Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Moral murk

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A while back I went to see a performance of Shen Yun, the dance group associated with Falun Gong. The dancing, singing and music were all polished and impressive, but despite the skill of the performers, I left the theater feeling that some important dimension was missing from the spectacle. There was nothing in the evening that really engaged me intellectually, emotionally or aesthetically. In thinking about it afterwards, I realized that what had left me feeling unsatisfied was the moral certainty of many of the segments, the theme of which had been that perfectly good and innocent people were being persecuted by thoroughly malicious people for no reason other than that malevolent people cannot tolerate good people. There was nothing at all subtle about it. The good people wore white and pastel clothing, while the villains who were tormenting them wore black clothing with prominent red hammer-and-sickle designs on their backs. The good and innocent people were without guile or flaws, and the villains were without redeeming qualities. The final effect was as two-dimensional and unwittingly comical as any piece of emotionally manipulative propaganda. Whenever art is put to the service of political or religious dogma, it ceases to be artistic and becomes merely crafty.

There is no disputing that different people have different tastes, so I cannot speak for anyone but myself in matters of morality. What I can say about myself is that my soul craves moral murkiness. This may be nothing more than a particular application of a more general aspect of my character, namely, that I love questions far more than answers, and love above all those questions that cannot be answered. Since most moral questions fall into the category of unanswerable questions, it is no surprise that I am drawn to thinking about morality and am especially attracted to situations of moral complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy.

My own default position, which I admit I am unable to defend, is that there is no such thing as a moral fact. People have personal preferences in how they would like others to behave, but these preferences are essentially groundless and therefore indefensible. There is nothing whatsoever that I like about war. I find it distasteful, and my preference would be for disputes to be settled without recourse to violence, coercion, destruction of lives and property and to threats of violence and destruction. My preference would be to live in a world in which there were no weapons of any kind and in which no human being imposed his or her will on any other living being. As strongly as I prefer that, however, I have never been able to defend the claim that a peaceful world is more moral than a world of bellicosity. That peace is better than war is, in other words, a personal preference that I happen to have. It is not a moral fact. There is probably a name for the view that there is no such thing as a moral fact—perhaps it is what some people mean by the term “moral nihilism”. What the view is called does no interest me very much. What interests me more is that it is a view I would prefer not to have, but have been driven to having for lack of sufficient reason to hold the view that there are, or may be, moral facts.

Most situations that create a craving for moral certainty—that is, for clear answers to the question of what ought and what ought not to be done—create that craving precisely because no clear answers are evident. Most situations that make one even think in moral terms are situations characterized by ambiguity and indeterminacy. These two features are closely related, but let me try to explain how I would distinguish them.

  • Moral indeterminacy. Moral theories that assess the rightness of actions on the basis of the goodness of the consequences of those actions lend themselves to indeterminacy; that is, the consequences of an action cannot be determined for a couple of reasons. First, given the complexity of events, it is seldom possible to know for certain whether any given circumstance that occurs after an action is the effect or direct consequences of that action. This is so because no circumstance has only one cause. This is especially the case when the putative effect in question is an abstract notion such as happiness, flourishing or well-being. Well-being is such a nebulous concept that it is almost impossible to define it with any kind of precision, and even if it could be said definitively whether a particular state of being qualified as being well, that state would have so many variables that it would not be possible to identify any given action or personality trait as its cause.There is another reason that the consequences of a given action or personality trait cannot be determined, which is that the consequences of anything at a given time continue indefinitely into the future. In the year 2014, for example, the consequences of the signing of the Declaration of Independence are still unfolding, and they will continue to unfold long after the nation that got its beginning after that action has ceased to exist. It is possible that the consequences of the Declaration of Independence in 1825 were better than the consequences in 1848 and slightly worse than the consequences in 1935. So at what point does one take a sounding of the long chain of consequences of an action to determine whether the consequences were better or worse? (There is an often-told Zen story that illustrates this point.)
  • Moral ambiguity. Moral theories that focus not on actions but on personality traits tend to classify personality traits as either virtues or vices. A person with good character is one whose virtues outnumber or outweigh that person’s vices. It is usually said that virtue conduces to the person’s happiness or well-being, while vices conduce to a deficiency of flourishing. As was pointed out above, the abstractness of those notions militates against our being able to determine whether a person’s being is well or ill. Even if this could be determined in some way, it would turn out that any given personality trait has a mixture of results, some of them instances of well-being and others of doing poorly. If one examines one’s own patience, for example, one can probably think of situations in which patience turned out to be conducive to well-being and of other situations in which patience was an obstacle to well-being. So is patience a virtue or a vice? For most of us, the answer is Yes. It is both. Its valence is ambiguous. The same would be most likely turn out to be true of such traits as attentiveness to detail, curiosity, optimism and so forth. Even the qualities of wisdom and compassion, which tend to have a good reputation among philosophers as virtues, and faith, hope and love, which tend to be favored by Christian theologians, cannot claim to be unambiguous.It is a commonplace to say that everyone, with the possible exception of perfect saints, has a mentality that is a mixture of virtue and vice and that therefore there are no perfectly innocent victims, perfectly virtuous heroes or absolutely vicious villains. That is no doubt the case, but the problem is even deeper than that. At its most fundamental level, the problem is that there are no personality characteristics that are pure virtues or pure vices. There are personality traits; nothing more than that need be said.

