I am an amateur at Indian aesthetic theory. I have not studied it much; I can read its Sanskrit source texts, but with some difficulty given how much they allude to literary and dramatic works I don’t know. As with Confucianism and Islamic Aristotelianism, it is a field where I cannot claim significant expertise. Yet I continue to find myself drawn to it, finding ideas that strike me as valuable and relevant – most recently reading Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful Rasa Reader, right from the first excerpt .
The earliest known extant text of Indian aesthetic theory is Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra. This text, circa 300 CE, sets out the concept of rasa, central to nearly all later Indian aesthetic thought. Rasa, roughly, refers to the emotion involved in a dramatic or literary work. The tradition often disagrees on where this rasa exists: the actor, the audience, the character, the author or even the work itself. But they all know that the Sanskrit word rasa literally means “taste”; it continues to refer to the sense of taste long after it has developed this more dramatic sense. And this meaning matters. Reading Pollock’s excerpt from Bharata, I am struck by the passage in Bharata’s chapter 6 where he defines rasa:
Here one might ask: What does ‘rasa’ actually mean? Our answer is that rasa is so called because it is something savored. And how can rasa be said to be ‘savored’? Just as discerning people relish tastes when eating food prepared with various condiments [vyañjana] and in doing so find pleasure, so discerning viewers relish the stable emotions when they are manifested by the acting out of various transitory emotions and reactions and accompanied by the other acting registers (the verbal, physical, and psychophysical), and they find pleasure in doing so. Continue reading
One of my greatest passions in life is food, trying out new cuisines and spices in unusual restaurants. In a certain way, a love of food was central to my philosophical development; part of the reason I went to work in Bangkok, where I discovered Buddhism, was my love of Thai food.
So I’m interested in philosophical treatments of food. Recent treatises on the subject, though, have proved disappointing. One of the worst is Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul, a work that tries to think through just about every aspect of eating except for the pleasures of taste. He mentions them very briefly on pp. 90-91, where he dismisses them as ephemeral, disappearing once enjoyed, and therefore “closed to the permanent or the eternal” – just like music or drama, though this parallel goes curiously unmentioned. Kass admits that he “cooks little” and “has unsophisticated tastes” – basically, it would seem, he doesn’t enjoy food very much. Which makes The Hungry Soul comparable to a treatise on music written by the tone-deaf.
But Kass may be a bit too easy a target. He has already been the target of much ridicule on the Internet for his pompous pronouncements on food etiquette, most notoriously his condemnation of the act of licking an ice cream cone, as “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.” I know few who take him seriously.
Far more of a hearing is given to Michael Pollan, whose recent work seems to echo Kass’s puritanism in language more acceptable to educated left-wingers. Especially, his work In Defense of Food seems rather to be an attack on it. Continue reading
It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.
Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.
Śāntideva’s anti-political views are very commonly missed by Buddhist scholars today, especially constructive or theological ones, who are excited by the Engaged Buddhist embrace of political action. He is hardly alone among classical Indian Buddhists in expressing them. So last September I proposed a presentation to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS), which I intended to turn into a paper, explaining the importance of these anti-political views and entitled “Disengaged Buddhism”.
I was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the American election. Continue reading
A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.
A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.
Haidt asks us: Did the people in either of these cases do something morally wrong? My reaction was, and is, to say yes in the first case but not the second. Continue reading
I will be taking a break from blogging as I travel in the next couple weeks. In the meantime I would like to leave you with this.
The results of the 2016 American election came as a surprise, and for many of us it was a horrifying shock. (One survey indicates “shocked” was the most common word Democratic supporters used to describe their reaction.) For me, though, this was not an unfamiliar shock. For the 2004 election had shocked me in a very similar way. In 2000 I had comforted myself with the idea that Bush didn’t legitimately win, and I was confident the people of the United States would reject him after horrors like Abu Ghraib. I was wrong. They did not. He even won the popular vote. Those results shook me to the core, filling my every moment with rage and frustration.
I had to learn ways of dealing with a world that so plainly rejected my values. A year or so after the fact, Goenka’s karmic redirection helped me a lot. But in the immediate aftermath of 2004, what helped was writing in my personal journals, thinking through ways to come to terms with the terrible situation. Just as reading can be a spiritual practice, so can writing.
What follows is the journal entry that, I think, helped me most to deal with the situation at the time. Continue reading
2016 has taken many great musicians from us. Early in the year we lost Prince and David Bowie. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is still with us for now, but the band played its last concert. And then there was Leonard Cohen.
Cohen began his career as one of the long parade of 1960s singer-songwriters who temporarily changed the phrase “folk music” so that it now referred to the music of educated urban élites. He earned a place alongside Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – many of whom he played with. In that context he developed his talent for enigmatic, evocative lyrics. But as far as I’m concerned, none of his real greatness comes from that period. If he had died as young as Janis Joplin (or Amy Winehouse), I wouldn’t be writing this tribute, and a few decades from now I’m not sure that he would be remembered.
Cohen’s real brilliance came out in the 1980s and early 1990s, when decades of whisky and cigarettes had lowered his sensitive folkie voice into a gravelly growl, and his music took a darker turn to match. Continue reading
Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime might be the most popular book in a Western language ever to deal with Indian aesthetic theory. The book’s official subject is the aesthetics of computer science. Though I am getting a degree in computer science myself, I found myself more interested in Chandra’s lucid comments about the medieval Indian philosophers Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta and their theory of rasa, the emotional “tastes” that an artistic audience can savour.
What is important about Chandra’s work is that he applies the rasa theory. He draws from the best English-language works I know of on Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta: the writings of Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson and M.V. Patwardhan, especially their translation of Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka with Abhinavagupta’s locana commentary. But Chandra does what Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan do not: he asks how the theories of Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta could apply to us. Continue reading
Last time I began to propose an answer to David Chapman’s questions about what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics. I mentioned the classical Buddhist critique of politics and activism, and noted that I agree with some of that critique. Let me now say more about what I mean by that.
What first excited me about Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra was not the widely read eighth chapter (with its meditations on self and other and the deconstruction of the body that repulses many). Rather, it was the sixth chapter, on anger and patient endurance – when I responded to a student’s question about the text by saying “in this text, there’s no such thing as righteous anger.”
I do not think this is a message a typical secular North American liberal is likely to accept. Continue reading