Showing posts with label Precepts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Precepts. Show all posts

08 April 2016

Ten Precepts in Another Structure

My ordination in 2005
The Ten Precepts followed by members of the Triratna Buddhist Order are also known as the path of ten wholesome actions (dasa-kusalakamma-patha). In this essay, I look at a singular occurrence of the list that organises them differently.
In Pāḷi, the precepts are phrased so that we undertake refraining from the path of the ten unwholesome actions (dasa-akusalakamma-patha). A few months ago I surveyed all of the occurrences of precepts in the Nikāyas for a project I was working on with Dhīvan. This essay was written back then, but was on ice until we had a chance to present our findings to the College of Public Preceptors. Whilst trawling through the few dozen texts in which this list appears, I stumbled on this interesting sutta that lists the same ten actions, but instead of considering them as related to body, speech and mind, it divides them up differently. I'll begin with my translation of the relevant text:

The Discourse on Success and Failure.
(AN 3.117; i.268)
There are these three failures (vipatti) monks. What three? Failure of virtue, failure of intention, failure of views. And what, monks, is the failure of virtue. Here, monks, someone is a killer, a taker of the not given, an indulger in illicit sex, a liar, a slanderer, an abuser, a prattler. Monks, this is called a failure of virtue.
And what, monks, is a failure of intention. Here, monks, someone is a coveter and ill-willer. This is called a failure of intention.
And what, monks, is a failure of view. Here, monks, someone has wrong views, has views that are contrary, such as "there is no giving, no sacrifice, no oblation, nothing that comes from good or bad actions, no fruit or result of actions; no this world, no other world, no mother, no father; no spontaneously arisen beings; there are no seekers and priests in this world on the right path and proceeding along it, who having personally witnessed this world and the other world, would declare it [to others]." This is called a failure of views.
Because of the failure of virtue, intention or view, beings, at the break up of the body at death are reborn in a state of misery, a bad destination, a place of suffering, in hell. These are the three failures.
There are these three successes (sampadā), monks. What three? Success of virtue, success of intention, success of view. And what, monks, is the success of virtue? Here, monks, someone is one who refrains (paṭivirato) from killing, refrains from taking the not given, refrains from illicit sex; refrains from lies, slanderous speech, harsh speech, and frivolous prattle. This is called a success of virtue.
And what, monks is the success of intention? Here monks, someone is not a coveter or an ill-willer. This is called a success of intention.
And what, monks, is the success of views? Here, monks, someone has right views, views that are not contrary, such as "there is giving, sacrifice, oblation, something that comes from good or bad actions, fruit or result of actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are spontaneously arisen beings; there are seekers and priests in this world on the right path and proceeding along it, who having personally witnessed this world and the other world, would declare it [to others]." This is called the success of views.
Because of the success of virtue, intention or view, beings at the break up of the body at death are reborn in a good state, in the heavenly world. These are the three successes.

It's a short text and in many ways straight-forward enough. However, there are a number of features of this arrangement of the precepts that will be interesting, especially for members of the Triratna Order. Usually we think of the precepts as being grouped into those that apply to body, speech and mind (kāya, vācā, & citta). In this text the precepts are grouped according to whether they relate to virtue (sīla), to thought/intention (citta), or to view (diṭṭhi). 

In the table below we can see the precepts with the usual arrangement of the left, and this new arrangement on the right.

 pāṇātipātā paṭivirato
 adinnādānā paṭivirato
 kāmesumicchācārā paṭivirato
 musāvādā paṭivirato
 pisuṇāya vācāya paṭivirato
 pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato
 samphappalāpā paṭivirato

This is a one-off arrangement. However, we do often see the first seven precepts as a separate set or combined with the śrāmanera precepts. So there must have been some sects that saw these first seven as a distinct set. This is also reflected in the different wording of the last three precepts in this setting. Whereas we have the familiar language of refraining (paṭivirata) from something, in the cittasampadā and diṭṭhisampadā the language changes.

When we chant the ten precepts we use the tradition form which involves undertaking (samādiyāmi) the training principle (sikkhapādaṃ) of abstaining (veramaṇī) from the various unwholesome actions (akusalakamma) with the action given in the ablative case (indicating "from"). Although paṭivirata and veramaṇī look very different to the untrained eye, they are in fact closely related. Both stem from the verb √ram. The first adds two prefixes, paṭi- and vi- to the past participle (rata) to give us paṭi-vi-rata. The second adds only the prefix vi- to the root which then forms a stem virama, then adds a secondary derivative suffix -anī, which in turn causes the first vowel to be lengthened and strengthened from i to e giving veramaṇī (the n is changed to retroflex by the preceding r). Where the meaning of the bare root is 'enjoy, delight in' the meaning of vi√ram is the opposite, i.e. 'refrain'.

It's also worth noting that the word sampadā comes form the verb sam√pad. This may be familiar from the verb in the Buddha's last words: vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādetha. The verb here is often translated as 'strive' as in "with mindfulness strive on". The form here is a causative, so in fact it means 'bring about success'. I wrote about these words many years ago in my essay on the Buddha's last words.

Speech Precepts

Note that in the speech precepts there are some differences. Here they are written:
  • pisuṇāya vācāya paṭivirato
  • pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato
  • samphappalāpā paṭivirato hoti
We chant these in a different order, but we also chant pisuṇavācā vermaṇī... . It turns out that our version is grammatically incorrect because vācā is a feminine noun. The thing being refrained from is always in the ablative case. With the preceding precepts the kamma is masculine and has an ablative in : hence in musāvādā veramaṇī... vada 'speech' and vadā 'from speech' (which is musā 'false'). So the ablative singular of vācā is vācāya which is what we see here. Also in this text, representing a minority reading, pisuṇa and pharusa are not compounded with vācā and being adjectives take the same gender and case ending. More often one see them compounded as pisuṇavācā and pharusavācā, but the compound still takes the ablative ending, -āya, in both instances.

With samphappalāpā we have a different problem. Here the word palāpa (with initial double pp in compounds) means 'speech, prattle' and sampha means 'frivolous'. So samphappalāpa already means 'frivolous speech' and there is no need to add vācā onto it as we do. Indeed the term samphappalāpāvācā is never found in Pāli, whereas samphappalāpā is common.

Mind Precepts

While the sīla category is more or less the way we are familiar with the precepts, with some minor grammatical corrections, notice that what we think of as the mind precepts are substantially different.
  • anabhijjhālu
  • abyāpannacitto
  • sammādiṭṭhiko
To begin with the mind precepts do not mention 'refraining' or 'abstaining'. In fact this appears to be a pervasive pattern for these precepts throughout the early Buddhist literature, both in Paḷi and Sanskrit. The Pāḷi phrasing of the citta precepts here is simply:
Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco anabhijjhālu hoti abyāpannacitto.
Here (idha), monks (bhikkhave), someone (ekacco) is (hoti) one who is not a coveter (an-abhijjhālu) and one whose mind is not ill-willed (a-byāpanna-citto).
The word abhijjhālu is an adjectival form of the more familiar abhijjhā (which is also a feminine noun with an ablative form abhijjhāya). While our precept has the word byāpada 'ill-willing' as an action noun, here we have byāpanna the past participle 'willed-ill' and it is compounded with citta meaning "mind", "thought", or "intention".

Similarly for the tenth precept covering diṭṭhi or views, rather than refraining from wrong-viewing micchādassanā veramaṇī here we have sammādiṭṭhiko 'one who has right-view'. In fact in Pāḷi the form micchādassana is not found, but is always micchādiṭṭhi (which has an ablative form micchādiṭṭhiyā).


Such variations remind us that familiar lists were not always set in concrete. It is OK to think about things differently and to explore other ways of presenting our ideas. This set of categories might be seen as more practical because it is more closely aligned with the way we understand practice. One adopts ethics in order to set up good conditions for meditation. In meditation one must deal with the hindrances by temporarily eliminating  the grosser forms of craving and aversions, and then attempt to transform wrong-view into right-view.

Note that in this text, the aim is a good destination (sugati) or a bad destination (duggati) rather than anything more grand. This is not unusual. Many Buddhist texts seem aimed at what we sometimes think of as "mundane" goals like a good rebirth. Sometimes people who read the suttas are loath to take such things on face value. They argue that there must be an explanation. They might say that this is a fragment of a larger text which does aim at awakening. Or they might suggest that this was a text for lay people (though it is addressed to monks). Or perhaps they will say that this is "obviously" a late text for a degenerate age. But there is no evidence for these types of conclusions. They all involve projection rather than deduction. No. This is a bona fide Buddhist text that tells us how to get a good rebirth, which was clearly an important aspect of Buddhism from the earliest times because it crops up again and again in the suttas.

