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.