Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series Ep. 6 Gereon Kopf on the Multi-Entry Approach

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught and studied in the 21st century? Gereon Kopf is a professor of East Asian Religions and Philosophy of Religion at Luther College. Dr. Kopf is currently developing a multi-entry philosophy, as well as a non-essentialist philosophy of mind and identity formation. He is also the principal investigator of a Wabash Center grant to develop strategies for teaching philosophy of religion inclusively to diverse students.

Nathan Loewen:

This podcast series was created by support from Dr. Kopf’s grant. In our conversation, I asked what is the multi-entry approach and how does it influence teaching the philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Professor Kopf, you have talked about something called a multi-entry approach. In fact, you have some forthcoming publications with that in the title. What is the multi-entry approach?

Professor Kopf:

The multi-entry approach developed in the context of a seminar at the American Academy of Religion. It was a five year seminar called Global Critical Philosophy of Religion that combined many scholars from working in the different traditions, trained in a variety of methodology. One of the products is the forthcoming textbook by Timothy Knepper, Philosophy of Religion, A Global Critical Approach. Another product is my co-edited volume, co-edited with Professor Purushottama Bilimoria, utilizing the approaches I developed, the so-called multi-entry approach.

Nathan Loewen:

Okay. You say that you were committed to globalizing philosophy in order to have more voices engaging in the philosophical discourse. How does the multi-entry approach do that?

Professor Kopf:

It does it in three different ways. Up to, let’s say, roughly the ’80s of the last century, the way philosophy of religion was taught at the academia was mostly Christocentric and Eurocentric, including obviously the adaptation of European thought in North America. But in the ’80s, then people started including sources from multiple traditions. That’s what I would call actually a globalizing approach. It’s to still take the same framework, the same question, the tri philosophy of religion, but now look for answers in a variety of text sources all over the world.

Nathan Loewen:

Where do the multiple entries come from?

Professor Kopf:

The globalizing approach is still a single entry approach because it is one narrative. It is one structure. In response to that we have post-colonial approaches that critique that globalizing approach and said we need to engage not only different texts, but also methodologies from different traditions.

Professor Kopf:

The approach that I am suggesting, the multi-entry approach, is a middle path between the globalizing and the decolonizing approaches. That’s what I sometimes also call the cosmopolitan approach. The multiple entries are actually different narratives on how to do philosophy of religion. Theoretically, they come from multiple methodologies, but also from multiple traditions from multiple cultural contexts all over the world.

Nathan Loewen:

How do you get these multiple entries to interact with each other?

Professor Kopf:

That is then again, an echo of the globalizing approach. The echo of the decolonizing approach is to have the multiple voices from multiple context. I would like to avoid the idea of having one master narrative. Each approach in the text in the book, each chapter, but in a conversation… Each approach formulates its own approach in response to a set of questions which are formulated extremely general. What is your methodology? What is your approach? What is your historical context? What is your terminology of how to envision what in English we call philosophy of religion?

Nathan Loewen:

Has it worked?

Professor Kopf:

We had a workshop last year in August. We are now working on editing our book. It seems to work. What makes it interesting is that you not only have those multiple entries, and then people stay separate, that in a second step, theoretically all approaches engage each other. That means that if you have, for example, a monotheistic approach, then what has been done in the past will engage for example, a Europa approach on its terms. But at the same time, you have a Europa approach developed within that cultural, philosophical context engaging, for example, Christian monotheism on its own terms. You have a multi log then if you have multiple partner, a multi log of different narratives, different approaches, engaging each other.

Nathan Loewen:

And so you are a professor in the Department of Religion at Luther College.

Professor Kopf:

Yes.

Nathan Loewen:

And you do teach mostly undergraduate courses. Do you teach courses on philosophy of religion?

Professor Kopf:

I have one course on philosophy of religion that is called Godself and the afterlife.

Nathan Loewen:

Okay. And do you use this multi-entry approach with your students?

Professor Kopf:

I’ve been starting to use it. So the practical issue is that if we teach the traditional way, you have one professor writing one syllabus using a couple of selected textbooks, hopefully anthologies. You still have a major narrative, the syllabus provides or major narrative. The way I try to break it is very explicitly to have multiple speakers come in from different tradition and engaging the students on their terms.

Professor Kopf:

A second way of doing that is actually in not having one outline, even though, obviously there’s a course of the semester that starts at the beginning, has a midterm and then a final, but actually within the semester have multiple breaks where we start from scratch again. Looking at a different issue, looking at a different methodology, looking from a different tradition. And in all those and in every section itself, we also have multiple texts engaging each other.

Professor Kopf:

So if you, for example, look at the cosmos, we first have a more Eurocentric approach looking at visions of ultimate reality in theistic language. Then we are looking at the cosmos as developed from different tradition, but using the language developed in India, in the Indian Darshanas, in the Indian rational ways of engaging the absolute. So we’re actually then using in class different languages to work on the same issue.

Nathan Loewen:

And so I know that we don’t have any students in this interview, but how do the students respond? Maybe even more interestingly, what sorts of outcomes or assignments do the students produce?

Professor Kopf:

There are a couple of different outcomes the students produce. There’s the traditional response paper where students respond to a given text. There are debates where in class they have different either standpoints from different traditions, or different philosophical positions or different methods engaging each other. And then there is a final project that’s hopefully open enough that people, students, are flexible to embrace the position they encountered in class they find most intriguing. So, that is in terms of student outcomes. The responses have been mostly positive and students cherish actually engaging traditions and positions in methodologies they haven’t heard about at all before the class.

Nathan Loewen:

What is the composition of your courses? Are your students taking this as a humanities credit? Are they taking it as philosophy students? Where do the students in your classroom come from?

Professor Kopf:

Most of the students in my class taking it for to satisfy a general education religion requirement. Then we have students who are philosophy majors. Then we have students who are religion majors. So that’s in that class, the basic demographics in terms of curriculum.

Nathan Loewen:

And I’m interested to know what happens after the students take your course. Do you hear from them again?

Professor Kopf:

The majority disappear back into the student body, but then there are students that engage. Some of them come back and say, “I really liked…” Actually I just talked to one student who really liked a book that I used to augment Tim Knepper’s book, it’s Carl Becker talking about near death experience and using them to develop a new philosophy of science. Talking about criteria, epistemic criteria for how to talk about near death and afterlife phenomena.

Professor Kopf:

And so that student came up to me and said it’s very exciting. She’s a neuroscience student. She wants to now do an independent study on looking at neuroscience and philosophy of mind approaches to those phenomena like near death experience, all the state of consciousness and so forth. So there are those students who then come for upper level work at Luther College, mostly in independent studies because most of our courses are, at least in our department, the Religion Department, very much on a general education level.

Nathan Loewen:

I’ll ask three more questions or perhaps only two more. Who do you want to read or learn about the multi-entry approach?

Professor Kopf:

Ideally speaking, everyone. But obviously there are different audiences and that’s why I’ve been packaging it. My essay that I wrote for this amazing forthcoming book on philosophy of religion around the world, global critical approaches, to our critical approaches. And so I’m packaging that for a multiple audience, because I think there are multiple people can use it in different ways.

Professor Kopf:

Firstly, obviously there’s an academic audience. I would like people who teach philosophy of religion in an academic setting to expand their horizon by actually engaging and hopefully working through on multiplicity approaches. And not only study for example, to stay with my early example, Yoruba philosophy from a Christian perspective or from a religious studies perspective, which is still an outside perspective, right? Or Yoruba perspective, but also then reverse the gaze and then look at religious studies methods from a Yoruba perspective or at Christian theology from a Europa perspective.

Professor Kopf:

So that’s my first audience. My second audience is to apply that for people who struggle with diversity, cultural diversity, philosophical diversity, ideological diversity, or religious diversity to give a tool that allows us to engage various traditions without having to deny ours. But also without the temptation of superimposing our few and others or juxtaposing saying East/West, I think that binary doesn’t work at all creating those counterfactual binaries and in order to safeguard one’s own position tradition methodology.

Professor Kopf:

So those are the two main audience. And I also am working on increasing and largening the perspective to have a multidisciplinary conversation in there to include, for example, neuroscientists, philosophers, and various disciplines at the same table. Again, in such a way that we don’t super superimpose our methodologies, that don’t we exclude other methodologies, but it’s more an inclusive engagement.

Nathan Loewen:

Who do you think won’t read your book or won’t adopt the multi-entry approach? Who do you think will not adopt the multi-entry approach?

Professor Kopf:

I think that there are two possible candidates who may reject the multi-entry approach. (Laughs). The first one is people who think that, who are content with their methodology, with their position and do not feel the need of engaging others. And also, and I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, I don’t want to use the word laziness, but generally the academics are really stressed out. We have a lot of things going on for the people who are not in academics. It’s not only teaching, it’s research, it’s committee works, it’s administrative work. And after for example, teaching a course for 20 years to actually step back and say, “Now I embrace a completely new approach,” takes a lot of work and time and also emotional investment. So, I understand if people say, “It has worked for 20 years, so it’s a practical being contentedness with my approach. It has worked for 20 years. I don’t see the need to expand.”

Nathan Loewen:

Are there any resources out there for those time-strapped busy instructors and professors of philosophy or religious studies? Are there opportunities for people to engage with others on the multi-entry approach? How might we overcome some of those barriers, and entertain this proposal that you’re making?

Professor Kopf:

So overall, the larger group that are in the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion group is working on a series of publications. So you have Tim Knepper’s next book, you have (Purushottama) Bilimoria’s and mine edited volume as a teaching manual on the multi-entry approach. We’re having other works in the process of being in varied stages of the publication process that provide a larger background. Our website provides a network of experts, so that it makes it easier to say, “I don’t know about that tradition. I don’t know about that methodology,” but now since we’re all used to Zoom, it’s easier to invite people.

Professor Kopf:

And so it’s an ongoing work and process of expanding resources, and all also one thing that our group is talking about is making more translation available so that you don’t need to be an expert in 10, 20 languages to teach that kind of approach. But again, I think the multi-entry approach is a multi-participant approach. So that’s why I think that the network of experts is extremely important. That we can call on people and say, “Hey, would you through Zoom, come to my class and talk about that tradition or that position or that methodology that I’m not as familiar with.”

Nathan Loewen:

Okay. Well, thanks for your time, so much, Dr. Gereon Kopf for joining us all the way from Decorah, Iowa, at Luther College. We look forward to your future publications and hearing more from you about the multi-entry approach.