Moral nihilism in a Buddhist context

Throughout the history of Buddhism, the claim has been made that the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination steers a middle course (madhyamā pratipad) between the two extremes of claiming that there is an eternal self that survives the death of the present physical body and claiming that there is a self that endures from conception to death but is cut off or annihilated when the physical body dies. These two extreme views are therefore often called eternalism and annihilationism in English, approximate translations of the Sanskrit śāśvatavāda and ucchedavāda. Each of these two extremes is said to be a poor foundation for an ethical life. The view that there is a self in this life that fails to survive the death of the body is said to lead to a kind of moral nihilism. The usual reason given for this association is that if one does not continue existing beyond the death of the body in this life, then one is not accountable in the future for actions done in this life. One might, for example, commit a heinous act at the very end of this life and not live to experience the painful consequences that are supposed to follow heinous acts. One might, for example, strap a bomb to one’s body and detonate it in a crowded place, thereby killing both oneself and scores of other people, and if that is the end of one’s conscious existence, then one would not go to hell or be reborn as a rabbit in a realm of hungry coyotes. Buddhists, not alone among purveyors of religious ethics, worried about the injustice of crimes going unpunished. They also worried about the injustice of good deeds going unrewarded. Someone might, for example, run into a burning building to save the life of an invalid, succeed in saving the helpless invalid’s life and then die of smoke inhalation. If that heroic act is the very final episode in the hero’s existence, then there is no chance of reaping the rewards of the heroism. That a hero and a suicidal sociopath might have exactly the same fate—oblivion—hardly seems fair. So cosmic justice, the argument goes, demands that we survive into another existence long enough to experience the rewards of virtuous behavior and the miseries engendered by vicious conduct. Unless there is a difference in the consequences of vice and virtue, then vice and virtue turn out to be indistinguishable, and to say that there is nothing that distinguishes vice from virtue (or bad deeds and good deeds) is to espouse moral nihilism.

Let me begin by accepting, just for the sake of argument, that the Buddhist claim that denying an afterlife would lead to moral nihilism is correct. What I would now like to argue is that moral nihilism is in no way incompatible with having an effective Buddhist practice. This amounts to arguing that two and a half millennia of Buddhist teachers, and even the Buddha himself, were mistaken in saying that denial of an afterlife is a false or unproductive view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and therefore an obstacle to liberation from the root causes of discontent. Before presenting a case for my contention that the Buddhist tradition is mistaken in this matter, let me try to understand what I think the worry is. The Buddhists who adhere to their traditional teachings are worried, I think, that if someone is a moral nihilist, then that person will automatically behave in ways that are harmful to self and others. If one is convinced that trying to make a rational or pragmatic distinction between right and wrong and between vice and virtue is a futile pursuit, then one is sure to break all the Buddhist precepts. That is, one is bound to go around killing, stealing, being a sexual pervert, lying, gossiping and harboring greedy and hateful ambitions. Why? Because, I think the Buddhist is likely to respond, there is nothing to prevent one from acting in all those ways that are supposedly destructive to self and others. So if I am to show that the Buddhist tradition’s collective fear of moral nihilism is ungrounded, I must show that a it does not follow that a moral nihilist would necessarily violate the Buddhist precepts. One way of doing that is to explain why it is that I, being a moral nihilist, have strived (and for the most part succeeded) to follow the Buddhist precepts.

First, it may be helpful to say something about the nature of what are usually called the precepts in Buddhism. In the Sanskrit language these so-called precepts are called śīla, a word that simply means a habit or a propensity to act in a particular way. Liquid water has the habit of flowing downhill, while solidified water has the habit of staying stationary and gaseous water has the habit of rising. Buddhas have the habit of being mindful of how their thoughts and words and physical actions affect other living beings. There is not necessarily anything moral about śīla; it is simply a propensity to be predictable in one’s actions. The verbal formula for the five, or eight or ten śīlas of Buddhism can best be translated as “I undertake the training principle of abstaining from….” It is noteworthy that the formula does not say that one has a duty to abstain from a given action, or that doing a given action is offensive in the eyes of God, or that performing the action in question will lead to rebirth in hell. There is nothing suggesting that abstaining from the actions is obligatory. On the contrary, the abstention is purely voluntary. The abstention is simply something that one undertakes. One undertakes it as a training principle. In other words, if one wishes to be part of the community of people undergoing Buddhist training, then one voluntarily undertakes to abstain from taking life, taking property, reckless sexuality, lying and so forth. In much the same way that if one wishes to drive a car in England, one agrees to drive on the left side of the road, but if one wishes to drive a car in Canada, one drives on the right side of the road, if one wishes to consider oneself a disciple of the Buddha, one agrees not to take life or property and not to act in various other ways.

Surely, I can imagine someone saying, there must be something more involved in practicing abstention from certain acts than simply wanting to be a member of the Buddhist club and knowing that some kinds of behavior would be frowned upon by the doormen. And I would readily admit that successfully abstaining from those actions probably requires some motivation other than the fear of disapproval. In my own case, fear that I might be considered unworthy to be a member of the Buddhist club plays no role at all. My own adherence to the Buddhist precepts preceded my knowing anything about the teachings of Buddhism. What motivated me was, as was mentioned above, simply a strong sense of distaste for taking life and for the various other things that Buddhists undertake to abstain from. So while my own practice of the precepts has been far from perfect—rest assured that I am no candidate for sainthood—it has not taken much more effort to practice the recommended abstentions than it has taken to abstain from eating beets. I don’t like beets. I find them distasteful. I also don’t like killing, taking what is not given, being sexually careless and lying. I also don’t enjoy being around loud and boisterous people, so I also try to minimize my contact with them. All these preferences are purely a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing about tastes.

