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Vishvapani

Harold Bloom: the Embattled Canon and the Experiential Critic

Sat, 19 Oct, 2019 - 20:26

Harold Bloom: the Embattled Canon and the Experiential Critic

Sat, 19 Oct, 2019 - 20:26

This is a guest post by Vishvapani, re-published here from an early issue of The Western Buddhist Review


***


The Western Canon
By Harold Bloom
Macmillan, London 1994, pp. 567


1. Introduction: contemporary criticism’s questions and answers
What should be our central question in approaching literature? The celebrated American literary critic Harold Bloom proposes one: What is literature for? This question may sound obvious, but it is not one with...

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Centre Team's picture

Here is Vishvapani’s review of The Western Canon for download as a PDF.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

‘Does It Float?’: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism

Sat, 5 Oct, 2019 - 17:10

‘Does It Float?’: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism

Sat, 5 Oct, 2019 - 17:10

Here we present a review of Stephen Batchelor’s two most recent books on his secular interpretation of the Dharma:

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2015

Stephen Batchelor, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, Yale University Press, 2017

Review by Dhivan

Yale University Press were kind enough to send me review copies of Stephen Batchelor’s books when they were published. But reviewing them is difficult, as they are polemical, in favour of a particular new...

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Ratnagarbha's picture

Thank you for an interesting review. In relation to to the contrast between exegesis and interpretation I was reminded of a fascinating series of lectures I listened to recently about the texts of early Christianity by Prof Dale b Martin of Yale. He made a three-way distinction between interpretation i.e. theology in Christian terms, exegesis, and lastly historical reconstruction. Such things as trying to reconstruct what the historical Jesus might actually have thought and said, by means of critical comparison of all of the available texts and the various methods of modern historical scholarship. It sounds as if Batchelor has as muddied the waters by mixing all three of these together. Not only does he turn his exegesis into an interpretation for the modern world. His attempted exegesis is in turn a conflation of on the one hand ideas about what the Pali texts may have meant to those who recited them, with on the other hand attempting to reconstruct some kind of pure original Buddhism that the Buddha might have taught.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Thanks Ratnagarbha for mentioning this very interesting three-way distinction. I think you’re right, that Batchelor mixes up exegesis, interpretation and historical reconstruction. Perhaps they overlap to some extent. I must listen to those talks by Prof Dale Martin!

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Letting the Self Go Dark

Wed, 2 Oct, 2019 - 19:52

Letting the Self Go Dark

Wed, 2 Oct, 2019 - 19:52

Here we present another review – this one by Vidyapala, of a new book from Windhorse Publications by David Brazier, on the teaching of Dōgen, founder of Sōtō Zen:

David Brazier, Dark Side of the Mirror: forgetting the self in Dōgen’s Genjō Kōan, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2019, 326 pp, £16 pb.

review by Vidyapāla

In this excellent and illuminating book by David Brazier, the author presents us with a new translation and commentary of Dōgen’s famously beautiful but elusive text, the Genjō Kōan, from...

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kamalashila's picture

Nice stimulating informative and detailed review, thanks!  

(it’s ‘simulacrum’ in the singular mind you)

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Debating the Middle Way

Wed, 25 Sep, 2019 - 18:16

Debating the Middle Way

Wed, 25 Sep, 2019 - 18:16

Here we present a review by Arnold Tilley of a new book by Robert Ellis, founder of the Middle Way Society:

Robert Ellis 

The Buddha’s Middle Way, London: Equinox, 2019, 320pp., £23 pb

review by Arnold Tilley

Much of the content of Ellis’s book concerns the Buddha’s Middle Way, yet seen as an instance of a purported universal Middle Way ‘which springs from the structural needs of human beings (and possibly other organisms)’ (p.281). Ellis’s formula for this universal Middle Way is expressed by...

