morality

The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

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But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What are we training for when we do spiritual practice? What is the point of practice? The point of practice is to have better lives, and to help other people to have that experience as well. It’s to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a faith claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

John Locke

One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:

As he observed his mind, he noticed:

Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.

It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.

The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”

But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.

See also:

The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.

Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.

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Empathy is actually a choice

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Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham: New York Times: One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.

You’ve probably heard this saying before. It is thought to capture an unfortunate truth about empathy: While a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. It’s a troubling finding because, as recent research has demonstrated, many of us believe that if more lives are at stake, we will — and should — feel more empathy (i.e., vicariously …

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The Mind, the Brain, and God – Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, we discussed the meaning of the words: mind; brain and God, and looked at the interdependence between the mind and the brain.

In this last part of the discussion we’ll examine the neural correlates and morality and summarize the discussion.

Do Neural Correlates Mean There’s No Soul?

The last sentence in the article on the NPR site really caught my eye: “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, [the scholar said], it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”

First, to repeat the point made in the previous blog post, it’s simplistic to claim that morality has a “mechanical explanation”– in other words, that morality boils down to “just” the operations of the material (= mechanical) brain – simply because there are neural correlates to moral experience and action.

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Second, to the heart of the matter, the closing sentence refers to the view, held by different religions and philosophies, that the fundamental source of morality – and by extension, human goodness, compassion, altruism, kindness, etc. – is transcendental, such as a proposed soul, divine spark, or Mind of God. In the culture wars of the last few decades, studies on the neural substrates of the loftier realms of experience and behavior (including the one discussed here, on moral judgment) have been taken as evidence by some that we don’t need transcendental factors to account for those aspects of a human life – and by extension, that such transcendental factors do not exist: in other words, that “people do not have or need a soul.” Let’s try to unpack this.

Human psychology alone – without reference to transcendental factors – can fully account for morality, or it cannot. (And as we’ve seen, that psychology is inextricably intertwined with our neurology.) Separately, either there are transcendental factors or there are not. If we do not make the assumption that morality is based on God, then evidence that morality requires only a mind and brain is not evidence against the existence of God.

You see a similar fallacy in the cultural conflicts over the implications of biological evolution. If one believes that “God created Man,” then evidence that modern humans gradually evolved from hominid and primate ancestors sounds like an argument against the existence or importance of God. Those who think that evolution would somehow eliminate God consider evidence for it to be a kind of blasphemy, so some school boards have tried to slip creationism into science textbooks.

Yes, the evolutionary account of life on this planet does undermine the story of God the Creator in the book of Genesis, but that’s just one portrayal of the nature of God. Setting aside that particular portrayal leaves plenty of other ways that God could work in the world. Evidence that God did not create Man is not evidence that there is no God: in principle, God could exist and not have created Man. In other words, a reasonable person could believe both that evolution has unfolded without being guided by the hand of God and that God exists – and similarly believe that morality does not require God and that God exists. It is a category error, and a deeply unscientific one, to think that evidence for the neuropsychological substrates of morality is evidence against a soul (or against other transcendental factors).

In this light, one does not need to resist evidence for evolution, or for the neuropsychology of morality or spiritual experiences. This point has significant social implications, because the resistance to scientific findings out of a fear that they somehow challenge faith has dramatically lowered scientific literacy in America. For example, in the 2008, biannual survey by the National Science Board of scientific understanding, only 45% of respondents agreed that, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Th is percentage is much lower than in Japan (78%) , Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). Similarly, only 33% of those surveyed agreed that, “The universe began with a big explosion.”

Summing Up

To be clear: I am not asserting that there is or is not God; nor am I asserting that, if God exists, he/she/it/none-of-the-above plays a role in mind, consciousness, or morality. I am asserting that attempts to draw inferences from neuropsychology about God’s existence or role in human affairs are usually a waste of time. At most such inferences can refute a particular theory about God’s role in life – such as God is necessary for human morality, or for the existence of our species altogether. But that leaves all sorts of other theories about God that are not yet disproved – as well as the fundamental matter that God is by definition categorically outside the realm of proofs or disproofs within the material universe.

God may or may not exist. You have to find your own beliefs in that regard – and brain science will not help you.

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The Mind, the Brain and God – Part II

In Part I we discussed the meaning of the words mind, brain and God and saw how the mind and the brain are interdependent.

In this segment we’ll go into the popular arguments for and against God and further into the link between the mind and the brain.

