Jun 102012

Tom Motley (Image: Tom Motley when he’s all spiffed up.)

It is a little known fact, even among our philosophically sophisticated readers, that Heidegger argued for the supremacy of German humor. Because German jokes have the most precise underlying structure, he argued, German humor would rule the earth for a thousand years. (Sorry if you’ve already heard some version of that old joke.)

In the spirit of episode #57, I offer some philosophical comics. (These are to be viewed for entertainment purposes only; David Letterman asks that there be no wagering.) Tom Motley (not his real name) calls himself a “CARTOONiOLOGiST” and he’s one of my favorite dudes. He does all kinds of work and it’s always clever, but not always funny. In fact, he did a “comic” strip that was deliberately not funny. He called it “tragic strip” instead.

I’ve selected a couple of pieces that are particularly philosophical and also humorous. The first one is titled “Fiction Krishna” and it provides instruction on cartooning and enlightenment at the same time. (Tom teaches cartooning at The School of the Visual Arts and illustration at Pratt Manhattan but, as far as I know, he does not teach the practices leading to Nirvana.) The second piece is shorter and gives you some recipes from the Existentialists’ Cookbook, “Bean Dip & Nothingness“. As you may have guessed, Nausea is the basic premise behind all the recipes.

If you are a fairly serious comic nerd, dear reader, then you might want to check out this interview article with Mr. Motely or explore his cartooniologist blog. You might even be interested in an illustrated classic, The Golden Ass.(Insert your own ass and/or gold joke here.)

-Dave Buchanan

Apr 272012


Watch on YouTube.

I liked the meta-discussion that kicked off the second PEL naturalized Buddhism episode, specifically on what knowledge we gain by assessing the supernatural “rules” contained within “religious” Buddhism. Even after rejecting a supernaturalist stance, there’s value in reviewing the form of life revealed within Buddhism’s supernatural tenets. In that spirit, I enjoyed Boddhisatva’s Brain most for its comparison of different philosophical worldviews. Reading the book, I asked myself how Owen Flanagan’s purely philosophical Buddhism meaningfully differed from, say, the Roman Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. But Flanagan might respond that juxtaposing a “naturalized” Buddhism against Roman Stoicism is inherently interesting for its own sake. Flanagan says that comparing Eastern and Western traditions…
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Apr 262012

I’m writing this as an open letter to the DharmaRealm guys, but am hoping to garner some responses to this question from Buddhism fans of various stripes.

To say someone is “deep” typically means that the person thinks long and hard about philosophical problems. It’s not a term that philosophers themselves tend to use about each other, as the concept seems less substantial the closer you look at it, i.e. the “deeper” you get into philosophy. Within Buddhism (and perhaps Eastern religions more generally), however, I gather that something like this concept is absolutely central to what hierarchy there is: a master is profoundly more wise and contemplates more deeply than a mere novice, much less an outsider.

So, my question is what can “depth” really mean in this context, and can it even be understood by those who have not attained such depth. To be clear, obviously if there is such an achievement, then those who don’t have it don’t have it, but that doesn’t mean that even the meaning of the term should be cut off from the rest of us.

My context and illustration here is our talk with Owen Flanagan, an accomplished analytic philosopher who spent some time studying Buddhism and wrote a book on it. The accusation against him is that not only is he not an accomplished Buddhist (which he doesn’t claim to be), but that despite spending 300-or-so pages philosophically analyzing common Buddhist themes such as suffering, impermanence, no self, emptiness, nirvana, karma, and the various Buddhist virtues like compassion and lovingkindness, he just “doesn’t get it.”

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Apr 252012

Harry and Scott from DharmaRealmBack in December or so when we were originally prepping for the date we thought Owen would be joining us, I listened to several episodes of the DharmaRealm podcast, which is a series of discussions based out of Berkeley, CA between Harry Bridge, a Jōdo Shinshū (i.e. Shin, a popular form of Buddhism from Japan similar to Zen) minister (with a masters in Buddhist studies) and Scott Mitchell, a professor of Buddhist studies who also studied philosophy and religion.

