All events are free and open to the public

Spring Term 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018, 5 pm
Chao Presidential Chair Annual Lecture
Meditation and Nonconceptual Awareness
Perspectives from Buddhist Philosophy and Cognitive Science
Evan Thompson, University of British Columbia
Toll Room, Alumni House, UC Berkeley

Supported by a generous gift from Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao

Thompson talk image

Mindfulness meditation practices are often traditionally said to induce “nonconceptual” forms of awareness, and scientists and clinicians often repeat such descriptions. But what does “nonconceptual” mean? Clearly, without a precise specification of what a concept or conceptual cognition is, the notion of nonconceptuality is equally ill-defined. I present an account of concepts, concept formation, and nonconceptual awareness based on combining ideas from Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science. On the Buddhist side, I draw from Dharmakīrti’s “exclusion” (apoha) theory of concept formation and the Yogācāra view of conceptual cognition as necessarily structured by the duality of “grasper” (grāhaka) and “grasped” (grāhya) (i.e., by the duality of subject versus object). On the cognitive science side, I distinguish between sensory discrimination, perceptual categorization, and mental conceptualization (the deployment of concepts in thought). According to both Dharmakīrti’s “exclusion” theory and cognitive science considerations, perceptual categorization is the most minimal form of conceptual cognition. It structures our engagement with the world at a basic and prelinguistic level, and it is motivationally and affectively biased. Combining these Buddhist and cognitive science ideas provides a philosophically precise and empirically useful way to define “nonconceptual awareness” and “nondual awareness.” Nonconceptual mental events do not undergo or result from “exclusion” (apoha), and they do not involve perceptual categorization. Nondual awareness in addition lacks the grasper-grasped (subject-object) structure and is not motivationally and affectively biased. I apply this framework to scientific studies of Buddhist mindfulness meditation practices, with attention to experimental studies of the effects of these practices on the perception and experience of pain. One take-home message is that cognitive scientists, clinical scientists, philosophers, Buddhist scholars, and experienced meditation practitioners need to work together. In particular, more attention needs to be given to the cross-cultural philosophical issues about concepts discussed in the lecture to clarify and advance the empirical investigation of mindfulness meditation practices.

Evan Thompson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an Associate Member of the Department of Asian Studies and the Department of Psychology. He is an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2015); Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Harvard University Press, 2007); and Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge Press, 1995). He is the co-author, with Francisco J. Varela and Eleanor Rosch, of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991, revised edition, 2017). He received his B.A. in Asian Studies from Amherst College and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. He was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto from 2005 to 2013, and held a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Science and the Embodied Mind at York University from 2002 to 2005. In 2014, he was the Numata Invited Visiting Professor at the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also held invited visiting appointments at the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement (ICE) at Dartmouth College, the Faculty of Philosophy, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, the Ecole Polytechnique (Paris), the Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen, and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Event Contact: buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu, 510.643.5104

Tuesday and Thursday, March 13/15, 2018, 5-7 pm
Tuesday and Thursday, March 20/22, 2018, 5-7 pm
Chao Presidential Chair Annual Seminars
Emptiness, Mind, and Reality
Buddhist Interventions in the Realism Versus Anti-Realism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy
370 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley

Supported by a generous gift from Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao

Chao Seminars image

Registration for the seminars is encouraged. Those registered will have access to assigned readings through a dropbox link. Register by sending an email to buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu.

Does it make sense to think that we inhabit a world that exists and has a nature independently of how anyone takes it to be? Realists answer yes, and argue that objective knowledge is impossible unless it tells us how things are independently of what anyone might think. Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, however, specifically the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra traditions, is usually understood to be anti-realist, because it denies either that things have intrinsic natures (Madhyamaka) or that things have intrinsic natures independently of the mind (Yogācāra). Philosophical scholarship on Madhyamaka and Yogācāra often relates them to anti-realist or idealist ideas in modern European philosophy (e.g., from Kant, Wittgenstein, and Phenomenology). For example, Madhyamaka is variously interpreted as a form of conventionalism, global anti-realism, or quietism, while Yogācāra is sometimes read as a form of transcendental phenomenology. These four seminars will examine core ideas from Madhyamaka and Yogācāra in light of the resurgence of realism in contemporary philosophy. For example, Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor argue that we can “retrieve” realism by giving up the idea that knowledge consists of ideas in the mind representing the external world; by denying this “meditational epistemology” we can regain a view of knowledge as being based on our direct access to the everyday world and the physical universe of science. Quentin Meillassoux argues that the way to be a realist is to give up “correlationism,” which is the idea that we only ever have access to the correlation between the mind and the world and never to either one considered apart from the other, and he argues that the reason to reject correlationism is that it cannot make sense of the meaning of scientific statements about the world anterior to the appearance of human beings. How should the contemporary Madhyamaka or Yogācāra philosopher respond to these kinds of arguments? What contributions can Madhyamaka and Yogācāra make to the contemporary debates about realism and anti-realism? These questions will be the guiding ones of the four seminars. We will read selections (in translation) from Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) and The Dispeller of Disputes (Vigrahavyāvartanī), as well as Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Three Natures (Trisvabhāvanirdeśa), together with relevant secondary readings relating these texts to contemporary philosophy.

