Is Scholarship Important?

Image courtesy of healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I was doing my undergraduate and graduate work I sometimes heard snarky criticism of history of philosophy. “Why do I have to know all this?” they’d ask.

True, if we’re studying ethics or theory of mind, it’s good to know what people have said about them in the past. But since appeal to authority or tradition are not valid forms of argument, such knowledge isn’t very useful. If we want to know whether it’s ethical to clone a human, or whether the mind and brain are separate substances, sooner or later we’ll have to leave the history books behind and make an argument based on contemporary best understanding of the way things are. It may be of some interest to know that so-and-so said such-and-such about this in the past, but only insofar as so-and-so’s argument remains good (valid, sound) today. And if the argument is good, then the fact that so-and-so made it is irrelevant. We can pick out the argument and toss away the historical link as trivia.

It’s criticisms such as these that lead some to suggest (ironically, I believe) that departments should be split, so that “history of philosophy” is off on its own, much as “history of science” is not part of any science department.

Part of the problem with history of philosophy is that the work of the historian is in getting the history right, not in finding the best arguments. What did so-and-so actually say? Did he actually support the views that we think he did? Why did he say these things? What do they really mean in today’s language? These questions are quite literally irrelevant to today’s practice of philosophy. It doesn’t matter if Plato actually made this or that argument; all that matters is if this or that argument is sound, valid, convincing, relevant to the questions we are asking today. The most that the historian of philosophy could hope to do is to discover some new argument that had been overlooked in the past, that by today’s standards is sound, valid, convincing, and relevant. That’s a tall order.

Secular Buddhism and Scholarship

Much the same problem confronts Secular Buddhism. For many, it doesn’t matter what the Buddha really said, or even if he really existed. What matters is what the particular practices are, whether or not they are effective, whether that effect is beneficial, and whether there are other practices that are more beneficial. If the point of such a practice is eudaimonic in the broad sense (leading to happiness, peace, equanimity, reduced stress, and so on), then the only question we need to answer is what the best strategies are to achieve that end.

So then why care about the Buddha?

I suggest (it is only a suggestion) that the answer to this question comes in the extent to which one identifies oneself as a secular Buddhist, rather than just a generic secularist looking for the good life. For insofar as one thinks of oneself as a Buddhist, of whatever stripe, one is at least implicitly claiming that the Buddha had something relevant to say about the good life: something relevant enough that one believes his approach deserves pride of place above, say, other theorists like Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Paul Kurtz, or the most recent Journal of Happiness Studies.

Now, I expect this last sentence will rub some readers the wrong way. “All I’m doing is looking at the scientific evidence,” they’ll say. “The scientific evidence shows the Buddha was right.”

Well, yes and no. As many of Ted’s podcasts attest, there is a great deal of scientific evidence for certain end points related to Buddhist practice. But there are other endpoints — such as, say, complete renunciation — that to my knowledge have not been studied, and which may be difficult or impossible to study, at least in a scientific fashion. And of course there are other claims of the Buddha that have been rejected by science, such as claims of rebirth, levitation, and psychic ability.

Perhaps a good analogy here would be with someone like Newton. Newton founded modern physics, but he also had plenty of premodern beliefs about the universe. We may call ourselves “Newtonians” in the sense that we use his scheme of calculations to get men on the Moon, but in fact his view of the universe has been superseded by Einstein and the founders of quantum mechanics. The only people liable to be interested in Newton scholarship are professional historians and folks wanting to learn about history. Those interested in the contemporary practice of physics ought to have no particular interest in it.

