Thursday, December 20, 2007

Politics: toward a Buddhist immigration policy

What would a Buddhist immigration policy look like for the US (or UK)? Obviously such notions as generosity (dana) and nonviolence (ahimsa) should come to mind. Or perhaps Shantideva's simile of the hand and the foot: urging us to reach out and help others as we are all interconnected. People may also like to stretch analogies regarding the Buddha as one who broke down barriers such as caste and gender, teaching openly to all and proclaiming the same spiritual potential in all beings.

It seems that little will be found in the early Buddhist sources to condone exclusionary practices of any kind. If anything, it may be the strategy of the anti-immigration Buddhist to say that the Buddha was a bit naive in regards to these issues, and that immigration represents a special case in which it really would be better for everyone (thus an act of compassion) if big walls and even bigger prisons were erected in wait for those 'huddled masses'.

Recently, Kelly sent me a thought-provoking article by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor, discussing the topic. It contains five recommendations (you'll have to read the article for details):
1 Overhaul admission priorities.
2 Make English the official national language.
3 Immigrants must embrace the nation's civic virtues.
4 Enforce the law.
5 Make the United States an equal-opportunity immigration magnet.

These are interesting suggestions and deserve some thought:
  1. Focusing more on skilled workers and reducing family connections sounds good, but I wonder if this wouldn't actually dissuade many skilled workers from coming here in the first place. Americans are famous for geographic mobility: families don't stick together in the US. This is not the case most places. A brilliant computer scientist in India may choose to languish there in a sub-par job rather than travel half-way around the world with little or no chance of bringing his (extended) family with him.

    I agree with Chua that more attention to job-skills should be made, but I think it goes too far to say 'the immigration system should reward ability and be keyed to the country's labor needs -- skilled or unskilled, technological or agricultural.' Focusing too much on these people as 'skilled or unskilled' etc. risks losing sight of their humanity.

  2. Adopting an official language seems absurd to me. English is already de facto our country's language, but ever since its inception our nation has been a host to countless other non-native languages (and of course a whole host of Native American ones!). The Buddha, in sending out his students to teach others, told them to teach in the language common to each area. This is in direct opposition to the Brahmans, who taught and preserved their scriptures only in Sanskrit. Thus a Buddhist policy would:
    1. Inspire, not legislate, others to learn English. This once-great language seems to be producing more trashy pop-music than classical literature today. Learning English as a second language is hard; I'd rather we focus on incentives (carrots) than punishments (the stick).
    2. Learn more languages ourselves! Sure, English will stand as the most common language, but as the ACLU argues, it doesn't make sense to limit the use of other languages. I think the great French Philosopher Merleau-Ponty was right in suggesting that the language must be correct to express the life of the speaker. Languages change with history, some simply die out as speakers adopt a more dominant or useful language. I say: bring on the Spanish, bring on the Chinese (Mandarin)! Let them shape a stronger English, or replace it.

  3. Chua states that 'It's up to each immigrant community to fight off an enclave mentality and give back to their new country.' I fully agree. But I think the job isn't just for them. Americans need to make a habit of reaching out to people outside the mainstream. We, too, should go into the enclave as much as they should come out! Not to mention the Americans who are rapidly building enclaves of their own (gated communities) to keep new immigrants out.

  4. It's hard to argue against enforcing the law. My only thought is that we should be looking also at what compels many people to risk their lives and freedom crossing into the US illegally. Could it be that our own economic policies perpetuate injustice and poverty in their countries? Could our political and military actions be undercutting democratic movements and propping up unpopular dictators? Jeez, I don't know. But if any of that does happen to be the case, we should work hard to reverse it, ensuring better lives to people in those countries. If their lives are better in their home country, then I'm sure they'll be more patient with the legalities of proper immigration.

  5. Finally, Chua suggests equal-opportunity immigration, stating that 'The starkly disproportionate ratio of Latinos -- reflecting geographical fortuity and a large measure of law-breaking -- is inconsistent with this principle.' I'm all for equal opportunity, but I think 'geographical fortuity' should be given more credit. Practically speaking, I think it just makes more sense that we have disproportionate numbers of Latinos. All things considered, if I were, say, an English-speaking political exile from Burma in search of new opportunity, I'd probably want to go to India or Australia. There would have to be some special reason for me to want to go all the way to America. Likewise a Romanian student would feel more geographically compelled to study in England over the US. Just as in point one where I'd say that 'family matters,' here also I would say that 'geography matters.'

    That is not to say that we shouldn't reach out to our brothers and sisters in Burma and elsewhere. But perhaps we can stretch Shantideva's simile a bit and say that there are many thorns in the body, and unless one in the foot is particularly bad, it just makes more sense to pull out those that are nearest. In practical terms if we can reduce more suffering in Honduras than Burma simply because it is nearer, we should.
As with most things in politics, the immigration debate sparks many emotions and far more complex than a few paragraphs can give justice to. One of my favorite statements on the topic came from a cartoon on a professor's door near mine back at UM. It featured a couple Native Americans overlooking the building of a colonists' fort. One says to the other, "they ignore our customs and refuse to learn the language. I say we kick 'em out."


To me one of the greatest American values has been the value of opportunity for everyone here. The opportunity to make something of their lives, to create new community, and to pass that forward to the next generation. Perhaps, contra Buddhism, that value has been translated into commercialism and greed. But it could also be translated into deeper opportunities for service, for realizing our interconnectedness, for overcoming ignorance.

It is a fact that some amount of material sustenance is necessary for spiritual development. It is also taught by the Buddha that too many material possessions will hamper that development. Americans today suffer not from too little material wealth (and hence real fear of immigrants taking it away), but instead from too much. It is much of the rest of the world that has too little. It seems obvious that the Buddhist immigration policy would look to eliminate this imbalance.

*with small alterations 25-2-2008

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

God part 3: tentative resolutions

Every once in a while I will start a planned series of posts and then begin to lose interest in finishing it. That seems to be the case now as well.

Regarding Buddhist ideas of Karma and Rebirth I will refer you to the recent post and comments at Progressive Buddhism.

Plenty of people far wiser than I have put in countless hours thinking about these matters. For my own part I will again agree with Kant (link to God part 1) that certain questions seek to go beyond the mind’s capacities. In a time when many thought they had ‘proved’ the existence of God, Kant deftly showed the fallacies of their arguments. Yet Kant knew that striving after such ultimate answers was and is still a fundamental aspect of being human. For our part all we can do is allow these questions to arise and to ensure that our own reasoning is clear. Greater clarity is the gift provided to us by generations past and the debt we owe to the next.

