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2561 Vesak Day - Dhamma Talks by Prof Frank Hoffman

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The Buddhist Library, No.2, Lorong 24A Geylang Road, Singapore 398526


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"Buddhist Ethics" - 10 May (Wed), 3.30pm to 5.30pm

This paper summarizes several Pali Buddhist sutta-s and shows the contributions these make to the Early Buddhist philosophical position on ethics. In “Discourse on the Lesser Analysis of Deeds” Buddhist views of social ethics are explained with reference to the varna (“caste”) system. The basic idea is that lowness and excellence results from what one does, not from being born into a particular caste. This is a contrast from the earlier brāhmanical view, in which varna determined lowness or excellence. In “Discourse on Perfect View” elimination of the Three Hindrances of ragā, dosa, and moha, translated below as greed, hatred, and confusion, are discussed. This last discourse is a cornerstone of Buddhist ethics and is of great significance for the experience of enlightenment. In “Discourse at Madhura” the view of the superiority of brāhmins to others is rejected. In “Discourse to Sandaka” the loud-mouthed Sandaka obtains some basic instruction in Dhamma. In “Discourse on the Simile of the Cloth” Buddha said just like a dyer could dye and unclean cloth and make an unclearly dyed cloth, so a bad rebirth is expected when the mind is impure. On the contrary, a dyer dying a clean cloth gets a good result, and so a good rebirth is expected when the mind is pure.

"Buddhist Cosmology in the Sattasuriyasutta" - 11 May (Thur), 9am to 5pm

Religion, science, and Asian thought, when studied philosophically, intersect in ways that are understandable scientifically, philosophically, and religiously as shown in the Satta Suriya Sutta and in “The Sun” in the Anguttara Nikaya, two Early Buddhist texts. The value of doing philosophy this way is to highlight interdisciplinarity and include cultural otherness while advancing theory. Lessons of impermance, non-attachment, and the primacy of Buddhist doctrines are explained in these texts.

"Understandings of Experience in Buddhism" - 12 May (Fri), 9am to 5pm

I. Explaining Experience on the Buddhist Empiricism Thesis

The Buddhist empiricism thesis can best be understood as a form of apologetics for Buddhism. Apologetics admits of greater or lesser degrees of accuracy when viewed as exposition, and its main purpose is to defend and promote a religion. Judged accordingly, the Buddhist empiricism apologetic has met with some success insofar as it has called attention to the earliest recorded stratum of Buddhism. This attention is important in at least two ways. Historically, understanding early Buddhism is the sine qua non for understanding what counts as a change as Buddhism develops. Sociologically, for many educated people who have been exposed to both Eastern and Western cultural influences (especially in Sri Lanka) the attention to the Buddhist empiricism view has been an important way of attempting a synthesis of old and new. But viewed philosophically and with textual considerations in mind, the upshot of this discussion is that the Buddhist empiricism thesis is unsound.

II. The Experience of Belief In Buddhism

In what follows I want to sketch an interpretation of Buddhism according to which it does not offer doctrines with are empirically false, on the one hand, or trivially true on the other. In doing so I take my cue from an earlier, and by now classic, paper by H.H. Price. For the exposition of Buddhism I take the Pali Nikāyas, the single most significant collection of texts in the Buddhist tradition. The wheel of karma and rebirth is a cultural symbol deeply ingrained into the psyche of Buddhist peoples which enables them to regulate human relations and see sense in life as a whole rather that ‘just one thing after another’. To see this belief as reducible to bogus scientific explanation is in human terms, arrogant, and in logico-linguistic terms and unwarranted reduction of a complex ‘belief in’ to ‘belief that’. The question of whether early Buddhism, in particular, can be rightly called a form of empiricism is a subset of the question of whether any religion can rightly be called a form of empiricism. I think that the answer to both of these questions is that they cannot, but have focused upon the first question and not argued about the second one. I have assumed, rather than argued for, a distinction between scientific theories and synoptic metaphysical ones along the lines that Price gives. If my argument is right, then the Buddha was anti-speculative without being anti-metaphysical, and was indeed a synoptic metaphysician in Price’s sense.

III. Experiences of Conversion and Miracles

This two-part thesis will be defended: (i) that including the concept of conversion and the concept of miracle in the concept of experience would make for a more adequate view of experience in Buddhism than otherwise, one that shows a difference between Buddhist claims and scientific empirical claims; (ii) that on the “family resemblance” idea of what it is to define experience, it turns out that conversion and miracle are two elements of a non-essentialist “family resemblance” definition of experience in Buddhism.

IV. Experiences of the Wheel of Rebirth as Explained in Buddhist Psychotherapeutic Analysis

John Koller in “Buddhist and Psychoanalytic Insights into the Self and Self Awareness” and Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker are both successful in showing that there is a clear basis for meaningful comparison between Buddhism and psychotherapy in the wheel of rebirth without metaphysical language. ADP Kalansuriya in “The Logical Grammar of the Word ‘Rebirth’ in the Buddhist Paradigm: A Philosophical Sketch” similarly explains that dhamma-talk is rightly construed as ethical language without metaphysical language. On the interpretations above by Koller, Epstein, and Kalasuriya neither Buddhism nor psychotherapy have to interpret karma and rebirth as metaphysical in order for their language of attitude adjustment (in psychotherapy) or meditation and ethics (in Buddhism) to help humankind.

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