Similarly, if we believe that the Buddha’s message is basically just the message of contemporary science, then there really is no point in labeling ourselves as any kind of Buddhists. Science has found the stuff out, has separated the wheat from the chaff in the Buddha’s message, and there’s an end to it. This is perhaps part of the main tension in being a Secular Buddhist, and why there will always be some friction between being a secular and a religious Buddhist

However, even from a secular perspective we could perhaps say that the Buddha’s message of an ethical path tells us something science cannot, in this sense: science is purely descriptive. It cannot tell us which ways of life are better than which other ways. All it can tell us (and this is no small matter!) is that if we want to live a certain kind of life, this is the way to do it. If we want to live a life of lower stress, more happiness, or the life that gives the greatest benefit to all, then if we can come up with tractable definitions of “stress”, “happiness”, and “benefit”, scientific studies can reveal techniques that will work and others that won’t.

Science is also slow and methodical. These are complex, difficult problems, presently at the bleeding edge of advanced research. Expecting simple, clear cut answers anytime soon is liable only to lead to disappointment, as it has so many times with nutrition and healthcare, for example, other highly complex, multivariate fields. So long as we aren’t wasting our time pursuing paths that science has shown to be barren, there’s no reason not to continue in a way that seems fruitful.

There are all kinds of ethical paths, from the purely religious to the purely secular, from the most ancient to the most modern. Each of them promise to reveal something about the right way to live and act. A Secular Buddhist will say that notwithstanding certain weird claims made in the texts, the path provided by the Buddha, or at least in some portion of the tradition that stemmed from the Buddha, provides a path that fits best with our modern world. This is the message provided by people like Stephen Batchelor.

Different Traditions

In that case, it should be of benefit to do some scholarship and try to find out what the Buddha might actually have believed and said. Now, to be clear, many who undertake such a study will find themselves more drawn to the later, Mahāyāna tradition. They may find, for instance, that the Heart Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, or later philosophical traditions are more to their taste than the Pāli Canon.

In that case, the words of the historical Buddha (insofar as we know them) will be of less interest to them. They will be interested in the history and scholarship of those later texts.

Tradition takes place in a background of change, even of revolution. The Mahāyāna dharma involved real doctrinal differences from the earlier dhamma of the Nikāyas. Part of my enjoyment in learning the scholarship has been to better understand these differences. Often nowadays secular teachers, even within one tradition or another, blend everything into one grand Buddhist tradition, speaking one day of teachings from the Pāli Canon, or even the abhidhamma, and another day of Nāgārjuna, as though they were all saying the same thing.

There are real differences in Buddhism that careful scholarship can elucidate. There are differences between the dhamma of the Nikāyas and that of the Heart or Lotus Sutras, between the Buddha and Nāgārjuna. If the only pointers towards right practice from the tradition were messages like, “just sit”, or “just repeat the nembutsu”, I would be less interested in the scholarship. However I believe that reading and studying the texts can clarify practice. They provide strategies and contexts, and explain methods in terms of their eventual goals, in a way we don’t always find even among modern, secular writers.

There is also, of course, the sheer fun of reading history.

Insofar as we see ourselves as modern practitioners of an older tradition, it behooves us to learn and know that tradition as best we can. Each of us will have our preferences, which means that each of us will likely privilege certain aspects of the tradition, and eschew others. Time, after all, is precious and we can’t know everything.

What Scholarship?

The last question has to do with the specifics of that scholarship. Does it, for example, matter whether or not the Buddha really existed, or whether we know anything of what he believed and taught? I think it does, but not very much. What matters most of all is the content in the texts, its quality and consistency. Most scholars believe this provides evidence of a real, historical Buddha, but to be fair not all do, and anyhow it need not be so in order for us to be able to learn from it.

In the background lies the additional question as to how one evaluates the quality of scholarship. This is a particularly big stumbling block for lay followers, since there is so much material out there and it’s often difficult to separate wheat from chaff. For a good rundown, it’s best to look to professionals working in the field, like Justin Whitaker. Justin has an excellent list of Buddhist Studies books on his website. (Supplemented by a list from the eminent Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield).

