The Indian Philosophy Blog was founded in January 2014 by Elisa Freschi and Amod Lele.The Indian Philosophy Blog is a venue for the discussion of Indian (South Asian) philosophy, however defined. All periods of Indian thought from the ancient to the modern, and all Indian philosophical schools is discussed on the blog.
In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:
Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)
The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?
I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc.
Thich Quang Duc was a senior Vietnamese monk who attained fame during the early escalation of the Vietnam War in 1963. It is sometimes claimed that he was protesting against the war, but that is not true. Rather, he was protesting the discrimination against Buddhists by the Vietnamese government of the time, under the Catholic leader Ngo Dinh Diem. What earned Quang Duc his fame, though, was not the cause he supported but the act with which he supported it.
In front of eyewitnesses and journalists, Quang Duc sat himself down at a busy Saigon road intersection in a meditative position. A colleague poured gallons of gasoline on Quang Duc’s head, at which point Quang Duc pulled out a match and lit himself on fire. Before this act, he had left a letter outlining the Buddhists’ demands. The act made enough of a media impact to destroy support for the Diem régime, which was overthrown in a coup within the year.
(AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)
Journalist David Halberstam, an eyewitness, said of Quang Duc: “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” That composure is captured in Malcolm Browne’s famous photo of the act, attached here. To all outward appearances, at least, Quang Duc was not mentally affected by literally being on fire. Perhaps it was not the case that Quang Duc thought only happy thoughts, but his negative thoughts and feelings were weak enough to make him appear completely serene while being “set on fire like an oil lamp”, just as Śāntideva describes.
This practice of burning oneself alive in protest has become increasingly common in modern Buddhism: more than a hundred Tibetans are said to have done this in the name of independence from China. For whatever reason, though, reports in Tibet rarely mention what to me is most striking about Quang Duc’s case, over fifty years after his death, which is the self-burner’s mental state. Quang Duc gives us very strong reason to believe that, for some people at least, the kind of radical equanimity described by Śāntideva is actually achievable. A related case is that of Matthieu Ricard, the Tibetan monk who showed record, off-the-charts levels of activity in the centres of the brain associated with happiness.
The point relates to larger questions about the Buddhist path. My students this year wondered whether nirvana could really be possible in this life, as is claimed for the Buddha – for surely, if a rock hit the Buddha on his head, he would experience pain? I brought up Thich Quang Duc in that context, and noted that it may well depend on what we mean by “pain”. Quang Duc was surely experiencing the physical sensations (vedanā) of having his flesh burn. Yet it seems that, as Śāntideva would claim, these sensations did not translate into significant mental discomfort. He had trained himself out of that.
The next important question one should ask is: how could one train oneself so? I have no reason to believe that an ordinary worldling like myself would have anything like Quang Duc’s composure in his situation. And I don’t know what Quang Duc’s own practice was. But I do know Śāntideva’s answer to the questions of why bodhisattvas are still happy when tortured:
Such bodhisattva great beings have practiced this way of life for a long time, after making this aspiration prayer: “All those who may devour me, may they attain the happiness of peace and tranquility. All those who may protect me, treat me with respect, take me as their spiritual teacher, honor me, or make offerings to me, may they attain the happiness of tranquility. And also, all those who curse me, treat me badly, beat me, cut me with knives, or in any way deprive me of life – may all of them attain the happiness of full Awakening. (ŚS 182, Goodman’s translation)
For Śāntideva this is not quite the same as karmic redirection, but it is extremely similar. Such practices of wishing one’s enemies well are unquestionably difficult. And one should be careful about what they do and don’t imply. But I have found them deeply valuable and helpful, on multiple occasions. Such a practice hasn’t got me anywhere near the place where I could think only happy thoughts while being set on fire like an oil lamp. But it would appear that, at least for some people who practise something like it rigorously enough, it can.
Here is a new prize competition that may be of interest to some blog readers, especially those working on topics such as theism in Nyāya or Vedānta, atheism in Buddhism or Mīmāṃsā, Cārvāka, Kashmir Śaivism, South Asian Islam, Sikhism, modern Indian philosophy, and other topics.
Thanks to funding from the American Philosophical Association’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Fund, the editors of the Journal of Analytic Theology are pleased to announce a prize competition for the best paper in analytic theology of an underrepresented religious or theological tradition.
With “underrepresented” we mean a paper outside of traditional forms of orthodox Christianity. In particular, we are looking for papers drawing on traditions including, but not limited to the following: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism, (neo)Paganism.
