‘Does It Float?’: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2015

Stephen Batchelor, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, Yale University Press, 2017

Yale University Press were kind enough to send me review copies of Stephen Batchelor’s books when they were published. But reviewing them is difficult, as they are polemical, in favour of a particular new interpretation of Buddhism over undesirable forms of traditional Buddhism. In the end I’ve decided to comment just on the argument for secular Buddhism made in these books, independent of my response to the idea. Stephen Batchelor is something of a hero of mine: a pioneer of existentialist Buddhism,[1] and a prophet of Buddhism without belief in karma and rebirth. I enjoyed interviewing him in 2004, about his book Living With the Devil, which I still believe marks an important new interpretation of the meaning of Māra, the Buddhist version of the devil.[2] But I was not so enthusiastic about the part of his 2010 book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, which attempted to rediscover the teaching of the historical Buddha. His Pāli scholarship seemed at times dubious and his arguments occasionally tendentious.[3]

Closely reading After Buddhism, his 2010 follow-up to Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, I am once again troubled by his at times dubious Pāli scholarship. But then, in Secular Buddhism, his 2015 collection of essays, I read (p.17) how he himself admits his Pāli is not very good. He recalls (pp.17–18) his reading of the early Buddhist discourse, the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, in which the newly-awakened Buddha is reported to have doubted the point of teaching the Dharma, for

people love their place [ālaya]: they delight and revel in their place. It is hard for people who love, delight and revel in their place to see this ground [ṭhāna]: “because-of-this” conditionality [idappaccayatā], conditioned arising [paṭicca-samuppāda].[4]

This passage becomes important for Batchelor’s own formulation of the Buddha’s awakening in terms of its being an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight into the nature of reality. But Batchelor then admits (p.19) how a friendly critic had pointed out that ālaya doesn’t mean ‘place’ but ‘attachment’, and how ṭhāna doesn’t mean ‘ground’ but ‘fact’ or ‘state’.[5] Batchelor then muses about whether his translation is an example of incompetent scholarship or a creative mistake.

With this in mind, it hardly seems necessary for me to go through After Buddhism, pointing out all the Pāli mistakes. It suffices to say that Stephen Batchelor admits his Pāli is a bit rough and ready. This is not a great start for someone who wants to ‘recover the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies’ (p.28). In fact, it leads to my first observation on the project in these two books of developing a ‘secular Buddhism’: that this ought not be described as a recovery of the original meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, but rather as an interpretation of the Dharma for the modern world. Following good practice from Biblical studies, one should distinguish exegesis from interpretation. To say that the Buddha’s awakening should be understood as an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight is an interpretation (of the Dharma for the modern west), whereas to explain what ālaya means, and what it means for people to love their ālaya, is exegesis.[6]

His translations of ālaya and ṭhāna aside, Batchelor comes up with some lovely new interpretations of early Buddhist terms and concepts. For instance, he renders taṇhā as ‘reactivity’ (After Buddhism, p.74). An exegesis of the word taṅhā would have to say that, etymologically, it meant ‘thirst’, the Sanskrit equivalent tṛṣṇā being derived from the verbal root tṛṣ, ‘be thirsty’; though in use it means a self-centred ‘craving’ or ‘desire’. But in practice the word is used in Buddhist psychology to indicate the tendency of the mind to react with self-centred craving, which is at the root of our continued existence in saṃsāra. Hence ‘reactivity’ is a nice interpretation of the word in modern English, that gets into western concepts some of what it means as a Buddhist technical term. Likewise, his rendering of appamāda as ‘care’ (After Buddhism, p.102), instead of the usual ‘heedfulness’, manages to capture a technical term in just the right English word.

Generally, though, I would say that Batchelor is not the best exegete of Pāli texts, partly because his Pāli is not very good, but mostly because his purpose really is to argue for a new interpretation of early Buddhism, and he confuses interpretation with exegesis. This is apparent in what has become the signature teaching of his secular Buddhism, the ‘four tasks’. These are a re-casting of the four noble truths (dukkha, ‘suffering’; samudaya, ‘arising’; nirodha, ‘cessation’; and magga, ‘path’) as four ‘tasks’ (that suffering is to be comprehended; arising is to be let go of; ceasing is to be beheld; and the path is to be cultivated) (After Buddhism p.69; Secular Buddhism, p.94). The tasks come out in fully secular form as: Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act! (After Buddhism, p.70). Batchelor derives support for his interpretation from an article by K.R. Norman;[7] but this article is an example of scholarly exegesis, which clarifies some difficult Pāli syntax by suggesting a particular account of how the discourse evolved. One might add that the ‘four tasks’ are right there in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma’, traditionally regarded as the first sermon.[8] The Buddha presents each of the four in terms of a ‘task’ (kicca), meaning, ‘what is to be done’. Suffering is ‘to be comprehended’ (pariññeyya), its arising is ‘to be let go of’ (pahātabba), its cessation is ‘to be beheld’ (sacchikātabba), and the path to its ceasing is ‘to be cultivated’ (bhāvitabba).[9] So the ‘four tasks’ are, to my mind, simply a way of drawing attention to how the Buddha is said to have presented the truths as tasks.

What I find puzzling about Batchelor’s project here is his rejection (Secular Buddhism, pp.95–6) of the idea that the four truths represent the Buddha’s appropriation of a medical formula. It is in fact quite likely that the four truths represent a version of an ancient Indian medical diagnostic formula, in which dukkha, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, is the disease; the arising of dukkha is the pathogen, namely, taṇhā, ‘reactivity’; the state of health is the cessation of dukkha; and the cure is the eightfold path.[10] Certainly, the Buddha is often compared in early discourses to a skilful physician. Therefore, from the very beginning, the Dharma was presented in non-religious, this-worldly, secular terms, as a practical teaching, namely, as what are called the four noble truths. It only takes some exegesis to make this clear; interpretation is not particularly necessary.

However, Batchelor is determined to develop what (in Secular Buddhism, p.80) he calls ‘Buddhism 2.0’, a form of Buddhism that would present the Dharma not just in an updated traditional form, but in a new way that overcomes the cultural divide separating modern western practitioners from their Asian forebears. Let us grant Batchelor that such an updated Buddhism is desirable; and it is certainly part of the vision of the Triratna Buddhist movement, in which I practise, to develop such a Buddhism in this way. But why then does Batchelor so often try to develop Buddhism 2.0 through a comparison with sheer caricatures of traditional Buddhism? In this sense, the argument of After Buddhism is seriously compromised by the fallacy of false dilemma. This means arguing by presenting a choice between ‘my way’ and the Buddhist ‘highway’, presenting the highway as a send-up of dogmatic metaphysical claims, and concluding falsely that ‘my way’ must be right.

For instance, in After Buddhism (p.8), Batchelor characterises the Buddha’s teaching of emptiness (suññatā in Pāli) as ‘a condition in which we [he means advanced practitioners] dwell’; ‘emptiness discloses the dignity of a person who has realized what it means to be fully human’. He then contrasts this understanding of emptiness with that of the later philosophy of Mādhyamika, in which emptiness is ‘an ultimate truth that needs to be understood through logical inference’ and ‘a privileged epistemological object that, through knowing, one gains a cognitive enlightenment’. So, the Buddhist understanding of emptiness is either the Buddha’s original teaching, or the later Mādhyamika version; the latter is evidently merely a conceptual attainment, therefore we should go with the Buddha’s original teaching. But anyone who has studied anything about Mādhyamika knows that Batchelor’s account of emptiness here is a mere caricature. Indeed, Batchelor himself must know that he what he has written is mere caricature, as he has himself translated Nāgārjuna’s foundational work on Mādhyamika, the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā.[11] Anyone who studies this work knows that ‘Misperceiving emptiness / Injures the unintelligent / Like mishandling a snake / Or miscasting a spell.’[12]

Then again, he quotes from the Udāna, a collection of discourses in the Pāli canon, one of which he cites in translation: ‘There is, monks, an Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded’ and so on. He comments: ‘This ex-cathedra declaration of a transcendent reality lying beyond the conditioned world sits uncomfortably with the suspension of judgement and suspicion of ultimacy advocated elsewhere in the same body of texts’ (p.25). But this is a tendentious exegesis of a Pāli text, for the sake of his interpretation of it as dogmatic etc., in comparison with the more sceptical texts he prefers. Later (pp.137–49) he explains how the problem is the translation (by Maurice Walshe), and that the passage can be translated in ways that have less ‘ontological gravity’. But this is a translation issue, not a problem with religious Buddhism or even with a metaphysical claims.

