Philosophical Exchange - East and West

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Tom » Mon Mar 04, 2013 12:10 am

tobes wrote:
Jnana wrote:
tobes wrote:Yes, of course he acknowledges that, and of course those differences are very significant. However, although ethics (or ethos) is a Greek term, I think it would be a huge mistake to conclude that Buddhism does not (and has not ,historically) have a deep and profound focus on 'ethics.' And this is not restricted merely to the concept of śīla; it involves all the elements of the path, and the way that agents on that path have a profound responsibility to cultivate and develop themselves and positively affect others. To treat this in squarely soteriological terms is fine - but there is no good reason to draw a fixed line and say "there is only soteriological content here, and no ethical content." I think there is clearly both, even if the latter is not as systematically expressed as, for example, epistemology or metaphysics might be.

So yes, of course there are significant differences. But there are also very significant continuities. And they are frutiful to contemplate.

I think ethics are important. I would also agree that this is an area with enough commonality to make for fruitful comparison and dialogue. I certainly wouldn't dismiss this field of comparative study as unimportant.

That said, my own interest in the subject is primarily concerned with contemplative asceticism. A mode of practice and way of life that was much more valued in the ancient world than in contemporary Western society or liberal academia. Here, the writings of Neoplatonists such as Porphyry and Christian authors such as Evagrius and John Cassian offer useful points of comparison. Of course, there are many other important authors as well.



I guess my personal interest in the subject is related to the potentially positive role that Buddhist thought could play in the field of contemporary ethics, and by extension, political and social philosophy. Academia is very global now. China and India are on the rise. I don't think it is acceptable any more to think of ethics as a western discipline, complete with its three major thinkers - Aristotle, Kant and Bentham/Mill. But of course, this is still largely how people think - aside from China, where there has been a huge Confucius/Mencius revival (incidentally, on the back of a great deal of comparative work with Aristotle and the virtues tradition).

The Buddha belongs in this discourse, in the canon of moral philosophy, as one of the great moral teachers humanity has known. Buddhists need to learn how to speak in the language of contemporary ethics, if only because they can greatly enrich that field.

:anjali:


Tobes, agree with the above 100% and I think this is going to be a hotter topic in the next couple of years.

Your post above did come as a surprise after having read your initial comments about finding Keown's arguments compelling upon reading NE. I see an inherent problem with works such as Keown's or that of Goodmans in that they fail to recognise what is unfamiliar as unfamiliar. For example, when we reduce a concept like cetanā to prohairesis, we loose much more than we gain from the dialogue. For Buddhist ethics to actually contribute to the conversation its unique structure needs to be appreciated and not reduced to some type of virtue ethics, consequentialism or deontological ethics.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby tobes » Mon Mar 04, 2013 3:18 am

Tom wrote:
Tobes, agree with the above 100% and I think this is going to be a hotter topic in the next couple of years.

Your post above did come as a surprise after having read your initial comments about finding Keown's arguments compelling upon reading NE. I see an inherent problem with works such as Keown's or that of Goodmans in that they fail to recognise what is unfamiliar as unfamiliar. For example, when we reduce a concept like , we loose much more than we gain from the dialogue. For Buddhist ethics to actually contribute to the conversation its unique structure needs to be appreciated and not reduced to some type of virtue ethics, consequentialism or deontological ethics.


I originally saw it as inherent problem too. I thought that it was basically an appeal to (western) canonical authority - i.e. a need to justify Buddhism as sufficiently coherent ethically, by establishing a comparative connection with Aristotle (or utilitarianism in the case of Goodman).

I appreciate your point - the uniqueness of Buddhist ethics certainly needs to be appreciated, and it is reductive to subordinate it to other traditions.

My own view is that a more phenomenological approach is warranted.

Having said, I don't think much is really lost in positing a similarity between cetanā and prohairesis. Or in finding that there is a certain consequentialist logic at play in some Buddhist texts/traditions/practices.

I think it's pretty cool that those conversations/thoughts are taking place.

If they turn out to be crude, reductionist appropriations - better work will surpass them.

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Tom » Mon Mar 04, 2013 4:51 am

tobes wrote: My own view is that a more phenomenological approach is warranted.


Now we are getting somewhere... this is my view also.

tobes wrote: Having said, I don't think much is really lost in positing a similarity between cetanā and prohairesis..


