We are creatures who can imagine things different from the way they are. In imagining alternative realities, we tend to line them up along an evaluative dimension, from least desirable to most, imagining worlds both better and worse than the one we currently inhabit. The gap between the “actual” and the “better” is the domain of desire.
This wish for better things—better circumstances, a better society, a better self—is an intrinsic part of the human condition. The 17th Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza held the metaphysical position that all things act to maintain and enhance themselves. One doesn’t need to agree with his metaphysics, however, to observe that all plants and animals, from the simplest to the most complex, act in ways that tend to maximize the odds of their continuance and enhancement.
This lining up of possibilities along a dimension of desirability pervades our experience of ourselves and the world. Our everyday language expresses it in terms of a vertical dimension ranging from “high” to “low.”We seek to avoid “sinking to new lows” or “hitting bottom.” We want to be inspired and “lifted up.” People we despise are “beneath our contempt,” while we “look up” to those we admire. We’re admonished to “pick ourselves up” after we’ve “fallen down.” We’re advised to “raise our sights” and “aim higher.” We have, in other words, an aspiration for ascent.
This vertical dimension is reflected in our religious and philosophical metaphors. The Judeo-Christian Hell lies vaguely beneath our feet, while its Heaven floats somewhere above our heads. The Greek god Zeus dwelt atop Mount Olympus, while the sun up in the heavens symbolized The Good in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Buddhist Bodhisattvas inhabit celestial paradises, while the Chinese Emperor was said to hold the Mandate of Heaven.
Why should our evaluative dimension be mapped onto metaphors of height and depth? Is there something about our embodied experience that facilitates this connection? The way the force of gravity pulls us towards the Earth? The way we grow taller as we age? The way we cease crawling on the ground and learn to stand up? The way we gaze up at the stars in amazement? It’s an interesting question, no?
Our aspiration for ascent takes many forms: the wish to ascend to Heaven after death, or the wish to establish a heaven on earth for ourselves and future generations; the wish to become Enlightened; the wish to become more wealthy, famous, popular, loved, admired, respected, or revered; the wish to become smarter, thinner, prettier, stronger, healthier, or kinder; the wish to develop our talents; the wish to do good and great things.
Buddhism, however, is suspicious of all this endless aspiring. Buddhism’s Second Noble Truth asserts that our ceaseless yearning for something more and better—our constant desire to improve the present moment, is the root cause of our suffering. Buddhism suggests that we alleviate our suffering by radically accepting everything-just-as-it-is. In meditation, we dwell in the present moment without separation, observing and letting go of any and all intentions to improve the moment, however subtle, as they arise.
As the well-known Tang Dynasty Chinese Zen poem, Faith in Mind (Xinxin Ming) suggests:
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
But this Buddhist admonition to accept the present moment and end our striving for a better state of affairs contains a deep internal contradiction. Our very attempt to curtail wishing for something better is itself a new kind of striving after something “higher,” another kind of rejection of the present moment, just as it is.
In addition, it’s impossible to hear the Buddhist admonition to end striving for improvement without a certain degree of skepticism. The entire history of human cultural improvement—of imagining things being better than they currently are—the history of tool making, writing, agriculture, animal husbandry, sanitation, medicine, central heating, indoor plumbing—would our lives really be better without it?Who would voluntarily trade present-day life for the lives of our distant ancestors? Isn’t the Dharma itself an improvement over earlier beliefs? Didn’t the mythological Buddha strive over many lifetimes to develop his virtues so that he might one day achieveEnlightenment? And isn’t our shared communal world—plagued by injustice, selfishness, and cruelty—in continued need of improvement, large and small?
We’ve also all traversed the road from infancy to adulthood. We’ve learned how to walk and speak, read and write, and cultivate our understanding, judgment, self-control, conscience, and imagination. While some of this development “just happened,” much of it required effortful striving and a reaching for something not yet at hand. To use the metaphor of verticality, we “grew up.” Who would choose to forgo all that our striving has earned us in terms of our development of competence and character?
Given our appreciation for the role of striving for improvement in our cultural and personal development, how can we to understand the Buddhist admonition to radically accept things as they are—to rest without separation in the present moment?
It’s interesting to note that the Zen Buddhist meditation instructions straddle this same contradiction between acceptance and striving. We’re told to give up striving while meditating, but then we immediately notice that striving is present in our wish to become Enlightened, in our wish that our meditation space be warmer or quieter, in our wish for our body to be more comfortable, in our wish for our mind be more concentrated, and so on. These wishes don’t go away; they just keep on coming, one after another.
So we’re then advised to step back and just observe these wishes come and go without disturbing ourselves about them—to radically accept them as they arise. But this very act ofacceptance is again a movement away from our-mind-as-it-is-in-the-present-moment which includes the wish that we could stop desiring—another movement of separation from the way things are.
So then we’re instructed to take another step back and accept that, too.
We thus find that the “resting in the present moment” instruction delivers us into an ever widening spiral of acceptance that, far from “resting in the present moment,” brings us paradoxically to a “higher” state different from the original “present moment.”
Our ancestors believed that the world we lived in was a world of appearances, and that some “higher” reality lurked above or behind it—a world of spirits and the Divine. Modernity tells us that there is no world lurking above and beyond material reality.
There is “just this.”
Buddhism tells us that whatever “just this” is, it’s possible to experience “just this” in some “higher” way if we practice letting things be as they are. If we encounter things lovingly rather than instrumentally. That it’s possible to experience the realization that the-world-as-it-is has its own kind of perfection, independent of our desires. We may wish it wouldn’t rain during our picnic, but the flowers and grass need the rain. We may wish there weren’t any mosquitos where we picnicked, but the bats and birds need those mosquitos. We may wish not to ingest and inhale bacteria, but our bodies need bacteria to function properly. The world-as-it-is has its own kind of perfection—amazing, beautiful, integrated—which is, when rightly seen, the very realm of the sacred that modernity has tried to disabuse us of. When realized in this way, the distinction between “high” and “low” paradoxically collapses—the higher world we once sought out is identical to the everyday world we already inhabit.And yet, seen from our more ordinary perspective, its a world still in need of some improvement.
In understanding the Buddhist path, it may be useful to distinguish intention and aspiration from attachment and desire. Our aspirations to better our circumstances are inseparable from being alive. They never cease. We will always want air, water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and companionship.Above and beyond our basic wants, we may also aspire to certain so-called “higher” goods such as wisdom, compassion, and courage. While pursuing these higher goods, we will still simultaneously find ourselves experiencing a desire for “lower” goods as well, such as social status or material wellbeing. It’s one thing to recognize an aspiration to some good—be it “higher” or “lower”—and thoughtfully work to increase the likelihood of attaining it.It’s another thing to be seized by it, to be held in its grip, to be helpless against it, to pursue it recklessly, against one’s better judgement, even when it’s antithetical to one’s long-term wellbeing.
If Buddhism were asking us to cease all intention and aspiration, it would be asking the impossible. What it’s actually asking is for us to become discerning about our intentions andaspirations. Are they worth aspiring for? Will they really makes us happier? Can we pursue them intelligently, weighing their direct and indirect costs, or are we being dragged thoughtlessly along by them to the detriment of ourselves and others? If a desire is in charge of us—if it’s leading us to ruin and misfortune—can we detach from it and let it go? If the desire is unattainable or only attainable at too great a cost, can we also let it go?
When we meditate, we watch our desires come and go, detaching from them, without taking action on them during the period of meditation. Meditation is boot camp for observing desires, discerning whether they’re wise, and learning to let them go. Strengthening this skill set is a requisite for the well-lived life.
I would label desires that are 1) worth it, 2) attainable at acceptable costs, 3) consonant/synergistic with one’s continued growth/development and with achieving one’s higher-order goals, and 4) regulated/meditated by reason, “aspirations.” Buddhism is full of aspirations: The aspiration to find the time to meditate, the aspiration to follow the precepts, the aspiration to be of service to others, the aspiration towards greater awakening. On the other hand, desires that 1) are not really worth it, 2) come at too high a cost, 3) interfere with our continued growth and development and with achieving our higher-order goals, and 4) are unregulated/unmediated by reason so that they have us in their grip and pull us along unreflectively, are the kinds of desires and attachments that Buddhism is warning us against.
