On mindfulness


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The term mindfulness is ubiquitous in English-language discussions of Buddhism – and beyond, in secular meditation techniques. When I first encountered Buddhism in Thailand, the English word “mindfulness” was central to my understanding of the tradition. My journals in 1997 described mindfulness as “the Buddhist virtue”, and identified it with “detachment from negative emotions, the ability to sit back and go ‘Y’know, there’s really no reason to be pissed off about this here.’” It was not a word I encountered anywhere outside my own study of the tradition.

Seventeen years later, I realized that “mindfulness” had become mainstream when my hospital had prescribed mindfulness meditation for my insomnia. It has already become considerably more mainstream in the few years since. A couple years ago I participated in a new and popular mindfulness program through my employer, Boston University. I should stress that this program had nothing to do with the religion or philosophy departments, the Center for the Study of Asia, the Buddhist students’ organization, or any other such Buddhism-related part of the university. No, it was offered through Information Services and Technology, as part of my day job assisting professors to teach with technology – whether they are professors of chemistry, public health, hospitality administration, or anything else. Continue reading

Don’t give a paper


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Studies of Indian philosophy often rightly call attention to the varied genres in which they are composed: the sparse pith of the Yoga Sūtras, Śaṅkara’s expositing his own views as commentary on someone else’s, the Milindapañhā’s dialogue evocative of Plato’s Socrates. Such differences call to mind Martha Nussbaum’s famous claim in Love’s Knowledge that “Style itself makes its claims, expresses its own sense of what matters.”

As is far too often the case, though, the gaze that modern Western academics apply to distant places and times is one they steadfastly avoid turning on themselves. We are far too reluctant to think about differences of genre in our own composition.

Most notably: the venues of scholarly productivity come in at least two completely different genres. There is the written article or book, subjected to peer review and editorship, with its hypertextual infrastructure of footnotes and its bibliography. And there is the oral presentation, at a conference or workshop, of a work-in-progress with that citation infrastructure omitted, delivered to a room at a single time and place who can then begin a Socratic and dialogical back-and-forth.

So why do we insist on acting as if these two venues are the same? Continue reading

Asian historicism before Protestantism


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We are surely familiar with the pattern by now: members of an Asian tradition are concerned about supposed corruptions in their tradition which depart from the intentions of the tradition’s historic founders, so they turn with renewed focus to the historical texts that they take to be at the tradition’s centre. We, with our historical hindsight, now know that this Asian concern with texts and founders is an alien importation, the work of colonial subjects aping their Protestant missionary rulers’ search for textual historicity.

Except for one thing: it isn’t.

Continue reading

A Buddhist argument against rebirth


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I am not entirely sure that I agree with the argument I am about to make. However, I do find it at least plausible and I have not seen it made before. I think this argument is worth somebody making, and I think it is worth doing here.

That is: I would like to make a Buddhist argument against rebirth. An argument against rebirth on Buddhist grounds. Continue reading

Nussbaum’s revised view of anger


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It has taken me far too long to read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice – long enough that, in characteristic Nussbaum fashion, she has already authored or coauthored at least three more books since it came out. I say this is too long because Nussbaum’s views on anger were a topic important to my dissertation, which Nussbaum read and thought highly of while she was at Harvard. (The footnotes of Anger and Forgiveness make a couple offhand references to Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, and I strongly suspect that it was through my diss that she learned about the text.) And what is most striking to me when I read the book now is that Nussbaum’s views on anger have taken a startling turn in this book – one that brings them much closer to Śāntideva’s. Continue reading

The importance of being Thich Quang Duc


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In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:

Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)

The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?

I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc. Continue reading

Kant’s quantitative individualism


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In response to my discussion a while ago of the problems between Buddhism and qualitative individualism, Patrick O’Donnell suggested that J. David Velleman’s Self to Self offered a possibility of bridging the gap between the two. My reaction was skeptical, since Velleman explicitly situates himself as a Kantian, and I have taken Kant as exactly the opposite kind of individualist, a quantitative individualist. I said as much in response, claiming that for Kant “ethically most significant about human beings are those characteristics we all share, not our differences – the right way for one person to act in a given context is broadly the right way for any other person to act in the same context.”

Patrick’s response was where the discussion got really interesting. For this is the first time I’ve seen someone question the very distinction between qualitative and quantitative individualism. Continue reading

A Sellarsian solution for the self?


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The conflict between Buddhism and qualitative individualism is a major difficulty for my own philosophy. In addressing that conflict, there is one approach that has repeatedly stuck out at me. I don’t think it actually solves the problem, but it may be a step towards a solution.

That step is to build on the similarities between the Buddhist conventional/ultimate distinction and Wilfrid Sellars’s distinction between the manifest and the scientific image. Both of these dichotomies are focused on the human person or self: at the conventional (sammuti/vohāra) or manifest level, selves and their differences are real and important, and stories can be told; at the ultimate (paramattha) or scientific level, selves disappear, reduced to smaller particles that form a more fundamental level of explanation.

We may note here a key way that Sellars departs from at least Buddhaghosa’s Buddhism. He agrees with Buddhaghosa’s view that the ultimate/scientific level is an important respect truer than the conventional/manifest. But the further difference is very important: for Sellars, the manifest image is necessary for ethics (and probably aesthetics and politics.) Continue reading

Ten years of Love of All Wisdom


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I opened Love of All Wisdom to the public, with three first posts, on 1 June 2009. That was ten years ago today.

In the span of the history of philosophy, ten years is the blink of an eye. In the span of the blogosphere, however, ten years is an eternity. A lot happens in that time. Ten years ago, Instagram, Snapchat and Lyft did not exist; Uber, Airbnb, the Chrome browser and the Android operating system were less than a year old. Continue reading

Conventional teaching wrongly taken as an equal


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I demonstrated last time why Buddhaghosa believes the ultimate (paramattha) to be higher and truer than the conventional (vohāra or sammuti). But this is not to say that he finds the conventional unnecessary. Charles Hallisey rightly points out its value in his important “In defense of rather fragile and local achievement“. Hallisey notes that the conventional is essential for pedagogical purposes, and those purposes matter. The conventional is at least as important as the ultimate – but the ultimate, as I noted last time, remains truer. If it were not truer, there would be no need for it; the conventional would simply be superior, since it is more effective at teaching and persuading people.

In The Forerunner of All Things – a generally strong book of which I stand by my previous praise – Maria Heim claims that in that same article Hallisey argues “the Theravādins do not see ultimate (paramattha) teachings as truer than conventional (sammuti) teachings”, following this up with her own comment that “They have different purposes but are equally truthful ways of describing the world, and the Theravāda sources do not place them in a hierarchy.” (Forerunner 90)

But that is not quite what Hallisey says in the chapter at issue. Continue reading

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