Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Ever-Elusive Self: Response to Jayarava Attwood

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Ever-Elusive Self: Response to Jayarava Attwood

Article excerpt

The Spring, 2012, issue of J.E.S. included my short essay, "Personalist Spirituality and Buddhist Anatman: Reflections on Contrasting Subjectivities, or Why I Am Not (Quite) (Yet) a Buddhist," (1) as well as a response to my essay by Jayarava Attwood, "Facing Death without a Soul: A Response to George Adams." (2) Although the following remarks are in response to Attwood's interpretation of my essay, I hope that they have implications for the larger ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and theists over the nature of the self.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Attwood has produced a thoughtful response to several of the themes of my essay. Given that the larger purpose of the essay was not so much thoroughly to stake out a position (an issue that has been debated for close to two centuries in the West and far longer than that in Asia is not likely to be settled in a short essay) but, rather, to rekindle the long-running but recently subsided dialogue between Buddhists and theists over the nature of the self, I appreciate Attwood's contribution and hope that our exchange will lead to further exploration of this difficult issue. There remain many differences between my position and that expressed by Attwood, some of which I will comment on below. But, the mere fact that our positions appear to remain so far apart and, to some extent, repeat arguments that have been made by our predecessors, is perhaps the best indicator that further consideration of this issue is necessary if interfaith dialogue between Buddhists and theists is to move forward.

Before getting into the more substantial elements of this dialogue, I would like to clarify two points where I believe Atwood mischaracterizes my position. First, he characterizes my treatment of Buddhism as "monolithic." (3) On the contrary, I recognize that, as in all religious traditions, Buddhism has evolved over time and is rich in diversity. In offering examples of the Buddhist understanding of anatman, I intentionally draw from three distinct periods of Buddhism. Given that my intent was not to construct a survey of the full range of anatman throughout the history of Buddhism (in which case I certainly would have cited the curious case of the Pudgalavadin school, perhaps the only Buddhist school that unequivocally asserts the existence of a self), I believe that I have offered representative examples of how anatman has been understood in various periods in the history of Buddhist thought. However, while recognizing that there are nuances in terms of how anatman is articulated, the key point is that (Pudgalavadins excepted) anatman is always there. Buddhism is indeed not a monolithic tradition, but it is a tradition that has consistently defended the anatman position, at the doctrinal and monastic, if not the popular, lay practice level. As Attwood points out, at the popular level Buddhism actually tends to embrace the "eternalism" position that seeks to preserve the existence of the self. (4) Even Attwood firmly asserts on several occasions that anatman is understood in clear and unequivocal terms in Buddhism, and he criticizes me for suggesting otherwise. (5) In short, I do not see Buddhism as a monolithic tradition, but I do see it as a tradition that is doctrinally consistent when it comes to anatman.

A second preliminary point that I would like to clarify is Attwood's suggestion that I ignore the ethical component of Buddhism and that, caught up in what he seems to think is my hyper-emotional fear of a loss of self (see below for more on this), I am unable to recognize the prominent role of kindness and compassion in Buddhism ("Adams's article overlooks this inspiring aspect of Buddhism"). (6) Quite to the contrary, my original essay was motivated by an interest in reconciling the ethical elements of Buddhism with an element (anatman) that I believe creates something of a spiritual quandary within the tradition. I opened my essay with what I believe is rather strongly worded praise of Buddhism precisely for the moral components that Attwood claims I do not appreciate. …

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