Halloween podcast with The Secular Buddhist

Ted Meissner and I discussed my site Buddhism for Vampires a few days ago by Skype. He has posted a podcast recording on his site The Secular Buddhist.

Our conversation was a lot of fun and I think you’ll enjoy it. He’s a skilled interviewer, and probably more knowledgeable about the subject than I am! The audio format is completely new to me, so I might sound clueless, but he can make up for that.

Ted is doing important work in articulating a secular vision of Buddhism for the future, and drawing together other Buddhist thinkers who have naturalistic, secular view. I listened to more than a dozen of the podcasts on his site to prepare for mine, and found many of them extremely interesting. There’s a complete list here; check it out.

I originally intended to do the whole Crumbling Buddhist Consensus series in audio format, as conversations. My plans for the series were interrupted by the Maha Buddhist Teachers Conference, which demanded immediate commentary. And so it has developed in a format, and in an order, quite different from my plans.

I had had the idea that it would be less work to produce the series in audio format, because it would force me to spend less of the time-consuming thinking-through and language-polishing work I do for web pages. What I’ve learned recently is that preparing a podcast talk is even more work than writing!

Nevertheless, I hope to do more podcasts soon, so feedback would be helpful. I haven’t had a chance to listen this one yet (I am in what one of my teachers’ teachers called “the SST bardo,” SST standing for “short stupid trip”). Please let me know what you think. Do I sound like an idiot? Do you want to hear me talking, or would you rather read? Or both? Anything in particular you’d like to hear me talk about?

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

23 thoughts on “Halloween podcast with The Secular Buddhist”

  1. Hey David,

    Thought the podcast was pretty good overall. I like many of the ideas you discussed – particularly the idea of eating demons, and coming to terms with our own shadows.

    What I did not like was your discussion of killing. I think the last thing the world needs is another group with a license to kill! Who decides when killing is appropriate? It becomes to easy to rationalise our shadowy urges – we can convince ourselves so easily that our motives are pure, but they almost never are. Meaning no disrespect to Ted but killing pets that are old and ill has always struck me as being about alleviating the suffering of the owners, not the animals. I.e. about our squeamishness and horror at having to witness suffering while being incapable of doing anything about it. This part of the discussion left me feeling very uneasy indeed.

    On the attractiveness of renunciation. I see what you mean, and I understand the problem. But at the moment the trend in society is away from discipline and towards hedonism and meaninglessness (there are people walking around my town dressed as zombies this weekend!). My concern about how you present tantra is that it is seen as “anything goes”. For example I happen to have a friend in the Shambala movement and they still have problems with direct students of Trungpa who are active alcoholics in denial. The “it’s all good” attitude will no doubt appeal to our core audience – the baby boomers rejecting authority and convention – but look where it has got us! Some kind of middle way would seem to be necessary.

    I imagine that you use these ideas in a system of practice that creates an appropriate context for incorporating those aspects of personality and motivation which renunciation seeks to suppress. Would this work for the many freelance Buddhists who have neither guru nor saṃgha? My reading of (even early) Tantra is that is it a demanding discipline that requires a very high level of commitment from the practitioner. Perhaps this does not require renunciation per se, but that level of dedication will amount to more or less the same thing.

    My other thought was a bit more tangential. I personally have always found the horror genre disturbing and avoided it where possible. I’m puzzled by people attracted to it. I think part of it is the intense emotion generated by the gruesome subject: a fear high stimulates the dopamine reward circuits just like sugar or heroin. Personally I don’t feel any need intense external stimulation of fear, if anything I tend to need the opposite. It seems to me more and more that seeking out fearful experiences is just another form of hedonism – though I do accept that through the horror genre people might be able to experience their shadow. Again I have no need to stimulate that side of myself. I wonder if there is any research on this? I.e. Who reads horror, and why? And what is their life experience like? What are they like at regulating emotions?

    Anyway nice to hear you and Ted talking.

  2. Very much appreciate hearing you and an excellent interviewer converse, and to discover another trove of resources. In an interesting synchronicity, this week’s assignment in a [not-Buddhist] class I’m taking, is to read something out of our usual range– without engaging in mental debate or analysis– and note the effects. So far, it’s a challenging and fascinating experiment.

  3. As to specific feedback, I’d say you sound very on-point and engaged and represent yourself and the lineage quite ably. And that ‘getting used to’ will loosen up the slight tightness I thought I detected.

