- Indian Buddhist Philosophy by Amber D. Carpenter
Authors generally take one of two approaches to surveying Buddhist philosophy. There is the historically oriented introduction, which charts the development from early Abhidharma to later Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. Examples of this style include David Kalupahana’s A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities (1992) and Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe’s Buddhist Thought (2000). Then there is the topic-oriented introduction, which focuses on major questions under discussion (What is suffering and how do we end it? What is the theory of no-self? How does the concept of emptiness square with the doctrine of rebirth?). Mark Gowan’s Philosophy of the Buddha: An Introduction (2003) and Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy (2007) and are two instances of this approach.
The risk in focusing on historical development is losing the philosophical thread in a morass of texts and commentaries, schools and sub-schools. On the other hand, isolating topics from their historical context runs the risk of misrepresentation and oversimplification. An excellent survey, using either method, will be attentive to the situatedness of philosophical claims without losing sight of the overarching conversation. This enables a reader to engage in the conversation from within her own philosophical tradition, equipped with an awareness of how it relates to Indian Buddhism, so that she might, in Gadamerian terms, aim toward a fusion of horizons.
In her recent book, Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Amber D. Carpenter marries both historical and topical approaches in an excellent introduction to the themes and texts of Indian Buddhist philosophy. If the book leans toward one of the two styles, it is toward the topical (despite the book copy advertising it as “roughly chronological”). However, she doesn’t fall into historical oversimplification for the sake of philosophical dialectic. Carpenter’s aim is to unfold the development of Indian Buddhist thought with a particular focus on ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Since her goal is to orient the reader only to Indian Buddhist philosophy, she does not emphasize non-Buddhist interlocutors. Nor, since she focuses on Indian philosophy, does she continue much beyond the seventh century, since, by this point in history, Buddhism was making inroads into Tibet through Śāntarakṣita and others.
Carpenter organizes Indian Buddhist Philosophy into eight chapters, which take the reader from the auspicious birth of Siddhartha Gautama in the fifth century b.c.e. up to the Mādhyamika Śāntideva’s miraculously levitating recitation of the Bodhicāryāvatāra in the eighth century c.e. Chapter 1 introduces the history and legends of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. In this chapter, Carpenter explores different ways to frame suffering, concluding that it is best understood [End Page 1000] as mutually dependent origination, or pratītyasamutpāda. With the concept of “metaphysical suffering,” the fact that everything is conditioned by something else, she begins chapter 2 with a focus on the theory of no-self. This chapter introduces readers to the Abhidharma, the pudgalavādins (Buddhists who believe that there are persons), and the famous chariot metaphor found in the Milindapañhā. Along the way she draws some connections with Greek and Christian accounts of suffering and self as well as the Vedic background against which early Buddhists defined themselves.
Carpenter makes another cross-cultural connection in chapter 3, this time with Friedrich Nietzsche, who rejected Buddhism (at least Schopenhauer’s version of it) as being a nihilistic, world-denying way of life. She uses Nietzsche as a foil with which to introduce the Theravāda-Mahāyāna dispute, to identify precisely in what sense nirvāṇa is a cessation of desire, and to explain how Buddhism can motivate ethical activity without internal contradiction, given that desire seems necessary for action and yet is also the very thing that Buddhists seek to dismantle.
Carpenter then shifts to Mahāyāna Buddhism, using chapter 4 to focus on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and the Ratnāvalī, and she explains how Nāgārjuna moves beyond...