This essay, written in 1989, was based on notes for two public talks given in July 1987 at the Zen Buddhist Temple, Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the years that have passed since I wrote this essay, I have developed less petulant attitude towards the doctrine of karma and rebirth, which receives a rather scathing treatment here. If time permits, and a more gentle and patient muse visits me someday, I may eventually respond to some of the arguments presented here. Meanwhile, I leave the formulation of suitable replies as an exercise for the reader.
The Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, like many Buddhist facilities in North America and Europe, is a large house that at one time must have been a dwelling for a large extended family. My father spent part of his youth in Hillsdale, Michigan, not far from Ann Arbor, in a house much like the one that has now become the Zen Buddhist Temple. Some of the memories I most cherish from my own childhood were of listening to my father tell stories of his childhood and trying to picture the house in which he grew up with three brothers and a variety of aunts and uncles and cousins and people who just seemed to end up staying for a while during the hard years of the depression and the Second World War. The stories my father told were not exciting or entertaining in themselves, and I can hardly recall any of them now, but they conjured up a picture in my mind of a place full of love and joy and not a little bit of sadness. But the times of tragedy were also times of great sharing within a large extended family. That's the way people used to live in America. Not many live that way any more.
Some years ago I finally got a chance to see the house in Hillsdale where my father had lived. It had become a fraternity house associated with Hillsdale College. Many of the large houses in the Midwestern United States and Canada that used to be the homes of extended clans are now boarding houses or office suites. The building in which the Zen Temple is now located was probably a big family dwelling a century ago. Then it was made into a rooming house of some kind, and I am told it was not much more than an abandoned shell when the founders of the Zen Buddhist Temple bought it. Just think of the history that an old house like that has. At one time a place full of people living together as a big family, sharing their love though all kinds of joyful and sorrowful experiences, helping each other in so many ways, then a place inhabited mostly by transients and lonely people down on their luck, and then once again made into a place where people live and work together almost as a family, get to know each other almost as intimately as family and sometimes a lot more intimately than family.
I see the buildings in which so many Buddhist groups have taken up residence as concrete symbols of what Buddhism itself has the potential for helping to do in North American society as a whole. Of course Buddhism is much too small a force to do much by itself; only about one out of every five hundred people in America is a Buddhist. I do think, however, that Buddhists form part of a larger movement on this continent, a movement of people who have grown tired of the shambles that our culture has become and are seeking an intelligent alternative to the unparalleled materialism of our society on the one hand and to the many mindless alternatives to materialism that have arisen to provide people escape from what really is an untenable way of life. In the same way that the Zen people in Ann Arbor have taken a dilapidated house and through a great deal of hard work turned an already existing structure into a facility that is suited for meditation and leading a simple contemplative life, this movement of people in America and Europe is taking the already existing institutions of Western civilization and rejuvenating and sometimes revising them. By turning to Eastern religions we are rediscovering some of what was once great in Western culture.
The situation in the West as Buddhism takes root here, however tenuously, is somewhat similar to the situation in China almost two millennia ago when Buddhism migrated there. Unlike Tibet and Japan, where members of the ruling classes welcomed Buddhism as a vehicle of numerous technological, cultural and political advantages to a relatively underdeveloped society, the Chinese already had a great civilization when Buddhism arrived. Already in possession of a profoundly workable philosophy of government and social ethics in the form of Confucianism, and already at home too with the delightful musings of Daoist sages such as Laozi and Zhuangzi, the Chinese apparently had little to gain by adopting Buddhism. Perhaps its principal appeal at first was simply that it was new and exotic and reinforced traditional values in seemingly novel ways. The context of the modern pre-Buddhist West is rather more similar to the pre-Buddhist Chinese context than it is to the situations in pre-Buddhist Tibet, Vietnam, Korea or Japan. Ours is a not a preliterate society hungry for the military and economic advantages of written language, but a dominant culture already past its cultural peak and well on the way to cultural decline. Soon, like the Chinese before us, we Westerners will be overwhelmed and exploited by the more energetic and productive emergent cultures whom we used to dominate and exploit, but political and economic decline need not mean death. For us, as for the Chinese of two millennia ago, we may be able to revitalize our own greatest cultural strengths by adapting a philosophy that, in its first appearances at least, is quite foreign to us.
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The West has had from very early times the potential for greatness, for we have seen some astonishingly great minds with great visions, but collectively my forefathers, and the forefathers of all my fellow human beings of European descent, have failed miserably to live up to the greatness of the minds that might have shaped our civilization. Symbolically the fate of Western civilization was presaged by the death of Socrates, a thinker of unparalleled excellence put to death by stupid and narrow-minded fellow citizens for the crime of examining, with a truly open mind, the most cherished beliefs of the day. Since his time it has always been the same in Western civilization: those who do not run with the crowd die by the crowd.
The tradition of Socrates, and after him of Aristotle, has long been beneath the surface of Western civilization. It is always there as a kind of subterranean counterculture, testing the patience of the autocrats who have always had the upper hand by dint of sheer brute strength and that confidence and self-assurance that always attends those who never stop to think. The Socratic tradition is often suppressed, but it can never be entirely eradicated. It is always capable of re-emerging as a weak but steady voice that challenges the authoritarian, the occult and the mystical (for these are all but different aspect of the same anti-philosophical mentality), questions the received opinions and presuppositions of society, and shows a readiness to discard the most deeply entrenched habits of thinking in favour of something a little more humane. The philosophical tradition of Socrates and Aristotle is always prepared to leave aside the haphazard dogmas that societies acquire by historical accident and replace them with hypotheses (never firm conclusions) founded on more methodical observation and more careful analysis of experience. The Western philosophical tradition is one that is concrete and practical in its goals. The search for truth is always done in order to improve the way we live with one another, here on this earth. It is a tradition based on a firm sense of publicly observable reality, a love of personal moral integrity coupled with a tolerance and forgiveness of those who are weak, and a spirit of restraint in both external habits of living and internal habits of thinking.
The Socratic philosophical tradition, brilliant in its beginnings, was made even more rich through its eventual contact with Hebraic culture in the wake of the conquests of the Palestine by Macedonian and Roman imperialists. The Hebrews had a religion based on the belief that human history is a reflection of a much larger cosmic history, a history shaped by humanity's rebellion from God and God's attempts to save human beings from their own self-destructive tendencies. God, according to Hebrew belief, participates in human history, and therefore history bears studying very closely with an eye to interpreting the various signs of divine purpose in the events of the nations. The religious beliefs of the Hebrews were conducive to taking great care in the recording of events and in discerning patterns and trends in history. It was a tradition rich in scholarship and the contemplative arts, treasures that supplemented and reinforced the cultural riches of the Greeks.
Relatively modern descendants of the happy marriage of Greek and Hebrew traditions are the traditions of science and scientific technology—I say “scientific” technology deliberately to contrast the technological expression of humanity's quest for knowledge and wisdom from humanity's quest for short-term advantages and profits, which we might call “commercial” technology. Another modern descendant of the Graeco-Hebraic union is to be seen in the anti-authoritarian spirit of Protestant Christianity, with its constitutional suspicion of all forms of over-centralized power. Protestantism fathered two children, one highly prized legitimate heir and one despised bastard. The latter child, born out of wedlock through the illicit union of one Protestant and one Roman Catholic parent, grew wretched in the eyes of its parents. This child was named Secularism by its Roman Catholic parent. The secularist movement was one that began in the Catholic Church partly in reaction to the Protestant challenge of the Catholic preoccupation with storing up merit for the future life in heaven. Rather than focus only on these invisible heavenly merits, said the secularists, let us turn our attentions to the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden and the disadvantaged people of the present age, or saecularis as it was called in Latin. Everyone who has a concern with social activism and ecological issues owes a debt of gratitude to secularism, the bastard child of the incestuous union of Christian siblings.
