Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Right and Wrong: A Nondualist's Perspective

True story: On a sunny spring day in 2001, a strange woman wearing a white hat and white gloves, her exposed skin covered in what appeared to be a nasty case of psoriasis, crossed the Catholic University main quad, approached me, and decided to strike up a conversation. We discovered we were both Presbyterian and both CUA students (she appeared to be about 15 years older). Somehow the topic drifted from trinitarian theology to Buddhism. She'd heard of the Four Noble Truths, so I enumerated them, ending with an item-by-item recitation of the Eight-fold Path: "Right views, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration."

"Ah," she nodded sagely. "But right according to whom?"

That's the rub, isn't it.

If we're going to talk about a Buddhist nondualistic reckoning of right and wrong, there are two major aspects of nondualism we need to address:

1. The nondualistic view doesn't have an absolute frame of reference.
2. The nondualistic view isn't synonymous with nihilistic relativism.

Absolute Frame of Reference?

The mind is a great organ for finding and creating patterns. The latter capacity is what gets us in trouble all the time. We often create something even if it's not there to be found: the man in the moon, the horse in the clouds, the snake in the dark, the sexual attraction I thought I saw on a beautiful woman's face. Many Buddhists would argue (I think rightly) that this is what happens when we perceive "evidence" for a personalistic God. Far from "discovering" this God, we are creating him. Look at the laundry list of qualities ascribed to God, and you see nothing but human qualities, writ large. It's not unreasonable to think that the personalistic God we "see" is in fact a God whose presence and nature we impute.

In Buddhist metaphysics, all phenomena are dependently co-arisen, and exhibit the character of emptiness. Emptiness is not a thing in itself, any more than the color blue can exist without objects that are blue, requiring a human eye to be perceived as blue. Emptiness is a quality; specifically, the quality of impermanence, dynamism, and interconnection that implies that there is no fundamental permanence or selfhood inhering in anything-- be it a mountain, a person, or an idea (including the idea of emptiness).

If everything is dependently co-arisen, it becomes impossible to talk about a fixed, absolute frame of reference. We can create and impose such a frame of reference-- and this is indeed what humanity has done. But for the Buddhist, the fact remains that the frame of reference is imposed, being, like all phenomena, dependently co-arisen.

Take, for example, a moral maxim currently getting a lot of air time in American public discourse, thanks to some nasty priest scandals:

It is never good to sexually molest a child.

Personally, I agree with this maxim. It makes sense.

But is it an absolute? No. You can see this right away. The maxim's very existence depends on a few things, and if any one of these things is missing, the maxim has no value: children, sexuality, human brains to understand the maxim, etc.

The maxim, which might have seemed absolute at first, is shown to be dependently co-arisen. It would have had no meaning back in the Jurassic Period, for example, before there were human beings. The maxim isn't a principle somehow graven in the stony nature of the cosmos. Quite the opposite: the maxim's existence is conditioned and dependent, or "contingent," as Western philosophers say.

There are other ways to deconstruct the so-called "absoluteness" of moral maxims. Is it ever good to kill innocent families? If we review the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (or Dresden, etc.), we see very quickly that, while no one would affirm that the deaths of innocents in any of these cases would be called "good," their deaths are deliberately (and unfailingly) pegged to a larger context that makes them, if not good, at least bearable, and not only bearable but perhaps necessary in order to reach a "good" end. This is the kind of logic that's prevalent in war.

My purpose isn't to judge such thinking, especially since I'm not a pacifist and agree that there are cases when violence, on a small or large scale, may be necessary. My point, though, is that we fool ourselves if we insist that our judgements are based on some sort of absolute principle.

Nihilistic Relativism?

I've just tried to establish that the nondualistic perspective doesn't base itself on absolutes, because the very notion of absolutes is a metaphysical impossibility for most Buddhists [NB: Quite a few Buddhists do use the language of "Absolute," but the term isn't being employed in quite the Western sense... perhaps that's a post for another time.]. The next question deals with the opposite extreme: is nondualism, lacking absolutism, a perspective that evinces a spineless, nihilistic relativism? If I admit no absolutism, am I therefore a gooey relativist? Certainly some would be quick to say so.

