11 January 2014

RIP MIchael Dorfman

Michael Dorfman
There's a thread on Reddit saying that Michael Dorfman, a long time reader of and commenter on this blog, and a penpal of mine, died on Christmas Day 2013. He was 49, a year older than me. It seems he took his own life. 

As often happens with internet relationships I never really knew much about Michael personally, except that he knew a lot about Buddhism and thought a great deal more highly of Nāgārjuna (the subject of his MA thesis) than I did. He wrote to me quite often expressing his enthusiasm for my writing, but also not hesitating to criticise my mistakes and trying to make me think again. Lately we mainly did this behind the scenes through email rather than in comments. 

One of his last emails to me gives you a good idea of the kind of thing we talked about, and how generous he was with his praise and how keen he was to get things across to me (he was like this on the Reddit website as well):
I'm impressed you have the patience to argue with Sxxxx and Bxxxx -- they seem to be acting willfully obtuse, uncharacteristically so.  I would have thought it absolutely indubitable that (a) we have no direct evidence of the pre-Aśokan period, so anything we do is a reconstruction of some sort, and (b) the form this reconstruction takes is going to be governed in large part by what hermeneutical axioms we bring to bear on the indirect evidence. 
The Diamond Sutra piece is very much of interest-- I've been waiting for the library in Oslo to send me the volume of the Schøyen manuscripts with the Harrison piece, but they keep sending me other volumes instead, which is fascinating but a bit frustrating.  I think I've mentioned that the software experiments I am working on are aimed at Braarvig and his Bibliotheca Polyglotta. 
In any event, I'll try to write up a proper response to post on your blog-- I think your analysis is very interesting, and quite similar in its results to where I've been heading, albeit from another direction (i.e., not via philology in my case, but via philosophy.)  I think you are quite right that Nāgārjuna and the PPM literature are aimed at Abhidharmikas who have ontologized experience; unlike you, perhaps, I think that the notion of the "two truths" is a useful way of responding. 
If we look at Harrison's translation:

Subhūti said, “His personal presence would be substantial, Lord, it would be substantial, Blessed One. Why is that, Lord? The Realized One has described it as an absence. That is why it is called ‘a personal presence.’ For it is not a presence. That is why it is called ‘a personal presence.’”  
I'd highlight the "is called", i.e., dependent designation; it is conventionally 'a personal presence' because it is ultimately not a presence at all. 
But I think your problematization of the "because" here is very interesting, and something I'm going to have to think about.
 Michael Dorfman 15 Nov 2013
As one can see from this he is highly engaged in the discussion and we continued on at some length over the next few days exchanging thoughts on the Perfection of Wisdom tradition. The last time I heard from him was on 4 Dec 2012. 

He was also a good promoter of this blog, often posting my essays on Reddit.com under /r/Buddhism/ which typically generated a goodly amount of traffic from that site. Judging by the tributes there he was highly regarded by many Redditors. 

I always enjoyed getting emails from Michael and I will miss having his perspective on my writing. He understood the spirit of scholarship and had some sympathy with my approach, though did not always agree with either my methods or conclusions. In disagreement I found him a generous debating partner and able to argue the point quite vigorously without taking it personally. I felt we were kindred spirits and I'm sorry he's gone. 

Apart from a number of tributes on Reddit (link above) there is one other online memorial to Michael on The Endless Further. (if you know of others, please let me know). 


Michael's brilliant MA thesis published posthumously.

Dorfman, Michael. (2014) 'Putting the Madhyamaka Trick in Context: A Contextualist Reading of Huntington’s Interpretation of Madhyamaka.' Buddhist Studies Review, 31 (1): 91–124. [sub required]
In a series of works published over a period of twenty-five years, C.W. Huntington, Jr. has developed a provocative and radical reading of Madhyamaka (particularly Early Indian Madhyamaka) inspired by ‘the insights of post-Wittgensteinian pragmatism and deconstruction’ (1993, 9). This article examines the body of Huntington’s work through the filter of his seminal 2007 publication, ‘The Nature of the Mādhyamika Trick’, a polemic aimed at a quartet of other recent commentators on Madhyamaka (Robinson, Hayes, Tillemans and Garfield) who attempt ‘to read Nāgārjuna through the lens of modern symbolic logic’ (2007, 103), a project which is the ‘end result of a long and complex scholastic enterprise … [which] can be traced backwards from contemporary academic discourse to fifteenth century Tibet, and from there into India’ (2007, 111) and which Huntington sees as distorting the Madhyamaka project which was not aimed at ‘command[ing] assent to a set of rationally grounded doctrines, tenets, or true conclusions’ (2007, 129).
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