Who cares about phenomenological similarities?

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I think one often learns the most about a philosopher from those points where her views change. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a way I think my own thought has changed recently. Ten years ago on this blog, I posted an essay that I had written ten years before that, for Robert M. Gimello’s graduate course on Buddhist meditation traditions. That paper critiques Ninian Smart’s chapter “What would Buddhaghosa have made of The Cloud of Unknowing?” (in Steven Katz’s Mysticism and Language). My now twenty-year-old essay tears Smart to pieces for his comparison between Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and the fourteenth-century English The Cloud of Unknowing. And in the light of my more recent thoughts on mystical experience, I now think that tearing up went too far.

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Mystical experience across cultures

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There are likely a number of religious-studies scholars who would cringe and groan at Roland Griffiths’s studies of drug-induced mystical experience. I haven’t gone into their literature in a while, but I think it would be easy for them to say Griffiths is setting the study of mysticism back many decades. Because Griffiths’s stated conception of mystical experience is one that many religionists would already have considered very dated – even when I was studying them twenty years ago.

I say this because Griffiths’s first groundbreaking study, in indicating that many psilocybin volunteers had mystical experiences, measures mystical experience using a questionnaire based on W.T. Stace‘s Mysticism and Philosophy, published in 1960. And when I was in grad school twenty years ago, Stace’s work was often considered impossibly backward.

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Two South Asian approaches to gender ethics

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I was recently invited to a recent Buddhist-ethics conference featuring a workshop discussion on gender. I decided to attend the workshop en femme – as Sandhya – because I thought it might be relevant, though I wasn’t sure how. It turned out it was.

The workshop, hosted by Amy Langenberg and Antoinette DeNapoli, showcased the pair’s work on the welcome South Asian phenomenon of female renouncers. DeNapoli studied Mataji, a guru in Uttar Pradesh who declared herself a Shankaracharya (a monastic leader in Śaṅkara’s lineage). Langenberg studied the Peace Grove Institute, a community of female Theravāda Buddhist renouncers in Nepal. Having introduced Mataji and the Peace Grove, the two asked some discussion questions relating to the two, and broke us into small groups to discuss them. I forget the exact wording of the question that proved most fruitful, but it was something along the lines of “What do these female renouncers teach us about gender ethics?” And one of my group’s participants asked a most insightful question: “What do we mean by gender ethics?”

Female renouncers at the Peace Grove Institute
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A speculation on Ken Wilber’s experiences

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As I reflected back on the works of Ken Wilber recently, a thought occurred to me: man, that guy must have done a lot of drugs.

I don’t recall Wilber ever saying anything about drugs in his work one way or the other. Given that he wrote most of his work under the restrictive régime of the late-20th-century US, that shouldn’t be a surprise; caution is valuable. Yet he is an American baby boomer deeply interested in spirituality and mysticism; that is the sort of profile that leads one to expect significant experimentation with psychoactive substances.

But more importantly than his demographic: Wilber’s philosophy is very much the sort of philosophy one would expect from someone who had had profound drug-induced mystical experiences. A theme throughout Wilber’s work is the importance of experience to knowledge, a view that Wilber’s late work comes to call “radical empiricism”. He claims throughout his work that the essentials of premodern wisdom traditions – Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity – are to be found in mystical experiences, and in replicable practices that lead up to those. Some years ago I wrote an article debunking this claim: I don’t think that a reasonable historian can look at the evidence we have of Confucius or Moses or Jesus or Zhiyi (Chih-i) and still say that the essentials of their teachings come from replicable experiences. (We could reasonably say that Moses at the burning bush was having a mystical experience, but it was not in any way replicable.)

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On chemically induced mystical experience

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One of the more exciting scholarly developments of the century to date has been the growth of studies – previously hindered for too long by legal barriers – into mystical experiences induced by psychedelic drugs. In a landmark 2006 experiment, rigorously controlled and double-blind, Roland Griffiths’s research team at Johns Hopkins University found that people given high doses of psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – typically had experiences they described as “having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance”, and bore several other characteristics in common with a certain kind of non-drug-induced mystical experience: a sense of merging with ultimate reality, a nondual sense of the unity of reality, a sense of awe or sacredness. This sort of mystical experience, it seems, can be chemically induced.

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On getting a religious exemption

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Longtime readers will know I don’t have much patience for the concept of “religion”. I continue to endorse the various critiques I’ve made in the past: the concept of “religion” confuses more than it clarifies. And yet as it turns out, I owe the concept of “religion” a favour.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I recently got a valuable and important opportunity which I don’t think I could have undertaken if the concept of “religion” didn’t exist.

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A tribute to Michael Jerryson

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I only recently became aware that Michael Jerryson passed away last year – far too young, barely older than myself. I would like to offer my tribute to him here.

Michael Jerryson (1974-2021)

I knew Michael personally because of a wonderful biannual invite-only conference that brings together scholars of Buddhist ethics. He and I certainly clashed, for he would claim that scholars – even in ethics! – should not themselves be taking normative positions. I am not exactly friendly to that view. But the debates themselves were friendly and warm, as they should be – and as Michael himself was.

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Against racialization

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The previous post may do something to help explain why I am alarmed by a view now current among the new movement. That is the view that we human beings should racialize ourselves more than we currently have done.

It has now become ubiquitous style to capitalize “Black” in a racial sense, putting a stronger emphasis on racial identity than the lowercase did. Several activists, like the respected historian Nell Irvin Painter in the Washington Post, go still further, to advocate that we capitalize “White” as well. Painter’s reasoning on this point is striking enough that it’s worth quoting at length:

However much you might see yourself as an individual, if you’re black, you also have to contend with other people’s views. W.E.B. Du Bois summed this up as “twoness,” as seeing yourself as yourself but also knowing that other people see you as a black person. You don’t have to be a black nationalist to see yourself as black.

In contrast, until quite recently white Americans rarely saw themselves as raced — as white. Most of them, anyway. The people who have embraced “white” as a racial identity have been white nationalists, Ku Klux Klansmen and their ilk. Thanks to President Trump, white nationalists are more visible than ever in our public spaces.

But that group does not determine how most white people see themselves. Instead, in terms of racial identity, white Americans have had the choice of being something vague, something unraced and separate from race. A capitalized “White” challenges that freedom, by unmasking “Whiteness” as an American racial identity as historically important as “Blackness” — which it certainly is.

No longer should white people be allowed the comfort of this racial invisibility; they should have to see themselves as raced. Being racialized makes white people squirm, so let’s racialize them with that capital W.

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My post-racial life

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While I think it is important not to pretend our society is post-racial or colour-blind now, I insist on the importance of colour-blindness (in a racial sense) as a future ideal to strive for. And I maintain that the ideal of a colour-blind society, a post-racial world, is not a pipe dream. How do I know that? Because I’ve lived it.

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The 1502 project

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Who was the first person of African descent – the first black person – to set foot in the Americas? In what capacity did that person come, and when?

If you have been in the United States or otherwise following American debates in the past few years, you might call to mind the 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones at the New York Times, which aims to tell an “alternate origin story” for the United States, focused on African-Americans. That story begins in 1619 with the arrival of African-descended slaves in the colony of Virginia. So you might think that the first black people in the Americas, or at least in the United States, were these slaves who arrived in 1619.

You would be wrong.

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