Right view vs. true statements

Tags

, , , ,

Paul Fuller’s The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism, as its title might suggest, is a dry, abstract, technical monograph. It may also be one of the more spiritually beneficial books I have ever read.

I suppose maybe both of these things are appropriate to the book’s subject matter, the Pali Canon. One of the Canon’s “three baskets”, the abhidhamma, is notorious for its level of technical abstraction – and yet Theravāda tradition has consistently held it to be of great spiritual benefit. Erik Braun has demonstrated how the modern Burmese traditions of vipassanā meditation, now enormously popular around the world, have their origins in study of the abhidhamma.

Continue reading

The peaceful transfer of power

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Four years ago, I was writing about how Donald Trump’s rise had led to some hand-wringing on whether democracy is a good idea. Now that question is more urgent, because the United States is at some risk of losing it.

In the present election, Joe Biden has held the most consistent lead in the history of modern polling. So far, not once has Trump moved ahead of Biden in the polling average. (Compare 2016.) Yes, a lot can happen in two months, but this election will involve so much early voting that there is now not much time left for Trump to turn it around. So, I feel very confident in predicting that more Americans will vote for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump. That wasn’t enough for his predecessor to actually become president, of course, since, like Al Gore before her, she was caught out by the indefensible atavism that is the Electoral College: one needs to win a specific subset of states, irrespective of the number of votes one receives. Still, Biden’s lead is such, and his support among those who dislike both candidates so much stronger than Hillary Clinton’s, that I think it is quite likely that he will get more votes in the necessary swing states as well.

Even that, however, does not mean that Biden will become president on inauguration day.

Continue reading

Perennial nondualism

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have spent a good deal of time criticizing the idea of a “perennial philosophy”, the idea (expressed by Ken Wilber and others before him) that the great sages of the world have always basically agreed on the really important things. In the past I had said there were perennial questions but with different answers; now I’m not even sure whether that is the case.

And yet I am struck by a particular phenomenon from which the perennialists draw a great deal of inspiration – and that is the pervasive influence of nondualism. “Nondual” is a literal English translation of the Sanskrit a-dvaita, the name of Śaṅkara’s school of Vedānta philosophy. But the core idea of nondualism has been asserted by a very wide range of philosophers around the world – from people who could never have heard of Śaṅkara, to Śaṅkara’s enemies.

Continue reading

The opposite of Christianity

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One philosophical principle I have tried to live by is: there is truth in everything. This is a weaker version of Ken Wilber’s “Everybody is right”: many people are wrong, about many things, but they come to their wrong views for a reason. I take this principle to underlie Hegel’s dialectical method: one should transcend and include every view, which is to say preserve the truth and the reasons underlying a wrong view while leaving aside what is wrong in it.

One thing that led me to this view: as a teenager I was deeply anti-Christian. I saw in Christianity only an oppressive anti-gay, anti-feminist politics – a pillar of Reagan’s Moral Majority coalition. As an adult, though, I came to appreciate Christianity – never adopting its worldview, but coming to see in Christianity a similar kind of self-cultivation to the Buddhist one that had changed my life.

But a true Hegelian, I think, needs to find the truth not only in Christianity but also in its opposite. Hegel himself spends a great deal of time in the Phenomenology looking for truth in Enlightenment anti-clericalism alongside Christian faith itself. In an era later than Hegel’s, though, we now see anti-Christian views taken further than the Enlightenment thinkers ever dreamed: a significant number of people now openly embrace Satanism. And I think it is also important to see the truth in that.

Continue reading

A book on how virtue helps us flourish

Tags

, , , , , ,

I’d like to now envision the book I am working on. This post is something like a proposal for the book, both to clarify my thoughts on it and (more importantly) to hear yours. As I write it I keep in mind the wise advice of my dissertation advisor, Parimal Patil, that fundamentally a dissertation proposal is telling a lie. You don’t actually know what the final result is going to be, or you would have already written it; the act of researching it will necessarily make it something different from the proposal. You just don’t know how it will be different. With that in mind, let me attempt to say some more, in a nutshell, about what the book will be.

Continue reading

Resolving cliffhangers in a book

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

For some time now I have realized: it is time for me to write a book. It’s time to take ideas that I have circulated in blog-post form and develop them into a more systematic, coherent constructive argument. It has now been about seventeen years since Robert Gimello told me that the project that I had wanted to do for my dissertation was a twenty-year project, and as it turns out, I have spent much of those ensuing years working toward exactly that.

The questions that drove my dissertation – the ethics of emotion around attachment, anger and external goods – have continued to drive my thoughts over the thirteen years since I finished it, through twists and turns like declaring myself Buddhist. The dissertation could not resolve them; it ended on a cliffhanger. Śāntideva had good reasons for his views; Martha Nussbaum had good reasons for hers; where do we go from here? By 2013 I’d been thinking here about ways to resolve that cliffhanger, but I now think the approach I took at that time was exactly the wrong one: I had tried to generalize Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s views, viewing them as exemplars of integrity ascent and intimacy descent worldviews respectively. As I said at the time, that approach helped me spell out my problématique – but it still didn’t bring me any closer to resolving it.

