A Work of Questionable Origin and Validity

“People really love their quotations, don’t they? They are especially fond of them when presenting them as evidence for their arguments. I freely admit I’ve been guilty of this same tendency, though I’ve lately tried to wean myself from this practice. Thoughts on the value of quotation have been simmering on the back burner of my mind for a while, but the heat was turned up last night when a friend of mine emailed me an article. It was on the efficacy of solitude, particularly as expressed in Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva (TWOTB), a Buddhist tract roughly 13 centuries old:

Dharma Talk – “Cutting Ties: The Fruits of Solitude”

I will preface what follows by saying I am not writing to argue any of the many tenets or sub-tenets of Buddhism. My purpose will become clear soon enough.

The article begins with a biography of Shantideva and the origins of his famous work. The article’s author, Pema Chödrön, is probably slightly more famous to the English-speaking world, both as a prolific writer and as an American-born nun ordained in a Sino-Tibetan form of Buddhism, for which she is an active and respected promoter. Beyond being a delightful and informative read, the article shows that that she really knows her stuff. Unfortunately, the subject is better written than it is argued.

I found myself agreeing with much of Shantideva’s teachings as presented in the English translations quoted extensively throughout the article. I also agreed with many of Chödrön’s assertions. What I did not agree with was the manner in which she arrived at her conclusions. This comes down mainly to the fact that, to buttress her arguments, she commits three of the most common logical fallacies: argument from authority, contextomy, and presentism.

Argument from authority stems from the idea that because someone has gained a position of respect in a particular field of study or social responsibility, the things they say are to be taken as true without question. Here is a simple demonstration of why this type of argument fails: Imagine asking a meteorologist about the weather. Next, imagine that you ask an honest cop and a murderous thief the same question. Suppose the cop and thief give the same answer, but an answer substantially different than that of the meteorologist. Of the three you’ve asked, the meteorologist is the most qualified to answer and can probably back up his statement with data such as barometric pressure and prevailing wind currents.

Now here’s the kicker: Unless you stick your head out the window or check the local news for the current weather conditions, you won’t know who’s correct. The meteorologist could be completely wrong. The cop and thief could both be right. The meteorologist’s expertise does not negate the necessity for further investigation any more than does the cop’s honesty or the thief’s immorality. In the absence of evidence or logical refutation, you would be justified in lending more weight to the meteorologist’s forecast, but that wouldn’t make it true. The trueness or falseness of a statement exists independently of its source.

Contextomy, or quote mining, is a technique by which a statement is singled out from its context in such a way that its intended meaning is altered. For example, suppose I were to tell you, “I have experienced ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and the presence of Satan. However, I’ve since learned enough to feel that those experiences were likely the product of delusional thinking or hallucinations or combinations of both. There is even compelling evidence to suggest that much, if not all, of it was the effect of natural electromagnetic stimulation of the brain.” Now, if you were to take only quote the first sentence of my statement, you could easily use it as evidence that I believe in the supernatural, aliens, and cryptozoology – all of which might be true, but none of which can be concluded from my unabridged quote.

Presentism occurs when present day ideas, perspectives, or situations are projected onto depictions or interpretations of the past. If you’ve ever had your parents or grandparents complain about “kids today” and how they don’t settle down in one place or in one job or how they want everything now instead of accumulating things gradually, then you’ve experience presentism. They might be right to complain, but our world, our challenges, our societal pressures, etc. are not the same as theirs were. Presentism is like comparing apples and oranges; it’s a form of false analogy.

Let’s return to Chödrön’s article. To be fair, I should acknowledge that she is speaking to a predominantly Buddhist audience and that this article is an excerpt from No Time To Lose a larger exegesis Chödrön wrote on TWOTB. In light of this, certain subject matter – like the brief biography of Shantideva, which opens the piece – has relevance outside of the argument she puts forth. Even so, in those portions that form the main thrust of her argument, she offers little evidence or line of reasoning by which Shantideva’s statements are shown to be valid. She simply offers the quotes as though his authority is not to be questioned, then builds her own premises and conclusions upon his. Fallacy #1 committed.

While there are copious quotes provided, TWOTB is a much longer text than the few choice nuggets offered here might suggest, however powerful these excerpts might be. No context is given against which the reader might further weigh Chödrön’s own statements. When viewed within the whole of the ancient text, Shantideva’s words may appear to say more or entirely different than what his modern day exegete would have us think. Presuppositions of her target audience notwithstanding, her arguments naturally appear valid within the context she herself has framed. There is simply not enough information given to fairly judge Chödrön’s conclusions and that burden should not fall upon the reader. Fallacy #2 committed.

Consider again the biographical information provided about Shantideva. He is said to have been a prince who, on the evening preceding his coronation, had a dream in which he was visited by a bodhisattva ­– a type of wise, compassionate being whose degree of enlightenment varies across the various Buddhist traditions. At this bodhisattva’s urging, the young prince, like the Buddha before him, renounced throne and worldly life to seek enlightenment. He eventually arrived at one of India’s most prestigious monasteries, where he was ordained a monk. However, his peers questioned his worthiness and degree of learning. In an attempt to discredit the apparently undisciplined and unlearned monk, his brethren invited him to give a lecture to the entire university. Instead of embarrassment, Shantideva presented, in one sitting, what would become the entire text of TWOTB. Much like the Tzadikim Nistarim  (hidden righteous ones) of Jewish mysticism, he revealed himself to be an enlightened being in the guise of a simpleton. Afterwards, he disappeared into the life of a wandering yogi.

