Saturday, July 01, 2006

three hours well spent

I watched three more of Robert Wright's interviews with academic luminaries: (1) Daniel Dennett, (2) John Haught, and (3) Huston Smith. I must say, I like Wright less and less with each viewing because there are times when he appears to be only half-listening, and other times when he comes off as merely patronizing his interlocutor. As in the Joseph Goldstein interview, he also frequently gives the impression that he doesn't care what's being said. The man definitely has to work on his mannerisms, not to mention his manners.

Up first: Daniel Dennett.

In a sense, my progress through the three interviews mirrored Dante's progress through the inferno, purgatory, and paradise. The interview with Dennett was the most difficult to watch, in part because Wright came into the interview with an axe to grind, not least to get back at Dennett because the latter had written disparagingly about Wright and his "New Mysterian" school of thought with regard to consciousness.

[NB: The label "mysterian" refers to the idea that there is something about consciousness that will remain forever closed-- mysterious-- to scientific scrutiny.]

The tone of the Dennett interview quickly became confrontational, and while no one burst into an angry flush or stomped away from the cameras, it was obvious that neither man liked the other that much, polite academic veneer notwithstanding. My problem with Wright was that, whatever his level of expertise in the philosophy of mind, he failed to do the basic job of an interviewer and just listen. The result-- which you'll see if you can bring yourself to watch the entire interview, is that we, the viewers, are cheated out of what could have been a substantive explication of both Dennett's physicalist view and Wright's mysterian/dualistic view. I wasn't happy with this interview at all.

Next up: John Haught, my old professor at GU.

I took Haught's course, Science, Myth, and Religion, back in 1988. I doubt he remembers me; I wasn't a particularly lively or motivated student in '88. That was my sophomore year in college, and I spent a lot of it just fucking around. Haught deserved better of me, as a student. At the same time, he didn't strike me as an impressive lecturer. For my money, that honor goes to people like the all-business, no-bullshit Charles Jones of CUA, the twitchy Italian Tony Tambasco at GU, the feisty New Yawker Fr. Joe Komonchak at CUA, and the always-cheerful Robert Buswell of UCLA. Compelling lecturers, all.

Wright's approach to Haught was completely different from his approach to Dennett. He sat back, listened for longer periods, and asked questions in a far more civil and measured manner. As a result, the viewer has the chance to hear a good bit about Haught's point of view, which focuses on process theology (without explicitly naming it as such-- but you hear echoes of A.N. Whitehead in Haught's repeated use of the adjective "evolutionary").

I also couldn't help noticing that Haught hasn't aged a bit since 1988. It's been almost twenty years since I was in his classroom on the first floor of the ICC building, and damn-- the dude looks exactly the same, hairstyle and all. How did he do that?

Haught's interview was far more substantive than the botched affair with Dennett. If you're looking for an alternative to classical theism, Haught sketches the outlines of a process theistic view.* I will take him to task for being a bit too prissy and picky about fellow thinkers (Wright even asks Haught what the latter thinks of Dennett!): Haught critiques D. Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, and even Huston Smith.

Finally: Huston Smith.

I have to admit that this interview was a revelation. Like many people, I have a copy of Smith's classic, The World's Religions. I also have the book under its previous, un-PC title, The Religions of Man. (Both volumes are in the States.) Smith's writing always struck me as humble, accessible, and totally free of pedantry. He is often chided by fellow scholars for taking too rosy a view of the major religious traditions, but let me tell you something:

Just watch the man in that interview. Just watch.

Up to this evening, I'd never seen or heard Smith on TV or radio. He's old, he's frail, but his eyes are full of light and he radiates an almost childlike, uncynical joy that, at several points, just about moved me to tears. I could have been watching a local Zen master. This is a man whose primary concern is the practical, human factor-- not doctrine, not metaphysics: rather, the love and compassion that he sees at the core of the great traditions. Smith himself seems to embody those virtues. I was surprised and impressed. Even Wright, our brusque and fumbling interviewer, was having trouble being rude.

Smith's viewpoint will definitely strike some as too facile: his strong belief in the fundamental unity of the great religions is something that most of us, especially those of us who are academically minded, will approach with caution. If you're a Buddhist, for example, you won't hear much Buddhism in the way Smith puts his inclusivistic orientation into words. There's too much God-language in his metaphysical descriptions to resonate with a Buddhist on the logos level. But if you're a Buddhist (or Christian, or Muslim, or atheist), you'll both see and hear something about Smith's attitude that simply can't be put into words-- an undercurrent of joyful compassion and genuine love-- both for his area of study and for the people who comprise the great traditions he has spent 50 years examining. I found myself responding to Smith's simple, unsophisticated smile with a smile of my own-- his attitude is contagious. God bless him.

