Friday, September 28, 2012

Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend with Commentary by Kangyur Rinpoche / Nagarjuna and Kangyur Rinpoche -- Padmakara Translation Group, trans. -- Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Pulblications, 2005

Around the beginning of the second century of the common era, Arya Nagarjuna, a brilliant Indian philosopher, wrote a short treatise entitled Suhrillekha in Sanskrit or Letter to a Friend in English.  It has become one of the most important texts in Buddhism's Mahayana tradition.  Composed of just 123 verses, each of four lines, Letter to a Friend provides a lucid exposition of the "six perfections" or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.  These are the virtues of the bodhisattva, i.e., the Mahayana saint.  A fuller treatment of these virtues and their significance can be found in another work, The Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses or the Prajnaparamita.  Nagarjuna is said to have retrieved the Perfection of Wisdom from the realm of the nagas -- serpent-like beings-- and brought it to the world.

The most significant aspect of both Letter to a Friend and The Perfection of Wisdom is its treatment of wisdom.  Perfecting wisdom amounts to coming to understand the "emptiness" of all things.  This is the most important contribution made by the Madhyamaka tradition of Buddhism to Buddhism's philosophical development.  Earlier Buddhist held that there was no self or subject.  Instead, all things were composed of a multiplicity of dharmas, essentially infinitesimal atoms of reality that were in constant flux.  In contrast, the Upanishadic tradition in India held that the fundamental reality was a universal self or, understood from another perspective, the unitary divine ground of being that had a permanent existence.  The Madhyamaka tradition advanced arguments against both of these views.  The argumentative technique was essentially critical:  reality was not one, it was not many, it was not neither one nor many, and it was not both one and many.  Furthermore, what did exist, existed conditionally or only in relation to all other things.  Reality is "emptiness."  This should not be confused with nothingess.  The Madhyamaka view is not nihilistic.  Reflecting on these metaphysical views establishes, for the Madhyamika, a frame of mind that leads one to be able to develop the other five perfections and thereby achieve enlightenment.  Madhyamaka metaphysics is perhaps the highest development of metaphysics within the Buddhist tradition.

Letter to a Friend is short enough that it often has been memorized by the Buddhist faithful.  At the same time, it does an excellent job of bringing to mind the full scope of the path of the bodhisattva.  Its brevity, however, make a commentary useful.  In the edition under review here, Kangyur Rinpoche provides an admirable but not terribly extensive or detailed commentary.  Too often Kangyur Rinpoche merely  re-expressed the concise poetic formulations of Nagarjuna in a wordier prose form, but in other instances, Kangyur Rinpoche makes illuminating comments. 

Reading the edition cover to cover amounts, essentially, to reading the Letter three times.  First, it is presented in its translated form without commentary.  Second, it is presented, verse by verse, in the commentary, which -- as noted -- often provides a re-phrasing of the verses.  This is by no means a drawback.  The Letter is well worth multiple readings.  Finally, there is a useful introduction by the translators, a glossary of terms, notes on the commentary, and the entire text in Sanskrit and Tibetan.  It is an edition well worth owning.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media / Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld, illustrator -- N.Y.: Norton, 2012

Since 1993, the University of Maryland has annually selected a "First Year Book," which is made freely available to the campus community. Faculty members are encouraged to include a discussion of the book into their syllabi. Given all the books from which to choose, one would expect that the First Year Book would be something quite special, and it usually is. This year's book is The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone. It is a "graphic nonfiction" work, illustrated by Josh Neufeld. This alone is certainly not a reason to dismiss the work. There are many graphic nonfiction works that are well worth reading; see particularly many excellent monographs in the "For Beginners" series published by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. What makes these books worthwhile is the ability to provide more than a superficial treatment of their subjects in a readable and entertaining style. Cleverly chosen or executed illustrations can be a significant asset. Unfortunately, The Influencing Machine provides neither depth nor entertainment.

The work is certainly readable, but this has less to do with the writing style than with the superficiality of the ideas it expresses. It is a fast paced tour across the surface of the history of journalism, free expression, government control, and the influence of audiences on media content. Gladstone seems to have assimilated too many of the self-validating assumptions current among mainstream journalists regarding the above issues. Most of all, she concludes that the media and its contents are a product of the demands of news consumers. "We get the media we deserve" is her final word. For a more insightful analysis of the U.S. media, one would do well to read the works of Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Michael Parenti, or Herbert Schiller to name just a few more thoughtful authors.

Gladstone says virtually nothing about the systemic biases that appear in the privately controlled U.S. media, except to note that "the American media are not afraid of the government. They are afraid of their audiences and advertisers. The media do not control you. They pander to you." While there may be a modicum of truth here, Gladstone provides no serious examination of the political economy of the media. In Gladstone's view, media consumers appear all to be equal. This would imply that the consequences for media content would be democratic and would reflect the impulses of ordinary people (for good or ill); however, media consumers are not all equal. Different potential audiences have different purchasing power. This means that the media content will be skewed to attract an audience with the greatest aggregate wealth, and in this formula, the rich have a much greater say over what appears in the media than the poor. We don't get the media we deserve, we get the media that money prefers. This is reinforced especially in the national media by the cost of advertising. Only large corporations are able to purchase advertising on national broadcasts, and so media content reflects the interests of (1) large media corporations, (2) well-to-do audiences, and (3) large corporations seeking to advertise their products.

