Tuesday, April 29, 2014



I hope this article will help answer some of the questions I have been asked lately. I feel it is one of the best well written, concise explanations I have seen. From the NY Times.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Jay L. Garfield, who has taught philosophy at several universities and is currently the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities, Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He is at work on a book called “Engaging Buddhism: Why Buddhism Matters to Contemporary Philosophy.”

The Stone

What Does Buddhism Require?

Gary Gutting: Philosophy of religion typically focuses on questions and disputes about the ideas and doctrines of monotheistic religions, with Christianity the primary model. How does the discussion change if we add Buddhism, which is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, as a primary model of a religion?

A serious ethnocentrism can blind us to important phenomena about non-Abrahamic religions.

Jay Garfield: What gets called “philosophy of religion” in most philosophy departments and journals is really the philosophy of Abrahamic religion: basically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of the questions addressed in those discussions are simply irrelevant to most of the world’s other religious traditions. Philosophers look at other religious traditions with the presumption that they are more or less the same, at least in outline, as the Abrahamic religions, and even fight about whether other traditions count as religions at all based upon their sharing certain features of the Abrahamic religions. That is a serious ethnocentrism that can really blind us to important phenomena.

For instance, I recently moderated a discussion in Singapore with the philosopher A.C. Grayling, who claimed that Buddhism is not a religion because Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme being. This simply ignores the fact that many religions are not theistic in this sense. Chess is a game, despite the fact that it is not played with a ball, after all.

Now, when we address Buddhism, we must be very careful. The Buddhist world is vast, and Buddhism has been around in various forms for two and a half millennia. There are many forms of Buddhist practice and culture, many Buddhist communities of belief and practice and significant doctrinal differences among Buddhist schools. So generalization can be dangerous. Just as we need to be careful about lumping Unitarians and Catholics together when we ask whether Christians accept the transubstantiation of the host, we must be careful about lumping together, for instance, Theravada monks in Sri Lanka with lay Zen practitioners in San Francisco. And there is no central doctrinal authority or organization that covers all of the Buddhist world.

Still, there are some widely shared features of Buddhism that would make a philosophy of religion that took it seriously look quite different. First, since Buddhism is an atheistic religion, it doesn’t raise questions about the existence of God that so dominate the philosophy of Abrahamic religions, let alone questions about the attributes of the deity. Buddhists do worry about awakening (Buddhahood). How hard is it to achieve? What is it like? Is a Buddha aware of her surroundings, or do they disappear as illusory?

Buddhists also worry about the relation between ordinary reality, or conventional truth, and ultimate reality. Are they the same or different? Is the world fundamentally illusory, or is it real? They worry about hermeneutical questions concerning the intent of apparently conflicting canonical scriptures, and how to resolve them. They ask about the nature of the person, and its relationship to more fundamental psychophysical processes. Stuff like that. The philosophy of religion looks different if these are taken to be some of its fundamental questions.

G.G.: Given these widely shared features, would you venture to say what, over all, it is to be a Buddhist?

J.G.: To be a Buddhist is to take refuge in the three Buddhist refuge objects (often called “the three jewels”): the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. To take refuge is to see human existence as fundamentally unsatisfactory and to see the three jewels as the only solution to this predicament.

The first refuge object is the Buddha: the fact that at least one person — the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama — has achieved awakening and release from suffering. This provides hope in one’s own future awakening, hope that through practice one can achieve a satisfactory existence. The second refuge is Dharma, or Buddhist doctrine. The third is the Sangha, or spiritual community, conceived sometimes as the community of other practitioners, sometimes as the community of monks and nuns, sometimes as the community of awakened beings. The project of full awakening is a collective, not an individual, venture.

G.G.: The first and the third refuges seem to correspond to a way of life, justified simply by its results in relieving sufferings. What’s involved in the second refuge, the doctrines?

J.G.: The foundation of doctrine in all Buddhist schools is the so-called four noble truths, explained by Siddhartha in his first talk after gaining awakening. The first is that life is fundamentally unsatisfactory, permeated by suffering of various types, including pain, aging and death and the inability to control one’s own destiny. The second is that this suffering is caused by attraction and aversion — attraction to things one can’t have, and aversion to things one can’t avoid, and that this attraction and aversion is in turn caused by primal confusion about the fundamental nature of reality and a consequent egocentric orientation to the world. The third is that if one extirpates these causes by eliminating attraction and aversion through metaphysical insight, one can eliminate suffering. The fourth is the specification of a set of domains and concerns — the eightfold path —  attention to which can accomplish that.

G.G.: It seems then that the Buddhist way of life is based on, first, the plausible claim that suffering makes life unsatisfactory and, second, on a psychological account — again plausible — of the causes of suffering. But what’s the “metaphysical insight,” the truth about reality, that shows the way to eliminating suffering?

