Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tenth International Climate Change Conference / Heartland Institute -- Washington, D.C.: June 11-12, 2015

On Thursday, June 11 and Friday June 12, a conference on climate change was held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the libertarian think tank, The Heartland Institute.  It brought together most of the world's luminaries of a community of people known as "climate change skeptics" or "climate change deniers."  Given the place of the Heartland Institute in the skeptic/denier community and the people in attendance, the claims and arguments presented at the conference can be understood fairly as the current leading opinions among skeptics/deniers.   Below is my attempt to encapsulate the most important claims expressed at the conference.

By my estimate, there were approximately 800 people in attendance.  So one should not assume that everyone there accepted all of the claims below, but disagreement with these claims was not in evidence and many of these claims received enthusiastic applause.  I have attempted to present these claims in as fair and dispassionate language as possible, though many of the speakers employed ad hominem and what I suspect would have been admitted to be hyperbolic rhetoric -- often for the purpose of entertaining the audience.  It is, however, important to understand the conference's claims in as charitable way as possible to ensure that any analysis or critique of its claims are valid.

I categorize the claims into four categories: denialism, skepticism, energy policy, and imputed motivations.  In future posts, I will discuss the plausibility of these claims and the cogency of the arguments made in their favor.  A few deserve serious attention.  Many others are frivolous.

Denialism:  There has been no significant warming of the planet due to human causes.
  • There was a "little ice age" and a "medieval warming period" evident in Europe and Greenland that prove a natural fluctuation of temperature independent of CO2 concentrations.
  • There has been no warming of the planet for the past 15 or more years.
  • There has been no increase of extreme weather, particularly, storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, for the past decade.
  • Actions to reduce CO2 emissions will have no significant effect on global temperatures.
  • Coal is the cleanest energy source we have.
Skepticism:  Climate science worldwide has degenerated into a condition that is similar to Soviet agricultural science under the sway of Trofim Lysenko.
  • Climate scientist routinely "fiddle"with data to produce desired results.
  • Michael Mann's "hockey stick" graph is a product of falsified data.  This has been demonstrated by the hacked East Anglia University, Climate Research Unit emails.
  • NOAA's recent adjustment to sea surface temperatures, eliminating what had been thought of as a "pause" in temperature increase, was a cynical act of falsifying data.
  • The U.S. surface temperature record is artificially high due to poorly sited thermometers (the urban heat island effect).
  • Apparent increases in rainfall in the Northeast U.S. and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the U.S. are a product of a change in rain gauge technology.
  • Projections from computer models have been incorrect and are fatally subject to assumption biases.
  • The satellite record of temperatures coming out of Alabama University a Huntsville is the best (perhaps the only reliable) record of global temperatures.
  • Serious-minded scientists are professionally punished for raising doubts about climate change and suffer public ridicule.
Energy Policy:  Economic growth driven by fossil fuel development will enrich the planet and provide the resources necessary to adapt to any changes to the climate in the unlikely event that changes take place.
  • Raising the price of energy will damage the economy and further impoverish the world's poor.
  • Commonly, benefit-cost analyses of CO2 emissions inflate the costs and neglect the benefits.
  • Increased CO2 levels are good for life (particularly plant life) on the planet.
  • The EPA should be abolished and replaced with state regulatory agencies.
  • The court ruling that CO2 is a pollutant must be overturned or the legislation must be amended to have this effect.
  • Renewable energy will never become economically competitive without government subsidies.
Imputed Motivations:  There is an alliance of various groups with various motives behind the warnings about dangerous climate change.
  • The motive of environmentalists is religious.
  • The motive of politicians and bureaucrats is political control.
  • The motive of green businesses is to ensure government subsidies to enrich green investors.
  • The motive of government and academic scientists is careerism.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism: Candrakīrti on the Selflessness of Persons / James Duerlinger -- London: Routledge, 2013

Below is a review that was published in Confluence: Online Journal of World Philosophies, Vol. 2, 2015.  The journal "is a bi-annual, peer-reviewed, international journal dedicated to comparative thought.  It seeks to explore common spaces and differences between philosophical traditions in a global context."  to subscribe to the journal, visit its website at  

