Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Buddhism and Pali scholar's journey into and out of the academic tradition

For those of you interested in a career in academia, be forewarned. It's not a very welcoming place at the moment. The people are pretty decent imho, but there are currently far too many PhDs for what "the market" needs. Or, put another way, massive governmental cuts (in most if not all English-speaking countries) on education spending over the last 20 or so years have led many departments to freeze hiring, let great professors go, and/or replace retiring teachers with adjunct labor.

These days whenever an undergraduate asks me for a recommendation letter for graduate school I send him/her here: (I do write letters of course, but I've taken it on as a duty to warn any/all prospective graduate students of the perils ahead of them). It's not glamorous. And it's not easy. And many who start PhDs don't even finish (up to 50% in the humanities, according to some estimates).

It's a broken system. But it's still the best one for some of us. I'm reminded of the Churchill quote:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Academia is the route to follow only when you've realized there is nothing else you can do with yourself and be happy.
In any case, I continue to lumber through the "thicket of views" which is modern-day academia while Eisel Mazard, as you'll see below, does not. In my lumbering I came across some writing by Eisel, who I would describe as an autodidactic solitary scholar. In 2011 I drew from one of his writings when I wrote "Imagining the Buddha as bald... and black?" Since then I've read several of his works and we've conversed now and again and I respect his scholarship in a number of areas that I'm interested in. 

Below, Eisel describes his journey into and out of early Buddhism / Pali scholarship and some of the joys and perils that came with it. Every experience will be different, the interests and expertise brought into the study, the influences and advisors, and goals of each student will be different. So, while Eisel's journey may be completely unlike that of any other scholar, it does provide a perspective not often seen or discussed in academia today. As he says:
…there were a lot of wonderful things about it. With nothing but a backpack, a bicycle, and a lot of hard work, I went everywhere, I did everything, I lived my dream.
When that dream was over, I had to look at the reality of the tradition as it exists today and say, "I can't be a part of it".

Sunday, 21 June 2015

This is Water

Back in the 80s, I was interested in fiction in large part because I was interested in writing fiction. An author that snagged my attention at that time was T. Coraghessan Boyle. I liked that he was crazy with an intimidating vocabulary and I was jazzed by the madcap way he slung words around and the odd notions in his short stories.

A competing writer for my attention was David Foster Wallace with his first novel The Broom of the System. I liked the book and I sensed many similarities in Wallace’s writing that I found in Boyle, but, at the time, I thought Wallace to be a distant second to Boyle’s lovable variegated strangeness . Wallace’s next book, a collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, just didn’t seem to me to measure up to Boyle’s short stories.

So, when Wallace’s next book was a 1,000-page novel [Infinite Jest], I said, “No, no, no, no, no,” and left the orbit of Wallace, moving on to other writers and interests. [Infinite Jest is now considered by some to be one of the ten greatest novels of the 20th Century.]

There was something obvious that I missed seeing in the 80’s in Wallace’s fiction: his luminous compassion in the midst of all the helter skelter of his oft-crazy stories.

Wallace, who had a decades-long problem with depression, hanged himself in 2008, but will be getting renewed attention as result of a movie coming out about him on the last day of July, titled “The End of the Tour.”

But the reason for this blog post is primarily a tiny book of Wallace’s that contains the text of a commencement speech he gave in 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College. A person can read the whole of the book in ten or fifteen minutes. It’s pithy and brilliant as hell. The book’s full title is “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.”

The “water” in the title has to do with fish in water and the idea, therefrom, that fish are unaware of the water they’re in because it is so altogether obvious. From a beginning with wet fish, Wallace makes some obvious but oft-missed points in his speech about what humans might overlook if they don't pay attention.

Anyway, here is a GREAT video based on "This is Water" that delivers its central message:

This is Water from Patrick Buckley on Vimeo.

And Here, as an added bonus, is the trailer for "The End of the Tour," coming out on July 31.

UPDATE: The viewpoint of another, more knowledgeable than I am on DFW, his commencement address, his masterwork Infinite Jest, and what his life meant and means to us, today, can be found at the Vulture website, in a long article titled "The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace" by Christian Lorentzen.

Lorentzen describes the Kenyon College commencement address -- "This is Water" -- as being "treacly." HA, I say. BUT, it is possible there is some wisdom in others of Lorentzen's words.  --T.A.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

God and Buddhism

Greetings readers!

