Publishing is a slow process. I wrote most of A Buddha Land in This World (BLiTW) in the first half of 2020, but it took until April 2022 until it was published. By that time I had already realized a few (minor?) problems with the book and doubtlessly, I’ll find more. With any luck, other readers will find further problems (assuming that there are further problems and oversights there and that it’s better if they are found).1 The purpose of this blog post is to list and discuss such problems. Hence, I’ll update this post whenever I come across an important new problem that hasn’t been mentioned yet and/or whenever I want to discuss any problem previously added. (Notice, by the way, that this post isn’t very interesting – and probably not easy to understand either – if you haven’t read the book itself.)

There is a list of errata (i.e. typos and similar minor errors) at the end of this post. More serious problems (and comments on those) are sorted by topic and numbered. Topics largely coincide with the parts of the book:

  • Part I — general and historical issues;
  • Part II — metaphysics, epistemology, and related issues of “theoretical philosophy”;
  • Part III — ethics and social philosophy, and related issues of “practical philosophy” as well as social science and politics;
  • Part IV — conclusions, the goal of the book, and to what extent it did or did not succeed in achieving that goal.

If a problem/comment concerns multiple parts, I’ll “file” it under the category that seems most fitting. Numbering of problems/comments will have the format “P.#” in which “P” is the part number (in roman numerals) and “#” is a number in Indo-Arabic numerals. For cross-referencing purposes, I’ll put these numbers in square brackets.

Because I expect to update this post several times, I’ll specify the date when it was added for each item or comment in the inventory.

general and historical issues — Part I

I.1 — the Pāli Canon

(2022/4/27) — About the Pāli Canon I wrote in chapter 5 that:

Supposedly, until the sūtras in the Pāli canon were written down they were recited in periodic meetings of monks, but we have no consistent evidence about the nature, form, and frequency of these meetings, nor about how reliable this process was. (p. 141)

Rereading this (while checking the final proofs for errors), I wasn’t entirely happy with this sentence (but it was too late to make significant changes) because it seems to suggest that I think that the oral transmission is the biggest problem for the authenticity of the content of the Pāli Canon. Indeed skepticism about the reliability of oral transmission is a common source for doubt in the reliability of the Pāli Canon. However, I actually think that this may very well be the least problematic phase in the Canon’s history. Originally, I intended to briefly review that history to illustrate the problems here, but that text became too long, so I “published” it as a separate post, A Note on the Pāli Canon. See also [I.4].

I.2 — awakening as a defining criterion

(2022/5/8) — There is a footnote near the end of chapter 5 in which I suggest a possible alternative definition of “a Buddhist”:

A Buddhist is someone who aims for awakening and thereby becoming an arhat or boddhisattva, either in this life or in some future life after many rebirths (through accumulation of good karma or merit). (p. 170, n. 122)

I did not argue that this definition should be accepted there and neither will I do so here. While I think this definition includes all traditional Buddhists (but possibly not some Buddhist modernists and/or secular Buddhists), there are two reasons why it might not be a good definition of “Buddhist”. First, I’m not sure that most Buddhists would recognize this themselves as what makes them Buddhist. And second, it seems to me a definition of Buddhist practice more than of Buddhists (or Buddhist practitioners).

As mentioned in several other comments here (see [III.1], [III.2], and [IV.1]), BLiTW almost completely ignores Buddhist practice and I now think that this is especially problematic in the attempt to define “Buddhism” in chapter 5. If the definition suggested there is amended to include Buddhist practice it may very well have to include something like the quote above, namely that Buddhist practice “aims for awakening and thereby becoming an arhat or boddhisattva, either in this life or in some future life after many rebirths (through accumulation of good karma or merit)”. The problem is that I’m not sure whether lokamātra as practice would satisfy this definition, or even whether any consistently naturalized Buddhism could satisfy this definition of Buddhist practice. And if some so-called “Buddhism” wouldn’t satisfy the definition, then it would not be (a variety of) Buddhism, but something else. So, if this is right, then lokamātra is not Buddhism and there can be no such thing as a consistently naturalized or secular Buddhism.

The issue hinges on the nature of awakening/enlightenment, which is notoriously underdefined, on the possibility of achieving that state, and on whether awakening/enlightenment even is (or should be) a goal of lokamātra or naturalized/secular Buddhism in general. (Obviously, the rejection of karma and rebirth implies that if awakening/enlightenment can be achieved, it must be achievable by a significant share of practitioners in this life rather than in some non-existent future life.) At present, I don’t see why for a lokamātrin specifically, awakening should be a goal of practice (unless that would contribute to the impartial/universal reduction of suffering rather than just one’s own, but that seems unlikely). Probably, this is different for some secular Buddhisms, but that doesn’t solve the first two aspects of the issue: What even is awakening? And can it actually be achieved? Considering that throughout the Buddhist tradition it is typically assumed that it takes many lives of practice and building up good karma, it seems that the most likely answer to this second question is “no”.

