Book Review: Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science by Clair Brown, Ph.D.

I had hoped to like this book more. After all, the blurbs on its back cover from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and environmentalist Bill McKibben, all sing its praises. My own view is more mixed, however.

First, let me outline what I liked about the book. The author, University of California-Berkeley economist Clair Brown, correctly diagnoses our society’s greatest errors and failings: its fostering of obscene levels of economic inequality, its despoliation of the planet, its single-minded focus on generating wealth rather than on expanding human well-being and flourishing, and its economic model of corporate obligations to shareholders but not stakeholders.  Dr. Brown offers many sensible alternatives and solutions to these problems, providing reasonable guidelines for reducing wealth inequality, putting the global economy on a sustainable footing, preserving the planet, and maximizing human happiness and potential.  If we followed the author’s exhortations, I have no doubt that our world would be a much better place. I would very much like to live in the world she prescribes.

Now for the things I didn’t like about the book.

First, to my mind, the title doesn’t make any sense. There is no such thing as “Buddhist Economics,” just as there is no such thing as Buddhist Astrophysics or Buddhist Quantum Mechanics. Economics is economics, plain and simple. It’s a social science that tells us how to get from point A to point B: Here’s what one ought to do if one wants to constrain inflation; Here’s what one ought do if one wants full employment; and so on. It tells us the correct means to reach desired goals. What it doesn’t do is tell us what our goals ought to be. That field—the one that tells us what we ought to desire—is ethics rather than economics. What Clair Brown is really arguing for is not a better economics, but a better ethics. She is suggesting a different set of human goals to aim at, rather than a different type of means to get there.

Second, there is nothing in Clair Brown’s ethics that is particularly or uniquely Buddhist.  Pope Francis could probably agree with most of the goals she emphasizes.  So could most secular humanists.  Her vision of the well-lived life is more traditionally Aristotelian than it is traditionally Buddhist. Classical Buddhism had little, if anything, to say about reducing economic inequality or preserving the planet.  Now it happens that many if not most Buddhist modernists would endorse a set of ethics that is in accord with secular humanist, liberal Protestant, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish, and Post-Vatican II Catholic ethics when it comes to issues of preserving the planet, reducing inequality, and fostering human flourishing. That’s because modern humanist ethics are in the air, up for grabs by all, and not because they’re deeply rooted in the Buddhist past. Now there are several traditional Buddhist themes that resonate deeply with modern humanist ethics, including the Buddhist emphases on lovingkindness, compassion, non-greed, non-harming, non-ego aggrandizement, interdependence, and saving all beings. That is the reason why Buddhist luminaries such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh espouse them.  These ideas are the common heritage of modernity and not uniquely Buddhist

Third, this book was written during the Obama presidency when it was still possible to dream the “liberal dream”—that with just a little more effort we could head in the right direction.  We are now plunged into a new Dark Age in which selfishness and greed are valued above all else by those in charge of the national government. We have pulled out of the Paris climate accord and are on the verge of ending our imperfect experiment with universal healthcare. In the despair of the moment, I’m reminded of these lines written by the philosopher Richard Rorty some three decades ago:

“I do not think that we liberals can now imagine a future of ‘human dignity, freedom and peace.’ That is, we cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future. We can picture various socioeconomic setups which would be preferable to the present one. But we have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds, and thus no clear idea of what to work for…. This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth, or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out. Sometimes things prove to be just as bad as they first looked.…This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation, the one that blocks all the liberal scenarios.” (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989, p. 181-182)

In the end, what Clair Brown fails to do is give us a road map that would tell us how to reorder American politics so that sensible economic proposals, such as the one she is making, can be given a chance. We can guess what some of those political changes would involve—an end to Citizen’s United, an end to gerrymandering, genuine election finance reform, and so on. But how is one to accomplish those things? Today, the kind of transvaluation of values that would be needed before meaningful political change could occur seems farther off than ever. That is what those of us on the “religious left” toil for with little hope and against heavy odds. It’s easy to think up solutions to most of our problems. The problem is, they never live to see the light of day.

To sum up, if you’re interested in suggestions for how to reorder our economic system so that businesses are more socially responsible, so that everyone is guaranteed a living wage, so that our economy is carbon neutral, so that the gap between rich and poor nations is reduced, and so that developing human potential and well-being are more important than growing economic productivity, then this is an excellent book.  If you, like me, happen to be a Buddhist modernist, you will find much that you like and agree with. I am one of those who happen to think our economy ought to be constrained by the emerging universalist humanist modernist ethics, which we as Buddhist modernists share with modernists of other faiths. The problem is, we still need a roadmap of how to draw those who view things differently into the conversation.  I suspect there are no shortcuts, that the road will be hard, that there will be many defeats along the way, and that there is no guarantee of either eventual success or planetary survival.

But try we must.

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Book Review: Patriarchs on Paper

Alan Cole’s Patriarchs on Paper: A Critical History of Medieval Chan Literature draws together some recent scholarly research on Chan Buddhism’s core texts, e.g., its various Tang and Song Dynasty genealogies, transmission of the lamp compendia, and koan collections, as well as the Platform Sutra, and the monastic rules for purity (Chanyuan Qinggui) and presents them in the form of an historical overview for the interested general reader. Cole is described an independent scholar who has taught at Lewis and Clark College, Harvard University, the University of Illinois, the University of Oregon, and the National University of Singapore.

