And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.—(The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 23)
About thirty years ago, in 1986 or so, I attended a day-long workshop on Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices. During the day various Buddhists led meditations based on vipassanā exercises, Theravādin mettābhāvanā and Tibetan gtong-len practices, and an Anglican contemplative nun led a meditation based on the fourteenth-century guide to contemplative prayer called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author of The Cloud is unknown, but it is commonly believed that the same anonymous author wrote The Book of Privy Counseling that is quoted above. The session based on The Cloud of Unknowing turned out to have a profound and lasting influence on my own approach to meditation. In the present writing my aim is to reflect on one particular Cloud theme and how I have found it useful as a Buddhist practitioner.
First, for those who may not be familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing, the principal notion is that all the knowledge we have acquired in various ways eventually presents an obstacle to the only reliable way of truly knowing God, which is not through the intellect but through the experience of love. That experience of love takes place in what the author calls The Cloud of Unknowing. Access to that “cloud” is gained by first passing through what the author calls The Cloud of Forgetting. In practice, passing through this first cloud consists in making a deliberate effort to set aside all the beliefs and convictions one has acquired through indoctrination, teaching, catechism and personal study. All such intellectual knowing is to be put out of one’s mind so that the meditator can sit with a completely open heart to whatever may arise in the cloud of unknowing. The cloud of unknowing itself is simply (but not necessarily easily) sitting in complete silence with a mind free of thoughts, expectations, anticipation or personal concerns but with a loving readiness to receive whatever experiences may arise as if they were gifts lovingly bestowed. A Christian doing this practice will naturally speak of it in terms of loving and being loved by God, while a Buddhist may be more inclined to speak of it in terms of experiencing Suchness (tathatā) or the love of Amitābha Buddha, but of course to speak in such terms is possible only outside the clouds of forgetting and unknowing.
Since setting aside all dogmas and indoctrination permanently could prove to become socially awkward, or even dangerous to one’s health, within the context of a religious community that expects adherence to those dogmas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends again picking up the intellectual knowledge that one set had aside in the cloud of forgetting. After being in the cloud of unknowing, however, one is likely to hold all those views more lightly and perhaps even somewhat ironically. The contemplative who regularly practices this form of contemplative prayer may, for example, continue to say what he or she knows a Christian or Buddhist is supposed to say but is likely to have a profound sense of acceptance of the fact that others were given other lines to recite and are saying what they are expected to say. Believing in the sense of assenting to propositions, however, yields to wordless loving, and as practice deepens, loving becomes increasingly unconditional.
It has been my experience over the decades that there are more and more doctrines that I am prepared to leave at the threshold of the cloud of forgetting and to be disinclined to pick up again at the exit. Except in the most abstract and general way, I now find myself disinclined to recite the lines that as a Buddhist I was taught to say. Yes, I am still willing to say that attachment is a condition for eventual disappointment, and that is indeed a Buddhist teaching, but it is also a commonplace observation on which no tradition owns the copyright. Beyond voicing such commonly articulated observations as that, however, I am no longer led to speak as a Buddhist (or anything else that attempts to organize experiences into doctrinal structures).
Beyond a general disinclination to recite Buddhist dogmas, I feel a particularly strong resistance to repeat a few specific doctrines associated with Buddhism. There is one in particular that I have questioned so often that I have come to feel it is almost entirely useless,—at times even counterproductive—in contemporary society, namely, the doctrine of non-self (anātmavāda).
It is clear from looking at the canonical and scholastic literature of Buddhism in India that the original doctrine was a critique of one specific doctrine held by rival schools, namely, the doctrine that the self (ātman) is a simple, unchanging substance that has no cause, has no agency, is unaffected by anything else and produces no effects. A fairly typical Buddhist critique of that notion of self is that if there is such an entity, we cannot know about it, since it has no effects, including the effect of making an impression on our faculties of sensing and understanding. Moreover, even if such an entity exists, it cannot play any role at all in the task of primary interest to a Buddhist, which is the task of changing one’s mentality from one that sets up the conditions for frustration and disappointment to one that painlessly deals with whatever experiences may present themselves. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the Buddhist doctrine of non-self is a critique of a view that hardly anyone in modern times holds. It is a razor in search of a beard. In the context of current beliefs about how the human mentality is constituted, arguing that there is not a simple, permanent, unchanging, uncaused, actionless and inconsequential self is approximately like arguing that there is no such thing as the fire-element phlogiston. Anyone standing on a soapbox and making such a proclamation is unlikely to meet any opposition. Such a safe proclamation is unnecessary and ultimately useless.