Now, if my principal motivation in abstaining from the kinds of actions that made the Buddha frown is my own idiosyncratic sense of taste, does that not limit me as a Buddhist practitioner? I would say not. It does not limit me as a practitioner (unless my tastes unaccountably and unexpectedly change, which could happen if something very dramatic happened to me). At most, it may limit me as a Buddhist preacher, because I cannot preach what I practice. I am incapable of coming up with rational arguments for why I or anyone else ought to follow the Buddhist precepts. If someone does not already think it is a good idea not to take life, I cannot persuade him. If someone does not already think it is not a good idea to take someone else’s property, I cannot dissuade her from theft. I am completely unfurnished with rational arguments to support why one kind of behavior is better than another. But in this, I am not so unique. In fact, I would claim that in this respect I am exactly the same as Buddhist preachers, for they are also incapable of coming up with rational arguments for following the precepts. Telling someone that if they take a life then they will be reborn in hell is not a rational argument. Telling someone that the Buddha did not like theft is not a rational argument for abstaining from taking property. My claim is that all putative arguments for morality turn out to be, on closer examination, nothing more than statements of personal taste.

It is possible that there are disadvantages of being a moral-nihilistic Buddhist, but so far the only one I am aware of is that my distaste for moral absolutes and black-and-white depictions of good guys versus bad guys may have diminished my enjoyment of the Shen Yun troop.

Written by Richard Hayes

Monday, April 7, 2014 at 11:30

Pointless narrative (prapañca)

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My father had a sign on the door of his office that read, “Those who freely share their opinions are operating on the assumption that the demand for them is brisk.” Little did I know it at the time, but my father was preparing me for the interest in Buddhism that has haunted my entire adult life. The sign on the office door was, in my opinion, a bit too wordy, but I never shared that opinion with my father, because he never asked for it. (He did ask for my opinion on a number of things, but not on that sign.)

In one of my favorite dialogues in the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle-length discourses), the Buddha is reported to have told one Prince Abhaya how he decides what is worth saying;

  1. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
  2. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
  3. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
  4. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
  5. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
  6. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings. Abhaya Sutta

Some people of our times have boiled the essence of those criteria down to a mnemonic: “Before speaking, THINK.” That is, ask whether what you are about to say is

  • True
  • Helpful
  • Inspiring
  • Necessary
  • Kind

Speaking, according to traditional Buddhist authors, is a manifestation of what one is thinking. All speech acts and physical actions are preceded by mental actions. When Buddhists speak of karma, they are speaking primarily about one’s thoughts, for it is from thoughts that verbal and physical actions arise. Buddhists have a good deal to say about thinking, and they have numerous categories by which they analyze different kinds of thinking. This is not the place to go into those details. There is, however, one kind of thinking that Buddhists never recommend. It is called prapañca, a term that will be left untranslated for now.

The fact that prapañca is never recommended is a sign that this kind of thinking is regarded as unhealthy or unwholesome (akuśala). But what exactly is this kind of unhealthy thinking, and how can one know that one is indulging in it? How can one take precautions against it? In looking for answers to these questions, we encounter a variety of interpretations.

Early translators of the Pali canon sometimes rendered the term papañca (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prapañca) as “obsession”. While it is true that there is an obsessive dimension involved in the kind of thinking called prapañca, that translation does not tell the whole story. What the term often means outside of Buddhist contexts is something more like elaboration. If, for example, one states an idea briefly and the idea is misunderstood, then one can offer a more elaborate account of the idea. Alternatively, if one makes a claim, and someone else disputes the claim, one might then counter the dispute by offering a more carefully qualified version of the claim. That more carefully qualified claim is called a prapañca. In this context, prapañca is a verbal action, whereas in Buddhist contexts prapañca tends to be the thinking underlying the speech. If a person making a claim is too attached to the claim being made and defends it against all criticism, no matter how reasonable, then the verbal prapañca may be characterized as intellectually obsessive in nature. An idea of which someone simply will not let go, no matter how good the reasons may be for dropping it, may generate a good deal of verbal prapañca. The verbal prapañca is not the obsession per se but rather the verbal manifestation of the obsessive clinging to the idea; clinging to ideas tends to make one rather talkative.

In Buddhist contexts, the mental prapañca that is so often warned against is, I am inclined to think, the making of unnecessary narrative. It is generating explanations above and beyond the mere observation of what is happening. Not being content merely to observe what is taking place, one may well try to tell a story about why something is taking place. For example, if I see someone behaving in a particular way, I may be tempted to try to explain the behavior by telling some story about the hidden (to everyone but me) motives of the person whose behavior I have observed. But attributing motivation to a mind I cannot directly observe is gratuitous in the sense that it oversteps the limits of observation. It is this overstepping the limits of observation that is the root cause of what Buddhists in India called prapañca. It is telling stories of the kind that no one can be sure whether they are true or false.