Protestantism also begot a legitimate heir, one of which it is justly proud. One of the descendants of this heir is Jeffersonian democracy, a political and social philosophy that advocates the universal availability of education without subscribing to the fallacy that human beings are universally educable. What this means is that no one who has ability should be excluded from developing that ability on account of race, religion or social class; but at the same time it must be recognized that not everyone has ability and that formal training might very well be wasted on the naturally incompetent. What goes hand in hand with this intellectual elitism, though, is a doctrine of the grave responsibility that must be borne by those who do become educated. Those who are capable of being educated are not to be educated simply for their own social and economic advancement, but rather for the general welfare of society. Education implies service to the community. These ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, born immediately out of the Protestant rejection of centralized religious authority, actually have very deep roots in both the Greek and the Hebrew traditions. The original spirit of American democracy is not different from the spirit of Socratic philosophy.
But practitioners of the Socratic philosophical tradition have always been in the minority, and like all minority groups they have been under constant attack not only by the majority but by other minorities as well. In classical times the enemies of the philosophers were the many mystery religions and the various types of gnosticism that were built upon a sense of despairing of the capacity of human reason to solve human problems. When people stop believing in reason, they begin believing in everything else. Lacking any criterion by which to eliminate any opinion as false or without value, people must accept every belief as equally meritorious. Every statement, along with every statement's contradiction, must be accepted on an even footing. The only criterion by which a person might choose one belief over another is personal taste. What one would like to be true or what is fun to think is true becomes far more important than trying to determine what really is true. Insofar as one feels compelled to justify one's beliefs in these circumstances, one turns to mystery, which literally means that which is hidden. By appealing to what is hidden from the light of reason, the obscure, the occult, one gains immunity from any possible attack coming from a rational perspective. Those who disagree are, by the very fact that they disagree, proven incapable of making contact with the mysterious source of truth. The breakdown of confidence in reason turns people into enemies, often very bitter enemies, of philosophy, which threatens to restrict people's fanciful acceptance of whatever happens to please them at the moment. Perhaps there is no hatred deeper than that of the mystic for the rationalist.
Christianity, one of the many products of the breakdown of confidence in reason in Hellenistic society, also did its share to perpetuate a suspicion of reason. Christianity would probably have been no more than a dim memory by now, along with its other mystery-oriented rivals, Manichaeism and Mithraism, had it not been for historical accidents. The result of these accidents was the gradual establishment of a religious institution, the medieval Roman Catholic Church, that managed to concentrate more political, economic and military power than any other institution in recorded European history. This institution was an avowed enemy of philosophy. Although the Church has lost much of its former power, the effects live on, for she was the spiritual mother of all the power-hungry totalitarian states that have haunted Europe and the Americas. In much of the world that has come under the influence of this spirit there is no quicker way to death than to think and speak with a critical open mind and a heart filled with a love of justice. The systematic torture and extermination of those who would see things as they actually are in this world is the tragic legacy of the mystics who blacken our minds with pretended light.
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A good discussion of the Socratic notion of virtue and the development of that notion by Plato and Aristotle occurs in Frederick Copleston, S.J. A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome, Part 1. (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1962). My discussion here owes much to his observations on pp. 125–134.
It is not only in past aeons that one can find enemies of philosophy. On the contrary, we still live in the Dark Ages of “sophiaphobia,” the dread of wisdom. The Socratic tradition recognized four cardinal philosophical virtues: wisdom (sometimes called prudence), justice, patience and moderation. Socrates, in fact, taught that there is really only one virtue, wisdom, of which all other virtues are expressions or manifestations. Wisdom for Socrates consisted in insight into what is truly good for human beings, insight into what is truly conducive to health, harmony and happiness. Wisdom, said the philosopher, can be learned and therefore it can be taught. But if wisdom can be acquired, so can the lack of wisdom. If one can build pathways to wisdom, one can also build obstacles to it. Our society is one in which the obstacles to wisdom are many. Let me elaborate just a few of those many obstacles.
Wisdom is not quite the same as acquiring accurate information, but wisdom is very difficult to acquire when accurate information is not available. For if wisdom is an insight into what is truly good for human beings, one must have access to accurate information about what effects various things have on human beings. Wisdom is inseparable from practical morality, and practical morality is inseparable from politics and economics. But in no arena of human life do we find more deliberate manipulation of information and dissemination of misinformation than among those who have vested political and economic interests. Our society in North America is founded on institutions that propagate all manner of misinformation, and in so doing reinforce all the prejudices of our age. Examples of these institutions of misinformation are the public school system, which can always be counted on in any given generation to indoctrinate children in whatever prejudices have become fashionable among the middle-aged, and the mass media, whose information services are driven almost exclusively by the engine of commercial interests. For in the first place, the gathering of information requires huge sums of money and therefore must be sponsored by those who control capital, and those who control capital cannot always be assumed to be impartial and disinterested in what the majority of people believe. But it is not only a matter of the commercial giants trying to manipulate the beliefs of the general public. If the public were to demand real information instead of sensationalism, spectacle and entertainment, the corporate giants would provide it, for that is where their economic interests would then lie. There is not much point in blaming the industrialists as if they were outsiders inflicting damage on our society. For insofar as it is our tastes that the industrialists are in business to please, we ourselves are the industrialists.
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The established interests that control the mass media and the public school systems are of course not the only forces in the business of propagating misinformation. There are also countercultural forces adding their share of predigested news and commentary. The alienated, the disenfranchised and the powerless also have voices, and they also have newspapers and magazines and occasionally even television and radio programming. Examples of the kind of nonsense that they disseminate among us can be seen in tabloid newspapers that are filled with stories of people who have spent a weekend on a spaceship from Alpha Centauri and ducks that can speak Swahili; other kinds of escapism coming from the underground can be seen in the so-called New Age movement, about which I will have more to say later on, and in the electronic ministry of the born-again Christians. All these seemingly disparate sources of news and commentary have something in common: they are alienated from the mainstream society, and they are more interested in putting forward dogma than in promoting a truly open-minded search for truth. They represent an alternative to the particular madness enshrined in the establishment, but they offer no alternative to madness as such. The voice that is least heard in our society is the voice of wisdom. That voice has become little more than a hoarse whisper.
One of the most important manifestations of the virtue of wisdom is the virtue of justice, the determination to see that everyone gets what is due to him. The impediments to justice are naturally as plentiful as the sources of dogmatism. In the place of justice we have collectively developed the “special interest” mentality. No one wishes to be the victim of injustice, but unfortunately relatively few people really strive to see injustice eliminated altogether for everyone. One of the most grotesque caricatures of justice that has been enshrined in our present age is the policy of what is usually called Affirmative Action, whereby one group of people that has been systematically disfavoured is systematically favoured. There are, for example, universities, government offices and some corporations that have explicit policies of giving preference to women, members of minority groups and other disadvantaged groups; presumably this systematic preference of one group over another is intended to correct an imbalance. But surely it cannot eliminate injustice.
