Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Environmental Vow 16: Buddhism

Bringing in a Third Option

I hope that I have been persuasive with at least a few of my readers to the point where they believe as I do, that something like faith and duty are necessary for mobilizing humanity to save the planet.  Moreover, I also hope that they have been able to follow my explanation why traditional formulations are no longer acceptable to most citizens.  I also hope that people have followed my description of why Maslow's suggested ethic of “self actualization” has failed to fill the void.  Finally, I'd like to think that my little digression dealing with the complexities of freedom articulated clearly why I think it is important to reject naive assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the collective.

In effect, what I am suggesting is that in order to mobilize society in a way that will allow us to really deal with the problems that the human race will face during the coming time of environmental catastrophe we will have to develop some new way of mobilizing society.  This unifying force will have to mimic the best parts of faith and duty, without falling prey to the limitations that are all too obvious to modern people.  It will also have to avoid the problems that I have identified with the ideals of “self-actualization” and “follow your bliss” and instead has more in common with Cicero's ideal of “participation in power”.  

In the next part of this essay I'm going to examine some new trends in our society that I think show some promise about how we might be able to work our way out of the present mess.  


The big push to develop the new ethic of Self-Actualization or “Follow your bliss” came from a rejection of both patriotic duty and religious faith as the key motivational force in a person's life.  It was pretty obvious to a society that had gone through things like the reformation, the enlightenment and the World Wars that there needed to be something else to motivate intelligent people beyond religious faith and patriotism.  That is why thinkers like Maslow tried so hard to come up with some sort of replacement.   Unfortunately, in practice his suggestion quickly degenerated into not much more than “do your own thing”.  This is pretty thin gruel to live on in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.  It is totally insufficient to support people going through a period of crisis like the present ecological collapse.

Large minorities have decided to maintain their allegiance to traditional faith, which has led to the increased militancy of Protestant Fundamentalism and a sort of creeping Roman Catholic Fascism that places all power in the Pope.   Coexisting with and mostly overlapping with them are extreme patriots who exhibit a similar sort of belief in the value of the military and Executive authority to the exclusion of both the Legislature and Constitutional safeguards.   Beyond these reactionary tendencies, I would suggest that there are other, more promising currents at work.

One example is the emergence of North American Buddhism.   Even though it is difficult to find hard numbers, it appears that the number of Buddhists is growing very quickly in North America1.   While much of this growth comes from Asian immigration, a significant fraction (estimated at about 20-25%2) are Western converts of European descent.   While the absolute numbers of actual converts are quite small, the important point to remember is that Buddhism is not just another flavour of the Middle-Eastern religion once held by most North Americans, it is significantly different in what it understands a religion to be.  The fact that it is becoming a significant minority player on the North American religious scene is extremely relevant----not because of its numbers, but rather because of what it says about how the general public increasingly views religion itself.

The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all defined by the relationship between the believer and God.  This relationship is defined by a codified belief system that comes from divine revelation, tradition and ecclesiastic institutions that provide definitive “orthodox” interpretations of that revelation and tradition.  It is very important that the “believer” believe in what orthodoxy teaches or else bad things will happen---excommunication, execution for heresy or apostasy, and, eternal damnation.   In effect, it all comes down to loyalty to a cause.  If someone breaks ranks and starts thinking for herself, an angry hierarchy---both ecclesiastic and divine---will punish her for disloyalty.

Buddhism is very different.  It sees the world in terms of impersonal forces and scientific laws.    For this system there is no point in believing a creed on faith except in the provisional sense of taking advice from someone more experienced and experimenting to see if it works as described.  Moreover, a belief without understanding is seen as worthless because it means that it cannot be applied to a given situation with the sort of “skillful means”3 that is necessary to jump the gap between theory and practice.   There is no “angry God” who punishes you after death---just your own unresolved internal conflicts that manifest themselves as hallucinations on the deathbed4 or the impersonal law of karma that will create consequences that continue after the individual has expired.5  

What is important is the specific effort one puts into gaining real insight into what it means to be a human being.  This is achieved through a myriad of different practices that are tailored to different types of people who have lived in many different societies.  As such, a perennial question that is asked about Buddhism is whether it is a religion at all, or “just” a philosophy of life or school of applied psychology.  It is because of this emphasis on the process of self-investigation instead of a revealed belief system that even a thorough-going, self-proclaimed atheist such as Sam Harris is able to suggest that there is much of value in the Buddhist tradition.6  

