Nice Buddhism & ethics: a reply

Barbara O’Brien, the official About.com Buddhist Guide, has written a reply to my post about “Nice Buddhism.” (Thanks, Barbara, for the commentary!) I couldn’t quite get my response into the about.com comment length limit, so I’m posting it here.

She said she didn’t recognize this “nice” “consensus Buddhism,” and suggested that I was only aware of Western Buddhists with superficial practice experience. I hesitate to name names—but “consensus Buddhism” is presented by, for example, the Insight Meditation Society teachers, Lama Surya Das, and Thich Nhat Hanh. None of them could be accused of having a superficial practice, I hope! However, their popular works do seem “nice” to me; and this is the Buddhism most Westerners are first exposed to.

In this blog series I’ll present a brief history of “nice Buddhism,” drawing on the work of David McMahan, Gil Fronsdal, and Brooke Schedneck. The short version is that, in Thailand, by the 1960s, traditional Buddhist ethics were already being mixed with Protestant Christian ethics, under pressure from colonial missionaries. That made it particularly easy for the founders of Western Consensus Buddhism to modernize it.

O’Brien especially objects to my statement that “traditional Buddhism doesn’t have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.” That may have been overly broad, but I think it is broadly defensible. [Note: I added the word "distinctively" after originally publishing this, to clarify a possible misinterpretation.]

Talking about “Buddhist ethics” can be misleading. There are many Buddhisms, and many different ethical approaches within them. I think that what most Western Buddhists think of a “Buddhist ethics” hasn’t got much to do with any traditional Asian Buddhist ethics, and much more to do with liberal Western Christian and humanist ethics.

There’s an outstanding essay by Jose Cabezon about Buddhists sexual ethics that explains this. He argues:

  1. What almost all Western Buddhists think they know about Buddhist sexual ethics is mistaken
  2. Among other things, traditional Buddhist sexual ethics involves detailed lists of right and wrong actions, which O’Brien (like most Western Buddhists) explicitly denies in her post
  3. As Buddhists, we ought to consider seriously what Buddhist texts actually do say about sexual ethics
  4. What they actually do say is absolutely wrong, and we should reject it.

This is not, I think, a problem only with Buddhist sexual ethics, but a broader one.

O’Brien objects to my blaming niceness on Baby Boomers. I don’t think I did that, exactly! However, lots of people have observed that Buddhism appeals more to the Boomer generation than to younger ones. Exactly why, and what to do about it, are not yet clear. (This appears to be a major topic of the current Maha Teachers Council I’ve been writing about.) I suggest that “Boomeritis” is part of the problem: the inability to recognize that some “nice” values (first common in that generation) are not universal.

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32 Responses to Nice Buddhism & ethics: a reply

  1. Oh, please, stop trying to shoehorn me into your narrow little niches. And let’s get this one out of the way first. –
    “Among other things, traditional Buddhist sexual ethics involves detailed lists of right and wrong actions, which O’Brien (like most Western Buddhists) explicitly denies in her post.”

    Pay attention: Yes, the Tibetans do have such lists, but other schools do not. The Pali texts really don’t say much specific about sexual ethics for laypeople (Cabezon admits this), although of course the Vinaya has rules up the wazoo for monks and nuns. What happened in Asia is that the fuzzy precaution for laypeoeple to “not misuse sex” is interpreted according to local mores, whatever those are. The Tibetans, with Tsongkhapa formulations, are an outlier in that regard, and no one outside the Tibetan traditions pays any attention to Tsongkhapa. Other traditions often don’t go beyond advising people to not cheat on spouses. I took refuges and received the Precepts in Soto Zen and took the traditional jukai vows, which regarding sexuality stress honesty, kindness, and faithfulness. But not specific sexual practices.

    And you are still missing the point about the way Buddhism approaches ethics, which is radically different from the way Christianty approaches ethics, and far more rigorous and demanding. I’ve come to think of the “rule following” approach to morality as ethics with training wheels.

    Regarding niceness — I admit I have never read much by Lama Surya Das; I do know something about Thich Nhat Hanh, however. You are falling into the standard Bookstore Buddhist fallacy, assuming that what you see in the books are the entirety of the discipline.

    Anyone who gets most of his understandng of Buddhism from books will likely get it all back-assward, as we say in the Ozarks. I don’t care whose books you read. Genuine understanding requires a deeper level of commitment than just reading books and meditating. TNH’s books often seem too sugary and simple, but he’ a teacher in the Chan (Zen) tradition, which historically has a deep antipathy to niceness. I suspect if you worked with him in person you would change your mind about him.

    I say again, your experience with Buddhism is too narrow to be making such sweeping judgments about all of western Buddhism. There’s a lot you haven’t seen and don’t know.

  2. Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Abhidharma) takes a list-of-wrong-acts approach to Buddhist sexual ethics. This book is widely read, and considered authoritative, by pretty well all Mahayana schools, I believe. Vasubandhu is considered the 21st Patriarch of Zen, and a Shin Patriarch, for example. He wrote in the 300s, before Tibetan Buddhism existed.

