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
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
The Buddhist propositions that Evan Thompson articulates go deep. They proclaim three flaws of all the things around us, in ways that (Buddhist tradition has typically claimed) make them unworthy of our seeking. On such a view, the only thing truly worthy of our seeking is dukkhanirodha, the cessation of suffering, through a nirvana identified with “unconditioned peace”. The ethical implication is that the finest human life is that of a monk, who devotes his or her entire life to the pursuit of dukkhanirodha. It is granted that most people won’t pursue such a life, but that is because they are too weak to do so; their lives will be worse for their seeking external goods, like familial relationships and material possessions.
Aśvaghoṣa dramatizes these points in the Buddhacarita, his famous story of the Buddha’s journey to monkhood. After a contented life of luxury the Buddha-to-be sees an old man, a sick man and a dead man, he realizes that that is the fate of everyone and everything, and can take no more pleasure in the objects (viṣayas) of the world: “I do not despise objects. I know them to be at the heart of human affairs. / But seeing the world to be impermanent, my mind does not delight in them.” (BC IV.85) It is specifically the impermanence of things that leads the Buddha to become a monk and reject them.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’ll say a bit here about what you can expect to find. Some of the article goes over territory I’ve already covered on Love of All Wisdom and the IPB: I discuss Aśvaghoṣa’s worries about severity, Śāntideva’s rejection of external goods, the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta’s detached attitude to time. The article does this in more detail than the blogs have, and I also show similar ideas in other suttas and jātakas and from Candrakīrti.
The article also responds more directly to existing engaged Buddhist scholarship. Engaged Buddhist scholars have, so far, been the people actually doing constructive Buddhist ethics. They are not merely describing what Buddhists happen to believe but prescribing a Buddhist way of life, and that much is something I think we need more of. What I don’t think they do nearly enough is think about or respond to the points made by the likes of Śāntideva and Aśvaghoṣa. The article explains why they should.
So the article isn’t itself a work of constructive Buddhist ethics; I’m not taking a position on engagement or disengagement there. What I am doing is reminding other people doing constructive Buddhist ethics about a large body of ideas that they ignore or silence, and urging them to take those ideas more seriously. My own constructive position on these questions is complicated. I’ve started to take some of it up on the blog – for example, I think there is some empirical confirmation for the Disengaged Buddhists’ psychological claims. That isn’t the whole story, though, and you can expect to hear more about my constructive views in the years to come. I am proud of the article as a starting point.
My project on disengaged Buddhism has now been submitted to a journal. It’s undergone several revisions by this point. One of the most important such revisions was suggested unanimously by BU’s magnificent CURA seminar. In an earlier draft I had attempted to emphasize the contemporary constructive significance of disengaged Buddhism by noting how its ideas were corroborated by some contemporary psychological research. The seminar participants thought that discussion of psychology did not strengthen the paper because I didn’t have the space to defend them fully; the paper would stand best discussing disengaged Buddhists’ claims in their historical context and letting those claims stand on their own.
I think they were right, and I removed the psychology discussion from the paper – a little sadly, as I thought the psychological case for disengaged Buddhism was worth making. Fortunately, I have another place to make it: here. Continue reading
My upcoming paper on disengaged Buddhism focuses on classical Indian texts that engaged Buddhist scholarship has generally silenced. As I read more, though, I come to see that contemporary Asian and Asian-American Buddhists also have politically disengaged tendencies, which modern politically active scholarship – not only Buddhist – also tends to silence.
I first noted this tendency of silencing in Judith Simmer-Brown’s introduction to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the leading engaged Buddhist organization she helped found. The group, she says, “was concerned that Buddhist practice centers and groups had become entirely removed from the social and political issues of the day: some teachers and organizations were even actively discouraging political involvement.” (69) And that’s it for those “teachers and organizations”. Why were they discouraging political involvement? What did they say? What were their names? No answers are forthcoming; they receive no voice. What we hear instead is the story of how Simmer-Brown and her American fellows put together a politically engaged group in defiance of their teachers.
I presented about Disengaged Buddhism at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference in August. My talk was paired with a presentation by Frédéric Richard on a topic that did not initially appear to be related: the Tibetan government in exile. As it turned out, the papers proved fascinating mirror images of each other. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking lately about MacIntyre’s explanation of the Muslim philosopher ibn Sīnā and the ways in which ibn Sīnā’s concept of God requires us to rethink the entire world around us if we accept it:
From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)
What’s drawing my attention is that you could write a very similar passage to characterize Buddhism. Continue reading