There are many details in the full account given by Chödrön which have the air of the miraculous. While I applaud her for supplying a more natural explanation by suggesting that these could be metaphors, she mistakenly uses this same approach in interpreting the meaning of Shantideva’s teachings. According to her, Shantideva’s advice about solitude is not as extreme as it might appear. He is not, she assures us, suggesting “not to have friends or keep company with others” or that it is “loved ones and gain…that need to be renounced”. Rather, Chödrön claims, he advises us to renounce the “unrealistic hopes we place in these things”. Yet, Shantideva is quoted as stating, quite clearly:

Because of loved ones and desire for gain,

Disgust with worldly life does not arise.

These, then, are the first things to renounce.

Such are the reflections of a prudent man.

There is no mention of “unrealistic hopes” and it is “loved ones” themselves that are to be renounced. Likewise, “disgust with worldly life” is the implied goal – a decidedly stronger reaction than what Chödrön would present. She goes on to admit that, “The older I get, the more drawn I am to longer periods of retreat, yet I know that spending months in solitude isn’t realistic for many people.”

While she suggests that shorter, repeated periods of solitude are sufficient to attain the desired state of nonattachment, she portrays Shantideva as having led a life of uncompromising solitude. He himself speaks of dwelling “In woodlands, haunt of stag and bird, Among the trees where no dissension jars”. By his biographer’s own admittance, he ended his life as a transient, removing himself even from the constant company of other monks. While Chödrön may be correct in suggesting that Shantideva’s teachings are still relevant, she attempts to prove her point by projecting her own perspective onto that of someone living in the past, someone whose world and situation were, in many ways, quite different from that of her average reader. This is an example of presentism. Fallacy #3 committed.

After reading this article, I am unmotivated to read more of Chödrön’s writings. Though I agree with much of what she presents, it is simply because I have arrived at similar conclusions through my own reasoning. Still, I hesitate to condemn her, not having read the larger work from which the article was derived. And I hope she forgives me for using the article to make my point. The article is, after all, meant to expound the teachings put forth in TWOTB. Perhaps Shantideva makes his case all on his own. Perhaps Chödrön’s writes with an eye toward those who are already familiar with TWOTB. I can only speak for myself when I say that I care less for exegesis and more for individual thought. I’d rather read Chödrön’s own arguments for solitude, free of the shackles of tradition or authority.

Unfortunately, the fallacies the author commits are, I think, ingrained deeply in our casual forms of communication, so much so that they are difficult to extricate even for the most critical of thinkers. If you are moderately tapped into the world of social media, you’ve probably witnessed this kind of thing played out on a weekly or even daily basis. On Facebook, for instance, I’ve seen many-a-status-update quote some so-called authority in order to bolster a particular religious opinion, theistic and non-theistic alike. Take Albert Einstein, for instance. I often feel that Einstein is to religious debate what Hitler is to political debate: voices of cultural significance used like grenades, where brute force makes up for a lack of precision.

Now, Einstein was smart – so smart that the smarter you are, the smarter he seems ­– but undeniable genius in the realm of theoretical physics says next-to-nothing about ones knowledge of theology.  And his quotes are usually presented out of context. This is precisely because their original context would negate the very premise for which the quote is being offered as evidence. Einstein’s own theistic views, when viewed in the broader context of his work and writings, are too complex to be encapsulated in a single quote or even a string of them. Furthermore, much has been learned since his time, which might have further informed his opinions, religious or otherwise. Einstein was no idiot, but he neither was he omniscient. He, like the rest of us, was very probably wrong on a lot of things and may yet prove to be wrong on much of the work for which he is revered. Time and reason will tell.

I would like to leave you with a few questions to chew on. Who wrote the words that you’ve just read? Are they mine or did I copy and paste them without citation? Did I assemble them from several sources and edit them into a cohesive whole? Did you notice the quotation marks before the very first word you read? You will also closing quotation marks after the last word below. Do these indicate a quote or am I simply throwing you for a loop? And now for the most important question: What does any of this matter?

If an argument is sound, it is sound because of a carefully assembled structure derived from a time-tested process and not because of who presented the argument or how they framed it. If it is not sound, no appeal to authority will make it so. Perhaps the belief that I wrote these words encouraged you to read further. While I make no claim toward authority, expertise, or a record for wisdom and reliability, these are certainly good reasons for a particular persons statement to jump to the head of the line where validation is concerned. But no one is ever off the hook. Ever.

So, was my name was enough for you to trust that all of the information offered above was factual and accurate, despite my failure to provide sources beyond the link to Chödrön’s original article? Do you still trust me or will you google or wiki the terms, names, biographical information, etc. which I’ve provided? The hard truth is that you should do this regardless of who I am or what I claim. Indeed, you should do far more; don’t believe half of what you read on Wikipedia or the first few hits on a Google search result! Cross-referencing is one of the most powerful benefits – and necessities – of our modern, media-saturated age. I suppose, in our busy world, it is an inconvenience to have to fact-check everything that comes down the wire. But like any important thing, inconvenience is often a sign of the responsible thing to do.

Maybe we shouldn’t even bother with citing quotes, except in instances such as biography or to prevent plagiarism. It might allow us to come to everything with a fresh and unbiased mind, forcing us to employ basic reading comprehension and critical thinking. Then again, knowing who said what lets us know which bastard is to blame for spreading the bullshit in the first place!

But don’t quote me on this.”

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About Buck O'Roon

Buck O'Roon [buhk oh-roon] –noun 1. a southerner of skeptical stripe, recognizable by his deeply furrowed brow and increasing lack of patience for institutionalized horse manure 2. curmudgeon-in-training
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