    I agree that in popular Asian Buddhism, local mores often substitute for canonical textual lists of sexual rules; but those local mores generally also enumerate Thou Shalt Nots.

    Soto Zen was forcibly modernized by the Japanese state in the late 1800s. (I’ll be writing about that in this series.) Various Western ideologies, including ethical notions, were imposed at gun point. I don’t know in what specific lineage you took jukai; if it was in the U.S., it is likely to have been further Westernized.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your description of rule-following as “training wheels for ethics.” But… Where do you find a statement of that in pre-modern Buddhist texts?

    I said that I was reluctant to name names; the reason is that I am writing not about what any individual practices, or teaches privately to close students, but about how Buddhism has been come to be understood by the masses of Western Buddhists. I don’t want to criticize the Consensus teachers; I only want to criticize what they have published and taught at large gatherings. Because that is what they have put across as “Western Buddhism”, and most people take their word for it.

    If famous teachers say one thing publicly and teach something quite different privately, why? Is there not some sort of honesty issue there?

    How do you know what I haven’t seen and don’t know? Could you be specific about some examples?

    (I have been studying and practicing Buddhism for several decades, with a keen interest in the different ways it is presented in the West and in its history in Asia. I think you may be overestimating my ignorance.)

  3. “Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Abhidharma) has a list-of-wrong-acts approach to Buddhist sexual ethics.”

    My understanding is that Vasubandhu was writing for monastics, although I could be mistaken. Yes, monastics have all kinds of very specific rules. The Vinaya-pitika is full of very specific rules, as I believe I said earlier. But the Vinaya applies only to monks and nuns; *laypeople don’t take the same vows and were never expected to follow all of the same rules.* And I’ve been very careful to specify what’s been true for laypeople, not monks. Further, the rules are a personal commitment, taken when one “leaves home,” and are not commandments that all people must follow. The Precepts for laypeople are much fewer (five to sixteen, depending on your tradition) and not nearly as specific.

    ‘Soto Zen was forcibly modernized by the Japanese state in the late 1800s. ”

    Of course. Old news. And I’m a little offended by your assumption that no one has ever stumbled upon these little facts but you. But again, all that changed were the rules for priests and monks. here was no change for laypeople (or, I believe, nuns).

    “Where do you find a statement of that in pre-modern Buddhist texts?”

    The idea that ethics is all about following a list of rules is peculiar to western culture, so it didn’t need to be called out. The Asian religions generally take a more situationist view of morality than does the West. Buddhist ethics have always taught that a realized being naturally is ethical, and that the skillfulness or unskillfulness of an act comes in part of circumstances and intentions.

    What role does ethical practice play in Buddhism? In Christianity, one behaves a certain way to please God. In Buddhism, one works to purify oneself of the three poisons — greed, hate, and ignorance — through practice. The purified being naturally will be ethical. Freedom from the three poisons is wisdom. Wisdom sees no separation between self and other, and is thereby compassionate. Ethical conduct is woven into the Eightfold Path and cannot be separated out from the rest of Buddhism. It is in the practice of the Paramitas and the Immeasurables. This all goes back to Shakyamuni, as far as we all know.

    Karma is critical to the practice of ethics, although it took me a long time to see it. Karma is not well understood by western Buddhists yet, so there’s a lot of confusion about what it is and why it is important. Dale Wright wrote in his book on the Paramitas — karma is “… one of the most ingenious cultural achievements to emerge from ancient India. It has enormous promise for future world culture – a way to understand the relationship between moral acts and the kinds of life that they help shape.” And it brings home the realization that there is really no escape from the consequences of our actions. No one gets away with anything.

    Again, I’m completely gobsmacked that you think Buddhism has nothing to say to the West about ethics. I sincerely cannot believe anyone who has practiced as long as you say you have would say such a thing. I think Buddhism can help the West re-think what ethics are, and get us away from the idea that it is merely about following rules to please authorities civil or celestial.

    I also can’t believe anyone who appreciates the diversity of practice in the U.S. would try to stuff it all into one of two categories. That’s absurd. That tells me you are viewing western Buddhism through a very thick filter of your own biases and assumptions.

  4. Vasubandhu’s discussion of sexual ethics is for lay people. It concerns what a man should or should not do with his wife. Alex Berzin has a good discussion of this, also citing some other Indian (non-Tibetan) sources for rule-based lay sexual ethics.

    I think your view of Buddhist ethics is a Buddhist view, and it’s one I agree with enthusiastically! I don’t think it is the Buddhist view. And, although it takes inspiration from certain traditional Buddhist themes, it’s not a traditional Buddhist view. It’s a synthesis of traditional Buddhism with Western ideas. I am not a traditionalist, so I think that’s absolutely fine, but I also think it’s good to be clear about what’s what.

