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. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mind-killing 3: marginalization and framing

Mind-killing refers to a set of techniques by which an entity or a system manipulates people to act in its own interests. It does this by killing their ability to act in their own interests. The entity may be a pattern that operates in you, or it could be a family member or your family system. It could be an institution (educational, medical, professional or religious). It could be a corporation, or the advertisers and marketers and public relations people that serve its interests. Or it could be a politician, a government agency, society or the culture at large. 

In two previous newsletters, I discussed alignment and seduction, both of which subvert your own desires, and polarization and reduction, both of which incite your anger or aversion to serve the system’s interests.

Marginalization and framing are methods that play on the reactive pattern of ignoring.

In framing, topics and issues are presented in such a way that key questions cannot be asked, or cannot even be raised. George Lakoff, in Don’t Think of An Elephant, analyzes the different frames used in the politics of this country. Framing induces ignorance in you, that is, you are led to ignore aspects of the issue that may be vitally important to your own interests but are contrary to the interests of the person or entity that is seeking to make you act in their interests. For instance, as soon as Corbyn was elected to the leadership of the Labour party in England, the Tories released an ad that presented Corbyn as a threat to national security — an attempt to reframe the popular interest in him by converting concern over wages and inequality into fear of being unsafe. On the other hand, financial and economic issues are typically framed as being too difficult or too complex for most people to understand, even though large numbers of sports fans in this country have proven very capable of analyzing and understanding the complexities of whole sports, from play on the field to the intricacies of coaching, managing and the draft process, etc.

Marginalization goes further. In marginalization, you are made to feel that your own interests (or interests that run counter to the interests of the other) are inconsequential, are not worth thinking about, are not worth any consideration. Black Lives Matter is a movement that is attempting to counteract the legacy of the marginalization of the value of black lives in America society. Environmental concerns are consistently marginalized in favor of profit, and this is typically done by arousing fear about losing your job or your livelihood. 

In order to recognize the operation of mind-killing, you have to have to be able to actively question what is being presented to you. From this perspective, the auto-anesthesia induced by almost any media technology (books, newspapers, magazines, television, computers, video-games, etc.) makes us susceptible to manipulation by those who know how to use those media. All these technologies bring extraordinary benefits in terms of access to information and richness of life, but they also make us vulnerable to manipulation and control precisely because they induce a kind of sleep.

It is small wonder that mindfulness has attracted so much attention, but the mindfulness movement itself has been criticized for marginalizing the inequities and cruelties of the modern work environment and framing problems in the workplace as a problem with the individual, not with the system.

Two methods that are often effective countermeasures to marginalization and framing are: 
  • knowing what is vitally important to you and 
  • exploring connections.

When it comes to what is important, many people have already been conditioned to think primarily in terms of their own individual welfare and supposed indicators of well-being that are easily measured, i.e., income. Actual quality of life, particularly the quality of relationships and the time to pursue personal interests outside of work, etc., have been effectively marginalized. Thus, from time to time, ask yourself, what is vitally important to me? When you do, you may notice a tide of uncertainty or fear. That fear, that tide, is the inertia of conditioning that is resident in you. To question what is vitally important in the face of that conditioning is no trivial matter, but, at least in my own experience, it is the only way to step into our own lives.

When you explore connections, you break down the artificial restrictions that marginalization and framing have imposed on your thinking. You see for yourself, for instance, how you contribute to and influence the world in which you live. You step out of the world projected by your reactive emotions, fear, anger, need or instinct, and come to appreciate the complexity of interactions that make up every aspect of our lives. You may find the plethora of interconnections overwhelming at first, and not know where to start. Those feelings are, I think, residues of the conditioning that all of us have been exposed to. If we keep exploring and questioning, however, we find more and more freedom and possibilities, internally and externally.