How can we discern helpful aspiration from unhelpful desire and attachment? Aspiration gently nudges us in a direction that feels intuitively wholesome and right. There’s nothing rigid, compulsory, joyless, or constricting about it. Aspiration never feels like an external taskmaster whipping us into shape. I would like to be kinder to others and will orient myself in that direction and encourage myself to try harder, but there’s no “must” about succeeding, and no need for self-flagellation if I fail.
Attachment, on the other hand, is riddled with imperative “musts”:I must be a better person. I must have “X” or I’ll be miserable. Everybody must behave the way I want them to. The cognitive-behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis called this kind of thinking “musterbatory” and referred to engaging in it as “musterbation.” It seems as good a word as any to describe it.
Living in this way—seeing the good and pursuing it wisely, but neither driven nor compelled by it; preferring things to be better but not desperately needing them to be so; being able to see that things as they are, even when they fail to coincide with our preferences, have their own integral place in the cosmos—this is the path that Buddhism invites us to follow.
I had hoped to like this book more.After all, the blurbs on its back cover from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and environmentalist Bill McKibben, all sing its praises. My own view is more mixed, however.
First, let me outline what I liked about the book.The author, University of California-Berkeley economist Clair Brown, correctly diagnoses our society’s greatest errors and failings: its fostering of obscene levels of economic inequality, its despoliation of the planet, its single-minded focus on generating wealth rather than on expanding human well-being and flourishing, and its economic model of corporate obligations to shareholders but not stakeholders.Dr. Brown offers many sensible alternatives and solutions to these problems, providing reasonable guidelines for reducing wealth inequality, putting the global economy on a sustainable footing, preserving the planet, and maximizing human happiness and potential.If we followed the author’s exhortations, I have no doubt that our world would be a much better place. I would very much like to live in the world she prescribes.
Now for thethings I didn’t like about the book.
First, to my mind, the title doesn’t make any sense. There is no such thing as “Buddhist Economics,” just as there is no such thing as Buddhist Astrophysics or Buddhist Quantum Mechanics. Economics is economics, plain and simple. It’s a social science that tells us how to get from point A to point B: Here’s what one ought to do if one wants to constrain inflation; Here’s what one ought do if one wants full employment; and so on. It tells us the correct means to reach desired goals. What it doesn’t do is tell us what our goals ought to be. That field—the one that tells us what we ought to desire—is ethics rather than economics. What Clair Brown is really arguing for is not a better economics, but a better ethics. She is suggesting a different set of human goals to aim at, rather than a different type of means to get there.
Second, there is nothing in Clair Brown’s ethics that is particularly or uniquely Buddhist.Pope Francis could probably agree with most of the goals she emphasizes.So could most secular humanists.Her vision of the well-lived life is more traditionally Aristotelian than it is traditionally Buddhist. Classical Buddhism had little, if anything, to say about reducing economic inequality or preserving the planet.Now it happens that many if not most Buddhist modernists would endorse a set of ethics that is in accord with secular humanist, liberal Protestant, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish, and Post-Vatican II Catholic ethics when it comes to issues of preserving the planet, reducing inequality, and fostering human flourishing.That’s because modern humanist ethics are in the air, up for grabs by all, and not because they’re deeply rooted in the Buddhist past. Now there are several traditional Buddhist themes that resonate deeply with modern humanist ethics, including the Buddhist emphases on lovingkindness, compassion, non-greed, non-harming, non-ego aggrandizement, interdependence, and saving all beings. That is the reason why Buddhist luminaries such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh espouse them.These ideas are the common heritage of modernity and not uniquely Buddhist
Third, this book was written during the Obama presidency when it was still possible to dream the “liberal dream”—that with just a little more effort we could head in the right direction. We are now plunged into a new Dark Age in which selfishness and greed are valued above all else by those in charge of the national government. We have pulled out of the Paris climate accord and are on the verge of ending our imperfect experiment with universal healthcare. In the despair of the moment, I’m reminded of these lines written by the philosopher Richard Rorty some three decades ago:
“I do not think that we liberals can now imagine a future of ‘human dignity, freedom and peace.’ That is, we cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future. We can picture various socioeconomic setups which would be preferable to the present one. But we have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds, and thus no clear idea of what to work for…. This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth, or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out. Sometimes things prove to be just as bad as they first looked.…This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation, the one that blocks all the liberal scenarios.” (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989, p. 181-182)
In the end, what Clair Brown fails to do is give us a road map that would tell us how to reorder American politics so that sensible economic proposals, such as the one she is making, can be given a chance. We can guess what some of those political changes would involve—an end to Citizen’s United, an end to gerrymandering, genuine election finance reform, and so on. But how is one to accomplish those things? Today, the kind of transvaluation of values that would be needed before meaningful political change could occur seems farther off than ever. That is what those of us on the “religious left” toil for with little hope and against heavy odds. It’s easy to think up solutions to most of our problems. The problem is, they never live to see the light of day.
To sum up, if you’re interested in suggestions for how to reorder our economic system so that businesses are more socially responsible, so that everyone is guaranteed a living wage, so that our economy is carbon neutral, so that the gap between rich and poor nations is reduced, and so that developing human potential and well-being are more important than growing economic productivity, then this is an excellent book.If you, like me, happen to be a Buddhist modernist, you will find much that you like and agree with.I am one of those who happen to think our economy ought to be constrained by the emerging universalist humanist modernist ethics, which we as Buddhist modernists share with modernists of other faiths. The problem is, we still need a roadmap of how to draw those who view things differently into the conversation. I suspect there are no shortcuts, that the road will be hard, that there will be many defeats along the way, and that there is no guarantee of either eventual success or planetary survival.
Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences
I’ve just completed the nine-month Foundations of Contemplative Care program at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC) as a support for my part-time volunteer role as a chaplain associate in an acute-care hospital. I wish to express my profound gratitude to Koshin Paley Ellison, Robert Chodo Campbell, Evan Zazula, all the NYZCCC staff, and my forty Foundations co-participants who helped make the program such a profound learning experience. The following summarizes my view of how contemplative chaplaincy both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry.
Japanese Tea masters are familiar with the saying, “ichi-go ichi-e”—“one time, one meeting.” It means that each time we meet is a unique, unrepeatable moment—something precious to be savored and treasured.
Volunteering in an acute care hospital with an average length of stay of just three days, I get to see most patients only once. If hospice chaplaincy visits are poems, acute care chaplaincy visits are haikus. Seeing people just once for, at most, an hour or so raises immediate questions. How can one make such visits meaningful? How can two people, meeting as strangers, have an encounter that makes a difference? What kind of difference does one want to make? I’m aware each time I enter a room that this is truly one time, one meeting. I enter with one question in mind: what’s possible between us as two people right now? How can this moment be of benefit in some way for the person I’m dropping in on?
While any brief encounter can be freighted with meaning, there’s something about being in a hospital that makes it more likely to occur. The patient is often in a heightened emotional state—fearful, angry, in pain—and may be encountering significant existential questions involving the possibility of death, disability, dependency, transfigured appearance, and changed habits, vocations, and relationships. The contemplative caregiver is entering the room in the role of “chaplain” with all the connotations the term carries for the patient. Contemplative chaplains are the bearers of the patient’s projections. We’re coming, in the patients’ imaginations, to pray for or bless them; to hear their confessions or doubts; to offer reassurance, comfort and solace; and to talk about ultimate things. Or else we’re coming to offer platitudes and hogwash; to be scolded, blamed, and berated; to be argued with or converted or whatever else being a “chaplain” signifies for the other. We are God’s intermediaries, purveyors of the opiate of the masses, authoritarian repressors, and the bearers of chicken soup all in one.
This blog post is an attempt to sort out my thoughts about contemplative chaplaincy and how it both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry. In sorting these thoughts out, I’m comparing my chaplaincy experience with my prior experiences as a clinical psychologist and as a novice Zen priest. In thinking about this, it’s become clearer to me that there are certain skills and habits of mind that one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that carry over into and enhance contemplative chaplaincy. There are also certain skills and habits of mind one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that interfere with contemplative chaplaincy. It’s useful to sort out which are which.
