peteg's blog

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Met up with Ben near Museum Station and got the L94 down to Little Bay. We snorkelled from the southern beach along the rocks and back around via the northern beach. Quite a few people, and a bit cold in some patches. Nothing but the usual fish species to be seen. We had some lunch up at the cafe on Anzac Parade.

Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Budda in the World.

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Kindle. I figured I should assign some attention over Christmas to Mishra's attempt to explain the Buddha to us Westerners. What I actually got was a bitzer: part memoir, part travelogue, much book-learnt philosophy, some religion, history. That it didn't know what it wanted to be meant that the best bits were mostly the ancillaries. It was written before, during, and after The Romantics, and so contains some of the raw material that went into that novel. The game is classical: to map the search for inner meaning onto a traversal of geography, in this case the lower reaches of the Himalayas, and later, London and the U.S.A. (Similar structures can be seen in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, Kaag's American Philosophy and countless others.) Mishra is, of course, very forward about being Indian and skeptical of Western pretensions to having solved the condition of Man.

My major beefs are with Mishra's discussion of Western philosophy and his inadequate presentation of the Buddha's thinking, which is to say that it doesn't fulfill the promise of its title. For starters, his take on David Hume is misleading (60%):

Consciousness is a flow of tiny instants that have no separate existence or essence; they are constantly being triggered by each of the tiny changes in the world outside — the process creating the impression of what we call reality. When broken up into its aggregate parts, consciousness reveals itself as profoundly conditioned, ever changing and relative, and far from the substantial entity we believe the individual self to be.

David Hume among western philosophers had a view of the self closest to that of the Buddha:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

Be that as it may (Hume was championing empirical materialism over Cartesian dualism), there is still the question of how the self perceives itself; at times there seems to be something reflective going on that does not necessarily involve the external world. Hume wasn't satisfied with his own story, and it took Kant significant transcendental complexity to take it further. It's difficult to link any of this to the Buddha's proposition that the self is an illusion, given the presupposition that there's something doing the perceiving.

Mishra says that the Buddha would have us be mindfully present in every situation, to be in the now. I found this hard to square with the idea of meditation, which if nothing else involves being mentally absent. This state is attractive to Westerners as the modern world is all about being elsewhere, and meditation comes at all price points. The assertion he attributes to Einstein, that science and Buddhism are compatible, is apparently apocryphal. Science offers the most reliable way out of the "jungle of opinions" just now, if not when the Buddha was philosophizing.

My central problem with Buddhism is its obscurantism, that its practictioners present it as a body of arcane knowledge that resists modernization. (The Mind Illuminated, for instance, is long on promise but expends much effort early on in constructing a lexicon rather than basic practices, and therefore lost me.) Around the 59% mark Mishra struggles with the idea that this knowledge is somehow beyond language:

I was full of wonder at the immensity and complexity of Buddhist literature, the work of thinkers and scholars now almost lost to memory. But I couldn't understand much of what these philosophers had written. The most fascinating among them was Nagarjuna, who had challenged even the Buddha by asserting that there could be no such thing as a Right View since all intellectual constructs had no essence. But how did one understand the concept of Emptiness, not to mention the assertion that Emptiness itself was empty?

I guess Wittgenstein would (impolitely) ask them all to be quiet. This move strikes me as deeply problematic: while the meditative states may be transcendent (non-empirical) there are still linguistic means of describing how to get there and roughly what it's like. I mean, they do that anyway, and even to assert the emptiness of language requires language. This is all a bit hard to square with the existence of ancient Sanskrit linguistics which surely must have exposed some of these issues around the time of the Buddha.

Mishra contends that Buddhism has no political prescriptions, and says that the Buddha himself suggested that small groups of people make decisions by consensus, and those who can't abide with those go off and form their own groups; "if you don't like it then leave" is a common refrain these days, and clearly it doesn't scale. At 65% we're told that the Buddha didn't expect his guidelines to last too long, perhaps 500 or 1000 years, which to me suggests he expected them to be improved, possibly by a successor. By 71% we're told that Buddhism can be sometimes violent but there have been no wars between Buddhist groupings; Westerns are said to hold the same true of liberal democracies, which until recently was thought to scale.

Like Kaag feels in his American Philosophy, apparently "there [is] no private salvation waiting for [us]," where salvation/liberation is from karmic reincarnation (67%). We're supposed to "[feel] the conditional and interdependent nature of all beings," which makes it sound like enlightenment leads to feeling all suffering everywhere; hardly a desirable state in itself, and Mishra observes (93%) that vanquishing desire is prima facie more scary than liberating. It does square nicely with conservative dogma however, redemption being individually achieved and not collectively organised.

Despite targetting a Western audience, Mishra does not really help flush Christian priors; for instance, karma is harsh and there's no forgiveness. The proposed alleviation of suffering sounds more like "suck it up" than a mechanism for real change, which we might idly call progress. I never understood why a Buddhist ever had to act; in contrast the Ten Commandments do not allow one to be entirely passive. Will Self could probably have developed a quantity theory of suffering and tried to square the idea of reincarnation with a growing population, and how much we should discount the suffering of future generations. I wonder how Buddhists think about climate change.

The book was widely reviewed at its time, mostly by people who nodded along and accepted Mishra's erudition at face value. I mean, they're all busy people, right? — and just for them, Mishra slipped in a chapter on how dubious a reconciliation between U.S. values and Buddhism conceptually is, all the time stroking his beard in erudite skepticism. I'll leave those to Google.