Cole views these core Chan texts as products of historical, cultural, and literary evolution, charting the changes in their content and style over the course of centuries, and speculating on the various purposes these texts might have served.  His basic orientation can only be described as “ironic,” that is, that the texts cannot be taken at face value in that: 1) they represent a literary tradition rather than a practice tradition, 2) they express in letters and words what is allegedly beyond letters and words, 3) they describe a process of dharma transmission that fictionalizes and romanticizes the actual process of transmission, 4) they reflect steadily increasing Taoist and antinomian trends in Chinese Buddhism that were at variance with both normative Buddhism and actual Chan monastic practice 5), they employed increasingly stylized rhetorical strategies that fictionalized the accounts of Chan ancestors in increasingly entertaining ways, and 6) they reflected, among other things, the exigencies of various patriarchs as they strove to secure their authority and win favors from the imperial court.

Most interesting to me was the examination of the written “historical” record in terms of what is “known” about Zen patriarchs such as Bodhidharma, Huike, and Huineng. The stories about them change and are embellished with each passing generation. The pithy, witty, and archetypically Zen sayings attributed to them only begin to circulate centuries after they are long gone—if, that is, they ever existed as more than literary protagonists at all.  During the Tang Dynasty the sayings attributed to the Chan patriarchs are mostly stock paraphrases of sutra passages. Only after a time do the fly whisks, unconventional behavior, and rhetoric of negation emerge, only fully making their appearance during the Song Dynasty.  As such, these epigrammatic sayings are fictional inventions placed in the ancestors’ mouths rather than the authentic accounts of the sayings and doings of real Tang Dynasty masters.  Over time, the Chan patriarchs begin to look more and more like the protagonists from another, older Chinese literary tradition: the Taoist sages. When koan collections such as Wumen’s 13th century Gaterless Barrier begin to appear, they include witty, ironic commentary and well-crafted poems that let you know that the authors are not simple Taoist sages, however, but accomplished Song Dynasty literati who are self-consciously introducing a new literary form written—not for the benefit of simple monks—but for consumption by other Chinese literati.

The text suffers from the limitations of the author’s arch and ironic stance and his tendency to speculate beyond the data. He never considers the possibility that these texts might—despite their constructed literary nature—be vehicles for important religious insights or facilitate genuine spiritual attainment. The book also shares the limitations of any summary of detailed research for general readers in that one often finds oneself wanting more extensive and detailed examination of quotations from the texts than those that are offered. Despite these limitations, this book fills a genuine void.  Zen practitioners who are unable to keep up with scholarly books and articles—that means almost all Zen practitioners—will find it an invaluable addition to their library.  It will give them a much more complex and nuanced understanding of the tradition they have inherited, in much the same way that scholarly Biblical criticism since the 19th Century has transformed our understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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Authenticity and Zen


I just finished reading Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s excellent Two Shores of Zen, a searingly honest personal narrative comparing his experiences in American and Japanese Zen practice settings.  Rather than review the book (which I highly recommend) I want to explore its chief theme, the search for Buddhist “authenticity:” What is real Zen?  Above all else, we want our Zen to be “authentic,” and we want to practice “authentically,” whether these two are the same thing or not — the first having to do with whether our Zen is really the Zen of our ancestors, the second with whether we can wholeheartedly practice without some inner division, false consciousness, or “as if” quality.

The first question — “Is this the Buddhism/Zen of our ancestors?” — seems to be a perennial question which some of my earlier posts (Tokugawa Zen; Greek Buddha; Everything Changes, Buddhism too; Buddhism Learns to Stand on Its Head) have touched upon in piecemeal fashion.  Every Buddhist school makes its own claim to authenticity and plays fast and loose with history in service of this goal, but every successful Buddhist movement to restore an idealized past inevitably ends by re-creating a new Buddhism for its own historical era. These Buddhisms can’t help but reflect the consciousness of their time. If, by some miracle, they could somehow resist infection with the Zeitgeist (even while, at the same time, heroically opposing it), they’d be of no real value to their practitioners who, prisoners of their own place and time, would be incapable of genuinely inhabiting the consciousness of a previous era. This relates to the issue of the second type of “authenticity”—one’s ability to fully inhabit and embody a practice.

Dogen’s thirteenth century journey to China to find the “real” Zen is but one example of the process of recreation through “looking backwards,” as is Menzan Zuiho’s eighteenth century rediscovery of Dogen’s Zen.  In addition, innovations in Buddhism have historically tried to justify their “authenticity” by invoking mythological pasts. Zen “lineage charts,” Nagarjuna’s “recovery” of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and Tibetan “revelations” of esoterically hidden termas are all examples of this tendency, and Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha suggests a similar process may underly Theravada claims to having “preserved” the Buddha’s “original” teachings. Buddhism has always looked forwards by looking backwards. It’s always decaying, dying, dead and gone and then—presto-chango!— reborn again, the same but different. This, perversely, is one way the doctrine of rebirth turns out to be literally true.

As the narrative of Two Shores of Zen begins, Rutschman-Byler, a resident practitioner at California’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, finds himself increasingly repelled by certain features of American Zen. He is an exceedingly — one might almost say “painfully” — earnest practitioner who finds himself questioning the authenticity of what he sees as a vitiated American Zen with its diminished promise of genuine awakening.  He is scornful of non-celibate monastics, the democratic weakening of monastic hierarchy, comfortable monasteries with heated rooms and gourmet meals, and Zen teachers who act as spiritual friends and who encourage one to find one’s own answers rather than inspiring wholehearted devotion as enlightened beings.

