September 13, 2011
Last week, I blogged about Derek Parfit, an Oxford philosopher featured in a recent issue of The New Yorker. In her article on Parfit, "How to Be Good," Larissa MacFarquhar writes about the apparent affinity between Parfit's view and the Buddhist view of the self. To demonstrate this point MacFarquhar includes a parenthetical anecdote about Tibetan monks chanting lines from Parfit's book, Reasons and Persons.
This struck me as fairly remarkable, so I wrote to The New Yorker to try to get the backstory. MacFarquhar put me in touch with Harvard professor of ethics and public health, Dan Wikler, who originally provided her with the story. Quoted below is part of an email that I received from Wikler.
First, the quoted passage involves a slight factual error, a rarity at the magazine. These were indeed Tibetan monks, chanting at a Tibetan monastery, but it wasn’t in Tibet (i.e., the Tibet Autonomous Region within the Peoples’ Republic of China). The Tibetan monastery was in northern India, not far from Dharamsala. This error was detected by the magazine’s fact checker, but due to an oversight the correction failed to make it into the printed version.
That said, some do use the word ‘Tibet’ to refer to the geographic and ethnic region of which the Chinese administrative entity is only a part. The location of the monastery is to the south of even this region, but if the word is understood that way the error is more minor still.
Here’s a brief account of how it came to be. I’m an American philosopher. I’ve had the good fortune to trek through Ladakh and Zanskar with Mr. Tshering Dorje, a scholar from that region (Lahoul valley, to be exact) who has published in Western journals on early Tibetan religion. After discussing Buddhist views of the self, I told him about their evident affinity with Parfit’s views, as presented in Reasons and Persons. I offered to send him a copy, and he expressed interest in reading it. Derek Parfit kindly agreed to inscribe a copy to Tshering personally, and after much difficulty I managed to get the book to Tshering.
A few years later, on the way to another trek, we stopped at that monastery for the night. Tshering was a friend of the abbot, who had agreed to let us sleep on the monastery’s porch. We had a long conversation with the abbot and the next day witnessed the stylized peer-examination practices of the novices in the courtyard. Tshering surprised me at that moment by telling me that he’d shared his book with this abbot, and who in turn had decided to include some passages from Parfit’s book along with the standard material that they studied, chanted, and cross-examined each other on.
I informed Derek Parfit of this when I returned; he seemed pleased.