In the absence of an actually held negandum for the doctrine of non-self, modern Buddhists have tended either to absolutize the doctrine to mean that there is no self of any kind anywhere or to interpret it to be a warning against a particular notion of self called Ego.
The former of those options, saying that there is no self at all of any kind, is too obviously false to be worth more than a moment’s consideration. There clearly is a complex physical and psychological self that every healthy person experiences nearly every waking moment of every day, a self that is inaccessible to other selves and to which other selves are largely unknowable. The self of daily experience is so multifaceted that it does not admit of easy definition, but being difficult to define does not disqualify it from being something that most people devote most of their energy to making more or less successful attempts at protecting, nurturing, ameliorating and controlling. It is important to realize that being a self is not in any way contrary to the letter or to the spirt of Buddhist teachings. As one of the most treasured of all Buddhist texts, Dhammapada, says:
157. If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night.
159. One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.
160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.
163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.
165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.
166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.
The second of the options, saying that denying self is really about denying Ego, is potentially more confusing that it would be to say nothing at all. That is because both in modern psychology and in ordinary language, the term ego has numerous meanings, so one must specify exactly which sense of the term one is taking pains to deny. In some discussions of abnormal psychology, for example, having a weak ego is said to be a characteristic of some types of serious mental illness. Given the polysemy of the term ego in modern usage, it is probably better not to present Buddhism as a set of antidotes against ego itself.
Buddhism may be presented as an antidote to egocentrism, that is, the inability to distinguish between self and other that manifests as an inability to grasp or appreciate any perspective or belief other than one’s own. Such an antidote, however, can be presented in a more straightforward way than by expounding the somewhat arcane Buddhist doctrine of anātmavāda. Rather than denying self (whatever that might mean) or problematizing the distinction between self and other in the mysterious language of non-dualism, it is probably more helpful simply to teach positive contemplative exercises such as the cultivation of friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), which begins with the recognition that one naturally strives for well-being for oneself, progresses to the realization that all conscious beings seek well-being for themselves and that there is no compelling reason why one should favor one’s own self over anyone else’s self, and finally extends the care that one has for oneself to an increasingly wide circle of other selves. While the cultivation of unconditional love for all beings is easier to say than to achieve, it is a task that is not in any way made easier by introducing the classical Buddhist doctrine of non-self.
Religious and philosophical teachings are better seen as invitations to discovery than as accurate descriptions of what one will discover. Teachings that prove useful to some people at some times may not be at all useful to other people, or to the same person at different times of life. In the culture of ancient India, there was a doctrine that all the changes of life are not to be taken too seriously, because they are not really the self, the true self being outside the realm of everyday experience. While some people no doubt found that way of thinking a useful way not to be overwhelmed by the world of change, others found it difficult to make sense of such a doctrine. It is said that the Buddha was among those who did not find the doctrine of a static true self (ātman) useful and sought to provide an alternative strategy, the dogma of non-self or even no self (anātman), to avoid being overwhelmed by the experience of constant change. That alternative is historically interesting, but that there is no simple, unchanging substance to be called the self now goes without saying. That which goes without saying is probably better left unsaid. Or, in the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is better left inside the cloud of forgetting.
From both of my parents and all four of my grandparents, I inherited a distaste for self-promotion—even the indirect forms such as being patriotic or proud of one’s school or place of residence or of other members of one’s own family. Early childhood conditioning tends to be persistent, so to this day I inwardly cringe upon witnessing displays of self-referential praise.
Years ago, I was on an academic committee considering a faculty member for promotion. I knew and admired the candidate, and there was little doubt in my mind about his being worthy of promotion. That notwithstanding, I found myself put off by his supporting documentation. Rather than simply submitting the required teaching evaluations, he supplied an accompanying document quoting selected phrases from comments that students had made; these selected words of praise were isolated from the surrounding narrative by being placed in text boxes and formatted in a large and bold font so that there would be no missing how highly his students thought of him. Offprints of his publications were accompanied by a similar document, featuring laudatory remarks that reviewers had made of his work, also placed in text boxes and set in boldface type in a larger font size. The presentation felt like an advertising brochure, as though the candidate somehow believed that the only way to get an academic promotion by others was to display a capacity for self-promotion.
