Book Review: Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science by Clair Brown, Ph.D.

I had hoped to like this book more. After all, the blurbs on its back cover from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and environmentalist Bill McKibben, all sing its praises. My own view is more mixed, however.

First, let me outline what I liked about the book. The author, University of California-Berkeley economist Clair Brown, correctly diagnoses our society’s greatest errors and failings: its fostering of obscene levels of economic inequality, its despoliation of the planet, its single-minded focus on generating wealth rather than on expanding human well-being and flourishing, and its economic model of corporate obligations to shareholders but not stakeholders.  Dr. Brown offers many sensible alternatives and solutions to these problems, providing reasonable guidelines for reducing wealth inequality, putting the global economy on a sustainable footing, preserving the planet, and maximizing human happiness and potential.  If we followed the author’s exhortations, I have no doubt that our world would be a much better place. I would very much like to live in the world she prescribes.

Now for the things I didn’t like about the book.

First, to my mind, the title doesn’t make any sense. There is no such thing as “Buddhist Economics,” just as there is no such thing as Buddhist Astrophysics or Buddhist Quantum Mechanics. Economics is economics, plain and simple. It’s a social science that tells us how to get from point A to point B: Here’s what one ought to do if one wants to constrain inflation; Here’s what one ought do if one wants full employment; and so on. It tells us the correct means to reach desired goals. What it doesn’t do is tell us what our goals ought to be. That field—the one that tells us what we ought to desire—is ethics rather than economics. What Clair Brown is really arguing for is not a better economics, but a better ethics. She is suggesting a different set of human goals to aim at, rather than a different type of means to get there.

Second, there is nothing in Clair Brown’s ethics that is particularly or uniquely Buddhist.  Pope Francis could probably agree with most of the goals she emphasizes.  So could most secular humanists.  Her vision of the well-lived life is more traditionally Aristotelian than it is traditionally Buddhist. Classical Buddhism had little, if anything, to say about reducing economic inequality or preserving the planet.  Now it happens that many if not most Buddhist modernists would endorse a set of ethics that is in accord with secular humanist, liberal Protestant, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish, and Post-Vatican II Catholic ethics when it comes to issues of preserving the planet, reducing inequality, and fostering human flourishing. That’s because modern humanist ethics are in the air, up for grabs by all, and not because they’re deeply rooted in the Buddhist past. Now there are several traditional Buddhist themes that resonate deeply with modern humanist ethics, including the Buddhist emphases on lovingkindness, compassion, non-greed, non-harming, non-ego aggrandizement, interdependence, and saving all beings. That is the reason why Buddhist luminaries such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh espouse them.  These ideas are the common heritage of modernity and not uniquely Buddhist

Third, this book was written during the Obama presidency when it was still possible to dream the “liberal dream”—that with just a little more effort we could head in the right direction.  We are now plunged into a new Dark Age in which selfishness and greed are valued above all else by those in charge of the national government. We have pulled out of the Paris climate accord and are on the verge of ending our imperfect experiment with universal healthcare. In the despair of the moment, I’m reminded of these lines written by the philosopher Richard Rorty some three decades ago:

“I do not think that we liberals can now imagine a future of ‘human dignity, freedom and peace.’ That is, we cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future. We can picture various socioeconomic setups which would be preferable to the present one. But we have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds, and thus no clear idea of what to work for…. This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth, or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out. Sometimes things prove to be just as bad as they first looked.…This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation, the one that blocks all the liberal scenarios.” (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989, p. 181-182)

In the end, what Clair Brown fails to do is give us a road map that would tell us how to reorder American politics so that sensible economic proposals, such as the one she is making, can be given a chance. We can guess what some of those political changes would involve—an end to Citizen’s United, an end to gerrymandering, genuine election finance reform, and so on. But how is one to accomplish those things? Today, the kind of transvaluation of values that would be needed before meaningful political change could occur seems farther off than ever. That is what those of us on the “religious left” toil for with little hope and against heavy odds. It’s easy to think up solutions to most of our problems. The problem is, they never live to see the light of day.

To sum up, if you’re interested in suggestions for how to reorder our economic system so that businesses are more socially responsible, so that everyone is guaranteed a living wage, so that our economy is carbon neutral, so that the gap between rich and poor nations is reduced, and so that developing human potential and well-being are more important than growing economic productivity, then this is an excellent book.  If you, like me, happen to be a Buddhist modernist, you will find much that you like and agree with. I am one of those who happen to think our economy ought to be constrained by the emerging universalist humanist modernist ethics, which we as Buddhist modernists share with modernists of other faiths. The problem is, we still need a roadmap of how to draw those who view things differently into the conversation.  I suspect there are no shortcuts, that the road will be hard, that there will be many defeats along the way, and that there is no guarantee of either eventual success or planetary survival.

But try we must.

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Some Thoughts on the Buddhist Ethical Precepts


It might seem as if the Buddhist ethical precepts–the basic injunctions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misbehavior, and heedless intoxication–are relatively straightforward. You know: just don’t kill, steal, lie, screw around or get drunk. What could be clearer? But, alas, things are never so simple. As soon as we try putting the precepts into practice, we encounter difficulties in how to interpret them.

To begin with, there seem to be three different ways of viewing the precepts. The first is to interpret them as absolute rules—they’re what we mustn’t do if we’re to make progress along the path. Thanissaro Bhikkhu  exemplifies this approach when he writes, “the precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations.”

The second way is to view them as “training vehicles”: We follow them as best we can, taking notice of the consequences of both observing and violating them. As we do so, we gradually acquire an increasing faith in their value. This approach is exemplified in the story of the Quaker George Fox who, when William Penn asked him if he should continue to wear his ceremonial sword in contradiction to his Quaker pacifist beliefs, replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” After a while, Penn stopped wearing it. “I have taken thy advice,” he told Fox. “I wore it as long as I could.”

The third way is to view them from a non-dual perspective. Eihei Dogen does just that when he comments on the Zen Precept against indulging in anger, saying “Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.” While we may not fully grasp what Dogen means, one thing is for certain: we probably shouldn’t to take the precept too literally. A non-dual perspective can help us be less judgmental and more compassionate—neither wrongdoers nor sufferers are different from or separate from ourselves. On the other hand, a non-dual perspective can be misinterpreted to mean that since everything’s “empty,” there are neither perpetrators nor victims. This certainly isn’t what Dogen intended. A non-dual perspective requires a simultaneous awareness of both the non-reified interconnectedness-of-everything and the genuine suffering of and harm caused to real and specific individuals.

But let’s shift focus from considering general approaches to the precepts to considering their specific content. Let’s start by examining the Third Precept, the precept against sexual misconduct. While we’re all against sexual misconduct, the precept begs the question of how sexual misconduct is to be defined. What is it, and how can we recognize it when we see it?

Peter Harvey reviewed the way traditional Buddhist cultures define sexual misconduct in his An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). At different times in various traditional Buddhist cultures, masturbation, oral and anal sex, homosexuality, and overly frequent sex have all been designated as forms of misconduct. Many modern Buddhists tend to dismiss these traditionalist designations, replacing them with abstract Western principles relating to harm, consent and duties to third parties. They generally take a more benign view of sexual relations, so long as they occur between consenting parties and cause no harm.

Buddhist modernists make the assumption that traditional Thai, Tibetan or Japanese sexual ethics are really more Thai, Tibetan, or Japanese than Buddhist. They compare different traditional Buddhist cultures, observe the variations between them, and assign the particularities of these differences to the specific features of the local cultures. Once one decides that traditional Buddhist sexual ethics are no longer authoritative, however, what does one base a more modernist Buddhist sexual ethics on? What many modern Buddhists tend to do is to take pre-existing liberal secular ethics and import them wholesale into Buddhism. This may, in fact, not be all that different from the way that traditional cultures arrived at their designations of  misconduct. The Pali Nikayas have nothing to say about homosexuality or oral sex, and traditional Asian societies probably just took their pre-existing cultural taboos and incorporated them into their understanding of the Third Precept in the same way that modernists are now doing.

