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Talk on Buddhist Ethics

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 02/12/2010
In Topics: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts, Precepts

A talk on Buddhist Ethics, given to the Kaiser Ethics Committee, in Oakland, CA

Talk on Buddhist Ethics to
Kaiser Ethics Committee

Feb 12, 2010

First, I am very honored and
happy to be here. I hope I can
contribute something of value, though I am not at all sure that I can. I want
to thank you – and Kathleen – for inviting me. I accepted imagining that I would come and mostly listen to
you and learn from you and comment from my own perspective when I had something
to say. I didn't realize I was
going to be expected to address you at some length before that conversation. This is not so easy for me because I am
not at all sure of what your concerns are nor do I know what or how you think
about ethics and ethical philosophy. I imagine that you are making crucial life
and death ethical decisions on a daily basis, as you deal with real people and
their medical problems, so I wonder what a person like me, who doesn't have
such awesome responsibilities, could possibly say to you that would be of
benefit. Maybe it will help me to
begin if I acknowledge all that at the outset.

My topic for today is
Buddhist ethics, and I speak to this topic not as an expert or as a
spokesperson for Buddhism, but simply as one person who has practiced Buddhism
for a long time. So please don't imagine that what I will say is what all
Buddhists would say, or what the tradition officially would say. In fact, as I am sure you are aware,
there is no Buddhist position on this or that, just as there is really no
Christian or Jewish or Muslim position, and no one medical position – there are
many positions. People always
disagree. Some opinions may be
more sensible or better informed than others.

As you probably know,
Buddhism is not a revealed religion, which is to say it is a non-theistic
religion. One definition of
religion is "belief in a supreme being."
By this definition Buddhism is not a religion, and, in fact, in 1893, at
the first World Parliament of Religions, there was debate as to whether or not
to include the Buddhists, because Buddhism by this definition doesn't qualify
as a religion. Perhaps Buddhism is
a philosophy. In fact Buddhists
were invited to the Parliament despite this, and now though I think we would
all recognize Buddhism as a religion (it has beliefs, clergy, ritual,
scripture, and so on) Buddhism's radical difference as a non-theistic religion
remains. The question is,
what difference does this make for ethics?

In theistic religions
morality is revealed and ordained by the deity. God gives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and this sets the
tone for all Jewish and Christian morality. I apologize for not being even basically knowledgeable about
Islam, but I do know that as a theistic religion it too finds the basis for
morality in God's word and intention. In revealed religion we know, we absolutely know, what is right and what is wrong. What is right is what God tells us is right, what is wrong
is what God tells us is wrong. God
is by definition good, so no further justification is needed. There are no two ways about
morality. For people who believe
that God's word is written in plain English in the bible, and is therefore
perfectly clear, morality is also perfectly clear, and there is a lot of
passion in defending what is right and opposing what is wrong. I am sure you are all familiar with
this attitude and have encountered it from time to time in your work, even here
in the Bay Area, where such an understanding of the bible and of morality is
much more rare than it is in other parts of the country and the world. For others who understand that the
words of the bible are not necessarily so clear, and are subject to
interpretation, and perhaps even to very broad interpretation and
reinterpretation over time as society changes, there are many fuzzy issues and
fuzzy areas, but still, the sense is that there is a true right and definite
wrong, and that it is our difficult job to discover what they are and not
confuse them. In our modern world
there are many who don't know whether they believe in God, and many who don't
care much one way or the other about God and may be quite vague on the
concept. There are others who
absolutely (and I use this word on purpose) do not believe in God and think
that people who do believe are foolish, even dangerous. But even for these people questions of
morality are tinged with a sense of righteousness and passion that goes with
our Judeo-Christian social and cultural conditioning. I point this out because
we take this passion so much for granted that we may not notice it. We are all, regardless of our
theological commitments or lack of them, pretty moralistic. We are all pretty passionate about our
beliefs about right and wrong.

