Last month a post of mine appeared on the Tricycle website. That post is titled “What’s Ethics Got to Do with It?: The Misguided Debate about Mindfulness and Morality.”
Since a superficial reading of the post might lead the incautious to conclude that I was discounting any role for ethics in Buddhist practice, I would like to expand on the conceptual basis of the claims involved. Justin Whitaker made his reservations publicly and examining some of these provide specific points requiring clarification.
• on the Western conception of religion: Whitaker claims that there are several different conceptions of religion in the West, such as psychoanalytic, Marxist and Darwinian. This, however, confuses these various theories about religion with the shared conception of the object of those theories. In all of these, the basic conception of religion is an abstraction from Christianity (which is why those discourses become problematic when applied to non-Christian traditions), and presumes a “natural” connection between religious belief and its expression in moral behavior. The various theories will, obviously, have their own conceptions of the dynamics between belief and action, as well as evaluations as to what constitutes moral behavior. However, the omnipresent presumption that proper belief leads to proper behavior—whatever dynamic is hypothesized and however those terms are judged—indicates the foundational character of the link between religion and morality as it is conceived in Western culture.
• the place of ethics: Whitaker also points out that ethics is important throughout Buddhist thought, and citing the Sonadanda sutta (here and also here), employs the image of two hands for the relation between ethics and wisdom. This same pairing is also found in the common Mahāyāna image of wisdom and compassion being the two wings of a bird.
This, however, is a different issue from the one I was addressing, and I was not claiming that ethics is not an important element of the path. The actual issue that I wrote to is the difference between the narrative trajectory of Christianity and the narrative trajectory of Buddhism, and the importance of attending to that fundamental difference when considering the debates over the place of ethics in mindfulness training programs.
Key to my analysis of these differences is the concept of “narrative trajectory,” which is used here to refer to the way in which the nature of human existence is understood, how a person grows, changes, develops over time. (And before someone feels the need to point out the obvious, there are more than just these two narrative trajectories available in contemporary culture.)
As with all such stories, however, we find ourselves already in the middle of things, with the starting point located in a time prior to our own present. The narrative trajectory in Christianity is structured by the idea of sin, which is a moral category. This is foundational for Christian conceptions of what it means to be human.
As I indicated, perhaps too briefly for the centrality of this to my argument to be clear to the hasty reader, the narrative trajectory of Christianity moves from
1) a “pre-sin” condition (usually described as a blissful state, i.e., paradise), to
2) a sinful condition (sometimes described as being alienated from God), to
3) a condition of either
3.A) being saved (sometimes described as an eternal state of reunion or atonement with God) or
3.B) not (described sometimes as eternal suffering, sometimes as eternal alienation from God).
As should be noted, there are of course lots of theological details and concerns (trees) that are set aside in this attempt to see an overall pattern of thought (the forest). This is a self-conscious simplification for the sake of setting out the rhetorical logic of Christian thought as a general system. However, just as with modeling in economics, I am looking here for general patterns, which necessitates overlooking many of the details, and consciously failing to point out all of the qualifications. (We should note for future reference: an important nuance is the question of how the sinful human becomes saved, i.e., soteriology. Again very roughly, Christian theologies can be divided into legalist conceptions regarding good behavior and conceptions based on the unwarranted receipt of God’s grace.)
In contrast, the narrative trajectory of Buddhism is structured by the idea of ignorance (avidyā, avijjā, 無明, mumyō). The course of individual development is described by the structure of ground, path, and goal. As Whittaker points out, there are other ways of systematizing Buddhist thought and practice, such as the eightfold path. In terms of attempting to see the common structure for understanding, describing, defining the human in Buddhist thought, however, the eightfold path is a description of (wait for it) the path. Further, it is not in fact a progressive model of human development. One does not start with right view and then progress through the next six to end at right concentration. Symbolically, the eightfold path is represented by a wheel, not a ladder. This is explained by Bhikkhu Bodhi in this way:
The eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are not steps to be followed in sequence, one after another. They can be more aptly described as components rather than as steps, comparable to the intertwining strands of a single cable that requires the contributions of all the strands for maximum strength.