The fact that such variations are preserved also highlights what seems to me to be an important point. The Pāḷi Canon is not the literature of a single homogeneous group. Everywhere we look there is variation rather than unity. There is really no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism. The idea of a pre-sectarian Buddhism is the result of a distorting lens through which we look at history. This lens is a metaphor drawn from the study of biology and takes the shape of a branching tree that converges to a single point as we go back in time. In this view complexity is always greater in the future and less in the past. But this is a distortion. History is always complex. Tree does not take into account very common processes of evolution, for example, the contributions that tributaries make to the mainstream, or re-convergence after branching (hybridisation or syncretisation). I've argued that a braided river system is a far better metaphor for understanding history. In this view the source of Buddhism is a watershed, not a single spring. Buddhism incorporates influences from many traditions, including Brahmanism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and local animistic cults. It's likely that the basic ethics of Buddhism are the ethics of the Śākya tribe, originally from Iran.

Dhīvan and I have successfully lobbied the College of Public Preceptors to have the official versions of the precepts changed to reflect these observations, so watch out for an announcement soon (probably at this year's convention).


19 February 2016

Against Merciful Lies

I recently responded to a blog post by Amod Lele (On the Very Idea of Buddhist Ethics) and the point I made was taken up by Elisa Freschi on her blog (Buddhist morality and merciful lies). My original point was that there is a disconnect between karma and anātman, which is not a new theme for me (If there is no self, who is responsible for what actions?). 

I was struck by this phrase "merciful lies", which is Elisa's rendition of the Sanskrit term kauśalyopāya, usually translated as "skilful means", as it applies to telling the truth. The idea of a lie told for your own good is not found in Pāḷi Nikāya (or to my knowledge in the Āgamas either). The Buddha of the Nikāyas does not deceive anyone, for any reason. In Mahāyānsim, this idea of a well-meaning deception "for your own good" is strongly associated with the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or Lotus Sutra (lit. The Lotus of the Good Dharma). In this sūtra we find the parable of the burning house. The world is described as a house that is on fire. We, the unenlightened, are portrayed as children playing with our toys inside the burning house and we are reluctant to leave the house because we are too busy with our toys. The Buddha is portrayed as a father who calls to his children, and when they refuse to respond, he lies to them about having marvellous new toys for them outside. The children run outside expecting toys, but the father gathers them up and puts them in his cart and drives off rescuing them from death. 

I find this repugnant for all kinds of reasons. But on Elisa's blog my argument was lost in the noise, so I'd like to restate it and expand on it here. To my mind there are three main arguments against merciful lies. Firstly the scenario itself is stupid and offensive; secondly there's no need to construct a religion which lies to us, either on historical or moral grounds; and thirdly we all need to take responsibility for our actions and merciful lies by authority figures undermines this imperative.

The Scenario is Stupid. 

The parable of the burning house is just that, a parable. It's a hyperbolic rhetorical device meant to make a broader point through a simple analogy: we are like stupid children; the Buddha is like our wise Daddy. And on this basis many people might urge me to tolerance and understanding. They tend to do this when I complain about myths and legends. After all, the parable is widely admired and repeated, and even praised by the founder of my Order. My response is this: Has anyone actually thought about the intent of this so-called parable? Why, for example, would anyone embrace a parable that casts them as a idiot child, with not even enough sense to get out of a burning building? Who hears this parable and nods in ascent, "Yes, I'm so very stupid, that I need a father figure to look after me"? Well, who, apart from Christians, Muslims, and conservatives. One wonders at the appeal of this scenario in a post-Christian, anti-patriarchal Feminist and Freudian influenced, convert Buddhism milieu. And yet this is one of the most popular stories in a wildly popular text. Whole international sects are dedicated to this one text. This means that thousands of people tacitly accept that we're all really, really stupid and wise Daddy-in-the-Sky (aka Lord Buddha) needs to deceive us to save us from our stupid selves. If we even are selves, but don't get me started on that.

Or is it that we hear the parable, look around us at other people and ascent to their incredible death-defying stupidity? How stupid do we think other people are? I can imagine a priest taking this kind of view, especially the Buddhist sort because laypeople treat them with such exaggerated, sycophantic respect. If you're a bhikkhu, I suppose, laypeople probably do look pretty stupid as they bow at your feet. It's certainly an advantage to a priest for their flock to think him wise and themselves as stupid. But experience suggests this is unlikely to be the case. The priest is as likely to be an alcoholic or child abuser as he is to be wise. Most of them are just ordinary. How many disastrous scandals involving naive people giving up their power and individuality to sociopathic priests do we need before we start questioning this "Father knows best" attitude that they promote? The supposedly stupid lay person is often much wiser than we might otherwise give them credit for. Most of us converts got interested in Buddhism because of a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the mainstream, which is the beginning of wisdom. For many, meeting Buddhism is also the end of wisdom, because they drop one set of superstitions only to take up another set. 

I am among the first to rail against society and write apocalyptic social commentary. I see many problems in society. I see many stupid things going on. Many people making stupid decisions. I sometimes despair at how badly run our world is. But I am fundamentally optimistic about humanity. I don't particularly like most people, but I don't generally think of them as stupid. Most people are ignorant, even the educated, but this is not the same thing as being stupid. An ignorant person can learn, a stupid person has no hope. Most of us are doing our best, but we don't have all the information or the skill set we need (and we're too busy working hard to acquire either). Politicians generally speaking are a special kind of stupid, but they are a minority and we're talking about humanity in general. Even the people making stupid decisions are often doing so from the best of intentions, believing that they are doing the best thing. Truly stupid people are pretty rare. 

Many of us are figuring out how to be happy. Quite a few are studying happiness with a view to being more systematic about achieving it, which is precisely what we need to do. See for example this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, who tells us that happiness is all about having positive relationships and not at all about working hard. In an increasingly atomised society, this call to pay attention to your relationships looks almost radical. Spend face-time, not Facebook-time, with your loved ones, you'll live longer and be happier. There are plenty of other sensible things said these days on the subject of happiness. Of course some (but not all) of the Buddhists selling happiness are also happy, but, not everyone involved in this project is a Buddhist or responds positively to the religious myths of Buddhism. Secular mindfulness looks more useful and relevant to most people than most of the stuff I learned as a novice Buddhist. I kind of hope it takes over our initial offering of somewhat random meditation instruction and a weirdly eclectic potted history of Buddhism. Better that people do something helpful than learn a bunch of stuff they can't make sense of.

Of course mere temporal happiness is not the end of the story. There are even a handful of people I know who are exploring the higher reaches of liberation. It seems unlikely to me that I, or 99% of the Buddhists I know, will ever join that group. And this is where David Chapman's critique of renunciation-centred Buddhism gets interesting. The argument goes that if few of us are ever going to be able to practice renunciation to the kind of intensity required to make a difference, why continue to use it as the basis of our religious lives? Is there any point in renunciation becoming an end in itself (which it does throughout the Theravāda world)? My concern is that the pendulum might swing the other way. We live a society with deep problems related to obsessive consumption of resources. Problems of addiction, obesity, and heart disease. Problems of making the environment much less able to support life. A society where my local paper thinks it's both amazing and great (rather than obscene and disgusting) that a restaurant serves a 10,000 kcal meal (albeit for two people) - 10,000 calories would go a long way in a refugee camp about now, and goodness knows we have too many of those at the moment. A lot of people are hedonists already, either by temperament or as a kind of neurosis, and I think that renunciation might help put the breaks on this trend, whereas a turn towards experience might accelerate it. Admittedly this might sound as though I also think people are stupid. On the contrary I think our decisions are driven by many factors outside our control and that few people are equipped with the understanding of their situation or right tools to change. And this is my key point, tell people the merciful truth about their situation and it better equips them to save themselves. Tell them a lie and let them think that someone else will rescue them. Except that there is no Daddy-in-the-Sky coming to rescue us. Relying on a fantasy is worse than useless. 

In any case I see no need to demonise humanity and portray them as very stupid children that won't leave a burning building because they are playing with their toys. That's a very unpleasant viewpoint to take and it makes me wonder who benefits from it. And the answer seems to be "priests". Those with a vested interest in keeping us passive, stupid, and dependent. Those to whom some of us prostrate ourselves. In which case, the first step towards liberation is to liberate oneself from this position of bondage. I would not ape that awful Mahāyānist saying "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him". I would not say "Kill the priests", but we should at least start ignoring them or making fun of them. 

