Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Graham Priest on Buddhism

...transcribed by me. “I” refers to Graham Priest. He spoke at the History of Philosophy Workshop yesterday.


nothing in logic is in this talk! 
buddhist philosophy is of great interest for me
I don’t think I’m mainlining Buddha or Nagarjuna or Dogen
I want to formulate an ethics that is rationally defensible

a very old fashioned talk: nothing but talk and a little bit of chalk! 
I. Buddhist ethics
II. Objections

I. 
i. Buddhism. 
View philosophy religion. Siddhartha Gautama. >> variety of forms only one of which is now extent, Theravada. Because Mahayana. Exterminated in India << Mogul invasions. Nalanda, enormous Buddhist university, 10 000 students, sacked by Muslims 10th century. Spread through Asia at that time. Theravada >> south east. Mahayana >> northwest Kotang spread east to China, Korea, Japan. Then later to Tibet. 8th, 9th, 10th centuries. Different story in China: meets indigenous Taoism and Confucianism. Ch’an, Zen. Then >> West.
Pristine Theravada vs Tantra vs Zen. Many things. No doubt it will morph again but that will be interesting.

What makes a view distinctively Buddhist. You can be an essentialist about these things--or family resemblance; essentialism is at least plausible for Buddhism unlike some other religions. Cultural accretions. Buddhism has been patriarchal. But there is nothing particularly misogynistic about Buddhism. Grew up in highly patriarchal societies in that time. Abortion is bad Indian Buddhism (Ayurvedic medicine, life begins at conception.) Not true in Japan. Always permitted. Clear cultural accretions. 

Some things aren’t so clear such as rebirth. 

ii. The Four Noble Truths. 
Whether or not you are an essentialist about what Buddhism is, there are the original sayings of the Buddha. Contents of the Buddha’s first speech/sermon in Deer Park at Sarnath. Nearly all forms of Buddhism endorse this. 

Medical diagnosis: disease, cause, prognosis, treatment. 
First. The human lot is not a happy one. Dukkha. Kinda hard to translate. Suffering, pain, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness. A factor of everyone’s existence. A recurrent factor. Birth, old age, sickness, death, broken love affairs, children, jobs. 
Buddhism is not a wowzer (killjoy) religion. Doesn’t mean everything in life is bad. But that >> pain of loss. 
Second. Trishna. Thirst, craving. Attachment. Desire. Aversion. “Attachment and aversion.” When you suffer it’s because of trishna, the attitude you bring to bear on these things. If you reflect on the times when you’ve been dukkha’d it’s hard not to factor in your attitude as part of it. You have no control over most external stuff (stock markets, tsunamis).
Third. Get rid of trishna, get rid of dukkha. 
Fourth. Eightfold noble path (belief, ethical practice, concentration). Technologies of the self (Foucault); personal technologies. (Not a good way to put it, that Foucauldian way.) 

Obvious objection (for most Westerners): elimination of the negative. Point of ethics is to get rid of dukkha. But there is an obvious way to do that: just commit suicide or nuke the planet. But this is crazy. The purpose of life should not be to commit suicide or nuke the planet. The obvious reply is iii:

iii. Rebirth. 
After you die you will be reborn (Indo-Tibetan versions). You keep on doing that until you get it right. So suicide won’t solve the problem. Orthodox part of Hindu and Buddhist thought. 

Priest: like most Westerners, I cannot believe in rebirth. How to even conceptualize it if you don’t believe in a self. There is a problem of evidence, beyond this. Hundreds of people will die in Houston and millions will be reborn. Do we have any evidence that the newborn is reincarnated previous person? Some evidence such as people talking about previous lives. There could be this kind of evidence, and there isn’t. This does not show that rebirth is false. It simply shows that there is no particular reason to believe it. Hume: the wise person apportions their beliefs according to the evidence. 

The doctrine of rebirth never disappears entirely even in China, but in Japan all the focus is on the now and so it becomes somewhat irrelevant. 

You might think rebirth is not a cultural accretion but essential for making the whole thing a coherent package. 

