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  • Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Tiantai Doctrine of Evil as the Good:A Response to David R. Loy
  • Brook Ziporyn

In a recent issue of this journal (vol. 54 [1]:99-103), David Loy has done me the honor of publishing his sympathetic and thoughtful review of my book Evil and/or/ as the Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). Loy has done an excellent job of bringing to the forefront some of the most troubling and distinctive aspects of the Tiantai Buddhist position on evil, as expressed in particular in the works of Siming Zhili, the focus of my book. Inevitably, with the nit-picky vanity that perhaps assails every reviewee, I feel some points have been imperfectly understood or represented, but in general I want before anything else to express my gratitude to Loy for the insight and acuity with which he has handled this material, the care he has taken in reading and responding to the book, and the candor, lucidity, and forcefulness with which he has expressed a very reasonable, non-Tiantai Mahāyāna response to some of the more radical and counterintuitive Tiantai ideas.

But one particularly great service Loy has done is to present a very important and necessary challenge: what would these Tiantai writers, with their bizarre ideas about the interpenetration, nay, identity, of good and evil have to say about Hitler and the Holocaust? Putting this particular topic up as a casual example to be employed in an academic discussion, in effect "making use of" the mountains of corpses in the context of an ivory-tower discussion of subtle logical and ontological hairsplitting, perhaps will strike some as being in more than questionable taste. But there are points to be made here, and it is a valid question, one that needs to be addressed—indeed, that we cannot help addressing—even when it is played as a card all the meanings of which have already been determined. Loy is quite right: these mountains of corpses are always already in play in the background of our discussions of moral doctrines, perhaps even in the interstices of our casual entertainments, and we let ourselves off too easily if we leave them in the background, as unexamined, prepackaged moral tokens, or stock bugaboos whose "use-value" in the culture has already been nonnegotiably and comfortably mapped out. This is the extreme test case that anyone who wants to talk seriously about values and ethics must face head-on. For these reasons I want to take this opportunity to extend the thought experiment and respond to this challenge, speaking for the sake of argument in the name of the Tiantai doctrine, in the hopes that this will perhaps initiate a dialogue with specialists in other systems of moral theory, who might attempt a similar experiment.

To do this, however, it will be necessary to take up a few of the more general theoretical questions raised in Loy's review. The first of these concerns the relation between ultimate truth and provisional truth. Loy acknowledges that, as argued in [End Page 329] the book, the Tiantai position gives a higher status to provisional or conventional truth than most Mahāyāna Two Truths doctrines, accurately paraphrasing the conclusion that "for Tiantai, however, the provisional ends up being equal to the ultimate truth." But, on the other hand, he wishes to point out as a potential shortcoming of the Tiantai position that it seems to overstress the "highest point of view." This assertion comes in the context of a grudging attempt to make sense of the Tiantai affirmation of evil from the point of view of the general Mahāyāna Two Truths theory, thereby, in my opinion, fatally distorting the point. Loy is willing to admit "the fact that from the highest point of view every possible apprehension—including evil ones—is neither a distortion of reality nor subject to invalidation by some other more privileged perspective." This strikes Loy as problematic, and he offers his own solution: it lies in "realizing that this 'ultimate' point of view is insufficient by itself—that it always needs...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 329-347
Launched on MUSE
2005-05-02
Open Access
No
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