To be fully justified in calling these new ethics “Buddhist,” however, one needs to check them for consistency against one’s core Buddhist commitments. For example, one can reason that designating homosexuality as “misconduct” is non-compassionate and causes suffering; that homosexual acts are, in and of themselves, no more harmful than heterosexual acts; and that there is social benefit to be gained from giving one’s imprimatur to loving relationships of all kinds.

While this argument seems about right, it raises questions about other kinds of sexual behaviors that may also require reconsideration. What does one think about pornography, plural marriage, or solitary fetishes? What about sex in exchange for money between consenting adults? The modernist Buddhist criteria for discerning which sexual behaviors promote and which degrade human well-being require further elaboration. In the process of that elaboration we may discover instances in which modernist Buddhist ethics are in accord with liberal humanist ethics, but also instances in which they diverge.

Let’s take another example: the First Precept against killing. At first glance, it seems less problematic than the precept against sexual misconduct. We all know what killing is, and we’re against it. Against it, that is, until we discover that termites are eating away the foundations of our house or we come down with streptococcal pneumonia. Then we’re all for calling in the exterminator or taking antibiotics. I’m not aware of any Buddhist authorities who forbid the use of antibiotics even though antibiotics necessarily involve killing living beings—an issue which the Buddha, living long before Pasteur, could not have anticipated. If we believe the precept permits using antibiotics, then we can no longer interpret the precept as categorical. It no longer forbids all intentional killing, but only most types of intentional killing under most circumstances.

The problem is: which types does it permit, and under which circumstances? Does the precept just mean something like “try living with as little killing as possible and see how it goes?” Should we draw distinctions between killing creatures with lesser degrees of sentience and creatures with greater degrees of sentience? This is a question that could keep Buddhist ethicists quibbling for centuries.

Let’s set the question of sentience aside, however, and limit ourselves to addressing the killing of other human beings. For many years I lived in the small town of Cheshire, Connecticut. In 2007, two ex-convicts invaded a family home in Cheshire and proceeded to rape, strangle and set a mother’s body on fire. They also raped her eleven-year-old daughter, tied her and her seventeen-year old sister to their beds, doused their bodies with gasoline, and set their rooms ablaze. As you can see, I have picked the most horrible case in point that I can imagine.

Here is my hypothetical question: If that was your family and you stumbled upon the crime in progress, what would you do? Do you have even the slightest doubt that you’d use any force necessary to protect your family? Do you believe that Buddhist ethics ought to require you to allow the crime to proceed if you couldn’t stop it through less-than-lethal means?

I suspect that most of us agree that there are extreme circumstances under which resorting to violence might be permitted. Where we might disagree is on the specific circumstances under which it may be permissible. Categorically saying “killing is never permitted” doesn’t accord with what most of us truly believe. We see the ideal of never killing as aspirational, but we wouldn’t feel necessarily bound by it under certain circumstances.

Let’s take this one step further. Traditional interpretations of the First Precept also forbid abortion, assisted suicide, and the euthanasia of suffering pets. According to the Vinaya, for example, a monk who intentionally destroys an embryo is to be permanently expelled from the sangha. This traditional view is at odds with liberal humanist ethics, and this creates a certain degree of dissonance for Buddhist modernists. How do modernists, who may support euthanasia or abortion under certain circumstances, resolve this dissonance? One way is by invoking the principle of upaya or “skillful means” and asserting that when one’s goal is the compassionate ending of suffering, killing may be permitted.

There are traditional Buddhist stories that support this interpretation. The Upaya Kausalya Sutra contains the fable of a bodhisattva sea captain whose ship is carrying five hundred merchants who are on the path to becoming bodhisattvas. There’s a robber aboard who intends to rob and kill the merchants. The captain rules out warning the merchants because they might be tempted to throw the robber overboard, and the resulting bad karma would delay their becoming bodhisattvas. This would be very bad because, more than anything else, the world needs bodhisattvas. Instead, the captain kills the robber himself, accepting a consequent rebirth in hell for “a hundred thousand eons,” but helping all beings in the process. Along the same lines, there’s an historical account of Pelgyi Dorje, the ninth-century Buddhist monk who assassinated Langdarma, the reviled Tibetan king who put Tibetan Buddhadharma in jeopardy.

These tales suggest that, under certain circumstances, the motivation of compassion can trump the prohibition against killing. But we can also readily see what a slippery slope this is. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe notes, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.” Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot were all idealists who did unconscionable things in order to allegedly remake the world for the better.  As the saying goes, “If you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.” Once we allow for the possibility of “compassionate” killing as “skillful means,” we’re stalked by the ghosts of the reign of terror, the gulag, and the holocaust. The doctrine of skillful means hopes to elide this difficulty by emphasizing compassion, but the notion of compassion isn’t an entirely unproblematic one.

For example, one might rightly ask whether compassion can ever be excessive. Are there any limits, for example, on the degree of generosity that bodhisattvas (and by bodhisattvas I mean practitioners who’ve taken their Bodhisattva vows–not celestial bodhisattvas) ought to express? The Jatakas are folk tales that are intended to teach us moral lessons, much like Aesop’s Fables. There’s one particular tale–the tale of Vessantara, one of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations–that makes me cringe. Out of his boundless compassion for a greedy beggar, Vessantara gives his children away to be the beggar’s slaves. The moral seems to be that a bodhisattva is attached to nothing, willingly giving everything—even his children—away.

Consider the implications of unlimited compassion in your own life. Imagine that you have $20 to spare and learn of a charity helping starving children. You gladly donate the $20 and feel the positive aftereffects of generosity. You then realize that you could donate even more money. You don’t really need to read a newspaper every day or watch television. You promptly cancel your subscription and sell your TV, donating the proceeds to charity. Next, you realize you don’t really need to live in a modest house. You sell your home, donate those proceeds, and rent a single room. And so it goes. Do you really need more than a single change of clothes? Do you really need two kidneys? At what point have you given enough? There are always more children to save.

The West makes a distinction between ethical acts that are required and those that are merely “supererogatory,” that is, are admirable but not required. There seems to be no such distinction in Buddhism, and we may ask if Buddhism holds us to an impossible standard. Buddhists sometimes address this question of an “impossible standard” by suggesting that we owe compassion to ourselves as well—that we ought to include ourselves on the list of sentient beings to whom we owe compassion. But, this formulation doesn’t really resolve the question of where to properly draw the line. Vessantara, after all, showed no such compassion, either to himself or his children. Neither did Prince Sattva, in another Jataka tale, who threw himself from a cliff so that hungry tiger cubs could feed on his body.

As Buddhists, we probably agree it would be better if everyone valued compassion highly and if everyone tried extending his or her compassion to an ever-wider range of recipients under an ever-broader set of circumstances. We probably also agree that learning generosity means sensing our current limits and pushing against them, exploring the edges of what’s possible. Our most common problem isn’t extreme altruism at all, but excessive complacency and self-satisfaction. We all need to open our hearts wider than they are. Still, the question remains: ought there to be limits to our generosity, and if so, what are the guidelines for those limits?

A second problem related to compassion is whether we fully endorse the idea of compassion without attachment or preference. While there’s real value in a universal benevolence directed towards everyone without exception, if we see two children drowning, one our own and one a stranger’s–and if we can only save one–is it reasonable to think that we show no preference towards saving our own? There’s something deeply unsettling about the idea of complete and radical equanimity. While we may agree that we owe a duty of care to all sentient beings—and perhaps even to all plants and inanimate objects—it seems inhuman to think we ought to strip ourselves of all attachments to family and friends and feel exactly the same way towards everyone. In classical Chinese philosophy, this is the criticism that the third century Confucian scholar Xunzi leveled against the Mohists who argued on behalf of jian’ai or “impartial concern.” It seems as if the Buddhist ideal of complete equanimity and detachment reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, both in terms of how it is and how it ought to be. In following Buddhism, most of us want to become the best human beings we can possibly be. We don’t want to lose our humanity in the process.

