Roads, Boats and Buses: recent writing by Triratna Order members

Copied over from the Western Buddhist Review

Maitreyabandhu, The Crumb Road, Bloodaxe: Tarset, 2013, £9.95 pback
Rijumati Wallis, Pilgrimage to Anywhere, O-Books: Winchester, 2011, £11.99 pback
Simon Okotie, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, Salt: Cromer, 2012, £8.99 pback

There is a rich variety of talent in the Triratna Buddhist Order, nicely illustrated by these three very different kinds of books by Order members, all published over the last few years – one a volume of poems, one a travel memoir, the last an off-beat novel – with an admittedly tenuous transport-related link between them.

The Crumb Road

Maitreyabandhu is one of the few poets in the Order to have really succeeded on the contemporary poetry scene. His first collection, The Crumb Road, has had some glowing reviews and recommendations, and contains several prize winners. Maitreyabandhu, who lives and works at the London Buddhist Centre, trained first as an artist and has turned to poetry more recently. Something of his artistic background appears in some poems on Cézanne’s genius and peculiarity. Otherwise these poems are not painting-like but are beautiful, convincing glimpses of moments in the narrative of life.

Many poems explore childhood memories, including a long sequence called ‘Stephen’ about a first love affair. These poems have the flavour of coming to terms and of gratitude, and this is true even of the long sequence, in which love is like a pretty green weed in a disturbing, harsh landscape. Other poems move between recognisable experiences and fables, and although Buddhism never directly shows its face, qualities of presence and kindness run through the whole volume, as well as an attractive absence of the poet’s vanity or ego. Maitreyabandhu’s language stays mainly plain, his metaphors restrained, although some poems manage delicately effective rhymes. In this sense I like Maitreyabandhu’s explorations of the heritage of poetic form, while at the same time his poems themselves feel tremendously authentic in their themes.

In an essay in Poetry Review (101:3, autumn 2011), Maitreyabandhu defends a Romantic ideal of poetry as the expression of Imagination, that transcendent synthesising power. He begins this essay by describing how a poem of his called ‘Rangiatea’ manifested, with his tutor’s encouragement, through the madness and euphoria of creative imagination, and this long poem was my personal favourite of the collection. Beginning from an oblique reference to a Maori story of an island where ‘you could stay / and find the peace you wanted’, the poem shifts to telling an apparently unrelated story, though everything eventually converges at a higher, implied level. Maitreyabandhu has a gift for character and narrative as well as a pitch-perfect imagination, and I wonder if he might write a novel soon.

Contemporary poetry can often be difficult to access, perhaps partly because the gold has not yet been separated from the brass or soon-to-be-forgotten dross. The volume of poems by Maitreyabandhu, however, offers a lovely way in to the busy restaurant of contemporary verse.

Pilgrimage to Anywhere

Rijumati’s book Pilgrimage to Anywhere is a compelling travel memoir. A 42-year-old man, a longstanding member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, a capable and responsible director of a large Buddhist right-livelihood business, decides to throw everything in and embark on a round-the-world trip with no itinerary or goal, and the self-imposed rule of avoiding long-haul flights. He departs from Le Havre on a container ship bound for Colombo, and from this point as a reader I was hooked. Rijumati is a confident traveller, but also sensitive and intrigued by the people he meets, so his journey is an active and engaged encounter with the world. One the other hand, Rijumati is a spiritual pilgrim, travelling to find something, though he is not sure what, possibly only the experience of having to let go into the flow of what happens, and his open-hearted idealism takes him deeper into the travelling experience than a tourist would go. He ends up, for instance, making his way through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Siberia, bumping through post-Soviet landscapes, just because… there is no reason, really, though he has his soul seared in the process.

His subsequent travels in Japan, the USA and Mexico are happier – he has come through – and Rijumati shows himself an intelligent traveller, enraptured by geology, sociology and history as he heads south. In Mexico he encounters ancient cultures he did not know about, and his Euro-centric assumptions are put into larger context. Rijumati’s journey ends with a fairy-tale romance in Cuba, representing an almost archetypal home-coming after the solitary journey; significantly enough he gives up his no-long-haul-flights rule for the sake of love.

There is something very inspiring, I find, about stories of renunciation and idealism, and Rijumati’s travel memoir draws the reader into a vividly remembered, well-paced narrative. The book could have done with some more editing, to take out the typos and remove the superfluous Prologue and Epilogue, but otherwise this is a great read, and a valuable contribution to the genre of Order Members’ spiritual memoirs (which includes, as well of course as Sangharakshita’s memoirs, Nagabodhi’s Jai Bhim, and Taranatha’s Steps to Happiness, both published by Windhorse).

Harald Absalon

Finally there is a first novel by Manjusiha, writing as Simon Okotie, curiously entitled, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? Manjusiha, also living in London, dedicates the novel to Maitreyabandhu, suggesting the circulation of encouragement in the arts of the imagination within the Triratna movement. But there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the sincere lyric confessional mode of Maitreyabandhu’s poems and the post-narrative absurdity of Okotie’s writing. Nevertheless, Harold Absalon is in its own way even more of an imaginative achievement, and stands in a venerable lineage of fiction that simultaneously creates and then mocks its own illusions (I thought of The Master and Marguerita).

The plot, if that is the right word for it, is so thin that it hardly bears mentioning. A detective of some sort, clearly inept, is on the trail, as it is called, or as he calls it, of the wife of the Mayor’s transport advisor, Harold Absalon, who has disappeared. Or so he says. After the slightest of orientations in the narrative world to which the reader must assent, the narrative digresses along the byways of the detective’s thought processes, which could be characterised as intelligent, analytic, obsessive and quite obviously proliferative in the sense that one cannot help but think there is something going on beneath these thoughts, bearing some important yet unstated relationship to them, which if one were able to learn what that something was, would explain and in another sense destroy those interminable wanderings. It feels a bit like a comic version of W.G. Sebald’s intensely internalised narrations. And of course the narrative suspense, such as it is, of the novel is made precisely out of the gradual, though partial revelation of that hidden something.