I think they are related to deliberation in fundamentally different ways and that this is an important distinction but maybe there are better examples. In any case I agree it is cool the conversations are going on!
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby Jnana » Mon Mar 04, 2013 5:04 am

tobes wrote:I guess my personal interest in the subject is related to the potentially positive role that Buddhist thought could play in the field of contemporary ethics, and by extension, political and social philosophy. Academia is very global now. China and India are on the rise. I don't think it is acceptable any more to think of ethics as a western discipline, complete with its three major thinkers - Aristotle, Kant and Bentham/Mill. But of course, this is still largely how people think - aside from China, where there has been a huge Confucius/Mencius revival (incidentally, on the back of a great deal of comparative work with Aristotle and the virtues tradition).

The Buddha belongs in this discourse, in the canon of moral philosophy, as one of the great moral teachers humanity has known. Buddhists need to learn how to speak in the language of contemporary ethics, if only because they can greatly enrich that field.

But are philosophers of contemporary ethics willing or able to speak the language of the Buddha? This requires differentiating a hierarchy between the common person (pṛthagjana) who has not attained the path of seeing, the learner (śaikṣa) who has, and the non-learner (aśaikṣa) who has completed the paths. Related to this, a distinction is also maintained between the general laity and the renunciates who are actively engaged in the path of liberation. The reciprocal relationship between these two communities involves the former generating merit by providing for the material needs of the latter.

The path of liberation also situates ethical conduct in the context of the threefold training in higher ethical conduct (adhiśīlaśikṣā), higher mind (adhicittaśikṣā) and higher discernment (adhiprajñāśikṣā). Here, Porphyry's degrees of virtues offer some possible points of comparison. He differentiates between (i) civic, (ii) purificatory, (iii) contemplative, and (iv) paradigmatic virtues. It seems that Porphery and the Neoplatonists placed Aristotle's ethics and the Peripatetic school primarily within the first level of civic virtues.

Of course, Porphyry's levels of purification and contemplation assume a metaphysical worldview that is quite different from Buddhism. Nevertheless, the notion of hierarchy and an emphasis on the renunciation of worldly/corporeal pleasures and mundane goals on the higher levels of development is explicit.
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby tobes » Tue Mar 05, 2013 1:35 am

Jnana wrote:
tobes wrote:I guess my personal interest in the subject is related to the potentially positive role that Buddhist thought could play in the field of contemporary ethics, and by extension, political and social philosophy. Academia is very global now. China and India are on the rise. I don't think it is acceptable any more to think of ethics as a western discipline, complete with its three major thinkers - Aristotle, Kant and Bentham/Mill. But of course, this is still largely how people think - aside from China, where there has been a huge Confucius/Mencius revival (incidentally, on the back of a great deal of comparative work with Aristotle and the virtues tradition).

The Buddha belongs in this discourse, in the canon of moral philosophy, as one of the great moral teachers humanity has known. Buddhists need to learn how to speak in the language of contemporary ethics, if only because they can greatly enrich that field.

But are philosophers of contemporary ethics willing or able to speak the language of the Buddha? This requires differentiating a hierarchy between the common person (pṛthagjana) who has not attained the path of seeing, the learner (śaikṣa) who has, and the non-learner (aśaikṣa) who has completed the paths. Related to this, a distinction is also maintained between the general laity and the renunciates who are actively engaged in the path of liberation. The reciprocal relationship between these two communities involves the former generating merit by providing for the material needs of the latter.

The path of liberation also situates ethical conduct in the context of the threefold training in higher ethical conduct (adhiśīlaśikṣā), higher mind (adhicittaśikṣā) and higher discernment (adhiprajñāśikṣā). Here, Porphyry's degrees of virtues offer some possible points of comparison. He differentiates between (i) civic, (ii) purificatory, (iii) contemplative, and (iv) paradigmatic virtues. It seems that Porphery and the Neoplatonists placed Aristotle's ethics and the Peripatetic school primarily within the first level of civic virtues.

Of course, Porphyry's levels of purification and contemplation assume a metaphysical worldview that is quite different from Buddhism. Nevertheless, the notion of hierarchy and an emphasis on the renunciation of worldly/corporeal pleasures and mundane goals on the higher levels of development is explicit.


Well Jnana, I think this would be a really useful and fruitful thing to bring into the contemporary discourse.

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby tobes » Tue Mar 05, 2013 1:36 am

Tom wrote:
tobes wrote: My own view is that a more phenomenological approach is warranted.


Now we are getting somewhere... this is my view also.

tobes wrote: Having said, I don't think much is really lost in positing a similarity between cetanā and prohairesis..


