Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Silmarillion / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977

The Silmarillion has a bad reputation.  After a spike in the popularity on American college campuses of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, his readers were eager for a similar work.  When they discovered that Tolkien's unpublished stories were consciously not in a traditional novelistic form, they largely turned their backs on them -- not just The Silmarillion, but all of his remaining unpublished works.  In the years following the publication of The Silmarillion, one could easily find copies of it in used bookstores.  This is all too bad, since there is much to appreciate in The Silmarillion, if one does not expect it to be like The Lord of the Rings.

The volume is composed of five works: "Ainulindale," "Valaquenta," Quenta Silmarillion, "Akallabeth," and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age." "Ainulindale" is and account of the work of Eru, the One, called "Iluvatar" by the Elves.  Eru created everything. First among his creations were the Ainur (or more specifically, the Valar), god-like beings that remind one of the Olympian gods.  Tolkien describes their primary activity as the making of music, which is disrupted by the dissonance of one of the Ainur, Melkor, because of his pride.  Later, the music of the Valar takes on a new ontological form as Ea, the material universe and Arda, the world in which all of Tolkien's stories are set.  Included as a region of Arda is Middle Earth.  The tone of all of this is rather like The Book of Genesis. Never does Tolkien establish what one might consider a novelistic plot or characters of any substance.  What story line that can be found, is based on the rebellion of Melkor.  Upon my first reading, I was thrilled by the depth and majesty of the work and fascinated by its theological undertones, but like so many other readers, I was hoping that the remainder of the work would be more like The Lord of the Rings.

The second work in the volume, "Valaquenta," seems more like a snippet from an encyclopedia, providing entries on the Ainur: the Valar mentioned above and the Maia a demi-god like being.  Ther is also an entry on "the Enemies," including Melkor and Sauron, a Maia of The Lord of the Rings.  There is no doubt value here, but because the roles of the Valar and the Maia are not great in the remainder of the volume, the detail we find here is rather unnecessary for the whole.  We do get, however, a deeper understanding of the powers of the world that the Valar represent and so have a better sense of the cosmology within which the stories of the "Childern of Iluvatar" (elves and men) unfold.  Those stories are told in the three subsequent works in the volume.

The Quenta Silmarillion is the longest and most complex work in the volume.  It is a history of the First Age of the world in which the actions of the elves are of greatest import.  Elves are the "first born" of the Children of Iluvatar, discovered first by Melkor who had taken refuge in Middle Earth. Their fate was decided by a war between Melkor and the other Ainur, the outcome of which was the defeat of Melkor and his imprisonment for three ages.  Following the war, the Ainur invited the elves to come to Aman, "the Undying Lands" to live forever in peace and under the protection of the Ainur.  Three ambassadors were chose from the elves to receive the summons, Ingwe, Finwe, Elwe.  Each became a king of a portion of the elves and each encouraged their subjects to travel across the sea to the join the Ainur.  However, not all of them made the journey.

Perhaps the most gripping story in the Quenta Silmarillion is that of the "Flight of the Elves."  While in the Undying Lands, one elf, Feanor, son of Finwe, made three precious jewels that contained a sacred light.  He called the jewels "the silmarils."  They were, however, stolen from him and taken to Middle Earth by Melkor who had finished his time in prison.  In his pride and lust for the silmarils, Feanor and all his sons made a vow to recover them and treat anyone who withheld the silmarils from them as an enemy.  His decision to return to Middle Earth was opposed by the Valar, who declared that Feanor and any elf that left the Undying Lands with him could not return.  Feanor's pride led him to disregard the decree and he journeyed to Middle Earth.  Shockingly, his departure involved a civil war among the elves in which elves killed elves, forever staining their history.  In the end, Feanor and his followers made it to Middle Earth.  The remainder of the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of their struggle against Melkor to regain the silmarils.

Many of the stories told of that struggle contain thrilling details, but by and large they are schematic, outlining the broad history of the elves in Middle Earth.  The most well developed stories have been published in other works by Tolkien's son Christopher as part of the series of volumes entitled The History of Middle Earth and in one instance as a separate book, The Children of Hurin.  In all, the Quenta Silmarillion truly demonstrates Tolkien's expansive imagination.  If one is fascinated by the complexity and extent of his vision in The Lord of the Rings, one should be absolutely overawed by what he has given us in the Quenta Silmarillion.  Unfortunately, the idiom in which he has chose to write has not attracted the audience it deserves.  To truly appreciate the value of the work, one must give it more than a single reading.  I'm sure very few people have been so committed to understanding Tolkien's vision as to do this.

As if the Quenta Silmarillion were not enough to establish the majesty of his vision, Tolkien provides us with accounts of the Second and Third Ages of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion.  The Second Age is an account of the history of men, particularly the race of men called the Numenoreans, following the defeat of Melkor which ends the First Age.  During the Second Age, the evil of Melkor is carried on by his surviving vassal, Sauron.  Deceived by Sauron, men are induced to attack the Valar in the Undying Lands, which unsurprisingly brings about their destruction, with the exception of a dissident group, loyal to the Valar.