Every eligible submission will be considered for the prize of USD 500, and for inclusion in a special issue of the Journal of Analytic Theology. The special issue will contain the winning essay, as well as other essays that have received a positive evaluation. A board of experts with a broad range of specialisms in various theological traditions will evaluate the entries.
To compete for this prize competition, please send your paper to email@example.com with the subject line “Diversity APA prize competition” by October 1st, 2019.
I hope that readers will bear with me while I keep on exploiting the metaphor of wrestling with the angel. There are a few more indications, in fact, we can take out of it. First, Jacob fights. He does not just encounter the angel, he fights with him. Similarly, in order for the encounter with another philosopher to be really transformative, one should not just engage with a restatement of one’s ideas, and rather look for points of difference and not just of harmony. One is not transformed with the encounter of the n-th philosopher who agrees with oneself.
Then, Jacob fights all night. He fights while not being completely sure about the strength of his adversary, whom he cannot see. He tests his adversary’s and his own strength throughout a long wrestling. Similarly, although a short quote by a Chinese philosopher or an Arabian one might embellish our articles and impress our readers, this is not what I mean when I am talking about a fruitful transformative encounter. For that, one needs time and ongoing engagement.
An easy device in this sense is to engage with a full text, not just an impressive quote. By engaging with the full text, this unleashes its potential for a cross-cultural fertilisation, insofar as the same question is given a different answer, or vice versa, or the context is completely different. It is not irrelevant whether the discussion about the existence of free will in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, for instance, is prompted by the problem of the validity of the injunctions of sacred texts asking one to do something (see Freschi, ”Free will in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta”, Religion Compass). In this way, one can go beyond a trivial restatement of what one knew with a different voice. It takes time, but we are doing philosophy, not emergency surgery.
Elisa Freschi and Jonardon Ganeri have both accepted full-time positions at the University of Toronto, with Jonardon becoming the Bimal Matilal Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. This is wonderful news for Indian philosophy in North America!
From Leiter’s Blog:
The University of Toronto has appointed two leading scholars of Indian philosophy, one senior and one junior. Jonardon Ganeri, currently Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi, will become the Bimal Matilal Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Toronto, effective July 2020. Elisa Freschi, currently a part-time Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, will become Assistant Professor of Philosophy, effective February, 2020. Toronto will now be the destination of choice for Anglophone students interested in Indian philosophy.
Again, congratulations to Elisa and Jonardon!
Link here: https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2019/06/toronto-makes-big-investment-in-indian-philosophy-with-ganeri-from-nyu-abu-dhabi-and-freschi-from-vi.html
The conflict between Buddhism and qualitative individualism is a major difficulty for my own philosophy. In addressing that conflict, there is one approach that has repeatedly stuck out at me. I don’t think it actually solves the problem, but it may be a step towards a solution.
That step is to build on the similarities between the Buddhist conventional/ultimate distinction and Wilfrid Sellars’s distinction between the manifest and the scientific image. Both of these dichotomies are focused on the human person or self: at the conventional (sammuti/vohāra) or manifest level, selves and their differences are real and important, and stories can be told; at the ultimate (paramattha) or scientific level, selves disappear, reduced to smaller particles that form a more fundamental level of explanation.
We may note here a key way that Sellars departs from at least Buddhaghosa’s Buddhism. He agrees with Buddhaghosa’s view that the ultimate/scientific level is an important respect truer than the conventional/manifest. But the further difference is very important: for Sellars, the manifest image is necessary for ethics (and probably aesthetics and politics.) It is at the manifest level that ethical or normative claims make sense; the scientific image is normatively inert. Cells may be more complex than atoms, but they’re not better; they just are. Natural science has not found ways in which concepts of good and bad help us to explain anything. Once upon a time, when God was the best available scientific explanation for biological diversity, they might have. But that is no longer remotely the case. So, for Sellars, we need the manifest image, with its less scientific approach, in order to be able to speak about good and bad.
I suspect that Sellars is right about this. I am coming to believe that we do indeed need to posit both a conventional essentialist level of reality and an ultimate reductionist one – and that that ultimate level of reality is normatively inert. All value, all goodness and badness – ethical, aesthetic, soteriological – exist at the conventional level. Buddhaghosa would not agree with me on that point: for him the dhammas, the ultimate simples to which reality is reducible, are intrinsically laden with the qualities of kusala and akusala, good and bad. Yet I think Śāntideva and his Madhyamaka fellows probably would agree with me, and with Sellars. Their conception of the ultimate is very different – it is non-conceptual, anabhilāpya, beyond words – but that also makes it beyond value. Śāntideva says at Bodhicaryāvatāra IX.11 that puṇya and pāpa, goodness and badness, arise only in one who has illusions. In that respect Śāntideva turns out closer to the Pudgalavādins, who argued that ideas of good and bad karma could make no sense without the concept of a person. (Students encountering Buddhism often ask, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated?” It is a good question, and one that also applies to a naturalized karma without rebirth.)
