Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"We need ideas sufficiently different from our own": Interview with Amod Lele, part 2

This is the second half of an interview I conducted with Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom and the Indian Philosophy Blog, not to mention Boston University. In the exchange below, a number of threads from that first half are picked up, so I commend that first half to anyone who wonders to what any given remark is apropos. In the preamble to the first half, I introduced Lele, so I will direct you there for more background. I also detailed the genesis and manner of the interview process. It may be useful to remind readers that this text is a composite, made by merging a written exchange and a transcript of a voice conversation.

It remains for me to express my thanks again to Lele for being so game to engage in this. Some of my questions were simply aimed at clarifying, but I also hoped to do some in-the-moment thinking-through of problems, and I deeply appreciate Lele's willingness to go along with the process, in particular since, as he knew well, I had not tried this sort of thing before.

Comments are of course welcome on both halves of the interview.

* * *

Skholiast: You mentioned that your encounter and engagement with Buddhism was initially via Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand. This is not the way most westerners have met Buddhism -- usually in the form of Japanese Zen or more recently, one of the Tibetan lineages. You have remained strongly aware of the historical development of Buddhism and the differences between the traditions. I take it this is a matter, for you, of historical accuracy and aptness, and not simply a short temper with western "orientalism"? How has your account and critique of "Yavanayāna Buddhism" developed out of this historical and/or doctrinal concern?

Amod Lele: One of the more appealing things to me about Buddhism in Thailand was the idea of focusing on one’s own liberation. The political utilitarianism I’d inhabited up to that point had said what you were supposed to do was help everyone else get up to your level of external goods – even though at that very level I was completely miserable. I appreciated a system that gave good treatment of others its due, but acknowledged saving yourself as the ultimate goal – something a typical Western view would have condemned as “selfish”. At the very least, I saw it working on the the airplane-oxygen-mask principle: you need to save yourself to save anyone else. The contrasting idea that one might delay one’s own liberation to save others (as Mahāyāna is sometimes taken to say) struck me as something that could get in the way of that message I had found in Theravāda. In addition, I was still nonplussed by the proliferation of godlike Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, when one of the things that had first made me curious about Buddhism was that it wasn’t all about a god. So I viewed Mahāyāna with a lot more skepticism. I’ve learned a lot more from Mahāyāna in the ensuing years and these ideas no longer repel me in the same way, but what endures is a respect for Buddhist sectarianism. These differences between traditions matter, they mean something. The idea of Yavanayāna Buddhism seems to me a natural outgrowth of that point. The Buddhism of a Stephen Batchelor or a Henry Steel Olcott or even an S.N. Goenka is very different from the Buddhisms of Dōgen and Tsong kha pa and Buddhaghosa, just as they are all different from each other. And that matters too. One is often tempted to add that they are “not better or worse, just different”, but I think it is more accurate to say “both better and worse – and different.”

S: This remark you made about Theravāda is quite striking – the emphasis on taking responsibility for your own spiritual attainment. As if it were a kind of French existentialism, with a very different cosmology. And it feels like the question of cosmology is kind of what it comes down to – this notion that after all, the king talking to the monk is on a path, or a part of the path, that’s very different from where stands the person who’d be quite willing to take the kingdom – this notion that one can in some way sketch out a rough hierarchy (is that too strong a word?) of people, of stages of the soul – that is already a very, very different assumption from the common assumptions of liberalism – which wants that whole question to just go away.

A.L.: That’s right. But where there’s a real power in liberalism, a way that it can be beneficial, is that liberalism at its best is willing to say: “You can go ahead and establish that hierarchy of stages of the path, you can say that some people are better than others in some respects; you may even establish voluntary institutions organized around that principle. But what you can’t do is enforce that hierarchy outside the institution – or even, within certain economic institutions, where participation is at some level involuntary, because people have to work to eat.” And if one understands liberalism in that way, there are positive affinities between Buddhism and liberalism. Liberalism tends to say that religion is something in the private sphere. This is a very difficult claim to make about some – well, Christianity is in an interesting middle position here, but for, say, Islam, or Confucianism, or Dharmashastra in Indian ethics, it’s harder. Insofar as we’re going to recognize these as religions at all, which I think in the case of Islam we have to if the term religion is going to mean anything, that is not a viable position for them. One way or another, one of the fundamental tenets of Islam is that God commands justice; to not work for that divine justice is a shirking of your responsibility. But that’s not the case for Buddhism, especially not for Theravāda Buddhism. One of the interesting things about a Theravāda perspective (and similarly in a Jain perspective; they’re closely linked historically): to say that “religion,” which we’re going to identify with this tradition, goes into a private sphere—there’s not a whole lot of problem with that. There might be, to the extent that, say—nowadays there are protests against Christmas displays in shopping malls, and a similar protest might be lodged against visible Theravāda monks going about on their alms rounds; so once objections to religion in the public square go to, not merely religion affecting politics, but religion being visible at all publically, then it starts to clash with the practice of Theravāda Buddhism. But to say religions should keep their noses out of politics—that’s easier for a Theravādin than for most people who adhere to what we typically identify as religions.