  4. I particularly enjoyed the monsters and heroes section. I’d correct your interviewer in one regard, in terms of the ‘horrible monster being within us’. Within implies it is lurking, hidden away, and critically separate in some form – like the Alien from the movies. The horrible monster IS us. As is the hero. Anyway, my pedantry aside, the whole piece was delightful (and timely).
    Kind regards
    An aspiring Ludo.

  5. @ Jayarava — thanks for several thoughtful paragraphs!

    I should say first that I don’t think tantra is for everyone. The renunciative approach is a better fit for many people. You’ve articulated nicely some reasons it works better for you. So where I differ below, this is a matter of personal predilection rather than a general recommendation.

    I personally have always found the horror genre disturbing and avoided it where possible. I’m puzzled by people attracted to it.

    Quite so; until recently I shared those feelings. That is actually why I decided I had to immerse myself in it. I take this as an instance of the tantric attitude: to embrace that which supposedly is not-me. Intellectually, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would like that sort of thing—so I had to find out first-hand.

    I think part of it is the intense emotion generated by the gruesome subject: a fear high

    Yes… and tantra deliberately provokes strong emotional reactions, including negative ones.

    Personally I don’t feel any need intense external stimulation of fear, if anything I tend to need the opposite.

    Yes, mostly real life seems quite horrifying enough without adding horrific fantasies! But the fantasies may be a safe way to learn to relate to fear skillfully, ahead of horrific events that may overwhelm our ability to cope.

    Who reads horror, and why? And what is their life experience like? What are they like at regulating emotions?

    I’d be interested in answers to those questions, too.

    I imagine that you use these ideas in a system of practice that creates an appropriate context for incorporating those aspects of personality and motivation which renunciation seeks to suppress. Would this work for the many freelance Buddhists who have neither guru nor saṃgha? My reading of (even early) Tantra is that is it a demanding discipline that requires a very high level of commitment from the practitioner.

    Yes, no, and yes! All important points.

    Perhaps this does not require renunciation per se, but that level of dedication will amount to more or less the same thing.

    Mmm… No, I don’t think so. Discipline and commitment, yes, but not renunciation in the technical sense. In tantra, ideally, you do not avoid anything, do not flinch at anything, do not refrain from anything (unless it is unethical). That means you fully embrace sense pleasures and the chaos of everyday life, with all the apparent problems that brings.

    There’s nothing wrong with hedonism, as such, from the tantric perspective. Tantra is not a middle way. You need, however, to be intelligent about what you indulge in, lest it have worse consequences than benefits. Taking heroin will almost certainly make your life worse, so it’s better avoided—for that reason, not because the good feelings it gives you are wrong.

    But at the moment the trend in society is away from discipline and towards hedonism and meaninglessness … baby boomers rejecting authority and convention

    Hmm… I don’t think I see this. The Boomers rejected authority and convention 40 years ago, but they are now a conservative cultural force, who form the establishment, and who are much more into self-discipline (sometimes misdirected) than hedonism. Or so it seems to me.

    It’s certainly true that tantra can be misused as a spiritual excuse for bad behavior—”bad” in being harmful to others and/or oneself.

    But it also seems that renunciation can be used as a spiritual excuse. For instance, it can be a way of avoiding aspects of life one finds difficult, out of fear of failure. I imagine that, for renunciation to work, it has to be the positive option: one is drawn into spiritual practice for love of the practice and confidence in its effects. If one becomes a monk mostly because sexual relationships or work life are too scary to deal with, that’s unlikely to work out well.

    For reference, Ted and I discussed the essay “Buddhists Who Kill.” Maybe extended discussion of those questions would be better had over there…

    The short version is that the Pali Suttas seems to be unanimous that killing is always wrong. But Mahayana generally teaches that killing is right when it prevents worse harm.

    There is, definitely, a slippery slope here. You can use that doctrine to justify aggressive wars (as some Japanese Buddhists did in the first half of the 20th century, for instance). But if you would endorse taking a drug that cures a fatal infectious disease, you are already on the slippery slope: the drug kills the disease organism but saves a human life.

    The approach of the Suttas approach seems to contradict virtually every other ethical system. It’s tidy, clear, and may leave one feeling clean in theory, but nearly everyone would agree—faced with practical decisions about giving children anti-malarial drugs—that it’s wrong.

    So, “Who decides when killing is appropriate?” There can’t be any general answer. It’s everyone’s responsibility. We’re all always already on the slippery slope, and there is no way off. All we can ever do is dance on the precipice, as skillfully as we can, and with as much verve and gusto as we can.

