Confucius in middle age

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There is a famous passage from Confucius that goes like this:

The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”

This is section 2.4 of the Analects, Confucius’s selected sayings. The translation is an old one from James Legge, which is freely available online. I’m not claiming that Legge is a particularly good translation, but it’s adequate for my purposes today, because the details of the translation aren’t what I’m interested in.

Instead the point I want to make today is just this: this passage can be a real inspiration in middle age.

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King’s improvement on Gandhi

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Tomorrow the United States celebrates a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston University, where I work, is always eager to remind everyone that King got his doctorate there. They are not always as eager to remind you that King studied at the School of Theology – and clearly learned his lessons there well, for he was not merely a great activist but a great philosopher.

I have come to know King’s thought through the courses I have taught in BU’s philosophy department – even though the courses were on Indian philosophy. I have nevertheless included King on the syllabus for that class, with guest speakers introducing him to the students, because I wanted to show students the contemporary relevance of Indian philosophy. Specifically, King drew a great deal of his ideas from Gandhi – who was a philosopher-activist like King, and in turn drew on earlier Indian thought like Jainism and the Bhagavad Gītā. It seems to me on reflection, though, that the student surpassed the pupil: that what King said and wrote with Gandhi’s influence was profounder and more valuable than Gandhi’s own thought was in itself.

Martin Luther King Jr.
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Honing in on a disagreement

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I wanted to reflect a bit more on my debate with Charles Goodman at Princeton this November. (If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video of the debate and our handouts.) I don’t think either of us would consider the debate conclusive. Indeed, following the debate, our conversations that afternoon indicated that the issues we were really concerned about lay elsewhere.

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The Nativity is my Ramakien

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For most of my life, when people asked me “what’s your religion?”, I usually felt the need to respond with a paragraph. That changed about eight years ago, dealing with my wife’s cancer treatment, where I realized it was important to me to be able to say simply: I am a Buddhist.

It felt strange, and yet reassuring, to be able to answer “what’s your religion?” with a simple answer. Yet complexity remains – the sort of complexity that has led me to proclaim, “I am a fine distinction“. I note nowadays how there is almost no area in which my identity is single, and I say: I am gender-fluid, biracial, binational… and a Buddhist who celebrates Christmas.

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Video debate: “Śāntideva: utilitarian or eudaimonist?”

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This November, Charles Goodman and I had a wonderful debate at Princeton’s Center for Culture, Society and Religion, on the interpretation of Śāntideva’s ethics: Charles claims that Śāntideva is a utilitarian, I claim that he is a eudaimonist. You can now watch the video of the debate on the Center’s website; I hope you enjoy!

Charles and I refer a lot in the debate to the handouts we created; I’m attaching them here.

Introducing Canadian Hegelianism

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Hegel wrote about Canada just once, in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and what he said comes down to: mostly harmless. His main concern in that passage is the future power of the United States; having noted that the poor organization of the American colonies prevented them from conquering Canada, he then adds that Canada and Mexico “present no serious threat” to the US, and then moves on. It is scarcely more consideration than Voltaire’s dismissal of Canada as “a few acres of snow”; like the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy discussing Earth, Hegel pauses on Canada only long enough to say “you don’t need to worry about it.”

And yet, as Robert Sibley notes in beginning his fascinating Northern Spirits, English Canadian philosophers have had a deep, abiding and continuing interest in Hegel, unrequited as it may be – an interest not generally shared by other countries in the anglophone West. Canadian Hegelianism turns out to be its own philosophical tradition – one that’s played a significant role in my own philosophical formation. It is only in the 21st century that people like Sibley have started writing about this Canadian Hegelianism, but it’s been around for longer.

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Are blogs back?

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You’ve no doubt heard about the train wreck that is Twitter’s current state under Elon Musk. Even if you would prefer a Twitter with less content moderation, as Musk had said he wished to create, it’s hard to be optimistic about Twitter’s future amid Musk’s wave of haphazard sackings. So many of us are now starting to ask: what does the world after Twitter look like?

And, well, do you remember the world before Twitter? It was full of blogs! A Substack post from Brad DeLong today linked to John Scalzi, who I remember best sixteen years ago for taping bacon to the cat. (I miss the ’00s in a number of ways. Something I never expected I’d say.) Scalzi, like me, did not stop blogging even when it stopped being cool, and he suggests that in the post-Twitter world “everyone should start blogging again.”

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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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