Pages

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The History of Chess in Fifty Moves / Bill Price -- Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2015

There are numerous books outlining the history of Chess.  Some are short and simple and others are more extensive, particularly Murray's magisterial The History of Chess.  Published in 1913, it is a comprehensive tome.  Bill Price's contribution to this literature is not particularly remarkable, but certainly serviceable.  Anyone looking for an initial, readable tour through the history could do worse.  Perhaps the most useful aspect of the work is its short chapters -- 50 in all, not counting the introduction. As the entire work is only 217 pages, the chapters are necessarily very short.  Furthermore, the work is packed with attractive color illustrations.  Consequently, Price has given us a fairly orthodox, thumbnail history.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Nagarjuna's Middle Way: Mulamadhyamakakarika / Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura -- Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2013

The Mulamadhyamakakarika by the second century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna is possibly the most subtle, sophisticated, and important work on Buddhist metaphysics ever written.  It is seen as the seminal text of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism and has shaped the conversation about sunyata (emptiness) within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.  It has been translated several times and has received numerous commentaries.  In this blog, I have reviewed two such translations/commentaries:  one by Jay Garfield and another by Stephen Batchelor.  The translation/commentary currently under review is a joint effort by an American philosopher, Mark Siderits and a Japanese professor of Indian Philosophy, Shoryu Katsura.  Their commentary is based on four historically significant commentaries, three by Indian philosophers, Buddhapalita, Bhaviveka, and Candrakirti and the fourth, known as the Akutobhaya by an unknown author.

The work  itself explores a number of metaphysical concepts that are important to the Buddhist tradition, e.g., space, motion, the composition of objects and persons, and action.   A number of traditional Buddhists doctrines are challenged by Nagarjuna.  Broadly speaking, Nagarjuna's project is to demonstrate that any theory or positive assertion about ultimate reality is false.  He does so by laying out all the logically possible positions one might hold about a question and systematically showing that none of them can be true.  The object of his critique is sometimes known as the "tetralemma:"  (1) p is true, (2) p is false, (3) both p and not p are true, and (4) neither p nor not p is true.  By the impossibility of each of these statements, Nagarjuna establishes that all things are "empty."  Curiously, even emptiness itself is empty.

Nagarjuna's arguments are often quite cryptic.  Fortunately, Siderits and Katsura provide helpful guidance to understanding Nagarjuna's intent.  To some extent, the very fact that Nagarjuna refutes all possible positions leads one to think that there must be something wrong with his reasoning; however, the arguments (as understood by the commentators) are sophisticated enough to make it impossible to dismiss Nagarjuna on such a slender basis.  One is led to think that he may well be right in claiming that our ordinary capacities of reason are incapable of grasping ultimate reality and that a supra-rational insight is necessary.  To reach this insight, Nagarjuna seems to suggest that the inquirer must rise through successive levels of understanding which leads through rejecting specific theories, e.g., p is true, to reach the fourth claim in the tetralemma, that neither p nor not p is true.  Upon seeing that this cannot be true, the inquirer is left with the realization that a third ontological category is necessary for understanding ultimate reality: emptiness.  But this too, is merely a step on the path toward a final and compete understanding that recognizes the emptiness of emptiness.

Nagarjuna's arguments lead us to recognize that emptiness itself is yet another theory about the ultimate nature of reality and if it is true, it too must be empty.  It is, in essence, the least incorrect theory about world, but as a theory, it can only be conventionally true as ultimate truth is beyond the realm of what can be articulated.

Having now read three translations and commentaries of the Mulamadhyamakakarika, I have gained quite a deep respect for it.  Perhaps the only Buddhist work that stands above it is the prajnaparmita literature itself, from which Nagarjuna drew his insight.  For an excellent translation of important verses from that literature, see The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, translated by Edward Conze.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Jewel Ornament of Liberation / sGam.po.pa -- Herbert V. Guenther, trans., -- Berkeley: Shambhala, 1971.

sGam.po.pa (1079-1153) is among the most important figures in the history of Buddhism, particularly, Tibetan Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism more generally.  The Jewel Ornament of Liberation is perhaps his most important work.  The Jewel Ornament is among a set of works that provide an outline of the path toward liberation, beginning with the most elementary doctrines of Buddhism and proceeding to the most advanced stages of enlightenment.  It is written in clear and direct language which makes it an engaging treatise for readers with a limited background in Buddhism.  The path begins with truely internalizing the motive to attain genuine enlightment.  This is in contrast to other motives, for example, becoming renowned for being spiritually advanced or attaining the superhuman powers that were believed to be gained upon becoming enlightened. sGam.po.pa explains that once one becomes motivated by a genuine desire for enlightenment, one should seek out a community of spiritual friends, viz., people who are also dedicated to the path to enlightenment, and to separate from those who are still entangle in worldly affairs.  By surrounding oneself with spiritual friends, one establishes an environment in which progress toward enlightenment becomes easier.   The reader should be prepared, however, for long accounts of the more unpleasant aspect of life including decay and death. This is preparatory to recognizing the transitory nature of life and renouncing attachment to the world.  The Jewel Ornament goes on to provide illuminating accounts of a number of critical Buddhist concepts:  the transitory nature of the world, the viciousness of samsara (the world of experience), karma and its results, benevolence, compassion, and the acquisition and training in an enlightened attitude.

