Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Monk and the Philosopher

The intersection between European-cum-Western civilisation and Asian influences is hard to escape when one lives in a country where the cuisine of restaurants—if they are not purveyors of a specific ethnic cuisine—is reasonably described as “Mediterrasian”; a country that is geographically part of the Asia-Pacific region but culturally overwhelmingly European in its origins (and specifically British in its institutions). Given that I am very interested in philosophy (particularly the Western tradition of philosophy) and in Buddhist thought, The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, a book of exchanges between French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and his Buddhist monk son Matthieu Ricard (who has a Ph.D in molecular biology), proved (since it is done so well) very much my sort of book.

Jean-Francois wrote the Introduction, discussing how the book arose and what it is about. Then follows 18 chapters of dialogue on a range of issues. The book finishes with The Monk’s Questions to the Philosopher then The Philosopher’s Conclusion and The Monk’s Conclusion. What we get is too finely trained minds exploring the overlaps and differences between Buddhism and the Western philosophical tradition.

So, we get explorations of wide range of basic issues. Such as evidence, proof and confidence in belief: as in their discussion of the evidence Matthieu cites for believing in reincarnation, which comes down to confidence in what his teachers tell him they can discern based on his wider experience with them (Pp 48-9), the Buddhist notion of direct experience by the enlightened (Pp72-3) and the necessity of developing the right conceptual framework (p.82).

Having spent the first three chapters wrestling with whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and exploring how the two traditions frame questions and operate as traditions of thought, the book moves on to Buddhist psychology. As Jean-Francois points out, in the C19th, Western interest in Buddhism (from Schopenhauer onwards) was mainly interested in Buddhism as a path to wisdom and serenity. More recently the interest has become more on Buddhism as a system of psychology (p.83).

There follows a discussion of Buddhist psychology as its points of similarity and difference with (mainly) classical Western philosophy, which moves on to discussing Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist notions of acting on oneself and the world, again drawing out similarities and contrasts with Western philosophy. The book, in its ongoing Socratic dialogue, becomes as if one is auditing a very high quality comparative philosophy seminar. The Socratic method used as genuine dialogue that teaches because of the quality of the discussion (due to the quality of the discussants).

Jean-Francois observes that these issues—what I would call the “how we ought to live” questions— are still very “live” in Buddhism, yet are not really so in the Western intellectual tradition, and he wonders if the appeal of Buddhism to the West is precisely its concern with issues that, in the West, have largely fallen out of “serious” intellectual life (Pp171-2). This leads into a discussion of the appeal of Buddhism to the West and the nature of religious and of secular spirituality.

Jean-Francois says:
… the central current of Western thought is built around two essential and complementary poles. The first is the achievement of personal autonomy and the strengthening of individuality, of personal judgment, and of will as a conscious agent and center of decision making. The second is action on the world. The West is a civilization of action – action on human history through politics, and action on the world through knowledge of the laws of nature, with all the assurance of being able to transform it and bend it to man’s needs (Pp149-50).
Which seems to me to be an excellent summary. It also highlights how environmentalism is both a challenge to central Western themes (since it presents human autonomy as significantly malefic in its operation) and a manifestation of them (since it still takes human action to be powerful and effective). Of course, in religious thought, God had trumping authority and the notion of the Fall of Man held human autonomy to be deeply flawed: yet another indicator of how environmentalism seeps into the God-shaped hole in Western sentiment.
In response to Jean-Francois’s attempt summarise Buddhist thought, Matthieu says:
… it’s important to specify that the truth of suffering taught by the Buddha in his first sermon belongs to relative truth, and doesn’t describe the ultimate nature of things … Reflecting on pain should therefore incite us to the path of wisdom.
Buddhism is centrally a path of healing from the illness of suffering (p.150). Thus:
There are no such things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as such, there are only actions and thoughts that lead to suffering, and others than lead to happiness. We ourselves are responsible for the evils that befall us. We inherit the past and create the future. … much more important than the metaphysical problems of suffering and evil are the means by which suffering and evil can be remedied (p.207).
The latter is clearly much more congenial to Western perspectives than the notion of being responsible for the evils that befall us (as distinct from being responsible to how we respond to them).

