Thursday, January 03, 2008

Buddhist ethics and metaphysics

This is a bit of notes composed about three years ago when I was a student in Bristol working on a paper on the Early Buddhist Philosophy of Mind. Today as I work on Buddhist ethics it is again important. The Buddhist path, most of us know, is commonly divided into three parts: sīla, samādhi, and paññā (morality, meditation, and wisdom). Just how these three come together to form a path is a matter of dispute, but it is said that:

… sīla-paridhotā hi bho Gotama paññā, paññā-paridhotaṃ sīlam, yattha sīlam tattha paññā, yattha paññā tattha sīlaṃ. Sīlavato paññā paññāvato sīlaṃ, sīla-paññānañ ca pana lokasmin aggam akkhāyati. (Dīgha-Nikāya i. 123)

Or, if like me you can’t read a lick of Pāli:

… For understanding, Gotama, is washed around with virtue, and virtue is washed around with understanding. Where there is virtue there is understanding, and where there is understanding there is virtue. Those who have virtue possess understanding, and those who have understanding possess virtue, and virtue and understanding are declared to be the best things in the world. (translated by Keown, 2001, p. 39)

(Is it just me or is the Pali language just a lot more economical?)

The point is that ethics, or morality – doing the right thing – is tied in with wisdom, insight, or philosophy. As Socrates stated, “To know the good is to do the good.”

What is the good? What is reality itself? These are questions of metaphysics.

Metaphysics: 1.the branch of philosophy that treats of first principles, includes ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology. (
Metaphysics first aims to be the most general investigation possible into the nature of reality, asking, “are there principles applying to everything that is real, to all that is?” The second aspect of metaphysics is its quest to uncover what is ultimately real, frequently offering answers in sharp contrast to our everyday experience of the world. For instance, the ancient Greek philosopher Thales suggested that water was all that was ultimately real, George Berkeley is famous for asserting that mind alone is real, while many contemporary thinkers believe that matter alone is real. Understood in terms of these two tasks, metaphysics is very closely related to ontology, which is usually taken to involve both "what is existence (being)?" and "what (fundamentally distinct) types of thing exist?"

To elucidate what Buddhist metaphysics may look like we may employ the trilemma introduced by Prof. Earnest Sosa (In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Honderich ed., p.559) of illusion, well-founded appearance, and fundamental reality. If we recall the three marks of existence: anicca, anattā, dukkha (impermanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness), then we can explain the Buddhist position on these three metaphysical levels of reality.

Illusion is obviously anything thought to have permanence, attā, or sukkha (satisfactoriness or unending happiness). To hold anything thinking, “I will have this forever” is to merely grasp illusion. To think to yourself, “this is my true self, this is who I am” is to create a boundary, an illusion. Even the view, “I am already enlightened” is an illusion. In fact the Buddha described the “conceit of I-am” (asmi-mana) as one of the most nefarious forms of ignorance. As Rupert Gethin clarifies, “Thus Buddhist thought suggests that as an individual I am a complex flow of physical and mental phenomena, but peel away these phenomena and look behind them and one just does not find a constant self that one can call one’s own.” (1998, p.139) Lastly, To strive for anything thinking it will bring unending happiness also is an illusion. Often, especially when we are young and ambitious, we think that reaching this goal or that will bring us happiness. And sure, we find happiness in reaching goals, but isn’t it always the case that our happiness is lost as we see yet another goal to strive for (thinking, “then I’ll really be happy.”). This is what psychologists today aptly call the hedonic treadmill. To get beyond mere illusion we must get beyond the ideas of permanence, of who we truly are – our true Self, and true happiness (in this world).

Well-founded appearance, it would seem, is represented in the various Abhidhamma accounts of dhammas. These are the essentials of experience: momentary, self-identical (svabhava), and caused. This is a move to a level of reality where spiritual growth can occur. It is in advanced vipassanā meditation practice that one moves his or her attention to the ever-changing flow of dhammas, to experience itself free of conceptual constructs – free of illusion. Of course, as any vipassanā teacher will tell you, this is based on a great deal of preparatory work, work done within the realm of illusion.

The final level, fundamental reality, is empty of its own qualities, but is itself the anicca, anattā, and dukkha quality of all dhammas. This may be better understood by referring again to Inada’s claim that the anattā doctrine represents a Copernican turn in philosophy.[1] Whereas we would assume that metaphysical claims should come in the form of an assertion of an underlying reality, the Buddhist metaphysics points instead to everyday reality and says “this, this is fundamental reality.” There is no foundation beneath it to be found.

It thus becomes plausible to say that Buddhist metaphysics is an anti-metaphysics, insofar at it rejects abstract theorization and points instead back to the pragmatic aspects of meditation and ethics. Again, the metaphysics of Buddhism may be summarized as such: ultimate reality is nothing other than this reality seen correctly (yathabhutaṃ), this reality may be analyzed into constituent parts or dhammas, and it is from these dhammas that we, out of ignorance, construct the stories of our lives.

The therapeutic, or ethical, aspect arises when we truly come to terms with this understanding and its implications. The first step is in understanding that most of the big problems in life are illusions. War, poverty, disease, famine: all illusions. But they are based on well-founded appearances: instances of death, hunger, illness, and waste. Well-founded appearances are not themselves illusions: death is real, so is hunger and the rest. Yet it becomes illusion when it is seen as permanent, possessing self, and/or leading to ever-lasting happiness.

Seen correctly, as impermanent, not-self, and unsatisfactory, death, like life, takes on a new meaning. The two lose their mystique as opposites and we see that they are intermingling all of the time, just as wealth and poverty, disease and health, and so on are always commingling. Knowing this, it no longer makes sense to struggle so much for one and to avoid the other. Knowing this one lets go. One flows with life rather than against it.

