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.

Buddhism: two suttas

Some notes:

(from access to insight):
  • SN 22.86: Anuradha Sutta — To Anuradha {S iii 116; CDB i 936; this sutta is identical to SN 44.2} SuttaReadings.net icon [Thanissaro]. Ven. Anuradha learns that if you can't even locate the Tathagata in space when he's sitting right in front of you, how can you ever hope to answer questions about his fate after death?
  • SN 22.89: Khemaka Sutta — About Khemaka {S iii 126; CDB i 942} [Thanissaro]. Although dis-identification with the five aggregates indeed plays a crucial role in becoming a noble disciple, full Awakening calls for more.
The Anuradha Sutta is where I found for my last post the often quoted line (found at the bottom) "it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress." - of course it should be noted that the translation uses 'stress' for dukkha and I used 'suffering.' I think 'unsatisfactoriness' is the best English term to capture the meaning of dukkha, but it is also clumsy (7 syllables).

The gist of the sutta is partly that asking questions about 'where do I go when I die' is useless because there is no 'I' to go anywhere. The Buddha goes through the standard list of constituents (khandas: form, feeling, perception, concepts, consciousness) that could constitute the 'I' or 'soul' and gets Anuradha to agree that each of them is changing, unsatisfactory, and hence no-self.

"What do you think, Anuradha: Is form [and so on] constant or inconstant?"
"Inconstant, lord."

"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"
"Stressful, lord."

"And is it proper to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?"
"No, lord."

Even the idea, 'I have a soul' (which would be classified as a concept) comes and goes. So too for the being in front of you: no part (khanda) of him/her is permanent.

"And so, Anuradha — when you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, 'Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

"No, lord."

"Very good, Anuradha. Very good. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress."

It is precisely when we give up the fruitless search for the eternal, unchanging, always-satisfying etc. that we find release from our suffering. Or as my old professor Alan Sponberg put it: Buddhism in three words, "just let go."


The Khemaka Sutta is about a monk near death who has given up his clinging to the five khandas. But still he has not attained the awakening an arahant (Pali for 'worthy one'). This introduces the notion of residual clinging.

"Friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, he still has with regard to the five clinging-aggregates a lingering residual 'I am' conceit, an 'I am' desire, an 'I am' obsession.

The five fetters:

  1. avijja (ignorance),
  2. tanha (craving),
  3. vicikiccha (doubt),
  4. mana (conceit), and
  5. sakkaya-ditthi (self-identity view, personality-belief).
The analogy is then drawn between a such a view and a soiled cloth. Even when the cloth is cleaned it still retains some residual smell of the cleaning product (which curiously could have been salt earth, lye, or cow-dung!). It will still take some time for this new scent to disappear.

Likewise the noble disciple, even having overcome the fetters by the teaching and practice, still has notions that must be dispelled before awakening is established (cf the raft simile).
(note the image here of a soiled cloth being cleaned - compare that to the 'removing the paint' analogy of my last post - the Buddha's teaching is centrally one of unbecoming wrong traits/views, not becoming this or that type of person)

ps - if you are better with Pali than me (which isn't too hard) and can find these suttas at the Tipitaka in Pali sight on the right. I suspect it is here, here, or here.

Buddhism and Life as a Whole

Just a sketch of a point to be filled in later, over time:

Cooper and James write:
It has been rightly observed that 'the point of entry for ethical reflection' (Annas 1993: Ch.1) among these ancient thinkers [Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics] was the individual person's concern for his or her life as a whole...
One of my intuitions about Buddhism not being a virtue ethics is the sense that Buddhism isn't really so concerned with 'life as a whole.' Buddhism is far more concentrated on just one aspect of life: suffering and its end.

For 'virtue ethicists' this must be an overly focused view and leaves out all of the 'substantive' work of cultivating this and that virtue. For in virtue ethics the goal is to cultivate a good life, the good life is defined by 'concern for ... life as a whole'.

On the other hand the goal of Buddhism is the alleviation of suffering, defined as the removal of greed/lust, aversion/hatred, and ignorance/non-seeing.

Is that fairly clear?