  6. Hi David
    All good points. But still given the times and circumstances we live in I would still like *not killing* to be the very clear default, and killing to require *extraordinary circumstances* and argumentation. It is very very very difficult to show that one killing might prevent greater harm. And what about unintended consequences? It’s just so very very doubtful that any good could come from it. Far from being a slippery slope it seems to be a long vertical drop.

    The fact that the suttas are different from virtually all other ethical systems is part of what makes them attractive in my book. The *way* that they are different is one of the most interesting things about Buddhism. Sīla is not a moral code for running a country or organising a society but is totally subordinate to the practice of meditation and cultivating awakening. In many texts sīla is not even about following rules – an idea that seems to get tacked onto Buddhism – but is about observing practices like appamāda, saṃvara, yoniso manasikāra, indriyesu guttadvāra, satisapajañña (non-intoxication with sense objects, restraint of the mind, wise attention, guarding the sense doors, mindfulness and clear comprehension). This is why my primary orientation is religious and not political. My code of ethics is not aimed at creating a particular kind of society, but a particular kind of individual.

    Regards
    Jayarava

  7. Stephen Pinker “…in response to a question about morality not being the cause of reduced violence – [commented] that the moral sense has done more harm than good. He backed this by saying that most homicides are justified on moral grounds, and that most aggressors think of their cause as morally justified.”

    Which is precisely what concerns me about the discussion we’ve been having!

    http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2011/socialbrain/pinker-moral-sense-harm-good/

  8. Hi Jayarava,

    I’ve read Jonathan Rowson’s piece you linked to. Based on it, I don’t have enough context to understand what point he, or Pinker, or you are making using that quote.

    For the quote to be accurate as a statement of fact, you’d have to compare the homicide rate with and without ethics. Knowing that most murderers give ethical rationalizations for their murders says nothing by itself. First, it seems likely that, if they had no ethics, they would have committed those murders anyway. Their ethical justifications are more likely after-the-fact excuses than actual causes. Second, you would have to know how many murders are prevented by correct use of the ethical sense. I expect the answer is that many more are prevented than actually occur.

    Setting aside the question of whether the statement is true, I don’t understand how Rowson, Pinker, or you mean to apply it. Certainly (1) people use faulty ethical arguments to excuse bad behavior that has non-ethical motivations, and also (2) people do wrong things based on sincere but wrong ethical intuitions and/or reasoning. But neither of these is reason to abolish ethics (as the quote seems to recommend, taken at face value). Nor is it reason to prefer one ethical position over another, that I can see? Probably any ethical system can be misused in this way.

    Contemporary liberal Western ethics would agree that not killing must be the very clear default (at least as far as humans are concerned), and that killing people requires extraordinary circumstances and argumentation. Even as regards non-human animals, contemporary liberal Western ethics contains vigorous disputes about vegetarianism and so forth. On the other hand, it also holds clearly that (e.g.) to ban drugs (that save human lives at the cost of killing trillions of germs) would be a grave moral wrong.

    I suspect you, like almost all Western Buddhists, would come down on the side of contemporary liberal Western ethics, against a “never kill” interpretation of the Suttas, in this case.

    If Buddhist ethics are valuable, it would be good to highlight circumstances in which they recommend a different course of action from contemporary liberal Western ethics. I have not found a case in which I thought Buddhist ethics had a different answer and was right… and so I don’t have much interest in Buddhist ethics. YMMV… I’d be interested to hear specifics, if so.

    Cheers,

    David

  9. Hi David

    I think the point is that given leeway people will find justification for their actions. Moral code or no moral code. But given a moral code with loopholes the loopholes *will* be exploited; the more loopholes the more exploitation until the moral code is no longer effective at curbing people’s behaviour. I don’t think this is contentious, and I’m not entirely sure whether this is what you are contending or not.

    I can’t think of a situation that I’ve been in where it would have been better to kill someone than not – killing people has not been a real option in any situation in my life so far. So I can’t participate in the discussion from experience. My basic orientation is not to kill anyone under any circumstances, but who knows what might happen in some extreme situation? But if I did kill someone it would very clearly be a breach of my personal moral code, and I imagine that it would probably have an indelibly negative effect on my psyche. Scaling up from lesser evils I have committed I cannot imagine killing someone as ever being a good option for me. I can just about imagine that killing someone might prevent greater harm, but killing would still be harmful no matter what.

