The Buddhist Vision of Human Nature

Chapter Three is, in my unlearned opinion, a masterful presentation of the philosophical content as well as the history of Buddhism. Of course it is written for westerners, and uses the familiar (i.e., western) methods of analytic breakdown, linear narration, and sociological analysis. There may be other equally good starting points but Palmer's exposition is definitely a good one.

I was especially struck by how useful the "Summary" section is (it begins on p. 89, and is a little longer than usual). The author links what he has said in the chapter to the title of his book, which as you know is Visions of Human Nature. Like the other -isms studied in these chapters, Buddhism assumes that there is something called human nature and that it is has universal features. However, it leaves out the notion of a substantial self (as did certain western philosophers) and emphasizes the continuity of human and non-human nature (again, as did certain westerners). Many of Buddhism's ethical teachings are familiar to our ears — don't lie, don't steal, etc. — but it would be a serious mistake to think they have the same philosophical underpinnings. Philosopher Arthur Danto stressed this point perhaps more strongly than Palmer himself would, holding that "Buddhist ethics makes sense only if one accepts the metaphsycial presuppositions on which they are based (the doctrine of karma and reincarnation)" (this wording is Palmer's, p. 93). If we take the phrase "Buddhist ethics" in the large sense to include not only the Big Moral Issues but also the practical knowledge that guides everyday actions (recall the flossing cartoon on p. 80), then Danto and others who stress the metaphysical dimension mean that attempts by westerners to use Buddhism as a lifestyle rather than a world view are misguided.

Not all philosophers share Danto's view. For instance, Palmer cites Edward Conze as representing the opposite view. But the issue is more than a squabble among academic philosophers. Consider Phil Jackson's book Sacred Hoops; Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, in which he describes the effect that "Eastern principles" had on his personal life, his career as an NBA player, and his coaching of the Chicago Bulls. Consider too that wonderful press conference held a few minuts after the Bulls' final NBA championship, when Michael Jordan explained to a panel of banal and tiresome sports reporters how he knew when to take the game-winning shot. "Zen teaches us about that," Michael said. "Everything is a flow, and everything has its moment. If you're in the flow, you know the moment." Then, looking at the puzzled reporters, he concluded, "The moment is the moment." (I still remember the interview, but am not sure which was more wonderful, Michael's summary or the stunned look on the faces of those news people.)

So is Danto right, or Jackson? Palmer seems to side with Jackson, though I am not sure. What do you think?

Finally, one other meta-level reflection. (By "meta-level" I mean "commenting on comments," in this case Wren writing about Palmer, who is writing about the sacred texts, which are about...) Notice that at the end of his summary as well as elsewhere in this chapter and, mutatis mutandis (look that phrase up, it may be on the final exam!), Palmer accounts for the spread of Buddhist thinking by describing sociopolitical conditions, as though the main cause was not the power of the ideas but rather the power of institutions such as imperial authority. (I say "as though" to be fair to Palmer, who I think actually believes that this is a two-way interaction.) This is a big issue in the history of ideas, and has its classical expression in Marxism's distinction between superstructure and infrastructure. Do grand superstructural theories (theories of economics as well as theories of art, philosophy, religion, and so on) change because of changes in the sociopolitical infrastructure (which includes the actual economic relationships that are the subject matter of economic theory)? Or is it philosophy and other sorts of theory that change the concrete social and political and — for Marx, most basic of all — economic conditions of life? This question will recur throughout the book.

Supplemental Readings

Required: The Sammaditthi Sutta (Discourse on the Right View). Please click on this link at the beginning of this line to read the introduction to this classic text. You will notice there are internal links that will take you to the rest of the text. Sidepoint: I don't think you will find this assignment burdensome, but if you do, let me know in an email message. These supplemental readings are supposed to inspire you, not flatten you.

Optional: There is a ton of stuff about Buddhism on the web and in the library. I have posted a tiny fraction of it on a separate page that gathers additional information about Buddhist teachings and assorted images. Take a look even if you don't have time to study it in detail. I think you will be struck by the strange beauty as well as the variety of the statues and other images you will find there (remember, the Buddha is a spiritual force as well as a historical person).

Special Event: You might want to do something Buddhistic in order to fulfill one of the Special Event requirements. For instance, you could visit a Buddhist temple in Rogers Park or attend the world-renown Art Institute in the Loop or the famous Oriental Institute on the south side.