Wednesday 28 August 2013

The Good, The Bad, And The Clear

During this season, that of the three-months ‘Rains Retreat’ (Vassa), we study the Vinaya at Cittaviveka. Vinaya is the section of the Buddha’s teachings that often gets overlooked in Dhamma circles – it gives instructions on the samana’s (i.e. a monk or nun) way of life. But is it just for monks and nuns? Well, the Buddha felt, quite reasonably, that he could only lay down a detailed training for those who went forth under him and had no other commitments. So in a way this is true. But the nature of the Vinaya is that by supervising how the samana community behaves in relationship to the lay community, its effects are felt by all, and it offers occasions for lay people to compose and collect their energies around the (ideal) quietness and simplicity of a well-trained samana. In brief, by setting up a relationship of alms-mendicancy – the samanas can’t have or use money, can’t grow or store food, can’t manipulate what people should offer – Vinaya establishes the Dhamma-culture of generosity/sharing, virtue/integrity and renunciation/simplicity. These overarching norms can then transfer into the society at large, dependent on the skill and energy of the lay community.

At this time especially, I think that it is only through adopting and practising these norms that human beings will be able to navigate out of the consumer and credit-based economy that is exhausting this planet. We have to live with less waste, and we can best do this if we share resources. Sharing/generosity becomes natural when you trust people, and you can only really trust people of integrity. If you have integrity, you value the life that has been given to all creatures and you don’t want to contribute to the abuse and pollution of the planet. In support of this, renunciation lowers the consumption of commodities and hence the exploitation of the Earth’s resources – and reducing consumption becomes practical when people are prepared to share what they have.  Meanwhile, renunciation is no great sacrifice when one feels enriched by one’s own heart-mind (the only innate resource that humans have): and that’s what Dhamma practice is about. So in this culture, Dhamma feeds the heart and Vinaya builds the structures.

So although the Vinaya topic is ethics, it broadens that concept. For example, a samana is only allowed one set of robes (renunciation); cannot recommend killing, even euthanasia (value of life); and is enjoined to share the very food he/she has received today with fellow-samanas (sharing). Then there are observances – such as the Vassa itself – that greatly outnumber what would be regarded as ‘morality’. For example, by requiring samanas to stay in one place for at least three months of the year, Vinaya observance catalyzes the sense of community: the local villagers will naturally come round and check the samanas out; they’ll look to them for teachings and examples – and so that will support their own practice and be conducive to them offering food on a regular basis. Another observance establishes a relationship of respect dependent on how long one has been in the Order: and that curtails jockeying for position – the senior is not necessarily the most-attained, or the most gifted, just more long-standing. As a counterbalance, seniority by itself doesn’t bring authority: the Sangha is administered by elected officers. Moreover a newcomer picks which teacher he/she would like to study under and to whom he/she will offer allegiance and service. 

A lot of Vinaya is just about deportment: ‘I shall go with downcast/moderated gaze in public places’; ‘I shall go with little sound in public places’; ‘I shall go well-covered [with robes] in public places.’ The effect of this training is both personal – it keeps you mindful within your body and not drawn out into sights and shops – and public – a bhikkhu walking in a quiet and composed way can change the energy of a street. I remember one occasion (of several similar) when travelling: sitting down to wait for a flight in an airport, I tucked my legs up in lotus position on the seat to pass the time in meditation. Just before I closed my eyes, I noticed a woman sitting in a seat a little way away and facing mine: she was leafing through a magazine. When I opened my eyes a half-hour later, I noticed that now she too was sitting cross-legged with eyes closed.

These and many, many, others make up the ‘samana norm’, a living presentation of the Way that the Buddha felt was a vital aspect of his teaching. So much so, that he said that in the case of previous Awakened Ones who hadn’t laid down a training, their teaching had died out shortly after their own deaths. And yet … he refused to lay down any rules until a need arose. Every rule is built around an occasion when someone lost touch with a norm that the Buddha felt was natural for a ‘gone-forth’ person, or an instance where lay people were upset by the conduct of a samana. So Vinaya came around through direct experience; it wasn’t laid out as a system, it doesn’t lead out to abstract principles, but was built up with rulings adjusted by exemption clauses and moderating circumstances throughout the Buddha’s life. And after …? He thought of that too, and established the ‘great standards’ for future guidance. These state that if something occurs or is available now that wasn’t around at the time of the Buddha – the Sangha has to decide whether that is like, or has the same effect as, something that the Buddha allowed, or forbade, and act accordingly.  So Vinaya has to be kept alive by the wise integrity of the Sangha, and if the Sangha declines in that, then the Vinaya declines – and vice versa.  Well, one could say a lot about that decline, but not now.

Instead, I’d like to reflect around the abstraction of the ethical sense into Good and Evil; and as a  contrast, the awareness of present intention that is the norm for awakening.  Good and Evil are the most fundamental abstractions, going right back to Adam and Eve. The serpent is bound up with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and presents its forbidden fruit to Eve. Then God shows up and the judgements begin. As a child I could never understand why knowing the difference between Good and Evil would get you thrown out of Eden. But I think I get it now. When you define human behaviour in terms of abstract principles, you lose the direct awareness of what’s happening now, and of your intention – the most common moderating factor in the Vinaya. Without that clear awareness what you are left with is ideals and judgements. And so the judging God arises. And He can do what He likes to you (witness Job). To return from the mythic to the psychological: this abstraction means that assessment is removed from your own intelligence and given to a remote and inscrutable entity, or your own Inner Tyrant. Obedience is obligatory.

