I find myself repeatedly returning to the question I asked earlier this year: “Is the problem in our heads?” That is: for Buddhists, especially classical ones, is the fundamental human problem located in our minds, or in the world? I have found that my thinking on this question has already changed even just since my posts on the topic last month.Continue reading
This week I continue my response to Patrick O’Donnell’s comments disputing my claim that in classical Indian Buddhism “the causes of suffering are primarily mental”. The discussion last time was abstract and theoretical, but it has practical consequences – which bring us back to Engaged and Disengaged Buddhism. Patrick has an interesting discussion here which I think is unfortunately confused by terminological problems. He says:
If the problem is in our heads, what about the story of the poisoned arrow? One removes the arrow without inquiring into who shot it, why, etc. Of course we may inquire into such things later, after the fact (the metaphysics and psychology if you will).
The thing is, the Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta’s story of the poisoned arrow is not a warning against seeking an understanding of “metaphysics”, let alone of psychology. The “questions that tend not to edification” in that sutta are largely cosmological questions: about the eternality or finitude of the cosmos, whether a Tathagata exists after death. The unedifying questions are described as “positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One” – which psychological questions pretty clearly are not. The craving and ignorance in our heads are the poisoned arrow that we have to get out first, before we can worry about the cosmological questions of who shot it.Continue reading
Patrick O’Donnell makes several interesting comments disputing my claim that for most classical Indian Buddhists “the causes of suffering are primarily mental.” I think they’re worth responding to at length, so I’ll take two posts to do so: this week on the theoretical (metaphysical and psychological) claims about the causation of suffering, next week on their practical implications.Continue reading
A key idea that I’ve stressed from the Disengaged Buddhists is that the causes of suffering are primarily mental – especially the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots” of craving (rāga), aversion or hostility (dveṣa/dosa) and delusion (moha) – and that therefore changes in material conditions of life will do relatively little to solve them. Engaged Buddhists reject this latter idea, since they take changing the material conditions as essential. What has struck me recently, though, is that they reject the idea in ways that are different, and sometimes even opposite – each of which still, surprisingly to me in some ways, seems to accept that rāga, dveṣa and moha are indeed where the key problems of human existence lie. I see this point especially in comparing the different views expressed by Ron Purser and Sallie King. Continue reading
The key goal of my dissertation was to understand Śāntideva’s thought as it was and how it could be applied in a contemporary context. Now, for my book, I want to actually apply Śāntideva’s thought, which requires asking where he is right and where he is wrong. And that, it turns out, changes my understanding of some of the dissertation’s key concepts – especially the one in its title.
The dissertation is entitled “Ethical revaluation in the thought of Śāntideva”. In its third chapter, I describe “ethical revaluation” as a consequence of Śāntideva’s ideals of nonattachment (aparigraha) and patient endurance (kṣānti). I explain the idea of ethical revaluation as follows:Continue reading
I was struck by two things when I read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness. On one hand, as I noted previously, I’m excited by Nussbaum’s new, and more Śāntidevan, normative approach to anger; it seems like she and I have moved toward the same position there. On the other, though, I realized that I have moved away from Nussbaum’s general descriptive theory of emotion. Nussbaum articulates this theory at length in Upheavals of Thought, and I don’t think her theory has changed much by the time we get to Anger (she offers a summary of it in the appendix). What has changed, in the roughly fifteen years since I read Upheavals cover to cover, is that I agreed with her theory then, and I no longer do – and reading the short summaries of the position in Anger helped me realize that.
Nussbaum’s theory (derived primarily from the Stoic thinker Chrysippus) is that emotions are fundamentally cognitive judgements of value, with a content directed at an object believed to affect our well-being. So fear, for example, is primarily a judgement that something could be harmful to us in the future; grief is primarily a judgement that something of value has been lost to us. I found this account plausible when I first encountered it. I no longer do.Continue reading
I originally wrote this week’s post in a handwritten journal at age 21, more than half my life ago, in 1997 – possibly before at least a few of my readers were born. It was a reflection on my travels backpacking around Thailand and Laos, in the middle of the life-changing experience where I was learning to break with utilitarianism and move instead toward Buddhism. I have not made major edits, because I wanted to preserve the in-process nature of my learning at the time, so it retains the somewhat disjointed style of a first draft. I think it gives a very accurate picture of who I was at that time: someone who had discovered some very important things, perhaps even the most important things, but still had a long way to go.