    Even if you manage to justify the killing you cannot make it not harmful. Even if there is loop hole in the moral code, the killing is still harmful. Again I’m not quite sure what you are arguing against, but surely it is not this?

    As I say I don’t think early Buddhist sīla were really intended as a moral code in the general way you are talking about. So I’m not sure how I’d go about making the comparison you want to make. Sīla is geared to the individual who wants to meditate effectively. That orientation is absent from the Western tradition as far as I know. So Buddhist ethics on the whole is saying something entirely different from Western ethics. There really is no comparison that I can think of. Of course Buddhists have tried to apply the Buddha’s advice on the mind to Everything, but this is precisely the aspect of Buddhism that I am most critical of and trying to get away from.

    Regards
    Jayarava

  10. Hi, Jayarava,

    I think your point about sila not being ethics is a very important one.

    I recently waded through Damien Keown’s Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. It’s 148 pages long, and took the whole 148 to say “there aren’t any”. Actually, he says that quite explicitly on p. 27, in the chapter titled “The absence of ‘ethics’ in Buddhism”. OK, dude, why did you kill 147 more pages worth of trees to publish this? Your introduction is not nearly short enough.

    So, if the message is “don’t kill, because killing makes it harder to meditate,” this is not an ethical matter. It’s an empirical claim—about “is”, not “ought”.

    I find this a dubious empirical claim. I suspect it is hate, not killing, that makes meditation difficult, and not all killing involves hatred. Is that something we want to discuss?

    Going back to ethics:

    For anyone with the ethical maturity of at least a teenager, ethics only come into play when the choice is between courses of action that all lead to harm. When the choice is between harmful and unharmful actions, it’s obvious what to do. That means that ethics is all about weighing different kinds and quantities of harm and benefit. Often this involves ambiguities that have no clear resolution, and we can only do the best we can.

    The harder-edged an ethical system is, the less it allows for rationalization. There is a benefit to that. On the other hand, the harder-edged an ethical system is, the more often it will require actions that are clearly wrong—because ethical realities are more complex than any system can be. So, there is a trade-off. Hard-edged systems are useful for children, who don’t have the ability to work out ambiguities for themselves. Perhaps they are also useful for ethically or cognitively deficient adults. For most of us, I think they are counterproductive. Contemporary liberal Western ethics admit large areas of ambiguity, and that seems to work out pretty well for us.

    Killing people is certainly always harmful. There are also situations in which it prevents greater harm. The standard Mahayana example is the Jataka tale about the Buddha killing someone to save 500 others. This is closely analogous to a cop shooting a guy who is using a machine gun to kill many people—a situation that does occur a few times a year. If I were in that very rare situation, I hope (and expect) I would kill. I also expect it would leave me traumatized, perhaps permanently, but I don’t think I’d feel guilty about it.

    I would feel guilty if my reason for not stopping a mass-murderer was that it would harm my meditation to do so. That would seem extremely selfish to me.

    Regards,

    David

  11. I’ve just realized something that maybe should be obvious: perhaps what you are asking is, why did I bring up killing in the first place?

    The answer is that it’s a way of getting at questions about ethical ambiguity, and how we should deal with it. There’s lots of other ways one could approach those issues, but the question of killing—especially humans—makes it particularly stark. (Starkness may or may not be helpful.) It’s also the natural way in the context of vampire fiction, of course.

    Although I wasn’t thinking it at the time, I may also have wanted to call into question “Buddhist ethics” in general. “Buddhist ethics” are central to “Consensus Buddhism”; but it’s not clear that there are any such thing. As far as I can tell, the Consensus has simply declared that “Buddhist ethics” are identical to late-20th-century American leftish ethics. This seems dubious as a statement of fact, and also as an ethical strategy.

    It seems the point is to give a novel transcendental justification (“Buddhism says so”) to the ethics the Consensus founders already had. Lots of people have swallowed this line, but I suspect it is counterproductive in the long run.

  12. Ethics only come into play when harm is inevitable? I not only doubt this, I know for a fact it isn’t true. I often find myself doing something which I know to be long term bad for me for a short term gain. In a sense all actions have a moral context and all decisions to act involve moral choices. But clearly sometimes we choose to do something harmful when the other choice is to not do it. So we haven’t found agreement yet.

