With Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhist and Western Approaches, professors who teach, or who aspire to teach, either undergraduate Buddhist philosophy topics or courses on cross-cultural philosophy now have the resource that they have been awaiting. Prior to this collection, monographs and edited volumes focused on either Buddhist or cross-cultural philosophy have targeted narrower audiences, leaving the heavy lifting of introducing the foundations of Buddhist thought to the professor or to other sources. The editor of this volume, Steven Emmanuel, has overseen two such prior collections—A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy and Buddhist Philosophy: A Comparative Approach—that are excellent resources for such narrower audiences. This volume provides the scaffolding for those two as well as for the specialized monographs and translations that tend to presume the connections across metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics that are clarified here. Although the cross-cultural perspective of Philosophy’s Big Questions brackets religious practice successfully in order to address “universal” philosophical concerns, students and scholars of religion may use the collection to deepen their understanding of Buddhist traditions’ complexities.
Introducing the volume, Emmanuel discusses the perils and pleasures of cross-cultural philosophy, particularly the danger of emphasizing Western (i.e., Greco-Roman) categories and terms, thereby occluding the distinctive features of Buddhist accounts. He observes that “there has been a tendency among Western philosophers interested in Buddhist thought to be rather selective about what they engage with . . . by bracketing certain concepts and issues—mainly soteriological ones—that are central to Buddhism, we may be letting the West set the agenda for philosophical inquiry” (9). This is an important point with respect to the study of religion, for the centrality of soteriology in Buddhist philosophy can hardly be overstated: the foundation of the tradition is the Buddha’s presentation of the Four Noble Truths, which is explicitly soteriological.
It is a laudatory feature of Philosophy’s Big Questions that it engages such concepts and features in its opening chapter (“How Should We Live,” by Stephen J. Lamaukis) and its final three, including Emmanuel’s own contribution, “How Much Is Enough? Greed, Prosperity, and the Economic Problem of Happiness: A Comparative Perspective.” The richness of this chapter and its successor, Peter Hershock’s “What Do We Owe Future Generations? Compassion and Future Generations: A Buddhist Contribution to an Ethics of Global Interdependence,” show how much the absence of rigorous, critical philosophical inquiry from public life has impoverished the modern West. These are the sorts of engagements with Buddhist philosophy that undergraduates and nonspecialists appreciate—those that bring to bear ancient but evolving wisdom to bear on contemporary issues that show, upon reflection, there is nothing new under the sun.
Two chapters deserve particular attention due to their presentations of topics—selflessness and karma—that are unfamiliar to the Western philosophical mainstream. The first, the chapter by Jan Westerhoff, provides an important overview of the metaphysical elements of Buddhist philosophy, especially the radically nonfoundationalist perspective of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophers Nāgājuna and Candrakīrti, which finds no parallel until Ludwig Wittgenstein’s late work. The real gem of the collection is Amber Carpenter’s chapter (“Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”), which considers the second element of Buddhist philosophy (the first being selflessness that Westerhoff details) that has no proper parallel in other philosophical traditions—karma, understood as ethical action.
It is well known among those who study religions of South Asia that the Buddha revalued karma from its Vedic sense as being ritual action appealing to the gods to ethical action with no appeal to transcendent forces. These two elements of Buddhist philosophy—that ethical actions and their results structure the cosmos, yet there is no intrinsic reality to any phenomena, even persons, whose travails are engendered by those actions and results—are so far removed from Western philosophical intuitions or insights to be truly startling. How have Buddhist philosophers made sense of the idea, seemingly counterintuitive, that persons have no intrinsic nature yet participate in the causal networks of ordinary reality, of which karmic actions and results are the ethical bedrock? And if the grounding of Buddhist ethics is not ascribed to some “actual,” objective form of adjudication (e.g., God), then wherein lies the efficacy regarding the body of religious practices that in some way guarantee the outcome of ethical actions? Carpenter addresses specifically the problem of evil from a Buddhist perspective but also (172–74) just this presumed conundrum.
Carpenter shows just how misplaced is the understanding—prevalent due to the term’s penetration of popular culture—of karma as cosmic retribution or a form of justification for suffering, as if suffering were somehow deserved. As Carpenter observes, the concept of evil itself is incoherent in this framework, and she explains how ignorance, or confusion, generates reflexive, self-protective desire or hatred, which in turn compels actions that tend toward suffering of self and others. From the perspective of reward and punishment, this cycle of suffering could not be broken, for any action causing suffering should be met by a similar response, and so forth. Instead, the proper response must be dissimilar—meeting hatred not with hatred but love, for example.
Carpenter presents canonical stories that make this point forcefully, and it is the presence of stories that is so interesting here, for the power of narrative far surpasses that of propositional logic. Carpenter’s chapter opens up an entirely different way of viewing the philosophical terrain, allowing for a move away from the scholastic to the mundane, thereby opening up to the material conditions of everyday life that may be closer to the concerns of scholars of religion. Moreover, this move allows students to reflect on the facts of their own everyday lives and the ethical obligations that karma implies—and because the ethical is closely connected to the metaphysical and epistemological, these topics gain new salience as well. Thus, Carpenter’s chapter serves as a sort of hub for the spokes that are the other chapters, each a valuable contribution that becomes richer in light of Carpenter’s.
In brief, then, anyone with any abiding interest in Buddhist philosophy or cross-cultural philosophy, or anyone who teaches courses on such things, should find Philosophy’s Big Questions a welcome volume with which to probe the contours of Buddhist philosophical premises and positions.
Edward Arnold is assistant editor with the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies.
Date Of Review:
February 28, 2022
Steven M. Emmanuel is professor of philosophy and dean of the Susan S. Goode School of Arts and Humanities at Virginia Wesleyan University.
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