“Ethical Theory? We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethical Theory!”

I recently had the good fortune to attend the two-day conference on Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics co-hosted by The Center for Buddhist Studies and the Department of Religion at Columbia University that was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.  My understanding is that this was the first-ever conference devoted exclusively to Buddhist ethics.

The conference pulled together an exceptional group of speakers and panelists including Damien Keown, Bob Thurman, Karl Potter, Andrew Olendzki, Mark Siderits, Christopher Queen, Sallie King, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Charles Goodman, Owen Flanagan, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Barry Schwartz, George Dreyfus, and some eighteen other presenters representing such diverse disciplines as Buddhist and Indo-Tibetan studies, analytic philosophy, ethics, psychology, neuropsychology, and literary theory.  The panelists addressed a wide variety of questions, but this post focuses on only one:  Why didn’t Buddhism develop an ethical theory of its own?  This topic was most fully developed by Damien Keown, [1] and I owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing these ideas to my attention.

Damien Keown

Keown’s keynote address pointed out that while Buddhism is rich in ethical teachings (sila, the precepts, the paramis, the Vinaya, the wholesome and unwholesome mental factors in the Abhidhamma, the Jataka Tales, the Brahmaviharas) it has absolutely no tradition of ethical theorizing.  That is, no extended exploration of why certain ethical concepts make it onto standard Buddhist lists (e.g., not killing, lying, or stealing) while others (e.g., not keeping promises) do not, or discussion about what to do when ethical precepts conflict (e.g., are there ever any circumstances under which it is permissible to tell a lie or take a life?)

The Western philosophical tradition is rich in ethical theorizing from Plato and Aristotle through Spinoza, Kant, and Hume, all the way to Mill, Sidgwick, Rawls, and Parfit.  These philosophers discuss questions like what is the nature of the good, what underlying principles make certain actions moral or ethical, and what constitutes a just social order that promotes human flourishing. Philosophers often organize ethical systems into various types, e.g., Virtue Theory, Deontology, Consequentialism, Particularism, etc., and there is interest in developing a unified theory that combines the best features of each.  Academics in Buddhist Studies find aspects of both Virtue Theory and Consequentialism in Buddhism, but really, these are acts of creative interpretation, as there is little evidence that Buddhist thinkers would have had much use for these categories.

Why did none of this interest Buddhist thinkers?  One could argue that they just wanted to lay out minimalist broad principles — be compassionate, work towards the liberation of all beings, use skillful means — and let practitioners work out the details on their own through some combination of mindfulness, discernment, and innate wisdom.  But this was uncharacteristic of Buddhist thinkers in other philosophical domains.  They paid a great deal of attention to other philosophical matters — epistemology, phenomenology, logic, metaphysics, cosmology, and so forth.  Why leave only ethics to fend for itself?

The possible answers to this question are manifold.  Here are a number of suggestions:

  1. Not only Buddhism, but other religions/philosophies originating on the Indian subcontinent, including the ones that preceded Buddhism, also neglected ethical theory.  Buddhists didn’t take up the subject because no one before them had, and none of their competitors did.  It just wasn’t a part of the conversation at the time.  My objection to this argument is that in any tradition someone has to be the first one to address the subject.  Why was there, over the course of 2,500 years, no Buddhist Socrates?
  2. Buddhists saw ethics as subservient to soteriology.  Once one had become a Buddha, one’s infinite compassion and wisdom would directly see what was skillful in any immediate situation, so there was no need for elaborate rules or theories.  Once one had become an Arhat, freed from greed, hatred, and delusion, one would also be constitutionally incapable of unethical action.  The idea that ethics were inherently knotty and might always require a certain degree of conscious deliberation, even when one has reached the end of the path, seems foreign to Buddhist thought.  Perhaps this lacuna is one reason why contemporary Buddhist teachers who have reached a certain impressive level of awakening still fall prey to ethical lapses?
  3. Buddhist teachings focused on turning inward, withdrawing from the world, living as a wandering mendicant.  Social, economic, and political systems were something one dropped out of, not something one improved.  There was no impetus to develop a theory of what constituted a social order that promoted either justice or human flourishing.
  4. Buddhist teachings focused on the community of monks rather than the laity.  The Vinaya had many complex rules governing the life of the monk and the sangha.  Less attention was given to rules governing the life of the laity living the lives of householders, parents, and business people.  Of course, this explanation neglects why Buddhists failed to develop a critical literature exploring the Vinaya itself, e.g., the theory underlying the monastic rules and an exploration of whether the listed rules are either exhaustive or equally appropriate.  As a result, Buddhist rules concerning the sangha are never really thought through.  Are rules about alms rounds and the handling money, for example, appropriate under all economic systems? Why does generosity to the sangha create more merit than giving to the poor?
  5. The Buddhist doctrine of two truths, while paying lip service to the idea that form was emptiness and emptiness form, privileged “emptiness” as the ultimate.  At the ultimate level, relative concepts like “good” and “bad” become meaningless.  There is ultimately no wrong-doer or victim — everything is perfect just as it is.  Overemphasis on the absolute may foster disinterest in theorizing about the relative level, which is the level where ethics apply.