People who imagine that they have figured something (or someone) out often have a difficult time keeping their hypotheses to themselves. And so gratuitous thinking often gives rise to gratuitous speaking, for example, sharing one’s opinions with those who have not asked for them. (In really extreme cases, gratuitous thinking may even result in writing posts on a blog. When the disease has developed to that degree, the prapañca may well be incurable).

Prapañca is one of the principal ingredients in modern culture. Indeed, it is probably one of the principal ingredients in any human culture, for much of what we call culture is simply common agreement on which stories deserve to be told and called true, despite their overstepping the limits of observation. Nearly all of religious doctrine is prapañca that has come to be accepted by a community of people, despite being neither verifiable nor falsifiable through experience. Nearly all political conviction is prapañca, for very few political disputes can be settled by an impartial appeal to evidence collected through careful observation. Most philosophy is prapañca, and I would hazard the guess that one can also find traces of prapañca in other academic disciplines as well.

The Buddha reportedly said that there were a good many topics of conversation that he avoided. He did not like to talk about current events, sports or what people were doing and saying. He did not like to offer speculations about how the world came about or how it might come to an end. He did not like to speculate about how big or how old the universe is. All such topics of conversation were regarded as what in Pali was called samphappalapa, usually translated as “idle chatter” or “pointless speech.” Pointless speech is based in prapañca, which might therefore be called pointless thinking or generating pointless narrative or telling unnecessary stories.

No one asked me what my opinion is about the meaning of the Buddhist term prapañca. I shared it anyway. I obviously failed to absorb the lesson on the sign on my father’s door. So my advice to you is not to read this post.

Written by Richard Hayes

Friday, February 7, 2014 at 15:09

Posted in Buddhism, Philosophical basis

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On being oneself

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“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.

Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.

My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.

In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.

My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:

“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.

Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.

Written by Richard Hayes

Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 13:37

Posted in Psychology

Just deserts

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“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” — Barry Switzer, quoted in The Chicago Tribune, 1986.

One of the observations I remember from the only sociology course I ever took (some forty-five years ago) was that people who are wealthy tend to believe that they earned their wealth and therefore deserve it, while people who are poor tend to believe that wealth is mostly a matter of luck and has little to do with just deserts. Whether a person justly deserves what he or she gets is probably one of those questions that cannot be answered, because there is no clear criterion for what makes one’s fortune just or unjust. Insofar as there is any truth to the matter, it is probably simply that what happens happens, and what one gets is what one gets. Justice does not enter into the picture most of the time, but that hardly prevents human beings from reading justice or injustice into almost everything that occurs in life.

I have no intention of trying to convince others that what has happened to them is just or unjust. What I intend to do instead is to reflect on my own life in a way that extends an invitation to others to reflect on their own lives. Whether they will reach the same conclusions I have reached, I neither know nor care.

There is almost nothing concerning the basic circumstances of my life for which I can take any credit at all. With very few minor exceptions, I have enjoyed good health. When I look at the illnesses and injuries and infirmities that many of my friends and acquaintances have had, I realize that I have had remarkably good fortune, none of which I can claim to deserve. A good deal of health is a consequence of genetic inheritance, a matter of which no one has any control. Other factors in health have to do with the circumstances of one’s life and the conditions of one’s environment. As a child I was fortunate to live in mostly healthy environments, a fact that was made possible by the fact that the family I was born into could afford to choose where we lived. From the choices my parents made I derived a good deal of benefit, but I played no significant role in making the decisions from which I derived benefit.

One of my earliest memories is being taken along with my parents to an office in which they conducted what seemed to me an interminable and crushingly boring business transaction of some sort. What they were doing, I later learned, was buying a life insurance policy in my name into which they paid a modest amount every month until I was eighteen years old. When that policy was cashed out, it provided enough money to pay for my college tuition and room and board. Through no effort of my own, I was in a position to get a good education. I did not get as good an education as my opportunity allowed for, because for the first two years I made hardly any effort to learn anything except what I found interesting and stimulating. As luck would have it, I had acquired a good curiosity from the adults in my life, so I was interested in just enough to keep going from one year to the next, but it could hardly be said that I was disciplined. I was far more hedonistic than disciplined, and whatever work I did was a result of happening to enjoy work rather than a result of doing what anyone else expected me to do.

My parents, as I mentioned above, had the means to make good decisions that were conducive to my wellbeing. To some extent that was because my father had a job that he loved to do and that paid him reasonably well. I benefited from all that, but I contributed nothing of my own to either my good fortune or my parents’. The comfortable circumstances my family was in was due only in part to my father’s earning a steady living wage in his profession. Not an insignificant part of our good fortune came from the fact that some of our ancestors had become wealthy in industry and had passed their wealth down through several generations of people who had done nothing at all to contribute to the business that generated the wealth they had inherited. No one who inherits prosperity can be said to be deserving of that prosperity. Having it is blind luck.

It could perhaps be said that I have played some minor role in having had a good life. But even my ability to play those minor roles was inherited, either genetically or culturally. Without making any real effort of my own to do so, I managed to acquire productive attitudes from my parents and their friends. The adults in my life were, with very few exceptions, good role models, and I imitated their examples, because imitation is what children do best. That I was surrounded by good examples to imitate was entirely a matter of luck, not something I deserved to have through my own hard work or good sense.

