Laurie Zoloth has recently been chosen president-elect of the American Academy of Religion; she will be chairing the AAR’s 2014 annual meeting in San Diego. In that capacity, she has decided to emphasize climate change as a major theme of the conference, and has sent out a two-page memo explaining her decision.
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
ascent/descent, Ch'an/Zen, Charles Taylor, David McMahan, Dōgen, Fazang, Huayan, James Joyce, Martha Nussbaum, modernity, Nāgārjuna, natural environment, Pali suttas, Pure Land, S.N. Goenka, Śāntideva, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha)
This week I did a new podcast interview with David McMahan, about his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism. The “Buddhist modernism” of the title is what I have typically called Yavanayāna: the new forms of Buddhism that have emerged in the past two centuries, which sometimes portray themselves as if they’re what Buddhism always was. (In what follows I will use the terms “Yavanayāna” and “Buddhist modernism” interchangeably.)
McMahan’s chapters are topical rather than chronological, so that he can examine the various features of the transition to Buddhist modernism. Naturally, he rounds up the most common topics: the asserted compatibility between Buddhism and science, and the idea of meditation as the most central Buddhist practice. He takes a genuinely balanced perspective on these topics that’s a welcome antidote to others. But he also touches on a few less widely noticed topics: interdependence, nature, and ordinary life. During the interview, I began to think about how closely these topics are connected with each other – and how they share a history in Buddhism that goes back long before the rise of Yavanayāna. Continue reading
Every human life ends in death. A long time ago I noted that we often forget this fact; and we shouldn’t. But granted that we acknowledge that we are all going to die, just how significant is the fact of our deaths? A little while ago I treated it as a significant problem, whether for an egoist or for one seeking the good in politics: whatever we achieve comes tumbling down in the end.
There’s a strong philosophical allure to consequentialism, the view that the best actions are those that produced the best consequences (of whatever sort). But a problem with consequentialism is that consequences, by definition, happen in the future – and eventually there will be no future. Continue reading
The online Journal of Buddhist Ethics has recently begun an online conference on an interesting pair of articles dealing with Buddhism and the natural environment, by David Loy and my former grad-school colleague Grace Kao. (Both articles were originally presented at the 2010 AAR conference in Atlanta.) While the conference is oriented toward comments on the JBE website, I’m posting my response here because my thoughts are long enough to be a full blog post of their own.
The different backgrounds of the two writers are evident from their pieces – but that itself makes the dialogue between them more interesting and fruitful. Loy is writing as a Buddhist. In a sense Loy’s arguments come in two pieces: first a dialectical argument to a certain conception of Buddhist first principles, especially based on the idea of non-self, and then a demonstrative argument from those principles to a sense of environmental concern. The first section makes the article more than a piece of “Buddhist theology”; unlike Glenn Wallis’s manifesto, Loy’s article is written as if it is intended to persuade non-Buddhists to a Buddhist point of view.
The substance of Loy’s demonstrative argument is similar to one that I have criticized in the past: that Buddhism is environment-friendly because it tells us to acknowledge our interdependence with other life on the planet. Loy’s argument is a bit more sophisticated than the view I criticized, and might arguably stand up to some of those criticisms. But I’m not going to focus on that point here. Rather, I’m more interested in the dialogue between Loy and Kao, and its implications.
Kao is not a Buddhist nor a Buddhologist, but a scholar of cultural diversity and the issues it poses for global politics. Partially for that reason, Kao’s article does relatively little to engage Loy’s Buddhist claims directly. Instead, she raises interesting and important questions about the proper connection between cross-cultural philosophy and global politics. Continue reading
20th century, Bill Clinton, Canada, Communism, conservatism, Edmund Burke, French Revolution, Front Porch Republic, Jane Jacobs, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King Jr., Mike Harris, natural environment, Pol Pot, Rod Dreher, Ronald Reagan, United States
A flip side of the previous post: while I am not a right-winger and would never want to be called one, I have far less antipathy to the term “conservative,” and sometimes even describe myself that way. For at least to some extent, I see myself as a conservative in the literal sense of that word.
Literal conservatism is a view I have found increasingly appealing after the radical political transformations of the ’80s and (in the US) the ’00s – this not despite, but because of, my left-wing convictions on many particular issues. The literal meaning of the word “conservative” should be fairly obvious: it is about conserving, preserving, existing states of affairs. That’s what it would have meant in the time of Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism. The problem with the word is that in the ensuing two centuries, the world has changed drastically in ways that Burke would have wished it hadn’t. And that means that if one wants the kind of society that Burke tended to advocate – especially if one wishes “small government” – one will need to change society in quite drastic ways from what it has become. Which, in turn, means not being conservative – not in the literal sense of the world.