The discussions are loose and relaxed (per usual, I listen at double speed, and don’t know if I could bear it otherwise, but that’s just me), typically into a major area of Buddhist teaching like suffering, karma, no self, reincarnation, etc., with more recent episodes covering topics like creativity and Buddhism in film. The two obviously read/prepare for the discussions, but don’t lay out systematically what they’ve read, and a lot of the references to particular thinkers and schools are not done in such a way that reveals much to the listener about these sources (“now we’re getting into heavy Abhidhamma territory”), though they could give you some search terms to follow up with on your own (their web site includes some links too).

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Apr 202012

Stephen BatchelorIn preparation for our Flanagan discussions, I listened to several episodes of both The Secular Buddhist and Buddhist Geeks. I still don’t feel like I’ve really at bottom decided what I think of either of them, but both have articulate hosts and interview lots of people apparently big in the Western Buddhist community (I can’t comment on how representative or penetrating a sample they really represent), so I can recommend either for people who want to immerse themselves in that world. The obvious difference is that the Secular Buddhist has a specific agenda compatible with Flanagan’s (he appeared on the show), while Buddhist Geeks seems more of a catch-all to expose the wonderful world of different and disparate approaches.

For example, one of the more big-name guests on Secular Buddhist is Stephen Batchelor, who appeared first on this earlier, August 2010 episode to describe his approach: Similar to Flanagan, he focuses on the early Pali canon and remarked about the promising connections between Buddhism had Stoicism/Epicureanism. However, he mentioned the Abhidamma specifically as part of the later accretions that may have obscured what the Buddha actually advocated and he casts the emergence of secular Buddhism as political, i.e. in breaking from the exclusive teacher-to-student-through-the-generations traditions that constitute what little counts as religious authority in Buddhism to turn instead in sort of a Protestant Reformation-type move to go look at the texts yourselves and work with other secular-minded people to use the ethical tenets of Buddhism to create positive political change. Flanagan in our discussion with him did not seem so optimistic about the potential of Buddhism to yield adequate political philosophy given its history (and I’m wondering if any of our listeners took great issue with his claim that there’s never been a successful Buddhism-driven government).

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Apr 192012

introspectiveIf the dialogue between Buddhism and American intellectuals like Owen Flanagan is part of a fashionable trend, then it has to be one of the longest lasting fads in history. Henry David Thoreau published the Lotus Sutra in the first issue of The Dial in 1844. William James was absorbing Transcendentalist ideas at the family dinner table, where his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson often held court. Later in life, James’s friend and neighbor was a Scholar of Sanskrit and his friendly rivals on the faculty at Harvard, Josiah Royce and George Santayana, were dabbling in Buddhism. (The Theosophical Society was also “channeling” Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s, while a kind of proto-New Age occultism was all the rage in the parlors of Boston.) Chicago held a Parliament of World Religions in 1893, bringing Zen Buddhism from Japan and the Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka. Such was the intellectual climate in William James’s America.

Now, almost exactly one century after James’s death, he might be astonished to find that scholars are debating the convergence of relativity theory, quantum mechanics and brain imaging technology with Buddhism’s anti-essentialism, its anti-metaphysical stance, and its denial of what we’d call the substantial (Cartesian) self. If Alan Wallace is right, William James’s work is not only still relevant to this ongoing dialogue, it’s just what the Doctor ordered.

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Apr 162012

Watch on Vimeo

One way to naturalize Buddhism is to discern the moral lessons it might offer after shedding its metaphysics. Another way is to scrutinize the physiological effects of its practices. As Owen Flanagan explained on PEL’s first “naturalized Buddhism” episode, not all Buddhist sects practice meditation. But of course, many do, particularly within the Japanese Zen tradition so popular in the West. The lecture above comes from Dr. James Austin, Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Austin believes Zen meditation has discernable physical benefitsthat can be studied neuroscientifically. His numerous books reviewing the neuroscience behind Zen meditation receive both positive and dismissive reviews. Owen Flanagan (who, like Austin, publishes through The MIT Press), gives the following cautious praise for Austin’s work:
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Apr 122012

Check out this video: Buddhism and Science: A Brief History from The Berkley Center.

Often reading Buddhism into science and vice-versa can be very misleading. This talk by Thupten Jinpa is in dialogue with David Lopez’s excellent book, Buddhism and Science: A Guide For the Perplexed. Dr. Jinpa pretty much states the historical Tibetan relationship to science as it came late to encountering “scientific modernity.”