On p.56 the detective gets on a Routemaster bus, and the remaining three-quarters of the novel take place thereupon. It is hard not to begin to remember, in vivid sensual detail, the feel of the top deck of a crowded old London bus, with its smells, its noise, its lurching progress, and its ambience of a damp box full of quiet longings and ill-hidden thoughts. This ambience comes to life in this novel, as the reader encounters the stream of consciousness of one peculiar character among recognisable types. The detective’s thoughts are mostly quite harmless, almost boyish, or at least boyish when they turn to sex, but attuned to the need for precision in language and concept, without which the world would be a worse place, and the reader is left to savour the peculiar new light that gets shed on words like ‘corner’ or ‘fear’, or on certain turns of phrase like ‘cliff-hanger’. And the detective, for all his proliferation, is a precise observer of mores, such as the etiquette around allowing one’s neighbour on the seat of a bus arise and leave.

It is probably evident that I enjoyed this novel. I enjoyed its language, its invitation to the reader to enter its world on its own terms, its pace and play; I enjoyed the gradual revealing of what might be going on, and the character of the protagonist, so absolutely at sea in his urban landscape, so determined to work it all out, on his own terms, with tremendous idealism and commitment. The novel does have a conclusion, which in its own way is both mysterious and satisfying, but I am not going to reveal anything about it. You’ll have to get on the bus.

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An Epitome of Rational Dhamma

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Y. Karunadasa, Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, 2013, $30, 205pp hback.

This review is copied over from Western Buddhist Review

The term ‘early Buddhism’ refers to the teaching of the Buddha and to the Buddhism of his followers up until the time of the second council and the first schism, about one hundred years after the death of the Buddha, when various geographically and doctrinally distinct schools of Buddhism came into being. There is a growing body of literature concerning the Buddhism of this earliest period,[i] despite the problem of historical evidence. Our best evidence for early Buddhism is the Pāli canon, which is the product of translation and of centuries of oral transmission. There is always an element of faith involved in discussing the Buddhism of the Buddha, faith that there really was such a person as the Buddha, and that the early discourses contain something of what he taught. In this context, Prof. Karunadasa’s new book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of early Buddhism by drawing out the meaning of the Buddha’s ‘middle way’, mainly in theory, but also in relation to the practice of the ethical life. In doing so, he does more than illuminate early Buddhist teachings: he provides a lucid though dense summary of the Buddha’s psychology of liberation, clearly explained, capable of being practised – his book is an epitome of rational Dhamma.

Prof. Karunadasa, from Sri Lanka, has specialised in Theravādin Abhidhamma studies.[ii] But in this book he turns to the suttas or discourses of the Pāli canon to explore an excellent hypothesis: that the best way to understand early Buddhist doctrine is as a critical response to the opposition of two opposed world-views, spiritual eternalism and materialist annihilationism. In his preliminary observations he makes clear that his method is one of interpretation. He draws on various discourses, subjecting them to close reading, sometimes using Theravādin exegetical terms, for the sake of presenting a coherent rational synthesis of early Buddhist teaching. The result is extremely interesting and inspiring, mainly because the author’s thinking is very clear and does not betray any imposition of a view onto the materials discussed.

He begins by proposing a historical context of the Buddha’s teaching, in which religious and philosophical discourse was polarised between two views. On the one hand the Brahmans and some ascetics (samaṇas) taught that there was a permanent metaphysical self, a spirit distinct from the body, and that spiritual practice consisted of uniting with that self. In reaction to this metaphysical view, which the Buddha called ‘eternalism’ (sassatavāda), other ascetics taught that there was only a physical self, and that this self will be annihilated at death, a view which the Buddha called ‘annihilationism’ (ucchedavāda). These two extremes are two versions of the theory of the self, and they were associated with asceticism in the case of eternalism, and hedonism in the case of annihilationism. The Buddha’s middle way is both a ‘teaching by the middle’ (majjhena dhammaṃ) in respect of views and a ‘middle path’ (majjhimā paṭipadā) in respect of practice. There is plenty of scope for further discussion of the historical hypothesis that Prof. Karunadasa proposes, but nevertheless it works well enough as a framework for the discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way.

Karunadasa next interprets dependent arising (paṭicca-samupāda) in terms of the middle way. The point of view of dependent arising transcends the dualities of monism and pluralism, in that reality is neither grounded in a single principle, nor is it a collection of unrelated entities. The best-known application of dependent arising, the twelvenidānas, he interprets as ‘the causal structure of individual existence’ (p.26). Implicitly eschewing the later interpretation of the nidānas as spread over three lives, Karunadasa boldly proposes that each nidāna implies the presence of the five aggregates (khandhas) which constitute individual existence, namely, physical form, feeling, contact, volitional formations and consciousness. Each of the nidānas, from ignorance (avijjā) to ageing-and-death (jarāmaraṇa) concerns how the individual, made up of the aggregates, enters into saṃsāra. Karunadasa next revisits the well-explored territory of ‘not self’ (anattā) but with great delicacy, stressing how the not self teaching is the middle way between an eternalist conception of a metaphysical self and an annihilationist conception of a physical self, in the sense that the person or individual is the ‘sum total of the five aggregates when they are structurally organised according to the principle of dependent arising’ (p.37). Somewhat anachronistically, however, he criticises earlier scholars of Buddhism (such as Radhakrishnan, Mrs Rhys Davids, Grimm, Bhattacarya, etc.) who claimed that the Buddha taught a ‘higher Self’.

The chapter on ‘the Analysis of the Mind’ seems to me to be the central chapter of the book. The Buddha’s middle way begins to take shape in terms of how individual existence, constituted by the five aggregates, undergoes a cognitive process which it mistakes for a self. The co-arising of sense-experience and sense-consciousness leads to contact, feeling, perception, thinking, conceptual proliferation and the consequent impact of proliferation back upon the individual. In this way we come to experience being a self in saṃsāra. Karunadasa stresses how consciousness is reciprocally dependent on name and form, the physical organism plus mental factors, this reciprocal dependence constituting an ‘irreducible ground of saṃsāric existence’ (p.61), a position transcending either an eternalist tendency to view the mind as the ultimate reality, or a materialist tendency to view physical matter as what is real. In this central chapter we begin to sense the author’s underlying conviction concerning a humanistic and psychological interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. He shows no interest in myth or symbol, even though all of these are evidently as much part of the Buddha’s teachings.

