A Buddha Land in This World (New Book)

Front cover of "A Buddha Land in This World"My new book, A Buddha Land in This World: Philosophy, Utopia, and Radical Buddhism, has just been published. Here is the abstract/back cover blurb:

In the early twentieth century, Uchiyama Gudō, Seno’o Girō, Lin Qiuwu, and others advocated a Buddhism that was radical in two respects. Firstly, they adopted a more or less naturalist stance with respect to Buddhist doctrine and related matters, rejecting karma or other supernatural beliefs. And secondly, they held political and economic views that were radically anti-hegemonic, anti-capitalist, and revolutionary. Taking the idea of such a “radical Buddhism” seriously, A Buddha Land in This World: Philosophy, Utopia, and Radical Buddhism asks whether it is possible to develop a philosophy that is simultaneously naturalist, anti-capitalist, Buddhist, and consistent. Rather than a study of radical Buddhism, then, this book is an attempt to radicalize it.

The foundations of this “radicalized radical Buddhism” are provided by a realist interpretation of Yogācāra, elucidated and elaborated with some help from thinkers in the broader Tiantai/Tendai tradition and American philosophers Donald Davidson and W.V.O. Quine. A key implication of this foundation is that only this world and only this life are real, from which it follows that if Buddhism aims to alleviate suffering, it has to do so in this world and in this life. Twentieth-century radical Buddhists (as well as some engaged Buddhists) came to a similar conclusion, often expressed in their aim to realize “a Buddha land in this world.”

Building on this foundation, but also on Mahāyāna moral philosophy, this book argues for an ethics and social philosophy based on a definition of evil as that what is or should be expected to cause death or suffering. On that ground, capitalism should be rejected indeed, but utopianism must be treated with caution as well, which raises questions about what it means – from a radicalized radical Buddhist perspective – to aim for a Buddha land in this world.

The E-book version can be downloaded for free from the publisher’s website, but you can also order a copy of the paperback edition there. Alternatively, you can also have a look at the book at Google Books.


(The following text is a lightly edited extract from chapter 17 of the book.)

The term “radical Buddhism” refers to a loose collection of currents in mostly early-twentieth century Buddhism that were radical in two respects. First, radical Buddhists adopted a broadly naturalist stance with respect to Buddhist doctrine and related matters. And second, their political and economic views were radically anti-hegemonic, anti-capitalist, and often even revolutionary. While the naturalist stance is also a core aspect of secularization, the sociopolitical aspect of radical Buddhism is decidedly anti-secular, as secularization denies religion a political role and banishes it to the private sphere. This rejection of secularity-as-privatization is also a defining feature of engaged Buddhism, which is much more moderate (or less radical) than radical Buddhism but which shares many of its social concerns.
Chapters 3 and 4 of A Buddha Land in This World identify Uchiyama Gudō 内山愚童, early Taixu 太虛, Lin Qiuwu 林秋梧, Seno’o Girō 妹尾義郎, and B.R. Ambedkar as the most prominent radical Buddhists, but chapter 2 shows that key aspects of radical and engaged Buddhism have much older roots. An important precursor of the radical Buddhist political engagement can be found in the thirteenth century Japanese monk Nichiren 日蓮, for example, and social engagement has even older roots within the Buddhist tradition. Furthermore, the naturalist and this-worldly attitude of radical and secular Buddhists is no break with tradition either but is closely related to the rationalist tendency that probably developed in response to Greek and Vedic/Brahmanic thought originally, and that gave birth to the logico-epistemological school of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti.

The aim of the book is not historical but philosophical. It is constructive, rather than re-constructive. Its aim is to develop a position that “radicalizes” radical Buddhism by simultaneously satisfying four related criteria. First, such radicalized radical Buddhism should be radically naturalist in a roughly Quinean or pragmatist sense of “naturalism”. Second, it should be politically radical, that is, it should reject neoliberal capitalism, the hegemony of psychopathy, and related aspects of the sociopolitical and economic status quo. Third, it should be recognizably and defensibly Buddhist (because otherwise it would not be a radical Buddhism). And fourth, it should be radical in the sense of being uncompromising, rigorous, and consistent.