The way ethical questions are
held in Buddhist cultures and other non-theistic cultures is quite different
from this. Though there is a
strong concern for what is ethical, it is held and understood in a completely
different way.

Buddhism seems not to be
concerned with the basic questions that theological religions engage, questions
whose answer is God. Questions
like the origin and ultimate meaning of the world and time. The Buddha famously refused to consider
such questions when asked, because, as he put it, such questions do not conduce
to liberation and happiness. He
gave the famous analogy (which, not incidentally, is a medical analogy) of a
man shot with an arrow, who is lying on the ground dying. A person comes along who is ready to
withdraw the arrow from the man's breast and save his life but the man stops
him and says, "Before you pull the arrow out, I want to know some things about
it. Who made this arrow? What sort of wood is the shaft made of,
what feathers are at the end of the arrow, what is the tip made of, where was
the arrow fashioned? What sort of
man shot this arrow at me? Was he
a tall man, a short man, a red man, a white man," and so on, several pages of
such questions. Before the man
would have a chance to learn the answers to all his possibly unending
questions, the Buddha said, he would be dead. Better then to set these questions aside and pull the arrow
out and save the man's life.
So the first point and purpose of Buddhism is not to ascertain who is
the author of the world so as to pay homage to him or her or it and take
direction from him or her or it, but rather to cure the human illness –
spiritual illness, of which physical illness is but a symptom.

I think this is very
interesting to think about from a medical perspective. Human beings are fundamentally
ill. Human beings without
exception have an incurable terminal disease. All doctors lose one hundred per cent of their
patients. All physical and mental
illness is simply a symptom of the fundamental disease, which is the radical
vulnerability – which leads to the
eventual demise – of the human
body and mind. All doctors should
write on all death certificates: cause of death: life. Cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and so on
are proximate, adventitious, causes.
The actual and fundamental cause of death is life. Once there is life, death will
follow. All creatures die but only
human beings understand that they will die. All languages have a word for death, although no one
knows exactly what this word means, no one knows what the experience of death,
the state of being dead, is; that is, if death is an experience or a
state. And if death is not an
experience or a state, if it is nothing at all – all the more reason to be
utterly confused about it. And yet
death remains the fundamental fact of life. This reality – that death is unknowable, uncontrollable, and
yet conditions us completely – makes us all nervous, I think, however unaware
of this we may be. And this
nervousness, this dread, this fundamental anxiety, is the human illness that
the Buddha wants to cure. It is the
reason why we worry about our conduct.
It seems somehow clear to us, though in a very unclear way, that since
we don't know what death is or if it is or what happens to us after death that
we had better be careful about how we live, about what we do. Otherwise we will go to hell or be
reborn into bad realms or endure meaningless tortured lives in the
present. Other creatures have no
concept of mortality and no concept of ethics. The two go together.

In a word, the spiritual path is the cure proposed by the
Buddha for the human illness of existential dread. The Path, as he conceived it, involves three main elements,
morality, meditation, and insight.
The three are likened to the three legs of a tripod, perfectly in
balance. With morality the mind is
made clear and peaceful and suffused with love. This makes deep contemplation possible. And deep contemplation leads to the
insight that our identity is not limited to the body and mind as we
conventionally know it – that we are in fact in identity with everything, and
once we realize this the dread and tragedy of sickness old age and death is
removed from us, and we can, with a confident heart, age, be sick, and die,
knowing that this is a natural and a joyful process that will not diminish what
we most truly are.

A footnote here to say that
the Western philosopher whose thought is perhaps closest to that of the Buddha
is Spinoza, who may be the originator in the West of what we now call
"secularism." Spinoza was a
thoroughgoing rationalist – but he was not an atheist. For him the existence of God was an
obviously self-evident logical proposition. Spinoza believed that through rational contemplation of the
world and of the human mind and emotions we could arrive at an expansion of
identity so thorough that we would lose our fear of death and embrace all of
life and humanity as ourselves and would no longer need what he called
"superstitious religion." We could
be ethical, understanding and kind to our fellow humans, without being ordered
to be that way by a punishing God.
For Spinoza God was the world's true and infinite beauty, which would
always be beyond what any finite human mind could grasp, and yet the human mind
could through rational contemplation appreciate this and extend knowledge. Einstein was a Spinozist as were
and are many scientists still -whether they realize it or not.

