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Concerning “extreme ethics”

This is the second post courtesy of my hostile interlocutor, Sophia.  In fact, she started our conversation by asking what I was going to write about bodhisattvas killing people, and she provided some excellent fodder for the conversation in the form text from a site, here.  I suggest you read this before continuing.

Mostly these are examples of what I call “extreme ethics,” ethical conundrums where someone has to die or suffer horribly or violate serious taboos.  (The significant exception is the sexual one.  This is just a case where a marriage has outlived its usefulness and the two people should go their separate ways.)  In cases of extreme ethics there is no escape for the would-be virtuous person, no dodging the bullet.  Either they sin by commission or by omission—sinning is not optional.  These situations exist and they have to be considered if we are going to create—and practice—a mature ethic of living.

The issue I’m most interested in here is where somebody killing or dying appears unavoidable, and this is clearly what interested Sophia.  She seemed of the opinion that Mahayanists were lax in this regard, less strict about the precept on not killing than Theravadans are.  She may have a point.  That is, I think there have been more instances of excuse-making within the Mahayana tradition as regards this precept than within the Theravada.  Note, however, that I’m not going to try documenting this suspicion with textual evidence because I really don’t care which tradition is “better” or more “pure.”  What interests me is the question of whether or not, in certain circumstances, it might be the “right” thing or at least the “better” thing to kill than not to kill.

This is how I addressed the issue with Sophia.  I wrote:

Let’s say you are a good German during World War II and you’re hiding a family of Jews in your house.  An SS commander comes to inspect your premises for whatever reason and discovers the family.  You have it in your power to kill the man on the spot, thereby saving the family (for now, at least).  Do you do it?

I think any sane person capable of thinking quickly enough and keeping his/her wits about him would kill the SS officer.  It is a “simple” calculation of life against lives, where you are in the unfortunate position of being the decider of fates.  Oddly, while it is a good thing to save a family, at the same time it is a bad thing to kill a man, regardless of his intentions.  The former, in my opinion, does not obviate the latter.  Moreover, to say that there will not be negative repercussions for killing a man “in cold blood” would be silly.  The “good German” in this situation will almost assuredly feel distress, possibly for the rest of his life, for killing the SS officer.  He might “justify” it (i.e. attempt to relieve his guilt) by thinking of the people he saved, but he is still guilty of killing and only psychopaths feel no remorse.

I actually have had a less extreme personal experience of this kind of thing, this moral “residue” of a choice I made.  Back when I was in college I was on break and at my parents’ home.  My father found a baby possum in broad daylight.  (Possums, of course, are nocturnal animals, so this one was obviously lost.)  It had probably fallen out of a tree or somehow gotten separated from its mother.  Anyway, the poor creature was defenseless, but what were we to do?  So, we put it in some bushes and wished it good luck.  An hour or two later I went in to my father’s workshop.  The door was open and since the light was not on I walked in out of sunlight into relative darkness.  I couldn’t see much and as I stepped in, reaching for the light switch, I kicked something.  I flicked on the light and there was the baby possum, contorted in pain.  Obviously I had broken its back or crushed some organs.  Clearly it was going to die.  I felt horrible, but worse was the prospect of letting the little creature die a slow, agonizing death over who knows how long a time.  So, desperate to end the thing’s suffering, I cut off its head with a hatchet.  Now, needless to say, its death was not my intention.  I would not harm such a creature for anything, but I was in a no-win scenario that happened by accident.  Did I do the right thing or not?  I think yes, but to this day remembering the event makes me queasy.  Now, how much worse would it be for that good German in our earlier example?

This is all to illustrate that living ethically, “being a bodhisattva,” is not some special designation we get and then go through life with, wearing it on our lapel.  Every day we are called upon to make ethical choices, and most of them, thankfully, are not extreme.  But every choice leaves its mark, and even the most compassionate and courageous among us make mistakes.  We may not make the right choice every time, and even if we do we will possibly have second thoughts.  Even if we know what we did was right (as the good German ought to know) that does not mean the decision is “clean” or easy, that it does not injure us psychologically in some way or another.  This is simply to say that the ethical laws governing a bodhisattva’s actions are not in any way different from the ethical laws anyone else must answer to.  A bodhisattva is simply someone who has chosen to practice ethical living in a more conscious and energetic fashion.  This choice, of course, is itself an ethical decision, and sometimes it may place them in extreme circumstances where no good, ethically “clean” outcome is possible.

So, to get back to what I originally said: killing is always unethical and any “justification” for it is always contrived.  But sometimes, when compared to other decisions, it may be the best decision to make.  The notion that by that fact killing somehow becomes heroic and “propels us on our bodhisattva career” is, I think, silly and immature, not to mention dangerous and delusional.  This is to pretend that one person has a special status that other people do not have.  Nobody has a special status, not even the psychopath, who simply becomes more psychopathic the more frequently he kills and does not care.  I would therefore argue that the extent to which you really do care about your actions and their effects is the extent to which you are ethical.

Her response was to say scenarios such as my “good German” found himself in are “contrived.”  My response to this would be to say Please, get out of your velveteen palace and live a little!  If you don’t believe ethical choices in extremis actually occur, talk to people who have been in combat, who have lived or worked in war zones.  Visit a war zone.  Talk to rescuers in disasters or the victims of extreme crime or terrorism.  Many of these people have had to make split second, life-and-death decisions, where they were literally deciding the fates of others.  I was once the victim of a home invasion, and I can tell you that considerations of appropriate force, weapons for self-defense, and expedient measures are all very applicable in such cases, even if you have only minutes or seconds to decide.

If you feel, like Sophia, that our ethics do not have to account for such situations, I suggest you make a day-trip to a maximum security prison with people facing life sentences or capital punishment for unspeakable crimes.  You should talk to the wardens and guards and inmates, asking them about the extreme choices that led them to such extreme fates.  Or, you could take a sabbatical to a place of soul-wrenching poverty, where you might actually see people dying on the roadside, neglected and alone.  If this doesn’t incite your moral imagination, I don’t know what will.