Toward this end, part II of A Buddha Land in This World develops a metaphysical and epistemological foundation for a radicalized radical Buddhism based primarily on Yogācāra thought and the closely related logico-epistemological school, supplemented by ideas found in the broader Tiantai/​Tendai 天台 tradition, and further elucidated and supported with the help of “new pragmatist” philosophers such as W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson. That foundation, provisionally named “post-Yogācāra Realism” in chapter 10, is a variant of perspectival realism: it is realist in the minimal sense of recognizing the existence of a mind-independent, external reality, but it rejects the idea that there is just one right way of describing that reality. Rather, descriptions of, or views on reality are perspectival: they are views from particular perspectives or constructions due to particular conceptual schemes. And because there is no view from nowhere, they are necessarily perspectival. This does not mean that such perspectives are false views but merely that they are one-sided or incomplete. They do not and cannot radically misrepresent external reality because they are necessarily grounded therein.

Our conscious awareness of the world is mediated by language and conceptually determinate, and because of that, perspectives are to a large extent linguistic. Conceptually determinate, conscious awareness (pratibhāsa-pratīti) is constructed (kalpanā) out of indeterminate, non-conceptual, and unconscious impressions (pratibhāsa) that are caused by external “suchness” (tathātā; things and stuffs), but this conceptual construction is not arbitrary because our conceptual categories are themselves formed in a social process of interaction with other speakers in a shared world.

This is, more or less, the standard Yogācāra view, but Yogācāra thinkers inferred from the constructedness of conscious experience that phenomenal reality is a deception, while I argue in chapter 8 that that conclusion does not follow. Because kalpanā (conceptual construction) proceeds by applying categories that are necessarily based on real properties of things – because otherwise we could not have those categories – the resulting phenomenal appearances are more like simplifications or caricatures than like illusions or hallucinations. This view is closer to that of the Tiantai/​Tendai tradition than to that of Yogācāra, although the difference between the two views is one of attitude more than of substance. According to the founder of Tiantai, Zhiyi 智顗, language misrepresents the world to some extent, but only to some extent; it is not entirely mistaken. And as long as we keep that in mind, we do not have to let language deceive us.

The Tiantai/​Tendai tradition also placed greater emphasis on the perspectival implications of conceptual construction than Yogācāra and the logico-epistemological school. Both traditions claimed that different kinds of creatures see the world in different ways, but the former Tendai monk and founder of the Japanese Sōtō 曹洞 Zen sect Dōgen 道元, for example, suggested that we do not have to become a different kind of creature (which is not really possible anyway) to acquire some new perspectives. And this has an important epistemological implication. If a single perspective only gives us a one-sided or partial view, as mentioned above, then combining multiple perspectives gives us a more complete, and therefore probably better understanding of what we’re looking at. And if we can acquire new perspectives, as Dōgen suggested, then we can actually do that.

From Dignāga and Dharmakīrti’s theories of concept formation through exclusion (apoha) and conceptual construction it follows that we cannot form or learn isolated concepts. Concepts are necessarily part of larger clusters that include other, closely related concepts and beliefs. Because of this, all of our concepts and beliefs are directly or indirectly connected, and the content of a concept or belief is to a large extent determined by its location in our webs of belief. This inter-connectivity of our beliefs also plays an important epistemological role. Because we do not have direct access to ultimate reality, there is no way to compare our beliefs with reality, and consequently, all that can justify our beliefs are other beliefs. According to Dharmakīrti, the source of knowledge is coherent or ​uncontradicted (avisaṃvādin) cognition: a cognition or belief is justified in as far as it coheres with other justified beliefs. Nevertheless, all that coherence gives us is epistemic justification – truth is out of reach. The more perspectives we learn to access or create, the more facets of reality we can see and the more evidence or counter-evidence we can collect, but even coherence with all available evidence does not guarantee truth, it merely tells us what we, collectively, are justified to believe. Moreover, regardless of how many perspectives we manage to combine, there are always further perspectives including inaccessible ones, and consequently, coherence is contingent: any belief that appears to be perfectly justified now can in principle turn out to be incoherent when we learn something new. And because of that, any belief can only be accepted provisionally.

An important consequence hereof is that we cannot know anything with absolute certainty, but this does not mean that we cannot know anything at all. There is a lot we know, even if all of it is open to revision, and even if there is always more to know. Our most justified beliefs are the beliefs that result from the most rigorous testing for coherence with as many as possible different kinds of perspectives – in one word, science. What does not cohere with scientific findings (provided that those are coherent themselves!) cannot be justified. Because of that, traditional views on karma, rebirth, Pure lands, heavens, and paradises cannot be accepted. There is only this world, and there is only this life, and therefore, if we aim to alleviate suffering, we must do so here and now.

