Advayavada Buddhism

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Archive for the tag “excerpts”

Perfect Wisdom (Heinrich Dumoulin)

Perfect Wisdom (from Zen Buddhism: A History, volume 1, by Prof. Heinrich Dumoulin S.J., translated by James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter, New York 1988):

In the Prajñaparamita sutras the significance of wisdom for the pursuit of salvation is evident. It is wisdom that sets the wheel of doctrine in motion. The new doctrine of the Wisdom school is thus considered by Mahayana to be the ‘second turning of the Dharma wheel’, second in importance only to the first teachings preached by Shakyamuni.

The Prajñaparamita sutras also set forth the evangel of the Buddha by claiming silence as their highest and most valid expression. Wisdom, all-knowing and all-penetrating, is deep, inconceivable and ineffable, transcending all concepts and words. Most important, wisdom sees through the ’emptiness’ (shunyata) of all things (dharma). Everything existing is always ’empty’. The broad horizon of meaning enveloping this word, which occurs throughout the sutras, suggests that, in the attempt to grasp its content, feeling must take precedence over definition. In the Heart Sutra, the shortest of the Prajñaparamita texts, wisdom is related to the five ‘skandhas’, the constitutive elements of human beings, and to all things contained in them. The sutra is recited daily in both Zen and other Mahayana temples, often repeated three times, seven times, or even more. In drawn out, resounding tones the endless chanting echoes through the semidark halls (…)

In the Wisdom sutras the stress is put on demonstrating the doctrine of the emptiness of ‘inherent nature’ (svabhava). Free of all inherent nature and lacking any quality or form, things are ‘as they are’ – they are ’empty’. Hence, emptiness is the same as ‘thusness’ (tathata), and because all things are empty, they are also the same. Whatever can be named with words is empty and equal. Sameness (samata) embraces all material and psychic things as part of the whole world of becoming that stands in opposition to undefinable Nirvana. In emptiness, Nirvana and Samsara are seen to be the same. The identity of emptiness, thusness, and sameness embraces the entire Dharma realm (dharmadhatu). Like the Dharma realm, Perfect Wisdom is unfathomable and indestructible. Here the doctrine on wisdom reaches its culmination.

Of special importance for Zen is the fact that Perfect Wisdom reveals the essence of enlightenment. As a synonym for emptiness and thusness, enlightenment is neither existence nor nonexistence; it cannot be described or explained. “Just the path is enlightenment; just enlightenment is the path” (Conze, Selected Sayings – see advayavada.org/excerpts.htm for more relevant excerpts).

Rejection of Material Attachments (Alan Fox)

Both Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and [the legendary and obscure ‘proto-daoist’] Yangzi seem to be as concerned with the quality of life as they are with its length. Thoreau further believes that the simple life is conducive not only to individual health, but also ultimately to social stability: “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

That is, it is to a certain extent our emphasis on, and imbalanced distribution of, material goods that cultivates negative moral values. This concern is consistent with the Yangist and Daoist traditions. As A.C. Graham points out [in his Disputers of the Tao, Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Chicago 1989]: “In the present-day version of the Lao-tzu there are many passages expressing this idea of prizing life and despising material things.” Besides the resemblance to, among others, chapter 3 of the Daodejing, where Laozi suggests that “not valuing what is hard to come by will prevent the people from considering thievery”, what is significant here is a utopic conception of primal simplicity. On the individual level, this kind of simplicity, for Thoreau as well as for Yangzi, constitutes a kind of efficiency, which conserves vital resources and ensures the maximum enjoyment or sense of fulfilment of life. On a social level, it leads to social stability and lack of friction and conflict in general social intercourse. In the broadest, most comprehensively ecological sense, we can also say that this kind of conservationism is also conducive to a healthy natural environment. Individuals, societies, and whole ecologies work better when they are allowed to operate in the most simple and efficient manner, according to this model.

In this regard, Thoreau and Yangist thought both seem inconsistent with adherence to formalities that involve affected manners and empty courtesies. On the other hand, such behaviour constitutes an unrecoverable waste of human and natural resources. But further, it also represents hypocritical distractions from the more subtle but truly important concerns of life. Thoreau says: “I delight to come to my bearings, not to walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, not in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody.”