    Keown says there are no ethics in Buddhism? I think my previous efforts were a bit too narrow. The sikkhapāda are primarily aimed at meditators who want to go all the way. But the assumption is that intoxication and obsession with sense experience, and the actions based on states of intoxication etc, are harmful. This assumption clearly does have broader moral implications. Perhaps we are now into the difference between morals and ethics?

    In Buddhism some people, even Tantikas, voluntarily undertake to observe precepts or vows. The word for “ordination” in Pāli upasampada essentially means “an undertaking”. Some of these precepts and vows are purely etiquette, some are nominally moral, and some are clearly moral. We don’t have ethics in quite the same way that Christianity does, but we do have ethics – if only because we have an ethos. Non-harming is our ethos and it plays out in the ethic of not killing. Also let us not forget that death is not the final word in Buddhism…

    So the example under discussion is a Mahāyāna Jātaka story. It has no basis in history or in real life. It’s a legend designed by those who wanted a loophole in the strict non-killing ethos. And we can legitimately ask why they wanted to be able to kill and yet still be seen as moral. For killing to still be considered ethical. I don’t know the answer. But there is a theme in the doctrinal innovations that I have investigated so far. There is a greater reliance on the magical powers of the Buddha, and significantly in the Jātaka story it the Buddha who kills. This goes along with changes in the understanding of karma – early Buddhists believed that you could not escape your karma, all you could do was bear it. Mahāyāna Buddhists adopted the Jain idea that one could somehow negate the karma and avoid the consequences of your actions. Again this usually involved the magical powers of the Buddha. This is played out in the various versions of the Samaññaphala Sutta.

    The more relevant story here surely is the story of Aṅgulimala – a mass murderer who is not killed. Mind you he is pelted with missiles on his alms round *after* becoming an arahant.

    I’d be prepared to accept that anyone who is a Buddha is licensed to kill to protect people, as long as they can convince the general public that they are entirely free of hatred, and if each such killing went to court. BTW you might not realise this but I grew up in a country where the police don’t routinely carry guns and I don’t believe I saw a cop with a gun until I went to Australia as an adult. The murder rate in NZ is still low, but was very low when I was a kid. Though my uncle was murdered in my home town about 25 years ago. Had I been there I doubt I would have been able to prevent it. There have been very few mass killings in New Zealand. Not none, but very few. And that I think gives me a different perspective from an American.

    In the case of mass killings what most people quite naturally do is freeze, or run away. It’s most likely what I would do even if I had a gun in my hand. I’ve been in some scary violent situations and I can tell you that I won’t be the hero of the story. Even give the opportunity to save lives I doubt I could do it. I certainly couldn’t do it in cold blood. So perhaps the loophole is moot point. If someone else was to shoot the killer, I suppose I wouldn’t blame them (but then my ethical code is not applied to other people, only to my own actions). But I wouldn’t want to be that person either, and experience suggests that I couldn’t be.

    I’m off to have my dinner. See you around.
    Peace
    Jayarava

  13. I appreciate it’s upsetting even to think about this, so thanks for your perseverance and the interesting, useful conversation.

    @Jayarava:

    In Buddhism some people, even Tantikas, voluntarily undertake to observe precepts or vows. The word for “ordination” in Pāli upasampada essentially means “an undertaking”. Some of these precepts and vows are purely etiquette, some are nominally moral, and some are clearly moral. We don’t have ethics in quite the same way that Christianity does, but we do have ethics – if only because we have an ethos. Non-harming is our ethos and it plays out in the ethic of not killing. Also let us not forget that death is not the final word in Buddhism…

    All Tantrikas must take vows, and compassionate action is their base (as recognition of emptiness is the starting point for Tantra). But, though there are strong connections between “non-harming… not-killing” and compassionate activity, from the Tantric point of view, those are separate entities, because the principle of compassionate activity gives rise to a million different, and unpredictable, possibilities. No single action can be fixed before it arises as response to a complexity of causes.

    In part this differentiation between compassionate activity and not harming arises from the recognition that we are all, already multiple killers with a legacy of harm that we cannot forget – even as enlightened beings. Every time I drive a car or bike, I’m cause for the death of insects. Even walking across a field I step on and kill bugs. I can’t excuse myself by pretending unawareness, even though I may not appreciate every detail of my devastating act of living. By virtue of living, I’m a killer. Even if I were to lie down and do nothing until death, I’d kill the sentient organisms that rely on my body for survival. It is impossible to “not harm” and the boundary between conscious and unconscious harm is one of degree. It may not always be helpful.