The aim of part III of A Buddha Land in This World is to built a moral and social philosophy on this metaphysical and epistemological foundation. Key to that project is the aforementioned realization that, because all we ever can achieve is epistemic justification, it really makes no sense to aim for truth. This is especially important in ethics and social philosophy, as there is little agreement on whether there is something like moral truth, and if there is, whether and how we can know it, while moral justification does not face similar difficulties, or at least not to the same extent. As chapter 9 shows, the most justified idea is just the most coherent idea, that is, the idea that most coheres with all available evidence and eligible points of view. Or in other words, epistemic justification depends on combining perspectives, and if all relevant perspectives agree, then that is the strongest possible justification we can have (but even that justification is contingent and may be negated by new findings).

The central question of part III, then, is whether there actually is significant agreement with regards to fundamental aspects of ethics and social philosophy. Chapters 12 to 14 explore three different aspects of this question. Chapter 12 argues that there appears to be widespread agreement that what makes something right or wrong are its expected consequences, even though this is only rarely expressed explicitly in these terms, and that this is a view shared by Mahāyāna ethics as expressed in the writings of Asaṅga and Śāntideva as well. Expected consequences are not a kind of consequence but expectation, that is, they are hypothetical or conditional beliefs about the future, and therefore the resulting view is not a variety of consequentialism but is more appropriately called “expectivism”.

The second question focuses on the idea that expected consequences determine what is right or wrong is meaningful only if there is a specification of what kind of expected consequences matter. There is a common assumption that everyone aims for their own happiness, but a closer look at this assumption shows that there is no universal agreement that happiness is or should be our ultimate goal. And because of that, expected increases or decreases in happiness cannot be what makes something right or wrong. Neither does there seem to be universal agreement about some other positive standard. What we all do seem to agree about is that death and suffering are bad, suggesting that there is a universal negative standard of right and wrong. What makes something wrong is that it is or should have been expected to lead to death ​or suffering, and the more death or suffering something causes, the worse it is.

The third question focuses on what kind of thing that “something” is. What should we judge for its expected consequences? Acts? Rules? Virtues? Institutions? All of them? Something else? The answer given in chapter 14 is more or less deflationary: in a sense, we can and should judge all of these, but when we do so we are not really judging fundamentally different different things, because all of those things can be reduced to acts. More concretely, rules and institutions and so forth are not really kinds of things, but processes or patterns. They are “maps” of and for behavior (i.e., acts or actions). Strictly speaking there are no such things as rules, virtues, or institutions, but we can still speak of rules in a metaphysically looser sense in reference to these ever-changing maps of and for behavior and the acts that change them.

One of the most important implications hereof is that there is no inconsistency when in one situation we appear to judge a rule or institution and in another situation we appear to judge a particular act. And consequently, the theoretical framework provided by chapters 12 to 14 can be used to assess one of the most distinct characteristics of radical Buddhism: its rejection of capitalism. By the standard provided in these chapters, capitalism is morally wrong to the extent that it is expected to continue to cause more death or suffering than any feasible alternative, and one reason to expect this would be that it already has caused massive suffering. Chapter 15 argues that this is the case indeed but ends with a cautious conclusion that this does not necessarily mean that every aspect of capitalism is equally harmful or should be turned into its opposite. Perhaps, we should aim for some kind of middle path, although that middle path would have to be one that avoids some of the most detrimental aspects of capitalism – such as rent extraction by the financial sector and capitalism’s dependency on fossil-fueled economic growth – and would, therefore, not be a capitalist path.

Aside from these general points, what a morally acceptable alternative to neoliberal capitalism could or should be like is a question that is not addressed in the book. The radical Buddhists mentioned above argued for varieties of anarchism, socialism, or social democracy, but the rejection of capitalism does not imply the acceptance of any of these. Instead of advocating a specific alternative to capitalism, the last chapter of part III discusses certain constraints on how to think about such alternatives. The first of these constraints is methodological: it is a rejection of “ideal theory” and utopianism. The second is more contextual and practical, although it could be seen as a special case of the first: the climate crisis changes everything, and social or political thought that does not take climate change and its effects seriously – including the possibility of widespread societal collapse – is unlikely to have much practical relevance in this world.

After this brief review/summary, the final, seventeenth chapter of the book continues with a discussion of the success (or failure) of the view developed in the book in the light of the aforementioned four criteria, and looks (briefly) into the (bleak) prospects for the revival of a radical Buddhism.

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