He goes to Japan searching for a purer, more authentic Zen practice, but what he finds are the twin aspects of a declining Japanese Zen: on the one hand, a nearly moribund family-temple “funeral” Buddhism, and on the other hand, an austere, demanding practice with an “enlightened” master who — while possessing all the hallmarks of “authenticity” — is aging and infirm and has left no Dharma heirs; whatever tradition he represents is dying with him.  His temple is populated by Japanese students who, failing to duplicate the master’s enlightenment, sneak off in the night, and Westerners attempting to devote themselves to an ascetic ideal that’s no longer possible for postmodern Westerners and which is complicated by the fact that they’re practicing within an alien culture that stubbornly resists understanding.

Rutschman-Byler struggles with the austerities and politics that characterize monastic life along with the unruly resistance of his own human nature—cravings for sex, romance, carbohydrates, and protection from the bitter winter cold—trying to sincerely apply himself to a practice that eventually threatens to undermine his sanity and harden his heart. He returns home at the end, as all journeyers must, more or less reconciled to an imperfect American Zen, concluding:

“Whichever path is better, or more traditional, or more conducive to real spiritual understanding and compassion, the basic fact that I’m left with is that simply I am a Western Buddhist, and that try as I might, my… Western Buddhist values underlie my practice.  I have tried, and failed, to force myself to think that [Japanese-style] monastic practice is better than, or finally even necessary at all for meaningful, everyday worldly practice.  Have I lost anything in that?  Yes. Have I gained something?— indeed, my whole life, just as it is, reclaimed and renewed as precisely the territory of unsurpassed enlightenment.”

This search for authenticity — to be authentic, to find something authentic to cling to — is an inevitable aspect of postmodernity: we feel adrift amidst competing traditions which have lost their compelling authority, and competing visions of ourselves that call out for embodiment and enactment.  Which path constitutes a genuine movement of the “true” self in its unfolding and actualization, and which is mere play-acting and posturing — something ill-fitting, ugly, ungainly, and grafted on?  Is there a “true self” to develop and express, or is “emptiness” and “formlessness” our real home? If nothing is genuinely “authentic,” how are we to fashion ourselves? What are the goalposts and guidelines? What do we even mean by “authentic?”

We Western convert Buddhists find ourselves in an awkward position. We’re postmoderns par excellence —doubters, questioners, and searchers — rejecting our birth religion and setting ourselves adrift.  We want to ground ourselves in something authentic, but are incapable of the kind of faith and trust in our new religion that we rejected in our old. 

There are, however, aspects of this new Buddhism that are uniquely suited to our postmodern sensibilities—most specifically the Zen ideal of “not knowing.”  In addition, the doctrine of emptiness fits hand-in-glove with the process-relational aspects of postmodernism, the understanding that at bottom there is no bottom: no unchanging essence that stands behind us or anything else.  It’s process and flux all the way down, and the bits and pieces we borrow to create ourselves are not “ours” but borrowings from the detritus of our culture, memes afloat in our hive mind. The question is, which borrowings and adoptions carry something valuable forward — liberate and actualize potentials in a positive way—and what criteria should we adopt in evaluating our progress?  Western Zen reinforces and develops a number of criteria — presence, awareness, whole-heartedness, integrity, openness, and  interconnectedness — that resonate with Western romanticism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and existentialism — and weds them, as (David Chapman rightly points out) to contemporary Western liberal ethics with its emphases on empathy, mutual understanding, compassion, fairness, justice, and liberation.

Is this an “authentic” Buddhism?  Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t seem to think so, as he makes clear in his cogent historical analysis of the genesis of Buddhist romanticism, but he’s an apologist for the Theravada agenda, shoring up arguments in support of his own existential commitments.  Of course he’s right in a sense: It’s not your grandfather’s Buddhism.  It’s not Theravada. It’s not Bodhidharma Zen. It’s not Dogen Zen.  But Western Buddhism is completely authentic in another sense.  It’s authentic in that we can completely get behind it. It’s a platform on which we can authentically practice without pretense, without cutting off or eliding what we, as postmoderns, sense deeply and irrevocably in our bones. 

Will it take us to the other shore? Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Swaha?  Thanisarro Bhikkhu argues that it won’t, but do we really believe in that other shore anymore?  Something wholly transcendent, a final destination, permanent, beyond all suffering?  Does it make any sense? Does it ring true to postmodern ears? Do we really need it? Have we met anyone who’s attained it?  Not someone who said they attained it, but someone we genuinely believed actually did? Do we live in Mappo, the degenerate Third Age of Buddhism, when attainment is no longer possible? What good is an “attainment” no one ever ever actually attains?

What Western Buddhism can do is move us continually beyond our old selves, breaking the chains of habit, prejudice, and character, opening us to deeper levels of interconnectedness and Being, opening our hearts, lessening our clinging and egocentricity, developing our equanimity and acceptance, and enabling the continual questioning that makes our never-ending journey an adventure worth living. That’s not another shore exactly, but it’s a process we can sincerely believe in.

This isn’t the final Buddhism; its just ours. The next historical era will require something new — something drawing different water from the Buddhist well and blending it with the insights specific to its own time and place.  Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “philosophy can never revert to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher.” Every great philosopher changes the world so that we can never quite see things the same way again.  We can’t live as if Hume, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger never existed — whether we’ve read and understood them or not, our culture has already been changed by them, and we’ve been changed along with it. In the future some new philosopher will no doubt think new thoughts and change the possible ways our descendants can understand and use the Dharma.  As a 2,500 year old conversation on awakening and liberation, the well of Buddhism is deep. It will always have something valuable to contribute.  And once again, it will be reborn, the same but different.