We could have picked any of the precepts and discovered exactly the same sorts of questions. How literally are we to interpret them? Does Buddhism make extreme demands that push us towards a semi-divine apotheosis, or is it a middle way for deepening and enriching our humanity? To what extent are modernist Western values compatible with traditional Buddhist teachings? As we strip away at what seems inessential to Buddhist practice, what do we risk losing in the process? May we find ourselves rejecting ideas that –precisely because they are discordant with modernity—have the capacity to serve as invaluable correctives to the one-sidedness of our present lives?

What’s clear is that the meaning of the precepts isn’t simply a “given.” Every practitioner must read them anew and breathe new life into them. The ethical life isn’t a matter of following rules, but of committing to a particular line of inquiry–of asking which choices exemplify the skillful, the right, and the good in each moment.

Despite their interpretive difficulties, the precepts are the living heart of Buddhism. They help us to enact and refine our understanding of our interrelationship with all beings, and serve as antidotes to the fragmented individualism, self-centeredness, and acquisitiveness that are the scourges of contemporary life. They point towards the engaged, compassionate regard for others that is the hallmark of the Enlightened Way.




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Buddhism and Moral Coherence

MetaethicsWhat do we mean when we say that something is morally wrong? Theists have no problem answering this question: morally wrong acts are those that contravene God’s intentions for how human beings ought to behave. Non-theists, however, are stuck with more of a problem in defining what “morality” and “ethics” (I’m using the terms interchangeably) are. Our conceptions of morality need grounding in some larger conception of what life is all about, and it’s here where contemporary non-theistic attempts to ground ethics are most likely to founder.

Some post-Enlightenment Western philosophers (e.g., David Hume) have argued that statements about morality are really just statements of personal sentiment and preference rather than statements of fact. In other words, the statement that “murder is wrong” means nothing over and above the statement “Ugh! Murder. Don’t do it.” This belief that moral statements are merely sentiments is called “emotivism.”

Other post-Enlightenment Western philosophers, seeking a more solid ground than emotivism in which to root moral statements, have successively tried — and failed— to ground morality in either rationality (Emmanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”) or utility (Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”). Contemporary Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, however, that all philosophical efforts to ground morality in something other than sentiment are doomed by our modern commitments to a secular, scientific view of Nature which excludes meaning, purpose, or telos from its materialist description of the way things are.

MacIntyre argues that David Hume’s famous dictum that there’s no way to logically get to “ought” statements from “is” statements is, strictly speaking, not true. For example, if a watch always tells the right time we can reasonably conclude that the watch is a “good” watch. We can conclude that the watch is “good” because the very definition of a watch tells us what a watch is for. Watches, by definition, have a purpose; they are “for” something. Things that conform to and fulfill their aim can be said to possess “goodness” in a way that’s based on more than sentiment.

Classical philosophers like Aristotle, and medieval philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition like Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that human beings, too, had a purpose. For Aristotle it was a telos or “final end” intended by Nature — man’s telos was fulfilled by developing one’s intellectual and moral virtues so as to achieve a state of eudaemonia, often translated as “human flourishing” or “well-being.”  For St. Thomas, man’s purpose was to live in accordance with God’s intentions for who we are to be and with Natural Law as established by God. Modern science, however, doesn’t countenance the belief that Nature possesses final ends, purposes or intentions. Within the confines of science’s world-view, moral statements are left hanging in air, ungrounded in anything that might make them intelligible. Moral statements, to mean anything, must have some standard that lies beyond mere sentiment and preference because different human beings believe and express a diversity of conflicting sentiments and preferences, and this diversity of sentiments precludes any rational means of resolving moral disputes. Without an external standard, Hitler’s moral judgments are no better or worse than your own.

Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the consensus scientific account of how we came to be cannot account for three essential human qualities: consciousness, reason, and value. He suggests that only some combination of panpsychism and telos can account for how we humans got to be the way we are. He believes that consciousness must originate in some form of panpsychism, and that, additionally, something about the laws of Nature must not only permit, but also encourage the timely emergence of increased complexity, consciousness, reason, and value. Nagel believes that Nature has a story to tell, and that it’s something like “the universe is waking up.” Nagel’s controversial book, Mind and Cosmos (2012), was widely criticized, but it’s really a modest exploration of the kinds of problems the current scientific paradigm is incapable of successfully resolving.

As humans we’re, first and foremost, conscious beings, and our consciousness is riddled through-and-through with intentions, purposes, motives, and reasons; the kinds of things that Nature is allegedly devoid of. Value is an immediate property of consciousness. We immediately perceive a sunset as “beautiful”; we don’t need to think it over. We immediately understand that the statement “there’s no unicorn in this room” is “true”; we don’t need to reason it out. We immediately know that rescuing a child who’s fallen into a well is “right”; we don’t need to morally deliberate over it. While reason shapes and extends our immediate intuitions about beauty, truth, and goodness, and while we seek logical grounds for resolving value conflicts, our initial perception of value is inherent in consciousness itself. It’s a phenomenological given. That’s not to say that morality existed prior to human consciousness. No one accuses lions of immorality for killing their prey. But once human consciousness arises, beauty, truth, and goodness come along for the ride. While our specific apprehensions of what’s beautiful, true, or good change from culture to culture, era to era, and across one’s lifespan, the value realms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness universally persist, in much the same way that languages may vary from culture to culture and era to era, but Language itself is a human universal.

Evolutionary biologists wrongly believe they’ve a good candidate for a mechanism that can account for the emergence of morality. They point out that social animals like ants, wasps, and humans are among the most successful species on our planet. They say that sociality conveys evolutionary advantages that allow Nature to pay a premium for the modulation of in-group competition and the enhancement of in-group altruism. As compelling as this argument is, it can only explain why acts of cooperation and mutual aid are “useful,” but never why they’re “right.” When we say that something is “right,” we intend something different than saying that it’s beneficial for survival. We rescue that child drowning in the well, not because we hope others will do the same if it were our child, but because it’s the “right” thing to do. Moral underpinnings that emphasize reproductive fitness take us only so far. We need an explanation for “rightness” that goes beyond social and biological utility. For example, the history of our own culture suggests an evolution in moral values marked by a gradual process of inclusion of “others” onto the list of those to whom moral duties are owed, e.g., people of color, women, infidels, homosexuals, transexuals, unborn children, cetaceans, primates, elephants, endangered species, factory farmed animals, and so on. This gradual extension involves the spread of a standard of rightness that’s utterly divorced from in-group fidelity and reproductive fitness. It marks, in fact, the slow abolition of the very distinction between in-groups and out-groups, a distinction that’s necessary for any successful genetic account of evolution. While the spread of this evolving morality may eventually save us from extinction by nuclear holocaust, climate change, or some other unforeseen Anthropocene disaster, its salutary effect for our future can’t account for its present-day emergence. Evolution doesn’t permit the future to influence the present or the past.

But if science as currently construed is incapable of giving a coherent account of the-way-things-are that includes what we know best and most intimately, namely consciousness, purpose, value, and meaning, and if we’re no longer capable of or willing to believe in a Deity, what options are left to us? I want to address the question of whether Buddhism can provide a framework in which moral statements can again make coherent sense. In doing this, I’m not claiming any superiority or exclusivity for a Buddhist solution, only exploring whether a Buddhist solution is possible, and if so, what if might be. In a series of provocative essays, David Chapman has recently argued that mainstream Western Buddhism is incapable of providing any such framework. I think he’s wrong, and I see this essay as part of an ongoing conversation about whether and how Western Buddhism can, in fact, address ethical issues.