S: In your thinking, the ascent - descent axis is complemented with a second one, derived from the work of Thomas Kasulis, that runs between the poles of integrity and intimacy. (I am struck by a sociological or anthropological dimension here -- perhaps not unrelated to your reading of Collins' Sociology of Philosophies.)

Is this 2-D map with its four quadrants -- integrity-ascent, integrity-descent, intimacy-ascent, intimacy-descent -- intended in your mind to give a relatively exhaustive taxonomy of philosophical dispositions? And, perhaps even more importantly, ought we to hope that it will help us adjudicate among them, or will it only be a classificatory tool?

A.L.: I suppose it depends on what we mean by “exhaustive”. Yes in the sense that I would hope we could helpfully place any existing philosophy somewhere between these ideal types. (I am not currently sure that we can – I am struggling with the case of Daoism, which I think may complicate the ascent-descent axis a lot – but that was the intent.) Not in the sense that one can exhaust the philosophies by placing them on the axes; there’s a ton that isn’t captured by them.

But yes, it is intended to be more than classificatory. My description of these as ideal types is indeed sociological, since it’s explicitly derived from Max Weber (my first two degrees were in sociology). But the intent of having those classifications is to go somewhere Weber never would have: to try and pull together a dialectical synthesis of a very wide range of philosophies, by synthesizing the opposing positions on two of the conflicts that divide them the most.

S: One of the places I have worked hardest to think along with you has been with regards to the axis of intimacy-integrity. You have noted yourself that this axis could be critiqued as conflating epistemological and ontological concerns: there are (it could be argued) two different issues -- a question of knowledge (is it personal and affective, or public and cognitive?), and a question of being, which curiously seems to come down to a doctrine of relations (are they "internal" to their relata, or "external," so that the relata could exist without those particular relations?) I am on record myself as holding that as a practical matter, ontology and epistemology are always mutually-entailing; but I am very impressed by your point that this particular "axis" of things and relations does seem to be distinguishable from other aspects of Kasulis' dichotomy. In fact, your explanation of why in the last resort you think they ought not to be separated is very much bound up with some of my rationale for linking ontology and epistemology -- or phenomenology. But in fact, this pairing seems meta-stable to me: neither absolutely separable, nor absolutely identifiable. It feels to me much like the "two" sides of a Klein bottle.
And it occurs to me that ascent and descent may actually be similar. These are "practical" terms -- they describe a kind of motion of the soul's aspiration -- from general to particular, or vice-versa; in this respect they are very like intimacy and integrity, in that they could be taken to name values. Obviously, though, this can also match an ontology, which may or may not map onto the practice in a one-to-one way. I think what I am getting at is close to what people mean by "Transcendence" and "Immanence". One might think that Immanence always goes along with descent, and Transcendence with ascent, but -- and here I hope you will forgive some very rough-&-ready use of what are, no doubt, problematic categories -- the example of the Christian-gnostic dispute (about which I have left hanging a comment exchange with you on my blog) points out the non-straightforwardness of this: Both Gnostics and Christians ostensibly affirm a "transcendent" power beyond this world; but this does not make them both "ascenders", for despite the later critique which insists that Christianity is mired in world- and body-denigration, the stakes for which Christianity fought the gnostics were the goodness of the world and the body. Similarly, although Immanence is the watchword for Deleuze's reading of Spinoza, one can make a strong case that Spinoza is an ascender. Deleuze himself, I think, is not; Laruelle, even less so. So it would seem that an ontology of transcendence or immanence can be at least provisionally distinguished from a spiritual aspiration of ascent or descent. Yet here again, I would not advocate adding another axis – and not simply because we don’t want to multiply dimensions until our conceptual coordinate space resembles string theory. Rather, it seems to me that these hybrids indicate where ontology and ascesis actually turn into, or occasion, each other.