During the lifetime of the Buddha and in subsequent centuries, the philosophical traditions of India commonly accepted the existence of an eternal, substantive self (ātman). Among Buddhism’s most novel and noteworthy tenets was the rejection of this view and the acceptance of the doctrine of selflessness or the non-existence of the self (anātman). The non-existence of the self was, however, controversial even among Buddhists, due in part to the Buddha’s conflicting comments on the question and to the Buddha’s use of personal pronouns.  This led some to believe that he endorsed the existence of the self. As a consequence, various schools interpreted the doctrine in various ways. Several schools, particularly the Vātsīputrīyas and the Sammitīyas, maintained that some sort of “inexpressible person” (pudgala) must exist in order to make sense of personal continuity and rebirth and that this inexpressible person did not contradict the non-existence of the self. These schools became collectively known as Pudgalavādins. Other schools, particularly the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas, maintained that the self was a conceptual fiction, constructed out of more fundamental elements called “dharmas.” Still another school, the Madhyamakas, considered the self, along with all objects, to be without independent existence. The Madhyamaka view was developed first by the second century philosopher Nāgārjuna and subsequently by other philosophers, including the seventh century philosopher Candrakīrti.
Works written by Buddhist philosophers on the self are well-worth reading for any philosopher outside of the Buddhist tradition as they offer theses that are at times analogous to ones found in the European tradition as well as theses that have no clear analogy. Among the most important works is the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya by Vasubandhu, particularly its ninth chapter, Refutation of the Theory of the Self (Ātmavādapratiṣedha or Pudgalapratiṣedhaprakaraņa). This work presents several important theories of the self. It outlines the view held by the Sarvāstivādins, the Pudgalavādins, and the Sautrāntikas. For the Madhyamaka tradition, one would do well to read Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) by Nāgāruna and several works by Candrakīrti: Clear Words (Prasannapadā), Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra), and his Autocommentary on the Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatārabhāṣya). None of these are easy reading for anyone not steeped in the concepts and terminology of the Buddhist tradition. Happily, James Duerlinger has provided us with two mostly clear and insightful guides to much of this literature.
The first work is his 2003 book, Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhu’s Refutation of the Theory of the Self” which provides us with a translation of Vasubandhu’s Refutation of the Theory of the Self.1 The second is his 2013 book, The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism: Candrakīrti on the Selflessness of Persons which provides us with a translation of verses 120-165 of Candrakīrti’s Autocommentary on the Introduction to the Middle Way. A full review of Duerlinger’s 2003 work is beyond the scope of this review, but readers would be well served to read at least the introduction to the 2003 work. This will give the reader a background that will make reading Duerlinger’s 2013 work more meaningful.
The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism is composed of three parts. The first part is a general introduction to the root text and an overview of the issues that it addresses (pp. 1-54). The second is the translation of the root text (pp. 55-89). The third is Duerlinger’s own verse-by-verse commentary on the root text (pp. 90-194). In the introduction, Duerlinger describes and explains the views that Candrakīrti attributes to a several Buddhist schools: the Sāṃmitīyas, the Āryasāṃmitīyas, the Sarvāstivādins, and the Sautrāntikas, as well as the non-Buddhist Tīrthikas. Duerlinger also provides a relatively clear expression of Candrakīrti’s criticisms of these views as found in Candrakīrti’s Clear Words, Introduction to the Middle Way, and his Autocommentary on the Introduction to the Middle Way. The introduction is composed of four sections. The first section distinguishes Duerlinger’s translation and commentary from the existing English translations and commentaries. The second places Candrakīrti’s Autocommentary in the context of the Mahāyāna and Madhyamaka traditions and explains the ten stages of the Bodhisattva path of meditation and its fruit as Candrakīrti understands it from the Sūtra on the Ten Stages (Daśabhūmika Sūtra). The third presents valuable explanations of several critical terms used by Candrakīrti, and the fourth section relates Candrakīrti’s theory of persons to other Indian Buddhist theories.
The second part of the work, the translation of the root text, is informed by what is perhaps the most important contribution that Duerlinger makes toward understanding Candrakīrti’s arguments: the distinction between a self “with person-properties” and a self “without person-properties.” By selves “with person-properties,” Duerlinger means beings that possess minds and bodies, perceive, think, feel, act, etc. When English speakers use the term “self” (and personal pronouns), we commonly refer to beings with such properties. This is most evident in our use of the reflexive pronouns “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “herself,” “ourselves,” “yourselves,” and “themselves.” In each case, we refer to beings that have person-properties. Even in the case of “itself,” we commonly use the term to refer to beings with person-properties, e.g., “the mouse trapped itself in the box.” The neuter pronoun merely elides our ignorance of the mouse’s sex. There are, however, some instances when we use “itself” (and even “themselves”) to refer to objects without person-properties, e.g., “the building collapsed on itself” or “the bean stalks entwined themselves around the poles.” In these instances, we appear to suggest a degree of agency (a feature of personhood) that on more careful analysis we would reject. So while it is not always true, on the whole our use of “self” refers to beings with person-properties.
The use of the term “atman” to refer to persons is less consistent in Buddhist texts. The world “ātman” is normally translated as “self,” but it ambiguously refers to beings with person-properties and objects without person-properties. According to Duerlinger, by carefully attending to the ambiguities in the Buddhist texts and marking them with his person-property terminology, we can better understand the arguments made by Candrakīrti. Duerlinger writes, “The distinction [between selves with and without person-properties] is not to my knowledge explicitly drawn by Candrakīrti and his Madhyamaka (Middle Way) followers,” but he goes on to write, “The distinction is needed to explain why he [Candrakīrti] represents his fellow Buddhists as asserting the thesis that a self exists by itself when they deny that a self exists by itself” (p. 4). Perhaps it is because Duerlinger does not find explicit evidence for his person-property terminology that he does not us the terminology in his translation of the root text, but it helpfully appears in both his introduction to the root text and in his commentary on the root text.
The third part of the work is Duerlinger’s verse-by-verse commentary on Candrakīrti’s Autocommentary. It is based on seven Tibetan commentaries written in the Madhyamaka tradition, six of which are from English translations. Among the value-added features of Duerlinger’s commentary are quotations from Candrakīrti’s Clear Words, his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way. These quotations provide additional helpful perspective on Candrakīrti’s views.
To delineate the various Buddhist views of the self as Duerlinger believes Candrakīrti understands them, we should start by describing a view of the self held by the non-Buddhist Tīrthika school. This is the most robust view of the self considered by Candrakīrti. We can compare it to something like (but only something like) a Cartesian substantive self. It is an eternally existing mind that is temporarily associated with a particular body. This is in contrast to the Buddhist view that sees the self as identical to or at least dependent upon the body. Perhaps the simplest version of this contrasting view is held by the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas. They maintained that the self is identical to the aggregates (skandhas), i.e., collections of elementary “dharmas” which we might recognize as (i) physical atoms, (ii) sensations, (iii) perceptions, (iv) volitional actions and external forces that condition our circumstances, and (v) consciousness. The classic explanation of this view appears in the Questions of Milinda (Milindapañha), written in the first century. In this text, Nāgasena explains to King Malinda that the self is like a chariot, composed of parts, and while one might say that each part exists, the chariot only exists dependently upon the parts; hence, its ontological status is different than the ontological status of the parts. The chariot does not exist in the strictest sense. The word “chariot” is only a convenient way to refer to the collection of parts that alone exist. Similarly, the word “I” is merely a convenient way to refer to the collection of parts or “aggregates” which make up the self.
David Hume comes closest to holding this particular view of the self. For Hume, personal identity is a bundle of overlapping impressions and ideas. Hume would not agree with the Buddhist enumeration of the aggregates (the strands that make up the bundle that is the self), but the important point is that the self is a composition of elementary parts and does not have an independent existence. The Sarvāstivādins differed from the Sautrāntikas on a number of points, but most importantly the former maintained the existence of the past, present, and future, while the latter only accepted that the present exists. In other words, the Sarvāstivādins accepted a kind of duration of the dharmas that the Sautrāntikas rejected. At the same time, the Sautrāntikas accepted the spatial extension of the bodily dharmas while the Sarvāstivādins held that they were infinitely divisible. Importantly, they agreed that the self was identical to the aggregates and that a self with person-properties did not exist independently of those aggregates.
In contrast, the Pudgalavādins held a view that lay precariously between the Tīrthika view and the Sarvāstivādin-Sautrāntikan view. For the Pudgalavādins the self was dependent upon the aggregates. In this respect it was like the Sarvāstivādin-Sautrāntikan self; however, the Pudgalavādin self did possess person-properties. This latter feature made the Pudgalavādin self similar to the Tīrthika self, but as distinct from the Tīrthikas, Pudgalavādins did not maintain that the self was eternal. It could, though, transmigrate from body to body in rebirth. That the Pudgalavādin self was dependent upon the aggregates, but at the same time possessed person-properties while the aggregates did not, meant that the self and the aggregates were neither the same nor different from each other. The Pudgalavādin self was, in this way, “inexpressible.” Perhaps the closest Western notion to the Pudgalavādin view is that of a form of supervenience. The self is dependent upon the aggregates, but does have the same ontological status as the aggregates. It is not substantive as is a Cartesian or Tīrthikan self; yet, it does possess a mind and body and has the capacity to perceive, think, feel, act, etc. It is no wonder that orthodox Buddhists greeted this view with extreme skepticism.
Candrakīrti rejected all of these views and carried to completion the refutation of the self begun by the Buddhist tradition. His refutation relied on a distinction that all of the previous schools of Buddhism accepted but did not make the most of. Each school recognized two forms of truth: conventional (saṃvṛtisatya) and ultimate (paramārthasatya). By asserting that the self is a collection of aggregates and that reference to the self was a short hand for referring to the aggregates, Buddhists were able to maintain that the existence of the self was of a different order than the existence of the aggregates. That is, the self existed conventionally, while what ultimately existed were the aggregates or the elementary dharmas that composed the aggregates. This allowed Buddhists to maintain that it was conventionally true that the self “existed,” while at the same time maintaining that it was not ultimately true. When the Buddha spoke of the self or made use of personal pronouns, he was asserting facts that were merely conventionally true. Both the Pudgalavādins and the Sarvāstivādin-Sautrāntikan made use of this distinction and both accepted that the aggregates – or more precisely, the dharmas – had an ultimate existence.
It is this last claim that Candrakīrti and the Madhyamikas rejected. Their critical premise was that all things with which we are normally acquainted arise dependently. That is, their existence relies on the existence of other things. This includes even the dharmas, the elemental building blocks of the aggregates. In light of this, the self had no ultimate basis at all. All things, including the self, neither existed (independently) nor did not exist. Instead, they maintained what provisionally might be thought of as a third ontological status between existence and non-existence known as “emptiness” (śūnyatā). One might see this as similar to the Pudgalavādin claim that the self was neither the same as nor different from the aggregates, but the similarity is only superficial. The Pudgalavādins located the “inexpressible self” within the conventional realm, while accepting the ultimate reality of the aggregates. Consequently, the self had a basis in the ultimate realm. Against this, the Madhyamikas drew the conventional-ultimate distinction not between the self and its component parts, but between all experience and a transcendent realm accessible only to the enlightened. The illusion of the self as ultimate or as being composed of ultimate elements was what anchored us in samsāra – this delusional world of suffering. Candrakīrti and the Madhyamikas were thus able to acknowledge the purely conventional existence of the self while completely purging it of any ultimate reality. This, more than any other Buddhist theory of the self, was able to interpret the doctrine of anātman in its most rigorous form, while making sense of our (and the Buddha’s) use of personal pronouns.
Relying solely on Buddhism’s root texts upon which these distinctions are based makes for difficult study. Consequently, commentaries and other secondary literature are of great value. James Duerlinger’s The Refutation of the Self in Indian Buddhism along with his early work Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons stand among the most helpful aids to understanding the critical and intriguing Buddhist doctrines of the self.
1.  Duerlinger, J. Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhu’s “Refutation of the Theory of the Self,” (London: Routledge, 2003).