The final work in The Silmarillion is "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age."  This tells the story of the creation of the rings of power by Sauron and ultimate the War of the Last Alliance in which men and elves defeated Sauron and in which the prince of the Numenoreans, Isildur acquired the one ring of power, only to lose it when ambushed by orcs.  It is with the end of this last work that we are finally brought up to the time of Tolkien's more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Undoubtedly, The Silmarillion is not everyone's cup of tea, but for anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings, the stories and history it holds give depth and meaning to that world.  It may take two or more readings to become clear about the various events and numerous figures in the legendarium, but once one has this, Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, and all the rest of Tolkien's familiar characters can be seen in the supremely heroic light that the author envisioned for them.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell / J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Several years ago, I heard a rumor that a translation by Tolkien of Beowulf was found in his papers and that an eminent Tolkien scholar was working on editing it for publication.  Later, I heard that the scholar had abandoned the task.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find Tolkien's translation of Beowulf on sale at my campus bookstore, edited by Tolkien's son, Christopher.  Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf and Beowulf scholarship is legendary.  In 1936, he published an influential study of the entitled, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  More than anything, that study elevated the reputation of Beowulf to the preeminent literary status that it has today.  Prior to that, Beowulf was seen mostly as a hotch-potch of story fragments which W.P. Ker described as putting peripheral matters at the center and central matters at the periphery.  According to Tolkien, the tangential narratives and allusions to other histories and legends lent depth and context to the story and that the centrality of the monsters (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon) and how they were treated by the author offered an important insight into the poem and its telling.  For example, the reference to Grendel as being of the race of Cain and the connection between the dragon and Satan showed that Beowulf was neither fully a pagan epic nor a Christian homily.  Instead, it was a retelling of an earlier pagan legend by a Christian author.  The author's Christian world view could not help but make him (or her?) include a Christian slant on the drama.

It is clear that Tolkien's understanding of Beowulf is first rate if not second to none and so his edition of the poem can not be ignored.  Tolkien was also the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and so his mastery of Old English verse is also of the first order.  At one time in his life he wrote a poem entitled The Fall of Arthur in the alliterative verse form of Old English.  This form is composed of verses made up of two phrases each usually made up of two stressed and two unstressed units of the form:  x / x / | x / x /.   The alliteration occurs when the third stressed unit is the same sound as the sound of the fist stressed unit and sometimes also the second unit.  For example: "the Geat prince went / for Grendel's mother" or "funeral fires / fumes of wood smoke."  Of course, every line in Old English meter is not slavishly fitted to these forms, but any attempt to capture the sound of the Old English poetry would tend to follow these patterns.  Tolkien, however, chose not to write his edition of Beowulf in verse.  Instead, the narrative is presented in prose.  This permits him to more easily capture the meaning of the poem since he is able to choose Modern English expressions that do not alliterate, but what is lost in poetry is gained in semantic accuracy.  At the same time Tolkien's rendition of the story is colored by his sense of drama.  His diction and word order make the work suitably archaic and often quite stirring.  Anyone with an appreciation for his prose will thoroughly enjoy his rendition.

In addition to the rendition of the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien has included a commentary on the text that was taken from Tolkien's lecture notes.  The commentary is nearly twice the length of the poem and this more than anything will provide the reader with deep insight into the poem and to the pagan times about which the poem is written.  For example, Tolkien explains the passage, "Leave here our warlike shields" with the annotation: "Note the prohibition of weapons or accoutrements of battle in the hall.  to walk in with spear and shield was like walking in nowadays with your hat on.  The basis of these rules was of course fear and prudence amid the ever-present dangers of an heroic age, but they were made part of the ritual, of good manners."  The annotation goes on further to point out that this custom was appropriate to a king's hall and that "It was death in Scandinavia to cause a brawl in a king's hall."

The presence of the commentary in the same volume as the rendition gives a reader three extremely attractive options:  (1)  Read the narrative strait through without reference to the commentary.  This allows you to best appreciate Tolkien's own literary techniques.  (2) Read the the commentary along with the narrative.  This provides you with a deep understanding of the story with Tolkien as your guide.  (3) Read the commentary alone.  This provides you with a fascinating study of Old English and the customs of pagan Northern Europe.  It's hard to decide which of these approaches is best.  Perhaps three readings of the work would be ideal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976

A few weeks ago, I watched the concluding film of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I was not disappointed, but only because I had seen the prior two films and had low expectations.  Jackson appears to have decided to make a set of films for an audience that loved his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but has not read The Hobbit.   In order not to allow the movies to confuse my recollections of the book, I decided to re-read The Hobbit for what was probably the fifth or sixth time.  Mind you, those readings were spread over a period of 44 years, though my last reading of it was only a few years ago, prior to Jackson's first Hobbit film.  Over the course of those decades, my experience of the book has changed little. 