An ethics should not just be about the elimination of the negative but the accentuation of the positive. Only one candidate: the flipside of dukkha: a state of mind that is joyful, peaceful, tranquil. 

iv. Peace of mind. 
Upekkha <> ataraxia, tranquillitas. A state of mind that is joyful, peaceful and undisturbed by the slings and arrows of not so outrageous fortune. Not disturbed. 

Incompatible with hatred. You can’t hate and be in mental equilibrium. Not mental flatlining. Quite compatible with positive emotions like joy. In the middle there is a wide range of things. You might think sadness is incompatible but this is not true. Japanese poetry. The impermanence of life. The aesthetic tone of aware. Bittersweet appreciation of impermanence. 

How to achieve something that you are not attached to. 

v. Compassion.
Buddhist ethics selfish? Your own peace of mind? But Buddhist ethics about developing others’ peace of mind. Karuna. Foundational is the development of compassion, especially Mahayana. 

Why should you be interested in other people’s state of mind? Different sorts of answers can be given. Here is Theravada answer. Metaphysics of a person. Your car or your motorbike. What is that? A bunch of parts. Come together and then fall apart. Nothing constitutes the essence of your car. Nothing more than a bunch of parts. In standard Buddhist metaphysics you are like your car. 

The quick answer is that “There aren’t any other selves. There are no selves!” There are just lots of parts. If suffering is bad it can’t be because it belongs to me, because the me in the relevant sense does not exist. So suffering must be bad in itself. Eliminating painful dharmas and inculcating peaceful dharmas. 

vi. Application.

II. Objections. 
i. Goods other than peace of mind. 
I enjoy the Met, wine, philosophical discussion. But there are some things that people enjoy that I don’t like. You can look at them as optional things that a person might do. People can choose things like that. Peace of mind is different. It is one thing that everyone would give herself if she could. It’s a unique thing in this regard. People can be left happily to choose the other goods in their life. You might choose very few (life of retreat, no wine etc., no philosophical discussions.) 

Peace of mind not a matter of free choice. Suppose you are doing something you enjoy, but you have niggling worries. So you can’t enjoy that thing as much as you could--so peace of mind is more fundamental. 

ii. Goods incompatible with peace of mind. 
For Priest this is the hardest objection. Nietzsche: it’s not implausible to see that life is a struggle, and what gives life meaning is that we need to strive to do things, fulfilling those goals is something that gives life meaning--but this implies failing sometimes and getting disquieted. If you didn’t struggle or succeed or fail sometimes and get down about it, life would not have its full meaning. 

“I feel the force of this objection.” First peace of mind is not emotional flatlining. But this hardly gets to the heart of the objection. There are things we aim at, with their flipsides. And these things seem to be valuable. 

Let’s examine a couple. Love and aiming at some goal (winning in sport etc.). 
Love. A good in many people’s lives. It enriches people’s lives. Most see as valuable in life. But you know that love has its downside. You suffer when your partner leaves, has an affair, finds out when you are having one, child dies, does drugs etc. This looks like one of Nietzsche’s examples. Buying into love means you know you will sometimes lose peace of mind. 

Answer: it’s not the loving relationship but the attitude that occasions the dukkha. One wants the other person to do things in a fairly self centered way. Of course you get upset when this doesn’t happen, << attitude of attachment to them. Caring without the attachment. 

Some argue that possessiveness is constitutive of romantic love. I don’t believe that. However the phenomenology of love is difficult. There is something like love called love* (the caring without attachment etc) -- we are better off without love with love* instead. 

Aiming at a goal: involves hard training, pain. If you’re going to win you’re going to lose. “The difference between winners and losers is that the winners lose more.” Inevitable downside. 

Answer: you should not identify pain with suffering. Most athletes take on pain quite gladly. Suffering is about the attitude you bring to bear on the pain you have. Illness--it’s hard to prize these things apart. Pain is one thing, your attitude is something else. 

Secondly, the kind of Buddhist ethics I’m talking about does not say you should not have goals. Compassion is an obvious example. Not just feeling like shit when someone else feels like shit. Buddhism is not incompatible with having goals. You can try to win a gold medal, but if and when you lose, don’t be attached to it. If you win, remember that your experiences are transient. 