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness / Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche -- N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2007

In 2002, Yongey Mingyur was among a small number of Buddhist monks who came to the University of Wisconsin to become the subjects of a psychological study of long-term meditation adepts.  This study was among the groundbreaking research that has made the interaction between Western psychology and Buddhism so fruitful in recent years.  Subsequently, Yongey Mingyur has written a number of books on Buddhism, particularly Buddhist meditation.  The Joy of Living is among these books.

The Joy of Living is an endearing combination of personal stories, advice on meditation, Buddhist doctrine, and explanations of scientific discoveries that are important to the Buddhist worldview.  For example, Yongey Mingyur describes how neuroplasticity is related to the Buddhist practice of training one's mind and he lays out the similarities between contemporary theories in physics and the Buddhist conceptions of impermanence and emptiness.

Most significant, however, is his advice on meditation.  In a nut shell, Yongey Migyur demystifies meditation, explaining that it is not something that requires great effort.  Instead, one can begin a meditation practice simply by taking the time to passively observe the feelings, experiences, and thoughts that come to one's mind.  Furthermore, meditation need not involve retiring to a quiet secluded place, but can be done anywhere and for even very short periods of time.  Distractions that are normally thought to be impediments to meditation are, for Yongey Mingyur, simply objects upon which one might meditate.

One suspects, however, that this description of meditation is merely preliminary to a more advanced practice.  Beginning by observing one's feelings, experiences, and thoughts certainly allows one to distance oneself from the activity of "the monkey brain" that normally drives us from one mental phenomenon to the next.  With that distance, one is then in a position to control (or at least nuance) one's mental phenomena and bend it toward the non-attachment that characterizes enlightenment.  Yongey Mingyur's preliminary practice is certainly a necessary step toward the more advance, practice that is less casual what he encourages.

Most of all, Yongey Mingyur's literary style is conversation and extremely accessible, even while he explains extremely difficult ideas in Buddhist doctrine.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen / Christopher McDougall -- N.Y.: Vantage Books, 2011

Christopher McDougall has given us an amazing and charming book in Born to Run.  McDougall, a runner himself, has been a war correspondent, an editor for Men's Health, and a writer for numerous magazines. On assignment in Mexico, he came upon a magazine article about the Tarahumara Indians, who have made running the centerpiece of their culture.  Members of their tribe routinely run scores, even hundreds of miles at a time over the rough landscape of the Copper Canyons in Mexico.  As a writer for Runner's World, McDougall set out to meet the Tarahumara runners along with a mysterious American runner, Caballo Blanco, who was said to live among them.  After a difficult journey through territory controlled by drug lords, McDougall makes contact with the Tarahumara and Caballo.  From there he begins to explore the history of the Tarahumara's encounters with American ultra-runners, athletes who also run grueling 100 mile races over forbidding cross-country trails.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.

Born to Run is his account of the people and races that he encountered in his research.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.  It is easy to simply dismiss these athletes as lunatics.  Who in their right mind, after all, would run 100 miles non-stop?  But as we read about them, one gains a sincere respect for people who have developed the discipline to accomplish such a task without major injury and in a manner that they clearly find rewarding and even spiritually uplifting.  Along the way McDougall tells us not only of the remarkable spirit of these long distance runners, but of how we humans have lost touch with an ability that, according to McDougall, gave us the evolutionary edge to survive in an otherwise deadly environment:  the ability to run great distances.  While slower and weaker than other animals, our ability to patiently track prey, allowed our ancestors to chase them for great distances until they collapsed from exhaustion.  McDougall also presents the case that our feet have been well-adapted to run these great distances without causing injury.  Ironically, the sports running shoes that are designed to protect feet are causing more injuries than would occur to barefoot runners.  His book is part anthropology and part evolutionary biology.

The most interesting aspect of the book is, however, his account of the race that is organized by Caballo, bringing several American ultra-runners to the Copper Canyons to race against the Tarahumara.  In this final portion of the narrative, we get engaging accounts of the various and free-spirited personalities of the ultra-runners as they make their way to the Copper Canyons and interact with the Tarahumara and it is the Tarahumara who are the real stars of the story, even while we learn less of them than we learn of the American runners.  This is due undoubtedly to the access McDougall had to the characters and to the cultural reticence of the Tarahumara.

The tale is eminently exciting and entertaining.  Whether or not you are a runner, you are bound to find the protagonists in McDougall's story admirable and inspiring.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Buddhism / Christmas Humphreys -- [n.l.]: Penguin Books, 1951

Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys was the first book I read about Buddhism.  I was perhaps 15 years old, newly exploring religions other than the Christianity.  I was immediately taken by Buddhism's approach to life.  It seemed simultaneously rational and compassionate.  It offered a perspective on the world that did not rely on speculation and unsupported faith and the personality traits that it prescribed seem eminently virtuous.  I did not read much more about Buddhism until many years later, but Humphreys's book made a strong enough impression on me that I was always tempted to describe myself as a Buddhist.

This is the third (perhaps fourth) time I have read the book and with this reading I now more clearly understand how it shaped my thinking about Buddhism.  Buddhism is a general introduction to the religion.  It presents chapters on the life of the Buddha and his ministry.  It then goes on to describe the essential doctrines of early Buddhism in five chapters, followed by a chapter on the Sangha, three chapters on Mahayana Buddhism, chapters on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and finally two chapters on "the fruits" of Buddhism and contemporary Buddhism.

Humphreys does a good job in nearly all of these chapters.  His accounts are generally clear and accurate.  He does, however, present some ideas in a rather sectarian fashion.  His treatment of Tibetan Buddhism over emphasizes the magical and ritualistic trappings of the tradition, making it seem a poor degeneration of a noble tradition.  His characterization of Zen, on the other hand, describes it not only as the consummation of Buddhist thought and practice, but the highest achievement of human spiritual and philosophical thought.  His treatment of the concept of the self appears to be most consistent with Yogachara thinking in which the self is a kind of world consciousness (what is sometimes elsewhere described as a "storehouse" consciousness).  At times Humphreys even appears to verge into agreement with Pudgalavada Buddhism which accepts an "inexpressible" self or the Advaita Vedanta that posits an eternal, universal soul.  Humphreys asserts that the earlier doctrines which accepted anatta or the doctrine of no-self misunderstood the true views of the Buddha.  Perhaps the largest missing piece in his account is an clear and detailed explanation of the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness which was the critical concept in the Madhyamaka school.