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Book Review: Greek Buddha

IMG_7923Four centuries lie between the time the Buddha lived and the time the earliest known Gandhari and Pali Buddhist texts were committed to writing. Since religions are never static affairs, these texts undoubtedly diverged to some extent from the Buddha’s original teachings, but exactly how far and in which ways is uncertain; our knowledge of the gap between the earliest Buddhist teachings and early canonical Buddhism is basically a vast, empty chasm. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha’s Indian contemporaries lacked both a written language and an understanding of how history differs from mythology and hagiography.

Indulge me in a thought experiment: Imagine that you and I live in a preliterate society. Imagine that nothing Abraham Lincoln ever said or did was written down, either at the time or subsequently. Imagine that there are no photographs or drawings of him. Imagine that there were no documents pertaining to the Civil War – no quartermasters’ inventories, no Mathew Brady photographs, no slave diaries, no rosters of those who served, no records of Lincoln’s speeches. Imagine too that there is no written record of the presidents who served before or after Lincoln.  All that exists is our memory of what our parents and teachers told us face to face, based on their memory of what their parents and teachers told them.

If this was so, how accurate would our knowledge of Lincoln be today? How much of what he said would be accurately remembered and generally agreed upon?

Think of all the apocryphal Lincoln “quotes” that currently float through the Internet in all their glorious inaccuracy.


Now imagine that another three hundred years passes before the orally transmitted “knowledge” of Lincoln is finally set down on paper.  How much more inaccurate would those ideas about Lincoln be?

This is the state we find ourselves in when in comes to the Buddha.

Christopher Beckwith’s new book, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (2015, Princeton) is a fascinating attempt to fill this historical void with educated speculation. Beckwith urges us to make his own mental experiment. He suggests that we bracket off almost everything we think we “know” about early Buddhism from canonical sources, and instead invites us to follow him as he attempts to reconstruct early Buddhism from sources closer in time to when the Buddha actually lived, namely the stone edicts and pillars of the Mauryan kings, the records of ancient Greek travelers, recent archeological findings, and the earliest Chinese Taoist texts.

Beckwith pays special attention to one such Greek traveller: Pyrrho of Elis, a young artist who travelled with Alexander the Great to Gandhara in the years 327-325 B.C. where Pyrrho met with and was influenced by a group of early Buddhist practitioners. Pyrrho returned to Greece espousing a radical new philosophy—“Pyrrhonism”—which bore more than a surface resemblance to the Buddhism he encountered in Gandhara (as has been noted previously by scholars like Georgios Halkias). For example, Pyrrho cultivated apatheia (passionlessness) in order to develop ataraxia (inner calm). He made explicit use of the fourfold negation of the tetralemma [five centuries before Nagarjuna!]. He was celibate, lived in simplicity, engaged in meditation, and was regarded by his neighbors as a holy man. He recommended  an attitude of “not-knowing” in regards to pragmata, ordisputed ethical questions.” Pyrrho viewed pragmata as having three primary characteristics: they were inherently adiaphora (undifferentiated by logical differentia—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “anatta”), astathmeta (unbalanced—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “dukkha”) and anepikrita (indeterminate — possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “annica”). The degree to which Pyrrho’s three qualities of pragmata actually map one-to-one onto the Buddha’s three marks of existence is a question I’ll leave to better philologists and philosophers than myself, but I found Beckwith’s argument intriguing. 

Beckwith then takes his argument a step further. He notes that concepts like “karma” and “rebirth” are mentioned by neither Pyrrho nor Megasthenes (another traveling Greek who served as Seleucus Nicatator’s ambassador to Chandragupta from 302 to 298 B.C.). Based on this, Beckwith asserts that these ideas weren’t a part of early Buddhism. This seems like an awfully big assumption to make, especially since Pyrrho himself wrote nothing—we only know of his thoughts through the writings of his contemporaries and students.  In addition, while Pyrrho’s philosophy may have been based on Buddhism, he may not have adopted all of Buddhism’s tenets; he may have picked and chosen those ideas that were most consonant with his Hellenic background.  While Beckwith is correct that we’ve no hard evidence that karma and rebirth were Buddhist beliefs prior to 100 B.C., absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. The most we can say is that he may be right.

Beckwith also speculates on the Buddha’s ethnicity. He argues against the canonical assertion that the Buddha was a native Magadhan born in Lumbini, and argues instead that the name “Śākyamuni” (“Sage of the Śākyas”) suggests that the Buddha was a Śākya, i.e., an ethnic Scythian (a Central Asian people who dominated the steppes). Of course the epithet “Śākyamuni” doesn’t necessarily imply that the Buddha himself was actually “foreign-born.” Alternatively, the Buddha could have been descended from Scythians who migrated to Magadha somewhat earlier, perhaps as early as 850 BC as Jayarava Attwood has speculated. One interesting implication of the Buddha’s possibly Scythian origin is that he may have developed the Dharma, at least in part, in response to Zoroastrianism, the religion of Darius’s Achaemenid Empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley. If so, Buddhism can be understood, in part, as a rejection of Zoroastrian monotheism and cosmic dualism.

Beckwith suggests, following the controversial chronology suggested by Johannes Bronkhorst, that early Buddhism preceded the Upanishads and, then goes off on his own to suggest that it also preceded Jainism. He believes that these allegedly later religious traditions adopted aspects of Buddhist teachings and then projected their own origin stories into an imaginary pre-Buddhist past to lend them greater authenticity, in much the same way that the Mahayana would later claim greater antiquity for its own sutras. Beckwith can find no support for the early existence of Jainism in the kinds of data he deems acceptable. The Greek travelers, for example, fail to mention it. The earliest datable references to Jainism are found in the post-100 B.C. Pali literature. Beckwith believes that those Pali Suttas that treat the Buddha and Mahavira as contemporaries are useful fictions designed to address Buddhist-Jain disputes that were current during the era in which they were actually composed.