Perhaps because I am so aware of how much good luck I have had, it has always been difficult for me to understand how easily people come to believe that they deserve what has come their way, that what they have received has been earned rather than given to them by others, often quite gratuitously. That individuals can believe that they have somehow earned their fortunes, whether good or bad, is not entirely a matter within their individual control. We are all influenced by the society in which we live, and it turns out that most societies have devised a mythology according to which there is some justice to what happens to people.

Some societies, for example, have a mythology of karma, a belief that happiness is a natural consequence of doing what is right and good and that misery is a natural consequence of doing what is wrong and evil. The notion of karma often accompanies a belief in rebirth or reincarnation, so that what happiness one has in this life can be seen as a natural consequence of altruistic deeds done in a previous life, and what ills one experiences in this life is but the ripening of selfishness in a previous life. The greatest virtue of this belief is that it is completely impossible to test. It cannot be verified, nor can it be refuted, and there is therefore no great risk involved in holding the belief. There may even be some benefit, both to the fortunate and to the miserable, in believing that there is some sort of cosmic justice behind how fortune is dispensed. The fortunate can enjoy their good fortune without having their enjoyment spoiled by awareness of the less fortunate. And the miserable can console themselves in the belief that they are learning a lesson of some kind and that by making a few good decisions in this life they may have better fortune in the next life.

Other societies have other mythologies that smooth the rough edges of misfortune. The philosopher Leibniz summed up the convictions of his Christian worldview by articulating the doctrine that God cannot possibly be anything but good, and that God is omnipotent and omniscient. What follows from this, according to Leibniz, is that God can only have created the best of all possible worlds and that whatever happens in this world is therefore good. That a set of circumstances seems not to be good is only because it is being viewed from a limited perspective that blinds one to the larger picture. The mouse that is being gobbled up by the cat, for example, sees this event as a misfortune only because it cannot see that it is participating in the goodness of the cat’s being provided its nutrition. The person dying of cancer sees the condition as a disease because she cannot see that she is participating in the goodness of making room for others to have their turn in leading a good life. Like the doctrine of karma, this conviction has the virtue of being beyond the reach of tests that could either confirm it or refute it. Those who accept the doctrine as true have only to have faith that God would never do anything truly harmful to them and that everything that happens to them, no matter how it may seem when viewed superficially, is in fact to their overall benefit.

A substantial part of American society subscribes to some version of the myth that those who have good fortune have it because a benevolent God is rewarding them for their virtue and that the unfortunate are miserable because they are being punished for their vices. This way of thinking made it possible for European Americans to feel justified in owning slaves and conducting genocidal campaigns against the occupants of lands that they wanted for their own purposes. Throughout much of American history, preachers have been available to support the essentially plutocratic and anti-democratic dogma that the wealthy and powerful deserve all their comforts while the poor are simply reaping the consequences of their lack of ambition, their laziness and their poor attitudes. A good deal of the resistance to social welfare programs can be traced to the effectiveness of preaching such doctrines, and to preaching the doctrine that everything good is a gift from God rather than a gift from good human beings striving to make good fortune more a matter of good planning than of blind luck.

If the truth is that we all get what we get, not because we deserve it, but because of an essentially amoral universe dispensing blind luck willy nilly, it is not a particularly pleasant truth. Finding anything satisfactory in it is probably at best an acquired taste. The unpleasantness of the view, however, hardly disqualifies it from being true. There is no reason to claim that truth must be palatable. If one observes life with a degree of impartiality, it does seem that this view of amoral blind luck is a candidate for being considered true. There are, after all, plenty of scoundrels who seem to get away with their selfish domineering actions with impunity, and there is no short supply of people who are hard-working and generous and loving and cooperative but who just barely make it through life. There are plenty of people who never receive the appreciation and recognition and credit for their virtues, and plenty who take credit and get recognition for what others have done.

What happens is what happens. Seeing any rhyme or reason to it, seeing justice or injustice in it, is subscribing to a story that adds a gratuitous layer of comforting fiction to the small gritty core of fact. Do people who do not separate fiction from fact get what they deserve? Who can ever know?

Written by Richard Hayes

Monday, January 20, 2014 at 17:15

Posted in Social analysis

What does one not have when one does not have a self?

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One of the most difficult of all Buddhist doctrines is anātman, which literally means non-self. A typical way of framing this doctrine is in contemplative exercises in which one is instructed to pay attention to the incoming and outgoing breaths. Paying attention to breathing requires deciding to focus attention on that one thing, and remembering to return to the breathing when attention drifts to some other topic (as it almost always does). Typically, when this exercise is done in a Buddhist context, one is told to make a mental note that paying attention is just a mental process; it is not the self, nor is there a self to which paying attention belongs. Similarly, deciding is just a mental process, remembering is just a mental process, distracted drifting off topic is just a mental process. None of these is the self, nor is there a self to which these processes belong.

It is easy to say all those words, and not especially difficult to follow the instructions for that particular contemplative exercise. Less easy is to know what is gained by disowning all those mental processes and not letting oneself see a self in any of them. The standard answer is that seeing all those processes in impersonal terms is conducive to wisdom, the antidote to delusion, and that delusion is one of the three mental processes that result in dissatisfaction (the other two principal causes of dissatisfaction being desire and aversion). But that is simply a claim. To say that looking at mental processes in personal terms is delusional and that looking at them impersonally is wise is to beg the question. Why should anyone believe such a claim? Why should one deem any thought to be either wise or delusional?

