Not Lotus-Born: imperfections of a comparative ethics

Both religious studies and Buddhist studies suffer from much the same conceptual blinders—including the two discussed below, which I’ve taken to calling the “fallacy of sublation” (treating a culturally bound category, concept, or concern as unproblematically universal, the term is borrowed from Hegel), and the “rhetoric of decadence” (the discursive tendency to describe history as a process of decline, e.g., moral or cultural). My concern here is with the enduring and pervasive character of these blinders, so I will note that the essay discussed is almost two decades old. While one might hope that the author has become more self-critically reflective in the interim, we can say that the two fields of study seem to continue to doze in their own dogmatic slumbers.

In a rambling and disjointed essay, “Paternalism in the Lotus Sūtra” (Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol. 5/1998: 190–207), Damien Keown attempts a comparative project that fails on two points. Before discussing those two, however, we should perhaps note why this is a comparative project, since it is not presented as such. A common, and fundamental construal of “comparative” is that one attempts to identify similarities and differences between two things, i.e., the two terms of the comparison. Comparative projects of one kind or another (comparative religion, comparative philosophy, and in this case comparative ethics) often seek something more than simply identifying similarities and differences, instead seeking to accomplish something constructive at the interface of the two terms.

The first of the two failings is apparently a consequence of this goal. As the title implies, Keown attempts to demonstrate that in its presentation of the teaching of upaya (skillful means) the Lotus sutra employs a paternalistic justification for deception. He does this by setting up two opposing categories, paternalism on the one hand and respect for the autonomy of the individual person on the other, and applies these to the concept of upaya as found in the Lotus sutra.

These two categories have no cultural connection to Buddhism, as is evident from the fact that he is drawing first on contemporary Western discussions of medical ethics and second on more classic Western discussions in political philosophy. He gives no justification for employing these two categories in his analysis of the Lotus sutra, and indeed even implicitly indicates that they are merely social values subject to the changes of intellectual fashion: “The traditional model of benevolent paternalism in medicine…has increasingly been challenged in the last thirty years, and may be said to be in large-scale retreat before a new approach to medical ethics which emphasizes the autonomy of patients rather than the authority of medical personnel” (p. 196). Beyond this indication that one of these two social values is displacing the other, Keown gives no argument for one being in any way better than the other. Despite this, he implicitly universalizes (by decontextualizing and dehistoricizing) the two values and blithely applies them to Buddhist thought. That instance of the “fallacy of sublation” is the first failing of the essay. And indeed it is a very common failing with comparative projects, whenever they do not take into account the cultural location from which they are undertaken.

The second failing is Keown’s participation in the “rhetoric of decadence”—the historiography common in Western discourse at least since the Reformation that charts history as starting in an original purity, followed by a decline into decadence, reaching such depths that a reforming turn toward that original purity is necessary, followed by a period of decline into decadence, and so on and on. The rhetoric of decadence competes with the rhetoric of progress in the social sphere, but in religious studies it has effectively achieved hegemony due to the latter’s being based on Protestant theological conceptions—including the patterns of historiography. (The fact that this latter point does not appear to be obvious to many in religious studies is another blinder.)

Like all good rhetorics, the rhetoric of decadence can be put to more than one use. As indicated here it structures historiography, but can also be employed to justify one’s own actions. This was the case in the Protestant Reformation, but one sees it very clearly in the rhetoric of Secular Buddhism and other strains of Buddhist modernism. A third use is to enable an author to make value judgements implicitly—later is more distant from the original purity of the “founder” and therefore of lesser value, lesser truth, lesser morality.

Before examining Keown’s use of the rhetoric of decadence, it should be noted that the use of it in Buddhist studies (both academic and popular), is overdetermined. That is, the attribution of a process of decadence found in Protestant historiography and generalized therefrom matches an historiographic pattern in Buddhist thought, that of the decay of the dharma. This matching up reinforces the appearance that such an historiographic conception is natural. Rather than being natural and therefore the only way to think about history, both are simply ways of conceiving history. They are patterns that we create by selecting and highlighting certain events, and interpreting them according to historiographic preconceptions—whether of decadence or of progress. As patterns of history, neither decadence nor progress are objective facts that are discerned, but rather value judgements passed off as objective historical facts.

In order to be clear, I am not claiming for example that the Papacy at the time of Luther was actually pure in its motivations and actions, nor that medieval Japanese monasteries were not engaged in morally reprehensible activities (at least ones that I would judge to be morally reprehensible). To repeat, it is the pattern of either decadence or progress that is a narrative constructed by selection, emphasis, evaluation, and interpretation. As constructed narratives, they then in turn impose certain evaluations and interpretations in a dialectic that is self-reinforcing.

