Buddhist Ethics Conference at Columbia, a very short recap

Buddhist Ethics Conference at Columbia, a very short recap October 10, 2011
The recent and first ever conference devoted to Buddhist Ethics was a wonderful success. If you haven’t already, have a look at their website. They have promised to upload audio from the addresses and panels, and they have opened up the site, in blog style, to ongoing Q&A; via the comments section on each panel webpage. So once the audio is loaded (it’s not yet as of now, Monday morning), you can listen to the discussions and post questions of your own to the speakers.

For now, though, my very brief recap. As mentioned, overall the conference was great. This was my first time at Columbia University and I have to say it felt a bit like ‘home’ to me, with its giant, neoclassical buildings and courtyards filled with students. The venue, the Low Memorial Library, was ideal, and our conference room was filled with displays of Chinese art from the various dynasties. Just as many of the presenters did, I have to give thanks to the organizers, Christopher Kelly, Jake Davis, and their faculty advisor Jonathan Gold.

The conference began with Damien Keown (pictured below, right) giving the keynote address. The topic was one well-known to students of Buddhist Ethics, that while Buddhism (focusing on the early texts and Theravada) has a plethora of ‘ethical teachings’, it doesn’t have really any theoretical ethics or ethical analysis similar to what we find in, say, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Keown discussed several possible reasons for this lack of theoretical ethics and the fact that in the last 50 or so years, as Buddhists have come into contact with Western thought (and vice versa), theoretical Buddhist Ethics has emerged as both an academic discipline and as an area of interest within Buddhist circles.

Myself, Bob Thurman, and Damien Keown
The first panel discussed Buddhist Ethics Naturalized, which essentially means clearing out anything that looks superstitous so that a more palatable version of Buddhism can be understood and taught. Ideas like Karma (in some understandings at least) and rebirth are jettisoned, while the metaphysics, as Owen Flanagan put it, of no-self, impermanence, and so on would be retained, as they so adequately match our contemporary scientific understanding of reality. Flanagan has a new book out and recently published on the Huffington Post an article that is still being debated in many Buddhist circles, Bourgeois Buddhists: Do American Buddhists Miss the Point of Buddhism? Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your proclivities), Robert Thurman was also on the panel, and I have to admit that about 2 minute into his talk I had forgotten much of what had been said previously. 
The second panel was on Classifying Buddhist Ethics, a topic close to my heart. Unfortunately, I felt like only one person on the Panel, Charles Goodman, was clearly taking a position on how to classify Buddhist Ethics. Jin Park did an excellent job of discussing why the whole idea might not work in the case of East Asian Buddhism – a fact that I think most of us would admit is true. Barry Schwartz talked about how miserable lawyers are, another thing we can mostly all agree to, and other interesting facts of moral psychology. He started his presentation by saying that he knows almost nothing about ethics and absolutely nothing about Buddhism. And Christopher Gowans did a good job of problematising the topic and suggesting clear(er) ways forward in the study of Buddhist ethics.
Panel three brought Charles Hallisey and others together to discuss Narrative in Buddhist Ethics. Narrative literature, as was often discussed, might be said to give the ‘meat’ to the ‘bones’ of more abstract and theoretical analyses of Buddhist ethics. And, since the tradition itself tended to lack such analyses, it might in fact be best to simply focus on aspects of the narrative literature. Since my own work focuses instead on the theoretical side of things, I have tended to avoid this area. The panel was good though and I’m sure I will benefit greatly from reviewing the material presented.

The fourth panel discussed Personal Cultivation and Moral Psychology in Buddhist Ethics. This is another area somewhat outside my focus, so I won’t say much, except that each presentation was very good and thought-provoking.  Most interesting was Willoughby Britton’s work on the cultivation of ‘cool’ empathy in students who took a meditation course at her university. Granted it was a small study, but her work showed quite convincingly that meditation works, morally, in ways that other practices do not.

Next was a discussion of Freedom and Responsibility in Buddhism. Mark Siderits and Christian Coseru had, to me, the most interesting papers of the panel. Siderits relied on the “two truths” doctrine of Buddhism as a grounding for the question of freedom and responsibility, while Coseru relied on a Kantian framework of practical and theoretical reason. For some excellent online papers on Buddhism and Free Will, including one by Rick Repetti who presented on this panel, see the Journal of Buddhist Ethics (here).

Last was a panel on Social Action, or Engaged Buddhism, featuring an all-star (to my knowledge) line up of Sallie King, Christopher Queen, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Barbara Clayton. Sallie King’s talk was an excellent overview of how karma is understood amongst Buddhists today, ranging from ‘blame the victim’  to ‘action here and now for a better future’, concluding that karma may be retained as a category of Buddhist ethics, at least in the Engaged Buddhist world. Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo discussed the many considerations around women in social action, introducing many of the greatest social activists of our time. Christopher Queen reviewed the life and legacy of B.R. Ambedkar and discussed hopes and challenges to contemporary engaged Buddhists. And Barb Clayton discussed Shambhala Buddhist ideals in the Windhorse Farm Project in Nova Scotia.

Jetlag and a long day prevents me from saying much about the plenary address by Karl H. Potter with a reply by Deen Chatterjee, and catching up on other matters meant I had to skip Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s second keynote address the following morning. All told, however, there was enough in the conference to serve for a semester’s worth of learning and discussion, so I’m again very grateful for those who organized it and all those who attended and presented. Both nights I also had the fortune of joining different attendees and speakers over dinner, further deepening the conversation building new links in the great chain of academia.

And now… back to my own research and writing.

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