autobiography, Dalai Lama XIV, Disengaged Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism, Grad Student (blogger), Martha Nussbaum, Śāntideva, Stephen Jenkins, utilitarianism
In a recent post linking back to an earlier one, I spoke of being “saved from politics.” Judging by the comments and incoming links, that phrase seems to have struck a chord with several readers. But several of those readers, notably Grad Student, also rightly asked: does that mean you are urging us to be apolitical, or even anti-political?
It’s a great question, and one I’ve asked myself a number of times. Being anti-political is a position I’ve flirted with a lot, especially over the course of writing my dissertation, and my personal views are closely entangled with the ideas I address there. In many respects I see the dissertation’s main contribution to Śāntideva scholarship as pointing out the strongly anti-political nature of Śāntideva’s thought, and the underlying reasons for his anti-politics. Śāntideva is, I think, often thought of as a great friend to the Engaged Buddhist program of Buddhist political activism, since he is probably best known as the favourite thinker of that noted activist Tenzin Gyatso, the present (fourteenth) Dalai Lama; I claimed in the dissertation that such a placing of Śāntideva is mistaken.
The dissertation explains this point in great detail (mostly in its fourth, fifth and seventh chapters), but I haven’t yet said much about it on the blog, and I probably should. Briefly: Śāntideva says very little about political action, but what he does say (in the Śikṣā Samuccaya) indicates that he rejects it. He gives a list of genres of information that are not worth knowing or learning about, and includes law and political science (daṇḍanīti) on this list. When he gives advice to kings, it is that they give their kingdoms away.
Why is this? I argue that it’s because Śāntideva rejects or devalues most of what Martha Nussbaum (following Aristotle) would call “external goods”: things not under our control which we would normally want, including relationships, social status and (above all) material goods. For him these things are neutral at best, and most often actively harmful (as I discussed here.) Śāntideva does say that one should give these things to others – one of the reasons why Engaged Buddhists like Stephen Jenkins see him as arguing for political action on behalf of the poor. But Śāntideva’s reasoning for giving things to others, I argue, is not that they benefit from possessing the gift – indeed, they may be harmed. But such harm is worth it when they receive a gift from a bodhisattva, because it produces esteem (śraddhā) toward the bodhisattva – it makes the recipient more likely to listen to the bodhisattva’s dharma teaching. A crucial feature of this gift encounter, however, is that the gift come directly from a bodhisattva. Donations from a government or NGO will not do the trick. And this, I argue, is why Śāntideva does not care about governments; action to help others in politics has no genuinely beneficial effect.
I came to these ideas slowly. When I first presented on Śāntideva at a graduate student workshop, I was excited to talk about what Śāntideva could teach us in a contemporary context; a respondent claimed that if he urged political quietism, we could not be able to accept such a worldview in the present age. (I mentioned this response in this early post.) I was a little cowed by this response at first, and it took me a while to figure out an appropriate reply: but then I realized that that political quietism was, in many respects, itself one of the most important things that Śāntideva has to teach us. Whether we agree or disagree with it, his anti-politics is a profound and impeccably Buddhist idea, one that challenges us in a way we must think about and respond to.
For me, it was intoxicating to discover such an idea at a time when I needed to get away from politics, when caring about politics brought nothing but pain. I felt validated in my search for a better, happier life outside politics. The seventh chapter of the dissertation juxtaposed Śāntideva’s ideas against Nussbaum’s more politically charged philosophy, effectively defending Śāntideva against Nussbaum’s objections.
What the dissertation did not do was take up my own substantive, constructive position on the question at hand – for such constructive positions are largely frowned upon, if not scowled upon, in academic religious studies. But such a lack of attention to constructive views allowed me to get off the hook too easily, to defend Śāntideva’s anti-politics without thinking too hard about whether I really believed it.
For in the end I don’t reject external goods; on that basic question I do stand closer to Nussbaum than to Śāntideva. Again, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have got married; the logical practical conclusion from Śāntideva’s thought is the monasticism which he himself practised. Some external goods are genuinely good. They can indeed be negative, as in the case of the hedonic treadmill; and in some cases their absence can strengthen us, as Śāntideva also claims and as I noted in an earlier post. But I do not think that this negativity is the norm – especially at the lower end of the social ladder, where governments are most likely to direct their help. External goods are often genuine goods, especially when they are what we often call “basic needs.”