All of what I have said
speaks to a Buddhist philosophy of ethics, the why of ethics.
It speaks to the attitude that underlies all Buddhist considerations of
ethics. Now to the how of ethics,
the on-the-ground practice of ethical conduct.

Not surprisingly, Buddhist ethics doesn't differ much from
general Western ethics. The golden
rule applies: treat others as you would treat yourself, which implies that one
would treat one's self fairly and well.
As one part of the three part program for liberation from suffering,
ethics is a practical matter.
Ethics is effective, for one's self as well as for others. To keep the mind and heart clear for
contemplation and insight there should be no wild or erratic behavior even
privately, no stirring up the mind and heart. And to ensure that there is no outward disturbance or
trouble treat others with loving kindness so as to maximize the chance for
harmonious relations. In the end,
liberation is exactly the transforming insight that the narrow sense of
personal identity is conditional and false. Therefore others are one's self, one's self is others, so there is a full measure of love for
self as others and others as self, and a strong motivation to act out of love,
to share life with others, to aid them in their need, to cultivate a great and
ultimate selflessness, which would be the sign and mark of liberation.

Since ethics is part of a
program for liberation rather than a set of rules ordained by an all-powerful
God, ethics in Buddhism goes along with a general sense of cultivating the
heart. Ethics is a kind of
training – training in opening the heart, in kindness, in self-expansion. It is a practice rather than a rule. To be sure, the practice of ethics may
involve following rules, but these rules are considered training rules rather
than absolutes. This doesn't mean
that Buddhist ethics is situational ethics or relativistic ethics; yet neither
is Buddhist ethics absolute. The
Western conceptual framework of absolute and relative simply doesn't fit the Buddhist
understanding. In Buddhist
ethics there is right conduct and wrong conduct, it is not a matter of opinion
or mere social mores: in this sense Buddhist ethics is absolute. But the meaning of and appearance of
right and wrong conduct may be conditioned by intention and situation: in that
sense Buddhist ethics is not absolute.

This means that Buddhist
ethics is as much a matter of inward cultivation, the condition of the heart,
as it is a matter of outward conduct.
It's as much a matter of spirit and attitude as it is a matter of letter
of the law. This may seem to some
to be a slippery slope. But it
would not be a slippery slope within the context of a Buddhist culture in which
there are communities, teachers, clergy, ritual, and scripture, all for the
purpose of aiding and directing spiritual cultivation.

In the Soto Zen Buddhism that
I practice – to give you one quick
specific example -we follow 16 precepts.
These include both broad principles – like taking refuge in the awakened
heart as our primary guide and motivation – as well as more specific
guidelines, like not committing sexual misconduct, not intoxicating the mind,
not lying, and not speaking ill of others. The typical Zen student who practices with me and
wants to explicitly practice the discipline of ethical conduct will study
fairly diligently for about three years, which means practicing meditation
regularly both at home and in community, paying attention to conduct in daily
life, speaking with me and other students about precepts, and then committing
to living by the precepts in a solemn public ritual. The sense of this commitment is not that the precepts are
rules for living that must be followed to the letter, but rather that they are
tools for reflection, lenses through which to view one's life, ways to come to
a deeper understanding of and deeper connection to others. It is almost never the case that people
in the community point fingers at one another, accusing their fellow practitioners
of "breaking a precept." Such a
concept is unknown. We are all
trying to practice the precepts, with the understanding that there is really no
way to do so perfectly, and that, from another perspective, there is no way not
to do it perfectly, since whatever happens – including our transgressions
intentional or unintentional – is going to be part of our development. Even if we make mistakes that we
recognize to be mistakes, we can repent and change our ways, and learn
something in the process. In this
way there can be a maximum of effort for the good, a maximum of forgiveness,
and a minimum of guilt and recrimination.