Virtue ethics is like finding a great painting (a virtuous person) and trying to recreate it in oneself.
It takes time, education, and trial and error until one has finally made him/herself into a fellow virtuous person. It requires good judgment about what qualities are virtuous, and how to cultivate them.

Buddhist ethics is like finding a painting, any painting (oneself) and trying to pick all the paint off to expose the perfect surface underneath. Its about letting go of conceptions of 'great' - judgments that get between oneself and reality, conceits that cut off spontaneity. In the process one becomes freer, and this freedom manifests itself in wisdom and compassion.

But the logic goes thus: free oneself from greed/aversion/ignorance and you will grow in wisdom and compassion on the path to awakening. It is not: cultivate wisdom and compassion as character traits that will make you awakened. Thoughts?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dalai Lama is awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal

"May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need."

Buddhism, art, and 'stuff'

I've read bits of Stephani Kaza's wonderful book (I bought a copy for my mother) Hooked!: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume and recall one good story about a Buddhist practitioner who 'religiously' only has something like 600 objects in his (or her) home; when he buys something new, he must give away one of those items. Apparently it brought enormous mindfulness to his life in our consumer culture. "Brilliant," I thought, and then bought an extra copy of the book for myself.

Then yesterday I came across this in the Boston Globe: "Toothpaste, light switches, remotes: Artist finds room in her life for her stuff." This story of painter Gail Martin perfectly captures the struggles of contemporary consumerist/Buddhist life (at least for those sheltered far, far away from places like Burma and Iraq).

"I study Buddhism and I practice meditation, and one of the teachings is always that desire leads to suffering," Martin said recently. "My house is full, I can't fit anything more in my house, I have everything I need, but that urge to acquire new things never abates. The next shiny bauble I see, I want."
Her solution? Paint it - all of it, or at least a bit every day for 365 days. And the result?
Is that a Buddha with a laptop!?

"It was interesting, when I finished the project there was definitely a bit of disenchantment with possessions and a bit of an abatement of the urge to acquire more things," she said, adding with a laugh, "Of course, another teaching of Buddhism is that desire is never-ending. . . . It's pretty much back now."

"Somebody saw this work in preview at my open studio last spring and said, 'Oh, it's about stuff, huh? Well now you have 365 more things!' And it's like, oh, darn, I hadn't thought of that. I think part of the detachment thing is, it's like a virtual yard sale. I get to let go of the things without actually having to let go of the actual object. There's a lot of ironies in it."
Oh, the woes of samsara. At least we can make it pretty.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Buddhism and War

As the issue of Burma seems to slip away, many are still asking, 'what can I do?' From across the Buddhist world there are many suggestions, ranging from surgical strikes (Tom from Zen Unbound) to continued pacifism and khanti or patient endurance (Gary from Forest Wisdom, commenting on my last post here).

Tom also recently brought to my attention a couple articles attempting to address the issue of War in early Buddhist thought. The first, by Professor P. D. Premasiri (University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka) argues that Buddhism has no place for a so-called 'just' war:
...the Theravada canonical scriptures considered to be the primary source of the Buddhist system of moral values ... contain absolutely no instance in which violence is advocated as a means of achieving it [peace]. This is in clear contrast to Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavadgita that contain a concept of a righteous war [dharma yuddha].
The doctrine of the Buddha is such that one who lives in accordance with it succeeds in living in the world without coming into conflict with anyone [na kenaci loke viggayha titthati].
And thus,
Conflict is explained ... as a consequence of an unenlightened response to one's sensory environment.... The selfish pursuit of sense pleasures [kama] is considered as the root cause of conflict. Where there is sympathetic concern, compassion, sharing, charitableness and generosity conflict can be minimized. The latter attitudes, however, are not instinctive. They need to be cultivated through proper reflection and insightful understanding.
And perhaps most importantly:
The point made by the Buddha in this connection is that people are psychologically incapable of forming opinions about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, righteous and unrighteous while being immersed in their defiled psychological condition. They may express strong convictions about what is just and right, but when objectively examined they turn out to be mere rationalizations of their pre-conceived notions, desires, cravings, likes and dislikes.