As a result of these more or less evaluative treatments, my own impression of Buddhism failed to appreciate the importance of anatta and sunyata, and it led me to explore and embrace Zen for perhaps longer than was good for my progress through understanding the whole of Buddhism.  It was nearly twenty years later that I finally picked up T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism in which a gained a good understanding of anatta and sunyata and recognized the importance of their place in Buddhist thought.  I don't mean to denigrate the ideas and perspectives of Zen or the Yogacara tradition.  I merely hope to point out that a best understanding of Buddhist thought is not achieved by reading its history in reverse.  To appreciate Zen and the Yogacara Buddhism,  one should first understand and appreciate the early schools of Buddhism and the orthodox view of the self that they propose.  With that (and with an understanding of Advaita Vedantism) one can appreciate the remarkable perspective of the Madhyamaka and the natural reaction to it that resulted in Zen and the Yogacara tradition.

I  am forever thankful that I encounter Christmas Humphreys's book at an early age.  It no doubt made a significant and very beneficial contribution to my intellectual growth and perspective on life.  I only wish that before going on to read about Zen, I was directed to the earlier phases of Buddhist thought, particularly the doctrine of no-self.  It may have been too much to expect a teenager to understand and appreciate the concept of emptiness, but with the doctrine of no-self under my belt, I would likely have come to it sooner than I did.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What the Buddha Taught / Walpola Rahula -- Revised Edition -- N.Y.: Grove Weidenfeld, 1959, 1974

Walpola Rahula's short book What the Buddha Taught is among the best introductions to the essential doctrines of early Buddhism that I have read.  His introductory chapter admirably lays out the basic "attitude of mind" that characterizes Buddhism.  This is followed by four chapters, each on one of the Four Noble Truths:  the fact of suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the actions by which one brings about the cessation of dukkha.  Rahula then devotes a two chapters on topics that are critical for the appreciation of Buddhist enlightenment.  The first of these chapters deals with what is possibly the most important concept unique to Buddhism among the world's venerable religions:  the doctrine of the non-existence of the self (anatta).  The second chapter is devoted to the cultivation of the mind through meditation.

In the chapter on anatta, Rahula appears to be responding to a work that had been recently published by Christmas Humphreys.  Humphreys translates a passage in the Dhammapada as asserting "The Self is the Lord of the Self."  From this, Humphreys goes on to reject the Theravada interpretation of the doctrine of anatta, claiming that their are two selves:  one that is the composition of psycho-physical attributes and another that is "a reservoir of character brought over from life to life" which while not immortal, endures long enough to "control the lower self" and in a long process of self-purification, become liberated from the suffering world.  Against this, Rahula argues that the translation that Humphreys accepts is faulty.  Instead, Atta hi attano natho should be translated "One is one's own refuge" or "One is one's own support."  The passage does not suggest a bifurcation of the self.  On this score and on others, Rahula's interpretation of Buddhism is in accord with the doctrines of Early Buddhism, i.e., the Buddhism that pre-existed the Mahayana reformation.

In the final chapter, Rahula discusses how this ancient practice can be made relevant to the modern world.  Though written more than 50 years ago, his account is still quite relevant.  A significant portion of it refers to the Sigala Sutta and is devoted to recognizing the importance of loving and respecting ("worshiping" the people in one's life in place of the six directions that were traditionally worshiped in the ancient Indian practice, but Rahula also discusses what is a lay Buddhist's proper relationship to economics and politics.

Finally, Rahula includes translations of five important suttas and excerpts from five more.  These are generally the suttas that he has referred to in the course of his book.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball / John Feinstein -- N.Y.: Doubleday, 2014

Beneath the tip of the iceberg of Major League Baseball lies the minor leagues.  For every major league team there are at least six professional teams in a hierarchy of minor leagues:  Triple-A, Double-A, three A-level leagues (high, low, and short season), and Rookie.  Additionally, there are leagues outside the U.S. that feed the major league teams, most significantly the Mexican League.  John Feinstein's book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, relates the experiences of a number of players (six in particular) who have spent years -- even decades -- in these leagues.  Their stories are engaging and revealing.

The pay is not good.  Only in the Triple-A could it be said to compete with what a player might get in another profession and the rigors of travel make life in the minors even less appealing.  Instead of flying from game to game, minor league players travel by bus, sometimes several hours after a night game, arriving at the town hosting their next game just after sunrise.  Clearly, the players are looking (and working) for something better -- at very least, just a shot at a short stint in the majors where the minimum pay is an order of magnitude better along with everything else: the stadiums, the locker rooms, the hotel rooms, the transportation, the medical and coaching support, and even the food; but though all of this is certainly an attraction, Feinstein's interviews with the players clearly show that their ambition is driven mostly by a desire to excel in the sport they love.

The players that Feinstein focuses on have seen both the majors and the minors, spending most of their careers in the minors, but periodically getting called up to play on a major league team, sometimes for a season or two, sometimes for a handful of days.  Nearly all of them have been traded from one team to another a dizzying number of times.  Usually too often to establish any strong connection to the team or its players.  Indeed, they appear to be playing entirely for themselves, constantly trying to prove their worth to their major league sponsor or to another major league team that might choose to buy their contract or pick them up on waivers.

Feinstein relates story after story of players being invited to a major league team's spring training, sparking hopes that they will be signed for the season.  Those who do not are of course disappointed, but often take consolation that they might be selected to join the major league team after the roster is expanded in August.  Still, the likelihood of this happening is only high for a few players -- "prospects" as they are termed.  The remainder of the players seem mostly there to fill out a roster to make games possible that will keep the prospects sharp.

Along with stories of the players, Feinstein tells us about the coaches, the managers, the umpires, and even the grounds keepers.  All of them are laboring in the purgatory of the minor leagues in hopes of "going up" to the majors.  The life of umpires is especially poignant.  Unlike the players who can play for a major league team, get sent back to the minors, and then later return to the majors, the umpire is promoted through the minor league ranks, until they are finally selected for major league games.  Their opportunities are generally limited to replacing umpires who have decided to retire, often in their sixties.  If a minor league umpire is deemed not to be major league-caliber, he is likely to be let go to make room for the umpiring equivalent of a player "prospect."  It's "up or out" for umpires.

While Feinstein's writing is indeed engaging, it is sometimes repetitious.  This in part is due to the similarity of the players' experiences, but the reader frequently encounters sentences that are all-but identical to ones read before.  The similarity in the stories makes it difficult -- dare I say impossible -- to keep the particular career of the players straight.  This is complicated by the structure of the narrative.  Six people are the subjects of the book and their stories are not told complete and in sequence.  Instead, a player's career is told in vignettes interspersed with other players' vignettes.  It's not clear if this was Feinstein's intent, but the resultant impression is of an archetypal minor leaguer, precariously living on the cusp of success.  While the stories of the nearly-successful are certainly engrossing, one is struck by what must be the great majority of minor league players who don't find even the modicum of success of Feinstein's subjects.  Surely, many of them, particularly those in Double-A leagues or less must understand that they are never destined to play in the majors.  Feinstein's book would have benefited from their stories as well.

In the end, though, one feels a great appreciation for the minor league player.  Despite laboring outside the spotlight, these players are among the very best players on the planet, working hard to prove to the world and themselves that they are such and hoping to stay in the game as long as possible.  Toward the end of the book, Feinstein describes two players, John Suomi and Scott Elarton, sitting alone in a dugout watching the rain fall.  Elarton is hoping that the game will not be cancelled because he is scheduled to pitch.  It is the last game of the season and it is that season that he will play.  He wants to end his decade-long career on a high note.  "John and I had a long talk about what your last day in baseball might feel like," Elarton said.  "We agreed we didn't want it to feel like this, but maybe this was just reality."  Reality is was: the game was called, the season was over as was Elarton's career.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime / Stephen Batchelor -- N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 2000

Among the most important concepts that Buddhism has contributed to the world's history of ideas is the concept of śūnyatā which is often translated as "emptiness."  Commonly, we understand things in the world as falling into two ontological categories: being and nothingness.  Given this duality, emptiness is often misunderstood as simply another way of referring to nothingness.  It is, however, better understood as marking a third ontological category that is neither being nor nothingness.  At the same time, emptiness has important relations to these two standard ontological categories.  To understand emptiness, consider a chess set.  It is composed of eight white pawn, eight white pieces, eight black pawns, eight black pieces, and a board.  If we imagine a chess set sitting before us on a table we might say that there are 33 objects on the table; however, we might also say that there is a chess set on the table.  Could this really mean there are 34 objects on the table?  Not if by an object we mean something that exists independently of all other things, since the chess set exists only dependently on its 33 independently existing objects.  The chess set, while certainly existing, has an ontological status that is different from its component elements.  Buddhists call this form of existence "dependent existence" and say of dependently existing objects that they are "empty."  Among the most striking observations that has come out of the Buddhist tradition is the view that all things in the phenomenal world are empty.  This is not a doctrine that all Buddhist embrace, but it is one which was clearly articulated by the second century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna.  

