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The Comparative Philosophy Seminar seeks to advance constructive philosophical projects by bringing together scholars with training in diverse areas of Asian (mostly Buddhist) thought and Western Philosophy. Comparison in this context is not employed to loan authority to one set of obscure discoveries by revealing its resonances with the works of others, deemed less obscure. Nor does it sociologize philosophy in search of general laws of human cultural and intellectual development. Rather, the intent is to explicate, and employ, the fullness of an expanded philosophical toolset—and see how that works. The seminar ordinarily invites respondents who are versed in the relevant field of philosophical inquiry, but who are not necessarily specialists in Asian thought. In order to facilitate an ongoing conversation, seminar meetings for a given year are loosely organized around a very general theme, which speakers are asked to address when possible. In past years, the themes have been “Personal Identity” (2007–2008) and “Meta-Ethics” (2008–2009).

Professor Jonathan C. Gold

Professor Hagop Sarkissian

Verena Meyer

All seminars will meet over Zoom for the 2020-2021 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change. 

Meeting Schedule

10/09/2020 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
Mind Only Thought as Metapraxis, Mind Only as Diagnosis
Joy Brennan, Kenyon College


In this talk I outline the features of an interpretation of mind only Buddhist thought as a form of metapraxis. Metapraxis refers to the systematic study of reality where both conceptual and existential priority is granted to the path as understood within Buddhist thought broadly, which refers to the process of transformation from suffering and delusion to freedom from them. The mind only school of Buddhist thought is often likened to various forms of epistemological or ontological idealism drawn from the early modern philosophical tradition in Europe. In focusing on mind only thought as a form of metapraxis, we better see the strengths and weaknesses of this position. In specific, the metapractical framing makes clear that one of the fundamental claims of this school of thought, the eponymous claim that our worlds and experiences of "mind only", is not a static claim about the way things are, but a diagnosis of a condition to be overcome.

11/06/2020 Online Meeting
5:30 PM
Zhuangzi's Robber Zhi: A Discussion
Stephen Walker, University of Chicago


This session will focus on the celebrated 'Robber Zhi' (盜跖) dialogue from the Miscellaneous Chapters (雜篇) of the Zhuangzi. In the dialogue, Kongzi (or Confucius) tries to persuade Robber Zhi to abandon his marauding ways and lead a more conventional life. While the character of Robber Zhi is obviously brutal, and a person few of us would want to emulate (or interact with in any way), he's also strikingly insightful about human needs and frailties, and attentive to the more covert kinds of brutality we endure simply by living in organized societies. Not only does he raise the possibility that attempts to morally reform individuals might produce more harm than good, but he also embodies, in his own person, the pointlessness of making appeals to powerful persons who don't value morality at all. The presenter will spend about 15 minutes summarizing the dialogue, and the discussants will spend about five minutes each raising points for discussion. The rest of the session will consist of Q&A. Those planning to attend are strongly encouraged to read the dialogue before the session begins.

Discussants:, Timothy Connolly (East Stroudsburg University), Tao Jiang (Rutgers University), Qianyi Qin (CUNY Graduate Center), Hagop Sarkissian (CUNY Graduate Center & Baruch College)

12/11/2020 Online Meeting
5:30 PM
Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra: A Discussion
Barbra Clayton, Mount Allison University


Śāntideva is considered perhaps the most significant Indian Mahāyāna thinker on ethics, and his most famous work, the Bodhicaryāvatāra (BCA), or Guide to the Bodhisattva Practice, has been the subject of much commentary and analysis, by both historical and contemporary Buddhists, as well as contemporary scholars. In this training guide for monks, Śāntideva incorporates philosophical argument, prayer and meditation to outline the steps to take and qualities to develop in order to become a bodhisattva, the altruistic spiritual virtuoso that became the focus of the Mahāyāna. The path as conceived by Śāntideva centers on the altruistic aspiration to achieve awakening for the sake of all beings (bodhicitta), and entails the cultivation of six virtues or “perfections” (pāramitā-s). While virtues such as patience (kṣanti), diligence (vīrya) (meditation (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā) receive independent, chapter-length treatments, the virtue of giving or generosity (dāna), is summarized in one verse, which identifies the perfection of this virtue with the mental attitude of “relinquishing all that one has to all people, together with the fruit of that act” (BCA 5.10). The aim of our seminar is to explore the implications of this claim about the nature of generosity for our understanding of Buddhist ethics. Does this apparently encompassing focus on motive undermine the claims and concerns of socially engaged Buddhists? What are the implications for how we classify Buddhist ethics? What are we to make of Śāntideva’s equation (at BCA 3.11) of the attitude of relinquishing with awakening itself?

