Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (1)

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Recently Evan Thompson released a book with the provocative title Why I Am Not A Buddhist. The book is an interesting constructive exploration that draws heavily on Thompson’s long background in the mind sciences as well as a deep engagement with Buddhist studies and Indian philosophy and culture in general. As such it is well worth a read. Perhaps not surprisingly given my own identification, however, I do not think its case against being a Buddhist is strong. In a nutshell, Thompson makes at most a case against being one certain kind of Buddhist, and there is a lot more of Buddhism to consider.

Why is Thompson not a Buddhist? He answers succinctly:

Since I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist modernist, and Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound, I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith. That is why I’m not a Buddhist. (19)

So Thompson identifies only two ways of being a Buddhist – and rejects both. But I don’t think either rejection is sound. In both cases, he provides reason to reject only a very small portion of what he actually rejects. On the first: why can Thompson not be a non-modernist Buddhist? A few pages before he dismisses the option in a sentence: “Since I didn’t want to join a traditional Theravāda, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the only way to be a Buddhist was to be a Buddhist modernist.” (16) But such a claim would be startling to the millions and millions of traditional Asian Buddhist laypeople who still constitute the majority of professed Buddhists worldwide – and always have. They are neither monks nor modernists. So not to join a monastery hardly means that one cannot be a non-modernist Buddhist. (It also seems a little question-begging to frame the decision in terms of not wanting to join a monastery, since so much of the tradition identifies our desires – our wants – as the heart of our problems.)

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Absurd trolleys

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It appears that the trolley problem is, as they say, having a moment. Possibly due to its newfound relevance to autonomous cars and other robots – a relevance that would have been entirely science-fictional when Philippa Foot formulated the modern version of the problem in 1967 – it is now making multiple appearances in popular culture. In that respect it is a notable counterpoint to the claim I made years ago that analytic philosophy doesn’t make for good visual media.

Two years ago I noted how the problem is the focus of an excellent episode of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. The Wikipedia entry on the trolley problem lists several other appearance from the past decade. Perhaps most entertainingly of all, the writers of the webcomic Cyanide and Happiness have released a hilarious party game (in the matching style of Apples To Apples or Superfight) called Trial By Trolley.

trial by trolley

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Naturalized kammatic Buddhism

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I think I’ve shown that the kammatic-nibbanic distinction should matter to the historian, textual scholar, or anthropologist trying to figure out what Buddhism has meant in other times and places. Contra Damien Keown, it is a helpful ideal type to understand how Buddhists have thought about their tradition to date. But should it matter constructively, to us, now?

Yes, it should – at least to us Buddhists, and to anyone trying to think philosophically with Buddhism today. Because, I would argue, there are things valuable about worldly life – and it turns out that there have always been Buddhists who agreed that there are, in practice if not in theory. At least some forms of the dichotomy turn out to reprise the key constructive problem of my dissertation – the role of external goods in a good human life – from an intra-Buddhist perspective. The Buddhism of the suttas, of Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva, turns out to be single-minded: only liberation is important. Buddhists will often identify that austere Buddhism as normative, the ideal to aspire to – and yet live a life remarkably different from that ideal. And I think that they are, at least to some extent, right to live such a life. Continue reading

Does the kammatic/nibbanic distinction fit the facts?

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How helpful is Melford Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic distinction in describing Buddhism? It can be tempting to line it up too closely with other dichotomies – to say that kammatic Buddhism is practised by householders and nibbanic Buddhism by monks, for example. Damien Keown (Nature of Buddhist Ethics 86) notes that in Spiro’s own survey of Burmese villagers, many laypeople say that they would prefer nirvana for their next life and most monks do not describe striving for nirvana as one of their main functions; so such a mapping of kammatic/nibbanic onto householder/monk would be false.

