Does the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibit attending the theatre?

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I return now to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker about the Sigālovāda Sutta, the Pali text so often viewed as a guide to the household life. Justin helpfully begins his latest post with a list of the previous correspondence we have exchanged on the topic so far, so I won’t repeat the list here. (The opening list unfortunately doesn’t include hyperlinks to the earlier posts, but those links can be found at the bottom of the latest post.)

From my previous post on the more general philosophical issues, I think we can now return to the sutta itself. Justin is correct that I read the Sigālovāda Sutta as “an overly strict and dour text that sucks the joy out of householder life”. He claims that this is a misreading. Is it? Let us take a look at the feature of the Sigālovāda that most leads me to such a reading: what I characterize as its prohibition on attending theatrical shows. I will examine that prohibition in detail this time, and next time talk about we do with it as Buddhist theologians – a topic that I find more interesting. (Since Justin and I have been pursuing this debate at a slow pace, I will post the next one on my usual schedule in two weeks, and I recommend he wait for it before posting a reply.)

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Of mental health and medical models

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The concept of mental health – and even more so its converse of mental illness – has become ubiquitous in the modern West, and it deserves serious examination by philosophers. Many, probably most, cultures would not recognize the claim that a mind that sees demons or refuses to speak or commits suicide is in a condition analogous to a body with a fever or a broken limb.

The idea of mental health and illness is the central idea in the psychological approach that we typically refer to as the medical model. The term “medical model”, in its most basic sense, means that one approaches a given field of human endeavour in the manner associated with medicine: that field may then be considered a part of medicine, or simply analogous to it. I believe the term was coined by R.D. Laing, the prominent critic of psychiatry, and so it often takes on a negative cast, for the application of specific aspects of modern medicine in areas where it is inappropriate to do so.

It does not have to, though. Unless we reject modern medicine in its entirety (which would be a stupid idea), we are going to accept some aspects of the medical model for at least the practice of medicine itself. Modern medicine has accomplished a great deal, even in its application to phenomena of the mind: antipsychotics and antidepressants are not cure-alls by any means, but for a great many people, their mental lives are much improved as a result of these medicines.

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Of perpetually vulnerable subjects

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The scattershot application of “neoliberalism” is at its worst when the term gets applied to mindfulness meditation. We saw before how Ron Purser described mindfulness meditation as “neoliberal”. What is that supposed to mean? Modern meditation is frequently described as “neoliberal” in the Handbook of Mindfulness, which Purser coedited, and especially the closing essay by Glenn Wallis (which responds to a thoughtful defence of mindfulness by Rick Repetti in the same volume). Wallis’s piece is a good illustration of how a concept with some legitimate and meaningful uses can get bandied around so casually that it becomes completely specious. Here is Wallis:

You don’t have to look too closely to see that Mindfulness’s most recent progenitors are, of course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I mentioned earlier, Mindfulness has the same DNA and was raised on the same values that undergirds today’s neoliberal, consumer capitalist social structure (acceptance, resilience, self-help, etc.). So, of course Jon Kabat-Zinn [the creator of secularized and medicalized mindfulness meditation] cozies up to corporate CEOs and American military generals. (Wallis 499)

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The scattershot application of “neoliberalism”

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In my previous post I agreed with Wendy Brown and other critics of “neoliberalism” that something was genuinely new, and disturbing, about the attempt to treat education as producing “human capital”, a narrow economic value. I do think, however, that such critics greatly overplay their hand. That is, they extend the critique of “neoliberalism” to phenomena that are not even liberal, let alone neo – to longstanding, deeply human concerns that predate capitalism and its ideology.

In Brown’s case, the problem comes across most clearly in a footnote attacking David Brooks. Some years ago in the New York Times, Brooks had written a moving defence of traditional humanistic education:

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How neo is neoliberalism?

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The terms neoliberal and neoliberalism have become ubiquitous in left-wing discourse of the past few years, ranging from discussions of government policy to critiques of mindfulness meditation. They merit a closer look.

Credit for the terms usually goes back to Michel Foucault, in his lectures collected as The Birth of Biopolitics. What is extraordinary about these lectures is that they took place in early 1979 – before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would take office and implement the sweeping right-wing libertarian-capitalist economic reforms to which the term “neoliberal” is now most often applied. So while 21st-century writing about neoliberalism aims to describe an ideology that shapes the actions of government and social institutions, Foucault was merely writing about an ideology found in the writings of mid-20th-century German and American economists (most notably Friedrich Hayek). For this reason, Foucault now comes to look prescient – but his writing on the subject takes on a very different cast from 21st-century writers, since he is only describing a theory, and they aim to describe a practice.

