The consolations and pleasures of philosophy

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The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been a struggle for everyone, and some more than others. It has been a heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones, a terror for those who have lost jobs, and a great struggle for those who must suddenly take care of their children full-time while simultaneously trying to do their full-time jobs as well.

I am lucky not to have fallen into any of these three troubled categories – yet, at least. But I have noticed how difficult these times have been even for others who share my relatively lucky position – simply because everything is cancelled. We may not have parties. We may not go out to eat. We may not go to the movies. We may not travel, not without severe quarantine restrictions. We may not play sports; we may not even watch sports. We may not watch, or play, live music. Most of our social interactions must be through a medium where we cannot tell whether others are looking at us or at something else on their screen. Even as we recognize others’ difficulties are considerably greater, this is all still a major loss of the things we love.

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On delusions and their pragmatic efficacy

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Continuing my response to Seth Segall, my greatest disagreements are with his second point. So I will begin by quoting that at length:

As a hospital pastoral care provider I minister to patients of all faiths, and I have been impressed at how their faiths shape their own understanding of the virtues and contribute to making their lives admirable. So, if you are a person who finds a belief in rebirth compelling, and if you find that a belief in rebirth inspires you to practice being more compassionate to others, I have no quarrel with you. Please continue. The only statement I am willing to make without hesitation is that a belief in rebirth (let’s just use “rebirth” here as a stand-in for all the parts of Buddhism I happen to disagree with) doesn’t work for me, and I expect it won’t work for the majority of modern Westerners. I don’t want to be imperialistic about my beliefs. My attitude is, “this is what works for me,” and if you are feeling the same kind of dissonance with aspects of the Buddhist tradition, see if it works for you, too. On the other hand, I would never want to tell the Dalai Lama that he is practicing Buddhism wrong.

I do recognize the importance of working with people as they are, especially in a difficult field like pastoral care. Still I am nervous about saying that false ideas – which I do take rebirth to be – constitute “the best model for” any given person. Continue reading

Responses on humanity, rebirth, and a minimalist model

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Seth Zuihō Segall wrote a helpful response to my review of his Buddhism and Human Flourishing. Seth’s1 response makes four points, groupable in two categories that correspond to the division of my original post: the first two points, roughly, have to do with endorsing modern Western views, the second two with rejecting them. I will move roughly from (what I take to be) our points of greatest agreement to our points of greatest disagreement.

So I will begin with the fourth and last of Seth’s points, which is the one where I think we agree most. This point is about transcending the constitutive conditions of our humanity: a key point at issue between Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum. As I noted in my review, I do actually stand with Nussbaum and with Seth against Śāntideva on this question: I do not think we should try to transcend these conditions. My concern was that this point needs to be argued, we can’t simply assume Nussbaum is right – because if she is right, then Śāntideva is wrong, and I think it’s important to be clear about that.

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Classical and nondual mindfulness

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Ron Purser’s critique of modern mindfulness is thoroughgoing, and extends beyond chastising its skepticism of political engagement. Purser also criticizes modern mindfulness on other grounds, grounds that I think are considerably closer to the views of classical (early) Buddhist texts.

In particular, Purser’s article “The myth of the present moment” (from the journal Mindfulness 6:680–686) points to a central element of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other modern mindfulness practices which is not present in the classical texts. Namely: Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR and modern medical mindfulness generally, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. So a key goal of modern mindfulness practice is “reducing thoughts and ruminations of the past and future, which keeps us from being in the present moment.” (Purser 682) Purser notes that this focus on the present moment is exemplified in the common introductory practice (included in BU’s mindfulness workshop) of mindfully paying attention to the experience of slowly eating a raisin.

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Why I am a Buddhist

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On Facebook, Seth Segall commented in response to my posts on Evan Thompson:

I agree with all the arguments you have made, but I think there is one maining major issue that divides you from Evan that transcends all the other issues. That is, as a “lover of all wisdom,” why would you define yourself as a Buddhist as opposed to someone who is informed by many wisdom traditions but holds a special place in his heart for Buddhism—in another words, how is your stance different from a more cosmopolitan one that is Buddhist-friendly, but not, strictly speaking, Buddhist?