But Keown takes this point about laypeople and monks much too far when he draws the conclusion that therefore Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic “theory does not fit the facts”. Continue reading

Kammatic and nibbanic Buddhism

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Last winter my wife and I made a wonderful trip to Sri Lanka. Before I say anything about the trip’s philosophical implications, I just want to note that you should go there if you have the money and time to travel off-continent. This cradle of Theravāda Buddhism has spectacular beaches, deliciously spicy food, and no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in a country the size of West Virginia or Latvia. Sri Lanka’s friendly and cheerful people make a great deal of their living from tourism – and it saddens me to think that last year’s well-publicized bombings might devastate that living, especially since one’s actual risk of being a victim of terrorism is no greater in today’s Sri Lanka than it is in France. They and their country deserve better. Please visit Sri Lanka. You won’t regret it.

ruwanwelisaya-stupa-srilanka-serendipity_holidays_hyderabad_telangana_india_largeBut to return to the topics of this blog. We visited several of said Buddhist World Heritage Sites, including Buddhaghosa’s home of Anuradhapura (whose great stupa is larger than any other ancient building save the Pyramids). We talked about Buddhism with our tour guide there. We passed many Buddhist temples and shrines on the road. I read the Mahāvaṃsa, the old historical chronicle of Buddhism’s arrival in Sri Lanka. And all of it was very far from the Buddhism I profess – even though they and I would all claim to be Theravādins. Continue reading

A Buddhism very different than the one we think we know

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Weterners who have studied Buddhist philosophy and ethics, even when we have done so at length, are often thrown for a loop when we read the Mahāvaṃsa. This text – one of the most historically oriented texts in premodern South Asia – has been a central part of the Theravāda Buddhist canon for over a thousand years, and played a central role in creating the very idea of “Theravāda” Buddhism.

It also looks very different from the Buddhism we constructive Western Buddhist scholars are accustomed to thinking about. Continue reading

Aristotelian vs. Buddhist eudaimonia

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Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics closes by arguing for parallels between Buddhist and Aristotelian ethics. He claims that “there are many formal parallels between the ideal of human perfection conceived by the Buddha and that envisaged by Aristotle” (193), such that “Aristotelianism provides a useful Western analogue which will be of use in elucidating the foundations and conceptual structure of Buddhist ethics.” (196)

Is Keown right? Is Buddhist ethics like Aristotle’s? Continue reading

McMindfulness and Engaged Buddhism: the twin innovations

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Ron Purser’s critique of McMindfulness is in line with William Edelglass’s critique of the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism. Purser and Edelglass are both right to note that something new, less traditional, is going on in modern mindfulness. For there are parts of Buddhism that secular mindfulness leaves out, intentionally. Purser is right about that: right mindfulness (sammāsati) is only one part of the traditional Noble Eightfold Path, and mindfulness practices often leave out the rest. And so he is also right to ask the question:

what is mindfulness for? Is it merely to attain better health, higher exam scores, focused concentration at work, or “self-compassion?” Is it a medical form of self-improvement? In a way, posing the question is tantamount to asking what constitutes “the good life,” the traditional basis of philosophy. (79)

Indeed it is. And that is of course a difficult question. But it is important that the traditional Buddhist answers to that question are no closer to Purser’s anti-capitalist activism (or to Edelglass’s concern to alleviate “deprivation, violence, illness, racism, and environmental degradation”) than they are to secular mindfulness. I suspect they are further away from it. Continue reading

In defence of McMindfulness

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The mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation continues at a rapid clip. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the years 2012 to 2017 the percentage of adults meditating in the United States more than tripled, to 17%. The American market for provision of meditation-related services is now worth $1 billion and growing.

With any phenomenon this mainstream, one expects a backlash. Sure enough, there have been a number of pieces appearing recently that chastise programs like BU’s under the name “corporate mindfulness”, or more pithily, “McMindfulness”. Continue reading

Bedtime for Minerva?

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Hegel has a famous phrase in the preface of the Philosophy of Right: “Only with the falling dusk does the owl of Minerva start its flight.” (Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.) The idea is that a historical era can only really be comprehended when it is complete: “Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready.” Only then is Minerva or Athena, the Roman and Greek goddess of wisdom personified as an owl, able to fly.

Hegel-and-Napoleon-in-Jena-1806It’s a powerful image, but seems strange put up against Hegel’s own life and practice. Hegel famously finished his most celebrated work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, “in the middle of the night before the Battle of Jena” – just as Napoleon was moving in and conquering the town of Jena where Hegel lived. Hegel gave the manuscript to a courier who rushed across French battle lines to bring it to the publisher. That hardly seems like the dusk of a historical era – more like its noontime, the bright light of day. How could Hegel be doing philosophy then? Continue reading