Professor Kopf:

Thank you very much for your invitation and for our conversation.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at GlobalCritical.as.ua.edu. There, you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

For more information about our department, please visit the website at religion.ua.edu, or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple podcasts, or Spotify podcasts. Thanks, goodbye.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Inclusively to Diverse Students: March 2022 Meeting

The final meeting of a project funded by the Wabash Center , Gereon Kopf gathered participants from across three continents at Drake University for a final discussion of strategies and approaches for teaching philosophy of religion inclusively. During the meeting, participants reviewed the final report on the pilot teaching of 10 classrooms across three terms (Spring , Summer and Fall 2021) in order to formalize their pedagogical models for presenting course content from diverse philosophical traditions.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series Ep. 4 Jin Y. Park on Inclusive Approaches to Teaching Philosophy Of Religion

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up, with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught in the 21st century? Jin Park is a professor and department chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at American University in Washington, DC. You may learn more about Professor Park’s research and teaching at www.american.edu/cas/faculty/jypark.cfm.

Nathan Loewen:

Dr. Park was part of a pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by a Wabash Center grant administered by Gereon Kopf of Luther College. Our conversation on August 17th, 2020 focused on how Professor Park structures a cross-cultural introduction to the philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Thank you, Jin, for joining me here. We’d like to ask you some questions about what you understand about the global critical philosophy of religion. What might that mean? What are some examples? We have a few short questions, if you’d be so kind to answer, we’d love to hear your thoughts, and then we can use those as jumping off points with the others.

Jin Y. Park:

Thank you very much, and thank you for inviting me, just to get this project started, so I would have to have a conversation with you about those issues.

Nathan Loewen:

What does global critical philosophy of religion mean to you? I mean, is it distinct from comparative intercultural or multicultural philosophy? And finally, what would the significance of a global critical philosophy of religion be as opposed to those other ways of doing philosophical inquiry?

Jin Y. Park:

Yes. I think, the first to start to answer that question is to really define what do we mean by global and critical. I think these two vocabulary seems obvious, but if we really think about it, we can really clarify what this project could be, or to me, what it means.

Jin Y. Park:

So let’s think about global. Obviously, global means that relating to the world. So global philosophy of religion is a kind of philosophy of religion which is trying to examine, discuss the religious traditions around the world. That much sounds clear, but I’d like to kind of move one step farther and think about global in a way more kind of content oriented. In other words, global also means something related to the whole of something, as we say, globally speaking. So, global philosophy of religion should be something that can look at the phenomenon of religion globally, not only just to worldly, geographically, but in terms of topic.

Jin Y. Park:

What I mean by this, in the traditional philosophy of religion, there are only certain topics that have been discussed dominantly, and those topics have been based on the Judeo-Christian tradition. And because of that, there are a number of issues that have been excluded in this discussion. But, as you know, religion is really broad, especially what I call the act of religion. There are religious traditions, religious texts, religious doctrines and institutions, and rituals, all kinds of things. There are a lot of different issues. So I’d like to see this global, not only something related to the world in terms of geographical religious tradition, but in terms of topic, so then we can address those topics which have been excluded so far.

Jin Y. Park:

And then critical, obviously, we use this expression a lot, critical thinking. But what does it mean, exactly? And then sometimes people think that critical means criticizing something. Well, that is not exactly what we mean by critical. So in this case, I’d like to think about critical in the way that, to look at things and then examine the foundation of an argument, for example. If you claim [inaudible 00:05:03], and then critically approach that statement means that what is the foundation of that claim? Does it make sense? And then after you approach that from the foundation of that argument, also trying to place that in the context, and [inaudible 00:05:22] doesn’t make sense in Judeo Christian tradition, doesn’t make sense in Buddhist tradition or Hindu tradition, then you get different answers.

Jin Y. Park:

So put them together in a way that I’d like to think of global critical philosophy of religion is a kind of discipline in which we not only examine the religious traditions around the world, but also the topics that are related to religious phenomenon, all the topics globally. The whole thing, entirety of religious tradition, and does that by contextualizing our questions, and also examining the foundations of certain kind of claim that we are making about certain religions or religious phenomenon.

Jin Y. Park:

And you asked how this might be different from something like comparative philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

Now, this discipline called the comparative something has a lot of problems for a long time. Comparative literature, comparative philosophy, comparative philosophy of religion, in a way that the question is, what is meant to by comparison, is it methodology or content? Actually I teach a, quote unquote, comparative philosophy course, Derrida and Buddhism, that has been one of my major fields. And at the beginning of the semester I ask students, what does it mean that we do comparative philosophy between Derrida and Buddhism? What do you do with this? So Derrida has this, and the Buddhism has that, okay we compare them, there are similarities and differences. It’s actually fun to see that.

Jin Y. Park:

But so what? There we get to, that’s really the core of comparative philosophy. So in other words, if we do not get to, so what part, I mean, it might be fun to compare Judaism and Buddhism, but so what? What do you want to do with that? And I think there, you can use a comparative philosophy religion as just a methodology, or if you get to the content of it, so what do we do with this comparison? You might get to something similar to what we just defined about global critical philosophy of religion. So it depends on how you approach that.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

And comparative philosophy of religion, or comparative philosophy, it sounds like, and usually that’s what happens, it sounds like comparing two separate independent entities. So here is a tradition called Buddhism, for example. Here is the entire tradition called Christianity. You compare them, they are separate.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

And I think a global critical philosophy of religion is not really approaching the different religious traditions from that perspective, that’s what I meant when I said contextualizing certain questions. And how about the multicultural philosophy of religion? I think it’s opposite of comparative philosophy. For example, multiculturalism is more content based. Multiculturalism is an effort to recognize different cultural traditions. Plurality is the kind of basis of this multiculturalism, but then, so what? There are different traditions of culture, what are you going to do with that?

Jin Y. Park:

So there it comes again, the so what issue? And here, we once again get to the content issue, comparing and recognizing different kind of cultures and traditions. Now what do we want to do with that? I think that content is what the global critical philosophy of religion is kind of trying get at, from my perspective. In other words, I think the significance of this project in a way can be explained by comparing what Peter Hershock says in his Valuing Diversity, the difference between variety and diversity.

Jin Y. Park:

So nowadays, at the university, we hear a lot about diversity and inclusion. I think it’s the same at your university too. And okay, what do you mean by diversity? If you bring students from different countries and culture, Asians, Africans, African Americans, and white people, colored people, put them together on campus, does not make it diverse. It’s a variety. We have a variety of students from different colors, colors of skin. Right?

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

And if each kind of individual leaves separately without getting connected to one another, what’s the point of bringing them together? So as Peter Hershock says, variety means simply co-existence. That’s better than exclusion, but then that does not mean that actual inclusion. You just bring those students from a [inaudible 00:10:33] place and then just to place them on campus, and if you do not take care of them and teach how their culture can help other cultures to understand each other, what’s the point?

Jin Y. Park:

Diversity, Peter Hershock says, is a kind of narrowly simple co-existence, it’s the awareness of interconnectedness. So in other words, how the understanding of Asian religious tradition can help understand Christianity. Or how understanding of Jewish tradition can help somebody to understand the Buddhist tradition. So this kind of interconnectedness and the mutual influence in the identity formation and understanding of its own tradition is, I think, the benefit or significance of global critical philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Right. Since you mentioned students, I think we could jump to a question that heads into the practical issues. You covered a lot in that response, and now that you mentioned students, it might be worthwhile for us to hear from you about how you translate your understanding of global critical philosophy of religion as you’ve just talked about it. How do you translate that into your pedagogy and strategies that you would suggest for an undergraduate student body? Where do you go there? Could you lead us in that direction please?

Jin Y. Park:

Right. So I think one of the obvious efforts to do this global critical philosophy of religion in our curriculum is to bring in this kind of non-Western philosophy religious traditions. So I don’t know how many people actually teach the philosophy religion as an independent course. At my university, in my department, we have Philosophy of Religion course, but this is only for upper level grad course. We don’t have Intro to Philosophy of Religion. But the way I do it, I incorporate it in my religious heritage of Asia, or the kind of world religion course.

Jin Y. Park:

So, first thing, that obvious thing that we can do is really add those non-Western religious traditions in your curriculum and see how students respond to those materials, and help them understand non-Western traditions. But at the same time, ask them how this understanding of non-Western religious traditions helped them understand the religious traditions that they are familiar with.

Jin Y. Park:

So that’s the kind of first thing that we can do. The second thing is, as I mentioned before, to think about different topics. Traditionally, philosophy of religion is, does [inaudible 00:13:25], and so then why is there evil in the world? And so, and so forth. But bringing different hot topics that are really relevant to us today.

Jin Y. Park:

And one of the thing I usually do is gender issues. Gender in Buddhism, for example, gender in Confucianism, and think about how this different gender, women or men, actually understand the same religious tradition differently, and they are treated different. What does that mean for us when we understand religion? So kind of draw from practice and the meaning of religion from marginalized groups, not only women, but then socially marginalized groups, and things like that.

Jin Y. Park:

So the first one is geographically drawing from different religious traditions, especially include non-Western materials. The second one is, topically, we included those religious practices of those people who have been marginalized or excluded in the traditional philosophy of religion discourse. But this does not necessarily mean that Western religious traditions cannot be part of global critical philosophy of religion.

Jin Y. Park:

For example, actually this semester I’ll be teaching one credit course, titled Religion Without Religion. You should know what this means, right? So it’s obviously [inaudible 00:14:52] there is a philosophy of religion. That he’s a philosopher of religion, but his religious approach. Capital called it religion without religion. So what I try to do is to read some sections of Derrida’s work. And think about what it means to practice religion, what do we know about religion?

Jin Y. Park:

So this is a way of using Western material, but then critically approaching, critical Derrida asks, when do we pray? To whom do we pray? And this is a whole question about prayer. And then how do we do the prayer in the [inaudible 00:15:30] and things like that.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

So this is one of the case that by using Western tradition, you also do a critical approach to the philosophy of religion. So, yeah, so I think there are various different ways that we can actually incorporate this in our curriculum.

Nathan Loewen:

Thank you so much for are answering these questions. These are a great way for us to start moving into our discussions about what global critical philosophy of religion can turn into, particularly for different teachers and instructors across the United States.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at globalcritical, and that’s all one word, .as.ua.edu. There you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information.

