Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

Moonpaths by the Cowherds

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers.

Buddhism has wrestled with the same problem for much longer: most of two thousand years. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention. “Everything” must include śīla—codes of religious discipline. (Those are the closest thing Buddhism has to morality.) “Everything” definitely includes people, the main topic of ethics.

For two millennia, authorities have acknowledged an apparent contradiction: why should we conform to śīla if it is empty, illusory, arbitrary, or mere convention? If people don’t really exist, why should we have ethical concern for them? Numerous ingenious answers have been proposed by brilliant philosophers. No one answer has been broadly accepted, which suggests none is satisfactory. Buddhists have argued endlessly, sometimes bitterly, about this problem; this continues in the contemporary West.

In this post, I will suggest that the problem lies in the Mahayana treatment of emptiness and form. Vajrayana offers a different understanding of what emptiness is and how it relates to form. In Dzogchen, this provides an alternative approach to beneficent activity. This approach seems strikingly similar to that proposed by the psychologist Robert Kegan, whose developmental ethics model and its application to Buddhism I discussed recently. I suggest that Dzogchen and Kegan’s work each cast light on the other, and together they may dissolve the foundations problem in both Western and Buddhist moral philosophy.

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What the Buddha REALLY said

We don’t know—and we have no way to find out.

Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon

In the 1980s, I practiced Wicca. Wicca is the original, pre-Christian, goddess-centered nature religion of Europe. Despite centuries of persecution and the burning of millions of Wiccans as “witches,” it survived underground to modern times. When the British Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951,1 courageous Wiccans began, cautiously, to practice their religion in public.

Well… that’s all hogwash, of course. It was obvious to skeptical Wiccans in the 1980s that our religion was an invented tradition, devised sometime in the twentieth century. It has only the vaguest of connections with pre-Christian European paganism. What we didn’t know, and had no way to find out, is whodunnit, and how, where, why, or quite when. Wicca’s inventors justified the religion as “ancient wisdom,” and they covered their tracks thoroughly. Their fabricated history was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of Wiccans. The inventors of other Neopaganisms adapted the Wiccan “unbroken secret tradition” mythology to their own systems. But as far as we skeptics were concerned, Wicca was a wonderful religion, regardless of where it came from.

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, published in 1999, was a breakthrough. Ronald Hutton, a serious non-Pagan historian, made key discoveries about Wicca’s twentieth century invention, and found suggestive evidence for broader hypotheses. His treatment was sympathetic and respectful—but facts are facts.

Not surprisingly, Hutton’s work was vitriolically rejected by many practicing Neopagans. Somehow, ancientness is proof of rightness for many people. I seem to lack the brain circuits for this. I can see no reason a 75-year-old religion is, on that account, any less valid than a millennia-old one. (Was Buddhism bogus when the Buddha taught it?) On the other hand, understanding how a religion was invented, and successively re-invented, helps understand how it functions now. Some aspects of Wicca that made sense in the 1940s make no sense now.

Despite Hutton’s discoveries, and further historical research, there is much that is still not known about how Wicca came about. Some key questions probably can never be answered.

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Consensus Buddhism: what’s left

When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism, four years ago, I pointed to signs that it was in crisis and on its way out. Now, its failed attempt to mount a coherent political response to secular mindfulness shows it’s over. Of course, the teachers are still teaching and the centers are still open; but as a cultural force, it’s spent.

This means specifically that it is no longer capable of suppressing modern Tantric Buddhism—one of my main motivations for writing about it. (There’s many other obstacles to that—but Consensus hostility had been the most daunting, and that’s no longer significant.)

So I’m probably done writing about Consensus Buddhism. There’s some loose ends, though.

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Better Buddhisms: A developmental approach

American Buddhist organizations and events rarely run smoothly. We take muddled ineffectuality for granted. Leaders don’t understand how to organize, and participants vigorously resist all systematic processes. Few are on board with principle that “if you say you are going to do something, you should do it.” (And if you are not going to do it, you need to tell someone about it and help clean up the mess.)

Someone said they were going to help set up for an event because they really felt like saying so was the way to preserve harmony and good feelings at the time; but something came up with a friend. And they didn’t feel that being there for the set-up was important. They “forgot” to tell you, because that might have led to bad feelings. It would be uncompassionate and un-Buddhist of you to give them a hard time about it, because helping out as agreed would have caused them suffering.

Unfortunately, transitory cooperative feelings and “being nice” do not get practical work done. This ethos exasperates and actively drives away competent people.