I do not have an answer, at least not one that I find satisfactory or am willing to try to defend. At this stage in my life, all I have is the question: What warrants the claim that thinking in personal terms causes dissatisfaction?

In the past I have experimented with several different ways of talking about the dogma of anātman. My approach has been to answer the question what exactly is being denied when one denies that something is the self or part of the self or a property of the self. Three possible answers have suggested themselves to me. One possible reply is that what is really being denied is individuality. Another possible reply is that what is being denied is identity. And a third possible reply is that what is being denied is autonomy.

The word “individual” literally means that which is not divided, that which remains a single thing, no matter how many aspects it may have. Denying individuality could be seen as affirming our internal dividedness, acknowledging and perhaps even accepting the fact that some of our motivations are in conflict with some of our other motivations and that our psyches are not always in the same mood.  Jungian psychologists sometimes say that the healthy psyche is not so much an authoritarian government in which the Supreme Leader (the ego) directs all decision-making and banishes all dissidents to dark dungeons; rather the healthy psyche is a round-table discussion in which the ego is but one voice among many, and not always the voice that prevails. Delusion might then be the feeling that we somehow should be consistent, always on course, never wavering from a single point of view. Since it is impossible to be that way, striving to be that way and then failing is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

A second possible interpretation of the dogma of anātman is that what is being denied is identity, again in the etymological sense of the word. “Identity” literally means sameness. To say that one has an identity is to say that there is something essential that remains the same when accidental properties change. If one had this sort of identity, then the temporary angry or grumpy moments are aspects of an enduring self that is at other times calm and cheerful. An abiding identity of this kind would have no abiding qualities; it would make no sense to say, for example, of a person in a fit or rage that he is not himself today. On the contrary, he is very much himself at all times, whether drunk or sober, pleasant or unpleasant, careful or reckless. It is not obvious what is gained by believing in a self of that kind, nor is it clear what is gained in denying it. It is not obvious whether belief in an abiding sameness that is essentially unaffected by temporary association with different properties is delusional or wise, whether it engenders contentment or disappointment. Something that can be said about identity in the sense of something that remains stable as its aspects change is that denying it flies in the face of how nearly everyone experiences the world. It is a very unusual person who wakes up in the morning without feeling that she is the same person as the one who went to bed to night before. What could the point be of denying the validity of experiences that seem so very intuitive?

There is another sense of identity, that which attends the phrase “to identify with” as when we say that a person identifies with being of a particular ethnic group or nationality or political party or profession or religion or gender or lifestyle or that someone identifies with being a hapless victim or a successful entrepreneur or a no-nonsense pragmatist or a far-sighted visionary or a compassionate vegetarian. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist proponents of anātman were making the observation that identifying too strongly with particular candidates for selfhood entrains the dissatisfaction that naturally comes from feeling alienated from all those things perceived to be contrary to what one strongly identifies with. To insist that I am this and not that may make me uncomfortable with those who insist they are that and not this; it may also serve as an obstacle to recognizing that no matter how much I may insist on being only this, I can’t help also being a little bit of that. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist was saying, “the more you can desist from identifying with this to the exclusion of that, the less frustrated you will be with life.”

There is one further thing that the doctrine of anātman may be denying, or at least questioning: autonomy. Different cultures seem to have different attitudes toward the notion of autonomy, to being one’s own law and master. Generally speaking, in post-Enlightenment European culture, autonomy is more highly prized than it is in more traditional cultures. Perhaps the traditional Buddhists deserve credit for observing that the perception of autonomy is largely an illusion. We are all conditioned by the actions and attitudes of people around us, by the environment in which we live, by the indoctrination we have received from family and friends and social institutions, by the health of our physical bodies, and by countless other determinants over which we have very little or no control. We are all like corks being tossed this way and that in a maelstrom, and it may be no more than a fantasy to think we are steering our own course. In most Buddhist contemplative exercises, the instruction is given to observe things as they are, to accept them to whatever extent that is possible without passing judgment. In short, the instruction is to relinquish the conceit of autonomy.

Whatever it may be driving at, the doctrine of anātman is worth thinking about. One way to avoid thinking about it (or anything else) is to have too-ready an answer, too glib a reason for taking on the habit of saying that thinking is just a mental process, not the self and not a property that belongs to the self.

Written by Richard Hayes

Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 22:51

The scientific project and the Buddhist project

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Having grown up in a family of scientists, at a very early age I acquired the notion that science is interested almost exclusively in the investigation of nature for the sole purpose of discovering what there is and formulating hypotheses about how what there is works and why it is as it is. This investigation, I was taught, is ideally carried out with no contamination from commercial interests, political or social agendas, moral considerations or aesthetic tastes. I was also taught that in practice quite a bit of scientific investigation falls short of that ideal. Now I am well aware that this essentially Peircean notion of what science is all about has been critiqued by many worthy philosophers of science and is considered by some to be hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, I cling to that vision of science and admire all scientific investigation that comes anywhere close to that ideal.

Having come to Buddhism as an adult (insofar as any young pup at the age of twenty-three can be considered an adult), I no doubt misinterpreted a great deal of what I encountered, because I interpreted what I encountered on the basis of the prejudices I had acquired through the system of indoctrination that in the United States of America is mistakenly called education. To be more specific, I saw Buddhism as being an entirely different sort of project from the scientific project. Buddhism, as I saw it, is not at all interested in acquiring an understanding of what there is and how it works but is rather interested in reducing eliminable forms of human unhappiness. Unlike science, Buddhism is ideally dealing in morality and in political and social agendas and in aesthetic taste—the very factors that are absent in ideal science. 