    As a life-long atheist, I hope you are right that “Buddhism can help the West re-think what ethics are, and get us away from the idea that it is merely about following rules to please authorities civil or celestial.”

    On the other hand, “ethics is not about following rules to please authority” is an idea that is not at all new to the West. It was a central theme of the European Enlightenment, dating from before Buddhism came to Europe.

    That’s what I mean when I say “Buddhism has nothing useful to teach the West about ethics.” The West already had that idea. I do agree that Buddhism is reinforcing it for some people, and that is wonderful.

    Let me say again that I am not “trying to stuff all Western Buddhism into one of two categories”! Exactly the opposite. I am accusing the “Nice Buddhist establishment” of doing that, to the exclusion of lineages (like my own) that don’t fit in either box.

  5. Noah says:

    “That’s what I mean when I say ‘Buddhism has nothing useful to teach the West about ethics.’ The West already had that idea. I do agree that Buddhism is reinforcing it for some people, and that is wonderful.”

    Miss O’Brian, do you understand what Mr. Chapman is trying to say now?

    Also, what about Crazy Wisdom – Yeshe Cholwa?
    I did a Google search for “Yeshe Cholwa”, and the first result that popped up was an interview with some guy named Steven Goodman. This guy said,

    “In my workshop at CIIS, “Tibetan Buddhist Practices and the Trick-ster,” I introduce the notion of “crazy wisdom,” a phrase that got on the map thanks largely to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Tibetan the words are yeshe cholwa, with yeshe meaning “wisdom that’s always been there,” and cholwa meaning “wild or uncontainable.” Trungpa Rinpoche said you might as well just say “wisdom crazy.” It refers to someone who seems to be intoxicated with an un-bounded, luminous, loving energy. What we call crazy is only crazy from the viewpoint of ego, custom, habit. The craziness is actually higher frequency enjoyment. Besides, the great spiritual adepts, the mahasiddhas, don’t decide to be crazy. Crazy wisdom is natural, effortless, not driven by the hope and fear machine of the ego.”

    So, when is someone practicing Crazy Wisdom, and when is someone being unethical? Doesn’t one have to be enlightened ONESELF to know the difference?
    Confusing!

    It does indeed seem that Buddhism, as a whole, public, system has little ethical advice that isn’t contradicted somewhere else WITHIN itself. Ethics seem to come from everyone’s each, individual, teacher, right?

    Mr. Chapman, this might be rude, or uncouth, or not exactly tactful, but have you talked to you teachers about all of this ethics stuff? What do they have to say?

    And what about all those folks at the Maha Teacher Council? Shouldn’t these discussions be going on INSIDE lineages?

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m the first to say how much I love all this discussion. For the small amount of it that I have seen, I very strongly feel that Buddhism could use an internal revolution. And, as much as there might be some tension between Barbara and yourself, I am really enjoying a real, actual, (gasp!) PASSIONATE, discussion about all of this. I learned in an ecology course a few years back that “constant micro-disturbances are required for macro stability” or something like that. If nothing else, this discussion is helping to turn and aerate the compost a bit.

    Miss O’Brian:
    “Again, I’m completely gobsmacked that you think Buddhism has nothing to say to the West about ethics. I sincerely cannot believe anyone who has practiced as long as you say you have would say such a thing. I think Buddhism can help the West re-think what ethics are, and get us away from the idea that it is merely about following rules to please authorities civil or celestial.”

    Perhaps Mr. Chapman is saying that what Buddhism has to say about ethics is that the word “ethics” is now empty.

    “I also can’t believe anyone who appreciates the diversity of practice in the U.S. would try to stuff it all into one of two categories. That’s absurd. That tells me you are viewing western Buddhism through a very thick filter of your own biases and assumptions.”

    Perhaps. But that’s not the only possibility. He might be right. You might be wrong. You haven’t had any more of a panoramic assessment of the situation than Mr. Chapman. You seem a little too confident, Miss O’Brian. I’m inclined to doubt you simply because of how you dismiss Mr. Chapmans statements as if they we self-explanitorily ridiculous.

  6. Have you talked to you teachers about all of this ethics stuff? What do they have to say?

    The observation that “Buddhism has nothing to teach Westerners about ethics” is mine only; I haven’t discussed it with my teachers. As far as I can recall, they only thing they say about “ethics,” as such, is that rules are necessary only if you do not have good intentions and reasonable intelligence.

    They do teach extensively on kindness, decency, honor, and courtesy. Those are ethical considerations. I have found those teachings very valuable. I would suppose that these teachings flow from their personal realization, rather than Buddhist doctrine, however.

    I am trying think of ways in which “Buddhism has nothing to teach Westerners about ethics” might be wrong.

    One is semantic: I didn’t meant that there are no Westerners who could not learn something about ethics from Buddhism; of course there are. What I meant was that there Buddhism doesn’t have a distinctive approach to ethics, or distinctive ethical content, that is missing in the Western tradition. I’ve added the word “distinctive” to my original statement to clarify this.

