Entries in Buddhism (8)
For all interested, I've a guest post over at my friend Justin Whitaker's blog American Buddhist Perspectives. It's called "Buddhist Ethics for an Age of Technological Change".
It's a bit on the long side.
Just got word today that a paper Justin Whitaker and I wrote a few months back, "Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher", has been accepted for publication by Philosophy East and West. This journal is arguably one of the top in the field, so we are naturally thrilled.
Scheduled publication date is in October of 2016. The wheels of academic publication grind slow.
Justin is the person behind the American Buddhist Perspectives blog, as well as being a graduate student in Buddhist Studies. I've really enjoyed working with him.
It's been awhile since I wrote anything for an academic audience. Research and writing was always the part of graduate school that I liked best; that and the camaraderie. The rest of it I could do without. But writing material for an academic audience is a narrow job, particularly in the arts. Without academic affiliation it can be difficult to get access to journal articles or the most recent developments in the field, and most of the time the topic is so recondite as to be of interest to virtually nobody.
The topic of our paper, however, is broad: we are arguing that the Buddha can be seen as a philosopher in the Western sense of the term. He was, of course, not a modern, much less a contemporary philosopher. His style was more that of the ancient Greeks, involving moderately structured dialogues rather than a thoroughly structured and organized system. Structure and organization came later, in the abhidhamma.
Is there material in the Buddha's suttas, principally the Nikāyas, that is at odds with our contemporary understanding of reality? Of course there is. But it is my contention that the Buddha's forays into (what we would now term) supernaturalism are not essential to his basic message. There are similar issues with all or virtually all ancient Greek philosophers as well, and yet even so many contemporary skeptics and naturalists look to those such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle for inspiration. There is too much that is good and worthwhile in these thinkers, in the first rank that remain to us after the dawn of written language. True, there is bathwater to drain, but no sense losing the baby as well.
Justin and I both believe that the Buddha's philosophical work is interesting enough in its own right to be studied alongside that of philosophers in the West. Although it is different, stemming from a sociocultural milieu somewhat unlike that found in ancient Greece or the Near East, it is nevertheless lucid, analytic, and as well reasoned as that found in any ancient thinker.
A distant hurrah for my first blog post over at the Secular Buddhist Association's website: Cankī on Preserving Truth. I'll aim to shunt Buddhism-related posts over to the SBA and keep all the other tchotchkes around here.
Scientific skepticism is brave and its aim is noble, but it tends to spoil in the doing. Perhaps it could be more effective with another component: what the Buddhists term "metta". It's usually translated "loving-kindness", but I prefer to call it "universal kindness" since the former has a saccharine taint, and anyhow there are many different sorts of love that are not appropriate to this approach.
The aim of scientific skepticism is ethical: to provide benefit to humanity and the world. It's a position that says it is morally wrong to disseminate falsehoods, particularly those that are in some way harmful to our well-being. So for example, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to various forms of so-called 'alternative medicine' that have been shown to be ineffective when compared to placebo. People who sell such products profit by providing false promises and ineffective care to people who are sick or dying. This is not simply a matter of truth or falsity, as might be the case for example with an incorrect date in the newspaper. This is a matter of moral wrong.
Similarly, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to misinforming people about the state of scientific discovery: for example, claiming that global warming is a hoax or that creationism is a scientifically viable theory. These claims can and do have ill effects on the public's ability to tell right from wrong, which itself feeds into our inability to adequately confront global problems. In a world that is ever more ruled by democratic forms of government, such disinformation campaigns can only cause harm, on a massive scale. And when they are done to the benefit of small, wealthy elites they too are examples of clear moral wrong.
So the strategic aim of scientific skepticism is beneficial. It's tactics are another matter. Skepticism is often looked upon as a negative enterprise. It's aim is to criticize, knock down, poke holes, cross-examine and throw out. Many skeptics of all stripes come across as nasty, arrogant know-it-alls. I should know, since I'm one of them. But nastiness in itself, the critical attitude, is a psychological dead-end. Nobody can keep it up for long, except a handful of curmudgeons and a few special people with deep reservoirs of psychological well-being that ground them. For the rest of us, it's frankly difficult to bear the frown, and it causes us psychological harm to do so.
Worst of all, of course, negative tactics are some of the least likely to actually change minds.
Is there any solution? I don't know. However there is one practice that can be found in Theravada Buddhism that might be of some help, at least to re-ground the aim. Because so often when engaging in skeptical pursuits one misses the forest for the trees, or the strategy for the tactics: criticism and put-downs take precedence over actually intending to help others.
The practice of universal kindness is simple, though it's bound to feel alien at first. It involves intending kindness towards all people. This is done progressively, by making regular assertions of one's wish that oneself and others are happy, healthy, safe and free from suffering. For example, one may begin by thinking to oneself, "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe from harm. May I be free from suffering." The point is to aim towards sincerity as much as one can, and to do the practice as often as one feels comfortable.