In short, Śāntideva’s position on external goods – and therefore on political action – cannot be mine. So where do I stand? Well, I haven’t settled that yet. This is part of the reason I’ve lately been trying to explore the concept of altruism: the value of politics depends a lot on who we are ultimately trying to benefit. Should we aim for an enlightened self-interest, for the good of those close to us or whom we identify with, or universally for the good of all? Śāntideva takes the latter, universal position, in no uncertain terms. But I suspect he may be only able to do this because he devalues external goods, because the good of all is identified as their spiritual liberation. To value external goods and still seek the good of all is basically to be a utilitarian, a terribly frustrating and perhaps ultimately counterproductive way of life.
Some hundred and fifty years ago, a young Icelandic student, then nineteen, summarized the instruction of his tutors thus:
“Our determination/purpose is divided into two: the momentary and the eternal purpose. The momentary purpose is reasoned from man’s connection here with the world. This connection is: man lives here on earth, his soul is united with a body, and he lives in company with other men. The purpose then becomes this: man is to familiarize himself with the bounties of earth, and to use them as he best can according to the creator’s aim; he is to augment the strengths of the body, and to make the body a suitable instrument for the soul; he is to be a citizen in a state, live in a marriage, and raise children. – The eternal purpose constitutes that man is to gather knowledge of the Truth, that is: he is to be wise; he is to have a pure and perfect will, i.e. he is to be good.”
The relevance here to your entry is that not being political is deviating from one’s duty as a party to the society of men. In contemporary practice, at least for citizens of supposed democratic states, being anti-political is the same as being anti-civic.
“In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies: under a bad government no one cares to stir a step to get to them, because no one is interested in what happens there, because it is foreseen that the general will will not prevail, and lastly because domestic cares are all-absorbing. Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad ones bring about worse. As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State What does it matter to me? the State may be given up for lost.”
Amod Lele said:
Thank you, Sóf, and welcome to the blog.
The Icelandic student seems to take a great number of duties for granted, assuming their existence. The point about children is particularly notable – a claim that every monk or priest or nun, let alone every libertine, is derelict in duty. Most Confucians would agree with all this, but whether they’re right is a big part of what’s in question.
As for Rousseau: this is not a problem for Śāntideva, for whom the badness of any state is the least of our worries. He is trying to tell us how to live a good life no matter how bad the government gets, and this is one of the reasons his philosophy appeals to me so much. The work of countless good men and women did nothing to stop the gratuitous crimes of the Bush administration.
Amod, I give you credit for writing in a clear way. Clarity is also a form of honesty since it renders transparent mistakes, confusions, absurdities, etc., in one’s thinking. They are not covered up in an intellectually Calibanesque and repulsive verbiage of the sort you see in typical “deconstructionist” and “postmodernist” writings.
1. “He (Santideva) gives a list of genres of information that are not worth knowing or learning about, and includes law and political science (daṇḍanīti) on this list. When he gives advice to kings, it is that they give their kingdoms away.”
Well, this should make one doubt the man’s sanity, Amod! When the Upanishads made a distinction between para and apara vidya, they never so much as hint that apara vidya is useless or not worth knowing. Indeed, the Vedic rishis taught a variety of worldly subjects in their ashramas.
And then we have Santideva in that same land and he says that law and political science are useless!
How then does he propose to deal with vandalism against Buddhist monasteries and centers of learning?
How can a man who is ignorant of law and politics in his society claim to be “enlightened” or “skillful” in his dealings with various orders of people in his society? Wouldn’t his ignorance of law produce suffering for himself and others if he does something illegal out of his ignorance of the law? And this is supposed to be profoundly pertinent to life in 21st century America???
These absurd views of Santideva confirm my suspicion that Buddhism is the culprit which sapped the affirmative vitality of classical Indian culture (for portraits of that culture read the Sanskrit plays produced in that time) because of its deeply entrenched negativity toward life in this world and its devaluation of “worldy knowledge”.
I would bet Santideva also dismisses scientific knowledge as useless. Does he? And what about medical knowledge? What about the arts?
2. What does it mean to say that someone espouses an “anti-political” stance? Unless, this key notion of “anti-political” is clarified, we will remain in the dark as to its significance or lack of it.
3. “I argue that it’s because Śāntideva rejects or devalues most of what Martha Nussbaum (following Aristotle) would call “external goods”: things not under our control which we would normally want, including relationships, social status and (above all) material goods. For him these things are neutral at best, and most often actively harmful (as I discussed here.)”