While I am a former practicing Theravada Buddhist who could not honestly reconcile it with my knowledge of the way various things worked, Lopez’s book actually made me even most skeptical of attempts by the likes of Sam Harris to claim Buddhism as a non-theistic and rationalistic creed. It does not traditionally seem to be either. Ironically, Ajahn Geoff, a Theravadan monk, has said similarly that a lot of the scientific popularizations of Buddhism have more roots in William James and Japanese cultural outreach than in traditional Buddhist doctrine.

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Apr 062012
The Buddha

Continuing our discussion of Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (2011).

Are the basic tenets of Buddhism compatible with a respect for science? In episode 53, Owen Flanagan outlined a science-friendly project of comparative ethics, and touched on Buddhism’s empiricist theory of knowledge and its metaphysics of impermanence. If that was the lecture, this episode is the discussion section, where the regular foursome expands upon these themes and hopefully makes some of the previous discussion more understandable to folks new to philosophy.

Folks that like hearing us free associating among anecdotes and rants about movies and discussion of our ground rules will enjoy this, whereas those impatient to hear about Buddhism are free to jump past the first 20, or even 40 minutes, at which point we get down to business and talk about karma, nirvana, emptiness, no-self, and the four noble truths. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Who Wants to Love Me,” a new song by Mark Lint (with some elements recycled from 1992 or so)

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Mar 312012

At one time in Savatthi, the venerable Radha seated himself and asked of the Blessed Lord Buddha: “Anatta, anatta I hear said, Venerable. What, pray tell, does Anatta mean?” “Just this, Radha, form is not the self (anatta), sensations are not the self (anatta), perceptions are not the self (anatta), assemblages are not the self (anatta), consciousness is not the self (anatta). Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done.”
- from the Pali Cannon (Samyutta Nikaya, Nikayas).

Listening to the interview with Owen Flanagan led to me to ponder if the no-self doctrine had produced something similar to the continental response to Hume’s critique of traditional notions of the self: the subject (i.e. whatever it is that’s experiencing, as opposed to a soul or something like that taken as an object).

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Mar 292012

So just what is the good life, according to Buddhism, according to Flanagan, according to this post I’m writing right now? (…According to the inner, private language that my attempts to write are meant to reflect, according to the reality as perceived which my inner words are attempting to express, according to the reality itself to which my reality as perceived is meant to correspond, according to… what was I talking about?)

Ah, yes, so you want to read something brief by Mr. OJ Flanagan that you needn’t purchase that is relevant to our great interview with him, do you?

Well take a look at this article he posted, called Buddhist Persons and EudaimoniaBuddha. In it, Owen lays out what a philosophical psychology is supposed to do and gives the Buddhist version of it:
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Mar 262012
Owen Flanagan

Discussing The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (2011) with Owen Flanagan.

What philosophical insights can we modern folks with our science and naturalism (i.e. inclination against super-natural explanations) glean from Buddhisim? Flanagan says plenty: Buddhism is founded on common human experience (not faith), and we can profitably put Buddhist ethics in dialogue with familiar types of virtue ethics. However, we need to be skeptical of any claims to scientific support the superior happiness of Buddhists.

We kick off with a general assessment of phenomenology and naturalist ethics, and Flanagan provides such a plethora of great insights that the regular PEL crew will be continuing the discussion in Ep. 54. Get more info on the topic and obtain the book. Download Wes’s summary of the book.

End song: “A Few Gone Down” from Mark Lint & the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.

The discussion continues (without Owen) here.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Mar 262012

For those of you who didn’t get a chance to do the reading for our recent discussion with Owen Flanagan about his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain (and our soon-to-be posted follow up conversation without Owen), you can download my summary of the main points of the book here.

– Wes Alwan

Mar 162012

Science examining religionIn the same way that Owen Flanagan wants to naturalize Buddhism by stripping its hocus-pocus, William James focused his attention on personal religious experience rather than the “smells and bells” of traditional institutions. As biographer Robert Richardson puts it, “much of what one usually thinks of as religion James rejects at the start”. James says he has no interest in the, “ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation and retain by habit.” James says he wants to confine himself to “personal religions pure and simple” and say as little as possible about systematic theology or institutional history. The latter are second-hand religions, but he wants to look at the original article. As one might imagine, Richardson says, “James continues to be attacked by church leaders and systematic theologians for his failure to start where they start.” James’s biographer tells us that this approach to the psychology of religion was a “radical departure, more radical even than that of Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

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Dec 262011

Owen FlanaganWe are currently scheduled to talk with Owen Flanagan about his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. I’ll put up the formal “topic announcement” when I have a better idea what the discussion will focus on (i.e. after we actually interview him). For now, anyone who is already familiar with the book, or his work, or this topic in general is welcome to weigh in here and try to steer us through this. If you post some questions for him that strike us as particularly cogent, we’ll try to bring them up with him.