I was not the only member of that committee to be put off by the presentation. An older colleague, nearing retirement age, commented that universities nowadays are almost forcing their employees to expunge all traces of modesty and humility from their behavior, if not from their mentality. Department chairs are expected to write annual reports assuring the university administration that their department is filled with world-class scholars and universally admired instructors. By the time of the early 1990s, candidates for promotion in the academic world could no longer submit a simple letter and a typed resumé. They had to write 10-page descriptions of their goals as teachers and scholars, accompanied by ample evidence that they were accomplishing those goals and that their accomplishments were being recognized by others living near and far. When I sought my first promotion, it was still possible to submit a brief letter and a typed resumé. By the time I was at the stage of my career to seek a promotion to the next level, all that had changed dramatically. I found the new process so unpleasant to contemplate that I never sought another promotion after that first one—and I was amply rewarded by never getting another one. Putting together the expected sort of dossier was not worth the time and effort, but more to the point it was not worth the violence to my sense of dignity. Ironically, my sense of self-worth would have been undermined by having to present myself as worthy.
It is not only the academic world that has steadily gravitated toward a culture of vainglory. Far from being an unpleasant feature of a bloated ego, fulsome self-congratulation now seems to be expected. Just as no commercial product can afford to be presented simply as adequate to the task but must be portrayed as better than all its competitors and indispensable to the discriminating consumer, no person can afford to be seen as merely competent. Pretty good is just not considered good enough anymore.
During an election year in the United States of America, voters are treated to a parade of candidates who not only toot their own horns sans cesse but also boast about their country as the greatest country in the world, even as the greatest country in the history of the world. Some of the candidates go so far as to disparage political leaders who do not participate in their jingoistic frenzy; those not caught up in nationalistic fervor are characterized as actually hating their country and wanting to drag it down to the same level as ordinary countries. An ordinary country is one that has affordable health insurance and reasonably-priced medical services and pharmaceutical products for everyone; reasonable tuition fees and generous food, housing and transportation subsidies for students pursuing a higher education; a modest-sized military of men and women trained mostly to help citizens cope with natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes; and a prison system designed to reform and educate miscreants rather than punish them. An ordinary country does not have a bloated military budget that is used to send personnel and materiel to countries all around the word and to build permanent military bases in more than a hundred other nations. Americans these days who long to live in an ordinary nation are advised to go live in Canada or Northern Europe, for the United States is a nation for those who wish to participate in excelsior.
In the 1950s, the psychologist Carl G. Jung said in an interview broadcast in English that the United States as a nation is “extraverted like hell.” The quiet reflection of the introvert is deprecated to such a degree that the system of public education is skewed in favor of gregarious doers whose energy is dedicated to making changes in the world rather than in one’s own attitudes and expectations. The thriving industry dedicated to selling products designed to help people realize their dreams of “self-improvement” tend to focus on how to be more self-confident, more assertive, more aggressive, more successful by external standards of assessment, more admired by the crowd. Jung chose his words carefully; an overly-extraverted country truly is like hell.
Although the United States could be described as “extraverted like hell” in the 1950s, it appears not to have always been that way. Neither the New England where some of my ancestors were born and lived, nor the Midwest in which other of my ancestors made their way from the cradle to the grave, according to what I heard from family elders, had much room for the braggadocio narcissism that has become so prevalent in today’s culture.
It is possible that my elders’ memories of the prevalent culture of their early days were faulty. Perhaps they were just getting old and slowing down, as I have managed to do a few decades after they passed on. Perhaps the world always seems too fast-paced, too forceful and too brash from the perspective of a rocking chair on the porch with a commanding view of an array of bird feeders. Or perhaps a culture of modesty and moderation really has been mostly replaced by a culture of excess and hubris.