Buddhism Without Lies

In my explorations of Mahāyānism last year (esp. The Ambivalent Religion 20 Nov 2015) I proposed an alternative history of Mahāyānism. Indeed I argued that Mahāyānism, in its mature form, was effectively a different religion from what went before. The resemblances to Nikāya based Buddhism are merely superficial. The Mahāyānists employed different rhetoric, dogma, and religious exercises towards a different goal. One of the dynamics of the development of Buddhism after the advent of Mahāyānism was an increasingly magical worldview. 

In early Buddhism, (at least) some people are capable of liberating themselves and the Buddha is just a guide. The first Arahants achieve just what the Buddha did, he is pre-eminent because he did it first and alone. Later a gulf opens up between the Arahants and the Buddha. The example of this I have published about (Attwood 2014) involves a story about King Ajātasatthu. In the Pāḷi Samaññaphala Sutta, the Buddha is portrayed as being unable to help the parricidal king, Ajātasatthu. He just says to the monks, "The king is done for". However, in later Mahāyānist versions of the story the king is saved from the consequences of his actions by merely meeting the Buddha and talking with him. The Buddha becomes more and more godlike as time goes on, but equally, ordinary people seem to become more and more hapless. The standard Mahāyānist rhetoric is that it takes three incalculable aeons of practice to perfect the perfections and become a Buddha. So where ever you happen to be now, Buddhahood is an infinite number of lifetimes in the future. In other words utterly unattainable.

Many people still believe that the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya or "Heart Sutra" was created as a kind of epiphany of wisdom, a summary of the doctrine that could serve the guide the percipient reader to saṃbodhi. In fact the truth is a lot more prosaic than that. In all likelihood lines from existing texts were taken out of context, written on paper and worn as an amulet to ward of ill fortune and malevolent spirits, which is what the Prajñāpāramitā tradition promised after all: "write this down and you'll be protected from misfortune". Because people of that time and place probably did not believe that anyone could actually achieve saṃbodhi and thus protection from evil or demons was a much more pressing issue for them. 

Early Buddhists already had a weak Vitalism (āyu/jīvata) and a somewhat negative attitude to the body that comes with it (cf Metaphors and Materialism 26 Apr 2013). But this hatred for mere flesh reaches its apotheosis in the awful book by Śāntideva, Bodhicāryāvatāra, in which he writes about the body as something supremely distasteful:
59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? 
60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount. 
61. Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!
(pages 92-93 of Crosby and Skilton)
And so on. Śāntideva is a hate-filled maniac, with delusions of grandeur. But he's very popular in Mahāyānist circles because he seems to epitomise something of the twisted logic and fanaticism of Mahāyānism. There's a broad pattern of denigrating human beings and their bodies, and of deifying the Buddha or his replacement and elevating his body, which becomes a dharmakāya

Another manifestation of this hatred of human beings in Mahāyānist thought is the idea that we can do nothing whatever to save ourselves. All we can do is throw themselves on the mercy of the Buddha Amitābha and rely on vows of his that are recorded in the Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra. Recall that Gautama was sidelined because his parinirvāṇa meant that he could no longer participate in life on earth. Amitābha lives in another universe, but is able to interfere in ours, for our own good. It became necessary to invent other universes because Gautama cut himself off from our universe and the rules say we can't have another Buddha until the Dharma has completely died out there. The lack of a messiah-buddha proved so inconvenient that they had to invent one and situate him in another universe. Amitābha, unlike Gautama, is a model Buddha, who has not abandoned his universe and continues to care for souls in his world, and will even care for those souls in our world who ask his help. From my point of view a really compassionate omnipotent, omnipresent being would not need us to ask, or wait till death, they would tell us what we need to know right now and we could get on with liberating ourselves. But the point here is that we, poor stupid human beings, cannot help ourselves any more. The individual human being is incapable of liberating themselves without the presence of a god-messiah-buddha. And yet Buddhists and even Mahāyānists, insist that there is no god in Buddhism. Clearly there is a god, he's just in disguise, though it's not much of a disguise. 

So this idea of merciful lies emerges in a milieu of increasingly magical thinking, with godlike Buddhas floating around in paradises in other universes (but still able to save earthbound misfit humans); and with stupid people who have no hope of liberation from their own efforts or at all, but who are still plagued by misfortunes (disease, demons, criminals, tyrants, old age, death, or just plain bad luck).

The unfair characterisation of humanity as stupid, weak, and more or less beyond help short of a divine intervention is overly pessimistic. But this view was not always current in Buddhism. One can construct a Buddhism without merciful lies. We know this because we have records of it. While the Buddha is portrayed as expressing doubts about whether anyone would understand his breakthrough (Ariyapariyesana Sutta), he is never portrayed holding back from offering to help them, although he does call recalcitrant people stupid (moghapurisa). These stories are expressions of the values of the suttakāras. The idea of the merciful lie is absent from Nikāya and Āgama texts. Indeed the opposite is the case: the Buddha tells merciful truths. There are a few people who cannot take in these truths, the bereft man in the Piyajātikā Sutta for example, but on the whole the merciful truths that the Buddha tells set people free or at least on the path to freedom.

So why would a Buddha lie when the truth is what sets people free? How could a Buddha lie? Part of the answer seems to be that the distance between the Buddha and ordinary people has become an almost unbridgeable gulf. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is a godlike, omniscient, omnipotent doer of miracles who occupies a transcendent realm beyond our comprehension. Human beings on the other hand are just sacks of shit, infinitely far from Buddhahood, and incredibly stupid. It is this distortion of the respective statuses of the participants in Buddhist myths and legends that opens the gap for merciful lies where no lie should exist. Thus, lies come into the religion in which pretty much everyone, from the meanest peasant to the highest priest, across the divisions rent by time and the changing needs of society, vows not to lie (musāvādā veramaṇī-sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi). 

Another divisive innovation was the Two Truths Doctrine, in which one of the truths is in fact a lie (or at least untrue). I've written about this at some length so need not repeat the argument here (Not Two Truths: 5 Aug 2011). But the idea of relative truths (saṃvṛti-satya), which are not in fact true helps to ground the merciful lie in Buddhist doctrine. If one can rationalise the lie as a saṃvṛti-satya in the service of a paramartha-satya or ultimate truth, then anything is justified. So Buddhists are able to weasel out of the ancient precept which requires us always to tell the truth. It allows some Buddhists to mislead people and claim that it is a skilful means. The result has been quite disastrous for Buddhism, as gurus who are alcoholics, sexual abusers, or who have other moral failings have sometimes passed this off as kauśalyopāya. Once lying is part of the system, then no end of abuse is justifiable.

No one is served by a merciful lie. We are not children. We don't need Daddy to rescue us. Buddhism was originally constructed without such lies. The changes that allowed for these lies were for the worst in any case. Grown-ups need to be told the truth and given the appropriate tools to save themselves. There is no Big Daddy-in-the-sky waiting up there to rescue us. Most convert Buddhists rejected this fantasy well before becoming Buddhists, though an alarming number don't seem to notice that the Buddha has become their Big Step-Daddy-in-the-Sky. 

Taking Responsibility

Many Buddhists seem to lap up this characterisation of humanity as fundamental stupid and unable to manage itself. I hate it. I think we demonise humanity, including ourselves, at considerable risk to our well-being. I've recently written about the problems of Buddhists with self-esteem issues and mental health problems (Rumination and the Stress Response 22 Jan 2016). I did not mention the pernicious consequences of convincing converts that they are idiot children whose lives have to be managed for them, and who can expect authority figures to routinely lie to them for their own good. And they are too stupid to know what is good for them or to make appropriate decisions. Which all seems catastrophically disastrous to me. 

The thought of this teaching being common and commonly accepted makes me angry. The Buddhism that I first learned was all about taking responsibility for one's actions. The idea that one would abdicate responsibility to a guru was anathema. And seeing this put into practice was part of what attracted me to the Triratna Movement. Some have argued that our founder, Sangharakshita, has been weak in this department and to be sure it is by no means universal in the Triratna Order, but over many years I have seen enough of my colleagues in the Order exemplify this quality of taking responsibility that I'm content to find my home amongst them. Taking responsibility for one's actions, indeed for one's mental states, is not mere rhetoric. It is a necessary step for growing up. 

If someone is taught from the outset that they are too stupid and helpless to take responsibility, then what hope does that person have of making positive changes in their life? We can agree that they ought to consult friends and mentors, seek and listen to their advice on matter of importance, but in the long run we have to live our lives as we see fit. We and no one else has to weight up the pros and cons and make decisions. We have to make our own decisions and face the consequences. Of course, where those decisions affect other people, or where we have existing obligations, we need to take these into account (that is part of taking responsibility). We are never totally free to act, but whenever we do act, we ought to do so after due consideration. 

