Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

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.

Advertisements

So what the hell kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

I recently had some email conversation with a person named Sophia.  Although the issues we discussed were of great intrinsic interest, I cut off the conversation on account of my correspondent’s insistently aggressive snarkiness.  It just got to be a little much.  However, I would like to address some of those issues in more detail and hopefully clarify what I really think about them.  While I can’t say this is for Sophia’s benefit, it may be of interest to some people or, if perhaps anyone else was thinking along the lines she was thinking, may head off future conflict or misunderstanding.

Perhaps the first matter to clarify is whether I am Mahayanist or Theravadan in orientation.  A lot of the challenges and points she was making seemed to assume this dichotomy, and also seemed to assume I was the former over against the latter—this, no doubt, because I’ve been writing a lot recently about the bodhisattva ideal.  I find this confusion puzzling since I’m pretty up front about my position in the “About Me” section of my blog: “Regarding Buddhism: my bias is towards the Pali suttas—no other texts can claim veracity as regards the historical Buddha…”  The only caveat I can add to this is that the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings and practices have certainly added worthy ideas and technologies to the Buddhist tradition.  This stance should not, I think, be in any way controversial, given modern scholarship regarding the history of Buddhism.

What might be controversial (to some) is my decidedly secular approach to these teachings.  That is to say I do not take a religious, fundamentalist, or absolutist view of anything in Buddhism (or anything else).  I do not see anything “perfect,” “revelatory,” or “final” about the Buddha’s or Buddhist teachings.  I do not accept anything just because “it is written.”  I do not accept anything just because “so it is said” or because “this teacher said so.”  (Think the Kalama Sutta.)  I land where scholarship and actual testing in practice tells me I should land.  Thus: the Jatakas are not the Buddha’s past lives—they are Indian folktales appropriated for didactic purposes by the Buddhist tradition.  The Buddha did not teach the Abhidhamma to devas in Tavatimsa heaven—it is a later scholastic creation, often at odds doctrinally with the Suttas.  And the Buddha was not omniscient—he actually said as much, and there is no doubting that many of his powers and achievements have been exaggerated.  (I could say the same thing of Jesus or any other pre-modern miracle worker or saint.)  It is also silly to say the Buddha was the “most enlightened, most perfect, peerless, ultimate teacher of gods and men to ever walk any world in any galaxy.”  Maybe he was, probably he wasn’t.  There is no way to know, and anyone who says this kind of thing is pretending to knowledge they obviously do not have and is speaking from nothing but faith—blind faith.  (An equivalent assertion is the oft-repeated Christian dogma that Jesus rose from the dead or never sinned, etc.  I find such wild presumptions of knowledge puzzling, not to mention grossly immature.)  This position of mine in no way obviates the worth of the Buddhist tradition or the excellence of the Buddha as a teacher.  I personally think the Buddha is the best teacher of whom we have a reasonably complete and reliable record, but this is just my opinion based upon my limited information; I should be—and am—always willing to change my opinion if I happen upon better evidence.

Getting back to the Theravada/Mahayana dilemma:  I should point out that a lot of the Theravada incorporates beliefs and practices not found in the Suttas.  Remember, the Theravada was and is a school—it is the not the Buddha’s Teaching per se.  What might be the Buddha’s teaching, what holds the clearest claim to be such, is the Pali Canon, specifically the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, and then some of the texts in the Sutta Pitaka are clearly later and apocryphal, e.g. the Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka, etc.  One must tread with care determining what is what.  Now, while determining what the Buddha actually taught is a fascinating historical and scholarly endeavor, for a contemplative practitioner it is a waste of time.  The reason is because there are many ways to skin a cat.  The phenomenon of human awakening—“enlightenment”—is not something dependent upon a particular set of practices or a particular tradition.  One personality type will be most helped by this practice, another by that practice.  Whether it is Advaita Vedanta or Vajrayana or Theravada is not important: what works is important. This is really the heart of what I mean by being “secular”—a practical, non-ideological approach is required.  This way opens up the whole human contemplative endeavor to each one of us rather than shutting us off in separate schools, everyone claiming “Mine is best!”

