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 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
Evan Thompson’s critique of my eudaimonistic and probabilistic approach to karma has two prongs: that it is not really karma, and that it doesn’t work on its own terms. I addressed the first criticism last time. Now I’d like to turn to the second, which I personally find to be the more interesting and important of the two.
Let us start with the word “probabilistic”, which I use in a non-technical way. My eudaimonism is a probabilistic claim (as opposed to a deterministic claim) in the same sense that “brushing your teeth will prevent cavities” or “running into the middle of a busy street will get you run over by a car” are probabilistic claims. That is, we assert that these causal correlations are likely, not certain. In the case of the busy street, I’m not sure we have a detailed statistical model of how likely you are to get run over by a car, but I don’t think we need one. Everyday observation is sufficient to determine that. In the case of virtue and happiness, I’ve mentioned a couple of ways that Śāntideva says one leads to the other, in this life; there is a lot more to say about it, and I intend to say it in my book – not with a statistical model, but again I don’t think that’s necessary. This is what I mean by “probabilistic”. I’m not wedded to that specific word: so far “probabilistic” has seemed the most appropriate word to express the concept in question and I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t, but I wouldn’t mind expressing the concept just described with a different term if a better one is available.
If I read Thompson’s objections on that point correctly, though, I don’t think they are about a statistical model or its absence. Rather, his bigger concern is this: Continue reading
Evan Thompson has made his last statement in our correspondence. Before I make mine, a personal note: our series of responses to date has become increasingly confrontational in tone, in a way I imagine our readers have noticed. Thompson and I have spoken about that tone in private and we agreed that it is not where either of us had hoped or intended for this conversation to go. I hope to end this series on a note of gentler and friendlier disagreement, one that invites both of us and our readers to new avenues of inquiry that the dialogue has opened up. For one thing, from the beginning, I have appreciated Thompson’s willingness to take Buddhist thought seriously by acknowledging where he finds it inadequate; this is a valuable and refreshing contrast to the kind of kid-glove treatment that it is too often given in religious studies. I think that this aspect of Thompson’s approach is very helpful for advancing contemporary discussions of Buddhist thought, and I think I should have led my opening review post with my appreciation of his work on that point.
Now to recap the state of our debate. Thompson, in his June reply, had stood his ground on the claim that karma is fundamentally about why bad things happen to good people. My ensuing July-August round of posts addressed in detail why I think he is wrong about this. While I think it was important to go into those details, I think I didn’t spend enough time on the big-picture questions that motivated them, which remain important to both Thompson and myself. So, while I didn’t think the wordplay in his June title was accurate, I think the current one was. That is, I did, to some extent at least, “lose the thread”. I am happy that the final exchange can now take us back to those larger questions.Continue reading
I’d like to now envision the book I am working on. This post is something like a proposal for the book, both to clarify my thoughts on it and (more importantly) to hear yours. As I write it I keep in mind the wise advice of my dissertation advisor, Parimal Patil, that fundamentally a dissertation proposal is telling a lie. You don’t actually know what the final result is going to be, or you would have already written it; the act of researching it will necessarily make it something different from the proposal. You just don’t know how it will be different. With that in mind, let me attempt to say some more, in a nutshell, about what the book will be.Continue reading
I will close out this latest round of replies to Evan Thompson with a recap: It is simply not the case that karma “is fundamentally about” why bad things happen to good people (or vice versa). To try to portray karma in that way, it seems to me, requires more cherry-picking and selective quoting of sources than does portraying it as a form of eudaimonism. Obeyesekere’s study of the concept’s origins, which Thompson originally cited as his source, shows that its formation is in something quite different. The passages that Thompson quotes from Śāntideva do nothing to establish that karma for him is about why bad things happen to good people. The sociological studies that he now cites do not even claim to establish any such thing, and their evidence does not imply it either – so they would not establish this claim even if they had been studies of Buddhists, which they are not. Going by Thompson’s own sources – historical, philosophical and sociological – we see absolutely no reason to believe that the question of theodicy is or ever was at “the beating heart” of the karma concept, for Buddhists or anybody else. Actual anthropological studies of karma beliefs in context establish its core as something very different, just as Obeyesekere’s study itself does.
Why then does Thompson continue to insist that bad things happening to good people and vice versa – the core problem of Christian theodicy – is also the core problem of traditional Buddhist karma, when it has turned out multiple times that even his own sources provide no reason to believe this claim? Thompson himself is clearly deeply bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people, which he calls “shocking and disturbing”, a “cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness”. It is hardly unreasonable to be bothered by this fact in this way, and Thompson is entitled to be so. What is not acceptable is to then reread this preoccupation back onto traditional Buddhist sources.Continue reading
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
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.)
EDIT (27 Sep 2020): There has indeed been new round of correspondence since I first posted this index in June; we have agreed to close it with the final post today, so it should now be complete. I have added links to all of that new correspondence here. I have also added dates to each set of responses, in the hopes that that might make it easier to indicate which set one is speaking of (“Thompson’s April response”), (“Lele’s May-June replies”).
- Thompson began the discussion with his book, Why I Am Not A Buddhist (published Jan 2020).
- Lele‘s initial two-part review (Mar-Apr 2020):
Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (1)
Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (2)
- Thompson‘s long single-post response (Apr 2020):
Clarifying Why I Am Not a Buddhist: A Response to Amod Lele
- Lele‘s eight-post reply (May-Jun 2020):
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
- Thompson‘s single-post followup (Jun 2020):
Cherry Picking the Bodhi Tree: A Response to Lele
- Lele‘s seven-post followup reply (Jul-Aug 2020):
i) Of shopping carts and cherry-picking
ii) Karma: eschatology, theodicy, or eudaimonism?
iii) Philosophical texts for philosophers
iv) Karma in society
v) What would Śāntideva do without rebirth?
vi) Śāntideva’s passages on enemies and their context
vii) Theodicy is not the core of karma
- Thompson‘s final response (Aug 2020):
Losing the Thread: A Response to Lele
- Lele‘s two-post final response (Sep 2020):
i) When does karma stop being karma?
ii) Is the eudaimonist proposition true?