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.

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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.

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’.

The Fire Sermon

Fire WorshipAn Introduction to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon

We owe the translation of the title of the discourse known as ‘The Fire Sermon’ to the American translator Henry Clark Warren, whose Buddhism in Translations was one of those pioneering Victorian works that brought the spirit of Buddhism into the west. Someone who read Warren’s translation was the poet T.S. Eliot, who studied Sanskrit from 1911–14, at Harvard. And Eliot’s reading of Warren’s translation resulted in his naming the third section of his 1922 poem The Waste Land ‘The Fire Sermon’. I’m sure the Buddha could never have guessed that he would get quoted in modernist literature.

The title ‘The Fire Sermon’ has a great ring to it. More literally, the title (āditta-sutta) is ‘The Discourse about What is on Fire’, or simply, ‘Burning’. And, while the so-called ‘second sermon’ is more like a Socratic dialogue than a sermon, this ‘Discourse on Burning’, is more rightly called the ‘third sermon’ – the third teaching of the Buddha. A problem of course with the English word ‘sermon’ is its connotation of a tedious long talk in a church. But all of the Buddha’s discourses were delivered out-of-doors, and they are all records of the Buddha’s attempt to directly get across his awakening experience, to the extent that it can be put into words. The Pāli canon gives us a vivid sense of how the Buddha’s teaching was always delivered to a specific person or group, always tailored to his audience’s interests and expectations. The Dharma was never primarily a set of lists or doctrines, but rather the familiar ways in which the Dharma came to be expressed were the result of the Buddha’s teaching experience to specific people over a long period.

Once again I invite you to consider the early Buddhist discourses as literature – not as any kind of more-or-less accurate record of what the Buddha said in ancient India, but as the way that the early Buddhists, after the time of the Buddha, tried to re-create in a literary form the style and impact of their teacher. This involved the development of stories, which have the look of historical accounts, but are really later reconstructions of events. One these stories is that of what the Buddha did after his awakening experience, under the Bodhi tree. It is a long and detailed story, and is preserved in the Vinaya (the book of monastic discipline). Two episodes of this story are the Buddha’s ‘first sermon’ to his former five companions, given at the Deer Park at Sarnath, and then the ‘second sermon’, which brings them all to awakening. Let me give a summary version of what happens next.

We hear about a spoiled young man called Yasa, who becomes disgusted with his superficial lifestyle, whom the Buddha converts, in a story that later is switched to the Buddha himself. Then we hear that, once there are sixty arahants, the Buddha sends them out in all directions, exhorting them to ‘wander for the well-being and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being and happiness of gods and human beings’.

The Buddha then wanders eastward, towards Uruvelā (where he had gained awakening). On the way he meets a group of thirty young men with their twenty-nine wives. The girlfriend of the unmarried man has stolen their things and they are looking for her. ‘Which is better for you?’ the Buddha asks them; ‘seeking a woman or seeking for your self?’, and he converts them too. Arriving at Uruvelā, the Buddha meets three fire-worshipping dreadlocked ascetics, each called Kassapa, with their thousand followers. By performing a series of miracles, starting with the taming of a fierce nāga (python) living in one of the fire-huts, the Buddha converts the ascetics. Now follows the Buddha’s third sermon, to the former fire-worshipping ascetics (my translation can be found here).

The later Theravādin commentary adds that the Buddha thought, ‘What might be an appropriate dharma talk for these people, who tend the sacred fire in the mornings?’ And he came to the conclusion, ‘I will teach them about the six senses and their objects, comparing them to what is burning and blazing, and in this way they will be able to obtain arahantship.’ Then he spoke this formulation of the Dharma in order to teach the Dharma to these people.

The commentary can be a bit dry and literal in its interpretations of early Buddhism, but in this case it is very helpful. It points out that this particular discourse was delivered to a particular group of people, fire-worshippers, so that the Buddha tailored what he said to meet their interests and preoccupations. This is an example of what the later tradition called the Buddha’s ‘skilful means’ (upaya-kauśalya), his ability to teach people appropriately. The fire-worshipping ascetics believed that tending the sacred fire, performing fire-rituals every morning, pouring ghee into the flames to feed the gods, was the way to salvation. The Buddha gets their attention by saying, everything is burning, everything is on fire. One might imagine that they would have responded by saying, or at least thinking, no it isn’t. But nevertheless he has their attention.