The next few chapters explore the practical implications of this theory. The Buddha characterised the human condition as dukkha, suffering (meaning, being stuck in conditioned existence). Individual existence is a causally conditioned process of grasping the five aggregates; grasping is the superimposition of the ideas ‘this is mine’, ‘I am this’, ‘this is my self’, onto the aggregates. When this process ends, suffering ends. Suffering, therefore, is the same as being motivated by self-centred craving, and the Buddhist ethical life is lived to ameliorate this suffering. Karunadasa explores three principles of the ethical life: kammavāda (that actions have consequences), kiriyavāda (the need to act wholesomely), and viriyavāda (the need to make an effort). The discussion of kamma as intention, and what this entails, is dense and stimulating. Next Karunadasa explores the nature and application of the eightfold path, the Buddha’s ‘middle way’. Finally, he discusses the role and place of happiness in early Buddhism. He successfully presents happiness as both a goal of all our desires and the result of living a wholesome (kusala) life.

In the concluding chapters, Karunadasa returns to his main theme of the ‘teaching by the middle’. Nibbāna is neither the attainment of a metaphysical reality nor the annihilation of a physical self. He begins with the simple definition of nibbāna as the destruction of greed, hatred and delusion, and then expands this definition in terms of various other ways in which nibbāna is described: as knowledge, as world-transcendence, as the unconditioned, as non-proliferation, and so on. He denies that nibbāna has anything to do with a transcendental reality. The chapter on the Buddha’s ‘unanswered questions’ (Is the world finite or infinite? Has it a beginning or not? Is the soul the same or different to the body? Does the Tathāgata exist after death, not, both, or neither?) is more philosophical but nicely demonstrates the methodology of the whole book, as well as showing the importance of right view for the practice of Buddhism. Karunadasa explores the cultural context of the questions and how the Buddha handles them, and concludes that he did not answer them because they are inappropriate and meaningless. Hence the positions put forward by other scholars, such as naïve agnosticism, pragmatism, rational agnosticism and positivism, are all incorrect.

Karunadasa ends with a chapter on the Buddhist attitude to the idea of God: not only does God have not place in Buddhism, but the Buddha offers arguments against belief in his existence. He concludes that Buddhism is anthropology, not theology. An appendix on Buddhism and fundamentalism explores how the belief, which the Buddha warned against, that ‘this alone is true; all other beliefs are false’ is as corrosive a view within Buddhism as without, and how Buddhism is a pluralist tradition, admitting a plurality of doctrines, scriptures, cultures and societies. Moreover, the Buddha did not deny that there can be liberation outside Buddhism, for what the Buddha discovered, is open to anyone to discover; and while what was said by the Buddha was well said, whatever has been well said by anyone (or in other scriptures) is the word of the Buddha too.

In short, this is a high-level abstract synthesis of Buddhist doctrine. Its value lies in its steady focus on the early discourses, its method of interpretation guided not by later Buddhist exegesis but by a historical hypothesis about the metaphysical context of the Buddha’s teaching. Karunadasa tries to cover both the theory and practice of the middle way, but in doing so the book feels like two books, the one on practice sandwiched between chapters on theory. As it is, I suspect that Early Buddhist Teachings will not gain much of a readership beyond the Buddhist intelligentsia, especially because it makes no attempt to relate the early Buddhist teachings to other philosophical or religious traditions. This is a pity, and I predict the book is destined to remain a hidden treasure among books on early Buddhism, partly because of its specialism, and also because it is only available direct from the publishers in Hong Kong.

Available direct from the publishers, for $30 + $10p&p.

Dhivan Thomas Jones is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review, and the author of This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching on Conditionality.

[i] For instance Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, and Alexander Wynne, The Origins of Buddhist Meditation, reviewed in WBR volume 5. Bhikkhu Anālayo is a prolific scholar of early Buddhism too; his books on satipaṭṭhāna are published by Windhorse Publications.

[ii] His book on the dhamma-theory published by the Buddhist Publication Society is available online

No Need for the H-Word

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Bhikkhu Bodhi et al., The Bodhisattva Ideal: Essays on the Emergence of MahāyānaBuddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2013, 239pp., £9.99 pback. (Available from Wisdom Books at www.wisdom-books.com).

My review of this collection of essays, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review.

The usual history of Buddhism in India goes that the Mahāyāna arose around the beginning of the common era as a reaction against complacency and scholasticism in the existing schools. It described itself as a ‘great vehicle’, which put forward the Bodhisattva ideal of complete perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all, in contrast to the ‘inferior vehicle’ (hīnayāna) of the śrāvakas, with their arahant ideal of enlightenment merely for oneself. But it turns out that this is mostly untrue. We learn from this volume on the Bodhisattva ideal that this ideal does not belong only to the Mahāyāna but to all Buddhist schools. The idea that the Mahāyāna has the monopoly on it is a misrepresentation of Buddhism.

The general picture that emerges from this book, however, is that Mahāyāna was neither a school nor an ordination lineage, but a movement within Indian Buddhism. There were never Mahāyāna monasteries, and Buddhists of this new movement and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists lived and practised together. The word ‘hināyana’ (the ‘H-word’) is a pejorative term only found in later Mahāyāna texts, and never used by any non-Mahāyāna text to describe ‘mainstream’ Buddhism. The idea presented in Mahāyāna Sūtras that Mahāyāna is a higher teaching of the Buddha, revealed only to certain disciples, and so on, is rhetorical.

The essays collected here, which have all previously appeared elsewhere, is in the first place a more specific corrective to common misperceptions about the Bodhisattva ideal. The first essay, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, sets the tone. It outlines how the Bodhisattva ideal appears in Theravāda Buddhism. The Buddha realized enlightenment, and then taught others how to gain it. At first, no distinction was made between the Buddha’s enlightenment and that of his followers, but gradually a distinction began to be made. After all, the Buddha had gained enlightenment by himself, while others did so by following his teaching. The well-known distinction of three types of bodhi, awakening or enlightenment, arose: there is the bodhi of the arahant or ‘worthy one’ who is a disciple of the Buddha; there is the bodhi of the pacceka-buddha or ‘solitary Buddha’, who gains enlightenment by himself but does not teach; and there is the sammā-sam-bodhi of the Buddha. From earliest days the Buddha was called a bodhisatta prior to his enlightenment;[1] but gradually the story evolved of the enormously long career of this bodhisatta through previous lives, illustrated in the stories of the Jātaka, and beginning from the vow to attain Buddhahood made by the brahman Sumedha in the presence of the Buddha Dipaṅkara incalculable aeons ago, as recorded in the Buddhavaṁsa. The Bodhisattva ideal is thus acknowledged and venerated in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism as the highest Buddhist ideal. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains how Mahāyānists then gave this ideal prescriptive force for the Buddhist practitioner. But this in no way necessitates any disrespect for the arahant ideal, and indeed the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra,[2] contain no criticism of the earlier ideal. It is only in later Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra, that we find a denigration of the arahant.