By contemplative chaplaincy, I mean an approach to being with people who are troubled, sick, or dying that emphasizes presence and communicative intimacy without any specific predefined destination or goal other than establishing, maintaining, and repairing breaks in that presence and intimacy. The assumption underlying this approach is that accompanying a person on his or her journey is the most important feature of contemplative care—really being with him or her—and if one can make that happen—if the other person can experience the “being-with” of the caregiver, and can feel that he or she is heard and appreciated in the fullness of his or her verbal and nonverbal communication—then several beneficial things may happen in turn.
First, the fundamental aloneness that so many suffering people experience is, at least in that moment, changed and mitigated—that feeling that no one understands the specific and particular texture of one’s suffering and what it is like to suffer in exactly this kind of way, or that no one cares or appreciates or fully hears what it is the sufferer is trying to share, express, or convey. We can all remember what it was like as young children to be alone and afraid in the dark, and how it felt qualitatively different once a parent came into the room to lie down next to us, to hold our hand, and quietly talk with us. One can never underestimate the transformative power of being-with.
Second, there is an internal process that unfolds when one experiences being fully heard. When we feel we haven’t been heard, we feel we have to keep repeating what hasn’t been heard until someone finally “gets” it. Until that point we’re stuck and can’t move on. We aren’t ready to hear or discover something new that hasn’t been felt or acknowledged before. Once we are heard, there is an inner process that is ready to unfold. The stuck-ness is gone and something new is free to appear. That something else may be something we’ve never noticed before about our own situation or our feelings about it—some undiscovered or unacknowledged facet of what is implicit, waiting to be experienced. Every situation is infinitely intricate and complex, like a tangled ball of yarn, connected in some way with everything else we’ve ever known, thought, or experienced. Pull one end of the string a bit, and a little more unravels, revealing itself in the light of consciousness. By being with and hearing a suffering person, we co-create a shared space in which the sufferer’s experience can unfold in new and surprising ways.
Third, if the contemplative chaplain is sufficiently attuned to the rich and specific language that sufferers use—especially their lively use of metaphor, imagery, and symbol—it’s possible to help sufferers stay attuned to their own unfolding process in a way that facilities their discovery of new ways of experiencing their situation, with the discovery of new inner resources, and with a feelingful transformation of their relationship to suffering.
In addition to these three fundamental aspects of “being-with,” there are two other facets to contemplative chaplaincy that loom large in my experience: the “mobilization of healing energies” and the “witnessing of existential choices.” The first is the mobilization of the patient’s internal healing resources. While we still know comparatively little about the role psychological processes play in disorders involving the autonomic, endocrine, and autoimmune systems, one can make a good case that reducing anxiety and panic and mobilizing hope, optimism, equanimity, gratitude, acceptance, humor, and a sense of internal control can all have potentially beneficial effects on one’s suffering and maybe, also, on the disease process itself. There are also, however one wants to conceptualize it, energies and internal resources associated with religious archetypes (Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, and all the various spirits, angels and saints) that can be mobilized through prayer and blessings and that have the potential to reinforce movements towards wholeness and well-being.
The second is witnessing the sufferer’s exploration of his or her existential choices. Many patients experience their illnesses as a kind of crossroads experience—as a wake-up call, or as an enforced time-out from routine that provides an unasked for opportunity for reflection. Patients often want to tell the chaplain how their illness marks some crucial turning point—how old ways need to be let go of and new directions sought out and begun. Witnessing and acknowledging turning points helps vivify and reinforce them, increasing the likelihood they may be instantiated in behavior once the patient has left the hospital.
In all of these five aspects of contemplative care—being-with, fully listening, linguistically tracking the experiential process, mobilizing healing energy, and witnessing existential choices—the chaplain is sensitive to whether, in fact, this is the kind of intimate contact the sufferer really wants in this moment. The chaplain is always assessing what is possible in the meeting between two people as these possibilities wax and wane throughout a chaplaincy visit. Sometimes people want company; sometimes they wish to be alone. Sometimes they want some specific other person to be with them—not necessarily the contemplative chaplain. Sometimes they are weary or in great pain and just want to obliterate consciousness. Sometimes they are not open to exploration that might dredge up feelings they would prefer to keep in abeyance. Sometimes they need to maintain a state of denial. Sometimes they need to pretend to have it all together, to be perfect, to be competent to deal with everything on their own without assistance, to be strong. The contemplative caregiver needs to be sensitive to this at all times, to give space when space is needed, to be superficial when superficiality is called for. We all go through life and death as best we can. Some people leave this life with grace, some go out kicking and screaming, and some need to pretend they aren’t leaving at all. The contemplative chaplain is never afraid to knock on any door—or rather, the contemplative caregiver is prepared to knock on any door however anxious he or she may be—but the contemplative caregiver is also always prepared to leave doors unopened when appropriate, or to have doors slammed in his or her face.
It’s all well and good to talk about “being-with” or “communicative intimacy” or “presencing,” but the question remains, what exactly are we talking about when we use these terms? These terms overlap to some degree with other frequently used terms such as “mindfulness,” “being in the here-and-now,” “openness,” and so on. If one is a meditator, it’s possible one has a leg up on understanding precisely what these terms convey, but it’s also possible to understand them without having any meditation experience—some people do it more or less naturally—and it’s also possible to be a meditator who engages in focused-attention meditations (as opposed to open monitoring ones), and never get the “feel” for engaging in these modes of being while in communication and interaction with another person. In understanding “being-with” and “presencing,” metaphors like “dropping down into the body,” “spaciousness,” “equanimity,” “silence” and “slowing down” also come to mind. We all know what it’s like when people are really fully paying attention to us, and when they’re only half-heartedly doing so. We know what it’s like when people are listening to us with their minds on their next reply, and when people are listening so they really “get” us. We all understand what it’s like when someone’s relationship with us is “instrumental”—they’re trying to use us or do something to us in some way, and when it is an “I-Thou” relationship involving “letting be,” that is, encountering us and letting us be just as we are.
The contemplative chaplain is interested in quieting his or her chattering, scheming, planning mind as much as possible. He or she is not worrying about what to say next or whether he or she is being liked, approved of, valued, successful, or competent. Or rather, all those concerns are there—noticed, and allowed to come and go in a more spacious field of awareness—one that also includes awareness of one’s body, emotions, and felt senses—an awareness that isn’t centered in one’s “head” but is more likely centered mid-torso or perhaps, in one’s hara or dan t’ian. This field of awareness is a bi-personal field (or if relatives, nursing aides, or friends are also present in the room, a multi-personal field) in which one is also aware of the words being spoken, the gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice of self and other, and the reactions to those words, gestures, and expressions as they arise in oneself and the other moment-by-moment. Of course, it’s impossible to simultaneously attend to the richness of this field in all its complexity. One can only shuttle back and forth, dancing between various “internal” and “external” objects of awareness. To do this well, one must first slow down sufficiently to allow the back-and-forth awareness of the myriad complex facets of experience to arise—not rushing from one to the other, but allowing time for each facet to be savored, appreciated, acknowledged, and then let go of. This slow, gentle, dance of aware-ing occurs within a larger context, and it is the gestalt of this larger context that helps keeps these shifting aspects of awareness relevant to the purpose of “being-with.” It is the larger context of being curious about the other person, wishing to fully get to know and hear them, wishing to be fully present with them, and wishing to be of real benefit to them.
If there are similarities between this contemplative “being with” and meditation, the astute reader may also have already recognized the similarities between “being with” and certain forms of psychotherapy—especially those existential-humanistic psychotherapies (e.g., Rogers, Gendlin) that emphasize relationship, empathy, and the creation of the fundamental conditions that facilitate therapeutic change. In these therapies, the core therapist skills involve being a good listener, conveying accurate empathy (letting the patient know they’ve been accurately heard), being authentic, and helping the client stay in touch with his or her internal processing—especially somatic-affective-intuitive rather than cognitive processing—what Gendlin calls one’s “felt sense” of the complex, intricate whole of a situation.
