narratives and trajectories: morality and meditation

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.

3 thoughts on “narratives and trajectories: morality and meditation

  1. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for this; it does clear some things up, hopefully for others as much as for myself. In lieu of a longer post in response for now I’ll try to note briefly where I am still in disagreement and/or perhaps confused.

    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…

    This seems to be either a banal claim that all of these theories arose in a mainly Christian context and thus have something like Christianity in mind as at least part of their definition of religion; or a more controversial claim that *religion* is an object over and above/separate from the *theories* that deal with it.

    Further, Jason Ananda Josephson has done some great digging through the ‘invention’ of the modern concept of religion and I believe he found it arose out of contact with non-Western belief systems. Again the banal claim can be made that the inventors came from a thoroughly Christian context, but the abstract understanding of ‘religion’ was only needed precisely when non-Christian ways of life/belief were encountered.

    As for your “narrative trajectories” I suppose I just disagree with your characterizations of Christianity and Buddhism. As for Christianity, you note that it is couched in the concept of ‘sin’ which is a moral category. True. But getting from there to “ethics is foundational to Christianity” is a bit precarious because, as you note, there are different ways Christians address sin and salvation. For many Christians sin is explicitly *not* overcome through ethics but through faith or communion. In fact one of the earliest lessons I was given on understanding Buddhism is that our (untutored) conception of religion is often ‘belief-based’ whereas Buddhism is and has been more practice-centered; noting that a schism is caused not by differing beliefs but by divergent vinayas (orthodoxy vs orthopraxy). In this conception it is Buddhism that is more founded on ethics – in this case rules of monastic behavior – while Christianity is concerned more founded on faith in the particular nature of Jesus.

    And you’re giving too much emphasis to the ignorance aspect of Buddhism, leaving out thirst and aversion as well as suffering, all of which are foundational in certain aspects of Buddhist narrative. If, as you note, this is just to call into question the “absolute centrality” given to suffering by some teachers, okay, but don’t fall into the same pit by giving ignorance “absolute centrality”!

    By picking the overcoming of ignorance alone as the goal of Buddhism, you indeed take ethics out of the equation, bu this, I think, is not a fair assessment of Buddhism.

    Nonetheless, I agree with much of your concluding paragraphs, though I’m unsure of your use of ‘instrumental’ in describing ethics there; indeed ethics alone does not bring about awakening, but neither does wisdom alone; nor is the ethics part of the path ever transcended and left behind (as your quotation from Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes). I’m not sure what exactly to make of the last sentence there though, as ethics certainly is “directly efficacious as *part* of practice toward awakening, [and] to the nature of awakening itself” (emphasis mine). All factors of the path, when made right (samma/samyak), are constitutive of the further shore.^1

    This is why many in the mindfulness discussions are worried that only right mindfulness is being taught, leaving aside the ethics portions of the path. Tracing this worry to the importance of ethics in Buddhism seems straight-forward. Tracing the worry to “invisible” Christian values founded on a conception of humanity as sinful seems tenuous.