This is generally reminiscent of the very common critiques of Confucian rites and manners (li) found in the writings of the Mohists and some of the Daoists. In some of these accounts, superficial virtues are accused of crowding out more substantial and authentic ones. For example, chapter 5 of the Daodejing emphasizes that the imposition of moral standards tends to impede the natural course of events, and specifically repudiates the cardinal Confucian virtue of ren (often translated as humaneness, benevolence or perfect social integration) as artificial and arbitrary. And Thoreau says of the truly good person that “his goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious”. That is, it is better to be good than to act good. Thus, the artificial, ‘manufactured’ quality of ceremony is rejected by the ideal person as inhibiting one’s intrinsically determined evolution and development. (Adapted from Rejection of Material Attachments, in Guarding what is Essential: Critiques of Material Culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu, by Alan Fox, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)

Spinoza: Every Event a Necessary Part of the Whole (Cahn)

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) viewed the world as possessing an intelligible structure according to which every event was in principle comprehensible as a necessary part of the whole. The logical order of that whole was to be understood only ‘through itself’ and was variously termed ‘substance’, ‘Nature’, or ‘God’. The geometric format of [his masterpiece] the Ethics illustrates this central thesis, since the propositions, corollaries and notes are all intended as deductions from the initial definitions and axioms, which are presented as self-explanatory. Part I contains Spinoza’s detailed demonstration of the essence of God. In Part II he offers his solution to the traditional philosophical problem of the relation between mind and body, regarding these not, as Descartes had, as two separate substances, but rather as two aspects of the one Substance. The remainder of the Ethics contains Spinoza’s moral theory and his view of the ideal life. The term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, according to Spinoza, merely words we use to express our own desires. In order to achieve salvation, we need to free ourselves from the bondage of these emotions and strive through reason to achieve knowledge of and identification with the order of the universe, thus coming to possess ‘the intellectual love of God’ which is ‘blessedness’. By thus reinterpreting the concept of God and imparting spirituality to the study of Nature, Spinoza fused his commitment to the scientific model of knowledge with the monotheistic vision of his religious heritage. (from Baruch Spinoza, in Classics of Western Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Indianapolis 1977)

The Three-Treatise School (Wing-tsit Chan)

The Three-Treatise School (from The Philosophy of Emptiness: Chi-tsang of the Three-Treatise School, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton 1963, 1969, 1973)

The Three-Treatise School and the Consciousness-Only School [Vijñanavada] represented the two major developments of Mahayana or Great Vehicle philosophy in India. The former insists that dharmas (elements of existence) and their causes are unreal and has therefore been known as the School of Non-being, while the latter insists that they are real and has therefore been known as the School of Being. Both were introduced into China by outstanding philosophers. Both had something profound and subtle to offer which China had never known. Both lasted for several centuries. But both failed to exert lasting influence on Chinese thought. It is important to understand why this has been the case.

The Three-Treatise School, called Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) in Sanskrit, was founded in India by Nagarjuna (c.100-200 A.D.). Kumarajiva (344-413) introduced it into China by translating Nagarjuna’s two most important treatises, the Madhyamika sastra (Treatise on the Middle Doctrine) and the Dvadasanikaya sastra (Twelve Gates Treatise) and his disciple Aryadeva’s Sata sastra (One Hundred Verses Treatise). Hence the school is called the Three-Treatise School.

The central concept of the school is Emptiness (Sunyata) in the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation, are devoid of reality. Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only ‘temporary names’ and are empty in nature. The only reality is Emptiness itself, which is the absolute, Ultimate Void, the Original Substance, or in Chinese terminology, the correct principle (cheng-li). As such it is equivalent to Nirvana and the Dharma-body.

The doctrine was transmitted in China through Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-chao (384-414) and played a dominant role there from the fourth to the seventh century. It had a tremendous attraction for the Chinese because its philosophy of Emptiness suited the temper of Chinese intellectuals of Wei-Chin times (220-420), who were then propagating the Taoist doctrine of non-being. Its highly developed and systematic method of reasoning was a stimulating novelty to the Chinese. Its spirit of criticism and refutation gave the rebellious Chinese philosophers, including the Neo-Taoists, a sense of emancipation. Its nominalism reinforced the Chinese opposition to the Confucian doctrine of ranks and names, especially in the sixth century. In addition to all this, it had the great fortune [sic] of having as its systematiser the outstanding figure, Chi-tsang (549-623). […]

