Having discussed the broader context of Śāntideva’s work, I think it is instructive to turn now to the two passages that Evan Thompson quotes from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra as supposed examples of the way that Śāntideva’s “philosophical arguments fall apart” without rebirth. These respectively say (in the Wallace and Wallace translation he cites), first, “In the past, I too have inflicted such pain on sentient beings; therefore, I, who have caused harm to sentient beings, deserve that in return./Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?” (BCA VI.42-43) And second, “since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.” (VI.107)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
In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:
Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)
The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?
I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc. Continue reading
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
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
Two disclaimers are required for this week’s post. First, Janet Gyatso was on my dissertation committee and before that served as my doctoral advisor. Second, Columbia University Press offered to send me a free copy of her new book if I would review it on Love of All Wisdom, and I accepted on condition that the review could be critical. This is that review. Take it as you will.
Sometime during my doctoral studies I recall a student asking Prof. Janet Gyatso what she was currently researching, and she mentioned Tibetan medical literature. That couldn’t have been any later than 2007, when I graduated, and was probably before. Only now, at least eight years later, has Gyatso’s book on Tibetan medicine come out – and one can see why it took so long.
Being Human in a Buddhist World cannot have been an easy book to write. It is a detailed study of several different Tibetan works on medicine, none of which have been translated into a Western language, and all of which deal with highly technical questions of biology using a set of concepts very different from those familiar in the modern West – some in the form of “a dark, incomplete, and frequently illegible third-generation photocopy of a manuscript that is itself rife with spelling mistakes and smudges.” One does not find oneself eager to replicate such a study.
The title of this book is well chosen. Most Buddhism tends to be what I have called an ascent tradition; it is about transcending the condition of our everyday particular humanity, detaching oneself from what the texts Gyatso studies call “the horrible world”. But even if we were to grant that its most advanced practitioners have become in some sense superhuman (say Thich Quang Duc, who, eyewitnesses say, was able to remain perfectly at peace while setting himself on fire), the fact remains that everybody else is still human, all too human. Continue reading
Buddhist practice of various sorts has helped me greatly in trying to deal with the frustrations of cancer care. I wrote already of the role of prayer to Mañjuśrī and Buddhist reading. Now I’d like to say more about what I learned from that reading – and how these practices all fit together. Continue reading
I attended a great panel yesterday at the Eastern APA. Two of the presentations addressed each other directly on a topic I’ve discussed before: skepticism in Indian thought. The presenters, Ethan Mills and Laura Guererro of the University of New Mexico, had clearly been engaged in a longstanding debate with each other on the subject beforehand, which I think helped sharpen their thoughts nicely for the talk.
Mills presented on Jayarāśi, whose Tattvopaplavasiṃha (“The Lion that Afflicts Categories”) is the only extant full text attributed to a member of the Cārvāka-Lokāyata, the atheist and materialist school of ancient Indian thought. But Jayarāśi takes the Cārvāka school’s thought much further than it is usually thought to go. Whereas this materialist school is normally understood to merely deny the existence of gods and karma, Jayarāśi denies the existence of pretty much everything. Previous Cārvākas were said to believe that the world was made up entirely of the four elements; Jayarāśi says, “Even the view of world as elements is not well established. How much less are all the others?” He is, in short, a skeptic. Continue reading
Last week I attended an interesting talk by Harvard PhD candidate (and fellow Canuck) Rory Lindsay, through the graduate Workshop in Cross-Cultural Philosophy – a workshop I’m proud to have played a part in founding (and I’m happy to say that its current leaders have made it exponentially more successful than it ever was under my stewardship). Lindsay was exploring the skepticism of the Indian Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti; he compared Candrakīrti to the Hellenistic capital-S Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who held similar views, and examined the arguments made against Sextus by Myles Burnyeat. I want to discuss Lindsay’s talk by first giving some background to it, then recounting it, and finally offering a few of my reflections that came out of it.
Lindsay’s talk – I hope I will be interpreting it correctly – delved far enough into the technical details of Buddhist theoretical debates that some introductory remarks are in order. Those familiar with these debates should feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs. Buddhist teaching deliberately and thoughtfully attacks certain aspects of common sense and common linguistic usage, and yet nevertheless needs to make some use of that linguistic usage. Continue reading
A couple weeks ago Shrikant Bahulkar, an Indian scholar I studied Sanskrit with, gave a talk on language in Buddhism. During the questions and answers he said something that struck me: Tibetan Buddhists gave privilege to Sanskrit texts over Tibetan ones because the Sanskrit texts were more authentic.
He’s surely right, in the sense that Tibetans thought Sanskrit s?tras more likely to be the real word of the historical Buddha. But the wording intrigued me. For we use “authentic” as a term of praise all the time now, but in a strikingly different way.
The Tibetans cared that texts were authentically Indian because the Buddha was Indian, so such texts were more likely to have been the authentic word of the Buddha. They wouldn’t have given a toss whether texts were authentically Mongolian or authentically Persian, because the Buddha didn’t come from those places.
For us, by contrast, authenticity is a good in itself. Other things being equal, we treat blues music performed by an authentic Mississippi blues performer as better than the same music performed by some guy from Vancouver; authentic Mexican food made by Mexicans is better than Mexican food made by Bostonians. I once spoke to a friend’s relatives in Cambridge, UK, who were going to be visiting the US and were excited about going to Disneyland. I asked “Why go all the way – why not just go to Euro Disney?” They replied “No, no – we want to see the real Disneyland!” A startling response at the time to my urban geographer’s ears, to which nothing could be more fake than Disneyland – but even there, the original was valued much more highly than the imitation.
Some of this valuing of authenticity per se creeps into religious studies as well. I’ve spoken of the point before in the context of Yavanayāna Buddhism: it’s a recent creation involving Westerners and therefore seems less “authentically Buddhist,” and “less authentic” is equated in our minds with “bad.” I think this is why the “Protestant presuppositions” charge is bandied about so frequently and comes across as such a slur: the Yavanayāna emphasis on texts, on what seems to be the authentic word of the Buddha, is considered “less authentically Buddhist.”
But the Yavanayāna attitude, ironically, seems to me much closer to traditional attitudes than does this scholarly romanticism of authenticity. Scholars or otherwise, we today value a more generalized authenticity, in which everything should “be what it is.” Whereas for most premodern cultures, as I understand it, authenticity was merely a means to an end. The authentic word of the Buddha was better than an imitation because of the value of the Buddha’s word itself, not because of the value of authenticity per se.
So why this change? It seems above all an aesthetic phenomenon. We see beauty in things that are what they are, that don’t imitate. Why is this? I suggested before that it’s because authenticity is scarce under capitalism. Is that it? Is it because, as I added in the comments, so many of us want to take an oppositional posture against society at large, and so much of that society is satisfied with imitations? Or is there more to it still?