Buddhists never developed a variety of disciplines that could have added greater depth to the tradition.  Not only is there no Buddhist ethical, political, or social theory, but Buddhist history has also been, by and large, ignored.  Buddhism has not been very good at examining itself.

As Buddhism moves West, philosophers and historians, schooled in Western philosophical and historical methods, are using their skills to help Buddhism examine itself.  As a result, we now have a Professor of Buddhist Ethics, a Journal of Buddhist Ethics, revisionist Buddhist history, and Engaged Buddhism. This is all to the good.

Psychologist Jeffrey Rubin once warned of the twin dangers of Orientocentrism and Eurocentrism in approaching Buddhist teachings.  One school of thought bows to the sacred wisdom of the East, the other assumes the West knows best.  Rubin recommends “a more egalitarian relationship in which there is mutual respect, the absence of denigration or deification, submission or superiority, and a genuine interest in what [we] could teach each other.”[2] The Dharma offers Westerners something precious and unique — but the West also has precious gifts to offer the Dharma.


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  1. [1] Damien Keown is Professor Emeritis of Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths University of London — the only Professor of Buddhist Ethics anywhere in the world.  He’s the founding co-editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, a member of the Pali Text Society, and the author of many books including The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992), Buddhism & Bioethics (1995), Contemporary Buddhist Ethics (2000), and Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism (with Christopher Queen and Charles Prebish, 2003).  Nice work if you can get it.
  2. [2] Rubin, J. (2003). Close encounters of a new kind. In Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY.

44 thoughts on ““Ethical Theory? We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethical Theory!”

  1. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet , Wm. Shakespeare; Act II, scene ii. If that’s the case, and Buddhist teachings reach beyond the rational mind, perhaps there is no great need for a theory of ethics, only a need to be “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, Enlightenment hail!” (gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha). Excellent discussion, Seth.

    • But, Amaury, for those of us who are not yet gone beyond, a little help for the morally perplexed would be appreciated. Traditional Tibetan Buddhism, for example, considers homosexuality immoral. The Tibetan community is struggling with the encounter with Western Buddhists who see this as a cultural bias that has no essential justification from within Buddhism itself. It would help to have some theory which would enable Buddhists to distinguish between things that are genuinely due to deep Buddhist concerns, and those things that are only considered unethical due to ignorance and outdated tradition. Is there a Buddhist take on abortion, living wills, and insider trading? Theory has its place.

      • Given the emphasis on compassion and lovingkindness, it would seem that everything else would just flow out of it — like how you cannot digest something without having first put it into your mouth and chewing and swallowing it; and if you’d done all that, what worries would you have about proper digestion??

        Something like that, I think, explains the traditional Buddhists’ collective shrug at ethical theory. I believe all the reasons you gave in your essay are valid, but from the perspective of “ideology” and not “meta” level reasons like culture and so on, it’s really Number Two: once you understand that compassion and lovingkindness is the alpha and omega of everything, you “simply” proceed from there.

        Thus, abortion: what’s most compassionate? Obviously, saving the life of the mother, for instance, or preventing more misery in the form of an unwanted child. Living wills: what’s most compassionate? Obviously, allowing people to decide their own manner of death. Insider trading: what’s most compassionate? Obviously, not breaking the rules of the game, however suspect the game itself may arguably be.

        Sorry, but I think questions of ethics come up only when there isn’t a clear understanding of human nature, to paraphrase Erich Fromm and, for that matter, Krishnamurti and just about everyone else who seems really wise — “do good; the rest is commentary.”

        • One can talk about the enlightened heart that wants to do good out of compassion and a profound understanding of interdependence, but sometimes the understanding of just how to do good, to actually implement the right solution, is more complex than you give it credit. In my own narrow field of psychology, for example, the history of psychology is littered with well-intentioned interventions that have left people more wounded than if nothing had been done to help them at all, e.g, post-trauma interventions that have made post-traumatic adjustments worse, or social work interventions with juvenile delinquents that had made those treated more likely to end up incarcerated as adults. American political conservatives are right now attempting to do good by reducing our deficit and, thereby the burden of the national debt on our children and grandchildren, while I think we should be doing more deficit spending to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. Well meaning people can have equally “clear” ideas of what needs to be done for the general good. Ethical theory is one way to help us sort our way through the consequences of our actions. The Buddhists who are persecuting Muslims in Burma could use a good deal more it it.