How is the task of the contemplative chaplain different from that of the psychotherapist? The first important difference is that the psychotherapist assumes an expert role vis-a-vis the patient. The therapist is being consulted because, presumably, he or she knows something that the patient does not. He or she is an expert in something or another. That “something” may be “diagnostic categories” or “personality dynamics” or “cognitive errors” or “reinforcement schedules,” or “hypnotic inductions,” or “family systems,” or something entirely different depending on the type of psychotherapist he or she is. In contrast, the contemplative chaplain starts from the vantage point of “not knowing” and “beginner’s mind.” He or she may be an “expert” in establishing rapport and in checking with his or her own internal process, but he or she is not an expert in knowing the client, understanding the client’s problem—if in fact the client has a problem—or knowing what might be best for the client. The contemplative chaplain starts with an attitude of curiosity and being interested in finding a way to meet the patient where the patient is, but other than that, he or she has no idea of what might possibly unfold. He or she is equipped with a sense of adventure, a wish to be of benefit, and little else. There is no guiding theory other than trust in “being-with.”
The second important difference is that the therapist is attempting to fix a problem. You wouldn’t come to consult with a psychologist without one. There is a tacit or explicit assumption that there’s something wrong with the patient that needs fixing. The contemplative chaplain starts with no such assumption. The chaplain has not been invited into anyone’s room—he or she is entering the patient’s room unbidden. The patient hasn’t asked for a chaplain, and probably hasn’t thought he or she needed or wanted to see one. This strange, unknown person bearing a suit jacket and a nametag has wandered into the room. Perhaps the patient is curious, perhaps not. Perhaps he or she wonders what this person—the chaplain—wants with him or her, what the chaplain wants to do to him or her. Every other stranger who enters the room has a specific task and function—drawing blood, giving medication, taking vitals, changing bedpans, bringing meals. What does this person want? The contemplative chaplain is the one person walking into the room without an agenda, other than being-with. The chaplain doesn’t assume the patient has some problem needing fixing. The chaplain begins with the attitude that we’re all doing the best we can, that we’re here just to meet and be together as best we can. By “we” the chaplain means the patient and him or herself. We’re all the same, all of us in the midst of our complicated, messy lives. We’re all of us wounded, all of us competent. We’re all of us dying, some of us quickly, some of us more slowly. Whether we succeed as two strangers in meeting together or not, it’s the best we could manage in this moment given our respective limitations.
We can think of other differences between the psychotherapist and the contemplative chaplain as well. Psychotherapists plan out interventions; contemplative chaplains just have conversations. Psychotherapists want to change patients; contemplative chaplains have no investment in the patient changing. Psychotherapists carry out interventions: they teach, convince, exhort, reinforce, give homework, hypnotize, offer interpretations and advice, and so on; Contemplative chaplains offer their presence.
So far I’ve been comparing contemplative chaplaincy with psychotherapy. How does contemplative chaplaincy compare with Buddhist ministry? It should be apparent by now that there are skills one acquires in Buddhist practice that help foster the kind of skills that a contemplative chaplain needs. These include an understanding of the contemplative stance which shares so much in common with the meditative stance: mindfulness, spaciousness, embodied awareness, being present, being fully attentive, and approaching things whole heartedly and one-mindfully. There are also one’s Bodhisattva vows that orient one towards behaving beneficially towards others in conjunction with the path ethical elements of right livelihood, right action and right speech. Finally, there are the Buddhist emphases on equanimity and interconnectedness and the Buddhist de-emphases of ego-aggrandizement and goal-directedness and achievement. These are all helpful qualities for the contemplative chaplain to cultivate.
But there are also aspects of the Buddhist ministry that can get in the way of contemplative chaplaincy. For example, we might find ourselves leaning in favor of patients finding “Buddhist” solutions to their difficulties. As priests, we might prefer they find ways of dealing with illness and death that accept impermanence as a fundamental fact of existence, or that emphasize self-compassion, kindness towards others, and similar Buddhist qualities. We might find ourselves wanting to teach an anxious patient meditation, teach an angry patient loving-kindness, or a patient mourning loss of function how to be grateful for their remaining capacities. After all, the core of our first Bodhisattva vow is to not just to help others, but to help others “cross over” to enlightenment. This urge to “preach and teach” is antithetical to being-with, being present, and fully listening. It can useful to remember than in many of the Pali suttas, the Buddha was reluctant to offer an opinion on all sorts of things until he was explicitly asked to do so three times.
Additionally, the chaplain’s identification as a “Buddhist priest” can sometimes get in the way of the patient’s receptivity to his or her presence. “Buddhists” as a group are generally viewed positively by the U.S. Population. The general population’s view of Buddhists is roughly equivalent to its view of Evangelical Christians, and only slightly less positive than its view of Catholics, “Mainline” Protestants, and Jews. Nevertheless, there are religious groups whose views on Buddhism are somewhat more negative and who may not be open to a Buddhist chaplain’s visitation, or who may be called upon to try to “save” the Chaplain as a matter of religious duty. In principle, this barrier is no different than the way that atheists, for example may receive a “chaplain,” or the way a Christian might receive a Jewish Chaplain. The patient’s reaction to the chaplain’s identification becomes grist for the mill as the chaplain explores whether it’s possible for patient and chaplain to meet together in an authentic and beneficial way.
The patient’s spiritual path, the patient’s view of the chaplain’s role, and the patient’s view of the chaplain’s spiritual path intersect in complex and endlessly fascinating ways. Just this past week, for example, I visited three patients who exemplified these complexities.
The first was an alcoholic who’d stopped drinking a decade ago after miraculously surviving an assault. After eight years of sobriety, he’d resumed drinking and developed cirrhosis of the liver. That’s why he was in the hospital. He’d broken his promise to God to never drink again, but now God was also offering him another chance: his hospitalization was a wake up call. This time he wasn’t going to promise God he’d never drink again. Humans are weak and can’t necessarily keep their promises. Instead, he was going to pray God grant him the strength to keep his resolve one day at a time. He saw me as someone to confess to. After listening attentively, I asked if he would like us to pray, and together we devised a prayer that acknowledged his sincerity, his weakness, and his wish for divine assistance.
The second patient was distressed that her stay in the hospital was taking so long. We talked about her illness and its impact on her life, but her mind soon turned to religious themes and she asked me about my own beliefs. I replied that I ministered to all faiths– that while I was personally a Buddhist, I considered all religions valid spiritual paths to the sacred. She strongly objected to this: Accepting Jesus was the only route to salvation! Given her palpable concern for my well being, I asked if she would like to pray for me. She embraced the opportunity, praying that God open my heart to the truth. God had prolonged her hospital stay so that we could meet.
The third patient wasn’t interested in talking with me at all. He said, “Tell me what you want to tell me and get it over with.” Whatever it was I had to tell him, he wasn’t interested. He was apparently used to people telling him things he had no use for. I replied I had nothing to tell him; I was only there to listen. He responded by telling me that the doctors said his body was “riddled with cancer,” adding, “but I don’t believe in cancer.” “What do you believe in?” I asked. “Jesus,” he replied. I told him that I understood. He may have turned his body over to the doctors to do whatever they thought best, but his soul was with his maker. We prayed together, saying that Jesus determines all things—who shall live and who shall die, who has eternal life and who does not—and that we trusted Him to always do what was best.
As Zen Master Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” One can never anticipate what direction spiritual conversations may take. In previous weeks, similar kinds of conversations had gone in uniquely different directions. Two weeks earlier, an atheist patient informed me that it was pointless for us to talk. When I suggested that wasn’t necessarily the case, he challenged me, asking, “What then should we talk about?” I looked around the room for some clue as to how to begin. “Tell me about your tattoos,” I said, seizing on the most salient aspect of his appearance. An exploration of his tattoos led naturally into a discussion of his life philosophy and how his deepest goals were at variance with his current life situation.
A month earlier, a patient had issued a full-throated cry for me to leave her alone: “Get out! There is no God!” I stayed and listened to her harrowing tale of being savagely beaten and miscarrying her baby. She told me how, throughout her entire life, well-intentioned people had told her they “cared,” but nobody really did anything to help. I was just another one of those people. We spent an hour in Hell together. I only hope it was better for her than spending that hour by herself.