    With that in mind, your statement “non-harming is our ethos and it plays out in the ethic of not killing” is specific to a Buddhist approach based in the Pali scriptures. In its place, I would say – as a statement of my practice as a Tantrika, coming from an approach based in Mahayana – “compassion is my starting point and it plays out in activity that reflects my capacity to accomplish that in the moment.”

  14. Hi Rin’dzin

    With respect to your last paragraph I see absolutely no difference in practice. In a way I find the emphasis on compassion (karuṇā) a bit limited. It means that one only relates to the suffering, not the being per se. Although I’ve been using the typically negative translation of ahiṃsa (non-harming) these words in Pāli *and* Sanskrit have a positive force: non-harm is a way of expressing love in those languages. I try to relate from love. When love meets suffering the emotion becomes compassion. When it meets thriving however it becomes sympathetic joy (mudita). It’s a bit more flexible than starting from compassion.

    Anyway, despite that being the most polite way that anyone has ever called me a Hīnayānist, it doesn’t pay to get hung up on the words and fail to see the meaning.

  15. One more thought on the Jātaka. (which I am having trouble finding a proper reference to) it strikes me that the difference between how the Buddha deals with a murdered in the Aṅgulimala Sutta and this Jātaka where the Buddha kills a murderer to save other people, is a bit like the difference between the book of Lord of the Rings and the film version.

    In the book the characters are archetypes: king, warrior, magician, etc. They are a bit god-like and don’t really make mistakes. They always act in character, and stay within type – except when they rise above their type as when Gimli and Legolas overcome thousands of years of dwarf/elf enmity, and the personal rancour they’ve inherited from their fathers (who meet in the Hobbit).

    What Peter Jackson did in the film was to change the characters from archetypes to “human”. So Aragorn falls from his horse in battle for instance. Gandalf is doubtful. Gimli is a figure of fun, and a bit inarticulate. Etc.

    With Aṅgulimala the Buddha simply performs a kind of magic to prevent the murderer from killing him. He causes Aṅgulimala to stop and think, and Aṅgilimala not only becomes a monk, but becomes an arahant – he is liberated. He still has to bear the consequences of his actions in the form of attacks by towns people when he goes for alms, but this is his last birth thanks to the intervention of the Buddha. This again is an archetypal story.

    By contrast the story in the Jātaka is far more crude. As I understand it the Buddha just kills the murderer (he pushes him over the side, yes?). Thus other people are saved. Why would someone like the Buddha, capable of extraordinary magic, have to resort to such crude means? Compare this with the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Samaññaphala Sutta (see MacQueen, G. A Study of the Śrāmaṇyaphala-sūtra. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1988.) where there is a dramatic change in the narrative structure. In the Pāli version the Buddha meets Ajātasattu and hears of his patricide After the king leave the Buddha tells the monks “he’s done for” [literally] and the commentary records that on death he goes straight to the hell of copper cauldrons. In early Buddhism there is no escaping the consequences of one’s actions. However in the Mahāyāna versions there are a series of changes. In some the patricidal king is saved from hell just by meeting the Buddha; while in one there is a hint that he is liberated. Just meeting the Buddha had such a transformative effect that it could wipe out the consequences of one of the unforgivable acts. (This was part of my Journal of Buddhist Ethics article on the King’s confession: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/05/attwood-article.pdf)

    Another salient fact is the first appearance of the 100 syllable Vajrasattva mantra in the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha. This mantra also offers to wipe out the effects of the heinous sins. (I touch on this theme in my essay on the mantra in the Western Buddhist Review: http://westernbuddhistreview.com/vol5/vajrasattva-mantra.pdf ) The whole theory of karma has shifted on its axis – it becomes more like the Jain theory in which it is possible to burn off karma and avoid the consequences of actions. And why? Is it the domestication of Buddhism, and the need to accommodate the less committed? Did the royal patrons decide the ideal was a bit too high for them to be able to rule effectively? After all Aśoka turned into an abject failure after his conversion – his empire was taken over by his generals and promptly fell apart, to be eventually completely forgotten in India! Did the memory of his failure linger long enough to warrant a license to kill?