In particular, books by Paul Williams, Richard Gombrich, Rupert Gethin, and Bhikkhu Anālayo are in the first rank. I would add to those the various translations of the Canon out of Wisdom Publications by Bhikkhu Bodhi. His translations are the gold standard in the field; one encounters them all the time in Buddhist Studies, and each of the volumes includes an extensive introduction. (Many of them are also on the SBA’s own recommended book list).

Engaging in careful study, one will encounter material that is not always in tune with secular belief or practice. That’s how it should be, since we’re trying to understand thought that for all its novelty and lucidity has more in common with Presocratic or Brahminic philosophy than contemporary science. Any smart, secular reader should be able to bracket the weirder bits, particularly with help from websites like this, so I don’t see it as a problem.

Scholarship and Practice

I admit to having some sympathy for the snarky claim regarding history of philosophy, particularly as it impacts Secular Buddhist practice. That is, at the most basic level, scholarship about historical claims and arguments is beside the point. The point is to realize the existence of dukkha, and work to eliminate craving and attain lasting happiness.

But for some of us that scholarship, along with being interesting in its own right, may at times help us along the path by illuminating options we hadn’t known were available, or by clarifying those we didn’t quite understand. As such it can and should be a worthy adjunct to Secular Buddhist practice.

No Comments

  1. mufi on May 24, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Thanks, Doug. In light of recent conversations here, I found this essay to be highly pertinent.

    …notwithstanding certain weird claims made in the texts, the path provided by the Buddha, or at least in some portion of the tradition that stemmed from the Buddha, provides a path that fits best with our modern world.

    That reminds me that the following thought crossed my mind yesterday: Calling oneself a “Buddhist” while rejecting* the Buddha’s theory of karma/samsara/nibbana (KSN) is a bit like calling oneself a “Platonist” while rejecting* Plato’s theory of Forms. One can defensibly do it, but it might take some getting used to.

    Of course, that thought assumes that KSN is a core teaching in the dharma. As I interpret Gombrich & other scholars (not to mention orthodox practitioners), that is indeed the case.

    Fortunately for Secular Buddhism, the dharma’s core has enough content in it that one can still follow the path (if only loosely) without too much loss of meaning and value. (The label is, of course, optional.)

    * or even openly expressing a secular stance towards

    • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Thanks for the comment, mufi. As I’ve argued elsewhere (based on something by Bhikkhu Bodhi no less!), I believe the core teachings of the Buddha are the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Neither require a supernaturalist interpretation of the KSN you mention.

      I would not want to compare a secular Buddhist with calling oneself a Platonist while rejecting Plato’s theory of forms, since (at least in philosophy discussions, which is basically the only venue in which Platonism makes sense) Platonism is taken just to mean that one ascribes to Plato’s theory of forms.

      • mufi on May 24, 2013 at 11:47 am

        Yeah, I had a feeling that comparison would get a rise out of you. After all, it got one out of me! 🙂

        I would agree that, from a Secular Buddhist practitioner’s standpoint, it’s an unsavory comparison. I raised it here, however, because I think it’s got historical merit.

        To put a finer point on that: KSN may seem “supernaturalist” (and thereby implausible) to us, but to the Buddha of the Pali Canon and to pre-modern & orthodox Buddhists, it’s the way the world really works! That’s not my interpretation of the Buddha’s core insight, so much as the interpretation that I’ve picked up from “first rank” scholars like Gombrich.

        Of course, these scholars also point out much else about the dharma, besides KSN (e.g. its compassionate ethics comes readily to mind), which is why I alluded to its “core” as being wide & rich enough to allow other emphases (not to mention a less historical, metaphorical interpretation of KSN).

        • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 1:04 pm

          Absolutely, it wasn’t implausible to them! My point isn’t that they would agree with us about the implausibility. My point is that they would (might) agree with us about the centrality. At least in one place Bhikkhu Bodhi overtly does, and I can find many, many places in the suttas where the Buddha says that the central teaching is the four noble truths, the extinction of dukkha, etc. I don’t recall any where he said that the central teaching is kamma and rebirth.