The very nature of injustice is depriving persons of their rights on the grounds of no other factor than what subset of the human race they belong to. It is an injustice to deprive any person of a basic human right on the basis of race. But if discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, then discrimination on the basis of race is wrong. If it is wrong to prefer people with white skin simply because they have white skin, then it is equally wrong to prefer people with dark skin simply because they have dark skin. And of course the same principle applies to any number of other subsets of humanity based on gender, native language, ethnic background, religious affiliation, sexual orientation and so forth. There is no end to how we can subdivide humanity. There is no end to how many groups could arise and claim that past abuses against them warrant preferential treatment in the future: being of a particular height or weight, being left-handed, having five letters in one's middle name, being vegetarian, having an IQ over 140 or under 60, being incapable of resisting yodeling while having sex, having an allergy to shrimp and dandelions, having been seven years old before learning to ride a bicycle, having a nauseating aroma, being insensitive to the difference between beauty and ugliness, having been conceived in the back seat of a Chevrolet at a drive-in movie theatre, and so on as far as the imagination can take us. Justice itself can be achieved in exactly one way: giving up the whole notion of making decisions on the sole basis of irrelevant criteria, and instead taking up examining each individual exactly on the basis of his own talents, skills and character.
The third of the Socratic virtues that has been buried and forgotten in the ruins of Western society is patience. There is almost nothing in our society that is designed to promote patience, although many features of our society have the inadvertent consequence of giving us the opportunity to test it. Ours is a society that seeks fast and simple solutions to complex problems. We have almost succeeded in replacing the essay with the slogan, especially in political and economic matters. Confident that there is no problem the solution to which cannot fit on a banner pasted to the bumper of a car or inscribed on a lapel pin, or in extremely severe cases explored at depth in a half-hour television dramatized documentary, we have raised the most humble oaf to the level of pundit. And we have finally achieved full equality between the expert and the imbecile by means of the opinion poll and universal suffrage, although in our hearts we prefer the simpleton to the savant, for the former is so much easier to understand and less likely to confound us with subtleties. We have, especially in North America, founded nations, states, provinces, counties, cities and villages to be governed by people whose principal skills are the ability to sound convincing and look sincere on television for ten seconds at a time. Even if by some queer accident a person is elected who does have the ability to think further into the future than the next election campaign, we have little interest in hearing about the long-range consequences of our present habits of living, aside from passing a few maudlin platitudes a couple of times a year about making the future safe for our grandchildren.
We are surrounded daily with commercial messages that cultivate an ethos of immediate gratification of all personal needs, to the exclusion of all other pursuits, and encourage us to despise not only ourselves but everyone around for not being twenty years old, slender and provocatively attractive. We scoff at the mentality of the mass culture to which the advertisements pander, we laugh and feel sophisticated and cynical about it all, but to no avail. For we are the very mass culture we love to mock. Paradoxically we both despise ourselves and celebrate ourselves for being ordinary. We do everything but cultivate genuine patience, which is the ability to recognize evil for what it is but to have the strength of character to withstand it and not be corrupted by it.
About moderation, the fourth of the Socratic virtues, there is by now little that need be said in addition to what has already been said about the fate of the other virtues in the modern age. Our whole economy is built on the illusion of unlimited abundance. We are encouraged at every turn to consume as much as possible, and if possible to go into personal debt to buy as much as possible of the inexhaustible storehouse of goods. The notion of whether or not commodities are necessary has become completely irrelevant. By widely accepted convention, whatever a person wants is by that very fact also what he needs. We are made to feel guilty if we deny our children what they are seduced into craving, and we are made to feel guilty ourselves if we fail to go into debt to the very limits of our credit ratings in order to help stimulate the economy. In such a climate as this, I expect that most people will have to go look up the word “moderation” in their dictionaries.
If we leave a world for future generations, then I am confident they will laugh at us, even as we laugh at those who sought to cure the world's ills by burning witches at the stake and to cure personal ills by the letting of blood. Our descendants will shake their heads in amazement at a century that strove to bring an end to war by fighting wars, an end to injustice by creating injustices, and an end to stupidity by proliferating stupidity.
In speaking for myself I believe I am probably speaking for uncountable others when I say that it is only because I had very little choice in the matter of when I was born that I am not deeply ashamed to be part of this century. It was the sense of chagrin that I felt upon discovering with some horror that I was a human being on the planet Earth in the midst of the twentieth century that first turned me to Buddhism. Once within Buddhism I suppose it was the innate sense of irony, irreverence and flippant candor that goes with being an American of New England Protestant ancestry that first drew me to Zen. In some odd way it was this Indian religion in Far Eastern dress that awoke in me a feeling that it might be possible to get back to my own cultural roots.
Let us speak plainly. Buddhism is antisocial, if by society you mean the collective mentality of the half-awake masses who stumble their ways unreflectingly from cradle to grave, gaining nothing along the way but a superabundance of adipose tissue. Buddhism is a philosopher's religion, if by philosopher you mean (as I do) a person whose only real concern is with overcoming the laziness and self-centredness to which we are nearly all heir, acquiring wisdom and putting that wisdom to the service of all living beings. Much like the Puritanical and Pietistic values of the people who came to North America from Europe, the values of Buddhism (and perhaps especially Zen) are those of personal integrity, intellectual honesty, a sense of appreciation for all that is of fine quality and careful craftsmanship, and an awareness of the long-term implications of our present actions.
These are very simple values, rather unspectacular and unpretentious, whose only virtue lies in being uniquely attuned to the realities of the human condition. They happen to be the values of Zen Buddhism, but they are, needless to say, by no means unique to Zen, nor are they unique to Buddhism. They are also the values of every little pocket of humanity that has achieved civilization. At one time, so I was led to believe when I was a child, they used to be the values of North America. And so I can't help thinking that in much the same way that a bunch of Zen Buddhists got together and rebuilt a run-down house, these same people or people like them might be able get together and help rebuild a society.
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It is not particularly easy to think about rebuilding a society. It is a very large task, and one hardly knows where to begin. To make matters worse, it is not at all clear what the goal is; it is not clear exactly what kind of society we might like to rebuild. It is not even very likely that the sort of society we would like to see has ever existed in the past, so it is not a task of reconstructing a society that existed in some Golden Age.
Rather, the task of rebuilding a society is more like the task of “rebuilding” a house into a temple, taking an existing structure as a basis, modifying parts of it, eliminating other parts altogether, and building some totally new parts. All of this sounds rather easy in principle, and so far it is probably not very controversial, unless there are people who wish to keep things exactly as they are or who do for some reason wish to take on the impossible task of reversing time and duplicating some former age. But let us assume that ours is a more practical plan, one of taking an existing society that already has a great deal of strength and making it even more strong by reducing the damage done by some of the weaknesses. So let me begin with an assessment of where some of the principal strengths and weaknesses of North American society are. Then let me turn to an assessment of what some of the strengths and weaknesses of Buddhism are as it comes to North America. Let me then suggest ways that both Buddhism and North American society might become stronger by a process of interacting with one another.
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There is a feature of North American society that I find extremely puzzling—not only puzzling but alarming. The characteristic that so puzzles me is our gullibility. We are a people ready to believe anything. Now that might seem to some people as a positive characteristic. After all, a person who will believe anything must be pretty open-minded, and a person who is open-minded is less likely to be dogmatic. Surely, one might think, there is some value in being free of dogmas and dogmatism.
Now if the North American readiness to believe everything were indeed a manifestation of our open-mindedness and freedom from dogmatism, then I would rejoice and sing the praises of our virtues. There is, however, a big difference between being open-minded and being gullible. Being open-minded is a quality of being prepared to set aside views that we have held in the past if there should arise good reasons for doing so; more than that, it is a readiness to look impartially at reasons that are put forward against some view that we may have held or may still be holding. By a readiness to look impartially, I mean simply a willingness to consider new evidence regardless whether it conforms to our already established beliefs and expectations, as opposed to discarding evidence that fails to confirm what we already believe. Being open-minded is also being prepared to suspend judgement when there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion or when different pieces of evidence point to conflicting conclusions. Gullibility, on the other hand, is the quality of being easily deceived, of being prepared to take up a belief despite a lack of compelling evidence or reasons.
