The Inherent Dignity of Empty Persons


In 2011 I received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to spearhead the first academic conference solely devoted to Buddhist ethics. The essays from that event were compiled and edited by Dr. Jake H. Davis in this lovely volume by Oxford University Press entitled, A Mirror Is for Reflection: Understanding Buddhist Ethics (2017).  I contributed Chapter 16: "The Inherent Dignity of Empty Persons."

Here's the abstract with a link to the book page on the OUP website. 

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has expressed strong support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While this may seem to be consistent with his outspoken promotion of basic human values and universal responsibility, there is an unresolved metaphysical conflict between his endorsement of the UDHR and concomitant ideas like inherent dignity and inalienable rights, on the one hand, and, on the other, his espousal of the Buddhist Middle Way or “centrist” (Madhyamaka) thesis that all phenomena (i.e., persons, things, and ideas like human rights) lack “intrinsic existence” (svabhāva). This chapter explores the possibility of an unforced consensus on rights between Tibetan Buddhism and the Western human rights tradition through a novel application of Madhyamaka Buddhism that can help us make sense of the metaphysics of rights in the 21st century, as well as combat the fundamentalist mind-set that contributes to human rights violations.

It's Funny Because It's True:

Buddhist Realism and Dark Comedy

Christopher Kelley, a professor at the New School, argues that if the human condition damns us to disaffection and angst, then our ability to laugh at such limitations is a uniquely human privilege.
— The New Yorker Magazine
Part of life is suffering. Death is a reality. But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh along the way. Christopher Kelley, a student and teacher of Buddhism, finds a parallel between Buddhism and dark comedy—the truth-telling sort of comedy delivered by Louis C.K., Marc Maron and Tig Notaro, among others.
— Houston Chronicle

The Buddha is believed to have taught that the fundamental nature of the human condition is suffused with feelings of existential angst and abiding dissatisfaction. Such realism is not exclusive to Buddhism, however. As any dark comedian knows this already because making jokes about the reality of life usually gets big laughs, or as they say in the business—“kills.” Like the Buddha, the comic can be a powerful medium for communicating the more disquieting and shunned truths in life.

In this lecture I argue that both Buddhism and dark comedy seek to expose unsettling truths about the human condition that we normally choose to deny, namely—old age, sickness, and death. I discuss the work of comedians like Louis C.K., Tig Notaro, and Andy Kaufman. And why I believe they offer a kind of therapy for eliminating the existential anxiety that comes from denying the human condition and clinging to unreal idealizations about oneself and the world.