A.L.: There’s a lot in this question (if it can be called that). A huge appeal of intimacy-integrity and ascent-descent as axes for me is that, unlike other perennial questions (say, free will) they go “all the way down”; they entail not only epistemology (/logic) and ontology (/metaphysics), but ethics and aesthetics and even politics. They tie a philosophy together. So in intimacy and integrity there is also that practical dimension: the Confucians take a strong intimacy approach, according to which the good emerges in our relationships, in a way distinct from both integrity descenders like Locke and Rand (individuals have rights and the good emerges from their worldly needs) and integrity ascenders like the Jains (we need to separate from the cruft of the world and abide in transcendental aloneness). That’s actually why I found it so important to pull out the ontological dimension of Kasulis’s distinction from the epistemological; out of his five criteria for identifying intimacy, four are epistemological, but it’s the remaining, ontological one that really feeds the practical philosophy.

On transcendence, one of the important points I see is the distinction between transcendence and the transcendent. That relates to another dichotomy I’ve discussed, between ātmanism and encounter – which, I realize as soon as I say it, I got from you. Within those philosophies that posit a transcendent reality, the questions: what is our relation to it? Do we need to ourselves transcend, to become transcendent beings, as the Jains and Buddhists and Gnostics would have it? Or do we simply need to love and admire that transcendent being “from below”, as Lévinas or Sirhindī or Ramprasad Sen would insist?

S: I’d like to back up now, back to where we started, to the cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ambitions we mentioned at the beginning, and ask you about your conception of what philosophy is generally. Your work obviously attends to traditions that are often billed as “religions” – a notion I note you do not make much use of. Moreover, your work has both a scholarly and an original dimension. Do you think – to put it slightly portentously —that these sorts of border-crossings are a necessity for philosophy in our time? Does it seem to you that “philosophy” as a general term remains meaningful and useful beyond western civilization, or are notions like “Chinese philosophy” more or less travesties and conceptual colonialism? (I think I know – generally – what you will say here, but I’m curious to see if I am to be surprised, at least in the details). More generally, do you think there is any sense in speaking of philosophy itself – a trans-cultural and trans-historical activity? And if so, what does it entail?

A.L.: I retain the literal sense of philosophy as the love of wisdom, thus my blog’s title; though I think philosophy does require the more specific sense of reasoning of some sort. Unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom is not philosophy, though faith-seeking-understanding is. I’m not enough of an anthropologist to say whether this is a human universal, but I suspect not, in that challenging received wisdom can be something of a luxury; when it’s a real question whether you can feed your family, you’ll probably just think what you’re supposed to think, and that’s as much wisdom as you need.
I find myself quite unimpressed by ideas like “conceptual colonialism” – even when applied to India, but far more so for China and Japan, which were not actually colonized. I’ve long been troubled by the prevalence of, for lack of a better word, white guilt: that is, in this context, the idea that a history of racism and colonialism means that the West and its categories should be assumed wrong, as if racism and colonialism were not things other cultures indulged in when they had the chance. “Philosophy” is of course not a word native to Asia, but neither is any other word in the English language. Translation is always a tricky business, but I think the word “philosophy” in this sense does a fine job of capturing what Rāmānuja and Xunzi and Dōgen are doing.

I suppose if it were of the utmost importance to us to get beyond the categories of colonial Englishmen (and I do think there’s something of value in such a project), what we would have to do above all is not write in English – or any of the other languages of the European colonial powers. In Marathi it’s natural to write about the work of Kant or Plato as tattvajñāna, and doing so would probably lead one to think differently about it, in a productive way. It’s my impression that there is a lot of really exciting stuff being done in modern Chinese right now. But I don’t know whether my Chinese will ever be good enough to access it! I suppose one helpful thing we can do is read people like Nishitani Keiji and Mou Zongsan, who wrote and thought about European ideas in Japanese and Chinese but are now being translated into English. Even though the end result is in English, the thought that produced it did not take place in English, and that can help us see beyond blinkers that the English language might otherwise impose on us.

S: So, your dissertation is available online, and you have publicly renounced any aspirations for a usual academic career, though it is plain that you enjoy teaching and find your work rewarding. Beyond your very successful blog (or perhaps in tandem with it) have you writing projects you care to share anything about?

A.L.: That should probably be “blogs”, plural – it’s tempting to rank the Indian Philosophy Blog as more of a success than Love of All Wisdom, because it’s more widely read and generates more engagement. I’ve also got an article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics, and a bibliography on Hindu ethics, currently in press. I have an article on intimacy and integrity in the works, and have been planning to write a methodological article on Alasdair MacIntyre as well. There’s more at the idea stages, too, but with the limited time I have to write this stuff I should probably focus on these more concrete plans.

