The article is entitled “The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics“. Buddhists do a lot of theoretical philosophy that sometimes seems irrelevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering, and this article aims to show why it isn’t. I’ve been wanting to probe the theoretical foundations of ethics more, and this article is one exploration into that. I presented it at the SACP a few years ago and have now finally made it available. Have a look!
I have recently begun the exciting opportunity to teach a course in Indian philosophy in Boston University’s philosophy department. Thinking about and designing the course, I had the great opportunity to work with the small but excellent staff of BU’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. They asked me: what’s your objective for the course? More specifically, what will your students be able to do when the course is done? They recommended that I pay particular attention to the verbs identifying these student abilities.
Such a question is easier to answer in skill-oriented courses – courses in Java programming or academic writing. There, the point of the course is all about something that students will be able to do. In a humanistic course, objectives are different, and often not easily specified. It’s not just that humanistic learning may have as much to do with personal transformation as with any acquired ability. It’s that even the abilities acquired are themselves difficult to define. In particular: one of the first verbs to come out of my mouth in response was “understand”. And one of the staff soon said in response, “we’d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word.” Continue reading
T.R. Raghunath, a professor in Nevada, gave an interesting talk at the SACP conference explaining Aurobindo Ghose‘s theory of the development of consciousness. There were a number of intriguing points in Raghunath’s talk, but the one that jumped out at me was a point about evolution. Aurobindo, according to Raghunath, accepts “the fact of evolution,” but not “Darwin’s explanation” of evolution. It is a developmental process that has the goal of growth, unfolding. Biological evolution is itself a developmental process of the spirit, in a way that diverges from a Darwinian materialist explanation.
A bell went off in my head when I heard this. In a later conversation with Raghunath, I asked him whether Aurobindo would support the contemporary idea of intelligent design and related critiques of Darwinian evolution, and he said basically yes: there is a guiding spiritual principle at work in the development of new species, it cannot be merely a matter of natural selection through random beneficial mutation. Throughout Raghunath’s talk I had been noticing Aurobindo’s influence on Ken Wilber, and here I saw a still more direct link.
On page 23 of what probably remains his most-read and best-known work, A Brief History of Everything, Wilber makes this now-infamous claim:
A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing — you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal — and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings. Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. (emphases in original)
In his talk at the conference this year, SACP president Peimin Ni pushed further on the claim he made last year: the idea of philosophy as a technique. I was fortunate to spend a long and enjoyable lunch discussing the talk and its ideas with him further. (I love the SACP conferences because their format is designed to encourage the emergence of mealtime conversations like this; last year I enjoyed a similarly thoughtful discussion with Ted Slingerland.) The present post recounts the ideas expressed at the lunch, naturally from my own side; I hope I am being fair to Ni’s arguments in what follows.
Ni’s talk focused on the Chinese concept of gongfu 功夫, dating from the early centuries CE and meaning any practical art – it could include calligraphy, sports, cooking, good judgement or statecraft. (Although the word gongfu has long ago passed into English with an alternate spelling, it is probably best to keep using the Pinyin spelling rather than confuse people with a term most associate with goofy movies about roundhouse kicks.)
Gongfu as Ni understands it then bears some resemblance to the Greek concept of technē, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of practice, with one crucial difference. Aristotle’s technē involves a telos; it is embedded within a larger determinate framework of human flourishing. With gongfu, on the other hand, Ni agreed with my earlier characterization of the process as a technique. It is open to us to choose our aims; gongfu merely allows us to achieve those aims. There is a gongfu of killing as well as a gongfu of saving. Continue reading
I’m currently at the 2010 SACP conference in Asilomar. I had the good fortune to be on a panel about emptiness with Bret Davis, who was presenting on the Kyoto School philosophy, especially Nishida Kitarō. Davis’s discussion of Nishida and Ueda pushed me to think further about the idea of irreducible encounter, which I’d recently examined in posting about Skholiast and Ken Wilber.