The last half of the work is an account of the six perfections (paramitas), the five paths to enlightenment, the spiritual levels, and the perfection of Buddhahood and its activities.  The six perfections are among the most significant ideas in the Mahayana tradition, especially as it is developed in Tibetan Buddhism.  They are generosity, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom.  By cultivating these virtues, one proceeds along the path to becoming a bodhisattva, i.e., an enlightened being who renounces to goal of perfect enlightenment (buddhahood) for the purpose of relieve the world of suffering and bringing all sentient beings to enlightenment.

Indeed, there are very few works that compare to The Jewel Ornament of Liberation for its clarity and insight.  It stands among the best primary works in the history of Mahayana Buddhism.

Monday, March 14, 2016

American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation--How Indian Spirituality Changed the West / Philip Goldberg -- N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2010

In 1981, Rick Fields published a book entitled, How the Swans Came to the Lake which was a history of how Buddhism made its way to the United States.  In American Veda, Philip Goldberg presents a similar history for Hinduism or what he calls "vedanta-yoga."  While the subtitle suggests that the story of Hinduism transmission would cover Europe and North America, Goldberg mostly describes its transmission to the U.S.  Early on, he makes the rather bold claim that vedism, the idea that we, as individuals, participate in a larger consciousness that constitutes the universe, is a "perfect fit" for the American ethos, at least insofar as vedism permits "personalized pathways to the divine."  He goes on, then, to describe to growing impact of Vedic philosophies and yogic practices on Americans.  Beginning with Emerson's acceptance of an "over-soul," passing through Thoreau's paeans to nature, Goldberg describes the foundation of vedism in American literature.

The real launch of American vedism begins, however, with the World's Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893.  From this point on, Americans began hosting a number of gurus from India who introduced the intelligentsia to vedism.  Goldberg recounts the impression these gurus had on such figures as Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard.  This period is perhaps the first phase of serious examination of the vedic philosophy in America.

It is followed, however, by a much larger influx of gurus following the elimination of immigration restriction from Asia in 1965 and the journey to India by the Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Marianne Faithful in 1968.  The list of celebrities who were influenced by various gurus during the 1960s and 1970s is impressive; however, the scandals associated with many high profile gurus casts doubt on the legitimacy of this paroxysm of interest.  To his credit, Goldberg does not shy away from a fair-minded account of this period.  What he finally concludes, though, is that despite the appearnce of charlatans, the Western seekers gained a genuine appreciation for vedanta-yoga.  In the final chapters he discusses ways in which vedanta-yoga has influence the arts, psychology, and physics.

American Veda is a fine account of the coming of vedanta-yoga to the U.S.  It provides a sympathetic, but honest assessment of that history.  It does, however, overstate the extent to which vedanta-yoga has permeated American culture.  While the trappings of vedanta-yoga might well be increasingly common and more Americans than ever before may be signing up of Hatha yoga classes, an accurate awareness of the vedic world view is still hardly known in America.  Goldberg's points out that a significant number of Americans describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious," and he suggests that this is a product of the transmission of vedanta-yoga to the America.  It might, however, be more likely a consequence of the success of science made consistent with a reluctance on the part of people to completely abandon their ancestral beliefs.  Goldberg also suggests that the increased interest in vedic (and Buddhist) spirituality represents a kind of Great Awakening of the 21st century.  Only time will tell about that.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Catching Up

It has been quite some time (since June 2015) that I posted anything to this blog. I was for most of that time on sabbatical, drafting a book on Indian Buddhism.  Consequently, my writing efforts were directed away from reviewing books and toward writing one.  Since coming back from the sabbatical, I have not recovered my habit of reviewing the books I read; however, my hope is to recover that habit.  To catch up, though, I merely plan to record here a number of the books that I read over that last few months.  After all, this blog is primarily a means to record for myself the books I have read. Perhaps one day, I'll return to the most important ones and provide reviews.

Powell, James Lawrence, <i>The Inquisition of Climate Science</i>, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2001.  This work is a brief (192 page) book describing the concerted efforts by climate change deniers to sew doubt about the fact and effects of our changing climate.  It also recounts many of the highest profile attacks on climate scientists by deniers.

Stern, Nicholas, <i>The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review</i>, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.  This work is a major landmark (if not the major landmark) in the literature related to the economics of climate change.  It has been criticized for employing an inordinately low discount rate, but this mainly reflects a moral judgement regarding the importance of the well-being of future generations.