J.G.: Buddhist doctrine regarding the nature of reality generally focuses on three principal characteristics of things. The first idea is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, despite the fact that we engage with them as though they are permanent; the second is that they are interdependent, although we engage with them as though they are independent; the third is that they are without any intrinsic identity, although we treat ourselves and other objects as though they have intrinsic identities.

Now, many Buddhists and Buddhist schools are committed to much more extensive and detailed metaphysical doctrines, including doctrines about the fundamental constituents of reality, or dharmas, often conceived as momentary property instantiations, or about the nature of consciousness, or about cosmology. Buddhist schools and traditions vary widely in these respects. And of course there are vast differences between what lay Buddhists and what scholars understand about Buddhist doctrine. In Buddhism, as in Christianity, for many lay people the religion is about daily rituals and practices, and doctrine is left to scholars and clerics. And ideas that are complex metaphors to the erudite are literal for the laity.

G.G.: You haven’t mentioned what, to many outsiders, might seem the most striking Buddhist doctrine: reincarnation.

Given the radical Buddhist notion of momentary impermanence, we can say without exaggeration that one is reborn every moment.

J.G.: I would, first, drop the term “reincarnation,” which has a more natural home in a Hindu context, in favor of “rebirth,” which makes more sense in a Buddhist context. That is because we must understand this doctrine in relation to the central doctrine in all Buddhist schools: that there is no self or soul. So there is nothing that takes on new bodies as does the soul in the Hindu traditions from which Buddhism arose and against which it reacted.

Indeed, given the radical Buddhist notion of momentary impermanence, we can say without exaggeration that one is reborn every moment. Buddhism is an Indian tradition, and rebirth across biological lives is taken for granted in most classical Indian philosophical and religious traditions. Buddhism takes that over, and it is taken for granted in many Buddhist traditions that the same kinds of causal continuity that obtain among subsequent stages within a life obtain between stages of our current biological lives and those of past and future biological lives. Many Buddhists would even take this to be an essential commitment of the religious tradition. But in some Buddhist traditions, especially those of East Asia, this view plays no role at all, and many Western Buddhists reject it altogether.

G.G.: How do Buddhists think of other religions? On the one hand, there seems to be a tolerance and even an appreciation for a diversity of views. On the other hand, there is a strong history of missionary activity, aimed at conversion.

J.G.: Exactly right. And again, we must be careful about taking the Abrahamic traditions as a default framework in which to pose this question. The Abrahamic religions all prohibit syncretism, or the melding of beliefs from different creeds, but this is not a common feature of world religious traditions. Many Buddhists are syncretic to some degree. In Japan it is common to practice both Buddhism and Shinto; in Nepal many adopt Buddhist and Hindu practices; in China, Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism blend happily. And Thomas Merton was a Catholic priest and a Buddhist practitioner.

But Buddhism has always been missionary. Buddhists have always thought that their doctrine and practices can help to alleviate suffering and so have urged others to accept them. Sometimes acceptance of Buddhist practices requires one to rethink other religious commitments; sometimes the two can be integrated. Sometimes there is creative tension.

G.G.: I can see Buddhist missionaries making an attractive case for their practices of meditation and their ethics of compassion. But the doctrine of rebirth — which, if true, would make a huge difference in how we view human existence — seems very implausible. How do Buddhists defend this doctrine?

J.G.: Once again, there is diversity here. Some Buddhists don’t defend the doctrine at all, either because they take it to be the obvious default position, as it is in some cultures, particularly in South Asia, or because it is not important or taken seriously, as in some East Asian or Western traditions. But others do defend it. One popular approach is an empirical argument, to wit, that some people have clear memories of past lives or make clear and accurate predictions about their next lives. One sees this primarily in the Tibetan tradition in which there is a widespread practice of identifying rebirths and of rebirth lineages for high lamas, such as the Dalai Lama.

G.G.: I suspect that people not already culturally disposed to accept rebirth aren’t likely to find such evidence convincing.

J.G.: Another approach is that of the Indian philosopher Dharmakirti, who argues for the necessity of believing in rebirth, though not directly for its reality. Dharmakirti argues that given the stupendous difficulty of achieving full awakening, the cultivation of a genuine aspiration to achieve awakening, which is essential to Mahayana Buddhist practice, requires one to believe in future lives; otherwise, one could not have the confidence in the possibility of success necessary to genuine resolution.

This is worth comparing to Kant’s argument that one must believe in free will in order to act and in order to treat oneself and others as moral agents, which nonetheless is not a direct argument for the freedom of the will, only for the necessity of the belief for moral life.

