books book reviews

buddhism books

reviewed by T. Nelson

Buddhism as Philosophy
by Mark Siderits

B uddhism is as much a philosophy as a religion, but its approach differs from Western analytic philosophy in being less concerned with ripping statements apart logically and more concerned with using arguments to make sense of the Buddha's original soteriology (the doctrine of spiritual salvation). Here Mark Siderits tries to bridge the huge East-West gap by explaining Buddhist philosophy in Western terms.

Siderits is not an acolyte, and clearly does not accept all the tenets of Buddhism, such as reincarnation. But like many Westerners, he finds its philosophy, and especially its epistemological arguments, fascinating.

The core idea of Buddhism, expressed in the four noble truths, is that life is suffering. Suffering is caused by a variety of things (known as the twelve-linked chain) and it can be ended. Suffering, which is caused by ignorance of impermanence, ignorance of suffering, and ignorance of non-self, produces karma, and karma is what ties us to the world. In the West the idea of the importance of suffering has been associated most strongly with Schopenhauer. Indeed, both are sometimes unfairly considered "pessimistic." However, in Buddhism the end of suffering is enlightenment or nirvana, wherein the individual is liberated from samsara, the cycle of rebirth.

Unlike the many uncritical popular books that make Buddhism sound like vacuous new-age fluff (exemplified by a certain well-known three-volume popularization), Siderits takes Buddhism seriously, going far beyond the sutras and into the writings of Indian philosophers who searched for rational arguments to justify Gautama's ideas. He critically dissects the philosophical problems in Buddhism by adopting a rationalistic attitude that makes them comprehensible even to a Westerner who doesn't have the faintest clue about Eastern religions, and is therefore liberated to be highly skeptical about them. For example, he asks, if selfish desires are what prevent us from achieving liberation, but in order to attain liberation one must desire it and strive for it, doesn't that mean it is impossible ever to attain liberation?

Oy vey, what a question! Only a Westerner would ask this. Siderits explains the Buddhist reasoning on this issue and then leads the reader into a discussion of the three main branches of Abhidharma Buddhism (Theravada, Vaibhasika, and Sautrantika) and the later Mahayana schools (Madhyamaka and Yogacara) and how they deal with metaphysical and epistemological issues such as the distinction between perception and reality. He also shows that other points about Buddhism, like the idea that persons are not real because there is no self, can likewise be understood, even by Western philosophers.

nov 04, 2012

Buddhist Thought, 2nd ed
by Paul Williams

I t always seems faintly sad to read the names of the great Indian philosophers who constructed the Buddhist theology, knowing that today it is virtually extinct in its native India. The great religion is now almost exclusively found in China and southeast Asia. But India is where the Buddha gave it its core principles of reincarnation and karma. Buddhism dispenses with most everything else, including gods and creation myths; it regards the universe as an eternal natural phenomenon and focuses almost exclusively on obtaining enlightenment over the course of many reincarnations. The goal is, of course, nirvana—yet few of the early Buddhist philosophers whose works are described here ever gave us much of a clue about what nirvana actually was. It was always defined negatively: the cessation of suffering, the end of attachment to the world, and the annihilation of false concepts like existence of the Self. Only later were positive, in some cases superhuman, attributes assigned to it.

Buddhism is thus in some sense a purely practical religion: it eschews cosmology and discourages speculation about the afterlife, its only purpose being to find ways to prevent rebirth.

But it was inevitable that questions would arise. For example, if there is no self (which is to say, the self has ‘dependent origination’ and thus is not a fundamental thing), and therefore gets destroyed after death, how can karma attach to it? It was left to the Buddhist philosophers to answer these questions, lest new acolytes conclude that nirvana is little more than annihilation, a fancy word for ‘being dead and staying dead.’ (Answer: the karma sticks to it and ‘perfumes’ it, like cheap cologne). So over almost a millennium a complex philosophy and ontology were built up, mostly by deduction and conjecture, about what must be going on. But underneath it all is reincarnation: if this were somehow proven false, Buddhism would be destroyed—set free, liberated as it were, from its attachment to samsara.

Paul Williams and his two co-authors are well-versed in both Buddhist and Western philosophy, but unlike Siderits (see review at left) they are less interested in analyzing the logical arguments than in the many various sects and schools, their beliefs, and their corresponding texts. In the introduction Williams says to fully understand a book it must be read three times, and in this case it's really true: a beginner will be inundated with Indian names and long Sanskrit titles of their works, and quite possibly emerge with an unclear understanding of their current status. For example, there are only a few pages on Amitābha/Amitāyus; the focus is exclusively Buddhism's Indian roots. But there are only 185 pages of text, so it won't be like his other book Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, which has almost that many just for notes and references. In both books the index is inadequate, but the writing style and scholarship are very good. Buddhist Thought is a serious introduction for students interested in beginning a scholarly study of the topic. Although it might be tempting to skip the discussions of extinct early schools described here and jump right to Mahāyāna Buddhism (which is the branch currently popular in China and Taiwan), doing so would be like trying to drink from a firehose of pure Buddhism. Which is, in fact, a quick way to obtain enlightenment, though probably not the one the Buddha would have recommended.