karma “is fundamentally about” why bad things happen to good people (or vice versa). To try to portray karma in that way, it seems to me, requires more cherry-picking and selective quoting of sources than does portraying it as a form of eudaimonism. Obeyesekere’s study of the concept’s origins, which Thompson originally cited as his source, shows that its formation is in something quite different. The passages that Thompson quotes from Śāntideva do nothing to establish that karma for him is about why bad things happen to good people. The sociological studies that he now cites do not even claim to establish any such thing, and their evidence does not imply it either – so they would not establish this claim even if they had been studies of Buddhists, which they are not. Going by Thompson’s own sources – historical, philosophical and sociological – we see absolutely no reason to believe that the question of theodicy is or ever was at “the beating heart” of the karma concept, for Buddhists or anybody else. Actual anthropological studies of karma beliefs in context establish its core as something very different, just as Obeyesekere’s study itself does.

Why then does Thompson continue to insist that bad things happening to good people and vice versa – the core problem of Christian theodicy – is also the core problem of traditional Buddhist karma, when it has turned out multiple times that even his own sources provide no reason to believe this claim? Thompson himself is clearly deeply bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people, which he calls “shocking and disturbing”, a “cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness”. It is hardly unreasonable to be bothered by this fact in this way, and Thompson is entitled to be so. What is not acceptable is to then reread this preoccupation back onto traditional Buddhist sources.

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Śāntideva’s passages on enemies and their context

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Having discussed the broader context of Śāntideva’s work, I think it is instructive to turn now to the two passages that Evan Thompson quotes from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra as supposed examples of the way that Śāntideva’s “philosophical arguments fall apart” without rebirth. These respectively say (in the Wallace and Wallace translation he cites), first, “In the past, I too have inflicted such pain on sentient beings; therefore, I, who have caused harm to sentient beings, deserve that in return./Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?” (BCA VI.42-43) And second, “since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.” (VI.107)

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What would Śāntideva do without rebirth?

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I have argued against Evan Thompson that philosophical texts are the proper source for philosophers, so let me now turn our discussion there: specifically to Śāntideva, whom both of us cite.

First let us be clear about two points on which I think Thompson and I agree. The first of these points is that Śāntideva himself believes in rebirth, and this concept deeply suffuses his philosophy; Thompson and I agree about that. The second is that Śāntideva is wrong in this belief: though Ian Stevenson’s kind of work does present a potential anomaly, the best evidence we have in psychology still shows us that human consciousness is tied ineluctably to human bodies, and when that body dies, the consciousness dies with it. As far as I can tell, Thompson accepts this latter proposition. If he does believe human consciousness is reborn at death, my apologies: in that case we are having a very different conversation, and I would be genuinely intrigued to hear his reasons for such a belief. Thompson has not said anything of the sort in the conversation to date, however, so I will proceed in the present discussion on the assumption that he does not.

The question then is how a contemporary Buddhist who accepts both of these points should read Śāntideva’s work. It was specifically in answer to this question that I first turned to a naturalized theory of karma: I did so because I wanted to take Śāntideva as seriously as possible. My dissertation was all about understanding Śāntideva’s reasoning at a deep level, so I looked in detail at the kinds of arguments and reasons Śāntideva offers for acting or feeling one way and not another – what Thompson calls their “warrant and motivation”. As the dissertation discusses, these reasons for action generally fell into three categories, not always separable from each other: the pleasant and unpleasant mental states the actions generate; metaphysical insight into the nature of things, especially their emptiness (which I explored in more detail in a later article; and good or bad karma. Only the last of these three is closely tied to rebirth. The latter terms “good and bad karma” are specifically my translations of puṇya and pāpa, terms ubiquitous in Śāntideva’s work; for him it is puṇya and pāpa, rather than karmaphala or karmavipāka, that most describe the process by which good and bad actions lead to good and bad results.

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Karma in society

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Last time I explained why I think a constructive modern Buddhist philosophy should indeed focus on Buddhist philosophical texts as its sources for karma, and I stand by that. Yet ironically, even if we were to turn away from philosophy to karma’s functioning in society, as Thompson now recommends, we would then notice that even his sources for that point themselves do not establish what he claims they do: i.e. that “the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”. Just as Obeyesekere never made that claim historically, these sources do not make the claim sociologically.

The sources in question are three articles about karma, all by his UBC colleague Cindel White with some coauthors. Contra Thompson’s claim, these studies do not indicate that the Buddhist concept of karma “is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even in the sociological context of everyday Buddhism. This is for two key reasons.

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Philosophical texts for philosophers

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In my continuing response to Evan Thompson I now turn to another methodological question that Thompson raises: what sources should we be using in a discussion of karma? I claim that my eudaimonist interpretation of Buddhist karma is congruent with existing Buddhist tradition in important ways, so it matters what that existing tradition has to say and how we determine it.

