Western Buddhist Review

Philosopher Strikes Gold

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Mon, 15 October, 2018 - 13:19
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dhivan thomas jones

Another review – this time by myself (Dhīvan) on an excellent new history of Buddhist philosophy in India:

The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

by Jan Westerhoff

Oxford University Press, 2018, 326pp £30 hb

 review by Dhīvan

In a customary gesture in books like this one, [1] Jan Westerhoff asks in his introduction what the purpose might be in his writing another history of Buddhist philosophy, given that those already available were written by such eminent scholars. In this case, the eminent scholars are Volker Zotz (writing in German), Emmanuel Guillon (in French) and Edward Conze (in English); hence the nearest rival to Westerhoff’s new book is Three Phases of Buddhist Thought in India by Conze, published in 1962. In the Preface to Conze’s work, that particular eminent scholar laments the ‘hideous and brutish noises emanating from machines’ (p.7) that deepen the spiritual darkness of our times; he wonders about the point of a history of Buddhist philosophy in the ‘age of the moron’ (p.9); and moans that ‘no Oxford or Cambridge professor would demean himself by paying the slightest attention to his colleagues of ancient India’ (p.9). 

 How very miserably last-century that seems now. Times must have changed, since Jan Westerhoff is the Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Oxford. This is not to say that lots of people are now paying attention to Buddhist philosophy; but Westerhoff’s academic post is a an important sign of the increasing interest in, and integration of, Buddhist (and Indian) philosophy into a more multi-cultural approach to philosophy in contemporary academia and beyond. [2] And his new book, The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy, is a significant contribution to that interest and integration. In short, his book is simply the best high-level introduction to Buddhist philosophy now available, by a yojana. [3]

Jan Westerhoff likes to dress in a three-piece suit, sporting a handkerchief in his jacket pocket, and a middle parting in his hair. This academic style rather separates him from older Buddhist studies professors, who tend to be the product of the 1960s counter-culture, or the more recent Buddhist studies types, who are still a bit fringe. So what led him to Buddhist philosophy? His background is in mathematical philosophy, but he did a second doctorate on Nāgārjuna, [4] and it is evidently the philosophical rigour of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy and Madhyamaka that has attracted him. [5] All this might have led to a forbiddingly intellectual history of Buddhist philosophy, but The Golden Age turns out to be very readable (if not exactly beginners-level) in the sense of focussing on essentials, without attempting to go into too many details.

Westerhoff’s Introduction sets out his method, which is to treat Buddhist philosophy as a ‘game’. This sounds odd, since Buddhism as such is not a ‘game’ but the teaching of the way to awakening; but it begins to make sense as one considers that intellectual activity is not in itself the way to awakening, which is beyond words, but is rather connected with the clarification and correction of assumptions and views which are relevant to the life of training towards awakening. The various arguments between philosophers does in fact resemble a game – a serious, hard-fought kind of game, though not much like football. And, in fact, the actual history of Buddhist philosophy in India has very distinct ‘sides’ (Abhidharmikas, Mādhyamikas, Yogācārins), individual philosophers tending to identify with one of the schools. Westerhoff goes on to describe the factors involved in this game. As well as (a) arguments and (b) sacred texts there is (c) meditative practice. That is, Buddhist philosophy is not justan intellectual activity, but it also involves the conceptual exploration of what Westerhoff nicely calls the ‘meditative phenomenology’ (p.8) of Buddhist practice, whereby certain frameworks of thought give rise to particular meditative experiences. This in turn leads to the re-interpretation of sacred texts and the valuing of certain arguments. So this game is not much like chess either. 

Now Westerhoff can discuss the material that the philosophical game works with. It consists of (a) teachings of the Buddha (both the original teachings and the later Mahāyāna ones), (b) debates in the intellectual culture of India, (c) commentaries on the teachings and debates, and (d) doxographies, or accounts of the various views held by various schools. From this it becomes evident that Buddhist philosophy presented itself in a very different way to western philosophy; not much in terms of independent works by individual philosophers, but taking the appearance of interpretations of Buddhist teachings within a debate framework. The dependence of Buddhist philosophy on the acceptance of Buddhist teachings leads to a situation in which philosophical activity appears to take for granted beliefs (for instance, in yogic powers, or in Padmasambhava’s mythic attributes) that are far from ‘rational’ in the western sense. At this point Westerhoff invokes a methodological principle that is both refreshing and radical. Rather than either dropping the naturalistic assumptions of western thought, or dropping the specific Buddhist commitments of the thinkers he is writing about, he proposes a charitable acceptance of those Buddhist commitments and a ‘bracketing’ of our naturalistic assumptions ‘in order to see how far we can go in our analysis without appealing to them’ (p.32). The result of this kind of immersive philosophical method turns out to be one of visiting a strange, unfamiliar intellectual landscape in such a way that one gradually starts to feel at home.

In Chapter 1, Westerhoff explores Abhidharma as philosophy. It soon becomes evident that his approach is quite discursive and narrative, outlining the historical development of the philosophical schools, describing their texts and interests, characterising their particular approach and how a modern reader might appreciate it. The philosophical content of the chapter on Abhidharma consists in sketching its ontology of dharmas in relation to Buddhist teachings, and in contrasting differences between Abhidharma schools. Westerhoff pays special attention to the dominant Sarvāstivādins, presenting their arguments for the peculiar view that past and future dharmas really exist. His principle of charity becomes very evident here, since Sarvāstivādin views are far from attractive, least of all to a Madhyamaka. His section on the Pudgalavādins is likewise sympathetic, stressing the continuity of the view of the real existence of the person with later views of Buddha-nature, while leaving it open whether these views are compatible with Buddhist teachings.