Discussants:, Douglas Duckworth (Temple University), Katie Javanaud (Princeton University), Stephen Jenkins (Humboldt State University), Amod Lele (Boston University)

03/12/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
A Passage from Wang Yangming's "Questions on the Great Learning"
Harvey Lederman, Princeton University


This session will follow the organization of those we had on Zhuangzi and Śāntideva from Fall 2020. A lead presenter will give some background on the text from which the passage below is derived--namely, Wang Yangming's "Questions on the Great Learning" (大學問)--and introduce Wang's notion of liangzhi (良知). The presentation will then discuss Wang's understanding of "the extension of knowledge" (致知) and "making inclinations wholehearted" (誠意) from the Great Learning (大學) before giving a focused reading of the passage itself. According to this reading, a person has extended their knowledge if and only if they have made their inclinations wholehearted. Each of the discussants will then follow with some brief comments and questions before we open things up for Q&A.


Therefore if you want to rectify your mind, you must rectify it in regard to the arousal of your motivating concerns. If, whenever a concern arises and it is good, you genuinely love it as you love lovely sights, and whenever a concern arises and it is hateful [bad], you genuinely hate it as you hate hateful [bad] odors, then all of your inclinations will be wholehearted and your mind can be rectified. However, some of the inclinations which arise are good and some are bad. If one did not have a means to understand the distinction between good and bad, and wrongly mixed up true (真) and misguided, then although one wanted to make them [viz. one’s inclinations] wholehearted, they cannot successfully become wholehearted. Thus making one’s inclinations wholehearted must depend on extending one’s knowledge of them... Whenever a motivating concern arises, your mind’s liangzhi automatically knows it. [If it is good] your mind’s liangzhi automatically knows that it is good; [if it is bad], your mind’s liangzhi also automatically knows that it is bad. It has nothing to do with other people. Thus, although a petty person has become not good, and there is nothing they will stop at, nevertheless when they meet a noble person, they will ashamedly hide the fact that they are not good, and broadcast that they are good. From this one can see that there are some respects in which their liangzhi has not allowed itself to be obscured. Now, if you want to discriminate good and evil in order to make your inclinations wholehearted, this just depends on extending what your liangzhi knows about them and nothing more. Why is this? When a [good] motivating concern arises, the liangzhi of your mind already knows that it is good. Suppose you do not wholeheartedly love it but instead turn away from it and diminish it. You would then be taking what is good to be bad and obscuring your liangzhi which knows that it is good. When a [bad] motivating concern arises, the liangzhi of your mind already knows that it is bad. Suppose you do not wholeheartedly hate it but instead backslide and promote it. You would then be taking what is bad to be good and obscuring your liangzhi which knows that it is bad. In such cases one says that you know it, but in fact you do not know – how could your inclinations have become wholehearted! [But] now if what liangzhi [recognizes as] good or bad is wholeheartedly loved or hated, one’s liangzhi is not deceived and one’s inclinations can be wholehearted. (QJ 26.1070-1, cf. Chan (1963, p. 277-9))

Discussants:, Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University), Warren Frisina (Hofstra University), Xiaomei Yang (Southern Connecticut State University)

04/23/2021 Online Meeting
5:00 PM
Bhagavad Gītā 2.47: A Discussion
Andrew J. Nicholson, Stony Brook University, SUNY


The Bhagavad Gītā, a dialogue between the god Kṛṣṇa and the warrior Arjuna in the Mahābhārata epic, is arguably the most influential philosophical work to emerge from the Hindu traditions. While not the “Hindu Bible” that some have claimed, it was extremely important in medieval India, where it served as one of the three foundational works (prasthāna-traya) for Vedānta philosophers. It was also an impetus to political action for the intellectual architects of the modern Indian independence movement such as B.G. Tilak and M.K. Gandhi, and continues to inspire Hindus and others across the political spectrum in the present day.

In this session we will take as our starting point Bhagavad Gītā verse 2.47, which succinctly presents what some readers have described as the heart of the Bhagavad Gītā: the doctrine of niṣkāma-karma, or action without concern for fruits. In our discussion we will approach this verse from multiple perspectives, looking at its context in the larger Mahābhārata epic, its historical influences in classical India, later medieval scholastic interpretations, and its impact on western Orientalists. Does this work teach an ancient Hindu form of deontological ethics, as Amartya Sen has argued, or can it be better understood through the lens of other ethical approaches? What, if anything, can this ancient work set on the Kurukṣetra battlefield teach us about our own rights and responsibilities in the 21st century?

Bhagavad Gītā 2.47 (Sanskrit text):

karmaṇy evādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana |
mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgo 'stv akarmaṇi ||

Source: Śrī Rāmānuja Gītā Bhāṣya. Trans. and ed. Svāmī Ādidevānanda. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1992. Page 96.


“Your authority is
in action alone,
and never
in its fruits;
motive should never be
in the fruits of action,
nor should you cling
to inaction.”

Source: The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Laurie L. Patton. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Page 29.