What is supposedly burning and on fire? What follows is another analysis of the whole of experience. In the second sermon the Buddha used the framework of the five constituents of experience (khandhas, ‘aggregates’). In this discourse, he uses a different framework:

  • The five senses-organs plus the mind.
  • The five sense-objects plus the contents of mental experience – ideas.
  • Sense-consciousness.
  • The contact between the senses, including the mind, and the world.
  • Experience arising from contact.

I find this a fascinating analysis. Elsewhere, having used this same framework, he asks, is there anything else in experience apart from this all this? Of course, it is a quite reasonable and sensible belief that there is a world independent of our sense-experience, but all we ever have to go on is the experience of our senses. This is it – what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought – this is the whole world. Anything else is an idea in our minds. And ideas are already included.

So everything, the whole of our experience, the whole world, is burning. Now comes the twist. Burning with what? With the fires of compulsion (rāga, ‘greed’), hostility (dosa, ‘hate’) and confusion (moha, ‘delusion’). This group of three bad guys is very common in early Buddhist discourses. It is a way of characterising our basic psychological afflictions. Compulsion and hostility are emotional – they characterise attraction and aversion reactions to experience – while confusion is intellectual – characterising basic lack of understanding of what is happening. The early Buddhist teachings stress that awakening or nirvāna is the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion. In a way, you can say, that’s all awakening is. But it’s perhaps preferable to say that the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion is a way of describing awakening in negative psychological terms. More positively, we could add that awakening can also be described in terms of contentment, love and wisdom.

Everything is burning. It’s a way of putting the Dharma – a dharma-pariyāya, a formulation of the Dharma. Does this speak to us? I once lived in a community of men (four of us, in a half-renovated house, with two cats and a dog, and a lot of dope-smoking), and one of the men was obsessed with sex. Whatever one might say, he brought it round to sex. Beds, beaches, lawns, woods, floors, bicycles, breakfast, dinner, tea – it all triggered compelling ideas of various sorts in my friend’s mind. Everything was burning for him – burning with a specific kind of compulsion. Then there was the mother of a dear friend. Any topic of conversation one might bring up was an opportunity to be gloomy. I was once visiting with my friend, and we’d been to the park. So I said, ‘the park here in town is big, isn’t it?’; to which the response came, ‘oh, the parking in town is terrible, so terrible’. Everything was burning for her – burning with a particular kind of gloom, of negativity.

Now we can make sense of the links between the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot quotes the Fire Sermon like this:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

burning

The allusion to the Fire Sermon (‘Burning burning burning burning’) is sandwiched between allusions to the Confessions of St. Augustine, who went to Carthage as a teenager and was embroiled in ‘unholy loves’ – Augustine was burning too. Earlier in section III of The Waste Land, we read:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing…

These lines allude to Eliot’s own recuperation from a nervous breakdown in the seaside town of Margate in Kent. Perhaps Eliot evokes another way in which the whole of our experience might be ‘burning’ – or tingling or hurting – with the inability to connect with, or find meaning in, what is happening; a symptom of the dissociated modern sensibility, one that perhaps many of us can relate to, at least occasionally.

But the Buddha’s Fire Sermon is an invitation to overcome burning, obsession, gloominess or dissociation, by identifying it as such. The truth is that sense-experience isn’t just what happens to us – it is how the world appears as a result of our active involvement with it. The world shows up according to what we want, what we care about, what we believe, according to the quality of our attention. It strikes me that these days not many of us might be fire-worshippers, but a lot of us pay attention to the news as it is represented on the internet. In fact, it is rather easy to pay a great deal of attention, not only to the news, but to the opinions people have about the news, and then to think about our own opinions about those other people’s opinions. It’s not so much that the world is burning, but that the world is a drama. The world of our experience is a constant drama, driven by the plot-lines of compulsion, hostility and confusion.