Nathan Loewen:

Study Religion is a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website at religion.ua.edu, or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple podcasts, or Spotify podcasts.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series – Ep. 1 Louis Komjathy On Teaching Classical Daoism

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground, up with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught, studied in the 21st century. Louis Komjathy is a leading independent scholar, educator and translator. His current work explores cross-cultural practices and perennial questions related to contemplative awareness, embodied aliveness and beyond states. You can learn more from his website linked in this podcast’s credits. Dr. Komjathy was part of the pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by the Wabash Center with a grant administer by Gereon Kopf at Luther College. We had two conversations on November 17th, 2021. We discussed the question, how might a revised approach to studying Daoism influenced teaching the philosophy of religion. Thanks for joining me in this podcast.

Louis Komjathy:

Thanks for the opportunity to speak today.

Nathan Loewen:

You have several publications that have consistently emphasized the idea of Daoism as a religious community. I’m curious what that means and how it translates into your teaching in the classroom, and your experiences with students. So, I mean, what do you mean by classical Daoism?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, so classical Daoism is a revisionist interpretive framework to think about the earliest Dallas community, basically beginning in the middle to late Warring States period into the early Han dynasty. So around the fourth century to second century BCE. And so one of the reasons to put forward this idea of revisionist understanding specifically this idea of classical Daoism is to replace this outdated idea of something called philosophical Daoism that stands in contrast to so-called religious Daoism. So from my perspective, these are colonialist, orientalist and missionary kind of legacies related to the academic study and interpretation of Daoism.

Nathan Loewen:

Well. That’s interesting. Why do you say that it is revisionist? Let’s just unpack that word first.

Louis Komjathy:

So part of the reason to call it revisionist is because there’s been this kind of ongoing meta reflection on both the history of Daoism. So when did Daoism begin, but also how do we understand the diverse expressions of the Dallas tradition? And so this is really a response to a construction of Daoism as a kind of bifurcated or divided tradition, so called philosophical Daoism, so called religious Daoism, and to kind of encourage us, or hopefully inspire us to reconsider what this earliest Dallas community was. And to kind of point to a more neutral kind of category or name classical Daoism that is to kind of suggest that this was the time when the earliest Dallas classics were composed. And that becomes the foundation of the larger tradition.

Nathan Loewen:

Why have people previously been splitting it into philosophical and religious Daoism? What’s been the motivation for that?

Louis Komjathy:

It’s complex historically, but one way of understanding this is it’s really rooted in European colonialism, in China and Christian missionary activity in China, and a kind of unease with fully articulated religious tradition. But wanting to engage what we can call here, the classical texts, like the Dao De Jing and the [inaudible 00:04:00]. So one part of this is an attempt to say, oh, there’s something like pure Dallas philosophy. That’s what we’re here calling classical Daoism and something like degenerate, superstitious nonsense, that’s the religious Daoism category. And by separating these two things out, we can focus on the pure, the good, the philosophy, and we can discard the kind of degenerate, the superstitious, the religious.

Louis Komjathy:

So I just want to add here, the first kind of revisionist sinological response to this is to say, no, there is no such thing as philosophical Daoism. There was no Daoism in this early period that I’m suggesting we look at, and Daoism really begins in the second century CE. So really when we talk about Daoism , it means “religious Daoism.” So that was the first revisionist kind of viewpoint. And I’m responding to that saying we’re leaving out about 400 years of history. That’s really important for understanding the development of the Dallas tradition.

Nathan Loewen:

To show if this, just into considering context for teaching and learning. Do students in your experience, walk into the classroom with this bifurcated understanding of Daoism in place, or do you think that you can just go ahead and give them classical Daoism and not have to worry about this split?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, I think this is complicated. So the short answer is in the past, they would tend to come in either with the philosophical religious Daoism split, or they would come in with a number of, kind of popular constructions of Daoism that you’d have to kind of critically investigate with them. And what I try to do, even though it’s a little more complicated in the undergraduate classroom, is to give them actually evidence to support why I’m putting forth this revisionist idea. And then I say to them, I’m not telling you that you have to believe this or accept this. Here’s the evidence for why I’m suggesting we use this, but also, and I think this is really important for the podcast, is rather than begin with the assumption of philosophy or religion, let’s investigate the phenomenon with the question of what is philosophy and what is religion, and why might I, as a scholar located in religious studies, think that religious is a better characterization of classical Daoism than philosophical. But the good thing about the classical Daoism name is it holds open that space.

Nathan Loewen:

Right? You just covered a lot there. One, and I want to catch up to that, but it sounds like what you’re saying is when you say that classical Daoism is a more neutral framework, you don’t mean it in the sense of neutrality in the sense of objectivity, or do you mean… I think you’re framing neutral in a different way that might be useful.

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, I think what I’m saying on the first level of analysis is okay, there are people deeply attached to philosophical Daoism, there are people deeply attached to something called Daoist religion or something like this. And that what we tend to do is we tend to bring those interpretive categories onto the material. So, we begin with a set of assumptions that determines the way we interpret it. Whereas if we begin with classical Daoism, we can investigate it in a more neutral way. So in that kind of conventional sense. But then of course I’m not neutral in this. I think that classical Daoism has a certain set of characteristics, which I would tend to say is religious, but what this category does is it’s allows us to have that debate.

Louis Komjathy:

So it allows people who want to believe that classical Daoism is more philosophical than religious to say, well, this is why I believe. Describing it as philosophical is more accurate than describing it as religious. So it at least creates some space for people who don’t follow my revisionist framework or don’t accept it or don’t see it as viable or convincing to put forth the kind of counter argument in that more neutral space. And the only other thing I wanted to add here is the other thing that happens by using this kind of revisionist framework is it allows us to explore that question of continuities and departures through the tradition rather than to presuppose that there is no connection between these different expressions of Daoism.

Nathan Loewen:

Would you be able to give an example of the religious stuff sure that people have ignore, and how you introduce that and how people receive it?

Louis Komjathy:

Quite clearly, this tradition is founded upon a theological viewpoint of the Dao. So when you look at the classical materials, but also when you look at the way this feeds into the larger tradition, it is the tradition of the Dao. So the Dao is the sacred or ultimate concern of Dallas. And there’s a very particular set of theological and cosmological views associated with this. That’s informing the practices, but the practices are also intended to orient one oneself towards the sacred reality. So it’s even more subversive or I think destabilizing than to call it religious, because it’s also theological. And as you know, the relation between theology and religious studies is a complex kind of negotiation. But here I would begin with that. So the kind of foundational world view is that there is this sacred presence permeating the world, permeating us, that the ultimate purpose of human existence is to align ourselves with this.

Louis Komjathy:

And, this is the more, I think, essential piece for what we’re talking about. That the classical Daoism, but I would make a stronger argument about this in the tradition as a whole is, has a certain set of practices. And those practices are basically non-negotiable. From, I think, that perspective about how you can actually attune yourself with reality or the sacred. So one of the revisionist viewpoints is contemplative practice, specifically a form of meditation that in English, we usually refer to as apophatic or quietistic meditation, that is emptiness and stillness based meditation, is the foundation of the views and the experiences that are described in the classical texts.

Louis Komjathy:

So if you skip that and you skip the fact that they’re theologically infused, you run into all kinds of philosophical misinterpretations that you tend to see in these kinds of discussions about classical Daoism or so-called philosophical Daoism being skeptical or relative, or some kind of like proto deconstruction. And it’s like, it’s not those things. It’s talking about a transformation of consciousness that occurs through a specific set of practices.

Nathan Loewen:

And so finally, how do you encourage students to engage those contemplative and mystical questions? Can you give an example of what you may have done in the past or consider recommending to people who wish to implement this kind of perspective in their own teaching? How would you suggest they go about that?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, so a kind of simple example, but I think one really helpful for the majority of us that tend to use texts as some of our primary materials in the classroom, is when you start reading texts like the Dao De Jing Selections from the Dao De Jing texts or selections from the Chuang Zhou or the book of Master Chuang Zhou. Instead of starting at the beginning, maybe giving them these two essential passages from chapter four and chapter six of the Chuang Zhou or which cover, fasting of the heart, mind and sitting in forgetfulness. So these are easy to find.

Louis Komjathy:

But when you use those passages and you give them to students and say, okay, let’s analyze this. What are they talking about? They’re talking about a specific kind of contemplative practice. How do we understand that through this text? We can reconstruct it. Well, when we take that practice and we filter some of the viewpoints or some of the philosophical perspectives that are coming through the text, how might that change the way we understand what’s being said or unsaid? That is, if what’s being articulated is actually a contemplative viewpoint about the nature of reality, rather than a philosophical, rumination, or argument about other philosophical positions this might change way we read the Chuang Zhou as a whole.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at global critical, and that’s all one word, .as.ua.edu. There you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website at religion.ua.edu. Or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify Podcasts. Thanks. Goodbye.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series Ep. 3 Kevin Schilbrack On Teaching Philosophy Of Religion

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught and studied in the 21st century? Kevin Schilbrack teaches and writes about the philosophical study of religions at Appalachian State University. He is presently interested in the relevance of embodied cognition and social ontology for understanding what religion is and how it works. Dr. Schilbrack was part of a pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by a Wabash Center grant administered by Gereon Kopf of Luther College. We had a conversation on January 8th, 2021. We talked about how a revised approach to the field might influence how philosophy of religion is taught.

Nathan Loewen:

So thanks so much for appearing here at 8:30 in the morning on a Friday.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Yeah.

Nathan Loewen:

I want to talk to you a little bit about getting ready to teach a global critical philosophy of religion course and understand that that’s not something you’ve necessarily done and in fact, probably none of us have done this, in the thorough way that we’re trying to figure out right now in this workshop.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Right. Right.

Nathan Loewen:

What do you think goes into a conventional philosophy of religion class?

Kevin Schilbrack:

The conventional topics, which you’re going to find in any textbook for philosophy of religion are going to be, arguments for the existence of God. And there’s classical ones, the nature of God, what properties God would have to be in order to be God, or to be worthy of worship, so if the arguments include cosmological and teleological and ontological arguments. And then the nature of God question is, what does it mean to be omniscient, what would an omnipotent being be like? If there’s an omnipotent being do human beings have free will? And then there’s usually a cluster of topics like the religious existentialism class that you’re talking about. There’ll be a textbook, could focus on religious experience and mysticism, religious language and whether metaphor or metaphysics is a different kind of language for discussing the objects that people care about in religion. Another topic that you see in a lot of textbooks is religious diversity and how should people in one religion think about those who are on different paths. And yeah.

