that’s a fact

It’s been a bit of a fragmented week, hasn’t it?  I think I shared this on the Facebook Page: I’m in the clutch of data analysis for my Chaplaincy Project (has it been almost two years already!) and trying to let the Creative (Missing-in Action) Muse take charge of my life.  The final written project is not a huge volume of writing so, on the one hand, I’m not overly twisted about it.  On another hand, it is a challenge to pull together fleeting thoughts, aspirations, desires, and not let the ever-burgeoning ego swamp it all.  On another hand (remember Avalokiteshvara), it is fun to try to get a broth of Dharma and a thickener of applied practice to congeal into a tasty gravy.

I’m trying to be organized.  Having cleaned up the data which gave some interesting insights into the relationship between burnout factors, self-compassion, and spiritual congruence, I’m launching into the reams of articles on the Four Noble Truths, Dharma Seals, Koans for the Ill-informed (that’ll be me), and the current status of Mindfulness-Based Interventions.

This is an interesting edge, sewing together a seam of wisdom teachings and their practical applications.  More than that, it’s an attempt to create a robe that is a Western application of Eastern wisdom.  The issue of whether this has been a success or not is probably irrelevant.  There are camps and camp followers; ardent defenders of the faith and vocal lobbyists for the scientific method.  I tend to wander through both camps, adhering to neither but listening carefully for what might be helpful.  Mostly I hold to the belief that there is wisdom in both approaches, that they are supportive wings, and each can and has learned much from the other.

And then, sometimes, the data-gathers show there’s a long way yet to go.

A recent article by Grabovac, Lau and Willett in Mindfulness attempted to re-insert Buddhist Psychology into the foundations of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.  Grabovac and her colleagues did a good job of putting the Three Dharma Seals (impermanence, suffering and nonself) into the service of explaining the mechanisms involved in mindfulness-based interventions.  Drawing partially from the Abdhidhamma, they worked out a pretty good set of visuals that lead us through sense perceptions, attachment/aversion, and the generation of suffering and nonself.  I found their understanding of the implications of nonself is a bit wonky, but that’s not as critical as what comes next.

About halfway through the article, they address the role of Ethics (sila) in the cultivation of mindfulness.  After listing the five precepts, Grabovac and colleagues make what is likely one of most faulty statements of the intent of a practice founded in sila.

(O)ne of the major purposes of the ethical guideline is to reduce the baseline amount of mental proliferation, thus aiding both concentration and mindfulness practices… Leading an ethical life, in the context of the (Buddhist Psychological Model),implies that the meditator experiences less guilt, doubts, worries, etc. that can often be a source of mental proliferation.

I’m no scholar of the Dharma but I don’t think one can get more off-track than this.  In effect, they reduce Buddhist Ethics to a utilitarian process of feeling good.  In terms of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development that makes Buddhist (and Mindfulness-Based) practitioners capable of not much more than the second level in which we choose the “right” thing to do because it gets us something in return.  What Grabovac and friends have missed is that sila plays an equal role (if not more so) to Wisdom and Concentration in the triumvariate model of practice.  It is more than just doing something to get something in return.  And perhaps, this is where I find the teaching of Mindfulness-Based courses to be inherently limited if we stop, as most courses do, at symptom relief.

The ethics of a Buddhist Psychological or Applied Model requires opening to our interconnectedness (non-self is the start point).  The practice of the Five Precepts (or Five Mindfulness Trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh) is more than about avoiding a poor rebirth or ensuring some Thing for ourselves.  To miss this places the whole translation of Dharma into Psychology on very shaky ground.  In fact, I think it just collapses.

It’s disappointing that researchers who put so much into developing a bridge between the two worlds would have missed something so critical and obvious.  And in a journal of some repute, it concerns me that readers not well-versed in Buddhist thought will take the diminishing of Buddhist Ethics to a utilitarian role as a fact.  I haven’t seen an open challenges to this part of the article.  Perhaps it will come soon.

an asymmetric responsibility

We tend to get hyper-focused on the precepts themselves – the should’s and do not’s and the infringement of our presumed right to be whoever we are.  We pay little or no attention when committing to the Three Jewels or Three Treasures.  They are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha which are the container in which the precepts are carried.  When receiving the precepts, we also commit to being one with the Three Jewels but that seems to slide by without triggering much anxiety.

I remember standing in the center of the zendo along with four or five others getting ready to do what seemed like innumerable bows that go along with receiving the precepts or Five Mindfulness Trainings.  I had spent hours reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the precepts, For a Future to be Possible, sitting with the local sangha, and doing my best to write truly heartfelt glosses on each Mindfulness Training.  They told me what I already knew (as do precepts for anyone) but it was left to me to work out how that was going to manifest in my particular life.  So there I was percolating along in my head about the meaning of respecting life, being generous, not engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking mindfully, and attending to what I consumed when I heard the words, “We will now take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”

All my baggage careened into my frontal lobes as my mind came to a screeching halt.  Wait.  What?  Take refuge.  I’m becoming Buddhist?  Hold on.

This is common reaction having heard it repeatedly from many retreatants who consider receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  They often ask about the necessity to take refuge if one is not interested in being Buddhist.  Can the precepts by themselves be a necessary and sufficient condition for living an ethical and moral life?  Does one have to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as well?  One dharma teacher pointed out that the Three Jewels are where we turn to for refuge when we have fallen short of the commitment.  In other words, without the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha how would we know the nature of our failing?  I really didn’t quite understand this and perhaps the religiosity got to me at the time.

Over time, I think I’ve begun to understand that the precepts cannot exist outside the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  More than that, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are not signs of religious fervour but ways in which the precepts direct my practice.  If I use Roshi Daido Loori’s translation of refuge as “entering wholeheartedly without reservation,” then my practice of the precepts becomes one of giving myself wholeheartedly to the capacity of all beings to realize their bodhicitta, the accessibility of eternal wisdom to transform suffering, and the unstinting inclusiveness of relationships.  In that light, respect for life, for example, only makes sense when I can perceive and respect, without reservation, the Buddha in every person.  Generosity is only possible when I commit to a Sangha that is harmonious and boundless.  The respect for boundaries embraced by the precepts of sexual conduct, mindful speech, and consumption underscore the deep wisdom of all things being interconnected.  This level of open-hearted commitment is about responsibility for all beings and is the only choice available to us.

“The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility.  To say Here I am.”

Emmanuel Levinas

I’m still struggling through the philosopher Levinas’ view of ethics as responsibility which transcends all categories of the other person.  Ethics, in his view (and my limited one), is asymmetrical.  It pre-exists our knowledge of the Other and is independent of the actions, intents, beliefs, and identity of the Other.  Sounds suspiciously like the Bodhisattva vows… and a huge challenge to a mind given to picking-and-choosing where to deliver compassion.  But perhaps it is not as much a challenge if I take the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the container of my practice.

Thank you for practising,