Then again he tries to show up the dogmatic nature of religious Buddhism by claiming that ‘later Buddhists’ proposed a form of atomism (p.189) and that ‘Buddhist proponents of rebirth’ proposed that mind is a substance (dravya) (p.300). Atomism and substantialism are evidently supposed to make these later Buddhists sound like traitors to the sceptical, anti-metaphysical kind of Buddhism that Batchelor, quite reasonably, wants to argue is the Buddha’s original teaching. Again, this is false dilemma: the Buddhist Abhidharmikas may not have been sceptics but they used the concepts of atomism and subtance in highly specialised Buddhist ways, in relation to Indian philosophical concerns of their time. They would not have had much trouble in countering his arguments.

In Secular Buddhism (p.107), Batchelor evokes the famous parable of the raft. The Buddha describes someone who builds a raft to cross a river in their path: would it be wise to continue on their way, having crossed over, by putting the raft on their head?[13] Developing the comparison, Batchelor argues that there is no need to ask of Buddhism 2.0, ‘is it really Buddhism?’: ‘The only relevant question is “Does it float?”’. If we understand Buddhism 2.0 here simply in terms of the body of ideas that Batchelor has developed in his recent books, one would have to say that, although it has some lovely design features, and many of us wish it well on its voyage, it is unfortunately made of poor quality scholarship and is lashed up with false arguments.

This review is also published in Western Buddhist Review.

[1] Especially in Alone With Others (1983), Flight: An Existential Conception of Buddhism (1984), and The Faith to Doubt (1990).

[2] See Dharma Life magazine, 2004 (details); reprinted in Challenging Times, ed. Vishvapani, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2012.

[3] Reviewed in Western Buddhist Review 6.

[4] First discussed in After Buddhism p.55, in ch.3 A Fourfold Task, in which he presents what has become his single most important ‘secular Buddhist’ teaching. The passage is from the Ariyapariyesā Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 26.

[5] I would also point out that idappaccayatā doesn’t mean ‘“because-of-this” conditionality’, but ‘the state of having this as condition’, i.e. it just means ‘conditionality’ in the peculiar Buddhist sense.

[6] In Secular Buddhism, p.81, Batchelor explains that his account of ‘Buddhism 2.0’, with its four tasks, is an interpretation; but he also admits he is easily ‘seduced’ by the idea that it is ‘what the Buddha originally taught’.

[7] K.R. Norman (2003), ‘The Four Noble Truths’, Collected Papers II, Oxford: PTS, pp.210–23, online at https://bit.ly/2Lps3bA.

[8] It can be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya at 56: 11.

[9] Batchelor consistently (After Buddhism p.69, Secular Buddhism pp.94–5) gets the Pāli wrong: these four things ‘to be done’ (kicca) are in the grammatical form of gerundives, whereas he cites nominal forms.

[10] See Anālayo (2016), Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, Cambridge: Windhorse, pp.9–11.

[11] Stephen Batchelor (2000), Verses from the Center, New York: Riverhead.

[12] Verses from the Center, p.123. Batchelor’s rendering of the (Tibetan version of the) Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā is poetic rather than philosophical.

[13] The parable is from the Alaggadūpama Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 18.

Did the Buddha Exist? Contemporary scholarly debate about the historical Buddha

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I remember the first time I heard someone doubt the existence of God. I was on a school bus, and Robert Neil said he didn’t believe in God. We were ten. I was shocked, as everything I knew about the Christian religion I had been brought up in depended on God’s existence. But even at that age I was vaguely aware that God’s existence was a strange thing. You couldn’t prove he existed but you could believe in Christianity in such a way that God had to exist. It wasn’t quite the same with the existence of Jesus of course. It seemed harder to believe that Jesus didn’t exist, since people had seen him, recorded his words, remembered basic facts about his life, and so on. He was a historical figure. Whether that historical figure was also God was of course a different matter. Buddhists have likewise generally believed that the Buddha existed, since the early Buddhist texts record his words, remember basic facts about his life, and feature people who knew him. Whether the Buddha was fully and completely enlightened is of course a different matter, a matter of faith. In the case both of Jesus and the Buddha it is easily possible to subtract the miracles and exaggerations and still have a historical figure.

Or is it that easy? The scholar David Drewes recently published an article, ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’, that begins with the striking claim that

the Buddha is universally agreed to have lived; but… more than two centuries of scholarship have failed to establish anything about him.[1]

Drewes’ argument is that the idea of the historical Buddha, meaning, a historical figure known through his life and words as recorded by his contemporaries, was a key claim of early Buddhologists, but the evidence for this historical Buddha has never materialised. Drewes blames Eugène Burnouf, the great French scholar whose pioneering work, Introduction à lhistoire du buddhisme indien, was published in 1844. It was Burnouf who first argued for the Buddha’s historical existence; but, despite the many powerful claims made about the Buddha’s historicity by later scholars, no clear evidence has been produced to back them up. The idea of the ‘historical Buddha’ remains merely a bold assertion without proof.

I like Drewes’ article because it makes me think. If, like me, you appreciate the work of Richard Gombrich, who pushes back against scepticism about the Buddha’s existence, and writes instead about him as

one of the greatest thinkers… of whom we have record in human history,[2]

then the idea that there is no proof at all that the Buddha existed makes one sit up straight and try to sort out why one thinks the Buddha did exist. The easiest answer is the argument from likelihood: which is more likely, that the Buddha existed and taught his Dharma as it has come down to us; or that later Buddhists invented a coherent system of thought and successfully attributed it to a fictional teacher?

This year has seen articles by two Buddhist scholars that defend the historicity of the Buddha against Drewes’ denial. Alexander Wynne argues that, given the likelihood of the Buddha’s existence, Drewes needs to provide proof that he is merely a fantasy of the ‘Orientalist imagination’.[3] He goes on to examine the wealth of evidence that the Buddha did exist, from surviving early Buddhist texts to archaeological remains. An interesting piece of evidence he discusses is a rock-cut inscription from Deorkothar, in Madhya Pradesh, discovered only in the 1990s, and now analysed by scholars.[4] This inscription, dated to just after the time of Aśoka, in the 2nd c. bce, presents two lineages of Buddhists. One runs from the Buddha, through disciples called Uttaramitra, Bhaṇḍu and Nandi, down to the donor of the inscribed pillar, whose name is lost. The other runs from the Buddha’s disciple Anuruddha, through Sarvānanda and Disagiri, to the donor, whose name is also lost. This extraordinary discovery gives us an insight into the sense of lineage, of going back to the Buddha, the teacher, that was felt by early Buddhists. For Wynne this is vivid evidence for the Buddha’s historical existence. For Drewes, however,

there is no way to know the extent to which these lineages may have been fabricated…  unsubstantiated lineage claims cannot be treated as historical evidence, as has clearly been shown, e.g. by studies of early Chan lineages.[5]

Bryan Levman has also recently responded to Drewes.[6] Like Wynne, he takes up what early Buddhist texts say about the Buddha and his teaching, as well as the personality of the Buddha as represented in these texts. According to both Wynne and Levman, there is massive amounts of evidence for a historical personality of the Buddha behind the testimony of early Buddhism. Reading both Levman and Wynne, one cannot help thinking that Drewes must have known about all this evidence, at least in principle, and that somehow it does not convince him. Considering this, I’ve come to think that two very different versions of what counts as knowledge, evidence and proof, are involved here.

In Drewes’ article, what he means by knowledge is made clear by his concluding sentence:

If we wish to present early Buddhism in a manner that accords with the standards of scientific, empirical inquiry, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Buddha belongs to [a] group [of mythological personages such as Agamemnon or King Arthur]’ (my italics).[7]

By ‘scientific’ standards, Drewes evidently has in mind a positivistic ideal of historical knowledge: the kind of knowledge that is based on evidence directly available to our senses (hence ‘empirical’). The only kind of evidence that will count are positive facts, verified by reason, and not dependent on assumptions. It is rather obvious that, if one holds these standards for what counts as knowledge, one will certainly have to conclude that we know nothing about the historical Buddha. The evidence is just too weak. We would need the remains of his robe complete with his name-tag, or a cache of letters between him and Sāriputta, but unfortunately there was no writing in those days.