Nathan Loewen:

And so like when that course is being taught, is there also a set of philosophical tools that you think are being granted or given or equipped with students when they go through that conventional course? You talk about topics, but what sorts of tools do you think they pick up along the way?

Kevin Schilbrack:

I think this is a good question because it gets at a two ways to answer it. And so I have a fairly conservative answer, which is that the philosophical tools in a traditional or conventional philosophy of religion class are simply the tools of philosophy and they belong in the university, they belong as part of the academic study of religion, just like philosophy does. So if the tools have to do with building an argument, critical reading of primary text, a weighing of evidence, I don’t reject traditional or conventional philosophy of religion or exclude it.

Kevin Schilbrack:

I, whatever you want to say, house it, or nest it, within a broader definition of what the discipline should care about. So I think that the discipline has been narrow, but I don’t think it’s been wrongheaded. And one of the reviews of my book said I was merely a revisionist, not a revolutionary, and so that’s the distinction I’m trying to make. I want to revise conventional philosophy of religion to be global and to be critical, but I don’t argue that, and this would be the revolutionary position, which I take seriously and deserves discussion, is that the tools of traditional philosophy of religion or in the classroom in traditional philosophy of religion is covertly confessional theology, and that it doesn’t belong in the academy and that questions about “What would something have to be like to be worthy of worship? Is there too much evil in the world to believe that there is a benevolent creator? Does the ontological argument make sense?” All those traditional questions, they don’t belong in the academy because they’re basically in service of Christian practice as opposed to philosophical investigations that are, I guess, the right word is secular.

Nathan Loewen:

So if I understand this correctly, it’s the tools are good. The application of the tools you find to be not useful for critical approach.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Right. That’s exactly right, but that’s my answer. And then the rival answer would be, “No, the tools are bullshit and that the tools aren’t…” And what you’re asking me about and what you’ve already pulled our conversation into is, I think, absolutely crucial in the academy today, because there are so many people who understand the word “critical” that’s in our title in this particular way where they say, “The critical study of something does not answer its questions or get… Or you can’t undo the master’s health with his tools.” And so criticism is going to be un-asking these questions or putting these questions in question. So really what you and I are already talking about is what is the meaning of “critical” for us in our group, but what does it mean for the academy? And I think there’s a wide range of views of what it means to be a critical scholar.

Nathan Loewen:

Right. So in a way, what you’re saying is that there’s one kind of secularizing ideology-

Kevin Schilbrack:

Exactly.

Nathan Loewen:

… in conventional philosophy of religion, that has a set of questions that inevitably, if you’re trying to be a philosopher about it, lead to an inevitable secularization and that actually whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the record. We need to actually question the ideology of those… Not just the topics, but the questions that are asked under those topics. And maybe even reverse back a little bit over those topics as well, and say, “What’s an alternates set of topics.” So what would the alternate set of topics be then? I’m going off script a little bit here, but I think that’s kind of where we’re going and I’ll pull us back in in a second.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Let’s go off script in one minute, but I just have a quick anecdote that, for me, illustrates how salient this issue is because I don’t think it’s fringy at all. So I was on a panel with a big, big, big name religious studies person and that person said the academic study of religion has to distinguish itself from theology. And that means in the classroom, we’re not going to be telling students, “Oh, this makes sense,” or “This is right,” or “This is good or true.” And I said, “But in philosophy classrooms, that’s what they do all the time.” And the paper might be, “Use utilitarianism to figure out whether or not we should have welfare,” or whatever it is. But when the paper’s going to be the right thing to do is to provide for people in this way, given this definition of what happiness is or whatever that…

Kevin Schilbrack:

Philosophy has this normative agenda and so, in my eyes, philosophy of religion has a normative agenda where it’s going to be making judgements about what’s good or true, or just, or real. And there’s no way to purge those things from the academy, unless you’re kicking philosophy out all together. And so I said, in response, “There’s no way to make your case that religious studies doesn’t tell people right from wrong without also kicking ethics out.” And the person said, “That’s not true at all. Ethics belongs in philosophy, but philosophy of religion, or at least the theological version of it, doesn’t belong in the academic study of religion.” So I consider these to be red hot issues, very live issues. And-

Nathan Loewen:

What I hear you to say, is that the tools that we normally use in philosophy are the ones that we should be using in a global critical philosophy religion class.

Kevin Schilbrack:

That’s right. That is my view.

Nathan Loewen:

Is there another way that we could head into the restructuring of a class?

Kevin Schilbrack:

Yeah.

Nathan Loewen:

That doesn’t involve us repeating a bunch of stuff that we’re only going to debunk in the last four weeks of the semester.

Kevin Schilbrack:

I think a new world is dawning and so there’s the old way of doing things that still continues to be replicated in philosophy of religion textbooks, and we’re looking at a new way. And so if we’re in the middle where we’re critiquing the old and building the new, how much of the old do you have to give them in order for them to understand the critique? And if you just jump straight to the new, what continuity is there in terms of the definition of what we’re doing? Because if you said, “But we’re not going to ask any of those questions and we’ve got new tools and we’ve got new subjects,” it’s not clear that it’s the same discipline.

Nathan Loewen:

Field. Yeah. Right.

Kevin Schilbrack:

That’s exactly right. But what we’re talking about is not… There’s not going to be an answer where the answer’s going to be, “You have to use 50% of traditional or conventional philosophy of religion and 50% of critique,” or something like that. This is going to be an art that depends on whether you have grad students and whether you have undergrad students and whether the class is on, right, religious existentialism, or whether it’s on problem of evil, or whether it’s just on… At my school, it’s called Reason and Religion, the philosophy of religion class.

Nathan Loewen:

Nice.

Kevin Schilbrack:

And so it’s going to depend on your context and your audience and really your goals as a teacher about what you want students to walk out of your class, what learning objectives you have in the classroom, so that you might have, what I would consider, a legitimate philosophy of religion class that had no Christian materials in it at all. And then the students would walk out of there knowing about arguments about God and about ultimate reality and so forth. But they might come from an Indian context, or there’s different ways to do it. It might come from a Muslim context. And there’s so many ways to do it.

Kevin Schilbrack:

But I mean, that’s the beauty of what we’re talking about. Because if philosophy of religion from, I don’t know, 1960 to 1990 or something like that was pretty clear what was going on there and, this is my criticism, and it’s too insular, and it did not build any bridges to history or to anthropology or to sociology or to gender studies and so on. If we want to build those bridges and we want to have a global and critical philosophy of religion that builds those bridges so that we’re in interdisciplinary conversations with others, there’s going to be lots of negotiation of this gray area of, “Are you still doing philosophy of religion? Or…”

Nathan Loewen:

And the defense to that, by the sounds of it, from your point of view might be, “Yes, I am. I have these basic set of tools, that I agree happen seemingly in most philosophy courses, and I’m applying them to just this area or field of topics-

Kevin Schilbrack:

That’s exactly my-

Nathan Loewen:

“… that most people conventionally group into the genre, religious.”

Nathan Loewen:

My final question… There’s a cookbook that I got when I was younger called the More-with-Less Cookbook. And it was how to make food with just small number of things, right? And the maxim “more with less,” or the other way around, “less is more,” has been mentioned by different folks in pedagogy as well. And it sounds like you’ve got an answer to this question already, right? And the question being, we can’t just add more stuff in because that’s just going to make our teaching confusing.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Be any anthropology. I think anthropology may be more than anywhere else, but it’s going to be in global studies and it’s going to be in history. It’s going to be… It’s a great, great question of what criticism means or whether you continue to be critical and what tools you want students to walk out of the classroom having learned to master, what tools you want them to master, because if you’re criticizing people’s ways of life, it’s going to be a politically charged environment. Well, but the foundation of that question was the “less is more” idea. And I mean, there’s no way to cover the whole globe. And so even in aspiration, in philosophy of religion or religious studies is global, you’re going to have to teach it using, as Russ says, an EEG that illustrates a larger point that you’re trying to make. This is good and it’ll be a good lead into the conversations of our workshop.

Kevin Schilbrack:

I have a friend at my university, who’s a film studies expert and being superficial in trite I saw him at an event and I said something like, “Oh, I love movies so much. I should teach a class on religion and film.” And he said, “But what would be the goal or the themes or the point you were trying to make?” And I didn’t have a question for that. I just liked movies. And so I think there’s that danger that you throw together a class, and this is the opposite of what you just laid out which sounded pretty cool, that you just throw together a class with stuff that you like and the students go. But what is it add up to other than the fact that you as a teacher like that topic?

Nathan Loewen:

Well, that’s how world religions is taught a lot of the time.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Yes. That’s a good… That’s right. But as opposed to saying, “I want students to see that the way that this category is constructed, and here’s a way of illustrating that. I want students to see that people who are in religious traditions often have representative intellectuals who devote their lives to demonstrating that it’s true, or at least in line with their scriptures, or whatever it is that intellectual’s trying to do, whether it’s [Shankura 00:14:45] or [inaudible 00:14:47] or whoever it is. And so this is an illustration of that. So just planning where you want to end the class and then finding the elements that help the students get there, that… I mean, that’s really what the best practice is in higher education, I think. But there’s a danger when you’re have so much put in your lap. What we’re talking about now is, “Well, don’t forget Daoism. What about Theravada Buddhism? And is Marxism a religion?” You got to have that in the class. And obviously there’s so many different schools of Judaism and-

Nathan Loewen:

Schools of Marxism.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Yeah. And so there’s too much. You have to think, I think maybe from where you want the class to end up, and then you build it from there.

Nathan Loewen:

Yeah. Agreed. Well, this has been really good, Kevin, thanks so much.

Kevin Schilbrack:

It really was.

Nathan Loewen:

I’m going to close this conversation off here.

Kevin Schilbrack:

Okay. Thanks.

Nathan Loewen:

For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at global critical, and that’s all one word, .as.ua.edu. There you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website@religion.ua.edu, or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify podcasts. Thanks. Goodbye.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series – Ep. 2 Louis Komjathy On Praxis For Teaching Philosophy Of Religion

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up, with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught and studied in the 21st century? Lewis Komjathy is a leading independent scholar, educator, and translator. His current work explores cross-cultural practices and perennial questions related to contemplative awareness, embodied aliveness, and beyond states. You can learn more from his website linked in this podcast’s credits. Dr. Komjathy was part of a pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by the Wabash Center with a grant administered by Gereon Kopf at Luther College. We had two conversations on November 17th, 2021. We discussed the question, how might a revised approach to studying Daoism influence teaching the philosophy of religion? Another topic that’s been of interest to you is to rethink Daoist philosophy through more recent European philosophers, such as Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault. Is this something that other Daoist scholars have been doing in your field?

