East is East and West is West

Monday August 7, 2006


I spend much of my time these days with my nose stuck in philosophy books, working on the second draft of my PhD. I haven’t written much about the PhD here, and I think that – as it is something I spend much of my time doing, and as my reflections on thinkBuddha often come directly from the work I am doing on the PhD – I should break cover for a few posts and write more directly about my work, without, I hope, turning this into some kind of turgid academic treatise.

I’ll say a bit more about my current research project in a future post but, roughly speaking, I am writing about ethics and stories and the relationship between the two. When I started out on the PhD, I had not planned to write so much about stories, but as a novelist who tends to understand the world through stories, it is perhaps inevitable that this is where my research has led me. Instead, I had started out wanting to write about Mahayana ethics, the ethics of the Bodhisattva, and the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas.

This pairing of East and West was not an exercise in cross-cultural comparison, but the response to a particular problem, one that I suspect afflicts many attempting to practice the dharma from the point of view of largely secular Western perspectives. The problem was this. Through the practice of the dharma, through meditation, reflection, the reading of the Buddhist texts, my sense of life and of my own place within it shifted. The old frameworks of thought within which I was operating seemed no longer adequate. However – and this was the real problem – the frameworks handed down through the traditions of Buddhism, although I was fascinated and, not infrequently, moved by them, seemed to be inadequate as a way of allowing me to think through the questions that were raised by practice. They were too alien, they rested upon metaphysical premisses that I could not accept, they were too Buddhist.

This is a common position for Western dharma practitioners to find themselves in. On the one hand, the practice of the dharma seems to work. Meditation does lead to greater clarity. The practice of ethics does indeed lead to a kind of liberation. Insight into the radical instability of things does seem to lead to a closer and kinder attentiveness to the world and to each other. The recognition that practice works is direct and intimate. But on the other hand, many Buddhist teachings are presented within a framework that seems fundamentally alien. The problem then – for those of us who feel uncomfortable at the idea of “becoming Tibetan” (or Zen, or Ch’an, or anything else) and taking on the deal wholesale becomes that of how it is possible to think through what is going on in practice.

This was my problem with ethics. I was troubled and perplexed by the idea of the Bodhisattva, the ethical exemplar of the Mahayana as expressed in the Bodhisattva vows. The Bodhisattva vows appear in different forms, but they could be set out as a series of paradoxes:

  • Living beings are endless. I vow to deliver them all from suffering
  • Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to overcome them all
  • The doors to dharma are innumerable. I vow to enter them all
  • Awakening is unattainable. I vow to attain it

Whether expressed in this form, or in the form of Shantideva’s extraordinary Bodhicaryavatara, the Mahayana view of ethics is one that is rooted in a kind of exorbitance, an extravagance, even. But this view of ethics raises serious questions about meaning. What kind of a view is it?

At the time that I was thinking about this stuff, some friends of mine were involved in a discussion about just this question. The argument went something like this.

A: You should understand the idea of the Bodhisattva literally! The liberation of all beings: this is literally what is being asked of us!
B: Surely that is dangerous. It either leads to a kind of self-loving heroism – a kind of vanity, to some kind of dreamy mysticism, or to despair at the size of the task… not to mention the metaphysical tangles you will get yourself into, tangles that would really be better avoided.
A: Then what do you propose?
B: A symbolic reading. It is not meant literally at all. We should understand it as a poetic truth, not a literal truth.
A: Your poetic truth is useless! It eviscerates the whole thing, it strips it of its power. It lets you off the hook. You are saying, “I will deliver all sentient beings from suffering”, and you are thinking “Well, actually, I’ll try my best to help a few of them.” You are saying, “I will overcome all delusions”, and you are thinking, “Well, perhaps I’ll become just a little less deluded.” Surely that is a dishonest position to take?

And so the debate raged. It seemed to me that both A and B had valid objections to each other. With B, I agreed that it seemed strange that ethics should require a vast machinery of Indian (or Tibetan, or Chinese, or Japanese) world-views to make any sense at all. With A, I agreed that a reading in terms of ‘poetic truth’ seemed to eviscerate this idea of the Bodhisattva. One solution might have been to simply say that Mahayana approaches to ethics were fundamentally flawed and to give up and start thinking and talking about something else. But it didn’t seem that way: there is a resonance to much of the Mahayana approach to ethics that personally I could not ignore. It was only when I stumbled upon the fascinating, if forbidding, work of Emmanuel Levinas that I began to find the tools to think through this kind of approach to ethics without necessarily assuming the metaphysics of the Mahayana. Levinas – although coming from a very different perspective (a heady brew of Talmudic scholarship and academic phenomenology, since you ask…), and rooted in his own kinds of metaphysical extravagance – seemed to me to be talking about a remarkably similar kind of approach to ethics to Shantideva, for all of their obvious differences. Or, to put it another way, in my own investigation of this puzzling approach to ethics, both Levinas and Shantideva seemed to have something to say, and more often than not, what they had to say was very similar and mutually illuminating

But, it might be protested, surely this bringing together of two seemingly alien bodies raises further intractable problems. How is such a cross-cultural approach possible? What is the value of such an approach? How can it be justified? In an excellent post over at Arbitrary Marks, CK has summarised an interview with Chakravarti Ram-Prasad from Lancaster University, which explores just these questions. I will quote CK’s summary in full:

  • You can’t lump all “Eastern” philosophy (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, etc.) together. In fact, Chinese philosophers use the term “Indo-European” to refer to a kind of philosophy they consider distinct from theirs.
  • The difference between the kinds of problems Eastern and Western philosophy addresses isn’t as large as is often thought. Indian logic grapples with how to represent the world, as does Western thought. Ram-Prasad believes that Chinese philosophy may have a larger gap because of its understanding of the Tao, and the resulting pragmatic questions it asks.
  • Finally, if one is engaging in East/West comparison for the sake of “intellectual lepidoptery” (comparing the pretty butterflies!), then it isn’t going to be very useful.
  • Rather, he says, “if being able to have access to the intellectual resources of different philosophical traditions, can actually help us understand and illuminate the problems which we find ourselves confronting, then just doing that kind of philosophy will bring about a gradual erosion of these mental barriers that we’ve had for so long.”

