Category Archives: Philosophy

Attachment and Desire in Buddhism

[In a long discussion thread on atheism, Buddhism and who atheists should be critiquing in response to the article on karma and Sharon Stone’s comments at Talking Philosophy the subject of attachment and desire came up.  While I have this little series on Buddhism I may as well look at it as it is one of the points of the Buddhist teachings that is least well understood (judging by the questions that I have seen asked to Buddhist teachers).  Here is a lightly edited record of my reponses to Eric MacDonald.]

Eric MacDonald said:

It is true. The fact that we are transient beings means that to love is to give a hostage to fortune. It does not follow, however, that forgoing love and attachment will preserve us from suffering. It may just mean that we live lives of a semi-detached loneliness instead. I have never been convinced by the Buddha’s message. It has always seemed to me that the way of non-attachment is an invitation to pointlessness. Desire may be the root of suffering, but non-attachment is not the cure. Is there one? Should we be looking for it?

You would be quite right to be sceptical of such a philosophy, but it is subtly different from the Buddhist teachings, at least as I have understood them. […]

William Blake’s lines are often quoted here:

He who binds himself to a Joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

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Anger and The Speech: Giordanao, Cesca, Sullivan, & Yglesias

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Al Giordano, Andrew Sullivan, Bob Cesca & Matthew Yglesias) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

I have been watching with amazement the similarity of passionate liberal Bob Cesca’s and passionate (maverick) conservative Andrew Sullivan’s coverage of the democratic primaries. I can find myself reading articles from either one of them and confuse them, one for the other.

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George Monbiot and Our Guilty Taboo

I am generally wary of empty, vain gestures and am well aware of the trap so it was with great interest that I read about George Monbiot’s attempt at a citizen’s arrest on John Bolton. My first thought was how is this going to work and that no way would I have the bottle to attempt it. I agree with Monbiot that the Iraq war is a vast war crime, the worst and most distressing aspect of it beyond the fact of the millions of lives smashed and countries destabilised being the normalisation of the crime.

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Fundamentalist Atheists

Over at South Jerusalem Gershom Gorenberg has a fascinating article arising out of the controversial comments of John Hagee and Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook about a literalist tendency, seen in all religions, that attempts to map scripture onto the external world in the pursuit of meaning. As Gorenberg said these folks are showing that they don’t understand poetry or his view (and I agree) religion, and he concludes:

So once again we have a choice. We can misread verses as Hagee does, as Tzvi Yehudah Kook did, and sit back and believe that we understand what it all really means. Or we can read the verses as Heschel did, or as Martin Luther King did, and ask what we are supposed to do. This isn’t about faith versus secularism, or Christianity versus Judaism, or Islam versus Christianity. It’s about a division that cuts through religions, not between them.

This is a precise encapsulation for me of the difference between a mature and immature understanding of religion. The purpose of religion must ultimately be ethical, and the texts will naturally be stuffed with poetic and allegorical devices to convey its message. Prophetic strands will no doubt be present but the primary focus must be on ethics: how to make sense of the world and live a meaningful and just life. To see the entire text as a literal map of reality is going to lead to an awful lot of confusion.

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Earthquake Follies

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Talking Philosophy) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

After picking up Peter Singer on his inability to even attempt to address the ‘problem of evil’ seriously I see Julian Baggini has written a similar article on karma in the wake of Sharon Stone’s clumsy remarks. Just as Singer chose a hopelessly weak foil, one that is not known for any mastery of theology to make his point Baggini has chosen Glen Hoddle and Sharon Stone. As I suggested in the earlier article this I think fits a pattern of a particular kind of atheism, the faith system being based on the incompetence of the religious. This can’t be stated too clearly: the object of their faith, the thing to be protected, is the belief in the irrationality, stupidity, confusion, corruption, etc., of religious people. It is a profoundly negative belief system.

The earlier article, Why I am not an Atheist, avoided getting down into the issues themselves as I was convinced that this would trigger a tedious repetition of entrenched positions. Also not being a Christian I didn’t feel it was my place to wade in, but I have since promised to engage the issues and write a blog article, Theism for non-Theists. Here I do get involved with the Buddhist issues and you can consider it a bridge to the promised article, as the misunderstanding of karma and failure to grasp the Christian approach to the ‘problem of evil’ seem have similar underlying causes.