Jean-Francois notes that:
Over the last three centuries, philosophy has abandoned its function as a source of wisdom, and has restricted itself to knowledge (p.215).
In doing so, it gave birth to various sciences, which have taken over the knowledge function, while the concern with justice and happiness moved over to politics, to concern with how society should be ordered (Pp215-6). It is reasonable to suggest that, as the limits to what political action could achieve has become clearer, the “wisdom-hole” in Western thought has become more obvious (hence the appeal of, amongst other things, Buddhism). As Jean-Francois says:
The failure of these utopian schemes in practice, and their moral discrediting – the major event of these final years of the twentieth century – is what I call the failure of Western civilisation in its aspects other than scientific. Social reform was supposed to replace ethical reform, but it’s led to a disaster, such that we now find ourselves completely distraught and facing an utter vacuum (P.217).
(Hence the appeal of environmentalism which takes over the social reform impulse and ties it to a sense of meaning.) Which leads to a discussion about appeal, role and limitations of science where the former scientist (Matthieu) is particularly careful to tease out science’s limits. And returning to the way Western philosophy has become purely a matter of ideas, separated from how to live.

The role of human rights, personal responsibilities, environmental protection and concern for animals are discussed, leading naturally to the subject of Chinese rule in Tibet. Matthieu notes how the Tibetan diaspora, led by the Dalai Lama, has pushed Tibetan Buddhism into contact with the wider world. Matthieu outlines rather nicely the emptiness of Chinese threats to Western countries over Tibetan matters, which makes the cases of caving to them even more reprehensible. Jean-Francois in particular suggests the Chinese regime’s sensitivity is a sign of vulnerability rather than strength.

The fluctuating fortunes of Buddhism are discussed, including the effects of the Muslim persecution of Buddhism in the C12th and C13th that resulted in much destruction of monasteries, universities, books (p.248). Though it had already been in decline, with the incorporation of Buddhist concepts into Hinduism as it re-invigorated the indigenous Vedic religious traditions, and kept the caste system going (Pp248-9). (Hinduism is roughly analogous to what it would be like if Julian the Apostate had managed to inspire Neoplatonism to reinvigorate paganism.)

Matthieu keeps emphasizing Buddhism as, in effect, a science of the mind, with 25 centuries of exploration. The use of Buddhism as a support for all sorts of ethnic (Sri Lanka) and governing (Japan) supremacies does not get to mar his presentation. He also present a very non-theistic interpretation of Buddhism that does not necessarily fit Buddhism as it is. His discussion of rituals in Buddhism is framed to fit his non-theistic conception of Buddhism. It is nevertheless informative, particularly his discussion of the Buddhist concept of faith (Pp261-2).

Which leads into a discussion of Buddhist attitudes to death, interwoven with comparisons from Western philosophy, ending with Matthieu talking about practice of controlling the body’s inner resources (the famous exercises in using one’s mastery of the mind to deal with very cold temperatures). Matthieu quotes a nice epigram expressing the Buddhist attitude to asceticism:
The goal of asceticism is mastery of the mind. Apart from that, what use would asceticism be? (p.276)
The sense of Buddhism as a practice comes across very clearly.

This leads into a discussion of psychology and individualism. Which includes some nice observations by Jean-Francois on utopianism and totalitarianism (particularly Pp290-1). Utopianism was his great subject, and his last book was on the matter and has recently been published in an English translation. His observation:
Utopia is not under the slightest obligation to produce results: its sole function is to allow its devotees to condemn what exists in the name of what does not
is particularly true of environmentalism (as distinct from its much more productive predecessor, the conservation movement).

Then there is a chapter on Buddhism and psychoanalysis. (I am personally very unimpressed with the empirical basis for much of the specifics of psychoanalysis, but my awareness of Buddhist ideas has been greatly expanded by reading Mark Epstein’s books and Jean-Francois is correct to note that psychoanalysis has powerfully influenced modern Western conceptions of human nature.) Buddhism accepts the notion of unconscious elements on the mind and the importance of repressed past experience—it just includes past lives in that.

A very short chapter on spiritual conditions and cultural context leads to a chapter considering Buddhist responses to Western notions of progress and the West’s enduring fascination with novelty. Jean-Francois points out that the West is a civilisation very much oriented to history, with the expanding knowledge and capacity that is intimately tied up with that. In the West, salvation is within time, not outside it: which Matthieu counters is precisely the vow of the Bodhisattva: to not rest until all have attained enlightenment. Jean-Francois emphasises the role of science in the West while acknowledging that the notion of collective and social salvation has been a horrible dead-end, leaving a vacuum in the realm of wisdom and personal morality that he feels Buddhism could move into, provided it is not in conflict with science and the reality of technological improvement. Matthieu continues with his continuing theme that Buddhism is comfortable with science, since it is an open-ended search for truth: the larger question is about priorities.