If religious Buddhists find this stance offensive, that’s okay.  They are welcome to their views.  They can practice over there and I will practice over here.  But even if we practice cheek-to-jowl they probably will never know I am “secular” because I have no problem bowing to statues, chanting precepts in Pali, observing Uposathas, etc.  In other words, I do not eschew the forms—in fact, I love the forms.  The forms help us and comfort us, they guide us, but they must not cage us.  You might even say I am Buddhist because I find the forms of Buddhist practice the most comfortable to live and work with, as opposed, say, to Taoist or Hindu forms, not to mention Christian or others.

I hope the above clears up any doubts people might have about where I’m coming from; if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.  I’m really not such an important person that you have to grok my Dharma—or should I say “Dhamma”?

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).

T he Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright

The Six Perfections (Wright)The Six Perfections: Buddhism & the Cultivation of Character by Dale S. Wright. Oxford University Press 2009, 292 pages.

After reading a couple examples of “popular” books on the Buddhist paramitas, this one came as a very welcome relief.  The difference was immediately noticed and profound: as opposed to the fluff, irrelevant stories and pop psychology of Das and Boorstein, this is a mature philosophical reflection on the Buddhist “perfections” by a man who is less an entertainer than a real thinker.  Wright’s language is sophisticated, nuanced and densely meaningful, and he offers a critical, contemporary assessment of Buddhist attitudes and practices.

The book is entirely Mahayana in orientation, taking its cue from the “Perfection of Wisdom” literature, specifically the Diamond Sutra, the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, the Vimalakirti and, of course, the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva.  (I knew I was in the hands of a good scholar when Wright actually stated up front what his sources would be.)  The book covers (per the title) the traditional six paramitas as opposed to the Theravada and later Mahayana ten.  For each of the six Wright first discusses how the paramita has been understood in traditional Buddhist culture.  He then offers a contemporary critical assessment of that “perfection.”  I found this added reflection absolutely critical to the quality of the book and one of the reasons why I would recommend it so unhesitatingly.  Wright recognizes–as is rarely done, it seems–that many images of Buddhist sainthood are so rarefied and elevated as to be impossible to emulate.  Somehow, though, they must be rendered concrete, and so the question Wright pursues is how can these examples be made valid models for contemporary people.  He spends a lot of time exploring this and similar questions, making the old texts relevant and comprehensible to us.  In this he renders great service to the tradition as a whole.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this book that Wright is a man of great integrity and insight.  The book simply could not have been produced by someone who had not reflected seriously and at length upon these issues.  But my simply saying this will not adequately convey what I mean.  Put it this way: I know a book is “great” when I cannot help but read it with a pen or pencil in hand and feel excited to mark out passages that particularly strike me, when I am compelled to write notes to myself for later reference.  When I know I have to read a book again, I get a feeling of great gratitude to the author, for in such instances he or she has created something that affects and alters me, for the better.  This is such a book.

I offer a few examples from the text:

What is it that we are perfecting in the six perfections?  The best word in English for that would be our character.  It is through resources of character that we undertake enlightening practices, and it is our character that is enlightened (7).

Unless we as donors can see clearly and unflinchingly that who we are as donors–secure in wealth and health–is completely dependent on numerous turns of good fortune, on the care and help of others, and on opportunities not available to everyone, our acts of giving will be less than fully generous.  These acts will therefore not have the liberating effects that they might otherwise have had.  When we are able to see that the homeless person’s parents did not do for him what ours did for us, that his teachers did not do for him what ours did for us, then we begin to understand the contingency of our fortune, and, looking more deeply, the thorough interdependency of all reality (25).

The culmination of Buddhist practices of generosity can be seen in their ideal form, the bodhisattva who gives unselfishly out of a deep compassion for all living beings.  Compassion is the ultimate aim of these practices.  But that culmination is the result of a long process of self-cultivation.  For the most part, compassion is something we learn to feel.  It is not innate, not a “natural” feeling.  For these reasons, we cannot feel compassion simply by deciding to feel it, or by telling ourselves that it is our responsibility to feel it.  We do, however, have the capacity to develop compassion by cultivating our thoughts and emotions in ways that enable it.  This is the function of the “practice” of giving.  Making generosity of character an explicit aim of self-cultivation, we sculpt our thoughts, emotions, and dispositions in the direction of a particular form of human excellence (30).

In the same way that etiquette resembles morality while not yet embodying it, morality imitates compassion while still falling short of it (81).

The perfection of tolerance is the art of understanding what, when, and how to tolerate (110).

Anger as a response to injustice presupposes a kind of selfhood that will at some point stand in the way of justice (117).