Dependent existence might also come about not by a mereological relation, but by a causal dependency.  States of affairs that that currently exist only exist as a product of the prior conditions which brought them about.  They exist dependent upon their causes.  Buddhists refer to this relationship as "dependent origination."  Again, as with mereological dependence, all things in the phenomenal world originate dependently.  More simply put: all things have a cause.  All things are a result of prior conditions.  

The idea of dependent origination and emptiness appear in some of the earliest Buddhist texts, but as mentioned above, it did not take center stage in Buddhist thinking until it was highlighted by Nagarjuna.  Nagarjuna's most significant work is the Mulamadhyamikakarika which Stephen Batchelor translates as Verses from the Center.  There are several translations of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, most recently, Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura translated it in their work Nagarjuna's Middle Way.  Another important translation appears in Jay Garfield's The Fundamental Wisdom off the Middle Way which Batchelor recommends as "a more literal, academic translation."  Nagarjuna's work is composed of 27 chapters.  The shortest chapter is made up of six, four-line verses, while the longest chapter is made up of 40, four-line verses (at least this is how Garfield parses the text within the chapters). To illuminate the concept of emptiness, Nagarjuna discusses a variety of metaphysical topics, including time, motion, causation, actions, and the self as well as specifically Buddhist concepts like nirvana, the Buddha nature, and the Four Noble Truths.  The basic strategy of the work is to demonstrate through close logical analysis that all theories about the metaphysical concepts under scrutiny cannot be correct.  Through reductio ad absurdum arguments, Nagarjuna shows that the tools of reason cannot lead to an adequate understanding of of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is accessible to us only after we understand this and open ourselves to a direct understanding through an intuition of the emptiness of all things in our experience.

Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness is a monumental achievement in the history of ideas.  From it, the numerous schools of Mahayana Buddhism emerged, particularly the Madhyamaka schools present in Tibet today and the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism.  These later school have, of course, additional important influences besides Nagarjuna. We are particularly fortunate that Stephen Batchelor took up the task of translating and commenting on the Mulamadhyamakakarika in that he brings a thorough understanding of the Tibetan tradition (particularly the Dge lugs) as well as Zen.  Furthermore,  Batchelor brings a critical Western perspective to his interpretations.  Batchelor became steeped in the scholarly study of Buddhism while studying under the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  He eventually felt a need to go beyond scholarship and seek out a more direct understanding of Buddhism.  Traveling to South Korea, Batchelor joined a Zen monastery, where he pursued a path of meditation.  Ultimately, he left the monastery to marry, move to England, and become a lay Buddhist.  Nonetheless, he has continued to write and lecture on Buddhism.  He has become well-known as a "secular Buddhist," seeking to preserve the practical, rational elements of Buddhism while discarding the religious, speculative, and magic elements.  Batchelor believes that only by doing this will Buddhism find wider acceptance in the West.

His translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika is clear, crisp, and poetic.  It seems to reflect the sensibility of the Japanese haiku.  For example, he translates a verse in chapter on the self as follows:

When the Buddhas don't appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

Compare this to Garfield's more "literal, academic translation:"

When the fully enlighten ones do not appear,
And when the disciples have disappeared,
The wisdom of the self-enlightened ones
Will arise completely without a teacher.

Or compare it to the Siderits-Katsura translation:

Though the completely enlightened ones do not arise and the sravakas disappear,
The knowledge of the pratyekabuddhas arise independently.

Or compare the translations of another verse in a chapter on the body.  First, Batchelor:

I have no body apart
From the parts which form it;
I have no parts
Apart from a "body."

Next, Garfield:

Apart form the cause of form,
Form cannot be conceived.
Apart from form,
The cause of form is not seen.

Finally, Siderits-Katsura:

Rupa is not found separate from the cause of rupa.
Nor is the cause of rupa seen without rupa.

One is immediately attracted to Batchelor's verses.  In most instances, they have the capacity to capture the imagination of the reader and prompt deep reflection, when the other translations seem flat or simply puzzling; however, the Garfield and Siderits-Katsura are certainly more faithful translations of the original work.  While someone not well acquainted with the concepts that Nagarjuna is explicating will certainly find Garfield and Siderits-Katsura puzzling, both translations are accompanied with helpful commentary.  So the reader is left with two options:  reading Batchelor for the pleasure of his style or reading Garfield or Siderits-Katsura to deepen one's understanding of Nagarjuna.  In defense of Batchelor, though, one might justly argue that he has done a fine job of conveying the spirit of the original and that for the most part one does not need a strong background in the Madhyamaka tradition to get a passable understanding of the force of the root text.  Still, reading Batchelor's translation alone will not leave one with a full understanding.

It should be noted, though, that Verses from the Center also contains Batchelor's very fine introduction, entitled "Intuitions of the Sublime."  The title clearly conveys Batchelor's approach to Nagarjuna.  While Nagarjuna is well-known for the incisiveness of his arguments, his final goal is to demonstrate that argumentation cannot lead us to a true understanding of the world.  This can be achieved only through intuition.  Batchelor appears to use the Mulamadhyamakakarika as an inspiration to write poetry that is often only loosely based on the root text, but which may have the ability to ignite the reader's intuitions and lead one to an understanding that a "more literal, academic translation" cannot.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Buddhism: One Teacher; Many Traditions / Bhiksu Tenzin Gyatso and Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron -- Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014

Over the course of the last year in connection with my sabbatical, I have read numerous books on Buddhism, both recent works and seminal works in the Buddhist canon.  Many have provided valuable and sometimes unique insights into the history and philosophy of Buddhism, but none have managed to encapsulate the most important ideas in that history and philosophy as Buddhism: One Teacher; Many Traditions by the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) and Thubten Chodron.  The work is deep and amazingly comprehensive.  For me, it is unquestionably the best book of 2014.

In just 290 pages, the authors cover the following topics:
  1. The Origin and Spread of the Buddha's Doctrine
  2. Refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the dharma, and the samgha)
  3. The Four Noble Truths
  4. Training in Ethical Conduct
  5. Training in Concentration
  6. Training in Wisdom
  7. Selflessness and Emptiness
  8. Dependent Arising
  9. Meditation Uniting Serenity and Insight
  10. Progress on the Path to Enlightenment
  11. The Four Immeasurables (love, compassion, joy, and equanimity)
  12. Bodhicitta (the aspiration for enlightenment for the benefit of all)
  13. Training in the Path of the Bodhisattvas (including the Six Perfections)
  14. The Possibility of Awakening
  15. Tantrism
What is most astonishing about the work is that it is both eminently readable -- even for the novice -- and deeply insightful.  Not only does it cover the seminal doctrines of the Buddha, it traces the development of those doctrines in all of the major Buddhist traditions; hence, the subtitle: "One Teacher; Many Traditions."  Many works are said to be of value to both the novice and the expert, but never has that been so true as of this work.