In Keown’s essay, the rhetoric of decadence appears in his fourfold developmental sequence of the ethics of upaya. The four are (1) upaya as skill in teaching the dharma, (2) the provisional character of all teachings (all teachings are upaya), (3) skillful exercise of the bodhisattva practices, (4) and justification for breaking of the precepts. He seems rather disingenuous when he claims that “I should make clear that what I am referring to here are not historical developments but logical or conceptual ones, which might have occurred in a range of literary sources in no clear chronological order” (p. 203). While they “might have occurred…in no clear chronological order” he certainly evidences the four in broadly chronological terms and consistently refers to them as “phases” (p. 202 and elsewhere). The chronological character of Keown’s fourfold development is implicit in his choice of texts evidencing the phases—selected texts from the Pāli canon, the Lotus sutra, the Vimalakīrti sutra, and although he mentions the Bodhisattvabhūmi and the Upayakauśalya, he gives most attention to a modern commentary by the late Dudjom Rimpoche, i.e., a tantric text. The implicit foundational pattern then is a reflection of the chronological sequencing of “early Buddhism” as found in the Pāli (original, pure), Mahāyāna (somewhat decayed), and Vajrayāna (totally decadent)—so already well-known that it establishes what we might call a fore-structuring of understanding.

Keown’s demurral aside, the very idea that these four ethical positions constitute “logical or conceptual” developments implies a chronological ordering, an impression reinforced by the common conception of Buddhist history as proceeding in three phases. Other than the preconception that history is a process of decay, there is nothing particularly logical or conceptual that orders these as a series of developments. An alternative might be to locate them in relation to societal values, but given the already decontextualized nature of his approach, that would not seem to be an option here. Such an approach would also seem to be difficult to take up in this context as it would also mean that Keown’s own judgements regarding the ethical character of the four phases are socio-historically located rather than ahistorically absolute.

Keown has no difficulty with the first two—upaya as indicating the difficulty of teaching and the provisional status of any teaching. He finds the third, which he characterizes by referencing Vimalakīrti’s dissembling, fornication, gambling, and conversing with “harem girls,” to be an ethical grey area. Keown justifies his judgement of Vimalakīrti by taking “the perspective of early Buddhism” (p. 203), without, however, any justification either for the understanding of the “perspective of early Buddhism” to which he alludes, or for privileging that perspective as an ethical standpoint from which to make judgements.

In Keown’s peevish outbursts in his analysis of the fourth phase we find a delightful fulfillment of the rhetoric of decadence. Evidencing the fallacy of “cherry picking,” he gives great attention to one item in the tantric text noted above, Dudjom Rinpoche’s Perfect Conduct—a justification for the bodhisattva to breach the vow of celibacy in the event that another person is “suffering tremendously from desire and claiming they will surely die if they do not have such sexual contact” (cited p. 204). Keown’s reaction suggests that his is not just an ethical judgement, but an emotionally charged repulsion. He describes this as farcical and begins to give the bodhisattva in such a situation a set of alternative courses of action, including taking a cold shower.

His language becomes even more florid. He suggests, for example, that “this precept seems to want to turn bodhisattvas into ‘hookers for Buddha,’ with all the deception and manipulation that entails” (p. 204). He primly suggests sublimation of “the sexual energy into constructive channels or to use this as an opportunity for self-control” (p. 205). Perhaps the bodhisattva should recommend marriage counseling (which we might note did not exist in the contexts in which the original text and its commentary were written, thereby indicating the decontextualized nature of Keown’s analysis). He goes on to suggest that this phase in the evolution of skillful means turns “Buddhism into a religion of reincarnating nannies constantly looking for new noses to wipe” (ibid.). And that in this phase “the role of the bodhisattvas (sic.) is to be a social worker who infantilizes his or her clients, running hither and thither with Kleenex and Band-Aids to soothe every ache, pain and tantrum” (ibid.).

In our own attempt at an analysis contextualized by socio-cultural location, we can suggest that the attitude underlying Keown’s reactions is the individualism of neo-liberalism (perhaps Thatcherite?). This is congruent with the preference he indicates for a medical ethics of personal autonomy rather than paternalism. The fore-structuring provided by the dominant social, political and economic ideologies of late twentieth century Anglo-America predetermine the preference for individualistic autonomy, a characteristic long identified with the putatively pure, original teachings of early Buddhism—as interpreted by late nineteenth century modernist apologists whose characterizations of “early Buddhism” and equation of it with the Pāli canon still inform our understandings.

The two failings, the fallacy of sublation and the rhetoric of decadence, interweave to identify the values of an interpretation of early Buddhist ethics with a neo-liberal individualism, and raises those to the status of a decontextualized absolute from which bodhisattvas, nannies and social workers can be clustered together and disdained.




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