There is a strong connection between Stoicism and Buddhism. Very different metaphysics but the ataraxia very similar. 

iii. Being psychologically unrealistic. 
This objection is that “The ethics sounds great, but you can’t be like that.” The trishna is so deeply ingrained that you can’t develop peace of mind. Or it might make you inhuman. Child in car accident. How could you not be upset by that--if you weren’t wouldn’t you be some kind of psychological monster?

Answer: No one said that Buddhism is easy. No one thinks that ethics is easy. Maybe an ethical path is impossible to achieve at the limits (Kant) but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and do it. Most people, if they reacted with peace of mind, to death, might be a kind of monster. Indifference. 

But think about it rationally. If you lose your peace of mind, where is the benefit? The child doesn’t benefit, you don’t benefit, nor the people around you. Rationality seems to suggest that if you can do it, maintaining equilibrium is something you should do. >> might as well accept impermanence


iv. Being theoretically unrealistic. 
Not that the ethics if psychologically unrealistic, but (action theory): in standard belief desire psychology, you need a belief and you need a desire. I am thirsty, I believe water will slake it >> I drink water. Without belief I wouldn’t have drunk, and without desire ditto. You need to desire to have action at all. Theoretically impossible. 

(Desiring to get rid of desire. “Wanting to have peace of mind.”)

Desire is a weasel word. In particular the term has a cognitive component but also an emotional component. Goal plus emotion that drives us. These are conceptually distinct. What Buddhism teaches is decoupling the two. 

It’s fine to have a goal eg of developing peace of mind. But that should not be coupled with trishna, emotional loading that we usually put with it. If I desire to alleviate suffering in South Africa this is sufficient reason to do some things. But there doesn’t have to be attachment associated with that. You don’t have to have emotive attitude to have goals and plans that you thereby act on. 

Being goal oriented versus emotion of desire. Being attached to it is self-defeating. 

v. Making others suffer. 
Nietzsche: suffering is part of point of life. He also says a lot more. Suffering is not only good, but it can be a good in itself. Making other people suffer can be a good in itself. This strikes at the very heart of the Buddhist ethics. I find it hard to have sympathy with this. He holds it because Nietzsche thinks that what life should be about is development of the will to power, creation of superman. When you get trampled, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

I can see a certain sense in this. Living through the concentration camps required an admirable strength of personality to survive frightful experiences. Many people did not survive at all however. And the survivors were badly psychologically damaged. Developing peace of mind much better by doing it to yourself rather than trampling on others. 

Why should you feel that the point is to get a leg up by trampling on others? Because you are deeply insecure to start with. The cause of the desire to make others suffer is itself dukkha. Once the dukkha is eliminated then the desire to make others suffer will go with it. Hard to imagine a peaceful person wanting to make others suffer. 

vi. Behavior to the bastards in life. 
There are people who go around hurting others. How do we react with respect to them?
Justice, retribution etc (Kantian). 
You should behave with compassion to even those who make others suffer. That doesn’t mean you should let them make others suffer. And sometimes you might have to use violence. Assassinate Hitler. But whatever you do your action should be driven by compassion, not only to the suffering but to the instigators. The instigators are almost certainly suffering themselves. 
(On a case by case basis this seems absurd, as in the Sorites.)

Stoicism: there is a kind of god or principle of reason, and no emphasis on compassion, not developing for yourself. 

Anne Klein: I appreciate you bringing this material into a more open context. 
equanimity: Buddhists reflect about this quite differently. 
Upekkha: four immeasurables (Theravada) of which upekkha is the acme
Mahayana: upeka is the basis; joy as the highest (Did Anne say that?)

Tibet: equanimity not indifference, which it is easily confused with
this equanimity must be combined with a deep state of concentration
We could look at other parts of the Buddhist map
not even overcoming suffering--there is a lot of joy and also tenderheartedness
Avalokiteshvara
Geshe Wangyal: one of his students died “There is no worse suffering than losing a child” and he wept

GP: what constitutes peace of mind? At the extremes it’s quite obvious but there is a vast grey area in the middle. Does crying and sadness cause a lack of mental equilibrium? The obvious answer (yes) may be wrong: you can be attached to what has happened. 