Where the crowd is, therefore, or where a decisive importance is attached to the fact that there is a crowd, there no one is working, living, and striving for the highest end, but only for this or that earthly end; since the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you—“the crowd” is untruth. (Søren Kierkegaard, On the Dedication to “That Single Individual”)
One feature of being a primate that I enjoy the least is the way we primates tend to organize our social groups hierarchically. Our penchant for hierarchy is perhaps most obvious in institutions such as the military and the Catholic Church, but it manifest in some way every time more than one primate is present. All one need do is go to a public place such as a coffee shop and watch the interactions within a group of people. This observation is most effective either when the group being watched is far enough away that one cannot hear what they are saying, or if they are speaking a language one cannot understand. Then one has nothing to focus on but body language, which is quite revealing of social hierarchy. If a couple is carrying on a conversation, chances are very good that one of the pair will be doing most of the talking; the other may or may not be listening. In a crowd of three or more people, most likely one person will be a de facto leader, a maker of suggestions and decisions. (Some people made fun of George W. Bush when he said “I’m the decider,” but in fact when more people than one are present, it will soon be evident that one of them is the decider.) This is a tendency one can see even in very young children. There are a few leaders, and the rest, whether they like it or not, are followers. As is the case with chickens, so with it is with us taller bipeds: we have a pecking order, and whosoever gets out of order will soon be pecked back into the proper position. This is a process we call socialization.
Anyone familiar with the academic world will know about the administrative hierarchy of president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts and a battery of deans, and all the faculty rankings from professor to down lecturer. What some students may not realize is that if the salaries of the instructors were divided by the number of classroom hours, some of their most effective instructors turn out to be paid considerably less than others, have no vote at faculty meetings (and may not even be invited to attend them), are rarely consulted on matters of policy and may be sharing an office with several other instructors at the bottom of the totem pole. There is very little justification for this setup other than that this is how universities were organized in the fourteenth century, and by the time somehow has risen to a position of privilege, there is little incentive to make the system more equitable. People at the top of totem poles see no virtue in horizontal poles. I recall one senior professor commenting on a petition for better working conditions that came from seriously underpaid graduate student lecturers, “They want to be where we are, but they don’t want to be where we have all been.” In other words, he had to suffer substandard wages for several years, so why shouldn’t they? After all, being at the bottom of the dog pile builds character, no? How else will one learn how to behave when one gets to the top of the pile if one does not spend time at the bottom?
It could perhaps be argued that there are situations where a hierarchical structure serves a purpose. When confronted with a raging fire, for example, it is no doubt to everyone’s advantage to have a captain who assesses the situation and assigns specific tasks to others who then follow orders without question or complaint. An emergency is no time to have everyone sit in a circle and to wait until the talking stick is passed to him so that he can venture a suggestion that will be carefully and respectfully weighed along with other suggestions and eventually decided by consensus. Fire brigades, police departments and battalions probably work better when there is a hierarchy and everyone in that hierarchy knows exactly where his or her place is. But not every situation is emergent. In most of the ordinary situations in life, there is no need for a hierarchy. And in some, a hierarchy can be a real obstacle.
The one enterprise in life that least needs hierarchy is the very one from which the word “hierarchy” comes, namely, religion. The word comes from two Greek words, hieros (sacred) and arkhein (to lead, to rule), and it originally meant a system of government in which the ruling was done by priests or holy people. Although few countries these days are hierarchies in that original sense of the word, most religious organizations evolve into hierarchies in which those deemed most spiritually advanced are the deciders. This fact, I would argue, helps account for why most religious organizations end up being a grotesque caricature of the very doctrines and values they were founded to propagate.
Many years ago, I was on the board of directors of a Zen Buddhist temple in North America. As a registered charitable organization with tax-exempt status, the temple was required by law to have a board of directors and a constitution. Our constitution specified that the Zen master was president for life of the board and that the president had sole authority to decided all spiritual matters, while the board had the authority to decide secular matters. At one meeting of the board, the order of business was to renew the constitution—another procedure that was required by tax laws to be done periodically. I was unprepared to vote for approval of our constitution until I could be helped to understand what exactly differentiated “spiritual” from “secular” matters. What eventually became clear to me was that whatever decision the Zen master wanted to make, even down to the color of napkins at a potluck dinner, was automatically spiritual. Anything he did not want to be bothered with was secular. It became clear that the entire structure of the organization was designed to preserve the absolute power and authority of one man and that the principal task for everyone else was to learn to be subservient and deferential. Once that was clear to me, it was also clear to me that I must resign from the board of directors and leave that entire organization. As much as I enjoyed, and perhaps even benefited from, the practices of Zen, I did not undertake those practices for the purpose of learning to accept the absolute and often arbitrary power of a fellow human being.