You don’t have to travel far to see the face of misfortune, though.  I work in a hospital where I cross paths with chemo-bald, dying children every day.  Imagine the choices their parents and caregivers have to make as regards the allocation of limited resources and medicines for life extension: how much, for how long, at what cost, and to what end?  You should visit a cancer ward and consider these issues, keenly aware as you breathe easily, free of disease.

Another simple suggestion would be to talk to emergency room staff.  For almost two decades my sister has been a nurse.  She’s seen it all: triages where she decided who lived and who died, dealing with relatives wanting to help sick loved ones die by over-dosing them with pain relievers, not to mention the necessity of having to repeatedly save people who seemed hell-bent on killing themselves by their destructive habits.  When it came time for our father to pass away (he was pronounced terminal on account of multiple tumors growing around vital organs), he asked my sister to help him end his life.  If you don’t think this is a moral conundrum comparable to my “good German” scenario you should get your head examined.  I can tell you, though in the end our father died as painlessly and gracefully as could be hoped, the ethical quality of our choices regarding parental euthanasia did not admit of a “happy” ending, just an ending.  As I said, sometimes the sin is unavoidable: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The point of all this is to say that one day you, too, may find you have to make a decision, either at a moment’s notice, or over the course of hours and days, where you determine the life or death of a person or persons.  They could be anyone, strangers or lovers.  If you hold high political office it could be the fate of a nation.  If you’re a CEO you may have to decide who loses their job and their livelihood.  In every one of these situations there is no course of action that does not hurt someone (yourself included), and no matter how well you choose you will not experience a sense of comforting clarity or the thought that everything is okay now since you made the right choice—assuming you made the right choice.  While we may like our ethical problems to be neat and clean and to resolve with the moral certainty of a John Wayne movie, sometimes we are mere instruments of fate, weighing the feelings and existences of others like lumps of meat on a scale.

If you think I am in any way validating murder, giving it a thumbs up whenever the shit hits the fan, that would be a very mistaken interpretation of my meaning here.  I want to state emphatically that I believe killing is morally wrong for the simple reason that it numbs and destroys us inside, not to mention what it does to the victim.  At the same time I say beware of people who hold to absolute and inflexible standards of ethical value and conduct.  Such beliefs do not acknowledge the bleak uncertainty and instability of our lives.  This often manifests in gross hypocrisy, as when a politician claims he’s “pro-life” and “pro-gun” in one sentence.  (I’ve actually seen this and it is breathtaking.)  It is easy to give a pretense to morality and honor if all you do is mouth chapter and verse, and this is why the commandments of sky gods and prophets can never substitute for deliberate and conscientious consideration of the reality of the situations we find ourselves in.

One final point.  In defense of her “moral clarity” Sophia offered this famous verse from the Kakacupama Sutta (M.21):

Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: “Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” That’s how you should train yourselves.

Many people use this and similar quotes as a defense of the notion that the Buddha’s teaching is one of total passivity in the face of injustice or violence being inflicted upon individuals or whole communities.  But notice that what the Buddha addressed here was the mental state of the person being attacked.  He’s saying, in effect, that regardless of what happens to you do not allow anger and resentment to take over your mind.  He did not say you should let them saw you up and run you over.  I hardly think he would be averse to an attempt to escape from or disarm the bandits.  In fact, nowhere in the suttas have I ever seen an example of someone rightly practicing allow or encourage someone to allow the rape or slaughter of others because that was the “peaceful” thing to do.  Obviously, in the case of bandits, the best way would be simply to avoid or escape them.  If that’s not possible, then resist them to the extent necessary to make a getaway.  If that’s not possible, you may have to fight for your life while hopefully exercising the presence of mind necessary to use only the minimal and necessary force to avoid gross injury to either party.  You see how quickly such a scenario, in the moment, becomes dicey and uncertain?  How comforting it must be to sit back in your easy chair, pondering your scriptures and philosophy books, and say that if ever you are attacked you will calmly let yourself be robbed and slaughtered.  My question to such a person would be Why do you value your own life so little?  

My challenge to the Sophias of the world is this: Show me one instance in the Suttas or Vinaya where the Buddha or a rightly practicing disciple allowed him or herself or anyone else in immediate proximity to be murdered, beaten or raped while offering no resistance, even if it was just the exercise of psychic powers to effect escape or change the circumstances.  If you can show me one unambiguous example I will reevaluate and, possibly, recant the position I have elaborated here.

To Do and Not To Do: Bodhisattva Virtue In Action

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (5)

“Virtue,” Acariya Dhammapala tells us, “is twofold as avoidance (varitta) and performance (caritta)” (p. 41).  If you keep the five precepts, you are avoiding certain actions.  You are not killing, notstealing, not committing adultery, not lying and not using intoxicants.  This is a type of virtue, certainly–we might even say a negative virtue.  In this way, your goodness is measured by absence.

In the Pali Nikayas this is considered sufficient for the attainment of arhantship.  A person not engaging in certain behaviors will remove him or herself from those situations and consequences that ruffle the mind and lead to unfortunate outcomes.  For the establishment of a peaceful mind, a mind that is ready to meditate, this is enough.

But here, perhaps, we really do see a difference between the bodhisattva ideal and the ideal of someone who simply wants to meditate for his own well-being. The bodhisattva cannot stand on negative virtue alone, he must go further and act, positively, outwardly, to express compassion to the best of his ability.  Virtue must not only be absence, but performance.  The bodhisattva mustdo something.

dog carrying dog

The Dalai Lama’s quote above perfectly captures these two facets of virtue or goodness.  At leastdon’t hurt others (or yourself); that is the lowest standard one should hold oneself to.  Going beyond that, practice the opposites of those behaviors the precepts guard against.  So, we might say:

  1. At least, do not kill.  Better yet, protect and render assistance to others.
  2. At least, do not steal.  Better yet, give to others (dana).
  3. At least, don’t misuse your sexual energy.  Better yet, be chaste and educate people on the right uses of sexuality (when and as appropriate).
  4. At least, don’t lie.  Better yet, disclose your faults and when you speak, be gentle and informative.
  5. At least, don’t take intoxicants.  Better yet, nourish yourself with healthy, edifying food, what the Hindus call sattvic.

