20 December 2012

Nothing is Consistent in Buddhist Social Ethics

            One of Buddhism’s greatest strengths, and perhaps the quality that will ensure its survival in the contemporary West, is also one of its greatest weaknesses—adaptability.  As the Dharma spread from India throughout Asia and the rest of the world, Buddhism not only informed the cultures it encountered but became informed by them, resulting in a plurality of “Buddhisms” rather than one monolithic, consistent tradition.  Therefore, the forms of the Dharma as practiced in Japan are very different from those practiced in Tibet and, indeed, quite different from one another even within the same country.  The various sects of Buddhism and the diverse societies in which Buddhism has been adopted provide differing perspectives on social issues, many conflicting with one another.  Nowhere more visible are these inconsistent perspectives than in relationship to ethical issues, which inform Buddhism in practice, not just theory.  As there is no single Buddhism, there can be no single code of Buddhist ethics.  For many in the West, this is problematic; conditioned by dualistic thinking, we expect consistency, even if it is simply to determine what Buddhists “do not believe.” 
            For example, if one were to posit the question, “Do Buddhists support abortion?”  no single consistent answer would emerge.  First, the phrasing of the question provides room for inconsistency in that Buddhists, or practitioners of Buddhism, are a group of individuals and their personal beliefs may be inconsistent with the teachings as recorded in the texts.  Even were we to rephrase the question as, “Does Buddhism support abortion?” we would be narrowing the possibilities only slightly, given the proliferation of forms of the tradition.  As investigated by Peter Harvey, in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist attitudes toward abortion are not entirely consistent, even given the first precept of not intentionally harming any sentient life.  The crux comes, as in Christian and secular Western attitudes toward abortion, with the defining moment of life.  One predominant Buddhist attitude defines life at the moment of conception, and thus abortion would be considered as a breach of the first precept.  What if, however, the pregnancy causes the mother suffering, harming her life?  Thus begins an unreasonable exercise in weighing one person’s dukkha against that of another.  Abortion, for some Buddhists, becomes a permissible option if it relieves more suffering or prevents more harm.
            Another example of Buddhist inconsistency in social ethics is the tradition’s multiplicitous attitudes toward gender relations.  The Buddha seems to have been influenced by the culture of his time in initially not allowing women to enter the sangha.  As discussed by Dr. David Loy in his essay, “What’s Wrong with Sex?” there were practical reasons that can be attributed for the Buddha’s reluctance, such as the concern that allowing both sexes to intermingle in the sangha would make sexual activity more likely, which would be a hindrance to enlightenment.  However, even after having been persuaded to allow women to join, the iniquities in the monastic codes for men versus women show how the cultural patriarchy of India at the time was reinscribed in the Dharma.  Because of the complex interrelationship between issues of biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation, that patriarchy and male privilege present in Buddhism from the beginning continue to inform Buddhist attitudes toward a number of related social issues such as prostitution and the ordination of homosexuals.
Depiction of a hell in Sri Lankan Buddhist temple.