There are a number of possible strands within the Buddhist tradition which might allow for such a solution. The first is the classical Buddhist idea of karma as the determinant of the realms of rebirth and of sila (ethics) as part of the triumvirate of sets of practices (along with meditation and wisdom) leading to liberation and enlightenment. This is an idea that is already present in the earliest known strata of Buddhist thinking as preserved in the Pali canon. In this scheme, moral behavior plays a role in both determining more desirable rebirths and, ultimately, in attaining enlightenment, or freedom from future rebirths. This scheme answers the question of “why behave morally?” with an appeal to freedom from suffering in this and future lives, and to a final release from any and all suffering that is our natural ultimate destination if only we knew it. Actions are moral if they create good karma and lead us towards these ends. This formulation is somewhat problematic for moderns who no longer believe in rebirth and freedom from rebirth, but it retains some attenuated force as a kind of Aristotelian path towards eudaemonia, if not to complete and perfect enlightenment.

There are two other strands of Buddhist thought, however, that suggest a different sort of Buddhist solution to the issue of contemporary moral incoherence. The primary Buddhist elements in this second framework are the twin notions of Dependent Origination and the Bodhisattva Path. These are notions that only reach their fullest expression in historically later strands of Buddhist thought within the Indian and Chinese Mahayana traditions.

Dependent Origination, especially in its Madhyamaka (i.e., “emptiness”) and Huayan (i.e., “interpenetration”) formulations, emphasizes the process-relational nature of reality. All “things” (I use the word “things” advisably because there are no “things” in this model, only seamlessly interrelated processes, mutually affecting and transforming each other over time) immediately and intimately co-participate in the emergence of each moment of reality. Dependent Origination implies that the human qualities of consciousness, reason, and value are inherent in Nature, the outgrowth of the integral functioning of the universe, and not simply ghostly flukes residing somewhere between our ears and behind our eyes.

The Bodhisattva Path offers a telos, a final end, for us and Nature: we’re here to help all beings awaken, and because of Dependent Origination, the whole of reality supports us in this endeavor. It’s not just our endeavor, it’s the Universe’s. As the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist monk Eihei Dogen might say, “earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles” co-participate in our enlightenment, our enlightenment transforming space and time as we co-awaken with the whole of reality. Within this non-dual framework, our purpose is to cultivate wisdom and compassion. It’s this purpose that provides an external standard for judging the morality of actions: Actions that help ourselves and others to actualize wisdom (i.e., the realization of emptiness, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self, and non-duality) and facilitate mindful awareness, non-harming, compassion and non-grasping are moral. Actions that detract from it are immoral. We instantiate this moral process in all of our activities, e.g., in meditating, raising and educating children, dealing wisely and compassionately with others, being mindful in speech and behavior, exercising restraint in our desires, and so on. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality achieves coherence through embeddedness within a cultural matrix of supporting practices, narratives and traditions. Buddhism happily provides all three.

Unfortunately, these general Buddhist principles fail to provide a means for resolving conflicts between specific moral intuitions. What if, in saving the baby drowning in the well, we’ve saved the baby Hitler? What if a compassionate action helps one person but disadvantages another? What if an act of mercy towards a perpetrator leaves an injured party aggrieved? What if saving an endangered species creates economic hardship for people living nearby? The answers to these sorts of questions often entail a resort to some kind of moral calculus, as if all goods could be measured against each other on the same scale, when in fact they are, often enough, incommensurable. While in Buddhism compassion trumps everything else, the primacy of compassion can’t resolve the question of “compassion towards whom?” when people are differentially affected by actions. All philosophies face this problem of what to do when “goods” conflict. Sometimes we just have to face the tragic implications of how life is structured with something approaching resignation or grace. Buddhist principles can anchor our ethics in a telos, but in and of themselves, can provide only minimal guidance on how to settle these disputes. Since Buddhism never developed its own tradition of critical ethical investigation, it may sometimes have to allow non-Buddhist philosophers to come to its aid with their ungainly mix of consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics to help think things through. Deciding what’s right is often complicated, but that doesn’t have to mean that the notion of “right” itself needs be incoherent.

The problem with this second Buddhist solution is that one has to buy it’s premises for it to work. Not everyone can do so. Materialists, for example, could never buy into the premise that we have a purpose, or that our purpose is part of a larger narrative of everything “waking up.” As a result, Western Buddhism has secular adherents who try to fit significant portions of the Buddhist project into a materialist frame. For secularists, the end point of Buddhist practice is again some version of eudaemonia, and the active Buddhist ingredients contributing to this eudaemonia include elements of mindfulness and compassion. Their answer to the question, “why be mindful or compassionate?” needs be a utilitarian one: it contributes to one’s feeling happier and facilitates one’s capacity to make others feel happier. This probably provides sufficient reason for many people to engage in secularized Buddhist practice; after all, who wouldn’t want to be happier? What it doesn’t provide is a reason why the Buddhist path to happiness is superior to everyone just taking some Valium. The secular response to this requires a theory of why some types of happiness are superior to others, and this requires a theory of what human beings are for, and how they’re supposed to be—just the sort of thing that secularists tend to shy away from.  For example, in his book Flourish (2011), positive psychologist Martin Seligman posits a model of eudaemonia that includes the five factors of positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, relationship, and meaning. It’s not a bad list, but it begs the question of “why these factors and not others?” since it lacks a larger theory of what human beings are for. Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than oneself.” This definition suggests that we’re all free to find our own meaning — that one person’s meaning is as good as another’s, whether one is a Bodhisattva, a Fascist, or an acolyte of the Islamic State. Whatever makes you feel you’re part of some larger story. You can see the inherent problem: we’re left with no way to establish a hierarchy of goodness within the universe of possible meanings. Secularized accounts can never adequately address questions of goodness without grounding the concept in some larger theory of what our lives are all about. That means acknowledging that human lives are, in fact, about something.

Everyone, knowingly or not, has a metaphysics. A materialist metaphysics can’t account for consciousness and value, and leaves our lives devoid of meaning. Materialism suggests our lives aren’t about anything — they’re just accidental byproducts of physical processes. Materialism can’t be empirically proven or disproven, any more than pan-psychism or teleology can. It’s just more or less useful, and depending on your point of view, more or less credible.

I think the Buddhist story has something special to contribute to our survival as a species. It clarifies our deep interrelationship with all beings and with Nature, clarifies our moral duties towards all beings without exception, and encourages us to move beyond the fragmented individualism and consumer mentality that are the twin scourges of modern Western society. As our fragile species lurches toward the possibility of extinction, we moderns are increasingly the inheritors of a conflicting set of historical grievances and irreconcilable world-views, while simultaneously the possessors of technologies that extend our ability to inflict exponentially greater harm on each other. Our current moral incoherence will not let us muddle through. Something very much like Buddhist ethics seems increasingly urgent if we’re going to make sufficient progress in resolving these conflicts to survive as a species. The Buddhist solution, however, requires us to think differently about Nature and our place in it. It also requires us to assume something very much like the Bodhisattva ideal — the belief that there’s a more enlightened way to be than the way-we-are-now (however we construe “Enlightenment”) and that an engaged, compassionate regard for others is an indispensable component of that enlightened way.

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Buddhism and the People’s Climate March


My sangha, White Plains Zen, is one of over 1,000 organizations co-sponsoring the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. March organizers are hoping to assemble over 100,000 concerned citizens in support of global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The timing of the march is intended to coincide with the start of the United Nations Climate Summit two days later. The Summit is part of the process of developing a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expired in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol— signed by 191 countries, but never ratified by the U.S. Senate — set binding targets for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At this year’s summit, world leaders are supposed to announce new actions their countries will undertake to mitigate climate change. As the U.S. Senate is incapable of acting due to the crippling influences of fossil fuel industry money, opposition from coal and oil producing states, and the oddball ideology of climate science denial, President Obama wants any new international agreement to fall short of a legally-binding treaty which would require Senate approval. Because of American legislative branch paralysis, the executive branch has had to go it alone through its EPA regulatory authority to reduce automobile and power plant emissions — a process that has, so far, met with judicial acquiescence.