          • I’m just beginning to come to Buddhism after a decades of personal reading on ethics and ethical theories, so yes, ethical matters can be complex…when one wants to toy with notions of “justice.”

            But if compassion is the ultimate goal, then everything else falls aside — all questions, all sophistry. Even the Abrahamic tradition had an inkling of this, in the famous story of Jonah, who was upset at Ninevah not getting its proper punishment instead of being merciful upon the city’s repentance (though Buddhist compassion is so complete that it doesn’t even require any repentance).

            Psychology: that there’s an unfortunate history of well-intentioned but misguided therapies isn’t any indictment against the all-you-need-is-love-when-it-comes-to-ethics argument that I’m making (and which I also claim is implicit within Buddhism, explaining its lack of Ethics as such [that is, with an upper-case “e”]).

            American conservative politics: they’re just trying to further consolidate wealth; it so blatantly ain’t about balancing any budget at all so let’s not lend these “economic holocaust deniers” any credence, please.

            Burmese Buddhists: again, just because people choose to hide their reprehensible deeds behind respectable symbols doesn’t mean we have to take them at face value — do you honestly think a theory of ethics would have prevented or even ameliorated anything going on there right now?? Ethics hasn’t prevented Christendom from its shameful history — it hasn’t even prevented democracies from their hypocrisy — and indeed, it was “ethics” that had Yahweh commanding even the slaughter of heathen cattle!!

            No, the Buddha was right to avoid ethics…as Krishnamurti counseled, there is only choice where confusion exists — and can a confused mind come to clarity, to clear-headed decisions?

          • Jack, I’m not sure why my list of misguided therapies is irrelevant. My view is that compassion in and of itself, unguided and uninformed by theory and practical knowledge, is apt to be what Trungpa called “idiot compassion.” We need to balance head and heart, and that means checking back and forth between our cognitive and experiential knowledge systems. I also take exception to your dismissal of the sincerity of political conservatives. While I strongly disagree with them, and while some of them are indeed shills and charlatans, many of them are sincerely concerned for the well being of their fellow citizens. The idea that we are compassionate, and they are engaging in deception regarding their true motives, is of course, the mirror image of the conservative view of liberals, that we are being insincere and only acting out of the particular economic interests of our own class. I think more and more that whether one considers oneself liberal or conservative is based more on tribal concerns (what region of the country you were raised in, which religion you were reared in, etc.) than evidentiary ones. Taking the position that your opponent is insincere just makes true dialogue across tribal boundaries more difficult.

            To get back to my main point, Buddhism does have sets of ethics (the precepts, the vinaya, etc.), just not an ethical theory that can help us decide when Buddhists ethics are misguided, deficient or insufficiently inclusive. In my own Zen tradition, for example, the list of important Zen masters who have sexually mistreated their female students is both lengthy and discouraging, and suggests that authentic kensho experiences are insufficient in and of themselves, to assure non-harming. The Zen masters would have been better off ascribing to sets of ethical guidelines than trusting to their own internal compasses.

  2. I often wonder how far ethical theories get us? Do they change behavior? Professors of ethics have been shown, for example, to have not better ethical behavior than those of us who are ignorant of ethical theories. Christians, with all their bragging of having the only true moral foundations, are found to polluted with as many moral foibles as us damned.

    Ethical theories are fun (well, for some of us), but I wonder if that is where the money is. Thanx for the article — interesting and fun!

    • @Sabio

      Agreed, there is no evidence that being knowledgable about ethical theory makes one more ethical. Philosophers are no more successful at living their lives than non-philosophers.

      On the other hand, there are deep questions here that are valuable to explore. For example, is there any necessary linkage between the wisdom component of Buddhism and its ethical component? Does seeing into the nature of non-self and emptiness, for example, help generate the wish to be compassionate? Mahayana Buddhism asserts it does. Contemporary British philosopher Derek Parfit thinks seeing selflessness helps one to recognize there is less reason to be selfish. Contemporary American Philosopher Owen Flanagan, on the other hand, remains unconvinced. This is just one example.

      • Yes, it would appear that seeing into the nature of non-self and emptiness helps generate compassion. According to Krishnamurti, love is the “natural” state of the mind, a mind that’s at peace — not *made* calm or “pacified” but *is* (truly) calm. That Owen Flanagan is unconvinced simply demonstrates that the proof is in the pudding — he’s unconvinced that the pudding of Buddhism will lead to compassion, etc., due to his chemical analysis of the ingredients, so to speak, as opposed to actually eating the damned thing.

