Friday, March 04, 2005

your dose of Buddhism

Andi is back and posting up a storm. She's made the decision to become a haeng-ja, or Buddhist monastic adept. Her most recent pair of posts are profound, amazing pieces of work. They reveal a mind that knows what it wants. See here and here.

Alan Cook, who entered the no-self exchange between me and Dr. Vallicella from a third direction, has a new post out in which he actually takes steps to defend the no-self doctrine. See here.

Three interesting posts over at Ow, My Blog: one is about the Pope; another is about karma; a third is about "Million Dollar Baby" and the ethics of euthanasia.

On that last point (re: euthanasia), Corax writes:

Killing is wrong, that much we know. Euthanasia is also wrong, no matter what sort of compassionate emotion you may think it comes from -- I say emotion because true compassion comes from wisdom, not pity. As long as you have a mind, you can meditate. As long as you're alive, you have a mind. As long as you can meditate, you can work toward enlightenment. So every breath, every moment is precious, and no one -- not even you -- [has] the right to take it away.


I see parallels with the Pope situation I blogged about recently -- people seem to think that if the Pope can't speak, can't wave to the crowds, he's useless and needs to be sent off to die somewhere because his potential is exhausted. It has its roots in the human potential movement's dark side: everyone should be free to reach their full potential, but if their potential is zero, they're done. It's all about the future and nothing about the present.

I think some of the negative commentary about the Pope has focused less on perceived uselessness than on a perceived selfish desire to cling to power. There's a healthy discussion to be had about whether the Pope is, in fact, trying to cling to power, but I think we'd need telepathy to know for sure.

Is killing wrong-- period? That's a claim that probably needs to be unpacked, what with Buddhists like Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek, the lama interviewed on Beliefnet, claiming that sending a terrorist to the netherworld might actually be an act of compassion. To wit:

It is an act of compassion to root [the terrorists] out and, if necessary, kill them, says Gehlek. "Sometimes love and light alone won't work. We must protect the terrorists from bad karma. To let them keep killing is to guarantee them many, many lifetimes of suffering. Going after them is not about revenge. It is not even about justice. We are protecting them and us."

I think the Buddhist notion of upaya (expedient/skillful means) makes the situation murky. Is there truly a place for absolutist, categorical thinking in Buddhism? I think not, and I'm suspicious of black-and-white moral claims by adherents of any religion. That way lies fundamentalism.

It's one thing to look at what religious doctrine says; it's another to look at religion in terms of practice. Some Christian scriptures claim killing is wrong, but Christian practice doesn't always reflect this. So what is meant by the claim, "Christianity says that killing is wrong"? What is "Christianity"? To my mind, it's nothing if not practice, and doctrine is a subset of practice. It doesn't exist if there are no adherents to internalize it.

Also: the scriptures (by which I mean the scriptures of any tradition) aren't always obvious in their meaning, especially when viewed in different contexts. The monk Nan-chuan slaughters a cat, a fellow sentient being; this becomes a famous Zen kong-an. I'm hesitant to dismiss Nan-chuan or flat-out accuse him of an immoral act until I know more about why the cat was killed. Even if we think an exploration of Nan-chuan's motives misses the point of the story, the story still demands a basic acceptance or rejection of the cat-killing. If you already reject the cat-killing, it's doubtful you'll learn anything from the story; instead, you're likely to walk away in disgust. If you're willing to suspend judgement on the killing, you might learn something. If you say that acceptance and rejection are dualistic, then I say fine: the same goes for euthanasia. The claim "killing is wrong," if it comes out of nowhere as a categorical claim, isn't consistently Buddhist, in my opinion. I can't make sweeping judgements about a person's situation until I know everything I can about it.

Can we know enough to make such judgements? In cases where people feel absolutely hopeless, is there no chance that the prolongation of misery is simply the prolongation of misery and nothing more? Do we dogmatically dismiss this possibility? Is there never a such thing as a mercy killing? Is there never a such thing as being left to die in peace?

Such thinking might be repugnant to Western Buddhists, but I attribute this revulsion more to the Judeo-Christian environment in which Westerners live than to the influence of Buddhism.

In the East, it's a different story: it's not a matter of human life having "less value"; it's more a matter of understanding personal suffering as intimately connected to a larger whole. People choose to die with much greater frequency here in the East than they do in the West, and they have their reasons, many of which are family-oriented, not rooted in egocentrism. Can we dismiss those reasons as illegitimate without exploring each case in which such a decision is made? Can we dismiss them without making any effort to understand the culture from which such a decision might arise? I'm not advocating cultural relativism; I'm advocating making the effort to understand as opposed to taking the facile route and making a broad claim.

[NB: Cultural relativism is itself a facile stance. Just believe the claim "all cultures are equal, none being superior to any other," and you're there, dude. Neither relativism nor absolutism require any work on the thinker's part.]

Is suicide (or the request to die at the hands of another) selfish? I think it can be. But is the desire to cling to life selfish? It can be as well. I want to continue my practice because I have my mind, even if I don't have my body? Sounds like self-oriented American thinking to me, even as it's being imposed on others: "This is what I believe, and it's what you should believe, too." Any different from Christian evangelicalism?

...every moment is precious, and no one -- not even you -- [has] the right to take it away.

I think the question of whether "killing is wrong" is more a function of cultural values than of religious precepts, keeping in mind, of course, that there's no absolute distinction between the two.

And I have to confess: I'd hate to be the miserable dying man who hears that his American Buddhist relative isn't permitting him to slip away from this earth with a modicum of dignity and peace, simply because the relative's got it in his head that killing is always wrong.

Maybe I've been reading too much Marcus Aurelius lately. The man talks a lot about suicide as a practical solution to a troublesome existence. While I'm not feeling suicidal, I'd like to reserve suicide/euthanasia as an option if I'm at a point where I'm spending life in a fetal position, hooked up to tubes, of no use to anybody, causing others suffering* instead of easing it. And I can say that while not in the grip of any strong emotions.

*If you don't think you're causing others suffering when you're at your nadir, maybe you should take a look around you. Oh, yes: if I reach a point like that and am surrounded by people who insist I should live, I'll drag my ass off into the woods and rot there quietly rather than be the center of agonized attention for those closest to me. That's not a selfish wish: that's a practical solution to my loved ones' suffering.


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