Some Thoughts on the Buddhist Ethical Precepts

Fudo

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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Mindfulness or Heartfulness?

 

Kannon by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 -1768)

The visitor to our Zendo wanted to be more mindful and to “get to know himself better.” “Good goals!” I readily agreed, but went on to say “the most important thing is to identify your strengths and use them for the benefit of others.”

He made a face. “Oh, the compassion thing. I’m not really all that into Buddhist dogma. I do feel compassion, though, when watching the evening news and seeing people suffering.”

“That’s good, but why start so far from home? What about the people immediately present in your life? And why stop at ‘feeling” compassion? Why not actually do something to make others happier?”

The visitor wasn’t so sure. ”You can’t really make other people happy, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last. The things that make most people happy are inconsequential, like dining out in a fine restaurant. My folks are like that. They’re growing older. What I’d really like is to teach them tranquility, to face their impending old age and death with equanimity.”

All good points: you can’t make other people happy, happiness is ephemeral, and people are often mistaken about what will make them happy, seeking after and investing in the wrong things on the path to well-being.

And yet, all these points are besides the point because using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness. It doesn’t come from self-absorption or developing deep insights into the self. As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “to study the self is to forget the self.” The ultimate point of practice isn’t mindfulness in the sense of savoring each moment — although stopping to smell the roses is nothing to sniff at. The ultimate point of practice is transformation: cultivating one’s Buddha nature, journeying along the Bodhisattva path, making one’s life a blessing for everyone one encounters, moment-by-moment.

Blessings don’t have to be big things. They can be small moments shared with one’s grandchildren with one’s full attention, letting them know they are valued. It can be expressing gratitude when someone has done something worthy of appreciation. It can be remembering to clean up the dishes after lunch.

Of course they can be bigger things too: donating one’s time and money, volunteering, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the Dharma, working ceaselessly for peace and justice.

I emphasize identifying one’s signature talents and gifts because each of us has our own pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and each of us can best contribute to the world in our own unique way. I’m able to write and teach, so these are some of the ways I can make a difference. All thumbs, I’d be worthless building houses for the homeless or coaching kids’ sports teams. I’m too much of an introvert to go into politics — let others do that. My math skills are limited; I’ll never make discoveries in physics or develop a computer program that benefits mankind. We make a difference where we can in the way we can — the way we can genuinely be the most useful. We approach every situation with the intention of cultivating and fulfilling our Buddha nature. The most important question is not a self-absorbed “who am I?” but a Bodhisattva’s “how can I help?”

The visitor to our Zendo was a good person, sincere and dedicated in his practice. If we’d met ten years ago I might have agreed that increasing one’s awareness was the raison d’etre — the be all and end all — of practice. Over the years, however, practice has changed me. I’m aware of how much more heart-centered my practice has become. I fantasize about replacing the word “mindfulness” with “heartfulness.” Of course, the mind-heart distinction is a purely western problem; Asian languages never dissected the human soul along those particular dimensions — the dharmas of human consciousness were neither “cognitive” nor “affective,” but only “skillful” or “unskillful.” If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.

In the Zendo, our liturgy reminds us of sitting’s transformative purpose: Our robe chant invites us to be part of a “formless field of benefaction;” our Bodhisattva vows commit us to saving numberless beings; the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo declares that moment-by-moment, morning and night, our mind is one with the bodhisattva of compassion.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about our visitor wanting to teach his parents tranquility in the face of death.

“Good luck with that,” I think.

Really, just a phone call would make them happy.

Start small.

Start where you are.

Start where they are.

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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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The Five Practices

Buddhism has a thing for numbered lists:  Two Truths.  Three Marks of Existence.   Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  Five Precepts.  Six Paramitas.  Seven Factors of Enlightenment.   The Eightfold Noble Path. Twelve links of Dependent Origination. Thirty-two Marks of the Buddha. Fifty-one Mental Factors.  Fifty-two Stages of the Bodhisattva Path.  There’s a lot of stuff to remember and the lists are mnemonic devices that help keep everything straight.

Buddhist practice can be endlessly complicated.  Some people like things with more details, more rules, more rituals, more practices, complex visualizations.  If you are one of them, there is a Buddhism that is just right for you.  There are 84,000 different Dharma doors.

Not me.  I like things simple.  My favorite ice cream is plain vanilla.

My practice is very simple.  My numbered list contains only Five Practices:

  1. Be Present
  2. Be Open-Hearted
  3. Show Respect
  4. Have Courage
  5. Let Go

Five is as much as I can wrap my head around.  If I stick with these five there is more than enough to keep me busy.

1) Being Present — The practice of Being Present involves mindfulness, both in dedicated sitting practice and in daily life.  It also involves a commitment to whole-heartedness — if you are going to do something, do it all the way with your whole being.  It also means showing up — be there to do what is needed — don’t evade responsibility for doing what has to be decided or done.