I’ll admit often feeling a certain impatience with philosophers of encounter like Lévinas (which probably makes me what Skholiast called an “ātmanist”). It has never been clear to me why, exactly, we’re supposed to be so limitlessly bound by “the Other” (usually with the capital letters). Lévinas’s philosophy strikes me as ruthlessly Abrahamic: at its core is a bowing and scraping before God, drastically opposed to any embrace of the divine with ourselves, parallel to Sirhindī‘s insistence on God’s distance from his creation. As I noted in the comments to that post, Sirhindī advocated not merely intolerance to, but subjugation of, indigenous Indian traditions. Likewise Davis, in our conversation after his talk, noted that Lévinas uses the term “pagan” in an extraordinarily negative sense; his Abrahamism reminds me of Tertullian asking rhetorically “What has Athens do to with Jerusalem?” And while I am somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of humility expressed in a humanist view, I’m even more uncomfortable with trusting an Abrahamic god.
Davis’s talk, however, helped me put many of these ideas in perspective. Nishida’s thought, it turns out, is close to Lévinas’s in a number of ways, though far removed from Abrahamic traditions. (Intriguingly, Nishida even wrote a book entitled I and Thou, while apparently entirely unaware of Buber‘s work of the same title.) Nishida tells us that “there is no universal that would subsume I and thou,” for that would deny the individuality and otherness of the two terms. The other must remain other. Nishida has a Zen take on the matter rather than an Abrahamic one: there must be something shared between the self and the other or no encounter can take place; but one must speak of this shared universal as emptying itself out, a “None” rather than a “One.”
But why should we think this way? A particularly evocative quote in Davis’s talk helped give me a clue in explanation: “I am truly myself by way of not being myself; I live by dying.” Now it seems like we are dealing with the paradoxes of hedonism: when all we seek is our own happiness, we don’t get it. We are most fulfilled when we live for something bigger than ourselves; a life centred entirely on the self will fail even on its own terms. Perhaps I’m getting more sympathetic to this sort of view as I approach marriage – realizing the fulfillment in a life choice that requires a certain self-overcoming, requires you to live for someone else as they live for you.
The term yoga tends to be awkward for students of Indian philosophy today. Traditionally in Sanskrit, yoga meant something like “spiritual exercises” in Pierre Hadot’s sense – practices intended to transform oneself. The term has this sense in the work most often associated with it, the Yoga Sūtras attributed to Patañjali. There yoga is a set of eight practices: vows of self-restraint (yamas, the same ones as in the Jain tradition, and very similar to the Buddhist Five Precepts); ethical observances (niyamas); bodily postures (āsanas); breath control (prāṇayāma); withdrawal of the senses (pratyāhāra); concentration (dharana); meditation (dhyāna); and meditative concentration (samādhi). The goal of all this is to reach a state of “aloneness” (kaivalya, again similar to Jainism) – a state in which one has transcended the world and merely observes it, a super-Cartesian subject detached from all the objects of observation. (In Thomas Kasulis’s terms, Patañjali’s yoga has a stronger integrity orientation than just about anything in Western thought.)
But none of this tends to come to mind when most Westerners think about “yoga” today. In English, the term has come to mean nothing more than the third of the eight practices, the āsanas or postures – perhaps occasionally with some of the fourth (breath control) attached to them. One might add some meditative practices as well, but certainly not with the intent of reaching kaivalya, a goal that would freak out hippie Westerners enthused about “interdependence.” The point is merely a limber body, and perhaps a slightly more disciplined mind – the philosophy of yoga has become a mere technique, a theme that pervaded this year’s conference of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy.
But even those who have made yoga into a technique have started to become uncomfortable with the idea. Two recent American news articles highlight the issue. Continue reading
In the past few years, especially since the publication of Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, there has been a small academic cottage industry devoted to the question of how one might best classify Buddhist ethics. Which of the three standard branches of analytical ethics does it fall under: consequentialism (à la J.S. Mill), deontology (à la Kant) or virtue ethics (à la Aristotle)? The debate has generally been a tussle between virtue ethics (Keown’s position) and consequentialism (Charles Goodman). My friend (and contributor to this blog) Justin Whitaker suspects that a deontological interpretation of Buddhist ethics is possible, but he’s a voice in the wilderness so far.