The Buddha, too, avoided what he saw as merely speculative metaphysics. If his words wouldn’t aid in the removal of suffering from a student, the Buddha would not teach. He taught simple doctrines of generosity and harmlessness to many lay-people. To only a few did he teach more complicated doctrines such as non-self (anatta) or impermanence (anicca). These were dedicated to the monks and nuns, those who had committed themselves to understanding the deeper truths of his teachings.

But those deeper truths were still only those that helped along the path to nirvana. It is said that the Buddha’s teachings are like a few precious leaves compared to the forest of his knowledge. The implication is that he could have taught all sorts of things, from horse-riding and archery to walking on water and through rocks, but these were seen as a waste of time compared to the vast project of eliminating one’s fetters (i.e. greed, hatred, ignorance) and achieving freedom or awakening.
As I mention in a comment on the Progressive Buddhism post above, the ideas of karma and rebirth sometimes play a role in my life. They ease my worries or spur me to cultivate virtues. This is fine. So long as there is positive practical/ethical outcome from these beliefs, I see them as valuable. If ever I were to become obsessed with past-life issues or karma I would hope to be slapped back into the present life and moment as quickly as possible.

As for God, I still have not found one worth believing in (link to God part 2) . I know that many others have, including perhaps many Pure Land Buddhists. If belief in God brings benefits, let it be held, but if they are a source of anguish, it should be released.

What I have come to most in these posts and recent Buddhist studies is that it doesn't really matter whether one believes in God, karma, rebirth, etc. (I sense a collective ‘duh’ from wiser readers everywhere.) What matters is how we live our lives, how well we are able to translate our beliefs, whatever they may be, into the service of humankind. Mental labour should thus be spent far less on the cogency of belief, and more on the path to awakening.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Life: merry -- mas

Holiday Spirit, London style

19 December update:

"Christmas gift suggestions:
To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect."
-Oren Arnold (borrowed from here)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Life: back on track, but still too busy to post for myself, so...

Here are some interesting bits from my friends:

First: SJ in Calcutta! I was supposed to accompany him to our friend Soorjya's wedding there but my Visa got caught up in bureaucratic channels (lesson learned: check entry requirements for any country you plan to visit!). So I'm stuck in London and he's in Calcutta - which is better? Read for yourself.

Soorjya and bride Ishita

Either way I AM really sorry to be missing India and especially Soorjya's wedding.

Next: A little heads-up from Nacho about US media:

And speaking of US media, Kelly sent me this recent article from the Washington Post on my recently blogged issue of America and immigration, "The Right Road to America?"

Kelly has also been blogging! About what? Books of course! Lately she's mastering making history and getting rich.

And lastly (leaving out several - but feel free to check my links on the right to see what else I try to keep up on in the blog-world), David, who teaches Religion, Philosophy and Ethics in Gloucestershire raises some interesting questions about being Politically Correct (and lying to Children!) around the holidays:
Leaving asides cheap jibes about believing in a fictional old man, who you can't see: why do we perpetuate this falsehood?
Wait, one more! I have yet to read it, but it sure looks like a great discussion at Progressive Buddhism on 'Rebirth, Reassessed.'

So much to read and catch up on! And soon, hopefully, some more blogs of my own!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Life: "Trying to catch up with the speed of Justin"

That is how a friend of mine, Larry, titled a recent email to me. "Trust me, I'm trying to catch up too!" I replied.

Life has just been a whirlwind lately, returning from D.C. to London, wrapping up the term, getting sick, Christmas events, saying goodbye to people for the holidays, preparing for Kelly's arrival here, thinking about our wedding...


Now, for the average person this might not seem like much, but for the Buddhist Philosopher things like moving around, people-stuff, and events are all mighty draining.
I had the pleasure of meeting with my philosophy advisor from UM, Christopher Preston, yesterday here in London and we discussed this a bit, the difficulty of combining new adjustments in life and studies. He noted the six weeks it took him to get his bearings straight when he first went to college in Durham, NE England.

I was reminded, too, of my first term in Bristol as I studied for my MA in Buddhist Studies. My first ten weeks were extremely difficult: the newness of life in the big city, five thousand miles from home, new people, new customs... any time I sat down to do homework my head was spinning from trying to process all the new sights and sounds.

And here I am again three years later, a bigger city, a bit further from Montana, more new people and customs.

So I am not surprised that my head is spinning a bit, that I can barely read two pages of my books before needing to take a walk or find some other distraction.
I was also asked about my meditative practice here, whether I had found a group to practice with or practiced on my own. Unfortunately, neither has been the case. As I described it, I've been basically 'coasting' from my early summer meditation practices. I'm not sure how much it is discussed in Buddhism, but I have a sense that once you reach certain plateaus in meditative cultivation it is very difficult to slide backward.

So, while my mind is itself somewhat overwhelmed by life these days, there is no attachment to it being otherwise. Whenever I do get to step back and see all this that has me so busy these days I can only look upon it with overflowing gratitude, and at times even tears of joy. From simple days on dirt roads under the big sky of Montana I have found myself working on my Ph.D. in one of the largest cities on earth and engaged to the most amazing woman I've ever met.

I'm not used to all this change, these new people, new customs, new pace of life. I'm far better suited to simpler places, simpler times. I think most philosophers are; those who stargaze, searching for 'first principles,' unity amidst the chaotic multiplicity, universals in a life of particulars. But the Buddhist knows that such are not easily found if at all, and that in the mean time it is the acceptance of change (the release of thirst) that brings freedom.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Is America an open society?

This question stems from conversations with my fiancée as well as friends here in London and could also be phrased:
Is the US or the UK a more open society?

(with regards to ideology and/or immigration)
- feel free to toss other countries into the equasion.

Post your thoughts in the comment area if you would (please).

Some random thoughts/questions on this:
  • Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali (in what some call more of a political move than a religious one) in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam - what would Americans think if someone of his fame did this today ?
  • The great physicist David Bohm was forced out of Princeton when it surfaced that he was a sympathiser of Communism (he later got a job in Bristol, England)
  • London, Madrid, and the US have all been targeted by Islamic Terrorists in the last 1o years - why? But let us not foget those in India recently as well. Are there more cases of calculated domestic Islamic terrorism?
  • Is America "a nation of immigrants" as JFK proclaimed in 1958 or a "Christian Nation" as John McCain and the Republican Party of Texas (amongst others) seem to believe. Can these two notions coexist? (my own sense is that 'Christian' is exclusionary - while 'immigrant' is inclusive - even Native Americans immigrated at one point).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Leaving Sukhavati

Today I fly back to London to resume intense studies, get back into blogging, hang out with new friends, and prepare for a trip to India with my good friend SJ to reunite with Soorjya who is getting married. There is a lot to look forward to. But my heart is still heavy as I imagine getting on the plane in nine or ten hours.

