Notes on teaching Buddhist philosophy

Notes on teaching Buddhist philosophy September 17, 2014

I’m teaching Buddhist philosophy in Bodhgaya, India at the moment, so much of my blogging-life is taken up by activities here. In lieu of all of that (I will post on my usual topics now and then) I thought I’d share notes from my teaching.

Teaching Buddhist philosophy to American college students from diverse backgrounds (some with extensive philosophy, some with Buddhism, some with a mix or neither) has been a challenge. To start, I wanted to get them thinking as philosophers, inheritors of a vast Western tradition, but not the kind of philosophers typified by or limited to  20th-century analytic philosophy. Rather, I want students to think about the kinds of philosophers who had the good life at the heart of their concernsRead more from a post last year discussing Buddhism as a philosophy and/or a religion here.

So, casting philosophy as a wide net, I ask them to think about where and how Buddhism can fit in to the great philosophical tradition(s) we have today. As this image suggests, such an undertaking is by no means straightforward: even the artwork depicting how masters and disciples interacted around the same time period in Greece and India suggests two very different worlds of thought.

buddha with plato and aristotle at the academy

The job is difficult (and many people I’ve talked to over the years urge a quick abandoning of it – see comments in the link above), because it requires that students become bilingual in a way, speaking the languages of Western philosophy and Buddhism simultaneously. This is where the mixed classroom is difficult. We have to spend time getting everyone using the same terms and defining them in the same way. I’m told this is also a point of practice in Tibetan debate: if you can’t agree on basic terminology, the debate is over before it has begun. So terms like ontology, cosmology, metaphysics, and epistemology need to be defined and understood alongside karma, dependent origination, emptiness, and not-self.

My strategy has been one of an expanding spiral. We begin simply, with just a term, and then see how defining it invites in new terms. As we go we’ll notice that we’re coming back around to the original term, but now with a handful of definitions. From there we can expand to a few more definitions, using as many of the already-defined-and-understood terms as possible. The system is interlocking and continuously expanding. The danger is in expanding too far too fast. I’ve fallen into that a couple times.

In illustrating how some of these terms work, I have a handful of images taken from my studies of Buddhism, but more, it seems, from my background in philosophy. Something that Ethan Mills recently wrote in a comment at the Indian Philosophy Blog caught my eye. There, discussing the problem of mainstream receptions of Buddhist thought vs Western thought, he wrote:

When discussing Plato most professional philosophers today at least have a “cartoon version” of Plato for introductory courses. Discussion of Plato scholarship then at least has a place to start, a place from which you branch out into deeper, more interesting, and more uncertain terrain.

Nāgārjuna is as difficult as Plato, but the vast majority of professional philosophers lack a “cartoon version” of Nāgārjuna. This means there’s no solid place from which to swim off into the murky waters of Nāgārjuna scholarship. So when a respectable philosopher like Graham Priest comes along his Nāgārjuna becomes the cartoon Nāgārjuna, and indeed a stand in for the entire Buddhist tradition. If you can forgive a riff on Plato, philosophers mistake one shadow on the wall for the real thing!

Perhaps we need to remind our colleagues that the great philosophers of the Western tradition are still subject to competing interpretations and have been for a long time. People have been arguing about Plato for over 2,000 years! Thinking about a Buddhist philosopher like Nāgārjuna is like diving into Plato scholarship without having recourse to the cartoonish, simplified version of Plato. Learning about many philosophers is a complex process of going from simplistic shadows on the wall to the complexity of the real thing (or depending on how you feel about scholars, perhaps it’s the other way around!). For me, this is part of what makes the study of Indian philosophy exciting and interesting.

But how do we convince people that all this work is worthwhile? Which Nāgārjuna do you start with to even begin a serious conversation?

What I take from this is that we desperately need some “cartoon versions” of Buddhist thought because right now, while we have general agreement about certain key ideas in Buddhism, there is so much wiggle room that contemporary scholars and practitioners can get away with any number of interpretations.

With that by way of introduction, I’ll begin posting suggestions toward such “cartoon versions” of things like early Buddhist ontology, Nāgārjuna’s epistemology (?), and the likes with the hope that clarifications or counter-cartoons can be introduced by you, good readers.

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