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."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Vedanta Philosohy: Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana) / Swami Abhedananda -- N.Y.: Vedanta Society, 1905

Perhaps the central concern of Hindu philosophy is attaining a spiritual union with the divine.  This is sometimes understood theistically and other times not.  What is common in both traditions is the idea that we ourselves must find a path to union with the divine.  To do this, we must first understand who (or what) we are.  In the West, we often seek self-understanding through introspection and psychoanalysis to uncover an authentic identity as opposed to one that has been created for us by our family and social conditions.  "Finding one's self" is about understanding our true values, true passions, or true life projects.  One should contrast this self knowledge with the self knowledge that Swami Abhedananda calls upon us to discover in his book Vedanta Philosophy: Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana)

The self knowledge at issue here is less a question of "who am I" and more a question of "what am I."  It is a more fundamental inquiry.  Abhedananda begins this inquiry by examining the concepts of mind and matter (especially matter).  He asserts that three relationships have been posited between these ideas:  (1) that mind exists only as a product of matter (materialism), (2) that matter exists only as a product of mind (idealism), and (3) that each is dependent upon the other as two poles of a magnet (monism).  Abhedananda presents a number of arguments against materialism.  He goes on to simply assert that idealism is "as erroneous as the materialistic theory."  His preference is for monism. 

The true self or "atman" is then equated with God.  This is Advaita Vedantism.  By understanding that the true self is neither the ephemeral material self nor the individual mind, one comes to know that one's true self is an eternal, cosmic, universal "Soul of our souls" and that "those who do not realize this true Self, dwell in the darkness of ignorance and go through the misery and sufferings which exist in that darkness."  Critical to understanding one's true self is to recognize that at the base of all experience is "prana" or the life-force which animates the world and makes all experience possible. It is "inseparable from intelligence and self consciousness."  Later, Abhedananda employs the traditional analogy for the true self saying that it is like the sun, creating the possibility that all things can be visible.

Perhaps the most critical idea here is that the question that vexes the materialist and the idealist is that the relationship between the self and the world, the subject and the object, Atman and Brahman, is obscure.  Abhedananda, in line with the Advaita Vedanta tradition draws the conclusion that Atman is Brahman and that recognizing this allows us to escape our suffering and become fully actualized.