The importance of reading Buddhaghosa closely

A while ago, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad made a thoughtful reply to the last of my post series on Buddhaghosa. I thank Ram-Prasad for that reply; I appreciate his willingness to engage with my rather cheeky attempt to reply to an article before it was even published. Now that his and Maria Heim’s article has reached publication (in Philosophy East and West 68(4), October 2018), I think it is time to take that reply back up again.

I do find his criticisms of me in his reply to be unfair. I had intended my “challenge accepted” remark to be a playful response to the inviation that he and Maria Heim made for a textually justified defence of a traditional ontological view of Buddhaghosa; I realize it may have come across as arrogant or obnoxious, and I apologize if so. But since I have been accused of “helping myself” to a reading that I was “supposed to establish through argument”, my arguments in the coming posts will be long and add significant detail to the arguments I made last time. (They will get into the technical details of Pali translation, but I intend them to still be readable by non-specialists.) It is still my hope that this discussion can proceed equanimously, as a wholesome inquiry into the views of this important thinker.

I also want to reiterate that I very much appreciate his and Heim’s claim that “It would be a welcome development in the study of Buddhaghosa if other scholars were to offer further or contrasting interpretations… based on such textual analysis…” (1109) The original series of posts was written in exactly that spirit, and these rejoinders are as well. I suspect my writing here might eventually become an article of its own, because I think the topic merits it. (Indeed, by the time I’m done, the number of words I’ve written in response to Heim and Ram-Prasad[1] will have added up to enough for an article; I beg my readers’ patience!) Considering his vast influence and philosophical power, Buddhaghosa is a thinker deeply under-studied by philosophers, and Heim and Ram-Prasad have done us a great service by giving him the attention he deserves.

Buddhaghosa is also a thinker constructively important to my own philosophical thought, and that is why it is important to me to spend this time on him. The Buddhism I first saw the truth in was Theravāda, and as I have come to think through my own Buddhism I have come to identify it as at least primarily Theravāda. And Buddhaghosa is surely the preeminent philosopher of Theravāda tradition; my Pali teacher once described him as “Mr. Theravāda Buddhism”. His importance to Theravāda thought is even more important than Augustine’s to Christianity. If one wishes to think philosophically as a Theravādin, one has no choice but to wrestle with Buddhaghosa.

And I am trying to wrestle with him specifically on the difficult question of self and no-self, the Buddhist position with which I have had some of my greatest difficulties. It is therefore very important to me to understand what Buddhaghosa’s position on the self actually is, even if I ultimately disagree with it – indeed, perhaps, especially if I ultimately disagree with it. Some of the positions I attribute to Buddhaghosa are ones I would likely prefer he didn’t hold. Especially, in my own constructive reflection I have been moving toward a position where the ultimate is not more highly valorized than the conventional–but I can’t on good conscience accept Ram-Prasad’s claim that that is Buddhaghosa’s own view, because I think it is in such dramatic contrast to what Buddhaghosa actually says. On the other hand I do tend to agree with Buddhaghosa, as I see him, that the conventional and the ultimate are helpful ways to describe actual existence, not merely our own experience.

I will develop both of those points in posts to come. In the next post I will also turn to nāmarūpa, the compound on which Heim’s and Ram-Prasad’s article focuses. Ram-Prasad claims my earlier posts “sidestep the core argument of the article” by not mentioning nāmarūpa. I didn’t mention nāmarūpa because of the nature and point of the blog posts: they were an explicit response to a comment of Ram-Prasad’s) that had originally directed me to the then-unpublished article. That original comment was not at all about nāmarūpa but about conventional and ultimate, and the conventional/ultimate split is what those posts focused on as well. Nāmarūpa seemed a separate point. But there is a more general discussion here that goes beyond conventional and ultimate to questions of the relationship between ontology and phenomenology – between what is and what we experience. I concede that nāmarūpa is quite relevant to that discussion. So I will pick it up next time.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

[1] Since this post is in reply to a blog comment, I considered trying to write it on a first-name basis to signify its conversational nature. Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s comment referred to me by my first name, after all, and I enjoy that informality. However, for consistency with the previous posts in the series, and because these posts might eventually become an article, I eventually decided to continue referring to Maria Heim as “Heim” and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad as “Ram-Prasad”. I hope this is not construed as representing a chilly distance of formality, as that is far from my intent. As ever, I greatly appreciate Ram and Maria’s work to shed light on this deeply under-studied philosopher, and I have learned much from it; I want to reiterate that my disagreement is offered in a spirit of friendly critique.

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