For me, The Hobbit ranks first among light, "escapist" reading.  It's my literary "comfort food."  In contrast, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works provide us with more weighty themes.  Three characters are well-developed in The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and to a lesser extent Gandalf the Grey, but character development is not really the central virtue of the book.  Instead, The Hobbit takes us on a journey through a mysterious world which has horizons that are mainly limited to the scene of its action.  Certainly, there are hints of a wider world.  Much has been made of these hints by literary critics who ascribe the attraction of the novel to those hints.  Tolkien himself thought this, but in truth the hints are quite few.  Instead, the intimation of a wider, imaginary world is mostly a consequence of the non-human cast of characters.  If the characters are so different from us, then surely their world must be different.  No hints are really required for that.  What really makes the story endearing is that the reader understands Middle Earth's horizons to be much wider than what we see, but this world is one which is revealed to us only slowly and in the course of the journey.  This is analogous to a child's experience of his or her development to adulthood.

Following the story of The Hobbit along the journey to the Lonely Mountain, one begins in Bilbo's house.  Despite being built into the side of hill, Bilbo's house is familiar enough.  One can imagine the cozy fire, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of food.  Soon enough, Bilbo's world is disturbed by a company of dwarves.  As a child, this intrusion from the outside was not terribly different from the appearance (in real life and on television and radio) of people from the world outside of my family and immediate friends.  They produced both interest and anxiety.  Eventually, Bilbo sets out with the Dwarves and plunges into a world that he knows little about.  In the course of his "adventure," his horizons become wider and wider, encounter challenging environments, trolls, goblins, wolves, a shape-shifting bear-man, a dismal forest, elves, men, and finally the Lonely Mountain and its dragon.  Along the way, Bilbo progressively rises to the challenges he faces.

His first real challenge comes with his encounter with the trolls.  Here Bilbo succeeds only in the sense that he musters the courage to attempt to pick the pocket of one of the trolls.  His (and the dwarves') escape is arranged by the intervention of Gandalf.  Bilbo's second challenge comes with his game of riddles with Gollum.  Again his escape is less of his own doing than, luck.  By finding a ring that makes him invisible and accidently uttering a riddle that stumps Gollum, Bilbo manages to escape the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains.  It is really not until the travelers make it into Mirkwood (a dismal forest) that Bilbo really begins to discover his capabilities.  His defeat of the spiders that have captured the dwarves is mostly a product of his invisibility, but by now, the powers of the ring can be thought of as indistinguishable from Bilbo's own evolving resources.

Bilbo's maturity as an agent in the story really begins in full when he formulates a successful plan to free the dwarves from imprisonment in the caverns of the wood elves.  It is an elegant escape, but not without sacrifice to the dwarves.  The culmination of Bilbo's progress comes at the Lonely Mountain, when he rather willingly confronts the dragon Smaug.  Bilbo is now most certainly a formidable actor in the wild and dangerous world that had been far outside his horizons at the start of his journey, but his development is more than one of adult confidence.  In the final acts of the novel, Bilbo steps out of his role as someone having an adventure when he truly acts to shape the course of events by delivering the Arkenstone (a gem prized by Thorin Oakenshield) to the armies arrayed against the dwarves.  Far from betraying his friends, Bilbo's action creates the possibility of their salvation and indeed, results in the moral salvation of Thorin Oakenshield.

What we see in The Hobbit is Bilbo's development from a childish existence to a mature adult actor.  At the same time, his maturity does not completely lose touch with his simple persona.  When the War of the Five Armies breaks out at the very end of the action, Bilbo is struck on the head with a rock and misses the greater part of the battle.  Some things remain too large for the hobbit. 

Reading the story as a child, I was fascinated, indeed enchanted, by the unfolding mysterious world and thrilled by Biblo's capacity to rise to meet its challenges.  I found strength in the idea that someone so small and unheroic might succeed in his foray into the wider world. 

The two other characters that stand out in the novel are Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf.  Gandalf clearly serves as a parental figure, wiser than Bilbo, watching out for his safety, and guiding his steps.  Still, his failure to save Bilbo, the dwarves, and even himself from the wolves and goblins east of the Misty Mountains reveals both the dangers of the wider world and the limitations of those we must rely upon.  It is noteworthy that Biblo's developing maturity only becomes manifest when Gandalf leaves the adventure. 

Thorin's character development stands as a cautionary tale.  At first Thorin is a reasonably admirable, if flawed, adult character; but he is overcome by his greed and he leads the people for whom he is responsible into needless danger.  It is Bilbo's recognition of Thorin's failing that leads him to take the final step in his own development.   Bilbo's relationship with Thorin reminds us that in the end, one must be responsible for one's own actions and know when to depart from ostensible authority. 

