How Many Divisions Does The Buddha Have?

 

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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.

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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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A True Man of No-Rank

Linji (by Hakuin)

Soto Zen’s 7th Grave Precept calls for not “praising or elevating” oneself while “blaming or abusing” others. It seems like good advice — don’t be so self centered, don’t create disharmony, look to your own faults before blaming others. It also reflects Buddhism’s emphasis on non-self and non-duality — if there’s no division between self and other — if there’s just one vast field of practice — if one can’t claim credit for one’s strengths and virtues because they arise dependently from “outside” the self — and if the faults of others are also dependently arisen — then what sense does elevating the self or blaming others make? None, ultimately.

But there’s more of interest here.

Whenever we interact with another person, three dimensions of experience spontaneously emerge. We can call those dimensions “In/Out,” “Up/Down,” and “Near/Far.” “In/Out” reflects the degree to which we accept each other as belonging to the same tribe — are we family, friends, allies, and members-of-the-club, or are we strangers, enemies, and/or rejects? “Up/Down” reflects where we stand in the pecking order: leaders, followers, rebels, or mascots. “Near/Far” reflects our degree of mutual intimacy. How transparent can we be? Can we take off our masks and let down our hair? Do we have an “I-Thou” or “I-It” relationship? All three of these dimensions are unavoidable. They emerge at the moment of “Hello.”

An up/down dimension lies within every interpersonal transaction. If someone knocks on my door and asks if he may come in, he acknowledges my power to permit or deny his entrance. If I say, “Come in, take a seat,” I confirm my authority to control what happens in my space. If he replies, “I’d rather stand,” he’s attempting to re-renegotiate control. If I reply “suit yourself,” I let the challenge pass, but reserve my future rights. And so it goes. At any given moment we’re either one-up, one-down, or sharing status as coequals.

The Chinese Zen Master Linji famously observed “I, a mountain monk, tell you clearly… there is a true man with no-rank always present not even a hair’s breadth away.” Linji wasn’t talking about interpersonal relations. He was saying something enigmatic about self-view and enlightened being. But let’s take Linji more literally (and out of context). In our everyday existence where we’re always one-up, one-down, or co-equal, what does it mean to be a “true man of no-rank?”

Imagine walking into an encounter with no idea of your status in the relationship. I don’t mean being oblivious to what you imagine the other person thinks of you. I mean having no evaluation, positive or negative, about your own worth. You just are who you happen to be in this moment. Any concerns about what the other person thinks about you are irrelevant to your own worth since you have none. You don’t exist anywhere on that scale. The other person’s evaluations only matter in terms of how they’ll affect the likely outcome of the transaction.

You are now free to do whatever seems necessary or skillful. You don’t have to ask whether it’s your place or right to say something. You don’t have to worry about how you’ll feel if the other person thinks poorly of you. You only have to ask if it’s skillful and likely to turn out well.

What would it be like to negotiate the world in this way, moment after moment? We can simply be what is needed in each situation to the degree our energy and judgment permit. We would go through life neither up nor down but just here. Like Mitt Romney’s trees, we would always be just the right height.

Every now and then I run across a tale of a Zen Master and a Warrior in medieval China or Japan. I suspect the tale is bogus because I can’t track down its original source. (Where is the Zen Snopes when you need it?) As the story goes, the Warrior tries to intimidate the Zen Master by announcing he’s the man who can “run a sword through” the Zen Master “without blinking an eye.” In his mind he’s one-up; he’s in control. The Zen Master looks at if differently, however. He responds that he’s the man who “can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye.” As far as he’s concerned, that’s not a one-down status. It’s just a fact. Now that we’ve established who we are and have been properly introduced we can get on with the business at hand. The Zen Master isn’t ignorant of the brute facts, he just exists outside of the power differential. He’s a true man of no-rank.

Daisan (the teacher-student interview) is a good place to explore this issue. What’s it like when you sit and meet with your teacher? Who are you when you sit on the cushion face to face? Is the teacher up? Are you down? Can you say/ask whatever needs saying/asking for the benefit of your practice? Can you exist in a space that’s neither up nor down?

Thoughts of “up” and “down,” acceptance and rejection, closeness and distance always arise. They’re hard-wired into us, part of our humanness. The question is whether we can let these thoughts come and go without attaching to them, without believing them, without making more of them then what they are — simply words and concepts arising in the mind — clouds scurrying across the vast expanse of blue sky which leave no traces of themselves behind.

