A key idea that I’ve stressed from the Disengaged Buddhists is that the causes of suffering are primarily mental – especially the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots” of craving (rāga), aversion or hostility (dveṣa/dosa) and delusion (moha) – and that therefore changes in material conditions of life will do relatively little to solve them. Engaged Buddhists reject this latter idea, since they take changing the material conditions as essential. What has struck me recently, though, is that they reject the idea in ways that are different, and sometimes even opposite – each of which still, surprisingly to me in some ways, seems to accept that rāga, dveṣa and moha are indeed where the key problems of human existence lie. I see this point especially in comparing the different views expressed by Ron Purser and Sallie King. 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
Evan Thompson has made a wonderfully detailed response to my earlier two posts that critique his stimulating Why I Am Not A Buddhist. It is a dialogue I am excited to continue. First a logistical note: I have a great deal to say in response, but I generally think that blog posts work better as relatively self-contained but relatively short pieces, so I’m going to space out my own long reply over eight posts. (All this is perhaps in keeping with Simon Critchley’s claim that the philosopher is one who takes time.) In order to stop the discussion from dragging on for too long, I will post these posts at a much more frequent interval than I usually do – three times a week, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
To begin, I thank Thompson for his careful and thoughtful response. Its title – “Clarifying Why I Am Not A Buddhist” – is extremely apt. It shows me that there are points where I misunderstood the book’s claims, and I think the clarifications in his response make for a more fruitful debate. Above all: the book frames its critique of “neural Buddhism” in ways that did not seem to me to apply to the eudaimonic Buddhism that I hold. (Mike Slott of the Secular Buddhist Network appears to have got the same initial impression I did.) Thompson’s response makes it much clearer that he does indeed intend his critique to apply to me, and to fellow eudaimonist Buddhists like Dale Wright, Seth Segall, Ken McLeod, and possibly Slott. As a result, I think we are now much better able to dive into the real issues at hand, which I take to be crucial ones for my own philosophical project.Continue reading
Ron Purser’s critique of McMindfulness is in line with William Edelglass’s critique of the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism. Purser and Edelglass are both right to note that something new, less traditional, is going on in modern mindfulness. For there are parts of Buddhism that secular mindfulness leaves out, intentionally. Purser is right about that: right mindfulness (sammāsati) is only one part of the traditional Noble Eightfold Path, and mindfulness practices often leave out the rest. And so he is also right to ask the question:
what is mindfulness for? Is it merely to attain better health, higher exam scores, focused concentration at work, or “self-compassion?” Is it a medical form of self-improvement? In a way, posing the question is tantamount to asking what constitutes “the good life,” the traditional basis of philosophy. (79)
Indeed it is. And that is of course a difficult question. But it is important that the traditional Buddhist answers to that question are no closer to Purser’s anti-capitalist activism (or to Edelglass’s concern to alleviate “deprivation, violence, illness, racism, and environmental degradation”) than they are to secular mindfulness. I suspect they are further away from it. 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.
It is not especially controversial to say that ethics is a branch of philosophy. I’ve occasionally heard people dispute that claim, but mostly on the grounds that ethics extends beyond philosophy per se, to narrative and the like; few would say that ethical reflection is in general not a philosophical activity. Likewise it is not controversial at all to say that Buddhism began in India, or that Buddhism played a central role in the development of Indian philosphy.
So why is there so little overlap between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics”? 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
Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.
Śāntideva’s anti-political views are very commonly missed by Buddhist scholars today, especially constructive or theological ones, who are excited by the Engaged Buddhist embrace of political action. He is hardly alone among classical Indian Buddhists in expressing them. So last September I proposed a presentation to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS), which I intended to turn into a paper, explaining the importance of these anti-political views and entitled “Disengaged Buddhism”.
I was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the American election. Continue reading
Late last year I was delighted to see a post from Richard Payne retracting his earlier post on “White Buddhism”, motivated at least in part by my critique. It is all too rare to see a human being change his or her mind, especially on politically charged issues where passions run high and it is all too easy to develop attachment to views. I commend and thank Payne for his thoughtful retraction. On my end, he has provoked me to make a retraction of my own. Continue reading