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The Cause of Terrorism?

It struck me while writing the previous article how pervasive is the idea that things have a single cause, but we have no reason to believe this, and we know it. To create fire I need to bring together fuel, heat and air. Take any of these away, as any fire fighter will tell you, and you will no longer have fire: all of these causal factors need to be present. So many arguments swing on the fallacy that things have to have single causes: whether terrorism is caused by unscrupulous people and their malignant ideology or attacks on other people’s countries and cultures. Plainly they are both causal factors—everyone feared an increase in terrorist attacks after the invasion in Iraq and in England cash machines tell you to be wary of suspicious packages while ATMs in the Republic of Ireland don’t carry any such warning. Invading other people’s countries is reasonably good predictive indicator that some of the people being so attacked (and they may not reside in the countries being attacked but merely identify with them) will seek to reply in kind by attacking the countries doing the attacking at their vulnerable points. Clearly violent exploitative ideology is necessary too.

While all the causes need to come together to bring about a terrorist attack, it makes sense for us to focus on the causal factors that we control and are responsible for. Once we address these it will become a lot easier (and much more effective) to ask others to address their own contribution to the problem.

Faith and Reason in the Dharma

[This article is quite technical in parts but as I am not qualified to write on Buddhist philosophy I have been careful to try and repeat what my teachers have told me, but the reader should investigate other sources before placing too much weight on what I say here. If you find this topic interesting I recommend reading the compact Four Noble Truths, with the original teachings available on line in four parts: 1, 2, 3 & 4.]

In the Dalai Lama’s recent Nottingham teachings (see this article for a report) H. H. reminded us of the way faith and reason works in Buddhism and I think it is worth saying a bit about this as there is much confusion about the proper place of faith in religion. In the case of Buddhism it is caught up with epistemology and causation so please bear with me; it does come together in the end. (Incidentally I recommend Pope John Paul’s Fides et Ratio encylical on how faith and reason work together in Catholocism.) Buddhism classifies knowledges into three categories: truths that are manifestly true and can be verified by direct sense perception, truths that can be verified through reasoning and truths that require the testimony of an authority. For example, to get a general picture of the weather here in Madrid I can just look outside the window, but I can tell through direct sense perception what is happening with the wind as I could outside (by feeling the movement of the air), but I can see from the motion of the trees that it is quite windy. However I would have to rely on some authority to tell me about the weather in Brighton. Note that the boundary between the first two categories isn’t always clear as the sight of the trees is a direct sense perception and the inferential step from here to wind is trivial, but you get the idea.

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The Dalai Lama and The Interdependent Nature of Reality

[A series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Dalai Lama) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

Mark Vernon has provided some reflections on the Dalai Lama after his recent talk in the Royal Albert Hall and I have just come from the five days of teachings in Nottingham completed yesterday so I thought I would add some of my own.

It was amusing listening to the area announcers, accustomed as they are to making announcing the Boyzone and ice dancing, tripping over ‘His Holiness’ (but by the end they had it). While the Dalai Lama is famous for the formalities on going into exile he has contrived that a deference-averse secular people use this title. Any publicity agent would likely have wet dreams at the prospect of being able to pull this off, and bear in mind that this Buddhist monk has nothing other than his own personal qualities and his Buddhist tradition to reccomend him—no navy, not even a country). This is quite a neat trick and I really do have to laugh at the likes of Nicholas Kristof dispensing advice to the inept representative of the Tibetan people and his fight against one of the most populous and powerful nations on earth, known for habitually throwing its weight around on the issue.

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Baddiel on Austen

David Baddiel has an interesting take on both Jane Austen and the way she is being depicted in bioepics, slyly suggesting that they may have it about right for popular children’s entertainment, making a refreshingly bold case for her merit that avoids the usual apologetics and condescension.