The third and fourth points are the most important: that there must be a genuine problem at the outset (for me, with respect to the Mahayana, the problem of how a noncalculative approach to ethics is possible); and that the exercise must arise out of this problem, rather than being comparison for comparison’s sake. So this is how I set out on the path to writing the PhD which is now almost complete. As it happaned, the explicitly Buddhist element disappeared is almost entirely absent in the final thesis, but at the same time I would still maintain – perhaps rather waywardly – that this is nevertheless a thesis on the subject of Mahayana ethics. But of all of this, more later…

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#1 · Mike

8 August 2006

I’m very curious to continue hearing more about your thesis topic and your conclusions therein. As someone starting up on his PhD in 3 weeks (after having earned my MS in electrical engineering back in 2000 – boy I have a lot to reacquaint myself with!), I can commiserate with the difficulty of the process, and the the way grad school research can change you. Even in my field, where my research topic was communication systems, not anything remotely personal like ethics or religion, just the process of research and the work required teaches you a lot about yourself. I am also particularly interested because, while I’m a Buddhist, one of my best friends is a Christian pastor, and we have very regular debates over our philosophical differences. We each have learned a lot about our respective systems, and so I really look forward to hearing more about your conclusions, and especially the tools you used in your analysis.

#2 · Dave

8 August 2006

This is actually very exciting to me. I’ve really liked what little I’ve read of Levinas.

#3 · Mathias

8 August 2006

I’m not a buddhist, but a follower of Advaita, and to me the vows of the boddhisattva seem to be clear. They are not poetic, but rather Truth expressed in utmost clarity. Read them as they are.

Living being is endless, therefore everyone is part of this endlessness. Deliver yourself from Suffering, and you will see that no-one is really suffering.
Delusions are inexhaustible, overcoming them is seeing that they can not be overcome, only seen for what they are. Delusions.
The doors to Dharma are innumerable, you can’t enter them all, yet you must. By entering one, you will see they are all the same, and you will be dragged through them…
Awakening is unattainable. Only by relaxing from your path and sit down to just Be, you will attain the unattainable. Trying to hard won’t get you anywhere…

I guess that is at least how an Advaitan would say it…don’t take it for granted though =)

#4 · Siona

11 August 2006

This is tremendously exciting.

I’d venture, humbly, that part of the trouble that typically comes from these comparisons lies in the issue of any ethic, which, if it is to be taken seriously, must necessarily be lived. Otherwise, it is, as you wrote, just “intellectual lepidoptery” that’s being committed—or worse. Looking at ethical systems from an intellectual standpoint is about as reasonable as evaluating Ulysess according to its grammatical correctness.

(Before I say more, I’d like to note the argument between A and B. I think both are right, and I think it’s entirely possible to take the notion of the Bodhisattva both literally and symbolically. It must be lived – embodied! – literally, and understood – symbolically. But this is something more to be explored and experienced than explained . . . so I’ll say no more.)

In any case, the fact that your PhD comes from such a personal and practical and practiced place makes me think there’s incredible value to it. (Though admittedly my penchant for Levinas’ work and my own meditation practice helps. ;) ) I’m very much looking forward to hearing more.

#5 · Algis

16 August 2006

Dear Will,

I admire your academic work and determination. I am not sure though (but I cannot judge since I did not read your thesis) that Levinas is an adequate partner for an effective Mahyana ethics interpretation in present “western” conditions. I would much more reccomend to use an other surviving WW2 generation jewish intelectual—Zygmunt Bauman—for that matter. He is much more clearer about unpredictability and amibivalence of ethical behaviour and ethical criteria applied to actual deeds. I think he is much more closer to Boddhisatva way of life when he says “In fact the only assurance ist the relentless effort..” (look into http://www.demos.co.uk/files/aloneagain.pdf). Talmudic legalism coupled with “dialogic approach” a la Martin Buber and Husserlian self-immersion into phenomenal flow of conscious experiences (sorry for that crude interpretation of backbone of Levinas’ thinking) is hardly corresponding to that consequentionalist, compassionate activism that is, to my view, the essence of Mahyana ethical systems. I myself opt for ideterminacy, spontaneity and energetic “hinc et nunc” effort shown to us by Bodhidharma and presently explained by Bauman:)). So, in my view, not Shantideva-Levinas, but Bodhidharma-Bauman! What do you think? :)

#6 · Will

19 August 2006

Once more, a brief response due to having to catch a train…

Thanks for the thoughts everyone. The point about embodiment is, I think, essential Siona. I may write more about this later. And I agree to some extent, Algis, that Levinas is not ideal as a way of thinking through Mahayana ethics. All of that Husserl! All of that Talmudic legalism! What Levinas does, however, and does very effectively is to open up the possibility for a different set of questions about ethics. Let me put it this way: I think that Levinas identifies a number of ethical phenomena not accounted for in traditional ethical discourse; but the framework through which he attempts to respond to these is, frankly, exceedingly odd.

My thesis is really about reconsituting, so to speak, some of the central insights that Levinas had, but in a rather different fashion, through the mediumn of stories. And I think that this might lead closer to your indeterminism and spontaneity… But I must go away and read my Bauman!

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone!


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