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Robert M Ellis's picture

There are so many serious misunderstandings of my book here that I feel compelled to respond. This is not about arguing my case in full, but simply about ensuring that my case is understood in the first place without being totally misread. Most of these mistakes evidently come from conflating my approach to one that is more familiar to the reviewer, or from failing to notice clarifications elsewhere in the book that directly contradict the interpretations he makes.

1. (para 2 & 12) The Palace and the Forest are not presented as “extremes of a life of sensual indulgence and asceticism” in my book, rather these are examples of positive and negative absolutisations in the Buddha’s context.

2. (para 2) This is a complete misrepresentation: “Ellis also questions the importance of the historical Buddha, even to the point of hypothesizing that the historical Buddha’s life is a ‘complete hoax’”. I do not put forward any hypothesis that the Buddha’s life is a ‘complete hoax’. The actual sentence I wrote on p.237 is “If it was unexpectedly revealed by conclusive historical evidence that the historical Buddha had been a complete hoax, would this make the slightest difference to your confidence in practising the Middle Way? If your confidence was in the content of the insights that the Buddha offered… then the answer would obviously be ‘no’.” This is about the irrelevance of historical claims, not about any attempt to justify even a hypothesis that his life actually was a hoax - a totally different point. 

3. (para 5) “The Buddha’s Middle Way, in section 4, is criticised as out of date in its restricted range of absolutes to be avoided, i.e. eternalism and nihilism.” No, again this is a complete misrepresentation. My argument is that the way the Buddhist tradition has represented the Buddha’s Middle Way is restricted in that way, not the Buddha’s Middle Way itself.

4. (para 8) “Ellis (p.1) likens the Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way to Newton’s discovery of the Law of Gravity – i.e. both are objective discoveries.” What I actually wrote on p.1 was “The Buddha did not create the Middle Way, any more than Newton created gravity”. The comparison is not that they were “objective discoveries” (I would never use ‘objective’ in that God’s eye view sense), but that whatever it was that they discovered in each case is open to everyone and not created by their discovery.

5. (para 8) “Ellis’s overall modus operandi, however, is toward the experiential and the subjective; yet, his emphasis on ‘experiential judgement’ in the Buddha’s life and teaching, seems too narrow an approach to what we understand by a religion; e.g. in Smart’s seven-dimensional scheme, the ‘experiential and emotional’ is but one dimension.” I not use the term ‘subjective’ in that absolute sense opposed to ‘objective’ at all, and simply do not accept the dichotomy (which for me is a crucial aspect of the Middle Way) - so there is nothing ‘subjective’ about my approach, and the experiential is just as much ‘objective’ as it is ‘subjective’. Experientialism certainly doesn’t limit my understanding of religion to one of Smart’s dimensions: indeed, my book deals extensively with the narrative, ritual, ethical, doctrinal and social elements of Buddhism, as well as the experiential. Strangely enough, all these dimensions of religion are a matter of human experience!

6. (para 8) “it may be that he conceives of Buddhism more as a philosophical ‘way of life’, in Hadot’s sense,[3] than as a religion”. Again I do not accept this false dichotomy at all. Buddhism is both a philosophy and a religion.

7. (para 9) “does Ellis, in some sense, think of himself as inhabiting a post-truth world?” No, he doesn’t. He just thinks of truth as an archetype, not as a thing we can possess. That isn’t a denial of truth, but an application of agnosticism. It certainly doesn’t imply that we had the truth before and then lost it, nor that we have ceased to be concerned with it, nor that we should cease to be inspired by it.

8. (para 9) “His redefinition of knowledge, from a Platonic ‘justified true belief’ to ‘justified general belief’” Nowhere do I give such a redefinition of knowledge. Rather, I accept ‘justified true belief’ as a definition of knowledge and recognise that we do not have any knowledge in that sense.

9 (para 9) Nowhere do I suggest we should “be without views”: rather I think we should be provisional in our views.

