I’d like to now envision the book I am working on. This post is something like a proposal for the book, both to clarify my thoughts on it and (more importantly) to hear yours. As I write it I keep in mind the wise advice of my dissertation advisor, Parimal Patil, that fundamentally a dissertation proposal is telling a lie. You don’t actually know what the final result is going to be, or you would have already written it; the act of researching it will necessarily make it something different from the proposal. You just don’t know how it will be different. With that in mind, let me attempt to say some more, in a nutshell, about what the book will be.Continue reading
I showed in my previous two posts how the core of Buddhist karma doctrine is not a response to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, but rather an articulation of the idea that good actions improve our well-being and vice-versa, congruent with contemporary eudaimonism.
Contemporary eudaimonic karma does, however, still face a major problem, one that has already come up a number of times. Thompson is right to focus attention on the apparent fact that bad things happen to good people – not because that fact supposedly drove the formation of karma theory (it didn’t, as far as I can tell), but because it poses a major problem for eudaimonism itself. As Thompson correctly says, “the proposition that an agent’s being good typically improves that agent’s well-being is not obviously true as a general descriptive proposition about the world.” An ethicized concept of rebirth can answer this question relatively easily, in a way that produces a straightforwardly consistent eudaimonism. Without rebirth, that problem is indeed harder to answer.Continue reading
The Buddhist propositions that Evan Thompson articulates go deep. They proclaim three flaws of all the things around us, in ways that (Buddhist tradition has typically claimed) make them unworthy of our seeking. On such a view, the only thing truly worthy of our seeking is dukkhanirodha, the cessation of suffering, through a nirvana identified with “unconditioned peace”. The ethical implication is that the finest human life is that of a monk, who devotes his or her entire life to the pursuit of dukkhanirodha. It is granted that most people won’t pursue such a life, but that is because they are too weak to do so; their lives will be worse for their seeking external goods, like familial relationships and material possessions.
Aśvaghoṣa dramatizes these points in the Buddhacarita, his famous story of the Buddha’s journey to monkhood. After a contented life of luxury the Buddha-to-be sees an old man, a sick man and a dead man, he realizes that that is the fate of everyone and everything, and can take no more pleasure in the objects (viṣayas) of the world: “I do not despise objects. I know them to be at the heart of human affairs. / But seeing the world to be impermanent, my mind does not delight in them.” (BC IV.85) It is specifically the impermanence of things that leads the Buddha to become a monk and reject them.Continue reading
I think I’ve shown that the kammatic-nibbanic distinction should matter to the historian, textual scholar, or anthropologist trying to figure out what Buddhism has meant in other times and places. Contra Damien Keown, it is a helpful ideal type to understand how Buddhists have thought about their tradition to date. But should it matter constructively, to us, now?
Yes, it should – at least to us Buddhists, and to anyone trying to think philosophically with Buddhism today. Because, I would argue, there are things valuable about worldly life – and it turns out that there have always been Buddhists who agreed that there are, in practice if not in theory. At least some forms of the dichotomy turn out to reprise the key constructive problem of my dissertation – the role of external goods in a good human life – from an intra-Buddhist perspective. The Buddhism of the suttas, of Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva, turns out to be single-minded: only liberation is important. Buddhists will often identify that austere Buddhism as normative, the ideal to aspire to – and yet live a life remarkably different from that ideal. And I think that they are, at least to some extent, right to live such a life. Continue reading
Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics closes by arguing for parallels between Buddhist and Aristotelian ethics. He claims that “there are many formal parallels between the ideal of human perfection conceived by the Buddha and that envisaged by Aristotle” (193), such that “Aristotelianism provides a useful Western analogue which will be of use in elucidating the foundations and conceptual structure of Buddhist ethics.” (196)
Is Keown right? Is Buddhist ethics like Aristotle’s? Continue reading
The mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation continues at a rapid clip. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the years 2012 to 2017 the percentage of adults meditating in the United States more than tripled, to 17%. The American market for provision of meditation-related services is now worth $1 billion and growing.
With any phenomenon this mainstream, one expects a backlash. Sure enough, there have been a number of pieces appearing recently that chastise programs like BU’s under the name “corporate mindfulness”, or more pithily, “McMindfulness”. Continue reading
In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:
Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)
The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?
I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc. Continue reading
A while ago William Edelglass put up a paper for discussion on academia.edu about Śāntideva and happiness. I made some suggestions for changes in a way that turned out to be unhelpful, since William informed me that the paper was already on its way to publication and he had only put it up by accident! Now, though, the paper has been published, as a chapter in David McMahan and Erik Braun’s valuable and readable volume on meditation, Buddhism and science. So perhaps now is the time to take my old suggestions and reframe them here as part of an ongoing public discussion.
William’s purpose in the chapter is to critique what he calls the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism, in which Buddhist advocates cite Buddhism’s ability to make its practitioners happy. The most prominent such case is Matthieu Ricard, the Tibetan monk whose fMRI scans showed record levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness. William thinks this emphasis on happiness misrepresents significant elements of Buddhism, and cites Śāntideva at length to prove his case.
Overall, I do not find myself convinced. 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
If you are the sort of person who reads comparative philosophy blogs, you probably remember the widely read New York Times article that Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote two years ago, calling for the study of non-Western philosophies in philosophy departments. I agreed with their overall point, surprising nobody that I can imagine, but had strong reservations about their underlying reasoning, then as now: in urging the study of non-Western thought they said nothing about anything valuable it actually would have to teach us, treating geographical diversity as sufficient.
Van Norden has now expanded the article’s point into a book, Taking Back Philosophy. (He invited Garfield to join in writing the book, but Garfield was too busy with other projects.) Columbia University Press sent me a free copy of the book in the hope I would review it on Love of All Wisdom and/or the Indian Philosophy Blog; I mention that as a disclaimer of sorts, though there were no specifications on the content of the review. I offer my thoughts here. Continue reading