Examples of external goods, according to Aristotle in Book One of his Ethics, include “wealth, friends, political influence, good ancestry, good children, personal beauty”. Aristotle writes that “it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any (such) resources. Many can only be done by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence.”
This is plain commonsense and reason, a far cry from Santideva’s weird claims. How can a Buddhist perform good deeds without these external goods?
The Jataka Tales give numerous examples of the use of external goods to perform good deeds. Thus, even a Bodhisattva needs these external goods to perform good deeds, unless one’s concept of good deeds doesn’t go much farther than “words, words, words”!!!
Further, there is something bizarre in the notion that central virtues, even the Buddhist ones, can be developed without relationships! Compassion, by its very nature, requires other people and establishes a relationship between oneself and others. And an effective exercise of compassion requires external goods in many contexts.
4. “Śāntideva does say that one should give these things to others – one of the reasons why Engaged Buddhists like Stephen Jenkins see him as arguing for political action on behalf of the poor. But Śāntideva’s reasoning for giving things to others, I argue, is not that they benefit from possessing the gift – indeed, they may be harmed. But such harm is worth it when they receive a gift from a bodhisattva, because it produces esteem (śraddhā) toward the bodhisattva – it makes the recipient more likely to listen to the bodhisattva’s dharma teaching. A crucial feature of this gift encounter, however, is that the gift come directly from a bodhisattva.”
What on earth is going on here??? You are saying that according to Santideva gifts of external goods are harmful because of his absurd idea that external goods are harmful. In that case, the right thing to do according to the eightfold path is to refrain from giving external goods, e.g., refrain from giving clothing to the naked, money or other external resources to the poor, and other such cruelties!
5. But then there is twist to Santideva’s weird thoughts here: ” But such harm is worth it when they receive a gift from a bodhisattva, because it produces esteem (śraddhā) toward the bodhisattva – it makes the recipient more likely to listen to the bodhisattva’s dharma teaching.”
In other words, a Bodhisattva offers gifts of external goods to the hungry, the impoverished,the homeless, and so on not because these gifts alleviate the suffering caused by the lack of those external goods, but because it produces esteem in the minds of those unfortunate people toward himself and makes more receptive to…..what?……words, words, and more words from the Bodhisattva!!!!
This is the very antithesis of compassion and sets a precedent for the religious-mercenary tactics of modern day missionaries who distribute bread to the hungry masses in many parts of the world so as to render the minds of those people receptive to……what?….the “word” of God!!!
But at least these missionaries recognize that their charitable actions are meaningful in that they alleviate the deprivations of the people they serve. Santideva’s inability to understand that gifts of external goods serve primarily to alleviate suffering caused by deprivations seems pathological.
Amod Lele said:
Several important points here which deserve addressing.
By “anti-political,” I mean “affirming that concern with affairs of the state is usually detrimental to human life.”
As for the content here, the most general point is that, as hard as it is for our sybaritic modern ears to understand, Śāntideva really does take seriously the idea that most external goods offer us no real benefit; that the only real and lasting benefit we can get is the transformation of our minds. If you’re not willing to consider that possibility, of course he’s going to sound mad. He would think you and I are nuts too. What exactly is to be gained by accusations of insanity?
The point has a variety of consequences. The practical effects of vandalism against Buddhist monasteries and centres of learning are really not themselves a big deal to him: “But my anger about the abusing or destruction of images, stūpas or the true dharma is not justified, for the Buddhas are not distressed.” (From BCA VI.64. I quoted this a while ago to the Buddhist bloggers who were up in arms that a Fox News commentator could say negative things about Buddhism.) Even for the most serious such attack – the Turks’ sacking Śāntideva’s home at Nālandā – Śāntideva (assuming he lived up to his philosophy, and we can’t know that one way or the other) would have been more concerned about its effect on the Turks than on the Buddhists. Such disrespect toward the liberators of the world will come back to haunt one’s mind, eventually leading (he thinks) to eons spent in hell.
On the other hand, Śāntideva does not dismiss medical knowledge. The Śikṣāsamuccaya actually has a chapter outlining rudimentary medical knowledge of the time. To preserve the bodhisattva’s body is important for him to be able to help others. So scientific knowledge of that sort matters; so too, he has a chapter on physics, in order to demonstrate the emptiness of things. And as for the arts, well, I don’t think he cares much for “secular” artwork, but he’s a big fan of stūpas and temples, since they help people develop a liberated mind.
