Monday, August 8, 2005

The three pure precepts and non-discrimination II

I have previously asked about the concept of non-discrimination:

The three pure precepts:
Cease to Do Evil

Do Only Good

Do Good for Others
Yet I have read that the Fourth and Sixth Ch'an Ancestors (a.k.a. Zen Patriarchs) remarked that one could attain the Way by ceasing to discriminate between good and evil. Also, the the instructional poem Faith in Mind, we read:
"Be neither for nor against

For and against opposing each other--

This is the mind's disease."
How can one recognize suffering, generate compassion, cease evil, and do good without some form of metaphysical/grammatical discrimination?


I suppose it's unlikely that my original entry on this subject (linked above) is going to get much more activity, so I will now give my own answer, such as it is. But remember that it's something you need to figure out for yourself. Don't just take what anyone says as "the answer". This is simply how I happen to see it at this moment.

I think that non-discrimination refers to looking at things as being intrinsically empty. That is, there is not an object or person, a sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch, that is intrinsically or inherently "good" or "evil". These are designation that our minds assign--they are contextually based. Some will call this relativism, which is accurate, but that is consistent with the teachings of ideas of emptiness and impermanence. If you think about it, even those who claim to believe in good and evil as absolute also have a relative definition--that is, it is related to the will of their God. If it pleases God, it is good. If it offends God, it is evil.

There are different catch-phrases for realizing the relative nature of our preconceptions and judgements in Buddhism, like beginner's mind and "don't-know" mind. The question then arises, to what are the values of Buddhist connected? I think that is where the three pure precepts come in--cease to do evil, do good, do good for others. Here is the clue--I have also heard them phrased as: cease to generate and cause unnecessary suffering, work to alleviate suffering, work to alleviate the suffering of others.
Amitabha!

4 comments:

  1. Hi TT - :-)

    A small point on your intyeresting post.


    "If you think about it, even those who claim to believe in good and evil as absolute also have a relative definition--that is, it is related to the will of their God. If it pleases God, it is good. If it offends God, it is evil. "

    This may well be a relative definition, but since what pleases God and what offends God doesn't change (IOW, God's moral character doesn't change) it's a definition of good and evil relative to an unchanging, eternal standard. IOW, it's an absolute standard.

    Apart from that nitpick, I'm not sure I follow your reasoning (that's no surprise, I'm sure!). If 'good' and 'evil' are completely relative, then two Buddhists could do completely opposite things in exactly the same circumstances and both be following Buddha, correct?

    If that is the case, then how can one say that they are both following Buddha's teachings, unless one takes Buddha's teachings to be 'Do whatever you think is right'?

    ReplyDelete
  2. "This may well be a relative definition, but since what pleases God and what offends God doesn't change (IOW, God's moral character doesn't change) it's a definition of good and evil relative to an unchanging, eternal standard. IOW, it's an absolute standard."

    That misses the point. Relative means "in relation to", nothing more, nothing less. Whether or not the answer to the question "in relation to what" is perceived as mutable or immutable is a different topic. In order to use God's character as a standard you have to define it first, that is, what matters to God? Human life? Love? Peace? Justice? Obedience? Is there an order or priority/weighting? Such questions have preoccupied theologians for centuries.

    I'm not sure I follow your reasoning (that's no surprise, I'm sure!). If 'good' and 'evil' are completely relative, then two Buddhists could do completely opposite things in exactly the same circumstances and both be following Buddha, correct?"

    You use the term "completely relative". Relative means "in relation to". By your own admission you claim that Christians' moral values are "completely relative" to the character of God. Does that mean that two Christians could do completely opposite things in exactly the same circumstances and both be following Christ?

    "If that is the case, then how can one say that they are both following Buddha's teachings, unless one takes Buddha's teachings to be 'Do whatever you think is right'?"

    Buddhism teaches that all objects and people are valuable because each form is unique and ephymeral, just different manifestations of the Dharmakaya through Sunyata (don't worry about those terms at the moment). Hence the basic precepts are to not cause suffering, to dispel ignorance and alleviate suffering, to and to do so out of concern for others. But note that these religious/philosophocal sounding teachings do not provide specific instructions for every sitation regardless of context. Neither does Christianity. At best the examples in the Bible and in the Buddhist sutras illustrate the core principles of their teachings, but they are not a step-by-step 'how to' manual for every ocassion. Does not each Christian do what he or she thinks is right in terms of their values?

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  3. Hello Tinythinker -

    Three points in our discussion:

    1. Relative vs absolute standards

    The difference as I see it is that a Christian understanding of what is good and what is evil is always relative to an absolute standard, that is, God Himself. In that sense, it is also a 'relative' standard. Yes, theologians argue over the fine details of God's character - but as Christians we have Jesus as the example of who God is and what God is like. That to me seems like plenty to go on in making our moral judgements.