I think they are related to deliberation in fundamentally different ways and that this is an important distinction but maybe there are better examples. In any case I agree it is cool the conversations are going on!


Care to flesh out that difference? I'm not being contrary here, I'd simply like to learn more about it.

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Tom » Tue Mar 05, 2013 2:55 am

tobes wrote:
Tom wrote:
tobes wrote: My own view is that a more phenomenological approach is warranted.


Now we are getting somewhere... this is my view also.

tobes wrote: Having said, I don't think much is really lost in positing a similarity between cetanā and prohairesis..


I think they are related to deliberation in fundamentally different ways and that this is an important distinction but maybe there are better examples. In any case I agree it is cool the conversations are going on!


Care to flesh out that difference? I'm not being contrary here, I'd simply like to learn more about it.

:anjali:


Probably best not coming from me. There will likely be something published on this sometime soon and after it is we could pick up the discussion armed with some scholarship to muse over.
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby jeeprs » Tue Mar 05, 2013 7:08 am

Jnana wrote: Porphyry's levels of purification and contemplation assume a metaphysical worldview that is quite different from Buddhism. Nevertheless, the notion of hierarchy and an emphasis on the renunciation of worldly/corporeal pleasures and mundane goals on the higher levels of development is explicit.


It is still a metaphysic. There is nothing it maps against in the secular-scientific worldview. Trying to do so is like trying to describe a three-dimensional object in two dimensions.

Although one particular forum which might offer such perspective is the Mind and Life Institute. It conducts dialogs between Buddhism and scientists of various backgrounds.
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby Jnana » Tue Mar 05, 2013 10:24 am

jeeprs wrote:
Jnana wrote: Porphyry's levels of purification and contemplation assume a metaphysical worldview that is quite different from Buddhism. Nevertheless, the notion of hierarchy and an emphasis on the renunciation of worldly/corporeal pleasures and mundane goals on the higher levels of development is explicit.

It is still a metaphysic. There is nothing it maps against in the secular-scientific worldview. Trying to do so is like trying to describe a three-dimensional object in two dimensions.

The metaphysical worldview that I was referring to in this context is that of Neoplatonic emanationism, the three hypostases (the One, the Intellect, and the Soul), etc.
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby jeeprs » Tue Mar 05, 2013 11:11 am

I do understand that. What I meant was that even though the Neo-platonic and Buddhist philosophies are very different, and, had they met in the context of a traditional culture (which they might well have done), they would have been quite adversarial, like chalk and cheese; but that compared to the secular-scientific outlook, they are both alike in having a metaphysic, in distinction from a world view that doesn't.

Huston Smith's book, Forgotten Truth: the Common Vision of the World's Religions, says that in all the traditional cultures there are "levels of being" of which the more real is also the more valuable; these levels appear in both the "external" and the "internal" worlds, "higher" levels of reality without corresponding to "deeper" levels of reality within. On the very lowest level is the material realm, which depends for its existence on the higher levels. On the very highest or deepest level is the Infinite or Absolute.

So here again is that notion of hierarchy, which is linked to moral value, as you noted above. This is sometimes referred to as the idea of the 'great chain of being' - whilst that particular term is of Western origin, the idea of the hierarchy of kinds of being(s) is explicit in all traditional cultures, for example, the notion of the various realms of being in Buddhist cosmology, and even in the idea of the progressive stages of the bhumis corresponding with levels of being.

I don't think there is a dimension that corresponds to that notion of 'the depth of being' or 'degrees of reality' in secular-scientific thinking. In the naturalist worldview, there simply isn't a place for it. Where science is the arbiter of what is real, any such idea can only ever be understood as being subjective, private, or personal. It might be respected on the basis of the individual's right of conscience (although as we see this too is under attack from many quarters) but there is no way for modern thought to grant it any kind of intrinsic reality.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Karma Dondrup Tashi » Tue Mar 05, 2013 5:52 pm

tobes wrote:I think you would really enjoy this:

http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/


Drool/groan - great more hours and hours I'll have to spend. That site looks awesome.

Incidentally has anyone here read 'Reality' by Peter Kingsley or any of his other books?
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby jeeprs » Tue Mar 05, 2013 9:02 pm

I bought it, but must admit it is still on my 'must get around to reading' list.
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Re: Philosophical Exchange - East and West

Postby jeeprs » Wed Mar 06, 2013 5:18 am

I mentioned Thomas McEvilly's book The Shape of Ancient Thought earlier in this thread. I have just come across his obituary - he passed away on 2nd March. May he rest in peace.
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