I think you answer your own question in #4, when you turn to #5: having others possess more goods is potentially harmful, but the harm is justified by the potential spiritual benefit. It is indeed closely comparable to Christian missionaries – whose actions would be entirely justified if their factual beliefs (that those who do not convert will spend eternity in hell) were correct. Far from being the antithesis, the missionaries’ actions demonstrate an enormous amount of compassion in action; it is simply a compassion informed by factually false beliefs. Śāntideva’s approach is quite similar.
And yes, this process of giving external goods in order to obtain a sympathetic ear does require that the goods exist; so their effect is not entirely negative. (Thus the Jātakas, which are a big inspiration for the bodhisattva path.) There does need to be a gift object for there to be a gift encounter; but analytically it is important to detach the two, to ensure that the beneficial effect of the gift encounter is not outweighed by the harmful effect of the gift object.
As for relationships: the term “relationships” in general may be too inexact here. Interactions with other people are important; but he urges one to remain detached and distant from them on the inside. (He praises the monk Jyotis who broke his vows to marry a woman. But Jyotis did this only out of compassion for her – which is a big reason I didn’t want Śāntideva read at the wedding. And the passage adds that even the purpose of this compassion was to produce a kuśalamūla in her, a “root of excellence” which would ultimately lead her onto the Buddhist path.) The only people to whom one should get attached are one’s kalyāṇamitras, “good friends” in the sense of spiritual gurus.
michael reidy said:
I concur and would add that prescriptions for monks and potential bodhisattvas may prove toxic for the general, or bad caviare. Dharma, artha, kama and moksha as the four legs of Dharma are a grounded practical view in theory at least. One notices that the standard advice to householders from mahatmas in the Hindu* tradition is to stay where you are and gain enlightenment there. Of course when they reach the ‘golden’ years or what the French call with abysmal tact ‘troisieme age’, their wives may park a staff and water-pot adjacent to the door. Go North old man.
Yes, there is a great deal of wisdom in the Classical Indian view that some prescriptions are relative to social status, role, and “station in life” and that what is good for the goose may not be good for the gander. However, some prescriptions, e.g., Santideva’s prescription that one must ignore law and political science, are absurd even for Buddhist monks since they are absurd anyhow!
“When he gives advice to kings, it is that they give their kingdoms away.”
To whom should these unfortunate kings (unfortunate in having to get advice from Santideva!) give up their kingdoms? It certainly can’t be to other kings because then those other kings would also be covered by the range of Santideva’s self-same profound advice!
It can’t be to non-kings because in possessing a kingdom, albeit as a gift from an ex-king, these non-kings will now become new kings! And then (bless their good fortune!)they would also fall within the scope of Santideva’s prescription for all kings and would be required to give up their newly-acquired kingdoms and their kingship status!
So, if Santideva’s advice is followed by all kings, it will result in what appears to be an interminable process of transference of kingdoms to others! LOL
I wonder if Santideva had even a dim understanding of these implications of his fatuous “advice” to kings!
In the very beginning of Bodhicharyavatara, Santideva confesses that he is “destitute of learning”. (p. 33, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambala, 1997).
Was this a sincere avowal on his part or an exercise in insincere and mock humility?
Either of these has implications detrimental to the status of his work.
Amod Lele said:
I think Śāntideva, like Augustine and Xunzi and Freud, has a dim but realistic view of human nature – he knows that if a king gives away his kingdom there will be more than enough greedy people to snatch it up. So this is an academic and theoretical point.
If we were to follow the point to its conclusion, though, a world where every king wanted to give the kingdom away on Śāntideva’s grounds would likely be something pretty close to a Buddhist utopia where nobody really cared about riches and power anyway; and then it really wouldn’t matter where the kingdom ended up, or even if it ended up. Everybody would be happy even if they were engaged in an endless game of political hot potato.
I take it that “political quietism” refers to disengagement or withdrawal from participation in political groups and movements for political change.
Santideva’s political quietism has nothing to do with his prescription for wilful ignorance of law and political science.
Political quietism does not imply that one ought to ignore law and political science, nor does it presuppose that one ought to ignore law and political science. One can be interested in law and political science for a variety of reasons other than their indispensability for participation in political groups and movements for political change.