    To actually demonstrate “Buddhism has nothing usefully distinctive to teach Westerners about ethics”, you would need to go through every ethical teaching in every school of Buddhism, and show that either it is already found in the Western tradition, or else that it is wrong. That would be a vast task! José Cabézon has done a nice job in the case of Mahayana sexual ethics, which is a good start, though.

    To argue that my claim was wrong, you’d only need to point at a specific Buddhist teaching that is useful and not found in the pre-Buddhist West. Can we do that?

    Maybe it would be useful to go through Barbara O’Brien’s most recent comment in more detail. I have no wish to argue about this, but perhaps additional detail will clarify what I am trying to say.

    The idea that ethics is all about following a list of rules is peculiar to western culture

    This isn’t true; it’s common to all cultures, as far as I know. As Cabézon’s essay (for example) demonstrates, it’s found in Buddhism for sure. All cultures (as far as I know) also have some notion of virtue ethics. To quote the Wikipedia: “Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behaviour, rather than rules.” In the West, this goes back to the Ancient Greeks, and has been present ever since (including under Christianity, thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas). Different cultures may emphasize rules or virtue ethics more, and it may be that Buddhism emphasizes virtue more than the Western tradition on average.

    The Asian religions generally take a more situationist view of morality than does the West. Buddhist ethics have always taught that a realized being naturally is ethical, and that the skillfulness or unskillfulness of an act comes in part of circumstances and intentions.

    True; but these ideas have been common in the West since the Ancient Greeks as well.

    Wisdom sees no separation between self and other, and is thereby compassionate.

    Here Buddhism may have something distinctive to say. Does it lead to a different ethical stance than other formulations of the Golden Rule (which is found in pretty nearly every religion)? I’m open to the possibility, but I don’t see it off-hand.

    Ethical conduct is woven into the Eightfold Path and cannot be separated out from the rest of Buddhism. It is in the practice of the Paramitas and the Immeasurables.

    All of these are lists of virtues; and all the same virtues can be found in the Western tradition. There are detailed teachings on what each one consists of, and there might be something useful and distinctive there. I can’t think of anything off-hand, but I’m entirely open to being wrong.

    Buddhist meditation is definitely distinctive and useful. By generating compassion and insight, it is likely to make you more ethical. (I have found tonglen extremely valuable in this way, for instance.) The question is whether this counts as “ethics” as such. As traditionally understood in the West, probably not. And “ethics” is a Western word, so that’s the definition. On the other hand, “right meditation” is part of the eight-fold path, which is otherwise more-or-less an “ethical” system, so it’s reasonable to admit it as part of “Buddhist ethics”.

    Karma is critical to the practice of ethics, although it took me a long time to see it. Karma is not well understood by western Buddhists yet, so there’s a lot of confusion about what it is and why it is important.

    I’d agree with that. I’d say the jury is still out on whether the notion of karma is going to wind up being useful to Westerners. I would argue that the common, simplistic, “cosmic ethical bank account” understanding is both wrong and harmful. There are more sophisticated explanations of karma, but they are indeed not yet well-understood, and it remains to be seen whether they prove helpful.

  7. ~C4Chaos says:

    hi,

    first of, i’d like to thank both of you, David and Barbara, for engaging in this dharma debate. i’ve learned from both of you by reading your responses. it seems to me that you both agree that Buddhism, as popularly taught in the mainstream (aka Pop Buddhism), is a shallow representation of the richness of the Buddhist tapestry as it had evolved and adapted through different lineages and cultural encounters. your main contention, however, is on the topic of ethics.

    David said:

    “On the other hand, ‘ethics is not about following rules to please authority’ is an idea that is not at all new to the West. It was a central theme of the European Enlightenment, dating from before Buddhism came to Europe.

    That’s what I mean when I say ‘Buddhism has nothing useful to teach the West about ethics.”

    it’s good that you clarified what you meant by your statement, because i too was dumbfounded when i first read it. that said i don’t agree with your assessment that “Buddhism has nothing useful to teach the West about ethics.” it’s true that the European Enlightenment had dispelled the kind of ethics to please authority (e.g. God) but the Western philosophers who had done so used sophisticated philosophical arguments to refine ethics. in Buddhism there is a concept of “Bodhicitta”, which *spontaneously* arises through cultivation and practice. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhicitta#Cultivation

    the Bodhicitta aspiration is not something derived by mere philosophical arguments or reasoning. it seems to me that is something useful that Buddhism can teach to the West about ethics. and in fact, this is one of the most unique features/concepts in Buddhism.

    thanks to both of you for sharing your wisdom on this topic.