Wynne and Levman, however, cannot produce that kind of evidence. Instead, writes Wynne:

by adducing the relevant facts and making significant arguments, we will build up a general picture which proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Buddha did indeed exist and that we have a good record of his teaching.[8]

Wynne calls his method ‘inductive and empirical’, but actually it is neither. Instead, we should say that it is an abductive method, reasoning from the evidence to the best explanation. It has to be said, however, that abductive reasoning cannot prove that the Buddha existed. It can only argue that the existence of the Buddha is the best explanation for the evidence. Bryan Levman similarly presents the Buddha’s existence as the best explanation for what we know about him through his teaching. He concludes that he does not understand why Drewes does not even attempt to account for these teachings; he goes on:

nor do I understand what he means by “standards of scientific, empirical enquiry” to which he refers.[9]

I will conclude with two thoughts. One is that a bit of epistemology, the study of knowledge, can help us see how these scholars are talking across each others’ assumptions about what would count as knowledge about the Buddha’s historical existence. The second is that we should be careful about using the phrase ‘the historical Buddha’. It might be taken as implying that there is solid, factual, positivist, empirical evidence for the existence of the Buddha. But there isn’t. And if we mean that our best explanation for all the evidence we have is that the Buddha was a historical figure, we should also say, ‘though we can’t know for sure’.

[1] David Drewes (2017), ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 40: 1–25. Available online at https://umanitoba.academia.edu/DavidDrewes. This article is based on a talk given at the JIABS conference in 2014 and had been made available in the form of a conference paper soon after.

[2] Richard Gombrich (2009), What the Buddha Thought, London: Equinoxe, p.1.

[3] Alexander Wynne (2019), ‘Did the Buddha Exist?’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 19: 98–148. Available online at https://independent.academia.edu/AlexanderWynne.

[4] Oskar Von Hinüber and Peter Skilling (2013), ‘Two Buddhist Inscriptions from Deorkothar (Dist. Rewa, Madhya Pradesh)’, Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 16: 13–26; Richard Salomon and Joseph Marino (2014), ‘Observations on the Deorkothar Inscriptions and Their Significance for the Evaluation of Buddhist Historical Traditions’, Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 17: 27–39; both available online athttp://iriab.soka.ac.jp/publication/aririab.html.

[5] David Drewes, ibid., p.16, n.8, discussed in Alexander Wynne, ibid., p.114–6.

[6] Bryan Levman (2019), ‘The Historical Buddha: Reply to Drewes’, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 14: 25–56. Available online at https://thecjbs.org.

[7] David Drewes, ibid., p.19.

[8] Alexander Wynne, ibid., p.100.

[9] Bryan Levman, ibid., p.49.

Philosopher Strikes Gold

Golden Age of Buddhist PhilosophyAnother review copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

by Jan Westerhoff

Oxford University Press, 2018, 326pp £30 hb

In a customary gesture in books like this one,[1] Jan Westerhoff asks in his introduction what the purpose might be in his writing another history of Buddhist philosophy, given that those already available were written by such eminent scholars. In this case, the eminent scholars are Volker Zotz (writing in German), Emmanuel Guillon (in French) and Edward Conze (in English); hence the nearest rival to Westerhoff’s new book is Three Phases of Buddhist Thought in India by Conze, published in 1962. In the Preface to Conze’s work, that particular eminent scholar laments the ‘hideous and brutish noises emanating from machines’ (p.7), that deepen the spiritual darkness of our times; he wonders about the point of a history of Buddhist philosophy in the ‘age of the moron’ (p.9); and moans that ‘no Oxford or Cambridge professor would demean himself by paying the slightest attention to his colleagues of ancient India’ (p.9).

How very miserably last-century that seems now. Times must have changed, since Jan Westerhoff is the Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Oxford. This is not to say that lots of people are now paying attention to Buddhist philosophy; but Westerhoff’s academic post is a an important sign of the increasing interest in, and integration of, Buddhist (and Indian) philosophy into a more multi-cultural approach to philosophy in contemporary academia and beyond.[2] And his new book, The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy, is a significant contribution to that interest and integration. In short, his book is simply the best high-level introduction to Buddhist philosophy now available, by a yojana.[3]

Jan Westerhoff likes to dress in a three-piece suit, sporting a handkerchief in his jacket pocket, and a middle parting in his hair. This academic style rather separates him from older Buddhist studies professors, who tend to be the product of the 1960s counter-culture, or the more recent Buddhist studies types, who are still a bit fringe. So what led him to Buddhist philosophy? His background is in mathematical philosophy, but he did a second doctorate on Nāgārjuna,[4] and it is evidently the philosophical rigour of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy and Madhyamaka that has attracted him.[5] All this might have led to a forbiddingly intellectual history of Buddhist philosophy, but The Golden Age turns out to be very readable (if not exactly beginners-level) in the sense of focussing on essentials, without attempting to go into too many details.

Westerhoff’s Introduction sets out his method, which is to treat Buddhist philosophy as a ‘game’. This sounds odd, since Buddhism as such is not a ‘game’ but the teaching of the way to awakening; but it begins to make sense as one considers that intellectual activity is not in itself the way to awakening, which is beyond words, but is rather connected with the clarification and correction of assumptions and views which are relevant to the life of training towards awakening. The various arguments between philosophers does in fact resemble a game – a serious, hard-fought kind of game, though not much like football. And, in fact, the actual history of Buddhist philosophy in India has very distinct ‘sides’ (Abhidharmikas, Mādhyamikas, Yogācārins), individual philosophers tending to identify with one of the schools. Westerhoff goes on to describe the factors involved in this game. As well as (a) arguments and (b) sacred texts there is (c) meditative practice. That is, Buddhist philosophy is not just an intellectual activity, but it also involves the conceptual exploration of what Westerhoff nicely calls the ‘meditative phenomenology’ (p.8) of Buddhist practice, whereby certain frameworks of thought give rise to particular meditative experiences. This in turn leads to the re-interpretation of sacred texts and the valuing of certain arguments. So this game is not much like chess either.

Now Westerhoff can discuss the material that the philosophical game works with. It consists of (a) teachings of the Buddha (both the original teachings and the later Mahāyāna ones), (b) debates in the intellectual culture of India, (c) commentaries on the teachings and debates, and (d) doxographies, or accounts of the various views held by various schools. From this it becomes evident that Buddhist philosophy presented itself in a very different way to western philosophy; not much in terms of independent works by individual philosophers, but taking the appearance of interpretations of Buddhist teachings within a debate framework. The dependence of Buddhist philosophy on the acceptance of Buddhist teachings leads to a situation in which philosophical activity appears to take for granted beliefs (for instance, in yogic powers, or in Padmasambhava’s mythic attributes) that are far from ‘rational’ in the western sense. At this point Westerhoff invokes a methodological principle that is both refreshing and radical. Rather than either dropping the naturalistic assumptions of western thought, or dropping the specific Buddhist commitments of the thinkers he is writing about, he proposes a charitable acceptance of those Buddhist commitments and a ‘bracketing’ of our naturalistic assumptions ‘in order to see how far we can go in our analysis without appealing to them’ (p.32). The result of this kind of immersive philosophical method turns out to be one of visiting a strange, unfamiliar intellectual landscape in such a way that one gradually starts to feel at home.

In Chapter 1, Westerhoff explores Abhidharma as philosophy. It soon becomes evident that his approach is quite discursive and narrative, outlining the historical development of the philosophical schools, describing their texts and interests, characterising their particular approach and how a modern reader might appreciate it. The philosophical content of the chapter on Abhidharma consists in sketching its ontology of dharmas in relation to Buddhist teachings, and in contrasting differences between Abhidharma schools. Westerhoff pays special attention to the dominant Sarvāstivādins, presenting their arguments for the peculiar view that past and future dharmas really exist. His principle of charity becomes very evident here, since Sarvāstivādin views are far from attractive, least of all to a Madhyamaka. His section on the Pudgalavādins is likewise sympathetic, stressing the continuity of the view of the real existence of the person with later views of Buddha-nature, while leaving it open whether these views are compatible with Buddhist teachings.