In his prologue to the work, the Dalai Lama writes that he has spent a great deal of time seeking to build connections between different religious traditions; however, he notes that there is too little mutual understanding within the traditions of Buddhism and he points out specific misconceptions held by Buddhist about different Buddhist traditions.  A primary purpose of the work, then, is to help dispel these misconceptions and create a deeper understanding of world Buddhism among Buddhists themselves, without insisting on a single orthodox interpretation of the dharma.

While the title page lists the Dalai Lama as the first author, the nature of Thubten Chodron's preface would suggest that the great bulk of the writing is hers.  Indeed, it appears that she wrote the work under the direction of the Dalai Lama and that her understanding of Buddhism is profoundly shaped by the views of the Dalai Lama with whom she has studied.  A search in WorldCat indicates that her numerous published books reach back to the 1980s, many of which have been translated into numerous languages.  She began studying meditation in 1975, was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 in Dharamsala and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan.  She also maintains a web site at, where many of her lectures have been archived.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions / Edwin A. Abbott -- N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1992

First published in 1884, Abbott's Flatland is a whimsical story about a square (or Mr. A. Square) living in a two dimensional world who is visited by a sphere from a three dimensional world.  Eventually, Mr. A. Square is transported by the sphere into the three dimensional world so that he might understand the limitations of his own experience.  Flatland is at once a lesson in geometry and an allegory on two levels.  The geometry lesson is quite simple.  Abbott provides the reader with a reasonably plausible account of how a two dimensional world might appear to a two dimensional being.  At one point he also provides us with an account of how a one dimensional world might appear to a one dimensional being.  However, it is the allegories that are the most interesting aspects of the book.  One the most obvious level, Mr. A. Square's world is rife with the social and political hierarchies of the late 19th century.  Class is represented by the number of sides the resident polygons have.  Near circles are the highest, nearly priestly class, while on the other end of the hierarchy, women are nearly simple straight lines.  On a less obvious level, the allegory is about how we are limited by the metaphysical contours of our world and our faculties of mind.

Abbott does not explicitly write of this, but his work clearly suggests that our ordinary manner of thinking about the world as being laid out in four dimensions might be a product of our faculties of mind.  Indeed, theories in contemporary physics suggest that we in fact live in a world best described by numerous more dimensions than the four we commonly accept.  For someone not acquainted with these theories, one feels like Mr. A. Square wrestling with the arguments of the sphere that assert unimaginable ideas.

Flatland is utterly charming.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Raft Is Not the Shore: Conversations toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness / Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh -- Boston: Beacon Press, 1975

Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh are among the most important peace activists working during the Vietnam War.  Daniel Berrigan is a Catholic priest who was often at odds with the Catholic Church.  Among Berrigan's most influential actions were his reception of three American airmen released by the North Vietnamese and his destruction of draft files using homemade napalm.  For the latter action, he and eight other peace activists were jailed.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who worked to bring peace to Vietnam, particularly during the American phase of the war.  He was refused re-entry into Vietnam by the South Vietnamese government in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accord was signed.  

The Raft Is Not the Shore is the transcript of conversations between Berrigan and Nhat Hanh that took place in France at the close of the Vietnam War.  The topics of conversation include the role of religion in the world, the responsibilities of priests and monks, the relationships between government, economics, and religion and the importance of forming "communities of resistance" that will work against forces of violence and in favor of human rights and the dignity of all people.  There is a healthy dose of comparative religion in their conversations -- comparing, of course, Christianity and Buddhism, but not as much as one might have thought.  It is, by and large, a discussion between two peace activists about their experiences, their attempts to deal with the obstacles they faced, and their strategies for effective actions for peace.  In the course of their conversation, one can clearly distinguish their different dispositions.  Berrigan appears to be more strident and angry, while Nhat Hanh appears more patient and forgiving.  One might speculate about the reason for these different attitudes.  Are they a function of the religious background of the two men or are they simply a reflection of their individual temperaments?  In any case, it is clear that both men have a profound and sincere sense of justice and a commitment to peace that transcends their self-interests.

The work is worth reading whether you are looking for insight into these two important historical figures, insight into the Vietnam War, or insight into peace activism.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval / John Foster -- London: Routledge, 2015

After Sustainability is a frightening book.  Not only because it is based on the premise that climate change poses an apocalyptic future, but for the attitude that its author, John Foster, takes to that future.  Foster is of the mind that we have passed the point of no return and that nothing that we can do as a society will significantly mitigate the harms that a changing climate will create.  He is dismissive of environmentalist and activists that suggest we might achieve some kind of sustainable,  low carbon, global society that will be remotely livable.  Hence, "after sustainability" essentially suggests how we should think about our future once we have given up the false hope of sustainability.

His prescription calls for embracing our "dark self" which seems to be primarily committed to "existential resilience."  At times, Foster appears to suggest that this is a welcome return to a pre-moral attitude that is an expression of our primitive animality.  Less philosophically, Foster appears to suggest that societies that are rich enough should prepare to erect barriers to immigration from less fortunate societies and defend those barriers at all costs.  Whether he is or is not advocating this, he certainly seems to suggest that this will be a consequence of the apocalypse of climate change and that those who will survive will be those who are able to create something akin to the "transition towns" recently created to prepare for the economic disruptions following peak oil.

In all, Foster's attitude is needlessly pessimistic and assumes the coming of worst-case scenarios for climate change.  His response is quite in line with the amoral attitudes of American survivalists.  A more grounded assessment of our situation would indicate that there is a high chance, perhaps even likelihood, that we will not be able to preserve a functioning global society and that the repercussions of this will be disastrous for most of the world's population; however, there is also a non-negligible chance that what we do today will significantly mitigate the damage that climate change might otherwise do.  The worst-case scenarios result from "business as usual" characterizing the world's energy future and there indeed are power forces that will seek to continue with business as usual; however, just as the physics of the planet might be subject to dangerous tipping points, so too are our political, social, and economic institutions subject to tipping points.  Indeed these institutions might be far more subject to tipping points.  Abandoning the pressure to mitigate changes in our climate (as Foster seems to recommend) surrenders any chance that we might reach those positive tipping points.  If Foster is right, then nothing we do will avoid an apocalyptic future, but abandoning our moral responsibilities in favor of self-preservation based on his pessimistic assessment is premature and certainly morally indecent.  

Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980

After the publication of The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien's son, Christopher, released Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth.  It was a testament to his confidence in the importance of his father's work as The Silmarillion did not meet the expectations of Tolkien's fans.  As it happened, Unfinished Tales fared no better.  That's a shame as both posthumous works are great achievements despite being unfinished by the author.  Unfinished Tales contains stories from each of the three ages of Middle Earth.  The First Age is primarily the history of the elves.  In Unfinished Tales we can read about Tuor, a human raised by elves and his coming to the hidden elf kingdom of Gondolin.  We also can read about the fate of the children of Hurin, Turin and Nienor, both ill-fated by a curse placed on their father.  From the Second Age, we have stories of the men of Numenor, blessed by the god-like Valar, but virtually destroyed by the seduction of Sauron.  We also find a history of Galadriel and her husband Celeborn, elves of the noblest rank.  Told of the Third Age, the age in which the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place, are accounts of the loss of the Ring of Power, relations between Gondor and Rohan, and stories filling in a few gaps in the account given in The Lord of the Rings. Finally, there are three short accounts of the Wild Men of the Druedain, the five wizards, and the palantiri.