    In contrast, as I understand, you are saying that a Buddhist understanding of good and evil (or suffering non-suffering ?) is relative to each individual's conception of those things, and also relative to the context. Am I correct?

    2. How we should act

    "You use the term "completely relative". Relative means "in relation to". By your own admission you claim that Christians' moral values are "completely relative" to the character of God."

    >> In one sense of the word 'relative', yes.

    "Does that mean that two Christians could do completely opposite things in exactly the same circumstances and both be following Christ?"

    >> In exactly the same circumstances? No. Because they are operating from the standard of what is right according to God's nature. They may each have different interpretations of what that is, and of how that should be applied, but if those result in completely morally contrary actions, then we can't say that they are both following Christ.

    By contrast, can we say that two professing Buddhists in exactly the same circumstances, doing morally contrary acts both are following Buddha?

    3. Principles for action

    I agree that neither Buddhism nor Christianity provide step-by-step instructions for every possible moral situation, but rather, principles. Like the Buddhistm, the Christian does (tries to do!) what she/he thinks is morally right.

    What I am trying to grasp is what I see as a difference in what exactly 'morally right' is. It seems to me that you are positing a 'relative to the individual' understanding of good and evil in Buddhism.

    If that's the case, then 'acting to alleviate suffering' is entirely dependent on a) one's personal definition of what suffering is and b) one's entirely personal conception of how one should best act to alleviate it.

    That leads to the possibility that in a given set of circumstances any action at all, or no action at all, is the morally 'good' act to do. That seems to reduce 'good' and 'evil' to something approaching meaninglessness.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "1. Relative vs absolute standards

    The difference as I see it is that a Christian understanding of what
    is good and what is evil is always relative to an absolute standard, that is, God Himself. In that sense, it is also a 'relative' standard. Yes, theologians argue over the fine details of God's character - but as Christians we have Jesus as the example of who God is and what God is like. That to me seems like plenty to go on in making ou+r moral judgements."


    I respectfully disagree. The example of Jesus can and is interepreted in many ways. Even restricting discussion strictly to the Gospels, there were many versions which have been chosen and edited according to the preferences and beliefs of those viewing the texts through a lens of what their larger theological and cultural priorities. For example, many people shriek at the mention of the Gospel of Thomas. The Jesus Seminar has been attacked because their work indicates that there is a good chance that not everything attributed to Jesus is likely to be correctly attributed.

    Even with the standard, i.e. commonly accepted, Biblical text the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus are reconstructed in the context of a larger theological view. The only things that seem to be resilient in all of this are the value of loving others as ourselves and the example of self-sacrifice. But what does that tell you about the abortion debate? Or capital punishment? Or the war in Iraq? Or whether homosexual marriage should be legalized? Does it not come down to your own life experience when assessing in a particular context what decision is going to best serve those principles? The application of any principle is always going to depend on the insight and acccumulated real world wisdom of the person doing the applying.

    "In contrast, as I understand, you are saying that a Buddhist understanding of good and evil (or suffering non-suffering ?) is relative to each individual's conception of those things, and also relative to the context. Am I correct?"

    No. :-) I didn't say or intend that. Suffering is suffering, and the only context that matters is the sufferer. Buddhism doesn't say "Judge other people's suffering." It doesn't tell us only some reasons are good reasons to be in pain, fear, doubt, etc. So, then, you may be broken up because you got fired from a good job and don't know how you are going to be able to pay the bills now, and someone else may be weeping because their child just died from a preventable disease because of poverty. But you are both suffering. Likely to different degree of intensity and in different ways, but suffering both. Our call is to respond to this suffering with compassion.

    My discussion of relativism isn't tied specifically tied to Buddhism in a particular way. I am saying in that discussion that we are tempted to label people or things as "good" or "evil", but yet such labels are empty without context. Tom had sex with Jane. Is that "good" or "evil"? What if they are both consenting married adults? What if they are unmarried consenting adults? What if "Jane" is just what Jack calls himelf when he dresses as a woman? What if Jane was abducted and held against her will? What if Tom is 45 and Jane is 10? I am not asking you to answer each of these, I am just making a point.


    "2. How we should act

    (tiny wrote:) 'You use the term "completely relative". Relative means "in relation to". By your own admission you claim that Christians' moral values are "completely relative" to the character of God.'

    >> In one sense of the word 'relative', yes."


    There is only one meaning of the word "relative". I am sorry that many in the religious right have perpetuated the confused and the clear meaning of the term "relative" and that such muddled usage has crept into the popular culture, but it means what it means--"in relation to". I have found the myth of absolute morality is often used an excuse for people (not implying you!) to feel secure in their piety and make easy simplistic answers more palatable. As I said, you can argue whether or not the principle(s) on which such values are related are mutable or immutable, but that the "absolute" versus "relative" moral values argument is a red herring which keeps the discussion at a deceptive and oversimplistic level of analysis.