Proofs and Disproofs

Lately, numerous authors have tried to rebut beliefs in God (e.g., The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins), while others have tried to rebut the rebuttals (e.g., Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case against God). The intensity of these debates is often startling; people commonly talk past each other, arguing at different levels; and the “evidence” marshaled for one view or another is often hollow. (A delightful exception is the dialogue between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris.)

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For example, it’s an error to conflate religion and God. Whether religions are wonderful or horrible or both is not evidence for or against the existence of God. Critiques of religion (e.g., the Crusades, fundamentalism) are not disproofs of God. It’s also an error to think that biological evolution is evidence for the nonexistence of God. Just because a creation story developed thousands of years ago turns out to be inaccurate does not mean that God does not exist. Evolution does not need to be attacked in order to have faith in God.

Then there are so-called proofs of the existence of God within the material universe (e.g., burning bushes, miracles, visions, psychic phenomena). But that “evidence” must be experienced via the brain and mind. Therefore, in principle, that experience could simply be produced by the mind/brain alone, without divine intervention. (You could assert that God is known by some transcendental faculty outside of materiality, but then you’d still have to explain how the knowing achieved by that transcendental faculty is communicated to the material brain, so you are back to the original problem, that the ordinary brain could be making up information purportedly derived from a transcendental source.) So you can’t prove the existence of the transcendental through material evidence.

On the other hand, since any God by definition extends beyond the frame of materiality, nothing in the material universe can disprove its existence. You could endlessly rebut apparent evidence for the existence of God, but those rebuttals can not in themselves demonstrate that God is a fiction. At most, they can only eliminate a piece of apparent evidence, but in terms of ultimate conclusions, so what? As scientists say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Further, a God outside the frame of materiality (particularly a playful one) could amuse herself by fostering rebuttals of seeming evidence for her existence in order to bug some people and test the faith of others: who knows? Most anything could be possible for a transcendental being, ground, something-or-other.

Bottom-line: You can’t prove or disprove the existence of God. So the fundamentally scientific attitude is to acknowledge the possibility of God, and then move on to working within the frame of science, which is plenty fertile as is, without resorting to God.

Let’s explore an illustration of how these issues often play out in the media.

Is the Mind “Just” the Brain?

Recently a friend sent me an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) website, titled “Study Narrows Gap between Mind and Brain,” about some new research. The investigators had found that suppressing neural activity in a part of the brain (on the right side, near where the temporal and parietal lobes come together) changed the way that subjects made moral judgments: they became less able to take the intentions of others into account.

The study itself is interesting, and takes its place in a growing body of research on the neuropsychology of moral reasoning and behavior. But the article about it on the NPR site contains comments from a scholar from a leading university that are worth examining. He is initially quoted as saying: “Moral judgment is just a brain process.” Hmm. What does the “just” mean? He could have said something like, “Moral judgment involves processes in the brain,” but instead he seemed to assert that the psychological subtleties of ethics, altruism, hypocrisy, and integrity, are just epiphenomena of the brain. Whether this is exactly what he meant or not, let’s consider this idea in its own right: that our thoughts and feelings, longings and fears, and subtle moral or spiritual intimations are “just” the movements of the meat, to put it bluntly,between the ears. This is a common notion these days, but there are numerous problems with it.

First, neural processes certainly do underlie mental processes. For example, as the study showed, normal right temporal-parietal function underlies reflections about the intentions of others in moral reasoning. But those neural activities are in the service of mental ones. That’s their point. We evolved neural structures and processes in order to further psychological adaptations that conferred reproductive advantages, which is the engine of biological evolution. Mind is not an epiphenomenon of brain: mind is the function of the brain, its reason for existence.

Second, mental processes pattern neural structure. Morality-related information – in other words, mental activity – has shaped the brain of each person since early childhood. As Dan Siegel puts it, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. In a basic sense, it would be just as accurate to say that “the brain is just the mind writ in neural tissues.”

Third, the neural substrates of conscious mental activity are continually changing in their physical details (e.g., neurons involved in a substrate, connections among them, and neurochemical flows). This means that the thought “2 + 2 = 4” on Monday maps to a different neural substrate than it does on Tuesday; in fact, that math fact would have a different substrate if you re-thought it only a few seconds later on Monday! Similarly, reflections on the Golden Rule on Monday will have a different neural substrate than on Tuesday. Consequently, it is the meaning of the thought that is fundamental, not its neural substrate. Taking this a step further, the ideas that two and two are four, or that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, can be represented in many sorts of physical substrates, including marks on a page, patterns of sound waves, and magnetic charges on a computer hard drive. Here, too, it is the information, the meaning, that is the key matter, and the physical substrate, whether brain or something else, recedes in significance.