But what happens when we notice this, and begin to pay attention, not to the contents of our experience, but to how it shows up for us? The first thing we might notice is that we ourselves are largely responsible for how the world appears and shows up. If everything reminds you of sex, or everything is terrible, or the world going to the dogs, that tells you something about your own psychological tendencies. After all, it is we ourselves who choose what to pay attention to, and how to respond or react. Of course, we are talking here about deep-rooted habitual tendencies. But they can change, and that is the point of engaging in Buddhist practice. Hence the discourse goes on to identify three stages of positive change – disenchantment, self-possession and liberation. These summarise an insight process.

In another discourse (Itivuttaka 93), the Buddha teaches the overcoming or quenching of the three fires of compulsion, hostility and confusion through three distinct methods. Compulsion is quenched by attending to the unattractive qualities of our experience. Hostility is quenched by developing kindness (mettā). Confusion is quenched by developing wisdom. If we can imagine our experience as being on fire, in terms of a metaphor of burning, then to practice the Dharma is to quench the flames:

Those who practice, day and night,
the teaching of the perfectly awakened one:
they put out the fire of compulsion,
constantly noticing unattractiveness.

Those excellent people put out
the fire of hostility through kindness,
and the fire of confusion through the wisdom
that leads to piercing through.

Those mature beings, having put out the fires,
indefatigable day and night,
are completely quenched, remainderless;
they have entirely overcome suffering.

Based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre, 14 November 2017.

The Not-Self Characteristic

Light Gets In

An Introduction to the Buddha’s ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’

The ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’ (Anatta-lakkhaṇa-sutta) (my summary translation can be found here) goes by another title in Sri Lanka – the ‘Discourse to the Group of Five’ (Pañca-vaggiya-sutta); and the alternative title gives us another clue to what it’s about. The Buddha is shown as being in conversation with his five former companions in the ascetic life, so that this discourse is traditionally regarded as the Buddha’s ‘second sermon’, following the famous ‘first sermon’, the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (my introduction to which is here). At the end of the first sermon, Koṇḍañña had the insight that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease’, and this insight was a breakthrough for him. It was also a breakthrough for the Buddha, who for the first time had managed to communicate something of the Dharma to someone else, enough at least to induce the kind of insight that leads to ‘stream entry’ – an irreversible engagement with the path that leads to nirvāṇa, the end of dukkha. In this second sermon, the Buddha goes on to give the ‘group of five’ a direct and specific teaching, on the ‘not-self characteristic’ – a teaching which leads all of them all to see through any confusion they might hold about who they really are, and move them on and into a liberating knowledge of how things actually are.

In my introduction to the first sermon I made the (possibly unfortunate) comparison of the Buddha’s teaching with the Abba song ‘Waterloo’– a song that announced the sudden, brilliant, appearance of soon-to-be-world-famous talent. My point was that the four ‘ennobling truths’ taught in the first sermon were like a universe-wide hit, like a memorable tune that could get the Dharma into everyone’s heads. By contrast, in the second sermon the Buddha might be said to abandon jumpsuit and boots, and put on the dark clothes and hat of Leonard Cohen, and sing something that goes straight to the heart.

This might not be so obvious from the bare words of the discourse, which, as usual, is replete not only with repetition but with a somewhat forbidding technical vocabulary. Let us once again think about the discourse as literature. It is almost absurd to suppose that this discourse represents in a literally historical way the words of the Buddha to his first five disciples. The Buddha would have been at the very beginning of his teaching career, and he was yet to develop the many ideas and methods that have been preserved in the Pāli canon. It makes more sense, I think, to suppose that the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic represents  a way of putting the Dharma that the early Buddhists considered to be especially characteristic and typical of their teacher. And by imagining the Buddha as putting the Dharma in this way to his very first disciples, the Buddhists, who composed these early discourses, were in their own way doing justice to the memory of the Buddha. In this way, one might suppose, they managed to put into this discourse a kind of condensed version of one way in which the Buddha taught.

There is hardly any scene-setting. The Buddha addressed the group of five monks while they were living together in the Deer Park at modern-day Sarnath, near Vārāṇasi. But rather than telling them something ­– as he had done in the first sermon, when he told them about the middle way and the four ennobling truths – he simply asks them questions. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teaching strategy when he was talking to the Kālāmas (my introduction to the Discourse to the Kālāmas is here). The Kālāmas had had enough of being told by religious teachers what the truth was, and how any other truth-teaching was rubbish. The Buddha understands this and gives them a method by which they can decide for themselves what should count as a wholesome mental state and the advantages of developing such a state. But here, talking to the group of five monks – experienced spiritual strivers, intent upon liberation – the Buddha can assume a shared understanding of ethical conduct and meditation practice. Within this framework of commitment, he leads the monks through a set of analyses of experience, designed to get them to question their assumptions and re-think their views.