G.G.: Kant’s argument has received a lot of criticism from philosophers. Do you think Dharmakirti’s works?

J.G.: No, I have argued elsewhere that this is a bad argument for its intended conclusion. It confuses a commitment to the existence of future lives with a commitment to the existence of one’s own future life, and a commitment to the attainment of awakening with a commitment to one’s own awakening.

But I do think it’s a good argument for an important conclusion in the neighborhood. For the aspiration for awakening — for a complete, liberative understanding of the nature of reality and of human life — need not, and should not, for a Mahayana Buddhist, be personalized. Just as a stonemason building the ground floor of a medieval cathedral might aspire to its completion even if he knows that he will not personally be around to be involved in its completion, a practitioner who aspires that awakening will be achieved need not believe that she will be around to see it, but only hope that her own conduct and practice will facilitate that.

So, this suggests one way for a Buddhist not taken with the idea of personal rebirth across biological lives to take that doctrine as a useful metaphor: Treat the past reflectively and with gratitude and responsibility, and with an awareness that much of our present life is conditioned by our collective past; take the future seriously as something we have the responsibility to construct, just as much as if we would be there personally. This makes sense of the ideas, for instance, of intergenerational justice, or of collective contemporary responsibility for harms inflicted in the past, as well as our current personal responsibility to future generations.

As Buddhism takes root in the West and as Asian Buddhist traditions engage with modernity, we will see how doctrines such as this persist, fade, or are adapted. One thing we can see from the long and multicultural history of Buddhism is that it has always deeply affected the cultures into which it has moved, and has always been transformed in important ways by those cultures.

G.G.: Won’t the fundamental denial of a self be hard to maintain in the face of the modern emphasis on individuality?

J.G.: I don’t think so. For one thing, note that the view that there is no substantial self has a history in the West as well, in the thought of Hume, and of Nietzsche. For another, note that many contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers have either rejected the view that there is such a self, or have defended some variety of a minimalist conception of the self. So the doctrine isn’t as secure in the non-Buddhist world as one might think.

And this may be a good thing, not only for metaphysical reasons. A strong sense of self — of one’s own substantial reality, uniqueness and independence of others — may not be psychologically or morally healthy. It can lead to egoism, to narcissism and to a lack of care for others. So the modern emphasis on individuality you mention might not be such a good thing. We might all be better off if we each took ourselves less seriously as selves. That may be one of the most important Buddhist critiques of modernity and contributions to post-modernity.

More positively, the Buddhist tradition encourages us to see ourselves as impermanent, interdependent individuals, linked to one another and to our world through shared commitments to achieving an understanding of our lives and a reduction of suffering. It encourages us to rethink egoism and to consider an orientation to the world characterized by care and joint responsibility. That can’t be a bad thing.

This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series were with Alvin Plantinga, Louise Antony, John D. Caputo, and Howard Wettstein.

Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The Stone.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Happy Ishtar, folks! Sorry, just could not resist. I am always surprised when pagan information makes the news and then everyone seems to jump on it like it was just suddenly discovered. Kinda like the 1492 myth of people discovering North America, right? I debate about rambling on about the origins of Easter and all its pagan traditions and what I was raised to believe was a very serious Holy day, and indeed, the studies out there are many and all point to the same facts – Easter is not really a Christian celebration. If you are a Christian and want to celebrate the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, then do so but at least understand where all the trappings come from. There are numerous Christian groups trying to state that Ishtar and Easter have nothing in common. They mention that this day is not even called Easter in some parts of Europe where they did, in fact, keep the term Passover and apply it, but then that brings us to the term Passover and what does that have to do with Jesus? Oh, my, “It do get complicated,” as Josie used to say.

Most scholars believe that Easter gets its name from Eostre or Ostara, a Germanic pagan goddess. English and German are two of the very few languages that use some variation of the word Easter (or, in German, Ostern) as a name for this holiday. Most other European languages use one form or another of the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover. Go ahead, look up Passover… tell me how this is a “Christian” thing… biblical, yes, Christian, no, referring to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt during the time of Moses – nothing about Jesus.

The Easter Bunny and eggs deal with fertility of the goddess Ishtar. "Eggs, the obvious symbols of fertility and reproduction, were used in ancient fertility rites. They were painted with various magical symbols and then cast into fires or buried in the earth as offerings to the Goddess. In certain parts of the world, Spring Equinox eggs were painted yellow or gold (sacred solar colors) and used in rituals to honor the Sun God. Eggs were ancient fertility symbols and offerings to the Goddess of the Pagans and Witches in both western and eastern cultures, including the Goddess Ostara, whose escort was a rabbit." Somehow saying the Ostara bunny just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? But at least we know where that bunny stuff comes from.