Even more fascinating is Beckwith’s speculation that Laotzu and the Buddha were one and the same person, and that Taoism grew out of very early Chinese contact with Buddhism. Beckwith does a linguistic analysis of Laotzu’s “actual” name (“Lao Tan”) as recorded around 300 B.C. in Chuangtzu.  He argues that “Lao” is the same as “K’ao,” and that K’ao-Tan could plausibly have been pronounced “Gaw-tam” in certain old Chinese dialects, making it intriguingly close to “Gautama,” with the final /a/ being dropped due to canonical monosyllabicization. This is a linguistic argument far beyond my powers to evaluate.  If true, it makes for a wonderful story of how Buddhism first influenced the formation of Taoism, and then several hundred years later, Taoism returned the favor in coloring how the Chinese translated and understood the Mahayana Sutras. What goes around comes around. In any case, Beckwith believes it to be no accident that similar theories arose nearly simultaneously in Greece, India, and China during the Axial Age, and that there was a greater degree of intercourse between these cultures than has previously been thought. 

There is much more to Beckwith’s book, including discussions of Pyrrho’s influence on David Hume, the provenance of the Mauryan stone edicts and pillars, the linguistic facility of Alexander’s entourage, and Pyrrho’s place in the stream of Greek philosophy.  Beckwith’s discussion of the connection between Pyrrho’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy and David Hume’s examination of the problem of logical induction serendipitously coincides with Alison Gopnick’s recent speculation about how Hume may have become familiarized with Buddhist thought during his stay at the Royal College of La Flèche. Like the parallel emergence of novel philosophies during the Axial Age, the parallels between Hume’s philosophy and Buddhist insights may be due to more than mere coincidence.

There are problems with the Beckwith’s book, to be sure.  As mentioned above, it’s impossible for a non-scholar like myself to evaluate Beckwith’s claims. While some seem plausible, others seem more of a stretch. I suspect it’s better to think of them as hypotheses which can spur future research than to think of them as strongly supported facts. I should also note that  Beckwith could have benefited from a better editor to help him eliminate some of his repetitiveness—he can, at times, worry a point beyond all endurance.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Beckwith’s theses as being largely irrelevant to Buddhist practice.  They might think, “What does it matter, in the end, whether the Buddha was really a Scythian or one-and-the-same person as Laotzu?  What matters is how one is coming along in one’s practice and realization.”  While I’m sympathetic to that point of view, I think it’s a mistake.  Our hypotheses about who the Buddha actually was and what the Buddhist project is ultimately about deeply inform our approach to practice. Consider, as one example, Stephen Batchelor’s recent historical reimagining of early Buddhism and his proposal that doctrines of karma and rebirth weren’t nearly as central to it as some contend. Beckwith’s arguments buttress Batchelor’s, and together their ideas  have the potential to significantly inform the future dominant direction of Western Buddhist practice.

Even if Beckwith’s arguments turns out to be deficient in many of their particulars, Beckwith successfully points to the limitations of taking the Pali Canon’s account of Buddhist history at face value. Buddhist texts need to be read with a certain degree of suspicion. They need to be read alongside contemporaneous Greek and Chinese sources, checked against emerging archeological findings, and understood within the context of our growing understanding of Central and Southern Asian history. I’m incapable of doing this myself and I have no way of judging the ultimate worth of Beckwith’s arguments.  On the other hand, I look forward with interest to whatever lively discussion ensues.



Book Review: The Present Heart


If Western Buddhism has been shaped by an ongoing dialogue with Psychology, it’s in part due to the existence of a talented cohort of psychologically sophisticated practitioners who are also gifted writers.  I include writers such as Jack Kornfield, Larry Rosenberg, Barry Magid, Harvey Aronson, Jeffrey Rubin, Mark Epstein, Jeremy Safran, Bob Rosenbaum and Polly Young-Eisendrath in this remarkable group.  Polly, a Vermont-based Jungian psychologist and long-term student of both Phillip Kapleau Roshi and Shinzen Young, is easily the most prolific of these writers with some fourteen titles to her name.  Her latest book, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Loss, Love, and Discovery (Rodale) is a chronicle of her relationship with Ed Epstein — the remarkable story of their fated meeting and marriage, their decades-long love, and most poignantly, Ed’s tragic and inexorable decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Polly and Ed at the 2003 Mind and Life conference at MIT in Cambridge.  We shared meals during the conference and established an immediate rapport.  Polly and I were on somewhat similar journeys as Buddhist psychologist authors, and while we never again met in person, we’ve kept in touch over the years through e-mails and holiday letters.  It was through these that I first learned of Ed’s precipitous decline and Polly’s efforts to creatively and humanely adapt to it.  Ed was undiagnosed but already in the early stages of Alzheimers when we met at Mind and Life.  At the time, his personal warmth and verbal facility hid any incipient signs of increasing disability from casual observers like myself.  I remember Polly as the more dynamic of the two and Ed as being somewhat more retiring — was that subtle evidence of the insidious onset of his dementia, or just the way things had always been?  One thing was clear — they were immensely likable as a couple, and clearly in love.

