New book edited by philosophy professor Steven Emmanuel explores Buddhist thought from diverse perspectives
By Mike Knepler
Thirty years ago, a Boston University Philosophy seminar was suddenly interrupted by a belligerent student. At the front of the classroom, distinguished philosopher John Niemeyer Findlay remained remarkably unbothered by the outburst, keeping an unusual level of composure for the situation at hand. It was this display of control that ultimately sparked then-undergraduate philosophy student Steven Emmanuel to delve into Buddhism.
“It was impressive the way he was able to maintain that kind of calm in a situation that struck all of us as quite volatile,” Emmanuel recalls. “The student was emotionally disturbed, very agitated and loud.”
A few days later, Emmanuel asked the professor how he was able to keep his cool. The aging philosopher explained that he was a practitioner of Buddhism. He recommended that Emmanuel look into Buddhist meditation, a “mind-training” discipline aimed at developing concentration, tranquility and insight.
“Meditation isn’t just being quiet. It is a mode of inquiry,” says Emmanuel. “Allowing the mind to clear is preparatory to insight. Not all knowledge is the product of an uninterrupted sequence of logical reasoning. It’s a different kind of process, but it’s a wonderful source of creativity, original thought and deep understanding that you’ll never achieve if you’re constantly living at the edge of your own thought process.”
Emmanuel has always been fascinated with different cultures, so it seems only natural that the VWC professor of philosophy would want his new book, A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, to help build bridges between Eastern and Western philosophic traditions. After all, he has been journeying across cultures for much of his life.
The 736-page tome, which he organized and edited, is just the latest of his intellectual forays into the thoughts and traditions of other cultures. Previous endeavors include three books, numerous articles on philosophy, and four video documentaries, including Making Peace with Viet Nam, Contemplating Thoreau, Religion Serving Humanity and The Monks of Pungo. Emmanuel’s studies have garnered major grants and fellowships, including research travels to Viet Nam and a 1980s Fulbright to the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He can speak or read five languages and has taught philosophy at Virginia Wesleyan for 21 years.
Despite his professional accomplishments, studying and teaching philosophy is much more than academic pedagogy for Emmanuel. It’s a way of living, reflecting and sharing the philosophic lessons he believes can help improve the life of a community.
As an example, Emmanuel and several students visited Viet Nam in 2007 to study and film the lingering effects of war. On returning home, the professor organized the Mindful Marlins, a campus organization using meditation to address community issues. Members of the club share their contemplative skills at the Seton Youth Shelter in Virginia Beach, helping troubled teens develop healthy, peaceful problem-solving strategies.
Learning the philosophical traditions of other cultures, Emmanuel notes, can also have dollars-and-cents results.
“Given the reality of our global economy, it’s important that we know more about Eastern cultures,” he says. “If I’m a Thai businessman and you come to Thailand wanting to do business with me, I’m going to respect you a lot more, and take it as a sign of your respect for me, if you know something about my culture. I’d be less likely to feel that you’re out to exploit me if I know that you’ve taken time to find out about who we are as a people and what we believe.”
For the past dozen years, Emmanuel also has advocated that the teaching of philosophy be more inclusive of Asian contributions.
“We do courses called ‘Introduction to Philosophy,’ semester-in, semester-out, all across the country. But really what [many teachers] do is ‘Introduction to Western Philosophy,’ neglecting that there is a whole, vast tradition of thinking that actually has amazing insights to contribute.”
Emmanuel also believes that interest in Asian philosophies has grown, as evidenced by the current job market.
“When I first started looking for jobs out of graduate school, nobody was hiring anybody to teach courses in Buddhist philosophy,” he says. “Today you can find a handful of job ads. [Asian philosophy] really has entered popular culture in a way that has made people curious.”
Emmanuel sees a broad audience for A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, which was published in April 2013 as part of the Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Philosophy series. The volume, he says, will appeal not only to undergraduate and graduate students but also to Buddhist scholars and teachers of philosophy.
“It’s a resource book for potentially anybody who has a serious interest in learning about Buddhist thought,” Emmanuel says.
But creating the book was not such an easy accomplishment. As he explains in the introduction, the challenge “of producing a comprehensive, single-volume treatment of Buddhist philosophy” included “how to do justice to the sheer breadth and diversity of a tradition that spans some two and a half millennia.”
Emmanuel recruited 44 scholars to contribute chapters to the book, which was several years in the making. The chapters are organized into five sections: Conceptual Foundations, Major Schools of Buddhist Thought, Themes in Buddhist Philosophy, Buddhist Meditation and Contemporary Issues and Applications.
Topics in the contemporary issues section may sound familiar to American society: environmental and biomedical issues, war and peace, human rights, gender and diversity. But the discussions show the diversity of Buddhist thought and bear the nuances from several Asian cultures that make them distinct from Western societies.
Certain bioethical debates, such as abortion, do not compare easily to Western versions. As Damien Keown, author of the biomedical chapter, writes, “The Buddhist belief in rebirth clearly introduces a new dimension to the abortion debate. For one thing, it puts the question ‘When does life begin?’ in an entirely new light. For Buddhism, life is a continuum with no discernible starting point, and birth and death are like a revolving door through which an individual passes again and again.”
Concerning war and peace, chapter author Sallie B. King presents Buddhist beliefs in a wide range of historical contexts and situations, including ancient and modern wars, state violence, warrior monks and self-immolation during the Viet Nam War.
Chapters on human rights, gender and diversity contrast ideals, such as the practice of “lovingkindness” (a popular form of Buddhist meditation), compassion and alleviation of suffering, with the realities of Buddhist societies where “gender discrimination…is especially glaring.”
The authors of the chapters on contemporary issues, Emmanuel says, are certainly not stating the last word on these issues.
“They are trying to explain issues within the traditions, with tools that are available within those traditions, and showing how the traditions could be useful in helping us think about these issues today.”
Emmanuel believes Buddhism offers a promising perspective in the area of environmental issues with its focus on interconnectedness of all things, of human beings living interdependently with nature.
Interconnectedness is another one of Buddhism’s central precepts. In the book’s introduction, Emmanuel elaborates on the notion.
“All phenomena arise within a complex network of mutually conditioning causes and effects. As Buddha succinctly put the point: ‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be: with the cessation of this, that ceases.’”
Or, as Emmanuel often summarizes, “This is like this because that is like that.”
Emmanuel encourages his students to allow themselves time for contemplation and believes the practice leads to better discussions in the classroom.
“I tell them to read something and then go take a walk,” he says. “We have a beautiful lake on campus. Go sit there, think about what you’ve read and get some insight. That’s the precious thing that comes from creating time to reflect.”
The meditative discipline also continues to mesh with Emmanuel’s longtime interest in the martial arts, including his current practice of the Japanese art of iaido, focusing on body movements in the drawing and returning of a sword. He was also involved in Olympic-style fencing for many years, helping to start the Tidewater Fencing Club, which still meets on campus.
Although Emmanuel admires many aspects of Buddhist philosophy and has benefitted from Buddhist-style meditation, he does not consider himself a Buddhist.
“I’m a practicing non-Buddhist,” he allows. “Now there's a Zen kōan for your readers to ponder!”
Mike Knepler is a Norfolk-based freelance writer and editor and a longtime journalist. Visit him at www.MikeKnepler.com.