    "(tiny wrote:) 'Does that mean that two Christians could do completely opposite things in exactly the same circumstances and both be following Christ?'

    >> In exactly the same circumstances? No. Because they are operating from the standard of what is right according to God's nature. They may each have different interpretations of what that is, and of how that should be applied, but if those result in completely morally contrary actions, then we can't say that they are both following Christ."


    But think this through with me for a second. The "standard of what is right" does not always have a clear-cut application in every
    situation. It isn't as if there is a pause button in life, nor a complete list of "what precisely to do in every sitatuation that might ever arise" to consult. Often times people who are guided by the same values come to different conclusions about how those principles are best served in a particular situation. Note that in the original question you asked and in my reply we talked about people taking opposite actions based on the same moral value or principle. In your most recent reply you changed "opposite actions" by inserting the adjective "morally", as in "morally contary actions". But that was not the question. What we were discussing would not be "morally contrary actions", they would be contrary actions deriving from the same moral value.

    "By contrast, can we say that two professing Buddhists in exactly the same circumstances, doing morally contrary acts both are following Buddha?"

    First, I must point out again this is not the question that was originally asked, which has now shifted to "morally contrary acts".

    Second, morality in Buddhism only has meaning in terms of suffering and compassion. Buddhists can and do sometimes disagree about the best way to respond to suffering with compassion, but I am not aware of Buddhists who want to respond to compassion by promoting suffering.

    Third, Buddhists do not follow the Buddha in the way many Christians follow Christ. The Buddha was a great teacher, but he constantly advised that ultimately we must look to our own hearts and our reason to decide which things to believe and how to behave, to "be a lamp unto yourself." This is because Buddhism, along with other religious traditions (including some Christian traditions) teaches that we are all innately and intimately connected to one another and have the ability to perceive this relationship. We can all see the truth for ourselves
    if we can learn to look without prejudgement and delusions born of fear, anger, and ignorance.

    In short, and that means in grossly understated terms, my understanding of basic Buddhist belief is that in seeing "reality as it is" we learn to value all life and each moment, and from this value comes compassion for those who are suffering. Hence one does not even necessarily have to practice the traditions and methods passed down from the Buddha in order to come to find such a sense of unity and universal compassion. In fact, many Buddhists find a great deal of affinity for many mystics and spiritually mature figures from practically all religious traditions (for example Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Gandhi,
    Thomas Merton, etc.) .


    "3. Principles for action

    I agree that neither Buddhism nor Christianity provide step-by-step instructions for every possible moral situation, but rather, principles. Like the Buddhistm, the Christian does (tries to do!) what she/he thinks is morally right."


    Some Buddhists might do that, but many do not think in terms of morality, at least not in terms of judgementalism (pointing fingers and accusing). However I do see what you mean (intend).

    "What I am trying to grasp is what I see as a difference in what exactly 'morally right' is. It seems to me that you are positing a 'relative to the individual' understanding of good and evil in Buddhism."

    No, see above in my answer about "good" and "evil". My discussion of "good" and "evil" is that they are contextual. Someone may perform acts we deem to be good or evil but they are not inherently good or evil. An act that would be considered "good" in one situation *might* be deemed "evil" in another (see the example of sex between Tom and Jane above).

    As for Buddhism, see my above answer about compassion--we simply respond to suffering. We try to prevent it, alleviate it, provide a method for going beyond it--that's the focus.

    "If that's the case, then 'acting to alleviate suffering' is entirely dependent on a) one's personal definition of what suffering is and b) one's entirely personal conception of how one should best act to alleviate it."

    Again, as per above, suffering is pretty simple--confusion, despair, fear, anguish etc. It is not something I "judge". It is in the mind of the sufferer. As far as how to alleviate it, Buddhism teaches that suffering arises from ignorance. The cure then is to dispel our ignorance and see reality as it is. Buddhism also teaches that we should test such teachings, even Buddhist teachings, to see if they are effective. ;-)

    However, on a more proximate level, we can also respond compassionately in more immediate ways, such as feeding those who are hungry, giving drink to those who thirst, welcoming those who are strangers, clothing those who are naked, and visiting those in prison.


    "That leads to the possibility that in a given set of circumstances any action at all, or no action at all, is the morally 'good' act to do.
    That seems to reduce 'good' and 'evil' to something approaching meaninglessness."


    That seems a rather odd thing to say. It merely says that "good" and "evil" are dependent on (i.e. "relative to") 1) our guiding moral principle(s)and 2) the specific circumstances where they are applied. It only makes "good" and "evil" meaningless from the perspective of thinking that there is some one-to-one correlation or list of "good acts" and "bad acts". Here's the thing--any list you make of "good acts" or "bad acts"
    will have context implicit in their definition and usage (see the above example of sex between Tom and Jane).

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