Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.Continue reading
I originally wrote this week’s post in a handwritten journal at age 21, more than half my life ago, in 1997 – possibly before at least a few of my readers were born. It was a reflection on my travels backpacking around Thailand and Laos, in the middle of the life-changing experience where I was learning to break with utilitarianism and move instead toward Buddhism. I have not made major edits, because I wanted to preserve the in-process nature of my learning at the time, so it retains the somewhat disjointed style of a first draft. I think it gives a very accurate picture of who I was at that time: someone who had discovered some very important things, perhaps even the most important things, but still had a long way to go.
The piece begins by exploring Stan Rogers‘s wonderful song The Mary Ellen Carter. (If you’re not familiar with the song, I would recommend first listening to it or at least reading the lyrics for the post to make sense.) I’ve been delighted to learn that this year’s youth craze – among people who are now the age I was when I wrote this – is sea chanteys and other sea ballads, so this seemed an ideal time to share this long-ago reflection with the world.
Utilitarianism is self-contradicting. The more time you spend trying to “maximize” happiness through sensual pleasure, fame and fortune, the less happy you will eventually be.
I think of this because I was just humming “The Mary Ellen Carter”. A utilitarian would think the narrator crazy: he digs up the boat not in order to be on a boat again (presumably he could get other work fairly easily), but because of a sense of gratitude, to an inanimate object: “She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale.” The utilitarian would agree with the owners: “Insurance paid the loss to us, so let her rest below.” The first thing they teach you in management school is to ignore sunk costs. What we have here is literally a sunk cost – and for its sake alone the narrator spends the whole spring diving, catching the bends twice.
And yet the sense of pride, contentment and satisfaction the narrator radiates in his quest is undeniable. This seemingly useless quest gives his life a purpose, brings him to sing some of the most inspiring lines ever written:Continue reading
I now conclude my series of comments on Martin Hägglund’s stimulating and fascinating This Life. My final point of disagreement with Hägglund has to do with a theoretical possibility: eternal life. Against traditional Christians, neither Hägglund nor I believe that eternal life is possible. But I think Hägglund is right to highlight the question of whether it is desirable.
On his answer, however, I think Hägglund is quite wrong; this is the point where his argument is at its worst. When he rejects the aspiration to eternal life, the rejection appears to rest on surprisingly bad argument. I would agree with rejecting such an aspiration on Stoic or Epicurean grounds – that it is futile to aspire to what we know we can never have. It is wisdom to know that we cannot change the finitude of our life, and so we should seek the serenity to accept that sad fact, as no amount of courage will change it. (There is a hugely significant difference between a 25-year life and a 100-year life, but both remain entirely finite.)
Hägglund, however, rejects the aspiration to eternal life on entirely different grounds:
An eternal life is not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animate my life…. there is nothing to be concerned about in heaven. Concern presupposes that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care…. Far from making my life meaningful, eternity would make it meaningless, since my actions would have no purpose. What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal…. (4-5)
I do not think any of this is true.Continue reading
It is typically the case that more can be said in disagreement than agreement. In the case of Martin Hägglund’s This Life, I think paying attention to those realms of disagreement is particularly helpful, because our deepest disagreements highlight the ways in which I am a Buddhist and he is not, even though there are core elements to his critique of Buddhism that I absolutely share.
As is the case in many extended disagreements, it can be helpful to start with a disagreement over terminology in order to make sure that what follows is clear. In Hägglund’s case, he frames his argument as one for a “secular” view over a “religious” one. I have said a great deal over the years about why I think the concept of “religion” generally obscures more than it clarifies, and there’s no need to repeat those general points here; in the present context, the important thing is that Hägglund falls victim to the same problems others do. In Hägglund’s telling, Martha Nussbaum can count as entirely “secular” despite her self-identification as Jewish, while Spinoza, the Stoics and the Epicureans all count as “religious” – even though many Epicureans explicitly rejected the gods. Such a framing, it seems to me, can only end up as the vast majority of other attempts to demarcate the “religious” from the “non-religious” do: in confusion.Continue reading
Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.Continue reading
Tomorrow is the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, everything will slowly start getting lighter and brighter. And never in my lifetime has that felt like more of a perfect metaphor.
Christmas is perhaps the festival that most obviously commemorates the light in the darkness at this time of year, but it is not the only festival to acknowledge the darkest days and prepare for the light. Hanukkah is a smaller part of the Jewish ritual year than North Americans typically make it out to be – it is not nearly as important as Passover – but it is a real Jewish festival of light at the darkest time of the year. So too, Westerners mark a new year beginning just as the old year is at its darkest.
All these events happen every year. But this is a year like no other.Continue reading
The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.
The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.Continue reading
Donald Trump has not received enough votes to remain President of the United States. Joseph R. Biden Jr. received enough votes, in the states that matter, to be insulated from recounts and legal challenges. Blessedly, very few major right-wing figures are urging Trump to challenge the result, and at this point it is not clear how he could; thus, despite Trump’s refusal to admit the legitimacy of the election, it appears there will indeed be a peaceful transfer of power. So, on Wednesday, 20 January 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be president; Joe Biden will. And I expect most people reading this, inside and outside the United States, will breathe a sigh of relief.
The 2020 election campaign was a referendum on Trump, with his opponent something of an afterthought. According to polls, about 67% of Biden supporters considered their vote primarily against Trump rather than for Biden; about 71% of Trump supporters considered their vote primarily for Trump rather than against Biden. As for Biden, he had trailed in the Democratic primary field for a long time, behind the more exciting candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, after he turned in lacklustre debate performances that left no one enthusiastic about him. He trailed, that is, until two moderate candidates suddenly dropped out and endorsed him, because they prioritized beating Trump and thought a moderate like Biden was better equipped to do it than their other rivals were. Then, campaigning against Trump during the COVID pandemic, Biden kept a light schedule and campaigned from home. The election was never about him – and that worked well for him.Continue reading
I don’t believe in God. But if I did, that God might need to be Krishna.
I have come to believe that the problem of suffering is effectively insurmountable. That is, the vast suffering in the world clearly implies that there cannot be an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, as the God of the Abrahamic traditions is generally supposed to be.
But what about a god who isn’t omnipotent or omnibenevolent?Continue reading
Evan Thompson’s critique of my eudaimonistic and probabilistic approach to karma has two prongs: that it is not really karma, and that it doesn’t work on its own terms. I addressed the first criticism last time. Now I’d like to turn to the second, which I personally find to be the more interesting and important of the two.
Let us start with the word “probabilistic”, which I use in a non-technical way. My eudaimonism is a probabilistic claim (as opposed to a deterministic claim) in the same sense that “brushing your teeth will prevent cavities” or “running into the middle of a busy street will get you run over by a car” are probabilistic claims. That is, we assert that these causal correlations are likely, not certain. In the case of the busy street, I’m not sure we have a detailed statistical model of how likely you are to get run over by a car, but I don’t think we need one. Everyday observation is sufficient to determine that. In the case of virtue and happiness, I’ve mentioned a couple of ways that Śāntideva says one leads to the other, in this life; there is a lot more to say about it, and I intend to say it in my book – not with a statistical model, but again I don’t think that’s necessary. This is what I mean by “probabilistic”. I’m not wedded to that specific word: so far “probabilistic” has seemed the most appropriate word to express the concept in question and I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t, but I wouldn’t mind expressing the concept just described with a different term if a better one is available.
If I read Thompson’s objections on that point correctly, though, I don’t think they are about a statistical model or its absence. Rather, his bigger concern is this: Continue reading