Hierarchy in Dharma


Wisdom and hierarchy

June 25, 1994

There are four theses about the practice of Buddhism that I should like to discuss. It is possible that the theses will be controversial—what isn't, aside from pure gibberish? They may even raise a hackle or two. But I know I can trust you all to set dogma and ideology aside in order to discuss these theses calmly and dispassionately, so that out of our discussion we may all make some progress in our endeavor to gain some wisdom.

Thesis One:
The highest expression of wisdom (in a Buddhist context) is a life in perfect conformity with the precepts.
Thesis Two:
Wisdom is a skill, which like any other can be acquired only very gradually.
Thesis Three:
Since wisdom is a gradually acquired skill, some people have more of it than others, and therefore there is a natural spiritual hierarchy rather than a flat equality of worth.
Thesis Four:
The only friendships truly valuable to oneself are with people who have greater spiritual value than oneself.

Those are the bare sententiae. Here is some commentary.

Thesis One: The highest expression of wisdom (in a Buddhist context) is a life in perfect conformity with the precepts.

By perfect conformity, I mean living by the precepts without any trace of rationalization for falling short of them. Perhaps few of us can manage to live by the precepts perfectly, but it is surely better to admit that one is simply failing, for the time being, to follow the ethical ideals of Buddhism than to try to pretend through tortuous logic that the precepts themselves mean something other than what they clearly state at face value.

I suppose it is fairly obvious that living by the first precept entails not only refraining from murdering human beings who have been born but also abstaining from abortion and abstaining from eating animals who have been killed for the sole purpose of providing products for human beings to consume and use. The second precept surely entails a simplicity of life-style such that one is not stealing a livelihood from the beings who follow us in future generations. The third precept pretty obviously calls for chastity (since that is the only way one can be absolutely sure of avoiding sexual abuse). The fourth precept requires not only avoiding blatant lies but all the more subtle forms of deliberate evasion of the truth. (Perhaps the greatest evasion of all is the popular view that there is no such thing as objective truth, or that one cannot know it.) The fifth precept calls for total abstinence from obvious drugs and narcotics (such as alcohol and tobacco) but also more subtle opiates, such as most television, cinema and other forms of entertainment, most books, journalism, professional politics, the electronic data-sewer knows as the Internet, and perhaps even public education (at least what is mistakenly called education in North America).

Thesis Two: Wisdom is a skill, which like any other can be acquired only very gradually.

The fact that most of us fail to live by the precepts, and that most of us have only a faint understanding of Buddhism and most other philosophical enterprises, indicates that most of us are pretty deficient in wisdom. On the other hand, many people who have tried to become more wise have been able to make just a little progress and can claim to be more wise now than they were, say, twenty years ago.

It's interesting that while most people readily agree that everything else of value takes time and effort to acquire, some people are quite resistant to the idea that it takes time and effort to acquire wisdom. People are prone to falling into the comforting view that wisdom is an innate virtue rather than an acquired skill. Although a comforting dogma, the doctrine of innateness is one for which there is very little evidence.

Not all truths are comforting. Some are alarming. For example, it is unfortunately the case that no attainment is irreversible. People can also lose wisdom. There is never a time when one can stop taking measures against falling back into foolishness. Even the Buddha had to continue practicing meditation. If he had not done so, he might eventually have become a talk show host. Even more alarming, there are some causes of the loss of wisdom over which we have absolutely no control; certain kinds of degenerative physical illness, for example, may result in a loss of wisdom. Recall that the Buddha taught that there are five types of cause, only one of which is karma, and that circumstances may well arise owing to conditions other than karma and over which we therefore have absolutely no control. Indeed, the absence of complete control is what the Buddha meant by saying that we have no self.

Thesis Three: Since wisdom is a gradually acquired skill, some people have more of it than others, and therefore there is a natural spiritual hierarchy rather than a flat equality of worth.

If wisdom is truly worth acquiring, then it follows that people who have acquired much of it are worth more than those who have acquired little of it. They are worth more to themselves and worth more to others. The death of a wise person who lives by the precepts is a greater loss than the death of a criminal, or of a careless or foolish person. This is reflected in the traditional Buddhist doctrine that it is much more serious to kill an arhant than to kill a human being of lesser accomplishment, and much more serious to kill the average human being than to kill the average earwig.

Thesis Four: The only friendships truly valuable to oneself are with people who have greater spiritual value than oneself.

Since not many people are even seeking wisdom, not many people are worth knowing for a person who is seeking wisdom. While one may have certain obligations and duties to seekers of wisdom less developed than oneself, and one may even get certain benefits by helping them, the kind of friendship that is most beneficial is with people who are wiser than oneself.

So far as I know, none of these theses are seriously resisted in cultures that have been influenced by Buddhist teachings and practices. To the extent that they are resisted in North America, North America may never become a culture with more than a minor dharmic pimple on its thick epidermis. Moreover, there is much in the daily rhetoric and the axiological indoctrination of North Americans that condition them to resist many of the most important principles of Buddhism. Think, for example, of the knee-jerk reaction of blind hostility that some North Americans have to anything that strikes them as “elitist.”

If Buddhism is ever to make headway in North America (and I suspect the same is true for most of Europe, the antipodes and, increasingly, most parts of Asia), we shall need bodhisattvas. The problem is that anyone smart enough to be an effective bodhisattva is too smart to become a bodhisattva. Besides, we can't produce any new bodhisattvas without violating the third precept. So we may have to import some. The trouble with that strategy is that the Minister of Immigration and Manpower will probably never give them work permits (especially when it becomes clear that Buddhism would, if taken seriously enough, result in total anarchy with hardly any economy to speak of).