Again, these character developments are not really the magic in the story -- at least not for me.  Instead, it is Tolkien's ability to posit a world unlike our own and show us only what a developing character can see along his journey.   The hints of the grand stories of Middle Earth told in The Silmarillion are not what makes The Hobbit exciting.  What gives the novel its power is the slow, but progressive revelation of a mysterious world that provides a model for one's own actual coming of age.  Reading it much later in life reminds me of those days when the wide, actual world (or should I say the "unimaginary world") seemed dark and mysterious, and where all that was familiar was closely bound in space, time, and culture.  Like no other book The Hobbit allows me to recapture that exciting sense of pending discovery.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

U.S. Support for Israeli Aggression

The news media (well, NPR, at least) has been covering the recent Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip, making me more and more unsettled.  Years ago, I was closely monitoring the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.  I even compiled a 200 page chronology of violence and its numerous resultant deaths.    I also served as the faculty advisor to a group of Palestinian students at State Cloud State University.  In 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army, the U.S. moved troops into Saudi Arabia and launched an invasion of Kuwait and then southern Iraq.  My pacifist principles motivated me to engage in an act of civil resistance by blocking entrance to a federal building the morning after the U.S. invasion.   My arrest (with about 30 other people) led to judicial proceedings that were eventually dropped “in the interest of justice,” according to the district attorney.  Nonetheless, the war, my arrest, and activities involved in mounting a defense, took an emotional toll on me, and I ended up scaling back the anti-imperialism, anti-war activism that had motivated me in years past.  Perhaps it is merely due to my current exposure to news reports, but Israel’s recent bombardment of the Gaza Strip has re-awakened my indignity over Israel’s violence or more to the point, U.S. support for Israeli violence.  It is ironic that the U.S. is considering greater sanctions against Russia for manufacturing the equipment that shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, while it manufactures the fighter planes that are killing Palestinian civilians and provides other military, intelligence, and diplomatic assistance to Israel.
The latest data I can find regarding the death toll in the conflict indicates that nearly 700 Palestinians have been killed.  A list of the names and ages indicate that those killed represent a broad swath of Palestinian society, men, women, infants, children, and the very aged. (See Thirty Israelis have been killed.  Two of the Israelis were civilians, most of the remainder were soldiers likely killed in the ground invasion.  At least one was killed by friendly fire. The hostility between these peoples is certainly driven by many factors, but surely the most potent factor is the death of friends and family members killed by the opposition.  In this instance, the responsibility for death falls overwhelmingly with the Israelis.  It does not take subtle analysis to understand that the main drivers of this animosity are the actions by the Israeli government in launching air strikes that they know full well will result in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. 

The justifications coming from Israel are that they are responding to threats to their people as any nation would and that they must degrade the Palestinian capacity to inflict harm on Israel.  Three things should be noted here.  First, the capacity of Palestinians to inflict harm on Israel is minimal, indeed, pathetic.  After weeks of rockets launched against Israel, there has been very little property damage and nearly no one killed by those rockets. Second, Israel’s claim to respond to threats as any other nation would ignores the fact that the Gaza Strip is occupied by Israel, and consequently, Israel has a legal responsibility to maintain normal life there.  I’m certain that if Israelis were expected to live under the conditions in the Gaza Strip they would not find this “normal life.”  Resistance to the occupation is of a very different moral character than cross-border aggression between independent states.  Third, Just War Theory requires that belligerents refrain from killing non-combatants and that retaliation be proportional to an assault.  The list of people killed by Israeli air strikes reveals that non-combatants make up a majority of the people killed by Israel and of course a ratio of more than 20-1 is hardly proportional.  It begs the question: “How many innocent people is Israel willing to kill in order to “protect” its population from Palestinian rockets that pose such a relatively weak threat?” Apparently hundreds are acceptable.  Are 1,000 innocent deaths acceptable?  Are 4,000 innocent deaths acceptable.  Is there no limit to the number of innocent people that Israel may kill to "protect" its citizens -- not from actual killings, but from the threat of killings?  As this number gets larger and larger, it becomes clear how little regard the Israeli government has for human life and how inflated its regard is for its own citizens’ lives.  Nationalism (if you buy into that) might justify a greater regard for the lives of one’s compatriots, but human decency sets limits.  Today, Israel’s government is devoid of human decency.

And now for the real reason I’m writing this:  U.S. support for Israel makes us complicit in the war crimes that are currently unfolding.  It is ironic that the U.S. is considering greater sanction against Russia for having manufactured the rocket which destroyed a Malaysian airliner when Israel is employing jets made in the U.S. that are killing a much greater number of people.  We must call upon our government to end its historic support for the Israeli government and recognize that it – as having the most powerful military in the region – bears the primary responsibility for the situation within its borders and the territories it occupies (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip).  We must call upon our government to stop supporting the purveyors of violence and insist that they reach an agreement with the Palestinians that recognizes the basic human rights of the Palestinians.

Having written all this, I must acknowledge that U.S. complicity in the war crimes currently being committed by Israel is but one of many acts of complicity – along with acts for which the U.S. is directly responsible – that are causing great suffering and death around the world.  By singling out the war crimes that are being committed by Israel, I do not mean to diminish our responsibilities for the events and conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, where our political, economic, and military aid is causing suffering and supporting oppressive governments. 
Once upon a time, U.S. support for Israel was the point of the spear of U.S. imperialism.  With the invasion and occupation of numerous states in the Middle East in the past two decades, Israel’s unique role changed, but as the U.S. presence is declining in the Middle East, its relationship with Israel is returning to its past condition, and we are called upon to raise our voices to try to reverse our country’s reprehensible influence in the region.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why the Silence?

