Two Issues for Western Buddhists

Long is the night for the sleepless. Long is the road for the weary. Long is samsara for the foolish, who have not recognized the true teaching. —Dhammapada v.60

     I’ve been doing Question and Answer videos for a few years now, the first ones back when I was a monk living at a Burmese temple in California. I recently uploaded #40; and at an average of, say, thirty questions per Q&A video that adds up to something like six gorillion questions I have attempted to answer. And it turns out that some questions are asked by various people pretty frequently, presumably because the truth of the matter is counterintuitive, or just hard to wrap one’s head around. Also there are certain misconceptions that come up regularly. Consequently I have decided to discuss in this post two of the main causes of confusion or misconception among western Buddhists who ask questions for the Q&A videos, and also who contact me otherwise to hash out issues. The first of these regards the nature of kamma or karma, and the other is the momentous issue of reifying the Absolute. First, karma.

     People are continually asking questions along the lines of, “Is it against Buddhist ethics to do such-and-such an act?” or “Is it bad karma to do such-and-such deed?” On the last Q&A it took the form of someone attempting to demonstrate that using money is unethical and a hindrance to spiritual liberation. 

     Now it is true that certain physical actions are denounced in the ancient Pali texts, especially for monastics. Monks are forbidden to perform all sorts of physical actions, including talking with one’s mouth full, eating from a bowl made from a human skull, having sex, using a sitting cloth without a border properly sewn onto it, grunting while taking a dump, building a hut without the Sangha first approving of the building site, opening a door with one’s bowl in hand, wearing pointy-toed shoes, using an ointment-smearing stick made of precious metals, hiding another monk’s bowl, spitting or peeing onto green plants, and on and on. But this sort of thing is simply a matter of formal rules, and is not necessarily a matter of basic ethics or of good or bad karma. There is nothing inherently immoral, for instance, in wearing pointy-toed shoes. Rules of discipline for monks, and precepts for laypeople, are largely superficial, as a way of decreasing the likelihood of bad karma, and also simply of good manners and not giving Buddhists a bad name in society. Actual Buddhist ethics run much deeper than this, and are far more subtle.

     I’ve stated several times on my videos that two people can perform the very same act, and one will be getting bad karma for it, or more bad than good, and the other will be doing more good than bad. For example, let’s say a person is walking through the forest and hears a frog squealing. He looks and finds that a snake is in the process of trying to swallow this frog. The frog is inflated, to make it too big to swallow, and also squealing in desperation—because maybe, just maybe, a bigger predator than the snake will hear the noise and decide to eat the snake, thereby giving the frog a chance to escape. Anyway, the person coming upon this seen picks up a stick, pokes the snake with it and chases it away, and thereby saves the frog, who has been let go by the fleeing snake. Did the person do a good deed or a bad one by saving the frog?

     Well, it depends on the person’s motivations. If he chased the snake away out of compassion for the frog, then he did good. If he chased it away out of aversion for the snake, then he did bad. Even though the physical act may have been outwardly exactly the same.

     Karma, according to Buddhism, is essentially cetanā or will. The mental state itself is making the karma, and outward physical acts merely amplify and exacerbate the mental state. So to ask Is action X good or bad? is indicative of insufficient understanding of Buddhist ethics and the nature of karma.

     It is true that certain outward actions practically of necessity entail very unwholesome volitions. Bludgeoning someone to death, for example, could hardly be done with entirely wholesome motives. Even killing someone threatening to kill thousands (let’s say by detonating a bomb or some such) would entail a fair amount of bad karma because the mental states involved in killing someone are pretty much always going to have some unwholesomeness involved. Hell, even putting salt and pepper one one’s food or listening to music are considered to involve, usually, for most people, unwholesome or unskillful mental states.

     So, in general, one can say that something like handling money is in itself ethically neutral; though it serves as a spiritual obstacle for enough people that it was made verboten for ordained monastics. Remember: outward actions are not karma; will or volition is karma; and it is possible for two different people to perform the same action and make very different karma from each other by doing it.

     The next issue is a sticky one that can have people behaving in hostile and occasionally hysterical ways; and that is Buddhism’s tendency NOT to reify the Absolute, or Ultimate Reality. We can set aside the Abhidhamma philosophy here, which does reify Ultimate Reality, sometimes in some fairly silly ways, as Abhidhamma is the product of a scholastic movement in Buddhism that reached its full flower more than a century after the Buddha disappeared from this world.

     Some people, including Abhidhamma scholars, reify Nibbana/Nirvana, for example. They think that it exists in pretty much the same way that anything else exists, as some kind of discrete entity or state. But it doesn’t, because it is completely off the samsaric scale. Going with classical Buddhist logic, to say Nirvana exists is invalid; to say that it doesn’t exist is invalid; to say that it does and doesn’t exist is invalid; and to say that it neither does nor does not exist is invalid. Any assertion made of it is necessarily invalid because assertions are necessarily samsaric, and Nirvana is not samsaric.

     Most religions and spiritual systems reify the Absolute as though they were existent in a samsaric universe in pretty much the same way as anything else. Most systems refer to this Absolute as God, though it goes by other names, like Brahman or Dao. This is partly due to the limitations of human thought, as some people just cannot understand anything transcending the phenomenal universe. For some who are more advanced it is simply a way of speaking, as remaining totally silent on God or the Absolute can be mistaken for gross atheism. But speaking of the Absolute as something identifiable sows the seeds of people considering it to be something identifiable, and that is delusion.

     Among Buddhists identifying the Absolute as God tends not to be a problem. The problem comes from a similar situation though: identifying the Absolute as Self. It is strange that belief in self and belief in God are almost the same in some ways, but so it is. Consider the Upanishads which assert again and again tat twam asi, Thou Art That—namely, the self and Brahman, the soul and God, are the same.

     So there are numbers of western Buddhists, and self-styled authorities on Buddhism, who vehemently insist that there is a self and that the ancient Buddhist conception of anatta or No Self is false, or else grossly misunderstood—because, according to them, there IS a self. We can set aside the more misguided fellows of this club who insist that we each have an ultimately real soul along Christian lines, that is, we each have our own separate self. There is not a shred of evidence in the oldest Buddhist texts which supports this idea. But there are others who insist, like Vedantists also may insist, that our true self partakes of the Absolute, that we all have a soul but that there is just one universal Soul that is shared by all beings. Our self is the underlying Ultimate Reality which pervades the universe.

     This may be a convenient manner of speaking; but early Buddhism, pre-Abhidhammic Buddhism, simply refuses to reify the Absolute. The Absolute, the highest principle, the Ultimate Reality underlying the entire universe and everything in it, “God,” is simply Off The Scale…and for those who identify our true Self with it, that also is simply Off The Scale.

     It’s not utter nihilism, as people who just can’t comprehend not including the Absolute in a samsaric context tend to imagine of the “nihilistic” concept of anatta. Such people miss the point. The Buddha tended to avoid reifying Ultimate Reality because it just cannot be expressed in words. He was not a nihilist or a skeptic when he would not make assertions about the highest truth; rather he was a mystic, and extremely advanced one, who could very much appreciate the notion that the highest truth cannot be put into words, and any attempt to do so will end in failure at best. To take such attempts as literal truth is even worse, and amounts to delusion. Sometimes hysterical delusion in which true Dhamma is reviled, and followers of it condemned to hell. And all because of an intellectual addiction to understanding things in an intellectual and thereby samsaric context.



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