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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] http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

Buddhist Teachers Behaving Badly

The latest dustup over John Tarrant’s Shambhala Sun obituary for Robert Aitkin Roshi provides us with yet another opportunity to examine the issue of bad sexual behavior on the part of some Buddhist teachers.  Unfortunately, this kind of examination is always timely.  In the past year we’ve seen scandals surrounding Eido Shimano Roshi and Dennis Gempo Merzel, but over the years scandals within the Buddhist community have become sadly familiar.   We should take these scandals as opportunities to explore ever relevant questions concerning sex, power, and Enlightenment.

The Third Lay Buddhist Training Precept states “I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.” (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi).  The precept emphasizes the prevention of harm to sexual partners and concerned third parties.  The precept is vague, however, about what constitutes sexual misconduct.  The precept is usually interpreted in the light of the prevailing customs and mores within each distinct Buddhist community.  Peter Harvey [1] has done an excellent job of surveying the ways the precept has been interpreted across societies and over time.  My review of these interpretations below is abstracted from his survey (but any errors in it are completely my own).

Sexual misconduct traditionally includes adultery and consorting with prostitutes (c.f. Sutta-nipāta and Nāgārjuna) as well as rape and incest.  Having sex with anyone who is already in a committed relationship with another is also usually considered a violation of the precept.  In Thailand flirting with a married woman is seen as a violation, whereas in Sri Lanka premarital sex is proscribed.  The fourth-century Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya included the use of “unsuitable” orifices, places, or times.  The Upāsaka-śīla-sūtra included frequenting brothels and the use of “instruments.” Gampopa’s (1079-1153) Jewel Ornament of Liberation included overly frequent sex (more than five successive times!) and homosexuality, whereas Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887) proscribed masturbation in his Kuzang Lama’i Shelung.  Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva both considered homosexual behavior to be a violation of the third precept, but homosexuality was tolerated and accepted in Japan, even as part of monastic life.

Where does this leave the issue of teacher-student sex?  In the contemporary West, the ethics concerning teacher-student sex are still evolving.  In elementary, middle, and high schools teacher-student sexual contact is not permitted as students are still (for the most part) minors who cannot give consent, and because it would constitute a serious violation of a relationship of authority and trust.  Ethical rules concerning college faculty-student sex are less clearly delineated since many students are no longer minors. Some colleges forbid it, others merely discourage it.  Ethical guidelines recognize an inherent conflict between grading and writing letters of recommendation for students and being in a sexual relationship with them.  While faculty-student relationships occur with considerable frequency, there’s also a considerable degree of queasiness about the potential for abuse of power within these relationships.  In counseling and clinical psychology, therapist-client sexual encounters are considered ethical violations.  Psychology’s ethical standards recognize the danger of abuses of power, the need for therapist objectivity, and the irrational idealizations that clients may project onto therapists.  Lastly, we might mention that sex abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church have increased public awareness of the real and enduring psychological and spiritual harm caused by violations of clerical authority and trust.

These issues of trust, authority, abuse of power, idealizations and projections, and the need for teachers to retain impartiality and objectivity are all relevant to the question of relationships between Buddhist teachers and their students, and there have been attempts to develop codes of ethics for Buddhist teachers.  For example, Spirit Rock has developed a code of ethics for teachers in the Insight Meditation tradition that includes the following paragraphs:

“We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or relationships of a sexual manner that are outside of the bounds of the relationship commitments we have made to another or that involve another who has made vows to another. Teachers with vows of celibacy will live according to their vows. Teachers in committed relationships will honor their vows and refrain from adultery. All teachers agree not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.

Because several single teachers in our community have developed partnerships and marriages with former students, we acknowledge that such a healthy relationship can be possible, but that great care and sensitivity are needed. We agree that in this case the following guidelines are crucial:

A) A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students.

B) During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of future student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship is inappropriate.

C) If interest in a genuine and committed relationship develops over time between a single teacher and a student, the student-teacher relationship must clearly and consciously have ended before any further development toward a romantic relationship. Such a relationship must be approached with restraint and sensitivity – in no case should it occur immediately after retreat. A minimum time period of three months or longer from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding from both parties that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a conscious commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm to either party.”