It has been quite some time since I posted an entry to this blog.  So I thought I'd provide an explanation to the curious.  I have been on professional leave (a.k.a. sabbatical) for a few months working on a book on Indian Buddhism.  It has meant that I have not spent time reviewing the books I am reading, since what I am drawing from them presumably will appear in the book.  For fuller disclosure, I'm appending below the draft preface for the book.

About a year ago, I was having lunch with a co-worker and the topic of Buddhism came up.  She told me that she really didn’t know much about Buddhism, just that is was a very peaceful religion.  I was tempted to give her a quick tutorial on some of Buddhism’s main ideas, but decided it would be too pedantic for a lunch conversation.  I simply agreed with her and mentioned that I had a long standing interest in Buddhism.  She seemed to want me to say at least something about Buddhism, but by then I had made my decision not to say anything of substance.  In retrospect, I think I was a little worried that by speaking extemporaneously, I wouldn’t give her a very clear or even sufficiently accurate account of Buddhism.  In any case, I subsequently began thinking about what I might say had I had time to formulate my thoughts. 

A few weeks later, I started sketching an outline of Buddhism’s main ideas and thinking about writing a short essay for people like my co-worker.  The sketch of the “short essay” soon began looking like several short essays and maybe even a book.  I doubt that my co-worker really would want to read such a thing, but the idea of putting my understanding of Buddhism in writing began to take over my thoughts.  Finding time to do this would be difficult.  Thankfully, with the support of my immediate supervisors and the Dean of Libraries at my university, I was awarded a professional leave of absence to take on the project. 

It has been more than forty years since I first read a book on Buddhism.  It was Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys.  I was about 15 years old and had recently been confirmed into my mother’s Lutheran Church, but within less than a year of my confirmation, my scientific frame of mind had led me to reject the empirical claims in the Old Testament and to recognize the untestability of Christianity’s theological claims.  Only Christian morality seemed attractive anymore.  Nonetheless, my rather philosophical disposition brought me to wonder about other religions.  By chance, Christmas Humphreys’s book was available on my father’s bookshelf.  Reading it was a most rewarding experience.  Here was a “religion” that seemed to rely on neither speculative theology nor dubious empirical claims, and most of all, it addressed in a clear and rational way two questions that were important to me:  what is the world ultimately like and how can I live a virtuous life?  Perhaps more importantly, it provided me with a prescription on how to reduce the normal adolescent discontent that I was experiencing. 
Since then I have read widely on the topic, and Buddhism’s insights have helped me navigate some rather difficult times.  During college and graduate school, I began picking up books on Buddhism at used bookstores, selecting ones that seemed reasonably scholarly and which had some clear connection to my developing understanding of Buddhism.  Consequently, the foundation of my understanding lies in works published in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly 1960-1980. The authors that had the greatest influence on me were Edward Conze and D.T. Suzuki who ignited in me a strong interest in Zen.  Around 1990, I came across T.R.V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.  I was mightily impressed, mainly because of its effort to connect Buddhism to Western philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant for whom I had and still have a strong affinity.  Murti’s book redirected my interest away from East Asian Buddhism.  Indian Buddhism now had become my primary interest.  With this grounding, I went on to read English translations of a number of sūtras and abhidharma texts that turned up in used bookstores.  The Prajñāpāramitā literature was of special interest.  

Off and on, I have called myself a Buddhist, but as I have had no formal training in Buddhism and never belonged to a Buddhist community, calling myself a Buddhist always seemed a little pretentious.   Nonetheless, I now find that I know more about Buddhism than I know about the Christianity.  Furthermore, I find that the central insights of Buddhism have become deeply ingrained in how I think and behave in the world.  In that sense, I guess I am a self-taught Buddhist or perhaps more accurately, my teachers have been the authors I have read, and my Buddhist community has been people with Buddhist dispositions, whether they knew these dispositions were Buddhist or not.

At the same time, I am a philosopher in the Anglo-American, analytic tradition.  My Ph.D. dissertation dealt with contemporary Western political philosophy, and over the course of twelve years, I taught philosophy at one college and two universities, specializing in Moral Theory, the Philosophy of Law, and, of course, Political Philosophy.  I also had an abiding interest in Epistemology and Metaphysics, particularly the justification of moral claims and the concept of personhood – admittedly a rather wide ranging set of interests; too many to be much of an expert on anything.

Often, I found the ideas that I encountered and taught were similar to ideas that appear in the Buddhist tradition, but I never made any serious attempt to describe those similarities nor did I ever bring them into my classrooms.  My hope, with this work, is that I will be able to show how several important Buddhist ideas are akin to venerable ideas of the Western philosophical tradition.  Too often I hear Western philosophers dismiss Eastern philosophy as wooly-minded speculation.  Too often I hear devotees of Eastern philosophies dismiss Western philosophy as vain, irrelevant, and superficial.  I suspect that both are speaking mainly out of ignorance.  If I my work can undermine those prejudices, even a little, I will consider it a success.