(2022/5/23) — Perhaps, the problem isn’t nearly as great as I suggested above. Full awakening is Buddha-hood. That may not be a realistic goal, but from a Mahāyāna perspective, becoming a bodhisattva is a necessary step towards that goal, and I don’t think that a radicalized radical Buddhism would give up the bodhisattva ideal. It might hold is merely as an ideal, rather than as something that can really be achieved, but this is entirely in line with my argument in the last section of chapter 16. Furthermore, that the bodhisattva ideal remains firmly in place is implicitly assumed throughout the book. It appears then, that both problem [I.2] and [IV.1] may be far less serious than I thought – all that is really missing is something like a naturalized version of the practice(s) associated with the bodhisattva ideal (i.e. the six perfections etc.).

I.3 — “ahistoricism”

(2022/5/20) — In chapter 4, I claim that “ahistoricism” is a common characteristic of ancient cultures (p. 124). Ahistoricism (which is not a standard term, as far as I know) is a lack of “awareness of historical change and development”. Ancient cultures instead assume “that almost everything has stayed the same and will always stay the same”. This claim is probably false. Or at least, it should be qualified.

In their book The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow shows that many pre-modern cultures were very much aware of (the possibility) of alternative sociopolitical arrangements, and that some were also aware of changes in their own sociopolitical structure.2 It seems, then, that the kind of ahistoricism that I assumed to be common only arises in certain conditions. It seems to me that it was widespread among sedentary, agricultural societies, so there may be a link with agriculture.

More importantly in the context of BLiTW, perhaps, is that I think that there can be little doubt that ancient India, China, and Europe were very much ahistoricist. There was, of course, an awareness of history, but only very limited awareness of the occurrence of fundamental, structural sociopolitical and economic changes in that history.

I.4 — repetition in the Pāli Canon

(2022/6/13) — In chapter 5 (p. 140), I suggest that repetitions in the Pāli Canon may be due to editing and that Gregory Schopen has presented evidence for this. Both aspects of this claim are problematic. While it is possible that some of the repetitiveness in the Canon is due to later editing, most of it is probably a design feature intended to aid memorization.3 And Schopen’s supposed evidence for his claim that convergence between texts suggests later editing has been soundly refuted by Alexander Wynne and Bikkhu Anālayo.4 Hence, contrary to what I write on p. 140, convergence between texts from different traditions strongly suggests that those texts (or parts of texts) are old. (See also [I.3], and A Note on the Pāli Canon.)

metaphysics, epistemology, etc. — Part II

II.1 — truth/justification in Buddhist epistemology

(2022/4/17) — The introduction to Part II of the book emphasizes the importance of the distinction between truth and justification. In Buddhist epistemology, however, that distinction wasn’t made.5 Rather, Buddhist epistemologists assumed that episodes of knowing are truth-tracking, or in other words, that justification implies truth. This I find a rather problematic point of view, but the main problem is that I failed to address this in the book. Chapter 9, which is mostly about epistemology completely glosses over this important difference between the epistemology I advocate and “typical” (?) Buddhist epistemology. (Right now, I don’t think that this is a serious problem, by the way. I think it’s merely an oversight – something I should have addressed, but didn’t.)

II.2 — a contradiction between chapters 6 and 10

(2022/4/18) — Compare the following two quotes:

Davidson belongs to the admittedly small Quinean school of Western, analytic philosophy in roughly the same way that that philosopher belongs to the Yogācāra school. (Chapter 6, p. 176).
There is much more disagreement between the philosophers I grouped under the “new pragmatism” label than between Yogācāra philosophers or almost any other school. (Chapter 10, p. 282).

In chapter 6 I write that Davidson and Quine are so similar to each other that they could be considered to be part of one school in the sense that two Yogācāra philosophers belong to the same school, but in chapter 10 I write the direct opposite. Hence, it seems like I’m claiming A when A is convenient for me and not-A when not-A is more convenient. That would be rather shameful if it would be on purpose, but I actually only realized this contradiction until it was far too late to do anything about it. (It’s still rather embarrassing though.)

Arguably, of the five “new Pragmatists” I mention in chapter 10, Quine and Davidson agree more with each other than any other two, so it is perhaps defensible to say that those two can be considered to belong to the same school (in the aforementioned sense), but that would leave two big problems. Firstly, I also appeal (albeit less prominently) to three other “new Pragmatists” (namely, Lewis, Putnam, and Rorty) in chapter 9 and those certainly cannot be said to belong to the same school (in the same sense). Hence, chapter 9 is effectively more eclectic than chapter 6 recommends anyway. (Although these “new Pragmatists” tend to be supporting characters merely.)