S: Is there anything at all you’d like to share or speculate upon that hasn’t been touched on yet?

A.L.: A theme I noticed while answering these questions was how many times I wound up saying “I reacted to x negatively at first but eventually came to it”: Doull, Buddhist anti-politics, a philosophy tied to “religion”. I suppose that says something about my personality. In some ways my way of really engaging with something is to react against it. And I do find truth often emerges from conflict. That’s another theme I see coming up here, in the questions about Buddhist sectarianism and Ayn Rand: the differences between traditions can be productive in our attempts to find truth. I’ve been talking a lot with another friend who finds my ideas on hermeneutics a little weird, specifically the idea that one reads texts most productively by letting them challenge oneself (he even calls that the “Lele Doctrine”). But that’s certainly been what I’ve found: we need ideas sufficiently different from our own that they shock us enough to react against them (though not so different that we can’t even imagine what their truth would mean). In my experience at least, I’d say that’s how we really learn, that’s how we grow.

S: What I’ve noticed, as we’ve been talking, is that the conversation has turned in a political direction more frequently than I’d anticipated.

A.L.: Yes, I was noticing that too.

S: The return of the repressed.

A.L.: Ha!

S: So this does play into a question I find personally pressing, which I mentioned, and which I want to press further. There’s the issue of what philosophy is; and then there’s the issue of our moment in philosophy. Of course, Hegel thinks that, on some level, there’s no difference, really, because philosophy just is the articulation of its own historical moment; and the recapitulation of that in a broad vision – a system – to oversimplify, not to say Bowdlerize, Hegel. But I’m struck by – well, I’m a perennialist; and I really believe – if pressed, I’d go to the wall and say that philosophy is the really the same wherever you find it. (Not its answers but its concerns). And that it – philosophy – is always possible – though sometimes it’s more difficult than in other cultural situations. But the particular moment and circumstance of philosophy does change, and part of its historical task is to keep itself possible. So I wonder – a lot of this discussion we’ve been having about the encounter of religions with politics, the encounter of religions with one another—does this feel to you like some kind of essential work for philosophy now?

A.L.: Yes. That’s the short answer. The longer answer will probably be a lot more roundabout. It’s important to keep in mind that for Hegel, philosophy is its own age comprehended in thought, but that’s also an advance towards the truth. There’s an interesting question, in a Hegelian perspective, of what the task would be for someone who aspires to be a philosopher, who does not happen to be German, or even more so, does not happen to be a Westerner.

S: Ooh, yeah. Tough luck!

A.L.: (Laughs) Well, yeah, but it’s a real and interesting question. And now that I think of it, that question becomes very real and practical for Hegel’s most devoted applied followers, the Marxists. Their question, which was once upon a time a very live one, was, Can you skip stages and go straight to socialism? Or do you have to go through capitalism and perhaps even feudalism? And I’m not sure the answer is clear, from Hegel’s own work. He’s writing supposedly from the top of the heap, so his task is clear. But if I’m a Japanese intellectual in 1850, and I’ve got an education in the west and picked up Hegel, or someone’s just translated him into Japanese – what should I be doing, when I’m in this place that’s not in the forefront of philosophy? How should I handle that? I’m not sure that’s a question Hegel really asks. Should I be trying to make a sort of synthesis of my Buddhist, my Shinto society, with Hegelian philosophy? Or should I be trying to get it to the beginning of the process – to get beyond “Oriental despotism” and just into classical Greece and start there, so that we can move the process on? I don’t think he pays much attention to that question. This is one of the reasons I like to say that Hegel is strong with respect to time, and weak with respect to space.

S: I just encountered a claim by Watsuji Tetsuro. He says the same thing, about Heidegger. Heidegger does not emphasize space enough. And it strikes me – though this may not be where you’re going – this is about ascent and decent. If, say, the Marxists were mistaken, and you couldn’t pole-vault over feudalism or capitalism, and that’s why the socialist experiments collapsed in different ways – part of this seems to be attributable to a lack of attention to the particular.