This is not to say that Buddhism is exclusively or even fundamentally a science of the mind.  In many ways it is similar to the Abrahamic religions in that it also has a belief-system that has developed a complex enculturation process aimed at fostering a specific sort of mindset.  It has sects.  They have rituals.  Its monasteries and nunneries have rules of behaviour similar to the rules that govern Christian monasteries.  But it does have that one significant distinction in its core beliefs are---at least theoretically---based on the personal experience of individual monks and nuns, as opposed to submission to the will of an unknowable God, and, the Ecclesiastic hierarchy that speaks in his name.  

In a variety of ways this basic Buddhist message has at times been twisted and made into something that more resembles the Abrahamic religions.  For example, Zen Buddhism has made a fetish of lineage that has given far too much power to some Zen Masters, which they have gone on to abuse.7   Similarly at least one master of the “crazy wisdom” tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the late Chogyam Rimpoche, has been accused of abusing the extreme authority given to him by his followers.  In addition, the Institutions that govern Zen Buddhism were co-opted by the Imperial Japanese Empire in support of brutal oppression of other nations.8   Similar problems also exist in just about every other  branch of Buddhism.9   In each of these cases the well-known injunction of the Buddha that all his followers should be “lamps unto oneself” was ignored in favour of the ideal of the “Master” who's understanding was so greater than an ordinary human being that they were told to ignore the promptings of their own reason or conscience.

But having acknowledged all of these particular problems, there is still at the core of Buddhist religious tradition a central vision that suggests that people should ultimately not submit to any authority except themselves when it comes to spiritual matters.  One recent version of this statement that seems to be widely copied on the Internet states it thus:

Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,
even though they have been held in honor
for many generations and in diverse places.
Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.
Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.
Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,
persuading yourself that a God inspires you.
Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.
After examination, believe what you yourself have tested
and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.10

 Moreover, I would suggest that it is exactly this ideal of intellectual freedom that is most appealing to Western converts.

Is it possible that a Buddhist-based religious revival could occur in the West during our coming “dark ages” of ecological collapse?  Could Buddhist monasteries play as important a role in saving nature much as Benedictine ones did in saving Western Europe?

Unfortunately, I think that that is an overly optimist read of the situation.  Western Buddhism's emphasis on the importance of introspection as a means of gaining enlightenment has resulted in a significant tendency that allows naive followers to ignore all other elements of the human experience.  I have, for example, a wall-hanging that I purchased from an order of Tibetan monks that says

Mind is the forerunner of all states.
If with a mind that is calm and clean,
With him does bliss follow,
Mind is supreme, all are creations of mind.
One speaks or does a thing,
Like the never deserting Shadow.11

Obviously, if “Mind is supreme”, then the environment is a secondary issue that a good Buddhist shouldn't invest much energy into preserving.   Unfortunately, I think that this rather flippant understanding pretty much accurately sums-up the worldview of many, if not most Western Buddhists.

The Tibetan monks that I purchased this hanging from understood the fallacy of this point of view.  That is why when they gave their demonstration of harmonic chanting they also insisted on showing a debate between two monks on Buddhist theory.  (Unfortunately, since it was delivered in Tibetan instead of English, this point was lost on just about everyone in the audience.)   The point they were trying emphasize is that meditation---while key to Buddhism---is only one element of a far bigger system.

Almost the only element of Buddhism that most Western Buddhists see are meditation classes.   And in substance, these almost invariably work from a therapeutic instead of a religious model.     Psychotherapists serve a significantly different role than do religious teachers.  Religions are supposed to tell us things about the universe---what is “right”, what is “wrong” and how society should work.  Therapists, on the other hand, are only legitimately concerned about the individual they are treating.   Ultimate issues are set aside so they can focus exclusively on how to help an individual person become more functional in her day-to-day life.  That is why psychiatrists, for example, assume the posture of being “non-judgemental” in their interactions with the client.  Meditation taught outside the structure of the Eightfold Path is non-judgemental, but within its bounds, it is very much the opposite.

