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
The Serenity Prayer, it turns out, has multiple versions. On the Alcoholics Anonymous website you’ll find the version I quoted before, though the site adds that the first person is often pluralized, “I” to “we”:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
However, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her memoir gives us a different version. She says that Niebuhr’s original version of the prayer was composed in 1943, was first preached by him in a Sunday sermon that year in Heath, Massachusetts, and looked like this:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
As Sifton notes on pp292-3, there are at least two major differences between these two versions. The first refers to grace and the second does not; the first refers to changing what I or we can change, the second to what should be changed. Sifton prefers the second; she says that AA “simplified” the text and her father “minded” the change but did not object.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
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
Following from his distinction between freedom and necessity, Martin Hägglund tells us that “The rational aim, then, is to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom.” (223) The rational aim of politics, perhaps. But the Disengaged Buddhists remind us how many of life’s problems politics cannot solve. And these problems go right to Hägglund’s own core concepts of freedom and necessity.
Hägglund misses the point expressed in Ashleigh Brilliant’s wonderful epigram: freedom is not the goal, but you need freedom before you can decide what the goal is. Freedom itself, as the simple ability to do what one finds fulfilling, is empty of content. The most important thing is not merely to have room to pursue our ends, but to actually pursue them, which requires we think about which ends are really ours, which are really worth pursuing – and then actually do so. Free time is not the end, it is a means to the end. Alessandro Ferrara puts the point well in his Reflective Authenticity. Ferrara articulates the distinction that I have referred to as quantitative versus qualitative individualism, referring to each as autonomy and authenticity respectively – and he makes the key point that “authenticity presupposes autonomy.” (6, emphasis his) Without the ability to self-determine, a Hägglundian freedom, we cannot be our true selves. But that freedom is only a necessary condition for true self-expression, not a sufficient one!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
One of the more pressing questions in political philosophy is how to prevent the arbitrary use of power. I think Thomas Hobbes and Xunzi were sadly right to diagnose an abiding darkness in human nature: left to our own devices, human beings can easily degenerate into disastrous crimes. Primatology suggests a confirmation: among our closest (or nearly closest) living relatives, the chimpanzees, a jockeying for power and status can lead to vicious rivalries and even murder – even in the idyllic situation where all their material needs are provided for. The evidence of existing human history does nothing to suggest that language or other human capacities have made us better than that.
But Hobbes, as far as I can tell, offers the worst possible solution to this problem: to concentrate power in a single sovereign person. Then that one person becomes able to tyrannize everyone else in a way completely unrestrained, just as he pleases. (It is rarely a she.) The twentieth century gives us too many chilling examples of mass murder and terror from a sovereign given arbitrary power.
A more reasonable approach to the problem asks how we can contain the dark impulses of all people – and of the sovereign leader most of all. It is likely no mystery why I’m asking this question living in 2020 in the United States.Continue reading