I've done a lot these past three weeks in the US. I:
  1. spent time with Kelly's lovely aunt Suzi and grandmother (Gabbo)
  2. saw Princeton, where Kelly began her doctoral studies,
  3. met Kelly's good friends Carolyne and (?), who she met through her first Socrates Café
  4. visited Storm King Art Center, a beautiful 500 acres of brilliant trees, rolling hills, a playful stream, and open sky (and some funny art too),
  5. met Ken and Christine Lindsay, an amazing couple (celebrating just over 60years of marriage) who Kelly met in her research on WWII art preservation,
  6. made some headway in my research and a conference panel discussion on "Buddhism and Philosophy" in the spring,
  7. saw Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, where I
  8. proposed,
  9. received a 'yes',
  10. and thus became officially engaged :) Update: a photo from just after our engagement:

and a whole lot more...

Yet still it seemed to go all too fast.

C'est la vie.


Land of Great Bliss.

I bid you adieu, but not for long.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

God part 2 of 3: the meanings of things

Preface, or 'pre-post tangential interlude': Before I get into blog post proper I wanted to share a discovery I made today thanks to David Webster's Gloucestershire Uni course blog. It is a discussion by academics of Socrates' life from BBC Radio 4. It was interesting for a variety of reasons: the problem of the written word (vs oral teachings), problems of democracy, questions of virtue and the good life, and (for me) connections with Kant and the nature of God.
One of the points made by Socrates, found in Plato's Euthyphro, is that we cannot reasonably place the gods (or in our case God) above morality. That is, if we can know right from wrong in human affairs, then we should judge the claimed actions and wishes of god(s) by these same criteria. As Socrates asks Euthyphro in that dialog (quoting from memory):
Is it right because the gods accept it,
or do the gods accept it because it is right? (my emphasis)
Socrates of course supports the latter option. Morality, virtue, rightness, goodness and the likes all supersede the whims of the gods.

But for the Greeks the gods (and Old Testament followers of God as mentioned in the radio show) were heavily personified beings, basically humans with certain qualities exaggerated and with added magical powers. They had their faults, inconsistencies, and foibles just as the rest of us. Socrates was thus a radical for saying, in effect, "don't waste your time trying to please them, put your effort into a virtuous life, a self-examined life, and you will find happiness."

Ironically, I noted in the last post that things hadn't changed much between Kant's time and our own, and it seems that even more so things remained amazingly constant between Socrates life and that of Kant.


Now, neither Kant nor Socrates denied the existence of God, both simply demanded a rational understanding of the deity. And while for Socrates this is mainly a moral matter, for Kant it is both moral and extends to the natural world (following the inspirational works of such thinkers as Newton, Galileo and Copernicus). But, once we have rationalized morality and the good life, as well as the physical world, what is left of 'God'?

And that exact question has been the prime battle ground for over two hundred years (at least) of Western theology.

Kierkegaard, for one, argued that Kant and others missed the whole point: that God and reason have nothing to do with one another (and for that matter God and morality). He famously retells the story of Abraham and Isaac. He admits that what Abraham is about to do, kill his own son, is morally wrong, but then says that in religious terms it is right. So for Kierkegaard 'God' means something beyond our categories of reason and morality.

A thinker closer to home (for me) is Albert Borgmann who, as it was explained to me, treats God as a moral necessity. For Dr. Borgmann it is God to whom we must give thanks that there is existence at all (recalling the Parmenidean question, "why is there something instead of nothing?"). Dr. Borgmann accepts that it is science to which we should turn to explain all that is in existence, but that it is God that has ensured that there is existence in the first place.
A good exercise you can do now is to to play:

Battleground God (a witty Q&A to see if your views are at least consistent with each other)
(a simpler, one-step game raising the typical objections to the Judeo-Christian notions of God)
As either game suggests (especially the second) 'God' has problems. If we give her the typical attributes that people have since time immemorial then she no longer seems to fit into our world (ruled by physics and rational ethics). If we strip her of these in the hopes of keeping her here (a God'ess' in the gaps) then the game-makers openly wonder if what is left deserves the name 'God' in the first place.

In the end I tend to just give up and join another former philosophy professor of mine (retired), Dr. Burke Townsend, and say that I don't believe in God because I don't know what that means. (It's not that I disbelieve, but only that I don't know what it is that I am supposed to believe in here.)

I believe in the fundamental morality of the universe, as I have felt it tugging at my own conscience and I have discovered practices that I have experienced to better attune me to that universal moral nature. I believe in the inexhaustible beauty of the natural world, from mountain sunsets to the ant's antennae, from the cosmic singularity to the evolution of human beings, it all makes me bright-eyed and grinning with wonder.

But that's it.

I must laugh at its simplicity, but also the sheer complexity when you get right down to it. It is simple because it is all right here, every action and item before me opens the worlds of morality and nature. It is complex because, in Kantian terms, I am heteronomous, pulled in dozens of directions at once, tugged by forces outside of my moral center, forces other than my own reason. And the physical world, too, reveals a depth of complexity that thwarts our eager probing at every turn. In Buddhist terms both (our understanding of morality and the natural world) are clouded by ignorance, clouds that are sometimes equated with language (conceptuality) itself.

But again, that's it.

For both Kant and Buddhism the task is thrown upon us, each of us, to lift our own veils of ignorance, to unravel the bounds of unknowing, to come face to face with reality. To appeal to God for either would be to side-step this responsibility, an escape from the here-and-now reality of our lives.

But then, that is just one conception of God, namely the traditional Judeo-Christian conception (and the roughly parallel Brahmanic/Hindu conception). There are other conceptions of God that bring him (or, preferably her) down to earth and into our lives. Think of Native American ideas of the Great Spirit, or perhaps certain gnostic ideas of God-within-all.

In the last part of this series I will explore other conceptions of God, asking if reconciliation may be found.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

God part 1 of 3: Living with myths

Myths are not untruths, but truths that extend beyond the rational mind. - Dr. Alan Sponberg from his Intro to Buddhism Course.
The God I grew up with was a God that you would ask for things from, or appeal to when things didn't go your way or call upon to tell others that they are wrong. People around me spoke of praying to God for health, emotional strength, and money; they openly asked God why 'bad things happened to good people'; and they used God as an ally in their cases against the evils of everything from homosexuality to lousy parking. I knew people for whom 'good person' and 'church-goer' were synonymous and who could not (would not) believe it when a church-goer was accused or convicted of some crime or wrong-doing.