We have to distinguish here between relativism and relativity. Relativism is an attitude, not unrelated to nihilism, in which the thinker thinks, "You know, it's all the same, one way or another. Things are relative, so there's no privileged perspective, no solid standard anywhere upon which to make firm judgements." I.e., it doesn't really matter.

Relativity, on the other hand, is a simple fact of existence. Like emptiness, relativity can be thought of as a quality. All things, to the extent we can talk about discrete "things," exist in relationship. There are no phenomena that exist all by themselves, floating in some a priori conceptual space. And yes, I'd even include analytical truths (like 2+2=4) in this claim. Why? Because 2+2=4 requires a universe in which that equation has meaning. How meaningful is it to posit that 2+2=4 is true in all universes, the existence of which we don't even know? It's safe, I think, to claim that 2+2=4 is true everywhere and at all times in our universe (though maybe the jury's out when it comes to what happens inside singularities like black holes!).

The analytical truth "2+2=4" is dependently co-arisen, like everything else. Its meaningfulness is directly tied to the existence of human brains that ascribe it meaning. It exists in relation to the universe.

Please note what I'm saying here. I'm not positing that 2+2=4 is merely a human convention, and that maybe, somewhere out there in our cosmos, 2+2 can actually equal 5. I'm not saying, as a postmodernist might claim, that analytical truths are always and merely human constructs, as flexible and hermeneutically pliable as any of the "softer" human truths, as if 2+2=4, instead of being an analytical truth, were instead the cynical instrument of, say, evil Western ideology. I fully grant the context-transcending nature of analytical truth in this universe (i.e., 2+2=4 has nothing to do with whether I'm a white Westerner; it's just as true for a black astronaut on the surface of Mars as it is for a Gujarati highschooler living in Zug, Switzerland), but submit that analytical truths and this universe exist in a state of mutual interdependence. Because they are interdependent, these truths, like all phenomena, exhibit the character of emptiness.

But I digress. The question is one of relativity and relativism.

Buddhists, on a certain level, acknowledge the deep interrelatedness of all things. But eventually, even the notion of relationship must give way, because relationships imply discrete "A"s and "B"s that relate to each other, as if entities came first and "relationship" is the product of the "A"s' and "B"s' proximity. This is dualism, not nondualism.

Notice, too, that relativism requires the same kind of sneaky conceptual imposition that absolutism does: a certain universal quality or component is assumed to be there, despite the lack of supporting evidence. In this case, the imposition is that all things amount to the same thing. When you think about it, such an idea flies in the face of common sense. I "Super-Size" my McDonald's Extra Value Meal for a reason.

To understand how the nondualist perspective is not absolutist, but at the same time not relativist, imagine two taekwondo experts on the mat. Fighter X throws a punch at Fighter Y's face. The punch is real. It's not going just anywhere; it's heading quite specifically toward Y's face. Can you be a relativist in such a situation and claim, "Whether I'm hit or not hit, it's all the same," or "It doesn't make any difference where I get hit or how hard the blow lands"? The East Asian view of such a person is simple: "You're stupid."

So Y is facing a punch. Not a kick. Not a swung weapon. And this punch is heading for Y's face, not the chest or groin. Y has learned a repertoire of techniques that can deal with this blow. Dodging, knife block, kicking block, combination block-strike, etc. What's best for this situation?

If Y has trained well, then the "best" move will arise naturally as a harmonious consequence of all the events that happened before it, moving the fight forward, neutralizing the blow, and somehow shifting the situation to Y's advantage. I can't get more specific than that, and that's the whole point. The fighter's mindset is not rooted in policy, in statements. The fighter's mind must be adaptable, flowing, in harmony with the moment. There is no yes/no question of the role of intellect; if intellection serves the situation, then by golly, it'll arise as needed. If unthinking reflex is more appropriate, then that will arise as it should in the mindful fighter. Viewed nondualistically, what we're seeing is not two fighters; to the contrary, we're seeing the event. Flow. Process. Y's mindset cannot be one that admits preconceptions, because preconceptions get in the way of the actual situation.