Dhammapala goes into considerable detail about the do’s and dont’s of bodhisattva virtue.  Here is my boiled-down version of his virtue as avoidance:

  • hold no resentment against anyone
  • do not take what is not given
  • never arouse a thought of lust for the wives/husbands of others (if a householder)
  • abstain from all forms of sexuality (if a renunciate)
  • do not say anything untrue, hurtful, unwise, or untimely
  • abstain from harsh speech
  • abstain from slander
  • abstain from idle chatter
  • abstain from covetousness, ill will and perverted views
  • never injure another
  • do no evil deed even if threatened with death
  • do not indulge in omens and superstitious practices
  • do not indulge in the “diversity of outside creeds”
  • abstain from all wrong means of livelihood
  • never arouse unwholesome states in others
  • never place oneself in a higher position or rank than those who are of inferior conduct
  • be neither too accessible nor inaccessible (i.e. associate with others at the proper time)
  • do not criticize those who are dear to others in front of them nor praise those who are resented by them
  • do not engage in persuasion
  • do not accept excessive favors
  • do not refuse a proper invitation

Now for virtue as performance:

  • speak only truthful, beneficial, endearing, measured and timely talk, especially talk concerned with Dhamma
  • possess knowledge of and faith in cause-and-effect
  • have faith and respect for recluses who have gone forth and are practicing in the right way
  • perfect the practice of loving-kindness
  • eradicate hatred, ill-will and aversion
  • be devoted to renunciation
  • have faith in the enlightenment of the Tathagatas
  • treat others with respect and courtesy
  • wait upon the sick
  • render service to those who ask
  • give thanks to those who commend you
  • praise the noble qualities of the virtuous
  • patiently endure the abuse of antagonists
  • always repay help and advice rendered to you
  • diligently practice wholesome states of mind
  • acknowledge all transgressions and reveal your faults
  • do good deeds anonymously [per Dogen]
  • dedicate your every goodness to supreme enlightenment
  • be a companion to those who need companionship
  • comfort and aid the sick and needy
  • console the bereaved
  • restrain with Dhamma those who need to be restrained
  • inspire with Dhamma those who need inspiration
  • determine to perform the “loftiest, most difficult, inconceivably powerful deeds of the great bodhisattvas of the past”
  • conceal your virtues
  • do not become complacent over minor achievements, but strive for successively higher achievements
  • assist those who suffer from blindness, deafness and physical disability
  • help the faithless gain faith, the lazy generate zeal, the confused develop mindfulness, the unconcentrated gain concentration
  • dispel the five hindrances from those who suffer them
  • establish beings in wholesome states

All of the above, every last bit of it, is dedicated to the “purpose of becoming an omniscient Buddha in order to enable all beings to acquire the incomparable adornment of virtue” (47).  Furthermore:

Thus, esteeming virtue as the foundation for all achievements — as the soil for the origination of all the Buddha-qualities, the beginning, footing, head, and chief of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood — and recognizing gain, honor, and fame as a foe in the guise of a friend, a bodhisattva should diligently and thoroughly perfect his virtue as a hen guards its eggs: through the power of mindfulness and clear comprehension in the control of bodily and vocal action, in the taming of the sense-faculties, in purification of livelihood, and in the use of the requisites (44).

The Beginning Bodhisattva’s Practice of Virtue

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (4)

The middle third of Arya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” is, fittingly, taken up with a discussion of how the paramis are actually practiced (this would be section (x), running from pp. 35-56).  Of that chunk, more than half is devoted to the first two paramis, generosity (dana) and virtue (sila).  This is not so surprising since they are the foundation for everything else; remember in the suttas the Buddha’s teaching is often explained in brief as danasila and bhavana (mental cultivation or meditation).

I think generosity is a pretty easy concept to get–give ’til it hurts, as Mother Teresa said–but virtue, aka morality or ethics, is an entire subject itself, abounding with subtleties and potential complications.  So for this post I’d like to discuss Dhammapala’s take on virtue.


Dhammapala tells us virtue is purified by four ways or modes:

  1. by purifying one’s inclinations, meaning the things that attract or interest you (practicing dhutangas vs watching porn, for example);
  2. by undertaking precepts;
  3. by non-transgression, or keeping, of those precepts;
  4. by making amends (penitence and apologies) for transgressions.

All of these are cultivated, undertaken, encouraged and maintained by a sense of shame over moral transgression (hiri) and moral dread (otappa), which is fear of the results of transgression, and I’d say that it is really these two innate sensibilities that determine, to a greater or lesser degree, how you will behave from an ethical standpoint.  On this a lot could be said, but I will note that there are people who possess neither shame nor moral dread, and they are known as sociopaths.

Most of us, fortunately, are not sociopaths.  If we break rules or promises (especially those we value), the violation of which lowers us in our own eyes, we feel shame (guilt, too, probably, but there is a difference).  We also probably take a quick look around to see if anyone is watching, and, oddly, our relief is not complete even if we’re pretty sure we didn’t get caught.  In other words, we fear the consequences that come from breaking trust with others and ourselves–even if the police aren’t going to come get us, the world we know somehow manages to gnaw at our gut.

The important thing is that these tendencies, which in the morally healthy person are strong and quick to come online when needed, can be cultivated, and the four steps above are the process of that cultivation.  So what Dhammapala is telling us is that first we must incline toward taking on moral standards, then we must decide to do so, then we have to try to keep the promises we’ve made, and if we don’t….well, we must make it up to someone, as often as not, ourselves.

