Buddhism in German Philosophy and Literature

Start: Feb 6, ’09
End: Feb 7, ’09
Location: Room 105, Maha Chula Bldg., Chulalongkorn University

Center for European Studies at Chulalongkorn University and Goethe-Institut Bangkok, in cooperation with Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and Thousand Stars Foundation, are organizing

the International Symposium on  “Buddhism in German Philosophy and Literature: An Intercultural Dialogue”

6 – 7 February 2009

Room 105, Maha Chulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University


Friday 6 February 2009

8.00 – 8.45 Registration

8.45 – 09.15 Asst. Prof. Dr. Charit Tingsabadh, Director of Centre for European Studies at Chulalongkorn University, reports to the President of Chulalongkorn University

Opening Remarks
Prof. Pirom Kamolratanakul, M.D. President of Chulalongkorn University

Dr. Ulrike Lewark Deputy Director, Goethe-Institut Bangkok

9.15 – 9.30 Moderator: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Soraj Hongladarom
Dr. Peter Skilling, École française d’Extrême-Orient, Bangkok
Remarks on Philology and Buddhist Studies, with Special Reference to German Philology and Manuscript Studies

9.30 – 10.05 Prof. Dr. Volker Mertens, Free University Berlin, Germany Buddhism in the European Middle Ages

10.05 – 10.20 Tea and Coffee 10.20 – 10.55

Dr. Ronald Perlwitz, Université Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi
Friedrich Rückkert und der Buddhismus

10.55 – 11.05 Questions & Answers

11.05 – 11.40 Prof. Dr. Pornsan Watananguhn German Section, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
On the Reception of Buddhism in the Literary Work of Gjellerup, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse

11.40 – 12.15 Prof. Dr. Heinrich Detering, University Göttingen, Germany
Hesse, Brecht and Thomas Mann: Buddhism and Other Influences

12.15 – 12.30 Discussion

12.30 – 14.00 Lunch

14.00 – 14.35 Moderator: Prof. Dr. Volker Mertens
Prof. Dr. Adrian Hsia, Emeritus Professor of German, McGill University, Montreal, Canada and Honorary Professor, School of Chinese Studies, Hong Kong University,
China Catholicism / Protestantism versus Hinduism / Buddhism: On Hesses’s Transcultural Reception

14.35 – 14.45 Questions & Answers

14.45 – 15.20 Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dieter Borchmeyer, Professor Emeritus, University Heidelberg, Present position : Präsident der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste (President of the Bavaria Academy of the Beautiful Art)
Thomas Manns “Die vertauschten Köpfe“

15.20 – 16.00 Discussion

Saturday 7 February 2009

9.30 – 10.00 Moderator: Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dieter Borchmeyer
Keynote Speech by Prof. Preecha Changkhwanyuen, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University and Chair of Centre for Buddhist Studies, Chulalongkorn University
East-West Divan on Buddhism: An Intercultural Dialogue

10.00 – 10.10 Questions & Answers

10.10 – 10.25 Tea and Coffee

10.25 – 11.00 Prof. Dr. Somparn Promta, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
Literature in Buddhist Perspective

11.00 – 11.35 Assoc. Prof. Dr. Soraj Hongladarom Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of the Will and the Nagarjuna’s View on Emptiness

11.35 – 12.10 Dr. Theptawee Chokvasin, Suranaree University of Technology
Heideggian and Theravada Buddhist View on the Mortality of Life

12.10 – 12.30 Discussion

12.30 – 14.00 Lunch

14.00 – 15.00 Round Table Discussion
Moderator: Dr. Ulrike Lewark Deputy Director of Goethe-Institut Bangkok All speakers

15.00 Final Remarks
Dr. Ulrike Lewark Deputy Director, Goethe-Institut Bangkok
Asst. Prof. Dr. Charit Tingsabadh Director, Centre for European Studies at Chulalongkorn University


Earth shot

I have already finished my teaching stint at Linköping University. As I said in the previous posts, I have been in Sweden for some time now and though I am quite worried about not being able to go home because Thai demonstrators have seized the airport (something really, really bizarre to the eyes of the whole wide world, I know, but as many people say — This is Thailand), I am enjoying my stay here. Sweden is a peaceful country, I mean literally. What struck me when I came to Sweden and also Norway was how quiet things are around here. How tranquil. Compare this with the hustle bustle and all the noises of Bangkok.

