It has taken me far too long to read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice – long enough that, in characteristic Nussbaum fashion, she has already authored or coauthored at least three more books since it came out. I say this is too long because Nussbaum’s views on anger were a topic important to my dissertation, which Nussbaum read and thought highly of while she was at Harvard. (The footnotes of Anger and Forgiveness make a couple offhand references to Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, and I strongly suspect that it was through my diss that she learned about the text.) And what is most striking to me when I read the book now is that Nussbaum’s views on anger have taken a startling turn in this book – one that brings them much closer to Śāntideva’s. 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
Last fall in my house we had some serious bad news: my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (There have been a number of ways in which I have hoped to emulate Ken Wilber, but this sure wasn’t one of them.) The good news is it was not a particularly severe variety as cancers go; with proper treatment it would not be life-threatening. But those treatments have been rough, with an extended recovery period.
It has, as you may imagine, been a difficult time for both of us. I am happy to say that things are much better than they were, but the hard times are not yet over. My wife’s story is hers to tell, and she has told it magnificently. On my side, something major has happened that I did not expect: for the first time, I have come to consider myself a Buddhist. Continue reading
12-step programs, AAR, Augustine, autobiography, conferences, David Hume, drugs, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Lucas Johnston, Mañjuśrī, nonhuman animals, religion, Śāntideva, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Aquinas
My fiancée, who believes in God, once told me that God seems much too distant to pray to. Despite not having any Catholic background, when she feels like praying, she prays to saints. When I was in the running for a good tenure-track job in our area, she prayed to St. Thomas Aquinas, as the patron saint of academics and philosophers, that I would get it. Until that point I don’t think I’d even made the connection between the saints people pray to and actual historical people – I’d only thought of Thomas as a natural law theorist and systematic theologian.
Fast forward: a little while ago, things were a little rough in my home. My fiancée and I tried to adopt a big beautiful black dog, which turned out not to be the right pet for our situation. The dog found a very good home and we’ll be able to get another dog soon enough, but losing the dog was pretty rough on us, especially my fiancée. It didn’t help that it was late winter, when everything was dark and cold, without the novelty of snow’s first arrival or the joys of Christmas. The stress of wedding planning didn’t help either. I was intending to ease some of my fiancée’s distress by planning a surprise party for her approaching milestone birthday. Of course, while the planning was happening, I couldn’t tell her about the party to comfort her; and hiding the event from her was its own source of stress.
It was a hard thing to take. Even though I knew I was doing something that would make her happy in the end, the combination of the secrecy and the present suffering was hard for me to handle emotionally. And so I found myself offering a prayer to Mañjuśrī, the celestial bodhisattva to whom Śāntideva offers his devotion. I prayed, tearfully, for him to give me the strength I needed to help me through my loved one’s suffering. At one point while doing this I wound up calling him Maitreya, because (I admit sheepishly) I sometimes have difficulty remembering the difference between the two.
All this is no small deal for me, because I don’t actually believe in Mañjuśrī or Maitreya, at least not in any standard sense of the term. Continue reading
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.