A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus. Continue reading
We think these days a lot about Buddhist ethics, which often involves some thought about Buddhist politics. We tend to think a lot less about Buddhist aesthetics.
Now there’s an obvious explanation that could be given for this: the Buddhist dhamma teaches that worldly pleasures mire us in suffering. So aesthetics, insofar as it deals with pleasurable phenomena like art, is something Buddhists should avoid. In response I give you this:
While I was working in Thailand as a young man, my closest friend there was a pious Christian who had recently converted, as an undergraduate. He took a short vacation in Malaysia and came back deeply admiring the (Muslim) Malay people he met, saying: “They’re so religious!”
I noted, “The Thais are very religious too.” He exclaimed – “But that’s just – superstition!”
I was nonplussed by that reaction and didn’t answer it, because it left my secular self a bit confused: I hadn’t really thought there was a difference between religion and superstition. That seemed a potentially inflammatory point to make, so I left it silent. But I certainly didn’t agree with him. I was already admiring the Thai Buddhists I met, and would soon come to learn my most important life lesson from the Buddhism I found in Thailand. I would never want to dismiss it as mere superstition.
I mentioned last time that in dealing with my wife’s cancer, I had started praying to Mañjuśrī, just as I had done (and written about here) five years ago in another period of my life that involved emotional difficulties – though considerably less difficult than this.
But that previous time had posed me an intellectual challenge as well, for I didn’t believe Mañjuśrī existed, as a sentient being capable of answering prayers. And while I may be calling myself a Buddhist now, what I said then still holds true: “I don’t think there is actually somebody out there who accumulated enough good karma to become a celestial being who redirects good karma down to the rest of us for our benefit.” Can it make any sense to pray to something you don’t believe in?
As it turned out, the question bothers me a lot less now than it once had. 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
I’ve repeatedly returned on this blog to the concepts of Ascent and Descent, derived above all from Ken Wilber’s work and to a lesser extent from Martha Nussbaum’s. I have found that these concepts do a lot to help us understand the differences between philosophical traditions. I have not yet been precise about defining them, however, and I would like to think them through in some more detail.
The concept of Ascent has above all to do with transcendence; “transcendence” and “immanence” are close cousins to Ascent and Descent as I understand them. However, Ascent is not transcendence as such. Continue reading
A few months ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is particularly given to pithy epigrams. We were discussing the Stata Center: a brightly colourful building on the MIT campus, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which is designed deliberately to look chaotic, unfinished, random. It’s not a building that leaves many people feeling neutral. My friend disliked its artifice, disjoint from the things around it. I said I thought it would be terribly inappropriate in the middle of a historic neighbourhood, but that it’s just right for a school like MIT, so focused on progress and the future. She didn’t think it was appropriate anywhere, and added: “Frank Gehry hates the real world.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote while reading articles by Patrick Deneen and others at Front Porch Republic, who would probably agree with my friend about Gehry’s architecture (though not about much else). Continue reading
As I discussed last week, Ken Wilber’s recent work argues that spirituality must be taken to a new and higher level, one associated with the “orange” and “green” worldviews of modernity and postmodernity. What does such a higher spirituality entail? Wilber points to examples of liberal Christianity like Hans Küng and John Shelby Spong. This is well and good; I’ve drawn a lot from liberal Christianity and I think it offers crucial methodological lessons for the study of Asian traditions. But his enthusiasm for them goes much too far. He claims that “any premodern spirituality that does not come to terms with both modernity and postmodernity has no chance of survival in tomorrow’s world”. (IS p225)
I would have little problem with this claim if by “come to terms” Wilber meant only that they must acknowledge and react to the existence of post/modernity – as fundamentalism does, by mostly reacting against it. But in his explanations it becomes clear he means significantly more: they must embrace and adopt it. In this claim Wilber echoes the title of one of Spong’s works, a work he names approvingly: Why Christianity Must Change Or Die. Continue reading
One of the first posts I made on this blog examined Dale Wright‘s methodological approach of naturalized karma. This is a way of continuing to use the concept of karma, and thereby remaining more closely in dialogue with classical Buddhist (and Jain and brahmanical) texts – without relying on the supernatural connections usually implied by the concept, especially rebirth. (By “karma” here I refer above all to the referents of Sanskrit pāpa and especially puṇya, best translated respectively as “bad karma” and “good karma”.) I’d like to explore this idea in more detail here.
Wright’s basic approach is to read karma as meaning something like an Aristotelian virtue ethic: good actions are rewarded with a good, flourishing life, in this life irrespective of future ones (and bad ones correspondingly punished). This much is not a Yavanayāna innovation; plenty of Buddhist texts make it clear that good action is rewarded in this life as well as in future ones. Continue reading