Any of you who have read any Plato might recognise this method of questioning – it reminds us of Socrates, who always claimed he knew nothing except that he was ignorant, and who proceeded to cross-question his poor interlocutors until it became apparent to everyone that they didn’t know anything either. Have you ever had the experience of having your assumptions pulled out from beneath you? I had always thought Leonard Cohen was one of those hippy crooners who’d smoked too much cannabis to make sense. But then Maitridevi played me his greatest hits in the car five years back, and I saw the truth… And probably anyone who meditates regularly has had the experience that our usual way of looking at things suddenly cracks and crumbles, to be replaced by a new perspective – that perhaps our breath is not actually boring at all, or that there is in fact no obligation to hold onto our resentments. I would say, though, that the Buddha is not exactly like Socrates. He always claimed to definitely know something about awakening. On the other hand, awakening is not an idea and cannot be put into words. We each have to discover it for ourselves, and hence the Buddha’s method of leading his hearers.

So he engages the monks in a process of destructive cross-questioning. The method turns on a way of dividing up our experience of ourselves into five khandhas or ‘constituents’, sometimes translated ‘aggregates’ or even ‘heaps’:

  1. physical form (rūpa), that is to say, our bodies, the physical stuff that our bodies are made of, the attributes of our bodies, its abilities and characteristics;
  2. feeling-tone (vedanā), that is, the bare hedonic tone of our experience, whether pleasant or painful or somewhere in between;
  3. perception and cognition (saññā), that is, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations and thoughts, memories and fantasies that are going on;
  4. habitual tendencies (saṅkhārā), which are the more dynamic aspects of our experience, the familiar patterns and dispositions that we sometimes love and sometimes hate; and
  5. consciousness (viññāna), the awareness of ourselves as being a body, having feelings, cognitions and perceptions, prone to habit, and aware of being aware.

This might sound complicated, but in practice it is relatively easy to keep these five aspects of experience in mind. Is our experience made of anything else besides these five constituents? It might be useful for us to consider how we might naturally describe our experience. I’ve always noticed that there is a body, there is thinking (in the head), there is feeling (more in the heart), and there is willing (which seems to be everywhere). The five khandhas may be a useful abstraction, that’s the point.

The Buddha then gets the monks to carefully consider whether any of these constituents is the self. By ‘self’ or attā (or ātman) the Buddha means ‘who you really are’. He presents two arguments for the monks to chew on. In the first he gets them to consider how they are not in fact able to control body, feeling tone, perception and cognition, habitual tendencies or consciousness. Is this true? If you are like me, it would be truer to say that we have some control, but not much, and not when it counts. Experience mostly just happens, and we find ourselves carried along, hoping for the best. So who are we really? I think that the most likely candidate for who we really are is consciousness. Thinking this way would mean deciding that who I really am is a deep awareness of being this same person over many years. My body changes slowly, feeling tones come and go, perceptions and cognitions change all the time, habitual tendencies unfortunately have a life of their own, but my consciousness is pretty steadily me. If I can’t control consciousness, that might be because I’m busy, or life is going badly, and a holiday or retreat might bring me back to myself. However, the Buddha will not let us rest with a conclusion like this.

The Buddha then gets the monks to consider whether the constituents are permanent or impermanent. Of course, they’re not permanent at all. So can any of them be truly satisfying? That’s quite a question. Of course, there is some satisfaction to be got from bodies, feeling-tones, from consciousness. But there is an invitation here to consider whether it is really OK that there is some satisfaction in experience. Finally, the Buddha asks the monks whether it is appropriate to say of any of a changing and partially satisfactory set of constituents that ‘this is mine, I am this, this is myself’? Of course, the way the discourse puts it, this is almost a rhetorical question. But clearly what is being suggested isn’t that the monks gave the right answers because they were good Buddhists, but that they were rehearsing a set of deep considerations about what it means to be a human being. For me, when I ask of consciousness whether it is really who I am, it soon becomes clear that after all what appears to be my self is this constant welling up of awareness which I simply continually identify with, as if I hoped it was me, as if I simply kept saying to myself, ‘this is who I am’.