Because here’s the thing about Jane Austen. She was a very great genius. She is possibly the greatest genius in the history of English literature, arguably greater than Shakespeare. And her achievement is not that much to do with love, although that was her subject matter. It’s to do with technique. Before her there are three strands in English fiction: the somewhat mental, directly-reader-addressing semi-oral romps of Nashe and Sterne and Fielding; the sensationalist Gothic work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe; and the romances of Eliza Haywood and Fanny Burney.

However great these writers are, none could be read now and considered modern. When Austen gets into her stride, which she does very quickly with Sense and Sensibility, suddenly, you have all the key modern realist devices: ironic narration; controlled point of view; structural unity; transparency of focus; ensemble characterisation; fixed arenas of time and place; and, most importantly, the giving-up of the fantastical in favour of a notion that art should represent life as it is actually lived in all its wonderful ordinariness. She is the first person, as John Updike put it: “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and her work leads to Updike as much as it does to George Eliot.

I have no idea how a mainly home-educated rector’s daughter came by all that, but I know that imagining her as a kind of acerbic spinster flattens out this genius. It becomes all about the subject matter and not at all about the huge creative advance her work represents.

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Conservatives and Progressives

[This article is the second in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

Andrew Sullivan has been chewing over what it means to be a conservative and I would like to clarify my own ideas here. I agree with Sullivan in seeing Edmund Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. (Of course, that I am a Bristolian and the Anglo-Irish Burke represented the city in parliament doesn’t bias me in the least.) Modern conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution, which is not to say that it was a reactionary movement, there being much to be said for the point of view that the French Revolution was a glorious mistake (the same could been achieved much less violently) and that conservatism offers a valuable critique, with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France setting the terms of the debate.

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Elitism: The Democrats Self-Inflicted Wound?

[This article is the first in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

I have been meaning to get my ideas straight on elitism for some weeks now, but little did I realise how central it was to so many philosophical issues that I am talking about on this blog. The catalyst for this series of articles was my previous article on Obama’s Appalachian problem, which I thought was explained brilliantly by Senator Jim Webb. Webb is an Appalachian of Scottish-Irish descent, the very demographic that has been causing so many problems for Obama. I will return to the attitudes of progressive elites to the ‘racism’ of the Appalachians later.

One of the clearest explanations of Elitism in US politics was written by Jonathan Chait in a short article, Popular Will, where he says:

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The Meaning of Life

Last night the meditation group we had our last session with our visiting monk, Venerable Sangpo, before we go up to Nottingham and he opened up by asking us what the meaning of life was. ‘So you are starting with the easy questions’ chuckled a visitor to the group.

I remember reading Thomas Nagle’s The View from Nowhere with astonishment as he demonstrated that life is meaningless. I listened equally atonished last night as Sangpo showed how to make it meaningful.

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The Madness of Modernity

Over at Thought Experiments, Nige makes some interesting observations in Ethical Voyeurism and Selective Squeamishness about how susceptible we have become to being manipulated by video imagery–citing the gratuitous voyeuristic images that come out of disaster tele-journalism and the way footage of late abortions , and the proscribing thereof, have been used in the debate over late abortions, finishing with a reflection on how the opinions of scientists become accepted with an authority that it is not clear is merited or healthy.

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Desmond Tutu: Human Rights Abuser?

It is interesting how some writers can say things that others would be utterly unqualified to say, even if they used the same words. Desmond Tutu has just written a Cif article explaining why Sri Lanka should be excluded from the Human Rights council–its record of kidnap and torture of its own citizens, a trend that is worsening.

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Inayat’s Choice

Over at Comment is free Inayat has another potboiler at the top of the leader-board (heading for 300 comments at the time of writing).

In my late teens I read a book by the Pakistani Islamic scholar and exegete of the Qur’an, Amin Ahsan Islahi. Islahi urged young Muslims to beware of wasting their time with frivolous activities and called on them to adopt a serious reading programme. Naturally, reading and trying to understand the message of the Qur’an was No 1 on his list, but he also recommended searching out books that he said would encourage greater contemplation and self-assessment and pointed us towards the Bible, books on philosophy and the biographies of influential figures in history.

Keen to make the most of my time, I generally avoided fictional literature, though I had immensely enjoyed reading Catch-22 and Animal Farm (oh, and two of the early Adrian Mole books) etc when I was younger.