Advaita Vedānta, al-Hallāj, Arianism, Aristotle, Docetism, Emmanuel Lévinas, Four Noble Truths, James Doull, Jesus, mystical experience, natural environment, Nicene Creed, Nicholas Gier, Śaṅkara, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, Stephen Prothero
I’ve been thinking some more about the idea of encounter, which I blogged about in these posts and which I take to be central to the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas: the idea that we can never encompass the wholeness of truth, it must remain irreducibly other to us. I’m wondering whether the basic idea animating encounter philosophies is the virtue of humility – a virtue, I think, in both epistemological and ethical contexts. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw pride as a virtue, modesty as its lack – and while I do think humility is a virtue myself, I would remain an Aristotelian in seeing humility, like justice, as a mean. It is far too easy to be too humble in action, to be servile and self-abnegating – an excess which, I’ve suggested before, hurts women’s struggle for equality. And with respect to knowledge, too little humility can lead us to an inappropriate feeling of certainty; but realizing that lack of certainty can spur us to too much humility, leading us into a self-contradictory denial of truth and knowledge.
The issue surrounding encounter, in that case, goes well beyond one’s relationship with God, even one’s relationship with other human beings. Continue reading
It’s become something of a cliché to say that Buddhism is about embracing our “interdependence.” The mechanistic Cartesian worldview, so the story goes, has led us to think of human beings as subjects independent of the world around them, in a way responsible for our current environmental catastrophes. (Depending on who you ask, this idea of independence might also be responsible for patriarchy, racism, homophobia, class exploitation and an inability to express our emotions.) But Buddhists know better: Buddhists know that everything arises dependent on everything else, so we should affirm and celebrate our mutual ties to each other and to the earth. In Thomas Kasulis’s terms, Buddhism on this interpretation offers us an intimacy worldview, distinct from the integrity worldview of the modern West. This idea is perhaps most clearly found in the thought of Joanna Macy, but its spread goes much wider among Western (Yavanayāna) converts to Buddhism, especially (but not only) in the baby-boom generation.
The problem: this view is almost the opposite of what the classical Indian Buddhists – including the Buddha of the Pali suttas – actually taught. To be sure, the autonomous, independent selves that we would like to believe in are an illusion. We must indeed recognize the dependent co-arising (paticca samupp?da or pratitya samutp?da) of all things, acknowledge that everything arises out of a circle of mutually dependent causes.
Here’s the thing: this circle of causes is bad. Continue reading
Found an interesting news article from last fall in the Manchester Guardian: British employers, a judge has ruled, are forbidden from discriminating against employees because of their environmental convictions. The case in brief: employers at London’s Grainger real-estate company mocked one employee’s devotion to remedying climate change, even taking steps to provoke him – in one case ordering him to fly to Ireland just to deliver a BlackBerry his boss had left behind. Eventually, he was fired – and a judge says he has a case. The relevant 2003 British labour law, indeed, is worded to prohibit discrimination and harassment on the grounds of “religion or belief.”
Generally, such a law strikes me as overdue. I’ve long been uncomfortable with the idea of giving legal protection only to “religious” convictions, for the idea of “religion” so often tends to obscure more than it clarifies. Aside from the obvious difficulties in classification (does the term “religion” apply to yoga exercises? To meditation? To brushing our teeth?), the term leads us to ask the less important questions, about differences between traditions rather than within them. For these intellectual reasons I suspect it’s a category we’d be better off without, if we could be.
But here the problems with “religion” are more than intellectual. On what reasonable grounds can we proclaim that this man’s refusal to fly on frivolous grounds is less serious, less important, less well considered than, say, a Jew’s refusal to eat pork? I disagree with politically activist views that see commitment to environmental or social causes as our fundamental moral duty; but then I disagree with much of the Qur’an’s moral teaching as well. Anti-discrimination laws are specifically designed to protect those with whom we disagree. Either the law should protect all deeply and sincerely held beliefs, irrespective of their “religious” status, or it should protect no such beliefs at all.
(No post this Sunday, as I’ll be out of town, as well as starting a new semester.)
My philosophical awakening occurred in Thailand in 1997; but it has been over the past decade, “the ohs,” that I’ve really had the chance to develop my thoughts. As that decade closes, I would like to note how my thoughts were shaped by their time.
I spent almost the entire decade living in the United States, except for two three-month stints in Toronto in 2001 and India in 2005. It was not the ideal decade in which to do this, for the US of this decade was the US of George W. Bush: a man who opposed almost everything I had ever stood for, whether substantively (torture, wars of choice, gutting environmental regulations), procedurally (incompetent patronage appointments for natural disasters, governing unilaterally without respect for other branches of government) or symbolically (insisting on suits and ties in the White House). I had grown up despising Ronald Reagan, but Reagan now looked like a saint compared to W – Reagan at least was competent. And in the face of all this, Americans returned him to office in 2004.
For my many American friends – the vast majority of them left-wingers like me – this decade was a time of powerlessness and rage. But they at least could vote, could contribute to political campaigns, could do something about it. Continue reading