Precepts are different from commandments.  I hope everyone can see this.  In Exodus the sky god Yahweh tells his people “You must do this, that and the other thing…or else.”  Moses doesn’t stand there and ask why he and the rest have to do all these things–it’s unnerving to have conversations with burning bushes, after all–and Yahweh certainly doesn’t volunteer any justifications: “It’s good for social cohesion,” “You’ll have fewer altercations,” “Your love life will be better,” etc.  It’s just a matter of here’s the list, now be obedient.  

Notice a commandment is something given without explanation; it’s externally imposed.  However, precepts–in Buddhism, at least–are rules of training you take upon yourself because you’ve considered and reflected and come to understand the intelligence behind them.  If you have the goal of spiritual awakening, then you will realize that without the guideposts of ethical training rules the chance of you getting to your goal is nil.  I’ve written at length elsewhere upon this subject.  Here’s a snippet of what I’ve said:

What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.

Once one understands this, then hiri and otappa come naturally and abundantly and Dhammapala’s four-fold schema follows as a matter of course.

Ethics meds

The Fuss Over “Spiritual but not religious”: an answer to Alan Miller

Recently a certain Alan Miller published an opinion piece on CNN’s Belief Blog entitled “My Take: ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out” .  As someone who has self-identified in this fashion for several decades now, I of course read the piece.  I came away stunned and disturbed by several things.  First, I wondered how any article so badly written, so sloppily reasoned, so sweeping and denouncing in its assertions, and so shady in its motivations could actually get published on a venue like CNN.  (This may say as much about CNN as anything else, of course….)  Second, I wondered how someone possessing any intellectual credentials worth advertising (such as being director of The New York Salon) could actually write—and then subsequently defend—an editorial so lacking in merit.  But perhaps at this point in my life nothing should surprise me when it comes to religion and other sacred cows.  Human beings, it seems, almost invariably choose to believe first and ask questions—or write stupid editorials—later. 
I hoped somebody would come back with a devastating repartee to Miller’s exercise in fatuousness.  From the responses I’ve seen though, I am unable to rest assured that this has happened.  In Miller’s own response to his critics he quoted several at length, and it seems none of them really managed to nail him for the intellectual charlatan he clearly is.  So, as they say, if you want something done right you have to do it yourself…
Miller’s thesis, conveniently, is contained in his title: “’I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop out.”  So, when I, Craig Shoemake, say that I am a “spiritual” person but do not profess alignment with an established institution or ideology, or at least do not practice strictly within the confines of some tradition vouchsafed by millennia, I am an intellectual “cop out”.  Just so we’re all clear, this is what he is saying. 
A couple definitions are in order.  First, Miller appears to define “spiritual” as synonymous with several activities or attitudes, such as “choosing an ‘individual relationship’ to some concept of ‘higher power,’ energy, oneness or something-or-other,” “being independent,” and relying on “feeling,” among other sins.  Second, by “cop out” he means offering “no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind,” indulging in “relativist truths,” smorgasbord style dabbling or syncretism (“A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui…”), shunning rules and in depth analysis, as well as “want[ing] to experience ‘nice things’ and ‘feel better’” etc.  In other words, he’s accusing spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) people of philosophical and ethical irresponsibility.
So that’s the charge: SBNRs are morally and intellectually dissolute, self-indulgent, wish-washy hedonists.  Now, in Miller’s defense I would say he is certainly right about a lot of people.  There are many “New Age” sorts out there who fit his caricature to a T.  I know because I’ve met them. I’ve lived with them. However, intellectual laziness is a widely practiced sin.  Virtually every segment of society–political, economic, religious, you name it–indulges in it on a regular basis.  This is why our economy crashed in 2008.  This is why millions of people think the world is seven thousand years old or that Elvis still lives in a sort of virtual Graceland.  Hell, the sinking of the Titanic can be credited in part to over confident design and shoddy engineering.  If these don’t constitute intellectual laziness, I don’t know what does.  So when Miller accuses some segment of the population of being intellectually lazy, the response of everyone else ought to be a yawn.
The real problem with Miller’s thesis is not that there aren’t people who fit his description, or even that a case can’t be made that there are lots of such people and their effects on society are less than positive.  The problem is that he wants to condemn everyone who self-characterizes as an SBNR, and that his criticisms of SBNRs consist of sweeping stereotypes and generalizations.  Moreover, he does not go about his critique in a gentle fashion.  In his opening salvo he says SBNRs “represent some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society.”  (Imagine if he’d said African-American men without college degrees are intellectually retrogressive and morally dubious?  Wow…)   Yet nothing in his article gives any credence to this vicious assertion.  If he is concerned about regressive thinking, ought he not target those who reject evidence altogether, like Holocaust deniers, global warming skeptics, and “young earth” creationists?  If he really wants to save us from groups who threaten civil society, SBNRs are like bunnies next to the rabid dogs of religious and political fundamentalism.  In other words, Miller’s priorities—not to mention his motivations—are problematic enough to render his entire argument suspect.
So what exactly are his critiques of SBNRs, and why do I think they’re so wrong-headed?  Miller says: “Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent—by choosing an ‘individual relationship’ to some concept of ‘higher power,’ energy, oneness or something-or-other they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.”  He goes on to say “That attitude fits with the message… that ‘feeling’ something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more ‘true’ than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.”  In other words, exercising intellectual independence and making personal choices are problematic for Miller.  Moreover, experiencing “energy” or “oneness”—which, by the way, can easily happen if one is doing a breath or meditation practice—is also unacceptable to Miller.  Personal experience of a sort not mediated or vouchsafed by some controlling bureaucracy—aka “big, historic, demanding institutions… like a church”—is suspect for Miller.  And, clearly, Miller favors hierarchically “handed down” “truths” over those personally lived and experienced.
I’m not making this stuff up—it’s all right there in black and white.  The man ought to be working for the Vatican’s “Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition).  Clearly he is an enthusiastic defender of institutional control of the individual and against free inquiry of any sort.  In other words, Miller thinks like someone who lived before the Protestant Reformation, not to mention the European Enlightenment.  He rejects everything these two movements stood—and stand—for.  I can only shudder to think what he stands for: thought control, bureaucratic power (for some reason Kafka comes to mind), and despotism.  Given what he has written, no other conclusion is tenable.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Miller’s whining over people leaving the institutions he esteems is that he takes no consideration of some of the negative forces that drive people away from these institutions in the first place.  You don’t have to be a fuzzy-wuzzy mystic to come to the conclusion that many of the venerable “doctrines, practices, rules and observations” of religious organizations are silly (men only) or superstitious (wafers metamorphosing into a first century Jew) or just plain criminal (child rape), and are therefore no longer attractive.  Miller fails to so much as acknowledge, much less address, any of these concerns as reasons for people’s disillusionment and subsequent lapsing.  His assumption that anyone put off by such things is irrational and self-indulgent indicates he simply doesn’t like people questioning established power.