Ironically, Chi-tsang’s success was at the same time the failure of his school, for it became less and less Chinese. As mentioned before, Seng-chao was still a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism. He combined the typical Chinese concept of identity of substance and function, for example, with the Buddhist concepts of temporary names and Emptiness. In Chi-tsang, substance and function are sharply contrasted instead. In that, he was completely Indian in viewpoint, although he quoted Taoists. As a systematiser and transmitter of Indian philosophy, he brought about no cross-fertilization between Buddhist and Chinese thought. And it happened that the Indian thought which he promoted was so utterly unacceptable to the Chinese that the school declined in the ninth century. […]

To this [the Middle Doctrine] school, refutation of erroneous views is essential for and indeed identical with the elucidation of right views. But when a right view is held in place of a wrong one, the right view itself becomes one-sided and has to be refuted. It is only through this dialectic process that Emptiness can be arrived at, which alone is free from names and character and is ‘inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought’.  The specific method in this dialectic process is Nagarjuna’s Middle Path of Eightfold Negations, which denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away. The basis of all arguments is the so-called Four Points of Argumentation. By the use of this method of argument, a dharma as being, as non-being, as both being and non-being, and as neither being nor non-being are all refuted and proved to be untrue. Chi-tsang illustrates this method fully in his refutation of causation.

It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive. The school had little new substance to offer and nothing constructive. It is true that Emptiness as the Absolute is as pure and perfect as anything conceivable, but being devoid of specific characters and divorced from mundane reality, it becomes too abstract for the Chinese. It might be hoped that its novel and radical method of reasoning at least aroused the Chinese mind and led to a new approach to life and reality, but it did not. That opportunity was left to the Zen (Meditation, Ch’an) School.

Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

The term ‘religious fundamentalism’ embraces all religious phenomena and movements which emerge as a reaction against some kind of perceived danger, as for instance, the marginalization of religion, due to the onset of science and technology. According to Fundamentalisms Comprehended: An Anthology of Articles, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 2004), some of the basic ingredients that go to make religious fundamentalism are as follows:
* Ultra-orthodoxy: The recognition of the absolute inerrancy of the religious scriptures.
* Ultra-orthopraxis: The attempt to practise religious life, based almost on a literal, rather than on a hermeneutical, interpretation of the rules and regulations laid down in the religious scriptures.
* Exclusivism.
* Militant Piety.
* Fanaticism.

Exclusivism the Root Cause of Fundamentalism

There can be many reasons for the emergence and prevalence of religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless, we can identify exclusivism as its root cause. Other kinds of fundamentalism, as for instance, those arising in relation to one’s own race, nationality, ethnicity, or political ideology also have exclusivism as their root cause.

How the Buddha defines Exclusivism

As a matter of fact, the most precise, and therefore, the most acceptable, definition of exclusivism can be found in the teachings of the Buddha. Exclusivism, as defined by the Buddha, is the attitude of mind that manifests in relation to one’s own view, as “This alone is true, all else is false” (idam eva saccam; mogham aññam). This kind of dogmatic and exclusivist assertion is due to what is called “sanditthi-raga“, i.e. “infatuation with the rightness of one’s own view/dogma/ideology”. Another Pali expression with a similar connotation is “idam-saccabhinivesa“. It means “adherence to one’s view, while asserting that this [alone] is the truth”. All such categorical assertions in respect of one’s religion or ideology lead to what Buddhism calls “ditthi-paramasa“, “tenaciously grasping views”.

The Danger of Attachment to Views whether they are Right or Wrong

An attitude of mind, driven by exclusivism, can easily provide fertile ground for bigotry and intolerance, indoctrination and unethical conversion, militant piety and persecution, interpersonal conflicts and acts of terrorism. From the Buddhist perspective dogmatic attachment to views and ideologies, whether they are true or false, is very much more detrimental and fraught with more danger than our inordinate attachment to material things. A good example for this is today’s fast-growing ‘industry’ of suicide-bombing. A person committing the act of suicide-bombing is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the ideological agenda he is pursuing. Inter-religious and intra-religious wars, often referred to by the misnomer ‘holy wars’, are another case in point.