Moving right along here, and borrowing from some sources I don’t remember where I found them anymore… old age, damn… this was just in my notes from a long time ago. But if you look it up, you will find is factual, so, I will include it here.

“Easter was originally the festival of Ostara, named after the Teutonic Goddess Eostra..She was the Goddess of Spring and fertility... Under Constantine in the 4th century AD, the Christians assimilated this festival and called it the Resurrection… I will cut a long story short… The name Easter is derived from the Goddess Oestare, Ostern, Eostra or Eostre, depending upon which literature you read...How's this girls… The female hormone oestrogen can claim its roots to this Goddess..The fertility aspect of Ostara is symbolized by the egg, which appears as a prominent icon in both Christian and Eastern Orthodox Easters... It is believed that eggs and another symbol of fertility - the rabbit - surrounded the Spring Goddess, Eostra. The rabbit, popularly known as the Easter Bunny, is another ubiquitous sign of modern Easter. Let's talk about hot cross buns..... The cross represents the cross that Jesus died on ..... Right Christians ??? Wrong to the power of 2... Hot crossed buns were another stolen aspect of Ostara... At the feast of Oestre, an ox was sacrificed. The ox horns symbolized the feast and were carved into ritual bread . The symmetrical cross has been continued to decorate the buns, that are now commonly called hot cross buns. So you see it was stolen from the Pagans, Life, Death, Rebirth, it did represent… The Christians stole it to represent the Resurrection...”

More notes on Easter eggs:

The cosmic egg, according to the Vedic writings, has a spirit living within it which will be born, die, and be born yet again. Certain versions of the complicated Hindu mythology describe Prajapati as forming the egg and then appearing out of it himself. Brahma does likewise, and we find parallels in the ancient legends of Thoth and Ra. Egyptian pictures of Osiris, the resurrected corn god, show him returning to life once again rising up from the shell of a broken egg. The ancient legend of the Phoenix is similar. This beautiful mythical bird was said to live for hundreds of years. When its full span of life was completed it died in flames, rising again in a new form from the egg it had laid.

The Phoenix was adopted as a Christian symbol in the first century AD. It appears on funeral stones in early Christian art, churches, religious paintings, and stonework. The egg from which it rose has become our Easter egg. As with many symbols, the Easter egg has continued to shift. When the Lenten fast was adopted in the third and fourth centuries, observant Christians abstained from dairy products, including milk, cheese, butter, and eggs. In England, on the Saturday before Lent, it was common practice for children to go from door to door to beg for eggs—a last treat before the fast began.

By now, I am sure most of you are enlightened to the point that you do know that Jesus was not the only (God, man-god, whatever) to ascend into heaven… it was a popular thing for god-men to do, way back in earliest Egyptian histories and before, no doubt. Don’t forget the early space travelers who literally took folks UP into heaven – sometimes brought them back, sometimes did not. (Ezekiel 1- KJV) We have only those writings of more modern man to go by, Osiris, and all that. Likewise, most ancient religions had someone having an immaculate conception. It was more common than you think! Ishtar did, of course. So there is another link, Ishtar’s son who was immaculately conceived, of course, ascended into heaven. But we know Ishtar did exist – not just by the fact that archeology has records of her existence but, guess what? She is in the Bible, so we know it is true! Yes indeedy!

“Easter is an event that is honored by nearly all of contemporary Christianity as the resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. This tradition is so well established that it is believed to have begun with the resurrection of our Saviour and instituted by His apostles in the first century in commemoration of that event.

However, the celebration of Easter has a long history going back to the time after the Flood. Ham, the grandson of Noah had a son named Cush who married a woman named Semiramis. Cush and Semiramis then had a son and named him "Nimrod." After the death of his father, Nimrod married his own mother and became a powerful King.

The Bible tells of this man, Nimrod, in Genesis 10:8-10. Nimrod became a god-man to the people and Semiramis, his wife and mother, became the powerful Queen of ancient Babylon. They developed what became the mystery religion of Babylon.

Semiramis, of course, is actually Ishtar. If you go to Hebrew Roots/Neglected Commandments/Idolatry/Easter on wikibooks, you will find an entertaining history lesson… or just Google Ishtar/Easter and read as many of the entries as possible. Some of them just copy each other, but it is interesting. Then go eat a chocolate bunny.

Meanwhile, putting history in context, keep this in mind. This history was written by the Jewish people who were kept captive, in slavery in Babylonia for years, generations, according to some histories, so it makes sense that they would consider the Babylonians demons. Remember, there are always 3 sides to every story, maybe more.

I wonder – did they have chocolate back in Babylon? Methinks they could have used a little.