This work will attempt to reach an educated general audience.  It will also restrict the number of footnotes to the sources upon which it is based.  I do this both to facilitate a more fluid reading experience and because it is not always clear to me what should be considered the generally accepted facts about Buddhism and what is controversial enough to deserve citation.  Instead, I will provide an annotated bibliography of the works that have been important to the writing of this work and I encourage the reader to explore these works in their own way.  I trust that after decades of reading, what has stuck in my brain is likely to be those views that I have encountered on numerous occasions and therefore are established reasonably well, at least in the English language literature.  My lack of ability to read Sanskrit, Pāli, Chinese, Japanese, or Tibetan is, of course, a great weakness in my ability to sort out the truth in any other way than this regrettably casual method.  I will, however, make use of a number of foreign language terms throughout the text.  After all, they are commonly imbedded in the English language texts and translations that form the basis of this work.  English works on Buddhism often make use of Sanskrit and Pāli terminology, and the use of diacritical marks is not always consistent from one author to another.  So for the sake of consistency, I will employ Sanskrit terms whenever they are available and I will use The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. as my authority on spelling, capitalization, and diacritics with The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion edited by Stephan Schuhmacher and Gert Woerner as a secondary resource.  There will, of course, be instances when I fail to follow this practice, but hopefully, they will be limited.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy / Edward Conze -- Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press, 1970

Edward Conze is among the most important Western commentators on Buddhism.  He is particularly important for his translation of the Prājñapāramitā-sūtra or The Perfect of Wisdom which exists in three versions of 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines.  The Prājñapāramitā-sūtra is important to the Mahāyāna tradition and especially the Mādhyamaka school.  T.R.V. Murti has called the Mādhyamaka the "central" philosophy of Buddhism, and no doubt it played a very important role in the advance of Buddhism from its early Abhidharma period to the more inclusive Mahāyāna phase; but Conze's career and understanding of Buddhism is not limited to this particular tradition and he demonstrates his broad understanding in Buddhist Thought in India.

Early on, Conze virtually apologizes for writing Buddhist Thought in India citing Theodore Stcherbatsky's monumental work Buddhist Logic.  According to Conze, Stcherbatsky has already covered Conze's topic in much greater detail and at much greater length than Conze can provide, but Conze is being overly modest here.  While Stcherbatsky's work is brilliant and covers much of what is ing Buddhist Thought in India, the latter work provides a clear and concise explanation of topics that Stcherbatsky struggles to communicate.  Stcherbatsky's work focuses mainly on the philosophy of three late period philosophers:  Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, and Dharmottara.  In contrast, Conze covers the entire sweep of Indian Buddhism.

Buddhist Thought in India is divided into three large parts covering Archaic Buddhism, Sthavira Buddhism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism.  His treatments are evenhanded and respectful of each tradition.  He describes both the historical developments that lead to each of these successive periods and explains the critical concepts that characterized them.  According to Conze, Archaic Buddhism, i.e, the Buddhism of Buddha and his immediate successors, can be recognized by what is accepted by all (or most all) subsequent traditions, e.g., the impermanence of all things, the ubiquity of suffering, and the doctrine of no-self.  His treatment of these and other important Buddhist concepts provide the reader with an excellent summary of the main tenets of Buddhism.

In the Sthavira phase of Buddhism, a number of disagreements arose over the interpretation of the main tenets.  This led to a period of highly sophisticated philosophical debate in which the "abhidharma" or higher learning animated numerous Buddhists schools.  Conze's treatment of these debates is good.  Among them is the challenge by the heterodox Pudgalavādan school that asserted the existence of persons, virtually rejecting the doctrine of no-self.  Conze also explores various views of impermanence and especially causation, but also the nature of space, nirvana, enlightened beings, and path to salvation.

It is in the section on Mahāyāna Buddhism that Conze really shows his expertise.  He treats Mahāyāna's three main schools with clarity and precision:  Mādhyamaka, Yogācāra, and the School of Logic.  The first of these schools presents a stark break from the Sthavira tradition, leveling powerful criticisms of its philosophical positions and opening up Buddhism to a more popular following.  In a more positive vein, the Yogācāra school advanced clear alternatives to the Sthavira tradition, sometimes disregarding the arguments of the Mādhyamikas.  Finally, the School of Logic applied extraordinary scrutiny to the basic Buddhist concepts to bring Buddhism to its highest philosophical pitch.  The work of the Logicians is far more completely explained by Stcherbatsky in his Buddhist Logic.