The immediate effect of replacing your own direct awareness with passive obedience is to empower fear and guilt, and allow a dumbing-down of your moral intelligence. You never really understand why some actions are good or bad; in fact sometimes it’s not even actions that are good or bad – it’s people. My tribe, unsurprisingly, are the Good. If you belong to the Good then, like God, you can do whatever you like to the Evil Ones. Hence the security forces of the Free World can hijack, assassinate, deal in drugs, and imprison without trial. Nor is this just a present-day phenomenon: Khmer Rouge, Nazis, colonial powers, medieval kings, the Papacy, the jihad – wherever the good, the pure or the holy is abstracted it offers ideological conviction, or a mystic empowerment and a God-given right. Then it is appropriated by a group, an organisation or a political entity and is used to justify their actions. The polarization of the Good creates the Evil Ones – who you can’t trust an inch – and who are controlled by the mystic or ideological force of Evil. So the further result of that is mistrust, prejudice on the political level, and repression and sublimation in terms of the psyche. The non-Good, the misfit or the irrational, is not an abstraction, so you can’t disprove it – all you can do is chain it down and suppress it. So any energy, feeling and inclination that doesn’t fit the Code of the Good is to be denied, feared and squashed. Except that it doesn’t squash that easily, or for that long – because it’s alive.

However once you turn to the direct experience of Dhamma-cultivation, the abstracts lose their grip, and the suppressed and sublimated comes to the surface. Then, as we are frequently instructed, the practice is to let the judgements float, and instead be directly aware; to not react but investigate and be steadily patient with one’s inner misfits, rebels and demons. To learn to listen inwardly and feel mind-states and what they produce; whether this thought or that mood takes you to a good place or not. What you discover is how grudges and deceit feel bad and cause agitation; and how compassion and honesty feel good. Through this wise handling comes vitality, empathy and earthy wisdom. You get to know, not Good and Evil, but what is skilful, beneficial, and conducive to welfare – and what causes suffering and stress. And that good thoughts and bad thoughts all have the nature to pass; while the awareness of all this gets palpably bright. Moral intelligence dawns as the precursor of full awakening.

The understanding of good and evil was the Buddha’s second great insight of the three that led to his awakening. Actually, the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ aren’t in this account; instead we have ‘well-conducted’ versus ‘ill-conducted’, ‘right in their views’ versus ‘wrong in their views’, and ‘giving effect to right/wrong views in their actions’; and further, ‘I saw how beings pass on according to their actions.’ (See M4 or M36). There’s moral responsibility there, but it’s related to actions and inclinations, not to abstract forces. Both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lead on to further birth, and in the third great insight, the Buddha saw how he could get beyond that. This doesn’t negate moral consequences (heavenly/fortunate and hellish/unfortunate are still there in terms of results), but it places these experiences within the context of the process of awakening. By studying these intentions, it becomes clear that both right and wrong are subject to attachment. That is, if you cling to right as an absolute, you’re working from an assumption of being some ongoing entity or self, in a world of ongoing substantial things out there. Well, that’s going to take you to a corresponding destination – as an ongoing identity who has to keep juggling, ducking and holding on; while you and your fellows move on towards ageing, sickness and death. 

Nevertheless right is right (though not Right) through being engaged with conscience and concern, empathy and an awareness of cause and effect; it encourages wise moderation. So as you come to witness and handle the mind, you step back from and investigate intention and inclination; and that lessens the power of reckless impulses. You gain some open space. As you get steadier in that witnessing space, the mind moves into integrity and ‘to others as to myself’: it comes out of short-term self-interest into right view and finally into selfless open clarity. You go from bad to good to clear; but you have to go through the good. Awakening then is the end of a process that successively opens the mind out of self and into wholeness, out of entities and into relationships, out of winning and losing and into release.

Conversely, whenever the mind grabs and claims ‘I am’, the opening process reverses – into self and others and winners and losers. Selfhood gets formed out of the good and makes it the Good, and so Evil is born – as in any fundamentalist view.

So you have to study this, in yourself and in others. What is appropriate, now; what is skilful, now; what is beautiful to do – now? Reflecting on good and bad wisely enhances one's moral intelligenceAnd there are some great lessons both in the Vinaya and in the Suttas. Take the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, for example, a bhikkhu, and a zealot who wanted to impose stricter standards on the Sangha, and who yet tried to have the Buddha assassinated on seven occasions. Ooops, well no need to guess where he was headed … And yet, the Buddha’s comment was that after a period in hell, he’d get through that, get back to the earthly level, and even become a Buddha himself in some future age. So – the mind is a process, and has no final destinations. Which is just as well for Angulimāla, the serial killer who murdered 999 people before coming across the Buddha. Awed and finally trained by the Buddha, he became an arahant – though apparently people still threw rocks at him. This fellow needs to be up there on the shrines of meditators: you think you’re a lost cause because you were wild in your youth, or you went to jail ten years ago – well, reflect on Angulimāla. You can turn your process around. But on the other hand, Sāti, the bhikkhu who proclaimed that consciousness transmigrates from one life to the next is roundly castigated by the Buddha as one of ‘pernicious view’ without even a ‘spark of wisdom’ who by ‘wrong grasp’ has ‘injured yourself and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.’ (M. 38) What was I saying about who I used to be and how I think I’ll end up? Gulp.

So despite his awareness of the transitory nature of heaven and hell, the Buddha is not Mr. Easy Going. Instead, he broadens what most of us would consider good and bad to refer to: if it leads or supports views and actions that keep the mind stuck in any kind of entity – even consciousness as a lasting immaterial essence – then that’s a contraction that goes against the stream of awakening. Sooner or later it will take us into Good and Evil. So do you believe that you are somebody who has a future, or can be measured against another person, or has a past to atone for? That you have a destiny, or need to work out your kamma? That’s a crime against clarity! Thirty blows!