Buddhist Spiritual Practices

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David V. Fiordalis
  • Mangalam Press
    , March
     339 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Buddhist Spiritual Practices: Thinking with Pierre Hadot on Buddhism, Philosophy, and the Path, a volume edited by David V. Fiordalis, engages Buddhist philosophy with the French historian of ideas Pierre Hadot (1922-2010), specifically with Hadot’s notion of philosophy as a way of life. Pierre Hadot was a professor at Collège de France, and is best known for his thesis that ancient philosophy was not an attempt to fashion a system that would explain the universe, elaborate a language discourse in which one may talk about the nature of things, and eventually draw the consequences that would enable us to adopt appropriate modes of life and ethical behavior. While ancient philosophy was all of those things, it was in a sense reversed. The choice of a mode of life was not a consequence of understanding how things are but was the first choice, a selection of an existential option that philosophical discourse, second, strived to justify. Doing philosophy meant entering a group, a school, of doctrinal and existential commitments, and practicing spiritual exercisesthat were physical and discursive regimens whose purpose was to modify and reconstitute the subject.

These two related ideas—philosophy as a way of life and spiritual exercises—have been prominent in the academic study of Buddhist philosophy for some time, particularly through the University of Chicago and the influences of Steven Collins and Mathew Kapstein. The present volume, however, is the first book-length engagement that attempts to think with and against Hadot, and thus to thoroughly reevaluate how modern scholars may draw upon Hadot, in a way that is not inorganic to the intricacies of intellectual spaces that Hadot himself did not study.

In the first essay, Steven Collins provides a wide-ranging reflection on several issues on Hadot and Michel Foucault—a result of years of thinking about the two philosophers. Particularly important for the volume—and setting the tone for succeeding essays—is Collins’s analysis of Hadot and Foucault’s thoughts on the desirability of cross-cultural, comparative work. This is rather significant, for Collins demonstrates that both authors “saw the value of comparing Ancient Hellenistic and Imperial Roman with Asian, in our case Buddhist, 'techniques' or 'technologies of self:' it is not something we are imposing on their work” (33). This situates the volume in an authentically Hadotian and Foucauldian hermeneutic frame. Sara McClintock focuses on Hadot’s notion of the “philosophical school” as a venue in which the committed student receives the training in philosophy as a transformative experience, and considers the ways in which we may think about “schools” in Buddhism, particularly as they concern community membership and identity formation. James Apple continues this discourse, analyzing a short text by the 10th - 11th century philosopher Atiśa, Madhyamakopadeśa, as a case study of what an actual regimen of self-transformation within the context of real institutions, communities, and practices—comparable to Hadot’s “schools”—might have looked like.

Pierre-Julien Harter argues that Hadot’s notion of “spiritual exercise,” so commonly used by Buddhist studies scholars—and the central topic of the present volume—does not account for all varieties of Buddhist practices and cannot be used as a frame that fits all possible types of Buddhist texts. Maria Heim takes Hadot’s attention to the importance of dialogue, and its concern with a disciple acquiring a school’s dogma, as her departure point in exploring the two distinct genres of Buddhist text: the dialogues (suttanta) and systematic treatises (abhidhamma).

Davey Tomlinson turns to one of the most prominent themes in Hadot—meditations on death—to demonstrate how reading with Hadot in a context foreign to him, such as traditions which believe in rebirth, might lead to insights different from his own. In the final essay, David Fiordalis explores the idea of “practice of wisdom” in the writings of the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, particularly as it concerns the three soteriological processes of learning, reflection, and meditation.

Apart from being a treasure of information, the virtue of this volume consists of its unique methodology, more precisely in its resistance to a common tendency in the study of Buddhist philosophy: the easy assimilation of inorganic interpretation approaches and the attempt to make Buddhist philosophy (along with anything else that one may call “philosophy”) global, that is presentable, which always comes at the expense of doctrinal and existential commitments. While what ongoing efforts towards global philosophy will bring about remains unclear—I suspect that Whitehead’s “the many become one, and are increased by one” is still a good bet—Buddhist Spiritual Practices is a collection of superb essays that model how to engage with contemporary ideas while remaining true to the tradition of one’s own studies. To illustrate, Pierre-Julien Harter shows how one may draw on Hadot’s insights while bringing to light an authentically Buddhist notion, that of the “path,” as a better overall hermeneutic frame in the context. Similarly, Davey Tomlinson maintains that not all “training for death” is “training for life” when we plug in doctrine variables, something Hadot himself resisted concluding.

Buddhist Spiritual Practices is a valuable book not only for scholars of Buddhism and Indian philosophy, but for everyone grappling with the perennial question of how to perform comparative studies and ensure the object of comparison is not lost beyond recognition in its standard.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aleksandar Uskokov is Lecturer in Sanskrit Language and Literature at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David V. Fiordalis is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Linfield College.


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