The Buddhist Challenge

By Dan ArnoldNovember 16, 2016

The Buddhist Challenge

Engaging Buddhism by Jay L. Garfield

WRITING LAST MAY for The New York Times’s popular philosophy blog The Stone, Jay Garfield (with Bryan W. Van Norden) provocatively argued that philosophy departments that do not offer courses in non-Western traditions should be rechristened “Departments of European and American Philosophy.” This broadside against philosophy’s parochialism reflects Garfield’s decades-long commitment to expanding the discipline, which for him has meant, among other things, years working with traditionally educated Tibetan Buddhist scholars. Indeed, Garfield calls his latest book, Engaging Buddhism, the “mirror image” of an earlier book: Western Idealism and its Critics, wherein Garfield aimed to persuade his Tibetan interlocutors that Western philosophy had something worthwhile to say about idealism. As he notes in the present book’s preface, the Tibetan scholars he knew found it “frankly incredible” that this should be so; he doesn’t mention that, despite its English title, the earlier book included Tibetan translations from the likes of Descartes, Berkeley, and Wittgenstein, whose philosophical works could thus be debated by contemporary Tibetan monks. (It turns out traditionally educated Tibetan scholars can identify the problems with Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” just as readily as Kant and Heidegger did.)

Conversely, Engaging Buddhism aims to persuade academic philosophers in the West that Buddhist philosophy is worth their attention. Himself educated in a leading philosophy department (the University of Pittsburgh’s), Garfield is unusually qualified to contest the discipline’s boundaries. Having received a mainstream philosophical education, Garfield soon found himself a junior professor leading study-abroad programs in India; there, he began studying with Tibetan Buddhist scholars who were rebuilding their educational institutions in exile. Having themselves received uncommonly rigorous training in logic and epistemology, Garfield’s Tibetan interlocutors could, he found, be engaged as philosophers. In the decades since these first encounters, Garfield has prolifically done philosophy in conversation with living and historical exemplars of classical Buddhist thought (with generous helpings of Hume and Wittgenstein).

Despite Garfield being so well qualified to write this book, it’s rather unclear just what kind of work Engaging Buddhism is supposed to be. In the long introduction that lays out the book’s distinctive aims and methods, Garfield explicitly disavows the project of surveying Buddhist philosophy, but it’s not always clear how this book, canvassing Buddhist contributions to a huge range of philosophical issues, really differs from comprehensive surveys. Replete with Sanskrit and Tibetan names, it makes many of the same demands on the reader as these do, and may thus be found rather bewildering by its target audience; philosophers tend to favor tightly focused essays written in austere prose.

Some bewilderment may be fostered, too, by quirks that might make it hard for non-expert readers to further pursue the book’s arguments. The bibliographic references, for example, are often to obscure Indian editions of Tibetan texts (and of Tibetan translations from Sanskrit) — the editions, presumably, that Garfield himself has read with his Tibetan collaborators. But when reasonably reliable modern translations are available, it’s not very helpful to read that if you want to learn more about what Garfield has here shown to be an interesting argument, you’ll need to track down an edition of, say, the dBu ma la ‘jug pa’i shad pa published in India by the “Kagyu Relief and Protection Committee.” Good luck with that.

Similarly likely to alienate the book’s target audience is the way Garfield typically introduces technical vocabulary, which, overwhelmingly, he gives in both the original Sanskrit and Tibetan translation — and the latter, in turn, both according to the bizarre orthography of Tibetan and in Garfield’s idiosyncratic phonetic rendering thereof. This leads to some utterly illegible passages. Introducing, for example, the Buddhist claim that there is a “conventional” truth to be distinguished from “ultimate truth,” Garfield says the former is called (wait for it …): “samvṛti-satya (kun rdzob bden pa / tha snyad bden pa [kundzop den pa / thanyet den pa]) or lokavyavahāra-satya (tha snyad bden pa / ‘jig rten bden pa [jig ten den pa]).” This will test the patience even of those most favorably disposed to the idea of Buddhist philosophy.

It would be regrettable if such quirks put off the philosophically inclined readers whom Garfield most wants to reach; for he is right that Buddhists have much to contribute to contemporary philosophical conversation, and that academic philosophers should recognize this. Buddhist philosophy’s guiding thought is expressed in the “no-self” (anātma) doctrine: the claim, sketched with admirable nuance by Garfield, that persons do not have enduring, unitary selves. As David Hume similarly argued, this is because any moment of experience turns out upon analysis to consist in countless momentary events, none of which makes sense as one’s “self.” Buddhist philosophers thus advanced a broadly reductionist analysis of human being, something they share with today’s cognitive-scientifically inclined philosophers, who are also apt to be reductionists. It’s important to emphasize, though, that Indian Buddhist philosophers strenuously rejected materialism; while contemporary reductionists typically hold that everything about conscious experience must be explicable in terms of neurophysiological events, Buddhists thought you could be a reductionist without thinking any such thing.