But if in fact one cannot find within experience anything of which one can truly say, ‘this is myself’, this is what or who I really am, then one is free to let go of any idea that one’s experience should be a certain way, and all the emotion reactions that go with such a view. The Buddha describes this process as having three stages. There is the stage of disenchantment – no longer being under a spell, a false impression. There is the stage of becoming self-possessed – ‘dispassionate’ is the usual translation, but that might give the wrong idea of being disconnected from the heart. And there is the stage of liberation – no longer being pushed and pulled by views and emotions.

And the group of five monks gets it. Each in their own way, presumably, through their own individual process of consideration and enquiry. Their hearts and minds are freed and they are understandably pleased. They too have gained awakening and the end of dukkha. So this ‘second sermon’ gives us not so much a historical record of the awakening process of the first five disciples, but a kind of paradigm example of how the Buddha taught, and how the insight process might unfold. In fact the Buddha taught many methods and in many ways, in accordance with who he was talking to, but the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic tells it like it is: ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.

The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 22:59. This introduction is based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre 7 Nov 2017.

Turning the Wheel of the Dharma

1980.527.4

A commentary on the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta

The introduction and the conclusion of this discourse imply that the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma was the very first discourse taught by the Buddha; his opening performance, as it were, like Abba’s ‘Waterloo’; it represents the Buddha bursting onto the scene, the world’s greatest spiritual teacher making his debut. But, from a scholarly point of view, it is unlikely that this discourse is any kind of record of the Buddha’s first sermon. Firstly, it presents the doctrines of the four noble (or ennobling) truths and the eightfold path in sytematic ways, but we know from other early Buddhist texts (most notably, the Chapter of the Eights and the Chapter of the Way to the Beyond, the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta) that earlier presentations of the Buddha’s teaching were unsystematic and did not involve lists. One might well imagine that the Buddha developed his teaching style, involving lists and systems, over his 45-year teaching career. Secondly, the discourse presents the eightfold path as if everyone is familiar with it already. So it would seem that, in fact, the Buddha’s first sermon is a later literary construct, an idealisation – the first great teaching of the Awakened One. But this is not to demean it. Indeed, the very opposite – it is to say that this discourse presents, in a vivid literary form, the Buddha’s signature teaching; a first sermon in the sense of what the early Buddhists thought the most typical of their teacher.

The discourse is set in a deer park, known as Isipatana (which means ‘Deer Park’, in an older dialect) outside Vārāṇasi, where his five former companions are continuing their life of austerities. The place is now known as ‘Sarnath’ – it is one of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and has an ancient stupa, remains of old monasteries, and guest houses for modern pilgrims. 2,500 years ago, of course, the place would have been just a clearing in the jungle. Another early Buddhist discourse, the Discourse on the Noble Quest, explains how the Buddha managed to get the attention of the five ascetics. It was difficult, because they believed that he had given up the practice of austerities, that he was a back-slider and had reverted to a life of indulgence. But he invited them to examine his words and, having done so, make a decision about whether he was a loser or not. This is another version of the argument the Buddha makes in the Discourse to the Kālāmas – stressing the importance of deciding for oneself about a teaching, not just taking someone’s word for it.

The Buddha first teaches them what he calls the ‘middle way’ between two extremes. We have to remember that the five ascetics were hardened spiritual warriors. They would have had no problem agreeing with the Buddha that the life of indulgence in sense-pleasures was not going to lead to insight and freedom. I guess none of us would be here if we really believed that a thoroughly hedonistic lifestyle was the best kind of life. We would be down the other end of the Gloucester Road in one of those restaurants for which Bristol is noted, planning a winter getaway to a Sri Lankan beach resort. But here we are. But the ascetics would have been surprised to hear the Buddha say that the life of self-mortification was the other extreme. These ascetics were a bit like the body-builders or iron-athletes of today, who seek to control the body with the mind, to be a pure will, a sort of living chisel with which to carve a way to the truth.

