Thursday, January 31, 2008

Back on and in search of Buddhist Ethics

I am happy to say that I feel like I am recovering from my recent stress overload and I'm getting back to work. I may have been (and still am to some point) suffering from adrenal fatigue syndrome, which I take to be a fancy name for stressed out (with no break). According to some, this is the most under-diagnosed illness of the 21st century. From the link above:
You may have Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome if you are experiencing any of these symptoms:
  • Fatigue, lethargy
    • Lack of energy in the mornings, and also in the afternoon between 3 and 5 pm
    • Often feel tired between 9 and 10 pm, but resist going to bed
  • Lightheadedness (including dizziness and fainting) when rising from a sitting or laying-down position
  • Lowered blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering (brain fog)
  • Consistently feeling unwell or difficulty recovering from infections
  • Craving either salty or sugary foods to keep going
  • Unexplained hair loss
  • Nausea
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • Mild depression
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Unexplained pain in the upper back or neck
  • Increased symptoms of PMS for women – periods are heavy and then stop (or almost stop) on the 4th day, only to start flow again on the 5th or 6th day
  • Tendency to gain weight and inability to lose it – especially around the waist
  • High frequency of getting the flu and other respiratory diseases – plus a tendency for them to last longer than usual
The bold ones are symptoms I've definitely had. If you find yourself nodding as you go through the list, check out the above link for tips on lifestyle and diet changes that can help out.
Current Studies:

Right now I am clarifying my reasons for choosing Kantian ethics to help shed light on Buddhist ethics. Part of that involves working with Howard Caygill here, a Kant specialist, to formulate a very rich and subtle understanding of Buddhist ethics. This means getting beyond "Kant the formalist" where the Categorical Imperative is seen as the basis of his ethical system.

Kant is usually presented as giving only these abstract formulations: act so as to treat all rational beings as ends and not merely as means, act upon maxims such that you could will that these maxims be universal, etc. These sound nice, but also seem hopelessly detached from our daily lives, and thus pretty useless as ethical guidance. However, statements like this make up only one tiny corner of Kant's ethical world. It has been the error of countless thinkers after Kant to single these out as the essence of Kant's ethical thought and to ignore the rest.

At the same time, Buddhist ethics seem to have some similarly hopelessly detached notions such as non-self (anattā) and dhamma, a term that can be variously translated as: law, eternal law, the liberating law, the underlying law of reality, duty, morality, thing, the teaching, the Buddha's teaching, and so on. And just like Kant's Categorical Imperative, these are not terms that are helpful to everyone on the Buddhist path (a householder, for instance, is often simply taught to follow the five precepts and cultivate generosity).

However, for the philosophically minded, which in the Buddha's day included himself, many learned Brahmins, and his own monks and nuns, a fuller understanding of the nature of reality is needed. This philosophy was not for its own sake, but because the Buddhist goal of nibbāna is equated with seeing things as they truly are (yathā-bhūtaṃ). This seeing certainly needs to be accompanied by active moral cultivation of the precepts and pāramitās or virtues. Yet it may be said that one who is swift along the path without seeing quickly goes astray.

So my thesis will posit that such notions as no-self and dhamma form a sort of conceptual light at the end of the tunnel for those traversing the Buddhist path. This is how Kant saw the moral law and his Categorical Imperatives, as ideals to be sought after rather than formulas to be calculated. And so with dhamma. While at first it may seem like a hopelessly vague or abstract term, perhaps a relic of Brahmanism that modern Buddhists can be rid of, it turns out to have deep soteriological value as a goal toward which to strive.


Tom said...

It occurs to one that you are intentionally dodging 'ending suffering' [one's own or others'] as Buddhism's goal to strive for.

But I'm all for that; heck, I like suffering. [Not that I fancy Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, mind you.]

But I am interested to know in what way we strive for no-self and dhamma.

For myself, and for most Western people [I would wager] 'ending suffering' is Stage One. After all, our motivations always begin selfishly. We are selfish animals that, at our best, turn against our selfishness.

Thus, the worm turns in Stage Two when suffering seems more ephemeral [that is, at least, the 'not getting what we want' kind of suffering] and we crave a more-universal understanding of the meaning of our life and all life. Tho, it's not really 'an understanding' that we want; rather it's finding a framework to have things operate more smoothly. [And, thus, we find ourself, again, trying to end some kind of suffering.]

