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.

bones of the living and dead: interbeing at the plague pits

Hey there! Have you missed me? It’s been a wonderful month beginning with a two-week jaunt to the UK where I reunited with my lovely family, met and enjoyed an out-standing day in Bristol with Justin Whitaker (who clearly enjoyed a reason to procrastinate his thesis writing), and managed to squeeze in 61km of forced marching across the City of London (UK not ON – though I have no particular aversion to the London in ON. There is a good Zen Centre there). Finally reuniting with my family after 32 years apart. How does that happen? Thirty-two years is a generation but it’s also a blink in the flash of a universe’s lightning. Still, it was lovely. Before leaving I’d had an exchange on the Shambhala Sunspace site with Jack Kornfield over a sensitive topic of indigenous practice of the Dhamma in Burma. You can read that here and Danny Fisher’s generous comments here. My intent in raising this is the conversation that flowed back channel with Jack (if I can be so familiar after 30-some emails). It reminded me of something he wrote a long time ago about his own return to family: they would like me better if I show up as a Buddha than as a Buddhist.

Important to remember when we go out into the marketplace too. Especially those rife with the bones of the living and dead.

Wandering around a city with the extensive lineage of London is a good place to do that. Doubly so when your partner has an attachment to events like plagues, cholera, and mass graves. On the surface it’s all about the Great Matter, isn’t it. Life, death and the sticky stuff in between. Digging deeper (awful but so appropriate a pun), it’s not enough to just start with life and proceed to death expecting to have some great revelation about it all. At least that’s what became very apparent as we marched off each day in search of what is delightfully called Plague Pits.

An estimated 100, 000 people died of the bubonic plague over two years and are assumed buried in various sites that were once church graveyards. With the growth and modernisation of the city, there are few actual grave sites left. But what we found at the sites we went to was far more instructive of the Dharma than the contemplation on any skeleton I’ve ever met.

Golden Square, Soho

Golden Square, Soho

If you want to see what death looked like in the plague era, head to the Museum of London for the skeletons and a view of the archeological site. The actual plague pits sites however are more interesting for their occlusion of that very fact of death. We sat in Golden Square for a while watching the vibrant activity at lunchtime. Ping-pong games, laughter, intense conversations swirled around this rather morose statue of George II; the pigeon poop didn’t give him more rationale for the despair. I suspect George is looking across at that amazing capacity we have for delusion, ignorance of what is actually right there under our noses.

It’s not that I wanted to leap up and scream: Do you people realize you’re chowing down your take-away right over a mass grave? It was far more interesting to see the literal and symbolic array of our ability to place life over death. And, in the light of some of the readings I’ve been doing on dependent co-arising or as better named by Thich Nhat Hanh, interbeing, it helped make sense of that whole cycle from ignorance of our inner life’s process to the inevitable end of it.

 

Pesthouse Close - approximate location

Pesthouse Close – approximate location

I loved the way the British used the word “rubbish.” “Oh, I’m just rubbish at that!” or “Well, he’s certainly rubbish at driving that car!” I suppose we’re all rubbish at life-the-in-between-and-death also. The rubbish bins in what would have been Pesthouse Close made that point. Interestingly, this was near Carnaby Street and the location of the “cholera pump” on Broadwick Street.

Cholera Pump

Cholera Pump

 

 

 

The pump was discovered to be the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Anesthetist John Snow traced the outbreak to this one infected water source (I guess this was one John Snow who knew something!). There’s a pub cater-corner to it called the John Snow – ironic because Snow was a vegetarian and teetotaler for a while but returned to the devil drink and meat.

 

 

St-Giles-in-the-Fileds

St-Giles-in-the-Fileds

Somewhere tucked behind Tottenham Court Road is St.-Giles-in-the-Fields, a lovely old church where we were convinced we’d find a graveyard but not so. I imagine that as urbanisation continues we may only ever find the dead in museums or paved over by interlock. Just another form of interbeing. In fact, David McMahan, in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 148, Kindle edition), noted this is likely “the age of inter” where we realize we inter-exist, interconnect, and interact through the inter-net. I think I like that better than any labels of this age of clinging and deconstruction.

 

 

CharterhouseThe largest plague pit is at the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square. The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery until the Dissolution and has been an education center and almshouse since 1611. It continues to function as a home for 40 men who might otherwise be homeless and as a healthcare facility. During the Black Death it is believed 50, 000 bodies were buried in the square – which is now a medical school.

Life, death, and life again.