Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (1)

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Earlier this year I examined the classic Pali Milindapañhā dialogue and its claim that while one can speak of oneself as a “convention” (vohāra), ultimately (paramattha) a person is not found. I referred in passing to the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), the most famous work of the great Theravāda philosopher Buddhaghosa, as following this understanding. And I noted that on this view a person, or a chariot, can most accurately be described in reductionist terms, as atomized parts; the ultimate reality lies beyond that convention.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad took issue with this description in a comment, referring me to Maria Heim’s forthcoming book The Voice of the Buddha – and to an article he wrote with Heim in Philosophy East and West entitled “In a double way”. Neither of these has been officially published yet, but I could find a preprint version of “In a double way” on PEW’s site for “early release”.

The article claims that Buddhaghosa uses abhidhamma categories, such as the five aggregates (khandha), not as “as a reductive ontological division of the human being” but rather as “the contemplative structuring of that human’s phenomenology.” (1)1 That is to say that according to Heim and Ram-Prasad, Buddhaghosa is not trying to talk about what exists or what human beings and other entities really are, just about the kinds of experiences human beings have, and especially those found in meditation. The article comes to this conclusion through a welcome close reading of the Visuddhimagga, something which, the authors note accurately and unfortunately, “has rarely been attempted in competing views of him…” They add: “It would be a welcome development in the study of Buddhaghosa if other scholars were to offer further or contrasting interpretations – e.g., as that he engaged in constructing a metaphysical dualism – based on such textual analysis rather than on an a priori commitment to a picture of abhidhamma and its interpreters.”

To this I reply: challenge accepted. Continue reading

The philosophy of The Good Place

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the good placeThe Good Place, an American comedy-fantasy series created by Michael Schur and airing on NBC, is perhaps the most explicitly philosophical American television show in recent memory. I think it aims to do for moral philosophy what Breaking Bad did for chemistry. (This post speaks of the second season, but does not have spoilers – at least in the sense that it does not reveal any of the show’s twists.) Continue reading

Of psychological depths

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In my previous post about the way the mind’s automatic processes get things wrong (and how that point is important to Buddhists), I turned to the experiments of Daniel Kahneman (and Amos Tversky) on false cognition. I claimed that the kind of automaticity they describe is a better explanation of what Freud would have called the unconscious mind, citing the quip that “the unconscious is unconscious not because it’s repressed but because it’s not conscious.”

Some excellent comments from Patrick O’Donnell took me to task for this claim. Patrick is pointing to the importance of the distinction between cognitivist approaches like Kahneman’s on one hand, and a very different kind of modern Western psychology on the other. Continue reading

Lessons from a favourite teacher

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This semester I’m teaching Indian philosophy and spent a lot of time thinking about pedagogy. It’s hard for me to do that for very long without thinking about the best teacher I ever had, Warwick Armstrong, who taught me as a McGill undergrad over twenty years ago. I tried to contact him recently to let him know what a difference he had made, and found that that would not be possible: Warwick Armstrong is no longer with us.

I missed my chance to tell Warwick how great he was. But I can at least let the world know. Continue reading

Ethics of disposition, not decision

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I’ve been thinking further on the decision/capacity distinction first articulated by Andrew Ollett, and I want to take a further step. So far Andrew and I have merely acknowledged the existence of this distinction – identifying different thinkers on either side and exploring the distinction’s implications for philosophical methodology. But I am, at this point, ready to make a more substantive claim: the “capacity” approaches are better. In ethics, we should be “capacity” rather than “decision” thinkers. I had stressed before that we can and should address the “capacity” approach philosophically and not merely historically; now I want to actually do so, and say that it is correct. Continue reading

Unconscious illusions

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Buddhist texts frequently stress the liberating power of prajñā or paññā, metaphysical insight. It is one of the three major components of the path in early texts, one of the six perfections in Mahāyāna. To know the truth about existence – its nature as impermanent, essenceless, unsatisfactory – is to liberate one’s mind and be unattached. In the Pali Vinaya, the Buddha’s first disciples Sāriputta and Moggallāna attain liberation from suffering as soon as they hear the Dhamma Eye: the phrase “Whatever can arise, can also cease.” Śāntideva at Śikṣā Samuccaya 264 says na śūnyatāvādī lokadharmaiḥ saṃhriyate: one who takes the position of emptiness will not be attached to worldly phenomena.

But something seems odd about these claims – perhaps especially to a beginning student of Buddhist philosophy. We might well acknowledge the tradition’s supposed truths as truths – and yet still be just as mired in suffering as we were before. I know I didn’t get liberated upon hearing that what can arise can cease, and you probably didn’t either. David Burton in his Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation puts the problem well:

I do not seem to be ignorant about the impermanence of entities. I appear to understand that entities have no fixed essence and that they often change in disagreeable ways. I seem to understand that what I possess will fall out of my possession. I apparently accept that all entities must pass away. And I seem to acknowledge that my craving causes suffering. Yet I am certainly not free from craving and attachment. (Burton 31)

Continue reading

Ultimate and conventional truth in Wilfrid Sellars

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Let me begin with a guessing game, for those readers who consider themselves relatively widely read in philosophy. I am thinking of a text that examines two different views of human beings. It examines on one hand the view that humans are entities that act on the world of the sort that one can tell stories about, using language, living in communities, giving and taking. It juxtaposes this view on the other hand with the view that humans are collections of smaller imperceptible particles that operate strictly according to universal laws of causation. The texts comes to the conclusion that the latter view is the one that corresponds to reality, with the former simply an appearance or convenient way of speaking. Which text is this? Continue reading

Whose religion? Which science?

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A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture on Buddhism to David Decosimo‘s class at the Boston University School of Theology. The students were a delight to teach – smart, actively engaged, asking many questions. One student’s question in particular stuck with me after the session. She had started to ask a long set of multiple questions, and then distilled it down to what she referred to as a simple question: “How would you describe the relation between Buddhism and science?”

My first response was: “That is not a simple question!” There is so much to say about it that there are now books written not merely on the actual relationship between Buddhism and science, but on the very idea of a relationship between Buddhism and science. I gave a relatively rambling answer. But after leaving the classroom it occurred to me that there was a relatively simple answer that I could have given – one that would have put a large part of the question’s complexity aside, but focused on something of particular relevance to students of Christian theology. Continue reading

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

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