Nordhaus, William, <i>The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World</i>. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013.  The importance of this work is perhaps second only to <i>The Stern Review</i> with regard to the economics of climate change.  William Nordhaus (not be confused with his son Ted Nordhaus) is an eminent environmental economist.  His analysis of the economic consequences of climate change and climate change mitigation strategies differs somewhat from Nicholas Stern's analysis.  Nordhaus applies a higher discount rate making which has the consequence of estimating a higher relative cost for mitigating climate change and he is more sanguine regarding future generations' abilities to adapt to climate change.  Nonetheless, he strongly advocates a carbon tax and stresses the importance of acting quickly and decisively to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Jamieson, Dale, <i>Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed -- and What It Means for Our Future</i>, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2014.  This work, by a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado.  Jamieson provides and account of how governments have failed to address climate change in a time frame adequate to preserve the kind of planet that existed prior to the industrial revolution.  He acknowledges that we live in the Anthropocene Era, viz., a geological era in which the actions of human beings are having a determining effect on the natural history of the planet.  He also provides chapters on the ethics of responding to climate change.

Medvedev, Zhores A., <i>The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko</i>, I. Michael Lerner, trans., N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1969.  This is an account of the period from 1929-1961 during which the influence of T.D. Lysenko distorted Soviet genetics and agricultural sciences.  The account is written by a Soviet scientist who had first hand experience with the internal struggles to maintain the integrity of Soviet science.

Joravsky, David, <i>The Lysenko Affair</i>, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.  Joravsky is an American historian, emeritus professor at Northwestern University specializing in Soviet studies.  This work is recognized as among the very best accounts of the Soviet science under the influence of T.D. Lysenko.

Wood, Mary Christina, <i>Nature's Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age</i>, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.  I consider this book the best of the year.  It describes the decline of environmental regulations established by the promising environmental laws of the 1970s.  According to Wood, environmental regulatory agencies have become captured by the industries that they were designed to regulate.  Consequently, their primary role now is to approve exceptions to environmental restrictions -- essentially blessing the very damages they were designed to protect us from.  Wood argues that our best response to this is to employ trust law to require Congress and the executive branch to protect the public's interest in a livable environment.  Basic to this approach is the idea that the natural world is like a trust, with government serving as its trustee on behalf of current and future generations.

Speth, James Gustave and Peer M. Haas, <i>Global Environmental Governance</i>, Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2006.  This work provides a brief history of the international efforts to reach an agreement on how to protect the climate from anthropogenic changes.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, <i>Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change</i>, N.Y.: Bloomsbury, 2006.  This work is among the most important of several books that were published around this time on the contemporary and pending damages that climate change presents.  Ten years on, it is depressing to see how little has been accomplished to address the problems that Kolbert describes.

McKibben, Bill, <i>Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet</i>, N.Y.: N.Y.: Henry Holt and Co., 2010.  Bill McKibben may be remembered as the most important voice warning Americans about the damage that we are doing to the climate.  His work <i>Eaarth</i> asserts that our actions have already ensured that our planet will become qualitatively different from the one which has been our home.  Thus, he slightly alters the spelling of the planet's name.  His description of unavoidable changes are clear and illuminating, fully justifying his rather radical observation.  McKibben suggests ways in which we might alter our lifestyles in a way that will allow us to live "lightly, carefully, and gracefully" such that we can live reasonably well despite the terrible consequences of our past actions.

Brechin, Gray, <i>Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin</i>, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.  This work is a history of the city of San Francisco and the social, political, and particularly the environmental consequences of its development.  The story begins with the devastation produced by mining gold and clear cutting California's forests and concludes with the establishment of the academic institutions that developed nuclear weapons.  It provides an unflinching critique of the consequences of the unrestrained economic exploitation of people an nature for private gain.

Shelley, Mary, <i>The Last Man</i>, London: Henry Colburn, 1826.  This little-known novel by the author of <i>Frankenstein</i> describes in three volumes the extinction of humanity as a result of a virulent plague.  The story come to us from 1818 when visitors to a "gloomy cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl," where they find written prophecies, often of events now just past.  Among the prophesies is an account of the last man to perish in the world-wide plague.  Though set in the last decade, the world Shelley describes is little different from her own time.  It is without electricity or internal combustion engines and the struggle between monarchists and republicans is only now becoming resolved in favor of republicanism.  The first volume works primarily to introduce and develop the novel's characters.  Its story mostly concerns interpersonal relations and political ambitions.  The plague makes no appearance.  Indeed, appart from passing mention, it only appears one third of the way through the second volume.  From there the novel describes the epidemic decimation of England.  The third volume recounts the surviving remnants of the country trekking to Switzerland where they hope to find refuge from the plague.  Ultimately three survivors continue on to Rome.  The novel ends with the last man determining to sail a bark along the oceans' shores in search of another survivor.  "Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eyeof the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney--the LAST MAN."  If the Victorians were obsessed with death, Shelley's <i>The Last Man</i> is an extreme expression of this obsession.  Not only does every character die, but the entire human race is extinguished.  The early volume is graced with the romantic prose of the time and peppered with reflections on life, love, and death, but once the plague appears, there is hardly a page in the novel which is not a meditation on mortality.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tenth International Climate Change Conference / Heartland Institute -- Washington, D.C.: June 11-12, 2015

