Calling myself a Buddhist, it turns out, was only the beginning. Buddhism was there for me in this dark time, not only as a way of focusing prayer, and certainly not merely as the resource for a hypothetical chaplain. The Buddhist ideas that taught me so much before were still there and a great comfort. And there was more still: I have now begun to practise Buddhism as I see it, on a far deeper level than I ever had before. Continue reading
This week’s post follows the previous one and should be taken in the same light: namely, that while my views expressed in it have developed in response to a thoughtful and valuable exchange between me and Chris Fraser, it should not be taken to imply any views on Fraser’s part that are not already expressed in his published works.
I have long noted how for a philosopher, the most productive way to examine a text from another time is to examine the mind behind that text – so that one can follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice to “ask yourself how a sensible person could have written” that text with all of its apparent absurdities. This approach runs into trouble with composite texts, which are not the work of a single author. In thinking about the composite work attributed to Śāntideva, I had found it quite satisfactory to instead identify a single redactor. Last time, however, I noted how such an approach may be problematic for a text like the Zhuangzi, where the redactor of the edition known to us, namely the commentator Guo Xiang, has a Confucian agenda that appears to be at odds with some of the statements in the text itself.
Last year, I made several posts criticizing Chris Fraser‘s interpretation of the Zhuangzi, supported by a previous post on interpretive method. Fraser was kind enough to reply at length to my posts by email, for which I am very grateful, and his replies have provoked my own thoughts further. I have not received his express permission to quote my exchange with him, however, so what follows should not be taken to imply any views or lack thereof on his part – beyond what is in his published papers. Rather, it should be taken solely as a description of how my own views on related subjects have developed and evolved.
Where my views have shifted above all is on the question of how one may best interpret a text – and especially a composite text. The approach I previously outlined for approaching such a text stems from my dissertation on Śāntideva. While it may well be that the works we now associate with Śāntideva are the product of multiple authors, it seemed to me that we can plausibly use the name “Śāntideva” to name the redactor who put them together in the forms we now know through the tradition. I still believe that to be the case. I am, however, far less confident now that that approach can be generalized to other composite texts – most notably the Zhuangzi itself. Is it appropriate to describe that text as the work of an author (or redactor) named Zhuangzi? Continue reading
One of the key debates in Indian philosophy is what counts as a pramāṇa: an instrument of knowledge, a “reliable warrant”, a means of knowledge reliable enough that one can be reasonably confident to take its conclusions as true. What counts as a pramāṇa? Many Indian philosophers will provide a numbered list of them.
In the empiricist tradition that remains popular in the West, boosted by the discoveries of natural science, only experience is admitted as a pramāṇa: to a full-blown empiricist, nothing counts as knowledge if it doesn’t ultimately have its roots in experience, based in some sort of direct perception. (Ken Wilber’s thought has come to take this position more and more over the years, to its detriment.) The debate over pramāṇas in modern Western philosophy is often framed as one between empiricism and rationalism. That is, where empiricists admit only experience as a pramāṇa, rationalists also allow reasoning an independent validity: some things can be rationally known a priori, independently of sense experience.
Some Indian philosophers have agreed with these views. Continue reading
I have recently welcomed the corrective force of books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, which remind us that modern appropriations of Indian tradition have their own continuity with the evolving past tradition. I now find myself regularly reminded just how much such a corrective is needed. I have noted plenty of examples before, as with respect to Gregory Schopen and Donald Lopez. But I recently found perhaps the most striking example in the works of the contemporary Sanskrit scholar Herman Tull. Continue reading
I have recently begun the exciting opportunity to teach a course in Indian philosophy in Boston University’s philosophy department. Thinking about and designing the course, I had the great opportunity to work with the small but excellent staff of BU’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. They asked me: what’s your objective for the course? More specifically, what will your students be able to do when the course is done? They recommended that I pay particular attention to the verbs identifying these student abilities.
Such a question is easier to answer in skill-oriented courses – courses in Java programming or academic writing. There, the point of the course is all about something that students will be able to do. In a humanistic course, objectives are different, and often not easily specified. It’s not just that humanistic learning may have as much to do with personal transformation as with any acquired ability. It’s that even the abilities acquired are themselves difficult to define. In particular: one of the first verbs to come out of my mouth in response was “understand”. And one of the staff soon said in response, “we’d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word.” Continue reading
For Augustine, evil is nothing more than the absence of good, as we would say cold is no more than the absence of heat. Not every contemporary Christian follows this idea exactly, but the majority would surely agree that the goodness of God is supremely powerful, with evil (whether personified as Satan or not) significantly lesser.
It was not always this way. Many early Christian factions – most famously the Manicheans, but also the Marcionites and many Gnostics – believed that there were two warring gods, one good and one evil. Continue reading
Last week I critiqued Chris Fraser‘s readiness to discard the “implausible, unappealing radical” view that he found in the Zhuangzi. My reflections there were general and methodological. Here I want to plunge into the details and see what might happen if we read the Zhuangzi in the way that I recommended there, rather than the way that Fraser takes in his article.
Let me be clear that what follows is the work of a rank beginner in the study of Daoism. Indeed, most of what I know of the Zhuangzi comes from Fraser himself. So I acknowledge that my attempted interpretation here may be totally wrong. But just based on the passages Fraser himself translates, I find it a more satisfying interpretation than the one that Fraser takes. Continue reading
As I noted last week, I owe a real intellectual debt to Chris Fraser‘s work for helping me figure out Zhuangzi – or the Zhuangzi, as Fraser would say. His interpretations have been of incredible value to me in understanding this very difficult thinker (or text, if you prefer). I have my difficulties with him, though, when it comes to methods of constructive application – of trying to apply Zhuangist philosophy to our contemporary context. Continue reading
A while ago I discussed how Janet Gyatso had objected to my approach of assuming authorial coherence and single authorship in my dissertation on Śāntideva (and in other works). I said there that “there’s an issue here much bigger than the interpretation of any one thinker: should one even try to find the coherent views of an individual author?” I answered yes and I stand by that. I remain firmly in agreement with Thomas Kuhn’s dictum that [w]hen reading the works of an important thinker” one should look for the apparent absurdities and ask how it could make sense that “a sensible person could have written them”. But I didn’t go back to what I implied was the “smaller” issue – which may not in fact be so small.
In the case of Śāntideva, the historical evidence suggests that his most famous work, the Bodhicaryāvatāra, is composite: there is a version of it discovered relatively recently at Dunhuang which seems to be significantly earlier than, and substantially different from, the version known to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It would seem that the text as we know it is the work of at least two composers. And that, in turn, poses a problem for someone wanting to use Kuhn’s approach as he states it: what if this text is not the work of an important thinker or a sensible person, but multiple ones? Are we not then entitled to treat the text as incoherent because of all the different minds that went into it? Continue reading