One of the most powerful ways that narrative trajectories come to inform the self-understanding of adherents is through life-stories (a general term for biography, autobiography, hagiography). If we contrast the life-story of Christ with that of the Buddha, this difference in narrative trajectory—now in the form of the exemplar for the individual religious life—becomes evident.
Christ is born without sin (misogynisticly represented by birth from a virgin), and in doing so takes on a dual nature—both divine and human (again much theological nuance is being elided here). The point of the dual nature, however that may be defined theologically, is that despite Christ’s original purity, he participates (fully) in the sinful condition of human existence. His death as a sacrifice expiates our sinful nature, which we are incapable of accomplishing on our own. Depending on one’s theological view, our debt to God is paid thereby, or the old legalistic logic of judgment is overcome by a new logic of grace. Christ then returns to join his father, once again divine and freed of human sinfulness. (All of this story has been the subject of theological contestation for centuries, but again attempts here to give the basic outline of the life-story of Christ.)
In contrast, the Buddha (as imagined in modernist/Secular Buddhism) is simply a human being, ignorant of the truths of sickness, old age, and death until his tours of his father’s kingdom. The comforts of his ignorance are stripped away, and he is plagued by a new awareness of his own impermanence. He abandons the comfort of his father’s home, and enters the path of seeking wisdom, a goal he finally attains under the bodhi tree some years later. Fundamental human ignorance is the ground, the various practices in which he engages are the path, and his awakening from ignorance is the goal. As with the Christ story, each part of the Buddha story has been the subject of intense discussion and debate for centuries.
(Passing note: this is one of the reasons I have come to question the absolute centrality given to suffering in so much of contemporary modernist/Secular Buddhism. Note to the inattentive reader: in just the same way that I am not claiming that ethics are not an important part of Buddhist thought, here I’m not claiming that the concept of suffering does not play an important role in Buddhist thought, but rather calling into question the centrality of place it is given by so many contemporary Buddhist exegetes.)
As mentioned above, we find ourselves already in the middle of things when attempting to see our lives in terms of those stories. In the Christian narrative the original human condition was one of blissful harmony, but was broken by Adam’s sin, and hence we are now already sinful creatures. (One of the ways in which this Biblical narrative has come into Romantic psychological theory, and hence into contemporary popular culture, is through the images that prenatal existence is idyllic, and that the prelinguistic infant or prepubescent child is in harmony with the universe.) Similarly, in the Buddhist narrative trajectory, we are already aware of suffering, that is, no longer (entirely) ignorant. That is why we are paying attention to the buddhadharma now. (In contrast, I suspect that we have all known people who cling to their ignorance ferociously, and find no appeal in the buddhadharma, which they understand to be telling them that they should suffer.)
Coming back to the original issue, that is, the debates over the place of ethics in mindfulness training programs: my point is that there is not a simple equation between the presence of ethical training as a component of mindfulness training and its religious status. Some have argued that a secular training program, such as in a medical setting, is exactly secular because it does not teach any ethical system. However, given the pervasive nature of both Christian and capitalist ethical values in society, what may look like a secular program will reinforce those generally invisible because taken for granted values.
As mindfulness training programs continue to develop in light of these debates over the place of ethics, it should not be simply presumed that ethics is foundational to religion generally. While ethics is foundational for Christianity with its conception of the basic human condition as one of sin, that relation cannot be uncritically extended to all religious traditions. In terms of the Buddhist narrative trajectory from ground, through path to goal, ethics is part of the path, that is, it is instrumental in relation to the foundational understanding of the human condition as one of ignorance. And, in terms of the typology introduced in the Tricycle post, I understand it to be integral to practice. However, no matter how many good actions one performs, these do not effect awakening. Not behaving badly is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of awakening. In this sense, Whittaker is quite correct to emphasize the importance of ethics for Buddhist thought, but wrong if he intends to suggest that it is foundational to the conception of the human condition that is the starting point of practice, to be directly efficacious as part of practice toward awakening, or to the nature of awakening itself.