Monday, December 14, 2015

New Thompson interview

See it here. This Q&A reminds me of my work in the Batchelor thread. (Also see my review of the book here.)

Vikram Zutshi: Have you delved into the Self/No-Self debate between Hindus and Buddhists? Some schools of Buddhism come very close to the Vedic concepts of Atman and Brahman, while others reject it outright. What is your conclusion?

Evan Thompson: This debate is fascinating. It developed over many centuries and millennia in Indian philosophy. The concepts of atman and anatman were constantly evolving. On the one hand, there’s a sharp opposition between, say, Abhidharma Buddhist philosophy, which holds that what we call a ‘self’ or ‘person’ is ultimately only a collection of impersonal and momentary mental and physical events (dharmas), and Hindu Nyāya philosophy, which holds that the self exists and is an independent thing or substance. On the other hand, the Mahayana Buddhist idea of an innate Buddha nature (Tathāgatagarbha) seems conceptually rather close to the Advaita Vedānta notion of atman or atman-Brahman nonduality. All these philosophical twists and turns provide a good example of how we can’t talk about Indian conceptions of self or non-self as if they were monolithic; we have to refer to specific thinkers and the evolving context of philosophical debate and contemplative practice.

My own view, which I describe in the last chapter of Waking, Dreaming, Being, is that the self is a kind of construction, but not an illusion. It’s not a ready made, independent thing or substance; it’s a constructed process or a process undergoing constant construction. As such, it serves useful functions, but identifying with those processes or functions as if they were an independent thing causes suffering. So my view incorporates Buddhist ideas but disagrees with versions of Buddhist philosophy that say the self is strictly an illusion.

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