The role of energy in ethics can be highlighted by reflecting on ways in which we might fall short in life. There are two basic ways in which it is possible for a person to fail ethically. The most obvious of these is to act unjustly, to commit crimes against one’s society and oneself, to be a negative, destructive force. But another way is to fail in the positive, failing to live constructively on behalf of oneself and others. This second failure signals a deficiency of energy, a lack of constructive striving toward something worthwhile. Failing in this sense, people may never commit a crime against others or do anything explicitly wrong; their failure consists of not generating the energy of constructive life, thus failing to live a life in keeping with their capacity (146).

I could of course supply many more quotes–the author is eloquent and thoughtful at every turn.  But the book is not without its faults.  Two points stood out for me. First, Wright has a tendency to go on longer than necessary, which can make the chapters seem over extended.  He clearly gets caught up in his own ruminations at times, to the detriment of the text.  If anyone thinks any part of the book is “boring,” this will be the reason.  The second problem is much more profound.  Through the first four paramitas Wright was spot on in his understanding and elucidation of Buddhist concepts, but in the section on meditation (chapter 5) the wheels came off his cart.

I think once again we have here the age-old conundrum of the scholar who has not practiced beyond thinking, learning and reflection; it’s clear Wright does not really know what meditation is.  For example, on page 194 he says “…in contrast to samatha or calming kinds of meditation, vipassana cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom.”  He continues, saying “…vipassana meditation takes several forms. But in each case the practice entails focusing thought on an idea or a series of ideas” (194).  He clearly believes vipassana is primarily reflective, cognitive or conceptual, so the essence of the fifth chapter is an elucidation of meditation as a kind of disciplined, guided thinking.  While it is true that some types of meditation (think of the Brahmaviharas) begin as discursive reflections or visualizations, that is never their end.  As regards vipassana, however, it doesn’t even begin there; Wright would have done well to read Kornfield’s Living Dharma to get an idea what vipassana really is about.

I have to confess I am at a loss to explain how Wright so totally misses the point here.  Clearly he is an intelligent, thoughtful and well read man.  Clearly he has put a lot of time into understanding Buddhist culture.  But the fifth chapter, while not without insight (here and there), is largely a toss on account of how badly he misunderstands what dhyana is actually about.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this kind of fault is cultural in nature, the culture in question being the “culture of scholarship,” aka “academia.”  (Remember when someone says It’s academic they really mean it’s beside the point, not useful or applicable.)  I was once myself an aspiring scholar/academic and I can say how tempting it is to think that if you’ve read the books and published the articles, then you must really understand something in a serious way.  If you’re talking about Renaissance French literature, that might be the case, but human consciousness ultimately transcends culture and time–structures and capacities are innate–and contemplative technologies which seek to alter those structures and capacities cannot be adequately understood from the vantage point most of us start from.  These are not things one should simply think about–you have to do them.

On account of the problems I’ve described, I’m giving the book four stars.  However, the first four chapters are five (even six!) star material, and the last chapter is also quite excellent, though it lacks the practical groundedness of the first four.

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.

how_important_ethics_cartoon

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

Conditions for Practice of the Paramis

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (3)

This is my third post commenting on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis.”  In my last post I discussed the aspiration for buddhahood and the daunting list of prerequisites required for it to have any hope of succeeding.  But additional to the specific characteristics of the aspirant there are also conditions that must exist for one to even practice the paramis, and I think it’s safe to say these conditions apply whether you really are a bodhisattva or just want to become a better person and/or better spiritual practitioner.  So all you regular folks, take note!

Dhammapala writes that three conditions in particular are required just to get the practice of the paramis started.  First is the aspiration for buddhahood (or, at a more regular seeming level, the desire for self-improvement), and then great compassion (mahakaruna) and skillful means (upayakosalla).  Now at first glance it might seem the aspiration would come first, but a closer look indicates that’s actually not the case.  First ask yourself, Why would anyone even make the vow? They would have to be motivated by compassion (big or little), by the desire to help others and to alleviate their suffering.  Along with that, they would have to possess the wherewithal, the can-do spirit and facility of skillful means.  Merely wanting to help others won’t cut it–without the ability you’ll be ineffectual and probably make a mess of things.  On the other hand, ability without interest will result in nothing done.  So, one without the other doesn’t work, but when these two exist together, then the determination can be made, so they must precede the aspiration.

temple gate

But there’s more to it than even that.  Dhammapala also mentions four factors, called the “grounds for Buddhahood” (buddhabhumiyo), that need to be present: 1) zeal (ussaha), meaning the energy that strives for the requisites, 2) adroitness (ummanga), which is wisdom in applying skillful means to the requisites, 3) stability (avatthana), or unshakable will for their perfection, and 4) beneficent conduct (hitacariya) which is the development of loving-kindness and compassion.