The Buddhist rejection of materialism reflects a commitment to understanding the no-self doctrine as ethically significant — as the basis, indeed, for practices of self-transformation that promise to change, as well, the very world we experience. For all their denial of the reality of selves, then, Buddhist philosophers had a lot to say about the reality of consciousness. Indeed, despite the resolutely anti-Cartesian resonance of the no-self doctrine, most Buddhist philosophers were dualists of a sort. While the idea of dualist reductionists may be counterintuitive, Buddhists had a strong stake in emphasizing the basic reality of consciousness. That is not to say they affirmed the reality of any kind of conscious substance (as reductionists, they generally held that there are no enduring substances at all) — only that they thought conscious events are real, and that these cannot coherently be thought to have distinctly physical causes. A central Buddhist conviction is that consciousness, far from being an epiphenomenal product of the objective world, veritably produces the experienced world — and that if we are to transform a world chiefly characterized by suffering, it can therefore only be by transforming consciousness that we do so.

While consciousness, then, is centrally implicated in what Buddhists take to be the very problem to be overcome (it is consciousness that misleadingly appears as though had by a self), it is nonetheless crucial to efforts at overcoming that mistake, which can only be achieved by habituating consciousness to experience the world selflessly. Consciousness, for Buddhists, is evanescent and opaque, but nonetheless as real as anything can be. Philosophically, Buddhists thus tended toward idealism, and it makes sense that Engaging Buddhism should accordingly be much concerned with philosophical issues in that ballpark. Among these, Garfield is most preoccupied with issues that came to the fore in the works of a certain Dharmakīrti (c. 600–660 CE), among the most influential figures in the history of Indian philosophy. Garfield strongly resists Dharmakīrti’s theorization of the subjectivity of consciousness, denying even that there is any difference at all between how we know our own thoughts and how we know anything else. Against Dharmakīrti’s view that consciousness is intrinsically experienced “from the inside,” Garfield thus affirms a position akin to one associated with Gilbert Ryle, who wrote in The Concept of Mind (1949) that “the sorts of things that I can find out about myself are the same as the sorts of things that I can find out about other people, and the methods of finding them out are much the same.” Garfield argues that this is consistent with views held by Madhyamaka, a Buddhist school of thought whose proponents criticized Dharmakīrti.

At issue in this dispute among Buddhist schools of thought was how to understand one of the core ideas of Buddhist philosophy: the two truths doctrine. Buddhists typically emphasized that the “conventional truth” of ordinary experience (in which things like “selves” and “persons” routinely figure) differs fundamentally from an “ultimately true” account, on which no such things really exist. This distinction arose from an originally hermeneutical challenge: It is hard to say anything at all without referring to “selves,” and the teachings traditionally attributed to the Buddha are thus, inevitably, rife with terms that, if basic Buddhist claims are true, don’t refer to anything. Buddhist commentators will say that texts involving reference to “selves” and “persons” are just conventionally true — “true” insofar as they advance the Buddha’s pedagogical aims — but that the ultimate truth intended by the Buddha is expressed only in passages that affirm an altogether impersonal reality devoid of selves. Only the latter teachings are definitive.

This hermeneutical move implicates matters of basic ontology; judgments about which of the Buddha’s teachings are definitive necessitate decisions about which of the Buddha’s words have real referents and which do not — decisions, that is, about what really exists. Among Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophers, the broadest divide over this is between a generally idealist school of thought (Yogācāra), which takes the Buddha’s definitive teachings to be those affirming that conscious events alone are real; and the distinctly skeptical Madhyamaka school, which takes as definitive only those teachings that deny that anything at all (even consciousness) makes sense as ultimately real. Both schools largely agree on what is conventionally real (everything that figures in ordinary experience), but disagree on how best to capture the ultimate truth.

For Buddhist idealists, the ultimate truth is that only conscious events finally exist, albeit not as we habitually think; only fleeting moments of experience exist (there is no self to which they belong), and they arise not from interaction with the world but simply out of habituated dispositions. Experience thus results not from a self’s interaction with the world, but from the accumulated weight of our own psychological pasts. In this regard, Buddhist idealists held a view akin (despite their rejection of materialism) to scientific descriptions of reality; like some cognitive neuroscientists, they refute common-sense views, confidently affirming instead a radically alternative account as ultimately true.

Against this, proponents of the skeptical Madhyamaka school denied that momentary mental events are any more “ultimately” real than selves are. Anything at all posited as definitively explaining experience turns out itself to be reducible to further causes and conditions; analysis never reaches the bottom, and the ultimate truth, we thus ought to understand, is that there is no ultimate truth. On this way of understanding the no-self doctrine, our basic mistake is not just that we wrongly understand ourselves, but that we suppose in the first place that anything at all could make sense as what we “really” are. Nothing, then, is any more real than the world of ordinary experience; the root problem is our desperate attachment to thinking something must explain all this, when in fact there is nothing that could count as the “meaning” of it all.

