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

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

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