In the previous two posts I tried to show how I came to the best definition I could find for ascent and descent. Namely, ascent is an attempt to transcend the particular human condition, in the name of a higher and better universal; descent is the attempt to embrace the particular human condition without regard to such a universal. This time I’m going to try to spell out just what I mean by that. Continue reading
There is a destructive pattern of behaviour I’ve observed too often which, in an amateur psychological diagnosis, I have come to call the bodhisattva complex. I thought of this term as a friend of mine – a young medical resident – described the behaviours she observed among her fellow medical residents and doctors, who think nothing of working 24- or even 48-hour shifts in order to help people in their care. One wonders: what kind of patient wants to be treated by a man or woman who hasn’t slept in 48 hours?
When I refer to the bodhisattva complex, I do not mean that actual bodhisattvas – ideal Mahāyāna Buddhist beings – are psychologically unhealthy. Some might make that argument (Martha Nussbaum has done so, more or less), but I would not at all. Rather, the bodhisattva complex refers to something which I think is far more common than actual bodhisattvas: you suffer it if you believe you are a bodhisattva, but aren’t. Continue reading
I’ve just got a new article published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. It takes up a theme that emerged in my dissertation writing but didn’t quite fit with the broader idea of the dissertation. I’ve touched on it here a couple of times, especially in writing about Śāntideva’s anti-politics. In the article I go into more detail about Śāntideva’s rejection of political institutions, and why other writers have missed it – leading into it with the curious question of why Śāntideva advocates that his readers give gifts of sex, drugs and weapons.
One of the reasons I chose the online-only JBE for this publication is that they are, wonderfully, entirely open-access. That means absolutely anyone with an internet connection can read it, whether or not they have an academic affiliation. Have a look!
On Stephen Walker’s recommendation, I’ve been turning to the articles of Chris Fraser in order to understand the difficult Daoist thinker Zhuangzi. (Happily, Fraser makes most of his articles available free online.) The Zhuangzi is an intimidating text to attempt to understand for a number of reasons, and it’s helpful to have the guidance of someone like Fraser who has spent a lot more time with it than I have. Continue reading
I mentioned two weeks ago that there were two reasons I didn’t think my dissertation would become a book. The previous week I focused on the practical and political reason: I believe in free open access, and now that I’m not on the faculty track I can put my money where my mouth is.
The other reason, which is far more interesting to me, has to do with the dissertation’s content. I think back to when I was proposing a first inchoate version of the project, perhaps ten years ago or so now, knowing I wanted it to involve some amount of constructive dialogue between the ideas of Śāntideva and of Martha Nussbaum. Robert Gimello, on my committee at the time, said to me that he didn’t think that this would be an appropriate project for a dissertation. Not because those questions were inappropriate for a scholar to ask; indeed, he approved of them. Rather, he thought, that project seemed like a twenty-year project, much larger than a dissertation. For the dissertation I should buckle down and just try to understand Śāntideva himself.
I didn’t follow Gimello’s advice, and I’m glad I didn’t. Continue reading
It’s often said that “individualism” is an invention of the modern West – meaning the approach that defines human beings as independent and autonomous from their social context. The French sociologist Louis Dumont made this claim directly in contrast to India, seeing India as a highly communitarian place where an individual’s community and social status much more. Dumont applied this communitarian view not only to Indian society at large but to its theoretical thought.
Many students of other cultures soon come to see individualism as a Western conceit – a bizarre peculiarity of an eccentric society that went wrong with Descartes. If indeed the modern West is a complete solitary exception to the rule, then there would seem to be something to this view.
I wrestled with it for a while myself. I used to believe Dumont’s classification of India was correct. It certainly resonated with my personal experiences, seeing how much more my Indian family cared about family and community ties. But those experiences, combined with the communitarian stereotype of India found in the likes of Dumont and Max Weber, blinded me to things I read every day in graduate school for years without actually noticing. Continue reading
I admire Maria Heim‘s research on gift-giving in classical India. There’s one point that I think her work misses, however – a topic I had intended to cover in my dissertation on Śāntideva but never had room for. It’s not a constructive philosophical point – I’m not taking any ideas of my own from the ideas I discuss here – but it’s helpful to think about in order to understand philosophies like Śāntideva’s that I do draw significantly from. (And it will be relevant to next week’s post.) Continue reading
One of the first posts I made on this blog examined Dale Wright‘s methodological approach of naturalized karma. This is a way of continuing to use the concept of karma, and thereby remaining more closely in dialogue with classical Buddhist (and Jain and brahmanical) texts – without relying on the supernatural connections usually implied by the concept, especially rebirth. (By “karma” here I refer above all to the referents of Sanskrit pāpa and especially puṇya, best translated respectively as “bad karma” and “good karma”.) I’d like to explore this idea in more detail here.
Wright’s basic approach is to read karma as meaning something like an Aristotelian virtue ethic: good actions are rewarded with a good, flourishing life, in this life irrespective of future ones (and bad ones correspondingly punished). This much is not a Yavanayāna innovation; plenty of Buddhist texts make it clear that good action is rewarded in this life as well as in future ones. Continue reading
Judging by the comments, many readers found my diagnosis-prognosis post to be dark and pessimistic. Going back to the post, it’s not hard to see why. I endorse there the dark view of our existing human problems shared by Augustine, Marx and the Pali suttas; and yet I don’t think any of their solutions work. The essay effectively ends with a rejection of hope. The logical conclusion to draw from the essay might seem to be “life sucks.”
The understandable reactions to the essay’s pessimism nevertheless surprised me. For as I wrote it, I felt light, happy, life-affirming. Why? Continue reading
I generally agree with Aristotle that virtue is a mean between two vices – even in cases like justice, which are often taken as counterexamples. If one goes too far in one direction (say, cowardice or sense of entitlement), one misses the best way to be; the same applies in the other direction (foolhardiness or submissiveness), though it may sometimes be harder to see.
It’s easy, though, to misinterpret the idea of virtue as a mean. Virtue is not merely the middle ground. It is not a combination or a compromise between two vices. Virtue requires that the middle ground one occupy be specifically a good middle ground. It needs, essentially, to preserve what is best in each vice – to be a synthesis rather than a compromise. Continue reading