As might be expected from an expert on Nāgārjuna, Chapter 2 on Madhyamaka is crystal clear, though its emphases are surprising. Westerhoff invites readers to bracket their naturalistic assumptions about the life-span of Nāgārjuna, to get at the significance of believing he lived for 600 years and had magic powers: this belief may have been a way to make sense of claims made about different people called Nāgārjuna. Moreover, the story that Nāgārjuna was entrusted with the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras by the nāgas starts to make sense once we appreciate how Nāgārjuna, in his main work (the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), presented arguments to support what Westerhoff calls the ‘doctrine of illusionism’ of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Rather than trying to determine a version of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy that would be acceptable to humanistic assumptions, Westerhoff rather emphasises the difficulties of understanding Nāgārjuna, and the large questions that remain for understanding his apparent toleration of contradiction. Westerhoff’s Nāgārjuna is an interpreter of prajñāpāramitā through the hermeneutic of the two truths. He goes on to describe the ideas of commentators on Madhyamaka, such as Buddhapālita, Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti; it came as something of a shock to me to discover how little space the brilliant Candrakīrti gets in a history of Buddhist philosophy, so rich is the tradition. In this chapter, Westerhoff also continues a theme from Chapter 1, of setting Buddhist philosophy into a broader setting of Indian philosophical debate, in this case how the Mādhyamikas were concerned to argue against the realist philosophy of Nyāya. This approach emphases Westerhoff’s unwillingness to try to naturalise Buddhist philosophy into western philosophical narratives, but rather to expand the reader’s horizons.

Chapter 3 concerns Yogācāra, which Westerhoff prefers to try to harmonise with Madhyamaka rather than portraying the schools as rivals. Westerhoff discusses key Yogācāra concepts (the three natures, the ālaya-vijñāna or foundational consciousness, mind-only, and so on) at length, and there is another surprising emphasis here. He notes how contemporary western accounts of Yogācāra tend to argue against an idealist interpretation of mind-only, by emphasising epistemology rather than ontology: that ‘mind-only’ refers to the thesis that we can only know the world in terms of our representations of it, representations that (the Yogācārins argue) depend on the mind; this is not the same as claiming that the world does not exist. His point is that idealism is totally out of fashion in western philosophy, but that is not a good argument for interpreting Yogācāra as non-idealist. Westerhoff’s own contribution is to argue that, according to the Yogācārins, ‘the true nature of reality can only be known through meditation’ (p.178), so that the Yogācāra arguments for representation-only are more like denials of the discursive assumptions of ordinary people. 

In Chapter 4 Westerhoff moves on to the later logico-epistemological thought of Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti. These thinkers had in fact already appeared in section 2 of Chapter 3, which seemed rather out of place in what was not the best-organised chapter of the book. [6] But in the present chapter, their thought is presented with a clarity that soon reveals their work to be the nearest that Buddhist philosophy gets to some of the enduring concerns of western philosophical thought about knowledge and language. Diṅnāga argues that knowledge through perception consists not in the recognition of some real thing ‘out there’ in the world, but in the conceptual construction of representations from the information that appears to the senses. This is a kind of phenomenalism, and Westerhoff’s contrast of Diṅnāga’s and Dharmakīrti’s philosophical view with the view of the Mīmāṃsā school, that language involves a correspondence of words to things, is a helpful way into the issues, as they were seen by Indian philosophers of the time.

In some Concluding Remarks, Westerhoff returns to a theme implicit through his whole presentation: that of the relationship of philosophical thinking to the meditative methods of Buddhist practice. He invokes the name of Pierre Hadot, whose work on philosophy as a way of life, in the context of ancient Greece and Rome, emphasises how philosophical discourse was in service to the practice of spiritual exercises and debate, for the sake of achieving the goal or aim of life as conceived in a particular school. [7] From this point of view, it is important not to approach Buddhist philosophy with the assumption from contemporary western philosophy that it is an ‘exercise of reason, for its own sake’ (p.283). The meditative dimension of Buddhist philosophy makes such an approach unlikely to do justice to what is essential. Rather, Westerhoff recommends ‘doing philosophywith ancient texts’ (p.284), which means bracketing naturalistic assumptions, putting oneself into the midst of the particular problems that Buddhist philosophers were concerned with, and appreciating the methods – meditative as well as argumentative – that they employed to solve them. Sādhu, Jan Westerhoff!

Dharmacārin Dhīvan is the editor of Western Buddhist Review. He is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and author of This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality.

[1] The book reviewed here is part of an ongoing OUP series: ‘The Oxford History of Philosophy is an open-ended series of books which will weave together to form a new history of philosophy’ (OUP website).

[2] On which, see especially Jay Garfield, Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy, OUP, 2015; and Peter Adamson’s and Jonardon Ganeri’s now-concluded 62-part podcast ‘Philosophy in India’.

[3]1 yojana= about 7km.

[4] Which eventually became Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[5] Recent works include The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010, and Crushing the Categories: Vaidalyaprakaraṇa by Nāgārjuna, Wisdom Publications, 2018.

[6] Not only is Chapter 3 somewhat disorganised, but the book as whole contains many typos and errors; the final copy seems not to have been proofed. This is odd, considering the beautiful production of the text, complete with marginal text box summaries, à la King James Bible.

[7] See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Blackwell: Oxford, 1995; and especially What is Ancient Philosophy? Harvard University Press, 2004. See also my blog post.

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Ratnagarbha's picture

A fascinating review thank you. I have long thought that Vasubandhu for sure was an idealist of some kind, albeit not easily mapped onto the various western idealisms. There is an interesting discussion of the issues on the Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy, I think it is the entry on Yogacara.