Is it interesting that much
of contemporary Western thought about ethics is beginning to converge with
basic Buddhist ethical concepts and understandings. It is a little difficult for me to summarize in brief what I
want to say about this, but let me take a stab at it:

It is becoming clear that
ethics is not so much a matter of what we think is right or wrong, or what we
should think is right or wrong, as it is a matter of how we feel. Ethics, we now begin to understand, is
a category of emotional intelligence – a concept that itself was unknown a few
decades ago, but is now very important throughout our society. The rapidly advancing field of
cognitive science makes it clear that there is no thinking without feeling, our
brains simply work that way. Our
moral reasoning is not, as we had thought, the motive force of our ethical
conduct; reasoning comes later, after we have already felt our way into what we
know to be right or wrong. In a
recent New York Times column on the new Western sense of morality, David Brooks
(April 7,2009) quotes Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, "The
emotions are in fact in charge of the temple of morality, and… moral
reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest."

And in evolutionary studies,
it is now commonplace to recognize that morality may not be a matter of rules
ordained on high, absolute imperatives, but rather built-in evolutionary
tendencies to altruism, cooperation, and concern for others that cause us
naturally to gravitate toward moral codes that connect us to others in
fairness, mutual concern, and deep human bonding. If these things are true, and all our best evidence seems to
suggest that they are, then morality and ethical conduct are, as the Buddha
intuited centuries ago, deeply embedded human feelings that aid us in finding
the spiritual dimension of our living and that will bring us some happiness and
healthy adjustment to the world and to each other. Brooks writes, "The rise and now dominance of this
emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way
philosophy is conceived by most people.
It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny
of texts. (and, I would add, it challenges the Christian and Muslim versions of
this text-based rationality as well).
It challenges the new atheists who see themselves involved in a war of
reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure
reason and in the purity of their own reason."

Let me end with my own sense
of what all this might mean for medical ethics; that is, for actual situations
medical professionals may find themselves in on a daily basis. My guess is that what I will say will
echo what you have already come to during the course of your work.

First, if ethics is a matter
of deep feeling as well as thinking, and if feeling can be cultivated, that is,
if our capacity for empathy and compassion is not fixed but is flexible – as
Buddhism long ago claimed, and as contemporary brain studies show – then it
behooves people who work with life and death ethical issues to be involved in
an active and ongoing cultivation of their capacity for human feeling. I know you are all very busy. How would you find the time for
this? But it may not take any
extra time. It may be a matter of
quality of presence, not quantity of training. And it may be the great opportunity of a lifetime, not
merely another professional training you now need to obtain.

And second, ethics is a
social virtue, it is something we practice largely together. It involves feeling the feelings of
others, and changing and being changed by the feelings of others. If ethics is not reducible to hard and
fast rules, and is always a discernment, it is a discernment we make together,
in teams of experienced professionals who practice mutual respect, teams that
involve patients and their families, and the needs and desires of our society
at large. Remembering and acting
in this spirit this may reframe our ethical dilemmas and problems as
opportunities for discovery and connection.

I realize that sensitive
ethical determinations are not made in private or without references to hospital
policies and national, state, and local laws, the media, and public
opinion. There are plenty of
strict constraints, plenty of specific rules, plenty of potential difficult
consequences for missteps. Still,
in the end, as I assume many of you would attest, the relationship between the
physician and his or her team, and that team's relationship to the patient and
his or her family, is a powerful factor in decision-making, and one that should
be fully and passionately engaged, whatever the constraints. Apart from the policies and laws, apart
from what our belief systems tell us is the right and wrong of the case, what
do we really feel? And what do we
feel together, as a community of concerned people? Can we be honest and
courageous enough to entertain that, and to challenge ourselves to examine and
extend our feeling for the greatest good of the greatest number?