10. (para 9) “Ellis’s dismissal of, e.g. a correspondence notion of  truth stems, I think, from his anti-realist subjectivist tendency (possibly influenced by Don Cupitt, a former tutor of Ellis). His interpretation of the Buddha’s epistemology sounds similar to a Nietzschean perspectivism, i.e. in terms of ‘integrating as many perspectives as possible’ (p.68), and, for Ellis, perhaps there are no facts, but only interpretations.” I am not an anti-realist or a subjectivist, and I get thoroughly tired of being lumped into such categories by people who wilfully refuse to accept the sincerity of a quest for the Middle Way beyond such categories as subjectivism and objectivism. Nor am I a Nietzschean. Nor do I believe that there are no facts - only that it is unhelpful to make absolute factual claims. The fact that I was a student of Don Cupitt does not mean that I agree with him about everything!

11. (para 10/11) The principle of incrementality has nothing to do with gradual v sudden enlightenment. The latter is an example of discontinuity of conditions, not of absolutizing discontinuity. The difference between these is fully explained on p.119.

12. (para 11) “he later refers to the possibility of unknown parts of the universe as being potentially outside the supposed universality of the domain of conditionality – we only have ‘our limited embodied standpoint’” This again is an egregious interpretation and definitely not the intended implication of what I wrote. The “limited embodied standpoint” is simply a phenomenal experience, recognised through comparisons of that experience at different times.

13. (para 12) “Ellis’s Universal Middle Way complicates and obscures the Buddha’s simple expression of the Middle Way with the unnecessary multiplication of these two poles and the addition of his five sub-principles.” This is a bit rich, to put it mildly. I’m accused of unnecessarily complicating the Buddha’s Middle Way by comparison with the endless complexity of what Buddhist scholasticism makes of it! On the contrary, I simplify the Middle Way at the same time as making it universal, by suggesting that it is merely the navigation between any positive or negative absolute. The five principles are not some sort of metaphysical infrastructure, as seems to be assumed, but just an analysis to try to break down the implications of the Middle Way in experience.

14. (para 14) I agree that seeing the Middle Way as a route rather than a metaphysical claim is the best interpretation of the Buddha. But it’s presented here as though I would disagree with that.

15. (para 15) Again, the ‘complexity’ is entirely in the mind of the beholder, and as far as I’m concerned I’m simplifying by relating enlightenment-talk to ordinary experience. It seems that anything different from the reviewer’s usual beliefs is seen as necessarily complex.

16. (para 16) If the twelve nidanas are useful for teaching some people, but not everyone, they are not the most helpful universal approach. I am falsely portrayed as disagreeing here.

17. (para 17) “Ellis, at times, can tend towards a reductionist position. For example, when he is discussing ‘desire’, he concludes that there is only one sort of desire and this is equated with ‘energy flowing through our brain and nervous system’ (p.210). This physicalist understanding…” This is completely unfair. I make it totally clear that I am not a physicalist nor a reductionist of any kind, and I object strongly to being straw-manned into these pigeon-holes. Talking about only one kind of desire is a way of dismantling a false traditional Buddhist division between two sorts. Talking about the brain and nervous system does not imply that this way of describing things is the whole story: it is merely another angle on our experience (of energy, in this case).  

18. (para 18) I use neither “a folk psychological use of language” nor “physiologically-based expressions” because, as should be clear, the whole book is experiential in approach. I do not accept the crashing false dichotomies on which this distinction is based. Of course my train being late may cause impatience, but that doesn’t prevent that impatience being channelled through the left hemisphere (or its ‘internal’ experiential correlates).

19. (para 19) The penultimate paragraph goes into the most bizarre misinterpretations yet. I’m accused of ‘confected metaphysics’ and the Middle Way is likened to Plato’s Forms, when I have made it clear that the whole point of the Middle Way in my book is to avoid metaphysical claims. Tilley obviously cannot take this seriously (perhaps he is incapable of doing so?) and just relapses straight back into his accustomed philosophical assumptions, rather than attempting to understand and engage with my argument.

