Sunday, February 26, 2012

Buddhist Meditation / Edward Conze -- N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1969

Meditation plays a central role in Buddhism. Discussions of the techniques and benefits of meditation appear throughout the canonical literature. Its most important appearance occurs in the Satipatthanasutta (the Sutra on the Applications of Mindfulness), but according to Edward Conze, its best exposition comes in the a post-canonical work by the eminent Theravada philosopher Buddhaghosa, entitled the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purity). So it should come as no surprise that Conze's selection of passages on meditation which make up his 1956 book Buddhist Meditation would come mostly from the Visuddhimagga. Selections from other texts are included, though; namely, from the Bodhicaryavatara, the Papancasudani, the Buddhacarita, the Sadhanamala, the Abhidharmakosha, and the Dhammasangani.

Conze understands Buddhist meditation to be built on three concepts: mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Mindfulness serves as the basis for meditation. One must first cultivate a keen of one's internal states and the external world. From this one begins to develop and ability to calm one's emotional and mental states and develop insights in to the processes that compose the world. Emotional and mental calm then develops into an ecstatic trance and an objectless inwardness. This is achieved by heightening ones powers of concentration on fewer and fewer objects of thought until one becomes single-minded. Without the contrast of different ideas, single-mindedness becomes objectless. In parallel to the internal exercise of concentration, mindfulness of the external world reveals that all objects (dharmas) have a fleeting, ephemeral existence and that they are ever-changing arrangements of properties (events or processes and not stable material objects). Ultimately, a true understanding of the dharmas leads one to the understanding that the world is an insubstantial emptiness.

When one is able to follow this path during meditation sessions, one strengthens one's disposition of non-attachment. One is also better able to promote this disposition during times when one is not meditating and thereby, become more free of the concerns and tribulations that routinely afflict us.

Conze's Buddhist Meditation is a most valuable compilation of the best expositions of meditation to be found in classical Buddhist literature. His translation is clear and informative. He also provides a valuable introductory essay to the work.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World / His Holiness the Dalai Lama -- Boston: Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 2011

In the minds of many, religion and ethics are inextricably tied. The clearest connection of this sort is expressed in the divine command theory of ethics which holds that something is good or right because God has decreed that it is so. Ethics can, however, be tied to religion in a more sociological way. What is good or right is whatever is consistent with a particular religious practice or dogma. Atheists and agnostics have long objected to this way of characterizing ethics on the grounds that many who do not obey "the commands of God" or adhere to a particular religion have as robust a moral sense and can act as completely morally as any religious believer. Ethics on this view can have secular basis. In Beyond Religion the Dalai Lama argues quite persuasively for adopting a secular basis for morality, regardless of one's religious convictions. He presents a basis for morality which while not requiring religious commitment, is not inconsistent with most religious moralities.

For the Dalai Lama, ethics is grounded in human nature. He writes, "Ethics consists less of rules to be obeyed than of principles for inner self-regulation to promote those aspects of our nature which we recognize as conducive to our own well-being and that of others." He recommends that to be moral we should promote our natural dispositions toward compassion and discernment. By compassion, the Dalai Lama means "a motivation of genuine concern for others" and by discernment, he means the ability "to relate to situations in a manner that is in tune with reality." This "enables us to translate our good intentions into good outcomes."

While the first half of Beyond Religion is at pains to set aside any particular religious faith, the second half presents a specifically Buddhist approach to developing within oneself moral dispositions. This not to say that one must dogmatically accept Buddhism to agree with its prescriptions. Instead, the Dalai Lama presents his approach (Buddhist though it is) to the reader on its own terms. Accepting or rejecting the approach is to depend on how reasonable it seems to the reader.

The first step in developing these dispositions is to cultivate heedfulness, mindfulness, and awareness. This involves cautiously attending to one's patterns of thinking, speaking, and acting. The result is that we can eventually gain mastery of ourselves and limit our harmful behaviors. The Dalai Lama goes on to describe practical methods for translating heedfulness, mindfulness, and awareness into self-mastery, particularly in two chapters "Dealing With Destructive Emotions" and "Cultivating Key Inner Values." These chapters are informed not only by the author's deep understanding of Buddhist psychology, but by his interactions with Western psychologists, particularly Paul Ekman with whom he recently authored a book entitled, Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (reviewed in the blog.)

In a time when religious believers and those committed to science are often at loggerheads, the Dalai Lama's example of recognizing the merits of both religion and science is important. He has been quoted as saying that if there is anything that is incompatible between Buddhism and modern science, then Buddhism will need to change. At the same time, he emphasizes the practicality of religion. Despite the horrors committed by misguided zealots, "faith is a force for good and can be tremendously beneficial....Religion gives hope and strength to those facing adversity..." and it offers "a vision of a good life which people can strive to emulate."