The discussion concludes on the subject of suffering and wisdom. Jean-Francois quotes Cioran:
The moralists and the portraitists depict our miseries, while Pascal depicts our misery.
Matthieu concludes on a hopeful note:
… the diligence required to acquire wisdom isn’t, strictly speaking, ‘suffering’. It’s often defined as ‘joy cast in the shape of effort’ (p.318)
The last chapter is a series of questions by Matthieu to Jean-Francois that turns into a discussion of the nature of self, what it means to for Buddhism to say ‘the self’ is an illusion, the nature of evidence and spiritual practice and the intellectual history of the West. Jean-Francois says:
… in the West there has been a move from a culture of proof to a one of proof (p.327).
To which Matthieu responds that the fruits of spiritual practice are open to anyone who enquires. Jean-Francois characterises the Enlightenment as the product of belief in science replacing belief in wisdom and how advances such as smallpox vaccination made a huge impression at the time (Pp327-8). Mattthieu responds:
So that approach is aimed more at changing the conditions of life than at giving it meaning. But why should one side be developed to the detriment of the other (p.328).
Jean-Francois argues that longer and more ample lives means more opportunities to seek wisdom. To which Matthieu responds that the nomads of Tibetan lead materially restricted lives that were, nevertheless, full of life and joy.

Which leads back to the utopian urge in Western thought and its (inevitable) failure. Though it is perfectly clear that plenty of people seek meaning by political agitation. The discussion, without dealing with it other than in passing, continues to throws light on environmentalism as another product of the failure of the West’s utopian urge, the ebbing of traditional religious belief and the intellectual eclipse of the Western wisdom tradition.

Jean-Francois sees all wisdom traditions, all traditions that give meaning to life, have their limits: the biggest limit being death (p.336). Their dialogue concludes with a discussion of the role of death in framing the limits and possibilities of what wisdom or spiritual tradition can provide.

In The Philosopher’s Conclusion, Jean-Francois sums up what he sees as the relevant key patterns in Western intellectual thought, what he has learned about Buddhism and how he remains unconvinced by its larger metaphysical claims. One of the great strengths of this book is that Jean-Francois Revel was so steeped in, so knowledgeable and perceptive about, Western intellectual history. He makes an excellent contact point for exploring the differences, similarities and overlaps with Buddhism. Not least because of his genuinely enquiring, but careful and well-schooled, mind:
… the Dalai Lama’s humble, practical, and courageous sagacity, representing an ethical ideal even in the tragic circumstances he has to work with as spiritual and political head of a martyred people, seems to be in a completely different dimension from the ineffective omniscience of so many career statesmen (p.346)
He sums his own position quite nicely in his last sentence:
Wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both, nevertheless exist – forever indispensable, forever separate, forever complementary (p.347)
In his brief The Monk’s Conclusion, Matthieu focuses on the question of human needs:
… the Buddhist path, like all great spiritual traditions, is designed to help us become better human beings. Science has neither the design nor the means to help us attain that goal (p.352).
This puts the dichotomy too strongly: it seems to me that some aspects of science are helpful in self-awareness.

Matthieu holds that Buddhism as part needs to be used in ways which fit to where Westerners actually are: not “Buddhism lite” but “Buddhism appropriate”. He sees the willingness, indeed enthusiasm, of his father, a noted freethinker, to discuss the issues a heartening indication of Western interest in Buddhism: interest he found somewhat surprising at first.

He also expresses a moving appreciation of being able to discuss the issues in such depth with his father, something they had never really done before. He finishes with a statement of his own position:
… no dialogue, however enlightening it might be, could ever be a substitute for the silence of personal experience, so indispensable for an understanding of how things really are. Experience is, indeed, the path. And, as the Buddha often said, ‘it is up to you to follow it’, so that one day the messenger might become the message (p.351)
A point of view that both sits well with Buddhism central message and which reminds us why the various priestly scandals have been so damaging to the Catholic Church. Though the Church itself, ever since the Donatist and associated disputes, has always held the worth of the message is independent of the value of the (priestly) messenger.

Both Christ and Buddha clearly saw themselves a teachers seeking to enlighten. Both lived just as religious teachers. Buddhism fits into the Western conception of a spiritual tradition relatively easily. This makes its growing presence in Western civilisation a relatively easy fit.

Still, Matthieu is presenting a rather elevated form of Buddhism: Buddhism as experienced by a highly trained scientific mind trained in Buddhist thought and practice among elevated practitioners. A book such as Theological Incorrectness reminds us that Buddhism as it is in the wider world is a somewhat different beast.

On the other hand, The Monk and the Philosopher is about ideas and human possibilities, being wrestled with by two fine intellects who happen to be father and son. Matthieu is correct, The Monk and the Philosopher is a genuine dialogue and an enlightening one.

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