Practicing Buddhism, Studying Philosophy

Socrates | Buddhism and Philosophy

About the Author: Dylan B. is a longtime Shambhala practitioner and a PhD student in philosophy at MIT. For this article, Fred Meyer interviewed him about the place of both Buddhist practice and philosophy in his life.

How did you get involved with spirituality?

My parents were students of Trungpa Rinpoche, and I grew up with Buddhism and spirituality in the background, doing occasional things like the Winter Solstice Celebration, Children’s Day, and going to Karmê Chöling for Family Camp in the summer.

I always had a strong connection to meditation practice and the general energy at Karmê Chöling and even at the local Shambhala Center, and I remember doing a lot of sitting at Karmê Chöling during Family Camp.

Sitting didn’t really become a regular part of my life until college. I spent the summer after my freshman year on the volunteer crew at Shambhala Mountain Center. I really connected to the daily meditation periods. The summer was stressful—at that time, SMC was understaffed and everybody was overworked—and it was a really valuable opportunity to discover how supportive meditation could be in coping with that environment and even helping others cope with it. So I came away with a sense of the power of meditation to be supportive in working with difficult situations.

How did you decide to study philosophy?

I took some philosophy classes my first year of college. I never read much philosophy in high school, but I always had the sense that it was something I wanted to study. I felt that the way of thinking and the kind of work that was expected came naturally to me in my philosophy classes early in college.

I was also pretty invested in physics, and always saw myself more as a physics person until the very end of college, when I was feeling burned out on physics and thinking about doing philosophy for grad school.

I made that decision because I started to feel pushed away by physics and invited by philosophy. I did a thesis in experimental physics, and it was a lot of tedious time in the lab, and my project didn’t get as far as I hoped. I found that I didn’t have as much intrinsic passion for the subject as I’d had when I started taking courses in it.

I decided to do a double major in philosophy my senior year; so I took three or four philosophy classes that year to finish the requirements. I was really into them and doing well, and I felt like it was satisfying in the way that my early physics courses had been: with both elementary physics and philosophy, you have an initial intuition, and then you arrive at an answer that either lines up with or contradicts that initial intuition. So you get to see the relationship between the result that a worked-out theory delivers, and your initial intuitive sense for what was going on.

Where do you think philosophy leads? What are you hoping for from your study of philosophy?

For me, much of the point of philosophy is to illuminate a certain facet of reality, to cast it into a different light.

I suspect “where philosophy leads” is different for different people. For me, it leads very much back into the world or the phenomena that gave rise to the philosophical questions. I’d say that for me much of the point of philosophy is to illuminate a certain aspect of phenomena or facet of reality, to cast it in a different light—as opposed to philosophy deriving value from producing a final answer about that facet of reality, necessarily. I think that just the moment of beholding something with that new appreciation has a lot of intrinsic value.

I also think that some projects may have more tangible benefits. For example, I’ve also been thinking about including certain kinds of contemplative practices within a moral framework: how practices aimed at the deliberate cultivation of compassion—for example, tonglen—fit into a moral life. That project is interesting partly because it actually has the potential to change the way people engage with the moral realm; so it’s more applied.

In all cases, I do think philosophy is concerned with making claims at a certain level of generality or abstraction. We have lots of observations and intuitive ideas about things, and I think the role of a philosophical theory—whether it’s more aesthetic or more applied—is to in some way explain or unify these different observations.

Where do you think the spiritual path leads? What are you hoping for from your study of spirituality?

I see living the good life as a project that can be perfected or worked on, and enacted through working on it.

I think one thing I often come back to is just to lead a good life. To have some sense of living deliberately and with a set of ideals. The Buddhist ideals have always seemed to fit pretty well: a good life is one that involves embracing experience in a non-discriminating or all-inclusive way, and helps others to the same; and where you’re in some sense reconciled to yourself and have sympathy for yourself, and can help others do that too.

I see living the good life as a project that can be perfected or worked on, and enacted through working on it. The goal of enlightenment was at one point motivating to me earlier in my practice. Now it feels like the possibility of enlightenment is less relevant, or it’s less clear what it would mean or feel like to attain that goal; but I do know what it’s like to move into a challenging situation and appreciate how I handled it. Those seem to be the most salient guiding experiences at this point.

How do the worlds of Buddhism and philosophy mix for you?

For a long time I’ve kept Buddhism and philosophy separate, but now there are inroads in both directions.

For a long time I kept them separate. It felt premature to mix them—like I wouldn’t know what I was doing—but I think now I have enough orientation on both sides to start bringing them together.

For example, I’ve started taking some Buddhist studies courses, including some courses on Chandrakirti, the late Indian Madhyamaka philosopher. I’m interested in how the people who developed the Madhyamaka saw it not just as a method of philosophical critique, but as part of their spiritual practice, and as a way they could make spirituality accessible to others.

I’ve also been looking into different possibilities for drawing on the Buddhist tradition to enrich Western philosophical perspectives. As I mentioned before [in response to the question about where philosophy leads], I’ve thought for a long time about writing a paper that explores how contemplative practices like tonglen can enrich Western conceptions of ethics and the good person. There’s been a lot of interest in philosophical theories of “virtue,” the set of human qualities that mark one as a morally good person. Aristotle, the first proponent of “virtue ethics,” which views the goodness of persons as the starting point in moral theorizing, talks a lot about how virtue is acquired through practice—but “practice” is often taken to mean only “external action”; there’s an attitude that the only real way of exercising morality is to constantly go out and help people in certain ways. I think Buddhism takes the interesting perspective that a really important part of the moral life is cultivating the underlying mental states that actually support you in helping others.

So at this point, it feels like inroads in both directions—from Western philosophy into Buddhism, and vice versa.

What distinguishes Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy? Might Buddhist philosophy be valid in a Western framework?

Some Buddhist insights could be taken seriously if presented properly.

In professional academic philosophy there are very high standards of intellectual rigor, and a distinctive idiom for making distinctions and describing philosophical positions. Probably not a lot of materials that practicing Buddhists draw on would meet those standards. But that isn’t to say that Buddhist positions can’t be represented and made precise using the idiom and set of distinctions drawn by philosophers. So I think it is more a matter of translation than a matter of having to enhance or supplement Buddhist ideas with new, foreign, elements.

In general, I do feel pretty optimistic that certain Buddhist insights, such as the revised understanding of virtue we discussed, could be pitched in a way that would make the philosophical community take them seriously. I think Buddhism as a philosophical system is maybe too comprehensive to try to process it all through analytic philosophy; and anyway the first step is to make more isolated contributions. I do feel like I’m starting to be in a position to do that.