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.
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.