As might be expected from an expert on Nāgārjuna, Chapter 2 on Madhyamaka is crystal clear, though its emphases are surprising. Westerhoff invites readers to bracket their naturalistic assumptions about the life-span of Nāgārjuna, to get at the significance of believing he lived for 600 years and had magic powers: this belief may have been a way to make sense of claims made about different people called Nāgārjuna. Moreover, the story that Nāgārjuna was entrusted with the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras by the nāgas starts to make sense once we appreciate how Nāgārjuna, in his main work (the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), presented arguments to support what Westerhoff calls the ‘doctrine of illusionism’ of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Rather than trying to determine a version of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy that would be acceptable to humanistic assumptions, Westerhoff rather emphasises the difficulties of understanding Nāgārjuna, and the large questions that remain for understanding his apparent toleration of contradiction. Westerhoff’s Nāgārjuna is an interpreter of prajñāpāramitā through the hermeneutic of the two truths. He goes on to describe the ideas of commentators on Madhyamaka, such as Buddhapālita, Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti; it came as something of a shock to me to discover how little space the brilliant Candrakīrti gets in a history of Buddhist philosophy, so rich is the tradition. In this chapter, Westerhoff also continues a theme from Chapter 1, of setting Buddhist philosophy into a broader setting of Indian philosophical debate, in this case how the Mādhyamikas were concerned to argue against the realist philosophy of Nyāya. This approach emphases Westerhoff’s unwillingness to try to naturalise Buddhist philosophy into western philosophical narratives, but rather to expand the reader’s horizons.

Chapter 3 concerns Yogācāra, which Westerhoff prefers to try to harmonise with Madhyamaka rather than portraying the schools as rivals. Westerhoff discusses key Yogācāra concepts (the three natures, the ālaya-vijñāna or foundational consciousness, mind-only, and so on) at length, and there is another surprising emphasis here. He notes how contemporary western accounts of Yogācāra tend to argue against an idealist interpretation of mind-only, by emphasising epistemology rather than ontology: that ‘mind-only’ refers to the thesis that we can only know the world in terms of our representations of it, representations that (the Yogācārins argue) depend on the mind; this is not the same as claiming that the world does not exist. His point is that idealism is totally out of fashion in western philosophy, but that is not a good argument for interpreting Yogācāra as non-idealist. Westerhoff’s own contribution is to argue that, according to the Yogācārins, ‘the true nature of reality can only be known through meditation’ (p.178), so that the Yogācāra arguments for representation-only are more like denials of the discursive assumptions of ordinary people.

In Chapter 4 Westerhoff moves on to the later logico-epistemological thought of Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti. These thinkers had in fact already appeared in section 2 of Chapter 3, which seemed rather out of place in what was not the best-organised chapter of the book.[6] But in the present chapter, their thought is presented with a clarity that soon reveals their work to be the nearest that Buddhist philosophy gets to some of the enduring concerns of western philosophical thought about knowledge and language. Diṅnāga argues that knowledge through perception consists not in the recognition of some real thing ‘out there’ in the world, but in the conceptual construction of representations from the information that appears to the senses. This is a kind of phenomenalism, and Westerhoff’s contrast of Diṅnāga’s and Dharmakīrti’s philosophical view with the view of the Mīmāṃsā school, that language involves a correspondence of words to things, is a helpful way into the issues, as they were seen by Indian philosophers of the time.

In some Concluding Remarks, Westerhoff returns to a theme implicit through his whole presentation: that of the relationship of philosophical thinking to the meditative methods of Buddhist practice. He invokes the name of Pierre Hadot, whose work on philosophy as a way of life, in the context of ancient Greece and Rome, emphasises how philosophical discourse was in service to the practice of spiritual exercises and debate, for the sake of achieving the goal or aim of life as conceived in a particular school.[7] From this point of view, it is important not to approach Buddhist philosophy with the assumption from contemporary western philosophy that it is an ‘exercise of reason, for its own sake’ (p.283). The meditative dimension of Buddhist philosophy makes such an approach unlikely to do justice to what is essential. Rather, Westerhoff recommends ‘doing philosophy with ancient texts’ (p.284), which means bracketing naturalistic assumptions, putting oneself into the midst of the particular problems that Buddhist philosophers were concerned with, and appreciating the methods – meditative as well as argumentative – that they employed to solve them. Sādhu, Jan Westerhoff!

 

[1] The book reviewed here is part of an ongoing OUP series: ‘The Oxford History of Philosophy is an open-ended series of books which will weave together to form a new history of philosophy’ (OUP website) .

[2] On which, see especially Jay Garfield, Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy, OUP, 2015; and Peter Adamson’s and Jonardon Ganeri’s now-concluded 62-part podcast ‘Philosophy in India’.

[3] 1 yojana = about 7km.

[4] Which eventually became Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[5] Recent works include The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010, and Crushing the Categories: Vaidalyaprakaraṇa by Nāgārjuna, Wisdom Publications, 2018.

[6] Not only is Chapter 3 somewhat disorganised, but the book as whole contains many typos and errors; the final copy seems not to have been proofed. This is odd, considering the beautiful production of the text, complete with marginal text box summaries, à la King James Bible.

[7] See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Blackwell: Oxford, 1995; and especially What is Ancient Philosophy? Harvard University Press, 2004. See also my blog post.

Welcome to Gandhāra

Buddhist Literature of Ancient GandharaThis is a book review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review, where it appears with an addition by Kulamitra:

Richard Salomon

The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra: An Introduction with Selected Translations

Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2018, pb $29.95

In 1994, a clay pot containing ancient birch-bark scrolls appeared on the antiquities market in Pakistan, and was acquired by the British Library. Richard Salomon was one of the first scholars to inspect these fragile scrolls, and to discover that they were written in the Gāndhārī language, in kharoṣṭhī script, and were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever found. Since 1994, more collections of Gāndhārī manuscripts have been acquired, and an international team of scholars, with Salomon among them, has dedicated itself to studying them. Having in 1999 written the first guide to the new discoveries[1] – with photos and illustrations that make it still a valuable work – Richard Salomon has now written a non-specialist guide to the highlights of what has been discovered about the Buddhist literature of ancient Gandhāra, including an anthology of translations of the wide range of sūtras and stories that have been worked on so far. This is completely compelling reading for anyone with an interest in early Buddhist literature or Buddhist history. Not only does Salomon write with a wonderful clarity and precision, that allows us to enter into a very specialist world of scholarly study, but the newly discovered Gāndhārī literature opens up whole new perspectives that were simply unavailable before.

Although I had read Salomon’s earlier introduction, as well as some of the specialist volumes published by the University of Washington,[2] and even attended a fascinating seminar on a particular Gāndhārī scroll with Dr Mark Allon at SOAS in London, I found the experience of reading this comprehensive new introduction quite exhilarating. The first three chapters present an overview of the history of Buddhism in the Gandhāra region and some context for understanding the significance of the Gāndhārī literature that has begun to come into view. Ancient Gandhāra comes into the historical record with coins and inscriptions from the period when it was under the rule of Greek and Indo-Greek kings; the paracanonical text The Questions of King Milinda contains fictional philosophical dialogues of the Bhikkhu Nāgasena with the Indo-Greek King Menander.[3] The heyday of Gandhāran Buddhism, however, was the first centuries of the common era. The Kushans, originally from Central Asia, ruled their empire from there; many Buddhists will be familiar with the Hellenic-influenced style of Gandhāran Buddhist sculptures from the Kushan period. Scholars already knew about Buddhist literature from the area, since the discovery of a Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada in the late 19th c.[4] So although the revelation in 1994 and since of many more scrolls and fragments was not a complete surprise, the implications are nevertheless profound.

