A while ago, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad made a thoughtful reply to the last of my post series on Buddhaghosa. I thank Ram-Prasad for that reply; I appreciate his willingness to engage with my rather cheeky attempt to reply to an article before it was even published. Now that his and Maria Heim’s article has reached publication (in Philosophy East and West 68(4), October 2018), I think it is time to take that reply back up again. Continue reading
The rise of qualitative individualism in the West coincides relatively closely with Western interest in Buddhism. Nietzsche and Emerson, two of the most influential qualitative individualist thinkers, both had an interest in Buddhism stronger than was usual for philosophers of their time. And the greatest flowering of Western interest in Buddhism occured in the 1960s, the same time when qualitative individualism itself became fully mainstream.
Qualitative individualism can be put in many ways, but one of its most characteristic injunctions is “be yourself”. The injunction is often phrased further in terms of one’s true self. Such ideas are of central importance to the LGBT movement. A recent news profile asking Boston University students about the meaning of being transgender finds many of them echoing a common refrain: “discovering your truest self”, “finding one’s true identity”, “being their true selves”, “being truly, completely, unapologetically me”.
None of this seems like a great fit, on the face of it at least, with a tradition that has proclaimed for 2000 years that there is no self. Continue reading
It is not especially controversial to say that ethics is a branch of philosophy. I’ve occasionally heard people dispute that claim, but mostly on the grounds that ethics extends beyond philosophy per se, to narrative and the like; few would say that ethical reflection is in general not a philosophical activity. Likewise it is not controversial at all to say that Buddhism began in India, or that Buddhism played a central role in the development of Indian philosphy.
So why is there so little overlap between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics”? Continue reading
My project on disengaged Buddhism has now been submitted to a journal. It’s undergone several revisions by this point. One of the most important such revisions was suggested unanimously by BU’s magnificent CURA seminar. In an earlier draft I had attempted to emphasize the contemporary constructive significance of disengaged Buddhism by noting how its ideas were corroborated by some contemporary psychological research. The seminar participants thought that discussion of psychology did not strengthen the paper because I didn’t have the space to defend them fully; the paper would stand best discussing disengaged Buddhists’ claims in their historical context and letting those claims stand on their own.
I think they were right, and I removed the psychology discussion from the paper – a little sadly, as I thought the psychological case for disengaged Buddhism was worth making. Fortunately, I have another place to make it: here. Continue reading
My upcoming paper on disengaged Buddhism focuses on classical Indian texts that engaged Buddhist scholarship has generally silenced. As I read more, though, I come to see that contemporary Asian and Asian-American Buddhists also have politically disengaged tendencies, which modern politically active scholarship – not only Buddhist – also tends to silence.
I first noted this tendency of silencing in Judith Simmer-Brown’s introduction to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the leading engaged Buddhist organization she helped found. The group, she says, “was concerned that Buddhist practice centers and groups had become entirely removed from the social and political issues of the day: some teachers and organizations were even actively discouraging political involvement.” (69) And that’s it for those “teachers and organizations”. Why were they discouraging political involvement? What did they say? What were their names? No answers are forthcoming; they receive no voice. What we hear instead is the story of how Simmer-Brown and her American fellows put together a politically engaged group in defiance of their teachers.
My continuing dispute with Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, over the ideas of Buddhaghosa, now returns to where it began: the distinction between ultimate (paramattha) and conventional (sammuti or vohāra).
Heim and Ram-Prasad admit that for some Buddhist traditions these terms refer to different truths or levels of truth. (When Śāntideva employs the ultimate/conventional distinction, for example, he describes them explicitly as satyadvaya, two truths.) But Heim and Ram-Prasad claim that for Buddhaghosa it is not so. Continue reading
I continue my argument from last time dissenting from Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s interpretation of Buddhaghosa. I turn to a second passage that Heim and Ram-Prasad use – incorrectly, in my view – to claim Buddhaghosa is not trying to take a position on the way things actually are. They note correctly that Buddhaghosa contrasts those who see correctly, one one hand, with those who “resort to views” (the diṭṭhigata) on the other. But what does this distinction mean, exactly? Continue reading
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
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
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)