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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Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa)

Western Buddhists commonly equate “Vajrayana” with “Tibetan Buddhism.” This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. Most of Vajrayana is not Tibetan
  2. Most of Tibetan Buddhism is not Vajrayana

This is not controversial. Every scholar, Tibetan and Western, agrees. Still, it’s a widespread confusion.

This matters for what Buddhism can be in the 21st century. In the 1970s, Tibetan pioneers like Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshé, and Chögyam Trungpa developed modern presentations of Vajrayana. Around 1990, the Tibetan power structure put a stop to that.

Tibetans may legitimately choose to block modernization of Tibetan Buddhism—especially when that is attempted by non-Tibetans. It is their religion, and cultural appropriation can be harmful.

Tibetans have no right, and (I hope) no motivation or ability, to block modernization of Vajrayana. It was never their property.

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How does “Sutrayana” relate to actual Buddhisms?

Sutrayana, as I explained it in the past few posts, may have seemed alien; possibly even unrecognizable as Buddhism. The negativity of revulsion and renunciation might seem extreme, and incompatible with your understanding of the Middle Way.

Sutrayana is a somewhat theoretical concept. It lumps together all of Buddhism other than Vajrayana, but Buddhisms are extremely diverse. How well does this theoretical construct resemble reality?

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Passionate connections

Human beings naturally care passionately about the specifics of our situations.

The tantric attitude is that there are no wrong emotions. A whole person has a full 360-degree spectrum of passions, rejecting none. All feelings are fine as they are.

Furthermore, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the world. Abandoning it for some “spiritual realm” is not an option. So caring about it is only right.

Passions take you out of yourself; they are about other people, situations, and things. That “aboutness” prompts you to connect with the world. We want to change things; there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the universe, but specific circumstances can be improved. It is active connections that makes the world “workable.”

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