The abdication of responsibility to authority figures is almost always disastrous. We have seen this time and again in many spheres of religious and political life for example. Those we invest with power are almost inevitably corrupted by it.  This is why democracy which limits the amount of time the powerful can spend in positions of power is essential. Our leaders wear out after a few years and must be replaced. Their need for expediency often sees them telling us what they see as merciful lies.

For example, Western Governments assured us that they did not spy on citizens or abuse the surveillance powers they granted themselves. And yet whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that this was a bald lie. They were and are spying on us, reading our emails and texts, gathering information on who we talk to. We did not agree to this, we did not vote for it. Most of us don't want these powerful government agencies spying on us. We know that once they have power they cannot be trusted to use it wisely and we cannot vote the commanders of Homeland Security or GCHQ out after a few years. 

Or we can look at the global banking and finance industry. Successive governments abdicated responsibility for the economy to banks, removing regulations and oversight and as a result banks became corrupt and even criminal. They engineered an economic collapse of catastrophic proportions. While banks qua corporations went broke or were nationalised to stop this happening (i.e. were bailed out by tax payers), the individual bankers in charge of this disaster walked away incredibly wealthy, or in fact did not walk away and are still in charge of banks. In the USA only one banker went to jail. In the UK none did. And yet they destroyed trillions of pounds of wealth, including pensions and retirement investments. Thousands of families lost everything, including their homes. 

Or we could cite the numerous religious cults led by charismatic individuals who lead their followers to a sticky end. And we've seen what happens when Buddhist gurus are followed by naive individuals looking for the next Messiah. A mess, all right. 


There have been many deleterious developments in Buddhist thought over the centuries. The Realism of the Abhidharma, the Two Truths Doctrine, the ontological speculation, the abandonment of making a personal effort, and so on. But none is so egregious as this idea of the merciful lie. It is not merciful to lie to adults. It is deceptive and malignant.

A real problem we have in Buddhism is a deep religious conservatism which enables us to argue about how to interpret our doctrines, but never to fundamentally question them. So it looks like we have a healthy debate, but in reality everyone still assents to the tradition. Or we did until recently. At this moment in time a significant number of Buddhists are asking some hard questions. Or they are intuitively rejecting the usual sources of authority (texts, priests, tradition). We are discovering that we can still think for ourselves and that, for example, science is also authoritative. Or we are turning to people who seem to have genuinely made breakthroughs and can talk about awakening from experience rather than relying on second-hand authorities. We live in a time when awakening once again seems to be possible.

There's little or no scholarship behind this movement. It's quite hard to get such critical ideas as denying the validity of karma as a theory published. And it would be bad for an academic's career to do such a thing. A few renegades like Greg Schopen have attempted to stir the pot a little, but the bastions of Buddhism are heavily defended. The business of Buddhist academia is predicated on embracing Buddhism on its own terms. Indeed a lot of research into Buddhism is funded by Buddhist foundations like Numata and Khyentse, which in any other field would amount to conflict of interest. No one whose livelihood comes from a Buddhist organisation is going to conclude that Buddhism has got it all wrong.

Additionally we have more and more bhikkhus and lamas joining universities and doing research. They cannot be expected to provide our fledging move away from traditional Buddhism with any intellectual support either. "Monastics" are committed to supporting the status quo, in which they themselves are major beneficiaries. Their lifestyle demands so much from them, that they are even less likely than the Buddhism embracing academic to support the deconstruction of tradition. What they produce is almost inevitably in the form of apologetics for religious propositions. Defences of the very ideas that people like me want them to question. In all likelihood no help will come from that direction either. Nor can we expect much help from Western philosophers who continue to "discover" Buddhism and all too often act like they are the first people to understand it. In the end they are really only interested in reinterpreting Buddhism using categories that derive from ancient Greek thought and this is of little or no help to us. The Greeks and their successors were and are asking the wrong questions about experience.

Where we are getting some help is from neuroscience and from the psychology of mindfulness. Some argue that the work in these fields lacks rigour, but the scientific process will get there eventually. Refutation is at the heart of the enterprise, unlike in religion where it is all about making reality fit the theory. 

Presuming that we are in the presence of someone who knows the truth, I argue that the truth is always preferable to the convenient lie. The truth is what liberates us. Lies only sow doubt as to what is true. The idea of the merciful lie was a terrible mistake. That it survived and is traditional doesn't matter. It is still a mistake. Give us the truth and the skills to act on that truth.


A couple of people have suggested that the story of Nanda (Ud 3.2, Nanda Sutta) represents an early Buddhist merciful truth. In this story Nanda is thinking of giving up the religious life (brahmacarya) because of a pretty girl. The Buddha takes Nanda to the deva realm known "The Thirty Three" (tāvatiṃsa) - one of the lower devalokas. There they see a number of female divinities called accharā (better known by their Sanskrit name, apsarā) who are described as dove-footed (kakuṭa-pāda). Nanda agrees that compared to the apsarās his girlfriend is ugly. The Buddha then says:
abhirama, nanda, abhirama, nanda! ahaṃ te pāṭibhogo pañcannaṃ accharāsatānaṃ paṭilābhāya kakuṭapādānan ti.

Enjoy, Nanda, enjoy! I am your sponsor (pāṭibhoga) for obtaining 500 dove-footed apsarās.
With this motivation, Nanda returns to the religious life. After some grumbling from the bhikkhus who think this motivation is beneath them, Nanda becomes enlightened and then releases the Buddha from his promise.

At no point does the Buddha appear to lie to Nanda in this story. The story stipulates that apsaras exist and there is no suggestion that the Buddha was unable or unwilling to fulfil his promise to sponsor or guarantee Nanda his heavenly reward.

Another possible exception is the story of Kisagotamī. This is not found in the suttas, but is found instead in the Apadāna and in the Pāḷi commentaries. I don't know the dates of the Apadāna, though it is canonical. According to Oskar von Hinüber's, Handbook of Pali Literature, it was one of the last additions to the canon. The commentaries of course date from about the 5th century, though are generally believed to be based on earlier, non-extant, texts because they say they are. 

Also... This week Nature reported on an update to the Milgram Experiment. Abbott, Alison. (2016) Modern Milgram experiment sheds light on power of authority. Nature. 18 February 2016.
"People obeying commands feel less responsibility for their actions."

04 December 2015

Why Killing is Wrong

One of my friends recently shared this picture on Facebook, the comment, "Why indeed?" The subject came up again a few days later with this Robert Fisk article about Syria in The Independent newspaper pointing out that our Prime Minster is openly lying in order to bolster the case for killing more people in the Middle East. The accompanying picture shows a protester holding a placard with the same text.

Having read George Lakoff (See Moral Metaphors) and Mark Johnson and thought about the psychology of religious belief, the answer to the question seemed obvious to me. I started typing an explanation of the process. That answer became this essay. The fact is that all nations sanction killing under special certain circumstances, so to say that "killing people is wrong" is an oversimplification. The placard is actually a bit misleading and a bit naive. The laws we follow do not make killing a blanket offence. In some cases we can, like our British Prime Minister, apparently be proud of killing or having commissioned the killing. This does raise the question of the morality of killing. My approach to this question will be to look at how morality works, the underlying concepts and metaphors that form the mechanism of moral decision making, and to show how they apply to the subject of killing.

Debt and Balance.

The rationale behind the prohibition on killing is related to the underlying metaphors involved in our concept of justice. Ancient law codes tend to enshrine the principles: So we get the infamous passage of the Bible which lays out the penalties for personal injury, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot". The rule occurs in a number of places: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. The last adds, "show no pity". With regard to killing there are several other passages which legislate for a penalty of death: e.g. Genesis 9:6, Numbers 35:16, and 35:30. The Old Testament - the law book of a small tribe of wandering desert dwellers - seems to be in no doubt that killing a killer is precisely the right thing to do. It is also quite happy to recommend the killing of enemies to the point of inflicting genocide on them. Contracts and debts were so important in Vedic society that they had a special god, Mitra, to oversee them.

The idea appears to be that fear of the consequences will prevent the transgression in the first place. Though of course we know that people are pretty hopeless at thinking through the consequences of their actions in most cases. Even if they were good at it, actions always have unintended and unforeseen consequences. We also know that extreme punishments do not prevent crime, else Saudi Arabia would not be about to behead a group of its citizens.

