Saturday, May 14, 2005

postal scrotum: Sperwer and DCT

Sperwer writes:

Hey Kev:

Read some of your piece on divine command theory - in part because at the outset I thought it might be a send-up of the Shrub's notion of his presidential command authority. Since it wasn't, I lost interest pretty, because not being a theist, it all just seemed so besides the point.

I did scroll through, though, and caught a couple of good paragraphs on buddhist stuff. You said, though, that "Buddhist morality hinges on different practices, such as the practices of mindfulness and compassion". I know you weren't intending to really explain buddhist ethics, so I'm not setting out to criticize you for this by taking it too literally. After all, mindfulness (at least in a common sense meaning, although not probably in the rather technical meaning this has or used to have in buddhism, before the sentimental psychologists all starting calling themselves buddhist) and especially compassion are related thereto - in fact if you needed a one word summary of buddhist ethics it would be "compassion" [and not "loving kindness"].

But I think you came closer to the mark in differentiating the buddhist from the theist sense of the basis of morality when you spoke in your first paragraph about the buddhist notion of the intercausal nature of reality. In fact, the theory of the codependent origination of all phenomena in space and time, which is the theoretical elaboration of the the buddhist idea of kamma, and like the "four truths," is one of the linchpins of buddhism, and as close as the buddha himself ever came to proposing an ontology (a process ontology ?), is the basis of buddhist ethics.

In other words, buddhist ethics is founded directly on the buddhist conception of the nature of reality [as are theist ethics; it's "just" the concepts of reality that differ] The interesting thing is that at a very general level, the buddhist and (some) theist concepts come to more or less the same place.

Given the codependent origination, and hence the mutual interpenetration [sorry no sex here], of all phenomena, buddhism in effect maintains that "ultimately" you and I and everyone are all the same, so it's a matter of love your brother as you would yourself. There's even some very similar language in some of the early suttas where the Bud sets this principle up against the brahamincal tradition in a very satirical way that has some parallels with the way that Jesus is described in the Bible as taking on the religious establishment of his time and place.


"Process ontology" is a term I've seen associated with Buddhism, though I sometimes wonder how comfortable Buddhist thinkers are with any notion of "ontology." Do Buddhists get into heated discussions about the difference between "being" and "existence," for example? I would think not: they reserve their hairsplitting for other matters, probably because they make no distinction between "being" and "becoming." From the Buddhist perspective, the term "process ontology" is probably redundant: how is being not also becoming?

As to whether "compassion" is the one word that sums it all up... yes, I've heard that. But over at Lorianne's blog, I think Lorianne or one of her Buddhist commenters noted that some Buddhists say it all comes down to "Pay attention!", which would be mindfulness. Mindfulness is certainly a huge buzzword with Thich Nhat Hanh.

But here, too, I doubt most Buddhists would want to get into a fight about which single word sums it all up. If someone forced me to choose between "mindfulness" and "compassion," I'd think they were saying, "Here-- I can give you one side of the coin or the other, but not the whole coin." Just as it's impossible to hand over one side of the coin without the other, so I'd submit it's impossible to reduce Buddhism (or, more narrowly, Buddhist ethics) to a word.

One Zen monk-- I can't remember if it was Seung Sahn or a monk I personally heard-- had an interesting definition of compassion. He said, "Compassion is love plus wisdom." I wonder how some Christians would take that, since most would say "God is love" and point to the three virtues of faith, hope and love cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, wherein we learn that the "greatest" of those three virtues is love.

Reductionism can lead to the silliest religious (and interreligious) pissing contests. Can I boil Christianity down to just love, or Buddhism down to just compassion? If I reduce Christianity to love, I separate myself from those who see Christianity as fundamentally about God. If I reduce Buddhism (or Buddhist ethics) to compassion, I separate myself from those Buddhists who see Buddhist practice as mindfulness (or something else). A single word can be a door, or it can be a wall.

I fully agree, though, with your statement that we shouldn't confuse "compassion" (karuna) with "loving-kindness" (metta). This has actually been a common Christian mistake in dialogue with Buddhists. Christians, not content with the Buddhist concept of compassion, have often wanted to find something supposedly warmer and fuzzier in the Buddhist lexicon-- some term that made for a nice equivalent to Christian agape. Unfortunately, in choosing metta, Christians missed the point that compassion and mindfulness are central in the Buddhist spotlight. Metta is important to Buddhists, but no way does it get the same press as the former two virtues.

In religion, core terms interpenetrate and overlap. How can I pull faith, hope, and love apart from one another? It's possible, but after all that dissection you've got a dead thing on the operating table. How can I talk about emptiness without also talking about karma, impermanence, and no-self? Impossible. Finding the core-est of core terms in any religion is tricky work. I'm not brave enough to point my finger at one term and say, "That's what it's all about."

Which probably explains why I failed my one and only kong-an test. Heh.


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