Honestly, I am doubtful about the usefulness of this list.  I think it’s an unnecessary add on, since every one of these is, in some form or another, already a parami.  (In other words, I see the paramis as a self-referencing, self-reinforcing system.)  When he next adds “six inclinations,” I really feel it’s a bit of Theravadan style list making for the sake of list making.  Basically, his idea is you have to be inclined toward the paramis to develop them.  Well….duh!  Dhammapala also says we should review their opposites to understand the fault of not developing them, and this is certainly a smart mode of reflection to motivate oneself, kind of like reflecting on the merits of fidelity if you imagine yourself getting caught in bed with a paramour!  This actually leads to one of the treatise’s meatiest sections, an extended reflection on the positives of parami practice versus the negatives of not practicing.  This part of the text, pages 22-33, is really excellent and inspiring reading.

But to get back to the point of this post (which is in danger of getting lost!), on page 33 Dhammapala makes what is certainly the most telling statement in his entire treatise:

Thus one should arouse an especially strong inclination toward promoting the welfare of all beings. And why should loving-kindness be developed toward all beings? Because it is the foundation for compassion. For when one delights in providing for the welfare and happiness of other beings with an unbounded heart, the desire to remove their affliction and suffering becomes powerful and firmly rooted. And compassion is the first of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood–their footing, foundation, root, head and chief. [emphasis added]

I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ saying in Matthew regarding the Biblical Law:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

While I might quibble with his theistic metaphysics, the notion that positive, altruistic motivation should be the inspiration behind all of one’s life is clearly the common thread to the messages of Jesus and the bodhisattva path.

So if we map out the the conditions for the practice of the paramis, and what engenders their development, it might look something like this:

Compassion–>effort–>skillful means (upaya)–>determination–>Aspiration (vow)

Just think of these as baby steps to buddhahood!

baby steps

The Great Aspiration: Are You Even Qualified To Be A Bodhisattva?

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (2)

In a previous post I left off noting how utterly impossible seeming Dhammapala’s “eight qualifications” for bodhisattvahood were–without actually telling you what those qualifications were!  (I didn’t want to depress you any sooner than I had to.)  Well, here they are.  These are the qualities and characteristics you must possess if your bodhisattva vow has any hope of succeeding:

  1. A human being (manussatta): You have to be homo sapiens when you make the vow.
  2. Male sex (lingasampatti): Maybe you can chalk it up to patriarchy, but this is one of the traditional qualifications since, it is assumed, all buddha’s are male.  (The Buddha himself is quoted as asserting just this in the Anguttara Nikaya 1.279, on p. 114 of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.)  However, the Tibetans–bless their hearts–have a different take on this.  According to them there has been at least one female buddha–Lady Tsogyal, consort of Padmasambhava. 
  3. Achievement of the necessary supporting conditions (hetu): Dhammapala does not elaborate on this point, but I think it’s safe to assume it refers to the requisites of enlightenment (bodhisambhara), among which, of course, we can count the paramis.

    male homo sapiens

    Human dude

  4. Personal presence and sight of the Master (sattharadassana): Here we run into a real problem, since apparently you have to make your vow at the feet of a buddha.  Since we know of only one buddha directly and he’s been dead 2,500 years, give or take a century, anyone wanting to make the bodhisattva vow for the first time has already missed their chance.  There is still hope, however, and this applies whether you’re currently a man or woman: assuming the truth of rebirth (a big assumption, admittedly, and one I will have to repeatedly make for the purpose of this project) it is possible you did indeed make a vow before Shakyamuni and received his acknowledgment.  Even if you are woman now, perhaps you were a man then when you made the vow.  After all, the bodhisattva vow is one that must be taken and retaken throughout one’s existence, in succeeding lifetimes, and unless you’ve developed the ability to recall past lives you will not know under what circumstances you previously lived and made the vow.  I should point out that while this explanation gets us around the apparent impossibility of this qualification, it does not minimize its difficulty or rarity.  (A more optimistic interpretation might say that you could have made the vow at the feet of any buddha, including those previous to Gotama.  In which case, with innumerable buddhas and innumerable opportunities, there may in fact be innumerable real McCoy bodhisattvas out there!)

