Philosophy Workshop: Suffering & The Self – A Survey of Buddhist Thought (February 2020)

In this 2½-hour workshop David Nowakowski led us through a tour of the Buddhist philosophies of India and Tibet.*   After a brief historical overview, we began with some of the key philosophical claims—and the arguments for those claims—made by the historical Buddha, including:

  • The denial of a permanent, stable “self”: What do we even mean by the self?  How can we explain our everyday experience of the world without the self?  And why, according to the Buddha, does clinging to belief in the self cause us to suffer?

  • The claim that all existence is fundamentally characterized by suffering: What does this mean?  How could it be true, when there seem to be lots of good, pleasant parts of life? Why is this more than mere hopeless nihilism?

We then went on to see how later Buddhist thinkers in India expanded and elaborated on these basic insights, including:

  • Extending the arguments against the self, to critique our ordinary ideas about material objects and the external world.

  • Developing an ethics of radical compassion for all sentient beings.

We concluded by looking head-on at some interpretive questions, for the place of Buddhist thought in the modern world:

  • What is the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and modern science (especially neuroscience)?

  • Is it appropriate to think of Buddhism as a religion?  What does this even mean?  What possibility (or even necessity) is there for “supernatural” elements, like the presence of divine beings or the literal truth of reincarnation?  What happens to Buddhism if we reject any or all of those elements?

  • What is the place of meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) in a wider Buddhist context?  Historically, throughout Asia, most Buddhists did not meditate: Why not?  And how has the shift to widespread meditation changed the way practitioners and outsiders understand Buddhist teaching and practice?

*While we made occasional gestures toward elements of Buddhist practice, as they relate to philosophical ideas, and toward expressions of Buddhism beyond India and Tibet (such as the traditions of East and Southeast Asia), our primary focus in this workshop was on theory and philosophical argument from Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions.



(Recommended Texts & Translations)

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About the Workshop Leader...

David is as a philosopher and educator in the Helena area whose professional work is dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds access, understand, and apply the traditions of ancient philosophy to their own lives.  A lover of philosophy and the great outdoors, David is currently building his own consulting practice and serves as a Philosophical Advisor and Consultant for Merlin CCC & Senior Mentor for scholars in the Merlin Fellowship Program.

David began studying ancient philosophies and classical languages in 2001, and has continued ever since.  A scholar of the philosophical traditions of the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome, and North Africa) and of the Indian subcontinent, reading Sanskrit, Latin, and classical Greek, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 2014.  His work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals, including Philosophy East & WestAsian Philosophy, and the Journal of Indian Philosophy; as well as in presentations to academic audiences at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Toronto, Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and elsewhere. 

A hermit by nature and by committed choice, he balances contemplative solitude with his active work in teaching, counseling, and the healing arts. We are elated to be collaborating with David on our philosophy in the community activities, fellowships, and other Merlin projects.

Thank You’s

Thank you to P.L.A.T.O. (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) for helping support our philosophy in the community programs and making events like this possible!  

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