Inayat’s problem is that he has rather neglected fiction and now feels he has some catching up to do, tried Lucky Jim, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Portnoy’s Complaint from Time’s recent top 100 since its first issue in 1923, only to be somewhat disappointed, and is looking for recommendations. I suggested he might like to consider going back to the source, that he might have a particularly good reason for looking at Jane Austen:

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Jane Bennet and Barack Obama (Contents)

In this series of articles I link the Jane Austen and political threads on the blog, discussing the similarities between our modern response to Jane Bennett and Barack Obama’s New Politics.

  1. Jane Bennet and Barack Obama
  2. The Candour of Jane Bennet
  3. Jane Bennet and Barack Obama
  4. Original Sin (postscript)

Barack Obama and The New Politics

He’s never come up with an explanation about how he would actually transform politics, and his conventional substance is beginning to overshadow his unconventional style.

— David Brooks, Combat and Composure, New York Times, 6th May

I’m on record as saying that Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a gas-tax holiday, while it wasn’t good policy, didn’t rise to the level of a crime.

Judging from last night’s results, however, it was worse than a crime: it was a mistake.

— Paul Krugman, Talleyrand and the gas tax holiday, New York Times, 7th May

I could have picked dozens of quotes insisting that Obama hasn’t explained how his New Politics works, yet from nowhere he has turned the political scene upside down, eschewed PAC funding, signed up 1.5 million donors, crushed one the most formidable (if incompetent) political machines of recent times and quite conceivably will thrash the Republicans in a landslide in the autumn (it is of course impossible to predict, but as far as any of these things are predictable, this looks on the cards). The junior senator from Illinois, not even on the national political scene when the Iraq war was launched, has got himself into a position where Washington could soon be his feet. Could some people be failing to see the wood for the trees? I think it is interesting that the old media, with some honourable exceptions, is having such difficulty understanding Obama’s core message.

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The Candour of Jane Bennet

A recent posting to the Austen-L mailing list, titled the ‘desperation of candour’, illustrates the thoroughly bad press that old-style candour generally receives. In it we were told that Austen began as a satirist, and retained her critical stance throughout (I couldn’t agree more—it is difficult to disagree with this), that while endeavouring to read and understand the novel with the candour of Jane Bennet would do justice to one’s heart, Jane Bennet sees the world the way she does because it would be too painful to see it as Elizabeth sees it, and Jane finally agrees to Elizabeth’s observations of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the Bingley sisters. Jane’s candour comes out of desperation, desiring peace, not through any conviction about the truth but driven by a psychological vulnerability. Austen was too much of a realist we are told: Jane Bennet was only one voice, and certainly not the definitive perspective from which to make sense of Pride and Prejudice.

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Jane Bennet and Barack Obama

(or The New Politics)

After apologising for combining Jane Austen with more contemporary, worldly topics in the blog, it would be as well to make an explicit connection. This I will try to do with Barack Obama and his New Politics.

As with practically every philosophical article on this blog it is about how we are losing our minds because we are losing sight of our minds—the modern tendency to fixate on and overemphasise the external play of phenomenon, to the extent that we lose sight of inner, psychological factors, in this case, losing site of the distinction between cynicism and candour.

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‘Big’ Ethics and the War on Terror

How to end the War on Terror, quickly

[Here I try to pick apart many issues that get tangled in the debate on the ethics of the War on Terror taking a recent discussion between Megan McArdle and Daniel Drezner. It boils down to the importance of drilling for the real motivation in making ethical judgements and loving the sinner while hating the sin.]

If anyone hasn’t listened to any of the bloggingheads.tv diavlogs (what I think of as divalogs) then I suggest you do, especially if you like witty, intelligent discussion of American politics and current affairs.

I picked up the latest divalog between Megan McArdle and Daniel Drezner from Megan’s blog at The Atlantic and was intrigued by the section that started about 40 minutes in where Megan says she is more interested in ‘small’ (manageable?) ethical issues rather than the ‘big’ issue of whether the US prosecution of the War on Terror is evil. (I am paraphrasing a bit here, but I think this is the sense.)

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