This was proof that there had existed Buddhist canons in local languages, such as Gāndhārī, comprising similar, but by no means identical, texts to those preserved in Pāli and Sanskrit and translated into Chinese and Tibetan. The implications for the study of early Buddhism are profound. There are still those who believe that the Pāli canon is in some sense the authentic record of the teaching of the Buddha, even that the Buddha spoke Pāli. This view is now comprehensively refuted, at least as far as sensible scholarship goes. The Pāli canon is the one surviving version of the canon in its original Indian language; but evidently there were others. Since, on the basis of comparative study, there are many small differences between versions, the conclusion must be that the Pāli canon is not ‘the’ authentic record of the teaching of the Buddha, but simply the version of it preserved in Pāli by the Theravāda tradition.

Salomon goes even further than this. In his conclusion, he makes a comparison between the emerging picture of relationships between the various Buddhist literatures and texts with the discovery made by scholars of human paleontology, that there is not in fact some linear chain of hominid predecessors to modern Homo sapiens, but rather a “tangled bush” of ancestry. Likewise, the early Buddhist texts we now have can rarely be traced through a process of transmission to a single ancestor – representing, perhaps, a record of the original teaching of the Buddha – but rather what we have is a “tangled bush” of transmission lineages and textual traditions, among which none can claim to be the authentic one. In this way, Salomon follows contemporary scholarship in suggesting we speak of “Buddhisms” rather than a single tradition whose various branches can be traced back to its founder. That said, these various Buddhisms are not in fact all that different from each other, and in practice the variations among different texts and traditions generally speaking add to the richness of the tradition considered as a whole, although the fantasy of discovering ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’ now looks impossible rather than simply very difficult to achieve.

Another exciting discovery that the study of Gāndhārī texts has made is evidence in support for what has come to be called “the Gāndhārī hypothesis”. This is the hypothesis that the originals for many of the early Buddhist texts translated into Chinese in the first centures of the common era were not in the Pāli or Sanskrit languages, but rather in Gāndhārī. The evidence is linguistic but in some cases compelling. This turns out not to be entirely a surprise, however, since the Gandhāra region is on the Silk Route, the route by which Indian Buddhist spread to China. This in turn brings to mind to existence of whole canons of Buddhist literature in languages now lost to us, and the plurality and diversity of Indian Buddhism in its early days.

However, after the exhilarating opening chapters, so rich in scope and implications, when one comes to the anthology of translations of the newly-discovered Gāndhārī literature, one might feel some disappointment and even frustration. The old scrolls, written on crumbling old birch-bark, yield mere parts of texts, all incomplete, some mere fragments, and much of it hard to decipher. Additionally, although Gāndhārī is a middle-Indo-Aryan dialect (a Prakrit), a cousin of Pāli, a niece of Sanskrit, the scholars working on the Gāndhārī manuscripts have hardly anything else to go on as they try to read the texts they have. There are idioms, spellings and grammatical features that are otherwise unknown. Hence the the twelve chapters containing illustrative translations of the best-preserved or most interesting texts are frustratingly partial. So much of what we would need in order to compare these texts with Pāli or other versions is missing. The translations that Salomon presents are like a random selection, picked out of the lottery of time and chance, many of which have to be padded out with translations from parallels preserved in other languages so that they can even be made to make sense.

Further reading, however, transmutes this sense of frustration into a quiet sense of the revolutionary importance of these old texts for our understanding of early Buddhism. The range of texts that Salomon translates is significant in this regard. There are early poetic texts, such as stanzas from the Dhammapada, and texts with parallels among the mainstream Buddhist sūtras. But there are also stories of the Buddha’s disciples and their karmic backgrounds that seem peculiar to the Gāndhārī tradition, suggesting how Buddhism varied across regions even in its homeland of the Indian subcontinent. There are also fragments of ancient commentary and Abhidharma, which shed fascinating light on the varying traditions of how Buddhists thought about their own texts and traditions. And then, as a kind of fabulous encore, there are extracts from an early Perfection of Wisdom sūtra, giving us a valuable window into the early history of Mahāyāna.

A highlight of the volume for me was chapter 3, entitled ‘The Rhinoceros Sūtra’. I had already studied Salomon’s specialist volume on this early Buddhist poetry, each stanza of which concludes with the line, “one should roam alone like the rhinoceros”.[5] The Gāndhārī version of the Rhinoceros verses present many of the same stanzas as the Pāli version, but in a different order. Their existence in Gāndhārī, as well as in Pāli and Sanskrit (in the Mahāvastu) suggests just how popular the verses were among the early Buddhists, perhaps being included in a curriculum for new monastics, hence much-copied and among the best preserved of early texts. Salomon includes a lot of prefatory material to his translation which is easily the best introduction to the Rhinoceros Sūtra available, exploring the concept of solitude in early Buddhism, and the peculiar attribution of these verses to the paccekabuddhas – the ‘solitary Buddhas’ who lived before ‘our’ Buddha arrived. For me at least the book is worth its cover price for this introduction alone.

I was not completely satisfied with Salomon’s scholarship, however. In his chapter on some verses from a Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada, he includes a translation of a stanza with a parallel preserved in Pāli:

“[A monk] who removes anger as soon as it arises, as one removes [snake venom with herbs as it spreads through the body, leaves behind] this world and the next [as] a snake leaves behind its old worn-out skin.”[6]

The phrase “this world and the next” in fact recurs in a series of stanzas here which, following their name in Pāli, we can call the uraga (‘serpent’) verses. In a note he comments:

“The exact sense of the phrase translated as “this world and the next” (orapara = Skt orapāram) is a problem that has been extensively but inconclusively discussed by traditional and modern scholars.”

I myself have contributed to this discussion but, far from leaving the translation inconclusive, I have come up with a suggestion for an understanding and translation that, although not proven, goes a long way to making sense of not only the phrase orapāra but also some other long-standing issues of understanding and translation of the uraga stanzas.[7] Actually, orapāra does not exactly mean “this world and the next”. Rather, it means “this shore and the far shore”, and the idea that this is a reference to “this world and the next” is an interpretation among several possible interpretations, in a metaphorical context typical of a poetic text. Indeed, the most obvious interpretation of “this shore and the far shore”, or so I argue, is as a reference to a discourse which by some happy coincidences is not only preserved in Gāndhārī, but is translated in Salomon’s new volume, in ch.2, as ‘The Parable of the Log’.[8] In this discourse, the Buddha, while looking at a log floating down the river Ganges, entreats his monks not to get stuck on the near shore or the far shore, the near shore representing the six senses and the far shore the sense-objects, but instead to keep going to reach the ocean, which represents nirvāna.[9] This is not the place to go further into how to fully understand either ‘the Parable of the Log’ or the uraga verses and their parallels in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada, but I was pleased to find that Bhikkhu Bodhi has taken up some of my suggestions in his recent translation of the Suttanipāta.[10] I do not of course suppose that Richard Salomon should necessarily agree with my arguments or conclusions, but my point is more that he seems not to know about them. This in turn suggests that his translations more generally may not always reflect all the scholarship available on the various texts he translates.

I should hope that most readers of this review will, quite rightly, take my very particular criticisms to be those of a disgruntled specialist. They should likewise conclude that, if such a tiny criticism is all that this reviewer can come up with, Salomon’s translations sound good enough. Indeed, generally speaking his translations combine accuracy with a wonderful readibility. Richard Salomon is that rare creature, a scholar who writes beautifully.

This new volume represents more than an account of first impressions of the literature of Gandhāra. It is more like a deeply considered summary of what has been discovered in the first twenty years of its study. But there is more yet to be studied, and there is the likelihood of yet more ancient birch-bark manuscripts turning up, hopefully not just on the antiquities market in Pakistan, but in their archaeological context. So there is every chance that this book will be followed by more. Let us hope Richard Salomon writes them. These are rich times indeed for the study of early Buddhism.

 

[1] Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra: The British Library Kharoṣṭhī fragments, The British Library, London, 1999.

[2] Six volumes so far; see https://asian.washington.edu/early-buddhist-manuscripts-project for details.

[3] The Milindapañhā now exists only in Pāli, but is thought to have been translated from a north Indian original.

[4] Edited by John Brough as The Gāndhārī Dhammapada, SOAS, London, 1962; his discussion of the text and of the Dhammapada generally are legendary for their thoroughness and caustic wit, but he does not deign to translate. Valerie Roebuck’s translation of The Dhammapada (Penguin, London, 2010) contains some selected translations of those stanzas in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada that are not in the Pāli version.