There are many things to be said about the concept of neoliberalism. First off, it is an unfortunately confusing term, in the North American context at least. It probably makes sense in Australia, where the Liberal Party is the right-wing party. And the ideas and practices described as “neoliberal” do occur on both sides of the political spectrum. But the opposition to neoliberalism comes largely from people on the political left, people whom the vast majority of ordinary Americans and Canadians would still describe as – liberal.

Still, the term is in widespread use on the left now, and however confusing the term is, the bigger question is the phenomenon the term claims to describe: a phenomenon which is supposedly a new (neo) transformation of the market-oriented political ideas that have in the past gone under the name “liberal”. So we may ask of neoliberalism: is it liberal – at least in the broad sense in which Reaganite right-wingers are liberal? And is it neo – what about it is new?

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Whither blogging?

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At the beginning of Love of All Wisdom’s tenth-anniversary post, I wrote: “In the span of the history of philosophy, ten years is the blink of an eye. In the span of the blogosphere, however, ten years is an eternity.” Immediately after the post went up, a thought occurred to me, which would probably have made that point even more effectively. Namely: does anyone even say “blogosphere” anymore?

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The goods of lay life

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I return today to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker on the Sigālovāda Sutta, taking off from his response to my previous post. The question at issue between us, I think, is what constitutes a good Buddhist life for a layperson or householder, a non-monk. We can get more specific by asking: should the layperson’s life be one that aspires to emulate the monk’s? I don’t think that it should, and I continue to suspect that Justin doesn’t either.

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Against “Euro-American”

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I noted before how there are two objections to the concept of “the West” or “Western”. I dealt previously with the objection that “the West” is meaningless, and the subpoint that it’s tied to whiteness. Now I turn to people who accept that something like “the West” exists, but don’t want to use the term.

This latter approach seems fairly specific to philosophy. Garfield and Van Norden and others understandably do not want to use “Western” – but, for reasons I can’t fathom, they replace it with the far worse term “Euro-American”, a term with absolutely nothing to recommend it. As a way of replacing “Western”, the dreadful neologism “Euro-American”, appears to be in use pretty much exclusively among 21st-century philosophers. If you Google “Euro-American”, you’ll mostly find references on Americans of European descent, including the Wikipedia page on European-Americans – also known as “white Americans”. When normal people hear “Euro-American”, they do not hear it to include Europeans who remained in Europe – or philosophy made by non-white Americans. That’s one strike against “Euro-American” right there, though I think it’s far from the worst.

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The West is neither white nor European

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In the discourse of the United States today, everything is supposed to be about race. That particular American view infects any American discussion of the West. Overt racists like Lothrop Stoddard associated Western civilization with racial whiteness. Today, the American left often seems to agree with Stoddard, viewing “the West” as code for racial whiteness – as when Natalie Wynn says “the association between whiteness and the West is always lurking beneath the surface”. But the Greek, Semitic and Latin historical roots that make the West go back much earlier than the 17th-century concept of the “white race”; Westerners thought of themselves as “Christendom” long before they thought of themselves as “white”. Anti-black and anti-native racism are the US’s original sin, but we mislead ourselves in a deeply parochial way if we think of the whole world in those American terms.

Rather, it seems to me that the important thing is to reclaim the West from that recent (and harmful) concept of whiteness. “Whiteness” never was constitutive of the West as a historical complex, and the last thing we should do is treat it that way now. For as it turns out, the history of the West is in key respects not even European.

To see why, let’s take a look at the history of the West. Philosophy forms a key part of that history, and this is a philosophy blog, so the history of Western philosophy is as good a case study as any other.

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Why the West is a real thing

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When one studies Indian philosophy, or Asian philosophy in general, one is always faced with its other: a philosophical tradition with origins to the west of India, which, after the history of colonialism and modernity, is in the background of everyone now. What should we call this tradition?

The term in by far the most widespread use is Western. It’s not a very good term, but it is the one we have, and I think there is good reason to keep it. I’ll be arguing that point in a series of three posts. I’ve seen two camps of people who discourage the use of “Western”. One (found within philosophy) merely discourages the term, in favour of the term “Euro-American”, which I find far worse; I will deal with that in the final post. The other thinks that “the West” doesn’t even name a meaningful referent at all, such that there should not even be a term to replace it. As I think that that’s a deeper criticism, I will start with it, in both this post and the next.

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