The Biblical laws, such a huge influence on our own ideas of justice, can be understood in terms of obligations and debts (See Lakoff 1995). So what is the rationale? My understanding is that transgression metaphorically creates a debt, or at least is treated as though it creates a debt. And an important principle in most societies is that debts must be paid. In a society in which transgression invokes punishment in the form of inflicting injury on the transgressor, they will most likely try to hide their transgression and avoid paying the debt. The Biblical law code enshrines the idea that the easiest way to collect on the debt is to repay the debtor in kind: injure the injurer, kill the killer.

We also see justice in terms of a moral balance. A transgression such as murder is believed to create an imbalance in favour of the transgressor. Punishment removes any benefit the transgressor might accrue, it clears the debt and restores balance. We punish criminals so that they may "pay their debt to society". We also anthropomorphise justice as a woman carrying a set of weighing scales - the association of a just world with scales dates from ancient Egyptian times at least.

Our basic model of a just world involves the metaphors: TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT and DEBTS ARE WEIGHTS. The Jains see actions as causing the accumulation of dust that weighs down the soul and prevents it from achieving liberation. Metaphors of debt and balance go together well. A good accountant "balances" the books, by which we do not mean they perform a kind of physical juggling act, but that they equalise the credits and debits. As Mr Micawber says in David Copperfield,
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen, and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery."
Killing also places a burden on those who seek justice for the killing in the form of grief and the effort required to extract payment for the debt. The person who has been killed had potential - to live, to breed, to work, etc. That potential can now never be realised. So although killing the killer pays the debt (which is why it is not wrong in this logic), there is some debt that is unpayable. And because killing creates an unpayable debt we see it as particularly heinous. The metaphor TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT seems to go both ways, so that also some are also transgressions. An unpayable debt is a moral outrage. This is why sometimes, "hanging is too good for them."

Of course none of this algebra of morality is conscious. It's a black box, unconscious process that produces conscious conclusions associated with strong emotions that indicate to us that the thoughts we have in response are both salient and important, and thus we are highly motivated to act on them. The insight only emerges from a close analysis of the language used in talking about a just world.

The Politics of Morality and the Morality of Politics.

Beyond the basic insight that morality is an accounting exercise, there are two basic attitudes to debts that roughly correspond to the political divisions called left/right or progressive/conservative. For a conservative, paying back debts is especially important to their self-view and may over-ride other considerations. Thus in response to killing, many conservatives may be in favour of capital punishment, and going to war against enemies. Many progressives accept that moral debts can never be paid in full and live with this. It was progressives who introduced reform into the justice system, arguing, for example, for the need to rehabilitate criminals rather than simply punishing them. Progressives argue for humane treatment of prisoners and alternative forms of justice. All this with a view to creating a broader harmony. Just two days ago a conservative British government, aided by conservatives of the left (!), voted to extent the protracted war that we have been fighting in the Middle East for 14 years. The progressives of the left and right have been against the war from the beginning arguing that the second gulf war was illegal. Conservatives believe that bombs going off in Europe constitutes a debt that must be paid in kind. Never mind the fact that Europe started the war. or that Britain has accrued massive debts in that part of the world since 1915. Self-deception is an important aspect of morality, particularly amongst those who wield power.

In a progressive society we have come to accept that the Biblical injunction is too brutal. We have moved on from the simple equation in which the punishment for murder is execution, at least as far as our own citizens are concerned. When a judge passes sentence on a convicted criminal what they do is weigh the seriousness of the crime and consult the law to see what is considered to balance out that crime by the government of the day. Governments are able to adjust this balance. But it does mean that justice might look different for different classes of people: if two people, one an unemployed person and one a professional of some sort are convicted of theft, the two punishments may look different. The first may get a heavy fine and some sort of community service. The second may well lose their career, all their future earning potential as a professional and thus just being convicted is already a heavy blow to them and this is taken into account. Some argue that the punishment ought not to take into account these other factors. One of the things about justice is that the truism "justice must be seen to be done" is still important. 

The problem with this consequentialist view can be summarised in Mr Spock's famous Utilitarian catch-phrase: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As Mark Johnson (1987: 95) has pointed out this algebraic approach to justice, the "consequentialist" model of ethics, often sees the needs of the few sidelined completely. Spock's cliché does not take into account class and the historical attitudes of class. In a class system, as we have in the UK, some people weigh more than others in the moral balance. Particularly, the wealthy outweigh the poor. This is why the needs of the richest 1% dominate the needs of the 99% today: 1 billionaire outweighs 100 wage-slaves. Governments are increasingly members of the 1% and act to secure more for themselves and their peers, because they see their own needs as out-weighing the needs of the many.

In the UK we have an on-going crisis related to the precipitous drop in government revenue caused by the global financial crisis. The ideological response to this is to lower taxes for the wealthy (with the view to them using their retained wealth wisely) and cut services that are mainly used by the poor. The wealthy are seen by conservatives as morally worthy by mere virtue of being wealthy. Wealth is perceived as the reward of the just. Thus the wealthy are more weighty. This incidentally is also a step away from traditional Christian morality. Indeed it might be argued that those who feared that the collapse of Christianity would see the world slide into immorality, have seen their fears realised when it comes to the wealthy. It is assumed (by other wealthy people) that being morally worthy, the wealthy will use their wealth wisely. But they do not. They conspicuously consume with no higher purpose. They actively avoid paying into the community-chest through taxes, placing a higher burden on the poor. At the same time some of the wealthy seek the notoriety of public philanthropy instead of the anonymity of paying taxes. They give, but want adoration for doing what we all do. In this class based calculation, the poor are morally unworthy (by virtue of being poor) and thus cutting services that they use in order to lower the taxes on the wealthy is seen as a balanced policy by conservatives. They see this as fair. In this case the wealthy are few, but weighty. The poor are also few, but light. The majority in the middle only want their own wealth to remain stable and to be insulated from the risks of change. And in exchange for this they are willing to manage and administrate the empire of the wealthy.

We may have one person one vote, but when it comes to the policies actually enacted these are largely driven by the 1% and their perceived needs. Ironically, if we look at extreme political systems such as Stalinism or Maoism we also find a 1% who believe their needs outweigh the needs of the many and who organise their environment to ensure their needs, as they perceive them, are met at the expense of everyone else. The behaviour of the 1% may just be a constant in large scale societies. We certainly lack any effective narrative to counteract the current trend for the wealthy to get more wealthy at the expense of the poor. When they capture both the legislature and executive branches of government, we seem to lean back towards feudalism. Incidentally almost all businesses are run on feudal models of governance. And it is businessmen who have hijacked national governments.

More Calculations

When it comes to killing there is also a different weight attached to different people. There is a kind of algebra that we mentally perform. As well as the weights associated with class, we have different weights for different roles, for example, civilian, soldier, general, politician all have different weights. The UK and the USA apparently have no moral quandary using bombs to assassinate tribal leaders in Waziristan because they support our enemy, the Taliban. The Taliban are our enemy because they once offered succour to our other enemy, Al-Qaeda (even though it is now believed that the Taliban have severed all ties with Al-Qaeda). Ironically we once supported the proto-Taliban mujahideen in their fight against our other erstwhile enemy and sometime ally, Russia. So we are technically our own enemy now. If we kill twenty civilians to bomb one tribal leader, then our leaders calculate that justice is served, partly because they have decreed that no-one is a civilian in that part of the world . This may be true in the sense that they are all fighting for their land and resisting our illegal invasion and pathetic attempts to set up puppet governments. On the other hand gun-toting Americans suffering the latest mass-shooting ought to remember that the logic of their state is that armed individuals are enemy combatants, not civilians. What we don't do is target the leaders of the House of Saud who finance terrorism and Islamic State, and spread the extremist version of Islam that underpins terrorist ideology. In fact we do the opposite - we pay them huge bribes to buy our weaponry and support them with our military, even when they use the price of oil to hold us hostage. The algebra of this relationship is beyond my moral mathematics to solve.

With the modern study of societies and groups of people we can now see that behaviour is not simply the result of our own motivations and drives as the crude Freudian model suggests. How we behave is a product, sometimes wholly a product, of our environment. The people around us have a much stronger effect on us than we like to admit. Our myth is that we are all individuals, making our own decisions, determining our own fate. God gave us free will so we could misbehave (and what a mistake that turned out to be). The truth is that we're social animals and, for most of us, going along with the group is a survival strategy with tens of millions of years of successful history that is hard to argue against. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have shown that reasoning, that faculty we hold to be the highest virtue of the individual, doesn't even usually work in individuals. Across a wide range of tests and measures, individuals are hopeless at reasoning tasks, worse than random guessing. Reasoning seems to have evolved to help small groups make decisions and really only works in small groups. Of course for all these qualities and faculties there is a bell curve. A few individuals are naturally good at reasoning. Other's can learn to reason effectively as an individual. But even formal training is no guarantee of success. As Mercier and Sperber say, confirmation bias is a feature of reasoning, not a bug.