So it may not be surprising that at age twelve, when exposed to my first natural science textbooks, that I openly disavowed any belief in God. Since then I have traveled a long way, through atheism (weak and strong), agnosticism, secular humanism, trying to become Christian followed by nihilism, and then Buddhism (whatever that means). Through Buddhist practice I have simply tried to live more freely and in the present moment, to be open to ideas and people, to understand my weaknesses and cultivate virtues.

Two questions come up for me sometimes: 1) do I believe in Buddhist ideas like nirvana and karma? and 2) where does all that put me with God?

The answers are rather complicated, but put simply the answers are something like "sure, whatever (agnostic)" and "what-do-ya-mean by 'God'? (atheist)." Following Kant, and (I think) the Buddha as well, I think that certain things are just too big to fit within our puny intellects. Questions like, "is the universe finite or infinite" or "is there a (Judeo-Christian) God or isn't there" are just silly because they ask our finite, limited minds to judge something that is not with those bounds or limits. The Buddha was famously silent when people asked him such questions and Kant called those who claimed to have an answer pretentious.

However, for neither was this the end of the story. For neither of them denied the possible reality of such things. In the Buddha's case, karma - a moral sense of cause and effect - was simply taken for granted. And for Kant too, the fact that there is a moral law is something that we as humans simply cannot deny. As for nirvana - the total cessation of suffering* - the Buddha certainly taught it and claimed to have achieved it. Yet the Buddha also taught that one should treat his teachings as a goldsmith treats gold, by testing it in many ways to determine its authenticity. So I take it to be within his teachings that I don't necessarily buy into nirvana; not that I deny it, but only that I'm still testing it out and until I know from my own eyes whether it is authentic I will remain agnostic-open. Yet, as Allen W. Wood notes, "Kant also holds that it is rational to pursue an end only insofar as you believe the end possible of attainment through the actions you take toward it." (Kant, p.180) In that case I must admit that I believe in nirvana, or at least something quite close (I say that because my belief arises from experiences - periods of time spent free from all suffering - and the reasoning that such periods could be extended indefinitely). The belief therefore is one that I think a skeptic such as Hume could assent to - it is not an unquestioning faith but a trust in experiences that could be replicated.

Kant it seems was exposed to much the same God that I was. Allen W. Wood, writing in a very Kantian vein states:
"Religious communities have usually been founded on a supposed divine revelation, [a scripture] accepted as authoritative... ruled by a class of priestly tyrants, who have done more to enslave than to liberate the mind and spirit. The idea of serving God that such communities have had has often been corrupt and superstitious, consisting of a set of morally indifferent or even degrading constraints on conduct (the performance of rituals, meaningless restrictions on what people eat or when they are permitted to work, regular performances of fetishistic conjurations of divine presence or formalized practices of slavish praise and contemptible begging directed at the divine being -- conceived, accordingly, as a vain tyrant who is disposed to favor unjustly those cringing subjects who most flatter him and abase themselves before him)." (pp. 183-4)
Wow. He goes on about war and each side's use of God as 'on our side' and about religious claims to "exclusive access to divine will" and imposing beliefs on others.

It would be nice to think that that was just the Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) of the 1700s and that it is totally changed today, but as I mentioned this was pretty much what I encountered growing up in little Helena, Montana.

However, Kant did see a rational basis for belief in God - that of morality. You see, for Kant, to be good is to be worthy of happiness. And as we know many good people die without finding happiness. So for that moral law that Kant saw as undeniable to work, there must be an afterlife and some "wise, benevolent, and just Providence ordering the world." (p.180) This, for Kant, is God: simply the guarantee (or guarantor) of the happiness one comes to deserve through his or her morality in life.

How interesting. And this seems to be much the same role that karma plays for Buddhists. It is a law-like causality that guarantees happiness comes to those who do good (puñña). Thus to have experiences of freedom from suffering and the reasoned belief in the possibility of total freedom, one must have some reasonable connection between the two. That is, one must believe that one's actions (karma) will lead to the fruits (phala or vipaka) of happiness or nirvana.

So it seems that in both cases we have reasoned cases for quite different beliefs. Or is it just that we have different words for much the same thing?

In part two I will explore that question, asking, "just what do we mean when we say 'God' - or karma or nirvana?"

* commentators are quick to point out that the end of suffering is not the end of physical pain. The Buddha still had pain as he grew old and died, he simply did not identify with the pain of his physical body. And it is this identification with or clinging to - as 'mine' - pain that causes us suffering.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Life: pond-hopping again

Sigh... At last, I'm off to see my fiancee again after six weeks of separation. And the separation itself wouldn't have been so difficult I think except that we have both been under so much stress. When the world around you is just closing in, you need that other person, that life-partner, there to hold at the end of the day.

As I have told friends back in the states, this place and my month here have been an odd mixture of 'philosopher's paradise' (total academic freedom, access to vast worlds of knowledge, and an amazing advisor) and bureaucratic nightmare (poor institutional organization, dodgy neighborhoods, defunct social telephony services). I'm not sure where it all balances out in the end. It's not bad I suppose, plenty to work with and work on. And I recall that in my first couple month in Bristol I was having a pretty hard time too. So I can look forward to settling in more and a very productive January onward.
I applied for a job at Jamyang Buddhist Centre and interviewed yesterday. The interview went pretty badly on my part. I was worn out and a bit flustered from being late and I did far too little research on Jamyang itself. So when they asked how I would work on certain aspects, like the beautiful Talking Buddhism website, I really had painfully little to offer. I went away feeling that I had been a bit foolish and perhaps over-confident, so not very happy with myself. Luckily I was invited to stay for one of the teachings with Geshe Soepa. He covered a four-fold mind training (lojong) from the Sakya tradition and it really hit home for me.
  1. if you are attached to this life, you are not a religious practitioner
  2. if you are attached to cyclical existence, you are not on the path
  3. if you are striving only for your own awakening, you are not on the Great path
  4. if you do not have correct understanding (of emptiness), you cannot attain Buddhahood.
(I may have got those a little off, but that's the gist of the training) Each step pushes one to think less of mundane concerns and more toward the highest possible service to humanity, and each has deeper explanations that would be familiar to the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner.