Smith is at pains to see the great value enshrined in many traditions, even as he advocates being well-rooted in one's own faith and practice. An analogy he makes toward the end of the interview, similar to a point I've made on this blog, is that you don't speak "language in general"-- you speak a specific language, be it English, French, or pidgin; for the religious practitioner, this means you don't follow a path in a shallow, willy-nilly manner and then expect results: without specificity, depth, and dedication, you get nothing!

Of the speakers I've listened to so far, I'm most impressed by Smith-- a fragile old soul with shining eyes and a delighted expression, very much a Christian cousin of the Buddhist Robert Buswell in that sense. Buswell, though still relatively young, is on his way to becoming a Happy Old Feller in academe. He and Smith are two of the best, kindest souls out there.

I haven't related much of the substance of these three interviews. I'm hoping that the more serious readers of this blog will go and visit and watch these vids on their own. I'll be working my way through the series, enduring Wright as best I can, trying to learn from his interviewees. Again, many thanks to Sperwer for cluing me in to this site.

*John Cobb, another process theist who is famous for his dialogues with renowned Buddhist Abe Masao (or Masao Abe in the West), tried to establish that Buddhism and process theology share certain traits, especially in terms of metaphysical notions of process. Abe was having none it: he was acquainted with process theology but, speaking mainly from the Zen tradition, which has been influenced by Hua-yen thinking, Abe would not budge on the important question of simultaneity: process theology's notion of becoming, a concept inherited directly from A.N. Whitehead's process philosophy, necessarily includes a sense of time. Abe's Hua-yen-inflected Zen perspective doesn't see things as interconnected through a process of temporal becoming, but rather as a totally simultaneous intercausality/interpenetration in which time itself is merely a construct of the mind (the latter thought is, of course, not unique to Buddhism).

The Hua-yen school is usually considered Chinese, not Indian, but it's interesting to note that the above metaphysics is visible in the Indian Heart Sutra, which predates the Hua-yen school. Consider this excerpt from the Heart Sutra, which only makes sense when the veil of dualism drops away:

"Sariputra, the Characteristics of the
Voidness of All Dharmas
Are Non-Arising, Non-Ceasing, Non-Defiled,
Non-Pure, Non-Increasing, Non-Decreasing."

"Therefore, in the Void There Are No Forms,
No Feelings, Perceptions, Volitions or Consciousness."

"No Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue, Body or Mind;
No Form, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch or Mind Object;
No Realm of the Eye,
Until We Come to No realm of Consciousness."

"No ignorance and Also No Ending of Ignorance,
Until We Come to No Old Age and Death and
No Ending of Old Age and Death."

"Also, There is No Truth of Suffering,
Of the Cause of Suffering,
Of the Cessation of Suffering, Nor of the Path."

"There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever."

[NB: I'm cringing a bit at the "void" language, above, which is evidence of an older translation of the term sunyata, "emptiness." The term "void" isn't widely used among Western Buddhist scholars anymore, primarily because it is too freighted with Western connotations, especially from the long existentialist tradition in the West. "Void" in the Western existentialist sense has nothing to do with sunyata.]

You see a series of negations. What is being negated above? Notice that all the phenomena being negated are things we associate with movement through space and time. How do you reach old age and die? Through the passage of time! How can ignorance or attainment be discerned? Through time and space! How can the six senses be deployed? They make sense (so to speak) only in a spatiotemporal context! All these things fall away when you "see with the Dharma Eye," as the metaphor goes. I submit that Hua-yen metaphysics is consistent with the metaphysics of the Heart Sutra. The larger question of whether all Buddhists share the same metaphysical view is another matter. Indologist Stephen Kaplan, for example, characterizes the Buddhism of Vasubandhu as "process ontology," and many Buddhists are comfortable with the language of "becoming," all of which is to say that "Buddhism" is a label covering many different schools of thought, not merely Hua-yen metaphysics.

Hua-yen is known as Hwaeom in Korea. The Hwaeom-gyeong is the Avatamsaka Sutra.


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