Last time I noted that Evan Thompson’s Why I Am Not A Buddhist does not establish a case against being a Buddhist in Asian traditions, including Asian Buddhist modernist traditions. His critique focuses instead on Western Buddhist modernists. I do count myself among the latter, so the critique is intended to apply to Buddhists like me. Yet I do not think it hits its target. Thompson’s critique, as described last time, focuses on a neuroscience-linked, supposedly empirical variety of Buddhism that he calls “neural Budddhism”, exemplified by Robert Wright and Alan Wallace. But neural Buddhism does not exhaust Western Buddhist modernism.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
Weterners who have studied Buddhist philosophy and ethics, even when we have done so at length, are often thrown for a loop when we read the Mahāvaṃsa. This text – one of the most historically oriented texts in premodern South Asia – has been a central part of the Theravāda Buddhist canon for over a thousand years, and played a central role in creating the very idea of “Theravāda” Buddhism.
It also looks very different from the Buddhism we constructive Western Buddhist scholars are accustomed to thinking about. 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
Many scholars of Aristotle regard him as a monotheistic theologian, one who sees humanity’s ultimate end as tied to a divine First Explanation. They do not go so far as to say Aristotle actually was an Abrahamic monotheist – that would be a very strange historical claim to make – but they see him as having anticipated that sort of monotheism in the fundamentals of his philosophy. The God at issue here would be very much the “God of the philosophers”, the God identified by medieval theologians from multiple Abrahamic traditions (ibn Rushd, Aquinas, Maimonides) who all considered themselves Aristotelians, and read Aristotle very much in this light. Their reading is shared by contemporary Aristotelian thinkers I greatly respect, like Alasdair MacIntyre and James Doull. This theistic approach to reading Aristotle, in short, has a long and noble pedigree.
Doull, for example, says that Aristotle’s unmoved mover, his originating metaphysical principle, turns out to be “a God who knows himself in natural necessity” (Philosophy and Freedom page 50). MacIntyre says of someone who reckons with the theoretical claims of “Aristotle and such Aristotelians as Ibn Roschd, Maimonides, and Aquinas” :
What their arguments will perhaps bring home to her is that her and their conception of the final end of human activity is inescapably theological, that the nature of her practical reasoning and of the practical reasoning of those in whose company she deliberates has from the outset committed her and them to a shared belief in God, to a belief that, if there is nothing beyond the finite, there is no final end, no ultimate human good, to be achieved. So she may complete her reasoning by discovering that what is at stake in her decisions in moments of conflict is the directedness of her life, if not toward God, at least beyond finitude. (Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity 55-6)
Yet their approach is also very strange just on the face of it. 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
20th century, Anthony Woodiwiss, autobiography, Charles Taylor, Existential Comics, generations, Jayant Lele, Jim Wilton, Karl Marx, modernity, qualitative individualism, Students for a Democratic Society, United States
When I first started reading Charles Taylor on qualitative individualism in my 20s, my Marxist father complained that Taylor paid too little attention to material conditions. I didn’t really get the criticism at the time, but I do now, for reasons that go well beyond reading and writing.
Taylor’s discussion of qualitative individualism (or “expressivism” or the “ethics of authenticity”) takes place largely in the realm of ideas, as mine also has so far. I have tried to trace the history of the ideas of qualitative individualism. But such a history is incomplete. Continue reading
The big problem with the relative lack of philosophical attention given to qualitative individualism is that the ideal has had relatively powerful defences. Its most explicit defenders have been existentialists like Sartre, but Sartre’s best-known defence, at least, seems to fall flat. Charles Taylor has done the most to articulate the idea and how and it makes internal sense, but for the most part he is very cautious about ever actually endorsing it. Sometimes his defence of it seems to be simply on historicist grounds, as I quoted him in my first post on the subject. That is: qualitative individualism happens to be what we believe in the educated 21st-century West, and it is just for that reason important to us. Western governments therefore need to respect it just as the governments of Turkey or Indonesia need to respect Islam. Beyond politics, it is among our assumed starting points for inquiry, such that philosophically it is important to think with it (even if in the end we come to find it untenable). This point does matter.
But the point also doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading
My disagreements with Charles Goodman continue with his contribution to Jake Davis’s thought-provoking volume A Mirror Is For Reflection. (I’ve previously written about Jan Westerhoff’s chapter in the same book.) Just like Westerhoff, Charles is exploring the important question of naturalizing karma. He does so with particular reference to Śāntideva. He opens with a beautiful reading of Śikṣā Samuccaya chapter 4’s graphic descriptions of the punishments a wrongdoer will face in the hells, reading them in terms of the actions’ psychological effects on the wrongdoer.
The problem with this reading is that it doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading
Last time I discussed Jan Westerhoff’s potent objection to naturalized Buddhism: if there is no rebirth then we can end our suffering simply by committing suicide. Westerhoff takes this objection as a reason to accept rebirth. I do not. Rather, I take it as pointing to a deeper problem with some core Buddhist teachings as they are usually understood. Continue reading