Significant climate change is already upon us. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now over 397 parts per million — well above the 350 parts per million Dr. James Hanson called the upper limit for preserving the planet. Temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns shifting in ways that affect watersheds and agriculture. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, glaciers and ice sheets melting, and desertification spreading. One quarter of the Earth’s animal species may be headed for extinction by 2050. U.S. temperatures will rise between 4-11 degrees over the next century. Rates of very heavy precipitation in the Northeast U.S. have already increased 67% since 1978.  Rare weather events like Superstorm Sandy are becoming more common. The Pentagon is planning for increased regional warfare due to increased competition over scarce water resources. If we don’t find a way to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, these effects will only get worse.



Buddhism has a role to play in this world-wide emergency. As Buddhists, we recognize the reality of impermanence, the fragile interdependence of the web of life, and the interplay of causes and conditions. We recognize the importance of seeing things as they are, and our responsibility for the care of all beings. We understand karma — the ripple effects of our actions on others and ourselves throughout space and time. All of our understanding as Buddhists impels us to act with compassion and responsibility. There are things we can do on an individual level to mitigate risk — weatherizing our homes, installing solar panels on our roofs, swapping out incandescent light-bulbs for LEDs, buying more fuel efficient vehicles. But those individual actions, useful as they are, are not enough to make a real difference. We must also work together collectively to change the way we produce and consume energy on a regional, national, and international scale.

It may already be too late. Even if the industrialized nations step up to the plate, the rising nations may not. But we have to start somewhere. Every journey starts where we are. Every successful international movement — consider the abolitionists and suffragettes — starts with individual acts of conscience and a dedicated minority that persists until it prevails. Sitting back and doing nothing because someone else may fail to act is, on the other hand, a guarantee for planetary disaster.

So our little sangha — White Plains Zen — will be marching alongside other Buddhist groups from the New York area — groups like the Brooklyn Zen Center, the Buddhist Council of New York, Buddhist Global Relief, the Downtown Meditation Community, The Interdependence Project, New York Insight, the Rock Blossom Sangha, the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, the Shantideva Meditation Center, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the Village Zendo, and Zen Center of New York City, and alongside representatives from other faith communities.

You can find out more information here.

If you’re in the New York area, please join us.

After all, we’re all in the same boat —  fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

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How Many Divisions Does The Buddha Have?



In 416 B.C. — while the Buddha was alive and teaching the Dharma according to some sources — the Athenian navy launched an expedition against the island of Melos in the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War.  Before commencing their attack, the Athenians met with the Melians to try to arrange the terms of their surrender. The Melians, convinced of the justness of their cause, refused.  The Athenians then attacked with overwhelming force, slaying all their men of military age, and enslaving their women and children.

Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, reports (or rather imagines) a dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in which the Athenians argued, essentially, that might — along with the rational calculation of self-interest — made right. The Athenians rejected the argument that the gods would support Melos because of the justness of it’s cause:

 “When you speak of the favor of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves…. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”

This has always been the essence of realpolitik. Stalin made virtually the same argument, only pithier, when he responded to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval’s suggestion that he should encourage Catholicism to propitiate the Pope by saying, “The Pope?  How many divisions does he have?”

The Athenian claim that it’s the strong’s destiny to rule over the weak, that realpolitik, red in tooth and claw, is the law of nature, is reflected in some histories and biographies I’ve been reading these last few months.  In After Tamerlane, historian John Darwin recounts the clashes from 1400 A.D. to the present between the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Ottoman, Mongol, and European empires and peoples. In Blood and Thunder, biographer Hampton Sides recounts Kit Carson’s role in fulfilling the United States’s “manifest destiny” as it expanded across the North American continent from sea to shining sea, wresting the western territories from Mexico’s grasp, and conquering the Navajo, Comanche, and Apache peoples. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, biographer Edmund Morris explores the expansion of American might and power into the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines, and into Central America as Roosevelt seeks to build the Panama Canal. These books point to the universality of aspirations to empire, and the inevitability of conflict between nations and the strong prevailing over the weak.  History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.




The claim that might makes right, first articulated by the Greek Sophists, was rejected by Plato in The Republic, in which he made the metaphysical argument that “justice” existed as an ideal form apart from the minds of men or the customs of nations.  The Buddha also rejected the claim that might made right with his own metaphysics of karma, while the Abrahamic religions rejected the claim by appealing to divine law.  All argued for a “higher” morality which constrained the actions of the mighty.  Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions both posit behavioral costs for immoral behavior, ones they project into either an afterlife or some future rebirth — but in our daily lives we see malefactors prosper and saints suffer, while convincing proof of reward or punishment in an afterlife is never quite forthcoming.

Fortunately, Buddhism also makes more subtle arguments:

First, that morality leads to improved character and well-being, and ultimately to enlightenment.  Moral behavior makes us feel better — and more importantly — makes us be better in ways that both we and others value and recognize.  As much as our popular culture celebrates an unending stream of media mediocrities, it also valorizes icons who stand above and beyond the common stream – the bodhisattvas of every faith — Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Paul Farmer, the Dalai Lama.  We recognize that there is such a thing as a life well-lived that is meaningfully superior to the pursuit of power and pleasure.

Second, while the immoral exercise of power may result in short term gains, it ultimately creates the conditions for extended conflict and unintended consequences, a naturalized interpretation of karma. Thus the 1953 CIA overthrow of the Iranian government prepared the stage for the1979 Iranian Revolution, and it’s support of an international brigade of Islamist volunteers against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was the precondition for the emergence of Al-Queda. One reaps what one sows.

Third, it seems self-evident that if all parties abided by (almost) universally acknowledged conceptions of humanity, fairness and justice, the world would be a better place for everyone. The problem with this argument is that everyone must simultaneously agree to follow the rules together, or else it doesn’t work.  This can only occur when conditions arise that sufficiently convince the strong it’s in their own best long-term interest to constrain themselves.

There have been past historical eras in which the great powers have been more or less evenly balanced, when no one power has had the ability to dictate its wishes to another without incurring unacceptable costs.  During those eras, powers tested and probed each other, competing for advantage and dominance in limited spheres, but refraining from actions which would have shattered the overall peace. The European powers did this in the near-century between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War.

Our current age is one in which the powers of the United States, Europe, China, and Russia are compelled to recognize domains of interdependence as well as arenas of competition and limited conflict. The existence of weapons of mass destruction has made a convincing case for great power compromise and, to a limited extent, cooperation. Ours is an historical era in which progress towards establishing institutional frameworks for resolving conflict is possible; institutions that operate within an emerging conception of International Law; institutions and rules that are binding on the strong as well as the weak, and dependent on collective action. These incipient rules and institutions are still weak and emerging, and their continued development depends on a growing recognition that we are not the centers of the universe, and that our actions must be grounded in interdependence, fairness, and a larger conception of humanity.  In other words, ideas that are central to the Dharma.

In their dialogue with the Athenians, the Melians argued that doing what is just was also in the Athenian’s long-term interest:

 “We speak as we are obliged — since you enjoin us to [speak not of] right alone and talk only [in terms of] of interest — that you should not destroy what is our common protection — the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right…  And you are as much interested in this as any…

Melos was warning Athens that the day might come when the shoe was on the other foot, and they might have to plead their own case against a stronger foe.

What goes around comes around.

The Athenians shrugged this off:

 “The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us…. This… is a risk that we are content to take…”

They should have been paying more attention.  The Athenian Empire came to an end a mere thirteen years later when they suffered a final defeat at the hands of the Spartans.  As it turned out, the Spartans dealt far more leniently with the Athenians than the Athenians had with the poor Melians.  In their particular case, what went around only partially came around — luckily for us, or we would never have been able to read Plato.

The dialectic between understanding human conflict through the lens of power alone — as a natural force, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that needs be accepted for what it is — and understanding it in moral terms, is an unending one.  It’s played out today in realist-versus-idealist prescriptions for American foreign policy.  It’s also played out in philosophical debates over the status of morality within the natural science framework– a world-view anchored in materialism and flirting, more than occasionally, with reductionism.