So a nondualistic mindset is going to frustrate the absolutist, because the nondualist knows that reality moves. Where the absolutist draws one "map of reality" and follows it stubbornly, the nondualist is constantly redrawing the map to conform with the actual terrain. One policy, one doctrine, one belief system, does not fit all, cannot possibly serve as a foundational principle in all situations. At the same time, we move about in a world of difference and specificity; if our answer to every new situation is the same fuzzy, muzzy-headed vagueness (the true mark of a Westerner pretending he understands Asian thought!), we get nothing done, and act as if nothing matters.

Maybe your question at this juncture is, "Well, how do you apply that to something like the Iraqi or Korean situation?" And I would chastise you, because you've obviously missed my entire point. Your question is a stubborn attempt to look for a specific, clear, fixed answer-- a policy, a rule: unchanging logos.

"Right according to whom?" The assumption of God as the Big Who, God the Measure of All Things, the Ultimate Fixed Reference Point.

My point has been that reality moves, so the truths we adopt must move as well. You don't find a rule and stick with it. That's as stupid as the man who insists on adopting a rigid posture on his surfboard, no matter where he is on the wave. How long can he last like that before he spills?

Does this mean that Buddhism can't talk about right and wrong? Not at all. Right and wrong exist, but they are interrelated, implying each other, erupting out of each other, even negating each other. Right and wrong exist on a conventional level, even if they don't exist at the "ultimate" level (cf. Nagarjuna's notion of "two truths," conventional and ultimate). Right and wrong are dependently co-arisen phenomena like everything else. They have no ultimacy, but they still present us with practical problems.

The great mistake we make is to create and impose upon the cosmos value systems that brook no change, that filter everything into absolute categories like right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark. This is the primary fault of religious fundamentalists, but religious liberals are just as guilty of this conceptual rigidity (another Buddhist term for this rigidity, this inability to let go of fixed concepts, might be "attachment"). Right and wrong have to change with circumstances; they are dependently co-arisen, not fundamental, a priori concepts. But dead things don't move. In order for right and wrong to be living concepts for us, they have to possess the dynamism of living things-- growing, changing, existing in harmony and competition... even dying in order to make room for new concepts.

The five colors blind the eye;
The five tones deafen the ear


To see beauty as beauty,
This in itself is ugliness
--Tao Te Ching


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You don't have to respond to probably wouldn't be worth it.

You don't even have to read it beyond Here...

But, these were some thoughts as I was reading this post....

"and you see nothing but human qualities, writ large"

If you have the idea that man was created in God's image, we don't have a problem here.

"It's not unreasonable to think that the personalistic God we "see" is in fact a God whose presence and nature we impute."

Definately not unreasonable, but definately does not have to be the truth as well.

"My point, though, is that we fool ourselves if we insist that our judgements are based on some sort of absolute principle."

Or pehaps the idea can be that our judgements are what is faulty rather than the absolute - that our human nature and or human society fails miserably to adhere itself along the line of the absolutes?

Is this not what the Confucianist mean with the idea of material and spiritual force?

The fact we can't get it right - either in our actions or thought-systems does not mean the absolutes do not exist........the fact that so many thought-systems developed in relative isolation from each other around the world can be seen to share some commonalities when it comes to things like, "Don't rape toddlers" might give us some faith in absolutes...

"And yes, I'd even include analytical truths (like 2+2=4) in this claim. Why? Because 2+2=4 requires a universe in which that equation has meaning. How meaningful is it to posit that 2+2=4 is true in all universes"

Perhaps coming remotely close to Buddhists here, I don't think 2 + 2 exists. I don't believe the # 2 has any reality beyond human perception. There are no 2 of anything. Even if they were absolutely made of the same material and energy configuration - even if they were absolutely identical - they couldn't occupy the same time and space without being 1.

Despite what Hawkings things - mathmatics is simply another system to help us create order in the universe for our human understanding...

"The fighter's mind must be adaptable, flowing, in harmony with the moment."

I'm a little lost here with the analogy...

How does all the training - the repetition - the repetition of using moves X, Y, Z against attack A, B, and C - fit in?

Person Y doesn't just spontaneously apply the correct counter for person X's punch. He is trained and drilled on different moves and counters to the point that his reaction to X's punch seems natural or relex.

How does the training --- the setting up of specific situations - like the teacher, "I'm going to throw a punch at your face and I want you to use X move to counter it 20 times, then I want you to use P counter 20 times and then we'll work on my trying to kick you in the groin where you will try....... ----- fit into the analogy?