invitations from the buddha, rsvp: book review of Gowans’ philosophy of the buddha

Christopher Gowans’ Philosophy of the Buddha gives me some hope that I might get a handle on the convolutions philosophers tend to put into explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. It’s well over 10 years old in print and I suspect some challenges have arisen around his explanation of non-self though I have yet to find anything via my oracle Google. I did however come across an essay by Gowans on Buddhist Well-Being that outlines his approach to this intersection of Western philosophy and Buddhist ideas.

Gowans’ interest in this meeting place of thoughts and ideas introduces his essay:

First, what is the proper philosophical elucidation of Buddhist ideas? Second, in what ways, if any, do these ideas relate to ideas in Western philosophy (contemporary as well as historical)? Finally, to what extent might these two domains—Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy—learn from one another and challenge one another? That is, to what extent might they critically interact so as to advance our philosophical understanding?

The first point – the proper elucidation of Buddhist ideas – is the gist of this book where

(the) first goal is an accurate and insightful understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. We should assume neither that a perfectly objective account is possible nor that any interpretation is as good as another.

Gowans is insistent throughout his book that we are held tightly by our own perspective and, while not necessarily a negative thing, it would be naive to believe that objectivity would be possible. That being said, he does an excellent job of guiding us down the intricate path of Buddhist ideas and principles. Where the interpretations are likely to be convoluted or conflated with Western ideas, he sets up the investigation so that ideas are challenged not as a means of showing off but rather to truly tease apart the complex layers of understanding. His strategy is particularly helpful in working through the concepts of impermanence, non-self and suffering where he holds up the objections and the support all the while questioning the answers.

As for that thorny issue of non-self, Gowans does a remarkable job of breaking it down into substance-self and process-self; the former being a belief of the Buddhism-curious (he calls them stream-observers) that various aspects of form and experience confirms the existence of a distinct substance with an identity (think: sun and plant) while the latter proposes a self “consisting of over-lapping and ever-changing aggregates (p78 Kindle edition)” which have “no independent reality but do have a form of dependent reality (p60 Kindle edition).” Even more so is his explanation of dependent origination which includes imagery of aggregates as “neighboring sandbars…each is a unified nexus of processes that is part of the overall network of processes (p81 Kindle edition)” and the challenge of explaining causal conditioning and freedom to choose action “without recourse to distinctness” of the component parts.

After establishing the underlying Buddhist thought, Gowans tackles the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path with the same steady and unrelenting intensity of examination all the while returning to a common sense rendering of the teachings.  These two sections of his book contain some of the best and most clearly written explorations of the core teachings of Buddhism. And they are enhanced by a tone and quality of writing that is absent of the writer’s need to show he is doing what he is doing.

The final chapter is perhaps the sweetest. In it, Gowans proposes the Buddha’s teachings are an invitation to live selflessly (the theme of ethics runs through all the chapters.

“The first invitation asks us to think about the quality of our life as a whole in a fundamental and sustained way.”

“The second invitation asks us to consider why the fragility of our lives is a source of dissatisfaction.” (Go beyond the obvious that we don’t have what we want, don’t want what we have and get confused regularly by all of it.)

“The third invitation brings us to a crucial juncture. What, the Buddha asks us, can be done to overcome this dissatisfaction?” (The answer can be one of despair, frustration or hope.)

“The (fourth) invitation asks us to reflect on why fulfillment of desires is so important to us.”

“The (fifth) invitation (and hardest to accept) is to consider whether piercing through the illusion of selfhood might reveal not nothing, but…everything.”

“The final invitation asks us to discover on our own whether there is any truth in what he says.”

Gowans book makes for a good introduction to Buddhism and a training in critical thinking that many practitioners would find useful, especially in these days of “quotable Buddhism” and a leaning to fundamentalist-type clinging to what we think is what the Buddha taught. This is definitely a keeper on the book shelf.

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