One begins with oneself because without kindness towards oneself, true kindness towards others is impossible. One then takes in mind people close to one, and does the practice towards them. (To make it easier to visualize, best to take one person at a time). Then one takes in mind neutral people; for example, people one passes regularly on the way to work, those in the gym or local store. Finally, one takes those to whom one has negative feelings -- perhaps intensely negative feelings. In this way, slowly and over time, one expands the circle of one's feelings of kindness towards the people around one. At the very least one clarifies and sharpens one's goals.
The results are not quick, they are not absolute and they are certainly not magical. If you like, this is an example of Aristotle's notion that in order to be a good person one has to practice being a good person, even if it seems odd to do so. The problem with Aristotle's suggestion is that doing something odd even once is difficult enough. Before we can do it, we must be able to think and to feel it. This sort of Buddhist practice can give us a route towards thinking and feeling, which may itself aid in our doing.
A skeptical program better grounded in open kindness towards others, even those with whom we disagree, may stand a better chance of providing psychological fulfillment for the practitioners and more credible help towards others.
To be free in the ordinary sense is, at base, a matter of being able to do what one wants: I am thirsty. I know there is something to drink in the refrigerator, so I open the refrigerator. This is a freely willed act, as opposed to my being forced to do the same by a man with a gun, or to my being unable to do the same because I am tied down to a chair.
A "want", of course, is realized by a state of the brain. The human nervous system has osmoreceptors that detect changes in the osmotic pressure of the blood and other fluids. When they detect decreased volume or increased concentration of salt, they cause us to feel thirsty. The mediators of wants are biophysical. (Or to put it as I've put it before, robots -- at least, robots of sufficient cognitive complexity -- could have wants. And if being free in the ordinary sense is a matter of being able to do what one wants, robots could be just as free as us).
But there is another sense of 'freedom' that comes up, for example, in the famous Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Buddhist Pali Canon. Here we are told that "wants" or "desires" themselves are bonds! How could this be if freedom is, at base, being able to do what one wants?
Here is the relevant passage from the Sutta:
Monks, there are these five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Aromas cognizable via the nose — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tastes cognizable via the tongue — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. These are the five strings of sensuality.
And any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will. Just as if a wild deer were to lie bound on a heap of snares: it should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; the hunter can do with it as he will. When the hunter comes, it won't get away as it would like. In the same way, any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will.
The pleasures we get from the senses are like strings that bind us; desires based upon them can tie us down like a deer before the hunter.
But what sort of freedom is this? Surely we are free -- at least, free in the ordinary, everyday sense -- just insofar as we can grasp at whatever desires suit our fancy. Far from binding us in a heap of snares, this pursuit of pleasure is what gives our life whatever expansiveness it has.
This is the kind of Enlightenment freedom alluded to in the US Declaration of Independence: that we possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Our freedom comes not only in liberty from interference, but also in liberty to pursue happiness where we find it. If we want to indulge ourselves by looking at drip paintings, playing the violin or eating gourmet meals, then it is in their pursuit that we find freedom.
But then, wherein lies the snare?
Consider this phrase from the Sutta: "... without seeing their drawbacks". Is it really true that every pursuit of happiness leads to its attainment? Don't many lead to unhappiness?
It's not unusual for the pursuit of pleasure to lapse into dull routine or worse, obsession or compulsion. One buys the object, sees the show, climbs the mountain, drinks the wine, kisses the pretty face, not because it is pleasurable but because it ticks some box that says, "Not done yet." It fits into an empty space in the collector's book. And while filling that space may provide some modest frisson, the feeling cannot last.
Nor are such pursuits to one's benefit: being tied to sensual delights without seeing their drawbacks is a route to disappointment. Although all desires aim at pleasure, many misfire along the way, bringing unhappiness. Often we know this to be the case, we know we do ourselves no good by acting upon the desire, yet we indulge nonetheless. This is a kind of fetter.
A desire that brings unhappiness when acted upon is not the kind of desire that brings true freedom. A desire that brings unhappiness is, in that sense, a kind of fetter or bond that reduces one's true freedom even while providing ordinary freedom.
The "pursuit of happiness" is its own freedom just so long as that pursuit is well-aimed. The obsessive collector who drains his account in the purchase of pretty things, the lothario, the thief, not to mention the alcoholic or addict, all to one extent or another do what they do freely, in the ordinary sense of the word. (The addict or true obsessive less so, since mental illness is its own bind). But they rarely get the happiness they seek. To that extent, they are not truly free.
Thanks to Steven Batchelor's work most of all, space is opening up around the notion of a neo-Buddhist philosophy and practice that rejects the supernatural elements of the traditional religion: principally, reincarnation and karma.
Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is a good place to start with his work, as I think it's some of his most lucid writing. Note that it is a memoir, not a treatise on philosophy. Though it has philosophical aspects, basically it's the story of Batchelor's travels through various forms of Buddhist practice in India, Korea and Europe.
A number of Secular Buddhist organizations have sprung up around Batchelor's ideas, principally the Secular Buddhist Association, the website of which includes a number of interesting links.
After chatting with Ted Meissner from the SBA, it became clear that we were on the same wavelength about notions of science and skepticism informing -- and at times trumping -- notions of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. He suggested doing a podcast together with two denizens of our skeptical, secularist Forum who have similar interests.
The podcast is out now, and can be accessed and downloaded HERE.