Fourth, and most fundamentally, the mind and the brain co-dependently arise. It’s kind of
silly to make one causally senior to the other. Psychology shapes neurology shapes psychology shapes neurology, and so on. These two are distinct – immaterial information is not material neural tissues – but they are also interdependent and cannot be understood apart from each other. There is indeed a dualism between mind and matter, but they also form one coherent system. When people try to de-link mind and brain, and then argue that one rather than the other is primary – The mind is really just the brain at work! or The brain is really just the mind at work! – there is usually some sort of agenda going on: typically either an attempt to argue a strongly materialist, even atheist view, or to argue a fundamentalist spiritual view. But arguments about the primacy of either mind or brain are just not productive: all they produce is smoke and heat, but no light.

In the last part of this series we’ll discuss neural correlates and morality and summarize this discussion.

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Roles of karma and dharma in Buddhism

James Stuart, Demand Media: Dharma and karma provide the the basis for Buddhist morality, but also influence the religion’s concept of justice. They form a cosmic path that guides the soul through reincarnation and toward the ultimate goal of enlightenment. This is possible because the two concepts are connected, with dharma teaching individuals to live in harmony with the world, allowing them to accrue positive karma and experience favorable events in this and the next life.

Harmony

The concept of dharma, or dhamma, posits that the natural state of the world is one of harmony, and humans should do everything in their power to preserve it. Acts…

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Why Buddhists should be vegetarian

The Buddha ate meat. This is a fairly well attested fact. The issue of vegetarianism is addressed a few times in the Suttas, notably the Jivaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. The Buddha consistently affirmed that monastics were permitted to eat meat, as long as it was not killed intentionally for them. There are numerous passages in the Vinaya that refer to the Buddha or the monastics eating meat, and meat is regularly mentioned as one of the standard foods.

For these reasons, the standard position in Theravada Buddhism is that there is no ethical problem with eating meat. If you want to be vegetarian, that is a purely optional choice. Most Theravadins, whether lay or monastic, eat meat, and claim to be acting within the ethical guidelines of the Buddha’s teachings.

This position sits squarely within a straightforward application of the law of kamma, understood as intention. Eating meat involves no intention to do harm. As there is no intention, there is no kamma. As there is no kamma, there is no ethical problem.

The situation in Mahayana is more complicated. Mahayanists, especially in East Asia, embrace vegetarianism, often as a temporary measure for religious events, although the monastics are typically vegetarian all the time. The motivation is, at least in part, an expression of the greater emphasis on compassion in Mahayana. In practice, however, Mahayanists often adopt vegetarianism (as do Hindus) as a rite of purification. This is despite such texts as the Amagandha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha insists that eating meat is not a source of spiritual impurity. Tibetan monastics, on the other hand, usually eat meat.

Despite the apparently straightforward situation in Theravada, the problem does not go away. For obvious reasons: eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.

Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.

Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.

The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.

One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.

So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.

Sometimes in Theravada vegetarianism is slighted, as it is traditionally associated with the ‘5 points’ of Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to prove he was better than the Buddha, so he asked the Buddha to enforce five ascetic practices, such as only accepting alms food, live all their lives in the forest, and so on. These practices are regarded as praiseworthy, and Devadatta’s fault was not in promoting these as such, but in seeking to make them compulsory. Stories of the Buddha’s childhood emphasize how compassionate he was compared to Devadatta’s cruelty to animals, perhaps because of Devadatta’s asscoiation with vegetarianism. So rather than deprecating the vegetarians as ‘followers of Devadatta’, one could infer from this passage that vegetarianism, like the other practices, was praiseworthy, but the Buddha did not wish to make it compulsory.

To argue in such a way, however, is clutching at straws. There is a wider problem, and I think the discussions of the issue among Buddhists generally avoid this. And the wider issue is this: meat eating is clearly harmful. That harm is a direct but unintended consequence of eating meat. Since there is no intention to cause harm, eating meat is not bad kamma. There are therefore two logical possibilities: eating meat is ethical; or kamma is not a complete account of ethics.

Let us look more closely at this second possibility. The notion that actions should not be done, even when they involve no harmful intention, is found constantly in the Vinaya. For example, a monk is criticised for baking bricks that have small creatures in them, even though he was unaware of them and did not intend any harm. The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding this.

In another case, the Buddha laid down a rule that a monastic must inquire about the source of meat before accepting it. The context of this rule was that someone had offered human flesh (their own – it’s a long story!) and this rule is usually said to only apply if one has doubts as to whether the food is human flesh. But that is not what the rule states – it simply says that one should inquire as the the source of the meat, and that it is an offence to eat meat without doing so. Needless to say, this rule is ignored throughout Theravada.