North Americans, I maintain, are on the whole very gullible and not very open-minded. Ours is a society filled with people who are most ready to embrace any new theory or idea that comes along, and for the brief time that we hold that theory before moving on, we hold it most tenaciously. The North American mind is a dogmatic mind, and the willingness that some people have to change dogmas regularly does not alter the basic nature of being dogmatic. Why this is so is a most puzzling thing. Despite being in possession of an enormously complex and powerful technology, and despite having a highly organized system of storing and transmitting information, we are as susceptible to fallacies and half-truths as the most technologically primitive of societies.
Let me cite a few examples to make my case, for it would be most lamentable if people took my word for it without demanding some evidence that North Americans are dogmatic. Let me begin with one very general characteristic: the tendency of Americans to believe that everyone is entitled to an opinion on everything. The philosopher Hegel (1770–1831) expressed his bemusement over an assumption that was prevalent in his day that everyone was suited to be a philosopher. No one, he pointed out, would consider himself a shoemaker simply because he possessed eyes, fingers, a piece of leather and two feet; and yet everyone considers himself suited to pass judgement on philosophical matters simply because he possesses a mind. Why, he wondered, do we acknowledge that it takes years of training to be a craftsman and yet assume that it takes no special training or preparation or practice to be a thinker?**
** G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind trans. J. B. Baillie introd. George Lichtheim (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), p. 125.
What on earth would Hegel have thought of North America in the twentieth century? In 1980 the people of the United States of America elected to the office of President, arguably the most important and complex elected office in the entire world and certainly the office that has the greatest potential impact on the lives of people all over the world, a 69 year old man named Ronald Reagan, who had no training as a lawyer or economist or military official, and no previous experience in national or international or professional military affairs. This man won the election on a simple platform of simplifying government, reducing taxes, and returning to traditional American values. Despite the fact that this man exasperated his top advisers in his first term of office with his short attention span and his inability to absorb the details of economic and political policy decisions, this man was re-elected to President of the United States a second time in 1984, this time winning 59% of the popular vote and getting all the electoral votes except those of Minnesota and District of Columbia. Now quite aside from how one feels about the administration of Ronald Reagan, it is remarkable that a nation would feel such confidence in a person who had such poor credentials for the job to which he was elected. That he could be taken seriously as a candidate at all indicates that either the American people felt that either Reagan was, against all appearances to the contrary, suitably trained to take on the enormous responsibility of his job, or that the job really requires no special talents, skills, experience or training.
All the statistics cited here are to be found in The Canadian World Almanac and Book of Facts: 1987. (Toronto: Global Press, 1986.) The population figures occur on pp. 199–200, and pp. 242–243. The energy consumption figures occur on pp. 327–331.
Let me give another example. Please bear with some statistics. The population of the world in 1985 was estimated at 4,843,000,000. The people of North America accounted for 8.2% of the total world population. But the United States alone accounted for 25% of the world's total consumption of energy, while Canada accounted for another 3%. This means that less than one-twelfth of the world's people are consuming over one-quarter of the world's fuel resources. It has been estimated that Canada and the United States together possess less than 5% of the world's resources of petroleum, yet these two countries consume 28% of the world's oil and 36% of the world's natural gas. Canada, with 0.5% of the world's population, consumes 12% of the world's electrical power. In Ontario, Canada's most populous province, 39% of the electrical energy is generated by nuclear power facilities.
Statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret, but I think we would be safe in concluding that the people of North America have come to rely on the availability of very large supplies of fuel resources. Most of these fuel resources are nonrenewable. Once they are consumed, we will still have the dependency but no longer the supply. This state of affairs would suggest to a person given to thinking clearly that some dramatic changes will have to be made in the way we live within the next few years and certainly within the next few decades. We must find ways to consume far less energy, since it is unlikely that we will learn to develop safe ways of producing or channeling enough energy to match our present rates of consumption. However obvious it may seem that we must reduce consumption, one sees only a few people voluntarily living more moderately, reducing travel, using fewer energy-consuming tools and so forth. This indicates to me that the rest of us are living in a dream world. It means that we are gullible enough to believe that fossil fuels are indefinitely abundant, or that nuclear power can be generated at much higher levels without endangering the environment, or that engineers will find ways of channeling the energy of the sun, the tides, and the wind in sufficient amounts to meet all our needs. Or perhaps we believe there will be some kind of divine intervention. But rather than counting too much on these dreams that we have been gullible enough to base our lives upon, we have come to a point where we must begin the process of waking up to realities.
I have suggested that Buddhism has the potential to play a role in our society's process of coming to our senses. So far, however, this potential has not been realized very well. On the contrary, much of the Buddhism that has found its way into the hearts of the North American community has been more a perpetuation of the fantasy world in which we live, more just another form of escapism, than a means of deliverance from our slumber.
It is my feeling that the fault for this failure of Buddhism to develop a liberating form for us in North America is not solely the fault of the Asian Buddhists who have brought their religion to us but is more a reflection of the sorry state of our own folk culture as it stands at this time. The Asian Buddhist teachers themselves, from what I have been able to see of them, often have a feeling of helplessness as they have to deal with North Americans, many of whom display almost incredible lack of maturity and wisdom. To give just a couple of examples, I know a Theravādin monk who has given a good deal of his time to teaching the Dharma in North America. He is a well-educated monk, both in the sciences and in the Buddha-dharma, and he speaks English quite well, so he believed he would be very well suited to talk to Westerners. When he first arrived in the United States, however, he was in for quite a shock. When he went to universities to give talks on the Dharma, he found that the people who came to his talks were not necessarily well versed in the sciences, nor did they know much about Western or Asian philosophy, nor were they particularly sophisticated in their thinking. When he invited questions after his talks, he found that mostly what people wanted to hear about were stories of people who had developed miraculous powers through meditation. He went to talk about mindfulness and loving kindness, and his audience wanted to hear about people who could walk through walls, fly around in the air and live for months at a time without breathing or taking food and could survive for days at a time without sex.
One time this Sri Lankan monk told his audience that he was going to demonstrate to them the powers of meditation. So he told the audience to watch him very carefully while he went into deep samādhi. What he in fact did for the next fifteen minutes or so was just to sit quietly, making no particular effort to meditate. After a while he asked his audience what they had observed. People told him they had seen his aura change colour, and that his skin had taken on a translucent quality. Some saw lights emanate from his body, and one person even saw him rise off the floor and float suspended in midair! The monk listened to all these reports of the wonderful things he had done in his “trance” state, then he explained to his audience that we very often see only what we expect or wish to see rather than what is really there to be seen. Meditation, he said, is a method of gradually purging ourselves of expectations and wishful thinking so that we can see things as they really are. The people in the audience seemed let down. The monk was not invited back to give another talk.
