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A Companion to Buddhist PhilosophyReview - A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy
by Steven M. Emmanuel (Editor)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2015
Review by Finn Janning, PhD
Dec 20th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 51)

A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Emmanuel, is the kind of book that lies on your desk while you try to gather the strength to interact with it. The book is more than 700 pages long and consists of a collection of 44 essays divided into five parts: Conceptual Foundations, Major Schools of Buddhist Thought, Themes in Buddhist Philosophy, Buddhist Meditation, and Contemporary Issues and Applications.

The scope of the book is amazing. The essays are well written and clear. If you read them all, you will encounter several repetitions, but I assume it comes with the scope.

A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy is suitable for students of Buddhist philosophy, but it can also serve as a more neutral guide to Buddhist thinking and practice. By neutral, I mean that Buddhism has largely been hijacked by the self-help industry, where it is typically used both uncritically and unreflectively. This self-help tendency may be part of Buddhist ethics, as Sallie B. King emphasizes: "Though Buddhism developed a robust personal ethic, it may well be accused of never having developed a systematic and comprehensive social ethic. Buddhist personal ethics do not translate directly or realistically into a fully functional social ethic" (p. 648). It's an inward practice, believing that truth comes from within. In a paradoxical way, the popular versions of Buddhism tend to forget or neglect key concepts such as impermanence and non-self—that is, inner truth is not linked to a permanent "me."

In the introduction, Emmanuel says Buddhism "is a living tradition that traces its origin to the life and teaching of Siddhattha Gotama (Skt Siddhártha Gautama), the historical Buddha" (p. 1). Not much is known about the founder of Buddhism. Furthermore, as with contemporary figures like Jesus and Socrates, the Buddha never wrote anything. Yet the majority of the authors seem to embrace what apparently was the Buddha's pragmatic attitude toward the values of his teachings. At times, this gives the book a too-polished description of Buddhism, which is fine, although I wouldn't mind a more critical philosophical approach when presenting the underlying philosophy of Buddhism. For example, in the introduction, Emmanuel says "the Buddha likened his Dhamma [Sanskrit Dharma] to a raft: the usefulness of the teaching lies in helping us to reach the other shore. But once there, we must let it go" (p. 5). This reminds me of Wittgenstein's ladder and to some extent of Plato's cave image. Luckily, Wittgenstein appears later in an essay by Karen C. Lang: "Like the Buddha's raft or Wittgenstein's ladder, emptiness should be discarded after it has served its purpose" (p. 336). Does Wittgenstein's ladder serve the same purpose as the Buddha's raft? Differences and similarities could be interesting to unfold.

I believe it is fair to say that both Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy begin with an experience of being lost or alienated in life. To philosophize, not just think, is a healing activity. It's a way of getting acquainted and challenged. According to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, "A philosophical problem has the form: 'I don't know my way about." Perhaps this feeling of being lost is why philosophy including Buddhism begins with a dialogue. It's like asking a good friend for directions, a way of befriending the wise.

Some of the essays I enjoyed the most were Peter Harvey's two essays dealing with Buddhist concepts. He argues convincingly why dukkha, which is often translated as "suffering," should be translated as "painful" instead. Dukkha deals with physical and mental pain, and "even happiness is to be seen as dukkha" (p. 31). Regarding non-self, Harvey stresses that it implies there is no fixed and unchangeable self, not that there is "no-self." Non-self is the self seen as a changing process of character and mind-sets. So, when no permanent and independent self can be found, it makes sense to emphasize that Buddhism sees "the basic root of the pain and stress of life as spiritual ignorance" (p. 51). Furthermore, Harvey also addresses metaphysical issues when he discusses the meaning of the verb "is," or Bhava. He points out that many people "translate bhava as 'becoming', to emphasize the dynamic nature of existence according to Buddhism" (p. 59). This also has metaphysical consequences, e.g. that being empty is being empty of something, "empty of a separate self" (p. 193), as Bret W. Davis writes with reference to Zen Buddhism.

The last part of the book is more critical, not necessarily with the author's intention; rather because Buddhism Achilles heel is its social involvement. For example, when it comes to contemporary issues, such as feminism, racism, and ecology, I believe there is more room for an appropriate critic of Buddhist philosophy. "Buddhist teachers are fond of saying, when asked about gender, that [the] enlightened mind is beyond gender. This slogan, however, hides a multitude of problems centered in Buddhism's institutional male dominance, not the least of which is that the enlightened mind beyond gender was usually thought to reside in a male body. Though teachers have claimed that an enlightened mind has no gender, many traditional Buddhists believe it is unfortunate to be reborn as a woman, but that women who behave properly will be rewarded with a male body in their next rebirth" (p. 664).

"In formulating a viable social ethics and speaking as advocates of human rights, Buddhists have one serious problem, however. If human rights translate to universal responsibility, Buddhists need to address the issue of gender discrimination within their own ranks. Human rights cannot be applied selectively—only to human beings of a particular color, gender, or ethnicity—but must apply universally. To argue for human rights for men but not for women, for whites but not for blacks, or only for members of one's own ethnic group is inadequate and renders one's advocacy of human rights hypocritical. Silence on the issue of women's rights constitutes an inexcusable lacuna" (p. 659).

Those two quotes bring me back to the introduction, where Emmanuel says the Buddhist teaching "must be understood in the context of its practical purpose: to facilitate liberation, the realization of nibbána (Skt nirvana)In this respect, the Buddha likened his Dhamma to a raft: the usefulness of the teaching lies in helping us to reach the other shore. But once there, we must let go" (p. 5).

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism relate to the raft, that is, the Noble Eightfold Path. "The eight steps of the path outline the basic program of personal transformation advocated by Buddha," Writes Christopher W. Gowans (p. 430). This path presents us with a way of overcoming what is painful.

The "Four Noble Truths" are: 1) life is painful, 2) this pain comes from craving, 3) a state of freedom from pain is attainable, and 4) nirvana can be reached by following the Eightfold Path. For the sake of reflection, I propose we look at this link between the four truths and the path through Wittgenstein's skeptical view of truth. "One must start out with error and convert it into truth," Wittgenstein says in Philosophical Occasions. The error is that life is painful. "That is, one must reveal the source of error, otherwise hearing the truth won't do any good. The truth can't force its way in when something else is occupying its place." Desire, aversion, craving, and ignorance are the sources of this error, according to Buddhism (i.e. the second noble truth). The point is that you can only claim that certain causes lead to certain effects within a particular language game or mutual understanding—for example, that life really is painful. A philosophical objection may be that life is not painful, or that having a clear picture of the truth makes your approach to life less open, less flexible. In philosophy, the means and ends are often unknown; for the Buddhist, they are not. Therefore, as Wittgenstein says, "To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth."

The Buddhist calls this path the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddhist philosophy follows a diagnostic scheme: symptom = pain, cause = craving, prognosis = end pain, treatment = the path. According to studies in mindfulness, the path works for many of life's pains. This, of course, doesn't suggest that it is the only path, or that the path is without bumps (e.g. gender issues).

Regardless what my comments, A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy is a highly welcome mammoth of a book. It is a good starting point and good companion for debate within different philosophies.   


© 2016 Finn Janning


Finn Janning, PhD, writer and philosopher.



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