Polly has written a brave book exploring the dilemma of caring for Ed when he is no longer able to be her reciprocal partner — no longer the man she married — while simultaneously struggling to sustain her own inner aliveness, growth, and capacity for love.  The frankness with which she invites the reader to know her and her situation in all her and its unique and specific particularity makes this book a rarity and a revelation.  Part memoir and part meditation on the nature of love, the book distinguishes between true love, romantic love, and the one-way street of cherishing without reciprocation. True love, as Polly defines it, is based on a mutual seeing-and-being-seen within an embracing attitude of acceptance and letting-be — a relationship that’s neither fused nor separate, neither symbiotic nor idealized.  She describes her first marriages in which she was needed but never “seen,” her discovery of true love in relationship with Ed, and her rediscovery of true love once Ed could only be the object of one-way cherishing.

Polly’s solutions to her dilemma are wonderfully unique, humorously and heartbreakingly complex, and throughly unbound by tradition.  Without giving too much away, in the process of caring for and eventually arranging care for Ed she also ends up acquiring the responsibility of arranging care for Richard, her first ex-husband, a former philosophy professor who’s afflicted with both circumscribed paranoid delusions and an advancing dementia.  She, Ed, and Richard, soon establish the ritual of regular Sunday dinners at a local haunt — dinners that increasingly resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  How she re-fashions a family from the shards of her life, present and past — the past is never over, it isn’t even past — and keeps her heart alive and growing, is the exciting crux of this story.  Some people succumb to adversity, others rise to the occasion.  Polly’s heroic quest to not be a victim — to accept the karmic flow of life and thrive within it— is an inspiration to caregivers everywhere.  In the course of all this, Polly elucidates how her Buddhist practice — being fully present, seeing and accepting reality, endlessly letting go, dwelling in groundlessness — gives her the tools she needs to cope with adversity.  She also finds Buddhism to be incomplete — it has little to say about personal love, as opposed to universal lovingkindness and compassion — so she learns to supplement the Buddhist path with lessons gleaned from life, psychological practice, and a group of distinguished mentors.

Although this is Polly’s specific and unique journey, I found it resonated strongly with my own personal experience — the final year of my first marriage to my wife of thirty-six years as she painfully succumbed to the ravages of cancer.  I recall how my years of Buddhist practice enabled me to stay present and not turn away, to let go into the reality of things, to cry and laugh along with her, and, after the end, to find new love once old love was gone.  If people wonder what Buddhist practice is practice for, this is it.

It’s funny how it’s the unique and particular stories that teach us what’s universal. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling to be seen, to anyone cast into the role of caregiver, to anyone interested in Buddhist practice, to anyone thrown by unanticipated and undesired adversity and loss, to anyone struggling to be a genuine self, to anyone interested in love. 

Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly Young-Eisendrath

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Book Review: Entering Zen

Alfred University Professor Emeritus Ben Howard is an accomplished poet, guitarist, essayist, and critic. He is the founder of the Falling Leaf Sangha and writes essays about Zen for the Alfred Sun and his blog One Time One Meeting. Seventy-five of these finely crafted essays have finally been collected and published under one cover as Entering Zen (Whitlock Publishers, 2011).

Howard’s essays are typically inspired by an observation. Howard contemplates commonplace things — the fountain pen he writes with, the ice dam on his roof, the oak tree in his backyard, the guitar music he plays, a poem that resonates, a casual remark or phrase that strikes his imagination. Howard then invites us to join him in contemplation. “If you have ever noticed,” he often begins, referring the reader to some phenomenon that has caught his eye, then the reader, too, might just discover for himself the deeper truth which Howard is about to reveal.

Those truths are the small truths we can observe along with him and verify for ourselves. They are the pith and heart of Zen — attentiveness, fresh observation, radical unmediated inquiry — “just this.” Each essay cuts right to the living heart of Zen. Howard guides us as a spiritual friend — wise, knowledgable (without ever being pedantic), kind-hearted and witty. These finely wrought essays reflect decades of work toiling in poetic vineyards — they are the epitome of grace and transparency.

Along the way, Howard drops useful suggestions about meditation, instructs us on Japanese aesthetics, helps us to appreciate the Japanese tea ceremony, and introduces us to some fine American, Irish, Chinese and Japanese poetry. He also introduces us to some of his friends — painter Richard Thompson who’s love of fly fishing inspires Zen reflections, neighbor Howard “Chainsaw” Chilson who teaches Howard something about paying attention, and faculty colleague Carol Burdick who reads Howard a list of ten positive aspects of her impending death just weeks before she dies. Each of these friends leaves Howard with a gift which he passes on to us.

To fully appreciate the quality of Howard’s writing, it’s best to let him speak for himself. Here’s his conclusion to Dappled Things, a reflection on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

March, it might be said, is the month of dappled things. Patches of snow coexist with patches of grass, gray slush with patches of crocuses and snowdrops. Looking out on that piebald landscape, we can wish impatiently for April, and an end to winter. Or, as Hopkins did, we can appreciate the streaks of darkness and light, while also intuiting the underlying whole. Before our eyes is the changing relative world, where things are, in Hopkins phrase, ‘swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.’ Beyond our eyes is absolute reality, the beginningless ground of being, whose beauty, in Hopkins words is ‘past change.’

Entering Zen isn’t fast food for the soul. It contains no empty calories — there’s no fat or sugar added. It wasn’t written to be wolfed down like a cheeseburger. It’s meant to be savored slowly. You won’t want to read it in one sitting. It’s best left on one’s bed stand and read one essay at a time. It must be left to breathe, then sipped like a fine wine.

Essence of Zen, 100% guaranteed.