On Thursday, June 11 and Friday June 12, a conference on climate change was held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the libertarian think tank, The Heartland Institute.  It brought together most of the world's luminaries of a community of people known as "climate change skeptics" or "climate change deniers."  Given the place of the Heartland Institute in the skeptic/denier community and the people in attendance, the claims and arguments presented at the conference can be understood fairly as the current leading opinions among skeptics/deniers.   Below is my attempt to encapsulate the most important claims expressed at the conference.

By my estimate, there were approximately 800 people in attendance.  So one should not assume that everyone there accepted all of the claims below, but disagreement with these claims was not in evidence and many of these claims received enthusiastic applause.  I have attempted to present these claims in as fair and dispassionate language as possible, though many of the speakers employed ad hominem and what I suspect would have been admitted to be hyperbolic rhetoric -- often for the purpose of entertaining the audience.  It is, however, important to understand the conference's claims in as charitable way as possible to ensure that any analysis or critique of its claims are valid.

I categorize the claims into four categories: denialism, skepticism, energy policy, and imputed motivations.  In future posts, I will discuss the plausibility of these claims and the cogency of the arguments made in their favor.  A few deserve serious attention.  Many others are frivolous.

Denialism:  There has been no significant warming of the planet due to human causes.
  • There was a "little ice age" and a "medieval warming period" evident in Europe and Greenland that prove a natural fluctuation of temperature independent of CO2 concentrations.
  • There has been no warming of the planet for the past 15 or more years.
  • There has been no increase of extreme weather, particularly, storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, for the past decade.
  • Actions to reduce CO2 emissions will have no significant effect on global temperatures.
  • Coal is the cleanest energy source we have.
Skepticism:  Climate science worldwide has degenerated into a condition that is similar to Soviet agricultural science under the sway of Trofim Lysenko.
  • Climate scientist routinely "fiddle"with data to produce desired results.
  • Michael Mann's "hockey stick" graph is a product of falsified data.  This has been demonstrated by the hacked East Anglia University, Climate Research Unit emails.
  • NOAA's recent adjustment to sea surface temperatures, eliminating what had been thought of as a "pause" in temperature increase, was a cynical act of falsifying data.
  • The U.S. surface temperature record is artificially high due to poorly sited thermometers (the urban heat island effect).
  • Apparent increases in rainfall in the Northeast U.S. and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the U.S. are a product of a change in rain gauge technology.
  • Projections from computer models have been incorrect and are fatally subject to assumption biases.
  • The satellite record of temperatures coming out of Alabama University a Huntsville is the best (perhaps the only reliable) record of global temperatures.
  • Serious-minded scientists are professionally punished for raising doubts about climate change and suffer public ridicule.
Energy Policy:  Economic growth driven by fossil fuel development will enrich the planet and provide the resources necessary to adapt to any changes to the climate in the unlikely event that changes take place.
  • Raising the price of energy will damage the economy and further impoverish the world's poor.
  • Commonly, benefit-cost analyses of CO2 emissions inflate the costs and neglect the benefits.
  • Increased CO2 levels are good for life (particularly plant life) on the planet.
  • The EPA should be abolished and replaced with state regulatory agencies.
  • The court ruling that CO2 is a pollutant must be overturned or the legislation must be amended to have this effect.
  • Renewable energy will never become economically competitive without government subsidies.
Imputed Motivations:  There is an alliance of various groups with various motives behind the warnings about dangerous climate change.
  • The motive of environmentalists is religious.
  • The motive of politicians and bureaucrats is political control.
  • The motive of green businesses is to ensure government subsidies to enrich green investors.
  • The motive of government and academic scientists is careerism.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism: Candrakīrti on the Selflessness of Persons / James Duerlinger -- London: Routledge, 2013

Below is a review that was published in Confluence: Online Journal of World Philosophies, Vol. 2, 2015.  The journal "is a bi-annual, peer-reviewed, international journal dedicated to comparative thought.  It seeks to explore common spaces and differences between philosophical traditions in a global context."  to subscribe to the journal, visit its website at http://www.verlag-alber.de/e-journals/confluence/.  