At the SACP, Michael Barnhart proposed a way of sidestepping this debate entirely. As far as ethics itself goes, he says, Buddhism is particularist; it doesn’t adhere to any real theory, it just responds to particular situations. Where it does have a theory isn’t in ethics at all, but in something else entirely: the question of what we care about, or should care about. (Specifically, he argues, Buddhists claim we should care above all about suffering.)
Barnhart based this idea on Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “The importance of what we care about.” I didn’t comment on his paper right after the SACP, because I wanted a chance to read Frankfurt’s piece first. Having read it, I would now say that Barnhart and Frankfurt both run into a common problem: an unreasonably narrow definition of ethics. Continue reading
A question that I saw recurring throughout the SACP was technique: when is philosophical reflection about our ends or goals, and when is it just about means to those ends? I’d previously thought about this question with respect to S.N. Goenka’s vipassanā meditation: the word Goenka uses most frequently to describe it is “technique.” The webpage describing vipassanā refers to it as a “non-sectarian technique”: thus Goenka’s claim that people from “any religion” can practise vipassanā – as long as they don’t bring any religious symbols into meditation practice.
This question of technique came up at least three times at the SACP. Continue reading
At the SACP, South Asian (Indian, Tibetan) and East Asian (Chinese, Japanese) thought both have a central place, with Western thought on the margins. At the vast majority of philosophy conferences, Western thought has a central place, with both South and East Asian thought on the margins. I say this not to complain about the general marginal status of Asian philosophy; that’s not news. Rather, I’m increasingly beginning to wonder whether there is anything to “Asian philosophy” at all.
SACP members often lament that the South Asianists and the East Asianists don’t talk to each other much. Douglas Berger, a thoughtful and erudite scholar I had the pleasure of meeting at the SACP, recently started the interesting email list ASIAN-THOUGHT-L with a main objective of encouraging cross-Asian discussion. My own categories on this site are organized the same way. But does all of this make any sense?
In terms of areas of concern, at least, South Asian and East Asian philosophical thought each seem much closer to the West than they are to each other. (“Western” philosophy here refers to the stream of thought originating in Greece, including the Islamic world.) South Asian thought is preeminently concerned with psychology, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and transcending the everyrday world, which have all been topics of central concern in the West since Plato – but are relatively little discussed in East Asia. East Asian thought, in turn, is concerned above all with politics, human relationships and social ethics – major concerns in the West but less so in South Asia.
The obvious constant between South and East Asia, of course, is Buddhism. But Buddhism here starts to look like the exception that proves the rule, for Buddhist thought changes drastically as it enters East Asia. East Asian Buddhist thinkers were much more concerned with worldly affairs and politics than their South Asian predecessors had been, and the elaborate structures of South Asian theoretical philosophies got dramatically pared down in systems like Ch’an/Zen.
So is it worth talking about Asian philosophy at all? Perhaps only as a move in intellectual politics – joining forces to carve out a space for philosophical reflection that is not Western. As for my categories, well, they seem a fitting organization for now given how much I talk about Buddhism. But I could imagine changing them on these grounds on the future.
EDIT: “a main objective of encouraging cross-Asian discussion” was originally “a main objective of encourage cross-Asian discussion.” That’s what I get for trying to blog on a layover.
First event at the SACP was a panel involving Edward (Ted) Slingerland, discussing Confucius’s thought. Slingerland was arguing, against the somewhat behaviourist interpretation promoted by Herbert Fingarette, that Confucius has a conception of “interiority,” or subjectivity – that we are not just the sum of our roles and actions, but there’s a consciousness inside.
The objections to Slingerland were of two kinds. First, people misinterpreted him and objected to the idea of interiority (or consciousness), thinking that he was arguing for interiority himself, even though he repeatedly insisted he was only interpreting Confucius and didn’t believe in it himself. (I’m surprised how many people did that.) Second, people objected (roughly) that Confucius couldn’t possibly have believed in interiority, typically on the grounds that he was a lot smarter than that.
The big surprise, to me, was that nobody (least of all Slingerland) seemed to step up to the plate and defend interiority – to say that yes, there’s actually something going on inside our minds. Continue reading