[Buddha-l] angels

Richard Nance richard.nance at gmail.com
Thu May 26 14:59:40 MDT 2005

On 5/26/05, Gad Horowitz <horowitz at chass.utoronto.ca> wrote:
> Levinas' "God" is nothing other than the primordial obligation that arises
> for a human being to do his/her utmost, and more, for the other.  The
> command comes from what Levinas calls "the face of the Other".  I am
> suggesting that Sakyamuni's enlightenment experience per se was not enough
> to lead him to teach.He would  also have had to be confronted with the
> command coming from the face of the other--all suffering beings. 

I don't know, Gad. I find Levinas interesting, and I think he makes
points that Buddhists today might do well to consider, but I don't see
him as making Buddhist points. At the very least, his claims aren't
easily reconcilable with many of the central Buddhist ideas with which
I'm familiar.  As I recall, Levinas relies heavily on the notion that
the other is truly and irremediably other. This seems to me to set him
at some distance from Buddhism. While Levinas and many Buddhist
thinkers might both plausibly be seen to hold that self-interest stems
from a failure to see the world aright, Levinas's own metaphysical
thought (or principled--if tortuously complex--attempt to refuse the
metaphysical in favor of the ethical) doesn't fit very comfortably
with a metaphysics in which things, such as they are, are dependently
arisen -- a view with which most Buddhists are, I'd imagine, pretty

> Levinas can help Buddhists finally deal with the question of Ethics . in a
> manner that might satisfy Judaeo-Christian-Islamic objections to Buddhism as
> demoting the ethical from the level of absolute truth to the level of
> conventional truth.  

But should such objections be responded to by importing ideas that are
given only flimsy support in the Buddhist texts that we have? Say, for
the sake of discussion, that Buddhism *does* assume that ethics
('siila) is conventional.  So what?  A person who objects to this
needs to spell out further what's wrong with the idea (is the fear
here one of ethical relativism? Of not taking ethics sufficiently
seriously? Both? Something else?). Doing so would, I think, serve to
bring to light the objector's own assumptions about what the terms
"conventional" and "ultimate" mean. And these assumptions might
diverge considerably from what Buddhist texts actually say about
sa.mv.rti and paramaarthasatya.

To tease out what the texts say takes a lot of work, of course -- but
if one is looking for a Buddhist answer to the above
"Judaeo-Christian-Islamic objection", it's work that seems to me more
promising than appealing to Levinas. After all, if you find it
necessary to draw from the rich conceptual resources of Judaism to
respond to the objectors' claims, couldn't they reasonably retort that
your response simply supports their point?
Best wishes,

R. Nance

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