Is karma about why bad things happen to good people?

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Continuing my reply to Evan Thompson, I will focus next on karma, because the reinterpretation of karma is central to my own eudaimonist Buddhism, and therefore it forms a focal point in Thompson’s critique. Karma is Thompson’s example of how I and other Buddhist modernists “recast Buddhist concepts in a way that makes them incongruent with their traditional meanings and functions.” Why? Thompson asserts that eudaimonism is not the core idea of karma, “if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.”

I disagree entirely with this assertion.

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Grappling with impermanence

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The Buddhist propositions that Evan Thompson articulates go deep. They proclaim three flaws of all the things around us, in ways that (Buddhist tradition has typically claimed) make them unworthy of our seeking. On such a view, the only thing truly worthy of our seeking is dukkhanirodha, the cessation of suffering, through a nirvana identified with “unconditioned peace”. The ethical implication is that the finest human life is that of a monk, who devotes his or her entire life to the pursuit of dukkhanirodha. It is granted that most people won’t pursue such a life, but that is because they are too weak to do so; their lives will be worse for their seeking external goods, like familial relationships and material possessions.

Aśvaghoṣa dramatizes these points in the Buddhacarita, his famous story of the Buddha’s journey to monkhood. After a contented life of luxury the Buddha-to-be sees an old man, a sick man and a dead man, he realizes that that is the fate of everyone and everything, and can take no more pleasure in the objects (viṣayas) of the world: “I do not despise objects. I know them to be at the heart of human affairs. / But seeing the world to be impermanent, my mind does not delight in them.” (BC IV.85) It is specifically the impermanence of things that leads the Buddha to become a monk and reject them.

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On being Buddhist and distinctively Buddhist

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At the start of my replies to Evan Thompson’s response, I noted that there are two core ways in which my eudaimonist Buddhist modernism differs from a great deal of premodern Buddhist tradition. I will first address the one that I take to be a deeper modification to the tradition, in admitting goals beyond the removal of suffering. Thompson doesn’t speak of this modification in quite these terms, but I think many of his comments speak directly to it. Especially, Thompson says:

I submit that the driving engine—historically and philosophically—of Buddhist thought is the following set of propositions: All conditioned and compounded things are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self (the so-called three marks of existence); and nirvāṇa is unconditioned peace. Another formulation is the so-called four seals (which, according to Tibetan Buddhism, minimally identify a view as Buddhist): everything conditioned and compounded is impermanent; everything contaminated (by the mental afflictions of beginningless fundamental ignorance, attachment, and anger) is suffering; all phenomena are devoid of self; and nirvāṇa (unconditioned cessation of affliction) is peace.

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On the challenging aspects of tradition

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Evan Thompson has made a wonderfully detailed response to my earlier two posts that critique his stimulating Why I Am Not A Buddhist. It is a dialogue I am excited to continue. First a logistical note: I have a great deal to say in response, but I generally think that blog posts work better as relatively self-contained but relatively short pieces, so I’m going to space out my own long reply over eight posts. (All this is perhaps in keeping with Simon Critchley’s claim that the philosopher is one who takes time.) In order to stop the discussion from dragging on for too long, I will post these posts at a much more frequent interval than I usually do – three times a week, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

To begin, I thank Thompson for his careful and thoughtful response. Its title – “Clarifying Why I Am Not A Buddhist” – is extremely apt. It shows me that there are points where I misunderstood the book’s claims, and I think the clarifications in his response make for a more fruitful debate. Above all: the book frames its critique of “neural Buddhism” in ways that did not seem to me to apply to the eudaimonic Buddhism that I hold. (Mike Slott of the Secular Buddhist Network appears to have got the same initial impression I did.) Thompson’s response makes it much clearer that he does indeed intend his critique to apply to me, and to fellow eudaimonist Buddhists like Dale Wright, Seth Segall, Ken McLeod, and possibly Slott. As a result, I think we are now much better able to dive into the real issues at hand, which I take to be crucial ones for my own philosophical project.

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From snark to smarm

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Back in 2013, the Canadian journalist Chrystia Freeland decided to make a major career move: she left journalism to become an elected politician. (She now serves as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, in the Liberal cabinet under Justin Trudeau.) The move horrified a number of people close to her: according to a New York editor she admired, “if I entered politics I would never again be able to tell the truth—and that even if I tried, people wouldn’t listen to me, on the grounds that I was a politician, and therefore a liar.”