    So why this crude story of the Buddha killing? And why does it not fit the general drift of Mahāyāna theology towards a more potent and magical Buddha? No Buddha ever needed to kill, or technically would have been physically capable of it. When the elephant stampeded by Devadatta charged, the Buddha just radiated loving kindness and brought the elephant to a standstill. It suggests that something quite specific happened somewhere in the Buddhist world. Perhaps it was during a time of political and social upheaval? Like when the Huns caused the collapse of the Gupta Empire and thereby gave impetus to the synthesis of religious ideas and forms that gave us tantra? But it strikes me that to over generalise such a story would be a mistake. It cannot really be thought of as having changed the fundamentals of Buddhist morality. Nor can this morality be confined to the Pāli text style Buddhism just because that is how I argue these days. I’m conversant with a much wider range of Buddhist sources. One rather crude and unusual Jātaka does not re-write the book of morality. We do not find the Buddha killing anyone in mainstream Mahāyāna Sūtras for instance.

    I would be most interested to know the provenance of this killing narrative: where is this text, and in what languages is it preserved, and is there a published English translation? Are there *any* supporting texts which discuss the morality of killing before the Tantric incorporation of sacrificial rites? Was it an India text? Do you have any more info on it?

    Regards
    Jayarava

  16. Hi Jayarava,

    The “Buddha who kills” story I re-told in “Buddhists who kill” is from the Upaya-kaushalya Sutra. In the summaries I’ve read, the Buddha (in a previous lifetime) hacked the bad guy to death with an axe. I know it only from secondary sources, but there is a full translation by Mark Tatz.

    Apparently this is an early Mahayana scripture, which would imply that it pre-dates the fall of the Gupta empire and the incorporation of tantra. Apparently it also takes a relaxed view toward sexual conduct, so it may well have been relied on when tantra was imported into Buddhism (but I don’t know that). The complete scripture survives in Chinese and Tibetan translations, and parts also in the Sanskrit original.

    I don’t think there’s any great merit in the story itself. It’s significant just because it is one of the canonical citations used by later commentators to argue that killing is authorized by scripture. There are several others, e.g. the Arya-bodhisattava-gocaropaya-visaya-vikurvana-nirdesa Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, all pre-tantric. Peter Harvey’s Introduction to Buddhist Ethics apparently reviews such sources (but I haven’t read it).

    I give no particular authority to scripture, so for me the question is not “what do the Sutras say” but “what is right?” And to me the answer is quite clear: sometimes killing is right.

    The question of when and why the Buddhist answer changed is interesting, though. My knowledge of Buddhist history pre-700 is sketchy at best, and your guesses will be better than mine. However: there was a gradual shift from the system being almost entirely monastic to increasing involvement of lay people, and also a gradually increasing involvement of monks in secular affairs.

    When the religion consisted of monks who were genuinely isolated from practical problems, “never kill” would have been both good advice and feasible to attempt. Once Buddhism extended into the “real world”, it became gradually obvious that “never kill” is neither ethical nor feasible.

    Which is to say that I agree with your guess about Buddhism being “domesticated.” I’d turn your metaphor inside-out, though, and describe it as Buddhism escaping the monastery, being released into the wild, and turning feral. For better or worse!

    Best,

    David

    p.s. Thanks for the pointers to your journal articles–I have downloaded them to read.

  17. By the way — the first real chapter of my Buddhist vampire novel, “My father dies,” is all about these issues.

    In my story, a group of Buddhist villagers debate the question of whether killing is ever justifiable. Their village had been attacked by a foreign army, which apparently intended to kill everyone. Should they have fought back? And if so, what were the limits of legitimate force? Is it OK to use particularly horrifying means of killing, in defense of others?

    “Oh, well, *monks*,” said the smith. “There’s what’s right for monks, and then there’s what’s right for ordinary people.”

  18. Hi Jayarava,
    Yes, probably semantics gets in the way to some extent and in many situations we might have the same or similar response.

    With respect to your last paragraph I see absolutely no difference in practice.

    I’m not sure I’d agree, though it’s difficult to be definite about circumstances with so many variables. But in an earlier post you said:

    killing pets that are old and ill has always struck me as being about alleviating the suffering of the owners, not the animals. I.e. about our squeamishness and horror at having to witness suffering while being incapable of doing anything about it.

    I killed my cat when he was in extreme pain. That didn’t alleviate my pain witnessing his suffering, or my pain losing him. My interpretation of the event is that I was capable of acting to stop prolonged suffering and did. But still, I wouldn’t assume our different approach is necessarily a result of different Buddhisms. Quite possibly it’s personality difference (and that which leads us to different paths too).

    We view “compassion” differently. I’d take issue with your: “it’s a bit more flexible than starting from compassion,” because (in Tantra at least) compassion = form, and is therefore infinitely variable.

