Disengaged Buddhism article is published


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It’s been a long time in the making, but my article on disengaged Buddhism is finally published. It’s at the free online Journal of Buddhist Ethics, so you can go read it for yourself.

I’ll say a bit here about what you can expect to find. Some of the article goes over territory I’ve already covered on Love of All Wisdom and the IPB: I discuss Aśvaghoṣa’s worries about severity, Śāntideva’s rejection of external goods, the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta’s detached attitude to time. The article does this in more detail than the blogs have, and I also show similar ideas in other suttas and jātakas and from Candrakīrti.

The article also responds more directly to existing engaged Buddhist scholarship. Engaged Buddhist scholars have, so far, been the people actually doing constructive Buddhist ethics. They are not merely describing what Buddhists happen to believe but prescribing a Buddhist way of life, and that much is something I think we need more of. What I don’t think they do nearly enough is think about or respond to the points made by the likes of Śāntideva and Aśvaghoṣa. The article explains why they should.

So the article isn’t itself a work of constructive Buddhist ethics; I’m not taking a position on engagement or disengagement there. What I am doing is reminding other people doing constructive Buddhist ethics about a large body of ideas that they ignore or silence, and urging them to take those ideas more seriously. My own constructive position on these questions is complicated. I’ve started to take some of it up on the blog – for example, I think there is some empirical confirmation for the Disengaged Buddhists’ psychological claims. That isn’t the whole story, though, and you can expect to hear more about my constructive views in the years to come. I am proud of the article as a starting point.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

How not to read Hegel


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A major idea in the work of G.W.F. Hegel is best translated as the dialectic of master and slave. In this parable of social existence, the relationship between social superiors and inferiors is dialectical in the sense that both learn from and develop out of the relationship with each other. But the slaves are shown to understand their condition better than their masters in a way that leads them to overthrow the masters and establish a more adequate social order. The dialectic of master and slave is an idea central to Hegel’s entire work. In turn it provided the major inspiration for the work of Karl Marx.

Every sentence in the previous paragraph is false. Continue reading

The wisdom of serenity


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There are probably few people in the English-speaking world unfamiliar with the Serenity Prayer. In its best-known form this prayer asks: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The prayer was created by Reinhold Niebuhr, a mid-20th-century American Christian theologian who was possibly the biggest influence on Martin Luther King. It has spread into widespread usage through its adoption by twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Because of its ubiquity, I think, it is sometimes regarded as a sort of vacuous and vapid New Age pablum. I do not think that it should be. Continue reading

Let non-white be non-white


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The term people of colour has been around since at least the 1980s, but in those days it was typically treated as something of a joke, a silly prettified euphemism. In the 2010s, in the US at least, it has now become a widely used term to group together people who are not racially white. This may be in part for the valid reason that the old term “minorities” is no longer appropriate, given that in some places like California and Texas, white people are now themselves a minority. Nevertheless, I do not think that the adoption of “people of colour” is a good thing. Continue reading

Is mindfulness meditation a problem for Christians?


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As mindfulness meditation practices become ever more popular and widespread, their claim to be a “non-sectarian technique” takes on progressively greater importance, just as it does with yoga. By claiming their practices to be secular techniques, teachers not only can promote the practices to adherents of Abrahamic traditions; they can also aim to avoid the legal restrictions placed on “religion” –though they can then also be taxed, and even treated as a competitive sport.

But that’s not the only problem. Continue reading

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