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Scandalous ethics. Infinite presence with suffering

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I want to argue here that certain Buddhist and Jewish thinkers say scandalous things on purpose. More scandalously still, I suggest that these statements are infused with deeply transformative ethical power, intended specifically as a way of relating to the dreadful fact of suffering. As scandals, these special responses to suffering intentionally rupture normal semantic patterns and sequences of thought, often through statements or actions which appear paradoxical. These scandalous statements are, in fact, always communicative in function, structure, and intent, but they are designed to create a kind of 'cognitive dissonance'. The thinkers I consider here say scandalous things in order to cause a breaking-open in the consciousness of the hearer and practitioner, which produces compassion, transformation, and liberation. Counter-intuitively, this rupture highlights intersubjectivity and language.

In thus talking about scandal and about ethical responses to suffering, this essay brings into dialogue ideas from two very different source traditions (admittedly a project which is fraught with some methodological risks). I engage Mahayana Buddhist ideas (of the Prasangika-Madhyamika variety) in conversation with the modern Jewish philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Levinas.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Barnard College, Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027, USA .

Publication date: 2001-05-01

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