Buddhist Social Pluralism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhist Social Pluralism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

Another area where we find many instances of pluralism is in the Buddhist attitude to society. As a religion Buddhism does not interfere with people’s ways of living by imposing on them unnecessary restrictions. We never hear of a Buddhist Dress, Buddhist Food, or Buddhist Medicine, laid down as valid for all times and climes. For, these are things that change from place to place and from time to time, depending on the progress of our knowledge.

This situation is true when it comes to marriage, too. There are many forms of marriage, monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, and so on. Today in the modern world the legally recognized practice is mostly monogamy. Nevertheless, nowhere does Buddhism say that other forms of marriage are immoral. The form of marriage, too, could change from time to time, from place to place. If it changes, then there is no problem for Buddhism. For Buddhism marriage is only a social institution. It is something entirely mundane, not a religious “sacrament”. Nor does Buddhism say that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Therefore if two married partners are incompatible, they can certainly divorce, provided, of course, they follow the laws of the country as enacted for such situations.

Buddhism has no prohibitions against birth control. If a married couple decides to practise contraception to prevent children being born, that is entirely their private business. They are not committing anything that is morally evil. Nor will the Buddhist Sangha, whether Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana ever promulgate an edict condemning and prohibiting such acts.

Abortion is of course a different matter. Since abortion involves taking a life, it goes against the First Precept. However, in our opinion abortion can be condoned in cases of serious [biopsychosocial] health hazards, if abortion is the lesser evil. In this connection it is instructive for us to remember two things: One is that according to Buddhism what really matters is the intention/volition (cetana). It is, in fact, intention/volition that the Buddha has identified as kamma. The other thing is that in following morality, Buddhists are not expected to do so by absolutely grasping moral precepts (aparamattham).

The Descent of the Transcendent (Sibesh Bhattacharya)

The Descent of the Transcendent (from The Descent of the Transcendent: Viewing Culture with G.C. Pande, by Sibesh Bhattacharya, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, October 2013)

In [Govind Chandra] Pande’s [1923-2011] theory an unresolved ambiguity vis-à-vis the issue of the decline [of culture/civilization] can be perceived. He does not overtly raise or face the issue of decay. We can extrapolate from his core concept – the vision of the transcendent – the process of decline of a culture consistent with his theory. Could it be said, in keeping with the general tenor of his theory, that the process of culture is essentially a process of decline? The ultimate truth cannot be envisioned in totality; it is beyond human capacity. The full truth cannot be received however capacious may be the vessel of the receiver. At the very moment of its birth it has become diminished. Further shrinkage takes place in the process of communication. The received truth can be expressed inadequately through symbolic metaphorical language; a great deal of it is lost already in the very first stage of its communication.

The very first sermon is thus limited. There is a Buddhist tradition that after his enlightenment the Buddha hesitated for some time before delivering his first sermon because he had reservations about whether people would be able to understand the truth he had realized. With each new round of communication the truth loses more and more of its authenticity and power. Thus, the process of the spread of culture is in reality a process of the loss of the purity and strength of culture. But this line of interpretation does not provide answers to all the issues related to the decline of culture. Pande does seem to accept the fact of its physical growth. In his scheme a culture spreads over the population, taking more and more people within its fold. Similarly, it spreads spatially with new areas coming within its purview. The relationship between the process of decline of the purity of the vision on the one hand and the simultaneous process of physical growth on the other, that is, a simultaneity of two apparently contradictory processes of growth and decay, is an interesting phenomenon. Spengler and Toynbee resolve this contradiction by differentiating between the apparent and the real, that is, they identify one set of markers as the real and the other as apparent. Usually they consider some characteristics of growth at the physical level as useless or even negative. In their opinion technological advancement, an increase of military power, and imperial expansion are often signs of decay rather than growth. They distinguish between the body and the soul of a culture/civilization; the state of the soul is the real indicator of growth and not the fattening of the body.

Pande’s point of view seems different. The vision of the transcendent, enshrining the core value, loses its pristine luminescence in the very act of its transmission from the transcendent realm to the temporal, and the process of decline goes on. This happens in the case of religion: ritual, exegetical literature, philosophy, and the church and its following grow in volume and complexity, and under their mass and weight the original light becomes more and more dimmed and hidden. Pande, however, continues to emphasize that religion is not just a vision/teachings and a code delivered by a prophet; religion also is the realization of the truth in one’s innermost being. It is this ‘cave’ that is the eternal dwelling place of religion. And it is not subject to decay. Moreover, the process of culture is not exactly the same as that of religion. Culture is the texture of values that grow from the agama through paryeSaNa [inquiry, investigation, delving]. But it continues to grow in and with the process of the transmission and propagation of the envisioned truth.

