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

The dhamma is not a transcendent law


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In his interesting recent Buddhism and Political Theory, Matthew Moore sums up current scholarly work on Buddhist ethics noting “There are several major debates ongoing in the field, particularly whether early Buddhist ethics are better understood as consequentialist or a version of virtue ethics (almost no one argues for deontology)…” (113)

My friend and fellow blogger Justin Whitaker is a major part of the “almost”. I once described him as a “voice in the wilderness” for interpreting Buddhist ethics in terms of Kantian deontology. But I was delighted to hear that he has recently completed his dissertation, in a way that should make that voice a little louder. And I was happy to have a chance to read it.

To say that I am delighted that the work exists is not, of course, to say that I agree with it. Continue reading

The significance of ethics to Candrakīrti’s metaphysics


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As I noted last time, I think the disregard of ethics by Indian-philosophy scholars like Dan Arnold is a problem in itself: it’s a misconception of what philosophy is, and one that harmfully shrinks the field of the study of Indian philosophy. But I think this neglect would still be a problem even for people who do decide to restrict their study of Indian philosophy to the theoretical realms of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language. For it seems to me that at least in Arnold’s case, the neglect of ethics leads to a misinterpretation of the metaphysics.

Arnold’s misinterpretation is focused above all around the relationship between the famous Buddhist “two truths”: conventional truth (saṃvṛti) and ultimate truth (paramārtha). Consider Arnold’s description (again in his review of Karen Lang) of the second chapter of Candrakīrti’s Catuḥśatakaṭīkā. “Candrakīrti develops (contra Vasubandhu) a characteristically Mādhyamika point to the effect that the conventional reality of pleasure is not denied, only its being the ‘inherent nature’ of life.” From this description, Candrakīrti’s chapter sounds like it is all about acknowledging pleasure and making room for it. You would not be able to tell that the point of this chapter, very explicitly stated at its beginning, is “rejecting the illusion of regarding the painful as being pleasant” – or that in this chapter, pretty much everything that we would normally consider pleasant turns out to be painful. Continue reading

Don’t exclude ethics from philosophy


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It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.

Traditional Tibetan portrait of Candrakīrti, taken from Rigpa Wiki.I notice both problems most clearly in the writings of Dan Arnold on Candrakīrti. Continue reading

Incompleteness in knowledge and existence


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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.

The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. Continue reading

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