During the lifetime of the Buddha and in subsequent centuries, the philosophical traditions of India commonly accepted the existence of an eternal, substantive self (ātman). Among Buddhism’s most novel and noteworthy tenets was the rejection of this view and the acceptance of the doctrine of selflessness or the non-existence of the self (anātman). The non-existence of the self was, however, controversial even among Buddhists, due in part to the Buddha’s conflicting comments on the question and to the Buddha’s use of personal pronouns.  This led some to believe that he endorsed the existence of the self. As a consequence, various schools interpreted the doctrine in various ways. Several schools, particularly the Vātsīputrīyas and the Sammitīyas, maintained that some sort of “inexpressible person” (pudgala) must exist in order to make sense of personal continuity and rebirth and that this inexpressible person did not contradict the non-existence of the self. These schools became collectively known as Pudgalavādins. Other schools, particularly the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas, maintained that the self was a conceptual fiction, constructed out of more fundamental elements called “dharmas.” Still another school, the Madhyamakas, considered the self, along with all objects, to be without independent existence. The Madhyamaka view was developed first by the second century philosopher Nāgārjuna and subsequently by other philosophers, including the seventh century philosopher Candrakīrti.
Works written by Buddhist philosophers on the self are well-worth reading for any philosopher outside of the Buddhist tradition as they offer theses that are at times analogous to ones found in the European tradition as well as theses that have no clear analogy. Among the most important works is the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya by Vasubandhu, particularly its ninth chapter, Refutation of the Theory of the Self (Ātmavādapratiṣedha or Pudgalapratiṣedhaprakaraņa). This work presents several important theories of the self. It outlines the view held by the Sarvāstivādins, the Pudgalavādins, and the Sautrāntikas. For the Madhyamaka tradition, one would do well to read Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) by Nāgāruna and several works by Candrakīrti: Clear Words (Prasannapadā), Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra), and his Autocommentary on the Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatārabhāṣya). None of these are easy reading for anyone not steeped in the concepts and terminology of the Buddhist tradition. Happily, James Duerlinger has provided us with two mostly clear and insightful guides to much of this literature.
The first work is his 2003 book, Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhu’s Refutation of the Theory of the Self” which provides us with a translation of Vasubandhu’s Refutation of the Theory of the Self.1 The second is his 2013 book, The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism: Candrakīrti on the Selflessness of Persons which provides us with a translation of verses 120-165 of Candrakīrti’s Autocommentary on the Introduction to the Middle Way. A full review of Duerlinger’s 2003 work is beyond the scope of this review, but readers would be well served to read at least the introduction to the 2003 work. This will give the reader a background that will make reading Duerlinger’s 2013 work more meaningful.
The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism is composed of three parts. The first part is a general introduction to the root text and an overview of the issues that it addresses (pp. 1-54). The second is the translation of the root text (pp. 55-89). The third is Duerlinger’s own verse-by-verse commentary on the root text (pp. 90-194). In the introduction, Duerlinger describes and explains the views that Candrakīrti attributes to a several Buddhist schools: the Sāṃmitīyas, the Āryasāṃmitīyas, the Sarvāstivādins, and the Sautrāntikas, as well as the non-Buddhist Tīrthikas. Duerlinger also provides a relatively clear expression of Candrakīrti’s criticisms of these views as found in Candrakīrti’s Clear Words, Introduction to the Middle Way, and his Autocommentary on the Introduction to the Middle Way. The introduction is composed of four sections. The first section distinguishes Duerlinger’s translation and commentary from the existing English translations and commentaries. The second places Candrakīrti’s Autocommentary in the context of the Mahāyāna and Madhyamaka traditions and explains the ten stages of the Bodhisattva path of meditation and its fruit as Candrakīrti understands it from the Sūtra on the Ten Stages (Daśabhūmika Sūtra). The third presents valuable explanations of several critical terms used by Candrakīrti, and the fourth section relates Candrakīrti’s theory of persons to other Indian Buddhist theories.
The second part of the work, the translation of the root text, is informed by what is perhaps the most important contribution that Duerlinger makes toward understanding Candrakīrti’s arguments: the distinction between a self “with person-properties” and a self “without person-properties.” By selves “with person-properties,” Duerlinger means beings that possess minds and bodies, perceive, think, feel, act, etc. When English speakers use the term “self” (and personal pronouns), we commonly refer to beings with such properties. This is most evident in our use of the reflexive pronouns “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “herself,” “ourselves,” “yourselves,” and “themselves.” In each case, we refer to beings that have person-properties. Even in the case of “itself,” we commonly use the term to refer to beings with person-properties, e.g., “the mouse trapped itself in the box.” The neuter pronoun merely elides our ignorance of the mouse’s sex. There are, however, some instances when we use “itself” (and even “themselves”) to refer to objects without person-properties, e.g., “the building collapsed on itself” or “the bean stalks entwined themselves around the poles.” In these instances, we appear to suggest a degree of agency (a feature of personhood) that on more careful analysis we would reject. So while it is not always true, on the whole our use of “self” refers to beings with person-properties.
The use of the term “atman” to refer to persons is less consistent in Buddhist texts. The world “ātman” is normally translated as “self,” but it ambiguously refers to beings with person-properties and objects without person-properties. According to Duerlinger, by carefully attending to the ambiguities in the Buddhist texts and marking them with his person-property terminology, we can better understand the arguments made by Candrakīrti. Duerlinger writes, “The distinction [between selves with and without person-properties] is not to my knowledge explicitly drawn by Candrakīrti and his Madhyamaka (Middle Way) followers,” but he goes on to write, “The distinction is needed to explain why he [Candrakīrti] represents his fellow Buddhists as asserting the thesis that a self exists by itself when they deny that a self exists by itself” (p. 4). Perhaps it is because Duerlinger does not find explicit evidence for his person-property terminology that he does not us the terminology in his translation of the root text, but it helpfully appears in both his introduction to the root text and in his commentary on the root text.
The third part of the work is Duerlinger’s verse-by-verse commentary on Candrakīrti’s Autocommentary. It is based on seven Tibetan commentaries written in the Madhyamaka tradition, six of which are from English translations. Among the value-added features of Duerlinger’s commentary are quotations from Candrakīrti’s Clear Words, his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way. These quotations provide additional helpful perspective on Candrakīrti’s views.