[5] This is my translation from the Pāli; Salomon translates the parallel Gāndhārī phrase as “wander alone like the rhinoceros”. Some of Salomon’s thinking ended up in an article I wrote on translating this line, which Bhikkhu Bodhi translates “one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn” (Bodhi, trans., The Suttanipāta, Wisdom, Somerville MA, 2017, p.182f.). See Dhivan Thomas Jones (2014), ‘Like the Rhinoceros, or Like Its Horn? The Problem of Khaggavisāṇa Revisited’, Buddhist Studies Review, 31.2, pp.165–78.

[6] Salomon p.196. While this stanza is included in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada, its Pāli parallel is found in the Pāli Suttanipāta v.1, with another in the Sanskrit Udānavarga (another traditional name for the kind of anthology we know as the Dhammapada). The square brackets here enclose words supplied from the Pāli version, missing in the fragmented Gāndhārī text, a typical example of how much has been lost from the birch-bark scrolls.

[7] Dhivan Thomas Jones (2016), ‘“That bhikkhu lets go both the near and far shores”: meaning and metaphor in the refrain from the uraga verses’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 11, pp.71–107.

[8] This discourse is preserved in Pāli in Saṃyutta Nikāya 35:241, trans. Bodhi, Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2000, p.1241f.

[9] A quite delightful discovery in Salomon’s translation is that the Gāndhārī version includes a supplement concerning a frog-bodhisattva (pp.155–6).

[10] See Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Suttanipāta, Wisdom, Somerville MA, 2017, p.1364 n.288 and p.1367 n.308.

Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

world map made form  peasA recent article in the Guardian (that I read via a post about Buddhist Action Month) shares some new research about the environmental effects of meat and dairy farming compared to growing cereals and plants. The results are stark; “even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. In short, growing peas has a comparably miniscule environmental impact compared to raising beef. And the opening words of the article sum up the implications: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” So should we eat peas?

I decided to try being a ‘domestic vegan’ 18 months ago, following a hunch that it was time to give a predominantly plant-based diet a go. By ‘domestic’ I mean vegan at home, but not strictly outside. Previous attempts at veganism had been idealistic but short-lived, though overall I have maintained a mainly organic vegetarian diet for 32 years. This time round veganism is easier: it’s more popular, so there are more vegan dishes on offer in restaurants, and more vegan burgers in shop freezers. The invention of Oatly Barista means that vegan coffee drinking is actually pleasant. Still, as the narrator in Simon Amstell’s film on veganism, Carnage, jokes: “a breakthrough in the quality of nut cheeses” would really make a difference.

So I find myself wanting to encourage others to shift to a plant-based diet. As part of doing so, I’d like to present a way of thinking about the ethics of veganism, as it is important to pitch this appropriately. I will conclude that veganism is not an ethical obligation, but rather a reasonable consequence of valuing universal welfare.

From a Buddhist point of view, there is nothing wrong with eating meat. It is well known that the Buddha himself was not vegetarian. On occasions, I get offered cooked meat. If the alternative to my eating it is that the meat gets thrown away, I sometimes eat the meat. Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of not harming living beings, and having an attitude of kindness. What follows from that principle is that one should not act in such a way that animals are knowingly harmed. This precludes buying meat or choosing it on the menu. Vegetarians also avoid fish and seafood since these creatures are harmed by being caught.

Blacknose SheepBut what if the cow or chicken or salmon has been reared with care on an organic farm, and has been killed in a humane way? My brother has started breeding his own sheep for meat, on a very small scale. A lot of petting of happy lambs goes on. My feeling here is that eating carefully-sourced meat is much better than eating meat produced on big industrial farms which are indifferent to animal welfare. The maximisation of animal welfare should be an ethical priority. However, this leaves a residual ethical issue regarding what one might describe in terms of assenting to the intentional deprivation of life. No animal wants to die, but prefers to live and flourish in its own way, just like us. If there is an alternative to eating meat, is it right to kill an animal against its wish? However, the argument here is not straightforward, since domestic animals by definition come into existence by being useful to humans. One might therefore argue that it would be better if domestic animals did not exist. However, in terms of practical ethics, it is still good to maximise animal welfare, even if in theory it would be better still if animals reared to be eaten did not have to exist at all.

This way of thinking about Buddhist ethics does not directly entail veganism, though veganism is a way to contribute to animal welfare. A common argument for veganism among Buddhists has been an ethical perfectionism: that one ought not harm living beings, hence one ought to avoid eating meat and dairy. This argument does not convince me. Ethical perfectionism may be admirable, but the environmental impact, and hence harm to living beings, of human life on this planet is complex. I would rather understand Buddhist ethical perfectionism in terms of working on deep-rooted mental states, as well as on speech and action. Dietary perfectionism is too narrow.

To put it more practically, one of the things that has held me back from turning to a plant-based diet was uncertainty about whether it was any better to eat imported soya beans than local cheese. The environmental impacts on rain forest life are unknown, whereas the positive effects of local organic farming are tangible. My scepticism about dietary perfectionism, together with uncertainty about environmental impacts, meant I had insufficient reason to become vegan. However, the new research presented in the Guardian is completely unambiguous. The evidence is clear that it is would be much better for the planet for human beings to be vegan.

This shifts the ethical emphasis away from animal welfare, and towards the health and diversity of the whole natural world. The human population is heading inexorably towards 10 billion, every one of us wanting to be well-fed. There is a corresponding pressure on land-use entailing environmental changes that are mostly detrimental to biodiversity. With this, the consequences of our continuing to eat meat and dairy will be the impoverishment and degradation of non-human habitats.

The ethical argument for becoming vegan that follows from this perspective is not based on dietary perfectionism, nor even from an ethical obligation not to harm living beings. It is simply an appeal to the welfare of all beings. The welfare and flourishing of the whole planet is good in itself. Human actions that diminish this welfare will harm humans too, for we exist as part of the living whole. From this positive appeal to universal welfare some simple practical reasoning follows. If we believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and environmental change (for which there is plenty of evidence), and if we value the earth’s biodiversity and flourishing (essential for our long-term welfare), then it is reasonable to shift to a plant-based diet, and we ought to do so. Whatever changes we make to our diets, away from meat and dairy, will be good ones to make.

It could be tempting to turn this into a Buddhist ethical argument. Since it is wrong to harm living beings, but right to practice kindness and compassion, then the wholesome or ethically skilful course of action, based on what we now know about the effects of farming practices, is to choose and to promote a vegan diet. But I don’t find it personally helpful to relate to food in terms of right and wrong. I would prefer to promote the positive value of universal welfare, and to invoke the ideal of the bodhisattva, who seeks the well-being of all. From these positive commitments, together with new evidence regarding farming, the practical conclusion rationally follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Eat peas!

The Beauty of Surfaces

Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences

Bristol Museum until 24 June 2018

The six tapestries that make up the exhibition currently in Bristol have been touring the country for some years, since the 2012 Channel 4 series on taste that inspired them. I was converted to Grayson Perry’s art by an exhibition at the Arnolfini, here in Bristol, last autumn. A variety of Perry’s stuff was on display – his pink motorbike (with travelling shrine for Alan Measles, the teddy bear); his bike (hanging in the stairwell); various big fired pots exploring Brexit, fame, masculinity, etc.; and a Kate-Middleton-brass-rubbing-themed skateboard (‘kateboard’). The exhibition was entitled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! and it was totally, unreservedly populist. I watched children under ten talking among themselves about how to interpret certain works. I heard the most unlikely people getting interested in the wide-open images and ideas – the significance of the internal physiology of a giant bear (personifying the financial system), or the collected detritus of lost empire around a steel skull (skeletal Great Britain). Grayson Perry, with his eye-shadow and big dresses and opinions, is a great ambassador for art.

Then there were the tapestries: big, colourful, computer-woven tapestries, incredibly detailed, textured, inviting, intriguing. My favourite piece from the Arnolfini exhibition was an enormous (3m x 7m) tapestry called Battle of Britain 2017, a portrait of modern Britain inspired by a Paul Nash painting. Perry manages to capture the mood of a south-east English rural-industrial landscape in winter; it is bleak but pulsing with life, drama and hope: a young man on a BMX looks out over a blighted landscape that is blessed (ironically?) with a rainbow. Despite looking at it closely on each of my visits, it was only during my fourth that my niece pointed out the dead body.