Amod Lele said:
This is a good point, and I don’t intend to defend his advice to avoid reading those texts. I mention it because it’s among the key pieces of evidence to demonstrate that he is indeed anti-political (or politically quietist). You are right that one can be anti-political and still have good reason to know what is going on in law and politics.
On a lighter vein, when Santideva advises Buddhist monks that “it is wrong to foul with urine public thoroughfares and water springs”, is he tacitly acknowledging that there is a problem of “Buddhist incontinence” in public thoroughfares and water springs? (verse 91, p. 75, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambala, 1997)
And when he says in verse 88 (p. 74) that the teachings must not be imparted to those “who keep their hats upon their heads”, what could possibly be the relevance of keeping or not keeping a hat on one’s head to one’s readiness to receive the teachings?
Santideva asks what could arguably be deemed “the Mother of All Weird Questions” in Verse 112, Chap. 8 “Meditation”, of his Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambala, 1997):
“Why then not identify another’s body calling it my “I”? And vice-versa, why should it be hard to think of this my body as another’s?”
Forsooth! Why indeed should it be hard to think of “this my body” as “another’s”???!!!!!
I celebrate myself and sing myself,
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
— W. Whitman
Thill, it is not a weird question at all. It is a very central question to Buddhist thought.
You can’t deny that a question is weird merely on the grounds that it is a “very central question to Buddhist thought”!
Do you not see the weirdness in asking why it should be hard to consider “this my body” another’s body?
Think of why you say “this my body” in the first place and the weird question answers itself.
Further, to wean us away from these silly philosophical games, consider whether it would be safe to inculcate such weird Buddhist thoughts in the minds of rapists! Think of the absurdities which ensue if you allow that someone can meaningfully claim that your body is his body!
It is a contemplation on the nature of attachment. A similar contemplation might be why we reflexively are more pleased when something we have produced (a poem, a charitable act, a business achievement) is recognized by others as good. Why do we not experience joy at the achievements of others?
Another useful contemplation is what are the limits of “self”. If we have a stylish haircut, we may feel confident and good about ourselves. But is self located in our hair? If we have a haircut, why aren’t we upset at the loss of self?
If we see prints of a set of photographs of ourselves, we instinctively react positively or negatively to each image. We may feel embarrassed at a particular photograph that shows us with a silly expression. Is our “self” embodied in the piece of paper in our hand? Or is the “self” a mental event or concept that is altered in a painful way by a picture of “our” body? If “self” is a mental event, how permanent is it? If our mind is occupied with an arithmetic problem, does self disappear? If “self” is a concept or a mental event, does “self” change over time?
We tend to associate “self” with either (i) our body, (ii) our personality and emotions (speech) or (iii) our mind. Our language reflects this. When we say “I am tired” we are viewing “self” as our body. When we say “I am happy” or “I am angry” we are viewing “self” as our personality. When we say “I am smart”, we are viewing “self as mind. But where does “self” reside? Is it all three? If so, is it all three simultaneously or is it different ones at different times?
If “self” is mind, where does mind reside? Is mind in the brain, or do we feel it is located there because some of our primary sense organs are located in our head? What is the relationship of our mind to our senses? Does the fact that we dream indicate that mind exists apart from our senses?
If our self is our body, are we a different person than when we were three years old? If “self” is our body, where is it located? If we cut off our leg, have we lost our “self”? If our “self” is in our head, where is it located in our head? Does it occupy space? If it doesn’t, then are we not really talking about body as self? If we are not our body, then why do we feel bad about being overweight?
If our “self” is our speech (emotion or personality) what happens to our “self” when our mood changes? If our “self” is our mind, what happens when we are sleeping? Or is our “self” simply a set of habits or tendencies that changes over time? If “self” changes, then what is the object of our attachment if we are self-centered?
These are all related contemplations to the contemplation of exchanging self for other. I don’t see anything weird about them at all. However, I will grant you that it is an unconventional approach. The normal way of going through life is to assume the existence of a solid self — with minimal self reflection.
Pingback: Looking for coherent authorship | Love of All Wisdom
Pingback: Virtuous and vicious means | Love of All Wisdom
Pingback: On faith in tooth relics | Love of All Wisdom
Pingback: Politics as ethical analogy: Plato and Candrakīrti | Love of All Wisdom