While I was in China this summer I tried to explain my ph.d. thesis to one of my travel mates.
"I am examining the underlying structure, philosophically speaking, of Buddhist ethics. I seek first to understand the Buddhist worldview or cosmology -based roughly in the dualism of samsara and nirvana- and then spell out the various injunctions found in the texts that purport to lead one from the former to the latter."
"That doesn't seem to have much to do with people's lives... or ethics," he replied, obviously a bit disappointed.
I realized then that my doctoral thesis will leave out a potentially significant source of Buddhist ethics, namely narrative. If I had said something like, "I'm going to study why Buddhists in Sri Lanka justify war or what the stories of the Jatakas tell us about morality," I have a feeling he would have been more satisfied. This snippit from a recent BBC article about politics helps show why:
Stories not facts
In his book The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen, an exasperated Democrat, tried to show why the Right often wins the argument even when the Left is confident that it has the facts on its side.
He uses the following exchange from the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 to illustrate the perils of trying to explain to voters what will make them better off:
Gore: "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."
Bush: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.
"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's trying to scare people in the voting booth."
Mr Gore was talking sense and Mr Bush nonsense - but Mr Bush won the debate. With statistics, the voters just hear a patronising policy wonk, and switch off.
Unfortunately for me, I love Al Gore - and numbers, and structures, and metaphysics. Stories and sound bytes tend to bore me, especially when they tend toward mere gratification of the speaker or listener. There are of course plenty of exceptions: I do love Buddhist stories and sound bytes like "just let go" or "return to the breath" can be quite powerful when properly applied.
I think my distrust or dislike of narrative comes from how easily it can be misapplied and/or distorted. So when we wish to examine the potential distortion of Buddhism or Buddhist ethics, perhaps narrative is the place to look, as in In Defense of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. By Tessa J. Bartholomeusz.
In Chapter 1, "Narrative, Ethics and War," Bartholomeusz follows Stanley Hauerwas's approach to ethics, focusing on the power of religious narratives to shape individual moral decisions. She finds his approach highly appropriate for Sri Lanka, where she finds religious stories take a prominent place in public debate due to a type of "Buddhist secularism" that interweaves religion and politics.
(reviewed by Annewieke Vroom)
Facts, on the other hand, tend to be pretty stable. Sure you can argue them, or push them this way or that, but fundamentally they do not lie.
When I think of "just the facts" of Buddhism, my mind immediately goes to the three marks of existence, the ti-lakkhaṇa: impermanence, not-self, and dissatisfactoriness. It is these three that we seek to "see" clearly or awaken to via insight meditation. The fact that we do not see these (experientially, not intellectually) is what keeps us trapped in samsara. Awareness is the path and the practice and the goal.
This may, however, be an extreme interpretation of Buddhism.
The other extreme would be to say that whatever Buddhists do or say is de facto "Buddhist." If Buddhists justify a war, then the war is "Buddhist." If Buddhists say you don't need to meditate or that there is a permanent existing Self, then these ideas are also "Buddhist." In this extreme there is no legitimate ground for saying a Buddhist has misunderstood "Buddhism" or that this or that Buddhist's practices are in fact not "Buddhist." All forms of criticism (read "critical thought") and that dualistic thing called logic are thrown out the window.
Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, majjhimo maggo hoti?
What do you think, is there a middle path?