What resonated so well with me was the sense of attachment I had come with, attachment to the outcome of the interview and the ensuing deflation when it didn't go as planned. It seemed like each word from the Geshe's mouth and each breath I breathed deeply lessened that sense of unhappiness, helped me let go of my expectations. By then end I was smiling and able to head home with a light heart. Oh well if I don't get the job. It's a wonderful, amazing Buddhist centre and I'd love to work there, so we'll see. If not, I'm sure I'll be back to hear more wisdom and perhaps see if I can volunteer in some way.
In other job news, I did get hired on as a Departmental Student Coordinator here at the college. It's just a 2 hour/week on average job, but it will get me some good inside experience with the History department and with student affairs. The other coordinators and our fearless leader are all great folks (we got to know one another through a 5-hour training and a beer last week), so it should be fun all around.
Studies are going well too. I still haven't found a very peaceful place to get into my work. Everywhere I go there are constant disturbances, diversions, and inconveniences of one sort or another. But I'm making do, finding little moments of inspiration and progress.

I don't understand the intensity of the bureaucracy in England. Nobody I talk to understands it. The Brits don't either, but simply seem to accept it. For instance, phone/internet companies seem to compete for who can be the most complicated and difficult. Right now BT is the hands-down winner, discouraging 3 of my flatmates from getting land-lines through red-tape, long hours on hold, and lack of effort to speak in an understandable tone. Today I was celebrated for fighting through it all to establish our flat's first land line. Yay me. :) Oh yea, and the cost: $500 for installation and the most basic service on the minimum contract. Next step: wireless. Everybody is chipping in on this, so hopefully with about $100 each we can get the phone line and wireless all set up for the year...

Anywho... I've got to pack! 14 hours and I am in the air to see a certain gorgeous redhead!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Buddhist Ethics: figuring out Karma

I have been pondering a minor quibble in Buddhism for quite a while now (in fact it has been on my mind for about four years), so I figure I should share it with the world, even if I'm no closer to figuring it now than I was way back then.

The question regards the 'domain' of karma. That is, is everything that happens to me due to my karma? Now keep in mind that I'm not questioning the relevance or coherence of karma in our modern world. I'm asking 'as a Buddhist' (and academic) trying to understand the classical sources. With that in mind, there seem to be two classical statements:

1) "not everything that happens to a person is seen as due to karma." (P. Harvey, 2000, p.23)

Harvey cites this sutta (From accesstoinsight):
SN 36.21: Sivaka Sutta — To Sivaka {S iv 230; CDB ii 1278} [Nyanaponika | Thanissaro]. The Buddha explains that present experience cannot be described solely in terms of the results of past actions (kamma).

[Moliyasivaka:] "Master Gotama, there are some priests & contemplatives who are of this doctrine, this view: Whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before. Now what does Master Gotama say to that?"

[The Buddha:] "There are cases where some feelings arise based on bile. You yourself should know how some feelings arise based on bile. Even the world is agreed on how some feelings arise based on bile. So any priests & contemplatives who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those priests & contemplatives are wrong."

(because I'm fast becoming a nerd, I'll pop in the Pali from here)
[Moliyasivaka:] ‘‘santi, bho gotama, eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino – ‘yaṃ kiñcāyaṃ purisapuggalo paṭisaṃvedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā sabbaṃ taṃ pubbekatahetū’ti. Idha [idha pana (syā. kaṃ. pī. ka.)] bhavaṃ gotamo kimāhā’’ti?

‘[The Buddha:] ‘Pittasamuṭṭhānānipi kho, sīvaka, idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti. Sāmampi kho etaṃ, sīvaka, veditabbaṃ [evaṃ veditabbaṃ (syā. kaṃ. ka.)] yathā pittasamuṭṭhānānipi idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti; lokassapi kho etaṃ, sīvaka, saccasammataṃ yathā pittasamuṭṭhānānipi idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti. Tatra, sīvaka, ye te samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino – ‘yaṃ kiñcāyaṃ purisapuggalo paṭisaṃvedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā sabbaṃ taṃ pubbekatahetū’ti. Yañca sāmaṃ ñātaṃ tañca atidhāvanti, yañca loke saccasammataṃ tañca atidhāvanti. Tasmā tesaṃ samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ micchāti vadāmi.

See, that clears everything up, right?... Interestingly, the term kamma doesn't occur in the discussion until the next section:
‘‘Semhasamuṭṭhānānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… vātasamuṭṭhānānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… sannipātikānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… utupariṇāmajānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… visamaparihārajānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… opakkamikānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… kammavipākajānipi kho, sīvaka, idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti. [my emphasis]
Which Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates as:
"There are cases where some feelings arise based on phlegm... based on internal winds... based on a combination of bodily humors... from the change of the seasons... from uneven care of the body... from harsh treatment... from the result of kamma. [kammavipaka is 'the result of kamma' - I'm not sure what jānipi refers to] update - jānipi is a verb, I believe it means 'coming from.'
Anyhow, now that I've lost half of my readers (and myself) down this strange tangent, I'll return to my point: how extensive is karma?

The counter argument seems to come in Shantideva's great work "A Guide to teh Bodhisattva Way of Life." Here he discusses, in his chapter on Patience, the notion that karma, or our past actions, must be considered whenever we are to place blame for (our) suffering. Giving the example of someone striking him he states (translated by Wallace and Wallace, 1997):
43. Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?

44. Blinded by craving, I have obtained this boil that appears as a human body, which cannot bear to be touched. When there is pain, with whom should I be angry?
Thus it seems that even being embodied as humans is attributable to karma - and if that is the case, then all that follows is due to karma too. Just as if I drop a rock on a mountain top that hits some more rocks and they hit some more, creating an avalanche, it can be said that I caused the avalanche and whatever distruction happened to follow.

We can discuss a remote/proximate distinction regarding karma. But I think it would be correct to say then that everything that happens to us has some moral (karmic) dimension - as Tibetan Buddhists seem to stress. So we can speak of accidents, but not mere accidents. That is, accidents can occur, but always within the domain of karma. Likewise if I am attacked there is always some extent to which I am responsible for that, simply for making the choices to be at that place and time (or even embodied).

The distinction may turn out to be nothing, but I have a sense that it is important for a 'Kantian' understanding of Buddhist Ethics, since for Kant humans always have the capacity of reason (and morality). Thus every situation is within the moral realm to some degree. Accidents can happen to me, but to say it was totally an accident (denying all agency on my own part) would be to deny my own freedom in the matter - to enter into Sartrean 'bad faith.'

Likewise I think a Buddhist must acknowledge that even his indigestion is at least proximately a result of his karma (to have a body and eat spicy foods). But that appears to contradict Harvey's conclusion that, "not everything that happens to a person is seen as due to karma." Would it be more correct to say that "not everything... is seen as due directly to karma, but everything that happens is in some proximate way still attributable to karma (cf. Shantideva, CH 6...)."

