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Archive for the tag “perfection of wisdom”

T he Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright

The Six Perfections (Wright)The Six Perfections: Buddhism & the Cultivation of Character by Dale S. Wright. Oxford University Press 2009, 292 pages.

After reading a couple examples of “popular” books on the Buddhist paramitas, this one came as a very welcome relief.  The difference was immediately noticed and profound: as opposed to the fluff, irrelevant stories and pop psychology of Das and Boorstein, this is a mature philosophical reflection on the Buddhist “perfections” by a man who is less an entertainer than a real thinker.  Wright’s language is sophisticated, nuanced and densely meaningful, and he offers a critical, contemporary assessment of Buddhist attitudes and practices.

The book is entirely Mahayana in orientation, taking its cue from the “Perfection of Wisdom” literature, specifically the Diamond Sutra, the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, the Vimalakirti and, of course, the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva.  (I knew I was in the hands of a good scholar when Wright actually stated up front what his sources would be.)  The book covers (per the title) the traditional six paramitas as opposed to the Theravada and later Mahayana ten.  For each of the six Wright first discusses how the paramita has been understood in traditional Buddhist culture.  He then offers a contemporary critical assessment of that “perfection.”  I found this added reflection absolutely critical to the quality of the book and one of the reasons why I would recommend it so unhesitatingly.  Wright recognizes–as is rarely done, it seems–that many images of Buddhist sainthood are so rarefied and elevated as to be impossible to emulate.  Somehow, though, they must be rendered concrete, and so the question Wright pursues is how can these examples be made valid models for contemporary people.  He spends a lot of time exploring this and similar questions, making the old texts relevant and comprehensible to us.  In this he renders great service to the tradition as a whole.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this book that Wright is a man of great integrity and insight.  The book simply could not have been produced by someone who had not reflected seriously and at length upon these issues.  But my simply saying this will not adequately convey what I mean.  Put it this way: I know a book is “great” when I cannot help but read it with a pen or pencil in hand and feel excited to mark out passages that particularly strike me, when I am compelled to write notes to myself for later reference.  When I know I have to read a book again, I get a feeling of great gratitude to the author, for in such instances he or she has created something that affects and alters me, for the better.  This is such a book.

I offer a few examples from the text:

What is it that we are perfecting in the six perfections?  The best word in English for that would be our character.  It is through resources of character that we undertake enlightening practices, and it is our character that is enlightened (7).

Unless we as donors can see clearly and unflinchingly that who we are as donors–secure in wealth and health–is completely dependent on numerous turns of good fortune, on the care and help of others, and on opportunities not available to everyone, our acts of giving will be less than fully generous.  These acts will therefore not have the liberating effects that they might otherwise have had.  When we are able to see that the homeless person’s parents did not do for him what ours did for us, that his teachers did not do for him what ours did for us, then we begin to understand the contingency of our fortune, and, looking more deeply, the thorough interdependency of all reality (25).

The culmination of Buddhist practices of generosity can be seen in their ideal form, the bodhisattva who gives unselfishly out of a deep compassion for all living beings.  Compassion is the ultimate aim of these practices.  But that culmination is the result of a long process of self-cultivation.  For the most part, compassion is something we learn to feel.  It is not innate, not a “natural” feeling.  For these reasons, we cannot feel compassion simply by deciding to feel it, or by telling ourselves that it is our responsibility to feel it.  We do, however, have the capacity to develop compassion by cultivating our thoughts and emotions in ways that enable it.  This is the function of the “practice” of giving.  Making generosity of character an explicit aim of self-cultivation, we sculpt our thoughts, emotions, and dispositions in the direction of a particular form of human excellence (30).

In the same way that etiquette resembles morality while not yet embodying it, morality imitates compassion while still falling short of it (81).

The perfection of tolerance is the art of understanding what, when, and how to tolerate (110).

Anger as a response to injustice presupposes a kind of selfhood that will at some point stand in the way of justice (117).

