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
For some time now I have realized: it is time for me to write a book. It’s time to take ideas that I have circulated in blog-post form and develop them into a more systematic, coherent constructive argument. It has now been about seventeen years since Robert Gimello told me that the project that I had wanted to do for my dissertation was a twenty-year project, and as it turns out, I have spent much of those ensuing years working toward exactly that.
The questions that drove my dissertation – the ethics of emotion around attachment, anger and external goods – have continued to drive my thoughts over the thirteen years since I finished it, through twists and turns like declaring myself Buddhist. The dissertation could not resolve them; it ended on a cliffhanger. Śāntideva had good reasons for his views; Martha Nussbaum had good reasons for hers; where do we go from here? By 2013 I’d been thinking here about ways to resolve that cliffhanger, but I now think the approach I took at that time was exactly the wrong one: I had tried to generalize Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s views, viewing them as exemplars of integrity ascent and intimacy descent worldviews respectively. As I said at the time, that approach helped me spell out my problématique – but it still didn’t bring me any closer to resolving it.Continue reading
I will close out this latest round of replies to Evan Thompson with a recap: It is simply not the case that karma “is fundamentally about” why bad things happen to good people (or vice versa). To try to portray karma in that way, it seems to me, requires more cherry-picking and selective quoting of sources than does portraying it as a form of eudaimonism. Obeyesekere’s study of the concept’s origins, which Thompson originally cited as his source, shows that its formation is in something quite different. The passages that Thompson quotes from Śāntideva do nothing to establish that karma for him is about why bad things happen to good people. The sociological studies that he now cites do not even claim to establish any such thing, and their evidence does not imply it either – so they would not establish this claim even if they had been studies of Buddhists, which they are not. Going by Thompson’s own sources – historical, philosophical and sociological – we see absolutely no reason to believe that the question of theodicy is or ever was at “the beating heart” of the karma concept, for Buddhists or anybody else. Actual anthropological studies of karma beliefs in context establish its core as something very different, just as Obeyesekere’s study itself does.
Why then does Thompson continue to insist that bad things happening to good people and vice versa – the core problem of Christian theodicy – is also the core problem of traditional Buddhist karma, when it has turned out multiple times that even his own sources provide no reason to believe this claim? Thompson himself is clearly deeply bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people, which he calls “shocking and disturbing”, a “cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness”. It is hardly unreasonable to be bothered by this fact in this way, and Thompson is entitled to be so. What is not acceptable is to then reread this preoccupation back onto traditional Buddhist sources.Continue reading
I have argued against Evan Thompson that philosophical texts are the proper source for philosophers, so let me now turn our discussion there: specifically to Śāntideva, whom both of us cite.
First let us be clear about two points on which I think Thompson and I agree. The first of these points is that Śāntideva himself believes in rebirth, and this concept deeply suffuses his philosophy; Thompson and I agree about that. The second is that Śāntideva is wrong in this belief: though Ian Stevenson’s kind of work does present a potential anomaly, the best evidence we have in psychology still shows us that human consciousness is tied ineluctably to human bodies, and when that body dies, the consciousness dies with it. As far as I can tell, Thompson accepts this latter proposition. If he does believe human consciousness is reborn at death, my apologies: in that case we are having a very different conversation, and I would be genuinely intrigued to hear his reasons for such a belief. Thompson has not said anything of the sort in the conversation to date, however, so I will proceed in the present discussion on the assumption that he does not.
The question then is how a contemporary Buddhist who accepts both of these points should read Śāntideva’s work. It was specifically in answer to this question that I first turned to a naturalized theory of karma: I did so because I wanted to take Śāntideva as seriously as possible. My dissertation was all about understanding Śāntideva’s reasoning at a deep level, so I looked in detail at the kinds of arguments and reasons Śāntideva offers for acting or feeling one way and not another – what Thompson calls their “warrant and motivation”. As the dissertation discusses, these reasons for action generally fell into three categories, not always separable from each other: the pleasant and unpleasant mental states the actions generate; metaphysical insight into the nature of things, especially their emptiness (which I explored in more detail in a later article; and good or bad karma. Only the last of these three is closely tied to rebirth. The latter terms “good and bad karma” are specifically my translations of puṇya and pāpa, terms ubiquitous in Śāntideva’s work; for him it is puṇya and pāpa, rather than karmaphala or karmavipāka, that most describe the process by which good and bad actions lead to good and bad results.Continue reading
In my previous post I discussed how Evan Thompson and I may agree in principle that not all innovations to a tradition are legitimate. The real question, then, is how applicable the accusation of cherry-picking (or shopping cart) is in this case, the case that we are discussing, of the naturalized eudaimonistic approach to karma. So the question is whether this new approach is congruous with Buddhist tradition, or with Buddhist sources.
If I am correct that it is, then it would seem that Thompson’s accusation of cherry-picking does not stand. I contend that the traditional view of karma generally follows the view of Śāntideva that good and bad actions bring the agent good and bad results “in this world and another” (iha paratra ca). On that traditional view this pattern is deterministic: every good action ripens as a good result and vice versa. What my approach does is to say that karmic results happen only iha, in this world, because it turns out there is no paratra. As a result karma must be probabilistic and not deterministic in order to make sense. On my view, this naturalized approach to karma entirely continuous with the iha half of the traditional view, even as it rejects the paratra half – and this does not radically change the system because both halves work in similar ways.
I will say more about Śāntideva in future posts. But before going further, I think we need to clarify some key concepts at issue in Thompson’s most recent response. Thompson relies a great deal in this response on the concept of eschatology, so it is important to clarify what that concept means. Regarding the concept of karma, Thompson says:Continue reading
I now finish my present reply to Evan Thompson’s response. Let us return to Thompson’s general critique of Buddhist modernism. He doesn’t “reject using Buddhist ideas in the project of ameliorating suffering and promoting human flourishing.” On that, it seems, we are in agreement. Rather, what he objects to is “the rhetoric and logic that Buddhist modernists typically use in pursuing this project.” So let’s revisit what he takes issue with in this rhetoric and logic:Continue reading
In the previous three posts I aimed to show, contra Evan Thompson’s response, that the philosophical core of the karma doctrine does not have to do with explaining why bad things happen to good people, but rather with how good and bad actions produce good and bad results for the agent. As such, eudaimonic karma is not “incongruent with its traditional meaning and function.” (I also agreed that the fact of bad things happening to good people is a problem for naturalized eudaimonic karma, but discussed attempts to resolve that problem.)
Now let us turn back to the wider argumentative context in which the karma discussion is set. At this point our disagreements may prove smaller than they seem. Thompson, it turns out, does not deny thatContinue 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
As noted last time, I don’t identify the philosophical core of the concept of karma with its origins (which are pre-Buddhist), but with the way it functions in Buddhist philosophical texts. There, I submit, the core idea is indeed “that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being”.
To show this point I turn to Śāntideva, as one of the most systematic and powerful writers on ethics in the Buddhist tradition. Karma and rebirth pervade his works, more than they do the Pali literature. But his works on karma are not directed to the question Thompson discusses – to the past results of karma as an explanation for present misfortunes. Rather, Śāntideva puts great stress on the future results of karma: the good and bad states that will befall us as a result of our good and bad deeds now. These include the hells, which Śāntideva delights in graphic depictions of. And they also include the results we get in this life. Consider this passage on anger: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