I’ve read a lot in the Buddhist Blogosphere recently on the subject of ethics, as part of the on-going discussion about the secularization of “mindfulness.” The concern for some folks is that as Buddhist meditation moves further into the secular mainstream, it has lost its original ethical component.
I share the concern, to some extent, but don’t know enough about the various secular applications of Buddhist meditation to feel confident about wading very far into the discussion. However, I do like to think I am competent to say a few words about “Buddhist ethics.”
Buddhism and Jainism were the first Indian spiritual paths to contain a strong moral element. The Buddhist take was that as suffering was produced by ignorance (avidya), it was necessary to destroy ignorance in order to bring an end to suffering. The state of no-suffering was called awakening, and the Buddha taught that one could not awaken merely through intuition, mystical ritual, or the practice of austerities as other Indian systems had previously maintained. For the Buddha, a progressive advancement in the practice of moral conduct was essential.
An emphasis on morality in other spiritualities, particularly those in the West, often led to moralizing, almost universally viewed as preaching moral values in “a self-righteous or tiresome way.” Buddhism was able to avoid this by focusing on karma (no need to judge or condemn because wrongdoing inevitably results in karmic retribution) and through promoting bhavana or self-development (as one progresses in awakening, ethical behavior arises in an organic way).
Buddhism and Jainism are very similar, and this is the case with Buddhism and Taoism, too. For many, Taoism appears to lack a moral vision, especially when compared to the ethical teachings of the other major Chinese path, Confucianism.
In Mystics and Zen Masters, Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who was an ardent student of Eastern philosophy, questioned whether Taoist quietism and “non-action” (wu-wei) didn’t play right into the hands of the totalitarian Chinese communists:
“Theirs is a way of ‘non-action,’ which is falsely interpreted as pure quietism when in reality it is a policy of non-interference and an abstention from useless and artificial action. Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism.” ( 54)
I’m not sure how Merton felt about it, but there are those who feel that ethics in Buddhism should be expressed as social and political action, and since Buddha-dharma seems deficient in this regard, to them it means Buddhism is “absent”. I can’t help but feel this point of view stems from a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of Buddhist dharma.
Like Taoism, Buddhism has never been a social action movement. Buddhism is self-help. As odious and “bourgeois” as that may sound to some, it is nonetheless dead-on. As I pointed out in my March 30th post, bhavana or “self-development” is the word frequently used by the Buddha for meditation. If, because of one’s self-development, a choice is made to engage in social action, it is highly commendable. But it is not the prime point of Buddhism’s ethical thrust.
In The Tao of the West, J.J. Clarke offers an excellent explanation for how Taoism conveys the moral ideal:
Taoism teaches an ‘ethics’ of ‘self-cultivation’ . . . At the heart of this is the idea of the sage who, through mirroring and cultivating himself in the way of nature, the dao, exemplifies but does not specify in law-like terms the way for others; like an artist, his self-creative activity should inspire rather than be imitated.” (95)
You can replace the word “sage” with Buddha or Bodhisattva and arrive at the heart of Buddhism. Imitate means to “take or follow as a model. Inspire means “fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” It seems to me that inspiration must come from a deeper place in one’s being than imitation.
I recently came across a blog post by a fellow who has had a somewhat high profile in Buddhist circles in recent years and he was explaining why he was quitting his blog and stepping away from Buddhism. The reasons he gave included the notions mentioned above: a “bourgeois” mindset, Buddhist absenteeism concerning social action, the self-help/feel-good-about-yourself focus. I’ve seen this often, people get very involved in dharma for a short time and then they burn out. I think now I understand why this happens. They’ve learned the teachings and learned from them, but they haven’t been deeply inspired.
The kind of inspiration I’m referring to should stimulate within us a genuine eagerness to be an example to others of how to live ethically and with compassion. There’s no need to teach ethics or preach morality, yet it is important that we find ways to inspire these values.
But first, we have to be a good example for ourselves. Like it or not, it is difficult to inspire others if you don’t feel inspired yourself, or you are uncomfortable about your own life. So, again, it all comes down to one’s personal development. Our first and foremost task is to win over ourselves.
This may sound pompous and/or self-serving, but I cannot imagine ever turning back, stepping back, or quitting the dharma because I am inspired. What’s more, I am continually inspired.
Q: Do practitioners inspire their own minds or do others induce their inspiration?
A: It has nothing to do with self and others, it is just a matter of inspiration of the mind through response to an inner sense of contact with truth.
Chih-i, Mo Ho Chih Kuan (tr. Thomas Cleary)