Beyond Religion is a beautifully written examination of relationships between religion, science, and ethics. It is filled with sage advice and sensitive judgements about contemporary social, political, and ethical issues. Most of all, it is an exquisitely useful handbook for developing one's capacities for compassion and discernment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Brahma Net Sutra: Moral Code of the Bodhisattvas -- N.Y.: Sutra Tanslation Committee of the United States and Canada, 2000

The Brahma Net Sutra (or Brahmajala-sutra in Sanskrit) is among the most important sutras in the Buddhist canon, particularly for Mahayana Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhism developed in the first century C.E. and departed from the Buddhism of the past in a number of ways, most importantly in the development of the concept of the bodhisattva. Previously, the goal of the Buddhist monk was to become an arhat, i.e., to achieve personal enlightenment by following a strict code of conduct that dissolves all personal impurities. In contrast, the bodhisattva, inspired by the doctrine of the illusory nature of the self, sees no distinction between oneself and others and thus does not seek personal enlightenment. Instead, the bodhisattva seeks the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

The Brahma Net Sutra under review is translated from a Chinese version that was translated from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva (344-413). It presents a kind of Decalogue for the bodhisattva along with 48 other minor precepts. The ten major precepts are to avoid killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and false speech, selling alcoholic beverages, broadcasting the faults of the assembly, praising oneself and disparaging others, stinginess and abuse, anger and resentment, and slandering the Triple Jewel (the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha). Violation of any of these precepts merits expulsion from the Buddhist Order, though according to the translators of this text, in practice, the monk is permit to repent and reform.

The Brahma Net Sutra also presents 48 "secondary precepts" that range in gravity from harming sentient beings to violating seating arrangements in a Buddhist assembly. Most of these can be seen as corollaries of the ten major precepts.

As important as this sutra is to Mahayana Buddhism, it is striking how much of it pertains to personal conduct and obedience within the Order. Furthermore, much of it presents "negative duties," i.e., actions that the bodhisattva must not perform. There precious few "positive duties," i.e., actions that the bodhisattva must perform for the benefit of all sentient beings. Still, by respecting these precepts, a monk will likely develop the discipline and strength of character to exercise the benevolence that is characteristic of the bodhisattva.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Dialectics of Praxis and Theoria in African Philosophy: Essay on Cultural Hermaneutics / Victor B. Bin-Kapela -- Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa, 2011

For European and American philosophers trained in European philosophical traditions, the field of African philosophy is largely terra incognita. The closest exposure to African philosophy that we get is in the context of anthropology, the philosophy of the social sciences, and problems of radical translation. Africans often do little more than populate our questions regarding moral obligation and international devlopment. Philosophers with radical or progressive political leanings tend to highlight the past economic, political, and cultural exploitation of Africa without delving very deeply into the contemporary lived experience of Africans.

Nonetheless, European and American philosophers are astute enough to recognize that something may be missing in our culturally limited perspectives, prompting at least a nominal interest in the perspectives of Asian, American-Indian and African philosophies. However, breaking out of one's cultural boundaries is not easy, not simply because of the new perspective that one needs to adopt, but for the more mundane reason that authentically non-European/American publications are hard to come by. Fortunately, in the case of Africa, the African Book Collective is marketing roughly 150 valuable works per year about Africa -- often by African writers themselves. One such book is The Dialectics of Praxis and Theoria in African Philosophy by Victor B. Bin-Kapela.

In The Dialectics, Bin-Kapela presents philosophy as a conversation between the specific historical experience of a people and their their common rational capacities to refelct on and make sense of that experience. This approach allows him to recognize a specifically "African philosophy," born particularly of the experiences of European colonization of African following the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference and the experiences of the post-colonial independence era in Africa. At the same time, by recognizing universal human capabilities, he is able to find common ground with elements in the Euopean and American philsophical tradition.

Bin-Kapela describes the damage done to Africa and its people by decades of colonial exploitation and writes sympathetically of the desire of Africans to develop an exclusively African philosophy following independence, but he appears to think the post-colonial philosophies coming out of Africa were founded on a reaction against European philosophy, and while much of value appears in the work of African philosophers of this era, the reaction produced an artificial philosophy not truely rooted in a deeper African experience. Furthermore, many African political leaders merely took on the abandoned roles of the European colonizers, preventing a genuine flourishing of worthwhile traditional African values.

For Bin-Kapela, thoughtful philosophical reflection on African experience can overcome this temporary distortion of African philosophy. He refers to this method as "cultural hermeneutics" in which theoria is applied to praxis in a critical and self-critical way. By taking this position, Bin-Kapela heads off the racist view that African culture and philosophy must be irrational or devoid of basic human cognitive capacities, while at the same time he highlights the unique and valuable roles that different cultures play in enlarging human understanding.

The Dialectics offers a persuasive argument in favor of the universal basis of human dignity out of which human rights can be asserted against illegitimate authorities of any nation or people. Bin-Kapela relies heavily on an Aristotelian conception of Natural Law along with an Enlightenment conception of rationality. Consent of the governed, roughly in the liberal contractarian tradition, is critical to legitimate authority, but furthermore any legitimate authority must also act for the benefit of the people. Here, again, an Aristotelian conception of the good is central.

In all, Bin-Kapela offers those of us who are European and American philosophers common ground for understanding what an African philosophical project might look like and simultaneously, he implicitly leads us to consider adopting a similar project for developing a uniquely European/American philosophy. His views are frank, refreshing, gently critical, and admirably self-critical, exemplifying the best epistemic virtues. His work is an antedote for ethnocentrism of any kind, while still recognizing the importance our cultural situations.