          Of course, there is some room here for interpretation: one can say that the only way to understand the extinction of dukkha is in the extinction of future rebirths. But that sounds to me a bit of a stretch; it’s the sort of thing one might hear in a context with secular practitioners rather than something the Buddha actually might have said back in the day. Obviously he would have considered secular practice ‘wrong view’; I’ve said as much.

          • mufi on May 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm

            I can find many, many places in the suttas where the Buddha says that the central teaching is the four noble truths, the extinction of dukkha, etc. I don’t recall any where he said that the central teaching is kamma and rebirth.

            Well, I suppose that from the point-of-view of an historical-critical scholar like Gombrich, centrality may have less to do with what’s emphasized in the texts and more to do with what most distinguishes the Buddha’s teachings from those of his contemporaries – e.g. those teachings that were most creative, innovative, and unprecedented in that time & place.

            Since I don’t have Gombrich’s book handy, I did a quick google for something that jibes with my recollection and came up with this:

            Gombrich argues that the Buddha’s conception of karma as intention, and consequently of individual responsibility, for this and for future existences, is a positive doctrine, something that the Buddha demanded his followers to believe in as a ‘leap of faith’ (p. 28), for the sake of ‘right view.’ It was not just a doctrine he inherited from Brahmanism and could not shake off; Gombrich’s Buddha comes across not at all as a pragmatist or rationalist sceptic, but a profound metaphysician whose ideas were presented with great imaginitive flexibility as need required.

            source [emphasis in the original]

            Be that as it may, let’s not forget that we basically agree that the Buddha’s teachings retain value. I just want my cherry-picking to be well informed, and that’s partly why scholarship is important to me.



          • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 1:51 pm

            I just want my cherry-picking to be well informed, and that’s partly why scholarship is important to me.

            Absolutely.

            Re. your quote about Gombrich, what’s original about the Buddha’s notion of kamma is orthogonal to its supernatural aspect. Basically what Gombrich shows is that the Buddha shifted moral relevance from behavior to intention. That aspect of kamma, interpreted as an analysis of moral action, survives a secular revision of the dhamma. (And it’s also interestingly quite uncontroversial in the West!)

            Notions of rebirth of course weren’t particularly creative, innovative, or unprecedented. Although I must say that as a criterion for cherry-picking, that one leaves a lot to be desired. Some uncreative ideas are nonetheless worth preserving, and some innovative ones are not. I also don’t think it really bears very well on centrality: one may make an uncreative idea central to one’s doctrine. E.g., Jesus’s notion that the Israelites had to reform their ethical ways was as old as the hills.



          • mufi on May 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm

            All well and good, Doug. Yet I still sense a wee-bit of hand-waviness in your response.

            Granting that the four noble truths is a central teaching in the dharma, do you really not read those as being framed within a KSN worldview? Because I do – and I suspect that I have the scholars largely to thank for that! (I certainly didn’t just intuit that or pick it up off the street – although the Internet is always suspect nowadays.)

            For example, when I read “the truth of the cessation of dukkha” (#3), I immediately think of a supernatural nirvana state, in which one’s endless rounds of rebirth have at last been ended. And when I read “the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha” (#4), I think about the steps that one must take in order to achieve that supernatural ultimate goal. I also think of karma (and conditioned arising) as the theoretical mechanism by which all of this dukkha and cessation thereof works.

            Simply put, I see supernaturalism right there smack-dab in the center!

            Again, I recognize that all of this can be re-framed within a secular/naturalistic/modern-scientific worldview (and arguably should, if we’re to enjoy those cherries!). But it takes work, and the scholars (not to mention orthodox ones – including B. Bodhi!) hardly make that task an easier one.



          • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm

            Re.: For example, when I read “the truth of the cessation of dukkha” (#3), I immediately think of a supernatural nirvana state, in which one’s endless rounds of rebirth have at last been ended. And when I read “the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha” (#4), I think about the steps that one must take in order to achieve that supernatural ultimate goal. I also think of karma (and conditioned arising) as the theoretical mechanism by which all of this dukkha and cessation thereof works.

            We’re going around here in circles. I already made the same point, above: there is some room here for interpretation: one can say that the only way to understand the extinction of dukkha is in the extinction of future rebirths. But that sounds to me a bit of a stretch; it’s the sort of thing one might hear in a context with secular practitioners rather than something the Buddha actually might have said back in the day. Obviously he would have considered secular practice ‘wrong view’; I’ve said as much.

            If you read the typical description of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, there is no explicit mention of rebirth. (1) Dukkha is birth, old age, sickness, death, getting what you don’t want, not getting what you want. (2) The origin is in terms of craving, or greed, ill-will, ignorance. (3) Nibbāna is cessation of dukkha. (4) The Eightfold path is right view (at its highest, understanding of the 4NT), right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

            Rebirth is not explicit anywhere in this list. The only places it is implicit are in (1) a purportedly full understanding of dukkha and its extinction, and (2) the worldly understanding of right view. This list can be understood without reference to rebirth, using only its explicit claims. This was not the Buddha’s view. I think saying any more than that just gets into unresolvable issues of semantics.



          • mufi on May 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm

            Sorry about the circle, Doug, but somehow I did not clearly receive that message on prior rounds. The last round did the trick.

            I think it’s already clear that we agree that one can understand these core teachings without reference to a supernatural KSN (in which rebirth is a necessary, but not exclusive, ingredient). Whether one should do so, however, would seem to depend upon which hat one happens to be wearing at the moment: that of a practitioner or that of a scholar.

            I’m certainly no scholar, but I can appeal to one’s authority as well as the next guy. 🙂



          • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm

            Oh sure. There is and there should be a fundamental difference between scholarship and practice.



          • mufi on May 25, 2013 at 8:13 am

            Doug: Oh sure. There is and there should be a fundamental difference between scholarship and practice.

            Yeah, but since you mentioned Stephen Batchelor, I think it’s fair to say that his approach to Secular Buddhist thought & practice appears to blend the two – and not always in a way that’s necessarily uncontroversial, from a secular scholarly angle.

            For example:

            ….the same soteriological framework is shared by Hindus and Jains. In each of these Indian traditions, adepts achieve salvation or liberation by bringing to an end the mechanism that perpetuates the cycle of birth and death, whereby one achieves the “deathless” (Buddhism) or “immortality” (Hinduism)—though both terms are a translation of the same word in Pali/Sanskrit: amata/amrta. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism differ only in the doctrinal, meditative, and ethical strategies they employ to achieve the same goal.

            source

            Of course, the Buddha hardly worked in a cultural vacuum, and I take Batchelor’s overall point that it’s possible to divorce the Buddha’s teachings (or at least some of them) from this soteriological framework and to adapt them to a new framework, one that’s situated “in a modernity informed by the natural sciences.”

            But, when I read a non-practicing (secular) scholar like Gombrich, I get an image of a thinker whose lifetime project was to develop a distinct soteriology – that is, a “right” one to correct all of the “wrong” ones that were in currency at the time. I suspect that this is what the reviewer, whom I quoted above, was alluding to, when s/he contrasted the image of the Buddha as a “profound metaphysician whose ideas were presented with great imaginitive flexibility” (Gombrich) with a “pragmatist or rationalist sceptic” (Batchelor). We may prefer the latter image, because it’s closer to our own self-image, but that probably has less of a basis in sound, dispassionate, and critical scholarship than I’d like to claim, based largely on Batchelor’s encouraging words (particularly his books).

            Anyway, I don’t mean to impute any of this misleading overlap of scholarship & practice to you, Doug. That would not be fair. At worst, I’m exploiting the opportunity to air these thoughts in a place where others may actually share an interest in them.