    ~C

  8. Curious notion. In my understanding of Dhamma, there is plenty of ethics. And in the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha was pretty clear that one could test outcomes and see for oneself whether an action brought wholesome results and, ergo, it was ethical. And I’m not sure about your statement that the jury remains out on whether the “notion of karma is going to wind up being useful to Westerners.” As I understand karma, it is an immutable law, not a “notion.” But I agree with you that far too many view it as a cosmic cash machine. I’m afraid I blame Nichiren for that. Which would indicate that if superficiality is problematic in Buddhism, it is not a situation unique to Westerners.

  9. Hi C4Chaos,

    I share your intuition: if we are to find something distinctively useful in Buddhist ethics, it will be in the methods for cultivating compassion and wisdom.

    Superficially, though, how is Bodhicitta different from agapé, defined by the Wikipedia as the virtue of unlimited loving-kindness toward all others? I am not saying they are the same, but it’s not immediately obvious that they are different in a way that has ethical implications.

    The Western traditions (Christian and non-Christian) have specific techniques for cultivating agapé. I would like to believe that the Buddhist methods are better or more powerful than the Western ones. I haven’t tried the Western ones, though, so I have no real basis for that.

    And, on average, I do not find Western Buddhists to be more ethical or compassionate than other Westerners (actually, somewhat the opposite). If we think Buddhist ethics are superior, that’s a problem.

    This impression of Western Buddhists is just impressionistic; it would be interesting to do some proper scientific studies of which methods are most effective.

  10. ZenRiver says:

    Thanks for this discussion, it’s a very important one. Different traditions say and teach different things. I’m of course from the Zen tradition which talks a bit about skillful means, which is important. I think no matter what any traditions say about how to live, unless we know why we should and shouldn’t act in certain ways, instead of acting out our lives based on of set of written rules, I’d venture to say we kind of missed point.

    Why is it bad to sleep around on ones spouse and why is it bad to murder someone for their money? How can it be good to lie in certain situations or good to harm another person when others lives are in danger?

  11. Hi Richard,

    Yes, there is plenty of ethics in Buddhism. The question is whether there is something that is both useful and distinctive (i.e. not found elsewhere).

    Yes, my impression, from traveling in Buddhist countries in Asia, is that most Asian Buddhists also understand karma as “cosmic ethical bank account.”

  12. “My impression, from traveling in Buddhist countries in Asia, is that most Asian Buddhists also understand karma as ‘cosmic ethical bank account.’”

    And the problem with this would be what? Much of the Tipitika is directed toward the elites. For “common, run-of-the-mill” people, the Buddha had simpler lessens. If we are to judge the ethical nature of an action by the results it brings, if lay people view kamma like a cosmic cash machine, with the notion of building up merit, where’s the harm? Are they not behaving ethically even if they operate from a mundane delusion? “These things are difficult to know,” the Buddha often said. The insights of the Dhamma are not necessarily easily perceived. But even the Buddha said if one lives an “ethical” life, one can be assured of happiness in this life, and a pleasant abiding after death. To delve into the depths of ethics as I believe you are suggesting appears to me grasping at Simsapa leaves from the very tops of the trees, when the few held in the hand contain all we need to know.

    metta
    Richard

  13. Yes, the karma-as-bank-account understanding is better than nothing. If it leads someone to behave better than they would without it, then it is definitely useful.

    But, we are asking, is Buddhist ethics distinctively useful to Westerners? Most Westerners either are Christians or have a liberal humanist ethics. I don’t think the simplistic understanding of karma will be useful to people in either of those categories. Both groups already have an ethical framework that is at least as sophisticated.

  14. “My impression, from traveling in Buddhist countries in Asia, is that most Asian Buddhists also understand karma as ‘cosmic ethical bank account.’”

    And the problem with this would be what?

    I was agreeing with you! You wrote:

    I agree with you that far too many view it as a cosmic cash machine. I’m afraid I blame Nichiren for that. Which would indicate that if superficiality is problematic in Buddhism, it is not a situation unique to Westerners.

    My experience with Asian Buddhists supports your point here.

  15. “And the problem with this would be what?”

    Egotism? Doing good in order to receive something later on. People become objects of personal use, maybe. We do not value their greatness, we only relate to them as a way to benefit ourselves.

    Isn’t this unethical from these systems viewpoint?

  16. ~C4Chaos says:

    David,

    you said: “The Western traditions (Christian and non-Christian) have specific techniques for cultivating agapé… The Western traditions (Christian and non-Christian) have specific techniques for cultivating agapé.”

    good point from bringing up the concept of agapé. my response was more directed to your above statement which referenced the European Enlightenment notion of ethics (e.g. moral philosophy, utilitarianism, etc.) rather than the Christian/non-Christian contemplative traditions. and since we’re now getting more and more esoteric on the subject, then i would agree with you in principle that, yes, the Western contemplative traditions have similar concepts to Bodhicitta. but i would suggest that the Buddhists had a better presentation or curation of this knowledge because they have mapped the territory better than Western Contemplative traditions (e.g. Progress of Insight (in the Theravada), Bhumis (in Tibetan), Ten Ox Herding (in Zen), etc.) . unlike Buddhism the Western contemplative traditions was prosecuted within their own traditions and has been buried into so deep religious and theological lingo.

    what Buddhism can offer to Western ethics is two-fold: 1) as a reminder to draw *deep* ethics based on the gnosis of the Western Contemplative traditions, 2) teach a more secular deep ethics based on Buddhist principles and practice.