Continue reading

Theodicy is not the core of karma

Tags

, , , , ,

I will close out this latest round of replies to Evan Thompson with a recap: It is simply not the case that karma “is fundamentally about” why bad things happen to good people (or vice versa). To try to portray karma in that way, it seems to me, requires more cherry-picking and selective quoting of sources than does portraying it as a form of eudaimonism. Obeyesekere’s study of the concept’s origins, which Thompson originally cited as his source, shows that its formation is in something quite different. The passages that Thompson quotes from Śāntideva do nothing to establish that karma for him is about why bad things happen to good people. The sociological studies that he now cites do not even claim to establish any such thing, and their evidence does not imply it either – so they would not establish this claim even if they had been studies of Buddhists, which they are not. Going by Thompson’s own sources – historical, philosophical and sociological – we see absolutely no reason to believe that the question of theodicy is or ever was at “the beating heart” of the karma concept, for Buddhists or anybody else. Actual anthropological studies of karma beliefs in context establish its core as something very different, just as Obeyesekere’s study itself does.

Why then does Thompson continue to insist that bad things happening to good people and vice versa – the core problem of Christian theodicy – is also the core problem of traditional Buddhist karma, when it has turned out multiple times that even his own sources provide no reason to believe this claim? Thompson himself is clearly deeply bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people, which he calls “shocking and disturbing”, a “cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness”. It is hardly unreasonable to be bothered by this fact in this way, and Thompson is entitled to be so. What is not acceptable is to then reread this preoccupation back onto traditional Buddhist sources.

Continue reading

Śāntideva’s passages on enemies and their context

Tags

, , , , ,

Having discussed the broader context of Śāntideva’s work, I think it is instructive to turn now to the two passages that Evan Thompson quotes from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra as supposed examples of the way that Śāntideva’s “philosophical arguments fall apart” without rebirth. These respectively say (in the Wallace and Wallace translation he cites), first, “In the past, I too have inflicted such pain on sentient beings; therefore, I, who have caused harm to sentient beings, deserve that in return./Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?” (BCA VI.42-43) And second, “since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.” (VI.107)

Continue reading

What would Śāntideva do without rebirth?

Tags

, , ,

I have argued against Evan Thompson that philosophical texts are the proper source for philosophers, so let me now turn our discussion there: specifically to Śāntideva, whom both of us cite.

First let us be clear about two points on which I think Thompson and I agree. The first of these points is that Śāntideva himself believes in rebirth, and this concept deeply suffuses his philosophy; Thompson and I agree about that. The second is that Śāntideva is wrong in this belief: though Ian Stevenson’s kind of work does present a potential anomaly, the best evidence we have in psychology still shows us that human consciousness is tied ineluctably to human bodies, and when that body dies, the consciousness dies with it. As far as I can tell, Thompson accepts this latter proposition. If he does believe human consciousness is reborn at death, my apologies: in that case we are having a very different conversation, and I would be genuinely intrigued to hear his reasons for such a belief. Thompson has not said anything of the sort in the conversation to date, however, so I will proceed in the present discussion on the assumption that he does not.

The question then is how a contemporary Buddhist who accepts both of these points should read Śāntideva’s work. It was specifically in answer to this question that I first turned to a naturalized theory of karma: I did so because I wanted to take Śāntideva as seriously as possible. My dissertation was all about understanding Śāntideva’s reasoning at a deep level, so I looked in detail at the kinds of arguments and reasons Śāntideva offers for acting or feeling one way and not another – what Thompson calls their “warrant and motivation”. As the dissertation discusses, these reasons for action generally fell into three categories, not always separable from each other: the pleasant and unpleasant mental states the actions generate; metaphysical insight into the nature of things, especially their emptiness (which I explored in more detail in a later article; and good or bad karma. Only the last of these three is closely tied to rebirth. The latter terms “good and bad karma” are specifically my translations of puṇya and pāpa, terms ubiquitous in Śāntideva’s work; for him it is puṇya and pāpa, rather than karmaphala or karmavipāka, that most describe the process by which good and bad actions lead to good and bad results.

Continue reading

Karma in society

Tags

, , , ,

Last time I explained why I think a constructive modern Buddhist philosophy should indeed focus on Buddhist philosophical texts as its sources for karma, and I stand by that. Yet ironically, even if we were to turn away from philosophy to karma’s functioning in society, as Thompson now recommends, we would then notice that even his sources for that point themselves do not establish what he claims they do: i.e. that “the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”. Just as Obeyesekere never made that claim historically, these sources do not make the claim sociologically.

The sources in question are three articles about karma, all by his UBC colleague Cindel White with some coauthors. Contra Thompson’s claim, these studies do not indicate that the Buddhist concept of karma “is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even in the sociological context of everyday Buddhism. This is for two key reasons.

Continue reading