Ben Howard

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Book Review of Owen Flanagan’s “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized”

Owen Flanagan [1], is my favorite living analytical philosopher because he writes clearly, deals with topics (theory of mind, ethics, what it means to live well) that I actually care about, is what smart would be if smart was on steroids, and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor.  He’s a Naturalist, which is to say, he eschews supernatural explanations, dislikes dualism, and is disinterested in questions that are unfalsifiable by either logic or empirical observation.  He’s not a Buddhist, but he has a keen interest in (and sufficiently deep understanding of) Buddhism, as well as recent efforts to test Buddhist claims using scientific methods.  He wonders whether Buddhism can be tamed sufficiently to be of interest to Naturalists.  He also wonders, once one has stripped Buddhism of everything supernatural or dualistic, whether what remains is recognizably Buddhist, and whether it is philosophically deep, interesting, or useful.  In other words, the same issues that interest The Existential Buddhist.  I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak on three separate occasions at conferences organized by the Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies, so I looked forward to reading his new book with great anticipation.  I’ve not been disappointed.

Flanagan writes:

“Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas.  What would be left?  My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.  This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytical philosophers and scientific naturalists because it is deep.”


What’s left, among other things, is a metaphysic that focuses on impermanence, emptiness, selflessness, and unsatisfactoriness, and a virtue theory that emphasizes mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity and overcoming greed, aversion, and delusion.  Pretty good for a start.

Flanagan then goes on to explore a number of interesting questions.  What has psychological and neuropsychological research on meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and well-being proven at this point?  Flanagan explores this question thoroughly without the irrational exuberance that sometimes accompanies this topic, clarifying what is meant by (and how to measure and explore the relationships between) meditation, Buddhist belief and insight, and achieving Buddhist well-being and/or happiness (as opposed to other kinds of well-being and happiness).  He also explores the relationships between Buddhist, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and contemporary Western conceptions of well-being as well as exploring the current philosophical status of the concept of virtue.

Flanagan explores whether Buddhist conceptions of virtue are either too demanding — or not demanding enough.  For example, what is really meant by impartiality when it comes to compassion?  Does Buddhism really expect Bodhisattvas to love/care as much about strangers as they do about intimates?  Imagine a situation where two houses are on fire, one containing your child, the other a stranger.  You can rescue only one. Does Buddhist impartiality really require you to flip a coin to decide who to save?  If you did just that, would you really be more virtuous than the person who instinctively chose to rescue his own child — or would you have descended into becoming inhuman?  You can see where this line of questioning leads.  On the other hand, what level of actual compassionate activity — as opposed to merely developing compassionate mental states — does Buddhism really require?  While the Bodhisattva vows to save all beings, what level of compassionate activity is required of the Arhat, or the cave-dwelling yogi?

Flanagan wonders whether the Buddhist metaphysic of emptiness/selflessness logically necessitates its ethic of compassion.  Could the realization of selflessness lead to either hedonism or withdrawal in some individuals, rather than to lovingkindness?  Flanagan also wonders whether Buddhism puts too much emphasis on compassion, and not enough on fairness.

All of these are interesting questions, well worth wrestling with.

In the end, while Flanagan decides that a naturalized Buddhism is worthy of serious attention as a prescription for living well, he’s too much of an ironic cosmopolitan to privilege Buddhism over all other prescriptive systems (e.g., Plato’s or Aristotle’s).  He’s happy to live in a pluralistic postmodern world in which all of the world’s wisdom traditions are open to learn from, and one is not obligated to adhere to one as if it were the only truth.

He concludes:

 “Cosmopolitans relish the hybridity of the world, the exhilarating anxiety that comes from  lacking confidence in any single traditional way of living and being, while at the same time being hopeful and grateful that the wisdom of the ages can accumulate into new ways of being and doing that advance the project of flourishing.  Philosophy’s contribution is to examine the great traditions of the past for useful insights into what to do now and next.  For that purpose, for going forward, Buddhism has something to offer.  Is it the answer?  Of course not.  Nothing is the answer.  This is something Buddhism teaches.”

I find myself in agreement with Flanagan — up to a point.  I share his postmodernist sensibility. It’s wonderful to live in an age when we can read Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha, Hillel, Rumi, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, James, Buber, Russell, Dewey and Wittgenstein side by side.  We are blessed by an embarrassment of riches.  Every wisdom book we consult, every novel  we read, every symphony we hear, every sunset we enjoy can teach us something new and deep about life.  Openness to learning and experience is a key to a life well lived.

On the other hand, the cosmopolitan runs the risk of dilettantism — of tasting everything but never committing to anything  —  of never exploring anything in sufficient depth.  Whatever truth lies within Buddhism is a lived truth.  The only way to understand the path is to live it — not just compare and contrast.  If you want to understand meditation, you have to meditate.  If you want to understand emptiness, it must be experienced in your bones, not just understood intellectually.  If you want to tame greed, aversion and delusion, you must work at it moment-by-moment in all its manifestations.  All this requires genuine commitment.  Committing to Buddhism doesn’t mean agreeing with all its tenets.  It doesn’t mean giving Buddhism a monopoly on wisdom or truth.  It doesn’t mean Buddhism can’t stand some improvement.  Buddhism is the ongoing work of fallible human beings — not the word of God.  Buddhism naturalized is a grand idea — but it needs to be inhabited, not just consulted.