Morality or Justice have yet to catch up with these facts. The idea of freewill, and the interminable arguments over it, actually hampers progress in understanding human beings. Freewill is a legacy concept from Christianity, but also built into WEIRD notions of justice. But as we all know from experience none of us is completely free or completely constrained. At the very least we have obligations to our community that constrain our choices. In practice that community likely shapes most of our decisions. Many of the people in our prisons have mental illnesses or developmental problems that impair their ability to make good life choices, though short of a demonstrable inability to understand the consequences of one's actions, one still has to live with those choices. And being insane is no picnic even if we are free of societal expectations. However the notion of freewill continues to dominate the public debate, probably because it's what journalists understand or think we will understand. Social psychology is still almost inevitably trumped by that old fraud Freud.

The debt created by killing can be lessened or mitigated by circumstances. If I plan out killing someone that is weightier than if I kill on the spur of the moment. Killing on purpose is weightier than killing by accident. Killing because one was in fear of one's life, out of self-defence, may cancel out - the threat to your life may mean that the killing anticipates that debt. Killing when one is insane and unable to understand the consequences of one's action is not blameworthy in the eyes of the law, though many social conservatives consider that the insane should still be punished (for them a debt is a debt and must be paid). Killing in a war is to a person's credit - we celebrate our most efficient and effective killers. As I said, our British Prime Minister is quite proud of all the killing he is commissioning in the Middle East. David "Killer" Cameron seems to have a taste for ordering executions. 

However we are squeamish about mass killings. Fire bombing Dresden and killing tens of thousands of civilians (figures are disputed and were distorted at the time) was just about acceptable to the British, if not the Germans. Atomic bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians on the day and many more from cancer in the following generations is a more ambivalent subject. Some still claim it saved American lives and shortened the war and that this justified the use of atomics. This is yet another example of the utilitarian approach to ethics in which one weighs up consequences, it's just that in this case foreign lives are worth considerable less than domestic lives. A few hundred thousand Japanese  civilians are worth a lot less than say, ten thousand American soldiers. Others argue that the use of atomics was a "war crime" of the most heinous kind (because it created a massive unpayable debt).

This in-group/out-group distinction has always been important when it comes to killing. Prohibitions on killing seldom apply in the same way, or at all, to out-group people. Funnily enough we see the same behaviour in chimps. When the Gombe Stream group became too large a group of chimps split off and set up a range next door. The alpha male of the Gombe Stream Group, a large and unusually violent male (ironically) called Frodo by Jane Goodall, lead a series of raids on the splitters in which they were all killed. Human beings are not the only species that commit murder.

Every time, every single time, a government wants to justify killing its enemies it characterises them as inhuman. This makes it easier to justify killing them. And note that the present call to extend the illegal war in the Middle-East does portray the enemy as monsters who "must be stopped". And there is certainly some truth in this. European and US governments have created a number of monstrous dictators and organisations in the Middle East. But what about the states who arm and fund them? Are they not culpable also?

From Payback to Restoration and Redemption.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Christian myth connected with justice, is the redemption of sinners. Some members of society see criminals, even killers, as in need of redemption, rehabilitation. This goes beyond the simple idea of balancing out the crime with punishment. Part of the motivation here is that we acknowledge that our methods of punishment tend to produce more criminal behaviour: relative innocents who are sent to prison come out hardened by their intimate association with other criminals; many people commit crimes as a kind of career and prison does nothing to deter them. Punishment only seems to make the situation worse in the majority of cases. So there are lobby groups who try to get the government to implement rehabilitation programs, with limited success.

It is notable that since roughly 1971 the developed world's attitude to private debt has significantly shifted. Where pre-war the average person would have avoided going into debt, by the 1970s debt  in the form of credit cards and personal loans was being promoted to more or less every adult. We began to accumulate huge average levels of personal debt. At present household debt is roughly equal to the annual Gross Domestic Product of the nation and forecast to rise steeply. Business debt is much higher because banks are heavily indebted to each other, but non-finance sector business debt is also about equal to annual GDP. Currently private sector debt in the UK stands at about £6.5 trillion and GDP at £1.5 trillion. (See this chart). Given the applicable metaphors, this change in attitude to debt may have had a major impact on our ideas about morality, but I don't think this has been studied yet (I'd be very interested to know if it has). 

In recent times we have also developed more nuanced views about justice. For example we now distinguish between retributive justice and restorative justice. Both are still based on the balance metaphor, but employ different methods to achieve balance. Retributive justice, which I have so far focussed on, seeks to restore balance by inflicting suffering and humiliation on the one who has transgressed. Restorative justices aims to balance things out by forcing the transgressor to make a positive contribution to the victim and society. Whether this takes the form of community service, compensation payments, or reconciliation meetings, the aim is still to have the transgressor actively restore balance through their actions rather than being passive subjects of punishment. The underlying concepts and metaphors are the same.

As I have already mentioned, the whole system of identifying criminals and punishing them makes it virtually certain that people will always try to hide their misdeeds out of fear. Our idea of justice still largely consists of inflicting suffering and humiliation on wrong doers. We learn this as children - those who are caught breaking the rules are punished. So, don't get caught. We also Romanticise and idolise individuals who can break rules with impunity. In particular many of the "heroes" in our story telling are able to kill without consequence. Why would anyone come forward and confess to a crime knowing that they will suffer as a result? It is irrational to seek punishment. However, sometimes the guilt of committing the crime outweighs the fear of punishment. In this case we might say that guilt comes from an awareness of having created a debt and the knowledge that it must be paid. Guilt is the feeling we have when there is a moral imbalance. And it can override concerns for personal safety and make people confess to crimes even though they know that they are inviting injury on themselves. This must be coupled with a deep indoctrination that guilt requires punishment in order to restore the balance of a just world.

Last Words

So the slogan that sparked this essay has misconstrued the situation. Killing is not wrong per se. Some killing is emphatically right (in the eyes of the law). The problems is that unsanctioned killing creates a debt. The simplest way of repaying that debt is for the killer to die. That is why social conservatives want to kill killers. Not to show that killing is wrong, because it isn't always wrong, but to show that killing is a weighty debt and that all debts must be paid. Progressives see the conservatives here locked in combat with conservatives there and wonder where it will end.


Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

01 August 2014

Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism

In the texts of early Buddhism we find several kinds or modes of morality. One of which is mainly aimed at being a good community member and one of which is aimed at preparation for meditation. In this essays I will outline the main approaches to Buddhist ethics that I see in the Pāḷi suttas. This line of reasoning first occurred to me in responding to a comment on my essay: Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas. (21 Mar 2014). I also argue that this variety of approaches to ethics argues against a single origin for Buddhism. As with other areas, Buddhist ethics is composite with some aspects not being completely integrated.

Being Good. 

This is the aspect of ethics that most of us are familiar with. The representative set of precepts is known as the pañcasīlāni or just pañcasīla. In this formula we undertake to refrain from certain actions: killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. When I've written essays on these topics (see links), they generated many comments and often sharply polarised responses! 

In the Triratna Order we follow a related set of precepts traditionally known as the dasa-kusala-kamma-patha or 'the path of the ten good actions'. In this set of precepts we undertake to refrain from killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, divisive speech, covetousness, ill will, and confusion. And we also undertake to cultivate the opposites of each of these.

One of my colleagues has just published a book which she titled It's Not About Being Good. But I'm afraid I disagree. These precepts are about being good, where good is defined in Buddhist cultural terms which, I argue, can be traced back to the Śākya tribe. The Śramaṇa religious cultures synthesised Zoroastrian (via the Śākyas), Vedic, autochthonic animistic and shamanistic ideas to produce a new set of moral values and rules that transcended the local community and situation. These rules are largely about getting on with people and creating a harmonious community, i.e. norms of behaviour for a community that have become formalised and normalised.

In my article on the possible origins of some aspects of Buddhism in Iran I cited the fact that in the region only Zoroastrians and Buddhists have a morality which applies to acts of body, speech and mind. And in both cases it is acts of body, speech and mind that determine one's afterlife destination. In Zoroastrianism there were only two possibilities, Heaven and Hell; while Buddhism came to see many possible rebirth destinations (gati) of five or six kinds (loka) contrasted with nirvāṇa which meant the end of being reborn altogether (a feature of Buddhism repudiated 500 years later by Mahāyānavādins who couldn't bear the thought of the Buddha leaving them behind). Buddhist morality is probably based on Zoroastrian morality and was transmitted to the Central Ganges Valley by migrating peoples including the Śākya tribe. 