    Justin ‘one-t’ Whitaker


    • 1) the claim that there is a common cultural substratum informing the various theories you name cannot be adequately reduced to the claim that they all were produced in the context of Christian cultures; the former is a statement about theory formation, while the latter is an historical statement
      2) even if your misrepresentation of what I said is banal, that does not address the failure on your part to distinguish between the common cultural substratum and the theoretical objects—and it was upon the basis of that failure that you asserted that there were many different conceptions of religion in the West, then naming those various theories
      3) by reinterpreting my claim regarding theory formation as an historical claim and then juxtaposing it with a conception of religion as an object of investigation, rather than a theoretical object, you have concocted a false dichotomy—rejecting the epistemologically naïve notion of an autonomously existing object, religion, separate from the theories about it, therefore does not entail accepting your misrendering of my claim regarding theory formation
      4) the arising of the concept of religion out of interaction with non-Christian religions has been well-studied, as for example by the litany of scholars whom Josephson refers to, as well as others (if you wish to pursue this topic you might look further into the works of Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, Jonathan Z. Smith, Daniel Dubuisson, Timothy Fitzgerald, Guy Stroumsa, Brent Nongbri, David Chidester, Russell T. McCutcheon, Richard King, Hans Kippenberg, and rather early on Wilfred Cantwell Smith); the fact that the modern conception arose in the context of interaction with non-Christian traditions does not preclude the reality that the concept is deeply informed by Christian categories, assumptions, and issues; while you may consider the fact of Christian cultural background to the formation of the concept banal, the pervasive and continuing role of unexamined theological concerns in forming the way that religion is studied and defined hardly seems to be unimportant—since those effectively mold any theoretical object placed into the category.
      And, as Josephson points out, the possibility of thinking about the category of religion as not being a cultural universal does arise out of the attempt to stuff all kinds of divergent forms into the same category—but that is at the end of the last two centuries, rather than at the beginning as your comment would seem to indicate.
      5) my claim is that the (widespread) Christian conception of human existence is that we are inherently sinful, and further that being sinful is a moral condition; as with conceptions of religion in the cultural substratum and theoretical objects, you here confuse the distinction between the description of the human condition (diagnosis) and the recommendations regarding what to do about it (prescription).
      By bringing in the rather simplistic distinction between belief and practice you proceed to conflate practice with ethics, and belief with faith. The distinction is itself highly problematic (despite being taken for granted, see the work of Catherine Bell), and the alignment you give to ethics and faith only further confuses your line of reasoning. The very characterization of Buddhism as being “more practice-centered” that you allude to as one of your “earliest lessons” is the kind of easy characterization that one would expect in an intro survey, but which requires much greater nuance as one’s familiarity with the tradition grows. Even so, in the context of Buddhist thought, practice ≠ ethics.
      I also find your treatment of the vinaya as at least odd. These are “rules of the order,” created to maintain the harmony of sangha for the sake of practice—and in that sense, instrumental. (Consider the rules that are in place for the duration of a meditation retreat.) They are not universally applicable moral injunctions, but rather rules for monks and nuns to follow as members of communities. The schisms you refer to also need to be placed in socio-historical location as conflicts over power and authority (such as the authority of putative arhats who ejaculate while dreaming). Consider the way in which the consequences of breaking the rules are couched—the most heinous lead to ejection from the order. There is no focus on abstract moral principles, and the vinaya is certainly not treated as an ethical system applicable to laity.
      6) you wish to bring in the other two of the three poisons as equal partners, however, it is usually claimed that ignorance is fundamental to both thirst and aversion.
      7) I am hardly taking ethics “out of the equation”—rather pointing out the fundamental difference between how Buddhism conceives the human condition as problematic (ignorance) and how Christianity does so (sin). Ethics remains very much part of the path, an integral (necessary but not sufficient) part. It is a question of how two different traditions define the human condition as a problem.
      Note also, that I’m not saying that either of these are actually the problem of the human condition, because the traditions take an otherwise unformed human experience and define it—they tell adherents how to think about themselves, either as sinful or as ignorant, and from their prescribe their two different courses of action (practice and faith, approximately).
      8) Not only am I not taking ethics “out of the equation.” I am in agreement with the idea that both ethics and wisdom are necessary, with the qualification that neither is sufficient.
      Also, I find your interpretation of the quote from Bhikkhu Bodhi rather confusing. How do you get the idea of the factors of the path being left behind from that quote? Or, the rest of what I said? If I wanted to make that claim, I would talk about carrying rafts once one has reached the other side of the stream (metaphor) or the system of five paths in which the fifth is that of “no more learning” (theories of buddhahood). The point, however, was that your representation of the path as a linear sequence was questionable. Again, as with the issue of the difference between conceptions of religion as per the cultural substratum being distinct from various theories about religion, you have not addressed the issue, but seem intent rather on changing the subject.
      9) I am not saying that the concern over ethics in mindfulness meditation is rooted in the Christian roots of the conception of religion (though I don’t think that that is an unreasonable claim to make), but rather the more important point that as those discussions proceed, they should not simply assume that Buddhism has the same relation to ethics as does Christianity. Again, a claim different from the way in which you characterize it.
      My apologies for the misspelling of your name, I will correct it. My grandmother, had she still a tongue, would be tutting it in disapproval and muttering about haste leading to error.

      • Hi again, Richard.

        I’ll try once more, and probably fail once more, for brevity.

        We may just have to concede 1) and 2) as differences of approach and understanding. My understanding is that there is a plurality of conceptions of religion in the West, often very conflicting in their approaches and views of religion. They conflict and diverge so much that when we teach or attempt thoughtful conversations we (academics and people well versed in religion, including many of those in the mindfulness-ethics debates) try to arrive at as neutral and nuanced a starting point as possible – as opposed to one deeply rooted in Christian presuppositions. This is not true of hoi polloi but then I don’t take them to be the chief actors in the debate about ethics in mindfulness.

        Your understanding seems to be, and I could still be wrong on this, that all of these conceptions see religion as “an abstraction from Christianity” and all of them hold the “omnipresent presumption that proper belief leads to proper behavior.”