These are a couple of examples in the context of causing harm to beings. There are many others. Indeed, there are several Vinaya rules that were laid down in response to the actions of arahants. An arahant cannot act in an intentionally harmful manner, so these rules cannot be taken to imply that the motivation behind the acts was wrong. The acts have unintended harmful consequences, and this is why they are prohibited.

In this sense, if the Vinaya pertains to sila, or ethics, then the scope of sila is broader than the scope of kamma. This is, when you think about it, common sense. Kamma deals only with intention and the consequences of intentional action. This is critical because of its place in the path to liberation. We can change our intentions, and thereby purify our minds and eventually find release from rebirth. That is the significance of kamma to us as individuals.

But ethics is not just a matter of individual personal development. It is also a social question, or even wider, an environmental question in the broad sense. How do we relate to our human and natural context in the most positive and constructive way?

I am suggesting that, while kamma deals with the personal, ethics includes both the personal and the environmental.

As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?

When we recite the first precept, we say, ‘I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings’. This is a challenge, and in itself is a powerful ethics. Yet it is merely a short summary of a principle. It was never meant to fully describe the virtue of harmlessness. When the Buddha spoke of this precept in more detail, this is what he had to say:

Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, one dwells without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.

This is not just an ethic of allowability. It doesn’t merely set a minimum standard. It calls us out, asking us to aspire to a higher sense of compassion, an ethic that deeply feels for the welfare of all beings. More than just asking, ‘Does this act come from an intention to harm’, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this act the best I can possibly do to promote the welfare of all?’ Rather than simply escaping bad kamma, we create good kamma.

One obvious criticism of this approach is that being vegetarian does not mean you don’t cause harm. We hurt beings in many unintentional way, driving cars, buying products, almost everything we do. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with Jainism, and will have to walk everywhere with a cloth over our mouth to keep the flies from dying, and a soft broom to brush the creatures away. (Note, though, that even the Jains have a complex relationship with vegetarianism.) It is simply arbitrary to identify meat eating as the cause of harm. This is, after all, the point of the well-known (though apocryphal) story of Siddhattha as a young boy, seeing the plough turning up the soil, killing some worms, and leaving the others to be picked off by the crows. Even eating rice involves the unintentional destruction of life. The only solution is to get off the wheel.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. Sure, being vegetarian or vegan we will still cause harm. And sure, there are boundary issues as to what is really vegetarian (Honey? Bees are killed. Sugar? Animal bones are used for the purification process… )

But the fact that we can’t do everything does not imply that we shouldn’t do this thing. The simple fact is that eating meat cause massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves.

To return to the basic problem. As Buddhists, we expect that the Buddha kept the highest possible ethical conduct. And for the most part, he did. So if the Buddha allowed something, we feel there can’t be anything wrong with it. There is nothing dogmatic or unreasonable about such an expectation. When we read the Suttas and the Vinaya, we find again and again that the Buddha’s conduct was, indeed, of the highest order.

How then, if meat eating is an inferior ethical standard, can it be that the Buddha did it? This is the crux of the matter. And I don’t have an easy answer.

Part of it is to do with the nature of the mendicant life. The Buddha and his disciples wandered from house to house, simply accepting whatever was offered. It’s hard to refuse offerings given in such a spirit. Yet this answer is incomplete, as there are many foods, including several types of meat, that are prohibited in the Vinaya. Clearly the monastics were expected to have some say over what went into their bowls.

There are other considerations I could raise. But I don’t want to press the textual argument too far. In the end, we have a partial, and partially understood record of the Buddha’s life and teachings. For those of us who have been blessed enough to have encountered the Dhamma, we have found it to be an uplifting and wise guide to life.

And yet: we cannot let our ethical choices be dictated by ancient texts. Right and wrong are too important. The scriptures do not contain everything, and do not answer every question. As Buddhists, we take the texts seriously, and do not lightly discard their lessons. Yet there is a difference between learning from scripture and submitting to it.

There are some things that the scriptures simply get wrong. The Suttas make no critique of slavery, for example, and yet for us this is one of the most heinous of all crimes.

Why are these things as they are? I don’t know. I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to studying and understanding the Buddhist scriptures, and in almost all things of importance I find them to be impeccable. But my study has also shown me the limits of study. We cannot access the truth through scripture. We can only access certain ideas. Our understanding and application of those ideas is of necessity imperfect. There is always something left over.