By and large the prose of Unfinished Tales is out of keeping with the novelistic form of Tolkien's more popular works and more akin to The Silmarillion, but there is enough connection to the popular works to make it somewhat more engaging to the casual Tolkien fan than was The Silmarillion.  Most certainly, the stories chosen by Christopher Tolkien to include in this volume are among the most important for gaining a deep understanding of Tolkien's larger vision of Middle Earth.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Silmarillion / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977

The Silmarillion has a bad reputation.  After a spike in the popularity on American college campuses of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, his readers were eager for a similar work.  When they discovered that Tolkien's unpublished stories were consciously not in a traditional novelistic form, they largely turned their backs on them -- not just The Silmarillion, but all of his remaining unpublished works.  In the years following the publication of The Silmarillion, one could easily find copies of it in used bookstores.  This is all too bad, since there is much to appreciate in The Silmarillion, if one does not expect it to be like The Lord of the Rings.

The volume is composed of five works: "Ainulindale," "Valaquenta," Quenta Silmarillion, "Akallabeth," and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age." "Ainulindale" is and account of the work of Eru, the One, called "Iluvatar" by the Elves.  Eru created everything. First among his creations were the Ainur (or more specifically, the Valar), god-like beings that remind one of the Olympian gods.  Tolkien describes their primary activity as the making of music, which is disrupted by the dissonance of one of the Ainur, Melkor, because of his pride.  Later, the music of the Valar takes on a new ontological form as Ea, the material universe and Arda, the world in which all of Tolkien's stories are set.  Included as a region of Arda is Middle Earth.  The tone of all of this is rather like The Book of Genesis. Never does Tolkien establish what one might consider a novelistic plot or characters of any substance.  What story line that can be found, is based on the rebellion of Melkor.  Upon my first reading, I was thrilled by the depth and majesty of the work and fascinated by its theological undertones, but like so many other readers, I was hoping that the remainder of the work would be more like The Lord of the Rings.

The second work in the volume, "Valaquenta," seems more like a snippet from an encyclopedia, providing entries on the Ainur: the Valar mentioned above and the Maia a demi-god like being.  Ther is also an entry on "the Enemies," including Melkor and Sauron, a Maia of The Lord of the Rings.  There is no doubt value here, but because the roles of the Valar and the Maia are not great in the remainder of the volume, the detail we find here is rather unnecessary for the whole.  We do get, however, a deeper understanding of the powers of the world that the Valar represent and so have a better sense of the cosmology within which the stories of the "Childern of Iluvatar" (elves and men) unfold.  Those stories are told in the three subsequent works in the volume.

The Quenta Silmarillion is the longest and most complex work in the volume.  It is a history of the First Age of the world in which the actions of the elves are of greatest import.  Elves are the "first born" of the Children of Iluvatar, discovered first by Melkor who had taken refuge in Middle Earth. Their fate was decided by a war between Melkor and the other Ainur, the outcome of which was the defeat of Melkor and his imprisonment for three ages.  Following the war, the Ainur invited the elves to come to Aman, "the Undying Lands" to live forever in peace and under the protection of the Ainur.  Three ambassadors were chose from the elves to receive the summons, Ingwe, Finwe, Elwe.  Each became a king of a portion of the elves and each encouraged their subjects to travel across the sea to the join the Ainur.  However, not all of them made the journey.

Perhaps the most gripping story in the Quenta Silmarillion is that of the "Flight of the Elves."  While in the Undying Lands, one elf, Feanor, son of Finwe, made three precious jewels that contained a sacred light.  He called the jewels "the silmarils."  They were, however, stolen from him and taken to Middle Earth by Melkor who had finished his time in prison.  In his pride and lust for the silmarils, Feanor and all his sons made a vow to recover them and treat anyone who withheld the silmarils from them as an enemy.  His decision to return to Middle Earth was opposed by the Valar, who declared that Feanor and any elf that left the Undying Lands with him could not return.  Feanor's pride led him to disregard the decree and he journeyed to Middle Earth.  Shockingly, his departure involved a civil war among the elves in which elves killed elves, forever staining their history.  In the end, Feanor and his followers made it to Middle Earth.  The remainder of the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of their struggle against Melkor to regain the silmarils.

Many of the stories told of that struggle contain thrilling details, but by and large they are schematic, outlining the broad history of the elves in Middle Earth.  The most well developed stories have been published in other works by Tolkien's son Christopher as part of the series of volumes entitled The History of Middle Earth and in one instance as a separate book, The Children of Hurin.  In all, the Quenta Silmarillion truly demonstrates Tolkien's expansive imagination.  If one is fascinated by the complexity and extent of his vision in The Lord of the Rings, one should be absolutely overawed by what he has given us in the Quenta Silmarillion.  Unfortunately, the idiom in which he has chose to write has not attracted the audience it deserves.  To truly appreciate the value of the work, one must give it more than a single reading.  I'm sure very few people have been so committed to understanding Tolkien's vision as to do this.

As if the Quenta Silmarillion were not enough to establish the majesty of his vision, Tolkien provides us with accounts of the Second and Third Ages of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion.  The Second Age is an account of the history of men, particularly the race of men called the Numenoreans, following the defeat of Melkor which ends the First Age.  During the Second Age, the evil of Melkor is carried on by his surviving vassal, Sauron.  Deceived by Sauron, men are induced to attack the Valar in the Undying Lands, which unsurprisingly brings about their destruction, with the exception of a dissident group, loyal to the Valar.

The final work in The Silmarillion is "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age."  This tells the story of the creation of the rings of power by Sauron and ultimate the War of the Last Alliance in which men and elves defeated Sauron and in which the prince of the Numenoreans, Isildur acquired the one ring of power, only to lose it when ambushed by orcs.  It is with the end of this last work that we are finally brought up to the time of Tolkien's more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Undoubtedly, The Silmarillion is not everyone's cup of tea, but for anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings, the stories and history it holds give depth and meaning to that world.  It may take two or more readings to become clear about the various events and numerous figures in the legendarium, but once one has this, Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, and all the rest of Tolkien's familiar characters can be seen in the supremely heroic light that the author envisioned for them.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell / J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Several years ago, I heard a rumor that a translation by Tolkien of Beowulf was found in his papers and that an eminent Tolkien scholar was working on editing it for publication.  Later, I heard that the scholar had abandoned the task.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find Tolkien's translation of Beowulf on sale at my campus bookstore, edited by Tolkien's son, Christopher.  Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf and Beowulf scholarship is legendary.  In 1936, he published an influential study of the entitled, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  More than anything, that study elevated the reputation of Beowulf to the preeminent literary status that it has today.  Prior to that, Beowulf was seen mostly as a hotch-potch of story fragments which W.P. Ker described as putting peripheral matters at the center and central matters at the periphery.  According to Tolkien, the tangential narratives and allusions to other histories and legends lent depth and context to the story and that the centrality of the monsters (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon) and how they were treated by the author offered an important insight into the poem and its telling.  For example, the reference to Grendel as being of the race of Cain and the connection between the dragon and Satan showed that Beowulf was neither fully a pagan epic nor a Christian homily.  Instead, it was a retelling of an earlier pagan legend by a Christian author.  The author's Christian world view could not help but make him (or her?) include a Christian slant on the drama.