        3) I’m afraid “theory formation” outside of history or historical context is unclear to me. I might guess this is connected with the “omnipresent presumption(s)” line; and I can’t think of any approach to religion that would make this kind of sweeping claim about prior theories.

        4) Here I pretty much agree. The “concept [of religion] is deeply informed by Christian categories, assumptions, and issues” indeed, but, over the past 200 years (and even further back in small circles of thinkers) the concept has been deeply informed by non-Christian categories, etc, as well. (And to clarify, I don’t think the “fact” about our Christian cultural background is banal, just the claim about it.)

        5) I’m not confusing your diagnosis with the prescription, I’m just suggesting that focusing on the diagnosis alone to find one religion holding a “moral condition” and the other not is missing a lot of the picture.

        Practice and ethics don’t overlap perfectly in Buddhist thought, but I do think they do quite largely. Regarding the vinaya, correct, these are normative ethics, not abstract (meta) ethics, and I’m quite in agreement with Damien Keown that the latter did not really develop in Buddhism. However, the universalization of ethics through the Buddha’s novel conception of karma is applicable to all, including the laity who are given simpler normative ethical/behavioral guides than the monks.

        6) True. But I think, following Gombrich (2009, drawing from Jurewicz and Frauwallner), that the emphasis on suffering and thirst may be equal or even greater in the earliest texts and ignorance made its way in perhaps later in the Buddha’s own lifetime and certainly it became more important in Mahayana’s development alongside and in competition with Brahmanical philosophies that placed ignorance front and center. Further, greed, aversion, and ignorance are very often listed together as three roots of unwholesome activity, not as one root an two branches or similar hierarchical models.

        7) As with 5) and 6); I know of no grand survey -and would appreciate pointers if you have them- about how often suffering is emphasized in the Pali Canon vs ignorance; but certainly many commentators point out that the First Noble Truth is suffering and the Buddha claims he teaches “suffering and the end of suffering” etc as suggesting that suffering is where our attention should focus. Of course it’s plain that suffering and ignorance are intimately connected, but your choice here of ignorance (a non-moral category vs sin, a moral one) may obscure the moral foundation of human nature in Buddhism (rooted in suffering and its cause).

        8) Again it seems we’re in much more agreement than I first assumed. Going back to your Tricycle article title “What’s ethics got to do with it” I guess the answer is “a lot! Alongside overcoming ignorance…”

        It seemed in that article that you were de-emphasizing ethics in Buddhism. The quote about the three-fold path: “The order is not incidental, as the practitioner moves from morality, through meditation, to wisdom—each supporting the next to constitute an integrated whole” suggests a sort of sequence, from a, through b, to c. This is where I thought you *might* be suggesting that ethics is somehow left behind even though you definitely do speak of an “integrated whole” in the end which I fully agree with.

        So, again to clarify, the “representation of the path as a linear sequence [which] was questionable” comes from my misreading of your article. We can both agree that the path analogy doesn’t mean any of the parts are left behind, right? In the culmination of the path, awakening, all factors still persist.

        9) “I am not saying that the concern over ethics in mindfulness meditation is rooted in the Christian roots of the conception of religion…” Oh. I thought that’s what your whole initial article was about! So again I’m misreading things.

        This fundamental difference between the two traditions suggests that the emphasis on morality in present discussions of mindfulness is rooted not in the Buddhist tradition itself but in the cultural preconceptions of Euro-American society.

        … Consider, for example, the widespread assumption in the United States that moral behavior follows from being religious, and that anyone who is not religious—having not learned the importance of controlling his or her base and animal desires and motivations—is likely to be immoral.

        These values and presumptions also inform the self-improvement culture of our society within which mindfulness training—in both secular and Buddhist forms—exists. The strong moral imperative to improve oneself has its origins in Protestant religious culture, which promoted the exercise of self-control to overcome one’s inherently sinful nature….

        One of the strongest motivators for individuals to pursue mindfulness is this imperative toward self-betterment. But such a moral imperative is not wholly consistent with Buddhist thought. Unlike Protestantism, the Buddhist path does not involve a moral control being exerted over the self and its natural animalistic tendencies….

        When you wrote that I thought you were definitely making the above claim.

        However, as you say, your actual concern is “the more important point that as those discussions [about mindfulness and ethics] proceed, they should not simply assume that Buddhism has the same relation to ethics as does Christianity.” As such I again think we’re in perfect agreement.

        Perhaps it was the title or the lack of discussion about just how important ethics is in Buddhist mindfulness and the path, or certain other passages I’ve misread in the original article, but I definitely did not read it as making that particular claim. I think that covers it all 🙂 If I’ve missed any important points I apologize.

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