And secondly, this would seriously weaken (or even undermine?) the argument in the section “New Pragmatism — Davidson, Putnam, and Quine” in chapter 10. There I claim that the metaphysical and epistemological view developed in chapters 8 and 9 (i.e. “post- Yogācāra realism”) could not be based on non-Buddhist sources just as well and is thus a Buddhist view (by the criterion proposed in chapter 5). However, if Davidson and Quine form a single school, and what I call “post- Yogācāra realism” could be based on their thought just as well, then that conclusion would not follow (i.e. it would not be a Buddhist view). Obviously, it can be based on their combined thought much more easily than on the thought of just one of them. (This should be obvious because Wheeler’s “relative essentialism” is a related kind of perspectival realism that is primarily based on Davidson and Quine.) There is one very important stumbling block, however, and that is that Quine and Davidson’s anti-dualism conflicts with Buddhist non-dualism. Perhaps, that’s enough to conclude that “post- Yogācāra realism” could not be based on non-Buddhist sources just as well, but the argument and conclusion would still be weaker than what chapter 10 suggests.

ethics and social philosophy, etc. — Part III

III.1 — motivational internalism/externalism

(2022/4/18) — According to motivational internalism the conviction that A is right (or wrong) motivates (the person having that conviction) to do A (or to not do or even prevent A). Externalism denies this. The occurrence of motivational externalism in Western thought appears to conflict with something I write in the introduction to part III:

the Western approach [to ethics] … implicitly assumes that the principles that determine the rightness of a life are motivating reasons or, in other words, that knowing how one ought to live will lead one to live in accordance with that knowledge. (p. 313)

I don’t (presently) think there is a real conflict here, however. That there are and have been motivational externalists among Western philosophers doesn’t deny the fact that the typical approach to moral philosophy in Western thought has been based on an implicit/unconscious assumption that the work is done after one has specified what is right and wrong. The more pragmatic question of what actually works is nearly always ignored. (And I think that Horkheimer expressed that rather well in the quote on the same page.)

There is a bigger issue here, however, and that is my failure to address the question whether Buddhist ethics is similarly “idealist” (as Horkheimer calls it) in ignoring this pragmatic question. This is a major omission, I think, but it is related to the almost complete absence of Buddhist practice in the book. (See also [I.2], [III.2], and [IV.1].)

Buddhist philosophers don’t believe that merely knowing what is right motivates one to act accordingly, or that merely knowing what is wrong (i.e. suffering) motivates one to try to prevent/alleviate that. It is the very purpose of some of the most important Buddhist practices (particular kinds of meditation, specifically) to internalize this “knowledge” and turn it into motivation. One could compare this to learning a language: there is a difference between knowing the words and grammatical rules of language (i.e. mere “knowledge”) and actually being able to (more or less fluently) speak it – the latter requires internalization of that abstract knowledge, and this requires practice in turn. The Buddhist approach to ethics is much like this: meditation is needed to internalize merely abstract moral (and other) knowledge and turn it into motivation. Hence, Buddhist ethics avoids the “idealist” pitfall, but by implication, a discussion of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if it doesn’t address such practical aspects. (But again, this is a topic that demands further attention. See also the next issue.)

III.2 — moral phenomenology

(2022/4/18) — In a recent book about Buddhist ethics, Jay Garfield advocates an interpretation thereof as “moral phenomenology”.6 He writes:

Western ethical theory is dominated by what I call “output ethics.” That is, Western moral theorists … take morality to be concerned primarily with what we do, or at least with the reasons for action. Buddhist ethics, in contrast, is “input ethics,” concerned primarily with what and how we experience, and how we respond to that experience affectively.7

Garfield’s book is probably the best book about Buddhism that I ever read (and not just about Buddhist ethics or even about Buddhist philosophy), and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is seriously interested in Buddhism. More important in the present context is that I think that his interpretation of Buddhist ethics is mostly right. “Mostly”, because the focus on phenomenology or experience is not very meaningful without an account of what it is that needs to be experienced and what that experience means. Furthermore, I don’t think that Garfield’s interpretation is in conflict with my interpretation of Buddhist ethics as a kind of “negative expectivism”. In the contrary, many of the practical examples that Garfield gives to illustrate his phenomenological interpretation can just as well (and in some cases even better) be taken as support for an expectivist interpretation. That doesn’t mean that the expectivist interpretation is better than the phenomenological interpretation, however. Rather, I think that they are complementary. They focus on different aspects of Buddhist ethics. In terms of the language-learning analogy mentioned in [III.1], the expectivist interpretation is more concerned with grammatical rules, while the phenomenological interpretation is more concerned with learning to speak. But in the end, you need both. In any case, this is a topic that needs further work.

goals and conclusions — Part IV

IV.1 — lokamātra is not Buddhism (?)