          • cripe on May 25, 2013 at 2:30 pm

            As far as I know, “the extinction of dukkha is in the extinction of future rebirths” is what the Buddha said, at least according to the Pali Canon. Unfortunately it is not an original statement in ancient India. The Buddha’s novelty is the teaching of the Nobles’ Truths, i.e. how to get out of samsara (karma and samsara are not teachings, but theories :))



          • Doug Smith on May 26, 2013 at 4:36 am

            Thanks, mufi.

            when I read a non-practicing (secular) scholar like Gombrich, I get an image of a thinker whose lifetime project was to develop a distinct soteriology …

            Yes. The Buddha argued with Brahmins, and he argued specifically with Mahāvīra, the founder (or one of the founders) of the Jains. Mahāvīra goes by the name “Nigantha Nātaputta” in the Canon, and he is definitely portrayed as teaching a false dhamma.

            It appears to me that one general difference between scholarship and practice is that scholars are very interested in (e.g.) the origins of doctrines; they like to be specific, and so end up being analytic in the sense of separating doctrinal strands. Practitioners often the reverse: many tend towards syncretism, particularly within Asian traditions. (Hindus view Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, etc.) This can lead to the sort of “same goal” talk you found in Batchelor.

            I’ve also heard that the more practice-oriented, meditative monastic traditions of Catholicism are more open to dialogue with Buddhists than are the more doctrine-oriented ones. This would tend towards the same conclusion: practitioners often care less about doctrine and hence tend towards syncretism.



          • mufi on May 26, 2013 at 6:20 am

            Doug: …practitioners often care less about doctrine and hence tend towards syncretism.

            Sounds true.

            But I also just think that it’s easier to understand the texts when you have some scholarship under your belt. It’s quite empowering, really, but it also poses a big challenge for us as secular practitioners, inasmuch as the language activates a KSN frame that reinforces religious/orthodox practice.

            If I’m right about that, then we should expect a lot more “crises of faith” cropping up here and in other Secular Buddhist forums, based largely upon practitioners having recently consumed some (secular/historical-critical) scholarship.



          • mufi on May 26, 2013 at 9:45 am

            PS: Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’ve been using “scholarship” throughout this conversation in a way that privileges those (like Gombrich) who focus on early Buddhist/Pali-canonical texts. If, however, we turn our focus to scholars whose work tends to highlight the changes that have occurred in “the dharma” over its long history – including the modern era (e.g. check out Ted’s podcast interview with David McMahan) – then I believe that the implications for secular practice are quite different.

            IOW, while the language may still activate a KSN frame (e.g. given what Ben described below as “the near ubiquity of KSN in the various historical forms of Buddhism”), it will also likely activate an evolutionary frame (abstractly speaking, since technically culture evolves differently than biology). And, insofar as the frames are mutually incompatible with each other (i.e. their underlying neural circuits impede one another), the effect of the former will be significantly weaker, thereby making it easier to think and feel Secular Buddhism’s authenticity.



          • Doug Smith on May 27, 2013 at 5:48 am

            … we should expect a lot more “crises of faith” cropping up here and in other Secular Buddhist forums, based largely upon practitioners having recently consumed some (secular/historical-critical) scholarship.

            I don’t think that critical scholarship is as important to the “faith” in Buddhism as it is, say, in the monotheistic religions of the West. The canonical texts aren’t as critical in Buddhism. It’s quite possible to be an orthodox Buddhist and believe that the texts are later constructs and that the Buddha was a historical fiction. So long as the dhamma and its path are viable and lead to the end of nibbāna, the history is just so many words. (This would of course be an unusual position, but it is conceivable).

            The same is not nearly as conceivable for the Western traditions, where orthodoxy is almost defined as belief that the foundational texts are historically accurate, and the word of God.



          • mufi on May 27, 2013 at 7:27 am

            I don’t think that critical scholarship is as important to the “faith” in Buddhism as it is, say, in the monotheistic religions of the West.