The role of energy in ethics can be highlighted by reflecting on ways in which we might fall short in life. There are two basic ways in which it is possible for a person to fail ethically. The most obvious of these is to act unjustly, to commit crimes against one’s society and oneself, to be a negative, destructive force. But another way is to fail in the positive, failing to live constructively on behalf of oneself and others. This second failure signals a deficiency of energy, a lack of constructive striving toward something worthwhile. Failing in this sense, people may never commit a crime against others or do anything explicitly wrong; their failure consists of not generating the energy of constructive life, thus failing to live a life in keeping with their capacity (146).

I could of course supply many more quotes–the author is eloquent and thoughtful at every turn.  But the book is not without its faults.  Two points stood out for me. First, Wright has a tendency to go on longer than necessary, which can make the chapters seem over extended.  He clearly gets caught up in his own ruminations at times, to the detriment of the text.  If anyone thinks any part of the book is “boring,” this will be the reason.  The second problem is much more profound.  Through the first four paramitas Wright was spot on in his understanding and elucidation of Buddhist concepts, but in the section on meditation (chapter 5) the wheels came off his cart.

I think once again we have here the age-old conundrum of the scholar who has not practiced beyond thinking, learning and reflection; it’s clear Wright does not really know what meditation is.  For example, on page 194 he says “…in contrast to samatha or calming kinds of meditation, vipassana cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom.”  He continues, saying “…vipassana meditation takes several forms. But in each case the practice entails focusing thought on an idea or a series of ideas” (194).  He clearly believes vipassana is primarily reflective, cognitive or conceptual, so the essence of the fifth chapter is an elucidation of meditation as a kind of disciplined, guided thinking.  While it is true that some types of meditation (think of the Brahmaviharas) begin as discursive reflections or visualizations, that is never their end.  As regards vipassana, however, it doesn’t even begin there; Wright would have done well to read Kornfield’s Living Dharma to get an idea what vipassana really is about.

I have to confess I am at a loss to explain how Wright so totally misses the point here.  Clearly he is an intelligent, thoughtful and well read man.  Clearly he has put a lot of time into understanding Buddhist culture.  But the fifth chapter, while not without insight (here and there), is largely a toss on account of how badly he misunderstands what dhyana is actually about.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this kind of fault is cultural in nature, the culture in question being the “culture of scholarship,” aka “academia.”  (Remember when someone says It’s academic they really mean it’s beside the point, not useful or applicable.)  I was once myself an aspiring scholar/academic and I can say how tempting it is to think that if you’ve read the books and published the articles, then you must really understand something in a serious way.  If you’re talking about Renaissance French literature, that might be the case, but human consciousness ultimately transcends culture and time–structures and capacities are innate–and contemplative technologies which seek to alter those structures and capacities cannot be adequately understood from the vantage point most of us start from.  These are not things one should simply think about–you have to do them.

On account of the problems I’ve described, I’m giving the book four stars.  However, the first four chapters are five (even six!) star material, and the last chapter is also quite excellent, though it lacks the practical groundedness of the first four.

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Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams.  Routledge 1989/2009.  438 pages.

As the back of the book will tell you, the 1989 publication of this work’s first edition made quite a stir and, I quote, “It is still unrivalled.”  Indeed, it has become a foundational text for courses on Mahayana Buddhism at the university level, and since almost two decades of burgeoning scholarship in the field had passed, a second edition was considered necessary.

I can say this much: it is quite a book.  If you are smitten with a lust for all things Mahayana—its history, people, practices, and philosophies—look no further.  In fact, this book may even cure you of your unwholesome desires.  What I mean is that the page count does not give you any idea of what you’re getting into.

By the numbers: 438 total pages; 266 pages of main text; 122 pages of end notes; 32 pages of bibliography.  You can do the math for the rest.  Every page is dense with names, dates, terms, unpronounceable sutra titles (if you can actually say Bodhisattvagocaropayavishayavikurvananirdesha Sutra you must already be enlightened) and who knows what else.  And just look at the notes to main text pages ratio: 0.46!  I scrounged around my shelves, where I have a great many scholarly books on a wide array of topics, but could find nothing comparable.  Even Bhikkhu Bodhi’s monumental translation of the Samyutta Nikaya clocked in at an anemic 0.25.  Usually I’m an assiduous reader of notes (though I confess to loathing endnotes—why oh why did the publishing industry quit on footnotes??), but this time I just gave up.  Many of the end notes are so lengthy by the time you finish one you’ve forgotten where you were on the main page.  All of which leads me to my chief complaint about Williams’ opus:

Loss of control.