It is not only Theravāda teachers who experience frustration and disappointment in their dealings with Westerners. Some time ago a group of Tibetan tantric monks came to Toronto as part of their tour around North America. They performed a chanting ritual in a large auditorium that was filled well beyond capacity. The Toronto newspapers carried articles explaining how these monks got themselves into “altered states of consciousness” before chanting, and they stayed in these altered states throughout the chanting. Judging from the air outside the auditorium, which was redolent with the heavy scent of marijuana smoke, not a few of the members of the audience had found ways to achieve altered states of their own, the better to appreciate the finer spiritual vibrations emanating from these great tantric masters from Tibet. The master of ceremonies who introduced the monks explained before they began the chanting that its purpose was to purify the earth. Perhaps, he said, the chanting would help clean up the environmental pollutants that have been causing acid rain and dying lakes. Was he joking? It was difficult to be sure. Some Buddhist leaders expressed disappointment that there was not a greater attempt made to use the opportunity of the monks' visit to inform the public about the real nature of Buddhism rather than giving the impression that Buddhists would sooner avail themselves of chants than of more effective methods to fight environmental pollution. It is sad to see monks presented to the public as a form of entertainment, as if a religious ritual were just another kind of jazz concert or carnival sideshow, and especially sad to see them presented in this way by entrepreneurs who are themselves Buddhists.
Why is it, given that Buddhism has such a good potential to help people think more clearly and more critically, that we find among North American Buddhists so many people who are lacking common sense and clarity of thinking? There are probably several factors at work here. One of them is the plain fact that Asian Buddhism has managed to absorb a great deal of the folk cultures of the places where it has taken root. Rather than trying to suppress beliefs and practices that are in conflict with the basic teachings of Buddhism, Buddhist teachers have always found a way to accommodate the beliefs of ordinary people, incorporating them as conventional truths but not as ultimate truths. Ordinary people, especially in cultures where people have little contact with the advances in knowledge made in other parts of the world, tend to cling to old patterns of belief and practice and to be suspicious of new ways of doing things. Such reluctance to adopt novelty undoubtedly has the beneficial effect of protecting societies from the mindless pursuit of the latest fashion, the vice to which more urbanized cultures such as that of North America tend to succumb; but being protected from novelty is not in itself a virtue, especially if the new ideas really are improvements over the older ones. But, whether with good effects in the long run or bad, the Buddhist teachers in most societies have been rather cautious about alienating people by challenging their folk customs, and the result for institutionalized Buddhism as a whole has been that it has acquired a great many elements that really have nothing whatsoever to do with the original teachings and intentions of Buddhism.
When Buddhism came to the West from Asia, therefore, it arrived not only with its philosophical traditions of critical reasoning and meditation practices, but also with a whole array of exotic folk remedies, myths and legends. It stands to reason that it was principally these folk customs that caught the attention of Westerners and attracted them to look into Buddhism more carefully. After all, people whose main interest is in critical thinking and contemplative exercises can find plenty of interest in Western culture without having to turn to exotic traditions. In fact, one who is truly interested just in the philosophy and the meditation exercises might do better to avoid the inevitable obstacles posed by having to learn several very difficult languages just to gain access to the most basic teachings. When one considers the amount of excellent material on Western philosophy and meditation readily available to a person who reads English or French or German, and compares that with the amount of excellent material available on Buddhism in those languages, it seems almost like madness to turn to Buddhism for guidance rather than to one of the Western philosophical traditions. And indeed one finds that relatively few of the West's brightest intellects have had more than a passing curiosity in Eastern religions, unless they incorporated the interest in Buddhism in a much wider interest in the study of languages, literature, history, geography or anthropology.
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Who were the Western people who turned to Buddhism? First of all it should be obvious that as a rule, people who turn to another culture for inspiration do so because they have grown emotionally alienated from their own mainstream culture. It would be interesting to see statistics on the backgrounds of North Americans who have become Buddhists. I have no firm evidence at my disposal, and so all I have are personal impressions formed after talking to quite a few North American Buddhists over the years. One impression I get is that quite a few Buddhists, myself included, had an interest in Marxism or Maoism before they became involved in Buddhism. There is nothing at all surprising in this to me, for I am convinced that Marxism shares with Buddhism a feeling that the mainstream social values of our times are profoundly unjust and have resulted in the prosperity and comfort of the few at the expense of the many. Other Buddhists, while not Marxists, were typically involved in the ecology movement, various forms of the peace and disarmament movement, or one of the many manifestations of the civil rights movement. Again, all of these movements had in common with Buddhism the underlying sense that there were systematic injustices built into our social system that had to be remedied. Some brought their social activism with them into Buddhism, and others left activism behind them. In any case, in answering the question of which North Americans turned to Buddhism, one can hazard the guess that the broadest class of people who became Buddhists were people who had become disenchanted with the ways of Western society.
A society, and especially a modern one, is unimaginably complex and multifaceted. There are many aspects of it from which one can become alienated, and so it is only rarely that people who have in common the mere fact of alienation from society really have much else in common. Those who were alienated from what they saw as social injustices made up one segment of North American Buddhists, but another group of new Buddhists included those who saw science, technology, secularism and rationalism as the source of most modern evils. Being ill at ease with science, technology and formal reasoning can have many different causes. Some people are just not very good at systematic thinking and tight reasoning, or at least they think they are not, and people rarely think it is absolutely necessary to have skills they do not believe themselves to have. The more a person who is not a very methodical thinker is confronted by people who feel that rigorous thinking is indispensable for the good life, the more such a person is likely to sing the praises of being a free spirit, emotionally whole and honest, untrammeled by the conventional forms of thinking and behaviour. The laws of logic come to be seen by such a person as mere artificial human conventions, like the fashions of dress or the norms of etiquette in polite society. Wishing to be free of all such bonds, many people in the history of Western civilization have disparaged logic and reason. A number of such people in this century have seen in Buddhism a haven from what they regard as the tyranny of reason. For most people of this free-spirited nature, the chief virtue of Buddhism is simply that it is not what the majority of people in their own society practise. If it had been their fate to be born in a society that was predominantly Buddhist, these people would most likely in their eagerness to avoid conformity have become Calvinists or Sufis.
Yet a third group of people who seek the exotic are those who for whatever reason are lacking in confidence in their own ability to succeed according to the canons of success accepted by the mainstream society. Rather than trying to compete with a large number of people in the areas of activity that most people choose, such people turn to something little known by the general populace so that they are unlikely to have to come into daily contact with people who have done better than they. These people are examples of the old adage: “When among logicians, claim to be a grammarian. When among grammarians, claim to be a logician. When among those who are neither, claim to be both. And when among people who are both, remain silent.” North American society, particularly after the Second World War, was one in which the most highly prized areas of achievement were in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. People who lacked the ability or the spirit of competitiveness necessary to excel in this areas often turned to other areas in which they could easily rise to the top of their discipline. It is my impression that a good many of the people who were interested in Buddhism in the past two or three decades fell into this class. In a society in which very few people knew what a Buddhist was supposed to be like, one could easily get away with claiming to be a Buddhist, even claiming to be quite a good one.
The exceptions to these general observations about North Americans who turned to Buddhism are those people who, essentially by accident, happened to meet with good meditation teachers in or from Asia and in following the instructions of a particular person came into Buddhism “through the back door”; such people were not necessarily caught up in either a search for the exotic or a rejection of the familiar in order to bolster a sagging ego. But these exceptions really were, so far as I have been able to observe, quite rare. And so, if one is to be quite honest about it, one would have to admit that Buddhism in North America has not skimmed the cream off the top of society. On the contrary, it has largely been a catchall for misfits and renegades. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the form that Buddhism has taken so far in North America has neither been Buddhism at its best nor Western society at its best.