Some may look at Buddhist prescriptions for ethical conduct the way Stalin viewed the Pope:

 The Buddha?  How many divisions does he have?

Others may see the Dharma as offering a rational prescription for survival in an era of growing interdependence and unparalleled destructive power.  My suspicion is that, excepting the small percentage of the population that constitute true psychopaths, everyone believes in his or her heart of hearts that morality trumps might, that the strong may have their way and even enjoy, at least for a while, the fruits of their victory — but that even if the bar of justice is toothless, they are still ultimately held accountable in the consciences of men and women.

What strength does the small, defenseless voice of conscience have in the face of overwhelming power?  Not much. The Melians would surely have done better to surrender to the Athenians. Relying on being in the right for one’s physical safety is never a good idea.

But over time we’ve seen the gradual emancipation of slaves, the granting of the franchise to women, the end of European colonialism, the fall of fascist and communist totalitarianism, the abolition of public hangings, the end of apartheid. It’s almost as if, as Tolstoy wrote in his Christian parable, “God sees the truth but acts slowly.”

Stalin is dead.

There’s a new pope in Rome.

Social evolution occurs, but only over time, with the slow persistent effort of people of conscience across generations, like water slowly eroding rock.

Athens has come and gone, but the Dharma remains, timeless, calling us to our higher selves (or non-selves) and to the service of all beings

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Faith and Service

I represented Buddhism at an interfaith dialogue on Faith and Service at the University of Connecticut earlier this month.  The event was an opportunity to think through the role service plays in Buddhism — and how it might be different from the role of service in other faiths.

One obvious difference is the role of duty, obligation, and commandment in other religions.  In Judaism, “charitable giving” and “not standing idly by when someone is endangered” are two of six hundred-and-thirteen mitzvot, commandments from God.  In Hinduism, Swami Nirliptananda writes:

“Interdependence is when each of us fulfills our duties as a father, a mother, a daughter, a son, and so on, as a part of society….  When we perform duties with the attitude of not thinking of any selfish rewards, but as an obligation, as a contribution to life — that spirit will develop an inner detachment.”

In Confucianism, rulers and ruled, parents and children, spouses, siblings, and friends are linked together by a web of mutual duties and obligations in order to promote social harmony.

In Christianity, ethics are based on the Bible as an infalible source of revelation, on believers’ personal relationships with Christ, and on human understanding through reason of God’s Eternal Law.

In Islam, ethics are based on the Qur’an as an infalible source of revelation, and believers have a duty to submit to God’s will.

In comparison, Buddhism seems relatively free of deontological rules that stress duty and obligation.  The Five Lay Precepts, for example, are not divine commandments, but commitments freely undertaken for the sake of progress on the path and as fields of investigation.  One may also chose to commit to the Vinaya rules or take Bodhisattva vows or tantric oaths as part of one’s path. Those commitments are “skillful” and “wholesome,” but are only obligatory after one has voluntarily assumed them.  Buddhism has no Deity who ordains the rules we ought to follow or punishes us for failure to follow them.

In Theravada Buddhism one may withdraw to the forest and meditate and, as long as one acts harmlessly towards others, one can reach nibbanaArhats abstain from causing harm and are filled (one imagines!) with benevolent and compassionate mind states — but there seems to be no obligation for Arhats to actually do something to relieve the suffering of others or change the systemic social, political, and economic causes of suffering.

Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, has a Bodhisattva vow to “save all beings.” While some might interpret “saving beings” narrowly to mean “bringing beings to an enlightened state,” others might interpret it more broadly to include all compassionate acts to relieve suffering.  Shantideva certainly interpreted it that way when he wrote:

May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.

May a rain of food and drink descend
To clear away the pain of thirst and hunger
And during the aeon of famine
May I myself change into food and drink.

May I become an inexhaustible treasure
For those who are poor and destitute;
May I turn into all things they could need
And may these be placed close beside them….

May I be protector for those without one,
A guide for all travelers on the way;
May I be a bridge, a boat and a ship
For all who wish to cross the water.

May I be an island for those who seek one,
And a lamp for those desiring light,
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest
And a slave for all who want a slave.
(Bodhisattvacharyavatara, Stephen Batchelor, trans.)

In Buddhism, compassion is both an effect and a cause.  It’s an “effect” because the more clearly we see the reality of interbeing and the more we free ourselves from the power of  avarice and aversion, the more naturally and spontaneously compassion arises in response to suffering.  In addition, the more we free ourselves from delusion, the greater awareness we have of the suffering of others.  But it’s a “cause” as well because the more we practice acts of compassion, the more we become aware of the feelings of well-being and the beneficial states of affairs that flow as consequences.  Compassionate acts are recursive: they initiate positive feedback loops that reinforce their reoccurrence.

Compassion has many faces — giving loved ones our time and attention, teaching the Dharma, donating to charity, volunteering in civic organizations, working in soup kitchens, caring for the sick, and working to change the political, economic, and social conditions that give rise to suffering.  The “right way” will be different for each of us, depending on the situations we find ourselves in, our unique talents and dispositions, and our stage of life.

Acts of service are natural expressions of awakening that spring from our perception of what’s needed and our aspiration to reduce suffering.  There are no hard-and-fast rules about how much service is enough or what’s the proper balance between giving and self-care.  Instead, there is moment-to-moment living with an open question: “What’s possible right now?”  We bring all our wisdom and compassion to each moment — and live at the shifting edge of possibility.  We are responsible for all of our choices, and the most meaningful choices are ones that express care and concern for whatever falls into the small circles of our lives.



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“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.

Rehabilitating Niceness

David Chapman has a post on his website challenging Buddhist “niceness.”  He wrote that “niceness does not define Buddhism, or have anything much to do with it.”   He sees the emphasis on niceness in Western Buddhism as a consequence of the 1960’s Hippie movement.  In his version of history, the Hippie rebellion against 1950’s conformity left a vacuum “opening the door to a nihilistic void of dead-end drug use or mindless rage and rebellion” that they filled with “Buddhist ethics.”  But since Buddhism didn’t have a unified theory of ethics, and since aspects of traditionalist Buddhist ethics reflected conservative values, Western Buddhism swapped traditional Buddhist ethics with “nice liberal ethics.”  In the end, Chapman says, Western Buddhist ethics resemble Universal Unitarian values more than Asian Buddhist ones — Western Buddhist ethics are really an amalgam of political correctness, liberal Christianity, socialist impulses, and psychotherapeutic values.  Western Buddhists promulgate “a morality of good intentions, harmonious behavior, and inoffensiveness” when they should be striving for Enlightenment instead.  Chapman doesn’t like niceness.  In fact, as far as he’s concerned, “niceness sucks.”

I derived my own commitment to “niceness” from the teachings of parents and teachers, from the Jewish tradition of menschlichkeit, from my respect for public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and from a genetic endowment that inclined me in a non-aggressive direction (mild temperament, small stature).  Later influences fit David Chapman’s bill — sixties Hippie (check) political liberal (check), psychotherapeutic values (check).  O.K.!  So, I admit it!  I brought my liberal Western values and ethical principles with me to Buddhism.  I think, however, they are concordant with the core of Buddhist ethics (non-harming, non-hatred, non-greed) and where they are discordant (e.g., traditional Buddhist misogyny and homophobia) they improve upon it.

Is Buddhism invariably nice?  No.  One can point to a wide variety of “not nice” behaviors in the stories of fierce mahasiddhas, Tibetan yogis, and Zen masters that have come down to us through the ages.

But these stories are counter-narratives. They’re interesting because they rub against the predominant grain of Buddhist thought and teachings, in much the same way the Heart Sutra rubs against the grain of the Tripitaka teachings that preceded it.  Buddhism doesn’t want us to grasp onto anything — including Buddhism.

The fact is however, that the Buddha of the Pali Canon is invariably nice.  If he has something unsettling to say to someone, they have to request it from him three times before he’ll say it.

