Buddhism and Human Flourishing: The Debate

30 05 2013

[In the build-up to the second workshop of the Philosophy and Religious Practices network, Wendy Dossett sets out the issues at stake. For more details and how to register for the Buddhism and Human Flourishing workshop on 25th June, go here.]

The Philosophy and Religious Practices network aims to bring philosophers into more fruitful dialogue with so-called ‘lived religion’.  That said, Buddhism is hardly ignored by philosophers. Early Buddhist epistemology reconstructed from the Pali Nikāyas famously fascinated Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.  The works, in particular the Mulāmadhyamakākarikā, attributed to the so-called philosophical founder of the Mahayana tradition, Nagarjuna (c. 1st Century CE), have been the subject of extensive commentary from a western philosophical vantage point. Books and articles on the similarities between Nagarjuna and Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein & Derrida abound.   However, the focus has been for the most part upon the written texts. In his 1972 volume Buddhism and Society anthropologist Melford Spiro drew the attention of western, post-colonial Buddhist Studies to the fact that when gaze is directed solely on texts, read only by monks, a great deal of the lived reality of Buddhism is missed. Spiro himself is now critiqued for re-inscribing colonial categories on the Burmese Buddhism he explored, but western Buddhist Studies post-Spiro could never again legitimately focus exclusively on texts, nor extrapolate and essentialise key tenets and concepts without regard to their relation to the lives, communities and practices of ordinary Buddhists.

The Buddhism and Human Flourishing day-workshop reflects that spirit. Most of the speakers describe themselves as practising Buddhists.  Most of them are working at the interface of Buddhism and suffering, either on an individual, or community/global level; engaging Buddhist ideas about the individual, embodiment, sentience, the Other, mind, relationality, Compassion and so on, with real human, environmental and global problems.  The workshop happens in a period in which the take-up of Buddhist practices into mainstream health-care is growing apparently exponentially.  Whilst there are no doubt philosophical questions around the legitimacy of dislocating practices from world-view, it is a simple reality that Mindfulness, Third Wave and Other–centred therapies are making significant contributions not only to psychotherapy, but to addictions treatment, pain management, and palliative care. Also reflected in the work of our speakers is the immense and many-faceted movement of Engaged Buddhism. This relates Buddhist practices and epistemology with social justice, politics, economics, environmental concerns, and considers the conditions of flourishing on a global scale.

The day hopes to explore some of these contributions in order to develop the conversation between philosophers and Buddhism as it is lived and practised in some of these western contexts.  The day is designed to be accessible to those unfamiliar with Buddhist ideas and practices, but will also grapple with some of the theoretical questions which exercise westerners interested in Buddhism.  Amongst these are questions about whether (or not) it is legitimate to see Buddhism as a nihilistic enterprise.  Might there be Buddhist responses to Slavoj Zizek’s accusation that western Buddhism shores up capitalism by presenting itself as a remedy to the stress caused by it?  Is there value in the Bhutanese Buddhist concept of Gross National Happiness? Does Buddhism privilege human subjectivity? (and in what ways are contemporary philosophers brining Buddhism into dialogue with the latest developments in Speculative Realism?) Are conversations between Buddhist and western philosophy (and psychology) terminally flawed by translation problems and by the reality of Buddhism’s internal diversity? What kind of understanding of Buddhism is possible without practice? Is Western Buddhism substantively different from other Buddhisms? What, ultimately, might Buddhism(s) have to offer to well-being and flourishing on an individual and global level?

Finally, and in the spirit of the ‘practice’ orientation of the event,  there is an optional open invitation to delegates, Buddhist or otherwise, to experience what Edward Conze described as ‘the heartbeat of Buddhism’,  and to sit for a short while in meditation.



Buddhism and Human Flourishing Conference – University of Chester 25th June 2013 – final line-up confirmed

25 05 2013


The line-up for second conference in the Philosophy and Religious Practices on June 25th at the University of Chester has now been confirmed. We are delighted that Gina Clayton and Jamie Creswell are able to join the stellar line-up we already have confirmed. They will be focusing on the current engagement by Buddhism in public life and social action in the UK and elsewhere.

For full details of the conference aims and participants please click below:

Buddhism and Human Flourishing Flier




Leon Moosavi on the Woolwich attack

24 05 2013

Leon Moosavi is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool and a participant in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network. He has highlighted some of the sociological factors underlying the recent attack in Woolwich for the Guardian and on the UoL website:



Introducing the Network: Anna Strhan

24 05 2013

[Anna is a member of the network steering committee, a sociologist of religion at the University of Kent, and author of Levinas, Subjectivity, Education.]

My interests in the relations between philosophy and lived religious practice were initially stimulated by a paper in the background to modern theology as part of my undergraduate degree, which examined how philosophical and theological writings emerged in relation to wider cultural and social changes, and my MA in Literature, Religion and Philosophy took forward this interest in the relations between culture, philosophy and religion. My first PhD was primarily philosophical, exploring Emmanuel Levinas’s understanding of the nature of human subjectivity, ethics and knowledge, and considering how his ideas of teaching and his work within Jewish education opened up rich resources for understanding the meaning of education. I situated the development of his philosophical ideas in relation to the specific cultural conditions and context of political horror that his work responded to, and addressed how these ideas raise concrete ethical and political questions about the nature and practices of education today.
Following this, I decided to move into the empirical study of religion, and undertook a second PhD, which was an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of British evangelical Christians. This took forward my philosophical interests in the nature of meaning, morality and the formation of subjectivities in modernity, and addressed these issues through examining how forms of Christian practice respond to experiences of fragmentation in modern urban contexts, and the forms of subjectivity and ethical practice implied in this.w these ideas raise concrete ethical and political questions about the nature and practices of education today.

My work has therefore ended up being in conversation with literatures in philosophy, sociology and anthropology of religion, and I am looking forward to discussions about the interrelations of these as part of this research network. I am particularly interested in exploring how philosophy can help focus the lenses of empirical scholarship to address how forms of religious practice are both shaped by and respond to human existential concerns as well as the mundane conditions of everyday life. I am also keen to consider how philosophical approaches to ethics, language, knowledge and subjectivity can draw out methodological questions about what it is to study contemporary forms of religious and secular life. I am excited to be part of the network and to have the opportunity to discuss these and other questions about how philosophical work can relate to and deepen understanding of lived religion.

Mathew Clark, Pentecostalism and Philosophy of Religion

19 05 2013

[This is a summary of a talk given by Mathew Clark, Regent’s Theological College at the University of Wales, at the first Philosophy and Religious Practices’ workshop at the University of Liverpool (a report for which is available here).]

Intro: My own experience of exorcism and of healings. Pentecostals, who in total now number close on 10% of the world’s population, live and think in a world in which their Christian living is accompanied by an observable phenomenology which they understand to be the work and influence of the Holy Spirit, linked to the mission of Jesus Christ.

1.    Pentecostal groups in the UK


–       Classical groups: Elim, Assemblies of God, Apostolic Church

–       Influences: Charismatic Anglicans, RC’s, Methodists and others (neo-Pentecostals) – UK archbishops?

–       Newer groups e g Terry Virgo’s New Frontiers church

–       Immigrant groups: West Indian and African, but others from Asia (Korea, Singapore, India) and from Latin America (e g Universal Church – Brazil)

–       Growth occurring primarily in the last two categories

–       Still relatively very small, total excluding charismatics probably less than 1/2 million – this is stark contrast to major growth areas in other regions eg E and SE Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Significant social markers:

–       fervour,

–       commitment to alternative Christian life-style,

–       evangelisation at every level (personal, community and national),

–       religiously conservative (if not politically) and

–       a growing public profile (although often through lens of sceptical or hostile UK media.)

Philosophical markers:

–       Hold to a Christian world-view vs secular (shared with evangelicalism)

–       Pervasive miraculous: tongues, prophetic speech, healing and miracles

–       Holistic view of reality (no strong body-spirit/physical-spiritual dualism)

–       Balance of spirit-freedom and text-restraint (role of the text)

–       Approach science-religion (and secular-religious) debate from unique angle of common and popular phenomenology

2.    Two major issues:

2.1  Experience and propagation of the “miraculous”

–       “Muslims also receive healing but they do not convert to Christianity” – indignant Hindu professor on proselytization of Hindus by Pentecostals in South Africa, because of healing and exorcism.

–       “I cannot do theology as though I had not met God powerfully” – my own comments while writing What is distinctive about Pentecostal Theology, 1987 (With H Lederle – Pretoria: Unisa Press).

–       Science-religion debate not purely a question of philosophical categories and possibilities, but of existential and empirical phenomenology of spirit-matter interaction.

2.2  Role of the text

–       Full spectrum of religious/spiritual approaches to Biblical text demonstrated in the movement: text as inspired, text as semi-divine, text as autonomously efficacious, text as narrative witness, text as divine command, etc. In practical terms, no normative hermeneutic.

–       However, major role of text is to provide direction and boundaries to proclamation and experience – “text” and “spirit” provide balancing emphases.

–       Therefore text both liberating and restricting: it confines religious and spiritual experiences within boundaries, thereby limiting superstition and promoting modernisation; but it can also operate legalistically and in over-literal interpretations become socially unhelpful (e g age of the earth debates, role of women in church and society, uncritical acceptance of authority of rulers, etc.)

3.    Conclusion:

The practice of philosophy (of religion) in the UK, like the development and practice of public policy (and, as the C of E has discovered, ecclesiastical policy), cannot proceed without taking cognisance of these groups and their worldview and daily experiences – their lived religion. They make the insistence upon a scientistic-secularist-rationalist-humanist state and state policies appear simplistic and perhaps neglectful of significant personal-existential and empirical-social reality.

Philosophy in the UK may be in danger of practicing without taking due note of strong arguments for a “space for thought” which recognises the limitations of the rationalistic and materialistic paradigm in which Western thinking tends to operate.

John Reader reflects on the Liverpool workshop

14 05 2013

On a general level, it was a good day, particularly because of the mix of people present and disciplines represented, and therefore opportunities for fruitful exchange both within and external to the actual sessions. These are no more than passing comments as I reflect upon some of the substance.

The point was made from within our breakout group that one of the things that philosophy and indeed philosophy of religion can offer is the chance to take time, stand back, and think more deeply about matters of faith and religious practice. It is difficult to do justice to what we meant by that as it makes it sound as though this is simply a matter of technique rather than of content. My take on this evolves very firmly from the work of Bruno Latour and his concept of “reassembling” ( see especially his Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory OUP 2007). My understanding of this is that he is advocating attention to detail, attention to the empirical, and therefore a slow, deliberate and humble reassembling of “matters of concern” which eschews any swift or precipitate recourse to supposed “matters of fact”. It also involves the recognition that judgements of value are always already part of this process, and that once one begins to examine any matter of concern in respectful detail, it becomes clear that there is real substance to be addressed. In order to illustrate this one would have to offer specific examples. One that I have drawn on before, and that became a discussion with another member of the conference as we travelled back together on the same train later, is the controversy over the High Speed Rail Link. Without going into details, I would just argue that “taking time” is not the same as “taking an objective distance” from such debates, but rather, as I think Latour might say, of becoming ever more deeply entangled in the lived complexity of such concerns. Technique then is not enough, as commitment (or various “fidelities”) are always already part of the picture.

A further reflection follows on from this in that I felt there was a tendency to see the potential contribution of philosophy and philosophy of religion as purely a technical one. Philosophy is a discipline that encourages and enables analysis, taking a critical distance, and applying one’s reasoning faculties to the somewhat “alien” subject matter of faith and religious practice. That is certainly not my personal or professional interest in the subject matter of this network. I am more interested in the writings of contemporary philosophers (or recently dead ones anyway!), who I believe offer creative discourses and concepts that help me/us towards a better understanding of the world we inhabit and therefore are engaged in potential discussions with people of faith who may be struggling towards a similar aim. Therefore there are both clashes of content and understanding, but also fruitful encounters from which all involved might benefit. One example which perhaps sets the scene for these encounters is the work of Meillassoux, summed up in a quotation from After Finitude : “The end of metaphysics, understood as the ‘de-absolutization of thought’ is thereby seen to consist in the rational legitimation of any and every variety of religious belief in the absolute, so long as the latter invokes no authority beyond itself… By forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the the religious” (p45). If one takes this as a starting point, which I am inclined to do, it opens up for debate BOTH the nature of philosophical discourse AND that of religious expression and practice – the latter no longer to be reduced to simply a matter of belief, but also not to be subjected to an external critique of “reason” conceived as mere technique. Real encounter and a real journey of discovery towards a common end of deeper understanding: that is the direction in which I would like to see the network develop. If followed it just might have some direct practical implications for the practice of both faith and politics.

Rebecca Catto, Research on Religion and Public Policy

13 05 2013

[This is the second in the series of posts relating to the first Philosophy and Religious Practices’ workshop at the University of Liverpool (a report for which is available here). This is a summary of a talk given by Rebecca Catto, a research fellow at the Centre for Social Relations at the University of Coventry and one of the leading academic voices in UK public debate around religion today.]


I am a sociologist of religion whose work has brought them into contact with the world of public policy rather than a policy expert, so this is the experience I drew upon for this paper, specifically:

  • Work at LSE-based charity studying New Religious Movements Inform
  • Work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on religion or belief.

This era of public policy and media interest in religion would seem an appropriate moment for experts on religion to be engaging beyond the academy, and there is the drive of the impact agenda in the UK.

The key points from what I am learning through such work are as follows:

  • Researchers have something significant and distinctive to contribute.
  • Reflexivity about one’s own values and position is important.
  • Engagement involves listening as well as informing, patience and commitment.
  • Cross-disciplinary work can be particularly powerful.
  • Creating and supporting dialogue may be a contribution in itself.

There is great inter and intra-religious diversity within and beyond the UK. This empirical diversity is a challenge for policy makers and legislators, as European and domestic case law in relation to religion or belief has been showing. Arts and humanities and social science researchers can contribute to a better understanding of the complexity.

We are not here to direct policy, but to provide balanced and useful accounts “for seeing the way things are and the way things might be…” (Barker, 1995: 302). It may be almost impossible to pinpoint one’s contribution to policy, but, if you believe you have an important message/idea of how to solve a problem, you ought to persevere. Public policy making is challenging and policy makers say they need help. We just have to try to communicate in an accessible, constructive manner.



Barker E. (1995) The Scientific Study of Religion? You must be joking! Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34: 287-310.