I was delighted to see Justin Whitaker responding to my post on the Sigālovāda Sutta – both in a comment and in a separate post of his own. Justin and I first found each other long ago over our shared interest in Pali Buddhist ethics, and he was one of my more frequent interlocutors in the early days of Love of All Wisdom, so it’s great to see him back around. I recall Justin citing the Sigālovāda favourably several times in earlier conversations, so perhaps it’s not surprising that my broadside against it is what brought him out of the woodwork!Continue reading
The Sigālovāda Sutta might be my least favourite sutta in the Pali Canon.
There is relatively little that the Pali texts say on “ethics” in a modern Western sense of interpersonal action-guiding; much of the specific instructions on action are found in vinaya, legal texts for the conduct of monks. The Sigālovāda is relatively unusual in providing guidance for action to lay householders. For that reason, a number of secondary writers on Buddhist ethics regard it as as a valuable guide for Buddhist ethical conduct.
I do not.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
I now conclude my series of comments on Martin Hägglund’s stimulating and fascinating This Life. My final point of disagreement with Hägglund has to do with a theoretical possibility: eternal life. Against traditional Christians, neither Hägglund nor I believe that eternal life is possible. But I think Hägglund is right to highlight the question of whether it is desirable.
On his answer, however, I think Hägglund is quite wrong; this is the point where his argument is at its worst. When he rejects the aspiration to eternal life, the rejection appears to rest on surprisingly bad argument. I would agree with rejecting such an aspiration on Stoic or Epicurean grounds – that it is futile to aspire to what we know we can never have. It is wisdom to know that we cannot change the finitude of our life, and so we should seek the serenity to accept that sad fact, as no amount of courage will change it. (There is a hugely significant difference between a 25-year life and a 100-year life, but both remain entirely finite.)
Hägglund, however, rejects the aspiration to eternal life on entirely different grounds:
An eternal life is not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animate my life…. there is nothing to be concerned about in heaven. Concern presupposes that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care…. Far from making my life meaningful, eternity would make it meaningless, since my actions would have no purpose. What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal…. (4-5)
I do not think any of this is true.Continue reading
Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.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
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been a struggle for everyone, and some more than others. It has been a heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones, a terror for those who have lost jobs, and a great struggle for those who must suddenly take care of their children full-time while simultaneously trying to do their full-time jobs as well.
I am lucky not to have fallen into any of these three troubled categories – yet, at least. But I have noticed how difficult these times have been even for others who share my relatively lucky position – simply because everything is cancelled. We may not have parties. We may not go out to eat. We may not go to the movies. We may not travel, not without severe quarantine restrictions. We may not play sports; we may not even watch sports. We may not watch, or play, live music. Most of our social interactions must be through a medium where we cannot tell whether others are looking at us or at something else on their screen. Even as we recognize others’ difficulties are considerably greater, this is all still a major loss of the things we love.Continue reading
As I write this post, I, probably along with most of my readers, face severe restrictions on normal human social activity, in order to limit the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. Electronic communications have made it possible to continue a social life despite these restrictions – but much of this conversation tends to focus on the virus and the limitations of life under it. I find myself yearning for more conversations about other things, and you may be as well. I also do not think I have anything particularly profound to say about the virus so far. For these reasons, I am not going to write here about the virus, at least for now. Instead, for the next little while I’m going to write about other topics that I’d been planning to write about anyway, but on an increased frequency to suit my and others’ changed schedules: every Sunday rather than every alternate Sunday. This is the first such post. I was not thinking about the virus when I originally wrote it, but perhaps it takes on a different resonance now.
A good human life, in general, requires living with other human beings. Some would take this claim as a truism, but I think it’s important to establish it. The ideal of the autonomous, independent individual is not merely a modern Western conceit, as is usually thought; this ideal is held up as a high ideal by monastic traditions in ancient India, perhaps most prominently in the Yoga Sūtras and Jain Tattvārtha Sūtra which describe their highest ideal as kaivalya, aloneness.Continue reading
Weterners who have studied Buddhist philosophy and ethics, even when we have done so at length, are often thrown for a loop when we read the Mahāvaṃsa. This text – one of the most historically oriented texts in premodern South Asia – has been a central part of the Theravāda Buddhist canon for over a thousand years, and played a central role in creating the very idea of “Theravāda” Buddhism.
It also looks very different from the Buddhism we constructive Western Buddhist scholars are accustomed to thinking about. Continue reading
I am an amateur at Indian aesthetic theory. I have not studied it much; I can read its Sanskrit source texts, but with some difficulty given how much they allude to literary and dramatic works I don’t know. As with Confucianism and Islamic Aristotelianism, it is a field where I cannot claim significant expertise. Yet I continue to find myself drawn to it, finding ideas that strike me as valuable and relevant – most recently reading Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful Rasa Reader, right from the first excerpt .
The earliest known extant text of Indian aesthetic theory is Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra. This text, circa 300 CE, sets out the concept of rasa, central to nearly all later Indian aesthetic thought. Rasa, roughly, refers to the emotion involved in a dramatic or literary work. The tradition often disagrees on where this rasa exists: the actor, the audience, the character, the author or even the work itself. But they all know that the Sanskrit word rasa literally means “taste”; it continues to refer to the sense of taste long after it has developed this more dramatic sense. And this meaning matters. Reading Pollock’s excerpt from Bharata, I am struck by the passage in Bharata’s chapter 6 where he defines rasa:
Here one might ask: What does ‘rasa’ actually mean? Our answer is that rasa is so called because it is something savored. And how can rasa be said to be ‘savored’? Just as discerning people relish tastes when eating food prepared with various condiments [vyañjana] and in doing so find pleasure, so discerning viewers relish the stable emotions when they are manifested by the acting out of various transitory emotions and reactions and accompanied by the other acting registers (the verbal, physical, and psychophysical), and they find pleasure in doing so. Continue reading