Louis Komjathy:

No. So there’s kind of, I think, complicated intellectual history to this. And I’ll just make it brief, which is I have tended to be on the religious study side of things in the academic study of Daoism. And so a lot of my kind of earlier work was advocating for rethinking the earlier periods as having these religious dimensions. But over the course of these years, and especially with the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Group, I’ve been kind of engaging more philosophy of religion scholars and thinkers. And so then the kind of, why do I have this question or these issues with the category philosophy has come up.

Louis Komjathy:

And so one of the things I’ve tried to do is not just make an argument for why I think it’s better to think about the Daoist tradition as religious, but also to kind of rethink the category of philosophy in a way that might make space for re-engaging Daoism along these revisionist lines of Hadot and the later Foucault. I’m thinking specifically about the history of sexuality and the kind of techniques of self kind of materials in Foucault. So it’s basically engaging the question of philosophy from a critical perspective with my own critique of it. But then saying, “But there are some resources to reimagine this.” And so the short answer is, as far as I’m aware, I’m the main person trying to bring in people like Hadot and Foucault into the explicit discussion of Daoism, or so called Daoist philosophy.

Nathan Loewen:

Right. And I can here our listeners potentially looking at the Wikipedia page for Foucault and reading the first sentence there, perhaps. But in brief, I know you mentioned two written texts, but is there some sort of perspective with this scholar’s work that you want to bring to bear on the topic of Daoism?

Louis Komjathy:

Hadot and Foucault.

Nathan Loewen:

Maybe let’s just go Foucault first. Who is this person? And in a nutshell, what’s the perspective that is brought?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. So, I mean, obviously Michel Foucault is a very complex figure with a lot of different views and a lot of influential studies. So when I’m invoking Foucault here, I’m not just thinking of him in terms of the archeology of knowledge or a kind of deconstructionist approach. I’m thinking about his later work that’s partially influenced actually by Hadot, where he starts to really advocate for thinking about philosophy as focusing on techniques of the self. And the way in which it’s not just about ideas, but it’s about enactment. It’s about embodiment in the world. It’s about the ways in which we transform ourselves, right? That we’re always transforming ourselves in different ways. And so then if we use the framework of techniques of the self, how might that change the way we think about the project of philosophy?

Nathan Loewen:

Right. And one name that people might not know is the other one, Pierre Hadot. What do you mean? Techniques of the self? Practices?

Louis Komjathy:

Right. So Pierre Hadot is also, I mean, more of a historian of philosophy, but I think you can think of him as a philosopher in his own right. But was especially interested in a kind of revisionist engagement with Hellenistic philosophy, thinking about the ways in which there were what he called spiritual exercises. And how, in revisionist reading of the history of philosophy, a lot of the earlier philosophical materials were really about spiritual exercises and practices that were meant to transform character. So it had this kind of root in a kind of transformative practice that would change the way we are in the world. And that, that was really the project of philosophy. The project of philosophy was not simply to transform our consciousnesses or our minds, but to actually lead to a complete reconfiguration of character.

Nathan Loewen:

Now, as far as I know, neither of them were scholars of anything to do with Asia or East Asia or Daoism. Why did you choose these two? And what’s the work that you do in adapting their work into your work?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, so absolutely. They’re both clearly on the side of Western, of the Western philosophical tradition or traditions. So one part of this is what I alluded to at the beginning, which is speaking to individuals that self-identify as scholars of Asian philosophy or Chinese philosophy or philosophers of religion. And these kinds of things is then, okay, where are resources in the Western philosophical tradition that would allow us to reimagine so-called Western philosophy, but then also put that in dialogue with the materials or traditions from other cultures, and in this case, Daoism? So one part of it is to say, “Is philosophy really about disembodied ideas? Or is philosophy really just about thinking or thought? Or is it also about a formal practice?” So that’s the kind of Hadot and Foucault insight is we should be looking at the applied, the lived, the enacted, the embodied.

Louis Komjathy:

And then for me to say, “Well, that’s exactly what I see in especially classical Daoism in this case.” So bringing their revisionist engagement with their own traditions into my revisionist engagement with Daoism allows me to open up potential other areas of conversation, especially with people that want to believe that these materials are philosophical. And then to say, “Okay, do you mean philosophical in the way that Hadot means philosophy? Or do you mean philosophy in the way that the later Foucault means? Because then it’s possible that I’m more sympathetic to those interpretations. Or do you mean it more in the sense of disembodied thought that allows us to have nice, comfortable academic positions and not actually think about the way in which this is enacted in the world? Because that’s not classical Daoism.” So part of it is to say, I think the categories of spiritual exercises, techniques of the self, are helpful for actually elucidating some of the Daoist materials, especially the contemplative and the mystical dimensions of the tradition.

Nathan Loewen:

So let’s say I knew nothing of Daoism, and I’d never heard about Hadot or Foucault either, but you wanted me to learn something about philosophy and Daoism in the sense that you’re talking about. What would be an example that you would offer to me and help me learn about?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. So I think the first piece is to just give of a kind of simple, distilled version as I just did about Hadot and Foucault. And say, “What are these concepts that they’re putting forward as a revisionist framework to think about philosophy?” So spiritual exercises, techniques of the self, what is that? Well, there’s some kind of transformative practices that’s underneath what we tend to think of as conventional philosophy. Well, when you take that and you start to move through some of the classical Daoist materials, for example, like the [inaudible 00:09:09], the drawings of their other text, too, but those are the ones that are most well known and usually used in academic courses.

Louis Komjathy:

And then you start to comb through those texts looking for what you might call spiritual exercises or techniques of the self. What do you find? And you find a tremendous amount of information. Well, when you then start to think through that material from a more contemplative, lived, applied perspective, what does it tell you? And it tells you that they think that they have a spiritual technology that will transform you. That will lead to a different way of experiencing. That will align you with a sacred reality. That will lead to a completely different way of being in the world.

Nathan Loewen:

So, I mean, it sounds like you could reframe a what you’re talking about not as philosophy of religion, but philosophy of spiritual technology?

Louis Komjathy:

Or philosophy of practice. So I’ve been with other members of the group thinking about this. A philosophy of practice, a practice of philosophy. Is that something we want to imagine? Do we want to imagine philosophy beyond the classroom? And this is where I think it’s radical and maybe it’s radical in the sense of being traditional returning philosophy back to maybe some of its foundational roots in the sense of, well, are we trying to be better human beings? Is there a larger purpose to being human in the world? Are there certain problems that are calling us to change and that maybe philosophy as a set of spiritual exercises and techniques of the self give us materials and resources to work on that in an intentional way, in a transformative way, in a way that might actually lead to a beneficial presence in the world?

Nathan Loewen:

And I have a hunch that that changes what students’ homework assignments might be. I mean, we haven’t talked about the classroom much here, and we’re near the end of our conversation. But as I listen to you, I think that the sorts of homework we might give students as teachers changes substantively when we start thinking about philosophy of practice and the practice of philosophy, especially if we’re trying to rethink something like either religious studies or the philosophy of religion from the ground up. The kinds of questions and categories, but also the kinds of things we do starts to change with the perspective that you’re offering us here.

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. And you can also, I think, develop a set of exercises that are not explicitly religious, because this is always one issue that we face, that are more about a phenomenological investigation of one’s own experience, one’s own relationships, one’s own way of being in the world that brings greater awareness of that. That then clarifies the student’s values for themselves. Nothing imposed on them, but a kind of inquiry. So this is where it does intersect with that other field that I’m interested in, contemplative studies, which is, here is a contemplative inquiry. We are not trying to make you into something. We’re trying to ask you to simply investigate these questions. And here’s a set of parameters or principles or even exercises that will help you do that.

Nathan Loewen:

To close out our conversation, I’d like to hear from you what you think people who are interested in what we’ve talked about, or even instructors or professors or teachers who are interested in implementing this or considering what kind of possibilities are out there. What sorts of resources would you direct them towards as they might want to develop this kind of approach to teaching and learning?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. So in my introducing contemplative studies book, there’s a chapter on contemplative pedagogy, where I try to give a kind of variety of exercises from across disciplines. So not specifically religious studies, but saying, “Here’s a discipline specific set of exercises that you might consider.” Not that you should adopt these, but when you think about your own pedagogy, when you think about what you’re teaching, when you think about why you’re teaching it, when you imagine other possibilities of learning. What exercises might you develop? Or are there exercises that you have an affinity with that’s aligned with your pedagogical goals that you could incorporate into your classes that would deepen students’ learning, but also hopefully their own kind of larger lives?

Louis Komjathy:

So there’s materials in there, there’s some further references. And then I think the other part is really going through this kind of critical inquiry on our own about our classes, right? And about the kinds of classes we teach. The material we’re teaching. And are there certain kinds of exercises that are maybe less conventional types of learning exercises, but that give students another way of approaching the material or thinking about the relevance of that material to their lives?

Nathan Loewen:

Outstanding. Thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation. I hope that it’s going to lead to some fruitful inquiries for everyone who listens to it.

Louis Komjathy:

Thank you. And yeah, feel free to contact me if people have questions or comments. So thank you.

Nathan Loewen:

We’ll be sure to put your website in the credits.

Louis Komjathy:

Thanks.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at globalcritical, and that’s all one word, .as.ua.edu. There, you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website at religion.ua.edu. Or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify Podcasts. Thanks, goodbye.

Louis Komjathy:

I was like, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s all right.” I thought you were trying to connect the two. Yeah. This [inaudible 00:15:41] deja vu story of my life.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series Ep. 5 Eric Dickman On Pedagogical Structures

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught and studied in the 21st century? Nathan Eric Dickman is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of the Ozarks. You can find his CV, publications, and videos at ozarks.academia.edu/nathandickman. Professor Dickman was a part of a pilot project teaching Philosophy of Religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by a Wabash center grant administered by Gereon Kopf of Luther College. Our conversation on November 22nd, 2021, focused on how Professor Dickman structures a cross-cultural introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Well, it’s great to have you here for a conversation of about your teaching practices in the Philosophy of Religion. I mean, what are the challenges of your teaching situation? To my understanding, the University of Ozarks is a small liberal arts college.

Eric Dickman:

Yeah.