Miller continues his critique of SBNR people by challenging their integrity at all levels.  He says: “The trouble is that ‘spiritual but not religious’ offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.”  In other words, as a way of thinking SBNRs are not sophisticated or moral or committed enough to actually hold any serious opinions on anything.  He elaborates this position by charging that “the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist ‘truths’ and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one ‘feels’.”  So, he is saying, without “a body of belief or set of principles,” intuition, emotion, and hedonism rule the day and become the determinants of what is “true” and “good.” Taken together, he seems to assert that belief—any belief—is an inherently good thing, that SBNRs don’t have it, and that as a result–i.e., if you think this way–anything whatsoever might be taken as moral or good or true.

Miller’s assertions are puzzling, to say the least.  If I’ve left the Church after years of soul searching and skeptical inquiry, if I no longer call myself religious in any conventional sense but hold to my innate spirituality as a human being, how does this necessarily imply that I’m now a vacuous shell, a sort of overgrown tabula rasa?  How is Miller in a position to say that ipso facto I possess “no positive exposition or understanding” of anything, that I lack a “set of principles,” or that I suffer from an “unwillingness to take a real position”?  This is almost a non sequitur, as making a serious decision by definition necessitates seriousness at some level or other—in the realm of principles, understanding, convictions, whatever.  In other words, the mere fact that someone considers him or herself “spiritual but not religious” suggests they have in fact put some thought into the matter.  After all, standing apart from the crowd, from the tradition and community one likely grew up in, is a difficult thing to do, and not something most people do lightly.  While “seriousness” admittedly does not characterize every SBNR—some may self-label that way out of apathy, if nothing else—this fact alone does not authorize Miller to make the sort of sweeping, pejorative claims his essay is chock full of.

Yet another point obscuring Miller’s argument is his charge that SBNRs are somehow given to ontological and ethical relativism, that they are of necessity opposed to “the notion that there can be universal truths,” or believe that “all truths are equally valid” or that “how one ‘feels’” is their yardstick for Goodness in the world.  I would like to point out that if someone chooses to distance himself from “a big, historic, demanding institution,” it’s probably because he doesn’t think its “truth” is as true as some other truth!  This is so obvious it’s a wonder I even have to say it.  The fact that Miller accuses people of thinking all truths are relative while criticizing the same people for having preferences, for favoring their truth over his truth (even if they are wrong) and thereby clearly demonstrating that they do not think all truths are equally valid, indicates how hopelessly muddleheaded Miller is. 

As regards ethics, I fail to see how someone’s independence from the institutions Miller so adores necessitates their adopting the notion “if it feels good it must be right”—which is pretty much the definition of moral relativism (not to mention hedonism).  I would in fact guess that most SBNR people hold that it is wrong to steal, to lie, to cheat on one’s spouse, or to torture small animals.  And they have probably thought about why it is indeed so, as opposed to simply accepting what some book or authority figure told them as Miller would have them do.  As noted, they had to make some difficult decisions at some point, to walk their own path.  Once again, the logic of Miller’s “argument”—if the word can even be applied to anything Miller writes—totally escapes me.  If Miller believes SBNRs are amoral hedonists, he had damn well better provide some convincing evidence.  But evidence, like its close cousin logic, is MIA in Miller’s world.

Miller concludes his misguided diatribe with the following summary:

But these people [i.e. SBNRs] will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is “something out there,” so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions—and for the future. 

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

There are so many things I could say to this my head is a-whirl just contemplating the possibilities.  However, I have limited space and I’ve got to start somewhere, so…

What is interesting about the first paragraph is that Miller seems to indicate he is okay with people adopting the so-called scientific worldview, which he equates with rationalism and materialism.  This, taken together with the next paragraph, suggests that he sees essentially three possibilities for people today: follow institutional religion, follow science, or be a wishy-washy, amoral spiritual-but-not-religious fool.  Never minding the fact that the world is much more complex and nuanced than these three positions alone can allow, please notice that throughout his essay Miller clearly advocates for institutional religion.  So how now can he turn around and pay lip service to materialism, rationalism and the Enlightenment, all of which have—for four centuries and counting—consistently worked to undermine, discredit, and delegitimize the very traditions and institutions he has been defending?  As I said—my head is a-whirl with possibilities… 

How does one respond to such a mountain of incoherence?  While Miller consistently denounces the “unwillingness [of others] to take a real position,” it is clear he hasn’t a clue what his own position is; his right brain does not know what his left brain is thinking.  The problem when encountering someone like this is that if you attempt to argue with them it is actually impossible to alter them.  The reason is that instead of an organized perspective that changes meaningfully in response to evidence, what they really have is just a jumble of facts and observations, all colored by deeply ingrained, deeply conditioned responses and reflexes.  If you ask such a person if they like or dislike something, they can tell you whether they like or dislike it.  But if you ask them to say why they like or dislike it, you will never get a consistent, coherent narrative or exposition.  What you will get instead is the sort of sweeping generalizations and knee-jerk prejudices, the unsubstantiated allegations and facile reasoning, so abundant in Miller’s essay. 