The Eightfold Path is an attempt to find the absolute essentials that a person must have in order to live a “good” life---in both senses of the word.   When we say that someone led a “good” life it can mean that it was relatively pleasant and the person who lived suffered less than most.   We can also say that a person was a “good” woman, even though she suffered from terrible deprivation---because she was a moral, honourable and engaged person.  Because Buddhism teaches that a great deal of our sense of well-being is derived from our mental state instead of the physical situation we inhabit (e.g. “Mind is the forerunner of all states---”), it believes that it is impossible to separate these two definitions of “good”.   In effect, the fact that the two senses of the word are linked reflects a fundamental truth, not a mere happenstance of language.  For Buddhists, enlightenment is not just a mental state that can be scotch-taped onto just about anyone.  Instead, it is the result of having a certain way of looking at the world and behaving in a certain way.    

The Eightfold Path of Buddhism is an attempt to link together both sides of “good” in an easily remembered prescription for how to live the best possible life, both in terms of personal satisfaction and in terms of morality.   The are:  right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and, right concentration.    Note that the Western popular understanding of Buddhism---derived from all those meditation classes---usually only includes the last two, “right mindfulness” and “right concentration”.   Almost no emphasis is placed upon any sort of theoretical understanding of humanity and its place in the universe, or, “right view” and “right intention”.  (This was the element of the Eightfold Path that those Tibetan lamas were trying to emphasize in their scholarly debate that I mentioned above.)  Nor is there any emphasis usually placed upon how a human being should interact with his society at large, or, “right speech”, “right action”, and, “right livelihood”.   If there is any attention paid to “right effort”, it probably revolves around how much effort a person should put into their meditation practice.

The key issue that explains why Western citizens are usually only exposed to and embrace the last two parts of the Buddhist Way centres around the issue of renunciation.   Buddhism in Asia has primarily been a religion of monks and nuns.  In the West, it is primarily a religion for lay people.   Monks and nuns are people who have made a very conscious choice (at least the ones who entered the convent voluntarily) to live a certain way and give up a wide range of opportunities and activities that are taken for granted by most of the general public.  The idea is that as a way of training the mind (as well as being able to form a stable community) monks and nuns voluntarily agree upon living a very specific way.  This special way of living has been codified in different ways by different Buddhist sects and traditions---just like orders of Christian monks and nuns have adopted their “rules” that govern their life.   And if you look at the rules that exist, you can see that they are in some cases very specific.

Theravada Buddhism, which is one of the older schools of Buddhism, has a very large number of rules and regulations governing the behaviour of monks and nuns.   A collection of rules, the Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha, has been translated by Buddhist scholar of the name Thanissaro Bhikkhu and published on the Internet.12  Here are a few bits and pieces so readers can get a flavour of the rules and regulations.   From the chapter titled “Pārājika: Rules entailing expulsion from the Sangha (Defeat)” comes:

Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (saying,): "My good man, what use is this evil, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life," or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in affiliation.

From the section titled “Saṅghādisesa: Rules entailing an initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha” comes this:

Should any bhikkhu — corrupt, aversive, disgruntled — charge a bhikkhu with an unfounded case entailing defeat, (thinking), "Perhaps I may bring about his fall from this celibate life," then regardless of whether or not he is cross-examined on a later occasion, if the issue is unfounded and the bhikkhu confesses his aversion, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

Obviously putting a hit on someone is not monkish behaviour, but it is also against most societies' legal codes anyway.   Suggesting suicide as an option or bearing false witness are not usually dealt with by civil courts, but it is also easy to see that these would be very serious crimes in a spiritual community.  I don't think anyone would find these rules onerous to follow.

But these codes tend to have many, many rules that govern many different elements of monastic life.  They exist because it is really difficult to get people to live together in these sorts of communities without having them blow up due internal friction.  These are a very few of these more “practical” rules.

Should any bhikkhu accept robe-cloth from the hand of a bhikkhunī [a Buddhist nun] unrelated to him — except in exchange — it is to be forfeited and confessed.

Malicious tale-bearing among bhikkhus is to be confessed.

The damaging of a living plant is to be confessed.

Should any bhikkhu knowingly lie down in a dwelling belonging to the Community so as to intrude on a bhikkhu who arrived there first, (thinking), "Whoever finds it confining will go away" — doing it for just that reason and no other — it is to be confessed.

Monks shouldn't have “special friend” nuns that do favours for them.  Monks shouldn't be “tattle-tales” and “gossips”.   Monks shouldn't trample the flowers at the monastery.  Monks shouldn't intrude on the private space of other monks.  These are simple rules aimed at keeping the peace.