Nathan Loewen:

You teach in a department of philosophy and religious studies. So walk us through the nature of that teaching situation.

Eric Dickman:

Yeah. So the program is a philosophy program, but the course Philosophy of Religion is cross listed both for philosophy and for religious studies. And so for me, the issue is trying to create a philosophy of religion class, but at the same time, this may be the only class as a general elective, this may be the only class that a student takes, where they get exposed to religious traditions other than Christianity. So my goal is to find a way to deliver a relatively introductory level course, at the same time as getting them exposed to multiple religious cultures, traditions, and methodologies, and all these sorts of things. So for me, that’s the situation, it’s not a Buddhist philosophy course. It is a Philosophy of Religion, where we can look at religions.

Nathan Loewen:

Wow. So this is like you’ve carved out a really specific niche that you need to fill a whole bunch of things into. Multiple traditions, you’re examining …

Eric Dickman:

Multiple methods.

Nathan Loewen:

Multiple methods. Several different themes so that students can tie in and branch out and potentially have this as their only experience, as you just said. So as you’re doing that, what do you try to build in there? What kinds of things are scaffolded into this tight little space of your course?

Eric Dickman:

Yeah. I want to meet Kevin Schilbrack’s challenge about, or to institutionalize philosophy of religion courses in textbooks, in his criticism of them that they’re narrow intellectualistic and insular. So how can I make sure that my course is broad in the sense of covering multiple religious traditions? Not intellectualistic, that is exploring other dimensions of religious life, that’s not merely belief and doctrine, and then how can I make sure that it’s not insular, that is how can I make sure that it’s insufficient conversation with religious studies and the interdisciplinarity of religious studies. Taking into consideration things like feminism, post-colonialism, these sorts of things. So when I scaffold the course, I want to make sure that there may be some of that in every unit and the lessons themselves can display a systematic organization while at the same time maintaining kind of an open-endedness.

Nathan Loewen:

And so I think with everyone who teaches a global critical philosophy of religion class, you’re again, talking about something that is working really hard to address a series of specific challenges related to critiques of a field. And you also want to engage students, but at the same time, students aren’t unaware. They are critical receptors of our teaching and how they are learning. And so they want to see a path, right? They want to know that they’re going somewhere. They don’t want to be just going all over the place. And you said things like post-colonial and feminist and not intellectualistic, but at the same time academic. So, I mean, how do you thread that needle? What’s the framework that you use?

Eric Dickman:

Yeah. I don’t want them to experience the course as just a survey, and so I want it to make sense to have kind of a spinal cord to it. And the framework that I use is cons analysis of the three ideas of pure reason, or the illusions of dialectical reason. The self, the world, and the divine our God, and I use these to create the units of the course. And it’s not just those three, it’s also the unconditioned itself that refracts into these three components, the unconditioned being this kind of ultimate answer to the question why. Like the toddler that can’t stop asking why? Well, because of this, because of this, at a certain point there’s going to be the ultimate.

Nathan Loewen:

And so, just jump in, for you then if I get this right Philosophy of Religion class does involve asking questions about ultimacy or absolute, and this is part of that framework?

Eric Dickman:

Yeah. I think that that’s part of the framework. Because I mean, even students will come in who are somewhat religious and they’ll appeal to things like, God is beyond human understanding, right? Human limits on their concepts, can’t really grasp God or God’s plan or things like this. So they already have the rhetoric or the jargon of God being beyond human limits, right? And so it’s just saying, well, let’s start there since you’re kind of using that.

Nathan Loewen:

Right. And so I know we’re trying to get to you talking about the parts of your framework, but I’ll just jump in because you said, the students come to class with this already, is there a way that you actually survey and find out what is the prior knowledge or the baggage that they’re coming with? Are there media examples? Do you get them to pull out things from their lives? Then you say, “Well, this is transcendental. This is ultimate. This is theological.” And get them to recognize that this is what’s going on in the kind of language that they’re already using?

Eric Dickman:

I don’t get that explicit in terms of labeling things as transcendental. In fact, throughout the whole class, I might not use the word transcendental at all. I do use the word transcendent or transcendence, but I don’t use the word transcendental because that’s such a complicated term in Kantian philosophy in the first place. But I do a prior knowledge assessment quiz or whatever on the very first day where I just say, “What do you think religion is? What do you think philosophy is? What is the point of doing philosophy about religion? What are we even doing?” To see what some of their assumptions are, and often, they might say confessionally religious things, or they might say-

Nathan Loewen:

Yeah. Okay. And so that gets to it. The framework that we still haven’t gotten to you telling us what it is, but I think folks who have read Immanuel Kant might have an idea.

Eric Dickman:

Exactly.

Nathan Loewen:

But you don’t talk about that thing. So there are the things the students talk about, but then there’s the thing you’re using to organize how you talk to the students about the things they’re talking about or?

Eric Dickman:

Yeah. I don’t think we… at this point, I do not have students read Kant at all in this class. In this class, I don’t think I mention Kant at all or the transcendental dialectic or these three ideas of pure reason, anything like that. It’s definitely for me for organizing the course content where it provides a systematic structure that is simultaneously flexible for any kind of material that I want to bring in.

Nathan Loewen:

With the time that we have left, maybe you could just describe what are the outcomes, what do you see happening with the students? Or in another sense, what are the payoffs to this framework and the contents that you’ve glossed over in our conversation?

Eric Dickman:

Well, for me, I think it’s this open ended. So payoff for instructors versus payoff for students. Pay off for instructors, I think this framework is something that anybody can make use of to maintain like a standardization across Philosophy of Religion specific courses. And like I said, this is not a Buddhist philosophy course, this is a distinctively titled philosophy of religions class. So how do you maintain like a systematic structure that is flexible enough for any instructor to be able to go, “Well, I’m going to use these readings or these movies, or these materials for this unit on the south, in different religious traditions or, or different cultural traditions, or I’m going to use these readings, right?” So any instructor can create their own dynamic class while at the same time, maintaining this consistency of organization. The payoff for the students, I think is, it addresses the criteria that I had to begin with.

Eric Dickman:

Like, how do I make sure that students get exposed to multiple religious traditions instead of maintaining this kind of theistic centered model of philosophy of religion. So I want them to have read and understand [inaudible 00:11:13] to some degree, right? Of course, they’re not going to be experts by the end of the class, but to have some in-depth analysis of it, to think about, what is the nature of the world or the universe in this kind of religious paradigm.

Eric Dickman:

And this is quite different than Camus saying that the world is absurd. And this is quite different than a kind of a Muslim worldview where it’s kind of thinking that it’s the stage for God’s ultimate plan for human connection with God. So being able to see different worldviews like that through kind of this shared topic of, we’re not looking at their beliefs about divine being or whether they exist, we’re not looking at their beliefs about what it means to be their doctrine. What are their rational commitments and things like this. Is it true or false. It’s more like, we’re exploring this to try to understand why they think this way, what use it has and how it relates to their practices.

Nathan Loewen:

Well, thanks so much for talking with us a little bit about your approach to teaching a philosophy of religion class. I think it’s a fascinating approach that as you say, the payoff for other folks will be to look at what you’re doing and see if this is a framework that works for them. Thanks so much. We’ll end.

Eric Dickman:

Thank you for the conversation. I appreciate the time to talk with you.

Nathan Loewen:

Brilliant. All right.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the global critical philosophy of religion project, please visit our website @globalcritical, and that’s all one word .as.ua.edu. There you’ll find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website @religion.ua.edu, or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple podcasts, or Spotify podcasts. Thanks, goodbye.

Topics and Categories for Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion: NEH-supported mini-conference and essay collection

On March 18-20, 2022, nearly two dozen global-critical philosophers of religion will participate in a NEH-supported mini-conference that explores alternative sets of topics, methods, and aims for global-critical philosophy of religion. Presentations will later be developed as essays and collected into a volume to be published with Bloomsbury.

Since at least the European Enlightenment, the core topics of western philosophy of religion have consisted of the nature and existence of God, the problem of evil, and the immortality of the soul. These topics are implicitly taken as natural or rational, even used in some cases as the fundamental categories for global philosophy of religion. Witness, for example, the multi-million-dollar “Global Philosophy of Religion Project” recently funded by the John Templeton Foundation at the University of Birmingham, which deploys the categories of existence and nature of deities, death and immortality, and evil and suffering in the world “to make progress on central issues in the philosophy of religion by incorporating multi-religious perspectives” (https://www.global-philosophy.org/projects). But what if philosophy of religion had begun in some other place or at some other time? Would its core categories of inquiry resemble those of contemporary western philosophy of religion?

This mini-conference and essay collection addresses these questions, exploring what the core topics (as well as the methods and aims) of philosophy of religion might have been (or actually were or are) in socio-historical contexts, religio-philosophical traditions, and methodological-theoretical orientations other than contemporary, western philosophy of religion (especially in its analytic mode). In doing so this volume of essays challenges the implicit claim that the core topics of western philosophy of religion are somehow natural or rational and therefore well-suited for global philosophy of religion. It also provides a wealth of resources for those seeking to develop philosophies of religion with greater degrees of globality and criticality, and it offers inspiration for those seeking to reimagine different fundamental starting points and categories of inquiry for “global-critical philosophy of religion.”

For more information about the conference, especially about attending or participating, please contact Tim Knepper.