Flanagan’s Naturalism is of a minimalist sort.  He’s not the kind of naturalist who believes all questions about the nature of reality have been answered once and for all — he just thinks that given the current status of our knowledge, Naturalism is our best bet.  I’m generally inclined in the same direction, but remain slightly more open-minded about surprising things we might still just discover about the relationship between consciousness and materiality.  I agree that dualism is nonsensical.  The trouble is, I still can’t wrap my mind around the “hard problem” of understanding qualia — how the raw feel of mental events arises as an emergent property of physical events.  The explanatory gap remains, at least for now.  Until it’s closed, I remain somewhat less committed to a Naturalist explanation.  Flanagan would probably think my agnosticism about this issue is due to failing to think things through logically enough, or giving insufficient attention to all the evidence.  Perhaps.  But I remain unconvinced.  I would agree with Flanagan, however, that the burden of proof lies with those who assert the existence of nonmaterial forms of consciousness.

That being said, I can’t recommend this book enough.  It’s thoughtful in the best sense  of the word.  It you’re a Buddhist (or someone leaning towards Buddhism) who likes to wrestle with philosophical issues, it will help you to think things through more clearly.  If you are a Buddhist who is inclined toward Naturalism, it’s always nice to find another ally.  Best of all, it’s fun to read.


Owen Flanagan

Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain (2011) is published by MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.


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  1. [1] James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University

Book Review of Mirka Knaster’s “Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra”

Mirka Knaster [1] has done the Buddhist world a great service with her inspiring spiritual portrait of Anāgārika Munindra (1915-2003), the endearing, indefatigable Bengali Buddhist teacher who (along with Ajahn Chah, S.N. Goenka, Mahāsi Sayādaw, and Sayagi U Ba Khin) was key to the transmission of vipassanā to the West.  Munindra had a profound influence on the first and second generation of American-born Buddhist teachers including Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Larry Rosenberg, Marcia Rose, Sharda Rogell,  Kamala Masters, Ruth Denison, Sylvia Boorstein, Michael Liebenson Grady, Christopher Titmuss, James Baraz and Lama Surya Das, as well as on psychologists like Jack Engler and Daniel Goleman.

Ms. Knaster divides her book into chapters which examine how Munindra personified sixteen positive Buddhist mental factors (e.g., mindfulness, generosity, loving-kindness, compassion, determination, joy, equanimity) in the way he conducted his life and in his relationships with others.  Ms. Knaster contacted close to two hundred sources who knew Munindra, and visited his family and the places where he had lived in order to gather the material for this volume.  The result is a book that can stand alongside David Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber [2](a biography of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi) in both illuminating American Buddhist history and demonstrating what it means to live a life fully in accordance with the Dharma.  Munindra, like Suzuki, never wrote his teachings down; they live on through the loving efforts of their students.  The impetus for the book arose while Ms. Knaster was in the midst of meditating at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts and the question “Who is honoring Munindra-ji’s life and legacy in the Dhamma?” arose spontaneously in her mind.

This is a truly marvelous book that brings Munindra-ji to life with hundreds of touching, edifying, and, at times, amusing anecdotes.  Munindra denied being enlightened, but he lived an enlightened life.  Unlike teachers who were imposing and unapproachable authorities, Munindra seemed quite ordinary (in an extraordinary way!) and exemplified the role of kalyāṇamitta (spiritual friend) that many Western teachers aspire to today.  He was a master of the Pali Canon, and lived, breathed, and spoke the holy life 24/7, but he met students where they were in a gentle, nonjudgmental way, and encouraged them to “Keep it Simple.  Be light.”  He approached everything with inexhaustible joy and curiosity, lived simply, and was tireless on behalf of others.  His own unstinting, single-minded efforts to  overcome obstacles in order to learn the Dharma and bring it back to India are awe-inspiring. His endurance of pain in learning to meditate, and his perseverance in overturning the Burmese military’s refusal to allow him to bring his Dharma library back to India are cases in point.  More important is his example that one doesn’t have to emulate anyone else or play-act a sanctimonious role to be holy  — one just needs to develop one’s own self, just as it is, through continued, devoted, and sincere practice.  Munindra didn’t want to be a lay person, but he also didn’t want to be a monk, so he re-invented the role of anāgārika, the homeless life, for the twentieth century.

One of my favorite anecdotes comes from psychiatrist and meditation teacher Paul Choi, describing his first and only meeting with Munindra.  He had come to Calcutta as a tourist with little idea of who Munindra was and equally little interest in spending time with him, but a mutual friend had given Choi presents to deliver to Munindra while in the city, so he dropped by Munindra’s family’s home.

Choi recalled, “We chatted a little bit and Munindra said to me ‘Oh, you must stay the weekend with me and we will practice meditation together.’”  When Choi demurred, Munindra then said, “OK.  At least you must stay the afternoon and we can talk about the Dharma.”  When Choi continued to resist, Munindra finally made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “OK, well, let me feed you.”  Choi remembered sitting down at his table and “how carefully he attended to me, making sure I ate well.  I begin to cry every time I recollect this.  He kept standing up to serve food into my plate with such kindness, warmth, and generosity…  As I’ve continued to explore the Dharma, my love for him has grown, even though I never saw him again.  Especially when I’m on retreat that memory will come back.  Sometimes it will make me laugh and fill me with such joy because I felt — and feel today — that that was such an example of his awakening, his selflessness, and generosity.”

That was how Munindra treated everyone, even strangers, the poor, the sick, and the unbalanced.  And that was the effect he had on everyone.  It is also the effect he will have on you if you have the good fortune to read Mirka Knaster’s luminous tribute to an authentic modern Bodhisattva.

Christopher Titmuss, Munindra-ji, and S.N. Goenka (1974)

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  1. [1] Knaster, M. (2010). Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra. Boston: Shambhala.
  2. [2] Chadwick, D. (1999) Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. New York: Broadway.