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
The Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association held its 2021 annual meeting last winter. It could not meet in person, of course. I forget where it was originally scheduled to meet, but that hardly matters now. Rather: since attending philosophy conferences is usually not related to my day job, I need to use my own money and precious vacation time to travel there, so under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have attended. This year, though, since it was virtual (and spread over two weekends), I had a chance to participate and see several of the sessions.
What immediately struck me on perusing the meeting program was how drastically different the meeting’s content was from previous years. It seemed barely recognizable as the same organization. On the kinds of abstract analytical topics that are the APA’s traditional bread and butter – epistemology, philosophy of language, meta-ethics – there were surprisingly slim pickings. The sessions I’d found most valuable in past years were on interpreting and applying philosophers of the Western canon – Aristotle, Hume, Hegel – and this year, those too were in short supply. Neither kind of session was gone, their numbers were just notably smaller, at least in proportion.Continue reading
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
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
After writing my previous post about history and the love of literature, I realized there’s a lot more one could say about the way history can deepen our appreciation of a work of literature – and perhaps even more so of philosophy, where I’ve thought about the question a lot more. I noted Herder’s recognition of the differences between eras, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that. It’s a particularly important point to make within philosophy, since it’s at the heart of the analytic-continental divide: analytic philosophers typically appreciate the truth of philosophical texts but without reference to their historical context, and continental philosophers typically learn about the historical context of texts without reference to their truth.
I am not satisfied with either of these approaches, because I think learning the historical context of a text is directly relevant to assessing its truth. And I think it’s time to unpack what I mean by that a bit more.Continue reading
academia, Ashley Barnes, Benedict Anderson, Benjamin C. Kinney, Bryan Van Norden, COVID-19, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Johann Gottfried Herder, Jon Baskin, Matt Wilkens, Sumana Roy, William Shakespeare
Many years ago, as a master’s student in development sociology, I took a course on nationalism with the late Benedict Anderson, renowned for his idea that the nation is an imagined community. The topic and the professor attracted a cross-disciplinary audience; about half of us students were in programs of sociology and political science, the other half in programs of literature. The distinction between the two, as I recall, became apparent when, from theorists and philosophers of nationalism, our reading turned to a work of literature, the sentimental anti-slavery novel Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. We wrote brief papers articulating our reactions to and thoughts about the work. The social scientists were moved by it; one fellow sociologist said she cried while reading it. But the literary theorists, as I remember, all thought it was (in Anderson’s words) a “dreadful” novel, worthy of study merely as something symptomatic of its historical period, at best. I had taken other classes with several of them, and become friends with some, and it occurred to me that I had never heard one of these literature students express love for any work of literature, with the sole exception of Joyce’s Ulysses.Continue reading
Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.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