To delineate the various Buddhist views of the self as Duerlinger believes Candrakīrti understands them, we should start by describing a view of the self held by the non-Buddhist Tīrthika school. This is the most robust view of the self considered by Candrakīrti. We can compare it to something like (but only something like) a Cartesian substantive self. It is an eternally existing mind that is temporarily associated with a particular body. This is in contrast to the Buddhist view that sees the self as identical to or at least dependent upon the body. Perhaps the simplest version of this contrasting view is held by the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas. They maintained that the self is identical to the aggregates (skandhas), i.e., collections of elementary “dharmas” which we might recognize as (i) physical atoms, (ii) sensations, (iii) perceptions, (iv) volitional actions and external forces that condition our circumstances, and (v) consciousness. The classic explanation of this view appears in the Questions of Milinda (Milindapañha), written in the first century. In this text, Nāgasena explains to King Malinda that the self is like a chariot, composed of parts, and while one might say that each part exists, the chariot only exists dependently upon the parts; hence, its ontological status is different than the ontological status of the parts. The chariot does not exist in the strictest sense. The word “chariot” is only a convenient way to refer to the collection of parts that alone exist. Similarly, the word “I” is merely a convenient way to refer to the collection of parts or “aggregates” which make up the self.
David Hume comes closest to holding this particular view of the self. For Hume, personal identity is a bundle of overlapping impressions and ideas. Hume would not agree with the Buddhist enumeration of the aggregates (the strands that make up the bundle that is the self), but the important point is that the self is a composition of elementary parts and does not have an independent existence. The Sarvāstivādins differed from the Sautrāntikas on a number of points, but most importantly the former maintained the existence of the past, present, and future, while the latter only accepted that the present exists. In other words, the Sarvāstivādins accepted a kind of duration of the dharmas that the Sautrāntikas rejected. At the same time, the Sautrāntikas accepted the spatial extension of the bodily dharmas while the Sarvāstivādins held that they were infinitely divisible. Importantly, they agreed that the self was identical to the aggregates and that a self with person-properties did not exist independently of those aggregates.
In contrast, the Pudgalavādins held a view that lay precariously between the Tīrthika view and the Sarvāstivādin-Sautrāntikan view. For the Pudgalavādins the self was dependent upon the aggregates. In this respect it was like the Sarvāstivādin-Sautrāntikan self; however, the Pudgalavādin self did possess person-properties. This latter feature made the Pudgalavādin self similar to the Tīrthika self, but as distinct from the Tīrthikas, Pudgalavādins did not maintain that the self was eternal. It could, though, transmigrate from body to body in rebirth. That the Pudgalavādin self was dependent upon the aggregates, but at the same time possessed person-properties while the aggregates did not, meant that the self and the aggregates were neither the same nor different from each other. The Pudgalavādin self was, in this way, “inexpressible.” Perhaps the closest Western notion to the Pudgalavādin view is that of a form of supervenience. The self is dependent upon the aggregates, but does have the same ontological status as the aggregates. It is not substantive as is a Cartesian or Tīrthikan self; yet, it does possess a mind and body and has the capacity to perceive, think, feel, act, etc. It is no wonder that orthodox Buddhists greeted this view with extreme skepticism.
Candrakīrti rejected all of these views and carried to completion the refutation of the self begun by the Buddhist tradition. His refutation relied on a distinction that all of the previous schools of Buddhism accepted but did not make the most of. Each school recognized two forms of truth: conventional (saṃvṛtisatya) and ultimate (paramārthasatya). By asserting that the self is a collection of aggregates and that reference to the self was a short hand for referring to the aggregates, Buddhists were able to maintain that the existence of the self was of a different order than the existence of the aggregates. That is, the self existed conventionally, while what ultimately existed were the aggregates or the elementary dharmas that composed the aggregates. This allowed Buddhists to maintain that it was conventionally true that the self “existed,” while at the same time maintaining that it was not ultimately true. When the Buddha spoke of the self or made use of personal pronouns, he was asserting facts that were merely conventionally true. Both the Pudgalavādins and the Sarvāstivādin-Sautrāntikan made use of this distinction and both accepted that the aggregates – or more precisely, the dharmas – had an ultimate existence.
It is this last claim that Candrakīrti and the Madhyamikas rejected. Their critical premise was that all things with which we are normally acquainted arise dependently. That is, their existence relies on the existence of other things. This includes even the dharmas, the elemental building blocks of the aggregates. In light of this, the self had no ultimate basis at all. All things, including the self, neither existed (independently) nor did not exist. Instead, they maintained what provisionally might be thought of as a third ontological status between existence and non-existence known as “emptiness” (śūnyatā). One might see this as similar to the Pudgalavādin claim that the self was neither the same as nor different from the aggregates, but the similarity is only superficial. The Pudgalavādins located the “inexpressible self” within the conventional realm, while accepting the ultimate reality of the aggregates. Consequently, the self had a basis in the ultimate realm. Against this, the Madhyamikas drew the conventional-ultimate distinction not between the self and its component parts, but between all experience and a transcendent realm accessible only to the enlightened. The illusion of the self as ultimate or as being composed of ultimate elements was what anchored us in samsāra – this delusional world of suffering. Candrakīrti and the Madhyamikas were thus able to acknowledge the purely conventional existence of the self while completely purging it of any ultimate reality. This, more than any other Buddhist theory of the self, was able to interpret the doctrine of anātman in its most rigorous form, while making sense of our (and the Buddha’s) use of personal pronouns.
Relying solely on Buddhism’s root texts upon which these distinctions are based makes for difficult study. Consequently, commentaries and other secondary literature are of great value. James Duerlinger’s The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism along with his early work Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons stand among the most helpful aids to understanding the critical and intriguing Buddhist doctrines of the self.
1.  Duerlinger, J. Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhu’s “Refutation of the Theory of the Self,” (London: Routledge, 2003).