Battle of Britain 2017

The six tapestries of the Vanity tour are smaller – 2m x 4m. They make up a series, inspired by Hogarth’s prints of The Rake’s Progress (reproductions of which, along with David Hockney’s series on the same theme, hang nearby). But whereas Hogarth’s Rake comes into his inheritance and spends it on gin and women, and Hockney’s art student discovers homosexual liberation in New York, Perry’s Tim Rakewell is a clever kid who makes good, crossing class boundaries, making a fortune – but finally dying in a car crash. That’s the apparent narrative, anyway, the meaning of which is quite hard to fathom, and not exactly ‘moralising’ in the way Hogarth’s prints are. But that’s part of what I like about Perry’s work: the way it takes you into myriad associations, without an Apollonian intention. It’s more like life: ambiguous, detailed, unpredictable, but recognisably about something, though the something never stays still.

The first tapestry is called The Adoration of the Cage Fighters. Two battered old male survivors present Tim, dandled by his blond-haired young mother, with a football kit and a miner’s lamp. Women neighbours watch and smoke. A photo of a man on a motorbike might be Tim’s absent father. The living-room is full of the kind of kitsch found in many working-class homes. Perry reflects simultaneously on class, masculinity, community, heartbreak and hope. The thematic elements are each familiar, but brought together they create the particular drama of the fictional Tim Rakewell.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

And on it goes. In the second tapestry, The Agony in the Car Park, Tim’s step-father sings like Elvis, as if to a Saturday crowd in a working-class social club. Tim and his mother cringe at his feet. Outside club buildings, young people pimp their motors. An older man stands proud outside his pigeon loft. The shipyards are desolate and the sea is full of doom.

The Agony in the Car Park

In my personal favourite, The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, student Tim and his middle-class girlfriend leave the empty achievements of Tim’s upwardly mobile mum and stepfather, incongruously represented as dwelling in rainbowed Eden, to enter the confident, articulate world of the girlfriend’s Tonbridge parents, whose books and music and ethnic giftware show off their outward-looking attitudes. I could relate to certain themes in that image.

The Expulsion the Number 8 Eden Close

That, of course, is part of Perry’s attraction – that most people can directly relate to his works, in one way of another, and thus they can feel part of Perry’s intelligent reflections on life. But then again Perry’s pots and scultures and tapestries are all very much about the narrative surface of things. They are popular because they are all celebrations and questionings of consensus social reality. So then I start wondering about a Buddhist critique of Grayson Perry: his work is all surface, an art-party, a play of tattoos on the skin of the world, with neither depth nor transcendence. It is a celebration of everything that the Buddha went forth from, and nowhere does it even question the world. From a Buddhist point of view, it might seem to be mere chatter; it is a machine-made entertainment distracting its viewers from the truly beautiful. Once one has started down this path of criticism, Perry’s work unravels. The titles of the tapestries each refer to famous themes from Christian art, but these are vacuous references, going nowhere. The various visual gestures that Perry makes within his images – the postures of the cage-fighters like those of the adoring Magi; the mirror-image in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal echoing Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding – are knowing and witty, but turn out to be mere echoes that die into the wilderness of reflections.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

And then in meditation, pondering why I just liked these tapestries so much, I realised that it is their very rejection of depth and transcendence that is intriguing. Nowhere in Perry’s work is there any fantasy suggesting the possibility of successful escape from the social and quotidian. To enter his world, you have to own your class, gender, bias, skin and Britishness, and admit where you stand amid diversity. You start to feel the pullings on the surface of things, a surface knitted and knotted by time and family and class and whatever our own personal traumas have been. Since there is no hint of an elsewhere to escape to, you feel into the actuality of your being, the texture of what has made you.

But just as there is no transcendence, there is no depth either; no neurotic production of psychological narrative about why you feel so bad and why it went so wrong. Instead you have to stay woven into the big picture, at the frayed end of a never-ending process, tangled with everyone else everywhere in the world.

Tim Rakewell does well. Having made his fortune, he buys a big house, like George Harrison or Madonna, the kind of place which the old upper-classes can’t afford to run anymore. In The Upper Class at Bay, he looks like Mr Andrews in the Gainsborough painting, but his estate has been taken over by an Occupy camp, the young people protesting about inequality. Although most Buddhists will neither buy a stately home nor fight a class war, I can see that, for all that we seekers after awakening might disdain social class, there is no escaping social and historical processes. Converting to Buddhism is itself a theme in post-Christian post-youth-revolutionary western culture, and by learning to meditate you don’t forget your accent or your schooling. At best, you identify with it less, maybe, and learn a different kind of mobility.

The Upper Class at Bay

The car crash ending is unexpected and disturbing. Tim seems to have had a middle-age crisis, got another, younger, wife (called Amber), but lost control of his car in some kind of male-ego situation on the road. Amber’s alive, but Tim died in the arms of the paramedics. His stretched-out form is pietà-like, but with his white underpants and bulging belly he is no saviour, just another corpse, made of the wastage of ambition and hubris. But Tim didn’t deserve this; nor does it look like it was his karma. It was just an accident, bad luck, on the back of some personal crisis. Lamentation

Without depth or transcendence, there’s neither meaning in nor explanation of Tim’s demise. You can’t work out if you were supposed to feel anything, though the crash-gore was horrible and shocked you. What did Perry mean to communicate? My gaze fell on the nurse, in whose arms Tim has died. She has not tried to escape her fate, but gives herself to her work. Likewise, the green-clad paramedics, with their machines, attending with patience and professionalism. On the tangled surface of things, among the snapped threads, there are points of relaxed tension, patches of smoothness and order, whose meaning is found only in relation to everything else. So one might imagine the bodhisattva, taking her place in the weave, not identifying with some small part of it, but working to manifest whatever beauty might be possible.

The Vanity of Small Differences is in Bristol Museum until 24 June 2018, before going to Scunthorpe 7 July–8 September, and then Blackpool 27 September–15 December.

 

Buddhists and Stoics in the Philosophy Café

More Than Happiness

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age

by Antonia Macaro

Icon Books, London, 2018. £12.99 hb

I met the author of More Than Happiness, Antonia Macaro, at a mindfulness retreat in 2016 led by Ven Anālayo,[i] and then again in November 2017 at a Bodhi College weekend on ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’. An encouragingly large number of us listened to Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock talk on philosophy and Buddhism, before ourselves engaging in informed, lively discussion on the theme of the relationship between philosophy and Buddhism as ‘ways of life’. The kind of ‘philosophy’ we are talking about here is not the kind of analytic enterprise taught in modern universities, which is concerned mainly with abstract philosophical problems and arguments. Rather, it is philosophy (‘love of wisdom’) as the actual thinking and living and striving towards the best kind of life for human beings. This sense of ‘philosophy’ was brought to widespread attention by the scholar Pierre Hadot in his pioneering book Philosophy as a Way of Life.[ii] Macaro’s book is a very down to earth and practical introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism as two specific philosophical traditions of thought and practice, bringing into view their common features and concerns, and highlighting the value of a philosophical life.

We could regard More Than Happiness as a contribution to what appears to be an emergent cultural engagement with what we might call ‘secular wisdom’. Western culture has become so post-Christian that there is a big hole where religion used to be; and meanwhile human beings have as great a need as ever, in the midst of scientific and secular culture, for ideas that might guide their lives. The steady growth of Buddhism in the west is one response, but another is a smaller-scale but significant resurgence of Stoicism. This philosophical tradition goes back to 4th c. BCE Greece. A philosopher named Zeno founded the Stoic school, named after the stoa poikile or ‘painted porch’, where they first met in the middle of Athens. The Stoicism that is resurgent today, however, is based on that of the Romans, especially of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, whose works have survived in a more complete form. When, in modern English, we say someone is ‘stoic’ or ‘stoical’, we mean that they endure pain and hardship without complaining. Such an attitude is not untrue to the what Stoics actually valued (while the word ‘epicurean’ is merely a caricature of the Epicurean school of philosophy), but there is also a complex ethical and metaphysical world-view behind Stoicism, of which a level-headed resilience is a useful outcome.

