Fist Full of Cloud

March should find me attending a virtual classroom for A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, a MOOC for a study of behavioral economics. To learn the knobs and dials prior to that class, I decided to sign on for Introduction to Philosophy.

On looking at the site layout, resources and class syllabus, it seemed a good idea to join one of the hundreds of groups assembling via the site’s forum. (Knowing that over ninety-thousand users have registered for the course, my estimate of “hundreds” might be off…by an order of magnitude.)

One user suggested a study group that “includes mindfulness and Buddhism.”

The mere idea of such a study group presented a challenge. Even with only casual exposure to Buddhism, my impression is that it is actually quite different from the study of philosophy. However, I figured that participating would lead me to learn more about each, as they both hold my interest.

The class began this week, and I joined the group.

Dr. Ward starts us off explaining that doing philosophy well is asking “What is the right way to think about a problem?” So, regarding a potential problem in the distinction between a study of philosophy and Buddhism…

What is the right question to ask?

That proved to be a constructive move. So, you see—at least for me—this course is already paying off.

If the “mindful” study group seeks to examine the Coursera lessons’ content through a lens of Buddhist principles, we might do well to consider how a study of philosophy is similar to Buddhist discipline(s), and also how they are different. Seeing Buddha’s teaching as philosophical requires little effort; but, to effectively contrast—while adequately respecting—philosophy and Buddhism during our study with Coursera, it seems necessary to reach some understanding around one question:

How do they differ?

Searching content available online led to many hours of thoughtful reading and reflection, all from a small number of sites. Still, I had not satisfied my need to distinguish one field from the other. It felt like I was clutching at vapor.

Finally, upon discovery of this blog post, I knew I had glimpsed the nature of the problem.

“Because his primary task was to inspire in his listeners the will to follow the path, the Buddha adopted an approach as a teacher that was more rhetorical than logically dialectical. In other words, instead of presenting his teaching as a body of knowledge derived logically from a foundation of first principles, he focused on the impact his words would have on his listeners: getting them not only to acquiesce to his teachings but also to act on them.”

Excerpt from Skill in Questions by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

It seems that compassion dictates action—and sometimes, interaction—while philosophy can float between words.