I was honoured to see Elisa Freschi’s post reviewing my recent article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics. I have a lot to say about both the post itself and the comment threads that followed it. I’ve said some of it in those threads already, but I’d like to pull them together and express a way they relate to more general ideas.
There were two hermeneutical moves that I think were made by others in this discussion, which I tend to be suspicious of whenever I find them. Both moves were both made with respect to one of the more challenging sections of Śāntideva’s major work, the Bodhicaryāvatāra (BCA): not necessarily challenging to understand, but challenging us to live and see the world very differently than we do. That section is the discussion of the foulness of the body in BCA chapter VIII, verses 29-84.
Śāntideva’s argument in this section is one of the four metaphysical-ethical arguments I discuss in the article. He argues that the human body is nothing more than its component parts, each of which would disgust us individually, and that we should therefore feel the same disgust for the body in general, rather than lusting for it. Of the four arguments in the article it is the one I discuss at the shortest length, partially because it appears in so many texts other than Śāntideva’s, but also because it is the one we are least likely to want to apply to our own lives. It repulses us in a post-’60s environment that celebrates not only gender equality but sexual pleasure; it turns many people off the text entirely. (When I first encountered this section in a lecture of Robert Gimello’s, the student beside me wrote in his notes “What a misanthropic text”; a well-known scholar of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism recently expressed to me his own distaste for the entire Bodhicaryāvatāra because of that section.)
That doesn’t mean Śāntideva himself wouldn’t want us to apply it, though. And that brings me to the two hermeneutical moves, which I see being made in this case but which concern me more generally. I think both of these are ways of saying this section doesn’t really apply to us – and thereby getting Śāntideva off the hook, in some sense.
One of these moves is to say that a text was written with a specific audience in mind and that that audience does not include us. With respect to the Bodhicaryāvatāra, the move is to say that the text was written for monks, and so at least parts of it don’t apply to those of us who are not monks. Elisa says she drew this interpretation of the text from her teacher Corrado Pensa, but Janet Gyatso had also once said a similar thing to me about the BCA more generally: you can’t take the text as speaking directly to you because “he’s a monk and you’re not”.
My problem with such interpretations, at least with respect to the BCA, is that they can draw a sharp divide between householders and monks, as if it were not possible for one to become the other. I don’t see Śāntideva as expressing such a discontinuity. This text, like many others before it, is full of praise for the monastic life, expressing an argument that the monk’s renunciant life is better than the householder’s worldly life. Much if not all of the text’s advice could be followed by a householder who remained a householder, but if there’s anything that can’t, it could still be followed by a householder who made the decision to leave the household life and become a monk. Śāntideva nowhere gives any interpretations that there are two separate paths for householders and monks. There is only one path, and monks are further along it than householders are; householders would do well to emulate it, to prepare themselves for renunciation in the next life if not in this one. In this respect, I think, Śāntideva would want us householders to apply his advice to ourselves, even though we may well decide we have reason to refuse it.
Likewise with the second hermeneutical move. This move is to say “he couldn’t really have meant that”, a move I have previously noted my skepticism of in general. I think both Elisa and Stephen Harris make this move here in some respect – saying that Śāntideva doesn’t actually think the body is as foul as he says it is, he just says this as a rhetoreical exaggeration to aid meditation. I tend to associate such a move with a shopping-cart approach to cross-cultural philosophy, one that tries to enhance our appreciation for another tradition but winds up limiting what we can genuinely learn from it that we didn’t already know. I’ve previously expressed skepticism of this move to Stephen with respect to another one of the text’s metaphysical arguments, but a related point applies here.
That is: Śāntideva’s claims about the foulness of the body are not limited to one meditative context. He deconstructs the body to indicate its foulness in two parts of the text; as well as the more notorious part in chapter VIII, he does it more briefly in chapter V, verses 58-70. In chapter VIII his practical conclusion is to avoid sexual lust, and he is writing for a heterosexual male audience, so the verses focus on the foulness of the bodies of women one might lust after. They are not only about that, however; even there, in verses VIII.53 and VIII.61, he refers to the filth that is one’s own body. A man’s own body is just as filthy as the bodies of the women he might lust after. In chapter V that is made more explicit, because there the same metaphysical argument – that the pure-seeming body should be deconstructed into its filthy parts – is applied to a different conclusion, that one should not protect one’s own body but instead devote it to the liberation of others.
Two things seem to follow from this point. One, the deconstruction and foulness of the body is not merely a meditative aid to be discarded; it is as true as any other true statement that can be expressed in words. Śāntideva, as far as I understand him, would want us to take it as a good argument and not merely a meditative aid. Two, the passage is not as sexist as it might first appear. I certainly won’t deny that Śāntideva held sexist attitudes, but the logic of this passage doesn’t require them. We can accept full gender equality – the key achievement of the 20th century and one we are rightly loath to discard – and still acknowledge this description of both female and male bodies; we could easily write a parallel passage disdaining the male body to celebrate female asceticism and it would not be at all out of place in this text. (Or, mutatis mutandis, a passage applying to homosexuals of either gender.)
So the final question, which philosophers should ask: is Śāntideva right about all this? I don’t think so, and I’ve written before about some of my reasons. I think it is reasonable to treat our bodies and others’ as wholes in the way Śāntideva refuses. I do think, however, that Śāntideva disagrees with me entirely on this point. And I think it’s worth emphasizing that point because I think it’s these points of hard disagreement – where texts speak directly to us and tell us to think and act in ways very alien to our everyday modern ways of thinking and being – where we stand to learn the most from them.