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 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
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
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
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
Modern liberal political philosophy has tended to take among its central questions: what is the proper relationship between the individual and the state? What rights does the individual have against the state, how do we select which individuals make decisions for the state? These are the central questions explored by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Likewise the famous frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, produced by Abraham Bosse in collaboration with Hobbes, depicts a giant man (the monarch) who is made up of hundreds of smaller people – the state and the individuals.
These are, I submit, the wrong questions for political philosophy to ask. A key problem with the Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau approach is it doesn’t think enough about what individuals are and why they would need a state. “Protection from violence” is the usual answer to the latter question, and it’s a venerable one – the idea that a state is established to protect its people is found in the Aggañña Sutta, in a passage that modern treatises on Buddhism quote all over the place (though it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it passage in the original). But individuals need much more than protection from violence!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
Recently Evan Thompson released a book with the provocative title Why I Am Not A Buddhist. The book is an interesting constructive exploration that draws heavily on Thompson’s long background in the mind sciences as well as a deep engagement with Buddhist studies and Indian philosophy and culture in general. As such it is well worth a read. Perhaps not surprisingly given my own identification, however, I do not think its case against being a Buddhist is strong. In a nutshell, Thompson makes at most a case against being one certain kind of Buddhist, and there is a lot more of Buddhism to consider.
Why is Thompson not a Buddhist? He answers succinctly:
Since I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist modernist, and Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound, I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith. That is why I’m not a Buddhist. (19)
So Thompson identifies only two ways of being a Buddhist – and rejects both. But I don’t think either rejection is sound. In both cases, he provides reason to reject only a very small portion of what he actually rejects. On the first: why can Thompson not be a non-modernist Buddhist? A few pages before he dismisses the option in a sentence: “Since I didn’t want to join a traditional Theravāda, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the only way to be a Buddhist was to be a Buddhist modernist.” (16) But such a claim would be startling to the millions and millions of traditional Asian Buddhist laypeople who still constitute the majority of professed Buddhists worldwide – and always have. They are neither monks nor modernists. So not to join a monastery hardly means that one cannot be a non-modernist Buddhist. (It also seems a little question-begging to frame the decision in terms of not wanting to join a monastery, since so much of the tradition identifies our desires – our wants – as the heart of our problems.)Continue reading