To throw in one more curve-ball, it goes back to the five niyamas (or laws) as well. The logical structure could be one of nesting; i.e.

1) all that is, is within dhamma-niyama
2) within that is a category of (moral) action, the kamma-niyama
3) within kamma-niyama are mental actions, citta-niyama
4) only within mind (citta) are organic or cyclical processes, bija-niyama
5) and within that is the category and laws of mere matter, utu-niyama.

Perhaps I'm trying to impose too much logical clarity to Buddhist thought where there simply is none, but that looks awfully tidy if that is how they constructed it.

It also could be helpful in compairing with Kant's phenomenal/noumenal distinction in which mind plays a nicely central role with the thing-in-itself and morality on one side and planets and physics on the other.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Enlightenment? First Königsburg

It has been a while since I have delved into the riches of Kantian philosophy, mostly due to the burn-out of overexposure during my MA program in Montana. So it brought me doubled pleasure today to pick up Allen W. Wood's book Kant. I figured this general introduction would be a fine way to ease my way back into Kant's work. And it was perfect.

In the preface, Wood, whose works on Kant have been the backbone of my own knowledge of this great philosopher warns us of falling too much in love with Kant as a person. Our interest in his life "may be historical, or antiquarian, or it may be mere idle curiosity. But it has nothing at all to do with his philosophy."

Really? Does a philosopher's life really have nothing to do with his philosophy? In fact I just had a conversation with my flatmates, agreeing with one that a philosopher's life must have something to do with his/her philosophy. After all, how can one tell us the nature of the world having never experienced it, or how to live having led a terrible life?

Can't we take note of Sartre's wartime experience and bad luck with women as we try to temper his pessimism toward humanity and sexuality? Shouldn't Heidegger's refusal to repudiate his Nazi past give us some pause when reading his advocacy of a folkish ('focal things') based life. And of course there is Hume's admission that his own epistemology made no sense even to himself once he set down pen and went out for drinks with friends. And likewise, shouldn't philosophers known for their virtue, both intellectual and personal, deserve special attention?

Yet Wood persists, "It is unhealthy and completely unphilosophical to venerate philosophers of the past as gurus at whose feet we should sit in order to absorb their wisdom. Such an attitude toward any other person, whether living or dead, betrays a contemptible slavishness of mind that it is incompatible with doing philosophy at all." Wow, pretty heavy words. And he continues, "In holding that opinion, I am, incidentally, also being a good Kantian, since Kant regarded the practice of those who set up others as models for imitation as morally corrupt, tending sooner to produce either self-contempt or envy than virtue." He concludes that such a view, "should be held only because experience shows it to be true -- and true even about Kant himself." (p. x)

To conclude the preface, Wood admits, "that the boldness of Kant's insights and the power of his arguments sometimes awaken in me feelings of admiration..." even to the point of veneration. At that point he takes it as a sign to quit reading Kant and switch to another thinker such as Hume or Hegel, "regarding whom such exceedingly anti-philosophical sentiments are not presently sapping my critical powers and clouding my good judgment."

Any truly contemporary Buddhist thought must agree with this. It is so easy to read or listen uncritically, whereas it takes real work to listen critically and think for yourself. As an aside, it's also easy to be cynical and not listen at all! For a good example of a critical analysis of one of the earliest Buddhist texts - which itself calls for critical analysis! - see this recent post by (the other) Justin at Progressive Buddhism.

A lot of work needs to be done today: fighting the current of consumerism, the idolization of Hollywood and the Twiggy body-type (yikes) on the one hand and coming to a sensible understanding of karma, rebirth, hell-realms, and other sorts of Buddhist strangeness on the other. And at times it is difficult. But it is always rewarding. Sapere aude - Dare to know!

An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment?"

Konigsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784.

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!

Was ist Aufklärung? in German (with audio)
What is Enlightenment? (English e-text)
What is Enlightenment? as discussed by Michel Foucault in 1978 (English e-text)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Un-American, not Deep, and Un-Buddhist!?

Some mundane aspects of life in London:

(from 19/10/2007)

Here in the UK I really have no desire to meet, talk with, stand near, or otherwise relate to other Americans. So much so that I sometimes try not to talk when I know Americans are around, for fear of being ‘found out.’ So far, the plan is working brilliantly.

There was a close call once, at a lecture given by some famous Russian guy now teaching in California. My housemate Sjors (from Holland) pointed out two American men and said, “Oh, Justin, there are some other Americans, actually real Americans I could introduce you to.”

After some inquiry I learned that my lack of ketchup consumption and use of the word ‘cool’ have rendered me ‘un-American.’
As any of my faithful readers (and you both know who you are) know, I kind of think of myself as a rather ‘deep’ thinker. So it came with great sadness one day when Sjors (the very same) described to me his hair-brain theory (look that one up in your Dutch-English dictionary) that all thought consists on a sort of ‘bubble’ – and that when someone thinks they’re having a ‘deep’ thought, it’s really just another superficial thought, only somewhere else on the bubble by itself. In effect, his theory describes all of my philosophizing as: “not deep, just different.”

Right. So now I’m un-American and shallow.
Most recently, I took a walk around central London with Lenart, a Slovenian paparazzi journalist. My American geography, based on cold-war era high school textbooks, doesn’t include ‘Slovenia.’ So, out of embarrassment I checked out a children’s guide to new EU countries from the college library. It tells me Slovenia is a new country, emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia, with sunny beaches, mountain lakes, and pretty girls; also that it is quite small. Lenart supports this by telling me, “you can ski by day and have drinks on the beach by evening.” (drinks with a pretty girl, no doubt)

Lenart and I were walking in London and entered Soho, famous for its theatres, just a few blocks from Piccadilly circus (which, for my fellow Americans, is not really a “circus” in the Ringling Bros sense). And not long after we passed two girls, scantily clad and just standing there staring at everyone including us as we pass, Lenart informed me, “Ah, yes. And in case you ever have an Un-Buddhist thought… This is the place to find street girls.”

HmmmUn-American, not deep, and now I’m given pointers on where to purchase sexual favors (favours) in case I turn out also to be Un-Buddhist. Not bad for just four weeks.

Update (23/10/07)

Tonight, after 5 or so minutes of chatting, one of the ladies in the room below mine said, in a normal voice, “Hi Justin, can you hear us?”

“Hi Sana, yep” I answered back.

A brief conversation ensued - at basically normal speaking voice, through my floor and into Shahnaz’s room - after which the ladies decided to move to another part of the flat.