This being so, it is unethical to cite scripture as a justification for doing harm. If eating meat is harmful and unnecessary, it remains so whatever the texts say. Our sacred texts are sacred, not because they determine what is right and wrong, but because they inform our choices and help us to do better.

The principle of harmlessness underlies the very fabric of the Dhamma, and if its application in this context is problematic, the principle itself is not in question. It simply means our scriptures are imperfect, and the practice of ethics is complex and messy. But we knew that already. It is not out of disrespect that we make our choice, but out of respect for the deeper principles of compassion and harmlessness.

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When murderers meditate…

Woodcut of Sakuma Genba Morimasa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, circa 1820s

I wonder what kind of “meditation” Anders Breivik — who shot 69 people on an island in Norway last year, as well as killing another eight with a bomb — was doing?

According to this report,

When prosecutors Friday asked Breivik whether he felt empathy for others, the killer said he taught himself to dull all emotions – “from happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, anxiety, fear” through meditation.

It’s possible that Breivik was not doing anything resembling traditional Buddhist meditation, which encourages compassion and non-repression of emotions. I’d be 100 confident that Breivik was not practicing lovingkindness or compassion meditation!

Traditionally, meditation is only one part of the spiritual path, and it’s accompanied with an ethical code that strongly emphasizes non-harm. Stripped of this traditional context, there’s no guarantee that meditation alone will make someone a better person.

It’s also possible to practice meditation in an unbalanced way that results in an unhealthy form of emotional detachment and a kind of emotional deadening. Sangharakshita, my own teacher, has mentioned seeing some early western practitioners of the Burmese Satipatthana Method becoming very detached from their emotions and from their physical experience. This seems to have arisen from their having misunderstood the nature of the meditation practices they’d undertaken (or perhaps they had a bad teacher or teachers).

But meditation can be used quite deliberately in ways that are at odds with the Buddha’s teaching. It’s said that samurai warriors would practice meditation in order to quiet the mind and make them better warriors, so this use (or mis-use, from the perspective of the Buddha-Dharma) of meditation techniques would not be new.

I’d encourage all meditators to practice lovingkindness meditation as well as mindfulness practices, and to consciously practice the five Buddhist precepts of undertaking not to kill, take that which is not given, commit sexual misconduct, speak falsely, or indulge in intoxication.

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A pioneering American Buddhist’s life amid strife

Peggy Fletcher Stack (Salt Lake Tribune): Charles Prebish’s path through American Buddhism has taken him to cities and universities, libraries and seminars, academic tugs of war, Zen centers, meditation retreats and global online communities. It put him in the presence of the nation’s most influential Buddhist teachers and at the forefront of a burgeoning field.

Most unexpectedly, Prebish’s decades as a Buddhist scholar-practitioner even set him down at the end of his career in, as he put it, Mormonland.

Now in an eye-opening autobiography, An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer, Prebish spells out the spiritual and…

Read the rest of this article…

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Is Buddhism right?

Joshua Rothman (Boston Globe): Buddhism is in vogue in the West, partly because Buddhist practices, especially meditation, are popularly associated with contentment and well-being. As religions go, Buddhism strikes many people as a sensible and practical lifestyle choice.

Owen Flanagan, a distinguished philosopher at Duke, thinks this purely practical approach to Buddhism misses the point. In a new book, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized,’’ Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones. Subtract the “hocus-pocus” about reincarnation and karma, he argues, and you’ll find a rigorous, clear-eyed account of the universe and our place in it – one that would satisfy even the most ardent modern-day materialist. Buddhism matters, in other words, because it’s actually right.

Buddhism is practiced in different ways around the world. Still, Flanagan writes, if a stripped-down, unifying “Buddhist Credo” existed, it would affirm that “everything is impermanent” and, ultimately, “subject to the principles of cause and effect” – including the bodies and minds of human beings. Physicists, biologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists would agree. Science is based on the realization that human beings are part of a material world that’s driven by impersonal, physical laws.

In the Western tradition, this notion has been cause for despair. Buddhism, however, takes this worldview as its starting point, and then goes on to ask moral questions about how we ought to behave. It takes work, in the form of study and meditation, to accept that you’re just a part of the physical world, and that your soul doesn’t exist in any meaningful, permanent way. Once you’ve made the leap, though, you can live a more moral life. “Recognizing that I am a selfless person metaphysically,” Flanagan writes, “helps me see that I have reason to be less selfish morally.” The real value of Buddhism, he concludes, is that it finds moral meaning in our material world – something our Western moral systems, centuries after being upended by the Scientific Revolution, are still figuring out how to do.

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