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Archive for the tag “morality”

The Beginning Bodhisattva’s Practice of Virtue

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics meds


Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

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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