    Sumedha_receiving_a_prophetic_declaration_from_Dipankara

    Sumedha (the future Gotama) receiving affirmation at the feet of Dipankara Buddha

  5. The going forth (pabbajja): You have to be a homeless renunciate when you make the aspiration, though not necessarily as a bhikkhu in a buddha’s dispensation.
  6. The achievement of noble qualities (gunasampatti): Not only must you already be a renunciate, but your meditations must have born significant fruit, specifically in the form of jhanas and various psychic powers.  The reason for this is that only such a person will have the ability to properly investigate the paramis and understand, on his own, their necessity and nature.  So, if you are a bodhisattva and don’t currently manifest these powers, well….something’s gone wrong.
  7. 446px-Hsuan_Hua_Hong_Kong_1Extreme dedication (adhikara): The necessity of this trait would seem obvious to the point of being redundant.  Honestly, I do not know of any project, task or aim undertaken by persons for their own benefit or the benefit of the world, that is as vast in its stated scope, duration, or challenge as that of the bodhisattva.  ”World conquest”–the project of Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons–seems almost a timid affair by comparison.
  8. Strong desire (chandata): This, too, seems rather obvious.  Without a kind of mono-maniacal obsession for spiritual development it hardly seems possible anyone could have a snowball’s chance in Avici hell to attain buddhahood.  The aspirant must, as Dhammapala says, possess all the aforesaid qualities and “have strong desire, yearning, and longing to practice the qualities issuing in Buddhahood. Only then does his aspiration succeed, not otherwise.”

Feeling intimidated yet?

Of course, all of this is simply “by the book.”  I don’t know where Dhammapala got his information (maybe the devas?) so there is no way to check the veracity of any of it.  Also, none of this makes sense if one doesn’t buy into the notion of rebirth; everything is predicated upon the assumption that a vow can carry over from one life to the next.

Stepping back, it’s obvious that if we withhold judgment on whether or not rebirth is true and take the bodhisattva project at its face value, as a soteriology it represents a truly unique culture.  There is no other ideology out there where altruism of such a scale is imagined, much less attempted.  The fact that there really have been–and are–people who take this aspiration more seriously than anything else and orient their lives, their careers, even their deaths, with this and only this end in mind, is quite staggering if you try to wrap your head around it.

Among modern day practitioners the person whom I think most closely fits the self-consciously lived bodhisattva life is the Venerable Hsuan-hua (pictured here), one of the two greatest Chinese Ch’an monks of the twentieth century.  (The other was his mentor, the Venerable Hsu-yun.)  See, here, for example, the vows Hsuan-hua made as a young renunciate.  His life, from very early until his death, was marked by a frenzy of teaching activity and the establishment of monasteries, temples and educational and medical facilities, punctuated by sometimes extended periods of intense solitary retreat.  Whether or not the intention behind this tremendous labor actually carries over to a new life is not for me to say, but clearly the man’s work and example has had significant ripple effects in the visible world.

Comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (1)

This post and several forthcoming will be my thoughts on Acariya Dhammapala’s excellent little “Treatise on the Paramis,” which I’ve now read three times.  I don’t have any particular plan or order of progression to follow other than what the text gives, though perhaps some grander, more intelligent approach will reveal itself as I go along.

The paramis as a heuristic tool: Sometime during my second reading I wrote the following at the top of the treatise: “The paramis are a heuristic tool to think about how a person needs to be to 1) best help himself, 2) best help others, 3) perfect samadhi and paññā.”  They are a training guide, almost a kind of mnemonic device, for inculcating certain personality traits.  As such, they are in no way absolute.  That is, the list of ten we have in this treatise could have been twelve or nine or, as they are in the Mahayana tradition, six.  This is important to keep in mind, as it will enable one to be flexible in how one appraises one’s own character and tries to effect changes.