What is Reality? (Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee)

What is Reality? (adapted from Consciousness and Creativity, in On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee, New York 2004)

People are real, trees are real, my cat is real, the social situations you find yourself in are real. But your understanding of the world and your responses to it are based on predictions coming from your internal model. At any moment in time, you can directly sense only a tiny part of your world. That tiny part dictates what memories will be invoked, but it isn’t sufficient on its own to build the whole of your current perception. … Most of what you perceive is not coming through your senses; it is generated by your internal memory model. So the question ‘What is reality?’ is largely a matter of how accurately our cortical model reflects the true nature of the world.

Many aspects of the world around us are so consistent that nearly every human has the same internal model of them. … The simple physical properties of the world are learned by all people. But much of our world model is based on custom, culture, and what our parents teach us. These parts of our model are less consistent and might be totally different for different people. … Much of psychology is based on the consequences of early life experience, attachment, and nurturance because that is when the brain first lays down its model of the world.

Your culture thoroughly shapes your world model. For example, studies show that Asians and Westerners perceive space and objects differently. Asians attend more to the space between objects, whereas Westerners mostly attend to objects – a difference that translates into separate aesthetics and ways of solving problems. … Different religious beliefs learned in early life can lead to completely different models of morality, how men and women are to be treated, and even the value of life itself. Clearly these differing models of the world can’t all be correct in some absolute, universal way, even though they may seem correct to an individual. Moral reasoning, both the good and the bad, is learned.

Your culture (and family experience) teaches you stereotypes, which are unfortunately an unavoidable part of life. Throughout this book, you could substitute the word stereotype for invariant memory (or invariant representation) without substantially altering the meaning. Prediction by analogy is pretty much the same as judgment by stereotype. Negative stereotyping has terrible social consequences. If my theory of intelligence is right, we cannot rid people of their propensity to think in stereotypes, because stereotypes are how the cortex works. Stereotyping is an inherent feature of the brain.

The way to eliminate the harm caused by stereotypes is to teach our children to recognize false stereotypes, to be empathetic, and to be skeptical. We need to promote these critical-thinking skills in addition to instilling the best values we know. Skepticism, the heart of the scientific method, is the only way we know how to ferret out fact from fiction.

About Giving and Receiving Feedback.

The contemplative Practice of Giving and Receiving Feedback (A handout at the Psychology of Awakening course, at the Schumacher College, Devon, November 1998)

In meditative practice, we become mindful of our own experience, on our own, in the receiving and giving of feedback, we have the opportunity to become mindful of how our behaviour is perceived by others and to let others know how we perceive theirs. We can bring the same attitudes to the sharing of feedback that are recommended for our meditation practice: gentleness, precision and openness.

The following guidelines are intended to help you give and receive feedback in a way which makes both the receiving and giving of feedback mindful practices. The purpose of these practices is to enable us to become more aware. Their purpose is not to get ourselves or another person to change in accordance with our desires and preconceptions.

In general, if a person is able to make use of feedback, then he or she is able to learn. If a person consistently discounts or rejects feedback, he or she is not able to benefit fully from learning in a community context. It is the single most important skill to develop in training to be a person who can be of service to others.

Guidelines for the Recipient of Feedback:

1. Have an open mind. Pay attention to simply hearing what is said. Do not assume you already know what the person means. If you need to, ask for clarification.

2. Do not explain. Your job is to hear how the other person experiences you. Resist the impulse to justify, defend or explain yourself.

3. Be curious about your own state of mind. Notice what arises in your mind as you listen to feedback, both to positive feedback and negative feedback.

4. Regard all feedback as an offering. In the Mahayana tradition, there is a slogan which says: “Be grateful to everyone”. The idea is to appreciate the opportunity to learn and develop which the generosity of the other person is providing for you.

5. Contemplate what you have heard. Bring your basic intelligence to what you have heard. Do not assume that the other person’s view is more or less accurate than your own. Neither grasp onto nor reject what you have heard. Discover what is useful for you in the feedback. Do not quickly change your behaviour based on what you have heard.