Sellars’s scientific reality, then, is somewhere between Buddhaghosa’s and Śāntideva’s conceptions of ultimate truth: like Buddhaghosa’s it is describable in reductionist terms, but like Śāntideva’s it is not a source of normativity. Goodness and badness are part of the manifest, conventional, level, the level where stories can be told. And it is at that conventional level where the qualitative individualist concept of a true self – like any Aristotelian essence – can exist.
When we put non-self in Sellarsian terms in this way, I think a couple things may follow. It allows room for our preexisting reasons for action, which I think are essential starting points for us to have any reasons for action at all. I don’t accept Śāntideva’s famous argument that we should act selflessly because there is no self, because – as Stephen Harris pointed out – without the existence of beings it is no longer clear why we should do anything at all, including prevent suffering (“no one disputes that” is not a sufficient answer). Rather, ethical action needs to start from our preexisting reasons at the conventional level – as in some sense it already does in Buddhist societies. And that conventional level may well have room for qualitative individualism.
The thorny question that perplexes any such approach, of course, is the first question that Hegel would ask: what is the relation between these two levels of reality? That is not an easy question to answer, for Buddhaghosa or for Sellars or even for Śāntideva. Hegel would take that question as a fatal weakness in all of their systems, such that both levels must be fully incorporated into something higher. I am not sure that I agree with him, but am also not sure I have a way to answer that criticism. It is likely the next question I need to wrestle with.
All of this is why I have found it soimportanttodisagreeatsuchlength with Maria Heim’s and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s non-ontological reading of Buddhaghosa. I do wish they were right that Buddhaghosa sees the ultimate truth as no better than the conventional; it would be much easier for me to agree with him if they were so. I just find that Buddhaghosa’s writings do not support that interpretation. On the other hand, I find it of central importance for a Buddhist philosopher to realize that Buddhaghosa is indeed talking about how things actually are, not merely giving a guide to what one might encounter in meditation practice – and I find plenty in Buddhaghosa’s writings to support the claim that he is doing just that.
A relevant final note to all of this: I am aware that Jay Garfield recently came out with an edited volume on Sellars and Buddhist philosophy. As of the time of my writing this post I have not yet read it, but I am excited to do so. Several articles in the book look directly relevant to everything I’ve said here, and I am confident that my mature position on this topic will be shaped by it. But I thought it would be well worth posting this first because I came to my own Sellarsian understanding of Buddhism entirely without that book or its contributors, and I think it is helpful to show the world what an independently arrived Sellarsian Buddhism might look like – especially if my position then changes as a result of having read it.
A student has asked me this question, which I thought might be interesting to open up to a broader audience:
After how long and how much study does a new scholar become proficient enough in Sanskrit to read the original unaided (especially if the AOS is primarily philosophy)?
My reply was this:
Your question is a good one, and I think it has no single good answer. If you are thinking about reading without a dictionary, then that depends on how much time you’ve put into reading that author and genre after getting two to three years of solid grammatical study. I think that after five years, it would be possible to read many texts without frequent recourse to a dictionary or grammar. And it depends on the author. Being able to read Gaṅgeśa’s navya-Nyāya style will take longer than being able to read Vātsyāyana’s commentary on the Nyāya-sūtra, which is much simpler grammatically, and less wide-ranging in vocabulary. Reading Mīmāṃsā texts requires a lot of understanding of Vedic ritual and other texts, too (especially the brāhmaṇas). However, this also assumes that one is practicing reading and not just translating.
After initially learning grammar, many students continue to “crack” sentences by analyzing sandhi, compounds, verb conjugations, etc., rather than to read as one reads difficult texts in one’s own primary languages. That is, to read holistically, not always stopping to look up problem words, but entertaining the best reading provisionally against context, and going on to check if that’s right. Grammatical analysis then begins to work in the background and is foregrounded in cases where there is difficulty.
When I was in graduate school I was at a translation session for the Vīmalakīrtinirdeśasūtra at the Mangalam Research Center and I asked the late Michael Hahn a similar question. He smiled and, if my memory serves me correctly, suggested that really good reading facility with Sanskrit required at least ten years of solid study.