As anyone who reads through these long lists of rules---and all the Buddhist sects have their own---can see, being a monk or nun was, and still is, very much not an issue of “follow your bliss”.   Instead, it is a pretty heavy undertaking that involved a radical restructuring of a person's priorities and physical surroundings so he can integrate himself into a community that survives on very limited resources.  It is very much the same sort of radical renunciation that a Benedictine monk took when he decided to give up his life as an aristocrat and became a brother who would drain swamps, cut hay and get up in the middle of the night to sing divine services.  Of course, in both Buddhist and Benedictine cases the change was a lot less dramatic for those who jumped into monastic life from being a poor peasant.  But it was, and still is for modern Buddhist monastics, a very far cry from the life of the middle-class North American who takes a few meditation classes, begins a regular meditation practice, and begins to call himself a “Buddhist”.

I've raised this point as an outsider to the Western Buddhist world and had several very engaged people reinforce this assessment.   For example, one person responded to a blog posting with the following comment:

For thirty years I taught Buddhism in various capacities; as a monastic, as the Abbot of a Temple, as a Prison Chaplain, in courses as Junior Colleges. The one aspect of Buddhism which I found impossible for the students to absorb was renunciation. Any time renunciation was brought up (and you can’t really talk about Buddhism without discussing renunciation since renunciation is central to its world view) people would argue that renunciation is not necessary, or no longer necessary, or that it is misguided; that one can have everything one wants on a material level as well as spiritual attainment. In discussions I have had with other Buddhist teachers my experience has been affirmed, they also found it literally impossible to communicate the place renunciation holds in Buddhism. (One wit put it that Buddhism in the West is ‘the upper middle class way’.)13

So while traditional Buddhist abbies might very well serve the same function as the Benedictines did during the Dark Ages, Western Buddhism doesn't have at its core the same commitment to lifestyle change that Eastern Buddhism had through the Eightfold Path and different monastic codes of conduct.  Instead, I think it can be said that it has been “infected” by Maslow's self-actualization ideal to the point where people simply aren't willing to accept the renunciation prescription that is encapsulated in the Eightfold Path and various monastic codes.

Having said that, it still is profoundly worthwhile to see that so many Westerners still want to find a religious option for their life that also includes the notion of “be a lamp unto yourself”.  Moreover, it is important to realize that even if people do not immediately twig onto the Eightfold Path, the very act of deciding to follow a regular meditation practice is itself a much greater commitment than that usually required by the Abrahimic religions.  For those people who do stick to a meditation regime, there is a significant chance that they will want to pursue a deeper understanding of Buddhism, which will in turn lead them towards a more authentic experience.  But the end of a road is not the beginning, and many a traveler never makes it all the way.


baroness radon said...

"Buddhism in Asia has primarily been a religion of monks and nuns. In the West, it is primarily a religion for lay people. "

Most recently in China I have observed a resurgence of Buddhism -- of the Mahayana type -- at temples where many young persons, 20-somethings, are visiting and performing rituals, and many grandparents bring very young children to temples. This is not Theravada, monastic Buddhism, which most Westerners seem to glom onto, like Zen and tantra, too. In Hawaii where I live there are many Buddhists, but I would say mostly Pure Land practitioners, not renunciants. I think Westerners attracted to the more renunciant styles are just trying to fill the void in their own cultural emptiness. While many people are sincere, and longing, I'm not convinced they are REALLY Buddhists. (Lately I've been wrestling with the phenomena of Westerners adopting Eastern traditions--and vice versa-- and the authenticity and validity of that, knowing all the while that no one is more pious than a convert.) At the same time, my Tao teacher says he likes teaching Westerners because Chinese people aren't as interested in Taoism any more. But being "interested in" or attracted to Taoism or Buddhism isn't the same as being a practitioner. Even if you light a lot of incense.

If Buddhism does become a major religious force in the West, I don't think it will be Buddhism as the East knows it. Buddhism has been around for a long time; it might be interesting examine historically how it has exhibited "promise about how we might be able to work our way out of the present mess."

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Your comment raises a lot of issues.

It's certainly true that religion in China is going through some real changes. Primarily, this is a result of no longer being persecuted.

As for Buddhist monasticism, even the Mahayana flavours have traditionally had a strong monastic element. Pure Land is different, of course, and there are popular religious elements, but I think it is perfectly fair to say that most Buddhisms have had a monastic focus throughout most of its history.