An essay by Bhikkhu Anālayo reconstructs the genesis of the Bodhisattva ideal from the evidence in the Pāli discourses and their parallels preserved in Chinese translation.[3] We learn that everything said about the Bodhisattva in the Mahāyāna is derived from the common traditions of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. Essays by Jeffrey Samuels[4] and Karel Werner continue to explore the Bodhisattva ideal in non-Mahāyāna literature in complementary ways. Samuels describes how great Mahāyānists such Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and Candrakīrti each identify the Mahāyāna with the bodhisattva-yāna, and the srāvaka-yāna with the non-Mahāyāna Buddhism of the various schools. As Samuels points out, this ‘sets up an opposition between an ideology and an institutional affiliation’ (p.33), which is quite misleading, for, as we have seen, the bodhisattva-yāna is fully part of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The question inevitably arises of what exactly is Mahāyāna, and why it arose. It has to be said that this is still something of a mystery. The last essay of the collection, by David McMahan, explores the significance of writing for the emergence of the Mahāyāna. His essay reminds us how the distinguishing features of Mahāyāna scriptures are their visionary metaphysics and cosmic extravagance. Non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, by contrast, was based on the careful preservation of earlier teaching, initially through oral recitation, though with some imaginative embellishment. With the popularisation of writing around the turn of the common era, new ways arose for reform movements within Buddhism to express themselves. One way they did this was to fabricate entirely new sūtras, and attribute them to Buddhas. The longest essay in the collection, by Peter Skilling, explores what we know about the earliest of these new scriptures, where and how they arose, and how they presented themselves. The discussion is technical but highly illuminating. We discover that there is no longer any accepted model for the arising of the Mahāyāna. It is not simply a matter of a lay movement, or a monastic movement towards forest renunciation, nor is it a matter of cults of stupa-worship or book-worship. All these ideas for the origin of the Mahāyāna have been put forward, but none seem completely to explain it. Skilling also emphasises how, even in the last twenty years, we have learned a great deal more about early Buddhism. The discovery and editing of ancient texts, including a hitherto-unknown Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, in the Gandhari dialect, is changing the whole way we understand early Indian Buddhism.

An overall theme in this collection is how both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists look to the Buddha and his enlightenment for their inspiration. It is only through the Buddha as exemplar and teacher that we have access either to the arahant ideal or to the Bodhisattva ideal. This does not mean these ideals are in some sense ‘really the same’, but that they must each be understood in terms of complex historical processes of doctrinal development. In this sense, this book contributes to Buddhist unity in the modern world, a unity, which is also an important theme in the teaching of Sangharakshita and in the Triratna Buddhist movement.[5]

I suppose a die-hard Mahāyānist might object that this is a book written and published by Theravādins for Theravādins, like a book by Roman Catholics about Protestantism. However, this would be unfair. Although Bhikkhu Bodhi’s writing style used to be overtly orthodox, he now lives at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey, where both Pāli and Mahāyāna Buddhism is studied and practiced,[6] and his teaching is replete with references to non-Theravādin sources.[7] The other contributors to this volume, whether ordained monastics or not, are scrupulously scholarly. Nevertheless, it would not be a criticism to say that the essays in The Bodhisattva Ideal are written on the whole from a Theravādin perspective. Their concern is not primarily to understand the arising of the Mahāyāna as a reform movement, but rather how the Bodhisattva ideal is more universal in Buddhism than is usually understood, and how the concerns of Mahāyāna are continuous and entwined with much in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. It would be fascinating to see a companion volume of essays from an avowedly Mahāyānist point of view.

[1] Bhikku Bodhi, p.29, makes the point, which has been made elsewhere, that the Pāli bodhi-satta may represent what would be in Sanskrit bodhi-śakta, ‘capable of enlightenment’, and that bodhi-sattva, ‘enlightenment-being’, may represent an incorrect Sanskrit back-formation.

[2] As introduced and translated in the excellent book by Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Enquiry of Ugra, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2003.

[3] This essay is extracted from Anālayo, The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal, Hamburg University Press, 2010; online at http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/publikationen/HamburgUP_HBS01_Analayo.pdf.

[4] Not to be confused with Geoffrey Samuels, an anthropologist of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism.

[5] As discussed in Subhuti, ‘A Supra-Personal Force’, 2012, online at www.sangharakshita.org

[6] See www.bodhimonastery.org for details of this fascinating project.

[7] The footnotes in his new translation of the Aṅguttara-Nikāya, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2013, often draw attention to parallel passages in surviving Chinese translations of the Ekottarikāgama.

Some Very Short Books About Buddhism

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Matthew Kapstein, Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2014.

(and also, in reverse date order:)

Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2013 (1st ed. 1996).

Jan Westerhoff, Reality: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Edward Craig, Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sue Hamilton, Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001 (orig. publ. 2000).

Michael Carrithers, Buddha: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001 (orig. publ. 1983).

All £7.99/$11.95 pback, also ebook.

Reviews copied over from the Western Buddhist Review

The occasion of this review is the publication of Matthew Kapstein’s superlatively excellent new Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, on which more anon. But it occurred to me that, rather than writing an appropriately very short review of just that book, I could also briefly review everything Buddhist in the series, to make something normal-sized overall. Oxford University Press hit upon the concept of ‘Very Short Introductions’ around the turn of the millennium, and Kapstein’s Tibetan Buddhism is number 373. The concept has obviously been very successful: short books you can carry in your pocket and read in a weekend. For me, however, their success is not just their size, but consists in three linked factors. First, each one is written by someone who is an expert in the relevant field, and who has had to pack a lifetime’s passionate research and writing into a summary form. Second, the publishers have let the experts approach their topics as they wish, which makes the books more opinionated and hence quirky and interesting. And last, happily, the books are excellently edited.[1]