Over the decades I have given a good deal of thought to the question of how best to organize a spiritual community. The more thought I have given to the matter, the more clear it has become to me that the best interests of a spiritual community are served by having no organization at all. Jesus of Nazareth was reported by Matthew (18:20) to have said “For where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst.” Now, I have never been a Biblical literalist, but my understanding of this passage is that when a fourth person shows up, Jesus finds somewhere else to go. Four is a good number for a barbershop quartet or a game of bridge, but it is one too many for a spiritual community. When numbers grow, so do perceived collective needs, and before one knows it there is a building and grounds committee, a fund-raising committee and a hospitality committee—not to mention a spirit of rivalry among the committees and hard feelings on the part of those unfortunate congregants who are overlooked to serve on them. In astonishingly short order, all vestiges or spiritual practice have vanished in the ensuing chaos of primates jockeying for position in a social hierarchy.
Institutions have a way of providing a constant supply of distractions. They tend to promote what Indian Buddhists called habitual distraction (abhyasta-vikṣepa), which in turn promotes delusional thinking, a condition that obstructs peace of mind. Distraction (vikṣepa) is a name given to having one’s thoughts scattered (vikṣipta-citta). Each time one allows oneself to be distracted, the tendency to be distracted again is reinforced (abhyasta), and eventually distraction becomes the usual state of one’s mind. Distraction makes it more difficult to be aware of the constant flow of changing perceptions, internal dialogues, judgements and motivations, which in turn hampers the process of stopping unproductive thinking before it leads to troublesome behavior.
Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
The Buddha said in a number of places that the social condition most conducive to having a focused mind (samāhita-citta, also known as samādhi) is isolation from other people. Being around others, especially others who talk much and scurry about getting things done, makes mental focus difficult and makes distraction easy. Given that a good deal of what people collectively set out to accomplish is simply not necessary, and given that this is no less true of spiritual communities than of mahjong clubs, the best way for most people to keep their minds safe and sound is to avoid congregating, even into spiritual communities and organized institutions.
My conclusion, then, is that not only is the best organizational structure of a religious community no organization at all, but the best spiritual community for an individual serious about spiritual practice is no community at all.
What I have said here has been based on my experience. Others may not be similarly constituted, so their experiences may be different; I cannot know for sure, since the only mentality available to me to observe directly is my own. I offer these reflections in the spirit articulated well by Śāntideva:
atha matsamadhātur eva paśyed aparo ’py enam ato ’pi sārthako ’yam
If another whose constitution is like mine should see this, then this person may benefit from it. (Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra 1.3)
clinicians have long known that there are plenty of people who experience anxiety in the absence of any danger or stress and haven’t a clue why they feel distressed. Despite years of psychotherapy, many experience little or no relief. It’s as if they suffer from a mental state that has no psychological origin or meaning, a notion that would seem heretical to many therapists, particularly psychoanalysts.
An article in the New York Times reports that neural scientists have discovered that a genetic mutation that occurs in approximately 20% of the population results in an abnormally high production of a molecule called anandamide in the brain. Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word ānanda, which means bliss, results in lower-than-normal levels of anxiety and higher-than-normal feelings of well-being. Anandamide also occurs naturally in cannabis, which could account for some of that plant’s popularity. Interestingly enough, people with the genetic mutation that produces abnormally high levels of anandamide typically have little interest in marijuana; they don’t feel a need for it, and many find that cannabis actually decreases their pleasure and feelings of happiness and well-being.
If the clinicians are correct that a naturally-occurring chemical is a significant condition in subjective feelings of well-being—and in a culture with very high levels of legal and illegal mood-altering drug consumption, who would doubt it?—then it is not only psychoanalysts who might be challenged by these findings. Also challenged should be some religious traditions, such as Buddhism, that claim that people can change the quality of their experiences of the world simply by learning new patterns of thinking and by taking up certain contemplative practices.