I think I have answered this question before, but there is more to say on it. For a long time – including the first six years of writing this blog – I defined myself in just such a way, as Thompson does. Like Thompson, I went so far as to say I don’t identify as a Buddhist.

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An index to the Thompson-Lele correspondence

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My friend Eyal Aviv mentioned, even before my most recent round of replies, that he’d been teaching my correspondence with Evan Thompson in his classes and would like to have it all available in one place. I think that’s a great idea and I am obliging him here. I don’t know whether the correspondence will continue – that’s up to Thompson – but I think it’s already worth having an index post here for easy reference. I am listing all of the works that constitute this correspondence so far, in the order that they were published or posted. If there’s more to the correspondence, I can come back and update this post later. (So, I’m just putting this post up on Love of All Wisdom rather than the IPB so I don’t have to update it in multiple places.)

  1. Thompson began the discussion with his book, Why I Am Not A Buddhist.
  2. Lele‘s initial two-part review:
    Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (1)
    Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (2)
  3. Thompson‘s long single-post response:
    Clarifying Why I Am Not a Buddhist: A Response to Amod Lele
  4. Lele‘s eight-post reply:
    i) On the challenging aspects of tradition
    ii) On being Buddhist and distinctively Buddhist
    iii) Grappling with impermanence
    iv) Is karma about why bad things happen to good people?
    v) The workings of karma, naturalized and otherwise
    vi) Bad things, good people, and eudaimonism
    vii) Naturalizing Buddhism and other traditions
    viii) Eudaimonist Buddhist modernism and the norm of authenticity

Eudaimonist Buddhist modernism and the norm of authenticity

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I now finish my present reply to Evan Thompson’s response. Let us return to Thompson’s general critique of Buddhist modernism. He doesn’t “reject using Buddhist ideas in the project of ameliorating suffering and promoting human flourishing.” On that, it seems, we are in agreement. Rather, what he objects to is “the rhetoric and logic that Buddhist modernists typically use in pursuing this project.” So let’s revisit what he takes issue with in this rhetoric and logic:

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Naturalizing Buddhism and other traditions

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In the previous three posts I aimed to show, contra Evan Thompson’s response, that the philosophical core of the karma doctrine does not have to do with explaining why bad things happen to good people, but rather with how good and bad actions produce good and bad results for the agent. As such, eudaimonic karma is not “incongruent with its traditional meaning and function.” (I also agreed that the fact of bad things happening to good people is a problem for naturalized eudaimonic karma, but discussed attempts to resolve that problem.)

Now let us turn back to the wider argumentative context in which the karma discussion is set. At this point our disagreements may prove smaller than they seem. Thompson, it turns out, does not deny that

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Bad things, good people, and eudaimonism

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I showed in my previous two posts how the core of Buddhist karma doctrine is not a response to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, but rather an articulation of the idea that good actions improve our well-being and vice-versa, congruent with contemporary eudaimonism.

Contemporary eudaimonic karma does, however, still face a major problem, one that has already come up a number of times. Thompson is right to focus attention on the apparent fact that bad things happen to good people – not because that fact supposedly drove the formation of karma theory (it didn’t, as far as I can tell), but because it poses a major problem for eudaimonism itself. As Thompson correctly says, “the proposition that an agent’s being good typically improves that agent’s well-being is not obviously true as a general descriptive proposition about the world.” An ethicized concept of rebirth can answer this question relatively easily, in a way that produces a straightforwardly consistent eudaimonism. Without rebirth, that problem is indeed harder to answer.

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The workings of karma, naturalized and otherwise

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As noted last time, I don’t identify the philosophical core of the concept of karma with its origins (which are pre-Buddhist), but with the way it functions in Buddhist philosophical texts. There, I submit, the core idea is indeed “that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being”.

To show this point I turn to Śāntideva, as one of the most systematic and powerful writers on ethics in the Buddhist tradition. Karma and rebirth pervade his works, more than they do the Pali literature. But his works on karma are not directed to the question Thompson discusses – to the past results of karma as an explanation for present misfortunes. Rather, Śāntideva puts great stress on the future results of karma: the good and bad states that will befall us as a result of our good and bad deeds now. These include the hells, which Śāntideva delights in graphic depictions of. And they also include the results we get in this life. Consider this passage on anger:

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