A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation

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David Burton
Investigating Philosophy of Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The current volume constitutes a long overdue contribution to the globalization of the philosophy of religion. After Arvind Sharma’s 1997 The Philosophy of Religion: A Buddhist Perspective (Oxford University Press), David Burton here writes a second attempt to present a Buddhist philosophy of religion. Contrary to his predecessor, however, Burton is more successful in breaking the Christocentric paradigm and in presenting what can be called a “Buddhist philosophy of religion.”

A quick glance at the introduction and table of contents of the present volume makes it clear that Burton attempts to construct a philosophy of religion within a Buddhist framework. He commences with topics close to the Buddhist enterprise such as “The Problem of Suffering” (chapter 1), “Karma” (chapter 2), “Evil, Freedom, and other Ethical Issues” (chapter 3), “Concepts of Buddha” (chapter 4), “The Varieties of Emptiness” (chapter 5), and “Language and Reality” (chapter 6). He ends the book with a nod to contemporary discourses when he adds a chapter on “Religious Diversity” (chapter 7). Even this final chapter focuses on themes central to the Buddhist tradition in the past and today. Most chapters are designed to formulate a Buddhist philosophy of religion while at the same time entering this Buddhist philosophy into the larger discourse of academic philosophy.

Most of all, in clear distinction to the theocentric design of Sharma’s volume, which attempts to articulate a Buddhist response to questions framed in the monotheistic context of the Abrahamic traditions, Burton explores the questions at the heart of Buddhist texts and the varieties of answers formulated to them in the Buddhist tradition. This alone qualifies Burton’s Buddhism as a valuable contribution to the discourse in philosophy of religion.

In his discussion of the central questions raised and the diversity of responses to them articulated within the Buddhist traditions, Burton, for the most part, demonstrates the necessary sensitivity toward the matter at hand. While he relies on translations and commentaries for his analysis, his writing projects an awareness of the difficulties of approaching texts in translation. His selection of topics and positions disclose a deep understanding of the concerns that drove Buddhist thinkers in the past to explore philosophical questions and to develop philosophical systems. Therefore, this volume constitutes without doubt a wonderful introduction into the philosophical world of the Buddhist traditions.

In addition, Burton raises the question about the applicability of categories such as “philosophy” to Buddhism from outside the tradition. This raises important conceptual and political questions, since the adoption of European-style academia as well as its categories and disciplines around the globe does reverberate, in one way or another, the colonial project and implies the judgment as to what kind of knowledge is acceptable. While an introductory volume like the present one cannot discuss these questions in detail, Burton’s acknowledgement of these problems strengthens the book significantly.

However, an enterprise as ambitious as the articulation of a Buddhist philosophy of religion, in the space of two hundred twenty pages nonetheless, is likely to reveal some imperfections. First of all, the title of Burton’s volume is misleading. While the title promises a philosophical investigation of Buddhism, and the introduction mentions the “extremely diverse” movement of Mahāyāna Buddhism in “China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet,” which “encompasses many different traditions with a wide range of philosophical views, many of which will be discussed here” (2), Burton bases his construction of Buddhist philosophy almost exclusively on South Asian texts. Chinese philosophers barely figure in his discussion; some Japanese thinkers are mentioned, but with the exception of Jōkei (163) and Masao Abe (176), they are not discussed in any systematic way; and Korean Buddhism is ignored all together. Overall Burton’s nods to East Buddhism seem to resemble an afterthought rather than a systematic engagement with those texts.

An inclusion of more East Asian material would have enriched and diversified Burton’s discussion. Especially the discussion of Buddhist conceptions of evil would have benefited from a consideration of Brook Ziporyn’s brilliant 2016 Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism (Indiana University Press), or his 2000 Evil and/or/as the Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought (Harvard University Asia Center),as well as Stephen Batchelor’s thought provoking 2005 Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good an Evil (Riverhead Books).

An inclusion of more East Asian Buddhist texts would also have diversified the discussions on emptiness (chapter 5) and language (chapter 6), on the one side, and shifted the hermeneutical lens of the explorations of ethics (chapter 3) and religious diversity (chapter 7). A lot of East Asian Buddhist philosophers have had much to say about multiple interpretations of emptiness and the role of language. By the same token, some East Asian Buddhists developed conceptual schemata to interpret what we today refer to as ethics and religious diversity. While Burton allows the Buddhist texts to drive the discourse in most chapters, his sections on ethics and religious diversity apply the heuristic paradigms developed in the anglophone discourse. For example, the debate on “Buddhist-Christians” (179-81) would obtain a completely different direction if conceived using the paradigm of “sanjiao” (three teachings) central to the East Asian traditions.

Given the lack of inclusion of East Asian sources, an admission of the bias towards South Asian Buddhism would have preserved the subtlety and quality of the philosophical discussion without creating an expectation that is not met.

Be that as it may, since Burton’s Buddhism breaks new ground insofar as it frames a Buddhist philosophy of religion and challenges the Christocentric paradigm, it makes for worthwhile reading for everyone interested in Buddhism and/or philosophy of religion and can function as a textbook for courses in these field of study. It commences a conversation that is sorely needed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion and Asian studies at Luther College and the editor of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Burton is senior lecturer in religion, philosophy, and ethics in the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK.


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