The meaning of “parami”: Usually the meaning of the word is given as “perfection,” but Dhammapala offers some interesting wrinkles on this.  He says, first, that “bodhisattvas, the great beings, are supreme (parama), since they are the highest of beings by reason of their distinguished qualities…”  So the word can also refer to supremacy or primacy.  Furthermore, the paramis are the character or conduct of the bodhisattva, of one who is supreme.  We could therefore alternately translate the word as “excellence,” so long as we think of excellence in an active sense–as a verb instead of a noun.  Thus when you act with excellence or from excellence, you demonstrate the paramis.

helping hands

Their sequence: In this text and others it’s suggested one performs or perfects the paramis in a sequence.  I am not convinced of this.  It seems to me the path of development is holistic, with every attribute activating, strengthening and reinforcing, every other one.  I’m sure there’s some hard science on this somewhere, but my suspicion is that greater renunciation (self-restraint or discipline) is positively correlated with higher levels of mental energy, or more generally ethical behavior.  Some paramis may be easier to perform initially, but that does not mean one will necessarily perfect them in any particular order; this would seem to be determined in great part by native disposition.  One should note, too, that throughout the course of the treatise compassion and skillful means are placed first as the guiding lights of all the paramis.  They are, in effect, paramis themselves, though not called such.  What is compassion but loving-kindness in the general, affective sense, and what is skillful means but wisdom in action?  There is lots to say about these categories: how they overlap and interplay, and whether or not this is even the best list.  For remember, this is not the only list–the bhumis in Tibetan Buddhism and the Avatamsaka Sutra are different.  I’ll need to look at this later, needless to say….

“All the paramis, without exception, have as their characteristic the benefiting of others; as their function, the rendering of help to others, or not vacillating; as their manifestation, the wish for the welfare of others, or Buddhahood; and as their proximate cause, great compassion, or compassion and skillful means.”

Analysis by five ways: The author proceeds to analyze the paramis by five ways.  He describes 1) their perfection, or how they ideally manifest; 2) their characteristic, that is what is their fundamental attribute; 3) their function, or what they do; 4) their manifestation, i.e. what do they look like in practice; and 5) their proximate cause, that which allows them to unfold.  See the attached table here: The Paramis

The Great Aspiration: Here Dhammapala ramps up the difficulty of the bodhisattva project to inhuman levels.  He writes:

The condition of the paramis is, firstly, the great aspiration (abhinihara). This is the aspiration supported by the eight qualifications, which occurs thus: “Crossed I would cross, freed I would free, tamed I would tame, calmed I would calm, comforted I would comfort, attained to nibbana I would lead to nibbana, purified I would purify, enlightened I would enlighten!” This is the condition for all the paramis without exception.

Following this inspiring vow are the “eight qualifications,” and I’m sorry to inform you that none of us,not a single person on the planet, can be certain he or she possesses all eight.  To say this is a problem is an understatement, so much so that this section of Dhammapala’s essay is likely to turn people off, depress them, or make them think something’s fishy about the whole thing.  However, there is almost assuredly more here than meets the eye, and I do not think we should let ourselves be trapped by tradition–Buddhist or otherwise.  My next post will be an essay devoted entirely to the problem of the Great Aspiration and the eight qualifications.

Buddha Is As Buddha Does by Lama Surya Das

Buddha Is As Buddha Does

Buddha Is As Buddha Does: The Ten Original Practices For Enlightened Living by Lama Surya Das.  HarperCollins 2008, 264 pages.

I had actually looked forward to reading this book.  Das is a well-known name in Buddhist circles, and his book Awakening the Buddha Within was promoted by Ken Wilber and even became a best seller.  The man apparently also has several (3?) intensive retreats Tibetan-style (living in a shack for 3 years, sleeping upright, the works) so I assumed he must have an abundance of insight to offer.

Maybe he does.  I’ve now read the book, but I’m still not entirely sure.  You see, the first thing that hit me when I started it was that it felt like a self-improvement tract, ala Anthony Robbins.  There is the relentlessly exuberant optimism that pervades much of the more lightweight self-improvement books, and the saccharine prose was freighted with the sort of populist, feel-good catch phrases of American Buddhism that I’ve really become tired of–“we’re all Buddhas” filled with “Buddha-nature” if only we could see into our “inner being” yada yada yada.

The book is about the paramitas (“perfections”) as they are described in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Contrary to the subtitle, though, the practices described here are in no way “original.”  The oldest texts (the Pali) also describe ten perfections, but they are a different ten.  (See Acarya Dhammapala’s little gem of a work A Treatise on the Paramis for more about this.)  The later traditions (Mahayana and Vajrayana) compiled a different set of practices (also ten), but even there the Mahayana initially had only six, and these form the core of the list Das describes.