    ~C

  17. ~C4Chaos,

    I think we agree about all that!

    I would add that the distinctive Buddhist methods for cultivating compassion and insight were also deeply buried in traditional Buddhism. It was only a tiny fraction of a percent of the population that was ever taught them. One of the distinctive features of modern Buddhism is a revival of meditation, which had very nearly died out, almost everywhere, by the 1800s.

  18. Not at all. If Buddhist ethics are based on outcomes, and I believe they are, then the ethical status of an act is determined by its outcome. These outcomes are predictable to a large degree, allowing us to evaluate our actions prior to committing them. If my action leads to troublesome results, it was likely an unethical act. Does my action lead to harm to self, harm to others, harm to both self and others? These are the relevant questions.

    But back to your point that Buddhism doesn’t offer the Westerner anything in terms of ethics significantly different from what monotheism offers (my interpretation of what you are postulating). I say it does. It offers these ethics, which I agree are universal (if an act is good, it is good every where at all times), in a doctrine that does not require obeisance to a higher authority. It suggests that I, as an individual, can personally understand how my actions affect others. I need no interloper.

    Now, whether the individual understands this and incorporates this into his or her daily activity is up to the individual. If he or she fails, it is not a failure of the system, but a failure of the individual.

  19. My mistake, I get confused sometimes by these comment streams.

  20. But back to your point that Buddhism doesn’t offer the Westerner anything in terms of ethics significantly different from what monotheism offers (my interpretation of what you are postulating).

    Oh, not at all, sorry if I was confusing.

    It’s not monotheism that’s the standard of comparison—it’s the Western tradition as a whole, which includes atheist humanism. That has a much better ethical system than Christianity, in my opinion, and one that is no worse than anything in Buddhism.

    I did suggest that Christian ethics are no worse than the cosmic-bank-account understanding of karma. Does that seem wrong?

  21. alexhubbard says:

    Dear David,
    personally speaking I’ve divided Buddhist thinking on ethics into: either your acting in the moment out of a realisation of the non-dual state or your not. If you are then ethics is taken care of, if not, then considerable care needs to be taken to fulfil the aspiration towards care for others and care for self. Obviously that’s an over-simplification. Never-the-less, I have also been wondering about your position that Buddhism doesn’t have any significantly different to offer in this regard. I think your right in terms of Buddhist ethics which divide right from wrong action, and in terms of bodhicitta. The focus on intention in Buddhism certainly isn’t new to the West and neither is the idea of cultivating qualities which become the basis upon which we act as ethical people. However, I do have significant suspicions that compassion, as it is understood in Dzogchen, within the triad of essence, nature and energy or responsiveness, does have something new to offer.

    That’s the gist of what I have to say, the why might be less interesting at this point as my thoughts are only at the beginning of being thought through. It seems to me that when an analysis of how a realised being acts ethically takes place, through the concept of thug-jé (responsiveness), then an entire world of interesting and original discussion arises. Naturally, the concept is interestingly and precisely broad, and actually lends itself to what I think amounts to a redefinition of what ethics actually is, and its role in the formation of subjectivity, the possibility of kindness, creativity, and perhaps even the manner in which matter unfolds and communicates with itself. It seems to relate to issues of communication, affectivity, and a responsiveness which collaborates with that which is communicated and in so doing instantiates or exemplifies reality ‘as it is’, thus giving it its ‘ethical’ response.

    I wonder at exactly what it means when I hear ‘emptiness and form are wisdom and compassion’. Form as compassion is also a topic which can be generally and subtly explicated (as you know) and in regards to an understanding of it which reads form as ‘the physical world’ (for the purposes of this point simply the material world ‘out there’) I suspect that kindness, or ethics, is overtly connected, and not simply symbolically or theologically connected with physicality, so to speak. Within various areas of Vajrayana Buddhism (i.e. not just Dzogchen) there certainly seem to be points of intersection between the idea of physicality and kindness.

    As a final point, the only really interesting discussion of the term thug-jé I’ve found is in the ‘encyclopedia’ at the end of David Germano’s p.h.d. thesis. It is, compared to what I’ve read in Namkhai Norbu’s books, quite substantial, and, chimes with what my own teacher has said on the topic.

    Anyway, happy typing!
    Alex.