Suffering [The idea and word dukkha is better; I know.] alway impinges. We suffer. Then we suffer to escape suffering. Then, as we approach some supposed perfection, we find ourself [happily!] stuck in the melieu of life where suffering is perennial.

All the while, we still have one foot stuck in the concrete of our original selfishness. BUT this loathed reptilian selfish self is what allows us to retain our connection and compassion to all of stinking and festering humanity in all its loveliness.

[Have I lost track of the topic of this post? Possibly.]

Anyway, in light of your AFS, how does dukkha fit in with Kantian Buddhist morality?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hia Tom - brilliant question. Yes, I dodge the whole 'suffering' issue. I think everyone else has hammered it in pretty good: 'suffering, suffering, suffering, follow the precepts and cultivate the paramitas.'

I take it though that all of this leaves out other, perhaps bigger, questions. My sense is that, as we traverse this path, our selfishness reduces and our suffering takes on a new light.

In light of my AFS, when I am dealing so much with my own issues, I am pretty worthless to those around me who need a hand. That's not to say I shouldn't deal with my issues, but that hopefully I do overcome them, and quickly. So my sphere of suffering is very small, it really only deals with this particular living being.

When I am in better shape I can more easily reach out and share in and help with the suffering of those I love, and then to neutral people, and then to enemies (starting to sound like a metta bhavana meditation), and so on. We loosen the grasp of (individualized) selfishness and come to see (experientially) interconnectedness and maybe even get some glimpse of whatever the heck dhamma is.

How's that sound?

Tom said...

Sounds good. Thanks, Justin.

Gary said...

Good to read that you're recovering from your recent challenges, Justin. :-)

Fatigue and stress are kinds of dukkha (suffering), of course, so you've had plenty of material to reflect on, lately! It's difficult to view such negative states of mind & body in the light of contemplation, but if we make the effort, over time it becomes easier. Then we find that the reflective mindset kicks in either while the bad stuff is happening or immediately afterwards. This is setting the scene for living wisdom to arise.

As to anatta & Dhamma being concepts or "hopelessly detached notions" that laypeople can't get to grips with in anything but intellectual or faith-based contexts, I guess that may well be the case for most of the beginning. Anatta is knowable in the here and now every moment that we are conscious. Observing the nature of thoughts as being out of one's control is to reveal them as anatta. To witness the aging of the body, with wrinkling skin and graying hair (amongst other things!), is to see it as anatta. Anatta doesn't have to be restricted to the intellect: it can be experienced right now.

Similarly, Dhamma is the way things are/the truth/the nature of the universe/etc., which includes The Four Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics & Dependent Arising. Again, the Dhamma is knowable now. If we approach these objects of reflection as mental concepts to be philosophized over, but not meditated on, then, yes, they will appear 'dry', detached notions that do not relate to everyday life. If we establish a cool heart that no longer reacts from personality but from an impersonal stillness, we can begin to see things as they are (as the Dhamma).

Sure enough, for some who aren't ready or willing to walk the 8-fold Path in this life, Anatta & Dhamma (& Nibbana, of course) will remain distant conceptual lights at the end of the (self-made)tunnel. And yet, if we look at the life of the Householder Citta, as found in the Citta Samyutta (see the Access to Insight website), we find a layman promoted by the Buddha himself as the epitome of a layperson able to understand from direct experience the deep truths of Buddhism.

Be well in the Dhamma,
Gary at Forest Wisdom.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hia Gary, Many thanks! I hope the recovery continues :) Your kind and insightful words certainly do help. Thanks for reminding me of the very immediate and accessible aspects of anatta and dhamma. I think as a philosopher I too often ask, 'what does that mean?' when the correct question is 'how does that work? - how does this fit in with my path and development?'

Perhaps the work of the philosopher is to clarify the concepts that shape our world, and the work of the sage (including the lay-sage) is to cut through them. Just a thought. Thanks again.

Patia said...

Although most mainstream doctors dismiss the idea of adrenal fatigue, I'm pretty sure that's what I had when I finished grad school last spring. For months, I was incredibly lethargic and exhausted. It's gotten better .....

One thing that article barely mentioned was SLEEP! Your body uses sleep time to heal itself. If you're tired, it means you need sleep!

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Heya Patia, yea - I think we actually talked about this last spring a bit. Sleep has been a hard one here with the noisy late night eaters... but a flatmate of mine has volunteered to talk to them, and I have new noise canceling headphones (see Feb 4 post) and I might move to a quieter neighborhood... so... peace and healing are a'comin! :)