This kind of loose “scholarship” (if that’s the right word for it) is evident also in his frequent quotes from Buddhist literature and sutras.  He may be quoting the Buddha or some text, but a reference is never offered, and in more than a few instances where he quotes the “Buddha” I know the quote–which is probably his reworded version of it–is not from the Pali but a Mahayana or tantric text.  Someone of Das’ stature ought to know better than to pretend those passages, however edifying, come down to us from the Buddha.

For anyone who read my earlier post “On reading Buddhist books” you will know that the above marks this work out as a “popular” text.  Indeed, Lama Surya Das is a no-holds barred propagator of marketable American Buddhism, i.e. Buddhism as politically correct, feel-good pablum.  One manifestation of this is his relentless ecumenicism.  Stories from any number of traditions are bandied about freely, with the impression that everyone’s religion is equally filled with enlightened masters and sages.  I do not have any problem with ecumenism per se, so long as accuracy and depth are not sacrificed.  But what I’ve noticed about this style of thinking and writing is that it tends to dilute the depth and subtlety of the tradition on hand, in this case Vajrayana Buddhism.   The uniqueness of the tradition is disguised behind the attempt to make it seem that its truths, whatever they may be, are universally known and understood.  Yet I would wager there are many insights the Tibetans have which, for example, the Muslims do not.  (Actually, I can easily think of several.  But I digress…)  However, you will never learn that with a book like this.  Other examples that mark this out as populist fodder are: endless stories that obscure what could be meaningful points, the author’s seeming to be old buddies with every well known lama in the country, the minimal use of appropriate technical terminology (you don’t even learn the Sanskrit for several of the perfections), and the abundant use of feel good jargon.

Das also displays some serious problems of judgment.  For example, Lance Armstrong is repeatedly cited as a hero and bodhisattva.  This, of course, is terribly unfortunate (for Das) because only three years later Armstrong’s reputation totally unraveled under the weight of a doping scandal.  Of course there was no way for Das to know this at the time, but reading it now does nothing for the author’s credibility.  A worse error is citing Muhammad Ali (p. 65) as an exemplar of the first precept (not killing) because Ali refused to go to Vietnam.  This is truly PC run amok–anyone who takes up a livelihood of beating strangers’ faces to a pulp can hardly be considered a practitioner of “non-harming,” the real intent of the first precept.  Finally, offering the Vietnamese monk Quang Duc’s self-immolation (p. 42) as the act of a bodhisattva is highly questionable, as I’ve never come across anything in the entire Pali Canon to indicate the Buddha would espouse dramatic public suicide for the sake of a socio-political cause.

If my review seems relentlessly negative, I am sorry.  I actually felt embarrassed reading the book on the train, and tended to hide the cover from my fellow riders.  But this is not to say it was a complete loss.  Compared to Sylvia Boorstein’s Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake Das is actually profound.  In a number of places he gives quite meaningful and helpful advice (p. 77 is particularly excellent), and offers some very good insights (e.g. on p. 19 where he notes that the first six paramitas are bodhisattva character traits while the last four are active expressions of those traits).  In fact, I am convinced that if Das had a hard nosed editor (perhaps he’d be willing to hire me!) who could cut through the rubbish and lay bare the intelligence and experience he so plainly possesses, this book–and probably every book he ever wrote or will write–would be vastly improved.  I’m not sure if they’d sell as well, though, and that may be the catching point: like so many popular Buddhist authors, he has a foundation to support, and those things need MONEY.

I’m giving this book three stars on Amazon.  There are certainly a lot of people out there who will enjoy and benefit more from it than I have; Das is not writing for curmudgeons like me.

Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake by Sylvia Boorstein

Pay Attention, For Goodness' SakePay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake: practicing the perfections of the heart: the buddhist path of kindness by Sylvia Boorstein. Ballantine Books 2002, 282 pages.

Boorstein’s book is about the ten paramis (Sanskrit paramitas), written from a Theravadan perspective.  She is a practicing psychologist and vipassana teacher, hanging out with folks like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg.  This would seem to stand her in good stead, though I confess I was less than blown away by her book.  It had a rambling, chatty, fluffy feeling to it, almost like she sat down at her computer with a cup of coffee and just started writing whatever came to mind.  Often the stories she told to illustrate her “points” did not seem particularly connected to the virtue under discussion, be it loving kindness, renunciation, generosity, or whatever.  They could go on a bit too–a not particularly illuminating conversation with a cab driver concerning whatever covered three pages (pp. 117-9)!  Similarly, the quotes at the heads of the chapters often didn’t seem related to the chapter subject.