  22. ~C4Chaos says:

    David,
    you said: “I would add that the distinctive Buddhist methods for cultivating compassion and insight were also deeply buried in traditional Buddhism.”

    i agree. it is not until i digged into the Pali suttas and the Theravada lineage that i got a better understanding of what the Buddha really taught. (note: it’s not a big deal to me whether the historical Buddha was real or not. what matters is whether the dharma can be put to the test of first-hand experience.). i understand that the Theravada had its own dogmatic sides, but hey, what lineage doesn’t? but at least the layers of dogmatism is not as thick since it was closest to the written source (historically). on the other hand, there are concepts of the dharma which were refined by later traditions (e.g. Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, the emphasis on the social, such as Bodhisattva vow, etc.). so a contracted and expanded look at the Buddhist tradition is, in general, a better way of studying the dharma.

    my hope is that the rich tapestry of the Buddhist tradition will not get watered down by Pop Buddhism. and that someday,the marriage of Western Science and Buddhist science will bring about a true revolution in the mind and material sciences.

  23. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this! Regarding ethics, I’m groping in what seems a similar direction. My book has a placeholder for “ethical responsiveness“, but I’m not sure I have much to say there yet.

    David Germano rocks! He’s one of my favorite academic Buddhologists, and seems a very nice guy (in the good sense) from the interactions I’ve had with him. I wish he would get free of his administrative responsibilities so he could publish more. Actually, I wish he would teach Buddhism rather than about Buddhism—I think he might make a great lama. But presumably he doesn’t want to do that.

    I didn’t know that his PhD thesis was available online, and I’ve just downloaded it; thank you! It looks extremely interesting, but it’s also 1018 pages long, so I’m not sure I’m going to read it immediately! I did read his discussion of Thugs rJe. If there are other parts of the thesis you’ve found particularly interesting, I’d love to hear about it.

    If there is an explicit “no ethical rules” statement somewhere in pre-modern Buddhism, Dzogchen seems the most likely place to find it. If you come across that somewhere in your reading, I’d like to know about it.

    David

  24. Kate Gowen says:

    David &/or Alex– care to provide a link to the David Germano writing on Thugs rJe? It’s one of those significant words that flits into my experience from time to time, leaving a shimmer behind…

  25. Hi, Kate—I’ll email you. I’m slightly reluctant to post a link, as the email will explain.

  26. Kate Gowen says:

    This morning I followed up and read Ms. O’Brien’s linked remarks: no fear of being ‘niced’ to death there! Seems she’s got her [Buddhist] Irish up.

    It reminds me that one of the places to see very un-nice displays of claims to Buddhist correctness– in our times– is the blogosphere.

  27. OMkara says:

    Hi David! I read Jose Cabezon’s essay which you linked to and while he made a few inaccurate assumptions, which appeared to be due to ignorance of South Asian culture and family life, nowhere did he state, as you write that, “What they actually do say is absolutely wrong, and we should reject it.”

    From all that he wrote about in the essay, what “they said” was not actually “absolutely wrong” and I for one will not be “rejecting” any of it.

    Which brings us back to the point you wrote about elsewhere about Western Buddhism being an extension of hippie consciousness, and my point about Westerners assuming that Buddhist values are post-modern, left-leaning, liberal values.

    That’s why Western Buddhists have taken up the LGBT “marriage equality” cause, whether they are LGBT or not, or desirous of getting married or not, as if it was a Buddhist cause.

    “Marriage equality”? Really? More like divorce equality in this society.

    Buddhism is meant to end suffering, not perpetuate it.

  28. I think Cabezón makes it quite clear that he thinks traditional Buddhist sexual morality is absolutely wrong. He says explicitly “they simply got it wrong” and “the doctrine… is therefore unjust” and it “cannot be justified on rational grounds.” Cabezón doesn’t think every aspect of it is wrong, but it is so thoroughly wrong in its basis and logic and prescriptions that we have to “rethink sexual ethics in a way that is both rational and just.”

    I strongly agree with him.

  29. OMkara says:

    ” but it is so thoroughly wrong in its basis and logic and prescriptions ”

    What specifically amongst what he detailed in his essay about the ancient Buddhist sexual ethical rules did you, in your personal, subjective opinion, find to be “so thoroughly wrong in its basis and logic and prescriptions”?

    The only one I found somewhat objectionable was the married man-prostitute one. But even then, I could understand the logical basis for it and can grok the mindset which it would have arose from.

  30. Well, the original question was: “does traditional Buddhism have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics?”

    Clearly, Westerners have differing opinions about sexual ethics. (My personal ones are irrelevant here.) Is there anything in traditional Buddhist sexual ethics that would come as a useful surprise to Westerners, whatever their opinions? I don’t think so. The items Cabezón lists are fully compatible with conservative Christian sexual ethics (except prostitution, as you note). Westerners either accept those points, or reject them; there’s nothing new for us in Buddhist ethics.

  31. OMkara says:

    “Is there anything in traditional Buddhist sexual ethics that would come as a useful surprise to Westerners, whatever their opinions? I don’t think so.”

    - I think so.