Among the larger arguments presented by Conze in this work is that when trying to understand Buddhism, one should not be fooled into thinking it is a purely rational philosophy that is compatible with modern science.  According to Conze, Buddhism is unquestionably a religion with the goal of saving the world from suffering.  It's empirical and metaphysical positions reach beyond the narrow scope of modern science and to leave out these elements misses its most important contribution to the world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction / Richard H. Robinson -- Belmont, Cal.: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1970

Richard Robinson's short history The Buddhist Religion is a mixture of facts about the rise and fall of various schools of Buddhism and some of the main tenets of their faiths.  It is, unfortunately, not as detailed as one might like on the latter score.   Two short chapters -- one introductory and one concluding -- describe the current state and potential future of Buddhism, but the bulk of the book examines Buddhism from its origin with the Buddha to roughly the second millennium C.E.  Twenty-six pages are devoted to Buddhism during the life of the Buddha, forty-three are devoted to Buddhism in India, and thirty-five are devoted to Buddhism outside of India.  What we know of the life of the Buddha is, of course, colored by myth and legend.  Robinson is not shy to recount many of these.  Of the later two topics, much of the work describes various religious beliefs, including celestial bodhisattvas, celestial buddhas, and the magical beliefs, particularly of Tantric Buddhism.  Consequently, his title, The Buddhist Religion is appropriate. Anyone looking for a history of Buddhist philosophy should go elsewhere.

His treatment of the rise and fall of various schools is worthwhile, though.  The reader gets a fairly clear outline of Buddhism's genealogy, but again, there is scant  treatment (not to say no treatment) of the details of the doctrinal disagreements that led to various schisms.  His treatment of the ideas characteristic of Buddhism outside of India is especially weak.  One is presented instead with brief descriptions (in the style of biographical reference book entries) of important Buddhists in China and Japan.  More print is devoted to the political fortunes of these figures than their doctrines.  The treatment of Buddhism in Southeast Asia is even more cursory.

Robinson provides no bibliographic footnotes to his work, and only a few textual notes.  The reader must be content with a list of "selected readings."  No doubt, the selection is good and the list is not short, but anyone looking to confirm some bit of information or expand one's understanding of a topic is not well served by it.  Robinson does provide a clearly organized list of Buddhist scriptures for the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan canons.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I / Surendranath Dasgupta -- Chapter V: Buddhist Philosophy -- Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1922

In 1922, the young Indian scholar Surendranath Dasgupta published the first volume of what would become a five volume history of Indian philosophy.  It is a magisterial, encyclopedic work.  Chapter Five is a noteworthy summary of Buddhist philosophy in India, substantial in both length and depth.

Dasgupta begins the work as one might expect, describing the state of philosophy in India just before the time of the Buddha, recounting the legends associated with the life of the Buddha, and outlining the literature of the early period of the Buddhist tradition, but he quickly moves on to a more substantive treatment of Buddhist philosophy, detailing a wide variety of doctrines held by numerous schools.  At first he provides a general account of a number of concepts that are central to the early schools of Buddhism, e.g., causation, consciousness, rebirth, the khandas (Sk: skandhas), theories of matter and sense contact, morality, meditation, kamma (Sk: kharma), and nibbana (Sk: nirvana), providing rather mainstream interpretations.  He goes on, though, to indicate how various schools have reinterpreted these ideas.  Later, Dasgupta takes up the contributions of the Mahayana schools -- Madhyamaka and Yogacara -- and ultimately takes up the views of the Sautrantikas.

The work is an excellent overview of Buddhist philosophy; however, the reader might be somewhat puzzled by its organization.  It is not always clear which views are being attributed to which schools and which views are taken to be shared by numerous schools.  It is notable that his treatment of Madhyamaka was written before the work of Fyodor Stcherbatsky and T.V.R. Murti.  Consequently, he takes the Madhyamikas to be nihilists and does not provide the more sophisticated account of sunyata (emptiness) that characterizes later works on Buddhism. 

Regardless of its shortcomings, Chapter Five of A History of Indian Philosophy is an extremely valuable treatment of Buddhist philosophy which can serve both as an encyclopedic reference source and a valuable continuous text.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna / Andrew P. Tuck -- N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1990

Understanding an alien tradition poses enormous obstacles. Many concepts that one takes for granted from one's own tradition turn out to be culturally specific, even ones that seem so fundamental to one's understanding of a subject that we think that they surely must be universal. Nonetheless, if we are to gain a cosmopolitan understanding, we must do what we can to understand what falls outside of our established world views. Success is always partial and it requires long and arduous study or total immersion in the alien culture.

In Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship Andrew Tuck illustrates the changing fashions among Western scholars in their attempts to understand Indian Buddhist philosophy, particularly the views of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school that Nagarjuna is said to have founded. Tuck distinguishes three phases in the Western interpretation of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school: German idealism, Anglo-American analysis, and post-Wittgensteinian linguistic functionalism. Previously understood as little more than nihilism, serious study of the Madyamaka school did not begin until the 20th century. A landmark in this development was Fyodor Stcherbatsky's book Buddhist Logic which agreed on the illusory nature of the empirical world, but did not reject the reality of a transcendent world of the thing-in-itself. By this, Stcherbatsky advanced a distinctly Kantian conception of Buddhism which recognized the apparent duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal. The approach is further developed by T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.