On the other hand Damien Keown (Goldsmiths, University of London) who in his article argues that Dr. Premasiri and early Buddhism both fall into 'psychological reductionism' when dealing with war and other moral issues. This is unfortunate, he argues, because it fails (perhaps) to evaluate the situation on the proper level:
Does not politics usually enter into the picture, not to mention, law, religion, history, as explanations as to why wars occur? To reduce all this to psychology is surely an oversimplification.
He argues that if we speak of the 'use of force' instead of 'violence' then suddenly Buddhism is more ambivalent.
...for example: to restrain an emotionally disturbed person who seeks to harm himself; to subdue rowdy passengers who threaten the safety of an aeroplane; to control violent thugs who terrorise innocent citizens... And if the use of force is justifiable in these circumstances, then why not on the larger scale of a military campaign?
And that, while not explicitly accepted, there are indications of a 'just war' theory in early Buddhism.
But it seems to me that Buddhism does indeed make a distinction between just and unjust wars. For instance, the just war in Buddhism is the war that would be fought by the Cakkavatti. Although as far as I am aware he is never actually depicted as waging war in the texts, he certainly has an army and presumably is prepared to use it when necessary (if not, why is it there?).

...The recent UN intervention in Bosnia may provide an example of the kind of situation where military force may be necessary as a last resort for humanitarian reasons. Situations of this kind seem to demonstrate that the use of force need not always be tainted by greed, hatred and delusion.
Thus he concludes:
i) to analyze war primarily in terms of psychology is to overlook its essential moral dimension; this is the result of the standard Buddhist strategy of psychologizing ethics; ii) the use of force can be justified in certain circumstances; iii) Buddhism accepts the concept of a 'just war' iv) there is nothing intrinsically immoral about a just war and v) participating in one need not be motivated by greed, hatred or delusion.
It does not seem to me that these papers are truly in conflict with one another, but rather they address the same issue from differing perspectives within Buddhism. Dr. Premasiri's point is that within Buddhism, the most important work we can do each day, each moment, is the work of removing our own defilements. Until then we are likely to cause more harm than good with all of our wars.

But, Dr. Keown's point is equally valid, that Buddhism does allow for force to be used to stop or avert suffering. The common ground between the two is in the waging of purely defensive wars. Premasiri suggests this, stating that "Buddhism does not envisage a society in which the necessity for engaging in war never arises. Perhaps the implication is that even a righteous Cakkavatti who will not engage in wars of imperialist aggression, would need to fight in self-defence."

Of course that still leaves the strict definition of defensive open to debate, but it would certainly rule out speculative 'pre-emptive' wars such as that currently going on in Iraq. It would also rule out ideology-based wars such as that in Vietnam forty years ago. And yet it would seemingly allow for the Allied involvement in the two World Wars as well as the NATO action in Bosnia mentioned above. That is, these wars were waged in defence of a pre-existing peace.


It gets murky of course, as the real world rarely conforms to simple principles and this is perhaps why Buddhism, for the most part, says little about 'the real world' and focuses on basic rules of conduct and meditative discipline. The American involvement in the second World War, for instance, does not very easily constitute a purely defensive war. Certainly, it could be argued that our Buddhist principles demand minimal response: perhaps crippling the Japanese Navy, strikes on any German U-Boats encroaching on US vessels, and nothing more. And yet we (most of us) feel that the employment of the entire US forces was indeed just.


On the other hand, most of us feel that the current war in Iraq is unjust. It is unclear who exactly we might be or have been defending: threats to the US and Britain were grossly exaggerated and even Israel it seems could hardly have been harmed by the weak and demoralized Iraqi army. On the other hand it is quite clear who has suffered from the war. It is perhaps debatable whether ordinary Iraqis are better off now than they would be if there had been no war. My impression is that they are worse off. Yet there can be no doubt that 3829 US soldiers have suffered the ultimate price and over 25,000 more have been wounded. That is not even to mention the emotional scars that thousands more will carry with them forever. One must remember that while over 58,000 US soldiers died in the Vietnam War, over 70,000 later took their own lives. (a recent story on US army suicides)

It seems also that, as mentioned, the principles of Buddhism could not allow for a war such as that in Iraq. Based on Keown's discussion of 'just war' theory in Aquinas, it seems that in that tradition as well, this war is unjust: "war must be declared by a competent authority, it must be declared as a last resort only after all non-violent options have been explored, it can only be fought to address a wrong suffered (the classic example is self-defence against an armed attack), if there is a reasonable chance of success, and with the aim of re-establishing peace."