Of course, my assumption is that Buddhism is "for" enlightenment. If you assume that it is "for" cultural stability, etc, then the monastic elite are there to serve the ordinary practitioner who does not much more than burn incense at an altar once in a while. Much the same thing could be said about Daoism.

I don't really buy the "cultural appropriation" argument. If I did, I'd be hard pressed to see why Buddhism has spread from India and Christianity from Israel.

Anonymous said...

Sakyamuni never intended to create a "brand" of religion or another "-ism". He simply told those who would listen how he overcame his dualities and attachments.
He claimed to give people a path and he also foretold that people would later bastardize it into the million sects you see today, losing the entire point in the first place.
Categorizing things is one of the many issues that the Buddha talked about.
At the root, Daoism and Buddhism strike at the same issue: duality.
It isn't about the rituals and regulations (that was the original intent at least), these are simply means to establish an environment of learning and stability.

"baroness radon", criticism of others will get you nowhere fast.

baroness radon said...

I certainly didn't intend to be "critical" of anyone, but maybe sceptical or questioning, and I'm not trying to "get anywhere." I'm simply interested in what motivates people to choose to affiliate with certain traditions, esepcially if they are not part of their traditional culture.I am equally curious about Chinese, say, who convert to Catholicism or become Baptists. Maybe because I live in a very East-West place, and travel between the two, I am more sensitive to this.

Regarding Buddhism's spread from India East, and Christianity's spread west...that has happened over a long history, millenia. This East-to-West spread is very recent, over little more than a century, (partly because the Eastern traditions are not evangelical or missionary or recruitment oriented). It is interesting to watch.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


It's kinda hard to know exactly Sakyamuni wanted to do in opposition to the institution that followed. After all, all we have to go on are what the sutras and institutions relate that he said.


I don't think that it took "Millenia" for Buddhism and Christianity to spread. In both cases, the religion became officially sanctioned after the conversion of an emperor (Ashoka in the case of Buddhism, Constantine in the case of Christianity) and then spread very quickly through missionaries.

As for the East/West, thing, there is a real complexity. Hinduism and Buddhism both experienced somewhat of a renaissance in the East as a result of the Western interest in the subject that stemmed from the first translations of key texts in the 18th century. An old flame of mine from India told me about learning about Annie Besant in school. She became interested in Hindu philosophy while a member of the theosophist movement and moved to India where she taught the Indian elite to take pride in their indigenous, Hindu traditions. Similarly, another theosophist, Colonel Henry Olcott, did a similar service to Sri Lanka by suggesting that Buddhism too had much to offer the modern world.

As I see it, the whole problem of cultural appropriation revolves around whether or not the "believer" wants to admit that these traditions are the result of constant human innovation or whether they came out of the hands of some God and have never been changed. It requires, IMHO, a certain amount of spiritual maturity to admit that religion is a product of cultural evolution, always has and always will be.

baroness radon said...

I think we're more on the same page than not. My point is that the original spread of traditons started 2,000 or more years ago, and was like trees that rooted easily in soil that was already suited for them, culturally. But not until the late 19th century, not very long ago relatively speaking, with all those theosophists (the New Agers of the period), and the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religion, there wasn't much interest or knowledge of Eastern tradtions in the West. (That this caused a religious renaissance of the faiths in the East is news to me; I would like to know more about that.)

Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

I enjoyed this post. Regarding Buddhism in the west, I am beginning to wonder out loud whether it has any future. I already sense a falling away of interest in Buddhism as a way of life. What continues are the absorption of specific practices in a psychological context. Some westerners openly advocate this. I am thinking of people like Sam Harris who has an interest in Buddhist techniques of mental cultivation, but zero interest in Buddhism as a way of life. What I observe is that the rejection of renunciation is so strong and runs so counter to western feelings of entitlement, that when westerners do find out how important renunciation is to Buddhism they simply abandon Buddhism.

I don't mean to be pessmistic; perhaps there will have to be a second wave of transmission in order for westerners to 'get' Buddhism. That has happened before in Buddhist history. It took several waves of transmission for both Tibet and China for those cultures to get a real handle on the basics of the Dharma. But as far as the current wave goes, I'm inclined to think it will evaporate as a coherent presence.

Best wishes,