            Possibly the most distressing inconsistency exhibited by the Dharma is that, even though widely understood as a religion that abhors violence and promotes peace, there have been those people throughout history who have exploited Buddhism’s flexibility in order to promote violence and to justify participation in warfare.  This seems profoundly oppositional to the core teachings of Buddhism, and yet adaptability can be considered to be one of those core teachings.  This example shows the hazard of adaptability taken to the extreme.  Buddhism can be what we want it to be as much as what historically it has been shown to be; its malleability in the hands of those with unwholesome motivations could prove dangerous.  Therefore, it is very important that we seek to establish some guiding discipline in shaping Buddhism today.
As the Dharma continues to take form in the contemporary West, one is tempted to survey the vast historical depth and geographical breadth of the tradition and cobble together a new practice from the best parts of everything that has come before, discarding those which do not agree with our current socially-conditioned attitudes.  For example, if we are troubled by something written in later Mahayana commentaries, we might look back to the “original” Pali texts for a “definitive” word on the issue or even limit our investigation to what has been recorded as the words of the Buddha, himself.  This is often the approach currently taken in Christianity, by fundamentalists and liberals alike, in the attempt to “get back to” what Jesus “really” taught.
This methodology is inherently fallacious; we can never know what the Buddha or Jesus really said and so we are left with the texts written around them--artifacts that must be recognized as the fallible word of humankind.  Doing so provides even greater impetus for a “shopping-cart” Buddhism, which dismisses any teaching that does not agree with our own prescriptive understanding of the Dharma.  If we consciously choose to distill Buddhism, however, we risk homogenizing the teachings into a consistent, exclusive, and inflexible religion, like so many others being practiced today.  For many in the United States, Buddhism is attractive precisely because they perceive it as not being the rigid, hellfire-and-brimstone Christianity of our Puritan foreparents.  If Buddhism were to lose its inconsistency, it may very well lose its viability.
On the other hand, we cannot just accept everything written about Buddhism without question.  Such an approach contradicts core teachings of the Buddha that almost everything about the practice is provisional.  He viewed the Dharma as a raft used only to take us from one shore to the other.  Another helpful analogy might be to think of Buddhism as a toolset, not a goal in and of itself.  From that set of tools, an individual must choose those she or he recognizes as appropriate to the job.  If the tools do not fit the task, then they can be discarded or modified.  Thus, Buddhism should take on an individualized form necessary for the practitioner to reach enlightenment, perhaps the root of the Dharma’s inherent inconsistency.  The Buddha himself is said to have adjusted his teachings or withheld certain teachings based on his particular audiences and their needs, presenting the Dharma in various forms as necessary.  The Buddha’s teachings, therefore, appear fluid and viable, qualities that paradoxically have the possibility of changing Buddhism into something rigid and dead.
What is to keep contemporary Buddhism in the West from befalling such a fate?  Cultivating the wholesome qualities of wisdom, compassion, and generosity, beneficial in and of themselves, will also develop our faculty for upaya, or “skillful means” in applying the Dharma.  Upaya ensures a critical response to the teachings, giving one an informed context from which to choose the right tools for awakening.  This is different from a “shopping-cart” approach to Buddhism, in which one’s constructed ego, subject to selective perception, is allowed to determine which teachings should be retained and which dismissed.  Instead, with ego extinguished, upaya permits such decisions to arise naturally and situationally as a consequence of one’s Buddha-nature. 
Through upaya and the nurturing of wisdom, compassion, and generosity, one might begin to see inconsistency as one of the Dharma’s most consistent qualities—it is consistently inconsistent.  By accepting ambiguity as a norm, one can revel in Buddhism’s inconsistent texts, attitudes, and practices, which allow paradox, sustain reversals of belief and opinion, and permit the inclusion of the greatest number of people in the path to enlightenment through whatever means necessary.  I would argue that practice will take us a step further than recognizing the Dharma’s inconsistencies as consistent, to the point where we truly understand nothing to be consistent.  This is not simply an act of creating semantic nonsense to excuse Buddhism’s shortcomings, but instead a shift away from dualistic thinking.  The language of “consistent” and “inconsistent” reinforces a faulty binary of thought privileging an ego-constructed delusion of permanence.  Any judgments about consistency are made from a self-imposed distance between the thing being evaluated and that doing the evaluation.  Awakening means overcoming this divide, recognizing the complex interpermeation of all things, and exposing the insufficiency of language to describe our existence, thus ultimately discharging the need for terms like “consistent” and “social ethics.”


Ryan Muddiman said...

The next time I try to explain these inconsistencies to the family, and find myself falling short of doing so effectively, I can refer them here.
Lovely piece.
Love you .

Matt Bennett said...

I love you! And the whole Muddiman clan. :D I hope your holidays are merry and bright.