Buddhist teachings tend to place an emphasis on the importance of studying causal relationships, and especially learning what kinds of thinking result in unhappiness so that one can eliminate those kinds of thinking and replace them with patterns of thinking that result in more happiness. That sounds much more easy to achieve than it in fact is. First of all, given that (as Buddhists universally acknowledge) every event and state is the consequence of innumerable conditions, it is in practice at best very difficult and at worst impossible to isolate which internal and external conditions are producing the frame of mind that one is currently experiencing. Without being able to identify the most significant conditions, one has no ideas which conditions to eliminate and replace with others. And even if one could identify the offending conditions, replacing them may not be possible. (What if, for example, it should turn out that genetics plays a significant role in how happy one is capable of being? Does one then just replace one’s grandparents with better ones?)
I have written before about how difficult it is to know whether a contemplative practice is a factor in one’s overall psychological health. For my entire life I have wondered whether I have a sanguine temperament and have a tendency to be alarmingly cheerful because I meditate regularly and practice Buddhism. It has always seemed a real possibility that in fact I meditate and feel an affinity with Buddhism because I was born with a sanguine temperament.
When I look at my own temperament, I see a great deal of my father’s mentality. He was rarely discouraged, almost never depressed, remarkably resilient, hardly ever sad, almost never exhilirated, rarely excited and yet prone to moments of unpredictable angry impatience. That also describes me (as I see myself at least, but also how at least a few others have reported that they see me). In trying to account for the similarity in my temperament to my father’s (which, incidentally, I see in a good many of my blood relatives), one set of conditions that we do not have in common is our diet or our religious beliefs and practices. Put perhaps a little too simply, my father had very little interest in religion. He did not read religious texts, never (that I knew of) meditated or prayed, and he showed no inclination to study the biographies of saints in translation or in their original languages. In short, he never did, even in a casual way, the things I spent my entire adult life doing. Very few days went by in which he did not consume a moderate amount of alcohol, whereas I often go months at a time between one glass of wine or beer and the next. He had very little interest in paying attention to diet, whereas I have been almost obsessively interested in getting a balanced diet of organic foods sold by fair-trade merchants. He lived to the age of 89, as did most of his close relatives, who collectively held a remarkable variety of religious beliefs and followed very diverse lifestyles. All of this evidence predisposes me to think that I am as I am largely because of genetic factors that I could not change even if I wanted to. Fortunately, there are few genetic factors I would be even momentarily tempted to change, aside perhaps from wishing for better eyesight.
Talking about all this recently with other Buddhists, I was asked whether I think that my religious practice has been a waste of time. I gave the somewhat feeble answer that calling anything a waste of time presupposes that one can think of other ways that one wishes time had been used; I do not wish I had done something with my time rather than meditate, read Buddhist texts and think about them and study Sanskrit, and therefore I do not consider any of that a waste of time. But that dodges the real question that was being asked, which was probably this: Do I give meditation and Buddhist practice any credit for bringing about the fortunate mentality I enjoy today? I think my answer to that would have to be negative. I had pretty much the same mentality that I have now even when I was a child, long before it ever occurred to me to meditate or think about the Buddha and his teachings, let alone go to them for refuge. If I had the courage to speak frankly of my experience, I might even say that going for refuge to the Buddha and the dharma has hardly had any effect on all on me, other than perhaps to allow me to remain the rather sanguine, calm, even-keeled, uninspired and uninspiring, rather plodding and occasionally irritable person I have always been.
Having said all this, I am inclined to say that doing contemplative practice for the sake of bringing about positive changes in one’s mentality may be the wrong way to go about it, if only because one is bound to be disappointed. Rather, I am inclined to see my own contemplative practice as an expression of gratitude for the fact that there is not much about my mentality that I feel inclined to change. (I am minfdul that this may sound smug, but like it or not, it happens to be true.)
In Buddhist technical terms, I suppose this places me rather squarely in the camp of those who believe in what the Japanese Buddhists called tariki (他力), that is, the conviction that whatever blessings one has have all been caused not by one’s own efforts but rather have been brought as gifts from others over whom and over which one has no control or influence. One could also call it blind luck. Or one could call it by the Sanskrit term śūnyatā, usually translated as emptiness, a term that succinctly expresses the conviction that if one were to subtract from one’s “self”—that is, from one’s body and mind—every single element that was produced by something outside oneself, there would be absolutely nothing left that one could rightly claim to be one’s own.
I have that conviction of the correctness of the doctrine of “emptiness” myself, but I have no idea whether I came to it through careful thinking (yoniśo manaskāra) and study or through the accidental mutation of a gene that has resulted in a generous helping of the insentient molecule anandamide.
