I’ve recently been enjoying Joss Whedon‘s underrated science-fiction TV series Dollhouse. Whedon’s ingenious plot twists and a strong supporting cast have made the show highly enjoyable, at least since the middle of the first season; beyond that, the show’s premise is bait for philosophers, especially those who focus on the ethics of technology or enjoy “thought experiments.” It’s about a secret operation that erases people’s memories and personalities and “imprints” them with completely new ones. Given the rapid pace of advances in contemporary neuroscience, it is not entirely far-fetched to say that such a process could become feasible within my lifetime; and it raises a great deal of questions, familiar to Buddhists, about the nature of personal identity.
I’ll begin with happy news: I’m engaged! This weekend I proposed to my beloved Caitlin, and I’m delighted to say she accepted.
Now, I’ve tried to be explicit that this is a philosophy blog, not a personal blog – while a great deal here is autobiographical, the purpose of even those entries is to point to bigger questions, questions that I hope my life story can help illuminate in some way. So I’m going to talk today a little bit about my reasons for deciding to marry. The particular reasons, of course, are all about my sweetheart herself, a beautiful, smart, funny, playful, charming, sexy, adventurous, responsible, virtuous woman. But there are more general reasons that tie to the blog’s bigger concerns.
Above all, my action this weekend is not one that Śāntideva, or the Buddha of the Pali suttas, would view as a part of the highest, best, most fully virtuous life. They speak at length of the disadvantages of the household life, the life spent among family with a paid job in the everyday world. The life of a monk is a higher and better one to pursue. Eros keeps us mired in the suffering of everyday life, enslaved to the desires and craving that only cause us yet more suffering. The monk, by contrast, devotes himself or herself fully to the development of virtue, much more able to rise above craving and suffering.
I’m often surprised by people who see gay rights as an entirely one-sided, good and evil issue – and then turn around and condemn incest, even consensual adult brother-sister incest, as sick, disgusting and therefore wrong. (The “therefore” is the most intriguing part.) I’ve always enjoyed Dan Savage‘s sex columns, but after his continued attacks on those who condemn gay sex as disgusting (such as ensuring that this (NSFW) is the first Google hit for Senator Rick Santorum‘s name), I lost a lot of respect for him when he repeatedly proclaimed incest to be wrong.
Savage’s arguments are startlingly poor. Continue reading
Over the past decade, the academic study of Indian traditions has become heavily politicized. For those who haven’t been following the issue: basically, some people of Indian origin (usually Hindu), in India and elsewhere, have started finding out what North American religionists are saying about the traditions they recognize as their own; and it outrages them. Their most visible leader is Rajiv Malhotra, a New Jersey-based businessman with pockets deep enough to get his views a hearing. Most of the time the flashpoints for the critics are around sex: they are outraged at frankly sexual depictions of the tradition they follow and the gods and leaders they revere. The outrage is not so much about the obviously sexual parts of the tradition – the Khajuraho temples or the K?ma Sūtra – so much as it is about Freudian psychoanalytic depictions of beloved figures in the tradition, such as the elephant god Ga?e?a (Ganesh), the military hero Shivaji or the nineteenth-century mystic Ramakrishna. There have been calls to ban or even the offending books (respectively by Paul Courtright, James Laine and my friend Jeff Kripal). Sometimes these calls have effectively succeeded, with Courtright’s Indian publisher removing his book from circulation in India. As a result of these controversies, a group of activists from the right-wing Hindu Shiv Sena party broke into the offices of Shrikant Bahulkar – one of the kindest, gentlest and most generous men I have ever had the fortune of working with – and blackened his face, as well as destroying priceless manuscripts at the institution where he works, solely because James Laine had thanked Bahulkar in the acknowledgements of his book. Continue reading
José Cabezón has an interesting article on Buddhism and sexuality in the latest (summer 2009) issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly. The article examines the tricky concept of “sexual misconduct” (kamesu micchācāra in Pali); one of the basic Five Precepts is a vow to refrain from “sexual misconduct.” But what exactly counts as misconduct? A fellow student asked me this when I took a Goenka vipassanā course. Goenka, in keeping with his general emphasis on non-harming, himself listed only rape and adultery as examples. But premodern Buddhists have typically gone further than this.
Cabezón probes the point that the present Dalai Lama, while defending the “full human rights” of gay people, nevertheless treats male homosexual sex (and oral and anal sex more generally) as a form of sexual misconduct. Continue reading