As a summary and comparison of two practical traditions of thought, Macaro’s book is excellent. It is very clearly written, without technical detail but never vague or unclear. Chapter 1 is a scene-setting, in which she gives an overview of Buddhism and Stoicism and explains her approach. I am not a scholar of Stoicism, but judging from her presentation of Buddhism, which I know more about, she has an exact and accurate sense of what recent scholarship reveals about the earliest phase of the traditions. She addresses the knotty problem of the degree to which traditions like Buddhism and Stoicism are religions. In their historical forms, both involve what we would call religious claims; but, for the sake of this book, she extracts useful teachings from each that are compatible with a secular or naturalistic worldview. She presents with an admirable economy the way both traditions have developed philosophical methods and frameworks for their account of the human condition and how to flourish in it.

In Chapter 2, she sets out the starting problem for any philosophy of life: the existential problem we face, called dukkha by the Buddhists, simply mortality for the Stoics. Buddhists and Stoics agreed that false conceptions about the sources of happiness and a misleading tendency to seek satisfaction in the wrong places leads to suffering, and that an attitude of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual life. In Chapter 3 she explores the shared idea of philosophy as healing, and spiritual practice as therapy. While the Buddhists proposed a deep transformative insight of our wrong views and emotions to be the basis of health, the Stoics proposed an examination of our faulty beliefs, which are the basis of emotions and decisions. In Chapters 4 and 5, she presents the goals of each tradition: the ideal of nirvāna for the Buddhists, and the particular kind of eudaimonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ cultivated by the Stoics, specifically, ataraxia or ‘tranquillity’, a state of emotional calm brought about by completely reclaiming responsibility for one’s own thoughts and beliefs.

In Chapter 6, Macaro turns to the theme which lends her book its title: how the goals of these traditions is ‘more than happiness’. Both traditions stress discipline and tranquility, but also ethics, meaning that the ideal for each is a way of living in relation to what is good. Chapter 7 turns to what each tradition proposes as the kind of appropriate view for the living out of their respective ideals. Macaro does not entirely accept the value of renunciation, as taught by both traditions, emphasising rather the ‘seeing clearly’ that allows us to see things in a correct perspective. In Chapter 8, she discusses the human ideals presented by each tradition: that of the ‘sage’ for the Stoics, and the ‘Buddha’ for the Buddhists. She notes the perfectionism of both traditions, and the difficulty of their ideals, but also how adherents can move incrementally towards emulating these impossibly far-off figures of the Buddha and the sage. Then in Chapter 9, Macaro turns to the kind of practices and spiritual exercises through which Buddhists and Stoics develop and grow. Both traditions involve training, through such disciplines as mindfulness. Chapter 10 summarises ‘10 meditations inspired by Buddhist and Stoic insights’ that we could take into our lives. Here we see what is really meant by ‘philosophies of life’: pithy themes for reflection, such as the advice to ‘consider the bigger picture’. Such themes are easily memorised, but are also tied into well-argued systems of thought, so that we can use them in day to day life, and also develop our understanding of what they entail through study and reflection.

I’ve summarised all this to give a sense of what the book covers. For someone new to the idea of philosophy as a way of life, More Than Happinessis a clear, accessible and accurate guide to both Stoicism and Buddhism. It doesn’t aim to raise too many questions, but rather to gather from both traditions what seems most useful for the contempory spiritual seeker. I would like now, however, to step back from the what the book says, to what it assumes and doesn’t say. In this way I hope to place the book in a bigger context.

The Buddhism that Macaro has chosen to discuss is, as she describes in Chapter 1, what is now called ‘early Buddhism’, which is the kind of Buddhism that is evident in the discourses of the Pāli canon. However, this kind of Buddhism is also something of an abstraction,  because it is a reconstruction by modern scholars and teachers of a way of thought preserved in early Buddhist literature. Since it exists as a reconstruction in the minds of modern western readers, it is a form of Buddhism that is especially attractive to those wishing to develop a secular form of Buddhist spirituality. But one might wish to contrast this construct called ‘early Buddhism’ with some actual Buddhist traditions, such as modern Theravāda, which revolves around the living tradition of monastic practice; or Tibetan Buddhism, with its extraordinary devotionalism and its philosophical debating culture; or with a modern Buddhist movement like Triratna, with its distinctive emphases on friendship and the arts. This contrast reveals how the ‘early Buddhism’ that Macaro assumes to be Buddhism in her book is a somewhat thinned-out and de-materialised version of the various existing traditions of Buddhism.

This, however, may be a little unfair. Perhaps the version of Buddhism that Macaro evokes is nowadays quite alive in the contemporary flourishing of insight meditation retreat centres, such as Gaia House, which are not tied to particular lineages of Buddhist practice, being more eclectic as well as oriented quite specifically to modern secular culture. But, even granting that ‘early Buddhism’ is alive and well in the form of insight meditation teachings, Macaro’s version of it stops short of exploring the crucial role of community or sangha for spiritual life. The versions both of early Buddhism and of Stoicism described in her book assume a reader interested in a sort of personal and private spiritual life, consonant with the privatization of religion in contemporary secular culture. It might be, however, that this misses out on how participation in spiritual community is the condition for personal transformation. When Buddhists ‘go for refuge’ to the Sangha, they acknowledge the role of the spiritual community in their Dharma lives. From what one can gather, the tradition of Stoicism was more of a personal and private philosophical orientation, but then again (especially in its Roman phase) the Stoic outlook was often most popular among those involved in public life, immersed in the social and political, such as the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

By drawing attention to the assumptions the author makes in her presentation of Buddhism and Stoicism, I do not particularly mean to criticise her aim or method, which is perhaps to address the contemporary reader in the comfort (or discomfort) of their secular homes. But I would like to prompt anyone who reads Antonia Macaro’s book on towards a deeper considerations of how either Buddhism or Stoicism might be successful philosophical ways of life – actually effective in ending dukkha or healing the soul. In this respect there is another factor, both for Stoicism and Buddhism, that Macaro does not discuss, which is that of commitment. It would not be unfair to say that More Than Happiness presents Buddhism and Stoicism as potentially useful traditions of thought and practice, from which a contemporary person might try to benefit.

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy For Life, an exploration of Greek and Roman philosophies as practical guides to life, distinguishes between two models of contemporary philosophical engagement. In the ‘liberal’ model, authors and teachers present ancient philosophies in their strengths and differences, to be considered and reflected upon.[iii] In this respect, Macaro’s approach represents a liberal model of philosophy as a way of life. But there is also the ‘committed’ model. In this model of philosophy, one may be attracted to some school, and then make a commitment to practice that philosophy (perhaps within its community of practitioners), and it is the existential choice and commitment that is the condition for the transformation and healing that the philosophical life promises.[iv] The role of commitment is central too to Buddhism. Having heard the Dharma one may commit oneself to practice it, and this emotional commitment becomes (along with participation in spiritual community) a condition for success. One commits to practice the precepts, and perhaps to a daily meditation practice. Commitment is important in Stoicism too. I will end by mentioning two recent books, part of the resurgent ‘neo-Stoic’ movement: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine and How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.[v] These books represent less the ‘liberal’ model of philosophy, and more the ‘commited’ model: they are each by authors who have made the existential choice to live by Stoicism. In this respect, they communicate the philosophy of Stoicism in a living way.

[i] Anālayo is a Buddhist monk and scholar many of whose books are published by Windhorse Publications. Ālokadhāra reviewed Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna (2013) for Western Buddhist Review, and Sarah Clelland reviewed Emptiness and Compassion (2015).

[ii] I reviewed Hadot’s subsequent book Ancient Philosophy, and a related exploration of Hellenistic philosophical schools by John E. Cooper, on this blog.

[iii] Jules Evans, Philosophy For Life And Other Dangerous Situations, Rider, London, 2012, p.191.

[iv] Hadot explores the various existential choices involved in the different Hellenistic schools of philosophy: see Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002, ch.7.

[v] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, Oxford University Press, 2009; Massimo Pigliucci,How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, Rider, London, 2017. Pigliucci also blogs on ‘How to be a Stoic’.