Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.Continue reading
The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.
The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.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 continuing response to Evan Thompson I now turn to another methodological question that Thompson raises: what sources should we be using in a discussion of karma? I claim that my eudaimonist interpretation of Buddhist karma is congruent with existing Buddhist tradition in important ways, so it matters what that existing tradition has to say and how we determine it.
When I had previously said that the traditional core of karma had to do with future results of action – with that basic idea that good actions improve well-being – Thompson had asserted in response that “this idea isn’t the core idea of karma, if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.” To support this claim he linked out to Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma, which studied the formation of the concept through philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. In his new reply, however, Thompson now says that “exegesis of philosophical texts… isn’t the right method for a concept like karma.”
Here, it seems to me, goalposts may have been moved. In his previous post, when he was first trying to make the claim that the “core” of karma “is to explain why bad things happen to good people”, Thompson was happy to cite, as his only source, Obeyesekere’s study, which relies largely on the exegesis of philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. This was hardly a surprise, given that both of us are self-professed philosophers, and that Thompson himself had said, “my aim is to lay bare the philosophical problems with Buddhist modernism.” Emphasis added. But once I pointed out that Obeyesekere said nothing of the sort, then Thompson declared that the right method for thinking about karma didn’t have to do with philosophical texts but must be in the way they “function psychologically and socially” in everyday people’s lives.Continue reading
Evan Thompson has continued our dialogue with a new reply, and I am now ready to respond to it. This response will be seven posts long, so I will follow the practice from my last round of replies of posting them three days a week (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday) over the course of the coming two weeks. When they’re all up I will update the index so readers have a convenient record of the whole thing.
To begin with, I’m glad to see that Thompson and I have come to some significant points of agreement. We can agree now that a eudaimonistic Buddhism does not have to suffer many of the flaws that Thompson identifies in Buddhist modernism, such as Buddhist exceptionalism or pretending our innovations are those of the historical Buddha. But as Thompson correctly notes, points of disagreement remain.
Our core disagreement is on the idea of eudaimonic karma. This has two aspects, which each bear examination though they are not separate from each other. The substantive aspect is about the workings of karma and rebirth. The methodological or hermeneutic aspect has to do with the claim that I am cherry-picking. They are not separate because the accusation of cherry-picking depends on the closeness (or lack thereof) of the relationship between the naturalized eudaimonic karma I advocate and earlier Buddhist conceptions that involve rebirth. I want to first approach the methodological issue, on which I think Thompson and I may find some further agreement, and then start moving to the substantive claims where I think we do still largely disagree.Continue reading
Ron Purser’s critique of modern mindfulness is thoroughgoing, and extends beyond chastising its skepticism of political engagement. Purser also criticizes modern mindfulness on other grounds, grounds that I think are considerably closer to the views of classical (early) Buddhist texts.
In particular, Purser’s article “The myth of the present moment” (from the journal Mindfulness 6:680–686) points to a central element of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other modern mindfulness practices which is not present in the classical texts. Namely: Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR and modern medical mindfulness generally, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. So a key goal of modern mindfulness practice is “reducing thoughts and ruminations of the past and future, which keeps us from being in the present moment.” (Purser 682) Purser notes that this focus on the present moment is exemplified in the common introductory practice (included in BU’s mindfulness workshop) of mindfully paying attention to the experience of slowly eating a raisin.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
Evan Thompson has made a wonderfully detailed response to my earlier two posts that critique his stimulating Why I Am Not A Buddhist. It is a dialogue I am excited to continue. First a logistical note: I have a great deal to say in response, but I generally think that blog posts work better as relatively self-contained but relatively short pieces, so I’m going to space out my own long reply over eight posts. (All this is perhaps in keeping with Simon Critchley’s claim that the philosopher is one who takes time.) In order to stop the discussion from dragging on for too long, I will post these posts at a much more frequent interval than I usually do – three times a week, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
To begin, I thank Thompson for his careful and thoughtful response. Its title – “Clarifying Why I Am Not A Buddhist” – is extremely apt. It shows me that there are points where I misunderstood the book’s claims, and I think the clarifications in his response make for a more fruitful debate. Above all: the book frames its critique of “neural Buddhism” in ways that did not seem to me to apply to the eudaimonic Buddhism that I hold. (Mike Slott of the Secular Buddhist Network appears to have got the same initial impression I did.) Thompson’s response makes it much clearer that he does indeed intend his critique to apply to me, and to fellow eudaimonist Buddhists like Dale Wright, Seth Segall, Ken McLeod, and possibly Slott. As a result, I think we are now much better able to dive into the real issues at hand, which I take to be crucial ones for my own philosophical project.Continue reading