So to start at the beginning: OUP have recycled Michael Carrither’s Buddha: A Very Short Introduction from their earlier ‘Past Masters’ series, but the book has aged well, perhaps because not much has been discovered about the Buddha since 1983. Carrithers is an anthropologist, so his biography of the Buddha does not get bogged down in textual worries, and instead strikes a nice balance between the traditional story and historical reconstruction. Next comes Damien Keown’s Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, which, being the flagship of the fleet, has just had a refit, the 2nd edition having come out in 2013. Keown is a Buddhist studies academic, and his book is like a condensed version of an undergraduate course entitled ‘Introduction to Buddhism’. This is not really a complaint. Keown points out that ‘Buddhism’ is a large and complex topic, with diverse schools, traditions, histories and cultures, and so what he offers is a well-digested overview of the central facts and features; the book is a bit of an abstraction though it is very well done. The 2nd edition is updated with information about new discoveries, like the 1st c. ce birch-bark manuscripts from Afghanistan in the Gandhari language, giving new insights into early Buddhism;[2] an update on progress in re-establishing female monastic ordination;[3] and a chapter on Buddhism in the west – Triratna gets a mention – with thoughtful reflections on how Buddhism is changing.[4] Keown is also the author of Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. The nature and application of a distinctly Buddhist approach to ethics is Keown’s professional specialism – his conception of Buddhist ethics as a kind of virtue ethics was a breakthrough, and his Very Short Introduction is an excellent summary of his detailed research and thought.

So to Matthew Kapstein’s Tibetan Buddhism. Kapstein is an academic in Paris and Chicago, but his book does not read like an undergraduate course, and is not about an abstraction called ‘Buddhism’, but a particular, if rather complex, manifestation of it. The account modulates between the fascinating ideas that Tibetan Buddhists inherited and developed, and the particular indigenous culture that underpins the religion. Kapstein starts with a story that sets the scene. He was talking to a lama in Nepal about the nature of consciousness, but their conversation was interrupted by some local people seeking the lama’s help with a demonic infestation. The lama dispensed incantations and advice, the people departed, so he returned to the discussion about the mind’s capacity for self-objectification. Mystical philosophy and Himalayan superstition. Kapstein describes the origins of Tibetan Buddhism in the 8th c. ce, the time of King Trisong Detsen, Padmasambava and imperial Tibetan; the revival of Buddhism and the emergence of the rival religion, Bön, from the 10th c.; and the development of the schools still familiar to us, Nyingma, Sakya, Kägyu and Gelug. What comes across strongly is the peculiar combination of intense sectarian rivalry and common commitment to Buddhist ideals, embodied in a network of monasteries, colleges and institutions.

Something I particularly appreciated in Kapstein’s presentation is his emphasis, while not stinting on the philosophy, on the everyday practices undertaken by Tibetan Buddhists. He makes the point that most monks and nuns were educated only to the extent that they knew their rituals, but that their spiritual practice consisted in lojong, ‘mind-training’, in the form of constant recollection of the Dharma, and especially in the form of tonglen, the ‘sending-and-receiving’ of suffering and love. He goes on to discuss Tantric Buddhism without overdoing the esotericism, and presents Tibetan mortuary rites and beliefs in rebirth and the tulku system as much distinctly Tibetan as Buddhist. The book concludes with a summary of what happened in the 20th c. following the Chinese invasion, a tragedy that somehow Kapstein manages to make sound less terrible than it must have felt to the Tibetans. The book ends with the author’s confession of his love for the ‘splendid civilisation of Tibet’, and I confess that I immediately re-read the book, delighted at the quality of writing as well as its high level of expertise.

There is room in the list for some future ‘very short introductions’ to Theravāda, Chinese Buddhism and Zen, as well as perhaps to mindfulness and Buddhist psychology. Meanwhile, there are some other Very Short Introductions which deserve mention. First, Edward Craig’s Philosophy includes discussion of the Buddhist ‘no-self’ doctrine, via the philosophical argument Nagasena presents to King Milinda, in the Questions of Milinda, an early Buddhist philosophical dialogue. Craig’s cross-cultural style of presenting philosophy later compares the Buddhist no-self view to David Hume’s ‘bundle theory’ of the self, and points out important differences as well as similarities. Following that, there is Sue Hamilton’s Indian Philosophy. This is an extraordinary overview of the main currents and ideas in a philosophical culture which, as Edward Craig had hinted, is every bit as developed as that of the west. Buddhism comes over particularly well, probably because Hamilton used to be a scholar of early Buddhism. Then there is Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness. Really, this book is an introduction to the modern scientific study of consciousness, but the author is a long-standing Zen Buddhist and meditator, and her immersion in Buddhist ways of looking at consciousness is everywhere apparent in her approach to the topic. She has no problem, for instance, saying that the reason that we cannot find any apparent locus of the self in the brain is that the self is an illusion, and she goes into some detail into how brain-based conscious experience may conjure its identity out of its own productions. Finally, there is Jan Westerhoff’s Reality. Westerhoff uses a combination of analytic philosophy and modern scientific thinking to question the apparent reality of ordinary experience, of matter, the person, and time. He offers no solutions, but simply takes away our assumptions, leaving the bare question of what is real. Not at all obvious is that this short book on reality is in fact a neo-Madhyamaka treatise; Westerhoff, it turns out, as well as being a philosopher, is an interpreter, exponent, even translator of Nāgārjuna and his Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy.[5]

Eight books reviewed in 1,344 words – this very-short thing is catching.


[1] The formula basically works, though not always: I found A.J. Ayer’s Hume: A Very Short Introduction, 2000 (orig. publ. 1980) very hard going – much harder than Hume.

[2] ‘The Kharoṣṭhī Fragments’ text box on p.66.

[3] ‘Buddhist Nuns’ text box on pp.90–1.

[4] Criticisms: A sentence on meditation on p.98 is repeated on p.99, suggesting some rushed editing. On p.100 the jhāna factor of joy is missing from the tabulated contents of 3rd jhāna. On p.137 he credits Chögyam Trungpa with establishing a Buddhist centre before later assuming responsibility for Samye Ling in Scotland. However, Trungpa left Samye Ling for the USA after disagreeing with Akong Rimpoche, and never resumed responsibilities there.

[5] Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, OUP, 2009; The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartinī, OUP, 2010; Twelve Examples of Illusion, OUP 2010.

