Reason and rationality

Recently, on another blog, in response to a suggestion that discussion on a certain issue could benefit from a less emotional approach, a Buddhist practitioner wrote, “What good does [reason] do when emotional reactions rule the day?”

Frustration is a common feeling, one that everyone experiences from time to time, and many of us have thought or said something similar. Yet, I think most people recognize that in the end it is wise not to give in to frustration, as it is easy to become stuck in futility and pessimism, which are negative and unwholesome states of mind.

Mental attitude is the subject that Buddhist practice addresses, for in Buddha-dharma it is held that everything arises from the mind and that unwholesome states of mind are rooted in a distorted way of perceiving the world. The practice of Dharma aims to correct that.

The Dhammapada, one of the earliest Buddhist teachings, says:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts . . . . the mind is very hard to check and quick to fall on what it desires.  The training of the mind is good, a mind so tamed brings happiness . . . One of unsteady mind, who doesn’t know True Dhamma (Dharma), who is of wavering confidence, wisdom fails to win.”

Buddhist philosophy and practice serve as an antidote to dispel the distortion in the mind and helps us to cultivate a more positive and wholesome way of perceiving the world. The Buddha’s prescription, called the Eightfold Path, consists of three general components: ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Ethics in Buddhism deals with generating positive mental states that create virtuous words and actions. In no sense can futility or a state of uselessness be considered positive.

Buddhism teaches that in the procedure of improving thoughts, words and actions, emotionalism is a tenor or condition that on the whole, should be avoided.

I once got upset with the Bhante running the place I was going to at the time. People were taking advantage of him and he didn’t seem to care. I vented some of my frustration, and then later I said to him, “Sorry, I get a little emotional sometimes.” He replied, “That’s what we are trying to cure.”

He was offering me a valuable teaching. He knew I was right, that my concerns had merit, but he also knew that I was not approaching the matter from Dharma, but rather from my distorted mind.

Based on this realization, my question would be,  when emotional reactions rule the day, what good does more emotionalism do? That, it seems to me, is when reason becomes critical. If you aspire to a Dharmic kind of life, then you should want to use Dharma,  and the Dharma’s strategy is to employ a reasonable approach.

The Dalai Lama says:

“I would like to remind all of you who consider yourselves practicing Buddhists to reflect upon the point raised in the sutra that we should relate to the teachings like a mirror, we should see our own thoughts, feelings, actions, and so on reflected in the mirror and constantly judge to what extent of thoughts, feelings, behavior, and motivation are close to that reality reflected in the mirror, or to what extent they are deviating from the teachings. It is through that constant comparison and checking that you should adopt the teachings.”

It is important for practicing Buddhists to develop a proper mental attitude. If your attitude is influenced by a feeling  that “It is useless to be reasonable when no one else is” then you may think that you are developing something skillful, that your attitude is based on Dharma, but in reality, your approach is non-Dharma.

The blogger made another statement that I’d like to comment on: “too many ‘Westerners’ reduce Buddhist practice to reason and rationality”.

The more I ponder this, the less sense it makes. It seems to me that if you are an adherent of a philosophy based on reason and rationality, it would be somewhat logical to use reason and rationality.

I feel that too many of us “westerners” want to reduce Buddhist practice to our reason and our rationality. In my experience, we Western folk seem to have a real hard time letting go our preferences and preconceived notions. We want to approach Buddhism on our own terms, and instead of trusting the teachings, and we twist them to fit into our own mold of what we think they should be.

Seng-ts’an, in Verses on the Heart-Mind says:

“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.”

And Shunryu Suzuki, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, says:

“You should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen . . .  just observe . . . A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice zazen; to clear our mind of what is related to something else.”

I favor a liberal interpretation of Dharma. We live in a modern age, and Dharma must be adapted to our times. The Buddha himself empowered us to do that in his guidance to the Kalamas:

“Do not go upon tradition . . .  or because this is what the Teacher said . . . when you yourselves know that these things are reasonable . . . then enter and abide in them.”

This, too, should be tempered with reason. The guidance was not intended to give us a license to pick and choose as we please, based on our own preferences and pre-conceived ideas.

There are certain core principles or teachings within Buddhism that make it unique, and to my mind, superior to other philosophies and religions. Among these are: The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, the cycle of birth and death, karma, Dependent Arising, the Bodhisattva Ideal, and emptiness. In adapting Buddhism to our modern world, I think it is important to insure that we are not twisting or distorting these principle teachings to suit our own mind. In my opinion, to reject reason and rationality is to do just that.

If we approach Buddhist teachings with too much resistance, then we might as well not approach them at all. At some point, we need to balance our predilections with trust. It’s a perpetual lesson, and one that I find myself continually relearning: that if we find Dharma to be a sound teaching then we should try to apply Dharma to every situation, we should use the strategy of the Dharma, the strategy of reason and rationality.


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