It is, of course, extremely disappointing to be so comprehensively misunderstood. I can only come back to the plea that the Middle Way deserves to be taken seriously in its own right, not automatically lumped into the bunch of false dichotomies that scholars and analytic philosophers are accustomed to stuffing everything into that crosses their path. Do I have the right to think differently about things or not? If I do, is it not worth a bit more effort to try to understand what I am on about, before jumping to such egregious conclusions?

 

tarni's picture

I find it disappointing that what was headlined as ‘Debating the Middle Way’ – my review of Robert Ellis’s book - has descended into point and counter-point skirmishing.  But, I will address his points, one by one, fairly briefly.

1. I do in fact refer, in para. 1, to ‘absolutisation’.  Also, in para. 2, I wrote that ‘Both palace and forest represent absolutisations …’, and in para. 5, I wrote about the Universal Middle Way, as ‘navigating between “any opposed pair of positive and negative absolutes.”’

2. I did interpret ‘complete hoax’ as a supposition, but this whole passage did strike me as odd; because, it seems to me, for insights to be recorded historically, which they have been, then that does - does it not? - entail a living person who embodied these insights; hence, my point about ‘free-floating insights’ needing to be anchored in a person, i.e. the Buddha.

3. I concede this point, an oversight on my part.

4. It seems to me that pairing the Buddha’s Middle Way with Newton’s gravity does imply objectivity.

5. I have no issue with using the words - currently extant and widely used - ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’, when appropriate, and with regard to Newton, I would say that the discoveries of mathematical physics are more objective than, say, our day-to-day subjective experiences.

6. I did say “more as a philosophical ‘way of life’”.

7. On p 62 there does seem to be some preference for Stephen Batchelor’s ‘tasks’ over ‘truths’, in terms of this being ‘a far more helpful approach’.

8. There is, on p 46., an ‘avoidance’ of the term ‘knowledge’, and what appears to be a re-statement of knowledge from ‘justified true belief’ to ‘justified general belief(s)’ (my emphasis) in connection with the Buddha’s insights.  It seems to me that a redefinition of knowledge is at least implied on this page.

9. ‘without views’ was part of a paraphrased quotation from Beckwith.

10. As in point 5 above.

11. In section 3f, ‘Incrementality: the Ocean’, I understood the Ocean to be a metaphor for ‘gradual training, gradual practice, and gradual progress’ (p 118), towards enlightenment (in Ellis’s terms ‘integration’) i.e. in contrast to ‘the discontinuity that is associated with absolutisation’, i.e. ‘sudden penetration’ (p 120).

12. The phrase ‘our limited, embodied standpoint’ was employed by Ellis in connection with conditionality, on p 142, i.e. from this standpoint ‘we cannot be sure that everything is conditioned.’  I just applied his words to the possibility of worlds in which sudden enlightenment occurred.


13. Here we come to the point in my review where I do not go along with Ellis’s view that: ‘there is nothing here that limits the Middle Way to the avoidance of only these particular two poles’.  I think his metalanguage complicates matters, when all is simple at the point of the Buddha’s First Address.

14. If the First Address is based on the Buddha’s direct knowledge, then Ellis does term this ‘dubious metaphysics’ (p 198); but, yes, the Middle Way as an expression of this direct knowledge, is a route.

15. I think this is an over-simplification of my para. 15

16. The reference is to the Tibetan Wheel of Life, and I was disputing the apparent claim that it was no longer in the most ‘helpful form’.

17. I did say ‘tend’ towards a reductionist position.  It seems to me that, e.g. if we take a philosophical (Epicurean) position on ‘desire’, then this would, in Ellis’s view, be reducible to a physicalist understanding i.e. ‘energy’.

18. I did actually say that my train being late was not ‘directly sourceable to the left hemisphere’, and folk psychological language does slide into physiologically-based expressions; there are plenty of examples of this ‘sliding’, that I reference.