The most instructive and original part of her book was the “periodic table of virtue” (pp. 28ff).  This was not only insightful but helpful.  It reminded me of the table I created off Acariya Dhammapala’s “Treatise on the Paramis” in an earlier post.  A few of her stories were also quite good.  I especially recommend the one about Bret and his retreat experience (memories of getting mugged) from pp. 236ff, and Boorstein’s musings on her own ten year long grudge against a fellow meditation teacher (168ff).  Then there is the hilarious–though totally irrelevant–piece about Seung Sahn and Kalu Rinpoche.  I once met the former and am familiar with his book titles, every one of which prefaces his name with the self-styled title “Zen Master.”  He never impressed me and Boorstein’s story (on p. 196) not only confirmed my opinion of him but also put me on notice that it really is possible to be too Zen.  The story is so priceless I quote it here in full:

Students of the Korean teacher Seung Sahn, the founder of the Providence Zen Center, and students of Kalu Rinpoche, a lama (priest) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, arranged for the two venerable lineage holders to appear together for a public dialogue.  Seung Sahn took an orange out of the sleeve of his robes, held it up for Kalu Rinpoche to see, and said, in the forthright style characteristic of Zen, “What is this?”  Kalu Rinpoche’s interpreters translated the question for him, but he seemed mystified.  ”What is this?” Seung Sahn repeated the question.  Still the lama remained mystified.  Seung Sahn asked a third time.

Kalu Rinpoche turned to his interpreter and said, “What’s the matter with him?  Don’t they have oranges in Korea?”

While I am always happy to be amused, I would have liked more serious practice related suggestions, such as…”here’s a parami, and these are ways you can develop it.”  Even when she did attempt “practice points” they were mostly bland mindfulness exercises which, while good in themselves, lacked the specificity to really develop that particular trait.  I would have also liked more context.  As noted, this book is about the paramis from a Theravadan perspective so, perhaps stereotypically, there was no discussion of the bodhisattva’s career–Acariya Dhammapala and his like are totally absent.  While I won’t hold that against Boorstein, in the Theravada the paramis are traditionally associated with particular Jataka stories and the use of some of these as illustrations of the different virtues would have added greatly.

This brings me to what may be the most distressing aspect of the book: the lack of a goal for these practices.  I mean, why should anyone bother?  Why be generous?  Why give up your pleasures, venial or otherwise?  This we are never told.  The reason, I think, we are never told is because the version of the Buddha’s teaching that comes through in these pages is hopelessly watered down.  For example, when Boorstein discusses the Four Noble Truths (pp. 15ff), the third is reduced to simply having a “peaceful mind.”  Well, this could mean anything, from post coital slumber to sharing a Bud Lite with your friends on the beach.  Another example of this sort of bland evasion of the Dharma’s edgy nuts and bolts is her rendition of the third of the the three marks of existence (anniccadukkhaanatta), usually translated as not-self or impersonality.  Boorstein describes it this way (p. 112):

Nothing has a substantive existence separate from everything else, or indeed any existence at all apart from contingency, apart from being the result of complex causes and a factor in subsequent experience (insight into interdependence).

Huh?  Why, I wonder, would she want to make something simple and profound into something vague and garrulous?  It seems she is trying to straddle Mahayana and Theravada chairs and falling down between them.  In the process, the teaching of anatta is obscured and the third noble truth–the point of the whole enterprise–remains unillumined.

Why? I ask again.  Well, I think what we have here is an example of the muddiness of what David Chapman has called “consensus Buddhism“–that is the impetus in certain quarters to take the various Buddhist schools, with all their nuances, contradictions and specific flavors, stick them in a blender, and puree them to a bland mixture that we all have to agree is something called “Buddhism” on account of the lack of a better term.  The resulting concoction  appeals to the masses but doesn’t say much of anything very well.  This is a whole topic unto itself, and Chapman has really run with the ball on this.  I suggest spending time on his sites to see what it’s all about.  For here and now, though, I will only point out that what consensus Buddhism can never offer is an intellectually challenging platform for practice because that might make some people uncomfortable.

This is not a bad book, but it is by no means great, either, despite all the gushing recommendations from Boorstein’s fellow Dharma teachers.  If you are earnestly inquiring into the bodhisattva project I would suggest you pass on it.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars

Post Navigation