Friday, October 19, 2007

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?

1 comment:

Gary said...

Hi Justin.

The central goal of Buddhism is indeed the total alleviation of dukkha, it's true. But the Buddha 'came for the good of many' and did teach about generosity, morality, and being a good member of society etc. He also taught how we can live to gain good rebirths (of the 'mental tendencies' that are reborn). In one instance, he instructed an old, loving couple on how they should live so that 'they' might be reborn together in the following life:

"Should a husband and wife wish to enjoy each other's company in this life and afterward to meet again in the next, they should cultivate the same faith, the same morality, the same generosity, and the same wisdom. Then they will meet again in their next lives." (Anguttara Nikaya 4:55)

The couple addressed above were the Nakulas, the wife at least being a 'stream-enterer'. On another occasion, Father Nakula asked the Buddha why some people became enlightened and some didn't, showing that he too was a 'serious' Buddhist. The Buddha's reply was both succinct and penetrating:

"Whosoever clings to sense objects cannot gain liberation. Whosoever stops clinging will be liberated." (Samyutta Nikaya 35: 131)

Here we have the two levels of the Awakened One's teaching: (1)How to live a happy life and have a happy rebirth, and (2)How to realize Nibbana.

It's up to all Buddhists to decide which option they'd prefer, then work diligently to that end. Both are valid endeavors, depending on where one is in one's level of understanding and commitment. (In Asia, it's the former that's practiced by most Buddhists, perhaps indicating the ratio between those that seek Bodhi, and those that just want happiness and a fortunate rebirth.)

Buddhist ethics, when concerning option (1), are concerned with the creation of a decent moral human being that relates to other people and living beings in certain (compassionate and wise) ways. To see Buddhism as solely concerned with option (1) seems to be a particularly Western tendency, apparently based on a narrow understanding of Buddhist scripture.

This is due to Buddhism's relative newness to Western scholars (150 years?), plus the relatively small size of the Western Sangha. In time, if enough effort is applied by these two groups, the West will have a broader understanding of the Buddha Dhamma. (And that's just the Pali-based Theravadin school. Mahayana Buddhism's a whole different ballgame!)

Perhaps you will have a positive influence in these matters, Justin - good luck!

In friendship,
Gary.