Sue Hamilton

I’d like to recommend the work of Sue Hamilton, a British Buddhist scholar. Be warned though, this is dense academic stuff requiring some work and patience to understand. If you’d like to dip your toes in, try A Handful of Leaves which is only 12 pages long.

Hamilton explores the earliest sources (rather than also looking at the Abhidhamma and commentaries) and I’ve found the conclusions she (quite painstakingly) comes to, very helpful, clarifying and simplifying. The Buddha, Hamilton says, is not interested in ‘what a human being is’ but rather, ‘How a human being works.’ For Hamilton (and myself) the Buddha is a pragmatist, offering help in making human life work better, rather than worrying about trying to answer philosophical questions.

In the paper above, she looks at the question, ‘If there is no self, what is it that is saved?’ And concludes that the Buddha would have remained silent in the face of such a question, being interested instead in the way that human conditioning works to keep each human fettered. She points instead to how each of us might directly know the way that the process that keeps us in ‘the round of [subjective] samsara’, works.

P.S. The Atthakavagga, one of the oldest books of the Sutta Pitaka, does not give a clear-cut goal such as nirvana, but describes the ideal person, characterized by simplicity and stability.

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  1. Sean Wright
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendation. A Handful of Leaves does require an alert mind to read 🙂

  2. Tony Reardon
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I’ve never really checked Handful of Leaves but have now discovered ‘The Library’ which is pretty impressive.

    The importance to me of any of this reading is it’s helpful [or not] connection to my experience/mindfulness and although clearly not a practitioner herself, I’ve that found Hamilton’s writing tends ultimately to simplify my mind.

    • Sean Wright
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Tony I agree. I find that a broad selection of writing can help me understand other sources. It was only after I read some of Stephen Batchelor’s interpretations or re-wordings that I could go back and under stand some of what was being said in Tibetan writings. Sometimes the English translation isn’t a good fit for the concept.

      Where is this library of which you speak 😀

      • Tony Reardon
        Posted February 27, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        the most important thing for me about reading and the meaning of words is the help/or not that it gives me i.e. that it’s not just intellectual.

        here’s a little sample of Sue Hamilton that you might like.

        Here is a small sample of Sue Hamilton’s writing [the underlining and brackets are mine. I think that what it shows is the practical and non-metaphysical nature of the Buddha’s teaching, but also, if you look at the piece I’ve underlined, the radical nature of what he suggests. He is of course offering something that we might work with, not making defining statements about the nature of reality, he’s way too practical for that.

        “What this teaching does is to shift the focus of investigation from ontology to epistemology. That is say, into the milieu of intense metaphysical questioning and
        ontological theories relating to the self and the world, the Buddha
        interjects the claim that all one has access to is one’s own subjective
        cognitive process. One cannot get outside of this to see or check what
        might be the case external to it, but one can nevertheless understand
        how it works.

        This involves understanding how it [our subjective process] is involved in the structuring of the way we experience the world about us. The texts make reference to the way one’s perceiving apparatus [our seeing hearing etc.] processes the ‘raw’ data of experience into increasingly identifiable, refined, and sophisticated categories, the whole process involving ‘making manifold [i.e. papanca = making many] that which is not really manifold [not really many]’.”

        “ the action -consequence mechanism that mattered lay in one’s state of mind, he
        said, and no one had access to that but oneself.”

        “……if the focus lies in understanding the nature of knowing
        as opposed to the nature of things, as it were, independent of our
        knowing faculties, then it follows that nothing one knows is one’s self.
        Whatever might be its nature or ontological status, a knowing subject
        cannot objectify itself in order to be known by itself.”

        “if it is one’s perceiving apparatus that processes all experiential data, then this is
        what forms the matrix of dependent origination: whatever one experiences is dependently originated in subjective experiencing processes. This means not only that there is a direct correlation between subjectivity and objectivity, but also that what makes the
        dependently originated phenomena of cyclical existence impermanent
        is their experiential nature.”

  3. Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Much appreciated Tony, I’ll add the link to my reading list.

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