Friday, October 30, 2015

It's not about morality

A lot has been written and said about Buddhist ethics, but David Chapman, Charles Goodman and a number of other thoughtful people make a strong case that Buddhist ethics is largely a Western invention. Chapman, in a deliberately provocative series of writings, goes quite a bit further and advances the thesis that Buddhist ethics in the West has now largely become a way to solidify a sense of self and signal that one is a good person.

A differentiation I want to offer is between morality and ethics on the one hand and the behavior one chooses to support practice on the other. 

Morality can be seen as the tacit understandings and behavioral principles that provide cohesion for a group of people, i.e., a society. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk sees morality as part of the immune system of a society, i.e., how a society determines whether you belong or not. Jonathan Haidt points out the intimate relationship between morality and reputation. He also notes that in most cases the stricter the morality of the group, the more cohesive it is and the longer it is likely to maintain its identity and effectiveness as a group.

Many people (myself included) interpreted the disciplines of the monastic code, the bodhisattva vow and vajrayana commitments as moral systems. But they are not moral systems in the Western sense. They are more descriptions of possible behavior than prescriptions, and their primary function is to support the efforts we are making in practice. There is a term that refers to all these disciplines and it is tempting to translate that term as life-style. That seemed to casual, so I eventually opted for chosen behavior.

The point is that we choose to live in ways that support our practice. When we don’t follow those choices, then we are undermining our practice efforts, but we are not acting immorally, with all the weight that that term has in Western culture. These chosen behaviors are not offered as universal prescriptions but as individual efforts. Many Tibetan teachers wrote poems or songs about how they aspired to live and you will find three examples that I’ve translated on Unfettered Mind’s website: Mind Training in Eight Verses, The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva and 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice. Rather that interpret traditional guidelines for behavior in a way that made them easy to follow, these teachers often pushed the guidelines further so that they bit deeply into the patterns of distraction, conceptualization and self-cherishing. In Mind Training in Eight Verses, Langri Tangpa, for instance, says:

When scorn and insult become my lot,
Expressions of some jealousy,
I alone accept defeat
And award the other victory.

And Longchenpa, in 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice, offers such gems as:

Although you think you’re serving the welfare of beings
By acting as a guarantor, witness or advocate to help settle others’ disputes,
Your own opinions will inevitably assert themselves.
Don’t be concerned – that’s my sincere advice.


Your political power, wealth, connections, good fortune and reputation
May spread all over the world.
When you die, these things will not help you at all.
Work at your practice – that’s my sincere advice.

These are not moral principles — ways to live that bring cohesion and order to society. These are practice efforts — ways to live that bring us right up against the reactive patterns that keep us in confusion. That, in essence, is the differentiation that I want you to consider. In practice, we are less concerned with how we live in society and more concerned with the habits and patterns of reactivity that prevent us from being present in the mystery of life.

These poems were written as forms of self-encouragement, much like Montaigne’s essays or the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. My own teacher wrote similar poems, both for himself when he was young and for others when he was older. Spiritual practice can only be undertaken voluntarily. Similarly, the behavioral guidelines are taken up voluntarily. Just as it is up to each of us to find the path of practice that works for us, so it is up to each of us to find the way of life that supports our practice. The danger here is that our path becomes on of self-indulgence. But that is always a danger. Adherence to a notion of a higher truth and attachment to a pure morality are also forms of self-indulgence. Much can be learned from the examples of the great masters who practiced personal privation privately. 


dpopovic said...

This is an interesting post, but I just wonder if it wouldn't make sense to differentiate between monastic vows, which are (at least in part) behavioral codes that govern a community and that are specifically meant to determine whether or not you are a part of a community and the songs and poems in which realized masters describe how not to be caught up in the confusion of samsara (i.e. reactive patterns). In terms of their function, the monastic vows definitely do have a "horizontal" dimension that the songs of the masters do not. Monasticism, by its very structure (the model of systematic training and "shaping" of disciples through standardized procedures), could be seen as carrying with it a kind of normative ideal of what a "good Buddhist" looks like. I guess this adherence to an externally imposed code is what Tilopa tried to knock out of Naropa and what Milarepa was challenging Gampopa to relinquish when he gave him alcohol to drink on their first meeting. At some point on the (vertical) path you have to step beyond horizontal codes of behavior and monastic vows, judging by three stories, are sometimes seen as part of what needs to be given up (especially on the Vajrayana path). This type of development actually seems to be close to what David Chapman is suggesting to all those practicing a horizontally-oriented Buddhism. So, maybe your points aren't actually so far apart as it may seem.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

I appreciate this post. I've been saying this for years, but since I don't hang out with the academic philosophers I was unaware that some of them are catching on to the erroneous framing of "Buddhist ethics." I do know tht Jin Park of American University has been attempting to point out that Buddhist ethics can't simply be put into the framework of Western ethics and morality. Back in 2011 there was a symposium at Columbia Univ. titled "Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics" (the talks are available online) in which the only two people who made sense were Jin Park and Robert Thurman. All the other speakers could not extricate themselves from the bias of Western philosophy and ethics.

Karma is not a system of morality. It is no more about morality than telling someone to not put their hand into a flame is about morality. It is about the cause and effect of action and reaction. The "codes" of conduct in Buddhism are just pointers about how the "Natural Law of Karma" (i.e., the Dharma of karma) functions within the framework if mind's awareness, in the same way that the laws of physics and thermodynamics are about how things function within the materialist framework.

The problem with turning the precepts into normative ideal of what a "good Buddhist" looks like is a problem created by human discursiveness and bifurcated thinking. People living in close quarters have a difficult time getting along, and so rules of conduct were created to help resolve the normal conflicts that arise in human community. So the monastic rules aren't about being a "good Buddhist" in any normative sense, they are about "just getting along" in a Sangha. But because people are people of polarized conceptualizations, subject to vikalpa, prapanca, and vasana, they turn everything into normative rules and put everything into the frame of "good and evil," from which we can be liberated only by study and the cultivation of practice.
Harming other people is called "evil" when it seems deliberate, but I always remember that "evil" is just "live" spelled backward, so living by the precepts is living according to the laws of karma and when we turn the laws of karma upside down or backwards with our topsy turvy views, then the label "evil" is appropriate in a technical sense of living backwards, but not in the moralistic sense of a literalized normative category of "evil" that is a materialistic approach to morality.