The power of a beautiful temple

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We think these days a lot about Buddhist ethics, which often involves some thought about Buddhist politics. We tend to think a lot less about Buddhist aesthetics.

Now there’s an obvious explanation that could be given for this: the Buddhist dhamma teaches that worldly pleasures mire us in suffering. So aesthetics, insofar as it deals with pleasurable phenomena like art, is something Buddhists should avoid. In response I give you this:

Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok

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Of superstition and aesthetics

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While I was working in Thailand as a young man, my closest friend there was a pious Christian who had recently converted, as an undergraduate. He took a short vacation in Malaysia and came back deeply admiring the (Muslim) Malay people he met, saying: “They’re so religious!”

I noted, “The Thais are very religious too.” He exclaimed – “But that’s just – superstition!

I was nonplussed by that reaction and didn’t answer it, because it left my secular self a bit confused: I hadn’t really thought there was a difference between religion and superstition. That seemed a potentially inflammatory point to make, so I left it silent. But I certainly didn’t agree with him. I was already admiring the Thai Buddhists I met, and would soon come to learn my most important life lesson from the Buddhism I found in Thailand. I would never want to dismiss it as mere superstition.

Until, perhaps, I recently started reading the works of Justin McDaniel. Continue reading

Rejecting certainty

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I struggle with the Buddhist concept of non-self. I am not sure whether I accept it. But I am confident that Buddhists are able to demolish one of the more influential Western accounts of the self, that of René Descartes.

Descartes, recall, is worried that he cannot be certain of anything. Like Plato before him, he knows his senses are often wrong; he could be dreaming, he could be in the Matrix. Unlike Plato, he is not satisfied to take even mathematics as a certain foundation. It could be that an evil demon (or the creators of the Matrix) had deceived him such that there was no shape or place, and the real world was far stranger. Geometry isn’t certain enough. Arithmetic? Here he comes to real uncertainty:

I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square?

I think Descartes’s reasoning is right up to this point (as many Buddhists would not). Continue reading

Is it morally wrong to eat your dead dog?

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Jonathan Haidt opens his The Righteous Mind with two hypothetical examples, “thought experiments” as analytic philosophers would say:

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

And

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

Haidt asks us: Did the people in either of these cases do something morally wrong? My reaction was, and is, to say yes in the first case but not the second. Continue reading

Farewell to “Yavanayāna”

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Late last year I was delighted to see a post from Richard Payne retracting his earlier post on “White Buddhism”, motivated at least in part by my critique. It is all too rare to see a human being change his or her mind, especially on politically charged issues where passions run high and it is all too easy to develop attachment to views. I commend and thank Payne for his thoughtful retraction. On my end, he has provoked me to make a retraction of my own. Continue reading

Happiness from politics, or, mourning in America

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I will be taking a break from blogging as I travel in the next couple weeks. In the meantime I would like to leave you with this.

The results of the 2016 American election came as a surprise, and for many of us it was a horrifying shock. (One survey indicates “shocked” was the most common word Democratic supporters used to describe their reaction.) For me, though, this was not an unfamiliar shock. For the 2004 election had shocked me in a very similar way. In 2000 I had comforted myself with the idea that Bush didn’t legitimately win, and I was confident the people of the United States would reject him after horrors like Abu Ghraib. I was wrong. They did not. He even won the popular vote. Those results shook me to the core, filling my every moment with rage and frustration.

I had to learn ways of dealing with a world that so plainly rejected my values. A year or so after the fact, Goenka’s karmic redirection helped me a lot. But in the immediate aftermath of 2004, what helped was writing in my personal journals, thinking through ways to come to terms with the terrible situation. Just as reading can be a spiritual practice, so can writing.

What follows is the journal entry that, I think, helped me most to deal with the situation at the time. Continue reading

On wanting it darker

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Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008

2016 has taken many great musicians from us. Early in the year we lost Prince and David Bowie. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is still with us for now, but the band played its last concert. And then there was Leonard Cohen.

Cohen began his career as one of the long parade of 1960s singer-songwriters who temporarily changed the phrase “folk music” so that it now referred to the music of educated urban élites. He earned a place alongside Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – many of whom he played with. In that context he developed his talent for enigmatic, evocative lyrics. But as far as I’m concerned, none of his real greatness comes from that period. If he had died as young as Janis Joplin (or Amy Winehouse), I wouldn’t be writing this tribute, and a few decades from now I’m not sure that he would be remembered.

Cohen’s real brilliance came out in the 1980s and early 1990s, when decades of whisky and cigarettes had lowered his sensitive folkie voice into a gravelly growl, and his music took a darker turn to match. Continue reading

Philosophical and historical uses together

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Last time I examined Andrew Ollett’s distinction between “decision-oriented” texts like Kant’s Grounding and “capacity-oriented” texts like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, and the ways in which that distinction might suggest a “philosophical” versus a “historical” approach to those texts. I discussed what I found problematic about that application of the distinction, but noted Andrew’s quote that points beyond it:

Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.

For me, this claim calls our attention to an important point, related to my recent methodological reflection on religious studies: Continue reading

Decision and capacity, philosophical and historical

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Andrew Ollett has recently taken up the point I made earlier this year that Buddhist ethics, in distinction from modern analytical ethics, is not primarily concerned with decision procedure. He identifies Indian non-analytic approaches as “capacity-oriented”: “They maintain that ethical decision-making and action always presuppose being formed as a subject with particular capacities, dispositions, habits, and so on.” That is not quite how I would put it, because for a Buddhist thinker like Buddhaghosa, we are not actually subjects, formed or otherwise; our systematic delusion forms an idea of ourselves as subjects, but this idea is false, and part of the goal of ethics is to un-form or at least de-form it. I do agree, though, that in Buddhist ethics there is an emphasis on the development of beneficial dispositions and habits – virtues – that stands in distinction to the analytical emphasis on a decision procedure. (It seems to me like this might not be the case in Mīmāṃsā, whose legalistic mode of ethical reasoning does seem oriented to a decision procedure, but Andrew knows more about Mīmāṃsā than I do.)

Andrew’s post gets particularly interesting when he maps the decision/capacity distinction onto “disciplinary and methodological differences, or perhaps better, differences of outlook.” I think there is something to this point. I am not entirely in agreement with it, but I’d like to parse out that disagreement, as I think it points to something of deep methodological importance. Continue reading

In memoriam: Claude Vipond

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My maternal grandfather, Claude Vipond, died peacefully last Tuesday. His life was long – he reached 95 years. Claude was a doctor and a World War II veteran, but I knew him entirely as a grandfather – an often larger-than-life figure at family gatherings, delivering corny jokes with an enthusiasm that made them hilarious. At large Christmas gatherings he would read to the grandchildren, not some sentimental Victorian Christmas story but Stephen Leacock‘s marvelously tongue-in-cheek Caroline’s Christmas.

The irreverence of Leacock’s self-subverting story left a strong impression on me as a boy – much like the movie The Princess Bride, which came out when I was the age of its child narratee. In a different way from my father, “Caroline’s Christmas” helped teach me the pleasures of being an outsider, with an ironic detachment expressed in humour – in ways perhaps more profound than I realized at the time. In many ways I think that story really sums up my grandfather’s spirit. Continue reading

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