It is clear that Tolkien's understanding of Beowulf is first rate if not second to none and so his edition of the poem can not be ignored.  Tolkien was also the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and so his mastery of Old English verse is also of the first order.  At one time in his life he wrote a poem entitled The Fall of Arthur in the alliterative verse form of Old English.  This form is composed of verses made up of two phrases each usually made up of two stressed and two unstressed units of the form:  x / x / | x / x /.   The alliteration occurs when the third stressed unit is the same sound as the sound of the fist stressed unit and sometimes also the second unit.  For example: "the Geat prince went / for Grendel's mother" or "funeral fires / fumes of wood smoke."  Of course, every line in Old English meter is not slavishly fitted to these forms, but any attempt to capture the sound of the Old English poetry would tend to follow these patterns.  Tolkien, however, chose not to write his edition of Beowulf in verse.  Instead, the narrative is presented in prose.  This permits him to more easily capture the meaning of the poem since he is able to choose Modern English expressions that do not alliterate, but what is lost in poetry is gained in semantic accuracy.  At the same time Tolkien's rendition of the story is colored by his sense of drama.  His diction and word order make the work suitably archaic and often quite stirring.  Anyone with an appreciation for his prose will thoroughly enjoy his rendition.

In addition to the rendition of the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien has included a commentary on the text that was taken from Tolkien's lecture notes.  The commentary is nearly twice the length of the poem and this more than anything will provide the reader with deep insight into the poem and to the pagan times about which the poem is written.  For example, Tolkien explains the passage, "Leave here our warlike shields" with the annotation: "Note the prohibition of weapons or accoutrements of battle in the hall.  to walk in with spear and shield was like walking in nowadays with your hat on.  The basis of these rules was of course fear and prudence amid the ever-present dangers of an heroic age, but they were made part of the ritual, of good manners."  The annotation goes on further to point out that this custom was appropriate to a king's hall and that "It was death in Scandinavia to cause a brawl in a king's hall."

The presence of the commentary in the same volume as the rendition gives a reader three extremely attractive options:  (1)  Read the narrative strait through without reference to the commentary.  This allows you to best appreciate Tolkien's own literary techniques.  (2) Read the the commentary along with the narrative.  This provides you with a deep understanding of the story with Tolkien as your guide.  (3) Read the commentary alone.  This provides you with a fascinating study of Old English and the customs of pagan Northern Europe.  It's hard to decide which of these approaches is best.  Perhaps three readings of the work would be ideal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976

A few weeks ago, I watched the concluding film of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I was not disappointed, but only because I had seen the prior two films and had low expectations.  Jackson appears to have decided to make a set of films for an audience that loved his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but has not read The Hobbit.   In order not to allow the movies to confuse my recollections of the book, I decided to re-read The Hobbit for what was probably the fifth or sixth time.  Mind you, those readings were spread over a period of 44 years, though my last reading of it was only a few years ago, prior to Jackson's first Hobbit film.  Over the course of those decades, my experience of the book has changed little. 

For me, The Hobbit ranks first among light, "escapist" reading.  It's my literary "comfort food."  In contrast, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works provide us with more weighty themes.  Three characters are well-developed in The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and to a lesser extent Gandalf the Grey, but character development is not really the central virtue of the book.  Instead, The Hobbit takes us on a journey through a mysterious world which has horizons that are mainly limited to the scene of its action.  Certainly, there are hints of a wider world.  Much has been made of these hints by literary critics who ascribe the attraction of the novel to those hints.  Tolkien himself thought this, but in truth the hints are quite few.  Instead, the intimation of a wider, imaginary world is mostly a consequence of the non-human cast of characters.  If the characters are so different from us, then surely their world must be different.  No hints are really required for that.  What really makes the story endearing is that the reader understands Middle Earth's horizons to be much wider than what we see, but this world is one which is revealed to us only slowly and in the course of the journey.  This is analogous to a child's experience of his or her development to adulthood.

Following the story of The Hobbit along the journey to the Lonely Mountain, one begins in Bilbo's house.  Despite being built into the side of hill, Bilbo's house is familiar enough.  One can imagine the cozy fire, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of food.  Soon enough, Bilbo's world is disturbed by a company of dwarves.  As a child, this intrusion from the outside was not terribly different from the appearance (in real life and on television and radio) of people from the world outside of my family and immediate friends.  They produced both interest and anxiety.  Eventually, Bilbo sets out with the Dwarves and plunges into a world that he knows little about.  In the course of his "adventure," his horizons become wider and wider, encounter challenging environments, trolls, goblins, wolves, a shape-shifting bear-man, a dismal forest, elves, men, and finally the Lonely Mountain and its dragon.  Along the way, Bilbo progressively rises to the challenges he faces.

His first real challenge comes with his encounter with the trolls.  Here Bilbo succeeds only in the sense that he musters the courage to attempt to pick the pocket of one of the trolls.  His (and the dwarves') escape is arranged by the intervention of Gandalf.  Bilbo's second challenge comes with his game of riddles with Gollum.  Again his escape is less of his own doing than, luck.  By finding a ring that makes him invisible and accidently uttering a riddle that stumps Gollum, Bilbo manages to escape the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains.  It is really not until the travelers make it into Mirkwood (a dismal forest) that Bilbo really begins to discover his capabilities.  His defeat of the spiders that have captured the dwarves is mostly a product of his invisibility, but by now, the powers of the ring can be thought of as indistinguishable from Bilbo's own evolving resources.

Bilbo's maturity as an agent in the story really begins in full when he formulates a successful plan to free the dwarves from imprisonment in the caverns of the wood elves.  It is an elegant escape, but not without sacrifice to the dwarves.  The culmination of Bilbo's progress comes at the Lonely Mountain, when he rather willingly confronts the dragon Smaug.  Bilbo is now most certainly a formidable actor in the wild and dangerous world that had been far outside his horizons at the start of his journey, but his development is more than one of adult confidence.  In the final acts of the novel, Bilbo steps out of his role as someone having an adventure when he truly acts to shape the course of events by delivering the Arkenstone (a gem prized by Thorin Oakenshield) to the armies arrayed against the dwarves.  Far from betraying his friends, Bilbo's action creates the possibility of their salvation and indeed, results in the moral salvation of Thorin Oakenshield.

What we see in The Hobbit is Bilbo's development from a childish existence to a mature adult actor.  At the same time, his maturity does not completely lose touch with his simple persona.  When the War of the Five Armies breaks out at the very end of the action, Bilbo is struck on the head with a rock and misses the greater part of the battle.  Some things remain too large for the hobbit. 

Reading the story as a child, I was fascinated, indeed enchanted, by the unfolding mysterious world and thrilled by Biblo's capacity to rise to meet its challenges.  I found strength in the idea that someone so small and unheroic might succeed in his foray into the wider world. 

The two other characters that stand out in the novel are Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf.  Gandalf clearly serves as a parental figure, wiser than Bilbo, watching out for his safety, and guiding his steps.  Still, his failure to save Bilbo, the dwarves, and even himself from the wolves and goblins east of the Misty Mountains reveals both the dangers of the wider world and the limitations of those we must rely upon.  It is noteworthy that Biblo's developing maturity only becomes manifest when Gandalf leaves the adventure. 

Thorin's character development stands as a cautionary tale.  At first Thorin is a reasonably admirable, if flawed, adult character; but he is overcome by his greed and he leads the people for whom he is responsible into needless danger.  It is Bilbo's recognition of Thorin's failing that leads him to take the final step in his own development.   Bilbo's relationship with Thorin reminds us that in the end, one must be responsible for one's own actions and know when to depart from ostensible authority. 

Again, these character developments are not really the magic in the story -- at least not for me.  Instead, it is Tolkien's ability to posit a world unlike our own and show us only what a developing character can see along his journey.   The hints of the grand stories of Middle Earth told in The Silmarillion are not what makes The Hobbit exciting.  What gives the novel its power is the slow, but progressive revelation of a mysterious world that provides a model for one's own actual coming of age.  Reading it much later in life reminds me of those days when the wide, actual world (or should I say the "unimaginary world") seemed dark and mysterious, and where all that was familiar was closely bound in space, time, and culture.  Like no other book The Hobbit allows me to recapture that exciting sense of pending discovery.