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 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
Evan Thompson has made his last statement in our correspondence. Before I make mine, a personal note: our series of responses to date has become increasingly confrontational in tone, in a way I imagine our readers have noticed. Thompson and I have spoken about that tone in private and we agreed that it is not where either of us had hoped or intended for this conversation to go. I hope to end this series on a note of gentler and friendlier disagreement, one that invites both of us and our readers to new avenues of inquiry that the dialogue has opened up. For one thing, from the beginning, I have appreciated Thompson’s willingness to take Buddhist thought seriously by acknowledging where he finds it inadequate; this is a valuable and refreshing contrast to the kind of kid-glove treatment that it is too often given in religious studies. I think that this aspect of Thompson’s approach is very helpful for advancing contemporary discussions of Buddhist thought, and I think I should have led my opening review post with my appreciation of his work on that point.
Now to recap the state of our debate. Thompson, in his June reply, had stood his ground on the claim that karma is fundamentally about why bad things happen to good people. My ensuing July-August round of posts addressed in detail why I think he is wrong about this. While I think it was important to go into those details, I think I didn’t spend enough time on the big-picture questions that motivated them, which remain important to both Thompson and myself. So, while I didn’t think the wordplay in his June title was accurate, I think the current one was. That is, I did, to some extent at least, “lose the thread”. I am happy that the final exchange can now take us back to those larger questions.Continue reading
Paul Fuller’s The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism, as its title might suggest, is a dry, abstract, technical monograph. It may also be one of the more spiritually beneficial books I have ever read.
I suppose maybe both of these things are appropriate to the book’s subject matter, the Pali Canon. One of the Canon’s “three baskets”, the abhidhamma, is notorious for its level of technical abstraction – and yet Theravāda tradition has consistently held it to be of great spiritual benefit. Erik Braun has demonstrated how the modern Burmese traditions of vipassanā meditation, now enormously popular around the world, have their origins in study of the abhidhamma.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
Continuing my reply to Evan Thompson, I will focus next on karma, because the reinterpretation of karma is central to my own eudaimonist Buddhism, and therefore it forms a focal point in Thompson’s critique. Karma is Thompson’s example of how I and other Buddhist modernists “recast Buddhist concepts in a way that makes them incongruent with their traditional meanings and functions.” Why? Thompson asserts that eudaimonism is not the core idea of karma, “if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.”
I disagree entirely with this assertion.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
How helpful is Melford Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic distinction in describing Buddhism? It can be tempting to line it up too closely with other dichotomies – to say that kammatic Buddhism is practised by householders and nibbanic Buddhism by monks, for example. Damien Keown (Nature of Buddhist Ethics 86) notes that in Spiro’s own survey of Burmese villagers, many laypeople say that they would prefer nirvana for their next life and most monks do not describe striving for nirvana as one of their main functions; so such a mapping of kammatic/nibbanic onto householder/monk would be false.
But Keown takes this point about laypeople and monks much too far when he draws the conclusion that therefore Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic “theory does not fit the facts”. Continue reading
Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics closes by arguing for parallels between Buddhist and Aristotelian ethics. He claims that “there are many formal parallels between the ideal of human perfection conceived by the Buddha and that envisaged by Aristotle” (193), such that “Aristotelianism provides a useful Western analogue which will be of use in elucidating the foundations and conceptual structure of Buddhist ethics.” (196)
Is Keown right? Is Buddhist ethics like Aristotle’s? Continue reading
The mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation continues at a rapid clip. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the years 2012 to 2017 the percentage of adults meditating in the United States more than tripled, to 17%. The American market for provision of meditation-related services is now worth $1 billion and growing.
With any phenomenon this mainstream, one expects a backlash. Sure enough, there have been a number of pieces appearing recently that chastise programs like BU’s under the name “corporate mindfulness”, or more pithily, “McMindfulness”. Continue reading