Approaching the Middle Way

A review of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakārikā, trans. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, Wisdom Publications, Boston, USA, 2013, 351pp., $28.95 pback, also in ebook

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This is a very welcome new translation of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhayamakakārikā. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, two seasoned scholars of Indian philosophy, explain in their preface that they have been working on their translation since 1999, and the book comes across as carefully considered. They provide a short introduction that puts Nāgārjuna’s philosophy into its intellectual context. They usefully include the Sanskrit verses, in clear roman script, with a few carefully chosen text-critical notes. Each verse is translated into intelligible English, with explanation of translation issues where required. They also include a short commentary on each verse, with some exploration of the concerns and presuppositions being made, and highlights from four Indian commentaries on the text (the Akutobhayā and those by Candrakīrti, Buddhapālita and Bhāviveka). It seemed to this reviewer, as someone who has some knowledge of Sanskrit, that the translation is an ideal combination of clarity in English and closeness to the original, with enough of a commentary to allow the reader to have some sense of the concern with which Nāgārjuna’s verses are grappling. The book is altogether to be recommended as a reliable translation of a central text of the Buddhist philosophical tradition.

And perhaps this is all that a review needs to say. But the very success of Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation brings to the fore a rather important question: just what does one make of the philosophical content of Nāgārjuna’s work? Oddly – or perhaps deliberately – this new translation does not try to answer that question. It does not try to interpret Nāgārjuna or make his work intelligible to readers educated in western philosophy. For a reader new to Nāgārjuna, and wishing to make the acquaintance of a philosophical work reputed to be of some importance to the Buddhist tradition, this book may prove not a little frustrating or even opaque.

However, this may be deliberate, in that the translators perhaps decided not to put their own interpretation on the text but to try to let it speak for itself. The trouble is that the text does speak very clearly. Not much is known about Nāgārjuna, except that he probably lived in south India in about the 2nd c. ce. Quite a number of works have been attributed to him, though scholars dispute which are authentic. The one thing for sure is that his name is attached to the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and that its 447 Sanskrit verses (kārikā) are at the root (mūla) of the middle way school of Buddhist philosophy (madhayamaka). This school was highly influential in India, was transmitted to Tibet, and continues to flourish among Tibetan Buddhists. Nāgārjuna’s work is therefore not just of historical value, but continues to be central to the philosophical side of Tibetan Buddhist culture.[1] The Sanskrit verses, however, are not self-explanatory. They pack their philosophical content into a metrical form, and rarely unpack any of the philosophical details. Indian philosophical texts were put into verse so that they could be memorised by students, and the arguments and issues would later have been explained orally. We do not have Nāgārjuna’s own commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, as we do with another of his works, the Vigrahavyāvartanī.[2] Instead we have several commentaries by Indian thinkers of some centuries later, who, although broadly agreeing about the main thrust of Nāgārjuna’s thought, engaged in dispute about how exactly to interpret it.

Apart from deciding how exactly to understand Nāgārjuna within the Buddhist philosophical context, there is the issue of how a westerner might relate to any of his philosophical concerns. Let us take as an example the concept of śūnyatā or emptiness, which, everyone agrees, Nāgārjuna wishes to establish as the ultimate truth. Emptiness is not anything in itself but is a concept that refers to how everything is empty of svabhāva or intrinsic existence. Hence to understand the meaning of śūnyatā, just as a concept, it is necessary to understand the meaning of svabhāva as a concept. But in the western philosophical tradition, there is not really any equivalent concept. And even in the Indian philosophical tradition, it is not entirely clear whether Nāgārjuna is setting up his concept of svabhāva as a kind of straw man, or whether any Abhidharma tradition really did suppose that some things had svabhāva in the way that Nāgārjuna says that they do not.[3]

All in all, most western readers of Nāgārjuna need guidance about how exactly to read and interpret his verses. In this sense, the new translation by Siderits and Katsura is not very helpful. By contrast, the 1995 translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Jay Garfield is better.[4] Garfield has not only studied the verses and the traditional Indian and Tibetan commentaries on them, but also engages with them both in terms of western philosophical parallels and Indian Buddhist soteriological concerns. Reading Garfield, one has a sense of why Nāgārjuna might be worth studying. However, and this is an important qualification, Garfield’s translation is based on the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit verses ­– it is a translation of a translation, and this shows in the relative lack of clarity and precision in language.[5] Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation is simply superior in this regard.

Garfield also offers a running commentary on how previous western translators and interpreters of Nāgārjuna have fared: while Murti read Nāgārjuna as an absolutist, positing a reality behind appearances, Kalupahana read him as a pragmatist, and Wood as a nihilist.[6] Garfield disagrees with these previous translators, and takes them to have unnecessarily read western philosophical positions into a work which ought to be understood in its own context. I think that it is here that we may find an explanation of why Siderits and Katsura have elected to provide a rather bare translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. They perhaps want readers to encounter Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without the imposition of any kind of western thought structure onto a very Indian Buddhist way of looking at things. Jan Westerhoff, in his recent book on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, offers something of a justification of this approach.[7] He notes that western interpretation of Nāgārjuna has gone from one that makes him a kind of Kantian, to one that makes him a kind of Wittgenstein, to one that makes him a kind of William James. However, it is now possible to approach the study of Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without presenting him in terms of supposed western parallels to his thought. In this regard, even Garfield sometimes interprets Nāgārjuna as a kind of sceptic, in the philosophical tradition that culminates in David Hume. Taking Westerhoff seriously, then, we might suppose that Siderits and Katsura intend their readers to engage with Nāgārjuna on his own terms, and they do so as part of a maturing of the western philosophical encounter with Indian Buddhism. Although they do not say as much, this would at least explain why in their commentaries on individual verses they often refrain from putting forward their own interpretation even when it might have been helpful for the reader for them to have done so. If this is correct, then perhaps the hope is that readers of this new translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā will themselves be drawn into the task of a mature encounter with Nāgārjuna. Such a reader might, however, have to prepare themselves with the older interpretations of Nāgārjuna, which, even if flawed, do provide some orientation. And they might have to read around a bit, in works like Westerhoff’s introduction to Nāgārjuna. Whatever they make of it, this excellent new translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Siderits and Katsura is a starting point for philosophical reflection, while the bareness of its commentaries, while not exactly helpful, is perhaps a sign of how seriously the translators take Nāgārjuna as an original philosopher.

This review is reposted from http://www.thebuddhistcentre.com/westernbuddhistreview

 


[1] As evident in a recent translation of some of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: The Dalai Lama, The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason, trans. Thubten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009.

[2] For which, see for instance another welcome new translation and commentary: Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] This is the place to mention that some western readers of Nāgārjuna have concluded that his philosophy has been over-rated: see, for instance, Richard Hayes, ‘Nāgārjuna’s Appeal’, in The Journal of Indian Philosophy, 22 (1994), 299–378.