Seminar 1: March 13: Madhyamaka Versus Realism: Setting up the Debate
Seminar 2: March 15: Epistemology:  Madhyamaka Versus Nyāya
Seminar 3: March 20: Yogācāra: Mind and World.
Seminar 4: March 22: Ambiguity, Paradox, Dialetheism, Quietism

Attendees at the Chao Lecture and Chao Seminars may also be interested in the workshop on Conceptuality and Nonconceptuality in Buddhist Philosophy, to be held on Friday-Sunday, March 23-25, 2018 (see below).

Event Contact: buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu, 510.643.5104

Friday-Sunday, March 23-25, 2018
Conceptuality and Nonconceptuality in Buddhist Philosophy Workshop
Toll Room, Alumni House

Supported by generous gifts from the Mind and Life Institute, from Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao,
and from the Tianzhu Global Network


Friday March 23: 4 pm to 7 pm
Evan Thompson (University of British Columbia), respondent: Dan Arnold
Birgit Kellner (Austrian Academy of Sciences), respondent: Jay Garfield
Robert Sharf (UC Berkeley), respondent: Koji Tanaka (Australian National University)

Saturday March 24: 9:30 am to 12:30 pm
Dan Arnold (University of Chicago), respondent: Bronwyn Finnigan (Australian National University)
Sonam Kachru (University of Virginia), respondent: Mark Siderits
Catherine Prueitt (George Mason University), respondent: Roy Tzohar

Saturday March 24: 2 pm to 6 pm
Mark Siderits (Illinois State University), respondent: Anand Jayprakash Vaidya (San Jose State University)
Christian Coseru (College of Charleston), respondent: Sonam Kachru
Ching Keng (National Chengchi University, Taiwan), respondent: Catherine Prueitt
Jay Garfield (Smith College), respondent: John Dunne

Sunday March 25: 9:30 am to 12:30 pm
John Dunne (University of Wisconsin), respondent: Christian Coseru
Roy Tzohar (Tel Aviv University), respondent: Birgit Kellner

Note: this workshop will be devoted to discussing previously circulated papers.
The papers are available here.

Event Contact: buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu, 510.643.5104

Thursday, April 5, 2018, 5pm
Buddhist and Muslim Perspectives on the Contemporary Crisis in Myanmar
John Clifford Holt, Bowdoin College
180 Doe Memorial Library

The event is co-sponsored by the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies and the Center for Buddhist Studies

Buddhist and Muslim Perspectives on the Contemporary Crisis in Myanmar event image

Voices from each of the major communities (Arakanese, Burmese and Rohingya) articulate narratives of siege when explaining how the current conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims have unfolded recently in Myanmar. Why are respective understandings of belonging and exclusion so seriously contested? How do ethno-religious perspectives and contemporary geo-political realities complicate these understandings? How do people from these communities see a path forward, if any? And, is there a constructive role for outsiders (the U.N., the Western media, and NGOs) to play?

John Clifford Holt teaches courses about Asian religious traditions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as courses on theoretical approaches to the study of religion. In 1982, he organized and founded the Inter-collegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) Program for a consortium of private liberal arts colleges, and in 1986 he became the first chair of Bowdoin’s Asian Studies Program.

Event Contact: buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu, 510.643.5104

Thursday, April 12, 2018, 5 pm
Buddhist Painting, Painters and Performance
Ronald M. Davidson, Fairfield University
370 Dwinelle Hall

Buddhist painting talk image

From the Gupta-Vākāṭaka period forward, Buddhist rituals featured painting on cloth and other media as part of their increasingly elaborate ritual program. The paintings from Ajanta, Bedsa and other sites in India exemplify in some measure the importance of painting systems for Indian Buddhists. In Buddhist usage, both the painter and paintings were sanctified with ritual systems that conferred on them a specific authority, including signs of accomplishment and powers gained through their use as material spirituality. The specifically Indian values associated with painting have not been given sufficient consideration, and the presentation will discuss the confluence between Buddhist ideology, Indian uses of portraiture, ritual, memory, aesthetic reflection and representation.

Dr. Ronald M. Davidson is Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University, in Fairfield Connecticut. He received his AB (1971), MA (1980) and Ph.D. (1985) from the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Studies, although also trained in Chinese Buddhist documents. He arrived at Fairfield in 1990, after having taught at the Graduate Theological Union, the Institute of Buddhist Studies and Santa Clara University. From 2014-17 he was the Inaugural Director of the Humanities Institute, College of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded research fellowships from Fulbright (three), American Institute of Indian Studies, ACLS, NEH, ASIANetwork, the Numata Foundation and the American Academy of Religion. His area of expertise is in the social and linguistic dynamics of Buddhist ritual, particular associated the use of mantras, dhāraṇīs and Indian tantrism, and has translated texts from Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. He has published five single-authored or edited volumes, and dozens of articles, most recently a series on the mantra literature of Buddhism in late classical India of the Gupta-Vākāṭaka period.

Event Contact: buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu, 510.643.5104