            Doug, I think you may have read my statement more literally than I intended. I’ll put it this way:

            Inasmuch as we secular practitioners care about the authenticity of our take on Buddhism, some examples of historical-critical scholarship have the potential to cast doubt on that (particularly those which emphasize the ubiquity of a KSN worldview/soteriology, or what Batchelor nowadays calls “Buddhism 1.0”).

            I stress “some” here to reflect my postscript immediately above, as I suspect (based partly on my own experience) that scholarship that highlights the evolution and diversity of Buddhism throughout the centuries also has the potential to counter-act those doubts. One might say that these examples of scholarship are naturally “friendlier” to Secular Buddhism (or what Batchelor nowadays calls “Buddhism 2.0”).



      • mufi on May 24, 2013 at 11:59 am

        PS: I take your point about how “Platonism” is used in philosophy discussions, but recall that philosopher Owen Flanagan sometimes refers to himself as a “platonic hedonist.” I’m pretty sure that he does not literally accept Plato’s theory the Forms.

        • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm

          Dunno enough about Flanagan’s views. But in philosophy generally, being a Platonist means believing that there exist timeless abstracta, a la Plato’s forms. One doesn’t need to accept all aspects of Plato’s theory to be considered a Platonist.

          • mufi on May 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm

            I don’t doubt it!

            Just to explain the Flanagan reference: I first picked it up from The Bodhisattva’s Brain, but here it is from another context:

            I claim that we humans have a platonic orientation to try to maximize truth, beauty, and goodness. We see this urge in the spaces of meaning that we now privilege (and rightly so): {art, science, technology, ethics, politics, spirituality}. I claim that, all else equal, we should try to harmoniously maximize the true, the beautiful, and the good. This is platonic hedonism.

            source



          • Doug Smith on May 24, 2013 at 1:53 pm

            Yes. Well, to describe that view as a form of “Platonism” is just to say that “the true”, “the beautiful”, and “the good” are real abstracta rather than (e.g.) being mere human conventions.



          • Ben on May 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm

            Just a side note (but an important one i/r/t this conversation): while being a Platonist in contemporary (Anglo-American?) philosophy does, indeed, mean believing that there exist timeless abstracta, it is not clear to me that historically that has always been the case. For example, would Carneades and other more or less skeptical New Academics have considered themselves to be Platonists (insofar as they were connected to the Academy in Athens)? While Plato is now most associated with the doctrine of the Forms, it’s hardly at the center of all of his dialogues and its centrality to contemporary notions of Platonism cannot necessarily be projected back in time to cover all those who considered themselves to be Platonists in the past. My (admittedly limited) understanding of Plato scholarship is that some scholars think that Plato himself may have backed away from the theory of Forms in (what they consider to be) his late dialogues. (One might contrast this to the near ubiquity of KSN in the various historical forms of Buddhism…though I don’t think this fact about historical forms of Buddhism necessarily resolves the slippery question of its “centrality.”) Then again, while I am an historian, I am most definitely not a philosopher.



          • mufi on May 25, 2013 at 8:16 pm

            Ben: While Plato is now most associated with the doctrine of the Forms, it’s hardly at the center of all of his dialogues…

            FWIW, I mentioned the Forms because I assumed that it’s what most people nowadays – especially philosophers – associate with Plato. But, if I were to pick one of Plato’s arguments that I deem most relevant to my life (i.e. as a lay person with a hobby/interest in philosophy – particularly as it relates to ethics and religion), then it would have to be the Euthyphro dilemma.

            (One might contrast this to the near ubiquity of KSN in the various historical forms of Buddhism…though I don’t think this fact about historical forms of Buddhism necessarily resolves the slippery question of its “centrality.”)

            Yeah, the truth is that I recognize enough family resemblance between historical forms of Buddhism and Secular Buddhism (i.e. even without the KSN framing) that the “centrality” question is more an academic one for me – one that’s really not worth too much fretting over – so long as the dharma is having a positive influence on our lives.