Perhaps it is as one of my good friends says, that only time can judge (in fact the Dalai Lama himself has said this back in 2005, clarifying in 2006 that history had indeed made clear, " - too many killings"). On the other hand it may be clear enough that, as Rev. Danny Fisher put it:
At some point, everyone connected to this war needs to own their accountability and respond. They have to refuse service, refuse to pay taxes, refuse to sign over funds, demonstrate, and so on. A Buddhism that would excuse us from looking at the realities and the complexities of war is unacceptable.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first and last sentences, but Buddhism demands we each come to our own conclusions about specific actions (though Danny's suggestions are noble). And this lack of decisive and authoritarian ethics is perhaps both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness in Buddhism. The judgments of each of us must take into account our own mental states; we must know ourselves before trying to solve world-political issues. But Buddhism does not advocate self-knowledge for its own sake, but rather as a stage of development necessary for the sake of compassionate activity toward all living beings. We must understand were we are, and be willing to go boldly from there:
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Burma: a sadness so unbelievable

In an article today in the New York Times, several more first-hand accounts of the recent demonstrations and crack-down are given. The article, titled "A Few Voices From the Deepening Silence" provides a few intimate stories of those who were there.
A housewife recalled the brutality she saw while shopping for food Sept. 28:

Someone who was with me at a previous job lost her son in these protests. He might have been on his way home, but we don’t know. This mother had a friend in the army and she asked him for help. He told her to stay home and — no questions. The son, her only child, is still missing.

A young man described how the junta has clamped down on social exchange, destroying trust among people:

There is no more connection between people. It’s been broken... This is not the end. This is just a stopping point and we are not satisfied. We don’t know the future but we will keep our anger burning inside.

A teacher talked about the pain of seeing Buddhism desecrated and the fear of the military that spread among the monks:

I cannot continue to tolerate this. We only hope that bad karma will fall upon them but there’s nothing else we can do now.... The day after the shootings started, I went to this monastery and the faces that I saw on those monks was something I had never seen. It is not fear. It was a sadness so unbelievable.


A businessman whose company lost an enormous amount of business during the upheaval lamented Myanmar’s isolation:

My own experience of traveling to other countries opened my mind and changed my life. I loved the freedom I found in the United States. It was something I had never experienced. If I hadn’t spent time abroad, I would have ended up as a military man. Or else I could have been an informer exposing the conversation we’re having right now.

Take action

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Nirvana: who wants it?

One of the hot little debates in contemporary Buddhist Studies is focused on the nature of Nirvana and who exactly wants it.


The debate began in 1964, to the best of my knowledge, when Winston King published "In the Hope of Nibbana; an Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics." There he describes a split soteriology (that is, two distinct goals) within Buddhism:
  1. that of the laity (heaven or a better human rebirth) and
  2. that of monks (nirvana).
For him this was based on empirical evidence. He did field research in Burma and Thailand (I believe) and simply asked people there why they practiced Buddhism. In general, the laity said, "to gain merit toward a better rebirth [in heaven or on earth]" while monks and (presumably) nuns said, "to attain nirvana."

His findings are supported, moreover, in the textual work in Richard Gombrich's "Theravada Buddhism." There (pp. 73-4) he states that, "... the Buddha expected those seriously interested in attaining salvation to become monks or nuns, that meditation was considered to be normally impossible for laity, and that much of the Buddha's teaching was only given to the Sangha." Gombrich gives the example of the very moving Anathapindikovada Sutta, in which Anathapindika, a lay patron of the Buddha is visited by Sariputta on his deathbed.

Sariputta attends to Anathapindika with calm and soothing words, to which the layman responds that he is suffering greatly and near death. Having heard this, Sariputta gives a long teaching on non-clinging as the final training for the dying man.

When this was said, Anathapindika the householder wept and shed tears. Ven. Ananda said to him, "Are you sinking, householder? Are you foundering?"

"No, venerable sir. I'm not sinking, nor am I foundering. It's just that for a long time I have attended to the Teacher, and to the monks who inspire my heart, but never before have I heard a talk on the Dhamma like this."

