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Archive for the tag “ethics”

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

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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

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.

The Morals of God and the Buddha

Adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam habitually declare that their God is essential for the practice of ethics, but this belief is entirely without justification.  To the contrary, I would argue the Abrahamic God does not, indeed cannot, function as a coherent source for the understanding of ethical thought and behavior.  God’s words and actions in the Bible (not to mention the Koran) make it abundantly clear why this should be the case.  While in one instance (Ex. 20:13, 15) he tells us not to kill or steal, in others (e.g. Josh 5-13, Deut. 7 et al) he urges a genocidal war in which murder and theft (and presumably rape) are all well and fine.  Once he gets down to lawmaking his “ethical” character is further muddled in sections of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where stoning (Lev. 24:16, Deut. 17:2-7, Deut. 22:23-24 et al), slaughtering and burning animals (Lev. 1:1 ff et al) to “make a pleasing odor” (Lev. 4:31), and slavery (Ex.21:1-4, Deut. 15:12-18, Lev. 25:44-46 et al) are all deemed acceptable—even virtuous—practices.  He himself is the author of global devastation (the Flood), the destruction of cities (Sodom, Gomorrah, Jericho etc), the whimsical killing of people for the most trivial offenses (Onan’s death because he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law, Gen. 38:9-10), and the cruel manipulation of innocent bystanders (the Abraham-Isaac incident and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart).

And it does not get better in the New Testament.  If Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, then he claimed responsibility for His atrocities.  Moreover, Jesus’ behavior is at times a little less than saintly.  He indulges in fits of rage (the scene with the money changers), needlessly blasts harmless vegetation (the fig tree in Matt. 21:18-19 and Mk. 11:13-14, 20), and speaks anathema against anyone who doesn’t believe in him (Matt. 10:33, 13:40-42, John 15:6 et al).  Also, though Jesus himself does not speak directly to this issue, the position of the epistles on slavery is clear: it is a perfectly fine institution, so long as it is not accompanied by indiscriminate abuse (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 4:1, I Tim. 6:1-3 et al).  Yet by the seventeenth century many in Europe at least were beginning to recognize slavery for the abomination it is, and by the eighteenth century nations began outlawing it—Russia in 1723, Scotland in 1778, Massachusetts in 1783, Spain in 1811, etc etc.  The United States—the so-called “land of the free”—was a real laggard in this regard.  (The supreme irony is that in any argument between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, the supporters always cited the Bible in their defense.)  Thus in clear defiance of the Biblical deity’s mandates, men and women made the rational, moral choice to abolish this odious institution.  Finally, if we take Christianity at its face value, we are forced to conclude that the majority of human beings who have lived in the past 2000 years will suffer eternity in hell—all because they didn’t believe a first century Galilean carpenter was actually the creator of the universe in disguise.  This monstrous act, perpetrated on account of such triviality, is the grossest evil of the Biblical god, easily surpassing the accumulated horrors of the Old Testament.  I could go on ad nauseam, but it would be a waste of my time and yours.

(Of course, Christians are fond of saying that God does not condemn anyone; they condemn themselves by choosing to reject Jesus—a disingenuous and coldhearted retort if ever there was one.  The fact is, there cannot be any such thing as “choice” as ordinarily understood when you are dealing with an omniscient and omnipotent being.  If God knows the future—and if he does not he is not omniscient and ipso facto not omnipotent—then nothing I do is a matter of choice for it has already “happened” in his foreknowledge.  An action perfectly foreseen does not admit of choice, however it might seem to me.  Thus God knew, the moment he conceived the idea of Creation, that he would be condemning countless beings to endless, not to mention pointless, suffering.  He chose to create a world he knew would be filled with misery, and he chose to compound this misfortune with an arbitrary system of justice where everyone comes out losing and the only option for any of us is a “choice” (the outcome of which he knew in advance, à la predestination) that is really no choice at all.  In other words, the assumption of God’s omniscience and omnipotence is entirely incompatible not only with any notion of human freedom, but also with the supposition that He is good.  If we take for granted the Christian characterization of his powers, God must be held responsible for everything that happens to everyone.)

 What I hope to have indicated above is that if you take the Biblical/Koranic God as your ethical model, then sometimes you will behave virtuously and sometimes not.  Sometimes you will refrain from raping, pillaging, and murdering and sometimes you won’t.  Sometimes suffering and injustice will horrify you, and sometimes you will rejoice over the most appalling circumstances—as our Pilgrim Fathers did when they gave thanks to God for having sent plagues to wipe out the Indians, thereby allowing them to colonize the land unhindered by troublesome aborigines.  (The plague was smallpox, brought to the New World by European settlers.)  This extraordinarily arbitrary and self-interested approach to ethics is inevitable if someone appeals to the whimsies of a personal god for their notions of right and wrong.

 (A contemporary example of this self-righteous, amoral groupthink is the widespread support by evangelicals for Israeli West Bank settlers and Israel in general. Among the many moral crises this world faces, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is one of the clearest cut.  A census in 1890 indicated there were fewer than 10,000 Jews living in what was then called Palestine.  Now there are five million plus.  How is this possible?  Simple: colonization—by European Zionists in the early 20th century—and ethnic cleansing—as a systematic state policy by Israel.  Palestinians, who had been living there for thousands of years, were forcibly evicted from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods.  Thousands still live in refugee camps.  And why has this happened?  Because a magical holy book says that 3,200 years ago the Supreme Creator of the Universe, in his capacity as galactic real estate broker, decided a semi-arid sliver of land should be the divine right of a bunch of pastoralist nomads and their descendants until the end of time.  Millions have died and suffered and continue to do so—all on account of this folly.  On a moral level, this is not far removed from what the Europeans and the United States did to Native Americans, minus the genocide.)

 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.  As a final point in this regard, I would strongly urge readers to view a talk by Sam Harris at the 2010 TED conference.  Twenty-three minutes of your time could hardly be better spent.

 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 nibbana is out of the question.

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