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness / Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche -- N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2007

In 2002, Yongey Mingyur was among a small number of Buddhist monks who came to the University of Wisconsin to become the subjects of a psychological study of long-term meditation adepts.  This study was among the groundbreaking research that has made the interaction between Western psychology and Buddhism so fruitful in recent years.  Subsequently, Yongey Mingyur has written a number of books on Buddhism, particularly Buddhist meditation.  The Joy of Living is among these books.

The Joy of Living is an endearing combination of personal stories, advice on meditation, Buddhist doctrine, and explanations of scientific discoveries that are important to the Buddhist worldview.  For example, Yongey Mingyur describes how neuroplasticity is related to the Buddhist practice of training one's mind and he lays out the similarities between contemporary theories in physics and the Buddhist conceptions of impermanence and emptiness.

Most significant, however, is his advice on meditation.  In a nut shell, Yongey Migyur demystifies meditation, explaining that it is not something that requires great effort.  Instead, one can begin a meditation practice simply by taking the time to passively observe the feelings, experiences, and thoughts that come to one's mind.  Furthermore, meditation need not involve retiring to a quiet secluded place, but can be done anywhere and for even very short periods of time.  Distractions that are normally thought to be impediments to meditation are, for Yongey Mingyur, simply objects upon which one might meditate.

One suspects, however, that this description of meditation is merely preliminary to a more advanced practice.  Beginning by observing one's feelings, experiences, and thoughts certainly allows one to distance oneself from the activity of "the monkey brain" that normally drives us from one mental phenomenon to the next.  With that distance, one is then in a position to control (or at least nuance) one's mental phenomena and bend it toward the non-attachment that characterizes enlightenment.  Yongey Mingyur's preliminary practice is certainly a necessary step toward the more advance, practice that is less casual what he encourages.

Most of all, Yongey Mingyur's literary style is conversation and extremely accessible, even while he explains extremely difficult ideas in Buddhist doctrine.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen / Christopher McDougall -- N.Y.: Vantage Books, 2011

Christopher McDougall has given us an amazing and charming book in Born to Run.  McDougall, a runner himself, has been a war correspondent, an editor for Men's Health, and a writer for numerous magazines. On assignment in Mexico, he came upon a magazine article about the Tarahumara Indians, who have made running the centerpiece of their culture.  Members of their tribe routinely run scores, even hundreds of miles at a time over the rough landscape of the Copper Canyons in Mexico.  As a writer for Runner's World, McDougall set out to meet the Tarahumara runners along with a mysterious American runner, Caballo Blanco, who was said to live among them.  After a difficult journey through territory controlled by drug lords, McDougall makes contact with the Tarahumara and Caballo.  From there he begins to explore the history of the Tarahumara's encounters with American ultra-runners, athletes who also run grueling 100 mile races over forbidding cross-country trails.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.