"This sort of talk on the Dhamma, householder, is not given to lay people clad in white. This sort of talk on the Dhamma is given to those gone forth."

"In that case, Ven. Sariputta, please let this sort of talk on the Dhamma be given to lay people clad in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing [this] Dhamma. There will be those who will understand it."

There is no indication that the monks follow Anathapindika's suggestion, but rather they leave and soon after he dies and is reborn in Tusita Heaven, one of the highest realms of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology.

"Elsewhere," Gombrich continues, "the Buddha says that monks have a duty to show laymen the way to heaven; note that he does not say the way to nibbana [= S. nirvana]." The sutta he refers to there is the Sigalovada Sutta, described as 'The Layperson's Code of Discipline.' The only thing I can find there is in the Buddha's reinterpretation of the devotion to the six directions (a ritual performed by laypeople in his day) to mean a set of devotions (or duties) to six sets of people:
  1. East = Parents
  2. South = One's teacher
  3. West = Husband or Wife
  4. North = Clansman (or friends)
  5. Nadir = Servants and Employees
  6. Zenith = Ascetics and Brahmins
All of these are reciprocal relationships, i.e. a list of five duties toward the other and five duties they have back toward you. One of the duties that Ascetics and Brahmins have toward the layperson (and interestingly the only place where there are six duties instead of five) is (vi) they point out the path to a heavenly state. Also worth noting is that the Buddha does not speak strictly of duties on the reciprocal end, but rather five ways that the others "show their compassion towards [the layperson]." Lastly, this does not necessarily refer to Buddhist monks (who may well be charged elsewhere to lead the laity to nirvana), as the Buddha uses the term samaṇabrāhmaṇā (Ascetics and Brahmins) and not bhikkhu. (you can find the whole Tipitaka in Pali here)


To come... In brief, I think there is something important here, the beginning of a 'wedge' of sorts between the hightest good of the worldly life (heaven) and that of the renunciate/bhikkhu (nirvana). Those working to classify Buddhist Ethics as a 'virtue ethics' have tried to argue this wedge away.

Perhaps everyone does seek nirvana, but many simply accept that it won't come in this life. I don't know. It certainly raises questions for me - and I'll be interested to here what others think.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Who do ya love?

You, babe!
It is a perfect understanding
between a man and a woman. And it happens
in the blinking of an eye. This affinity
is born in a single moment, and is greater
than all other affinities, this spiritual
conversion we call: Love.
Khalil Gibran

Joy! What more can I say? Sometimes I get a bit too serious in this mucky old world of ours and I just have to see this face to recall how deeply, happily, enthusiastically, enstatically in LOVE I am.

To the one I love: thank you.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"the glorious inequalities of life"

"God values men and women equally... It's just that he's given them different responsibilities in life: Men make decisions. Women make dinner."
- from a recent story in the L.A. Times about a new course in homemakeing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Living in England now I sometimes feel very sad to be an American, other times I am defensive of what I still think is a pretty great nation. Then I read things like that. On the one hand, I'm sooooo glad I was neither raised Southern Baptist nor did I somehow fall in love with one! On the other hand I am saddened that this is the state of our country.
"In their vision, graduates will create such gracious homes that strangers will take note. Their marriages will be so harmonious, other women will ask how they manage. By modeling traditional values, they will inspire friends and neighbors to read the Bible and then, perhaps, to follow the Lord."
There is certain truth in the fact that living well will attract others to your way of life. But I somehow doubt that homemaking courses are the foundation to a harmonious and inspirational marriage. Yet what really catches my attention and raises my blood pressure a bit was this:
"For the rest of the nearly three-hour class, guest lecturer Ashley Smith, the wife of a theology professor, laid out the biblical basis for what she calls 'the glorious inequalities of life.'"
Three hours to pound in the idea that the women in the room were in fact subservient! If women and men are willing to go along with this garbage about biblically founded 'glorious inequalities' in the 21st century then one really must wonder what will come next. We all know that the bible is rife with rotten things, from the subjugation of women, the acceptance of slavery, disdain for homosexuals, non-Christians (heretics) and so on. And countless individuals, especially in the last two hundred years have fought, and many have died trying to dispel these myths of inequality.