Most Buddhists of my generation who were born to parents of European descent in Europe or the Americas had either a Jewish or a Christian upbringing. This is true even of those whose upbringing was essentially secular in nature. A secular Jewish upbringing is not, from what I gather talking to friends, quite the same as a secular Christian upbringing. December is a month of holiday celebrations that invariably awaken all kinds of memories and evoke all kinds of emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. For some Western Buddhists I have known, December is a confusing month. It is not always clear where all the Jewish or Christian vāsanās (the lingering aromas of previous experience) fit into the Buddhist frame of reference.
Some years ago I recall hearing about an English-born Buddhist teacher who encouraged Western Buddhists to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment on December 25. I do not know how successful that experiment was, but I know it would not have worked for me. December 25 for me is a time to recall the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Having grown up in what could be called a secular post-Christian family, I had a positive view of Jesus of Nazareth. He was, in my family’s perception, a great man who set a positive example that it would be good for people to follow. He cared for the poor, the sick, the weary, the downtrodden and the marginalized; the world would be far better off if we all did that. Christmas time is a time to be reminded of all that. Putting that in the background and celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment instead seems to subdue an opportunity to pay adequate attention to the special characteristics of Jesus and what he had to offer the world. December is a time when many Mahāyāna Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment, which is also important. Why not celebrate both Jesus and Śākyamuni in the same month, setting aside a time for each? There is no good reason I can see to let the celebration of one of these men diminish the celebration of the other.
Some Buddhists I have known accommodate Jesus into their frame of reference by regarding him as a bodhisattva. That is another tactic that has never worked for me. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi whose teachings and example have universal appeal. One needn’t be Jewish to appreciate his teachings, but there is no need to let one’s appreciation change his job description. He was a rabbi whose virtues overlapped with the virtues of a bodhisattva as understood by Buddhists, but he was still for all that a rabbi. That he had some bodhisattvalike virtues no more makes him a bodhisattva than having some rabbinical virtues makes Mañjuśrī a rabbi. Judaism and Buddhism are both wonderfully positive traditions, but they are distinct, and there is no need to try to meld them into a single tradition or to meld their spiritual models into a single model of excellence. So for myself I am quite content to be a gentile who loves Jesus as a rabbi and to be a Buddhist who strives to emulate the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. Doing both does not confuse me, nor does my doing both in any way diminish my doing either one in the proper season.
I sometimes wonder what people think when they visit my home. As they come down the driveway, they’ll see an image of Amitābha Buddha fashioned in the style of the Kamakura era in Japan. Proceeding a little farther, they’ll see a figure of the Hindu god Ganesh, which is very meaningful to me and my wife. As they walk around the house, they’ll see a figure of Saint Francis. Inside the house they’ll see images of the virgin of Guadalupe, some Tibetan votive paintings, some Navajo and Pueblo religious symbols, some photographs of saints from India and some sumi-e renderings of Bodhidharma. At this time of year they will also see a traditional crèche scene. It is, after all, Christmas. Every one of these images and symbols has a religious significance to the residents of this house. They are all votive, not decorative, in nature. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that each of these votive symbols has a slightly different significance to each of the residents of the house. That has never seemed important to discuss. Some—perhaps most, and maybe even all—matters of devotion, worship, contemplation and reflection are best left private and personal.
A few minutes ago, as I was writing this, the winter solstice took place. 16:03 MST. It is now winter. Winter solstice is an excellent time to reflect on the dependency that everything here on Earth has on the sun. In my way of seeing things, there is exactly one way in which we are all one: we are all made of star stuff. In all other ways—culturally, religiously, linguistically, genetically, temperamentally—we are many. At this time of year more than any other I celebrate both our oneness in stardust and our plurality in human conditioning and our unique and irreducible individuality.
Happy solstice, everyone! And may you have joyous celebration of whatever else moves you and inspires you.
In recent years there has been a good deal of discussion of the nature of Buddhist ethics, On August 1, 2014 Jayarava wrote a post about ethics in the Pali canon. My aim is not to add anything new to the discussion of Buddhist ethics but simply to recapitulate positions that modern philosophers specializing in Buddhism have taken on why and how Buddhists, especially Buddhists in India, were ethical. It is well known that Buddhists recommended avoiding taking life, stealing property, violating societal norms on sexuality, lying and becoming intoxicated. What is less clear is why. Answering this question takes us into the realm of meta-ethics, that is, the discussion of the criteria by which one may know that something is or is not ethical, and the classification of various ethical theories.
