Friday, December 20, 2013

An Apology for Buddhist Philosophy and Buddhist Philology

Why Philosophia Buddhica? Even as someone who tries to do philology, one’s actual interest lies in philosophy. One does philology because one has to. One does philosophy because one likes it. The temptation, however, is that one does what one likes, but does not do what one has to. This seems to be particularly true in the field of Buddhology (i.e. Buddhist Studies). So honestly, I am sceptical about those of us who do (or rather try to do) Buddhist philosophy without relying on historical-philological works. Let us say all of us are interested in what the Buddha thought or said, what Nāgārjuna thought or said, and so on, but how are we to be sure that is what the Buddha actually thought or said and what Nāgārjuna thought or said. One of the greatest challenges thus is finding out if our attribution of a certain Buddhist philosophical idea to a certain person, a certain time, a certain place, a certain work, and so on, is accurate and thus reliable. None of us would, I would assume, prefer to live in a fool’s paradise! Because of such difficulties regarding past thoughts and ideas, we have no choice but to resort to historical-philological works, which may not always succeed in meeting these challenges but at least address these difficulties and draw caution to them. To be sure, historical-philological works are dreary and tedious, but that in way should suggest that we do not need them. In my view, a good student of Buddhist philosophy is also a good student of Buddhist philology, and vice versa. A student of Buddhist philology who does not understand Buddhist philosophy cannot do good Buddhist philology. A student of Buddhist philosophy who does not practise Buddhist philology cannot do good Buddhist philosophy. Of course, it is also a matter of personal interest. Not everyone who can do Buddhist philology or philosophy may want/like to do Buddhist philology or philosophy. This is an absolutely legitimate choice. But we should resist the temptation or tendency (in our academia, mostly those of us who are politicians in the academia) to denounce (or undermine) those fields or disciplines at which we are not particularly good at. The simple (il)logic seems to be: We do not need all those difficult disciplines at which I am not particularly good at. This is an apology for both Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist philology! 

1 comment:

  1. yes, fine; that´s it or perhaps better that would be the "ideal situation". But we all know how "hard" it is to "be with or work within the ideal situation". Outwardly, it never will be „so ideal“ as we would like to have it…; evidently, from a buddhist research perspective, if one can master sanskrit, pali, tibetan, chinese and japanese as basic research-languages and further will be fluent in english, french, german, italian and spanish, this would be excellent – but how many years of study are necessary? Thirty, forty years or more? And then what´s about the philosophical competence? Again twenty, thirty years or more? I think, before really becoming able to bring out or publish the „definite work“ we are surely dead. So we must think/operate with teamwork-awareness, as it was already done in tibetan, chinese or japanese buddhist circles in translating as best as possible important, sacred texts - and today it won´t be different. For sharing buddhist knowledge, in the academic sense, we should try to do our best in mastering perhaps some basic languages supported with philosophical skills and then „straightforwardly“ translate a text with the humble intention to give/do it to/for others.
    Naturally, the basic problem of so-called „adequate“ translation, „correct“ interpretation and „right“ understanding we always will have; if we look at other religious-philosophical cultures we can observe the same reflexions about this mentioned complexity (for example in greek or arabic philology and philosophy the same troubles of translation and interpretation will occur).
    What choice do we have in such a context of „finding the truth in old texts“? Evidently, the exigency of philological competence grounded in linguistic explorations for assuring a high standard of "appropriate translation" of historical, philosophical, etc. documents appear to be crucial. Yet, there is no guarantee if the intended philosophical sense of an ancient philosophical text (here considered in the buddhological context) will be definitely understood in all subtle details by the translator(s) or the reader(s) because such a finding depends on one´s own „philosophical seeing“ and how far one´s (inner) vision is already developed/matured. The words are surely there and most probably could be and even will be well translated but the meaning (if it´s a highly philosophical text with ethical embraced consequences) nevertheless lies in personal acquaintance with a philosophical topic or in cognitive inclination/recognition (a kind of gnoseological and soteriological intuition paired with conceptual broad-mindedness).
    A „good“ philosophical trained person can recognize a philosophical position and elaborate on it even not able to read/study a text in it´s original language because philosophical „problems“ have universal value independent of different languages and developed cultures. This, in my humble opinion, represents one of the main reasons why translations of philosophical texts from "generally unknown languages" in modern accessible languages should be encouraged. It promotes communication, cooperation and understanding.
    sincerely, mikael.