19. Yes, I do refer to Plato, and also to Hinduism – but, only as possible structural or formal ‘congruences’, and I explicitly emphasize this, and not the metaphysical/divine connotations.

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Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Scholarly and Philosophical events in Triratna

Mon, 15 Jul, 2019 - 09:41

Scholarly and Philosophical events in Triratna

Mon, 15 Jul, 2019 - 09:41

Some information on two scholarly and philosophical events coming up in our Triratna Buddhist community:

Triratna Scholars Network study retreat Sunday 15 Dec–Thursday 19 Dec 2019 at Adhisthana (ending after lunch on the Thursday), led by Sāgaramati, Dhīvan and Śraddhāpa. Please book through the Adhisthana website, or contact Dhivan (thomas [at] dhivan.net) with questions. Open to Order members and mitras. The theme will be:
Early Perfection of Wisdom. The Aṭṭhakavagga or Chapter of the Eights, from the Sutta Nipāta of the Pāli canon, presents an early version of...

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Dhivan Thomas Jones

Advanced Pali reading course

Fri, 21 Jun, 2019 - 12:56

Advanced Pali reading course

Fri, 21 Jun, 2019 - 12:56

(Posted on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies:)

This summer, Prof. Gombrich will run another Advanced Pali reading course in Oxford in August. The dates for this course are as follows: arrive Wednesday evening, 14th August, depart Friday morning 23rd August. There will be no class on Sunday 18th August. This course will be unlike the introductory course.  It will mainly consist of reading texts together in class.  This year that will include poetry and commentaries; some texts will be distributed in advance.

As in previous years,...

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Dhivan Thomas Jones

Precision Dharma

Sun, 19 May, 2019 - 12:22

Precision Dharma

Sun, 19 May, 2019 - 12:22

Vajratara reviews a first-class new book on early Buddhist doctrine:

Early Buddhist Teachings

by Y. Karunadasa

Boston: Wisdom Publications 2018, 240pp, hb £22.50, pb £11, ebook

review by Vajratara

In a book market saturated with books about Buddhism, one may not immediately choose a book about early Buddhist teachings written by a Pali and Buddhist studies Scholar. However, though Early Buddhist Teachings goes over some of the same ground as other books about basic Buddhism, it offers a fresh and comprehensive overview that leaves us with a deeper understanding. Professor Karunadasa explains...

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Dhivan Thomas Jones

Philosopher Strikes Gold

Mon, 15 Oct, 2018 - 13:19

Philosopher Strikes Gold

Mon, 15 Oct, 2018 - 13:19

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...

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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.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Weighing the Evidence

Fri, 12 Oct, 2018 - 10:55

Weighing the Evidence

Fri, 12 Oct, 2018 - 10:55

We present a review by Nāgapriya of Anālayo’s recent study of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth and what evidence there might be for the truth of it:

Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research

by Bhikkhu Analayo

Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA, 279pp. hb. £22.50

review by Nāgapriya

Bhikkhu Anālayo has garnered a distinguished reputation as an authoritative scholar of the Pali Canon and early Buddhism. His mastery not only of Pāli sources but also of parallels in Chinese translation has enabled him to produce a growing corpus of...

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Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Triratna Scholars' Network retreat

Sun, 23 Sep, 2018 - 15:12

Triratna Scholars' Network retreat

Sun, 23 Sep, 2018 - 15:12

About an event coming up at Adhiṣṭhāna that should be of interest to readers of the Western Buddhist Review:

‘From here to the beyond…’: Studying the ‘Spiral Path’ in Early Buddhist Discourses

Led by Dhīvan and Sāgaramati

9–16 Dec 2018

This study retreat marks the first led by the newly-initiated Triratna Scholars’ Network and will offer an opportunity to go behind the scenes, as it were, of Sangharakshita’s presentation of the Dharma, to look at the sources and texts connected with the ’Spiral Path’. We will examine closely the sources of...

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