The point of these vignettes is that none of these spiritual encounters had anything to do with my specific beliefs as a Buddhist priest, and that there are ways, if I wore my being a Buddhist priest too heavily, that being a Buddhist priest would have undermined my role as an interfaith chaplain. We are here to listen to and be with patients in whatever way seems beneficial; not to teach or preach. What my Buddhist training offers me, however, are the Zen Peacemaker Order tenets of “not-knowing,” “bearing witness,” and “compassionate activity.” These tenets are the very backbone of contemplative chaplaincy.
Allow me to conclude this comparison of the roles of the contemplative chaplain, psychotherapist, and Zen priest with a joke designed to capture the essential differences between them. It’s not a great joke—but I never claimed to be a comedian.
A Zen priest, a psychologist, and a contemplative chaplain walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Say, did you hear? Joe’s in the hospital!” The priest says, “I’ll go visit and teach him about impermanence and non-attachment.” The psychologist says, “I hope he doesn’t get depressed! I’ll go visit and encourage him to think more rationally.” The contemplative caregiver remains silent, as if meditating. “What are you going to do?” the bartender asks, puzzled by the silence. “What will you say to Joe when you visit him?”
This is an updated, revised version an of essay of mine that was published in the Fall 2004 issue of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s former publication, Turning Wheel. It has been overhauled and repurposed for the Trump Era.
Just what is it that is specifically Buddhist about Buddhist social activism?Are we onlyBuddhists who, having been social activists before we discovered the Dharma, are now simply carrying on our older activism under the banner of our new religious identity? Or is Buddhist social activism something that grows organically out of the wisdom and compassion cultivated along the Buddhist path? If so, is this kind of spiritually-based social activism identical to, or different from, the spiritually-based activism espoused by the Friends, Unitarians, Mennonites, or Catholic Workers? Is there something specifically Buddhist that we bring to the progressive movement? To what extent are there particular social issues that fall naturally within the purview of Buddhist social activism (e.g., diversity within our sanghas, the plight of the Rohingya in Burma, the Chinese occupation of Tibet), and to what extent are our issues identical to those of other activist traditions (e.g., criminal justice reform, racial, economic, sexual, and gender equality)? Do we have a specific doctrine relating to economic, political, and social issues, or, as Buddhists, do we eschew “isms” as attachments to the “thicket of views”?It helps to view these questions as koans that can open one up to discovery rather than as questions that call for cut-and-dried answers that foreclose further exploration.
Nevertheless, several general themes emerge through this kind of inquiry that help define what makes Buddhist social activism explicitly Buddhist.
1) Buddhist practice is nondual. It allows no space of separation between self and other. The dichotomy of working on the self but withdrawing from the world, or working on the world but bypassing the self, is antithetical to Buddhism. Since everything is connected, when I change myself, I change the world; when I change the world, I change myself. How could it be otherwise?
2)Everything that happens happens right here, immediately, in one’s own experience. This is true whether the happenings are bodily sensations and personal emotions, or the remembered images of Syrian refugees, or one’s cognitive and emotional reactions to listening to Donald Trump on the nightly news. All of these are mental objects that call for an equal degree of mindful attention, wise reflection, and skillful response. All are part of Buddhist practice.
3) Buddhist practice is continuous. There is no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane; there is not one realm that belongs to Caesar and another that belongs to a deity. Nothing is excluded from Buddhist practice. We practice all the time, whether sitting on the cushion, talking with friends, shopping at the mall, voting in the booth, or marching in a demonstration. Every moment is a moment of continuous, seamless practice. Social action is a realm of practice no different from meditation or sutra study.
4) Buddhist practice is universal. No thing is left out; no one is excluded. We apply our practice to all people: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We include animals and plants within our practice, too. We are not against anyone: we are not against soldiers, criminals, businessmen, landlords, Republicans, or Alt-Rightists. No one is left out of our caring and concern. We say, “May all beings be happy.” That is our practice.
5)We are not struggling against people but against processes: greed, aversion, and delusion. We work ceaselessly with these three poisons, whether they occur within us or within Donald Trump. We no more despise Donald Trump for his greed, aversion, and delusion than we do ourselves. Donald Trump is just a collection of the five aggregates, the same as we are.
Buddhism teaches that all things arise out of causes and conditions. The current ascendence ofthe Alt-Right is the outcome of innumerable causes and conditions which include, but are not limited to: the long-term processes of urbanization, immigration, globalization, and automation; the growth of multinational corporations, decline of labor unions, Reagan-era and Bush-era taxation policies, and the end of Depression-era curbs on banking and investment; the long-term consequences of slavery, the civil war, and the civil rights movement; the dynamic narrative of personal liberation and identity transformation that has unfolded in the wake of the women’s suffrage, women’s liberation, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ movements; the long-term historical conflicts between Christian Europe and Islam, complicated by European colonialism and the clash between modernity and traditional Middle Eastern cultures; the clash between modernity and fundamentalist religions here in the West; the growth of the internet and reality television; the destabilization of social structures caused by the rapid pace of technological change; the genetic and biographical particularities of the Trump family saga, and so on, ad infinitum.
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon didn’t single-handedly create our current situation; the karma of the world flows through their actions in an unbroken chain. We’re here to be yet another influence in the great sea of causes and conditions. We’re not here to control the world; no one ever does that. We’re here to ceaselessly witness and ceaselessly practice. Our practice includes being present to suffering, befriending the forgotten, and being unafraid to speak our truth (with a small “t”) to those in power.
6) Buddhist practice is not overly attached to outcome.When we sit on the cushion and fail to achieve Enlightenment, we don’t become discouraged and change our practice. When we demonstrate against the actions of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump remains unrepentant, we don’t become discouraged and change our practice. Not getting the outcome we want doesn’t invalidate the value of our actions. Perhaps if we persist, our actions will have significant long-term consequences. Perhaps we’ll learn to become more skillful through examining and learning from our failures. Our path in either case, is always the same: a recursive loop of: 1) showing up, 2) paying attention, 3) telling the truth without blame or judgment/ doing whatever’s necessary, 4) being open, but not attached, to outcome, 5) and repeating steps 1-4. This is the Dharma, in short. Buddhist practice is about being here, being mindful, and responding with right speech and right action, again and again, without discouragement. Practice is, as Suzuki Roshi once said, making one’s “best effort on the moment forever.” If one can be deeply present like Avalokiteshvara and see the suffering of the world; if one can show up with the intention to relieve suffering whenever one encounters it to the best of one’s abilities; if one can include every being within the circle of one’s care and compassion; and if one can avoid anger and disillusionment when suffering doesn’t always abate despite one’s best efforts, then one is engaged in a social activism that epitomizes Buddhist practice.
Alan Cole’s Patriarchs on Paper: A Critical History of Medieval Chan Literature draws together some recent scholarly research on Chan Buddhism’s core texts, e.g., its various Tang and Song Dynasty genealogies, transmission of the lamp compendia, and koan collections, as well as the Platform Sutra, and the monastic rules for purity (Chanyuan Qinggui) and presents them in the form of an historical overview for the interested general reader. Cole is described an independent scholar who has taught at Lewis and Clark College, Harvard University, the University of Illinois, the University of Oregon, and the National University of Singapore.
Cole views these core Chan texts as products of historical, cultural, and literary evolution, charting the changes in their content and style over the course of centuries, and speculating on the various purposes these texts might have served. His basic orientation can only be described as “ironic,” that is, that the texts cannot be taken at face value in that: 1) they represent a literary tradition rather than a practice tradition, 2) they express in letters and words what is allegedly beyond letters and words, 3) they describe a process of dharma transmission that fictionalizes and romanticizes the actual process of transmission, 4) they reflect steadily increasing Taoist and antinomian trends in Chinese Buddhism that were at variance with both normative Buddhism and actual Chan monastic practice 5), they employed increasingly stylized rhetorical strategies that fictionalized the accounts of Chan ancestors in increasingly entertaining ways, and 6) they reflected, among other things, the exigencies of various patriarchs as they strove to secure their authority and win favors from the imperial court.