Soon after she was elected, Freeland wrote about her career transition in an excellent piece considering the larger implications of the move and the suspicion it evoked. Freeland frames the issue at hand in terms of a distinction between snark and smarm. She doesn’t specifically define either term, but evokes a common cluster of meanings of them: the fight between snark and smarm is a “fight between the cynics and the true believers, the pessimists and the optimists, the naysayers and the cheerleaders.” Politicians present themselves as smarmy true believers, optimists, cheerleaders; journalists present themselves as snarky cynics, pessimists, naysayers.

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Endorsing and rejecting the views of the modern West

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Friend of this blog Seth Zuihō Segall has a new book out entitled Buddhism and Human Flourishing, which he kindly sent me a pre-print review copy of. There is much to like in the book and I am very sympathetic to it. Indeed, my first worry about the book was that I would be too sympathetic. For the basic idea of the book – a modern Buddhist ethics understood in roughly Aristotelian terms –  is quite close to the book I have been starting to work on writing myself. Did Segall scoop me?

Having read the book, I think this is not the case: my take on Buddhist ethics does turn out to be significantly different from his. Continue reading

Political philosophy beyond the state

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Modern liberal political philosophy has tended to take among its central questions: what is the proper relationship between the individual and the state? What rights does the individual have against the state, how do we select which individuals make decisions for the state? These are the central questions explored by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Likewise the famous frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, produced by Abraham Bosse in collaboration with Hobbes, depicts a giant man (the monarch) who is made up of hundreds of smaller people – the state and the individuals.

These are, I submit, the wrong questions for political philosophy to ask. A key problem with the Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau approach is it doesn’t think enough about what individuals are and why they would need a state. “Protection from violence” is the usual answer to the latter question, and it’s a venerable one – the idea that a state is established to protect its people is found in the Aggañña Sutta, in a passage that modern treatises on Buddhism quote all over the place (though it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it passage in the original). But individuals need much more than protection from violence!

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Our need for other people

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As I write this post, I, probably along with most of my readers, face severe restrictions on normal human social activity, in order to limit the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. Electronic communications have made it possible to continue a social life despite these restrictions – but much of this conversation tends to focus on the virus and the limitations of life under it. I find myself yearning for more conversations about other things, and you may be as well. I also do not think I have anything particularly profound to say about the virus so far. For these reasons, I am not going to write here about the virus, at least for now. Instead, for the next little while I’m going to write about other topics that I’d been planning to write about anyway, but on an increased frequency to suit my and others’ changed schedules: every Sunday rather than every alternate Sunday. This is the first such post. I was not thinking about the virus when I originally wrote it, but perhaps it takes on a different resonance now.

A good human life, in general, requires living with other human beings. Some would take this claim as a truism, but I think it’s important to establish it. The ideal of the autonomous, independent individual is not merely a modern Western conceit, as is usually thought; this ideal is held up as a high ideal by monastic traditions in ancient India, perhaps most prominently in the Yoga Sūtras and Jain Tattvārtha Sūtra which describe their highest ideal as kaivalya, aloneness.

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Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (2)

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Last time I noted that Evan Thompson’s Why I Am Not A Buddhist does not establish a case against being a Buddhist in Asian traditions, including Asian Buddhist modernist traditions. His critique focuses instead on Western Buddhist modernists. I do count myself among the latter, so the critique is intended to apply to Buddhists like me. Yet I do not think it hits its target. Thompson’s critique, as described last time, focuses on a neuroscience-linked, supposedly empirical variety of Buddhism that he calls “neural Budddhism”, exemplified by Robert Wright and Alan Wallace. But neural Buddhism does not exhaust Western Buddhist modernism.

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Festival of the Middle Way

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Barry Daniel, who interviewed me a couple years ago on the idea of literal conservatism, dropped me a line to mention that his Middle Way Society is now hosting a virtual online festival on April 18-19, on UK time but open to anyone. Presenters include Stephen Batchelor. It sounds like a great way to connect for philosophical conversations in a trying and difficult time. Check it out!