Last time I noted that Evan Thompson’s Why I Am Not A Buddhist does not establish a case against being a Buddhist in Asian traditions, including Asian Buddhist modernist traditions. His critique focuses instead on Western Buddhist modernists. I do count myself among the latter, so the critique is intended to apply to Buddhists like me. Yet I do not think it hits its target. Thompson’s critique, as described last time, focuses on a neuroscience-linked, supposedly empirical variety of Buddhism that he calls “neural Budddhism”, exemplified by Robert Wright and Alan Wallace. But neural Buddhism does not exhaust Western Buddhist modernism.Continue reading
I think I’ve shown that the kammatic-nibbanic distinction should matter to the historian, textual scholar, or anthropologist trying to figure out what Buddhism has meant in other times and places. Contra Damien Keown, it is a helpful ideal type to understand how Buddhists have thought about their tradition to date. But should it matter constructively, to us, now?
Yes, it should – at least to us Buddhists, and to anyone trying to think philosophically with Buddhism today. Because, I would argue, there are things valuable about worldly life – and it turns out that there have always been Buddhists who agreed that there are, in practice if not in theory. At least some forms of the dichotomy turn out to reprise the key constructive problem of my dissertation – the role of external goods in a good human life – from an intra-Buddhist perspective. The Buddhism of the suttas, of Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva, turns out to be single-minded: only liberation is important. Buddhists will often identify that austere Buddhism as normative, the ideal to aspire to – and yet live a life remarkably different from that ideal. And I think that they are, at least to some extent, right to live such a life. 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
I’ve often heard it said, rightly I think, that Buddhism cannot do without a concept of karma; it is too central to Buddhist thought. I don’t see this as a big problem in itself, even for those (like myself) who would wish to do without the supernatural elements in Buddhism. For karma, as Dale Wright has proposed, can be naturalized on Aristotelian grounds: virtue makes our lives better, because it makes us happier on the inside. In that sense, our good and bad actions come back to us as good and bad results, without any supernatural causation being involved. Buddhism may require karma, but we can have karma without rebirth.
The question troubling me now is: can we have Buddhism without rebirth? There’s a basic problem posed here by the First Noble Truth, the classic Buddhist idea that all is dukkha: all is suffering, painful, unsatisfactory, sorrowful, bad. If this is so, why not commit suicide? For a classical Buddhist, rebirth is the answer to this question, and the obvious answer. Suicide makes your dukkha even worse; as a bad, un-dharmic activity, it will trap you in a far worse rebirth, leave you far more sorrowful and suffering than you are.
But if there is no rebirth? Then death starts to look disturbingly like nirvana. Continue reading
When I first read Śāntideva, his practice of redirecting good karma (pariṇāmanā, often translated “merit transfer”) struck me as somewhat curious. As I tend to a naturalistic view of karma, I wasn’t sure how habits could realistically move from one person to another. Dale Wright’s article on naturalized karma speaks of redirection mainly to criticize it.
I gained a newfound respect for the practice, though, when I attended a vipassanā meditation retreat in S.N. Goenka’s tradition, in 2005. Many people I know swear by Goenka’s overall technique; it frankly didn’t do a lot for me. What made a huge difference, though, was at the very end of the retreat, when Goenka urged us to a practice very much like traditional pariṇāmanā. Wish everyone well, he said on his videotape. Think of people you know and wish them the best.
Fine, that’s the easy part. But then he said: wish your enemies well. Think of your enemies, and devote wishes to their being happy. So I thought: who is my greatest enemy? As a lifelong leftie, in 2005, it didn’t take me long to identify George W. Bush. And so, as part of the practice, I tried sincerely to wish that man well.
The experience was more than unsettling. I cried in the process. But it helped me grow a lot. I had spent a long time feeling such poisonous hatred for that man, which did terrible things to me and my own well-being – in a way that Śāntideva warns us about. It’s a terribly unnerving, but highly rewarding, thing to wish your enemies well. Since your enemies are only human it makes philosophical sense to do so, really, if your main aim is consequentialist – that is, to produce the best results for yourself or for humanity. The trick is that it requires you to give up retribution as a goal, and even for a consequentialist, that’s not easy.
You can’t study Buddhism for very long without bumping into the concept of karma – or more specifically, good karma (pu?ya) and bad karma (p?pa). Karma poses a significant problem for those trying to learn from Buddhism in a contemporary context informed by natural science. In a great many Buddhist texts, the central thesis of karma – that good actions result in good fortune for the agent, and vice versa for bad actions – is simply assumed. Śāntideva, for example, spends a long time warning you about the time you’ll spend in the hells as a result of being bad, but doesn’t give you any reason to believe this is true beyond his own say-so and that of the s?tra scriptures.
But does this mean we should simply throw out the idea of karma? I don’t think so. The most helpful way I’ve seen to think about karma is in Dale S. Wright’s valuable article Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism. Wright proposes an approach to karma based on an Aristotelian approach to virtue: roughly, good actions develop good habits in us – which is to say virtues, such as courage, generosity or patient endurance – and those good habits in turn tend to make our lives better. The key point is that it depends on a distinction between internal and external goods: virtue makes us better and happier on the inside, and makes our lives better in that respect. It doesn’t necessarily make better events happen to us.
There are some problems with Wright’s thesis that I expect to take up here later. But its central insight seems to me worth adopting for a very simple reason: that it is both Buddhist and true.