As the idealist view of Nagarjuna was coming to maturity, Western philosophers were beginning to abandon idealism and speculative philosophy in general. Instead, the techniques of logical analysis of Anglo-American philosophy were gaining prominence and a number of Nagarjuna's Western interpreters were employing these techniques to understanding his work. According to Tuck, Richard Robinson is foremost in this movement. Given Nagarjuna's criticism of competing philosophical views and the nearly syllogistic passages in his works, it is no wonder that the techniques of the logician would be applied. During this period of interpretation, Nagarjuna's tetralemma [neither A, ~A, A&~A, nor ~(A&~A)] became the focus of study. Nagarjuna's primary project was taken to be refuting all competing philosophical positions, thus rendering all conceptions of "own being" meaningless. According to Robinson, Nagarjuna failed in this project, but in any case, the approach to Nagarjuna's work was analytic, not speculative.

The final phase of interpretation came after the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to the post-Wittgensteinian philosophers, Nagarjuna's task was pursued via a careful examination of the function of language, not its mere logical relations. Here a pragmatic, soteriological enterprise was afoot. Nagarjuna was showing his contemproaries how the fly might escape the fly bottle.

Tuck does not endorse any of these readings of (or approaches to reading) Nagarjuna. He merely seeks to show how the philosophical dispositions of Western philosophers have influenced the understanding of Nagarjuna. His work is in its detail interesting, but the larger point seems trivial. He does, however, seem to imply a more significant point.  Beyond merely observing that interpretations of alien traditions necessarily are shaped by the assumptions of the interpreting culture, Tuck seems to suggest that while no prior cultural assumptions are better or worse than another, each can generate a new and interesting mixture of ideas that will illuminate and advance human understanding.

Wei Shih Er Shih Lun or The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas on Representation-Only / Vasubandhu -- Clarence H. Hamilton, trans. -- New Haven, Conn: American Oriental Society, 1938

Over the long history of Buddhism, many schools of thought developed.  Precisely when one school or another appeared is usually controversial. So it should come as no surprise that establishing the date of the foundation of the Yogacara school is controversial.  It is believed that the school was founded by two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu.  According to Louis de La Vallee Poussin, the brothers lived during the early 4th century.  Other scholars place them in the latter half of the 5th century.  In either case, their school of thought is among the last to develop in India.

Vasubandhu is deemed responsible for two treatises that present the central ideas of the Yogacara school:  the Viṃśatikā-vijñaptimātratāsiddhi and the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratāsiddhi.  These Sanskrit texts are now lost to  us, but both were translated into Chinese numerous times.  From these translations we now have English versions:  The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas on Representation-Only and The Treatise in Thirty Stanzas on Representation-Only respectively.  The edition of the Viṃśatikā reviewed here contains both the Chinese translation by Hsuan Tsang and the English version by Clarance Hamilton.

The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas defends Yogacara doctrines primarily by addressing critiques advanced by other Buddhist schools, thus clearing the way for the acceptance of the Yogacara doctrines.  It is in The Treatise in Thirty Stanzas that Vasubandhu presents a fuller, positive treatment of his thinking.  The central doctrine which Vasubandhu seeks to make tenable is that all that exists is, according to Hamilton's translation, is "representation."  Others translate "representation" as "thought," "mind," "consciousness," or "discernment."  The Yogacara view has often been described as a form of idealism. 

Most broadly speaking, Vasubandhu frames his arguments by considering the relationship between objects of representation, representations, and the ego to which objects are represented.  Of these, only representations are real.  Vasubandhu argues against the Sarvastivadin view that both objects and representations are real, against the Madyamikan view that both objects and representations are equally unreal, and against the Sautrantikan view that representations are merely modes of mental functioning. 

The main target of his arguments are the objections of realists, i.e., those who posit an objective world, independent of thought.  As nearly all Buddhists deny the existence of the self, a refutation of the ego to which objects are represented isn't necessary.  To refute the objections of the realist's, Vasubandhu attempts to show that his idealism can explain adequately that (1) sense objects (representations) can be fixed in space and time, (2) they can be shared in a publicly among numerous steams of consciousness, and (3) they can have a practical function. 

In a more positive attack on realism, Vasubandhu argues that the elements that might make up an objective world are insubstantial.  Of course this view could be extended to the representations that Vasubandhu asserts are real.  His defense against the insubstantiality of objects and representations relies upon the distinction between ordinary cognition and the cognition of an enlightened being.  Ordinary cognizers might easily reject the substantiality of representations and adopt a kind of nihilism; however, a fully enlightened cognizer will recognize a supramundane realm of elements.  By availing himself of this supramundane reality that is intuited only by the enlightened, Vasubandhu comes down squarely in the camp of mysticism.  This is not meant as a refutation of his views, but merely that the methods of ordinary perception and reason are not sufficient to reveal absolute truth.  To discover this, one must adopt the yogic practice that leads to transcendent knowledge; hence, his school of thought is called "Yogacara."