Saturday, 30 January 2010

Narrative verses Awareness in Buddhist Ethics

(cross-posted at American Buddhist Perspective)

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?


  1. I think ethics, good moral ethics, are and should be the basis for a compassionate life. There is this one passage that I reminded of that goes something like (paraphrasing of course) "if you knew what I knew about sharing, you'd share every meal you had."

    To ignore our indelible consciousness is to ignore our nature. If we see someone suffering we feel badly, yet sometimes we tend to ignore it or deny those feelings. I don't feel that compassion or ethics are somehow fostered through nurture, but relieved through understanding and acceptance. Sometimes though, human tendencies can corrupt or view of the world and of others and a good firm set of ethical guidelines can be of invaluable use.

    As I've said before, I think it is important to see and know why we should live a moral life rather than living one because we are told to. Thinking it is the right thing to do is different than knowing it is the right thing to do.

    Take your example of war for instance; sometimes killing is the ethical thing to do, most of the time it is not. If one agrees with that than we need to ask what is it that guides us in these decisions? Is it from within or is it from nurtured ethics installed in us from a benevolent tutor?

    I think the answer to that is both. To deny what is right and what is wrong in life when we do know is tantamount to nihilism IMO. And to deny Buddhism teaches us things like Right Speech, Right Livelihood and Right Action is deny Buddhism itself. Of course there is right and wrong, it just changes like everything else. This is part of our human condition, our dukkha, our tendency to partake in the three poisons.

    So, to answer your question, I think both learning and knowing is the middle path. To deny either is just a path to more samsara, more dukkha. I hope my opinion made some sense....and great post Justin!

  2. Thanks, Kyle. It makes perfect sense. I had the thought after I posted it that the answer is not either/or, but both/and - as you say.

    My other thought was that perhaps we ought not call a violent, greedy, or particularly ignorant "Buddhist" unBuddhist in his/her actions or beliefs, but rather just a "poor" Buddhist. This, it seems, was usually the Buddha's own approach to people that stubbornly disagreed with him: he'd call them an idiot and leave it at that.

    As a person the Buddha would probably call an idiot, I think that's a fine strategy :)

  3. Justin - I am probably the biggest Buddhist idiot out there. haha

    Unfortunatly, like we have seen on a couple other blogs, some conversations turn into pissing contests...and its hard to turn away from that when we are all so passionate about these things.

  4. pissing contest sounds like the closest English equivalent to samsara that I can think of. Luckily we all still have the freedom and capacity to just walk away, and/or just wake up.

  5. Nice post, Justin. Your feelings sound similar to the reaction I get when I read Martha Nussbaum talking about how great novels are as a vehicle of ethical reflection... and I'm generally not a big fan of novels. (Especially not Henry James!)

    But I did get to thinking that not all narrative bores me the same way. I love certain narrative webcomics (like Penny and Aggie) and TV shows (like King of the Hill), and I often think of their characters as examples in moral reflection. Maybe because they come in shorter doses, or something.

    I am rather allergic to jātakas, though. A lot of the time their ethical import seems simplistic on one hand, and either negligible (the Crocodile Jātaka) or frightening (the Vessantara Jātaka) on the other.

  6. Thanks, Amod. I haven't heard of the Crocodile Jātaka (just read it, ya, negligible indeed - perhaps a cute warning against being greedy... or dealing with especially cunning people?) But the Vessantara Jātaka - that's just good ol' Buddhist ethical hyperbole. Doesn't Śāntideva fall along similar lines?

  7. Śāntideva advocates extreme self-sacrifice, as many jātakas do. But the Vessantara Jātaka goes further: it advocates the sacrifice of others. Not merely saving them from themselves (Ś says you can kill somebody to stop them from killing others, since karmically you're doing them a favour) but effectively selling one's wife and children into slavery for the sake of one's own awakening (and ability to help the masses). Buddhist version of Abraham and Isaac - everyone ends up all right in the end, but I'm not sure that makes the story's message any less of a problem.

  8. Good point - but could we contextualize the Jātaka and say that in the time of its writing, wives and children in the culture it is based in didn't have the individual value as separate moral agents (or patients) that they are given today? If we allow that, then Vesantara's sacrifice of wife/children is just an extension of his extreme self-sacrifice.

  9. I feel concerned about this Vessantara Jātaka. I become uncomfortable when religions begin to advocate the subversions of another being's autonomy. It reminds of my former faith and all of the horror stories associated with misuse (or proper use as it may be) of tales like Abe and Isaac.

    I can imagine people taking these texts as almost the Word of God. Is that true? Have tales of sacrificing others been a source of injustice in the Buddhist world?