Participants:

Bilimoria, Purushottama. Graduate Theological Union

Detwiler, Fritz. Adrian College

Dickman, Nathan Eric. University of the Ozarks

Dolinsek, Cody. Drake University

Gorisse, Marie-Hélène. University of Birmingham

Hustwit, Jeremy. Methodist University

Kalmanson, Leah. Drake University

Knepper, Timothy. Drake University – project director

Komjathy, Louis. University of San Diego

Kopf, Gereon. Luther College – project co-director

Loewen, Nathan. University of Alabama – project co-director

Moyo, Herbert. University of KwaZulu Natal

Ogunnaike, Ayodeji. Bowdoin College

Ogunnaike, Oludamini. University of Virginia

Park, Jin. American University

Patil, Parimal. Harvard University

Rostalska, Agnieszka. Ghent University

Schilbrack, Kevin. Appalachian State University

Simmons, J. Aaron. Furman University

Singh, Nikky. Colby College

Weed, Laura Weed. The College of Saint Rose

Talking Across the Divide – Discovering our Common Humanity [1]

Gereon Kopf (Luther College, University of Iceland, Tōyō University)

Today,[2] our human community is seemingly irrevocably divided by many religious, ideological, and political boundaries. These boundaries are indicative of identity politics. Even though, most people agree that there a multiplicity of religious, ideological, national, and political identities divisive rhetoric is often framed in the juxtaposition of a self and an other. For example, we are used to divide the world into “East” and “West,” the “North” and the “global South,” “good” and “evil,” dualism and non-dualism, positivism and nihilism. This rhetoric ignores the multiplicity of cultures and succumbs to identity politics. As post-orientalist theorists such as J. J. Clarke point out, this rhetoric creates counterfactual “quasi-entities” and reifies “cultural enclavism”: This rhetoric “constitutes the ‘other,’ that which stands opposite to us as strange and alien, and it is this very otherness, which confirms our own self-image and defines our own self-identity” (Clarke 1994, 14-15). In addition, the boundaries created by this rhetoric obstruct our view onto our common humanity. It is my belief that this rhetoric is based on an exclusive sense of identity. I believe that a sense of identity based on Buddhist philosophy and NISHIDA Kitarō’s (1870-1945) “self-identity of the absolute contradictories” (J.: zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 絶対矛盾的自己同一) (NKZ 9: 124) can provide an alternative model of intercultural encounters and multiculturalism. In this paper, I will provide such a new vision of a multicultural world and an analysis of why intercultural, interreligious, and inter-ideological encounters often fail.

            The term “self-identity of the absolute contradictories” (J.: zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 絶対矛盾的自己同一) (NKZ 9: 124) is an abbreviation of a longer phrase used by Nishida in his later career, starting with his 1936 Philosophical Essays Vol. 2 (Tetsugaku ronbunsho dainikan 哲学論文書第二巻) (NKZ 8: 267-590), “self-identity of the absolute contradictories of the many and the one” (J.: ta to ichi to no zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 多と一との絶対矛盾的自己同一). Ironically but not completely accidentally, Nishida began citing and evoking Buddhist texts in the same volume especially in his essay “Acting Intuition” (“Kōteki chokkan” 行為的直観) (NKZ 8: 541-571). This term, as convoluted as it might be, implies two fundamental critiques of the exclusive and essentialist conception of identity in particular and, as he argues in his “On Self-Awareness” (“Jikaku ni tsuite” 自覚について) (NKZ 10: 477-564), essentialism in general: Nishida proposes that 1) the self is neither monolithic, self-caused, nor permanent and 2) the foundational juxtaposition in metaphysics is not that between self and other but between the universal one and the multiplicity of particulars/individuals (Kopf 2014, 2019). Both insights he inherits, of course, from Buddhist philosophy.

            The deconstruction of the self has been central to Buddhist philosophy from its early inception. In his Buddhist Psychology, Geshe Tashi Tsering brilliantly maps how self-centered consciousness creates the world of experience and, by implication, our worldview. The key to the construction of our world(s) of experience and to Buddhist psychology in toto is the self-centeredness or attachment to the self identified by the Yogācāra philosopher Vasubandhu (~500) alternatingly as “thought consciousness” (S.: manavijñāna) or as “defiled mentation consciousness” (S.: kliṣṭa-mano-vijñāna). This ego-consciousness constructs the world of experience as its object. Tsering outlines how this self-centered consciousness constructs the world of our experience by means of the “three poisons” (C. sandu 三毒), also known as the “three unwholesome roots” (S.: akuśala-mūla-traya), “ignorance” (S.: moha), “attachment” (S.: rāga), and “aversion” (S.: dveṣa). Ignorant of its own “emptiness” (S.: śūnyatā), the self differentiates the world that is experienced as separate from the self into “good” and “evil,” “like” and “dislike” (Tsering 2006, 48-49).

The Buddha did not only advocate the concept of “no-self” (S.: anātman) as a direct negation of the Upaniṣadic conception of an uncaused, eternal “self” (S.: ātman) but equally refused to reject the notion of the self. Asked about his silence in response to the question of whether or not we have a “self,” he famously answered that “if I had said that there is a self, he would have formed the view of the self. If I had said that there is no self, he would fall into ignorance and madness and would be even more confused” (T 99.2.34.245 ). Much later, the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra (C.: Dazhidulun 大智度論) interprets Buddha’s silence as a rejection of all forms of dualism claiming that “the claim ‘the five skandhas are impermanent, empty, and without a self’ means that in the perfected wisdom, the five skandhas are neither permanent nor impermanent, neither empty nor non-empty, neither with a self nor devoid of a self” (T 1509.25.17). Finally, the famous “Ten Ox Pictures” (C. shiniutu 十牛図) also named “Ox Herding Pictures” (C.: muniutu 牧牛図) of Kuoan Shiyuan 廓庵師遠 (12th century) deconstruct the self-centered worldview of everyday ego-consciousness (picture 1) and replaces it with the vision of “buddha nature” (C.: foxing 佛性) or the “buddha-womb” (S. tathāgatgarbha, C.: rulaizang 如來蔵)[3] and intersubjectivity (picture 10), that is the encounter of self and other, master and disciple, buddhas, and ancestors. (Kopf 2021).

            Philosophically, early Mahāyāna philosophy replaced the notion of “self” with that of tathāgatgarbha. The goal of this conceptual move is threefold. First, it replaces the self as the center of our worldview with Buddha. To understand reality, we need to learn to view the world the way the Buddha does. Our self constitutes an obstacle to “seeing things as they are.” As Vasubandhu suggested in his theory of the “three self-natures” (S. tri-svabhāva), the world, which we experience as “object” (S. parikalpita), is constructed “vis-à-vis” the experiencing subject (S. paratantra) and, therefore, its “ultimate nature” (S. pariniṣpanna) is devoid of self-nature. Second, to move beyond the self-centeredness, we have to give up or transform our thetic modality of interaction, which Buddhist texts refer to as “attachment,” desire-to-possess, and “aversion,” desire-to-avoid/reject. Only then, can we embrace Buddha’s perspective. Third, the universally shared oneness cannot be reified as an essence but it is, philosophically speaking, “empty” of self-nature. Following this line of thought, Yin Shun (1906-2005) has claimed that, as Scott Hurley has pointed out in his insightful work, the tathāgatgarbha theory is pivotal for establishing a “humanistic Buddhism” (C. renjian fojiao 人間佛教), that is, a Buddhism beyond all boundaries. Chengguan 澄觀 (738-839) stratified the metaphysical implications of such an “empty tathāgatgarbha” in his “fourfold dharma world” (C. shifajie 四法界), especially the “mutual non-obstruction of the universal and the particular” (C. lishiwuai 理事無礙) and the “mutual non-obstruction among particulars” (C.: shishiwuai 事事無礙).  Finally, Dōgen 道元 (1200-1253) described this relationship of non-obstruction between universal and particular as well as among particulars as “expression” (J.: dōtoku). Identifying the relationship of “[a]ll buddhas and ancestors” with the individual practitioner as “expression” (DZZ 1: 302), Dōgen suggests that “[i]n me, there is expression and non-expression. In him, there is expression and non-expression. At the bottom of the way, there is self and other; at the bottom of the non-way, there is self and other” (DZZ 1: 304). This quote is fascinating in many ways. Here, I would like to focus on Dōgen’s claim that, regardless of and beyond all identity politics, all human beings express the oneness of tathāgatgarbha as well as innumerable other individual experiences or expressions fully but not completely in our actions (Kopf 2014). This seemingly innocuous claim has far reaching implications on how we should treat each other. Not only do we all share and participate in “buddha-nature” we are also equally fallible and need the community, saṃgha, of all human beings to reach our goal expressing “all buddhas and ancestors.”

            This is one Mahāyāna Buddhist interpretation of the deconstruction of the self. I am sure that the majority of the audience/readers are familiar with these basic Buddhist concepts. But how do they help us overcome the numerous boundaries created by identity politics? The various thinkers within the traditions of “humanistic Buddhism” (C.: renjain fojiao, V.: nhan gian phat giao[4]) such as Yin Shun and Thich Nhat Hanh have provided us with many practical guidelines on how to practice wholesome deeds. I cannot add to their insight and wisdom. What I would like to do is to provide an analysis of what prevents us from encountering people across the boundaries and as individual and full but incomplete expressions of tathāgatgarbha just as we are. Inspired by Kuoan Shiyuan’s “Ten Ox Pictures” I have developed  the “Ten Wolf-Encounter Pictures” (十遇狼図), which are accompanied by ten descriptive poems.[5] It is the story of a monkey that grows up in a monkey clan and sees the world through monkey eyes until her/his world is threatened by an ominous encounter with a wolf. I see this fable as an allegory for our human shortcomings but also as an inspiration of how to overcome them.

Picture 1:

猴子嬉树                   monkeys playing in the trees

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猴在树顶                    high up in the trees

相互嬉戲                    the monkeys’ play is unencumbered

全無干擾                    there is no present danger

這是猿界                    it is the monkey world

We grow up in our families as well as in communities, religious and otherwise. In these communities we learn a specific way of looking at the world, which we adopt and internalize. The language, in the literal and the metaphorical sense, that we internalize shapes the way we think and experience the world. This way, we create our “life-world” (G.: Lebenswelt). The more homogenous our community is the more homogenous our Lebenswelt becomes. In any case, our Lebenswelt is monolithic, we take it for granted, we take it to be THE world. MUTAI Risaku 務台理作 (1890-1974) refers to this phenomenon as the “small world” (J.: shōsekai 小世界) (MRC 4:59). This adoption and internalization of the communal worldview and language constitutes the “socialization of the self” (被社會化).

Picture 2:

練習独立                    practicing independence

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从树到树                    From tree to tree

小猴跳跃                    the little monkey jumps

脱离父母                    leaving the parents

練習独立                    practicing independence

No matter how tight a community is, its members will claim some kind of individuality whether it is within one’s place within the community or whether it is vis-à-vis the community. This desire to define oneself constitutes the “search for uniqueness” (尋找自我). But this search is not a one way-street. Feminist as well as Confucian philosophers and thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) or WATSUJI Tetsurō (1889-1960) define even the notion of independent self as relational. We define ourselves in-relationship to others and to a group. When we distinguish ourselves from the community we are socialized in, we paradoxically use their language and adopt their Lebenswelt. E.g., atheists define themselves vis-à-vis theists using a monotheistic framework to define themselves. However, when we try to establish uniqueness, we put our self in the center of this Lebenswelt.

