Without Illumination

Thursday April 24, 2008

Light Bulb

It’s some time since I given time to reading about Buddhism, my interests of late having been elsewhere, but I was pleased to stumble across a copy of Bernard Faure’s Double Exposure: Cutting Across Buddhist and Western Discourses in the university library here in Birmingham. Browsing library shelves is a pursuit utterly unlike browsing the web (a point I try to impress upon my students), and one that is considerably more satisfying, if your library is a half-way decent one. It’s always a pleasure to find yourself pulling something unexpected out of the shelves just because it happens to be on the same shelf as something you thought was interesting but wasn’t.

So that’s how I came across Double Exposure, a of book that even its publishers describe as “something of an oddity”. Indeed, the description of the book on the Stanford University Press website seems almost to be a kind of parody of those Madhyamika texts that like nothing more than negation: this is not a book of comparative philosophy or religion, it is not a contribution “in a narrow sense” to Buddhist scholarship, it is not a contribution to vague notions of “spirituality”… You get the idea.

Given that I myself like to lurch in a shambolic fashion between vaguely Buddhish speculations and those drawn from the Western philosophical tradition (without any conviction that I truly understand either), the book was both fun and stimulating. It raises far more questions than it answers as it meanders from a discussion of whether we in the West really know what Buddhism is at all, through a consideration of the various “rationalities” of Buddhism, and from there to a consideration of Buddhism and Chinese thought, the major schools of Buddhism, the slippery idea of twofold truth, and so on. By the end, I found myself without illumination, but I’m not sure that Faure’s book aims at illumination in the ordinary (or even in the extraordinary) sense. I seems that it is more concerned with dissolving our assumptions, rattling our cages and leaving the reader with less of a sense of solid ground than at the outset. And that is always an entertaining way to spend a few hours.

After years of immersing myself in philosophy I’m currently feeling a bit queasy when I leaf through philosophy books. I am wondering if I have the zeal, the mad-gleam-in-the-eye that you need to really spend your life banging on about philosophy. All those abstruse arguments! All those damnably clever people convinced that they have the Truth (and that, as a consequence, their opponents are all dolts and dullards)! All that conviction (because even when philosophy profess uncertainty, they do it with a kind of zealous conviction)! All that heaping up of information, all those arguments and counter arguments, all those angels doing the foxtrot on the heads of pins!

Perhaps the fog will clear. But I’m enjoying letting it deepen for a while. And if deepening fog is your thing, Double Exposure is thoroughly recommended…

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