A.L.: Hmmm…. Yeah, that’s right. Marx makes for an interesting take on the whole ascent-and-descent question. There’s a sense in which there’s a universal there, that rides over particularities, and yet it’s a peculiar kind of historically situated universal, which some would argue is not all that universal in the first place. Doull has an argument which sees Marxism as almost of a piece with liberal individualism, because there’s a way in which it takes the individual’s own desires as paramount. He’s looking, in particular, less at Capital than at Marx’s early philosophical writings, especially that paragraph where Marx comes closest to envisioning what the ideal society might look like, and talks about this place where I can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon…and criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” From Doull’s perspective, this is very like utilitarianism, in the sense that it’s a universalism of particularity, and takes human desire and self-expression, and elevates that to a universal, rather than have a universal that transcends individuals. This is bringing me back to -- there are several concepts which I’ve mentioned on the blog, which are related to each other, but not identical: ascent is one of them; transcendence is another; single-mindedness is another. There’s a very uneasy connection between them. Stalinism is a very single-minded philosophy, but not one that is –

S: Not “pure of heart!”

A.L.: No, not pure of heart, but who is? But whether Stalinism counts as a philosophy of ascent, or transcendence, is less clear to me, because it is so this-worldly; it takes the things of this world as its goal; not aspiring to a higher truth beyond that, in a way that I think even Hegel does. The truth in Hegel aspires to comprehend the earlier stages in a way Stalin’s doesn’t.

S: I think I may have cut you off earlier, when we were talking about the question of what is philosophy’s job now.

A.L.: Yes, thanks for bringing me back to that. To me, a lot of this comes out of the question of who does philosophize, and who needs it? There are many people who live good lives and don’t need philosophy. Those people tend to be in positions which are, intellectually, relatively unproblematic. The need for philosophy comes out when there are really big questions, that are not resolved. Often there are questions unresolved within a given tradition – I think that’s basically what analytic philosophy does. I view it as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition, and I don’t say that as a pejorative. There’s a place for scholasticism, and liberalism can have it and should have it – liberalism, and scientism, I suppose. But we are now in an age when we have unprecedented access to a wide variety of other traditions. And we’re recognizing, much more than before, I think, that they have found answers, which the western tradition has not necessarily found, and that we don’t know, yet, which answers are correct or where the correct answers are going to come from. I think it is really the task of the time, to be comparative philosophers, I think that’s what’s most urgently needed. It doesn’t fit very well in the academic disciplinary divisions, which is one reason I’m just as happy not to have a faculty career. But I’ve noticed – Macintyre, in some of his latest work has tentatively taken a few steps to starting to explore Confucianism. That’s difficult for someone who thinks that to really do something with a tradition you need to learn it as a “second first language.” But he’s trying, with Confucianism. In the second edition to A Short History of Ethics, he says “I should mention, this isn’t actually a short history of ethics, it’s a short history of Western ethics.” And Heidegger, you know, actually translated the Daodejing, or at least part of it, but never published it. I’m trying to recall the details, but someone – I think Gadamer—says “you have to understand, for a man of Heidegger’s generation, you would never say anything about a tradition that you knew so little about.” You had to really get into it deeply, to understand it. I don’t think Heidegger got there in his lifetime, but he recognized the need to try. Since Hegel, there’s been a recognition that non-western philosophy has to fit somewhere; by now, translations have reached a good enough point, and secondary scholarship, descriptive and explanatory scholarship has reached a good enough point, that it becomes possible for people to start really thinking constructively about other traditions. You notice, even someone like Sam Harris starts talking about mindfulness meditation, wanting to have a denaturalized Buddhism, somewhere in his militantly atheist philosophy. And Michael Puett’s over-enrolled class in Confucian ethics, as one of the most popular courses at Harvard now. There are these straws in the wind, that indicate that philosophy cannot go on just remaining western philosophy anymore; the alternatives present themselves too urgently. Academic philosophers with tenure can go on ignoring nonwestern philosophy, because their imperatives are their own, and they may just go on within their scholasticism. But insofar as they do that, they make themselves irrelevant to the way the world is going. Especially at a time when it’s hard to imagine China’s GDP not overtaking the US’s within our lifetimes – a time when the United States is so paralyzed by its own political dysfunction – we may move to a world no longer so unipolar, and where for the first time in centuries, one of those poles is not European. Figuring out what to do with Asian philosophy and western philosophy and the relationship between us, probably is the philosophical task of our time.

S: Americans’ multicultural competence, despite the ascendancy of that term, seems low and getting lower – our facility in other languages is not high, and – I mean, if Heidegger thought he was not competent! Most of us cannot touch the hem of his garment. And yet – there may be a bright side to the smorgasbord approach; emboldened by not knowing how incompetent we are, we are in general doubtless not so deep as Heidegger; but lacking his scruples we may be able to gain some ground he didn’t dare approach. Of course, we will still require depth to secure it; but maybe it’s good not to be so cowed by the centuries.