Buddhist classes starting late are a trivial, but telling, manifestation of a deep failing. By implicitly validating an adolescent way of being, contemporary Buddhism impedes personal growth.

Understanding what has gone wrong points to a profound opportunity. Buddhism could be a remarkable resource for supporting growth into full adulthood and beyond.

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Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

Robert Kegan’s model of adult development has profoundly influenced my understanding of ethics, relationships, society, and thought. This page summarizes his theory.

Earlier, I’ve mentioned Lawrence Kohlberg’s related model of moral development. He pointed out a series of increasingly sophisticated ways one can approach ethical reasoning. The capacity to reason in each of these ways develops over an individual’s lifetime through a fixed sequence of developmental stages.

Kohlberg’s model had strong empirical support, and it significantly advanced ethical understanding; but his approach was excessively rationalistic. Our moral being involves feeling and acting, just as much as reasoning. Moral activity is also always situated in richly textured social relationships and complex practicalities, and cannot be separated from them. Kohlberg’s paradigm of ethics was sitting in an armchair, reasoning out the correct action in simple, imaginary cases that you have no personal connection with.1

Kegan recognized that ethics is not an autonomous domain, but derives from the way we construct our selves; the way we understand romantic, family, and work relationships; and our general cognitive capacity. In empirical studies, he and others found that all these progress in sync through a series of five stages, similar to the ones Kohlberg had demonstrated for ethical reasoning ability.2 Each stage has a more sophisticated and more accurate understanding of self and other, which makes more sophisticated and accurate ethics possible.

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“Buddhist ethics”: a Tantric critique

“Buddhist ethics,” as I’ve pointed out in recent posts, has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality. Instead, it’s indistinguishable from mainstream leftish middle-class American secular morality.

This page points out disagreements between contemporary “Buddhist ethics” and a Tantric Buddhist view, for several reasons:

  1. I think, at these points of conflict, Tantra is ethically correct, and “Buddhist ethics” is wrong.
  2. Western Buddhist Tantra was suppressed in the early 1990s partly because of these conflicts. Explaining the Tantric view may help reopen a door that has been closed for two decades.
  3. An attractive, genuinely Buddhist alternative to “Buddhist ethics” might be possible.
  4. Middle-class American secular values are failing many people—but are taken for granted, with no obvious alternative available. Tantra might be a weapon for throwing them off and constructing a more satisfactory way of being.

Tantric Buddhism includes a complete rejection of mainstream (Sutric) Buddhist morality. However, since “Buddhist ethics” is not that, most of the traditional Tantric critique is irrelevant.

Instead, this is a brief critique of certain leftish secular views, common in Consensus Buddhism, from a Tantric perspective. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and I will make no detailed arguments. I want to give the flavor of a Tantric alternative.

This is also not a general critique of leftism. And, although Buddhist Tantra rejects some leftist views, that does not make Tantric Buddhism rightist. Nor am I a rightist personally. Buddhist Tantra rejects many rightish aspects of Sutric Buddhism, such as its sex-negativity, misogyny, and anti-world attitude. Those are not part of current “Buddhist ethics,” however, so they don’t need to be discussed further here.

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The mindfulness crisis and the end of Consensus Buddhism

Secular “mindfulness” courses, promoted as stress-reduction treatments, have become more popular than Buddhism. A meditation method based on modern vipassana is their core.

Many Buddhists have strong mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great that so many more people are experiencing the benefits of Buddhist-style meditation. On the other hand, “mindfulness” seems like weaksauce kitsch; it’s missing most of what’s important about Buddhism. There’s a worry that if Buddhism is “unbundled,” with its most attractive part available separately, it will disintegrate,1 and critical aspects of the whole will be lost. And isn’t the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

But… what is the important rest of Buddhism?

That’s a genuinely difficult, important question. I wrote about it in a post three years ago that foreshadows this one.

As I wrote that, Consensus Buddhism was organizing a political consensus that ethics is what makes it different from, and better than, secular mindfulness.2 They promoted and argued this in dozens of blog posts, mainstream media op-ed pieces, and pseudo-academic journals.3

In my 2012 post, I asked:

Is there any significant point on which American “Buddhist ethics” and mainstream American secular liberal ethics disagree?

My last several posts have explained why the answer is no. “Buddhist ethics” has nothing to do with Buddhism; it just is mainstream American leftist ethics. People who want that can get it elsewhere with less hassle, just as people who want meditation can get it elsewhere with less hassle.

So if Buddhism = mindfulness + ethics, there’s nothing left of Buddhism. It’s over.

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