Similar codes of ethics have been developed by a number of Zen communities, including ones where teacher misconduct has occurred in the past (e.g., San Francisco Zen Center, Kwan Um School of Zen).

Given the evolving consensus about teacher-student relationships, why does misconduct continue to occur?  The answer is simple: because all human beings are imperfect, and because any position of power invites both temptations and opportunities for abuse.  The Buddhist community, however, may have several unique factors that complicate addressing this issue.

Certain tantric practices (e.g., the use of mudras or “seals”) may open the door for potential abuse unless there is a widely understood consensus on ethical guidelines regarding their use. Similarly, the idealization of “crazy wisdom” within tantric traditions may lead students to rationalize teachers’s unacceptable behaviors, and teachers to rationalize being out-of-control.

The biggest obstacle within Buddhism, however, may be the idea of “Enlightenment” itself.  Enlightenment is traditionally described as something that puts a permanent end to unwholesome desiring.  Once one has achieved Enlightenment, there’s no backsliding.  Enlightened Beings are, by definition, incapable of sexual misconduct.  Any teacher who believes this is at risk for becoming an abuser.  Any student who believes this is at risk for rationalizing and accepting abuse.

The idea that one can have a magical experience that makes one perfect and makes one invulnerable to harmful temptations is a fairy tale.  Everyone’s brain contains a hypothalamus, and no amount of meditation or insight can surgically remove it.  The hypothalamus is the seat of desire in the human nervous system, including sexual desire.  We have a wonderful cerebral cortex which can dampen, override, and modify hypothalamic output, but not eliminate it.  As Freud might say, we all have an “id,” a dynamic, insatiable source of passion and desire, that is a permanent part of our psychological constitution.  Buddhism teaches us to be heedful and mindful of desire and deal with it intelligently in order to be fully and completely human.  It shouldn’t teach that there’s a stage when we no longer need to exert due care.

Buddhist practitioners often experience powerful meditative experiences that have real transformative power.  These realizations, however, do not completely obliterate temptation or the repetition and acting-out of deeply ingrained behavioral patterns.  Meditative realizations need to be gradually actualized and reinforced.  Psychotherapists know that a genuine insight in one situation does not automatically generalize and transfer to other situations.  There’s a process called “working through” that needs to occur before one can actualize insight across circumstances.  Similarly, Korean Zen Master Bojo Jinul (1158-1210) taught that the Buddhist path is one of “sudden enlightenment” followed by “gradual cultivation.”  We never finish our development.  Enlightenment is a horizon we aim at, not something we achieve.

That’s why codes of ethics will always be necessary.  That’s why there will always be Buddhist teachers who will fall short of embodying them.  That’s why our life needs to be one of continual practice.

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  1. [1] Harvey, P. (2000).  An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Pali for “Noble Eightfold Path” is Ariya Aṭṭhangika Magga, literally the “Aryan Eight-Limbed Path.”   Nowadays, the word “Aryan” has negative connotations because of its appropriation by Nazis and white supremacists, but in ancient Pali it meant “noble” or “exalted,” and Buddhists reserved it as an honorific for practitioners who had reached a high level of realization: stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants.  The name “Noble Eightfold Path” is a bit misleading, because it’s not so much the path that’s noble, as it is the path that nobles follow to attain realization.  The Noble Eightfold Path is the path alluded to in the Fourth Noble Truth: the path towards release from suffering.  It’s the Buddha’s prescription for what ails us.

Traditionally, the Eightfold Path is subdivided into three aggregates: wisdom (pañña), virtue (sīla), and concentration (samādhi).

The wisdom aggregate has two components: right view (sammā ditthi) and right intention (sammā sankappa).  Right view, at an initial level, is an understanding of karma — that actions have consequences — as well as belief in rebirth and the possibility of liberation.  At a higher level of realization, it is also the ability to directly perceive the three marks of existence: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anattā) in all compound phenomena.  Right intention involves both a renunciation of clinging, and the adaptation of an attitude of good will and non-harming to all beings.

The virtue aggregate includes the components of right speech (sammā vācā), right action (sammā kammanta), and right livelihood (sammā ājīva).  Right speech refers to abstaining from lies, backbiting and slander, abusive and hurtful speech, and frivolous talk. Right action involves adhering to the ethical precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual impropriety, and intoxicants.  Right livelihood means earning one’s living in a way that adheres to the precepts.  Certain occupations are specifically proscribed for Buddhists including trafficking in human beings, weapons, meat, intoxicants, and poisons.