          • Doug Smith on May 26, 2013 at 4:18 am

            Ben, thanks for the clarification. I’m not a Plato scholar, so I don’t know the history of the term “Platonism”, nor whether Plato’s view of the theory of forms changed in his later dialogues, but I think its usage today is pretty general. See, e.g., the Wiki on Platonism, which cites the SEP.



          • Ben on May 26, 2013 at 9:18 am

            Just to clarify: I absolutely agree about the usage of the word “Platonism” in contemporary English. I’m just speculating that that usage has not been universal, given the historical doctrinal diversity of people who have understood themselves to be followers of Plato (though from a strictly etymological perspective turning Plato into an “-ism” is itself a modern move. The OED seems to suggest that the word “Platonism” — in both English and Latin — goes back only to the 16th century. Of course, the word “Buddhism” is an even more recent coinage.).



  2. Linda on May 26, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Great article, Doug.

    The problem with comparing calling oneself a Buddhist to calling oneself an adherent of any form of philosophy is that what the Buddha taught isn’t simply a philosophy, so the two can’t really be compared. I don’t think we have any one very good word for what the Buddha taught, since it covers insight into our behavior, it’s perhaps behavioral science? Since it teaches skills to gain that insight, skills that change our behavior, is it behavioral modification? Since it teaches morality is it a religion? Since it doesn’t just *teach* morality but actually *fosters* morality (it seems more effective, to me, that most religions, many of which have very narrow moral systems that allow them to tromp amorally all over those outside their religions) it is something different from religion. “Worldview” and “philosophy” just aren’t adequate.

    • Doug Smith on May 27, 2013 at 5:51 am

      Thanks, Linda!

      I think, the Buddha dhamma is philosophy like Aristotelian eudaimonia is philosophy. The ancient Greeks (and ancient Chinese!) viewed the true end of philosophy as leading one to “the good life”, in much the same way Gotama did. It’s only a recent notion that philosophy is some form of abstract cogitation that is divorced from daily concerns.

      • Linda on May 27, 2013 at 3:58 pm

        Where is the body of philosophical work that teaches the skills to use it? Is there one? (I’m not asking sarcastically, I’m genuinely ignorant.)

        • Doug Smith on May 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm

          I’m not sure I understand your question. If you mean to ask about Aristotelian eudaimonia, his notion of ethics is that one should develop certain virtues, and that the possession of these virtues provided the best sort of life that people were capable of achieving.

          Aristotle did have some pointers for how one was to develop these virtues, however compared with the Buddha, his path was quite a bit more schematic. That’s to say, he didn’t have quite as much to say about practice as did the Buddha. (I got at a bit of this in my piece on Secular Humanism and Secular Buddhism). That said, just as I am not a Plato scholar, neither am I an Aristotle scholar.

        • Linda on May 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm

          Thanks, Doug, you answered the question I was asking — you answered it for Aristotle, anyway — but I was asking if *anyone* had a system of practice that made the how and why clear as the Buddha did. That (I expect) no one does is the point I was making with “philosophy isn’t a word that covers what the Buddha was expressing” because it’s just not big enough or comprehensive enough.

          • Ben on May 29, 2013 at 8:31 pm

            I think you can find some of that in Hellenistic philosophy, e.g. the Stoics and Epicureans, both of whom were very concerned with practical questions of how to live a good life.



          • Doug Smith on May 30, 2013 at 4:09 am

            Yeah, Ben is right that the Stoics and Epicureans had some notion of practice in their philosophy, though it was significantly less developed than that found in the Buddha dhamma. Indeed, that’s one reason why I am particularly interested in Buddhism.

            This doesn’t mean that the Buddha wasn’t doing philosophy, just that there are other ways of understanding what he did. It’s not either/or, it’s more both/and.



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