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Despite the present realities of North American Buddhism, I have great hopes in the ideals of Buddhism as a means by which some people might realize the highest ideals of Western civilization. I believe this potential will never be realized, however, until the kind of Buddhism that is taught in the West is purged of some of the Asian habits it has acquired down through the millennia. It is not that the Asian habits have been unfit for people in the past, but that some of them are not particularly well suited to meet the crises that the human race is now facing. People who come from a society that has been Buddhist for many centuries sometimes forget the principal observation upon which all the teachings of the Buddha were founded: Everything is impermanent. This includes the effectiveness of teachings. Doctrines that do very good service in one age can be most harmful to another. Any teaching is like a medicine that is an effective antidote for a particular disease. When medicines or teachings have outlived their usefulness, let them be discarded with gratitude for the utility they have served in the past, but let them be discarded without further apology. In the remainder of this essay, I shall explore one or two traditional teachings of Buddhism that have come to seem particularly useless and even counterproductive to us in our present circumstances.
Before discussing which teachings of Buddhism we might do well to discard, or at least de-emphasize, for the time being, let me first discuss some of the characteristics of the mentality of many North Americans in the late twentieth century. These characteristics should be borne in mind as the conditions under which I claim that some Buddhist teachings are not particularly well-suited for North Americans; if the North American mentality changes, then the teachings that will help North Americans will change.
First of all, North Americans, particularly those of Protestant background, have a tendency to be somewhat literal-minded. We tend not to think symbolically or to interpret teachings in purely metaphorical terms. Therefore, when teaching North Americans it is better on the whole to speak quite straightforwardly with a minimum of subtlety, for otherwise we are almost sure to miss the point of the teaching altogether. Secondly, North Americans nowadays are going through a long and slow crisis of confidence in traditional values. We have witnessed two millennia of bloodshed and destruction, much of it instigated by people who claimed to be in possession of Truth. We have been ravaged by the armies of men who claimed to have a clear understanding of the overall state of the universe and the place of humanity within it. What we desperately need now is not simply another dogma or ideology to replace the old ones, but a release from the grips of dogmatism altogether.
On the one hand, we crave something sweet and simple and suited for the mind of a child, but on the other hand we have a deep dread of the effects of those who come forth and promise radical and simple solutions to complex problems. On the one hand we crave to understand everything around us, and on the other we are terrified of what we might do with our understanding, for we know our own terrible, confused motive all too well; from this fundamental ambivalence stems our love-hate relationship with technology and science and indeed all of rational thinking, which we love because it brings us constantly closer to a feeling of understanding the universe around us, and which we hate because we are too immature on the whole to use it for purposes other than entertaining ourselves and making ourselves temporarily more comfortable. In our discovery of highly sophisticated forms of technology that we only barely know how to use, we are like a pubescent boy who has just discovered his genitals but has not yet moved beyond the self-absorbed joys of masturbation. We must be treated with great caution and skill, for we have the bodies of powerful adults governed by the minds of children. Having said that, let me specify four families of Buddhist teachings that in my experience serve more to impede Westerners than to help them acquire wisdom and become less self-centred.
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The first of these obstructive doctrines is that of rebirth and karma. It has been my personal experience in dealing with people that Westerners are almost hopelessly incapable of understanding the Buddhist concept of rebirth. There are various ways that one can interpret the doctrine of rebirth. By far the most silly and inept is, unfortunately, also the most common. This view begins with the assumption that a person has an identity, that is, a core of personality that remains the same from conception to death; on death a person leaves the physical body behind and takes the personality to a new physical body, sometimes after wandering around in a bodiless state as a ghost or a duende or the deity of a tiny village in Burkina Faso for some period of time. Thus according to this view it might be legitimate to say, for example, that in a former life one was a specific person, such as Thomas Hobbes and then died and was eventually reborn as Marie Antoinette, and then eventually as Karl Marx and then as Kiri Te Kanawa. According to some versions of this account, one might spend quite some time between these human births being an earwig, a weevil, a crayfish, and a bearded tit, or even a highly evolved incorporeal life form on the seventh planet of an unnamed dwarf star not far from Arcturus. As a result of deeds done and views held and attitudes cultivated in all these different bodily and psychological states, one is what one is now, a haphazard collection of tidbits of unfinished business left over from the infinitely deep past. No action goes without its consequence, no matter how long it may take for some deeds to ripen.
Now what harm could there possibly be in a view such as the one just outlined? If all one is doing is exercising the imagination and seeing how many possible forms of life one can imagine being, there is probably nothing in the least bit harmful in spending some time reflecting on such things as how it might feel to be a wolf spider. In fact, trying to see the world from the perspective of a spider or a cockroach might help us become much less fearful and disgusted by forms of life that are not similar to our own. On the other hand, if there is something good to be gained from reflecting on what it might feel like to be a spotted tick or some such thing, then that purpose can be served far better by undertaking a careful study of biology and actually becoming a little more informed about the many fascinating forms of life on the planet. Or, if one wishes to restrict what one thinks about to human activities, then one could benefit far more by reading the works of Thomas Hobbes along with some biographical accounts of him and his contemporaries than by dredging up dim and probably less than wholly reliable personal memories of the years between 1588 and 1679. Most of us, it must be admitted, scarcely remember our childhood from the present life with anything like accuracy, so there is little reason to suppose we could recall much of worth from over three hundred years ago. So even when we see the exercise of thinking about past lives in its most positive light, I think the best we can say for it is that it has far less value than more prosaic forms of study, learning and thinking.
There is, however, also a rather dark side to the whole matter of dwelling on the thought of past lives. It dulls the mind and impairs the faculty of reason. In the first place, if one is prepared really to believe that one was Thomas Hobbes in a former life, then it is hard to imagine what one might not be prepared to believe, for clearly one would be prepared in principle to accept a belief without grounds for believing it. But if one is prepared to accept statements or ideas without asking for the grounds, then one must be equally prepared to believe that the cause of one's belief in rebirth is that a computer programmer, who happens to be a goldfish in Helsinki, has found a clever way to transmit ideas into the minds of people, making them believe such things as that they used to be Thomas Hobbes.
The more thought I give to this matter, the more it actually seems to me far more reasonable to entertain the hypothesis that there might be a goldfish in Helsinki somehow causing one to believe one has been having memories of being Thomas Hobbes than to entertain the hypothesis that one might actually have been having memories of being Thomas Hobbes. For what does it mean to have been Thomas Hobbes in the first place? What was Thomas Hobbes? How can one even begin to go about the task of answering the question of what Thomas Hobbes was in the first place? I quite honestly do not know.
Let us begin, then, by thinking about the few things about Thomas Hobbes that immediately flood into the mind of the man on the street when he hears the name Thomas Hobbes. Well, he was born the son of a vicar in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England at the time of the Spanish Armada and died ninety-one years later; in the intervening years he studied at Magdelen Hall in Oxford, where he earned a bachelor's degree at the age of nineteen; he travelled in Europe as tutor to the son of the Earl of Cavendish and was exposed there to the thought of Kepler and Galileo and came to believe that the study of human nature could be carried out in the same systematic and mathematically rigorous way as the study of astronomy was carried out; owing to political circumstances in England he fled to France at the age of fifty-two, and there he entered into a rather bitter debate with René Descartes; perhaps his best known work is Leviathan, a classic in political theory. That still tells us very little about what Thomas Hobbes was, but it is a modest beginning, enough of a beginning to enable us to ask a few further questions and to begin thinking seriously about what in fact it means to have been Thomas Hobbes in the first place.