But those are my thoughts, as a philosopher trained in Sanskrit (not as a Sanskritist with primarily Indological training). I told the student I would post this question online and see what others think.
Recently I was asked for advice by an incoming graduate student who was interested in research in Indian philosophy. As I’ve given a lot of the same advice to my own students during the past few years, and had others get in touch with me, I thought I’d put down my thoughts and see if others have thoughts to add.
Language skills. If you want to work on Indian or South Asian philosophy more generally as main area of research, you need language skills. You should start on this as early as possible (if you haven’t before the PhD) and find as many opportunities to read in those languages as you can.
Don’t neglect reading beyond śāstra texts. Not only does reading kāvya and other genres improve your language skills, you are entering into the world of these thinkers by doing so. They aren’t writing in a vacuum.
Summer programs, both for language-learning and reading workshops, are an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in these efforts.
If you do not acquire proficiency in the languages of the texts you are reading (Pāli, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc.) you will be limited to engaging with secondary material and texts in translation, which essentially limits you to doing an AOC rather than an AOS.
Mentors. Unlike Anglo-European philosophy, which is represented broadly in philosophy programs in the English-speaking world (and, frankly, beyond), at most graduate programs, you will be lucky to find more than one person working in Indian philosophy. It is essential that you find mentors beyond them, not only pragmatically (for recommendation letters) but also philosophically.
Example: suppose you want to work on philosophy of mind in Buddhism. Even if you are at a program where this is someone’s main area of research, it is important to understand the broader context of, say, Dharmakīrti. This would mean understanding Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā contributions, at the least.
Even the most well-rounded philosopher has limitations and their own perspective. You want to ensure you are entering into the broader conversation in the field, and not only taking on your advisor’s perspective (even if you ultimately agree with them!).
Community. Studying in a program where the tradition is mainly Anglo-European can be lonely. As well, if your approach is historical rather than analytic (or the reverse), this can add to the sense of disconnect with other people’s projects. It’s important to find people that support your work, and to support them, too.
Not all professors in your program may find Indian philosophy valuable. You can expect responses to your work to range from benign indifference to ignorance to active hostility (the latter is, I hope, increasingly rare). The same is true for other graduate students.
Being a good contributor to philosophy more broadly in your department can help–actively supporting your fellow graduate students and attending talks can demonstrate you’re not “only” an “Indian philosopher” but a philosopher more generally.
If there is a South Asian Studies or Religion program at your university, you may find fellow travelers there, who are philosophically-minded, or who are interested in your work from different angles.
Research skills and norms. Lastly, depending on your program and advisor (and your own background), you may have to work hard to learn scholarly norms governing Indian philosophy. You will need to learn where to find texts (SARIT, GRETIL, and various online repositories, unofficial and official) and how to engage with the wide range of sources (philological, historical, philosophical) that you need do Indian philosophy.
The Indology website is a good starting point for learning some of this. Look as well at online blogs for exemplars and discussions of good research.
Look at publications in well-regarded journals for their use of sources, transliteration styles, bibliographies, and so on. Try reading not just for content (arguments, claims) but for structure and method.
Ask your advisor and other mentors to describe their research process to you–they may assume you already know how to compare printed editions, how to find and evaluate secondary material, and so on. However, this process is not always explicitly taught, despite its being important to historically-grounded work (whether your methodology is “history of philosophy,” “fusion philosophy,” “comparative philosophy,” and so on).
Balance. Finally, unlike the comic strip at the top, I think it’s important to find a balance of academic and non-academic focus. You may think that, with having to learn new languages, keep up to date in multiple areas of research, teaching classes, attending talks, etc., you don’t have time for hobbies or rest (or your family, if you have one!). The pressure in graduate school is immense. But in my opinion, it’s important to find time to do things which are not related to your work. Read some fiction. Take some hikes. Play with your dog or cat. Meet people outside of academia. Your mental health (and your work) will benefit from it.
I demonstrated last time why Buddhaghosa believes the ultimate (paramattha) to be higher and truer than the conventional (vohāra or sammuti). But this is not to say that he finds the conventional unnecessary. Charles Hallisey rightly points out its value in his important “In defense of rather fragile and local achievement“. Hallisey notes that the conventional is essential for pedagogical purposes, and those purposes matter. The conventional is at least as important as the ultimate – but the ultimate, as I noted last time, remains truer. If it were not truer, there would be no need for it; the conventional would simply be superior, since it is more effective at teaching and persuading people.