[4] Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[5] And this is the place to mention Stephen Batchelor’s translation from the Tibetan, Verses From the Centre, Riverhead Books, New York, 2000; it is a kind of poetical re-working of Nāgārjuna, but of no help for engaging with what Nāgārjuna actually wrote.

[6] See T.R.V. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1955; David Kalupahana, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1991; Thomas E. Wood, Nāgārjunian Disputations, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1994.

[7] Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp.9–12.

Pāli Safari

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This review recently appeared in the Western Buddhist Review, at http://www.thebuddhistcentre.com/westernbuddhistreview:

Bhikkhu Anālayo, Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses, Pariyatti Press, Onalaska WA, USA, 2012, 326pp., $19.95 pback

The idea of an ‘excursion’ into the thought-world of the Pāli discourses suggests a guided tour, a day trip, or, figuratively, an author’s venture into unfamiliar territory. However, Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book is more like a safari into the heart of Pāli country, with a capable guide who is not afraid to show you some unexpected features of the less well-known areas. Anālayo explores 24 different words used in the Pāli Buddhist discourses, beginning with Craving (taṇhā), and ending with Liberation (vimutti). The entries vary in length, depending on the relative importance of each topic and the difficulties encountered in exploring it, but they follow a similar pattern. An introduction to the word’s meaning and implication is followed by a survey of its usage in the discourses (and sometimes in the vinaya and in some post-canonical works). This is followed by a discussion of the implications of this term for Buddhist practice, concluding with an evocation of the successful result of such practice. But this summary of the formula for each essay does not do justice to the effect. Anālayo has a wonderfully broad and discerning knowledge of the Pāli discourses, and his essays present a formidably learned but nevertheless tremendously inspiring basic ground of clarity about early Buddhist concepts.

Bhikkhu Anālayo’s scholarship began with his PhD exploring the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta (published by Windhorse, Cambridge, 2003, as Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization). More recently he has learned Chinese and has been writing about the relationships between early Buddhist discourses preserved in Pāli and those originally written in other Indian languages, which now survive only in Chinese translation. Anālayo combines scholarship in Buddhist scriptures with actual Buddhist practice based on those same texts, and in Excursions he writes very much as a scholar-practitioner, mainly about Pāli discourses, but with the occasional reference to the Chinese parallels to certain difficult passages. The 24 essays were originally written for the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, a Sri Lankan project begun soon after the 1955 Buddha-jayanti, and only completed in 2009, in a total of eight substantial volumes. Many scholars have contributed over the years, with Anālayo evidently joining in at a late stage, since his contributions begin with rāga (among the entries under ‘r’) and run through to Yuganaddha Sutta.

Hence the apparently random selection of topics in this book, which are actually edited versions of the essays appearing in the Encyclopaedia, but here made to work together in an inter-related collection. Being of the nature of reference articles, the essays will be basically familiar to anyone who has studied Pāli Buddhism, or consulted Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary. However, Anālayo’s work takes the genre of a reference article to new levels of thoroughness, and these provide a fascinating survey of usage and nuance. There are essays on each of the five hindrances – Passsion (rāga), Ill-will (vyāpāda), Sloth-and-torpor (thīnamiddha), Restlessness-and-worry (uddhaccakukkucca), Doubt (vicikicchā); essays on four of the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda – Volitional Formations (saṅkhārā), Feeling (vedanā), Craving (taṇhā), Clinging (upadāna); and essays on four of the twelve factors of the path – Happiness (sukha), Concentration (samādhi), Knowledge and Vision according to Reality (yathābhūtañāṇadassana), Liberation (vimutti). There are also fascinating essays on Personality View (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) and Contemplation of feelings (vedanānupassanā), as well as on lesser-known concepts in Pāli Buddhism such as Seclusion (viveka), Letting Go (vossagga) and Emptiness (suññatā). Although encylopaedia articles are not usually the place to present new research, Anālayo nevertheless also manages to bring in some illuminating new interpretations of difficult issues, of which I will mention five.

First, in his discussion of Craving (taṇhā), he suggests a very interesting way of understanding the concept of vibhava-taṇhā, ‘craving for annihilation’. This concept is usually given as the third kind of taṇhā, after kāma-taṇhā, ‘craving for sensual pleasure’ and bhava-taṇhā, ‘craving for existence’ (i.e. craving to continue as the same person). Anālayo interprets vibhava-taṇhā as not only the desire to commit suicide but also, and much more importantly, ‘the aspiration for leaving behind the sense of selfhood through a mystic merger with an ultimate reality’ (p.16). Needless to say, this suggestion is accompanied by a discussion of various discourses and an admission of conjecture. Nevertheless, it is a proposal quite in line with the Buddha’s rejection of the kind of mysticism found in the Upaniṣads. Second, in his discussion of Right View (sammādiṭṭhi), Anālayo very neatly solves the old problem of how to reconcile the admonition found in some of the suttas of the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-Nipāta, to let go of all views, with the admonition found more widely in the Nikāyas, to have right view. He writes: ‘right view as the vision gained through deep insight is what ‘sees through’ any view’ (p.102), and hence the person of transcendent right view or perfect vision is also someone who has let go of views. Third, in his discussion of Tranquillity and Insight, samatha & vipassanā, Anālayo explains how, in the Pāli discourses, these two qualities are actually ‘two central qualities that are to be developed in conjunction with any type of meditation practice’ (p.232). There is no question, therefore, at least in the early Buddhist view, of a successful insight practice without tranquillity. Anālayo develops this theme further in his discussion of Concentration (samādhi), in which he concludes that: ‘the so-called “dry insight” approach, which dispenses with the formal development of mental tranquillity up to the level of the first absorption, may not be capable of leading to fully liberation, but might suffice only for stream-entry’ (p.256).  Such a stand makes clear the importance for early Buddhism of jhāna, and draws a clear distinction between early Buddhist doctrine and the dry insight approach of some modern Theravādins. Fifthly, Anālayo’s judicious use of Chinese parallels is apparent in his discussion of Seclusion (viveka). While in the Pāli discourses the Buddha recommends silence and seclusion, in one discourse he censures some monks who had decided to keep silence together for their rains retreat. A consideration of a parallel preserved in Chinese, however, reveals that these monks had decided ‘not to criticize each other even in the case of a breach of conduct’ (p.263), and it was evidently for this reason that the Buddha had censured them. In this way, Anālayo sheds light on Pāli discourses that are unclear, through his knowledge of parallel passages in Chinese translation.