AK: it seems possible to cry without attachment. Freely flowing grief that was not getting stuck on self-identification. 
If you look at personalities of those revered Mahayana, they are pretty warm. 

GP: all the Tibetan monks I know are always giggling, and even the Japanese have an air of tranquility. An air of kind of “sympathy” not quite right. 

Q: belief-desire psychology; affect part vs goal setting part. I don’t understand it
Why are you motivated towards the goal

A: goal setting can be motivating
we often think that emotions are the only motivators

Q: karma
A: even without reincarnation karma has an effect in this life. Aristotle: we train ourselves into our moral dispositions. 
There is a way you can hear the doctrine as mean or fatalistic. “This bad thing happened because of your bad karma.”
Dalai Lama in Melbourne. 
karma almost negates compassion

Harvey: Stoicism. Despite parallels, one thing persists. The Stoics strove for tranquillity in a way that involved mastery and self-development and a rational conception of the cosmos
Mastery << rational understanding led the Stoics to a tenable ataraxia in the world with all the bad stuff, and compassion

GP: I don’t know a lot of Stoic texts. Of course it’s possible to recognize we are all the same boat without needing to be compassionate. “We each cultivate our own garden.” My goal is to get on the Stoic boat, but do I have a reason to make sure you get on the boat? 

Harvey: A community of Stoics based on common pursuits. 

GP: interacting with the sangha. Should you help everyone who wasn’t a Stoic? 
I was surprised when you talked about mastery over the world as opposed to yourself. My understanding is you can’t control the world, you can only control yourself. But mastery in that sense you do find in Buddhism. Eightfold noble path. Correct mindfulness. 

AY: putative understanding of the world increases self-mastery. Is that different? 

GP: I think that’s there in Buddhism. Correct understanding is first in noble path. There may be different details. 

AY: what about discourse as therapy? For Stoics this >> expanding ability to distinguish those pursuits that can be mastered and those which can’t?

GP: It may be part of Buddhism. Technologies of the self. I have no big line to run on this as it’s part of empirical psychology. 

Larry: if our guides for actions are elimination of suffering but we have this no-self, it seems that you would have to extend consideration to any being where suffering is localized. 

GP: This is not a human-centric ethics. Some Buddhists try to extract an eco-philosophy from this. I don’t think this works. The philosophy is sentience-centric. But it goes well beyond human people. 

Larry: Bentham? 

GP: People argue whether Buddhism is utilitarian or virtue ethics. How to fit into Western categories. My take on this is that (Jay Garfield): Buddhist ethics is more like plumbing. You got a problem? Let me tell you how to fix it. It doesn’t fit into Western boxes. 

Larry: This seems very different from the loophole ethics that institutionalized Buddhism gets into. 

GP: the precepts. Don’t kill, don’t drink etc. In Mahayana there is some flexibility. But as with all institutionalized religions they get ossified. What to do in each case is a hard call. The only way to decide what to do is << understanding of attitudinal schema and what Aristotle called phronesis. Rules of thumb should not be magnified into institutionalized rules. 

Most Buddhism has been down on gay and lesbian sexuality. Dalai Lama. I don’t see any reason to find gay and lesbian sex any more or less problematic than heterosexual sex. You have to look beyond the shibboleths in the precepts. 

Q: crying and mental equilibrium. Our brains are talking to one another despite our consciousness. This doesn’t contradict the Buddhist view that there is no one self. Having a child is a type of connection that is different from a stranger. Perhaps crying is the path to mental equilibrium. 

GP: That’s an interesting thought. A guess: for those who are not very good at this kind of thing, that may be exactly right. Crying a form of catharsis. If someone has mastered peace of mind technique maybe that’s not true. I don’t know. Buddhism has never been down on science in ways that the Abrahamic religions have been. Dalai Lama: science tells us something that Buddhism disagrees with, you must go with science. 


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