Saturday, May 07, 2016

Buddhist Ethics?

Via Buddhist Geeks, I came across this piece on (")Buddhist ethics(") by David Chapman, who I have to say is a guy I haven't heard about before.

Mr. Chapman notes:

I use “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) to refer to the ethics taught by Consensus Buddhism. (Consensus Buddhism is the American synthesis of the ideals of the 1960s youth movement with Asian Buddhist modernism.) Traditional Buddhist morality is quite different, as I’ll explain in upcoming posts.

As I understand it,  Mr. Chapman sees it "Buddhist ethics" is somewhat indistinguishable from some kind of bourgeois Whole Foods kind of progressive hipster ethos, or something like that, or at least something a college left-leaning Californian non-Buddhist might ought to find as different from his ethics, even if it's not the case.

I beg to differ.   And I think Brad Warner would too.

There’s a damned good reason the early Buddhists taught ethical precepts along with meditation. They understood right from the start that meditation without ethics can be a very bad thing indeed. For the meditator as much as for anyone else. But now we have to make our meditation courses completely secular. So a whole generation is learning to meditate without any training in ethics to go along with it.

Mr. Chapman is correct in asserting  that by and large, traditional Buddhist morality wasn't all that great.  However, although traditional Buddhist behavior of clergy was often intimately related to political intrigue and horrors such as slavery,  considering that there was no such thing as Western enlightenment philosophy from which to build (which itself carries a whole bunch of horrible baggage, e.g., as can be found from Marxist critiques of Locke),  it probably was more or less the best thing out there religion-wise at the time.  In fact,  later philosophies built on Buddhism as a religious tradition in the West.  Then there's the real likelihood that at least some aspects of New Testament Christianity were influenced by Buddhism (see for example, the Prodigal Son parables of the Lotus Sutra and the New Testament.)

But about that hypothetical Californian, I still beg to differ.

First of all,  Buddhist ethics - at least to me anyway - proceeds from something far more fundamental than the straw-man Californian ethics Mr. Chapman posits as identical to (")Buddhist ethics.(") It implies karma and compassion, but the fundamental thing is the emptiness of all phenomena.  There is a reason the Heart Sutra is written the way it is, and its point is not to promote a touchy-feely New Age kumbayasity.   All dharmas are fundamentally without an essential substance.    Buddhist ethics, as a dharma, is not non-existent, but perennially "in play."

I doubt the empty nature of ethics as a dharma is going to one day unfold into making us all regular Kodos the Executioners however.  Why do I say this? Well, folks wiser than me, and more learned than I am have been considering Buddhist ethics for a while. (Why, there's even a Wikipedia page on it. Though I admit it is ironic that a page on Buddhist ethics features Dennis Genpo Merzel.  But just because there's bugs in the system doesn't mean the system doesn't exist.)  Much of what has been written as Buddhist ethics does rely on textual analysis and criticism.  But regardless, ethics is a little like science or history, or case law.  One of the cool things about being a bipedal ape-descended life form called homo sapiens is that we are really good at using information as a tool to preserve learning across generations.  (Notice I didn't say we're unique in that.  I don't know about whether chimpanzees can do something like that, but slime molds might be able to do such a thing, for example.  It's just we're really good at using information.)

So naturally what is seen as Buddhist ethics in one century is going to have the potential to look quite different 1000 years later!  People, being people, are going to revisit questions about how to live and they're going to compare it to what people wrote down previously about the subject!  Based on this alone, there's really no difference in the relative "fixedness" of Buddhist ethics compared to any other ethics!

Secondly,  like a lot of Western Buddhist writing, it kind of ignores the fact that there are Asian practitioners of Buddhism, who would tell you that their own appropriation of Buddhist ethics might not be yours or mine.  Yes, there are no deep ethical treatises in Buddhism, at least none that I know about,  and in English.  But that does not mean that there is an obliviousness to wrongdoing or that there is no such thing as wrongdoing.  It is just that especially from a Buddhist perspective  emptiness + the nature of learning → what we see as acceptable behavior today might be unacceptable tomorrow and vice versa.   That's not a rightish or leftish thing, although to paraphrase Stephen Colbert the accumulation and advancement of knowledge might well have a liberal bias.

But more than that,  if a David Chapman writes "there's no such thing as Buddhist ethics,"  I do think that there is inherent in that statement an erasure of norms of Buddhist behavior or "case ethics" l as practiced by non-Western Buddhists.  There's literally millions of people who practice Buddhism who engage in certain behaviors because they see it as morally and ethically beneficial from a Buddhist perspective.  Would a "leftish" California person see the point of going vegetarian or Vegan depending on phases of the moon?  Yet quite educated and intelligent Chinese people do such a thing and could explain to you why they do such a thing.  And they and their clergy would look at you like you were from the planet Ogo if you were to tell them that their ethics and moral practices came from some "Consensus" Buddhist fusion of some Western stuff with some Buddhist stuff.  Or they might roll their eyes at the White Convert Buddhist-splaining of their take on ethics and morality.

Yeah, it's an elephant and we're all blind.

And if "case ethics" is "situational ethics" to you so be it.  Buddhist "absolutes" - that which in Western terms one would juxtapose against "situational ethics" or "moral relativism,"  - would be sunyata itself.  It's one of my many beefs with conservative moralists who inveigh against the lack of respect for "moral absolutes" that they have no idea what is absolute.  But I digress, except perhaps to say maybe a better idea for an essay is "There's no such thing as Western ethics."

Thirdly, what Brad Warner said.   Clearly it was the intent of early Buddhist monks to convey some type of behavioral norms.   And there were reasons why these behavioral norms were  conveyed, not the least of which was to try to get a bunch of mendicants not to go all People's Temple, I suppose.  Moreover, I think the privileging of meditation over ethics as is often represented in Western Convert Buddhist circles has consequences.  Mr. Chapman might say that's a trite statement, but experience has shown meditation without ethics is associated with certain problems arising from a lack of ethical practice, trite or not.

Fourthly, Chapman writes:

What’s missing is justifications: the “whys” and “wherefores” that are the substance of Western ethics. Mostly, Westerners take the “whats” as given; we don’t need to be told not to kill, steal, and lie. That’s kindergarten stuff. What we want to know is how to use principles to resolve conflicting moral considerations.

Coincidentally,  I was watching Richard Dawkins talking about science versus religion and he made the point that in regard to questions concerning things like how we got here, and such "why" is not an meaningful question to ask.  "Why" is not the same thing as "what is  the cause?"

In my apprehension of Buddhism,  my take on Mahayana Zen Buddhism,  a similar point applies. Cases of how to act when conflicting moral considerations are in play are dealt with based on our awareness of them, and our understanding of the implications of how to act in such cases.  Pay attention! And if you can't wrap your head around the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra, or have to ask "Why?" about that,  I submit that yes, there's ethical issues, but it's not because there's an issue with the existence or nonexistence of Buddhist ethics.


If you're asking that question you're probably not paying attention.

I think this is a good start for now.  I see that as part of this series Mr. Chapman has a take on the mindfulness movement.   I might respond to that too, later. But this is good for now.

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