The concentration aggregate also has three components: right effort (sammā vāyāma), right mindfulness (sammā sati), and right concentration (sammā samādhi). Right effort means developing control over one’s mental state by abandoning unskillful thoughts, preventing unskillful thoughts from taking hold, and reinforcing skillful thoughts.  Right mindfulness means cultivating awareness of bodily sensations, feelings, mind, and mental objects in all one’s activities.  Right concentration is the development of one-pointed concentration through practicing the meditative absorptions (jhānas) in order to have sufficient stability of mind to develop insight into the marks of existence.

The Eightfold Path has both a mundane and supramundane level.  On the mundane level one follows the path elements to prepare for stream-entry, but at the point of stream-entry all eight elements coalesce into the supramundane path from stream-entry to arahantship.

One can think of each of the path elements separately, but one can also think about them as reflecting and reinforcing each other, like the jewels of Indra’s net, or like holograms, each element containing all the other elements within them.  For example, right speech requires right intention, abstaining from intoxicants, abandoning unskillful thoughts and maintaining right mindfulness.  When one is practicing one aspect of the path, one is reinforcing them all.

The Noble Eightfold Path is Theravāda Buddhism’s map for Destination Nirvana, but other schools have provided somewhat different maps for realization.  Mahāyāna Buddhism has its Bodhisattva path; Vajrayāna has Atiśa’s Stages of the Path. There’s even a Zen-inflected pathless path:  As Toni Packer has written:

“Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever.   Awareness, insight, enlightenment, wholeness — whatever words one may pick to label what cannot be caught in words — is not the effect of a cause. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it. It isn’t a product of anything — no technique, method, environment, tradition, posture, activity, or nonactivity can create it. It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed in all its grossness and subtleness and defused in the light of understanding.”

So what do I make of the Noble Eightfold Path?  After all, I’m an existential Buddhist who doesn’t believe in literal karma and rebirth.  Since I don’t believe in literal rebirth, I also don’t believe in the literal meaning of stream-entry, i.e., being on the glide path to non-rebirth.  According to the Theravāda map, I’m already hopelessly mired in wrong view.

With the exception of the karma/rebirth issue, however, the Noble Eightfold Path still seems like a pretty good prescription.  It emphasizes the importance of the interplay of intellectual understanding, intention, ethics, enlarging the heart, and meditation.  Practicing one of these without the support of the others is probably the fast track to nowhere.  Without an initial understanding of suffering, impermanence, and interdependence there is little motivation to practice.  Just meditating, however, without the larger envelope of the intention to help all beings can lead to detachment and withdrawal.  Trying to calm the mind while one’s immoral behavior is busy generating turbulence is like trying to erect a tent during a hurricane. Rushing out to save beings without developing discernment, mindfulness, and equanimity is a recipe for what Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion.”  Finally, a sterile intellectual understanding of Buddhist concepts without the direct experience of reality arrived at through meditation leads to a mistaking of the map for the territory.  One haggles over concepts without ever touching the reality the concepts merely point at.  Alan Watts called this eating the menu instead of eating the meal.  Compassion, ethics, meditative practice, and intellectual understanding are all necessary components of paths to realization — however one imagines that destination — if we are to avoid drifting too far off, either to the left or to the right, and winding up in a side-ditch.

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On Not Killing

The Buddhist path is often characterized as consisting of three components: sila (ethics), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom). The Five Precepts (Panca-Silani) are the foundation of ethics for Buddhist lay practitioners.  Unlike the biblical Ten Commandments, the precepts are not divine edicts, but are intended as training rules.  Buddhists observe them in order to live skillfully and happily in harmony with other beings, to obtain good karma and fortunate rebirth, and to make progress along the path to awakening.

The first and most important precept is the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures:

“Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.”

It’s the Buddhist version of the biblical Sixth Commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Murder”) and roughly parallels the Hindu/Jain doctrine of ahimsa (non-harming).

At first blush, it seems the easiest precept to follow.  Far easier, say, than never telling an untruth or maintaining complete sobriety.

The more one examines the precept, however, the more problematic it becomes.

What does it mean to refrain from destroying living creatures?