I used the book on Technology, Globalization and Philosophy edited by David Tabachnik and Toivo Koivukoski. This is a collection of papers written by some notable philosophers and political scientists. One of them is Don Ihde, who wrote on “What Globalization Do We Want?,” which to my mind is one of the strongest chapters in the book. Ihde talks about the phenomenon of globalization, which in the past was something rather abstract, and when we talk about the phenomenon as something really directly perceptible and tangible, he mentions the ‘earth shots’ that astronauts abroad Apollo 8 first took when they traveled outside of  the earth’s orbit and looked back at it from very far out. Here is such a shot from the NASA website:

Very beautiful, isn’t it. Ihde’s point is that this is the very first time that people can view their earth from way out. Before Apollo 8 it was not possible to have a real look at the earth, except through some representations such as a map or a drawing of it. But not directly. The point is that, when we talk about globalization, this is it. We are looking at it, the very phenomenon of globalization itself. Ihde is asking what kind of globalization we want, and certainly this gives much food for thought, for here is the kind of globalization that we can perceive directly.

There are thus many layers of meanings in the shot. Three astronaust were on board Apollo 8, a product of the Cold War and intense competition among nations. It was a product of high technology at that time, and certainly a product of immense amount of manpower and funding that went behind it. And beyond that the picture itself represents a new age of humankind. I think this is even more important hermeneutically than Armstrong’s landing on the moon. The earth shot is the first time we humans have a reflective image of ourselves in the midst of the void space. What came after that, such as with Apollo 11, was rather an afterthought.

So we are looking at ourselves. The earth as a “pale blue dot” hovering in the vastness and blackness of space. This is it. This is where we are, and for the time being we have no escape. It is almost spiritual. It IS spiritual. The blue sea, the white cloud, the green and brown landscape. We can’t see people from that far up of course, but we know we are all there, all of us.

Did God Have a Wife?

The PBS is putting a new series on “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” which documented Jewish history at the period which led to the Bible as we know it today, as well as the whole idea of monotheism. However, it was discovered also that the Israelite God, Yahweh, did have a wife, who was a Canaanite fertility goddess. This is really interesting. Here is the video preview:

Well, for Buddhists this is totally normal, nothing surprising. We Buddhists might consider Yahweh himself to reside in one of the high heavens, corresponding with Brahma (they both created heaven and earth, you know), and Brahma came down often to listen to the Buddha’s teaching. So Brahma in a way was one of the Buddha’s students, a celestial one at that. Brahma did have a wife, Sarasvati, who played some role as the goddess of learning and poetry.

It’s too bad that the Israelites chose not to promote their own goddess, so she kind of faded away from history, until now.


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Politics of Translation

I am fascinated with language. Well, this is mainly what I do for a living. What else would you expect a university lecturer in an arts faculty to do? Teaching philosophy has a lot to do with language. J. L. Austin has a book on “How to Do Things with Words,” and teachers of philosophy, literature and history basically have close to nothing to do except manipulating words around.

The recent controversy in Thailand surrounding Jakkrapob Penkhae, the Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, when he gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and said something about the desirable, in his view, form of government for Thailand is a case in point. It sparked an uproar, and those of you who are following the events in Thai politics perhaps know about this already.

My point is that Jakkrapob’s speech has become a political issue, but for that to work in this country, the speech, which was given in English, has to be translated into Thai. Now the interesting situation is that there are now several versions of the translations of the same text which are not entirely compatible with one another. Jakkrapob’s own translation has been accused of omitting some key texts which would be damaging to him, and the version prepared by the opposition Democrat Party has also been accused by the other side of not being a fair one. 

So somebody proposed that the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University do the translation themselves. Being regarded as the most trusted authority in linguistic matters, the professors of Chulalongkorn will be asked to decide on the issue. Well, this happens to be the place where I go to work teaching philosophy. I believe I won’t be asked to do the translation myself, as I am not teaching translation or anything. But this is a good point for a reflection.