I believe in God. I am a Buddhist. Are these two views compatible, truly? Do most Buddhist sensibilities tend to go against any possibility of believing in God? Does it matter if we do believe in God or not as Buddhists? If we do, what kind of God would we believe in? 

These are all questions that many of us westerns face since God is always in our face somehow.

The idea of God and Buddhism has been explored by many scholars and has sat on the back of my mind and many of our readers, for sure.

I will not attempt to spell out or construct some kind of Buddhist theology because I don't think that's possible and that's how God likes it.

So why can't we construct a Buddhist theology? Are Buddhist questions and problems completely alien to the incorporation of Divinity?

There are two answers to this question and they both differ according to the way one views/believes in God. If one believes in God that is somehow above and separate from the world, is unchanged and can't change, is eternal and houses spiritual realms, then one has entered into fallacious and deluded ground. I do not believe there is much room for supernaturalism in the mind of modern folk. I state this across the board for any believer of anything. Supernaturalism not only enters into language it cannot speak, makes claims it cannot validate, damages the existential "make-up" of the person but also, strangely perpetuates conflict. 

The question now that I am begging is: is God necessarily a supernatural belief, and are all faiths that are theistic necessarily supernaturalistic? The obvious is no if one looks at an introduction to religious thought, or speaks to many modern believers. Yet, we must also not be under the misconception that every sensible person has the truth. (Not that I do....)

Buddhism does not escape supernaturalism often and remains atheistic in the same occasion making it another example that theistic belief is not an necessary part of any supernaturalism. Now that we have dismissed God from the corruption of supernaturalism where does God go?

This is where Buddhist "checks" can be setup to avoid ignorance, suffering, hate, and greed. The annihilation of supernaturalism is a big step in the process of clearing ignorance. We must constantly dig deeper, our endeavor is never over; we must constantly search for deeper premises. 

What kind of check ensures we do not suffer because of a faulty view in God? (All things are connected.) Can God decide to act in this world, intervening on certain occasion? Is God a player in history? The Buddhist answer is no. Is God a player in history is much more complicated and and a short no will not suffice. Buddhism demands transparency, proclaims temporality and an intensity of Life in the moment and those things are only "part" of God. I will come back to this.

Does God demand? Does God demand things that are not God's? Does God perpetuate a greed---my prayers are more and better than your prayers. Does righteousness, which is a combination of greed, hatred, and ignorance have any place within Buddhism?

We have setup a huge roadblock for God. There are a lot of things God cannot be:
1) a "being" outside the world.
2) Completely absolute with no connection to life lived in the moment.
3) the answerer of the traditional, or more supernatural intended prayers. 
4) supernatural 
5) an understood concept that is exhausted by words. We have no such capability. If we have any honesty at all then we ought to know that our most intense and mindful endeavors in the pursuit will only lead us to Wisdom and not always to answers.
6) God cannot be described in any anthropomorphic terms. No male, no female, no see where this is going? (The heart sutra)

So if God cannot be certain things then it is not God. It goes against the very definition of God to be limited outright in so many ways. This is a valid point. Creating a God of the gaps, a concept that places God in any moment where "mystery" pops up in language that is alien, or damaging. God is not the explanation for any astronomical mystery, however twisted, from creation onward. This is just as reductionist as limiting God.

So what now? I stated earlier that we are on a constant pursuit for premises. Buddhism gives us tools to avoid certain blocks that will lead us away from a vision of awareness and mindful community. God must be a center, no, the center of all of this. From the depths of the abyss in the complexity of the Heart Sutra, the great call to Live Life on the Path comes with such assurance that it is a path worth walking. We know this because we breath every moment and think-I made it here-then breath again and stop thinking. The intensity of all experience that is felt only partially by humans is felt by all of the Universe itself, fully, in its transparency, in its awkward Absoluteness, in its totality.

Must we believe in God? No. Some would say that we do no matter what, some proclaim an entirely pluralist vision, I'm not sure where I stand. 

None of this is supernatural; it is more than humanistic because it affirms life with a grounding in reality itself and no temporal contract that we have written up.

We check as Budddhists that God can only be God if God is completely present in every single experience while being completely transparent as such. The absoluteness of God is language that Buddhism doesn't really speak, and that's okay. Yet God can be the center of it all, the confidence in the life of the path, the (for me, also Jewish) the burning bush dynamically burning my feet as I tread incinerating paths of wisdom.