In India, the Jains sweep the ground in front of them so as not to inadvertently kill any insects.  Does the Buddha ask us to do the same?

As it turns out, no.  If we accidentally trample an insect, no bad karma is created.  This is because there was no intention to kill.  In addition (in some traditions) insects are thought to be lower on the sentience scale than large mammals, primates, cetaceans, etc., and killing them has less karmic import.

Intention is the key to karma.  Accidents, in general, do not create bad karma the way intentional acts do.

On the other hand, some accidents are almost predictable.  What if one goes about carelessly and heedlessly and accidentally kills another being?  A drunk driver doesn’t intend harm, but driving while intoxicated raises the odds that harm might occur.  Here in the West we consider that to be vehicular homicide.  Does this kind of unintentional but heedless killing create bad karma according to Buddhist doctrine?

What about the killing of animals for food?

The Buddha did not prescribe vegetarianism.   Buddhist monks are permitted to eat meat, for example, if it is put in their alms bowl by a lay supporter.  They are not permitted, however, to eat an animal that has been killed on their behalf.

As lay Westerners we have an endless variety of protein sources available to us that are not the result of killing animals: dairy products, unfertilized eggs, soy-based products, legumes, etc.  Should we refrain from eating killed animals?

Meat sold in supermarkets has not been killed specifically for our benefit.  There was no particular consumer in mind at the slaughterhouse at the moment the animal was killed. Is it therefore all right to buy meat in the supermarket?  Or is that disingenuous?  After all, if more people declined to buy meat, the law of supply and demand would result in a decrease in animal killing.

In addition to concerns about killing per se, there are also serious ethical concerns about the way animals are raised on modern factory farms.  Who is creating a greater moral offense: the hunter of wild game, or the agribusiness livestock breeder who is raising animals under unnatural circumstances?

Buddhist traditions vary in allowing or discouraging meat eating.  Some Buddhist traditions permit meat eating (e.g., fish in Thailand, yak meat in Tibet) and others discourage it.

And what of harmful pests: bed bugs, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fire ants, and rodents?  Is one permitted to rid one’s home and neighborhood of them, or must one endure them, even when they are unsanitary or serve as a vector for serious infectious disease?

And what about bacteria and internal parasites?  Is one permitted to use antibiotics?

And what about the autoimmune system? Doesn’t the autoimmune system kill foreign living organisms all the time?

And what about killing in self-defense or to protect one’s family, neighbors or countrymen?

To complicate matters further, Mahayana Buddhism introduces the concept of “skillful means” (upaya kausalya).  Under certain circumstances one may violate precepts when one’s motivation is wholesome.

Tibetans, for example, venerate Pelgyi Dorje who assassinated King Langdarma almost 1,200 years ago.  Langdarma allegedly suppressed Buddhism and persecuted Buddhist monks, and Pelgyi Dorje killed him to preserve the Dharma for the benefit of all beings and to save Langdarma  from creating even worse karma for himself.

Similarly, in the Upaya-Kausalya Sutra, a virtuous sea captain named Great Compassion (the Buddha in a previous lifetime) is permitted to kill an assassin who plans on killing a cohort of 500 bodhisattvas who are aboard ship.  In doing so, Great Compassion is willing to be reborn in a Hell Realm as a consequence, but his act is morally commendable, and his karma is not as bad as it would have been had his motivation been impure.

I am raising a series of questions and resolving none.

It’s not my intention to cite this-or-that text in this-or-that tradition to support one answer or another.  I refer the interested reader to Peter Harvey’s excellent book [1] on the topic if they’re interested in exploring Buddhist ethical doctrine in greater depth.

Instead, I only wish to point out that things are not as easy or straightforward as they might initially seem.  When we vow to refrain from killing living beings, we are being invited into an exploration of how far we are willing to go to put the vow into practice.  Are we willing to allow ourselves to be killed by a tiger, as the Buddha did in a previous life in one of the Jataka Tales, so that her hungry cubs might live?  Are we willing to kill an intruder who is invading our home and threatening our family?  If we lovingly rescue spiders by carefully removing them from our homes, are we as loving with an infestation of cockroaches?  Are we willing to eat fish, but not beef?  Will we join pacifist protests when our country goes to war?  Where will be draw the line in our lives?