For their sake, and for that of ourselves and our children, we need to continue the struggle toward the 'glorious equalities' of our shared humanity. People may claim this needs to be tolerated in some kind of religious inclusivism, but I disagree. We can, and should, welcome and defend all faiths (and the faithless), but only so long as they recognize the basic equalities of all persons. These equalities must take precedence over any holy text or authority which may claim otherwise.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Burma: Tibetans are Watching

In an interesting bit of analysis on DNA India today, Venkatesan Vembu discusses the possibility of a Burma-like uprising in Tibet in the near future.

"... if there were protests in Lhasa today, hypothesises Dondup [a pseudonymous source within Tibet], Beijing would probably be constrained by the international focus on it in the context of the Olympics next year. “Would the Chinese government hesitate in cracking down?… Would this hesitation be enough to allow a few small protests to spiral into a challenge to Chinese rule?”
[full article here on Phayul]

Protesters wave Tibetan flags at the Oct. 6 Free Burma rally in London

Similarities between Burma and Tibet are at times striking, especially regarding the hand that Beijing plays in both.
But the differences may be more important. Note that the power in Tibet is essentially foreign. To this day native Tibetans are in most all cases barred from public service positions, including political and military roles, in their own country. The Burmese military, on the other hand is home-grown. And in fact, as one commentator noted, both military and monastic life draw from similar social groups meaning that soldiers and monks in Burma may well be brothers.

The Chinese power in Tibet is maintained by an iron fist, crushing uprisings first in 1959 and again in 1988. Since then many smaller protests have occurred, mostly met with apathy by the international press.
In 2004, more than 3,797 people were executed in 25 countries and at least 7,395 were sentenced to death according to Amnesty International. Out of 3,797 executions 3,400 were carried out in China, but sources inside the country have estimated the number to be nearly 10,000. (Amnesty International, Death sentences and executions in 2004, published in April 2005) - Friends of Tibet

The Burmese junta, on the other hand, has maintained power through the rhetoric of necessity. They advertise, and may well believe, that without such military rule, the country will dissolve into mass fighting amongst its various ethnic groups. So the 'price of democracy', many Burmese may think, is national insecurity (why do thoughts of G.W. Bush keep coming to mind?). In Burma, as in other countries to go unnamed, it seems that democracy has been abandoned in return for a belief in security.

Tibetans have little besides their lives to lose in opposing Chinese rule, and as you can see many do pay 'the ultimate price' to live by their conscience and countless others have disappeared to concentration and imposed labor camps throughout Tibet and China. The Burmese, however, pay the ideological price of a sense of security (and perhaps even ethnic/national pride) by opposing their authoritarian government. In both cases the international community has said little and done less, and who can blame them, China has become 'the elephant in the room' of international politics and economics.

But with things dying down in Burma (monks have again accepted donations from the military - re-establishing its authority) it seems that our eyes may need to return to Tibet where massive international focus will grow as next summer's Olympics near. However, it is still possible that the struggle in Burma will continue, as news of international political attention makes its way back into the country.

There is a presentation being held here at Goldsmiths today at 5pm (in two hours) so I'll post more after that.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Buddhist Ethics: one week on

One piece of advice I was given back in Bristol (by a PHD candidate) and again by my current advisor is that to successfully finish a doctorate one must write, write, write... Lucky for me, I already do a lot of that (e.g. here). Unlucky for me, I should be writing about my studies.

So here are some reflections from my first week. Most of my reading has come from these two sources:

Theravaada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. By Richard F. Gombrich. The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988. Pp. x + 237.

Buddhism, Virtue and the Environment. By Cooper, David E., and Simon P. James. . Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005.

Though I also skimmed the intro to Damien Keown's Contemporary Buddhist Ethics.