My conclusion from all this was that, because people are multifaceted, it is possible for one person (and yes, I do believe in the reality of persons and selves and all those other realities that Buddhists try to dismiss as being merely conceptual) to be a scientist and a Buddhist, but that it is impossible to be doing good science at the same time that one is practicing good Buddhism. In much the same way that one person can be both a tightrope walker and a Grand Prix racing driver, but that it is impossible to be walking a tightrope at exactly the same time one is driving a racing car, it is impossible for a person to practice science at exactly the same time as one is practicing Buddhism. The practices are incompatible. At any given moment, one must choose which of the two to be doing.

Now insofar as a person takes on the completely foolish project of trying to be consistent in all his beliefs and practices, a person may decide that he has to choose between accepting prevailing scientific hypotheses and the very well-thought-out and purposeful dogmas of Buddhism. In my own early life, I foolishly strove for consistency and therefore jettisoned about 95% of the dogmas of Buddhism on the grounds that I deemed them scientifically false, or at least untestable and therefore lacking scientific meaning. And so I jettisoned karma, rebirth, hell realms, celestial realms, and nirvāṇa for starters and moved on from there to empty the entire medicine cabinet. As more than one person pointed outl, I pretty much discarded all of Buddhism, except for the haircut.

In my latter years, as I have grown less concerned with intellectual integrity and logical consistency, I have come to see that there is a great deal of value in the aspects of Buddhism I formerly discarded. This is not to say I believe the dogmas I once rejected. I just see a real value in acting as if I didn’t not believe in them. Buddhist dogmas are very good at doing precisely what they were designed to do. They make life uninteresting and boring, and that makes one less resentful and afraid of one’s inevitable mortality. We are all going to die. But given that life is so insipid and devoid of meaning and utterly lacking in fun anyway, who will miss it? Nothing could be much better as death approaches (as it does with every breath we take) than the studied indifference to life that Buddhist dogmas instill in those who allow themselves to entertain them.

We live these days in a world in which the incompatibility of the scientific project and the religious project has led to increasing jettisoning of scientific method rather than of religious dogma. Fundamentalism (which began in the Christian world as a conscious rejection of scientific method and has found its way into every other religious tradition) is growing in cultures all over the world with the result that people build their lives, and dare to try to compel others to build their lives, on ideas that have proven themselves throughout history to be intellectually and morally bankrupt—such as the idea that the creator of the entire universe gave a particular parcel of land to one small group of people to own and rule until the end of time, or the idea that women ought always and forever to be subservient to men, or the idea that homosexuality and abortion are offensive in the eyes of the creator, or the idea that the world can be saved only by a savior with a particular name rather than through the collective efforts of human beings who have learned from their experiences and shared their insights with one another through respectful dialogue. The human race could very well perish because of its attachment to the kind of rigid adherence to religious dogmas and practices that we now call fundamentalism. (Of course, none of this matters. If people wipe themselves out, something else will come along to take our place, and then something else after that until eventually the sun explodes without any consciousness that any of us who are made of star dust ever existed.)

When I heard the Dalai Lama say in an address to a small group of scholars and political activists in Montreal in 1993 that he thought the time had come to replace (yes, he used that word) much of Buddhist abhidharma with scientific hypotheses that have not yet been defeated, I was the first to jump to my feet in thunderous applause. A few moments later, a much more reflective voice spoke up quietly and said directly to the Dalai Lama: “Don’t be so quick to discard the tradition that has produced a man of your caliber.” My reaction in 1993 was to think to myself, “Oh God, another cloying uncritical devotee of His Holiness.” Now, twenty years later, I have come to see that the gentle, reflective voice, which belonged to the philosopher Charles Taylor, was saying something rather important to heed.

I fear that the mixing of two incompatible projects—science and Buddhism—is likely to weaken and ultimately undermine both. The only way I can see to keep them both vibrant is to keep them separate, to let each of them be the right tool for the task it was designed to accomplish, and to recognize that it has never been the case and never can be the case that life can ever be reduced to just one legitimate task. Gathering knowledge impartially without any political, commercial, social, moral or aesthetic motivations is important. That is the task for which the tool of scientific method was developed. Learning to switch narratives from those that inflict pain and suffering to those that heal and enable peoples to live peacefully with one another is also important. That is a task for which the tool of Buddhism was developed. Using each tool to do the task for which it was designed strikes me as wise. Choosing only one of the two tools and discarding the other strikes me as foolish. Allowing oneself to think that the two tools are both designed to do the same task also strikes me as foolish, even dangerously so. I do not have confidence that the Dalai Lama fully comprehends what the consequences of replacing fourth-century scholasticism with cognitive science and quantum mechanics are likely to be. I would therefore recommend learning to use scientific method when it is appropriate, and to study classical abdhidharma when it is appropriate.