Most interesting to me was the examination of the written “historical” record in terms of what is “known” about Zen patriarchs such as Bodhidharma, Huike, and Huineng. The stories about them change and are embellished with each passing generation. The pithy, witty, and archetypically Zen sayings attributed to them only begin to circulate centuries after they are long gone—if, that is, they ever existed as more than literary protagonists at all.During the Tang Dynasty the sayings attributed to the Chan patriarchs are mostly stock paraphrases of sutra passages. Only after a time do the fly whisks, unconventional behavior, and rhetoric of negation emerge, only fully making their appearance during the Song Dynasty.As such, these epigrammatic sayings are fictional inventions placed in the ancestors’ mouths rather than the authentic accounts of the sayings and doings of real Tang Dynasty masters.Over time, the Chan patriarchs begin to look more and more like the protagonists from another, older Chinese literary tradition: the Taoist sages. When koan collections such as Wumen’s 13th century Gaterless Barrier begin to appear, they include witty, ironic commentary and well-crafted poems that let you know that the authors are not simple Taoist sages, however, but accomplished Song Dynasty literati who are self-consciously introducing a new literary form written—not for the benefit of simple monks—but for consumption by other Chinese literati.
The text suffers from the limitations of the author’s arch and ironic stance and his tendency to speculate beyond the data. He never considers the possibility that these texts might—despite their constructed literary nature—be vehicles for important religious insights or facilitate genuine spiritual attainment. The book also shares the limitations of any summary of detailed research for general readers in that one often finds oneself wanting more extensive and detailed examination of quotations from the texts than those that are offered. Despite these limitations, this book fills a genuine void.Zen practitioners who are unable to keep up with scholarly books and articles—that means almost all Zen practitioners—will find it an invaluable addition to their library.It will give them a much more complex and nuanced understanding of the tradition they have inherited, in much the same way that scholarly Biblical criticism since the 19th Century has transformed our understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The election is now over and a narcissist without moral compass will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation on earth. However much we wish it otherwise, this is now true.We have no real knowledge of just how badly this might turn out—whether he will be an American Mussolini or merely an American Berlusconi.All of our hopes and fears are just mental projections.None are real.
But we mustn’t delude ourselves.There is a real potential for serious misfortune and harm: the collapse of efforts to protect our planet from global warming; the disruption of the international order; the detention and arrest of political dissidents; curbs on freedoms of the press; the misuse of modern techniques of surveillance; the end of access to healthcare for millions; an end to abortion rights; an uptick in racist, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT crimes by emboldened alt-right groups; and so it goes.Some of this may come to pass; some might not.
How dark this all becomes depends largely on us.Will we collaborate or resist?Will we be proactive or merely reactive?Will we persist in the face of fear?Will we stand up for our neighbors and have each others backs? Dark times call for a courage unneeded in easier times.This is when we find out what we’re made of.
One can stand up courageously without viewing the world dualistically as an “us vs. them” situation—without hating Donald Trump or the people who voted for him—with an understanding of the reasons why people might have voted for him: disillusionment with politics as usual, anger at both parties for abandoning the working class, and anger at liberals for their condescension and cultural disdain. It’s possible to see how we’re part of the problem—how we contributed to this perilous moment. Donald Trump and the Republicans didn’t create this alone.We all did our part.
Now that we’re here, we have our responsibilities.We can be part of an historic non-violent resistance to fascism in whatever forms it takes.We can strengthen the institutions of civil society that serve as a bulwark against the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion—forces that operate in each and every human heart regardless of party.
The bodhisattva path is not dependent on good times.It’s the same in easy times and dark times alike: show up, pay attention, and do whatever is necessary to take care of the things that fall within our purview.
May we all have the courage to live up to our bodhisattva vows.
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.
I recently ordained as a novice Zen priest in a ceremony officiated by Sensei Daiken Nelson at White Plains Zen. The traditional Soto shukke tokudo ceremony included some textual emendations courtesy of the Zen Peacemaker Order along with a priest’s pledge Daiken and I cowrote that was loosely based on an earlier pledge that originated with the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community.Our version read:
“To be a priest is to serve sangha and world in accord with the Buddhadharma. I pledge to care for the Sangha, manifesting and maintaining practice and places for practice; transmitting and renewing its liturgy, rituals, and values; acting as a celebrant and mourner for rites of passage; and offering pastoral care in moments of need. I will study, embody, and share the Dharma. Taking the backward step, I will turn the light and shine it inward. As my robes signify the potential for awakening available to all, I will wear them with dignity. I will strive to actualize the fundamental point in each moment, practicing whole-heartedly, cultivating an intimate, careful attention to all things, bearing witness to the world’s cries of suffering, and fulfilling my vow to help all beings awaken. This is the way of the priest.”
The role of the American Zen priest is—like everything else—in flux. It’s clearly different from that of the traditional Japanese Zen priest who inherits a family-run temple and conducts funerary rituals. It’s also different from that of the Sensei who’s recognized for having achieved a certain level of spiritual attainment and is authorized to offer teisho and daisan. The novice lacks the full priest’s authority to teach, offer jukai, or preside over marriages and funerals. What the novice priest essentially has is the authority to chop wood and carry water—the exact same authority one had prior to ordination—that, and the right to wear the inner and outer robes of the priest and to learn how to conduct onself with menmitsu no kafu—the exquisite, careful, considerate, and intimate attention to detail that uniquely characterizes Soto Zen activity. In a culture addicted to fame, competition, consumption, and acquisition, the robes are reminders of the Enlightened Way to all who wear and witness them.
In American Zen, the path of the priest opens up opportunities to engage in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, interfaith collaboration, presiding over rites of passage, and promoting social justice. It’s a means of both transmitting Japanese liturgy, ritual, protocol, and etiquette and also of thoughtfully adapting them to American needs. The priesthood embodies the Bodhisattva ideal of service to all beings. Since retiring from psychotherapy, I’ve sought to use the skills I acquired as a therapist—listening, presence, holding a space, using language to unlock potentiality—in some new role unconstrained by the dictates of professionalism, the medical model, the fifty-minute hour, and the insurance industry. It’s my greatest hope that the priesthood will prove to be a path that allows me to offer my skills in the service of wisdom, compassion, and awakening.
My Buddhist journey is a fifty-year arc: the adolescent student attending Alan Watts lectures in the 1960s; the psychologist on internship at the Center for Mindfulness in the 1990s; the yogi on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and the Springwater Center; my jukai and shukke tokudo in the White Plum Asanga lineage and Zen Peacemaker Order. I went from being a Westerner interested in Buddhism, to a Buddhist sympathizer, to a lay Buddhist, to an ordained Buddhist—each of these stations on a journey towards greater commitment to a path that has continued to enrich my life beyond words, and for which I am profoundly grateful.
I have some concern as to how my fellow sangha members may react to my robes. Robes have the potential to signify something else for others than they do for me. It’s possible that the robes may be experienced—subtly or unsubtly—as somehow putting a separation between me and others. I hope that concern proves to be unfounded. While fully dedicated to zazen and awakening, many of my sangha members do not identify themselves as being “Buddhists,” and some are skeptical of and even averse to Japanese tradition and ritual. They lean towards a modern, American Zen—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—rather than towards preserving Zen’s Japanese heritage. I’m sympathetic to that—I’d have never found my own entry into Buddhist practice through more traditional Asian Buddhist forms. I’d probably have run the other way. My first teachers, like the late Toni Packer, stripped sitting and awareness down to its barest essentials, making it possible for a skeptical Westerner like myself to relate to them.
On the other hand, I’ve become more of a traditionalist over time, worrying about what may get lost in translation. I find traditional Japanese forms of practice beautiful and inspiring, and find great value in an etiquette based on infinite respect for all things, the spare Zen aesthetic, and a careful, intricate attention to detail. They remind me of my interdependence with and gratitude/respect for all-and-everything. They also serve as an antidote to the modern Western overemphases on individualism, the network of “me-ness,” and our focus on forever trying to arrange things closer to our preferences and desires. As the saying goes, “only don’t pick and choose.”
We’re all beneficiaries of an ancient flowing tradition. I’m grateful for that tradition and wish to continue to honor it as we step into the future. Not every aspect of it—not the authoritarianism and sexism, for example.But much of it. The dialectical tension between traditionalism and modernism affects every aspect of Buddhist metaphysics, ethics, and practice. It always has and always will as Buddhism has historically crossed and continues to cross cultural and temporal boundaries. I’m glad to be deeply rooted in and a part of an evolving tradition, and to be intimately engaged in the never-ending dialogue over how to shape its future.