Discussants:, Laurie L. Patton (Middlebury College), Jessica Frazier (University of Oxford), Bina Gupta (University of Missouri), Neil Dalal (University of Alberta), Richard H. Davis (Bard College)

05/07/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher: A Discussion
Nic Bommarito, Simon Fraser University


In a short but memorable passage from the classic Buddhist text The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887) considers a case of an intense rivalry between two high level monastics (geshes). When one geshe is delighted to hear that the other has committed a serious wrong action - taking a mistress - Patrul Rinpoche asks the reader, "Which of these geshes committed the worse action?" In this talk, an interdisciplinary panel of scholars will each briefly discuss this short passage on the dangers of jealousy and the cultivation of sympathetic joy that Patrul Rinpoche argues can eliminate jealousy and envy. The panel will consist of one presenter and three discussants, each speaking for five minutes, leaving time for an extended discussion.

Words of My Perfect Teacher II.2.2.4

Moreover, even when evil thoughts about others do not materialize as actual physical harm, they still create prodigious negative effects for the person who has the thought. There were once two famous geshes who were rivals. One day, one of them learned that the other had a mistress.
The geshe told his servant, "Prepare some good tea, because I have some interesting news."
The servant made the tea, and when he had served it he asked, "And what is the news?"
"They say," replied the geshe, "That our rival has a mistress!"
When Kunpang Trakgyal heard this tale, it is said that his face darkened and he asked, "Which of the two geshes committed the worse action?"
Constantly dwelling on such feelings as jealousy and competitiveness neither furthers one's own cause nor harms that of one's rivals. It leads to a pointless accumulation of negativity. Give up vile attitudes of this kind. Always sincerely rejoice in the achievements and favourable circumstances of others, whether it be in their social position, physique, wealth, learning or whatever else. Think over and over again how truly glad you are that they are such excellent people, so successful and fortunate. Think how wonderful it would be if they became even better off than they are now, and acquired all the strength, wealth, learning, good qualities that they could possibly ever get. Meditate on this from the depth of your heart.

Tibetan Text:
དེར་མ་ཟད་གཞན་ལ་བསམ་པ་ངན་པ་ཁོ་ན་བཟུང་བས་དེ་ལ་ཅུང་ཟད་ཀྱང་མི་གནོད་ཀྱང་རང་གི་སྡིག་ཚབས་པོ་ཆེ་གསོག་པ་ཡིན་ཏེ། སྔོན་དགེ་བཤེས་ཆེ་རབ་གཉིས་འགྲན་ཟླར་ཡོད་པ་ལས། གཅིག་ལ་བུད་མེད་ཡོད་ཟེར་བ་གཅིག་གིས་ཐོས་པས་ཉེ་གནས་ལ་ཇ་ཞིམ་པོ་ཞིག་སྐོལ་ཅིག གཏམ་སྙན་ཐོས་ཟེར། ཇ་བསྐོལ་ནས་དྲངས་ཏེ་གཏམ་སྙན་ཅི་གསན་ཞུ་པས། རང་རེའི་འགྲན་ཟླ་དེ་ལ་བུད་མེད་བྱུང་ཟེར་རོ། དེ་ཀུན་སྤངས་གྲགས་རྒྱལ་གྱིས་གསན་པས། ཞལ་ནག་ཏིང་སོང་ནས་དེ་གཉིས་སྡིང་པ་གང་ཆེའམ། གསུངས་ཟེར།

དེ་ལྟར་ཕྲག་དོག་དང་འགྲན་སེམས་སོགས་རྟག་ཏུ་སྒོམ་པ་དེ་རང་ལ་མི་ཕན་གཞན་ལ་མི་གནོད། དོན་མེད་དུ་རང་གི་སྡིག་གསོག་པ་ཡིན་པས་དེ་ལྟ་བུའི་བསམ་པ་ངན་པ་དེ་སྤངས་དེ། དུས་རྟག་ཏུ་གཞན་ལ་རིགས་དང་གཟུགས་དང་ནོར་དང་ཐོས་པ་ལ་སོགས་ཡོན་ཏན་དང་མཐུན་རྐྱེན་ཅི་ཙམ་འབྱོར་པ་ལ་སྙིང་ཐག་པ་ནས་དགའ་བ་བསྒོམ་ཞིང་། འདི་ལ་དི་ལྟ་བུའི་ཡོན་ཏན་དང་འབྱོར་པ་སོངས་ཡོད་པ་ང་རེ་དགའ། ད་དུང་འདི་ལ་འདི་དག་ལས་ལྷག་པའི་སྟོབས་དང་འབྱོར་པ་ཐོས་པ་ཡོན་ཏན་ལ་སོགས་པའི་དཔལ་གྱིས་འབྱོར་ཞིང་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པར་གྱུར་ན་ཅི་མ་རུང་སྙམ་དུ་སྙིང་ཐག་པ་ནས་བསྒོམ།

Discussants:, Emily McRae (University of New Mexico), Rachel Pang (Davidson College), Palden Gyal (Columbia University)