On being Buddhist and distinctively Buddhist

At the start of my replies to Evan Thompson’s response, I noted that there are two core ways in which my eudaimonist Buddhist modernism differs from a great deal of premodern Buddhist tradition. I will first address the one that I take to be a deeper modification to the tradition, in admitting goals beyond the removal of suffering. Thompson doesn’t speak of this modification in quite these terms, but I think many of his comments speak directly to it. Especially, Thompson says:

I submit that the driving engine—historically and philosophically—of Buddhist thought is the following set of propositions: All conditioned and compounded things are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self (the so-called three marks of existence); and nirvāṇa is unconditioned peace. Another formulation is the so-called four seals (which, according to Tibetan Buddhism, minimally identify a view as Buddhist): everything conditioned and compounded is impermanent; everything contaminated (by the mental afflictions of beginningless fundamental ignorance, attachment, and anger) is suffering; all phenomena are devoid of self; and nirvāṇa (unconditioned cessation of affliction) is peace.

I don’t agree that these propositions constitute the driving engine of Buddhist thought; that would be a very strong claim, one which Thompson does not argue for. I do, however, think that they are among the more important parts of Buddhist thought historically. Indeed I think they are so important that on this blog, eleven years ago, I described them, or something like them, as the biggest reason I wasn’t a Buddhist – much as Thompson does. At that point I stood with him on that question; I don’t anymore.

What changed? I’ve told that story: sitting in the waiting room of a cancer clinic, I suddenly realized that if I was to have a chaplain to help me face death, I would want that chaplain to be Buddhist. That was for a number of reasons, but significant among them the Buddha’s own recognition of the inevitability of death (in the suttas), with his last words, “strive with vigilance” – strive to be better. That depended neither on a God I couldn’t believe in, nor on an advocacy of social justice that can do nothing in the face of death’s inevitability. All this was crucial to me because – as with a therapist – for a chaplain to help a patient, the patient has to provide the chaplain with trust, even faith. A good chaplain will challenge us on exactly those views that are making it hard for us to live the last parts of our lives well.

Now Thompson says in his response:

I have no objection to anyone who feels more at home with Buddhist conceptions of virtue, and of wholesome versus harmful emotions, than with analogous conceptions in other traditions (Stoicism, Christianity, Confucianism, etc.), who accordingly wishes to articulate virtue ethics mainly from the evolving perspective of the Buddhist philosophical tradition, and who thus identifies as a Buddhist.

This indicates to me that Thompson would find relatively little to object to in my adoption of Buddhism as I’ve described it so far. Where I think his objections would lie is to the next part of my adoption of Buddhism. That is: Nothing that happened in the hospital waiting room changed my belief that rebirth is false, or that the things of this world can be worthy of our pursuit. I had not then, and have not now, seen any Buddhist arguments that dissuaded me from these views. I think that then leaves me three options. First, I could exit Buddhism on the grounds that I cannot believe propositions traditionally important to it – an existentially unsatisfying option in the context, and one that would likely exclude membership in nearly any tradition that exists (including secular humanism and Unitarian Universalism). Second, I could accept two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time –an approach completely unacceptable for a philosopher, and not great for ordinary people either. Or, I could attempt to adhere to a Buddhism that remained true to these other philosophical convictions of mine – which would therefore not include most of the propositions Thompson identifies. That is the option I chose, and I continue to think it the best.

I also think that my resulting worldview remains distinctively Buddhist in a variety of ways: rejecting righteous anger, believing (with the Second Noble Truth) that the causes of suffering are primarily mental, seeing political action as dangerous, and more. Thompson, however, doesn’t think that the rejection of righteous anger counts as distinctively Buddhist (and this in a way that would probably apply to other related propositions). He notes in response that “ancient and modern Stoics also regard anger as a destructive emotion that needs to be curbed and counteracted by positive emotions and rational understanding.” That’s true. But to say that the rejection of righteous anger is therefore not distinctively Buddhist implies a standard for “distinctively Buddhist” that I don’t think is fair. In saying that the rejection of righteous anger is “distinctively Buddhist” I meant that it passes something like David Chapman’s standard of something “not already understood by (say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian” (or Bostonian or Vancouverite) – something that challenges the common sense that what left-wing North Americans were already inclined to believe anyway, which I think Thompson and I agree is an important thing for Buddhism to do. What is distinctively Buddhist in this way is what is challenging rather than comfortable.

Thompson’s remarks, by contrast, appear to be setting a much higher standard for an idea to be “distinctively Buddhist”: that there are or have been no other traditions that ever advocated it. This, I submit, is an impossibly high standard. I think that most of what Thompson takes to be the “driving engine” of Buddhist thought would fail it. Augustine would have wholeheartedly agreed that the things of this world – conditioned and compounded things – are impermanent and unsatisfactory, and that true well-being is found in an unconditioned peace beyond it. The Hellenistic Skeptics, and even many contemporary postmodernists, would agree that “all phenomena are devoid of self”. Very few propositions are unique to any tradition, and I don’t see any reason to expect them to be. I think a tradition’s distinctiveness is important not for any sense of uniqueness, but for a way it offers challenges to the common sense of the age (and so what is distinctive about a tradition may change from era to era).

In the next post I’ll explore at more length why I reject the kind of propositions Thompson notes above, and what that means.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

3 Replies to “On being Buddhist and distinctively Buddhist”

  1. Pingback: Grappling with impermanence | Love of All Wisdom

  2. Pingback: Grappling with impermanence – The Indian Philosophy Blog

  3. I understand :
    1. Buddhism recommends to go for a contented self as a goal rather than a desireless self.This is a virtue and its violations attract karmic punishments.And
    2. Hinduism recommends a way of life guided by the principles of Karma Theory.Following this principle is a virtue.If this principle is violated ,be prepared to endure
    karmic punishments.
    In effect, both appear same in essence.

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