Read Seth’s earlier post about this. I highly encourage you to listen to the episode of The Secular Buddhist podcast that Flanagan is on; that will likely give you enough material to post some questions here.

Listen to the episode.

Dec 262011

In episode 53, the full four-man PEL crew spoke with Duke University’s Owen Flanagan, mostly about his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, which has a number of aims:

-To argue that supernatural beliefs can be removed (or “tamed”) from Buddhism and still leave an elaborate enterprise relevant to modern life.
-To put Buddhist conceptions of virtue and happiness in dialogue with other types of virtue ethics, particularly Aristotelianism.
-To argue that claims of the superior happiness of Buddhists are both conceptually confused (because the Buddhist conception of happiness isn’t equivalent to what you might think; it’s not just a feeling, but definitionally requires attainment of Buddhist virtue) and unsupported by neurological evidence (the popular media have taken up stories of certain very limited experiments that have shown certain neural chracteristics in one or two Buddhists, but this is far from what is required; see this article for details).

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Nov 072011
Professor Owen Flanagan from his Duke University Biography page

Sweater vests increase rigor

Given our recent exploration of moral theory, the excitement around our announcement of a Euthyphro episode and my own current interest in Buddhist thought, I guess it was inevitable that I would stumble across and then buy this book.  Or perhaps it was that Mark mentioned it in an email which I had overlooked.  In any case, the author, Owen Flanagan (pictured to the right), is a philosopher at Duke University. Pat Churchland also thinks highly of him and I guess that’s good enough endorsement for me.

As a self-proclaimed analytic philosopher, Flanagan is a fan of science.  And he’s a fan of being a moral person.  He’s just published a book called The Bodhisattva’s Brain:  Buddhism Naturalized in which he argues that all of the major ‘wisdom traditions’ (read:  religions) are incompatible with science.  Since the traditions are where we get ‘being a moral person’ stuff, it’d be great if we could find one (or find a way to make one) that was compatible with science so that people who prioritize the scientific world view could also have a moral system to lean against.  [This is my characterization, I don't think he'd put it that way]

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Oct 302010

Following up on yesterday’s post about nothingness, here are two books, one by a scientist and another by a mathematician, about the origination and subsequent history of the mathematical notion of zero: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea,by Charles Seife, and The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero,by Robert Kaplan.

I’ve not read either of these, but they’re both well rated, though ten years old now, so they won’t include the recent developments in the history of zero, such as when Cheney’s approval rating went to zero after he blocked out the sun with his evil globally warming cosmic hate rays.

The only specifically Buddhist account of this I can find is The Logic of Unity: The Discovery of Zero and Emptiness in Prajnaparamita Thought,by Hosaku Atsuao, which has no ratings on Amazon at least and so, unlike the four-star-rated Affairs of Gidget,is not guaranteed high quality by this here blog.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 292010

I got a call for some Alan Watts in our Buddhism discussion, so here’s one of many clips of his from youtube that touches on a theme discussed on the episode (i.e. nothingness and the interdependence of opposite, plus a quick statement without much explanation of Big Self) and which has some good background music that makes the whole thing fairly mesmerizing.

Watch on youtube.

I’m going to withhold judgment at this point, as there’s not a lot of meat to this clip. I suspect that this kind of philosophy seems cooler the less you analyze it; that’s at least my vague memory from reading The Bookback in maybe 1991. However, I welcome readers here to chime in with any positive things they have to say about him, and if there’s enough popular demand, I can look further into him and/or potentially try to get him covered in an eventual podcast episode.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 282010

Could Jesus have been taken to India as a child and taught Buddhism? Hmmm? Hmmm? Here’s something that apparently showed on the BBC at some point:

Watch on youtube.

OK, some silly speculation here (and more amusingly told in Christoper Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal),but a few points of comparison are made here between the teachings of Christianity (and how they’re “unprecedented” as far as Judaism is concerned) and Buddhism.
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