    “The items Cabezón lists are fully compatible with conservative Christian sexual ethics (except prostitution, as you note). Westerners either accept those points, or reject them; there’s nothing new for us in Buddhist ethics.”

    There is something new. A completely different outlook.

    You stated “but it is so thoroughly wrong in its basis and logic and prescriptions ” and I asked you to explain how its “wrong in basis and logic and prescriptions” but you did not. Either you chose not to or you can not, because maybe, like most people, you have not thought deeply about it. It could also be due to a somewhat blind, highly culturally conditioned, even if unconscious, adherence to post-modern Western liberal values, which is extremely common in the US, particularly amongst Western Dharmis (Buddhists and neo-Hindus).

    If you examine the ancient rules a discussed in Jose’s essay they make perfectly logical sense for a culture that values liberation from samsara, for monks and householders alike.

    This was a time before artificial birth control, when sex was directly connected to reproduction and when humans were more in touch with the rhythms and cycles of their bodies and planned their sexcapades around them, particularly around the woman’s menstrual cycle. I don’t know how familiar you are with South Asian ancient and medieval texts but there is much written therein about grha-dharma, or the dharmas specific to the ghrihasta, the married family person. Throughout these literatures it is recommended for married couples desirous of children to chart the wife’s cycle and have sex during her most fertile time of the month. They also say that once pregnant, sex should not be had until she gives birth and recovers from childbirth. They also say that sex should not be had during the menstrual cycle (as was noted by Jose).

    During this time also yogis had developed techniques for the retention of semen. It would be interesting to know if these techniques first started out as a means of natural birth control amongst ghrihastas and then evolved into yogic practices, or vice versa.

    At any rate, only in today’s era when artificial birth control is widely available and used, has heterosexual sex been so divorced from reproduction. There was a time when people had to rely on the rhythms of their own bodies (charting the menstrual cycle) as well as on sexual self control (retention of semen during love making), in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

    This brings us to male homosexuality and the rules against anal, even oral sex. This is because sexuality was so tied to reproduction and neither of the above, whether within a hetero or homosexual context, has anything to do with that.

    Another reason for the prescription against oral sex has to do with South Asian culture in which the tongue and power of speech is viewed as almost divine in the sense that teachings about transcendence and liberation are transmitted orally. Moreover food that has been offered in ceremony (called “prasad” in Sanskrit) is not eaten but “honored” with the tongue.

    About the prostitute thing. Well, when a wife is out of commission so to speak, during menstruation or pregnancy/post-partum recovery, or if she is uninterested in sex for whatever reason, including reasons of transcendence/liberation, and if the husband isn’t sufficiently progressed on the path of detachment, prostitutes could be employed in moderation by husbands. I don’t entirely agree with it, but I “get it”.

    So, how could today’s Buddhists benefit from any of the above? Well that’s where we get into my statement that “they make perfectly logical sense for a culture that values liberation from samsara”.

    Do today’s Western Buddhists value liberation from samsara? If they do I don’t see it. One of the things that really strikes me as odd in today’s post-modern West is the consistent and persistent obsession with so-called “relationships”. Despite all the unwanted pregnancies, STDs, divorces, drama, waste of time, etc, there are people in their 40s and above who, if they were really serious about liberation from samsara, would use their past as lessons learned and detachment gained, instead are logging onto sites like Dharma Date looking for YET ANOTHER “relaaaaaaaaaationship”.

    The mind simply boggles.

    But this odd mentality is an integral part of that post-modern Western “nice” Buddhism that you write about. What to do? The cultural programming here is very thick.

    All of the ancient and medieval rules that Jose outlined in his essay are reflective of a culture that truly values liberation from samsara, and detachment, over and above the fleeting pleasures of sex and the endless carousel of drame-filled romantic relationships.

    Western Buddhists obviously aren’t there yet. Their cultural conditionings simply won’t allow them to get off the carousel, even when they are as old as 50, have been burned dozens of times, and have to pop Viagra to get going. But exposing them to cultures that have designed themselves around detachment and liberation can be an eye opening and consciousness expanding experience for them.

  32. OMkara says:

    PS: I forgot to mention the “day time” rule. South Asians have, and still do, live in what is called the “joint family household”. In such circumstances not only is day time sex highly inappropriate, its also nearly impossible.

    Jose also makes the mistake of assuming that because marital rape was not specifically prohibited, (not mentioned at all), that therefore South Asian wives were mere properties of their husbands who could treat them any they wished (before of course being exposed to the noble virtues of white, Euro-centric, politically correct, liberal Western ideas).

    The fact is that marital rape is not going to be prevalent in a culture that is more obsessed with liberation than it is with sex. Moreover a culture that has such rules and taboos around sex, rules that in fact favor the ovulation and corresponding sexual arousal cycles of women, and that teach men the techniques of semen retention for both yogic purposes and natural birth control purposes, is not a culture that is likely to have high marital rape statistics.

    Its more likely that such people could not even conceptualize such a horrid idea.

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