Born to Run is his account of the people and races that he encountered in his research.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.  It is easy to simply dismiss these athletes as lunatics.  Who in their right mind, after all, would run 100 miles non-stop?  But as we read about them, one gains a sincere respect for people who have developed the discipline to accomplish such a task without major injury and in a manner that they clearly find rewarding and even spiritually uplifting.  Along the way McDougall tells us not only of the remarkable spirit of these long distance runners, but of how we humans have lost touch with an ability that, according to McDougall, gave us the evolutionary edge to survive in an otherwise deadly environment:  the ability to run great distances.  While slower and weaker than other animals, our ability to patiently track prey, allowed our ancestors to chase them for great distances until they collapsed from exhaustion.  McDougall also presents the case that our feet have been well-adapted to run these great distances without causing injury.  Ironically, the sports running shoes that are designed to protect feet are causing more injuries than would occur to barefoot runners.  His book is part anthropology and part evolutionary biology.

The most interesting aspect of the book is, however, his account of the race that is organized by Caballo, bringing several American ultra-runners to the Copper Canyons to race against the Tarahumara.  In this final portion of the narrative, we get engaging accounts of the various and free-spirited personalities of the ultra-runners as they make their way to the Copper Canyons and interact with the Tarahumara and it is the Tarahumara who are the real stars of the story, even while we learn less of them than we learn of the American runners.  This is due undoubtedly to the access McDougall had to the characters and to the cultural reticence of the Tarahumara.

The tale is eminently exciting and entertaining.  Whether or not you are a runner, you are bound to find the protagonists in McDougall's story admirable and inspiring.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Buddhism / Christmas Humphreys -- [n.l.]: Penguin Books, 1951

Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys was the first book I read about Buddhism.  I was perhaps 15 years old, newly exploring religions other than the Christianity.  I was immediately taken by Buddhism's approach to life.  It seemed simultaneously rational and compassionate.  It offered a perspective on the world that did not rely on speculation and unsupported faith and the personality traits that it prescribed seem eminently virtuous.  I did not read much more about Buddhism until many years later, but Humphreys's book made a strong enough impression on me that I was always tempted to describe myself as a Buddhist.

This is the third (perhaps fourth) time I have read the book and with this reading I now more clearly understand how it shaped my thinking about Buddhism.  Buddhism is a general introduction to the religion.  It presents chapters on the life of the Buddha and his ministry.  It then goes on to describe the essential doctrines of early Buddhism in five chapters, followed by a chapter on the Sangha, three chapters on Mahayana Buddhism, chapters on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and finally two chapters on "the fruits" of Buddhism and contemporary Buddhism.

Humphreys does a good job in nearly all of these chapters.  His accounts are generally clear and accurate.  He does, however, present some ideas in a rather sectarian fashion.  His treatment of Tibetan Buddhism over emphasizes the magical and ritualistic trappings of the tradition, making it seem a poor degeneration of a noble tradition.  His characterization of Zen, on the other hand, describes it not only as the consummation of Buddhist thought and practice, but the highest achievement of human spiritual and philosophical thought.  His treatment of the concept of the self appears to be most consistent with Yogachara thinking in which the self is a kind of world consciousness (what is sometimes elsewhere described as a "storehouse" consciousness).  At times Humphreys even appears to verge into agreement with Pudgalavada Buddhism which accepts an "inexpressible" self or the Advaita Vedanta that posits an eternal, universal soul.  Humphreys asserts that the earlier doctrines which accepted anatta or the doctrine of no-self misunderstood the true views of the Buddha.  Perhaps the largest missing piece in his account is an clear and detailed explanation of the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness which was the critical concept in the Madhyamaka school.

As a result of these more or less evaluative treatments, my own impression of Buddhism failed to appreciate the importance of anatta and sunyata, and it led me to explore and embrace Zen for perhaps longer than was good for my progress through understanding the whole of Buddhism.  It was nearly twenty years later that I finally picked up T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism in which a gained a good understanding of anatta and sunyata and recognized the importance of their place in Buddhist thought.  I don't mean to denigrate the ideas and perspectives of Zen or the Yogacara tradition.  I merely hope to point out that a best understanding of Buddhist thought is not achieved by reading its history in reverse.  To appreciate Zen and the Yogacara Buddhism,  one should first understand and appreciate the early schools of Buddhism and the orthodox view of the self that they propose.  With that (and with an understanding of Advaita Vedantism) one can appreciate the remarkable perspective of the Madhyamaka and the natural reaction to it that resulted in Zen and the Yogacara tradition.

I  am forever thankful that I encounter Christmas Humphreys's book at an early age.  It no doubt made a significant and very beneficial contribution to my intellectual growth and perspective on life.  I only wish that before going on to read about Zen, I was directed to the earlier phases of Buddhist thought, particularly the doctrine of no-self.  It may have been too much to expect a teenager to understand and appreciate the concept of emptiness, but with the doctrine of no-self under my belt, I would likely have come to it sooner than I did.