The piece begins by exploring Stan Rogers‘s wonderful song The Mary Ellen Carter. (If you’re not familiar with the song, I would recommend first listening to it or at least reading the lyrics for the post to make sense.) I’ve been delighted to learn that this year’s youth craze – among people who are now the age I was when I wrote this – is sea chanteys and other sea ballads, so this seemed an ideal time to share this long-ago reflection with the world.
Utilitarianism is self-contradicting. The more time you spend trying to “maximize” happiness through sensual pleasure, fame and fortune, the less happy you will eventually be.
I think of this because I was just humming “The Mary Ellen Carter”. A utilitarian would think the narrator crazy: he digs up the boat not in order to be on a boat again (presumably he could get other work fairly easily), but because of a sense of gratitude, to an inanimate object: “She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale.” The utilitarian would agree with the owners: “Insurance paid the loss to us, so let her rest below.” The first thing they teach you in management school is to ignore sunk costs. What we have here is literally a sunk cost – and for its sake alone the narrator spends the whole spring diving, catching the bends twice.
And yet the sense of pride, contentment and satisfaction the narrator radiates in his quest is undeniable. This seemingly useless quest gives his life a purpose, brings him to sing some of the most inspiring lines ever written:Continue reading
It is typically the case that more can be said in disagreement than agreement. In the case of Martin Hägglund’s This Life, I think paying attention to those realms of disagreement is particularly helpful, because our deepest disagreements highlight the ways in which I am a Buddhist and he is not, even though there are core elements to his critique of Buddhism that I absolutely share.
As is the case in many extended disagreements, it can be helpful to start with a disagreement over terminology in order to make sure that what follows is clear. In Hägglund’s case, he frames his argument as one for a “secular” view over a “religious” one. I have said a great deal over the years about why I think the concept of “religion” generally obscures more than it clarifies, and there’s no need to repeat those general points here; in the present context, the important thing is that Hägglund falls victim to the same problems others do. In Hägglund’s telling, Martha Nussbaum can count as entirely “secular” despite her self-identification as Jewish, while Spinoza, the Stoics and the Epicureans all count as “religious” – even though many Epicureans explicitly rejected the gods. Such a framing, it seems to me, can only end up as the vast majority of other attempts to demarcate the “religious” from the “non-religious” do: in confusion.Continue reading
Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, published in 2019, has already become a minor academic sensation – being reviewed in the New Yorker and Guardian as well as being the subject of a day-long conference at Harvard. I recently had a chance to read the book. There is much that I disagree with in it, but I see what all the fuss is about. I think the book is worthy of several posts, and will examine it in detail in the coming weeks.
I will begin with what I appreciate about the book. Above all, I appreciate that Hägglund is a philosopher in the true sense: he is a genuine lover of wisdom, and a seeker of it. Hägglund is asking questions that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle asked, about what a good human life is. I am not sure how much wisdom he has actually found, but just seeking it is rare enough in this age of technical specialization. It is a sad but unsurprising irony that this most deeply philosophical author – like the subjects of Examined Life – teaches in a department of literature and not philosophy. This Life is not a work of analytic philosophy, and I do not think it could have been. Hägglund’s arguments are not perfectly rigorous, nor are his definitions exactingly precise; one could find logical holes in them, and many will. But it seems to me that these lacks are necessary for a book like Hägglund’s, which is so wide-ranging in scope. Analytic philosophers typically make careful, exacting refutations of their foes – who tend to be other analytic philosophers. Hägglund, by contrast, is engaging with a wide swath of the Western philosophical tradition, from Augustine to Adorno, and he reads the philosophers of the tradition in careful depth, trying to understand them in their own terms even when he disagrees.Continue reading
The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.
The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.Continue reading