The new Journal of Buddhist Ethics has an interesting article up on Śāntideva, by Stephen Harris, a grad student at U of New Mexico. Harris is a colleague of Ethan Mills, who gave the APA talk about skepticism that I discussed in late December (and who has since made thoughtful contributions to this blog’s comments); Harris also gave a talk about Śāntideva on Mills’s panel.
Harris’s article returns us to the most famous passage in Śāntideva’s work: the meditation on the equalization of self and other in Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter VIII, in which Śāntideva takes metaphysical arguments for the nonexistence of self (Buddhist anātman) and uses them as a premise to argue for altruism, ethical selflessness. He asks: “Since both others and myself dislike fear and suffering, what is special about my self that I protect it and not another?” The self that I was three minutes ago is a different entity from the self I will be three minutes from now; the present self has as much reason to protect others as it does its future self. He adds: if you object that suffering should be prevented only by the one it belongs to, well, your foot’s suffering does not belong to your hand, so why should the hand do anything to protect the foot?
The Catholic Buddhologist Paul Williams has criticized this passage in depth, arguing that altruism makes no sense without selves. I’ve discussed Williams’s criticisms twice before, though I haven’t taken a position on the debate yet. I will note that several Buddhologists have already come to Śāntideva’s defence on these arguments – with varying degrees of success.
Harris is the first writer I’m aware of to defend Williams’s position (other than Williams himself). Continue reading