Written by Richard Hayes

Friday, November 22, 2013 at 15:00

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

Convinced atheist

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The last time I saw my father, just a few days before he died on 30 July 2012, he invited me to look at his bookshelf and take whatever books I wanted. When I was growing up, his library was much larger and contained a good variety of books on geology, ornithology, the environment, American history, anthropology cultural and physical geography and language, along with dozens of dictionaries, almanacs and other reference works. Most of those were given away in the last years of his life. Among the books that remained, the category with the most volumes remaining was books on atheism. Also by his favorite chair was a stack of books on atheism—and some books on birds. He belonged to an atheist book club with whom he met religiously. It was obvious that his atheism was important to him. It struck me as odd that he felt it increasingly important to take a stand on this matter, and I did not quite understand why he was not content to remain an agnostic or to be largely indifferent to religious matters. I still do not fully understand. This blog posting represents a first attempt to explore the issue and to try to understand why my father was an increasingly outspoken atheist. I am not confident I know his reasons, but I am confident I knew him well enough to make a reasonable guess as to what his reasons might have been.

Given that the concept of God is so multifaceted and that the overall idea is therefore vague and nebulous, if one simply claims not to believe in God, one has no clear idea what exactly the person does not believe in. What I shall try to make more clear to myself is what exactly my father rejected, and what he accepted as preferable to what he rejected. As far as I can tell, he rejected the notion of God as a creator, as a higher power, as a source of morality and as a means of salvation.

  • Creator. My father was a geologist. From as far back as my memory goes, I heard him talking about geological eras millions of years long that took place over the course of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet earth. The history of the planets was part of the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy of which our sun is a part, and so on. Vast time scales and unimaginably large expanses of space were part of the daily conversation in my childhood, as was the reminder than if the history of the earth up to now were twenty-four hours long, then the time that human beings emerged on the planet was just a few minutes before midnight. In this view of the place of the human being in the universe, there was no place for a notion of a creator who had created man in his own image and for whom the human being is the creature of central importance. There was no place for the idea of a single power so great that it knows every detail of creation and controls events.
  • Higher power. To say that there is probably not a single power so great that it controls all events in the universe is not to say there is no power greater than human beings. To say there is no intelligence that knows all events in the universe is not to say there is no intelligence greeter than one’s own. All of human learning is a collaborative effort that is carried on for countless generations, and the totality of human experience was my father’s higher power. Indeed, the entirety of intelligent life was a higher power from which my atheistic father was constantly willing to learn. What he rejected was the notion that any understanding is infallible and immune from being superseded by a clearer and more comprehensive understanding.
  • Source of morality. There was no single claim about God that more rankled my father than the claim that people need to believe in God in order to be moral, altruistic, caring and decent to one another. He was convinced that people learn the value of honesty by witnessing the consequences of deceit, and they learn the importance of kindness by witnessing the consequences of cruelty. One learns moral integrity by being keeping one’s eyes open in this life, not by keeping an eye on the afterlife The punishment for careless and shoddy behavior is immediate, he believed, and the rewards for attentiveness and generosity are amply doled out in this life. There is no need to wait until death to discover whether one’s life was well lived and whether one fought the good fight.
  • Means of salvation. Although descended from a long line of Christian ministers, my father rejected most of the core dogmas of mainline Christianity. He did not believe in original sin and therefore had no need for the doctrine that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an atonement for original sin. He believed that consciousness is a property that emerges from the enormous complexity of billions of neurons passing electromagnetic and chemical signals to one another and that when the living organism that is host to a central nervous system dies, so does the intelligence that emerged from that particular collection of neurons. The idea of life outside physical life made no sense at all to him, and so he had no use for the Christian dogma that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought eternal life to human beings or any other life form. One needs to believe in salvation only when one sees life as a problem. My father never saw life as a problem and therefore had no hankering for salvation.

As a scientist and a humanist, my father simply had no need for a belief in an omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent creator and savior. But having no need for something would most naturally lead simply to being indifferent to it and taking no interest in it. My father was not indifferent to religion. He was hostile toward it. He was not disinterested in it. He was scornful of it. Where did that come from?

Probably the greatest single factor in my father’s moving from agnosticism to atheism was his alarm at the increasing influence of organized religion in American politics. He was born in 1923 and therefore lived for thirty-one years before “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and thirty-four years before “in God we trust” was printed on paper money. (That slogan began appearing on some coins, of course, shortly after the Civil War, even though there were many coins that escaped having that pious motto inscribed on them until just before the Second World War.) My father was still a child when religious fanaticism led to the Prohibition and its many unfortunate consequences. He lived to see white ministers in the American southeast proclaiming that racial segregation was part of God’s plan. He saw appeals to dubious interpretations of scripture trump reason in almost every domain of American life, from the teaching of science in American classrooms to the way that pointless and unnecessary wars were justified in the name of protecting America from godless or anti-Christian enemies.

In the final analysis, I think my father’s atheism was made staunch not so much by reflection on theology as by the outrageous conduct of human beings who claimed to be righteous believers in the one true God. I sometimes tried, without much success, to convince him that not all believers are narrow-minded fanatics bent on imposing their wills on others. It often troubled me that the man who had taught me from earliest childhood to question all my prejudices was himself prejudiced against almost all organized religion. Having said that, I must admit that there are few of the beliefs he instilled in me as a child that I have rejected—even though I have certainly questioned them. What appalled him about much of organized religion also appalls me, and what he cherished in the natural world I also cherish. Who knows but that when I am nearing the end of my days, I will have given away all my books except for a few well-chosen volumes on atheism—and some books on birds.

Written by Richard Hayes

Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 09:18

Posted in Faith and practice


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