In The Forerunner of All Things – a generally strong book of which I stand by my previous praise – Maria Heim claims that in that same article Hallisey argues “the Theravādins do not see ultimate (paramattha) teachings as truer than conventional (sammuti) teachings”, following this up with her own comment that “They have different purposes but are equally truthful ways of describing the world, and the Theravāda sources do not place them in a hierarchy.” (Forerunner 90)
But that is not quite what Hallisey says in the chapter at issue. He does observe Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Kathāvatthu as “a use of these labels which considers the conventional and absolute not as hierarchically ranked, but only as separate and contrasted.” (128) The Kathāvatthu commentary (in the Puggalakathā section) says “whether [Buddhas] use conventional speech or absolute speech, they speak what is true, what is factual, not false.” (Hallisey 129) But two things need to be said about Hallisey’s observation in this passage.
First, both Hallisey’s translation and the original Pali cast strong doubt on Ram-Prasad and Heim’s claim that “Unlike some Indian Buddhist traditions that take these to refer to truths or ‘levels’ of truth, Buddhaghosa takes sammuti and paramattha to refer to two modes of teachings (kathā) or language (bhāsā); he does not rank them in their descriptive accuracy.” (1106) Hallisey translates the relevant passage for this claim as:
The Perfectly Enlightened One, the best of teachers, spoke two truths [duve saccāni], that is, the customary and the absolute – one does not come across a third; a customary statement is true because of convention and an absolute statement is true since it is about the real characteristics of things [dhammānaṃ tathalakkhaṇa]. (Kathāvatthu Aṭṭhakathā 34)
Here, note, Buddhaghosa indeed uses sammuti and paramattha to describe two saccas, two truths, not merely different modes of teachings or language – though they are both indeed true. And the truth of paramattha is because it is dhammānaṃ tathalakkhaṇa, which Hallisey renders “about the real characteristics of things” (dhammas).
Second, on the next page Hallisey notes that the “contrastive treatment of conventional and absolute truth” in the Kathāvatthu commentary “does not, however, preclude a hierarchical ordering. It leaves open the possibility that conventional and absolute teaching could be integrated in a hierarchy.” (130) And Hallisey then proceeds to quote another passage, this time from the commentary to the Aṅguttara Nikāya, in which Buddhaghosa proceeds to do exactly that. The passage maps sammuti and paramattha onto the hermeneutical distinction between texts with a direct meaning (nītattha) and those which need further specification (neyyattha). It argues that when in a sutta the Buddha is said to speak of a person,
its sense has to be inferred since there is no individual in the absolute sense (paramattho). But a person because of his folly may take this as a sutta of direct meaning and would argue that the Tathagata would not have said “there is one individual, O monks” etc. unless a person existed in the absolute sense. (translated in Hallisey 130)
And so, Hallisey argues:
Although Buddhaghosa accepts both indirect and direct teaching as valid, he emphasizes here the danger of taking indirect teaching independently from direct teaching. This could result in a confusion of the two, with conventional teaching wrongly taken as an equal to absolute teaching. With this as a possibility, it is inadequate only to separate and contrast the conventional and the absolute. Once they are connected, absolute teaching may serve as a constraint, and if necessary a corrective, against the confusion which the conventional itself is unable to check. Thus knowledge of absolute teaching contributes to knowledge and mastery of the conventional, but not vice versa. (131, emphasis added)
The ultimate can correct the conventional; the reverse is not true. It is wrong to take conventional as equal to the ultimate. Hallisey’s interpretation seems to me on the whole to be harmonious with the passages quoted from the Visuddhimagga in this and previous discussions. Conventional truth is indeed mere (matta), and it is that because its truth is of a sort that is merely pedagogically helpful; it needs to be corrected by a further, absolute, ultimate truth which is about the real characteristics (tatthalakkhana) of dhammas. That ultimate truth in turn does not need to be corrected by the conventional, and it is in this sense that the conventional remains mere, lesser.
It matters that Hallisey is referring to Buddhaghosa’s aṭṭhakathās – his commentaries on sutta and abhidhamma texts – rather than to his magnum opus the Visuddhimagga, which is the subject of Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article. One could plausibly find text-critical grounds to object that these texts had different authors. But Heim, at least, explicitly rejects such a move in Forerunner, seeking to treat the works attributed to Buddhaghosa as a unity. I approve of her approach there, and so I stand by the claim that Buddhaghosa views sammuti as lesser than paramattha.