“When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.”
—Eihei Dogen, Genjokoan (Okumura trans.)
The metaphor of an arhat’s or bodhisattva’s path being like that of a flying bird is a familiar Buddhist trope, recurring in the Dhammapada, the Ten Stages Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and Dongshan Liangjie’s Recorded Sayings.When Eihei Dogen put his own specific spin on this avian metaphor, he was doing so to illustrate that there’s no end to practice/realization.In Theravada Buddhism there’s a path with a final destination: complete and perfect Enlightenment. In Dogen Zen there’s no path, no end to delusion, no end to realization, no end to practice.In Dogen’s non-dual universe realization is already present in our practice, and delusion is inseparable from it — separating delusion from enlightenment is itself a subtle form of dualism. When we sit zazen, we express an enlightenment that’s already present and always “ours” given our Buddha-nature, but there’s no end to practice and our expression of realization.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir describes another kind of endless process when she says of human aims, “the goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing.” This idea of existence as a continuous act of self-surpassing is relatively new in Western thought—something rooted in the nineteenth-century philosophies of Nietzsche and Hegel.A similar idea is carried forward in the twentieth-century philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead who describes a process of “concresence” in which, in each and every moment, we create ourselves anew.
A complete description of any process—and process is all there is—includes an implied next step, a place where the process is heading, which in turn creates a new state of affairs and, along with it, a new next step. My lifting my leg and shifting my weight implies the step to follow.Feeling hungry implies the next step of searching for food. Oxygen combined with iron in an acidic environment implies the next step of an exchange of electrons. Seeds, soil, water, and sunlight have plants as their next step; Plants have seeds as their next step: the arrow of time points one way.
This endless self-surpassing, this forever taking of a next step, is a metaphor for how we live. Each moment reveals new possibilities, allowing Being to disclose itself in new ways. Each accomplishment opens up new horizons, and along with them, new questions, new disequilibria, and new abilities.
Buddhist practice changes us.Each time we sit, each time we exercise compassion, we’re subtly changed, and the odds of how we’ll act in the next moment have subtly shifted. Just as our ability to appreciate music and art changes with our increased experience of them, so our appreciation of zazen changes with experience.Our understanding of the limits of our compassion changes with experience, as does our understanding of what to do with our lives. Other things change too: our enchantment with material things; our understanding of sickness, old age, and death; our ratio of self-centered to altruistic thoughts; our emotional reactivity to adverse events.The opening words of the Heart Sutra dharani—gate, gate, paragate — “gone, gone, gone beyond” — express this self-surpassing movement: we’re always going “beyond.” Only there’s no final, complete end to this beyond — only an endless movement towards the horizon.
What do we mean when we say that something is morally wrong? Theists have no problem answering this question: morally wrong acts are those that contravene God’s intentions for how human beings ought to behave. Non-theists, however, are stuck with more of a problem in defining what “morality” and “ethics” (I’m using the terms interchangeably) are. Our conceptions of morality need grounding in some larger conception of what life is all about, and it’s here where contemporary non-theistic attempts to ground ethics are most likely to founder.
Some post-Enlightenment Western philosophers (e.g., David Hume) have argued that statements about morality are really just statements of personal sentiment and preference rather than statements of fact. In other words, the statement that “murder is wrong” means nothing over and above the statement “Ugh! Murder. Don’t do it.” This belief that moral statements are merely sentiments is called “emotivism.”
Other post-Enlightenment Western philosophers, seeking a more solid ground than emotivism in which to root moral statements, have successively tried — and failed— to ground morality in either rationality (Emmanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”) or utility (Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”). Contemporary Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, however, that all philosophical efforts to ground morality in something other than sentiment are doomed by our modern commitments to a secular, scientific view of Nature which excludes meaning, purpose, or telos from its materialist description of the way things are.
MacIntyre argues that David Hume’s famous dictum that there’s no way to logically get to “ought” statements from “is” statements is, strictly speaking, not true. For example, if a watch always tells the right time we can reasonably conclude that the watch is a “good” watch. We can conclude that the watch is “good” because the very definition of a watch tells us what a watch is for. Watches, by definition, have a purpose; they are “for” something. Things that conform to and fulfill their aim can be said to possess “goodness” in a way that’s based on more than sentiment.
Classical philosophers like Aristotle, and medieval philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition like Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that human beings, too, had a purpose. For Aristotle it was a telos or “final end” intended by Nature — man’s telos was fulfilled by developing one’s intellectual and moral virtues so as to achieve a state of eudaemonia, often translated as “human flourishing” or “well-being.” For St. Thomas, man’s purpose was to live in accordance with God’s intentions for who we are to be and with Natural Law as established by God. Modern science, however, doesn’t countenance the belief that Nature possesses final ends, purposes or intentions. Within the confines of science’s world-view, moral statements are left hanging in air, ungrounded in anything that might make them intelligible. Moral statements, to mean anything, must have some standard that lies beyond mere sentiment and preference because different human beings believe and express a diversity of conflicting sentiments and preferences, and this diversity of sentiments precludes any rational means of resolving moral disputes. Without an external standard, Hitler’s moral judgments are no better or worse than your own.
Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the consensus scientific account of how we came to be cannot account for three essential human qualities: consciousness, reason, and value. He suggests that only some combination of panpsychism and telos can account for how we humans got to be the way we are. He believes that consciousness must originate in some form of panpsychism, and that, additionally, something about the laws of Nature must not only permit, but also encourage the timely emergence of increased complexity, consciousness, reason, and value. Nagel believes that Nature has a story to tell, and that it’s something like “the universe is waking up.” Nagel’s controversial book, Mind and Cosmos (2012), was widely criticized, but it’s really a modest exploration of the kinds of problems the current scientific paradigm is incapable of successfully resolving.
As humans we’re, first and foremost, conscious beings, and our consciousness is riddled through-and-through with intentions, purposes, motives, and reasons; the kinds of things that Nature is allegedly devoid of. Value is an immediate property of consciousness. We immediately perceive a sunset as “beautiful”; we don’t need to think it over. We immediately understand that the statement “there’s no unicorn in this room” is “true”; we don’t need to reason it out. We immediately know that rescuing a child who’s fallen into a well is “right”; we don’t need to morally deliberate over it. While reason shapes and extends our immediate intuitions about beauty, truth, and goodness, and while we seek logical grounds for resolving value conflicts, our initial perception of value is inherent in consciousness itself. It’s a phenomenological given. That’s not to say that morality existed prior to human consciousness. No one accuses lions of immorality for killing their prey. But once human consciousness arises, beauty, truth, and goodness come along for the ride. While our specific apprehensions of what’s beautiful, true, or good change from culture to culture, era to era, and across one’s lifespan, the value realms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness universally persist, in much the same way that languages may vary from culture to culture and era to era, but Language itself is a human universal.
Evolutionary biologists wrongly believe they’ve a good candidate for a mechanism that can account for the emergence of morality. They point out that social animals like ants, wasps, and humans are among the most successful species on our planet. They say that sociality conveys evolutionary advantages that allow Nature to pay a premium for the modulation of in-group competition and the enhancement of in-group altruism. As compelling as this argument is, it can only explain why acts of cooperation and mutual aid are “useful,” but never why they’re “right.” When we say that something is “right,” we intend something different than saying that it’s beneficial for survival. We rescue that child drowning in the well, not because we hope others will do the same if it were our child, but because it’s the “right” thing to do. Moral underpinnings that emphasize reproductive fitness take us only so far. We need an explanation for “rightness” that goes beyond social and biological utility. For example, the history of our own culture suggests an evolution in moral values marked by a gradual process of inclusion of “others” onto the list of those to whom moral duties are owed, e.g., people of color, women, infidels, homosexuals, transexuals, unborn children, cetaceans, primates, elephants, endangered species, factory farmed animals, and so on. This gradual extension involves the spread of a standard of rightness that’s utterly divorced from in-group fidelity and reproductive fitness. It marks, in fact, the slow abolition of the very distinction between in-groups and out-groups, a distinction that’s necessary for any successful genetic account of evolution. While the spread of this evolving morality may eventually save us from extinction by nuclear holocaust, climate change, or some other unforeseen Anthropocene disaster, its salutary effect for our future can’t account for its present-day emergence. Evolution doesn’t permit the future to influence the present or the past.