    Best,
    Rin’dzin

  19. Sadly I don’t have access to the Upayakausalya Sutra. “Skilful means” is not a concept I have much time for. Most likely Peter Harvey’s book will be in the library, and I’m off there today.

    I suppose I would argue that there are times when killing can be *justified* in the kinds of ways that you suggest, but that there are *always* negative consequences from killing. I just cannot believe that actively killing another human being is “right” in any black and white sense. It must always be debatable in ethical terms; it must be a case of weighing consequences and deciding that it is the lesser of two (or more) evils, but that it is still evil to deprive a person of their life. I’m still concerned by your seeming to come to a definite conclusion about this rather than leaving it open to debate.

    You may well be right about Buddhism escaping the monasteries, though I tend to believe that Reggie Ray’s tripartite model of householders, settled monastics and forest dwellers continued for many centuries in the Buddhist world, and is current in some places still (even if only in a symbolic form). The three-way interactions make for a more nuanced view of history. I’d add a fourth estate however because I think kings and their households were living in very different ways to their subjects.

    I’m interested in the question: “who benefits from adopting compromised ethical rules?” and it does seem to be the people least able to maintain ideals, which is the householders and their rulers. Whether that amounts to feralising of Buddhism I don’t know. I suspect that any wildness in Buddhism came from the forest dwellers who probably had more in common with other forest dwellers of different religious inclinations than with settled Buddhists of the monastic or domestic kind. I’m also living in a time when we had a long period of ethical compromise in the first half of my life, and seem to be swinging in the other direction in the second half (I’m 45). I’m not convinced that ethical compromise has been a good thing for us going on the evidence around me – though Steven Pinker is busy arguing otherwise at present.

  20. Rin’dzin

    Just sounds like semantics again to me. Later Buddhists have always had this way of sexing up the new way of talking, and dumbing down the old ways. But in terms of attitudes to other beings I’ve seen no innovation for 2500 years (at least). There’s a lot of high falutin metaphysical talk about different words but it basically boils down to empathy.

    Personal examples are fraught. Clearly there are a lot of assumptions we make when we kill an animal that is in pain. Unpicking your assumptions, without knowing you a lot better and without knowing the circumstances is not possible. And it starts to become a inquiry into you personally, your motivations and intentions, which I don’t think works for public discussions. We are generally too close to our own situations to have them dissected in public with any comfort – and the suggestion will always be lurking that you did the wrong thing in killing your pet which cannot help but be upsetting. So let’s not go there.

    But the big underlying assumption seems to be that “there is a point where death becomes preferable to pain”. Now there is a notion that is ripe for debate, especially when we are making that decision for another being of a species which has never been known to actively seek out death for itself. Indeed actively seeking death seems to be a human trait, and one we probably cannot separate from belief in an afterlife. I’ve been writing about afterlife beliefs on my blog, and this Friday will be giving it another go. Drop by if you like.

  21. Dear Jayarava,

    Just sounds like semantics again to me […] in terms of attitudes to other beings I’ve seen no innovation for 2500 years (at least). There’s a lot of high falutin metaphysical talk about different words but it basically boils down to empathy.

    Although we agree that empathy is important, our differences are fundamental, not semantic, because they have real consequences (I would most likely kill a cat in pain; you would not). My empathy is different to yours, I guess. :-)

    Yes – these differences have been around for millennia.

    Looking forward to your post on Friday.

    Rin’dzin

  22. Rin’dzin

    Compassion as you have articulated it is an ideal. I think the ideal we aspire to is the same, and though you insist on there being a difference I do not see it yet. How ideals play out in our lives may indeed differ, though we seem to be facing quite different life decisions.

    The kinds of compromises we accept against our ideal may also differ depending on how our other values (such as the fear of death, the belief in an afterlife, the negative impact of pain etc) interact with this ideal. That you weight certain values over others in certain conditions does not mean that we do not share all of those values. I think we probably do share them – despite all the rhetoric of specialness.

    I might kill the cat or I might not. That’s not a decision I am faced with, and I doubt I could come up with a pre-planned response. How much suffering is too much for any particular individual? I’m certainly not convinced that death is preferrable to pain, or I would have killed *myself* before now. However we rationalise moral decisions they affect us afterwards.

    Anyway I respond, but I don’t see the discussion going anywhere, so perhaps it’s time to call it quits. I notice that some discussions are hard to have on the web, with strangers.

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