Wednesday, July 23, 2014

U.S. Support for Israeli Aggression

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why the Silence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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