These were simply five points that particularly attracted this reviewer’s attention, and other readers will no doubt find different points of interest. Overall, my response to Anālayo’s Excursions was delight and pleasure in the appearance of a new standard for reference articles on early Buddhist concepts. In this sense, the present book is highly recommended. It is, however, frustrating in that it covers only a few topics. One can only hope that, despite the Encylopaedia of Buddhism now being complete, Bhikkhu Anālayo will continue to write articles like the ones gathered in this book, and that these articles are eventually gathered into a more comprehensive reference work on the important terms and concepts of the Pāli discourses.

Dhīvan is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review, and author of This Being, That Becomes: The Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2011.

The Universe Is Waking Up

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A review of Thomas Nagel Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Oxford University Press, 2012, 130pp.

Thomas Nagel is an American professor of philosophy, perhaps best known for his 1974 article, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, in which he argued that consciousness, as is occurs in creatures like bats and human beings, means having a point of view on things.[1] There is something it is like to have conscious experience, even if we cannot imagine exactly what it is like, as in the case of bats, which use echo-location to find their way around and to catch their food. Hence there are facts about the world, that there is something it is like to be a bat, which we cannot even imagine. This point leads to Nagel’s conclusion, which is to highlight the difficulty of supposing that we could explain the subjective nature of conscious experience in terms of objective properties, like brains and neurons. Such an attempt to explain the mind in terms of the brain would be reductionist in the sense that it would involve a reduction of mental properties to physical properties. But such a reduction is not possible in this case. Following Nagel, the mind–body problem in philosophy gained new significance. David Chalmers has argued that consciousness constitutes a ‘hard problem’ for philosophy.[2] Colin McGinn has argued that, because of human cognitive limitations, we are not able to understand how subjective experience is related to objective properties, and that consciousness will remain a mystery.[3] Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennet, believe on the contrary that consciousness can be accommodated within a materialistic world-view.

Scientists, it must be said, are more concerned about their research than these difficult philosophical problems. Nevertheless there are plenty of neuroscientists who also admit they have no idea how the brain ‘produces’ conscious experience. Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, starts from these familiar conundrums of the mind–body problem, and goes on to question the whole neo-Darwinian world-view, which tries to explain nature in terms of physical matter and forces interracting to produce the world of life and of human experience. The slightly sensational sub-title for this book, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, is presumably the publisher’s way of grabbing attention, and shows that the book is aimed at a non-specialist readership. What Nagel really argues, however, is that the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is partial rather than false, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness. What would be false, in this view, would not be the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature but the metaphysical claim that materialism can completely explain everything.

Nagel’s basic argument is this. If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then materialism cannot be a complete explanation of the natural order. This argument is more interesting than it looks. It is perhaps easy to suppose that we could fully explain the beginning of the universe in terms of matter and forces and so on. But if the arising of life and subsequently consciousness cannot be explained in terms of matter and forces – that is, that life and consciousness are not susceptible to reductionist explanations – then materialism has not explained the natural order. Life and consciousness must always have been possibilities within the natural order, even before the conditions for their actual arising were not fully present. Therefore materialism is not a complete theory. Nagel does not stop there. In a chapter on ‘Cognition’, he goes on to argue that the faculty of reason, by which he means the capacity (for a few of us) to intuit truths that are independent of the mind, such as mathematical or logical truths, cannot be explained by evolutionary theory alone. Neo-Darwinian theory must explain the appearance of faculties such as reason as somehow adaptive, but we cannot explain the capacity for insight into the truth in terms of adaptation for survival. And in a chapter on ‘Value’ Nagel argues that our capacity to make correct moral judgements is based on the objectivity of good and bad, it being an objective matter that certain actions are good and certain bad, which is similarly inexplicable in terms of materialism alone. For each of these broad areas – consciousness, cognition and value – Nagel sketches what might count as more satisfactory explanatory theories. One such sort of theory would be intentional – that God has set up the natural order is such a way that there is consciousness, that we can intuit the truth and know good and bad. But Nagel does not explore intentional theories as he does not believe in God. He plays with panpsychism – the theory that mind is somehow in everything – but does not find this kind of metaphysical theory very useful. His preferred tentative solution is what he calls ‘teleological naturalism’, meaning the theory that the natural order is biased in some way towards the emergence of life and consciousness, as more-than-likely directions or potentials of development. He does not develop this theory but merely indicates that it might at least be along the right lines.

It has to be said that Nagel’s book has received some very critical reviews.[4] This is partly because of the polarised nature of debate in the US. Nagel’s denial of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory plays straight into the hands of Creationists, who seem to eagerly seize on any criticism of evolution. It has to be said that, although Nagel clearly states that he is an atheist, he also tells the reader how stimulating he finds the work of Michael Behe and Stephen Beyer, two prominent exponents of intelligent design theories for the origin of life.[5] Sometimes intellectual openness can be a political mistake. Professional scientists and philosophers have also criticised Nagel’s book in different ways, because it does not take into account the kinds of details which are important in the disciplines in which these people work. However, Nagel’s book is meant to be a readable book exploring big issues. Nevertheless, it must be said that Nagel does not make any attempt to present or answer quite reasonable philosophical objections to some of what he puts forward, perhaps especially in relation to the idea that moral values are objective.

Nevertheless, I think Nagel’s book is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.[6] Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.[7] Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.


[1] Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in The Philosophical Review 83:4 (1974), pp.435–50.

[2] David Chalmers, ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2:3 (1995), pp.200–19.

[3] Colin McGinn, ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’ in Mind 98 (1989), pp.349–66. McGinn has also written a work of popular philosophy on the problem of consciousness: The Mysterious Flame: conscious minds in a material world, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[5] Mind and Cosmos p.10, and see the footnote there for references to works by Behe and Beyer.

[6] Mind and Cosmos p.85.

[7] This point is important, however, for emphasising that consciousness depends on the body and brain, and ceases when they cease functioning. While the Buddhist tradition, in line with most non-scientific thinking, assumes the possibility of some sort of disembodied consciousness, the Buddha himself appeared to deny it, as I discuss in Dhivan Thomas Jones, This Being, That Becomes: the Budha’s teaching of conditionality, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2011, p.67f.