What was Thomas Hobbes? Among other things, he was a pile of an extremely large multitude of living cells, each of which was made of an astonishingly large number of organic molecules. Of course he was not precisely the same set of cells when he was born in Malmesbury as he was fifty-two years later in France. In fact it is not clear what criteria we would have to establish to say that a single cell of Thomas Hobbes was the same cell when he was a suckling as when he was debating Descartes, for the cells were all absorbing nutrients and releasing various substances. The point becomes very clear in a short time: Thomas Hobbes the pile of cells was not precisely the same Thomas Hobbes in 1588 as the Thomas Hobbes who was a pile of cells in 1679. If it is not easy to determine what the physical identity of Thomas Hobbes was even during what we intuitively take to be his life, it is even more difficult to figure out what sense there might be in saying that anyone is now the same physical person as Thomas Hobbes used to be three hundred years ago.
Surely this issue of the physical Thomas Hobbes is a red herring distracting us from the far more important question of what made Thomas Hobbes a living human being. What made him a living being as opposed to a mound of stones was surely the fact that he also consisted of thoughts and ideas and memories and bits of information and desires and inclinations and fears. So let us assume that Thomas Hobbes the person was a set of these mental events. But which set? Obviously Hobbes did not have the same memories in any one moment as he had in any of his previous moments, for the simple fact that each moment of recalling a former moment itself became a past moment to be recalled by yet another moment of thought. If we were to say that to be Thomas Hobbes was to be, say, all the memories that he had in the last moment of his life, it would follow that he was not yet Thomas Hobbes until the moment of his death. And of course it would also follow that none of us today is Thomas Hobbes, because none of us has exactly the set of memories that Hobbes had in the last moment of life. None of us speaks English or French in quite the same way that Hobbes did three hundred years ago, and so surely the linguistic evidence alone would show how much difference there is between Hobbes and any modern person claiming to be his present incarnation.
Having thought about this matter of what Thomas Hobbes was in the seventeenth century has led so far to more puzzles than solutions. But perhaps we have been thinking of the whole matter in the wrong way. Perhaps we should think in much more abstract terms. Perhaps we should say that Hobbes was a set of tendencies to think and act in a particular way rather than that he was a set of particular concrete thoughts and actions. Perhaps he was nothing more than a tendency to be analytic, systematic and methodical intellectually and a tendency to be honest and moderate of habit morally. If we make this move, though, then Hobbes becomes even more amorphous; in fact we should be very hard pressed to distinguish Hobbes from an incalculable number of other living beings who tended to be analytic, systematic, honest and moderate. But we have now come a fair distance from the original allegation that someone might make of being a present incarnation of the late Thomas Hobbes. Unfortunately, I think the more thought one gives to this question of what it might mean to have the same identity of a person who lived in some former time, the more the matter becomes confused and obscure. It does not hold up very well under any sort of literal interpretation. At best rebirth might be a vague metaphor of some kind, an acknowledgment that, for example, all or many or at least some people who have similar intellectual and moral tendencies have similar subjective experiences of life. The angry and the suspicious, for example, have less fun than the cheerful and the trusting. But if that is all we mean, then let us just say that and let it go at that. We literal-minded Westerners cannot handle anything much more subtle than the straightforward telling of things as they really are.
Supposing we now regard the story of karma and rebirth not as a telling of things as they are but rather as a myth for those who are sophisticated enough to handle well-turned fiction as well as narrative history. There might be some point in holding this myth in reserve for the extremely gifted, but if it is so held in reserve, it should be the most secret of all secret doctrines, never a mythology for the masses of people. Look at what the doctrine of rebirth does for the masses who are inclined to take it literally. It becomes a justification for complacent acceptance of the most cruel of realities. The Armenians, one might claim, deserved to be victims of genocide, either because of their collective karma or because each individual Armenian had done some dreadful event in the past to merit being made a victim of torture and execution without trial. Did the members of the Baha'i faith who had sharpened stakes hammered down their throats by the Iranian authorities in the nineteenth century deserve to be treated that way because they had been so stupid as to protest against injustice and intolerance, or was it because they had eaten human babies in some future incarnation? Do not the wealthy deserve to be comfortable, because of the good deeds they have done in past lives?
When someone kills a cow for food, does that release the consciousness of the cow so that it can seek a higher form of life? Before accusing me of dreaming up outlandish questions just to raise a smile, know that I have heard not only one but several Buddhists justify their eating of meat on just those grounds. If their premiss were granted, would it not follow that the more pain we inflict upon the cow in killing it, the more of its previous bad karma we burn off? Would it not generally be kinder to inflict the greatest possible suffering on everyone around us so that they can be freed from the prolonged agony of being a human being? Should we not, in fact, start up a nuclear war to help every living thing burn off a good deal of bad karma? It is somewhat amusing but ultimately pretty disgusting how many rationalizations for shoddy behaviour one can wring out of the doctrine of karma and rebirth. Let it remain in Asia. It is not a doctrine that will do us North Americans much good, and it may in fact do us more than a little harm.
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Another doctrine, which finds home only in the wonderful and always interesting world of Mahāyāna Buddhism, is that of the transfer of merit. According to this doctrine, it is possible for one being to accumulate a great deal of excess merit through the performance of good works and then to transfer that merit to another being who needs it but has not been capable of earning it. It is a beautiful idea, and the ritual practices that attend it produce a good feeling. It is customary at the end of a Mahāyāna religious ceremony or at the end of a session of meditation to offer the merits that one has accumulated to the welfare of all beings. There is something very charming about this myth, and it has an immediate appeal to people like me who favour a socialized state. We North Americans could stand to cultivate the habit of greater generosity towards other beings, for given our affluence we are on the whole appallingly tightfisted with our money and stingy with our talents. A ritual act of giving merit is a good reminder of why it is that we do religious practices at all: in order to benefit all beings. But despite its benefits, the doctrine of the transfer of merit and the ritual practices associated with it seem to confuse many Buddhists, who somehow get the feeling that it is sufficient to perform religious ceremonies and offer the merit of these ceremonies to other beings.
One example of confusion that I have heard about, and one hopes this example is quite extreme, was of a Buddhist teacher who grew ill as a result of living in a very damp basement apartment in a cold climate. His disciples, knowing that he was ill, came by daily to perform religious ceremonies and to offer the merit of their ceremonies for the recovery of their teacher's health. The most dedicated of these disciples happened to be a carpenter. The teacher took him aside one day and said “You are willing to come here every day and perform religious ceremonies for one hour. Would you be willing instead to spend one hour every day doing repairs in my apartment so that it would not be so drafty and damp?” The disciple replied that he was coming to the teacher to do spiritual practice, and doing extra carpentry work would interfere with this spiritual practice. He was apparently more willing to do a symbolic ritual action of helping another being than to do a real action that would in fact help another being. This sort of blindness may be rather rare, but more common is the tendency that one finds too frequently among North American Buddhists to regard only a period of time set aside during the day for formal meditation as real meditation. In fact it might be better to regard the fifteen or sixteen hours a day that one is active in the world as one's real meditation, while the thirty minutes or hour that one spends in sitting meditation (zazen) should be regarded as the warming up calisthenics that one does before strenuous exercise; the way that one conducts one's daily life makes a great difference to the happiness and welfare of many beings, whereas the way one does one's sitting meditation makes very little difference to anything but one's own subjective states of mind.
