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
A while ago I referred to Śāntideva’s thought as “ethics without morality” – a deliberately provocative formulation based on Shyam Ranganathan’s eccentric definition of morality as that which conduces to anger. (I don’t agree with Shyam’s definition myself, but putting matters in those terms for the sake of argument helps us to make an interesting and important point.) The idea for Śāntideva is that because everything has a cause, no one is truly to blame for their actions, and therefore we should not get angry at them.
Mark Siderits, in a 2008 article in Sophia, has called this view “Buddhist paleo-compatibilism”: “compatibilism” meaning roughly that while Śāntideva thinks it morally significant that everything has a cause, he still thinks it appropriate to blame people for bad actions.
I don’t think that that is what Śāntideva means, based on a reading of the Sanskrit text of Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter six. I think Siderits reads a great deal into verse 32 that is not actually there, and that is at odds with Śāntideva’s explicit argument in verses 22-33. But I won’t expand on that particular point here, because overall I find the detailed textual argument less interesting than the more general constructive argument. Continue reading
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
My previous two substantive posts, on Thomas Kasulis’s intimacy/integrity distinction, went in opposite directions from one another. Two weeks ago I noted how the intimacy/integrity distinction seems to divide into two separate distinctions – an ontological one of internal vs. external relation between things, and an epistemological one of affective somatic “dark” knowledge vs. public self-reflective knowledge. Kasulis writes as if internal relation and affective somatic knowledge are all part of the same complex and vice versa, but Hegel and the Pali Buddhist texts seem to cross these divides, such that the Pali literature places external relation with affective somatic knowledge and Hegel the opposite.
Last week, though, I aimed to show that the connection Kasulis assumes between these aspects is a real one. What I pointed out was that an internal relation between existent things implies an internal relation between knower and known, and that this implies an affective somatic kind of knowledge – as an external relation between things implies an external relation between knower and known, and therefore a public and self-reflective kind of knowledge.
But if this is so, what do we do with the exceptional cases of Hegel and the Pali literature, which seem to involve one but not the other? Continue reading
I have frequently discussed how early Indian Buddhism, like Jainism, takes an integrity perspective in an ethical or practical sense. I’ve said less about the theoretical side of its integrity approach. But I think that side is very much there. And it’s that link between theoretical and practical philosophy that makes the concepts of intimacy and integrity so appealing: they go “all the way down”.
I find it particularly important to discuss the theoretical integrity of early Buddhism because I think this is a place where Thomas P. Kasulis – from whom I take the very concepts of intimacy and integrity – has misapplied his own theory. 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 have often found myself somewhat bewildered by the philosophy of the early- to mid-20th century, associated above all with the names of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. These two thinkers cast their shadow widely over the traditions of philosophy that followed – Heidegger over “continental” philosophy, Wittgenstein over analytic. (The split between the two traditions was not nearly as pronounced in their day; in many respects they helped create it.) They are far apart in many respects, but they do share at least two tendencies I have strongly disliked – an indifference to ethics and concerns about the good life, on one hand, and a rejection of the bulk of philosophy that came before them on the other. I have tended to view these two tendencies as going hand in hand – but do they?
I’ve been thinking anew about Heidegger and Wittgenstein from perhaps an unusual angle: Chad Hansen’s fascinating A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. I don’t yet know early Chinese thought well enough to assess whether Hansen’s account of it is accurate. But I can at least say that Hansen, like Nietzsche, is more interesting and thought-provoking even when he’s wrong than most people are when they’re right. Continue reading
While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.
This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. Continue reading
Today’s post follows up on those from two and three weeks ago, and there’ll be another one next week. I intend the four posts, taken together, to make a statement about the continuing importance of the idea of God: why, in the face of the very real problem of suffering and the scientific ability to easily do without God as an explanation of life’s apparent design, God is still hard to do away with. I mean this on an intellectual and philosophical level, not merely an emotional one; it is not just that we need to bother with God because so many people out have some neurological need for him, but that there yet remain ways in which God helps us to make sense of reality.
I’m going to begin this week not with God, but with Buddhism. Continue reading