6. Practice the slogan: “Three objects, three poisons, three virtuous seeds”. Recognise that whatever feelings arise in you are your own. Free them from the object and work with them mindfully.

Guidelines for the Giver:

1. Have the intention to be of benefit. Wrong intention is: a) Giving feedback as a way of getting rid of your own discomfort. Do not use feedback as a way to dump your negativity on someone else. b) “Therapeutic aggression”: the tendency to try to change another person. It is based on rejecting the other person as he or she is. Its intention is usually to make the giver him or herself feel better. c) Giving positive feedback so the person will like you.

2. Be a clean mirror. Be descriptive, not interpretive. Giving feedback is like holding up a mirror for someone else. Try to keep your personal opinions and concerns out of your message. Do not give advice in the guise of feedback. Emphasise ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. Describe behaviour, speech, your own reactions. Do not be judgmental.

3. Present a balanced view. Pay attention to giving both positive and negative feedback.

4. Put yourself in the other person’s place. Consider the readiness of the other person to make use of what you have to say. Pick your time and place in a way which shows respect to the other person.

5. Be specific rather than general. Describe specific behaviour, not your general impression of the person. Refer to specific instances whenever possible. Don’t get diverted into unrelated matters.

6. Own your own experience. Describe your reaction to the other person’s behaviour, acknowledging it as your own. Do not blame. Share your reaction as information, not as pressure to make the other person change.

7. Be direct and fearless. You may feel uncomfortable to say something unpleasant to the person. Remember your intention to be helpful. Keeping information from the person may be more harmful than telling them.

8. Say your piece and let it go. Do not be attached to what the person does with your feedback. Let it be an offering.

Mindfulness of Speech:

Obstacles: Embarrassment and pride.

Antidotes:

1. Listen to oneself. Listen to your speech: the way you speak, the way you use words.

2. Listen to the speech of others. Listen to the vowels, the consonants and the speed.

3. Make a conscious effort to slow down speaking.

4. Enunciate clearly. Respect the words you use.

5. Simplicity. Choose words well. Avoid unnecessary words. Minimize.

6. Silence. Regard silence as part of speech. Don’t be afraid to wait before speaking.

The Theory of Karma Involves Descriptive and Normative Claims (MacKenzie)

The Theory of Karma Involves Descriptive and Normative Claims (from Enacting Selves, Enacting Worlds: On the Buddhist Theory of Karma, by Matthew MacKenzie, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, April 2013)

Another key point to recognize about the theory of karma is that it involves both descriptive and normative claims. There is no fact/value dichotomy in the Buddhist tradition, and the theory of karma is meant to provide a framework for interpreting the complex relations between the moral dynamics of human experience and the larger causal order [cf. Advayavada Buddhism]. Specifically, Indian Buddhists understand sentient beings and their world in terms of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada). The focus, then, is on patterns of dependence between events or processes, rather than on, for instance, the operation of external forces on ontologically independent objects. The world is understood as a dynamic network of interdependent events, and the sentient beings within it are understood in the same terms. Karma, then, is a mode (niyama) or special case of dependent origination and is not [sic] co-extensive with it. Indian Buddhists identify five modes or domains (niyama) of dependent origination: physical (utu-niyama), biological (bija-niyama), mental (mano-niyama), ethical (karma-niyama), and spiritual (dharma-niyama). The proper understanding of an event may involve some or all of the modes, and it would be a mistake, on this account, to assume that everything that happens to a person is determined by his or her karma.

Moreover, one may interpret the theory of karma, in addition to positing certain kinds of causal connections, as expressing a commitment to a fundamental, internal relation between virtuous action and genuine well-being. The specifics of this connection may rest on empirical claims about human action and psychology, but commitment to the internal relation itself will not be a merely empirical generalization. In the final analysis, then, the general theory of karma expresses a regulative normative commitment to the idea that, as Aristotle put it, “activities in accord with virtue control happiness, and the contrary activities control the contrary”. According to the doctrine of karma virtues are both means to the end of genuine happiness or well-being (sukha) and partly constitutive of the end itself. Thus vices are harmful to oneself in that they detract from one’s objective well-being. In addition, vices will tend to undermine one’s ability to enjoy other things of value, such as worldly happiness or wealth.

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