What we have here is an extreme example of the pot calling the kettle black.  The disease of unreason, of moral and intellectual lassitude that Miller so vociferously accuses others of is precisely the ailment he is suffering from.  It is so bad I think it safe to say his case is terminal.  At this point we can only pray that the deity of some big, historic, demanding institution will intervene to save him.

A Buddhist Answer to Craig’s God: Part 2 of A Critique of William Lane Craig’s Debate With Sam Harris

In the first part of this essay I tried to show how postulating God–any god or gods–as the source of morality is so beset by problems as to offer no refuge for the man or woman in the world who asks, in all seriousness, the ethical question What shall I do?  That there is an answer to this question I am certain, and the best answer I have found, the most complete and rigorously defined, lies in the teachings of the historical Buddha.

I say “historical” to delimit my source materials.  My interest here is in what Gotama’s answer to this question was, not what later followers and elaborators said he said.  For this we have as source the sutta pitaka, the “basket of discourses” found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school and the only documents that can claim any meaningful direct link with Buddhism’s founder.  This is in no way to denigrate the later Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism which have added substantitively to Buddhist technologies of liberation.  Simply, I have not the expertise (not to mention the time) to be all-encompassing; indeed, this discussion of the Buddha’s ethics will be at best preliminary, indicating possible answers to the questions addressed in the Craig-Harris debate.

In fact, I have already written on this subject.  Here is a quote from my “Ten Questions” essay in response to Daryl E. Wittmer:

What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.

This really is the gist of it.  Ethics begin with a person confronting their vulnerable position in this world.  They are alone, even with others, for nobody can tell them how to live their life.  Even if others try (as they inevitably do), in the end it is their life.  They alone suffer the consequences and enjoy the fruit of what they have done.  They are responsible.  How, then, can they know what they should do, what is right and what is wrong?

Clearly this is not a question for simpletons or those endlessly lost in distractions.  I cannot ask my cat this question and expect him to hesitate next time he encounters a mouse.  Intelligence is required, maturity, reflection.  One must look and see what one has thought, said and done.  One must observe consequences, not only in one’s own life, but in the lives of others, living and dead.  Responsibility must be exercised.  Eventually, if one reaches out with the heart–this is what is called “compassion”–one understands, one feels, that the suffering and joy of others is in fact no different than one’s own.  One sees that thoughts, words, and actions are things that, once produced, live beyond you, but almost inevitably revisit you.  This is karma–the conditioning of one’s mind, body and life by the actions one has taken.

There is nothing mysterious or magical about this.  You think, you speak, you act.  These behaviors affect the world.  They affect others.  They affect you.  That influence in turn conditions your next thought, word or action.  Here we have, quite clearly, inescapably, cause and effect.  If you regularly ring the bell while eating, you will salivate at the bell, even in the absence of food.  You will have formed and shaped your own mind, thereby limiting or expanding your experience and possibilities.

What is the best way to live?  Which actions give rise to the greatest well being for the greatest number of beings?  (Note: this argument, as you can see if you’ve read the transcript, is quite close to Harris’, who has almost certainly been influenced by Buddhist thinking on this subject.)  A Stalin or Mao will never ask this question, or, if they do, will never reference anything beyond their immediate, self-absorbed concerns.  For more than intelligence is required.  Sensitivity, too, is paramount–hence the innumerable Buddhist trainings that are meant to open the heart to friendliness, sympathetic joy, and the suffering of others.  Only when these modalities are sufficiently mature can karma, in its broadest sense, mean anything to a person, thereby affecting the choices they make.

Ultimately, the Buddhist path converges on a total transformation of the human heart and mind.  It is transpersonal, transcendent, yet at the same time immanent, for the awakened one never loses sight of the fact that he or she is still in the world, related to other beings.  From an ethical standpoint, the selfless mind, the mind that has realized bodhi or anatta and undergone permanent transformation as a result, is the true source and ground of ethics.  Ethics converge on self-transcendence.  For where there is self, there is other, there is separation and division and conflict.  Ethics begin with an orientation toward non-duality or egolessness; they are  consummated and completed in the permanent realization of that state.

It should by now be obvious that Buddhist ethics differ radically from William Lane Craig’s definition of ethics.  In Craig’s view, morality is really just another word for obedience–if we obey God’s commands, we are judged ethical; if we do not, we are unethical.  It’s that simple.  In addition to the problems elaborated in the first part of this essay, it should be noted that ethics in Craig’s scenario are quite malleable.  If God says it is good to slaughter the heathens–and in some passages in the Old Testament he does–then murder is a virtue.  If he says “Love thy neighbor as thyself” then self-sacrifice and generosity are judged moral actions.  Morality is thus held hostage to the changing whims of a god through time.  The Spaniards were not in a position to criticize human sacrifice by the Aztecs on the basis of scripture.

I finish with one last quote from my “Ten Questions” essay:

But what if God tells a person to love their neighbor, to give to the poor, and to turn the other cheek?  And what if he or she does it?  Certainly they will be considered moral, perhaps even saintly.  And that is all well and good; it would be wonderful if more people followed such advice.  But I wonder: does such a person understand the purpose of ethics any better than, say, a puppy understands why its master wants it to sit, fetch or play dead?  I think not.  Ultimately, “doing God’s will” is a substitute for thinking and comprehension; it is simple obedience.  The person of faith may enthusiastically fulfill the commandments or do so grudgingly.  Either way, they will be fulfilled, but not because the person comprehends the purpose of ethical behavior.