When I had previously said that the traditional core of karma had to do with future results of action – with that basic idea that good actions improve well-being – Thompson had asserted in response that “this idea isn’t the core idea of karma, if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.” To support this claim he linked out to Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma, which studied the formation of the concept through philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. In his new reply, however, Thompson now says that “exegesis of philosophical texts… isn’t the right method for a concept like karma.”

Here, it seems to me, goalposts may have been moved. In his previous post, when he was first trying to make the claim that the “core” of karma “is to explain why bad things happen to good people”, Thompson was happy to cite, as his only source, Obeyesekere’s study, which relies largely on the exegesis of philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. This was hardly a surprise, given that both of us are self-professed philosophers, and that Thompson himself had said, “my aim is to lay bare the philosophical problems with Buddhist modernism.” Emphasis added. But once I pointed out that Obeyesekere said nothing of the sort, then Thompson declared that the right method for thinking about karma didn’t have to do with philosophical texts but must be in the way they “function psychologically and socially” in everyday people’s lives.

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Karma: eschatology, theodicy, or eudaimonism?

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In my previous post I discussed how Evan Thompson and I may agree in principle that not all innovations to a tradition are legitimate. The real question, then, is how applicable the accusation of cherry-picking (or shopping cart) is in this case, the case that we are discussing, of the naturalized eudaimonistic approach to karma. So the question is whether this new approach is congruous with Buddhist tradition, or with Buddhist sources.

If I am correct that it is, then it would seem that Thompson’s accusation of cherry-picking does not stand. I contend that the traditional view of karma generally follows the view of Śāntideva that good and bad actions bring the agent good and bad results “in this world and another” (iha paratra ca). On that traditional view this pattern is deterministic: every good action ripens as a good result and vice versa. What my approach does is to say that karmic results happen only iha, in this world, because it turns out there is no paratra. As a result karma must be probabilistic and not deterministic in order to make sense. On my view, this naturalized approach to karma entirely continuous with the iha half of the traditional view, even as it rejects the paratra half – and this does not radically change the system because both halves work in similar ways.

I will say more about Śāntideva in future posts. But before going further, I think we need to clarify some key concepts at issue in Thompson’s most recent response. Thompson relies a great deal in this response on the concept of eschatology, so it is important to clarify what that concept means. Regarding the concept of karma, Thompson says:

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Of shopping carts and cherry-picking

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Evan Thompson has continued our dialogue with a new reply, and I am now ready to respond to it. This response will be seven posts long, so I will follow the practice from my last round of replies of posting them three days a week (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday) over the course of the coming two weeks. When they’re all up I will update the index so readers have a convenient record of the whole thing.

To begin with, I’m glad to see that Thompson and I have come to some significant points of agreement. We can agree now that a eudaimonistic Buddhism does not have to suffer many of the flaws that Thompson identifies in Buddhist modernism, such as Buddhist exceptionalism or pretending our innovations are those of the historical Buddha. But as Thompson correctly notes, points of disagreement remain.

Our core disagreement is on the idea of eudaimonic karma. This has two aspects, which each bear examination though they are not separate from each other. The substantive aspect is about the workings of karma and rebirth. The methodological or hermeneutic aspect has to do with the claim that I am cherry-picking. They are not separate because the accusation of cherry-picking depends on the closeness (or lack thereof) of the relationship between the naturalized eudaimonic karma I advocate and earlier Buddhist conceptions that involve rebirth. I want to first approach the methodological issue, on which I think Thompson and I may find some further agreement, and then start moving to the substantive claims where I think we do still largely disagree.

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Becoming good through repetition

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I recently attended a remote presentation by Boston University students about how to thrive in the COVID-19 setting. One student rightly stressed the importance of creating good habits and structure. In the chat window, one attender said that advice reminded her of “Aristotle’s quote” that “We are what we repeatedly do.”


That is not a quote I had heard cited before, and it piqued my interest. It sounded quite in keeping with Aristotle’s thought, but seemed like a different idiom from Aristotle’s. Of course, one of the joys of the internet is it is quite easy to look up quotes. So within seconds I found a short essay from a writer named Caelan Huntress who was crushed to discover that, as far as we know, Aristotle did not in fact ever say this.

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The consolations and pleasures of philosophy

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The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been a struggle for everyone, and some more than others. It has been a heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones, a terror for those who have lost jobs, and a great struggle for those who must suddenly take care of their children full-time while simultaneously trying to do their full-time jobs as well.

I am lucky not to have fallen into any of these three troubled categories – yet, at least. But I have noticed how difficult these times have been even for others who share my relatively lucky position – simply because everything is cancelled. We may not have parties. We may not go out to eat. We may not go to the movies. We may not travel, not without severe quarantine restrictions. We may not play sports; we may not even watch sports. We may not watch, or play, live music. Most of our social interactions must be through a medium where we cannot tell whether others are looking at us or at something else on their screen. Even as we recognize others’ difficulties are considerably greater, this is all still a major loss of the things we love.

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