But if the point is that no ultimate truth can be affirmed in place of our naïve self-grasping, isn’t that effectively to affirm that we are, after all, selves? Not necessarily. It’s important to appreciate that Madhyamaka itself makes sense only relative to other Buddhist schools of thought. Tibetan monastic curricula typically present Madhyamaka only after years spent studying the tradition’s supposedly lesser schools, reflecting the idea that it’s only after analytically reducing persons to more basic parts that it can make sense to realize that the parts aren’t ultimately real, either. Proponents of Madhyamaka can affirm, then, that persons are reducible in all the ways other Buddhist schools show, and that we should indeed conclude that there is no self; it’s just that having realized this, it must then be understood that the same goes for all the things to which selves can be reduced.

Now provisioned with some understanding of divergent Buddhist intuitions about the two truths, let’s return to Garfield’s claim that on the best account of Buddhist commitments, there is no first-person perspective. That claim affords a plausible elaboration of the Buddhist no-self doctrine: against our hard-wired disposition to experience ourselves as the center of the world, the doctrine, on Garfield’s reading, is to be understood as showing that there is, after all, nothing special about what one thinks of as one’s “own” perspective. In fact, there just is no such perspective. Despite the sense this makes, though, it amounts to affirming that there is, after all, an ultimate truth about how things really are. An exhaustively impersonal, objective account is here affirmed as ultimately true, in contrast to which the world of ordinary experience — the world, note well, in which things like compassion for suffering beings make sense — is essentially less real. As proponents of Madhyamaka might urge, that way lies nihilism; for this is effectively to affirm that the conventionally real world finally doesn’t matter, being superseded by an alternatively described world that is affirmed as ultimately real.

Madhyamaka, then, recommends resisting views that privilege objectivity, and urges that we keep a place for the subjectivity that distinguishes the first-person perspective — right? Well, not exactly. In fact, it is the Madhyamaka perspective that Garfield follows in criticizing Dharmakīrti’s understanding of consciousness, and he rightly represents the Tibetan philosopher Tsong-kha-pa and some of his Indian predecessors in this school as uncompromising critics of Dharmakīrti’s idealism. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to ask whether these thinkers were right to think Buddhists ought to reject the distinctiveness of subjectivity. Indeed, what distinguishes philosophical engagement with the Buddhist tradition is that this involves not just philological attention to what classical Indian and Tibetan sources say, but also (as Garfield well understands) consideration of the logically distinct question of whether what they say is as we ought to think.

What really drives Garfield’s claim is the presupposition that we cannot affirm anything at all like “self-awareness” without thereby affirming that we know ourselves completely and infallibly. Garfield is thus in thrall to the misguided idea that affirming the distinctive immediacy of first-personal awareness entails a whole raft of ideas that it’s fashionable to disparage as “Cartesian.” But there’s no good reason to think that, any more than there is to suppose that when Buddhists like Dharmakīrti speak of the “self-awareness” of consciousness, they must mean awareness of the unique object which is one’s “self.” Garfield’s guiding presupposition is a vestige of Descartes’s celebrated quest for epistemic certainty. But the Buddhist philosophers who theorized “self-awareness” typically emphasized that they did not intend anything like perceptual acquaintance with an object; indeed, they arguably meant only to emphasize that consciousness is distinguished by subjectivity — which, contra Descartes, is actually to affirm that consciousness is not any kind of object at all.

What, though, might Buddhism’s no-self doctrine look like if, against Garfield, the doctrine is affirmed along with the “self-awareness” he so strenuously denies? Perhaps the point is just that there’s no enduring thing that any person is — that being a person doesn’t consist in being any kind of object in the world, and that it therefore makes no sense to think there’s anything at all that one “really” is. The target of the Buddhist critique, on this reading, is our habituated attachment to ourselves as temporally enduring substances that can, above all, survive death — and if that’s right, then the recognition that self-awareness doesn’t disclose any thing at all might actually facilitate the realization that Buddhists think most important: there is nothing about being a person that can coherently be thought to endure.

That is, anyway, as some Buddhists have argued. There is plenty in this rich tradition to support both Garfield’s denial of first-person perspectives and my resistance to that. Garfield is surely right, though, that appreciating these resources requires thinking philosophically along with this historical tradition — a way of engaging it, Garfield rightly emphasizes in this book’s concluding reflections, that differs in degree but not in kind from how philosophers engage historical figures like Aristotle and Kant. While Engaging Buddhism might have made a more compelling case for bringing Buddhists into the conversation if Garfield had resisted the urge to canvas quite so many of the topics on which Buddhists made contributions, he is right that Buddhist thinkers can and should be engaged as philosophers.

Few have worked more energetically to realize that aspiration than Jay Garfield; his polemical suggestion that academia needs something more than departments of Western Philosophy is backed by a career’s worth of thinking seriously with Buddhist philosophers. If they are to redress philosophy’s unphilosophical parochialism, his colleagues in the field could do a lot worse than to start by engaging this or any other of Garfield’s many works.


Dan Arnold is associate professor at University of Chicago Divinity School.

LARB Contributor

Dan Arnold is associate professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His first book, Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (2005), won an American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion. His second book, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind (2012), won the 2013 Toshihide Numate Book Prize in Buddhism.


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