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
The concept of mental health – and even more so its converse of mental illness – has become ubiquitous in the modern West, and it deserves serious examination by philosophers. Many, probably most, cultures would not recognize the claim that a mind that sees demons or refuses to speak or commits suicide is in a condition analogous to a body with a fever or a broken limb.
The idea of mental health and illness is the central idea in the psychological approach that we typically refer to as the medical model. The term “medical model”, in its most basic sense, means that one approaches a given field of human endeavour in the manner associated with medicine: that field may then be considered a part of medicine, or simply analogous to it. I believe the term was coined by R.D. Laing, the prominent critic of psychiatry, and so it often takes on a negative cast, for the application of specific aspects of modern medicine in areas where it is inappropriate to do so.
It does not have to, though. Unless we reject modern medicine in its entirety (which would be a stupid idea), we are going to accept some aspects of the medical model for at least the practice of medicine itself. Modern medicine has accomplished a great deal, even in its application to phenomena of the mind: antipsychotics and antidepressants are not cure-alls by any means, but for a great many people, their mental lives are much improved as a result of these medicines.Continue reading
The scattershot application of “neoliberalism” is at its worst when the term gets applied to mindfulness meditation. We saw before how Ron Purser described mindfulness meditation as “neoliberal”. What is that supposed to mean? Modern meditation is frequently described as “neoliberal” in the Handbook of Mindfulness, which Purser coedited, and especially the closing essay by Glenn Wallis (which responds to a thoughtful defence of mindfulness by Rick Repetti in the same volume). Wallis’s piece is a good illustration of how a concept with some legitimate and meaningful uses can get bandied around so casually that it becomes completely specious. Here is Wallis:
You don’t have to look too closely to see that Mindfulness’s most recent progenitors are, of course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I mentioned earlier, Mindfulness has the same DNA and was raised on the same values that undergirds today’s neoliberal, consumer capitalist social structure (acceptance, resilience, self-help, etc.). So, of course Jon Kabat-Zinn [the creator of secularized and medicalized mindfulness meditation] cozies up to corporate CEOs and American military generals. (Wallis 499)
I return today to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker on the Sigālovāda Sutta, taking off from his response to my previous post. The question at issue between us, I think, is what constitutes a good Buddhist life for a layperson or householder, a non-monk. We can get more specific by asking: should the layperson’s life be one that aspires to emulate the monk’s? I don’t think that it should, and I continue to suspect that Justin doesn’t either.Continue reading
Justin Whitaker has made a second defence of the Sigālovāda Sutta, and it’s time for another response on my end. As a recap, we are debating the value of the Sigālovāda as a guide to lay Buddhist ethics: I do not find it a good guide, he does, and we’ve had a round of back-and-forth over this
I think Justin’s latest comment on the topic is very perceptive, and it pushes the points at which my own take on Buddhism is a reinterpretation, a departure from the classical Pali suttas – for the advice offered by the Sigālovāda is in keeping with the tenor of advice offered in many other such suttas. I’d like to follow up in a couple of ways, among them to ask about how much Justin’s own view might be such as well.Continue reading
Andrea Petersen, Aristotle, Carmen McLean, gender, Harvey Mansfield, Headspace, John Dunne, John Wayne, Pali suttas, Reinhold Niebuhr, Reshma Saujani, Śāntideva, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha), Sober Heretic (blogger)
Courage figures prominently in many lists of the virtues. It is a key example for Aristotle of how virtue is a mean: the courageous person is neither cowardly nor rash, but finds an appropriate middle ground. It is among the three key virtues summed up by the Serenity Prayer, in nearly all of its versions. Yet in the 21st century we can be a little suspicious of it. A blogger called the Sober Heretic thinks the Serenity Prayer is wrong to emphasize courage:
The fact that I need courage to change says a lot about what the prayer thinks change is. What does a person normally need courage for? Marching into battle. Jumping out of an airplane. Giving a speech. Facing a life-threatening disease. Courage is necessary when you’re fighting something: an enemy soldier, a virulent pathogen, your own fear. The need for courage says that change is fundamentally combative.
Aristotle, David Meskill, gender, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Hebrew Bible, identity, John Duns Scotus, Mencius, modernity, natural environment, Pure Land, qualitative individualism, Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras, vinaya
I’m curious about how your personal transformation might relate to your interest in traditional wisdom. Has it affected your views of tradition? Have those views informed your transformation in any way?
I said a bit in response to his comment (and in the previous post itself), but I’d like to expand on it here. (David is correct in thinking I have addressed the question somewhat in earlier posts; I will link to many of those here in this post.) As I noted in the previous post, my conviction that gender identity does not have to correspond to biological sex is deeply informed by qualitative individualism, which is a largely modern movement, though (like nearly every modern movement) it is one with premodern roots. But I do think it’s important to understand our philosophies historically and even understand ourselves as belonging rationally to a tradition, and I think there is a great deal to be found in premodern traditions that is lacking in more modern ones (such as Marxism). I am willing to characterize my relationship to Buddhism, especially, as one of faith. So how does all of this fit together?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
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
Sandro Galea, the dean of BU’s School of Public Health, recently wrote a wonderful (free) Substack post reflecting on the nature of health in the pandemic and post-pandemic era. I’m writing about Galea’s post here because the questions it raises are absolutely philosophical ones.
He closes with the important comment: “we do not live to be healthy—we aspire to be healthy so we can live.” In other circumstances this might seem a truism. But the past fourteen months have made it all too clear how much this needs to be said. For we have all become all too aware of just how much can be given up for the sake of health. Government restrictions already placed major limits on our activity. Most people I know, myself included, limited their activity considerably further than what was required by the government. And most of us also know others whose restrictions went even further than our own. A number of people effectively became voluntary shut-ins, losing all physical contact with the outside world out of fear of a dread disease.Continue reading