Like a Dancer’s Brow: Buddhists and Brahmins Debate the Self

By James Marks

A Five-Session Course: Thursdays, 6pm to 7:30, May 31, June 7, 14, 21, 28

Presented in the third floor Mae West Community Room of Jefferson Market Library. All classes are free and open to the public. Online registration is required.

JMU LogoAround 2,500 years ago, during a time of bustling intellectual and spiritual creativity in India, there emerged a new religious movement oriented on the teachings of a man who called himself the awakened one, the Buddha. One of his most distinctive teachings was also one of his most radical: that there is no self (atman). The nature of the self was—and remains—one of the central issues in Indian philosophy. This is true not only for the Brahmanical traditions flowing from the Vedas and the Upanishads, but even for the other new religious movements of the Buddha’s milieu, like Jainism, which were similarly opposed to the caste system and the authority of the Vedas. Almost all Indian philosophical traditions accept that a true understanding of the nature of the self is essential if we are to find liberation from suffering. The Buddha, on the other hand, claimed that liberation requires learning that there is in fact no self at all. Naturally, as Buddhism’s power and influence grew, the “no self” teaching stirred up a great deal of controversy. Over the centuries, philosophers from various religious traditions in India hashed out these and other issues in public debates and polemical texts. When two traditions agreed that there is a fixed self, they would argue over its nature. Is it eternal? Is it different from the mind? Does it change, or is it fixed in a single state? Against a Buddhist, they would argue that the way we experience the world, as well as rebirth and karmic retribution, which Buddhists accept, cannot be explained without reference to a stable self who persists through time. In this course we will follow a single thread of debate, covering nearly six centuries, between Buddhism and a brahmanical tradition called Nyaya, the logicians. After getting acquainted with the intellectual and religious context, we will look closely at a series of primary texts, translated from Sanskrit, and then debate the existence of the self amongst ourselves. Throughout the course, we will discuss the stakes of philosophical arguments, the style of Indian polemics, and the challenges and rewards of reading and interpreting old, fragmentary texts.

The Professor: James Marks is a doctoral candidate in the Group in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley. He received a BA in Philosophy from Eugene Lang College and an MTS from Harvard Divinity School in Buddhist Studies. He specializes in interreligious debate in classical Indian philosophy, primarily between the Buddhist epistemological tradition and the brahmanical Nyaya tradition. He is interested in the nature of the self, the relationship between instruction and argumentation in the Indian Buddhist monastic tradition, and the literary qualities and effects of philosophical texts.

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