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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