Sometimes you want to lose control (think sex—especially if you’re a woman).  But when you’re writing something touted as a textbook—and an intro textbook to boot—you want to be measured in just how much data you dump on your audience.  One hundred twenty-two pages of endnotes are not only unhelpful, they’re positively sadistic—or self-indulgent, which in this case comes to the same thing.  Let me put this in perspective: I have a fair education in Buddhist literature under my belt.  I’m not as deeply read as most scholars, but I would wager I understand a few things as well as anyone.  I will admit though I began to get dizzy in places as I read this book (lack of oxygen?), and resorted to skipping to those areas where I felt greater interest and surer footing.  So…reader beware: you are in for a sensory overload with this one; bring the Dramamine.  I’ll now return to my ordinarily more professional reviewing style.

Williams starts with an introduction the likes of which I’ve never seen.  Introductions are usually, well, introductory, but by page 17 (it goes on for 44 pages) he was already enumerating the numbers and types of dhammas according to the Abhidhamma classification scheme!  Needless to say, this sort of material is not ordinarily considered introductory.  At times I wondered if I’d somehow skipped into the first chapter and missed something, but no…on checking I found I was still in the introduction.  I think this is where I started to get worried.

To sum up the above complaint and how it affects the text as a whole: it appears Williams felt compelled to put everything he knew into this book, not to mention the obscure article he read the night before.  He mixes social history, philosophy, biographies, the history of specific texts and schools, all in a jumble.  (See, e.g., p. 67, where a chart would have been so much more helpful.)  You can’t write a book in this fashion; or at least, I advise against it.  Different areas need to be kept separate, or integrated with great care, but that is clearly not what happened.  In other words, I don’t suggest discussing a sutra’s history and provenance, its philosophy, the school that formed around it, and its effects on later readers and its place in the grand scheme of things all on the same page.  It’s just too much.  But this is really the best way to characterize how Williams has gone about summarizing fifteen hundred years of Mahayana doctrinal history.  Like I said, “loss of control”…

The upside of this avalanche of information is that there’s something for everyone.  And if you need the latest scholarly speculation on this text or that school, chances are you’ll find it in here (somewhere).  So this is the other edge of the sword—an abundance of fact and insight (yes, Professor Williams has carefully and intelligently considered his material) that is there if you have the patience and fortitude to dig it out.  I’ll offer a random list of what were, for me, eye opening or especially intriguing passages:

  • Page 43 on how the Mahayana began to develop a separate identity vis-à-vis “mainstream” Buddhism;
  • Pages 48-9 on Conze’s outline of Mahayana intellectual history;
  • Pages 60-1 on some of the internal logical inconsistencies besetting Mahayana Buddhology (authors rarely think out loud like this—I found the honesty refreshing);
  • Pages 68-9 make clear the meaning of svabhava;
  • Pages 71-2 indicated to me that Nagarjuna was first and foremost a deconstructionist, not a nihilist as opponents have charged;
  • Page 74 reassured me that Nagarjuna did not abrogate the teaching of anatta;
  • Pages 108ff suggested where notions of a True Self in Buddhism came from;
  • Pages 122ff on the debate over not-self in Thai Buddhism was fascinating, something I was previously unaware of;
  • Pages 132ff are a wonderful discussion of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the most profound if not most influential of Mahayana scriptures;
  • Chapter seven on the Lotus Sutra reminded me many times over why I so detest this particular scripture;
  • Page 184 has an excellent chart on the three bodies of the Buddha;
  • Chapter nine on the bodhisattva was at once inspiring and comical (on account of all the contradictions found in the texts);
  • Chapter ten offers a detailed who’s who of bodhisattvas and buddhas for all you folks out there who can’t figure out which statue is for whom and why.

And that about does it.  As I said, not only will you be punished in the course of this text, you will be rewarded as well.  There is a lot of pleasure and pain to go around.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars

 

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