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Philosophy Isn’t Just Western Philosophy: A Buddhist Reflects

PhD researcher Graham Doke reflects on his Buddhist background and how that informs his philosophical thinking. He suggests that Western philosophy ought to move beyond its narrow view of what constitutes philosophy and be more receptive towards non-Western thought. He shares how philosophical questions arise across times and cultures and that a cross-cultural openness and engagement would make for not only a more inclusive but a richer philosophical enterprise.

Very early on in my PhD project, someone said to me, ‘Why aren’t you doing a PhD on a Buddhist subject?’ These were, as I said, very early days, I was still finding my feet
(and nursing my nascent imposter syndrome to its bloom of adulthood), so I deflected. I said, ‘Because I can’t read Sanskrit,’ which as a response contains just sufficient a whiff of verisimilitude and intellectual integrity to stand up to any scrutiny. Nonsense, of course, but it did the trick.

During the course of my Masters, I had kept pretty much silent on my Buddhist background (12 years a Buddhist, 10 of those in serious study). One of my tutors, however, knew my history well — she had been part of my admissions process. When she asked why I do not openly declare that I’m a Buddhist, I replied, ‘Because I don’t want my opinions to be pigeon-holed, “Oh, never mind him, he’s a Buddhist”.’ Unfair on others, perhaps, but I think there’s some truth there.

In point of fact, however, my PhD is on a Buddhist subject. I chose my topic carefully — emotions and how they affect perception. Although emotions are not expressly identified qua emotions in Buddhist philosophy, the notions of attraction and aversion are central to Buddhist mind training techniques — and it is mind training that sets the ground for clear understanding and eventually experience of central Buddhist tenets. And perception leads to consideration of important epistemic, ontological and metaphysical concepts.

So, emotion and perception are obviously Buddhist subjects — at least to me. I’m not reading Buddhist authority for the thesis, nor including Buddhist principles in the paper. Or, at least, sort of trying not to: very recently, my supervisor laughed and said, ‘You just can’t help yourself, can you?’ I had finished a chapter with a flourish: ‘So, there is no absolute truth.’ Buddhist rhetoric, naughty me. I must be clear, though: emotion and perception are obvious Buddhist subjects for me. I was interested. But I could have chosen just about anything: philosophical questions are philosophical questions — none is reserved for any particular group.

My point is reasonably obvious, and it is a cross-cultural one: all philosophical topics are western, Buddhist, Hindu, African and … well, you get the point. Thoughtful and curious individuals have been contemplating the human experience for millennia. And mostly separately, in cultural groups. But the opportunity to share our thoughts has increased as technology has shrunk the world, and I think it is incumbent upon us to take advantage. There is no such thing as an exclusively Buddhist philosophical subject, only Buddhist perspectives on philosophical subjects. Even emptiness, Śūnyatā, a particularly Buddhist notion, is merely a product of a particular metaphysical perspective.

The Buddhist perspective is enriched by exposure to other perspectives — no less is a western perspective enriched by a Buddhist perspective. Whilst we need specifically Buddhist and western (and other) study programmes, to preserve their history and development, we need to engage more with each other.

About the author:
Graham Doke is a PhD researcher and candidate in philosophy. A former lawyer and investment banker, Graham came to study Western philosophy after spending years studying Buddhist philosophy. His current PhD research here at the University of Edinburgh is about the role of emotions on perception.

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