Picture 3:

從樹看狼                    seeing the wolf from the safety of the trees

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身处树上                    the top of the trees

感到安全                    feels peaceful and safe

虽闻狼嚎                    even though wolves howl in the distance

猴是树王                    monkey is the king of the trees

Socialized in one Lebenswelt, we assimilate, to use the language of Jean Piaget (1896-1980), the objects of our experience into this our world. This form of consciousness is called “constructing-the-other-for-oneself” (對自成他). Steeped in our ignorance we mistake our world to be the one true world, we categorize and assess the objects of our experience in relationship to ourselves: the phenomena we like, we are attached to, the phenomena we dislike, we develop an aversion to. Buddhist philosophy is especially helpful to understand this experience. Following Tsering’s map of human emotions, our treatment of the objects of aversion is characterized by “jealousy,” “cruelty,” and “resentment” (Tsering 2006, 49).

Picture 4:

猴遇見狼                    monkey encounters a wolf

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为探新界                    to explore new worlds

猴子离树                    monkey leaves the trees

忽然之间                    when, all of a sudden,

猴遇見狼                    a wolf shows up

Our self-centered world is shattered when we realize that the other does not necessarily follow the rules of our world. This awareness is triggered by “the encounter with an independent other”  (自偶遇他). It faces us with alternative “life worlds” (G.: Lebenswelten), with new ways of looking at the world. Consequently, our world and its center our self, is shattered. This brings about an existential crisis: Are the beliefs, ontological, epistemic, and moral, that I followed my whole life wrong? How do I deal with the existence of other beliefs. Interreligious but also intercultural encounters can prompt such an existential crisis and uncertainty.

Picture 5:

狼狩獵猴                    wolf chases the monkey

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凶残狠狼                    the ferocious wolf

追杀小猴                    chases the monkey

猴试逃脱                    who escapes into the trees

谁又称王                    who is the king now?

When we encounter an independent other, we are faced with three options: 1) withdraw into our own world and pretend the outside does not exist, 2) adopt the worldview of the other, or 3) accept the ambiguity that both might be right and both might be false. Besides uncertainty, such an encounter of the other also creates fear. Not only is our word view challenged, all of a sudden, we are overwhelmed by otherness. This is called “knowing-the-other-forgetting-the-self” (知他忘自). We freeze and, like under Jean Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) gaze, we lose our agency and become the object of the other.

Picture 6:

舉案齊眉                    mutual respect

休戰達成                    a truce is reached

各有領域                    each has their territory

狼统地面                    wolf roams the land

猴统树林                    monkey rules the trees

In such an encounter, we can also experience mutual respect. What looks like a “truce between self and other” (自他停戰) also implies that we appreciate the accomplishments of the other. A lot of theories of interreligious dialogue are based on this principle. The participants are willing to learn about each other yet stand firm in their beliefs. Similarly, Stephen Gould characterizes the relationship between science and religions as “non-overlapping magisteria” implying science deals with the workings of nature, religion with the meaning of life and moral theory (Gould 1997). Such an approach divides our Lebenswelt into two unconnected and irreconcilable realms and thus implies or even endorses dualism.

Picture 7:

營救狼崽                    rescuing the wolf cub

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然有一天                    then, one day,

河变洪流                    the river becomes a torrent

猴来營救                    monkey comes to the rescue

共同强大                    together they are stronger

The deadlock between self and other can be overcome by the “presence of a third” (Kopf 2018). The third, in this case a child, as Mengzi proposed with his allegory of the child in the well (Mengzi 2a, 6)­­, makes us “realize an underlying commonality” (找同存異)  and awakens our compassion. We realize that we are not only different but also similar, as they are similarities and differences between us the member of our community.

Picture 8:

一起旅行                    travelling together

共同合作                    they now work together
互相学習                    and learn from each other
拜访狼家                    visiting the home of the wolf
猴明狼世                    monkey understands the wolf’s world

As important as the insight into the underlying commonality is, it must be cultivated. E.g., the Chan and Seon masters Guifeng Zongmi 圭峰宗密 (780-841) and Jinul 普照知訥 (1158-1210) emphasized the importance of “sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation” (Gregory 1987, 280). A self-cultivation practice that transforms the thetic modality of attachment/aversion and dissolves the boundaries between self and other is the practice of pilgrimage conceived of as “putting oneself in the shoes of the other” (换位思考). Such a practice transforms our attachment and aversion and creates an athetic modality by means of “attunement” (Nagatomo 1992) to the other and the third. The Buddhist scriptures call this athetic modality “mutual feeling response” (C.: ganying daojiao 感應道交) (T 1911.46.004). The importance of this attunement to others is one reason why Buddhist texts emphasize the saṃgha. In a political context, Trinh Minh Ha calls this practice “walking with the disappeared” (2018).

Picture 9:

看水見狼                    looking in the water – seeing the wolf

返回家後                    upon returning home

猴飲甘泉                    monkey drinks from the spring

猴望水时                    in the water, however,

狼脸映出                    wolf’s face is reflected

This practice transforms the self. The result is neither a “self” nor a “no-self,” but a self-in-relationship. Nishida explains: “I and Thou are wholly other. There is no universal that contains both I and Thou. The I becomes and I by recognizing the Thou. The Thou become a Thou by recognizing the I. In the depth of the I is the Thou; in the depth of the Thou is the I. The I unites with the Thou in the depth of the I. The Thou unites with the I in the depth of the Thou. Because they become completely other, they unite internally” (NKZ 6: 381). Similarly, Dōgen’s re-reads the famous words attributed to Bodhidharma, “you attained my marrow” (T 2035.49.291), as “you attain me, I attain you” (DZZ 1: 333).The boundaries between self and other are dissolved: what we call “self” constitutes but one expression of the self-other-relationship, what we call “other” also constitutes one such expression. This insight is called “knowing-the-other-understanding-the-self” (知他明自).

Picture 10:

衆生共存                      the co-existence of all beings

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在湖底部                    at the bottom of the lake

無數面現                    numerous beings appear

有帝釋網                    it is Indra’s Net

衆生共存                    the co-existence of all beings

Of course, in the same way as individual is not isolated without context, the relationship between self and other does not exist in a vacuum. Chengguan and Dōgen have convincingly argued that self and other are located in Indra’s net. Furthermore, the boundaries between self and other as well as the walls between communities and species have been broken down and overcome. Self and others meet, human beings and non-human animals mingle. At this point in our journey we realize that all beings, sentient and insentient, “co-exist together and complement each other” (共存互補). The awareness of this larger community, a community that embraces “all beings”[6] including “grass and trees” and “insentient beings,” all of whom  have/are buddha-nature” (T 1853.45.040; T 2223.61.0011) and “become buddhas” (T 1937.46.890; T 2299.70.300), marks the non-thetic modality by means of which we express tathāgatgarbha.

In some sense, these pictures outline a path from self-centeredness to an existential modality of selflessness imagined by the Huayan Buddhist image of Indra’s net. If we recognize that we are all full but incomplete expressions of tathāgatgarbha we will be able to live in a cosmopolitan world (Appiah 2007) and in harmony with particular eco-systems as well as the wider cosmos in toto.  We will be able to cherish the saṃgha of “all beings”­­––sentient beings including human beings and non-human animals, plants, and insentient beings alike––cultivate wholesome deeds, and express tathāgatgarbha. In my incomplete understanding, this is the teaching of the Buddha.

Works Cited

Abbreviations:

DZZ    Dōgen zenji zenshū 『道元禅師全集』[Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen]. 2 vols. Ed. Dōshū Ōkubo 城大久保道舟. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1969-1970).

MRC   Mutai risaku chosakushū『務台理作著作集』 [Collected Works of Mutai Risaku]. 9 vols. (Tokyo: Kobushi Shobō, 2000–2002).

NKZ    Nishida kitarō zenshū 西田幾多郎全集新版 [Complete Works of Kitarō Nishida]. 20 vols. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1988).

T          Taishō daizōkyō 『大正大藏經』 [Buddhist Canon – The Taishō Version], ed. by Junjirō Takakusu and Kaigyoku Watanabe (Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. 1961).

Other works

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2007. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York W. W. Norton & Company.

Clarke, J. J. 1993. Jung and the East: a Dialogue with the Orient. New York: Routledge.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Natural History Vol. 106, 16-26.

Gregory, Peter N. 1987. Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1967. Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kopf, Gereon. 2014. “Philosophy as Expression: Towards a New Model of Global Philosophy,” Nishida tetsugakkai nenpō (The Annual Review of the Nishida Philosophy Association), Vol. 11, 181-155.

_____. 2018. “Self, selflessness, and the endless search for identity: a meta-psychology of human folly,” Self or No-Self, ed. Ingolf U. Dalfehrt (Tübingen: in Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 239-262.

_____. 2019. “Emptiness, Multiverses, and the Conception of a Multi-Entry Philosophy,” APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies Vol. 19, No. 1, 34-36.

_____. 2021. “‘The Self that is not a self’––Ueda and Kuoan’s Ten Ox Pictures,” in Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru. Doerdrecht: Springer International Publishing.

_____. 2022. “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach.” In Philosophy of Religion Around the World: A Critical Approach, edited by Nathan Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. London: Bloomsbury Academics.

Nagatomo, Shigenori. 1992. Attunement Through the Body. Albany: SUNY Press.

Tsering, Geshe Tashi. 2006. Buddhist Psychology. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. 2016. Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared. New York: Fordham University Press.

Ziporyn, Brook. 1996. Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


[1] Paper presented in and published in the proceedings of the 19th International Symposium on the Theory and Practice of the Teachings of Dharma Master Yin Shun in Hsinchu City on 11/06/2021.

[2] I would like to thank the providers of the online resources The SAT Daizōkyō Text Database (http://21dzk.l.utokyo.ac.jp/), the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (http://www.acmuller.net) for their invaluable service.

[3] See Charles Muller’s Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (http://buddhism-dict.net/cgi-bin/xpr-ddb.pl?q=佛性).

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh translated this term into English as “engaged Buddhism” (Hanh 1967, 42).

[5] The idea, story, and poems are mine. The poems were illustrated by Amber Takano. I thank Qianran Yang, Irene Lok, and Ching-yuen Cheung for checking my Chinese. I introduced the pictures and poems in a recent essay titled “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach” (Kopf 2022).

[6] Dōgen re-reads the famous phrase from the Mahāparinirvāṇa sūtra, “all have/are” (C.: xiyou 悉有) (T 374.12.407) as “all beings” (J.: shitsū 悉有) (DZZ 1: 14).