There followed a discussion back and forth between Justin and myself. The discussion has moved away from anything to do with trans* issues, which is fine with me because my point, and I think Justin’s too, was about something bigger: the role of justice and activism in Buddhist tradition. I won’t try to recap the discussion here because the link is available for those who haven’t seen it. I’ll just refresh your memory by quoting Justin’s most recent comment: Continue reading
On his American Buddhist Perspective blog, my friend Justin Whitaker recently posted an interesting interview on the experience of trans* people in American Buddhism. Justin uses “trans*” as a shorthand for “transgender”, “transsexual”, “transvestite” and similar terms – to denote people who have become or attempted to become, in some respect, a gender different from the one associated with their biology at birth. It is clear to me that trans* people in the US face various forms of unjust discrimination. Where the tricky questions get raised is when the struggle against that injustice intersects with Buddhism – as, for that matter, when the struggle against any injustice intersects with Buddhism. Justin and I began a conversation about this in the comments to that post, and I’d like to continue that conversation in more detail here. 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
Goenka, born in Burma, was a pioneer – really the pioneer – of what is now known as vipassanā meditation. This term vipassanā (usually translated “insight”) is found in the classical Pali texts, and so is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta from which Goenka originally drew the meditation technique. Notably, though, the term vipassanā does not show up in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta itself. And that detail, I think, is telling about Goenka’s whole project.
I recall Goenka claiming, like many other contemporary Buddhist teachers, that what he was teaching was not new; it was just the teaching of the Buddha. That statement is not false exactly, but it’s not the whole truth. Continue reading
A few years ago I told what I thought of at the time as the story of my philosophy: how I left a utilitarian worldview and came to discover Buddhism in Thailand at age 21. I realize now that there’s something important missing from that story, and you can see it in the final paragraph of the second piece:
And yet, all the Western philosophy that I’d learned before didn’t just go away. I’d learned important, powerful, beautiful things that seemed true – and often seemed opposite to the Buddhism I’d found myself in. Is there a way to reconcile the two? One way or another, that question has been central to my life ever since.
That was the right ending: since then I have indeed been preoccupied with reconciling Buddhism and the Western philosophy I’d already learned. But if you only read those two pieces, you would come away with the impression that the Western philosophy I had learned, and would try to reconcile, consisted primarily of utilitarianism. And that would be completely wrong. Continue reading
ascent/descent, dharmaśāstra, Dōgen, Gospel of Luke, intimacy/integrity, Jan Nattier, Jātakas, Jesus, Joel Kotkin, Pali suttas, Patrick Deneen, Patrick Olivelle, Śāntideva, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha), Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, vinaya
A while ago I wrote about how Indian traditions upset conventional assumptions about family and community being essential to premodern tradition and culture. There, I was responding to a piece by Patrick Deneen, which drew only on Western traditions. As a result, Deneen’s piece had a narrowness of focus, but within that focus it was able to attain some accuracy. Not so for a recent report by urban geographer Joel Kotkin, entitled The Rise of Post-Familialism. Continue reading
The Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta, in the early Pali Buddhist sutta texts, opens with the Buddhist monk Māluṅkyaputta meditating and thinking as follows:
These positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One [the Buddha] — ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’ — I don’t approve, I don’t accept that the Blessed One has not declared them to me. I’ll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. [Majjhima Nikāya i.426, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]
The absence of answers to these questions frustrates Māluṅkyaputta enough that he is ready to leave the monkhood and become a layman if the Buddha doesn’t answer him. Continue reading
My former grad-school colleague Justin McDaniel recently ran into an interesting bout of media attention and controversy over a course he teaches at Penn, and an Associated Press article written about it. It is a comparative course on monasticism, entitled “Living Deliberately”. Nothing unusual so far; but what makes this course innovative is it contains a practicum. A practicum is relatively standard fare these days for many university courses on meditation, in which students are encouraged to meditate and thereby get a firsthand grasp on the course content. But McDaniel’s course is the first one I’ve heard of in which students attempt to get firsthand experience of being a monk.
What does that mean? As part of the class, students are required to live for various periods of time according to various restrictions, each one followed by an actual monastic order of some tradition or other. No technology beyond electric lights; no reading news from the outside world; no eating after dark; no caffeine or alcohol; no vegetables that grow underground (a nod to Jainism). Breaking the rules requires confession. 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