Other Asian Buddhist teachers who have shaped Western Buddhism have also been notably “nice,” following the example of the Buddha:  Angarika Munindra, Ajahn Chah, Lama Yeshe, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to name a few. I’m sure readers can come up with others (as well as some exceptions).  Niceness is normative Buddhism. The not-niceness in Buddhist stories is there to remind us, as Shunryu Suzuki suggested, that the very heart of Buddhism is “not always so.”  Niceness as a rigid straight-jacket that constrains one under all circumstances?  No.  Niceness as a norm to strive for whenever appropriate?  Why not?

What is niceness, exactly?  One should never confuse it with its near enemies: passivity, deference, and conflict avoidance.  Niceness is based on a set of principles: that everyone deserves respect, that kindness can be one’s default option, that understanding other’s concerns, problems, and desires is an important part of negotiating relationships and resolving conflicts.  Niceness doesn’t obviate truth telling.  One can tell the truth in ways that are respectful to others.  As a therapist, I frequently had to tell patients how their behaviors and beliefs were undermining their goals and well-being, but I strove to do so with kindness, in a way that promoted understanding without provoking defensiveness.  Niceness doesn’t have to imply being a doormat or pushover.  Even Mary Tyler Moore stood up to Mr. Grant at times!  As Roshi Joan Halifax suggests, keep a “strong back, soft front.”

Are there times when niceness is out of place?  After all, the world is not entirely made up of nice people.  There are a reasonable number of psychopaths, narcissists, thugs, bullies, terrorists, tyrants, and miscreants around who pursue their own will-to-power without empathy or remorse.  How does one defend oneself, one’s loved ones, and civil society as a whole, against would-be predators?

The answer is, of course, that one should, one must.

The question is, in what spirit does one go about doing it? Does one do it with malice, out of hatred?  Does one do it skillfully and effectively, without becoming a predator in turn?  Albert Camus suggested we should strive to be “neither victims nor executioners.”

A menacing stranger once tried to pull Sharon Salzberg from her rickshaw while traveling through a dark alley in Calcutta.  A friend managed to push the man away and they luckily escaped unharmed.  When she told Angarika Munindra what had happened, he exclaimed “Oh, Sharon, with all the lovingkindness in your heart, you should have taken your umbrella and hit the man over the head with it!”  Criminals need to be deterred, invaders repulsed, bullies withstood.  But is it possible to do so motivated by our highest aspirations rather than our basest instincts?

This week my grandson, Roshan, received a “Good Manners Award” in his kindergarten class.  This teacher wrote:

“Roshan… always has such a positive attitude and is really fun to have in class! Today I heard him talking to some friends while playing a game and he kept saying “Can you please pass me that piece?” and “Thank you!”  He won the award for having such nice polite manners. I also looked over to the art center and saw him cleaning up everyone’s paper scraps without being asked! Thanks Roshan!”


The family tradition of niceness continues.

No, David. Niceness doesn’t “suck.”  If anything, we need more of it.

 Bodhidharma cartoon courtesy of Adam at Sweeping Zen

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The Second Precept

The Second Buddhist Precept states simply:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

This means abstaining from taking what belongs to others — in other words, stealing. Unlike the Judeo-Christian Eighth Commandment, it’s not a divine edict.  It’s training in the practice of non-greed for the good of one’s character and for the happiness of oneself and others.

Most of us don’t go around breaking and entering, mugging, or shoplifting, so it would seem that abstaining from stealing should be a relatively easy matter — but it’s not. There are more subtle forms of theft — downloading and uploading copyrighted material without permission, underreporting cash income on one’s taxes, using ideas without attribution, bringing paper clips home from the office, inflating damage estimates for insurance reimbursement.  The temptation to petty larceny runs deep within the crooked human heart, and aspiring to impeccability requires some heavy lifting.

Corporations can also violate the Second Precept.  Ethical businesses obtain raw materials and labor at a fair price and create something of value which they sell at a fair price.  Ethical businesses also abstain from passing hidden costs along to stakeholders.  Companies that purchase raw materials from developing nations at unfair prices, exploit workers through unfair wages and working conditions, expose consumers to risk through unsafe products, and pollute the environment are engaging in a form of theft.  So are industries that systematically mislead others about the real costs of their products, for example, the health costs of tobacco and soft-drink consumption, or the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal, deep sea drilling for oil, hydrofracking for gas, or storing “spent” nuclear fuel in cooling ponds.

Governments can violate the Second Precept through unjust confiscatory taxation.  Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) railed against the typical Japanese Daimyo (feudal lord) of his day who lived:

“a life of the greatest luxury… with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake….  As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers….  Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year.” [1]

Closer to our own time, the American revolution was fought over taxation without representation, and some present day third-world countries are governed by oligarchies so corrupt they can only be called “kleptocracies.”

Political conservatives sometimes claim taxation levels in the United States are confiscatory.  In fact, personal U.S. taxation levels are considerably lower than most Western European democracies.  Additionally, federal tax revenues currently constitute a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product than they did during the decade of the nineteen-fifties.

The Bush era tax cuts have, however, contributed to a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans. This transfer is also a function of exponential increases in executive compensation while the hourly wages of American workers have declined.  Fortune 500 CEOs enjoyed a 23% increase in compensation in 2010 alone.  The wealthiest one percent of the country now owns 38% of all privately held stock, 60% of all financial assets, and 62% of all business equity, returning concentration of wealth to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties and the Gilded Age. [2]  Current tax policy benefits the richest at the expense of improvements in infrastructure, education, and health care for all.

No doubt, the reasons for the increasing disparity in wealth are multiple and complex, including the globalization of the world economy, the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, the decline of labor unions, the deregulation of the banking industry, the rising cost of energy, the failures of our educational system, and the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.  The simple, unbridled exercise of human greed fits somewhere into the mix as well.  Not unexpectedly, the wealthy continue to vigorously advocate for a variety of policies (subsidies, incentives, tax write-offs, deregulation, union busting, shredding the social safety net, shifting medical risk from insurers to patients, ending the estate tax, hobbling Medicare’s bargaining power, etc.) that further accelerate the ongoing transfer of wealth.  We might also note that the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision gives the wealthy even more of an advantage in shifting the political playing field to their advantage.

The Second Precept applies to more than just the theft of property and wealth, however.  It can also apply to the giving and receiving of affection, attention, and caring in personal relationships and the sharing of tasks and responsibilities within them.  Most imbalances within relationships are not regulated by law and some are reinforced by prevailing customs, making it easier to fail to recognize them when they occur, and allowing their justification since “everyone does it.”  Focusing on the needs of our partners and dependents more than our own is an important part of Buddhist practice.  We might consider replacing the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” with the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would wish to be treated.”  This isn’t to suggest one should neglect one’s own needs — self-compassion is important too.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?  If I am not for others, what am I?”  It’s just that most of us are so self-focused that a little overcompensation in the other direction couldn’t hurt!   Is it possible to give more of ourselves emotionally — to be more generous than we are at present — without resentment — without fearing we might give more than we get in return?  Can we make that our ongoing practice?

The beauty of the Precepts is that they turn all our interactions into fields of practice in a way solitary sitting never can.  They allow us to explore the degree to which we express integrity, generosity, and compassion in our daily lives.  In following the Second Precept we aspire to more than mere equity, the fair giving of tit-for-tat, but to being open-hearted, caring, and mindful of the needs of others.

Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten and expanded the Second Precept to make its intention clearer:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

The beauty of Thay’s reformulation is that it turns a negative — abstaining from stealing and avoiding greed  — into a positive — the practice of generosity along with genuine activity to reduce individual and systemic suffering.

In discussing his reformulation in depth, Thay adds:

“When you practice one precept deeply, you will discover that you are practicing all five. The First Precept is about taking life, which is a form of stealing — stealing the most precious thing someone has, his or her life. When we meditate on the Second Precept, we see that stealing, in the forms of exploitation, social injustice, and oppression, are acts of killing — killing slowly by exploitation, by maintaining social injustice, and by political and economic oppression. Therefore, the Second Precept has much to do with the precept of not killing. We see the “interbeing” nature of the first two precepts. This is true of all Five Precepts.”