As those who have even a slight acquaintance with translation know, translating a text from one language to another is an imprecise science at best. Unless you are translating a mathematical statement, you are likely to have to face decisions on word choices and other things which translators have to face everyday. Even translating mathematical texts sometimes requires making such decisions too. And when the translation of Jakkrapob’s speech is such a highly charged political issue, what could happen is that the faculty at the Faculty of Arts, well, my beloved colleagues, will have to bear political brunt. If their translation goes well with one camp, they will be reviled by the other. And if they tweak the translation they will have to suffer loss of credibility and this will harm the reputation of the university. They need to find the most accurate translation. But exactly what is the most accurate translation?

So they are in an unenviable situation. I only wish them all the best. I think what will happen is that when one camp finds an expert to translate the text, the other will find their own expert to translate the text to their own liking. All will be done within the limit of the allowable and interpretable range of meanings of the text. 

Some people would like to resolve political issues through technical means like finding experts to translate the text, but that would not be forthcoming. This is a typical attitude of many in the Thai bureaucracy and other circles. They trust the expert in all areas. But then political issues cannot be resolved through technical means. They have to be resolved politically. It is one thing whether Jakkrapob’s text violates Thai law or not. For that the judge will ask for an accurate translation from expert witness (and both sides can well produce their own expert witnesses). But this has become a political issue and the way to resolve that won’t come from the easy way of asking for expert opinions. Well, translation can be part of politics too, as are many other areas.

Thai or English?

In writing the blogs I have had a kind of dilemma in deciding whether to write in Thai or English. There are advantages on both sides. Writing in Thai enables audience in Thailand who are not that fond of reading English posts to read my views and ideas, but English posts certainly carry wider. So what to do?

I think I will find a middle way. If I think a particular post is perhaps of more local concern, then I’ll write in Thai. For example, if I write about something about Thai politics or Thai universities (a subject that I am very interested in), then I’ll write in Thai, but if it’s Buddhism, then I have decided to write in English. But then there are some in Thailand who would like to read things about Buddhism but not in English. So in the end the rule does not work consistently. That is, I judge by my feeling. In some cases I write in Thai, and in others I’ll write in English.

Some bloggers are very diligent and duly translate everything they write into the other language. I am not diligent, so if you want to read some of my posts which are written in the language you don’t know, drop a note to me and I’ll consider this case by case.

Language, Reality, Emptiness and Laughs

In the Mulamadhayamakakarika, Nagarjuna argues for the idea that no one
version of description of reality can be the correct one such that it
captures the essence of such reality and thereby fixes objectivity. On
the contrary, he is famous for the doctrine of “Emptiness” (sunya) where
no view whatsoever is maintained, including, too, the view that no view
is and can be maintained.

What is at stake in Nagarjuna’s thought is the very relation between
language and reality. Buddhism appears to be the only religious and
philosophical tradition that holds the ’emptiness’ view, i.e., things
are empty of their inherent nature, and hence language and reality could
be regarded as depending on each other. Language derives its meaning
through reality, and reality can be what it is only through language.
One who realizes this is said to be liberated from suffering and becomes
an arhat. When things are empty of their inherent nature, their
so-called essential characteristics (which might be compared to the
Aristotelian to ti en einai) are only provisional; they are there only
to make things go in the conventional manner. But beyond that they are,
in Chandrakirti’s description in the Madhyamakavatara, “like the moon in
rippling water,/Fitful, fleeting, empty in their nature.”

This is why the bodhisattvas are playful. The great female bodhisattva
Tara, for example, is said to embody a sixteen-year-old girl, and is
often mischievous and naughty. Sometimes she is found sitting on a roof
looking down smilingly and compassionately on sentient beings. The
laughing Buddha is also a popular figure in Mahayana Buddhism. That
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are laughing is perhaps due to their ability to
see through the veil of ignorance and realize that there is nothing at
all to be serious about when it comes to the fixed or essentially
objective characteristic of things. Things come and go and are always
changing. The laugh, however, never arises from a dualistic mind that
sees someone to be hopelessly inferior to oneself. On the contrary it is
a compassionate laugh, a reflection of pure and radiant happiness that
arises out of the realization that all causes of suffering only arise
through the mind’s fixation on fleeting mirage, like one who tries to
catch the rippling image in the water.