True ethics, I posit, are not simply a matter of doing good.  More importantly, ethics must concern being good.  This is a totally different propostion, one that requires much more than simple obedience.  It requires intelligence, consideration, awareness and the long view.  Craig’s position cannot offer this.  The Buddha’s can.

Craig’s God: Part I of A Critique of William Lane Craig’s Debate With Sam Harris

In his debate with Sam Harris, Christian apologist William Lane Craig used what is technically known as the “Argument from Morality” to shoot down Harris’ conception of ethics. Ordinarily, the Argument from Morality is used to prove the existence of God, but Craig said specifically he would “not be arguing…that God exists.” Instead, he argued

(1) If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. (2) If God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.

The reason this debate is of interest to Buddhists ought to be obvious. Buddhism is an intrinsically atheistic religion/philosophy. This is not to say the Buddha did not acknowledge the existence of what can best be described as “unseen beings” (devas), but these beings or whatever you’d like to call them are not “God” in the sense of an Abrahamic deity: they did not create the world, are not responsible for cosmic events, and while long-lived, are not immortal. Other differences could be added, the most important point being that non-human agencies are ultimately inconsequential as regards practice of the Buddhist path. So if Dr. Craig is correct, the Buddha’s teaching has no ethical foundation whatsoever and Buddhists are left high and dry with their delusions of moral grandeur. My purpose in part one of this essay is to show why Craig is incorrect and and in part two show how the Buddha’s teachings on ethics do, in fact, provide the necessary foundation for ethical living.

Ordinarily I would not feel the need to add anything to what Sam Harris says. Of the so-called New Atheists he is my favorite by far, a superb raconteur, clear, no-nonsense thinker, humorous, and spiritual in essence. The man gets it–and gives it when necessary. With Dr. Craig, however, he faltered, though not because Craig offered any particularly good argument. He didn’t. Harris, it seemed, had a script, and largely followed the script, to the point where he left Craig’s challenges live on the table. The result was an apparent victory for Craig. My effort here, therefore, is to address the holes in Craig’s argument which Sam Harris did not exploit, and then to offer something in its place.

Craig’s problems begin with the second word of his argument: “God” (“If God exists…”). The reason this word is a problem is his lack of a definition for it. Given that his entire argument hinges upon God as a source of moral sense and action, it is surprising he was never asked to identify or describe this god. While we can assume he means the God of Abraham (“Yahweh”), this does not obviate the problem, for any kind of default is, if unjustified, arbitrary. Does he mean the Old Testament god who sponsors genocide and ethnic cleansing, animal sacrifice and other morally questionable acts? Does he mean the New Testament god (“Jesus”) who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, or rather the same Jesus who condemns the majority of humanity to eternal punishment for not believing in him? If none of these, maybe it is Allah from the Koran, or Shiva or Vishnu or Kali or Avilokateshvara or Zeus. So, first, he must decide which God he is talking about and tell us.

Second, he had better give compelling arguments to justify his choice of that particular God. Do we opt for Yahweh because he is the most popular? Note, he was not always the most popular. At one time Ahura Mazda (of the Zoroastrians) was much more popular. Right now, the Muslim incarnation of Yahweh–Allah–is catching up to the Biblical version, so popularity may not play in Dr. Craig’s favor too much longer. I’m not sure what other reasons one might invoke for choosing a particular deity; usually it is just a matter of which god you grew up with. But maybe Dr. Craig has some objective criteria for ranking one divinity as superior to another. If so, he should explain them before he starts telling us about God’s nature.

Third, how does whatever god he chooses communicate His/Her/Its wishes to human beings? Craig must discuss not only the means but offer some proof of the validity of his deity’s particular mode of communication, be it prophetic revelation (as is usally the case in the Abrahamic tradition) or dreams or drugs or animal entrails or whatever. He needs to give us some reason why we should take Ezekiel’s vision of flying saucers as superior to the visions of someone who just smoked three pounds of ganja and talked with a bearded snake god. Failing to take account of any of the above three points leaves Craig’s reference to God as a mere theoretical proposition, something he may as well have simply made up for the sake of the debate.

Craig goes on to argue that “theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral values” and “for objective moral duties” (emphasis added). In other words, it allegedly provides the reason or basis for ethics, as well as the particular modes by which that reason or basis should be operationalized. I’ve just noted the problems of invoking theism without explaining which theism, but we do begin to get some idea of what Craig is talking about in the next paragaph. He says:

As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.

So here at least we have a definition of God, if not an identification. We cannot be sure, however–indeed, we may doubtful–that Anselm’s remarks apply to the Biblical God, as Yahweh in the Old Testament has a propensity to behave in ways that could hardly be called “good,” much less “Good.” So perhaps other cultures’ concepts are more useful here. Perhaps the Tibetan Buddhist rigpa–the substrate or ground of Mind that is eternally perfect and pure and is the source of everything–fits Anselm’s definition. (Actually, it pretty well does.) Or perhaps we could identify this “highest Good” with the Hindu Brahman or the Chinese Tao. Any of these identities fit Anselm’s definition better than any deity on record, including the Biblical-Koranic deity. Unfortunately for Craig, though, he is clearly not intending any one of these terms, having already nailed himself to the mainmast of theism. So in fact Anselm’s definition doesn’t really help us. It’s thrown out as a tease, as what Craig wants us to believe about his deity, but it lacks the particularization that is necessary if we are to know which deity he is talking about beyond a philosophical abstract. More to the point, Anselm and Craig’s description is something of a chimera, taking the best of various philosophical and theological “beasts” and cobbling them together into something that, though certainly marvelous, is never identified and for which we are not given any reason to believe actually exists.

But let us humor Dr. Craig. Let us grant that “Craig’s God”–which is what I’ll call It–actually exists and is in fact the ground or essence of all that is Good and Worthy in this universe. How then are we to fathom what this God wants for us? Craig tells us:

On a theistic view objective moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with His holy and loving nature. Our duties, then, are constituted by God’s commandments and these in turn reflect his essential character.

