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 concerns. Read 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.
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: