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.




2 responses

26 06 2013
Mr Arjuna Ranatunga

The event was a great one. It was well-attended, and there was a very positive, optimistic, forward-looking spirit in the air. I wish I’d mentioned the Buddha’s words, that admirable friendship, companionship, and comradery were indeed the whole of the holy life; as those who are friends with the admirable, can be expected to cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path, with dispassion, in seclusion, and resulting in letting go (in the right way) – this idea’s to be found in the Upaddha Sutta of the Pali Canon.

There was undoubtedly such friendship & companionship at the event. A very good pooling of ideas & positive energies. I left on a high.

Many thanks go to Drs Wendy & Chris, and all the Chester University staff & helpers, who made the day possible.

With much love, appreciation & respect.


30 06 2013
Mr Arjuna Ranatunga

Expanding on the idea of admirable friendship, the Buddha says the following (In the above-mentioned Upaddha Sutta):

“And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”


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