Lest one get the idea that I am recommending against doing formal meditation or devotional exercises, let me emphasize that doing some kind of regular meditation practice can be as important for one's overall physical, intellectual and emotional health as is doing regular physical exercise, eating sensibly and keeping the intellect supple through regular study and problem-solving. To a person who wishes to lead an effective life, it is very important to keep oneself physically and psychologically healthy. There are healthy and unhealthy motivations that people can have for doing work in the service of other beings. The healthy motivation is the genuine desire to see all beings be happy and peaceful. This desire is not innate in most people and therefore must usually be acquired through training. There is no form of training better than being surrounded in one's youth by caring and altruistic people who both provide a good example and offer encouragement when one occasionally grows discouraged and weary of trying to love others. But, sadly, such environments are rather rare, and so most people must try to compensate for the imperfect circumstances of youth by doing specific exercises such as that of cultivating loving kindness (mettā-bhāvanā). By doing this exercise regularly for a sufficient period of time, one can develop a true wish that all beings be happy and peaceful. This wish constitutes a healthy motivation for doing works of service to others.
Only rarely are people actually motivated by such healthy emotions. More typically people are driven by a nagging feeling of guilt, an uneasiness with the seemingly undeserved advantages that one has over others. Wanting to be liked and praised by others, they set out to do works that others admire—or at least pretend to admire because it is considered very bad social form not to seem to admire noble works, and so even if one does not really admire such things, it is always prudent to put on a good show of admiring them. When people are driven by such motivations as guilt, fear and a desire to be praised, they very rarely do more than a halfhearted job of what it is that they are trying to do, because part of their attention is always diverted to seeing what others are thinking of them. They are a bit like a vain person at a social gathering in a room with a large mirror; he is always stealing a sidelong glance at his reflection and so fails to give full attention to his companions. We all know such people. Only by luck do they occasionally do a task thoroughly and well. Being of true service to others cannot easily be the outcome of these unhealthy motivations, nor can it be the outcome of a mawkish sentimentality. Rather, being effectively altruistic results from a combination of pure selflessness, concrete talents and skills, and a sense of realism about what can and should be done. The selflessness and the realism can be acquired by meditation. The skills can be acquired only through study and practical experience in the real world. No amount of religious exercise can provide them, and therefore doing more than the necessary amount of religious exercise simply wastes valuable time and renders one less effective in the service of others. Unfortunately, some people seem to think that if some meditation is good, a great deal of meditation must be excellent. But as in all things, too much is as damaging as too little.
The point to be made with respect to the doctrine of the transfer of merit is that the way “merit” is actually transferred to other beings is by using one's acquired skills and sensible attitudes to help other beings directly. There is no other way to transfer merit, nor is there really any such thing as merit aside from the results of one's hard work in acquiring some set of skills. Ritual actions of transferring merit are purely symbolic and have no effect except to help one cultivate the proper sentiments. It is almost embarrassing to have to point out something so obvious, but it has been my experience in talking to North American Buddhists that many people are confused on these matters.
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Another doctrine that has a great potential to confuse rather than to enlighten North Americans is one that is found in all schools of Buddhism but is particularly emphasized in Mahāyāna, where it also has acquired a rather odd interpretation. This is the notion that the Buddhist worker should acquire great tactical skill (upāya-kauśalya) in the overall strategy of leading beings to wisdom. In its original form this doctrine was perfectly innocuous and in fact quite useful. Based on the recognition that wisdom by itself is of little value unless it is put into practice, upāya came to mean all the practical manifestations of wisdom: purity of deed in body, speech and mind; self-improvement through meditation; being generous, kind and helpful to all others without playing favourites to anyone and without neglecting anyone; practising tolerance, forbearance and forgiveness; working energetically for the welfare of all beings; promoting peace and harmony among beings and striving always to avoid factionalism; and seeking always to find ways to help others avoid becoming bitter and hateful as a result of their frustrations. Tactics, in other words, consisted in nothing more than leading a life that demonstrated the advantages of loving wisdom above all else.
The notion of tactics took on a new sense, however, in the development of some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to this new interpretation, the doctrine of perfecting tactical skill came to imply that the ends of bringing someone to the Dharma justified whatever means had to be employed to realize that end. Even this extended idea of upāya was originally based on the commonplace observation that very immature people cannot be brought to maturity if one offers them only the most mature ideas. Delivering a discourse on Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics to a five year old child would probably be at best a waste of breath and at worst might create such an atmosphere of boredom and resentment in the child as even to delay moral development. Telling stories and fables to teach basic lessons might be far more effective. Similarly, since many human beings in the bodies of adults have minds that have become arrested in an immature stage of moral and emotional development, it may make sense in certain contexts to speak to them otherwise than one might speak to a fellow philosopher.
Moreover, even as a child sometimes grows angry at the adult world for no other reason than that some childish impulse has been thwarted, an emotionally immature adult might feel resentment towards others when things fail to go as planned or hoped for. Since it is not always the case that a child wishes for what is best in the long run, it often happens that a child interprets the kind actions of an adult as if they were malicious actions done with the sole intention of causing irritation to the child. Similarly, sometimes a wise person may act in ways that are in fact for the welfare of the foolish, but the foolish will perceive those actions as evil. Having the courage to do what is right, even when others resent it is one of the marks of a sage; the actions of a bodhisattva are not always pleasing to others, but then they are not intended to be pleasing. They are aimed only at being beneficial. They are part of the tactics in the bodhisattva's long-range strategy of bringing others to maturity.
If this matter of fact understanding of upāya that I have just outlined were widely understood, I should see no harm in the concept at all. But unfortunately it is often used as a pretext for justifying all manner of careless behaviour rather than as a constant reminder of the wise person's responsibility to the less mature. It is, needless to say, absurd to see Buddhist training principles as inflexible commandments that must invariably be followed to the letter, but neither are training principles to be flouted on the pretext that society at large might be repelled by someone who seems too pure in conduct. Buddhist teachers in North America have occasionally availed themselves of such reasoning to rationalize their fondness for alcohol and other intoxicants, eating meat and being sexually irresponsible. If Buddhist leaders wish to use intoxicants, then let them at least have the integrity to admit that they are indulging themselves for their own pleasure rather than that they are doing it for the sake of others; if they wish to eat meat, let them at least admit that they do so because they like meat and lack the will to give up something they love despite the harm it does to other beings. People readily understand such weaknesses. We all have them, and only the extremely foolish expect perfection from human beings. One can forgive teachers who have bad habits. One usually has a much more difficult time, however, understanding and forgiving the abuse of good doctrines to mask a teacher's personal weaknesses. Knowing clearly that a piece of behaviour, whether it is one's own or that of one's teacher, falls short of the ideals embodied in the training precepts is essential to the process of getting under way on the long journey to improvement; being confused on this matter of what does and what does not live up to the spirit of the precepts can lead only to personal and social stagnation.
North Americans are on the whole in a great hurry. We are among the most impatient people on earth, and this impatience manifests itself constantly in our unwillingness to take the time necessary to learn anything well or really master it. In commercial areas the consequences are not very serious, for the only implications there are that we make shoddy products and must import goods if we want anything fine or something that functions properly. But in the area of religion, the consequences are rather more serious, for we tend to read a little bit here and little bit there, listen to one teacher here and another teacher there, choosing what seems most pleasing to us at the moment, now practising kundalini yoga and tomorrow taking up zazen for a while, then dabbling in Sufi mysticism, then going into group therapy. There is an entire industry dedicated to selling us the concepts of self-improvement and self-acceptance and the gimmicks by which to trick ourselves into believing that we are gaining some benefit from them. In the great rush, we usually fail to learn any one discipline really well. Therefore we are not a people who should be entrusted just yet with subtle and sophisticated doctrines. Perhaps in another two to three hundred years North American society will be ready for such doctrines as emptiness, tactical skill, rebirth and karma. For the present, however, we need much more basic teachings—teachings are well-designed to lead us towards a new respect for reason and morality.
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