Last night we (Lenart, Sana, Shahnaz and I) discussed the merits of living where we do (Batavia Mews, aka Batavia mouse). Sure it's
  • mouse infested - I recently had one walk into my room (under the door) look up at me and leave,
  • noisy - traffic out front with police/ambulance sirens passing directly below every 15 minutes, a major nightclub, Venue, a half-block away, and each other through thin walls and floors.
  • poorly maintained - broken showers, clogged sinks, failed heating/hot water have all been faced and some actually fixed in the last month; bathroom hooks and towel racks, broken who knows when, remain unfixed.
  • in an unsafe neighborhood - one gang/drug related murder down the street last month, a couple mugging stories, broken car windows....
  • anything left out?...
But, at least:
  1. It's cheap (by London standards). Rent is a mere £86/week, roughly $175, or $700/month per room for 20 of us... I guess in central London a tiny flat can cost £800-1500, or $1600-3000/month. Even the other student housing around here is an extra £15-25/week, which ads up pretty fast.


  2. We'll have great stories to tell our kids/grand kids. As Lenart pointed out, great stories are usually based on experiences that aren't really fun when they're happening. Those people in fancy places are surely bored with it. Yay.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Buddhism, propaganda, anti-propaganda propaganda and so on

It seems like I've been discussing propaganda and the media a lot lately. A lot of it started when I watched Dove's new ad, Onslaught (posted on my friend Patia's blog). The ad made me feel sick to my stomach by first showing an innocent little red-haired girl (of course a spitting image of my future daughter) and then a flurry of advertising images aimed at women. It just gets worse after that with dieting images and then (worse!) plastic surgery... The commercial ends with our little girl and the words:

Talk to your daughter before
the beauty industry does.

"Wow.... Bravo," I thought, "way to go Dove for spending your hard-earned advertising budget on something positive." Now I'm not naïve. I know that this kind of advertising might just make it more likely that I will choose to by Dove next time I'm at the store (fact check: yep, I am a long-time Dove purchaser, but I think more because it's cheaper than other name-brands). But I figure that if their ads are actually a force for good, I'd much rather support them anyhow.
Then I read a post on The Situationist called, "Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR Parent." Apparently Dove is a subsidiary of a larger company, Unilever, which also makes Lynx body spray. And it just so happens that Lynx advertising is about as awful as it gets (you can see the ads in the Situationist post - picture hundreds of girls in tiny bikinis running at a guy with the words:

Spray more
Get more

displayed on the screen.

So... In effect Unilever is warning us against the evils of the beauty industry with its right hand and exploiting women and sexuality as a whole with its left. Pretty sinister, huh? Exploit sexuality, make money. Exploit the fact that a lot of us are fed up with the exploitation of sexuality, make more money. Next we'll see another Unilever company warning us against commercials altogether (at last!). And making more money (booo!).

I also discussed this a bit with, Lenart, one of my new flatmates. I said, "can't we just create commercials that teach us to see through all this corporate crap, to see that we're being brainwashed with images of beauty, masculinity, prosperity, and so on." He told me they tried that with young people [in Slovenia I think, where he's from]. But one problem: they underestimate the power of these industries. Even when people know that they're being brainwashed by it all, they are still affected.
So, on the one hand I'm being told that I'm too fat, too old, too poor (and all this would be solved if I just purchased X or Y-services) and that my fiancée is also somehow failing in every way that she isn't a wafer-thin twenty-two year-old rich model (really, they tell me this, I'm not making it up). That's one thing. I think I can even handle all of that. I love myself and my fiancée and I've read enough philosophy to know that youth, beauty, and/or wealth do not bring happiness.

But then this:

It's not that I'm opposed to the armed forces per se, but the glamorization of them really disturbs me.

Even more bizzare was this (from my new abode of England):

It mixes battle scenes, running with an injured person, and running across a tropical beach with (you guessed it) skinny, bikini-clad women. To give it credit though, at least it focuses more on what looks like the humanitarian aspects of the armed forces while the US ad just kind of pounds in the notion of Strength (which in itself isn't a bad thing).

Now for the 'anti-propaganda' propaganda. I couldn't find the original that this spoofs - I'd love a nice side-by-side comparison - but I'm sure you know the gist of it.

And, oddly equally stomach-wrenching (shouldn't it be more) as the Dove ad:

And this poignant rap:

The question: who to trust in the midst of all this? Nobody?

Yep. Nobody. As I meditate on one of the central themes in Buddhism, ignorance (Skt. avidya, Pali avijja), I see that both sides are filled with misconstruals of the truth (i.e. lies). And I, as a third ignorant party, have my own dilusions about the matters.

Considering the Dove ads, the biggest mistake would be to think that we see here 'both sides' of the industry or the beauty debate. Far from it. We're getting two corporate angles, two methods of selling stuff. As my friend Lenart pointed out to me, "at the end of the day, you're still getting the same message, that you have to buy things, or there is something wrong with you."

With the military/anti-military ads it is slightly different in that you're getting two radically different messages. But both distort the facts, both play with our emotions with graphics (and the music in that first one, sheesh). But in the end we could say they're both selling something, an ideology. And the ideology of militarism is one that will get more than a few bucks out of your pocket - it can get chunks of your life, perhaps all of it. And anti-militarism seeks no less (though I doubt they can recruit many, like Cindy Sheehan, that will put their life on hold for the cause).

So where does the Buddhist stand in the midst of all of this? A bit bewildered? Yes, quite likely. I don't recall if it was Lenart of me that suggested that we need a Buddhist advertising company - producing comercials that just tell us to be happy with who we are, to love those around us, to find contentment in a simple life, practice generosity, and so on.

Ahhh... but wait. (I think I blogged about just one such music video not to long ago)... Perhaps it's not quite perfect, but it's a start:
Based on the teachings of Mipham Rinpoche ("Mipham the Great", 1846-1912). It takes a minute to get into, but watch it (at least listen) to the very end - it's worth it.

may you be happy

may you be happy

may you be happy.