We might therefore see this kind of social-norm morality as simply the morality of the Śākya tribe writ large. This is how the Śākyas treated each other and expected to be treated, and with the influence of Zoroastrianism and the experience of migration it's possible they already saw their values as universal. This should not be seen as an attempt to trivialise Buddhist ethics. Clearly community was very important to the early Buddhists and a whole genre of texts, the Vinaya, was created with the intention of regulating the monastic community to try to create a harmonious and positive community. And the way examples are given it's clear that the community was often far from harmonious.

This code was then used to transform the Theory of Karma. The earliest versions of karma occur in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad where it probably still refers to ritual actions. However there was a right way and a wrong way to perform the rituals necessitating at least two afterlife destinations. With the application of ethics to karma—a process Richard Gombrich calls ethicisation—the Śākyas created a unique combination of morality, eschatology and soteriology, which all revolved around the intentional behaviour of the individual. The key statement of this principle occurs just once in the Pāli texts (AN 6.63) but it is picked up by Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (chp 17) a s representative view. The statement is cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi  cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti – kāyena vācāya manasā. "Intention is what I call an action, monks. Having intended one acts with body, speech or mind." (See also Action and Intention)

We say that the precepts are part of the three fold path, i.e. śīla, samādhi, and prajñā or ethics, meditation and wisdom. And it is true that the five precepts are referred to as sīla. However the precepts call themselves sikkhapāda 'training steps'. And note that the dasa-kuasala-kamma-patha don't include the word sīla either.

Preparation for Meditation.

A friend and I were discussing Ayya Khema's approach to meditation recently. My friend mentioned her admonition that if you want to meditate you need to get out of the hindrances and stay out. And this brought to mind something I quoted from Ayya Khema in my article about the Spiral Path texts for the Western Buddhist Review. That for meditation to be possible it was necessary to experience some pāmojja. The two statements amount to much the same thing: pāmojja is the state of no (gross) hindrances. 

One of the discoveries that came out of surveying the Pāli and Chinese texts on the Spiral Path was that as a whole they present the threefold path as a series of progressive stages, illustrated by the image of rain filling smaller streams which fill larger streams, smaller rivers and larger rives until larger rivers fill up the ocean. This fact had been obscured in books about the Spiral Path by both Sangharakshita (1967) and Ayya Khema (1999) because they focussed on the Upanissā Sutta. In that sutta the sīla section of the path is replaced with just two steps dukkha and saddhā as a result of a rather clumsy attempt to link the two forms of dependent arising. As my article showed getting from dukkha to saddhā is not simple - typically commentators introduce three sub-steps to get from one to the other. This isn't clear until one looks at all the other texts which share a similar structure (eg. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, for a complete list see my 2012 article). Generally speaking saddhā arises on the basis of hearing the Dharma, and seems to precede sīla in the texts that include it. 

The Spiral Path texts describe a path. That path has three sections with two junctions. The first section is sīla leading to the liminal experience of pāmojja. Pāmojja ushers us into the second stage, samādhi or meditation (the word literally means 'integration'). Samādhi is one of the steps on the path with various other steps leading up to it. My conjecture is that each of the single words on the Spiral Path represent one of the four rūpajhanas. The junction between meditation and the next stage of wisdom is "knowledge and vision of things as they are" (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). With knowledge and vision we can see sense experience for what it is, we become fed up (nibbidā) with it, turn away (virāga) from it and experience liberation (vimokkha) and the knowledge of liberation.

But the sīla section of the Spiral Path is entirely unlike the precepts. Each text has a different selection from a series of related terms. Some of them, including the Pāli DN2 and many of the Chinese versions in the Madhyāgama, include the whole list. That list is:
sati, sampajanñña, yoniso-manasikāra, hiri, ottapa, saṃvara, and indriyesu gutta-dvāratā.

mindfulness, awareness, wise attention, shame, scruple, restraint, and guarding the gates of the senses.
I mentioned that saddhā is included in this list at times. In fact saddhā might be said to be the junction between non-participation and practising ethics. Typically saddhā arises when someone listens to a Dhamma discourse by the Buddha. On the basis of this faith one begins to practice sīla.

If we look at these terms we can immediately see that they represent something very different from the precepts. This really isn't about being good. This set of terms, with the possible exception of hiri & ottapa, is all about preparation for meditation: for getting out of the hindrances and staying out of them. And there is almost no overlap with sets like the five precepts (pañcasīlāni). One might argue that the "mind precepts" from the dasakuasala-kammapatha do overlap with these. However the kammapatha are general and the Spiral Path ethics are specific. The former are about the commitment to managing one's own mental states, and the latter constitutes a program for achieving that goal.

Hiri and ottapa are about one's own knowledge of what constitutes ethics and being cognizant of the opinions of respected group members. In truth they could be relevant in either of the two contexts I'm outlining here. But the fact is that they are associated with the Spiral Path so that may incline us to see them as natural to this context. One of the things we must constantly do is catch our minds wandering off and returning them to the object of meditation. It is hiri which facilitates this. And if our own sense of appropriateness fails us we can always imagine explaining to our teacher how we spent our meditation.

So there are these two very different approaches to ethics in early Buddhist texts: one for community life, and one for meditation. I don't recall seeing this distinction made before and I'm certainly aware of presentations that confuse the two modes. But there is at least one more aspect to Buddhist ethics, the quest for a good rebirth.

A Good Destination.

It's difficult to know exactly where to place this approach to ethics. It might not even be ethics, but it is an aspect of karma so it is at least related. This approach to ethics is as condition for a better rebirth and ensuring the livelihood of renunciants. It involves cultivating puṇya through good ritual acts such as generosity to renunciants. It seems to relate to the idea of rebirth in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.

Puṇya (Pāḷi puñña) is a term drawn from Vedic ritualism but the practice of supporting renunciants seems to have been a widespread practice in Indian in the Iron Age. Puṇya is contrasted with pāpa and pāpa seems to straightforwardly mean "evil". So puṇya is the opposite of evil, or "good", though we often translate it as "merit". I suppose it is merit in the sense that if you collect enough of it, then you merit a good rebirth. A bit like Buddhist loyalty points. A surplus of puṇya leads to a good rebirth destination (suggati). 

With the ethicisation of karma getting to a good rebirth destination becomes an ethical issue. At best supporting renunciants might be seen as cultivating generosity which is one of the qualities one cultivates to be a good community members. As Reggie Ray has shown in Buddhist Saints the various lifestyles of Iron Age Ganges culture (householder, settled monastic and forest renunciant) all relied on each other in a variety of ways.

Buddhists took the Vedic notion of puṇya and married it to sīla so that puṇya comes to be seen as having soteriological value (though this change may well have happened in pre-Buddhist Vedic milieu as well). However they were care to limit the possibilities of merit to sotāpanna or stream entry. As Thanissaro says in his Study Guide on Merit:
"For all the rewards of meritorious action, however, the concluding section serves as a reminder that the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit." 
And that said almost the quotes on puṇya evinced by Thanissaro promise a good rebirth destination as the primary result of cultivating merit.


Thus we have these various modes of ethical practice evident in early Buddhist texts and persisting (though without an explicit distinction) into the present: being a good community member, preparation for meditation, obtaining a good rebirth. It may be that Buddhaghosa anticipated this distinction. Buddhaghosa cites a traditional classification of sīla in the Visuddhimagga which makes almost the same distinction I am making here. "What is virtue?" he asks and quotes the Paṭisambhidā (a commentarial text included in the Khuddaka Nikāya) as responding:
cetanā sīlaṃ, cetasikaṃ sīlaṃ, saṃvaro sīlaṃ, avītikkamo sīla 
virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant, virtue as restraint, and virtue as non-transgression. 
I'm following Ñāṇamoḷi's translation of sīla as 'virtue' in his translation of the Visuddhimagga (p.7). My first category might be seen to take in virtue as non-transgression; while my second category takes in virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant and virtue as restraint. Being a good community member is a matter of conforming to the norms of the community; while preparation for meditation means actively working on hindrances in an effort to eliminate them from one's mind, even if only temporarily. However, my reading of Buddhaghosa is that he doesn't see these different types of virtue as aimed at different goals. He doesn't quite acknowledge that being a good community member is a good in itself. However, the observation that there are different modes of ethics is not original. 