Buddhist practice is truly holographic — every part of the practice contains and reflects every other part of the practice.  If all we do is practice the Second Precept, we are decreasing self-aggrandizement, increasing generosity, increasing mindful awareness of our greed, grasping, and self-justification, and increasing awareness of how we depend on and influence the interconnected web of existence.

Not a bad payoff for one simple precept.




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  1. [1] Katushiro Yoshizawa (2009). The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
  2. [2]

Libya, March 2011

I’m in favor of the current allied military action in Libya.  I wrote to President Obama one week ago urging him to support a no-fly zone, and I’m pleased he finally heeded the advice of Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton.  Some liberal bloggers, with whom I usually agree, are appalled however.  Josh Marshall worries the intervention is too late and in support of a hopeless cause. Others take a dismal view of almost any exercise of American power and are cynical about Western humanitarian justifications. These critics would have left the partisans and their families in Benghazi, Misurata, and Ajdabiya to be slaughtered by the thousands.  Gadhafi left no doubt about his intentions in a recent radio address: “We are coming tonight… We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”

As a practicing Buddhist, being in favor of any military action is problematic.  Should a Buddhist ever support military action?  Shouldn’t Buddhists be pacifists? After all, our first precept is to abstain from killing living beings, while the noble eightfold path emphasizes the intention of non-harming.  When a warrior asked the Buddha whether he would go to a special heaven when he died, the Buddha reluctantly informed him he would be reborn in one of the lower realms.  The Buddha taught unequivocally that violence breeds more violence and that practitioners should always strive for peace and reconciliation.

The question about whether it is ever permissible to apply force against another human being is complex.  Are we allowed to cause harm in self-defense?  In protecting our family?  In preventing serious crime? Can we call the exterminator when termites eat into our home?  (For a more thorough examinations of these issues, check out this post.) The Pali canon never condones violence or killing, but the Mahāyāna Upaya-kausalya Sūtra condones killing on compassionate grounds in extraordinary circumstances. Similarly, the Ārya-satyaka-parivarta Sūtra permits a ruler’s use of force to protect life when all attempts at negotiation and placation have failed.   One can always cite scripture in support of whatever position one wants to take.

My own view is that there are times when resort to force is permitted, but it must meet certain conditions: 1) It must be undertaken as a last resort, 2) it must be undertaken for the compassionate protection of beings, and not out of hatred, greed, or revenge, 3) it must use the minimum force necessary to accomplish its goal, 4) it must have a reasonable chance of success, 5) it must not dehumanize opponents, 6) it must make all reasonable efforts to avoid harming innocent non-combatants, 7) the magnitude of reasonably anticipated “blowback” must not exceed the good it is hoped it will achieve, and 8),  it must be undertaken with the understanding that even the most moral use of force still generates some degree of bad karma.

The Alīnacitta-jātaka, one of the Jātaka Tales that purport to tell the story of the Buddha’s many incarnations on the bodhisattva path before his birth as Siddhartha, seems relevant to this discussion. It tells the story of King Brahmadatta who befriended an elephant during his reign.  Later, the King and Queen conceived a child, the Buddha-to-be in a future incarnation, but the King died before the child was born. The neighboring King of Kosala, hearing about Brahmadatta’s death, plotted to take over his kingdom, and proceeded to lay siege to it.  On the day of the Bodhisattva’s birth the townsfolk began battling the Kosalan army:

“But as they had no leader, little by little the army gave way, great though it was. The courtiers told this news to the Queen, adding, ‘Since our army loses ground in this way, we fear defeat. But our King’s friend, the elephant, has never been told that the King is dead, that a son was born to him, and that the King of Kosala is here to give us battle. Shall we tell him?’

“Yes, do so,” said the Queen. She dressed up her son, laid him in a fine linen cloth, and  went with all her court to the elephant’s stable. She laid the babe at the elephant’s feet, saying, “Master, your comrade is dead, but we feared to tell it you lest you might break your heart. This is your comrade’s son; the King of Kosala is making war against him; the army is losing ground; either kill my son yourself, or win the kingdom back for him!”

The elephant stroked the child with his trunk and lifted him upon his own head; then  moaning and lamenting, laid him in his mother’s arms, saying, ‘I will master the King of Kosala!’

Then the courtiers put his armor and caparison on him and unlocked the city gate. The elephant trumpeted and frightened all the host so that they ran away and broke up their camp; then seizing the king of Kosala by his topknot, he carried him to the young Prince, and laid him at his feet. Some rose to kill him, but the elephant stayed them; and he let the captive king go with this advice: “Be careful in the future, and don’t be  presumptuous because our Prince is young!”  After that, the power over all India fell into the Bodhisattva’s hands and not a foe was able to rise up against him. The Bodhisattva was consecrated at age seven; his reign was just and when he came to life’s end he went to swell the hosts of heaven.”

The text implies citizens have a right to defend themselves and use force against an oppressor, but self-defense must be tempered by mercy and reverence for life.  Of course, no lives are lost in this charming tale.  The elephant is able to scare the invading army away without injuring anyone, and the invading king’s life is spared.  If only U.N. sanctions and warnings had been effective in frightening Gadhafi into leaving his enemies in peace!  It would have made this tale a perfect parable.

I could easily have cited another Jātaka Tale the counsels radical pacifism, however.  In that tale a king threatened by an invader says “I want no kingdom that must be kept by doing harm.”  He opens his city’s gates to the invader and allows himself to be taken captive.  While imprisoned he cultivates compassion for his conqueror.  The tale has a happy ending.  The invading king develops insight into the wrongfulness of his actions, frees the virtuous king, and leaves his kingdom in peace.   This tale is even more charming than the first.  Can you see Gadhafi developing moral insight and leaving his enemies in peace?

Does our current military action in Libya meet these the eight conditions I outlined above?  Well yes and no.

In order to meet such a test a military action would have to be motivated by compassion.  As the stated purpose of the action is to protect civilians, and as there will be no occupation, and as President Obama’s rhetoric is neither dehumanizing nor bloodthirsty, I think the action meets those criteria, at least for the United States. It’s possible, however, that a desire for vengeance lurks in the background for some coalition members or U.N. supporters. The Lebanese remember Gadhafi’s murder of Musa al-Sadr in 1978, the British remember the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, and the Saudi’s remember Gadhafi’s 2004 plot to kill Crown Prince Abdullah.  Gadhafi has created an enormous amount of low-grade karma over the past forty years, and human memories are long.

To the extent that the allies make all efforts to avoid civilian deaths and limit their actions to protecting the cities in rebellion a good case can be made for this being a moral intervention —  or at least as moral an intervention as is possible given the inevitable negative consequences inherent in any use of force.  We don’t know how this will turn out in the end.  If a civilian bloodbath is averted; if a relatively free government is established in rebel-held territory; if tribal civil warfare and devolution into anarchy is avoided; if the war does not stir up virulent anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East; if the democratic strivings that began in Tunisia and Egypt and are sweeping through the Middle East are bolstered and supported, then this will have been worth it.  But, as the Japanese say, “Ningen banji Saiō ga uma” (人間万事 塞翁が馬)  — Everything is like Uncle Sai’s horse: Good?  Bad?  Who Knows?  We never know how the story ends until it’s over.  And of course, the story which we are a part of is never over.

Would the Buddha have approved of the Libyan no-fly zone?   Would he have approved Allied bombing of the railroads leading to Auschwitz?  Would he have approved an intervention in Rwanda?  Maybe not.  On the other hand, this Buddhist does approve, and hopes things turn out as well as they can. We live in a world where tough moral choices can’t be avoided.  Going into battle creates bad karma.  But so does sitting back and watching thousands die while arguing moral niceties.

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