        (Mind you, I’m not condemning him; I used to be like that myself, until realizing that logic can only take you so far — as Goedel has proven of all formal systems, statements will necessarily be generated by the system that cannot be proven within the confines of that system….)

        • Jack, Krishnamurti’s assertion that love is the natural state of mind, or Buddhism’s assertion that experiences of enlightenment open up the heart of compassion, are assertions that may or may not be true. That’s an empirical question. You’ve found it to be true in your own experience of practice. I suspect there are others who’ve practiced and had deep insight into the nature of emptiness who’ve experienced different outcomes. Its possible that your mileage may vary. In the meantime, let us just note that many people who wear the Buddhist label do not necessarily seem more compassionate than non-Buddhists on either the individual or the collective level, and that many people who have been revered, at least by some, as enlightened masters, have done things that do not seem to be particularly compassionate or kind. My own personal opinion, is that I remain open to either possibility. I lean toward the idea that practice and non-dual experience makes us more compassionate, but I’m not ready to bet the farm on it.

          • Well, everything is an empirical question if you’re a secularist — but again, referring back to Goedel, there *necessarily* are things that just can’t be proven (strictly speaking, nothing is ever proven; only disproven, possibly).

            Love/compassion is one of these kinds of things.

            As for betting the farm on whether “practice and non-dual experience makes us more compassionate,” it would seem that you already have, insofar as you’ve spent so much effort practicing! For what greater collateral could you wager than your time, your effort, your thoughts?

          • In my book, everything’s empirical (except for mathematics and logic), or at least ought to be, whether one is secular or religious. The most important question is an epistemological one, namely what one is willing to count as evidence.

            The fact that I’ve spent years practicing doesn’t mean that I’m sold on the idea that practice necessarily makes one more compassionate. I’m not sure that all my years of sitting have actually made me more compassionate. Don’t get me wrong, sitting has done a lot for me and I’m deeply grateful for my years of practice, but I’ve always been a reasonably compassionate person, and while I may value compassion more now than before, I’m not sure I actually am more compassionate, maybe only more aware of those moments when I’m not.

  3. Concerning ethical theory: I sometimes find it helpful to distinguish between legislative ethics and personal ethics. Legislative ethics seems to have obvious implications and is unavoidable.

  4. I suppose we should be grateful that earlier generations of Buddhists have spared us from the levels of ethical theorising you suggest they might have indulged in. Maybe their endless theorising about the true nature of reality so divorced them from what the rest of us like to call the real world that normal human life became unimportant to them. The problem with ethical dilemmas is that they remind us that life as it is actually lived is a messy affair far removed from the ideals of spiritual enlightenment. We should be reassured that even the most elevated practitioners still have feet of clay. As my Scottish mother used to say ‘Dinna look at the meen or ye’ll fa’ in the midden’ (don’t look at the moon or you’ll fall in the muck pile).

    • Are our highest spiritual ideals (seeking a greater degree of wisdom, virtue, eudaemonia, and awakening) really divorced from the messy affairs of everyday life? Or do we find awakening through attending with as much awareness as we can to the details of how we struggle through the complexities of daily existence? If one defines spirituality as something higher and finer than everydayness, one is setting up a dichotomy that is bound to fail. If one insists, on the other hand, on nonduality, that nirvana is samsara, that form is emptiness, then there is no division between mucking the stables and finding enlightenment. For Zen, at least, enlightenment is nothing special.

  5. Seth, your Zen sounds very sane and grounded and I don’t think I would want to question anything you have written in response to my post. Certainly, I couldn’t agree more with you when you say ‘If one defines spirituality as something higher and finer than everydayness, one is setting up a dichotomy that is bound to fail.’ I also accept that this kind of common sense approach is taken by many contemporary Buddhists, at least in the west. I’m less convinced, however, that it has much to do with traditional Buddhism. Buddhism teaches impossible ideals – it demands the 6 Perfections (of which one is morality), not the 6 Improvements – and it isn’t much interested in making realistic adjustments to everyday life. It insists on abandoning everydayness altogether. In fact, it seeks something akin to what the poet Larkin called ‘the anaesthetic from which none come round.’ Of course, this kind of aspiration doesn’t sit well with many in the contemporary west so we have fashioned Buddhism in our image. But should we still be calling it Buddhism?