Clearly then, Craig’s God will communicate with humans by some means so that we can know what he considers good or evil. But how? This we are never told. Did the dream I had last night, in which I was annointed king of Fiji and 1,000 beautiful Fijian women became my consecrated love slaves, amount to divine revelation or was it just a tantalizing phantasm? I’m not sure. How, in the world of Craig’s God, are we to separate revelation from delusion? Shall I sacrifice my neighbor’s dog on a high altar, set it alight with kerosene and matches, and derive auguries from the patterns the smoke takes in the sky? Shall we cast sticks and see how they fall? How does one divine (no pun intended) the will of a philosophical abstract? If we can’t do this, if there is no meaningfully objective, measurable, repeatable way to receive messages from Craig’s God, then It will remain forever hidden, a monument to human yearning, nothing more than a cosmic tease.

Craig concludes the first part of his argument this way:

In summary…theism has the resources for a sound foundation for morality: it grounds both objective moral values and objective moral duties; and hence, I think it’s evident that if God exists, we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.

But what is really evident is that Craig’s argument never even gets off the ground. He has not provided us so much as something to argue about, for his abstractions are too…well, abstract for us to nail down any particulars. If we can’t be sure what the man is referring to when he says “God,” how can we say he’s right or wrong? And even if we grant the reality of this idealized, unnamed deity, it remains a kind of hidden Value, something we have no way of accessing, like my personal cave in the Himalayas that is filled with ten tons of gold bullion.

In summary, the first point of Craig’s argument, that if God exists we have a solid foundation for morals, does not elevate itself to something we can take seriously or discuss in a meaningful way. Try as we might, it is entirely theoretical, like invisible pink unicorns. They may exist, and they may even periodically pontificate upon the secrets of Life, the Universe and Everything, but we have no way to detect, measure, or learn about them, much less glean their secret Wisdom. They’re just something I’m saying exist. Unless Craig can identify his god with some recognizable entity, can tell us why he’s chosen him/her/it and offer a sound methodology for learning about the Divine Will, his first postulate is stillborn, DOA.

“Let’s turn, then, to my second contention, that if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.” With these words Craig begins his assault on Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape. My effort here will simply be to point out some weaknesses in Craig’s refutation of Harris.

Craig says:

On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, any more than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being.

To me, this is a puzzling statement. Its chief problem is its narrowness. Craig seems to assume that if you’re not a theist of his stripe you must be 1) a naturalist, 2) a materialist, 3) a nihilist, and 4) quite probably depressed, despondent, gloomy or pessimistic. All of this is implied in what he says here and later. However, I fail to see how he can make such assumptions about all the people in history, and who are alive today, who have believed in something other than his God. In other words, his contention indicates a grave–almost fatal–lack of imagination. Doesn’t he wonder why so many people go on getting up every day, doing good every day, and trying to make the world a better place in some small way every day, without reference to his deity? And yet, they do; this needs to be explained.

This is a serious problem for Craig. Assuming his second contention is correct, that “if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties”–exactly how do so many people, without reference to his god, manage to behave ethically? Either their morality is a fortuitous accident, one that occurs with inexplicable frequency, or they have somehow happened upon a kind of placebo that stands in place of the “true” source of morality. But if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, shouldn’t you at some point acknowledge the probability that it is in fact a duck? In other words, even if the ways people talk about their ethical motivations differ, might it not be the case that there is in fact an underlying psychological law that is leading to similar–i.e. genuinely moral–behavior? Clearly Craig does not want to consider this possibility, as it undermines his entire ideology.

Craig caps his review of the naturalistic basis of morality by quoting Darwin:

If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edition, New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1909, p. 100)

In other words, from the naturalistic viewpoint “morality” is purely happenstance, the result of survival advantages and genes competing for mates, etc. There is no way for us to objectively say freedom is better than slavery, or democracy better than despotism. “Morality” is simply a fortuitous social, evolutionary outcome that we justify after the fact. This argument assumes a very simple, binary universe that is either “on” (God exists) or “off” (evolution and animal natural selection give rise to what we for lack of a better term call “morality.”) There are no other possibilities, or at least Craig’s limited imagination does not allow him to expand beyond these possibilities.

Yet even a superficial exploration of other cultures’ value systems (Hindu, ancient Greek, Confucian, Buddhist, Native American, etc) suggests different possible considerations regarding morality. Craig, however, doesn’t so much as acknowledge the existence of these other worldviews, much less consider their truth claims. For someone who wants to philosophize about ethics, this oversight is inexcusable. It is tantamount to destroying evidence at a crime scene. The bloody shoe doesn’t fit his suspect, so he tosses it into the garbage bin. Clearly, if he is going to be serious about the project of finding the source of morality, he must consider many more possibilities and take them seriously, each on its own merits.

My final objection to Craig’s thesis relates to what I said above. He believes that without God the world is just animals killing, copulating, being born and dying, all without purpose. My question is: How does the introduction of a deity nobody can agree on remedy this situation? Pick your god, please. Let that god, in conjunction with the monkey-eat-monkey world of materialism, play out. How are things, how are we, improved? Pretending that a god, any god (or gods), somehow makes this scenario better or more noble is silly. Look at the history of religion–look just at the world of the Old Testament–and you will see that recourse to the commandments of gods has not improved human behavior. Instead, what you get is a mishmash that, far from being pure and white and virtuous, is a sludgy gray mixture of commands to purity and murder, self-sacrifice and animal sacrifice. There is no clarity to be found in the canons of divine law, at least none that I’ve read. And this assumes the Holy Books are actually “revelations” from something better, higher, or at least more puissant, than human beings. Needless to say, this is an unwarrantable assumption.

In Part 2, I will provide my view of a Buddhist response to the source and justification of ethics.

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