- Buddhist Spiritual Practices: Thinking with Pierre Hadot on Buddhism, Philosophy, and the Path ed. by David V. Fiordalis
One can rarely say of an edited volume that it is a "page-turner." Yet, that is indeed how I would describe the excellent new collection of essays Buddhist Spiritual Practices, compiled by David V. Fiordalis. Not only are the individual chapters each highly engaging, but the collection overall is well curated—the essays comprise a cohesive whole, following a path of thematic and philosophical development that encourages readers to make connections across chapters and draw more general conclusions.
Each author is, in one way or another, responding Pierre Hadot's work on "spiritual exercises," or the contemplative practices of Greek and Roman thinkers that reflect, as Hadot asserts, an approach to philosophy as a comprehensive "way of life" distinct from the pedantry of the academic discipline today. As such, the authors in this collection see Hadot's ideas as starting points for reassessing our understanding of "Buddhist philosophy," its relation to Western philosophical theories and methods, and its status within academia.
The collection opens with a cautionary essay by Steven Collins "Some Remarks on Hadot, Foucault, and Comparisons with Buddhism." Fearing that terms such as "spiritual exercises" or "philosophy as a way of life" too easily become slogans divorced from their original context, he provides critical commentary on the French-to-English translations of key works, as well as an overview of the disagreements between Hadot and Michel Foucault, whose later work on "technologies of self" was indebted to Hadot. This serves as a useful orientation for readers who might be, as Collins speculates, scholars of Buddhism not necessarily familiar with these particular French theorists (p. 69). Sara L. McClintock takes a similar cautionary approach in the next essay, "Schools, Schools, Schools—Or, Must a Philosopher Be Like a Fish?," where she questions whether so-called schools of philosophy in the Greek and Roman world map meaningfully onto any of the senses in which the English term "school" is used to describe Buddhist lineages. For Hadot, she notes, membership in a designated philosophical school (skholē) is central to his notion of philosophy as a specific "way of life" practiced by a community with a distinct identity and certain institutional infrastructures (p. 72). In contrast, she says, we use [End Page 331] "school" in the Buddhist context more loosely to refer to at least three different but overlapping possibilities: "institutions of teaching and learning" (p. 79) as found, for example, at monasteries; communities united by "discursive and nondiscursive forms of practice" (p. 79), in the sense of "schools of thought" or lineages, none of which seem neatly distinguished from each other when historical evidence is considered (p. 90); and "doxographical hypostatizations of discursive practices" (p. 79) through which various thinkers rhetorically assert their ideological allegiances regardless of their actual institutional affiliations or intellectual communities. To the extent that we can say that Buddhist philosophy is a "way of life" in Hadot's sense, we must contend with the ambiguous application of the term school to the study of Buddhism. McClintock concludes by reading her taxonomy of schools back onto the contemporary university, asking in what sense academic philosophers are members of schools promoting specific ways of life.
Subsequent essays in the volume give readers much food for thought related to McClintock's questions about the relevance of the collection's major themes to academic philosophy today. In "The Spiritual Exercises of the Middle Way: Reading Atiśa's Madhyamakopadeśa with Hadot," James B. Apple provides a close reading of the contemplative practice outlined in the Special Instructions on the Middle Way, with an eye toward the role played by philosophical analysis in Atiśa's method. As he says, the practitioner begins by noting two main categories of existing things—material and nonmaterial. Through analysis, material things are dissolved into their constituent parts, until not even the smallest specks remain. Similarly, through analysis, the practitioner comes to see that a nonmaterial entity...