    Actually, I think traditional Buddhism makes itself a victim of its own hype from the outset, by defining dukkha in such a way as to make any escape from it impossible while still a living creature. Even the historical Buddha didn’t escape the dukkha defined in the Pali scriptures. By all accounts he didn’t achieve Sariputta’s dubious distinction of overcoming feeling which is, of course, a prerequisite to overcoming suffering. He still suffered pain, got old and sick and died, as we all do. He continued to have preferences, as all real life beings must (at least all those for who anything matters any more), and therefore presumably fell short of Zen’s ‘perfect way.’

    One can find in many traditional Buddhist stories the expectation that being ‘awake’ and being insensate (inhuman?) are in fact necessarily linked. One of my favourites is that of Marpa, who wept over his child’s untimely death and thereby upset the neighbours who didn’t think this was in keeping with an enlightened being who ought, in their estimation, not to experience grief or other unsavoury human emotions. I’ve myself come across Buddhist teachers who insist that Buddhas are not actually human at all. Weird as this may sound it makes a kind of sense given the qualities traditionally attributed to enlightened beings. The goal of traditional Buddhist practice is about as far removed from everydayness as you could get.

    Unfortunately, only by successfully brainwashing people into believing that death offers no escape from the gaping hells can traditional Buddhism infect them with a sickness for which its cure becomes a desirable solution. I don’t deny that many Buddhist teachings and practices may be helpful to those who choose not to buy this horrific narrative, but outside of it what exactly makes them Buddhist? This leads us back to your previous offering on change, but the question arises how far can something change before it makes sense to call it something else?

    • @Mike — I call my practice Buddhism (Existential) to clarify that it is not Buddhism (Theravada) or Buddhism (Gelpuga) or some other variant of Buddhism. Why call it Buddhism at all if it doesn’t posit rebirth or karma or Big “E” enlightenment? Because its main themes of impermanence, interdependence, non-self, mindfulness, compassion, non-grasping, etc. are core features of Buddhism whose value, I think, can be validated through lived experience. Calling it something else just seems silly to me.

      I would agree with you that becoming insensate or unfeeling or yielding to perfectionistic demands sounds neither appealing nor healthy. If this was the message you received from your Tibetan teachers, you were right to run the other way.

      I look at the paramis differently than you do, however. I look at these as being the Buddhist equivalent of Aristotelian virtues to be cultivated, rather than as perfections that are expected or demanded. As a list, they don’t look all that bad as far as virtues go, and I believe that finding ways to actualize them more in one’s lifetime probably leads to a greater degree of eudaemonia (Buddhist variety).

      I also always found the Marpa story charming, and interpret if differently than you do. In the story, Marpa’s neighbors chide him for crying over his lost son because he had told them so often in the past that death was just an illusion. When push comes to shove, however, Marpa is as human as the rest of us, and his comment that while death is an illusion, it is a most persistent illusion — well, there is some humor and irony in it. It reminds me of the story Larry Rosenberg tells about asking two different Buddhist masters, one a Therevada meditation master, the other a Zen master (Korean? Japanese?), about how they would deal with the death of a spouse. The Thai master said he would meet it with equanimity because he accepted impermanence and was non-attached. The Zen master said he would cry and wail his heart out for all it was worth. Rosenberg then asked his listeners which was the more Buddhist response. I always personally liked the Zen master in the story. His message was feel everything, go through everything, live everything fully moment by moment — and accept that over times the feelings change and pass of their own accord. But be with it all with awareness and without trying to make it something special — neither adding to or taking away from the experience, but letting it be “just this.” That is the essence of Zen for me, and good advice for living.

      I understand your antipathy to Buddhism given your experiences, and wish you luck in finding your own self-defined path to well-being.

      • Again with this complaint about being not human…what a childish notion for a Buddhist or any friend of Buddhism!

        If you wanna cry, cry…if you wanna simply observe your emotions, even if they involve a loved one, then do that — no judgment. Where’s this ridiculous insistence on “being a passionate human being” coming from???

        Especially given the “serene-yoga-health-spa” atmosphere of Buddhist temples, retreats, and meetups…what’s with this Western insistence on proving one’s humanity in the form of expressing emotions??

        When chopping wood, chop wood….

    • Ack, what’s so great about being human, anyway?? Seriously, the complaint is a ridiculous one — “oh, you’re not human, oh my Gosh!”

      I’d concur with the criticism of Western Buddhism’s attempt to remake Buddhism in its own image, but that’s a bit like criticizing Yddish from deviating so much from Proto-Indo-European.