There are a number of other features of the U.S. media as significant as its political economy. They make no appearance in The Influencing Machine. What does appear is a superficial and choppy presentation of mostly trite observations and journalistic mythologies. One would hope that the artistry in the work would be a saving grace, but it is mostly unimpressive.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Being and Time / Martin Heidegger -- John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, trans., N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1962

Once again, I am faced with the humbling task of reviewing one of the most significant works in the history of Western philosophy. Any reader would do well to search the literature for commentary by philosophers with far greater expertise than my meager credentials, particularly regarding Heidegger's Being and Time. I will content myself, however, with recording my reactions to and impressions of this amazing work. I'm astonished that it has taken me nearly four decades of studying philosophy to read it.

Heidegger claimed to be making a radical break from everything that had preceded him in the history of philosophy, and while his work is certainly novel and quite original, one can usefully connect him to previous philosophical currents. Roughly speaking, Heidegger seems to stand to Husserl as Kant stands to Descartes. Descartes project was to establish how and what we can know about ourselves, God, and especially the external world. Through a process of introspection and rational examination of our ideas, one can be sure both that God exists and that we can have knowledge of an external world if we simply employ a careful epistemological method. Kant was dissatisfied with these conclusions and with all of the conclusions of the speculative philosophy of his time and inaugurated what he called a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. This involved recognizing that our understanding of the world is constrained or structured by our own cognitive nature. The world as we experience it is as we must experience it, because we intuit it in the forms space and time. We furthermore, understand it according to specific "categories of understanding" which establish the form of our experience.

Fast forwarding to the twentieth century, Husserl picked up the Cartesian project. Husserl sought to establish a foundation for all human knowledge. His approach to this changed over time, but an important period of his work involved advocating for the method of the "transcendental-phenomenological reduction" by which one reflects on the world in a manner that goes beyond our ordinary apprehension of it. Through a processes or faculty he calls "eidetic intuition," one comes to understand the world as it truly is.

Heidegger dedicated Being and Time "in friendship and admiration" to Husserl, so we should think seriously about how this work compares with Husserl's philosophy. This is where the analogy between Descartes and Kant on the one hand and Husserl and Heidegger on the other is illuminating. As Kant recognizes that philosophical speculation about a transcendent reality must be limited by our capacities for experience, Heidegger recognizes that penetrating to the essences of things in the world steps beyond our experience. The central idea in Heidegger's thought is "Dasein" or human existence. It is the object and constraint of Heidegger's phenomenological investigations in Being and Time. Directly translated into English, "Dasein" might be understood as "being-there." Dasein involves being thrown into a world of experience which is in large part constituted by our capacity to care. Our world is one of our particular projects and goals. The things in this world are "ready-to-hand" as tools are to workers. In this respect, Heidegger is truly a philosopher for the industrial age. Human experience largely is fashioned out of our interaction with our technology. At the same time, Heidegger explores "being-with-others," "being-towards-the-end," and "being-towards-death."

Along the way, Heidegger discusses a variety of psychological states as modes of experience, including fear, anxiety, and curiosity. These reveal the nature of our being in the world. He is most interested in discovering the fundamental nature of being. This is not revealed in language nor in everyday being, though they are not irrelevant to a full understanding of being, but through attention to the ontic structure being. The ontic structure of being must be distinguished from the ontological structure of being in that the latter pertains to entities, while the former pertains to being itself. To plumb these depths, Heidegger emphasizes the role of care in our being and its foundation in temporality. Ultimately, understanding temporality plays the most significant role in understanding the nature of Dasein.

A humble warning: I doubt my own understanding of Heidegger. In any case, Heidegger is a notoriously difficult philosopher to understand; largely, because of how ambitious his project is, but also because of his desire to explain what he believes cannot be explained by the language as it had thus far been developed. Consequently, he employs a unique jargon which is an obstacle to understanding. Many philosophers have suggested that he is intentionally obscure to hide a paucity of arguments. I suspect this is too cynical. Instead, Heidegger seems to me to be making a conscientious attempt to describe a vision of being that goes well beyond the analytical approach that Kant employed in his metaphysics of human experience. Heidegger not only describes the basic structure of appearances, but he attempts to set human experience in motion and describe it in much richer detail than what we see in Kant's critical philosophy. Whether or not Heidegger is successful does not detract from his success in prompting many philosophers, myself included, to think about human existence in a deeper way -- in a way that connects psychology and ontology. His reputation as possibly the greatest twentieth century philosophy is not undeserved.