I want to turn now to what I think are the really interesting questions raised by Justin Whitaker’s latest post on the Sigālovāda Sutta. These are questions of hermeneutics, of method in interpretation. As noted, the previous post was exegetical: I think everything I say there could have been endorsed by a historically oriented religion scholar with no stake in Buddhist tradition. But Justin and I are not that: we are Buddhist theologians, who consider ourselves Buddhists and seek to apply the tradition to our lives. So I now want to take the previous post’s ideas into that wider theological context.Continue reading
I return now to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker about the Sigālovāda Sutta, the Pali text so often viewed as a guide to the household life. Justin helpfully begins his latest post with a list of the previous correspondence we have exchanged on the topic so far, so I won’t repeat the list here. (The opening list unfortunately doesn’t include hyperlinks to the earlier posts, but those links can be found at the bottom of the latest post.)
From my previous post on the more general philosophical issues, I think we can now return to the sutta itself. Justin is correct that I read the Sigālovāda Sutta as “an overly strict and dour text that sucks the joy out of householder life”. He claims that this is a misreading. Is it? Let us take a look at the feature of the Sigālovāda that most leads me to such a reading: what I characterize as its prohibition on attending theatrical shows. I will examine that prohibition in detail this time, and next time talk about we do with it as Buddhist theologians – a topic that I find more interesting. (Since Justin and I have been pursuing this debate at a slow pace, I will post the next one on my usual schedule in two weeks, and I recommend he wait for it before posting a reply.)Continue reading
Paul Fuller’s thoughtful and well researched new introduction to Engaged Buddhism cites my Disengaged Buddhism article together with an article I hadn’t heard of before, Victor Temprano’s 2013 “Defining engaged Buddhism” (Buddhist Studies Review 30.2). (Fuller has very kind words for both Temprano and myself.) I proceeded to read Temprano’s article and was quite struck by it – and by the fact that Fuller had listed our two articles together, as making complementary critiques. Fuller’s putting our two articles together is striking to me because, while Temprano and I do both make a critique of Western engaged Buddhist scholars like Sallie King and David Loy, we do so for entirely different reasons – reasons that are actually opposed to one another. And indeed, I think my differences from Temprano are larger than my differences from King and Loy.Continue reading
The discipline of classics has made headlines recently with Princeton University’s decision to no longer require majors to take Greek or Latin. This is a fairly momentous decision: aren’t Greek and Latin what Classics is all about?
I have mixed feelings about the decision. I think there is a lot of value in learning Greek and Latin. Certainly for philosophers: we need to understand philosophy’s history, and in our world that history is inescapably Western even for those of us who do not focus on it. I am broadly Aristotelian and wish I knew more Greek to understand him better. As for Latin, it remains important for lawyers and biologists, and knowing the very many Latin roots of English words gives us a much deeper understanding of those words’ meaning. A world where even fewer people know Greek or Latin does not seem to me a good thing, overall.Continue reading
A while ago I was contacted by an academic publisher asking me to review a new introductory textbook on philosophy of religion. I didn’t do so, even though the publisher offered me a stipend. The main reason was just that I didn’t have the time for it. But the more interesting reason was my objections to the work’s entire project.
The book’s proposed table of contents spoke of a work devoted entirely to God: the concept of God, and arguments for and against his existence. That is not an idiosyncratic approach; there are many existing textbooks in “philosophy of religion” that take the same approach. So there was nothing especially or unusually outrageous about this textbook and its other. And that is exactly the problem.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
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
Having discussed the broader context of Śāntideva’s work, I think it is instructive to turn now to the two passages that Evan Thompson quotes from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra as supposed examples of the way that Śāntideva’s “philosophical arguments fall apart” without rebirth. These respectively say (in the Wallace and Wallace translation he cites), first, “In the past, I too have inflicted such pain on sentient beings; therefore, I, who have caused harm to sentient beings, deserve that in return./Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?” (BCA VI.42-43) And second, “since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.” (VI.107)Continue reading
I have argued against Evan Thompson that philosophical texts are the proper source for philosophers, so let me now turn our discussion there: specifically to Śāntideva, whom both of us cite.
First let us be clear about two points on which I think Thompson and I agree. The first of these points is that Śāntideva himself believes in rebirth, and this concept deeply suffuses his philosophy; Thompson and I agree about that. The second is that Śāntideva is wrong in this belief: though Ian Stevenson’s kind of work does present a potential anomaly, the best evidence we have in psychology still shows us that human consciousness is tied ineluctably to human bodies, and when that body dies, the consciousness dies with it. As far as I can tell, Thompson accepts this latter proposition. If he does believe human consciousness is reborn at death, my apologies: in that case we are having a very different conversation, and I would be genuinely intrigued to hear his reasons for such a belief. Thompson has not said anything of the sort in the conversation to date, however, so I will proceed in the present discussion on the assumption that he does not.
The question then is how a contemporary Buddhist who accepts both of these points should read Śāntideva’s work. It was specifically in answer to this question that I first turned to a naturalized theory of karma: I did so because I wanted to take Śāntideva as seriously as possible. My dissertation was all about understanding Śāntideva’s reasoning at a deep level, so I looked in detail at the kinds of arguments and reasons Śāntideva offers for acting or feeling one way and not another – what Thompson calls their “warrant and motivation”. As the dissertation discusses, these reasons for action generally fell into three categories, not always separable from each other: the pleasant and unpleasant mental states the actions generate; metaphysical insight into the nature of things, especially their emptiness (which I explored in more detail in a later article; and good or bad karma. Only the last of these three is closely tied to rebirth. The latter terms “good and bad karma” are specifically my translations of puṇya and pāpa, terms ubiquitous in Śāntideva’s work; for him it is puṇya and pāpa, rather than karmaphala or karmavipāka, that most describe the process by which good and bad actions lead to good and bad results.Continue reading
Last time I explained why I think a constructive modern Buddhist philosophy should indeed focus on Buddhist philosophical texts as its sources for karma, and I stand by that. Yet ironically, even if we were to turn away from philosophy to karma’s functioning in society, as Thompson now recommends, we would then notice that even his sources for that point themselves do not establish what he claims they do: i.e. that “the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”. Just as Obeyesekere never made that claim historically, these sources do not make the claim sociologically.
The sources in question are three articles about karma, all by his UBC colleague Cindel White with some coauthors. Contra Thompson’s claim, these studies do not indicate that the Buddhist concept of karma “is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even in the sociological context of everyday Buddhism. This is for two key reasons.Continue reading