I haven't said much about the Vinaya in this essay. This is deliberate. I'm mostly interested in the suttas (I've been called a Sautrāntika for this reason). The Vinaya is certainly an expression of the moral principles found in the precepts, but primarily concerned with the minutiae of how to encode values as rules and then enforce them in a large and disparate community which has to live within a wider community that is not bound by the same values or rules. I've written about the law making process in an essay called: The Mad Monk and the Process of Making the Vinaya. The Vinaya is important in the history of Buddhist ideas, and I would say significant in the world's development of legal codes since it records the processes by which laws were made and enforced. But it was only ever intended to apply to the monastic community.

This is another case of distinctions being hidden by imposed unity. The desire to see Buddhism as a unitary phenomenon, at the very least springing from a single individual overwhelms our ability to see the evidence clearly. We're taught that Buddhist ethics has a single mode that covers all the bases;  that for example, the precepts for being a good community member are sufficient also for meditation. I think this simplification is probably an error, and that for meditation we need another, solitary, mode of ethical practice that is much more intensive. We're also taught that Buddhist ethics all grew out of the Buddha's awakening, though historically this simply cannot be true. The Buddha, if he lived at all, grew up in a community, the Śākyas, and must have absorbed the values of that community and expressed this in his teaching. And then at a later time Brahmanical values were super-imposed over Śākyan values. And then Mahāyāna overlaid yet another set of values.

So that this idea that as modern Buddhists bringing our values to Buddhism we are somehow doing something novel is simply ignorant and anachronistic. No adult convert can ever arrive in the Buddhist fold without a set of values and other baggage. 


Jayarava. (2008) 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 15.
Jayarava. (2012) 'The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.' Western Buddhist Review, 6. 
Jayarava. (2013) Possible Iranian Origins. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3. 
Khema, [Ayya]. (1999) When The Iron Eagle Flies
Ñāṇamoḷi. (1956) The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1997. 
Ray, R. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India. Oxford University Press. 
Sangharakshita. (1967). The Three Jewels. Windhorse.

8 Aug 2014: Dayāmati (Prof R. P. Hayes) has penned an interesting response to this essay on his blog: How were Buddhists ethical? He compares various attempts to characterise Buddhist ethics in Western terms (including my suggestion that Buddhist ethics might be particularist). So far, he concludes, "no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others." And perhaps Buddhist ethics cannot be characterised in Western terms. 

25 November 2011

Taking the Not-given

I've just come across the website Buddha Torrents which specialises in linking to illegally copied and uploaded Dharma books. You would have thought that facilitating the stealing of Dharma books would be a no-brainer - just don't do it - but many Buddhists apparently feel quite comfortable with theft of electronic files when they would not walk into a shop and steal the physical book. Let me just be quite clear here. Copying is theft. All those pirated books, DVDs, and CDs are stolen. There is no grey area here. Consider the wording of the second precept:
adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the training step of refraining from taking the not given.
Since I've covered the general outline of the precepts in other posts [1] I'll just concentrate on the main word: adinnādānā. The Pāli word dinna means 'given, granted, presented'. It's a past participle of the verb √ 'to give'. In a Buddhist context it frequently refers to alms given to bhikkhus. The word is used in the negative adinna 'not-given, not-granted, not-presented'. The other part of the compound is ādānā which is a noun from the same verbal root. The stem dāna means 'that which is given, donated, granted', while the prefix ā- reverses the direction and gives it the meaning 'that which is taken, taking'.

If we take a step back into the Proto-Indo-European roots of the words, we see that the original form was *do meaning 'to give'. The word comes into Latin as donum 'gift' from which we get the English words donation, & donor. The root also underlies the words date, and time. [For more on this branch see the Online Etymological Dictionary].

So our word is a-dinna-ādāna 'taking the not-given'. In the precept verse the compound is in the ablative case - giving the sense of 'I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given'.

Clearly this is a precept about property. You cannot take someone's property against their will except by force or deception. If they give you everything they own of their own free will, in full knowledge of the consequences, that's fine. But if you take even a penny without being first offered it, then you are involved in doing something to that person against their will, i.e. doing violence. So it's not only about property, but an extension of the first precept against causing harm, with a focus on property.

It is true that as Buddhists we preach that we ourselves should not be attached to material possessions. I tend to agree with the line of reasoning that an abundance of material possessions causes more misery that it prevents. However without a roof over our heads and food to eat most of us don't cope very well. So ruling out all possessions for everyone would cause more pain that it relieved. It's not up to us to judge for other people what constitutes a minimal level of possessions. The precepts are carefully phrased in the first person: samādiyāmi 'I undertake'. It is we who undertake the training and our judgements should be directed to ourselves. So our non-attachment should make us less likely to take what is not given (in theory). If we feel that a close friend is in danger of breaking this precept, we might have a quiet word with them, tell them what we have observed and related our concerns in a kindly way. But there is little scope for standing in judgement on others. This creates a tension for people raised to believe that justices involves determining guilt, and meting out punishments.

However Sangharakshita has expanded the context of this precept beyond material possessions. He includes things like a person's time or their energy. If someone doesn't have time for us, we should not try to detain them. If they don't want to, for instance, listen to our problems, then we cannot make them. Each time we take the not given we seek to negate the other person; we seek to impose our will, and our ego, over theirs. It is a subtle form of violence. So this precept can be seen as an extension of the first precept against doing violence to other beings.

I'm going to assume that we understand the problem of doing violence and move on to consider some more specific issues.

In 2000 the internet music sharing service Napster was taken to court by the the band Metallica along with rapper Dr Dre. A separate case was brought by several major record labels. Judges ruled that Napster were indeed breaking the law by facilitating the sharing of illegal copies of music. But for some reason this remains a grey area. Lots of people I know are copying and not paying for music, films, and software. If what was being shared was physical property the issue would be clear cut. We would not condone either the burglar, nor the fence, nor any part of an operation which facilitated someone stealing our property. But apparently we are happy to do so with music. Music is different of course. Digital music is immaterial, very easily reproduced or copied, and it is very difficult for the average consumer to relate the mp3 file back to the performer.

Musician's make their livelihood from selling that music. There are some who are saying that the new media calls for new models of distribution and ownership. I notice that these people are typically already successful and wealthy, i.e. they do not have much to lose. They usually got into the position of being successful and wealthy by selling albums the old fashioned way. Start up bands, with no money, are not so convinced that giving away their music is such a good thing. Once you give people something for nothing you set up expectations.

Some people argue that so much money is made that it hardly matters if a few copies are made. But this is not an argument from Buddhist ethical principles. It seeks to bypass the principle of not taking the not given, and replace it with taking what will not be missed. And who says it won't be missed? The music industry say they are missing that revenue and record labels and music shops are struggling to stay in business. Whether or not this is good for the music is irrelevant to the Buddhist ethical case, because someone has come out and explicitly said: "do not copy this music without paying us for it." Music is not given except within the limits set out by music industry. Whether or not we think these limits are moral, ethical, or legal, is irrelevant because the relevant precept is about the not given. And outside the framework of buying CDs of MP3s the thing is not given.

There is such a thing as fair use. For instance in this blog I often cite the words of other people, from books and articles that form the basis of their livelihood. On the whole they ask that we do not copy their work wholesale, or use it without acknowledgement. So I quote little bits and endeavour to accurately state where the text comes from. This seems fair enough, and if we did not have this provision then any kind of dialogue about literature (scholarly or otherwise) would not be feasible. Indeed I believe I have raised the profile of several authors by bringing their work to the attention of a new audience.

I also use images. Images are usually classed as a whole work, so copying them is usually considered to be outside of fair use. I try to use images that are clearly free of copyright restrictions. Sometimes it's hard to tell, and I have to confess that I sometimes interpret fair use in my favour. I still stick to stating where I got the image, and when it's clear who made it I make sure I include that information. My purpose is to decorate a blog post, not suggest that I am an artist. I suspect that I could be criticised for this practice, and I'm always ready to remove images without a fight. So far no one has ever asked me to remove an image from this blog. But I would if asked to, even if fair use suggested I might get away with it. I do get a few pennies a day from Google ads and Amazon referrals but given the time I spend on this it could hardly be called a profit making venture. In my books, however, I had to be a lot more assiduous about observing copyright because the law says that where you are selling something then fair use provisions don't apply. I can't make money from someone else's work. This seems fair to me.

Buddhists are not always scrupulous when it comes to the internet and taking the not given. I have had several people copy my entire mantra website, for instance, and present it as their own work. They get quite hostile when I tackle them on the illegality and immorality of this. I've been called some nasty things because I've acted to protect my work from being degraded by poor copies. But taking the not given seems clear enough. And unless we take such principles seriously then we aren't likely to make progress, so it's in our best interests to keep the precepts.


I've had second thoughts about my addendum, and have removed it.