2) Be Open-Hearted — Open-Heartedness is the practice of commitment to the way of compassion, lovingkindness, empathy, tolerance and forgiveness.  It is the practice of accepting people the way they are, no matter how different or deficient they may be.  That doesn’t mean that you accept or approve of everything others do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t protect yourself from the harmful action of others.  It just means that you keep them in the category of “one of us.”  All beings are “one of us,”  no matter how much they might seem otherwise.  We say, in the metta chant, sabe satta, “whatever beings there are.”  We wish them happiness and freedom from suffering.  Compassion and kindness are not just emotions to be cultivated as mental states.  They involve our compassionate and loving activity in the world.

3) Show Respect — All things are interconnected.  Who we are, our very life and existence, is dependent on the interdependent cooperation of all things.  Can we show appreciation, gratitude, and respect for all things?  This means not only bowing to and respecting all beings, including animals and plants.  It means appreciating and caring for all things that come into our little circle of life. It means keeping air and water clear and unpolluted.  It means appreciating and respecting the earth, and being a good steward.  It means raising animals humanely and growing crops without toxins.  It means keeping our living space orderly and clean.  It means taking care of the things we own.  It means respecting and caring for other people’s belongings.  We bow deeply to all.

4) Have Courage —  Don’t live your life out of fear, but live your life out of your convictions.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, to express a conviction.  Don’t be afraid to love.  Don’t be afraid to do what wisdom tells you needs to be done.  This doesn’t mean that you should be in other people’s faces or take foolhardy risks.  It just means that your existence should be life-affirming, not fear-based and avoidant.

5) Let Go — No one died and left you in charge of things.  The world is not yours to control.  Our practice is one of mindfulness, open-heartedness, respectfulness and courage.  That doesn’t mean that everything we do turns out right, the way we had hoped and expected.  It doesn’t mean that others always reward us or appreciate us for what we do.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  We still get old, and sick, and die.  All relationships, even the one’s we care about most, even the good ones, all end eventually.  If all goes well they end with our death or theirs, if all doesn’t go well, they end in acrimony.  Nothing we like and want to hold onto remains constant.  Change, entropy, habituation, and cycles of decline, transformation, and rebirth govern the multiverse.  Our practice is a continual one of letting go, non-clinging, and acceptance, over and over.  Just like when we do our sitting practice, the practice is one of continual letting go moment by moment.  Letting go of our demands on the moment — how this moment ought to be — and accepting it just the way it is.

Do I personally embody these practices in my own life?  No.  They are horizons to be aimed at, not accomplishments to be attained.  The practice-life never ends.  We have to recommit to it moment by moment.  We continually fall short of our practice goals, notice when we have fallen short, and recommit again, until we forget again.  This is our human life.

Will these practices make you Enlightened?  They haven’t made me Enlightened.  But engaging in these practices is enlightened activity.  When we engage in these practices all things express Buddha nature through us.

“Grass, trees, and lands are all embraced by this activity and together are radiant and endlessly express the inconceivable, profound Dharma. Grass, trees, fences, and walls bring forth the Teachings for all beings, usual people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this Dharma for the sake of grass, trees, fences, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-Awakening and Awakening others is fundamentally endowed with realization lacking nothing, and realization itself is actualized ceaselessly.”  — from Dogen’s Bendowa [1]

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  1. [1] translated by Anzan Hoshin Roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi

Spiritual Maturity

A few years back I described a model of adult development that included the idea of spiritual development. [1] The model posited adults as advancing along multiple developmental lines which were semi-independent but which could exert mutual influence on each other. Exceptional levels of functioning in one developmental line could exist side-by-side with pathological levels of functioning in another, and unremarkable levels in yet a third. In Piagetian terms, there were decalages between these semi-independent developmental lines, but the functional level of one line could assist or hinder progress in another. The model included the following developmental lines:

  1. Self-definition [2]
  2. Interpersonal relatedness [3]
  3. Cognitive Ability [4]
  4. Morality [5]
  5. Spirituality

A spiritually developed person would be wise, compassionate, aware, intuitive and authentic. These qualities are not the sole provenance of any particular religion or philosophy, although it may be that some religions or philosophies might be more effective in developing and cultivating them than others.

In this model, spiritual maturity involves the development of a variety of attitudes, capacities, and understandings including:

  1. Self-Decentration
  2. Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Intimacy with Being
  5. Care and Concern for an Ever-Widening Circle of Beings.

It might be useful to say a few words about each of these five aspects of mature spirituality.

Self-Decentration

Piaget described how the developing child saw himself as being the center of the universe. For Piaget, cognitive development involved a series of decentrations in which the child gradually realized that the universe did not really revolve around himself. At first, for example, young children, noticing the moon’s presence in the night sky whether they were at home or at grandma’s, would think that the moon had followed them around. Later they understand the moon’s position is governed by natural law that doesn’t involve them personally. In the same way children learn that two people looking at the same object from differing vantage points see the objects differently. At first they assume that everyone sees things from the same vantage point they do. The understanding of Cartesian space, that spatial coordinates exist independently of our bodies, is yet another decentration. As the scientific revolution progressed, humankind’s understanding of its place in the universe underwent a similar series of decentrations. The earth was no longer the center of the solar system, the solar system was no longer the center of the universe, and human beings were no longer the center of the natural world.