      Finally, I don’t see how Buddhism (real Buddhism anyway, Scotsman Fallacy be damned) brainwashes anyone into believing…what, that life is necessarily painful?? I don’t think that’s a truth someone needs to be convinced of. What Buddhism claims is that life is mis-lived because it is mis-imagined because we are misinformed about it…et cetera…why that’s such a “horrific narrative” to you, I don’t know, but you’re wrong.

  6. @ Mike,
    I think you make very fine points. There are many kinds of Buddhism, I think Seth would be the first to admit this. Heck, is Mormonism really Christianity? (smile)
    But I am sure you are not asking merely a debate over definitions. You also sem to be asking an “ought” question — What ought Buddhism be or become. Shouldn’t they drop all that old superstitious stuff or false idealism?” The question of what name they becomes secondary, right?

    @ Seth,
    More than “deep thinkers”, it would be instructive if empirical scientists could measure the difference if behavior between those who call themselves Buddhist and those that don’t. Personally, just as those sorts of studies of Christians show, we would not see a difference. Religions often see themselves as above the horde in ethical principles, insight and behavior, but the facts on the grounds are usually different. I think that is because religions do something very different than they claim. Sort of like Politicians, I guess.

    We all like to live with wonderful images of ourselves — no getting around that.

    Christians complain that such studies include people who, though they call themselves Christians, don’t really know or follow Jesus. A Buddhist complain could be that just because they belong to a Sangha, doesn’t mean they have “see[n] into the nature of non-self and emptiness”.

    Funny, some Buddhisms make a single event as primary: “satori”, “one time true belief in the power of the Lotus Sutra”, “one time true faith in Amida”, “awakening”. Whereas others describe continual slow daily effort with no cataclysmic transformation.

    Anyway, I agree with you that the study of Buddhism and ethics would be fascinating, but I think an empirical study would be the most instructive — we have way too many “deep thinker” speculation and fantasies (getting back to Mike’s points).

    • Sabio, absolutely. I think there is something deeply flawed – even sick – about traditional Buddhism, so I am no enemy of reform. Of course, it’s not up to me to prescribe the ‘right’ kind of Buddhism to others. We each need to find our own way. For me this involved parting with Buddhism altogether. It just didn’t seem honest any more to think of myself as a Buddhist. So I’m not really interested in trying to argue what Buddhism ‘ought’ to be. I’ll leave that to those who still want to claim protection of title as Buddhists. Folk like Seth remind me that being a Buddhist and being a sane, grounded, decent human being are not incompatible. But when I recall my years among the Tibetan Buddhists who first taught me what Dharma was all about I cannot help shuddering and just feel grateful I made it out of there without the help of psychiatric nurses.

    • @Sabio. Absolutely, three cheers for empiricism! But empirical exploration always needs the guidance (or provocation) of theory, otherwise we end up measuring the wrong things and asking the wrong questions. A good theory sets researchers out into the field to test it. So three cheers also for the deep thinkers! I think you would greatly enjoy Own Flanagan’s new book, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain.” I’ll probably review it in a future post. He takes the empirical research on meditation and well-being and shows how it has been insufficiently guided by good philosophy.

  7. I won’t bury this comment in hierarchies.

    @ Seth
    Flanagan’s book sounds interesting. I recalled his name from his contribution to “Destructive Emotions: A scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” narrated by Daniel Goleman. Interestingly, in Amazon review is angry at Goleman and quotes him saying:

    ” Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus’s message of love has to do with prayer… almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do. ”

    The reviewer is convince meditation is central to Buddhism. But David Chapman as illustrated how untrue this is. Meditation has become a central notion for much of Western Buddhists — well, at least for those who aren’t Bed-stand Buddhists.

    But that point and you fine story about the two interactions to a death of a loved one illustrates that the different Buddhisms give contradictory ways of dealing with emotions and looking at life. There is no one Buddhism. Surface agreements over the Triple Gem, interdependence, non-self and such are all secondary with how these concepts are strung together in real living. That is why you like Zen, it seems. You like the type of weaving done by Zennists. Like you, I am sympathetic to the Zen teacher’s reply.

    Again, David Chapman’s last post tell about this renunciation approach and how it is mixed with monist ideas in Western Buddhism — it is as if the Western Buddhists are schizophrenic: they hold both the Zen guy’s reaction and the Theravada dude’s as if they are both admirable and should be the same. They aren’t, they are radically different even though they both call themselves Buddhist.

    @ Mike
    May I ask what Tibetan Buddhism exposures you had: which teachers or what groups. Just being nosey — thanx. Do you have a blog?