SUMMARY *(note: S.=Sanskrit, P.=Pali)

Consistent with Damien's remarks in person last week, and with things that I have picked up over the years, I would say now that Buddhism is, in the Western sense, a-social. That is, it has no philosophy or set of ideals relating specifically to society. This may well, in part at least, be due to the timing of the life of the Buddha and the social conditions then. Previous thought (Brahmanic/Vedic) had been a-individual, i.e. the individual had no value per se, but only gained worth by acting according to his/her social roles (castes, or S. varna). The religion of the time was one in which priests (S. Brahmins) were concerned with maintaining a cosmic order and cosmic order equaled social, ecological, spiritual order. The priests were relied upon to perform rituals (S. karman, actions) to maintain all of this and in turn held power (though tentatively, sharing with the warrior caste (S. kshatriya varna) from which Kings generally came) over the populous.

The Buddha's major change to this (or one amongst many) was to ethicize karma; to in effect make all intentional acts equivalent to ritual. Put shortly, he made our every willed act sacred. He did this by denying religious reality of the caste system and the notion of the soul (P. atta S. atman) born with its particular duty (P. sva-dhamma). It seems clear that the power of the priests came insofar as they could convince people that they had been born with a destiny that they (the priests) had sole authority over, as they had sole access to the holy texts, the Vedas.

The Buddha's famous phrase is: "It is intention, oh monks, that I call kamma." No longer was supreme religious activity restricted to the rituals of the priestly class (the laity could still gain merit/good karma by supporting the priests - and hope for a rebirth as a priest next time 'round). Within his community (Sangha) all varna distinctions were abolished and followers, "became simply sons and daughters of the Sakya." (Gombrich, p.69)

Gombrich goes on to discuss why this ethicization of karma was great for the rising merchant classes: you could pretty well trust a fellow Buddhist trader because he/she trusted that cheating you would end them up in hell or some such thing, and you could trust that by your own good deeds you could gain higher rebirth or even nirvana regardless of what particular religious fuddy-duddies of the day had to say. He also notes earlier in the book that most early followers of the Buddha are kshatriyas and brahmins, suggesting that this is because the world that they had once ruled together was in a state of somewhat chaotic change. A warrior, for instance, could no longer count on his being a warrior to get him by (in life or beyond). It was a time of widespread existential angst and the Buddha's message, which began and ended with the issue of suffering, made quite an impression.


Right. All this is fine and good, indeed very good. But while what emerges is a rich tapestry (throughout Buddhist traditions and history) of methods of personal spiritual cultivation, nowhere it seems is there or has there been an attempt at formulating a broader, social set of ethics.

Commenting on my last Buddhist Ethics post, Gary noted, "With all these different types of Buddhism, with their various interprtations of the Buddha Dhamma, it's not surprising that there's no consistent system of ethics." My sense is not that there is a problem here with consistency, but that there just isn't anything here to begin with for traditions to share notes on.

Perhaps it goes back to the point about karma being all-pervasive: Buddhists have simply accepted that those in political power must be there for a reason (karmically, that is) and it isn't their job to intervene. Perhaps it also rests in the Buddhist unwillingness to go to war, or to advocate war even, it would seem for an apparently just cause. There are exceptions to this in history that probably need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. A question I will have to answer at some point in these next three years is (again): are there moral absolutes in Buddhism? For instance, killing. If intention is what matters, could there be appropriate intentions to kill? Of course the pervasion of avidya or ignorance must play a key role.

Alright. That is enough for now. I still have a LOT more to read tonight. On top of all this I have taken up specific interest in Burma (many thanks to my dear Kelly for suggesting I do so) as a case study and Damien has suggested a bit of further reading:

1. Harris, I.C. and Becket Institute., Buddhism, power, and political order. 2007, Abingdon ; New York: Routledge.9780415410182 (hardback alk. paper)

2. Ling, T., Buddhism, imperialism, and war : Burma and Thailand in modern history. 1979, London: Allen & Unwin. xvii, 163.0042941059

3. Than, T. and P. Strachan, Essays on the history and Buddhism of Burma. 1988, Whiting Bay: Kiscadale. 185.1870838009

4. King, W.L., A thousand lives away : Buddhism in contemporary Burma. 1964, Oxford Eng.: Bruno Cassirer. 238

He also pointed out that PBS will be doing some further coverage that I may look into. (here is a recent feature from them: Ethnic and Religious Persecution in Burma April 21, 2006 Episode no. 934)

And for future perusing: Buddhism and Ecology Bibliography (if only there were something like this for Buddhist Ethics! - sounds like a job for.... me.....)