Calling myself a Buddhist, it turns out, was only the beginning. Buddhism was there for me in this dark time, not only as a way of focusing prayer, and certainly not merely as the resource for a hypothetical chaplain. The Buddhist ideas that taught me so much before were still there and a great comfort. And there was more still: I have now begun to practise Buddhism as I see it, on a far deeper level than I ever had before. Continue reading
While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.
This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. Continue reading
I have recently taken on a position as interviewer for the New Books Network, an exciting new project to hold podcast interviews with the authors of recently published scholarly books. I will be interviewing for New Books in Buddhist Studies, a position I share with Scott Mitchell. I’ve completed a first podcast which is not yet available online, but I’ll let you know when it is.
I mention this now because that first podcast is with Jason Clower on his The Unlikely Buddhologist, the study I recently mentioned of 20th-century Confucian Mou Zongsan. The podcast is there to explore Clower’s ideas; here I’d like to add my own.
The book asks why Mou, a committed Confucian, spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about Buddhism. Its answer is that Mou found East Asian Buddhists expressing metaphysical distinctions with a clarity that the Confucians had not. Mou is deeply concerned with the metaphysics of value – specifically, the relationship between ultimate value and existing things. One might refer to this as the relationship between goodness and truth, or between God and world, even creator and creation. Continue reading
The translation of a small passage can turn out to tell us a great deal. Consider section 4B12 of the Mencius. Mencius says in this section that the great man is one who retains, or does not lose, chizi zhi xin 赤子之心. This Chinese phrase translates literally as something like “heart/mind of baby.” Most translators have followed the interpretation of the great Neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi, which dovetails smoothly with the optimistic view of human nature generally attributed to Mencius: in D.C. Lau’s translation, “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” We are born naturally good as babies, and become bad only if something intervenes to impede our natural development. (Contrast Augustine in the first chapter of the Confessions, who observes babies as creatures of desire and envy.)
Bryan Van Norden’s recent translation of Mencius challenges this interpretation. He translates 4B12 as “Great people do not lose the hearts of their ‘children.'” And he notes that in this he is following the early commentator Zhao Qi – for whom “children” refers to the subjects of a ruler, whose hearts must be won over. Nothing here about babies or children being naturally good.
Van Norden could be right about Mencius to this point; I’m far from a Mencius scholar and wouldn’t be able to tell. What struck me as far more surprising, though, is what Van Norden says next. Continue reading
Skholiast makes a key point in response to my post on perennial questions. Regarding the categories I have drawn in the history of philosophy – ascent and descent, intimacy and integrity – he notes that these categories need to be viewed as dialectical, such that different thinkers do not merely oppose each other but supersede each other. I have noted before that the categories are intended as ideal types, so real thinkers will rarely if ever fall on one side or the other; that most thinkers land somewhere in the middle is a feature of the scheme, not a bug. But Skholiast goes further. It is not merely that all of history’s great thinkers have some element of both these sides – that they are in the middle – but that they try in some respect to put them together. They aim, that is, at synthesis and not merely compromise. I addressed this point in the earlier (perennial questions) post, but wrote the post as if it’s only modern comparative philosophers like Ken Wilber who try to do this. Skholiast rightly notes that this sort of attempt to put together opposites dialectically is to be found in the West as early as Plato, and possibly before. On a question as big as ascent and descent, everyone tries to put the opposing views together to some extent.
This is a broadly Hegelian account of the history of philosophy. Judging by his use of the term Aufhebung, Skholiast has intended it to be such. My own sympathies with G.W.F. Hegel are no secret, given my influence by James Doull and his school. But while expressing my admiration for Hegel before, I also expressed my biggest concern about his system: that it fails to do justice to Asian thought. Continue reading