I'm sure this won't end our worries about beauty and war today, tomorrow, or in the near future. But it does seem to be the Buddhist answer. To quote from Bikkhu Bodhi on the power and importance of simply following the precept to abstain from harm:
The Buddha says that one who abstains from the destruction of life gives immeasurable safety and security to countless living beings. How the simple observance of a single precept leads to such a result is not immediately obvious but calls for some thought. Now by myself I can never give immeasurable safety and security to other beings by any program of positive action. Even if I were to go on protest against all the slaughterhouses in the world, or to march against war continuously without stopping, by such action I could never stop the slaughter of animals or ensure that war would come to an end. But when I adopt for myself the precept to abstain from the destruction of life, then by reason of the precept I do not intentionally destroy the life of any living being. Thus any other being can feel safe and secure in my presence; all beings are ensured that they will never meet harm from me. Of course even then I can never ensure that other living beings will be absolutely immune from harm and suffering, but this is beyond anyone's power. All that lies within my power and the sphere of my responsibility are the attitudes and actions that emanate from myself towards others. And as long as these are circumscribed by the training rule to abstain from taking life, no living being need feel threatened in my presence, or fear that harm and suffering will come from me.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why Buddhist Ethics? - and how

(some notes toward future conference papers/my thesis)

To begin it should be stated why one needs to study and understand Buddhist Ethics. One could argue that since it is not an obvious category within the tradition itself that Western scholars really have little place trying to create a 'Buddhist Ethics.' It has also been suggested that doing so only distorts Buddhist thinking with the concerns of Western thought.

To the first objection it must be stated that while Buddhism seems to have little in terms of explicit thought dedicated to a category answering the question, 'how ought I act' in a way that the West has, it does have a wellspring of injunctions on proper living combined with teachings on the methods (meditation) and understandings that give rise to awakening (in fact these three are encapsulated and expounded upon as the three-fold path of sila, samadhi, and pañña, often translated as ethics, meditation, and wisdom). In my own work I see all three of these as necessary elements of what in the West we study as Ethics.

The second objection is far more important and far more difficult to overcome. Over time the Buddha's teachings have been (mis) used to support Schopenhauer's pessimism toward the world, Victorian British humanism and rationalism (explicitly contra Christian dogma and superstition), and the American anti-authoritarian hippy/drug culture of the 1960s. It has also been abused by Nietzsche as life-denying nihilism, by Italian missionaries as Satan's version of Catholicism, and so on. It seems that few from the West have been able to come to Buddhism with clear eyes. Instead, as Damien Keown notes at the start of his Very Short Introduction to Buddhism, we are like blind men sent to examine an elephant and report back what we have found: one grabs the leg and reports it is a post, another gets the side and reports it is a granary (or a barn), and so on.

Yet this does not mean that the work should not be done. One important reason is that 'Buddhist' and 'Western' are no longer exclusive categories (as if they ever really were). Today more and more Europeans and Americans are becoming Buddhists or adopting elements of it into their lives. At the same time, the influence of Western thought now pervades traditional Buddhist countries. Even many the most 'traditional' Buddhists there are interacting with Westerners and their thoughts and this cannot help but influence their teachings on Buddhism.

The criticism does stand though, and ways to handle it are being sought. One method, employed in the recent volume, Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges is to encourage a two-directional exchange in which traditionally Western concepts and categories are used to interpret Indian thought and vise versa. This is done to avoid the all too common practice of 'cherry-picking' bits of thought and running them through your categories to prove your point (Victorian Englishmen, German Philosophers, Italian Missionaries, and most recently American Hippies have all been shown to have done just this). I will attempt to follow the authors and editors in Indian Ethics by utilizing the categories of Buddhism to critique Kant (and Western thought) as much as the latter are used to critique the former. [fn. 'critique' here is used to mean examine, not criticize] Just as language of rights and duties cannot be left out in a fair discussion of Kant, notions of kamma (Skt. karma) and rebirth cannot be conveniently
set aside in illustrating Buddhist ethics.
cf. Cooper and James, p.39: "Two conceptions in the general framework that the Buddha certainly did not repudiate are the related ones of rebirth and karma. These are not conceptions that will loom large in our exposition and interpretation of Buddhist moral thought. And that, perhaps, is just as well, for if these notions play an indispensable role in Buddhist ethics then it is not an ethics that could have much appeal outside Buddhist and Hindu circles -- for people, that is, who are unable to subscribe to the doctrines of rebirth and karmic law."
This, it seems, is like saying we will set aside conceptions of God and Heaven in our discussion of Christian ethics because those are not things to which everyone can subscribe; or that we will set aside conceptions of the equality of humanity and evolution in our discussion of Humanistic ethics. Certainly, it must be admitted, the resulting description will be distorted. Ethics and other issues dealing with what may be called metaphysics, cosmology, and ontology, cannot so easily be set asunder - certainly not in Buddhism.

On the other hand, describing Ethics by simply observing the activity of people and perhaps asking them why they act thus (what I will term the anthropological method) does provide its insight. [fn. see pp. 1-2 of Indian Ethics for discussion of three methods of Ethics] Furthermore, it might be argued that many Buddhists don't think much about karma or rebirth as shaping their actions (or that Christians don't think much about God or Heaven). But, just because a Christian's first answer for 'why do you do this' may not include these notions, they are none the less central to her reasoning. For, if asked 'why' her answer was given, before long these concepts will be invoked as something like 'final reasons.'

This questioning in the service of seeking higher (or 'deeper' - choose your imagery) reasoning is the providence of a second method in Ethics, which I will refer to as the culturally philosophical method). Here the reasons which unite a whole tradition are fleshed out; these are the reasons which ultimately unite Christians to other Christians and Buddhists to Buddhists and so on.

A third method, the universally philosophical method, also known as meta-ethics, seeks to unite traditions, to show how they say the same things at times and why they differ at others. Meta-ethics also seeks to show the inconsistencies within traditions and at times to show the supremacy of one over another.

All three of these methods must be used to get a full understanding of Buddhist Ethics, which ranges from such anthropological issues of who becomes a monk/nun and why to very philosophical questions of why the Buddha taught the idea of anatta (Skt. anatman = no-self, or not-self, or non-self). And though he did not employ the current Anglo-American analytic idiom, he did discuss such things as the definition of brahmin (or priestly-caste person, stating that the definition depends upon deeds, not birth) and kamma (or action, by equating it with cetana = intention).

This work of the Buddha (or his early followers, as it may be argued that we cannot say for certain that any of the Pali Canon really is the Buddha's words [cf. Gombrich on this]) is done within a given cosmology, with a given metaphysics, and so on. And, while it is often cited in Western 'dharma books' that the Buddha eschewed metaphysical inquiry, he did teach of and within a stated metaphysical world-view.

Thus, while we may not accept certain aspects of the world-view presented in the early texts, or we may find it internally contradictory at times, we still must not set any part of it aside if we are attempting to understand Buddhist Ethics. Once we understand that framework in its wholeness we can properly ask both why certain aspects changed (for instance, as Buddhism flourished in Tibet and China) and if (and under what circumstances) certain aspects may be subject to change today, as Buddhism and the West collide.