There is a famous Quaker anecdote about William Penn.  When Penn first became a Quaker, he still wore his ceremonial dress sword on formal occasions, as was the custom of the time.  He was aware, however, of the moral conflict between Quaker pacifist beliefs and sword-wearing, and asked George Fox for advice.  Fox replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.”  When they met again a short time later, Penn no longer had his sword.  When Fox asked where it was, Penn replied “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.”

This is what Buddhism asks us to do.  To investigate the circumstances of our lives.  To live with difficult questions and address them as best we can in the moment.  To see how far we can go to refrain from killing in our lives, knowing that the extent to which we are willing to go may change and evolve as we proceed along the path.

Rather than being absolutes, Buddhist training precepts are invitations to explore how our lives change as we take on certain ethical challenges.

As the Buddhist saying goes, “Ehipassiko:”  Come see for yourself.

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  1. [1] Harvey, P. (2000).  An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Unskillfulness and Sin

Christians believe in a variety of sins: original, venal, mortal. An external Evil Agent, Satan, tempts us into it.

Jews believe in an innate יצר הרע (yetzer hara) or evil inclination that entices us to stray from God.

In either case, sin is Evil with a capital “E” and denotes a rupture in our relationship with God. Certain things are sinful because they violate God’s commandments. They are sinful because God has ordained it so.

Buddhism has no concept equivalent to that of sin. While there may be gods in Buddhism, there is no God, The Eternal Creator and Judge. In Buddhism actions are judged by their utilitarian value: whether they lead to greater happiness for the person and affected others, and whether they lead to better karma, rebirth, and progress on the path to Enlightenment. The Buddhist terms for judging whether actions have a felicitous or unfelicitious effect are (in the Pali language) kusala and akusala, which usually gets translated as either wholesome and unwholesome, or skillful and unskillful. The utilitarian nature of these concepts is made clear in the Kusala Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 2.19):

“Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

“Develop what is skillful, monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’”
Kusala Sutta [1]

When we say that skillful actions promote happiness, we are not just talking about the happiness of the individual. In Buddhism the individual and others in the community have equal claims to happiness. Buddhism is, as Shohaku Okumura has observed, [2] neither individualist nor collectivist, but represents a middle-way between these dialectical opposites. This is, in part, a consequence of the Buddhist emphasis on emptiness, the interdependence of all things. It is also due to the Buddhist view of the absolute truth of the oneness of all things balanced against the relative truth of our individual uniqueness. Skillful actions promote the happiness of the individual and the community synchronistically.

Just as something unskilful, like an addictive behavior, brings ruin to the individual and his family and involves broader social costs, skillful actions bring happiness to the individual, his social group, and the larger social order. Selfish behavior does not bring genuine happiness, but only fleeting sense pleasures and ego gratification. Selfishness disturbs our loving social ties with others, creates dissension in the community, and makes us slaves to the hedonic treadmill of transient pleasure. The Buddha (like Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics) believed that real happiness came from the cultivation of wisdom and character. Aristotle differentiated eudamonia, or genuine well-being, from hedonia, or sense-based pleasure. Contemporary Positive Psychology is demonstrating the truth of the Aristotelian-Buddhist idea of a deeper, more worthwhile sense of well-being that is wisdom and character based.

Not only can actions be unskillful, but thoughts, which are really interiorized actions, can also be unskillful. Thoughts are often the first stirrings of action, with skillful thoughts leading to skillful actions, unskillful thoughts to unskillful ones. We are what we think. If we are to live skillfully we must first establish some degree of control over our unruly minds. This is where mindfulness comes in. If we’re heedless of thoughts we’re driven by them like a leaves in the wind. If we’re mindful of thoughts, we can exercise discerning judgment about them. We can discern whether or not a thought is skillful and then decide whether or not to rehearse, practice, nurture, and reinforce it.

Thinking about actions as being unskillful rather than sinful allows us to take responsibility for behavior without the added burden of surplus guilt. We avoid unskillful behavior because we want ourselves and others to be happy, not because we’re afraid of Hellfire or God’s wrath. The only source of retribution we really need worry about is the one we ought to: Cause-and-Effect. This is true whether one believes in the Buddhist concept of karma, or the modern scientific understanding of cause and effect.

Go and sin no more.



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  1. [1] –translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  2. [2] Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing Genjokoan, Boston:Wisdom