[1] Kenneth Inada, “Problematics of the Buddhist nature of self,” Philosophy East and West, 1979, vol. 29, no.2, p.141.


Tom said...

"The point is that ethics, or morality – doing the right thing – is tied in with wisdom, insight, or philosophy. As Socrates stated, “To know the good is to do the good.”"

It would seem to me that insight is the vital member of the trio you cite. But looking at human misadventures, from the Bush administration, to Enron, to the junta in Burma, and to rather recent 'enlightened' Buddhist masters with drinking, sexual gambling and thieving problems, it becomes hard to understand why so many people who seem to have it all throw it all away for the rush of being bad.

And then, too, there seem to be people who harbor this sanctimonious sense of what 'good is' and use it mostly to clobber other people.

I'm a bit of a clobberer myself.

An 'idea' that comes from Integral theory, and probably somewhere else before that, is that varieties of human behaviors/sensitivities are best, in the aggregate. It's a 'wisdom of crowds' kind of thing.

It seems like Buddha, tho, has this absolutist concept of The Good that one would come to know from Big Kahuna Enlightenment. I also tend to think that, like the fixed relationships of forces in physics seem to be, The Good is unwavering, timeless and the same for all of us. But that puts things a bit at odds with welcoming life in all its messiness as being of great value.

Surely, if The Good is good, then we must want it forcibly imposed on everyone. [Er, I mean, '... we would want everyone to find it.']

Buddhist_philosopher said...

hia Tom - I'm probably a bit of a 'clobberer' as well, with my strong sense (or mere idea) of what is right and what is simply not. I think in Buddhism we can do a good job of holding to a big-G Goodness without fascism or forced imposition onto others. That is because the Buddha made very clear that it is a Good (and Truth) that each must come to on their own; and it is an internal state; not any kind of external obedience to rules of state, religion, or society.

Tom said...

The Good is beyond Buddhism, right? Buddha only found it and didn't mold it.

Surely, there is a libertarian streak in The Good such that leaving it to others to find it is necessarily good. I'm sure you would agree, being a famously libertarian Montanan.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom - yup, the Good is beyond Buddha; sure as day. It's a tricky balance, though, 'leaving others to find it' and realizing interconnectedness. I'm not going to pummel my foot for getting too close to a thorn, but I'm not wise to just 'let it' step on a cactus to learn for itself that particular sort of suffering.

Knowing that the suffering of others is my own, I need to find ways to best guide them away from cacti - as much as I can - all the while keeping my own self (this particular body called Justin) out of thorny situations.

Tom said...

Very good, wise Buddhist philosopher. I see immediately the wisdom of your comment, overriding the weakness in mine that precedes it.

A question though is Is Socates necessarily right? Would a person who knows The Good necessarily know he knows The Good, completely? Would a person who thinks he knows The Good make errors due to his lack of understanding?

I think today, we moderns would be correct in assessing Buddha as having failed to appreciate that women were fully as capable as men. These capabilities were veiled because of the culture of the time and thus we must forgive Buddha for his lack of understanding.

We can never know what we don't understand. Does that mean that we may never achieve perfect virtue? Should we all rely, then, on "the crowd" to help us with virtue, since others may have a greater understanding than we have?

Contrariwise, if virtue -- The Good -- is primarily insight, is the idea of virtue and understanding washing each other limited? Then might we each have the 'ability' to fully know The Good with its nature of being paradoxical, situational and open to a range of behaviors?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom, as the Buddha stated in the Bahiya sutta:

Where neither water nor yet earth
Nor fire nor air gain a foothold,
There gleam no stars, no sun sheds light,
There shines no moon, yet there no darkness reigns.

When a sage, a brahman, has come to know this
For himself through his own wisdom,
Then he is freed from form and formless.
Freed from pleasure and from pain.

Socrates and the Buddha would be in agreement, I believe, regarding the ability to ascertain perfect knowledge and goodness. Kant, interestingly, agrees with you... that we cannot really know what hides in the dark recesses of our minds. We can never really know that we aren't just deceiving ourselves. Here I agree with Buddha and Socrates though.

The crowd may help us, yes. But ultimately the hard work is for us to undertake. I do think the Good is again primarily internal, and the external manifestations are variable, situational, and (to the unenlightened) paradoxical.

Tom said...

Very good, Justin. I will need to ponder some of this, but what you write sounds right.

But a final question: To what do you attribute Buddha's lack of appreciation for women's capabilities? And what does it say about Buddha's knowledge of the good? [Feel free to write what you think; There's no chance Kelly'll ever read this. None at all. Nope.]

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Re: Buddha and women... It's a tricky one maybe. I, being a good Buddhist, say that he knew full well that beings born as women have every bit as much potential as beings born as men. Difference of potential is not at issue.

As you mentioned, it was more of a cultural problem... yet perhaps also a biological problem - in his day.

In his culture (and indeed the world at the time), creating an order of nuns was unheard of. He risked everything, including the well-being of his monks, by potentially turning the society against him.

On the biological level, I recall some texts saying it's a bad deal to be born a woman because of the difficulties of menstruation (and childbearing/rearing). It doesn't take much imagination to think of the difficulty that must have come with simply being female back then.

But again I would reiterate that the Buddha DID after all create the order of nuns - social radical that he was - and he DID have female disciples reach the same exalted states of arahatship - enlightenment - as his monks. So, external differences (cultural/biological) aside, we can say that the Buddha recognized a deeper equality between genders.