  8. Sabio, my exposure to Tibetan Buddhism has been pretty bog-standard Gelukpa teaching. I’ve had quite a few different teachers over the years, mostly in the UK but also in India. Some of them are well known, like Lama Zopa, others less prominent. I wish I could say that I was taught by some notorious eccentric who distorted traditional Buddhist teachings but I’m afraid that isn’t so. Some of my more westernised teachers taught what Alex Berzin charmingly calls Dharma-lite (practising for benefits in this life) but mostly I got the authentic, undiluted stuff. I’ve also explored outside of this tradition, spending time with Zen and Theravada teachers.

    No, I don’t have a blog. I did once think about starting one but I’m probably too lazy to keep it going and I can’t imagine anyone reading it. When I decided to leave the Buddhist fold some of my teachers, and not a few of my one-time Dharma friends, told me that I would most certainly be going straight to hell when I died (apparently there’s a special vajra hell for apostates like myself and it’s the worst hell of all!) so if I find they’ve got internet facilities down there I’ll maybe start a blog warning the good folk of planet earth to get practising like their hair’s on fire. I might even post a few pictures of myself showing what hair looks like when it really is on fire.

    • @ Mike – well, if not a blog, maybe a book or magazine article? You have an interesting story to tell, and you write well! I’d hate to have to wait until you are in Vajra Hell to tell it!

    • True Scotsman Fallacy be damned, Mike, but you got yourself into a bunch o’ hocus-pocus and I’m sorry it’s put you down on Buddhism in general. I mean, how does anyone take that Dalai Lama seriously when he allows himself to be held up as a reincarnation??? That shoulda been your first red flag right there.

      No doubt he’s a fine fellow as most of our fellow human beings do but come on, who in their right mind, with the proper humility expected of genuine insight, enables the delusions of their followers like that???

      I don’t know what the Tibetans taught you, exactly, but you can’t blame genuine original Buddhist precepts for that — might as well say that “Star Wars” was a terrible movie ’cause the pirated copy you downloaded was full of digital artifacts and even viruses!!

  9. @ Mike
    You look like you have tons you could write about. Blog names came to mind for you: “The Dharma Drain”, “The Buddhist Bilge”, “Dumping Dharma”, “Unenlightment”, “Buddha Hell Here I Come” or many more. I hope you reconsider posting sometime. You have a very fun writing style and obvious felt and lived a lot. Thanks for the story.

    • @leebert

      Flanagan *has* complained of two things about the contemporary flavor of Western Buddhism: The conflation of meditation with dharmic work that can lead to the very dilettantism you cite.In Flanagan’s complaint, the obsession with meditation has led to the obviation of the other salient moral, ethical & social injunctions of Buddhism in a sort of inadvertent dilettantism from the “bliss” angle.

      Actually, in this book, Flanagan does not make these points (perhaps he does elsewhere?). In this book he simply states that since most Buddhists do not meditate, conflating “Buddhist practice” with “meditation” can be problematic if one is testing whether “Buddhist practice” leads to “happiness.” If one is counting noses around the world to decide what Buddhism is, Flanagan is certainly correct: most Buddhists do not meditate. If, on the other hand, one defines Buddhism as following the eightfold noble path, meditation in most definitely an important part of Buddhist practice. Different definitions lead to different conclusions.

      Gotama allowed for a fair degree of latitude: No absolute mandate to pursue nibanna or every jhana, reincarnation was optional, I think he even allowed for setting enlightenment aside. That flexibility has lent, perhaps, to a Buddhist big tent of syncretism, and sometimes a farrago of inconsistent ideas.

      Strictly speaking, this paragraph is untrue. There is nowhere in the suttas where the Buddha says rebirth is optional, and hundreds of of places where he affirms rebirth as a central Buddhist tenet. Similarly, while the Buddha taught an ethical path for those who were only interested in a better rebirth and not the cessation of rebirth, he always was clear that this was a lesser goal. He was simply aware that not everyone was prepared to go the distance.

      We may chose to disagree with the Buddha on these points. I am personally happy with a Buddhism-for-one-life-only that improves human flourishing but doesn’t lead to perfection — but let’s not pretend what it is the Buddha said.

      • And I do seem to recall, as I’ve had it cited to me in passing, that there is a sutta where Gotama allows for dharmic practice w/out *belief* in reincarnation (in the strictest sense).

        Rebirth remains a central tenet, as it is central to the analysis of coarising phenomena, emptiness, flux, essence and so on, but rebirth and reincarnation are semantic two different things (at least as I understand it).

      • From alt.buddha.short.fat.guy … you could’ve been one of us. The “We don’t need no stinking…” meme was something we passed around for a time. .

        It’s very interesting to see these concurrent threads in disparate groups of Western Buddhists, it’s like meeting long-lost members of a diaspora — apostates from the back pews claiming something that belongs to everyone.

