I ended the last post with the question of how to put together the insights I have found from Western philosophies like Hegel’s, on one hand, and Buddhism on the other. That question is the twenty-year project that animated my dissertation, though it could not be the dissertation. There it was Martha Nussbaum rather than Hegel whom I juxtaposed with Buddhist thought, because she had engaged with key Buddhist ethical questions and taken opposed answers. (Engaging with Hegel at any length, on the other hand, would have required a whole ‘nother dissertation.)
In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.
More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. Continue reading
David Chapman has on his blog a provocative new series of posts about Buddhist ethics. You can get a strong sense of the tenor of these posts from their titles: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud, “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics, Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system, Buddhist morality is Medieval, and How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics. Continue reading
I was honoured to see Elisa Freschi’s post reviewing my recent article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics. I have a lot to say about both the post itself and the comment threads that followed it. I’ve said some of it in those threads already, but I’d like to pull them together and express a way they relate to more general ideas. Continue reading
Two disclaimers are required for this week’s post. First, Janet Gyatso was on my dissertation committee and before that served as my doctoral advisor. Second, Columbia University Press offered to send me a free copy of her new book if I would review it on Love of All Wisdom, and I accepted on condition that the review could be critical. This is that review. Take it as you will.
Sometime during my doctoral studies I recall a student asking Prof. Janet Gyatso what she was currently researching, and she mentioned Tibetan medical literature. That couldn’t have been any later than 2007, when I graduated, and was probably before. Only now, at least eight years later, has Gyatso’s book on Tibetan medicine come out – and one can see why it took so long.
Being Human in a Buddhist World cannot have been an easy book to write. It is a detailed study of several different Tibetan works on medicine, none of which have been translated into a Western language, and all of which deal with highly technical questions of biology using a set of concepts very different from those familiar in the modern West – some in the form of “a dark, incomplete, and frequently illegible third-generation photocopy of a manuscript that is itself rife with spelling mistakes and smudges.” One does not find oneself eager to replicate such a study.
The title of this book is well chosen. Most Buddhism tends to be what I have called an ascent tradition; it is about transcending the condition of our everyday particular humanity, detaching oneself from what the texts Gyatso studies call “the horrible world”. But even if we were to grant that its most advanced practitioners have become in some sense superhuman (say Thich Quang Duc, who, eyewitnesses say, was able to remain perfectly at peace while setting himself on fire), the fact remains that everybody else is still human, all too human. Continue reading
I mentioned last time that in dealing with my wife’s cancer, I had started praying to Mañjuśrī, just as I had done (and written about here) five years ago in another period of my life that involved emotional difficulties – though considerably less difficult than this.
But that previous time had posed me an intellectual challenge as well, for I didn’t believe Mañjuśrī existed, as a sentient being capable of answering prayers. And while I may be calling myself a Buddhist now, what I said then still holds true: “I don’t think there is actually somebody out there who accumulated enough good karma to become a celestial being who redirects good karma down to the rest of us for our benefit.” Can it make any sense to pray to something you don’t believe in?
As it turned out, the question bothers me a lot less now than it once had. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two excellent books on very different topics, both of which I’ve written about at Love of All Wisdom before: Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights.
The idea of human or natural rights has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Michel Villey, shows us it is not that. Villey takes the work of William of Ockham as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of rights, which brings in a very different metaphysics where rights now play an important role. The brilliance of Tierney’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Ockham to the world after him. It preserves Villey’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined.
The idea of Hinduism has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Wilhelm Halbfass and Heinrich von Stietencron, shows us it is not that. Halbfass takes the work of Rammohun Roy as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of Hinduism, which brings in a very different metaphysics where Hinduism now plays an important role. The brilliance of Nicholson’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Roy to the world after him. It preserves Halbfass’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined. Continue reading
This week’s post follows the previous one and should be taken in the same light: namely, that while my views expressed in it have developed in response to a thoughtful and valuable exchange between me and Chris Fraser, it should not be taken to imply any views on Fraser’s part that are not already expressed in his published works.
I have long noted how for a philosopher, the most productive way to examine a text from another time is to examine the mind behind that text – so that one can follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice to “ask yourself how a sensible person could have written” that text with all of its apparent absurdities. This approach runs into trouble with composite texts, which are not the work of a single author. In thinking about the composite work attributed to Śāntideva, I had found it quite satisfactory to instead identify a single redactor. Last time, however, I noted how such an approach may be problematic for a text like the Zhuangzi, where the redactor of the edition known to us, namely the commentator Guo Xiang, has a Confucian agenda that appears to be at odds with some of the statements in the text itself.
Last year, I made several posts criticizing Chris Fraser‘s interpretation of the Zhuangzi, supported by a previous post on interpretive method. Fraser was kind enough to reply at length to my posts by email, for which I am very grateful, and his replies have provoked my own thoughts further. I have not received his express permission to quote my exchange with him, however, so what follows should not be taken to imply any views or lack thereof on his part – beyond what is in his published papers. Rather, it should be taken solely as a description of how my own views on related subjects have developed and evolved.
Where my views have shifted above all is on the question of how one may best interpret a text – and especially a composite text. The approach I previously outlined for approaching such a text stems from my dissertation on Śāntideva. While it may well be that the works we now associate with Śāntideva are the product of multiple authors, it seemed to me that we can plausibly use the name “Śāntideva” to name the redactor who put them together in the forms we now know through the tradition. I still believe that to be the case. I am, however, far less confident now that that approach can be generalized to other composite texts – most notably the Zhuangzi itself. Is it appropriate to describe that text as the work of an author (or redactor) named Zhuangzi? Continue reading