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A question that I saw recurring throughout the SACP was technique: when is philosophical reflection about our ends or goals, and when is it just about means to those ends? I’d previously thought about this question with respect to S.N. Goenka’s vipassanā meditation: the word Goenka uses most frequently to describe it is “technique.” The webpage describing vipassanā refers to it as a “non-sectarian technique”: thus Goenka’s claim that people from “any religion” can practise vipassanā – as long as they don’t bring any religious symbols into meditation practice.

This question of technique came up at least three times at the SACP. Peimin Ni – next year’s SACP president – argued that Mencius’s metaphysical theory of human nature is there not to justify his ethics, but to help provide practical guidance in shaping human conduct. Ni claimed that Mencius didn’t need metaphysics as a justification. Rather, because Mencius’s ethics “provides systematic instruction about how we can cultivate ourselves and lead better lives,” it “can be justified like any other practical theory, on its practical effectiveness.” This claim of practical effectiveness, I think, treats Mencius’s ethics too as a technique – a technique for becoming a good, virtuous, cultivated Confucian. But, I asked Ni in the question period, what if we don’t want to be practically effective at this goal? What if we just want to die with the most toys? On Ni’s reading, it seems to me, if we don’t already accept Mencius’s prescribed end, we have no justification offered as to why we should accept it. (Alas, my question came as one of about four or five different questions which Ni was asked to answer all at once, so as far as I can tell, he didn’t get to it.)

Before that was a panel on Christopher Chapple‘s new book Yoga and the Luminous, a book primarily about Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, the classic philosophical text on yoga (meaning “spiritual discipline” or “spiritual practice” in a general sense, not just bodily exercises). According to Rita Sherma’s discussion of the book, Chapple says that Patañjali “brings together theological themes that might otherwise be seen as incompatible, by offering a technique.” Joseph Prabhu, the current SACP president, described this as “technological or instrumental language,” and offered some suspicion of it: yoga techniques were used in Vietnam, so that by meditating one can fight or kill more effectively. Chapple himself noted that the same was true in Iraq. Yoga then seems like a means that can be used for any end.

Finally, there was a talk I didn’t attend, but which sounded quite controversial according to some of its participants, who reported it as follows. Silong Li presented on the idea of a “Christian Zen,” Christians who practise Zen meditation. His respondent, Michael Barnhart, tore into the Christian Zen idea; for Barnhart, Zen and Christianity depend on metaphysical claims which are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Li defended himself by claiming that Zen meditation was – you guessed it – just a technique. A Buddhist means to Christian ends. I don’t think Barnhart had a chance to reply to that.

In most of these cases (except perhaps Ni’s), the rhetoric of technique allows one to sidestep Abrahamic exclusivity: you can do this without giving your heart to anyone besides Jesus. But it has its pitfalls too, as Prabhu noted: if Zen, or yoga, or vipassanā, is just a technique, then it is just like technology, which can be used for evil rather than for good. Chapple seemed to allow such a claim about yoga; one wonders whether Li or Goenka would do the same. I think they have reasons not to – for Ni, Mencius seems to be specifically offering a technique for goodness. But at that point, one wonders two things: first, aren’t you then promoting an end and not just a means – a goal that might effectively compete with Jesus or Jehovah for one’s loyalty in life? And second, as I said to Ni, do we then have any reason to pursue that end?