But if science as currently construed is incapable of giving a coherent account of the-way-things-are that includes what we know best and most intimately, namely consciousness, purpose, value, and meaning, and if we’re no longer capable of or willing to believe in a Deity, what options are left to us? I want to address the question of whether Buddhism can provide a framework in which moral statements can again make coherent sense. In doing this, I’m not claiming any superiority or exclusivity for a Buddhist solution, only exploring whether a Buddhist solution is possible, and if so, what if might be. In a series of provocative essays, David Chapman has recently argued that mainstream Western Buddhism is incapable of providing any such framework. I think he’s wrong, and I see this essay as part of an ongoing conversation about whether and how Western Buddhism can, in fact, address ethical issues.
There are a number of possible strands within the Buddhist tradition which might allow for such a solution. The first is the classical Buddhist idea of karma as the determinant of the realms of rebirth and of sila (ethics) as part of the triumvirate of sets of practices (along with meditation and wisdom) leading to liberation and enlightenment. This is an idea that is already present in the earliest known strata of Buddhist thinking as preserved in the Pali canon. In this scheme, moral behavior plays a role in both determining more desirable rebirths and, ultimately, in attaining enlightenment, or freedom from future rebirths. This scheme answers the question of “why behave morally?” with an appeal to freedom from suffering in this and future lives, and to a final release from any and all suffering that is our natural ultimate destination if only we knew it. Actions are moral if they create good karma and lead us towards these ends. This formulation is somewhat problematic for moderns who no longer believe in rebirth and freedom from rebirth, but it retains some attenuated force as a kind of Aristotelian path towards eudaemonia, if not to complete and perfect enlightenment.
There are two other strands of Buddhist thought, however, that suggest a different sort of Buddhist solution to the issue of contemporary moral incoherence. The primary Buddhist elements in this second framework are the twin notions of Dependent Origination and the Bodhisattva Path. These are notions that only reach their fullest expression in historically later strands of Buddhist thought within the Indian and Chinese Mahayana traditions.
Dependent Origination, especially in its Madhyamaka (i.e., “emptiness”) and Huayan (i.e., “interpenetration”) formulations, emphasizes the process-relational nature of reality. All “things” (I use the word“things” advisably because there are no “things” in this model, only seamlessly interrelated processes, mutually affecting and transforming each other over time) immediately and intimately co-participate in the emergence of each moment of reality. Dependent Origination implies that the human qualities of consciousness, reason, and value are inherent in Nature, the outgrowth of the integral functioning of the universe, and not simply ghostly flukes residing somewhere between our ears and behind our eyes.
The Bodhisattva Path offers a telos, a final end, for us and Nature: we’re here to help all beings awaken, and because of Dependent Origination, the whole of reality supports us in this endeavor. It’s not just our endeavor, it’s the Universe’s. As the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist monk Eihei Dogen might say, “earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles” co-participate in our enlightenment, our enlightenment transforming space and time as we co-awaken with the whole of reality. Within this non-dual framework, our purpose is to cultivate wisdom and compassion. It’s this purpose that provides an external standard for judging the morality of actions: Actions that help ourselves and others to actualize wisdom (i.e., the realization of emptiness, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self, and non-duality) and facilitate mindful awareness, non-harming, compassion and non-grasping are moral. Actions that detract from it are immoral. We instantiate this moral process in all of our activities, e.g., in meditating, raising and educating children, dealing wisely and compassionately with others, being mindful in speech and behavior, exercising restraint in our desires, and so on. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality achieves coherence through embeddedness within a cultural matrix of supporting practices, narratives and traditions. Buddhism happily provides all three.
Unfortunately, these general Buddhist principles fail to provide a means for resolving conflicts between specific moral intuitions. What if, in saving the baby drowning in the well, we’ve saved the baby Hitler? What if a compassionate action helps one person but disadvantages another? What if an act of mercy towards a perpetrator leaves an injured party aggrieved? What if saving an endangered species creates economic hardship for people living nearby? The answers to these sorts of questions often entail a resort to some kind of moral calculus, as if all goods could be measured against each other on the same scale, when in fact they are, often enough, incommensurable. While in Buddhism compassion trumps everything else, the primacy of compassion can’t resolve the question of “compassion towards whom?” when people are differentially affected by actions. All philosophies face this problem of what to do when “goods” conflict. Sometimes we just have to face the tragic implications of how life is structured with something approaching resignation or grace. Buddhist principles can anchor our ethics in a telos, but in and of themselves, can provide only minimal guidance on how to settle these disputes. Since Buddhism never developed its own tradition of critical ethical investigation, it may sometimes have to allow non-Buddhist philosophers to come to its aid with their ungainly mix of consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics to help think things through. Deciding what’s right is often complicated, but that doesn’t have to mean that the notion of “right” itself needs be incoherent.
The problem with this second Buddhist solution is that one has to buy it’s premises for it to work. Not everyone can do so. Materialists, for example, could never buy into the premise that we have a purpose, or that our purpose is part of a larger narrative of everything “waking up.” As a result, Western Buddhism has secular adherents who try to fit significant portions of the Buddhist project into a materialist frame. For secularists, the end point of Buddhist practice is again some version of eudaemonia, and the active Buddhist ingredients contributing to this eudaemonia include elements of mindfulness and compassion. Their answer to the question, “why be mindful or compassionate?” needs be a utilitarian one: it contributes to one’s feeling happier and facilitates one’s capacity to make others feel happier. This probably provides sufficient reason for many people to engage in secularized Buddhist practice; after all, who wouldn’t want to be happier? What it doesn’t provide is a reason why the Buddhist path to happiness is superior to everyone just taking some Valium. The secular response to this requires a theory of why some types of happiness are superior to others, and this requires a theory of what human beings are for, and how they’re supposed to be—just the sort of thing that secularists tend to shy away from. For example, in his book Flourish (2011), positive psychologist Martin Seligman posits a model of eudaemonia that includes the five factors of positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, relationship, and meaning. It’s not a bad list, but it begs the question of “why these factors and not others?” since it lacks a larger theory of what human beings are for. Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than oneself.” This definition suggests that we’re all free to find our own meaning — that one person’s meaning is as good as another’s, whether one is a Bodhisattva, a Fascist, or an acolyte of the Islamic State. Whatever makes you feel you’re part of some larger story. You can see the inherent problem: we’re left with no way to establish a hierarchy of goodness within the universe of possible meanings. Secularized accounts can never adequately address questions of goodness without grounding the concept in some larger theory of what our lives are all about. That means acknowledging that human lives are, in fact, about something.
Everyone, knowingly or not, has a metaphysics. A materialist metaphysics can’t account for consciousness and value, and leaves our lives devoid of meaning. Materialism suggests our lives aren’t about anything — they’re just accidental byproducts of physical processes. Materialism can’t be empirically proven or disproven, any more than pan-psychism or teleology can. It’s just more or less useful, and depending on your point of view, more or less credible.
I think the Buddhist story has something special to contribute to our survival as a species. It clarifies our deep interrelationship with all beings and with Nature, clarifies our moral duties towards all beings without exception, and encourages us to move beyond the fragmented individualism and consumer mentality that are the twin scourges of modern Western society. As our fragile species lurches toward the possibility of extinction, we moderns are increasingly the inheritors of a conflicting set of historical grievances and irreconcilable world-views, while simultaneously the possessors of technologies that extend our ability to inflict exponentially greater harm on each other. Our current moral incoherence will not let us muddle through. Something very much like Buddhist ethics seems increasingly urgent if we’re going to make sufficient progress in resolving these conflicts to survive as a species. The Buddhist solution, however, requires us to think differently about Nature and our place in it. It also requires us to assume something very much like the Bodhisattva ideal — the belief that there’s a more enlightened way to be than the way-we-are-now (however we construe “Enlightenment”) and that an engaged, compassionate regard for others is an indispensable component of that enlightened way.