By contrast, the Buddha’s middle way is an alternative to both these extremes. Firstly, it is a way ­– it is a means for making a journey, from here (from this situation) to there, to awakening, freedom. Secondly, it is eightfold – in brief, it consists of wisdom (right vision and resolve), ethics (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). In short, it is way of life, a way of living here and now which is beneficial and which conduces to our well-being. By the standards of asceticism in the Buddha’s day, his teaching was a soft option – it involves actually cultivating the profound pleasures of meditation. From our point of view, however, the Buddha’s teaching also involves the systematic development of ethics and meditation – it involves a definite commitment.

The Buddha then goes on to present this middle way from another angle: the four noble truths. The Pāli here is ariya-sacca, and although we have got used to the translation ‘noble truth’, this can give the misleading impression that what is being taught is somehow super-true because is is noble. But really the point is that the truths are facts, or ways things actually are, and they are spiritually ‘ennobling’; this is a better translation really.

The first ennobling fact about things is that there is dukkha. This word has a broader connotation than ‘suffering’. It includes the sense of unsatisfactoriness, frustation and imperfection. The Buddha characterises this dukkha in three groups: there is physical suffering (sickness, birth and getting old), there is experiential suffering (association with the unloved, separation from the loved, not getting what you want), and there is a deeper structural suffering involved in our appropriating and holding on to our experience. This world, our lives, are not perfect, they involve frustation, as well as suffering and pain – this is the fact of dukkha. Later in the discourse, the Buddha goes on to characterise the significance of this fact – the ‘task’ it implies. This dukkha is to be fully known. What this means is that we should turn towards this dukkha, get to know it. This, of course, is completely against the grain of our usual strategy, and is the open secret of mindfulness meditation – we turn towards what is happening in immediate experience, with awareness and positivity.

The second ennobling truth or fact about things is that this dukkha has an origin, a causal condition, and that that cause is taṇhā, a word usually translated ‘craving’ but which could also be rendered ‘desire’, ‘wanting’. But how can this desire or wanting be the cause of dukkha? Surely, our desires represent ways to make ourselves feel better. The answer is that this ‘wanting’ is something much deeper. The word represents not so much our conscious strategies for cheering ourselves up, but the nearly-unconscious tendency to react to pain with avoidance and to pleasure with a kind of compulsion. Hence the Buddha indicates three kinds of wanting. There is wanting sense-pleasures; there is wanting to become someone, to hold on to our identity; and there is wanting to not become, to get out of the whole situation. The problem is that this reactive tendency, of whatever kind, doesn’t really work, or only works up to a point. The ‘task’ that the fact of our reactivity implies is this origin of dukkha is to be given up, let go of. Easier said than done, you might well say.

But the third ennobling truth is that there is cessation, nirodha, the fact that this dukkha has an ending. Thank goodness for that – if there were no ending to dukkha, it would hardly be worth engaging in the task of giving up wanting. But there is nirvana, the complete stopping of dukkha, the stilling and calming of reactivity. The task here is that this cessation is to be personally experienced. This is important. If we do not actually experience some calming and insight then why should we believe the Buddha’s teaching? It is important to notice whether our practice of ethics and meditation actually results in a personal experience of some calming of unsatisfactoriness, some resolution of our problems.

The fourth ennobling truth is that there is a path, magga, to the ceasing of dukkha. The idea of a path is a metaphor for a way to get to where you want to go. The eightfold path, involving wisdom, ethics and meditation, is a way of life, and this way of life is to be developed. An important point here is that this path does not really get anywhere. It’s more that fully developing the eightfold path is the end of dukkha – it is a life of awareness, of care for ourselves and others, of mental and emotional calm and insight.

The discourse ends with one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, having a breakthrough – that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise is of a nature to cease’. This is a way of saying that Kondañña had the insight that everything in experience is in a process of change. So we can change. We can learn to lean in to the dukkha quality of life, learn to give up reactivity, bit by bit, build on our personal experience of when and how dukkha ceases, and develop an awakened way of life. At this point, at the conclusion of the discourse, a shout goes up through the ranked hierarchy of deities – layer upon layer of sublime beings, up through the imaginary vastness of the Buddhist cosmos, each deity delighted that the Buddha has set rolling the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. Again, like Abba with ‘Waterloo’, the Buddha’s first teaching is a big hit throughout the entire universe. Nothing will be the same again.

The Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 56:11. My summary translation; other translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and by Ṭhanissaro and others

This commentary is based on a talk given at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 31 October 2017.

Philosophy and Buddhism as Ways of Life

Socrates

Back in the late 1990s there was some excitement in the Buddhist community in which I practise, then known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, prompted by the publication of Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life.[i] This collection of essays by an eminent scholar of classical Greek and Roman philosophy revealed, as if for the first time, that ancient philosophy was not quite like modern philosophy. Whereas philosophy since Descartes has mostly involved the study of difficult problems concerning knowledge, reality and ethics, for the sake of gaining a theoretical clarity and for informing one’s life and values, ancient philosophy was itself the love, the longing, for wisdom. It involved a fundamental commitment to examine one’s thoughts, one’s values, one’s actions, to submit oneself constantly to searching investigations, to practice spiritual exercises that inculcated the attitudes necessary to bring about transformations of thought and life. All this was philosophy – in contrast to the theoretical discourses about philosophy which the various philosophers and schools produced to explain, justify and communicate their ways of life and practices – their philosophy.

To think of philosophy in this way was a paradigm shift. We had grown used to philosophy as theoretical discourse, logical and often systematic ways of analysing the world, language, science, society, ethics; something that was most often a subject for academic study, something practiced in the academic context, an academic profession. This is what ‘philosophy’ means today, and, despite its often narrow concern and highly abstract and technical methods, there is much to appreciate in the study and practice of philosophy in this sense. My own studies in philosophy were mostly in the ‘continental’ tradition of phenomenology and existentialism, which is all quite theoretical despite its often practical orientation. Nowadays I teach contemporary analytic philosophy, which in fact I appreciate for its clarity and the communal, serious, humbling sense of working steadily on difficult problems. But Hadot’s book was a reminder of a quite different conception of what it is all about. To be a philosopher was to commit to an ideal of wisdom, and to practice a philosophical way of life among other such practitioners, in a community of those on the quest.

One of the best essays, in my view, in Philosophy as a Way of Life is ‘The Figure of Socrates’. Hadot brings alive how Socrates, who wrote nothing and whom we only know through the testimonies of Plato and Xenophon, was a true philosopher in that he knew that he was ignorant. He knew, that is, that he did not possess wisdom, he did not know what the human good consisted in, but he was impassioned in his desire for wisdom and for knowledge of the good. In his commitment to philosophy he engaged anyone willing to talk in searching dialogue. What is virtue? What is knowledge? What is the good life? But it was not as though Socrates even expected to find answers in his discussions. Rather, in a spirit of what appears to have been irony, he allowed his interlocutors to voice their thoughts, before asking questions which quickly showed they were as ignorant and confused as he was. But there was a love and longing, an eros in this constant questioning, which itself was Socrates’ way of life, and which had the effect of setting off the whole subsequent tradition of philosophical enquiry into the human good.

Hadot’s re-enlivening of the ancient conception of philosophy has prompted excitement among western Buddhists. Was the teaching of the Buddha, rather than being a set of systematic doctrines, more like the communication of spiritual exercises? Should we think of the Dharma less as doctrine and more as discourses or views that support and explain the essentially practical teaching of the path? Were there exercises and attitudes in common between ancient Greek philosophy and ancient Indian Buddhism? It turns out, however, that, whatever the similarities might be between philosophy and Buddhism, there are many differences. The ancient Indian context in which Buddhism arose starts from very different assumptions. Yet philosophically-minded scholars have begun making the connections more explicit.[ii]

Part of the reason, I think, for a kind of lull after the initial excitement, is that Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life does not do much more than open the door onto an interesting-looking garden. Hadot’s subsequent book, What is Ancient Philosophy?,[iii] goes the next step. It introduces the idea of philosophy as a way of life more systematically. Again, the whole tradition starts with Socrates. But this time we are introduced to the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism) where philosophy was practiced as a way of life. Hadot presents each school as representing an existential choice, and as developing its distinctive methods around the implications of that choice. For instance, Epicureanism represents the experience of the body (the “flesh” as Hadot puts it) as constantly in thrall to pleasure and pain. The fundamental existential choice that the Epicurean makes is to learn to find a constant reliable pleasure, for only pleasure is intrinsically good and only pain is intrinsically bad. This involves a philosophical therapy of our desires, based on a constantly practiced investigation of our pleasures and pains. All this has some close parallels in the teaching of the Buddha, about which I hope to write more elsewhere.

Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of the added detail of What is Ancient Philosophy?, the reader is forced back upon the conclusion that all this philosophy as a way of life is now history. The ancient schools which maintained the living practices and communities of thought are long gone. In fact, Hadot traces the eclipse of philosophy in the late Roman Empire and the transformation of philosophy in medieval Christian Europe into something rather different. By contrast, Buddhism is a living spiritual tradition, with continuities of practice and community that remain effective. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to explore ways in which Buddhist philosophy overlap at least in general ways with ancient Greek conceptions. The exploration might continue the cultural dialogue that is bringing into being western forms of Buddhist life.

While Pierre Hadot died in 2010, his work has prompted further explorations in uncovering philosophy as a way of life. I have recently read Pursuits of Wisdom by John Cooper,[iv] which takes off where Hadot ends. Cooper is a senior scholar of Greek philosophy at Princeton, hence immersed in the whole subject from an ‘expert’ perspective. He writes that he found the theme for his book after discovering Hadot. Although inspired and stimulated by Hadot’s approach, Cooper found two problems in it: firstly, that Hadot almost completely omits the central role of reason and argument in ancient philosophy, and, secondly, that he treats the very different approaches of the various philosophical schools as too much alike. So, he characterises the different nature of the aims and methods of six approaches to philosophy as a way of life (that of Socrates, Aristotle, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism). And, most valuably, he discerns for each the central role of reasoning and argument in explaining the basic existential choice of each approach, and in the ongoing communal philosophical life of each. Cooper’s book is not easy, but is designed to be thought over carefully, and is a rewarding read.

His chapter on Epicureanism, for instance, draws out exactly how the Epicureans analysed the nature of pleasure, to produce arguments that would help in the therapy of desire. They distinguished between two kinds of pleasure: ‘kinetic’ and ‘katastematic’. Kinetic pleasures are those we experience when actively doing something to avoid pain and gain pleasure, such as eating, drinking, having sex. Katastematic pleasure is that stable, constitutional pleasure or sense of well-being that comes from being free of bodily pain and aware of one’s own existence. Based on the fundamental recognition that pleasure alone is good, Epicureans therefore reasoned that we should train ourselves to identify the katastematic pleasure that is constant and reliable, while practicing the observation of the changing nature of kinetic pleasure, which turns to pain when satiated. The therapy of desire that follows this analysis of pleasure distinguishes between desires which are natural and necessary (like those for food and water), desires which are natural and unnecessary (like those for luxury foods) and desires which are groundless (like those for wealth and fame). To be truly happy, which is our human good, is to learn to rest in the stable katastematic pleasure that becomes possible when one’s desires are limited to those easy to acquire, simple natural pleasures such as nourishing food and good friendship. All this bears some comparison to aspects of the meditative culture of pleasure in Buddhism, which is intriguing.

Yet Cooper’s work is essentially that of the reconstruction of ancient thought. How we might practice philosophy as a way life today – that is a different question. How we might commit ourselves to an existential choice that leads to the possibility of an ongoing philosophical quest for the human good – that is an exciting question. It is one that Buddhism is already answering, in its own way (or ways). To bring Buddhism into dialogue with the ongoing research into how philosophy was once a way or ways of life is very exciting indeed.

[i] Pierre Hadot, 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Arnold Davidson and trans. Michael Chase. Oxford: Blackwell. The introduction by Arnold Davidson is worth reading for itself.

[ii] A couple of recent contributions are: Matthew Kapstein, 2013. ‘“Spiritual Exercise” and Buddhist Epistemologists in India and Tibet’, in Steven Emmanuel, ed., A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.270–89; and Douglass Smith and Justin Whitaker, 2016. ‘Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher’, Philosophy East and West 66:2, pp.515–38.

[iii] Pierre Hadot, 2002. What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[iv] John E. Cooper, 2012. Pursuits of Wisdom. Princeton University Press.