This concept of decentration can also be usefully applied to the domains of interpersonal relationships and to social identification. Mature interpersonal relations require the ability to see others as having their own unique desires and points of view, and the ability to provisionally leave one’s own framework and see things as they might. They require the recognition that others’s desires and points of view might have equal existential standing to one’s own, even when one does not fully share them. They require the ability to put others’s needs before one’s own under a multiplicity of circumstances.

We are born with the tendency to draw an inclusive boundary around social groups we identify with, and then assign those outside the boundary to a lesser existential status. Mel Brooks, acting as the Two Thousand Year-Old Man, joked that the world’s first national anthem was “Let ‘Em All Go To Hell Except Cave 76.” Our identifications with family, clan, religion, political party, and region can be profound. This demarcation of our in-group against their out-group is a primary feature of teenage social behavior and is part of the process of identity formation. It is also, unfortunately, one of the primary factors underlying social discrimination, civil war, and genocide.

The ability to move beyond identifications with family, clan, class, religion, politics, and nationality and to see other groups and cultures as having equal rights and value is a process of decentration that continues (or doesn’t!) throughout adult development. Being able to see others as like ourselves and treat them fairly is an integral part of wisdom.

Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems

Psychology has long been aware that human beings have two separate information processing systems. Freud recognized this when he made a distinction between primary process and secondary process thinking. Seymour Epstein has made a similar distinction between intuitive-experiential and analytic-rational thought processes.

Analytic-rational processes involve linear thinking in words. They are organized and directed thought processes that use hypothetical-deductive reasoning and problem-solving algorithms to arrive at conclusions. They weigh and sift evidence and test theories. They take a bit of time to figure things out. They are the mainstay of science, mathematics, logic, and philosophy.

Intuitive-experiential processes provide information though imagery and subtle bodily sensations. They are vaguely sensed and operate according to non-linear gestalt principles. Information often emerges and manifests without directed effort. Intuitive-experiential processes are fast and dirty. They provide us with an amorphous intuition that something is not quite right long before our analytic abilities can figure out exactly what has gone awry. It is what we talk about when we talk about trusting our gut, or feeling something in our bones. It’s the mainstay of poetry, art, and mysticism.

Everyone has potential access to both of these systems, but some people rely more heavily on one than another. Wisdom requires an ability to tap into both, and to achieve an integrated balance through a process of shuttling back and forth between systems. Carl Jung was aware of this when he wrote about adult individuation as being, in part, a process of learning to balance thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. Intuition without the check of logic can turn into prejudice and mistaken conviction. Logic without intuition can miss feeling, nuance, and common sense. Wise people know how to reason logically, but also know how to listen to their deepest selves.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness allows us to drop into the immediate present. It allows us to leave the business of mental proliferation, multitasking, and sensory overload and find a place of inner stability and stillness. It allows us to increase our awareness of both intuitive-experiential and verbal thought processes. It allows us to develop our sense of aliveness. Mindfulness serves an an antidote to obliviousness and impulsivity, and is an important component of wisdom.

Intimacy with Being

This refers to a sense of in-touchness and rootedness in the unfolding present moment that develops as a consequence of increasing mindfulness. As we increase out capacity to abide within the moment, in our bodies, and in intimate connection with whatever phenomena manifest within the circle of our awareness, we feel more deeply connected to ourselves, others, and the natural world in heartfelt way.

Care and Concern For An Ever-Widening Circle of Beings

This is an emotional capacity that develops as one decenters from one’s social identifications. The sense of caring and concern we have for loved ones can extend to friends and acquaintances, and eventually to strangers and even enemies. It can also extend to the non-human realm of animals and plants. In the traditional Pali lovingkindness chant we extend kind intentions to “sabbe satta,whatever beings there are. Kindness and compassion are talents or skills that can be enhanced through practiced intention. As we develop spiritually, we open our hearts to others we could not have cared about earlier. Spiritually developed persons are not only wise, but compassionate as well. The spiritually mature person lives at the intersection of wisdom and compassion, the two qualities both balancing and reinforcing each other. As the saying goes, “wisdom without compassion is not wisdom; compassion without wisdom is not compassion.”

These five qualities point to a concept of spiritual maturity but do not exhaustively define it. Readers might be able to think of other qualities that are also necessary features of spiritual maturity. Virtues like equanimity or courage, for example, or a wholesome sense of humor. Please feel free to add to this list in your comments below.

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  1. [1] Segall, S. (2005). Mindfulness and Self-Development in Psychotherapy, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 37 (2), 143-163
  2. [2] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  3. [3] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  4. [4] For more information about this see: Piaget, J. (1997). The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Routledge
  5. [5] For more information about this see: Kohlberg, L. (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper and Row.