(2022/4/18) — This is the big problem – the one that undermines everything. One way of framing this “big problem” is that I fudge between “Buddhism” and “Buddhist”, which is especially bad given my emphasis on conceptual hygiene in chapter 1 and elsewhere.

One item in the four-part goal of the book is that the position developed (which I call “lokamātra” in chapter 17) is defensibly and recognizably Buddhist, and in chapter 17 I conclude that it is (by the standard proposed in chapter 5) and thus that the project succeeds. But the standard for judging whether something is indeed “Buddhist” is a standard for judging theories and ideas specifically, and thus, by that standard, I merely succeed in showing that lokamātra is a Buddhist theory. (Whether it is indeed can also be debated, of course, but that’s not the issue here.) Early 20th century radical Buddhism was not a mere theory, however. It was a collection of varieties of Buddhism. And consequently, a radicalized radical Buddhism should not be a mere theory either.

The criterion by which lokamātra should be judged, then, is not whether it is a Buddhist theory, but whether it is a variety of Buddhism. I have not done that in chapter 17, but it might seem that I was assuming that I did. That is, certain passages of chapter 17 appear to suggest that I mistook the conclusion that lokamātra is a Buddhist theory for a different conclusion, namely that lokamātra is a variety of Buddhism. I don’t think I actually made that mistake, but the mere suggestion is bad enough, especially because I have become increasingly convinced that lokamātra – at least in its present form – is not a variety of Buddhism. The reason for that is actually mentioned in chapters 1, 9, and 17 (and possibly elsewhere as well): lokamātra is incomplete.

The focus in this book is entirely on theory, on lokamātra as a philosophical (life/world) view. But Buddhism doesn’t just consist of theories and ideas, it also includes practices. (Some Western “Buddhists” like to claim that “Buddhism is just a practice”, but that is just a convenient excuse for ignorance and for not having to make any effort to dispel that ignorance.) Appealing once more to the language-learning analogy mentioned in [III.1]: A Buddha Land in This World is merely about words and grammar, and utterly ignores the actual practice of learning a language. Hence, if lokamātra is to be a variety of Buddhism, then this practice aspect (learning to speak; or learning to see, if we leave the analogy behind) needs to be supplemented. (See also [III.1] and [III.2].)

The most important implication of the foregoing is that the book fails to do what it set out to do. Its aim was “to take radical Buddhism seriously”, but if all it delivers is a Buddhist theory, and not a radicalized radical Buddhism, then it actually fails to do so. The goal never was merely to come up with a Buddhist theory, but to try to construct a radicalized radical Buddhism. Lokamātra is not Buddhism (because it is incomplete) and thus is not that radicalized radical Buddhism. This doesn’t mean that the book is a complete failure, however. Rather, it means that the project is unfinished. The practice aspect needs to be supplemented. Only if it can be shown that lokamātra can be developed into a variety of Buddhism (by supplementing the practice aspect and whatever else is missing) does the project of radicalizing radical Buddhism succeed.

(2022/5/8) — If [I.2] is right, then it may be the case that lokamātra as practice would not be Buddhist practice, and therefore, that lokamātra is not – and cannot be – a variety of Buddhism. (Rather, it would be some kind of post-Buddhist naturalism.) Furthermore, the same may be true for any kind of consistently naturalized (or “secular”) Buddhism.

(2022/5/23) — I changed my mind about some of the foregoing, and now think that [IV.1] and [I.2] are not nearly as problematic as thought before. See the comment with this same date below [I.2] above.

Errata

“Madhyamaka” and “Mādhyamika” — Due to an auto-correct error all occurrences of “Madhyamaka” have a macron above the first letter a that should not be there. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice this until I saw the book in print.

p389, n4. — “Pre-modern idealism” should be “pre-modern individualism”.

pp395, 6, 7, 402. — Due to a formatting error the tally marks in the margin are a few centimeters too high on the page.


Notes

  1. I expect the typical comment to be something like “the views expressed in this book are neither radical nor Buddhist”, which is fine, of course. I’m more interested, however, in how comments like these – and other critical comments! – are motivated. That is, why someone thinks that the book’s view is neither radical nor Buddhist.
  2. David Graeber & David Wengrow (2021), The Dawn of Humanity: A New History of Humanity (London: Allen Lane).
  3. Mark Allon (2021), The Composition and Transmission of Early Buddhist Texts with Specific Reference to Sutras (Bochum: Project Verlag).
  4. Alexander Wynne (2005), “The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation”, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiense 49: 35–70. Anālayo (2012), “The Historical Value of the Pāli Discourses”, Indo-Iranian Journal 55: 223–53.
  5. See, for example: Jonathan Stoltz (2021), Illuminating the Mind: An Introduction to Buddhist Epistemology, (OUP).
  6. Jay Garfield (2021), Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration, (OUP).
  7. Ibid. p.29.