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)Continue reading
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.Continue reading
In the previous three posts I aimed to show, contra Evan Thompson’s response, that the philosophical core of the karma doctrine does not have to do with explaining why bad things happen to good people, but rather with how good and bad actions produce good and bad results for the agent. As such, eudaimonic karma is not “incongruent with its traditional meaning and function.” (I also agreed that the fact of bad things happening to good people is a problem for naturalized eudaimonic karma, but discussed attempts to resolve that problem.)
Now let us turn back to the wider argumentative context in which the karma discussion is set. At this point our disagreements may prove smaller than they seem. Thompson, it turns out, does not deny thatContinue reading
As noted last time, I don’t identify the philosophical core of the concept of karma with its origins (which are pre-Buddhist), but with the way it functions in Buddhist philosophical texts. There, I submit, the core idea is indeed “that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being”.
To show this point I turn to Śāntideva, as one of the most systematic and powerful writers on ethics in the Buddhist tradition. Karma and rebirth pervade his works, more than they do the Pali literature. But his works on karma are not directed to the question Thompson discusses – to the past results of karma as an explanation for present misfortunes. Rather, Śāntideva puts great stress on the future results of karma: the good and bad states that will befall us as a result of our good and bad deeds now. These include the hells, which Śāntideva delights in graphic depictions of. And they also include the results we get in this life. Consider this passage on anger:Continue reading
Continuing my reply to Evan Thompson, I will focus next on karma, because the reinterpretation of karma is central to my own eudaimonist Buddhism, and therefore it forms a focal point in Thompson’s critique. Karma is Thompson’s example of how I and other Buddhist modernists “recast Buddhist concepts in a way that makes them incongruent with their traditional meanings and functions.” Why? Thompson asserts that eudaimonism is not 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.”
I disagree entirely with this assertion.Continue reading
The Buddhist propositions that Evan Thompson articulates go deep. They proclaim three flaws of all the things around us, in ways that (Buddhist tradition has typically claimed) make them unworthy of our seeking. On such a view, the only thing truly worthy of our seeking is dukkhanirodha, the cessation of suffering, through a nirvana identified with “unconditioned peace”. The ethical implication is that the finest human life is that of a monk, who devotes his or her entire life to the pursuit of dukkhanirodha. It is granted that most people won’t pursue such a life, but that is because they are too weak to do so; their lives will be worse for their seeking external goods, like familial relationships and material possessions.
Aśvaghoṣa dramatizes these points in the Buddhacarita, his famous story of the Buddha’s journey to monkhood. After a contented life of luxury the Buddha-to-be sees an old man, a sick man and a dead man, he realizes that that is the fate of everyone and everything, and can take no more pleasure in the objects (viṣayas) of the world: “I do not despise objects. I know them to be at the heart of human affairs. / But seeing the world to be impermanent, my mind does not delight in them.” (BC IV.85) It is specifically the impermanence of things that leads the Buddha to become a monk and reject them.Continue reading
At the start of my replies to Evan Thompson’s response, I noted that there are two core ways in which my eudaimonist Buddhist modernism differs from a great deal of premodern Buddhist tradition. I will first address the one that I take to be a deeper modification to the tradition, in admitting goals beyond the removal of suffering. Thompson doesn’t speak of this modification in quite these terms, but I think many of his comments speak directly to it. Especially, Thompson says:
I submit that the driving engine—historically and philosophically—of Buddhist thought is the following set of propositions: All conditioned and compounded things are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self (the so-called three marks of existence); and nirvāṇa is unconditioned peace. Another formulation is the so-called four seals (which, according to Tibetan Buddhism, minimally identify a view as Buddhist): everything conditioned and compounded is impermanent; everything contaminated (by the mental afflictions of beginningless fundamental ignorance, attachment, and anger) is suffering; all phenomena are devoid of self; and nirvāṇa (unconditioned cessation of affliction) is peace.
I think I’ve shown that the kammatic-nibbanic distinction should matter to the historian, textual scholar, or anthropologist trying to figure out what Buddhism has meant in other times and places. Contra Damien Keown, it is a helpful ideal type to understand how Buddhists have thought about their tradition to date. But should it matter constructively, to us, now?
Yes, it should – at least to us Buddhists, and to anyone trying to think philosophically with Buddhism today. Because, I would argue, there are things valuable about worldly life – and it turns out that there have always been Buddhists who agreed that there are, in practice if not in theory. At least some forms of the dichotomy turn out to reprise the key constructive problem of my dissertation – the role of external goods in a good human life – from an intra-Buddhist perspective. The Buddhism of the suttas, of Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva, turns out to be single-minded: only liberation is important. Buddhists will often identify that austere Buddhism as normative, the ideal to aspire to – and yet live a life remarkably different from that ideal. And I think that they are, at least to some extent, right to live such a life. Continue reading
I am not entirely sure that I agree with the argument I am about to make. However, I do find it at least plausible and I have not seen it made before. I think this argument is worth somebody making, and I think it is worth doing here.
That is: I would like to make a Buddhist argument against rebirth. An argument against rebirth on Buddhist grounds. Continue reading
In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:
Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)
The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?
I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc. Continue reading