        • el Dupree was an invention of an “Alf the Poet” from the early 1990’s on alt.buddha.short.fat.guy … A short fat guy from the Mexican outback, a lovable Sonoran Hotei of questionable habits, whose methods brought enlightenment to his victims.

  10. Yeh, the rebirth =’s reincarnation discussion is a long and winding one. I think it was pretty clear Gotama promoted a non-dualist view of reincarnation, but that’s a tricky allowance in of itself. Considering the cultural milieu he was addressing he had to make some kind of allowance for Brahma/atman even though he was pretty much dispensing with it otherwise.

    Let me put it another way: Gotama (as I understand it) did not explicitly proscribe disbelief in reincarnation (under the rubric of rebirth), nor did he mandate the belief. Likewise he discouraged explicitly saying that a self did not exist, and its converse: Anatta is a doctrine that no permanent reifiable self exist, not that we aren’t ourselves separate nodes of experience.

    He didn’t want to reify any position into a hard-set doctrine beyond the essential function of analogy and metaphor.

  11. I would argue that the usefulness of ethical theory is to prompt greater objectivity in our reflection on moral questions, and to that extent it’s of great practical usefulness. Without it Western Buddhists often seem to get stranded between a traditionalist absolutism they reject and mere relativistic preference. The problem with ethical theory in the Western tradition has been a fruitless quest for a single all-encompassing ethical theory, with the theory itself wrongly seen as the source of moral objectivity, but I would see the Kantian, utilitarian and virtue theories as offering alternative kinds of challenge, with the quality of the judgement between them in a given case offering the source of objectivity rather than the theory. Buddhism offers us many tools for refining that quality of judgement.

    For more details see my website http://www.moralobjectivity.net, and the books advertised there.

    • I would argue that ethics is for kids. It’s impressive in the way youthful exuberance is impressive, but ultimately just a flower, something beautiful and powerful in its beauty and something that inspires copious wordsmithing and verse but ultimately just…vegetation — vegetation of the fertile mind, in the case of ethical sophistry.

      Ethical theory is basically Driver’s Ed 101 for folks who’ve never driven. Lowest common denominator stuff because it’s Eternal September out there, not just on usenet but in life. But no one well-practiced (that is, well-lived, as it were) really abides by it…which is why Buddhism, as the motha of all “super-meta-level discourse” of ’em all, didn’t come up with such a manual.

      • There’s a strong countervailing argument against over-rated theory, but I think you have to be careful not to bend too far the other way, Jack. Every time you offer use a belief as the basis of action, there’s a basic theory present. There is thus a constant interplay between theory and practice, and each is essential to the other. It’s the belief that theory has it all sewn up that’s naïve, not theory itself. It all depends whether theory is used in an exploratory and provisional, or a dogmatic, way. The key insight of the Buddha in my view is the Middle Way, which requires this provisionality.

  12. I don’t think Buddhism was amiss in having no elaborate ethical construct such as found in the West, actually. You might as well ask if there’s something wrong with Chinese landscapes when compared against the realistic stuff of Europe.

    That Buddhism deftly avoided the sophists’ trap in the manner of a Jesus sidestepping his Pharisees (or Sadducees — I forget the distinction now) is to me a demonstration of its “rightness,” if I may indulge in some dualistic nonsense myself to make a point about dualistic nonsense. That Zen Buddhism’s traditional answer to such navel-gazing is a loud “ho!” or slap across the face further proves that this is the path of paths!

    Because the mind can spin out any number of rationalizations, we must sidestep the mind, or more to the point, this particular faculty of the mind, this simultaneously wonderful and dreadful talent of the human brain. It’s like wrestling with a pig — you both get dirty but only he enjoys it.

    And so thus Buddhism’s prescription is meditate. I too used to think it sounded nuts but now I have begun perceiving the amazing illusion-shattering wisdom in that simple dictum. Yeah, it’s “impractical” because the overwhelming vast majority of the world won’t stand by it — not even the overwhelming vast majority of Western Buddhism, as your essay suggests — but everything else is, to paraphrase another wise man from another spiritual tradition, just commentary.

    Or to return to Jesus: only the sick need healing. Or, back to the Buddha himself: why ask from whence did the arrow arrive, from what material was it constructed — why investigate the mundane details when what you need is triage??

    I like this line best of all, actually, from one of Kurosawa’s films: why worry about your beard when you’re head’s about to be cut off!

    Seriously, ethics are nothing but idle sophistry, I now see, because people do not know what real compassion and lovingkindness is — to evoke Krishnamurti, choices only exist where there is confusion.

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