What everyone writing about Buddhist ethics these days seems to agree upon is that Indian Buddhists themselves said almost nothing about why it is a good idea to avoid killing and so forth; they seemed content just to recommend against doing certain things. If modern philosophers wish to talk about Buddhist meta-ethics, they cannot simply do scholarship on ancient texts and report what the texts say. Rather, they must try to infer on the basis of what is said explicitly in ancient texts what the authors would now have to say about meta-ethics if they were made aware of this field of inquiry.
Some modern authors, such as Damien Keown, have placed an emphasis on the virtues that Buddhists recommend cultivating. Indian Buddhist literature, both scriptural and commentarial, offer advice on how to cultivate carefulness, friendliness, generosity, kindness, responsiveness to the afflictions of others, impartiality, equanimity and other positive mental states. The Buddha himself is usually taken as a model human being, and when his mentality is described, it is described as one that is unfailingly furnished with the positive mental traits just mentioned. The precepts—avoid killing, avoid taking what is not given etc—are given as descriptions of the behavior of a man whose mind is furnished with those virtues. The emphasis is therefore not so much on rules of conduct as it is on the mentality behind the conduct.
Other modern authors, such as Charles Goodman, make the observation that virtue ethics normally presupposes the reality of a self or a soul in which the virtues reside and that Buddhism is based firmly on the doctrine that there is no self, there is no personal identity that can be said to own the virtues, but instead there is a constantly changing series of conditioned events upon which a notion of self or person is superimposed. A virtue ethic with no self is, according to Goodman, an anomaly, and therefore it is better to look at Buddhist ethics as a kind of consequentialism, that is, an ethical theory that identifies good actions as those that have desirable consequences and bad actions as those that do not have desired consequences. Goodman, following contemporary meta-ethical custom, distinguishes between act-consequentialism and virtue-consequentialism or character-consequentialism. In the former, the emphasis is on discerning the consequences of a particular form of behavior, such as taking life or making someone comfortable. In the latter, the emphasis is on the advantages of kindness or the undesired consequences of cruelty—in short, on the good consequences of having a character as much as possible like the Buddha’s.
Jayarava, who was mentioned above, has made a case for early Buddhist ethics being a kind of moral particularism, which is the view that a moral value can be attached to a particular concrete action but that it is impossible to derive general rules of what kinds of action are good ones which are bad. A moral particularist can take the view that there is a fact to the matter of whether, say, the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a morally good or a morally bad action. What the particularist says cannot be done is to arrive at a rule that can be applied to other cases. Even if we can determine the truth of whether it was good to hang Saddam Hussein, we cannot necessarily determine in advance whether it would be good to hang some other head of state.
In contrast to the moral particularist is the moral skeptic who argues that there is no fact to the matter of whether any action is moral or whether any mentality trait is a virtue as opposed to a vice. I myself have stated in an essay called Moral murk ethical skepticism as a position I accept but do not know how to defend. My contention that at least some forms of Buddhism, such as the Mādhyamaka school of classical India, entails moral skepticism is not widely accepted, but so far no one has managed to convince me that my claim is indefensible, even if many people find it unpalatable.
There is yet one further position on the nature of Buddhist ethical theory that some modern philosophers, such as Mark Siderits, have taken up for discussion, which is that some Buddhists, such as the Mādhyamikas, deliberately avoided theoretical discussion about what makes some actions or mental states good. In the same way that these Buddhists carefully avoided theorizing about metaphysical matters, Siderits suggests, they may also have avoided theorizing about what moral right and wrong consists in. Theorizing, the story goes, often leads to attachment to a particular view, which in turn often leads to having contempt for those who have opposing views, which eventually contributes to the suffering in the world.
So far, no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others. What is more to the point is that no one that I am aware of has made a compelling case that any of this really matters. Indeed, some have hinted at the possibility that Indian Buddhists had no meta-ethical theories, not because it never occurred to them to develop any, but because they saw meta-ethical discussions as a distraction and a waste of ineffectual resources that could better be put to other uses. I tend to take that position myself, which makes me wonder why on earth I wrote this blog post.