A.L.: I think there is actually something wrong with Heidegger’s reluctance to engage Chinese tradition in that way, and to some extent there’s a critique to be made of MacIntyre here: this idea that you have to learn a tradition as a “second first language” to be competent in it – well, who’s MacIntyre’s model? Thomas Aquinas. By some accounts, at least, Aquinas didn’t know any Greek; and yet became one of the world’s greatest interpreters of Aristotle, and founded this newly re-energized tradition of Aristotelianism which MacIntyre thinks is supremely worthy of emulation.

And conversely: the scholarship on Asian religions and Asian philosophy for the past thirty, forty years, has increasingly become this mind-numbingly dull drumbeat of a critique of everybody who’s talked about the subject before, of people like Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan: saying “Ha, ha, look at these stupid people and how wrong they all got it. Aren’t we so great because we’re so much smarter, and we know the tradition really wasn’t that way?” And yet, the thing about that line of critique is that there’s very rarely any sort of constructive alternative advanced—

S: It doesn’t tell us what they tradition was, just what it wasn’t.

A.L.: Well, they do kind of try to tell us what the tradition was; but what they don’t try to tell us is what the tradition could be. What Roy and Vivekananda, and Walpola Rahula, and Olcott, and [Anagarika] Dharmapala, and all of those people who get taken as whipping-boys today – what they were trying to do was re-invigorate their traditions, and provide them with the resources to be constructive contributors to the dialogue of the world. I read all this stuff from Don Lopez, and all these other people from the past forty years, as basically saying “shut up, go back in your hole, you can’t do that, the real tradition was what was there in 1500” – in a way that closes off that dialogue. It tries to portray these people, people like Vivekananda, as orientalists who had no respect for their tradition. But it seems to me that it’s people like Lopez who have a much deeper disrespect for the tradition, in that they want to pose this radical disjuncture, where the tradition is somehow not allowed to change and update itself. I think what was really going on – well, the problem with Vivekananda and so on was that they didn’t really have enough of a historical awareness, they weren’t quite willing to admit that they were doing something new. But I think that where we need to go now is a willingness to do something new. Nobody now, or at least, very few people now, and certainly not scholars of Buddhism like Lopez, will ever tell you that Chinese Buddhism is illegitimate because it made all these incredible modifications to Indian Buddhism, to the point that it was completely unrecognizable compared to what the historical Buddha would have taught – even though it did all that. There are many ways in which the gap between Pali Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism is much larger than the gap between Pali Buddhism and the Buddhism of an Olcott or a Dharmapala. They’ll never say that Chinese Buddhism is illegitimate, but they’re so ready to dump on, you know, modern hippie Buddhism, and say, well, that’s illegitimate. Even when it differs less. So part of that philosophical task, of constructive dialogue now, is accepting that some sort of modification of a tradition is a legitimate part of that tradition. While giving the respect that we want to give to the ancients, we should be ready to accept some amount of modification, change, perhaps even modernization, and reasoned differentiation. And I’m seeing some encouraging signs, in books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and David McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism, where people are saying, for instance: “Yes, what Ram Mohan was doing was something different from what came before him, but he also wasn’t just making it up. He was reading quite widely and thoroughly, he was engaged in the debates of his time, and cognizant of the debates going on in this world that really wasn’t influenced by the British. He was bringing them into this British environment, and made of them something different by doing so, but something that still had a connection to the tradition that came before it.”

S: I need hardly say that the same task is very pressing, though different and difficult to see in some ways because we sit in the midst of its cultural matrix, in terms of Christianity. An urgent requirement: to be able to authentically continue something, rather than merely repeat, or merely cut off at the roots.

A.L.: Christian theologians make for a good guide in all of this, because they have been thinking about it longer. The Asians have been confronting these issues for two or three centuries, but in the West it goes back considerably further than that, and these kinds of historical, methodological questions emerged in the context of Christianity, and especially in the rise of Biblical criticism. So I think it is people like MacIntyre, and Bernard Lonergan, and Charles Taylor, and James Doull, who all very much see themselves as Christian, who are methodological lodestars for those of us who do not see ourselves as Christian, and are trying to find interpretations of other traditions. Our path will not be their path, but if it’s going to be any good, it needs to be informed by theirs.

(The first half of this interview is here)

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