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  • Hey, Buddha! Don’t Think! Just Act!—A Response to Bronwyn Finnigan
  • Jay L. Garfield

The Problem: How a Buddhist can Conceptualize a Buddha’s Enlightened Action

In the course of a careful and astute discussion of the difficulties facing a Buddhist account of the moral agency of a buddha, Bronwyn Finnigan develops a challenging critique of a proposal I made in a recent article (Garfield 2006). Much of what she says is dead on target, and I have learned much from her comment. But I have serious reservations about both the central thrust of her critique of my own thought and her proposal for a positive account of a buddha’s enlightened action. Curiously, in another fine essay (Finnigan andTanaka forthcoming), Finnigan and her co-author have anticipated much of what I will say in reply. I will rely in part on that second essay in my reply to the critique that appears in this volume.

The first task is to be clear about exactly what is at issue between us, as it is easy to lose focus and closely related questions can be hard to distinguish. In Garfield 2006 I was concerned not to give an account of a buddha’s action, but rather to explore the resources that Buddhist philosophy has internally to explain the nature of a buddha’s thought after enlightenment. These are slightly different issues. One might, for instance, think that even the best Buddhist action theory or philosophy of mind is ultimately unsuccessful, but still think that it faces no special problems in accounting for a buddha’s thought. Or, one might think that one can provide a compelling account of awakened thought or action, but believe that account is not available within a Buddhist philosophical framework. In any case, while my focus in Garfield 2006 was thought, Finnigan’s is action. I agree with her that my account has important implications for action theory, and will engage her critique in that domain. [End Page 174]

On the other hand, we are both concerned with the central question: how can a Buddhist explain a buddha’s awakened thought and action? In Garfield 2006 I argued, as Finnigan points out accurately, that while Indian Buddhist philosophy did not have the resources to articulate a theory of a buddha’s awakened thought, Chinese Buddhism, inflected both by Indian Yogācārin ideas and by Daoist ideas, does. I argued that this is because of the availability in the Chinese tradition of a non-representational theory of mind not available to an Indian Buddhist philosopher. I say this at the outset because I will argue that Finnigan’s own account of a buddha’s action, while perhaps an acceptable external account of how an awakened being conceptualized in some tradition can think and act, is not, as she believes, acceptable within a Buddhist framework, for reasons having to do with issues in both Buddhist philosophy of mind and theory of action. I will also argue that, for closely related reasons, her critique of my own proposal is not successful.

Finnigan’s Official Account of Action

Let us call an account of action Davidsonic if, according to it, when one acts (1) one does so for reasons (as opposed to mere causes); (2) one can explain one’s own action by appeal to those reasons; and (3) one represents one’s action intentionally. Finnigan’s account of action is Davidsonic. She writes:

Agency, according to our definition, is instantiated in intentional action, and intentional action involves the capacity both to ‘direct’ behavior and to give intentional explanations for the directedness of such behavior.

Such accounts of the nature of action are familiar in the West, and are indeed fairly mainstream. I concede to Finnigan that if a Davidsonic account is correct, then the account of awakened thought and action that I proposed in Garfield 2006 is not cogent. I would add, however, that if Buddhist action theory were Davidsonic, Buddhism would have no resources for explaining a buddha’s awakened activity. On the other hand, I will show that to adopt a Davidsonic account at the outset begs the question in this context. Part of the burden...