The bad news is: we shall have to resign ourselves to being a land without wisdom. The good news is: learning to accept that ugly fact may in fact help to make us wise.

Richard Hayes

The Gospel according to Mark

2 July 1994

Concerning my first thesis, Mark makes this correct and indisputable observation:
Not everyone who “religiously” follows these precepts is destined to undergo the organic process.

Please note that I said: 1) The highest expression of wisdom is a life in perfect conformity with the precepts. This statement can be paraphrased thus: if one is wise, one's life will be ipso facto in perfect conformity with the precepts. It does not say that if one's life is in perfect conformity with the precepts, then one is ipso facto wise. Cast into yet another logically equivalent form, one could say: One who fails to live by the precepts is not wise. In other words, one should not imagine that the wise are, in virtue of their wisdom, somehow above the precepts or have somehow transcended the distinction between good habits and bad. That being the intention of my statement, I think there is no real disagreement between me and Mark.

Concerning my second thesis, which states that wisdom is acquired only gradually, Mark says:

I happen to believe in the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and it has been my experience that wisdom, granted through their compassion, can be realized instantly.

I'm not sure what it means to believe in the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas, but I shall assume that it means that these beings are not merely characters in fictitious works and are historical beings rather than purely mythological beings. I cannot claim to believe in the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas in quite this way, but I can take them very seriously as mythological ideals that inspire my aesthetic and moral sensibilities. But surely what either one of us believes is not of much interest to anyone but ourselves.

On the question of experience, here we have splendid evidence of how inconclusive experience can be. My experience is that wisdom comes gradually, Mark's is that it comes instantaneously. But surely subjective experience decides nothing. Either one of us or both of us could be misinterpreting our experiences.

Now my claim that the gaining of wisdom is gradual is based on my claim that following the precepts is essential to wisdom, plus my observation that most people only gradually approach a full observation of the precepts. Most people, for example, begin by recognizing that it is not good conduct to steal someone else's property. But while they might not mug someone or commit a burglary, they might be willing to use pirated software or to cheat on their income taxes. Even after deciding not to use pirated software or cheat on their income taxes, they might still take some time to realize that their lifestyles may be contributing to the theft of the future from generations that are standing in queue waiting to use the earth after us. And it may take a very long time before a person realizes that claiming to own any property at all is really a kind of theft, an act of taking what is not given (adinnādāna). And it may take even longer before someone begins to realize that it is also theft to waste people's time or to sap their energy needlessly.

I completely agree with Mark that the precepts are not at all static. On the contrary, the more one reflects upon them, the more one begins to see how very far-reaching they are. And even then it may take time to develop the courage of one's reflections. That's why I speak of gradation. I have never seen anyone instantaneously go from a shallow to a profound understanding of the precepts.

Mark goes on to say that there is something “illogical” in my third thesis, which says that some people have more wisdom than others and that there is therefore a natural hierarchy of wisdom (and therefore of worth). It's not clear to me what Mark finds illogical. First of all, it is obvious that he takes no exception to my point that some people are worth more than others, for he himself says:

Worth is determined by relative value. A highly realized master who sits in his cave and shares nothing with the rest of the suffering world is as useless as a screen door on a submarine.

So we agree that a wise person who shares her wisdom is worth a great deal, while a wise person who fails to share is worth less. So we agree that there is a hierarchy of worth in this case. What puzzles me, however, is that Mark suddenly turns the topic of conversation to political systems.

To say that one person is worth more than another is the fruit of Fascism. It may be that one person is “wiser,” but that wisdom in the Buddhist sense must inevitably lead that person to realize his own worth interpenetrates with the well-being of all others.

If it is valuable to be wise, then surely a person who is wise is more valuable than a person who is not wise. Surely one who is wise enough to “realize that his own worth interpenetrates with the well-being of all others” is of greater benefit than a person who does not realize that. Surely to say that one person is worth more than another is to say that one person has more value than another.

Now, where does this question of Fascism come from? It seems perfectly out of place here. Fascism, as I understand it, is a political system developed in Italy in the 1930s that was based on a strong sense of nationalism, combined with the nationalization of most commercial enterprises. I am not sure I see any connection between the view that some people are wiser than others and the view that the state should take control of all private commercial interests.

If there is one great change that the Western—and particularly American assimilation of Buddhism will bring about, that will be the fusion of democratic spirit with dharma practice.

This statement requires being backed up by some kind of evidence. It is not immediately clear to me what the democratic spirit is. (Is it something like a tree spirit?) Democracy, I suppose, is a method of making decisions in which people vote for or against proposed policies that will affect their lives. I cannot, however, see any connection between that method of making decisions and dharma practice. What kind of dharma practice are we talking about here? Is being harmless, generous, thoughtful of others, truthful, and sober not part of dharma practice? Can one be all those things only if one is democratic? Can one do mindfulness of breathing only if one is a democrat?

I really don't understand Mark's claims about democracy at all. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is some merit to what he says. Even if that is granted, he is making a false assumption when he says that democracy is absent in Asian Buddhism. (I would argue that he may also be deluded if he thinks the democratic spirit is present in America, but maybe that is only because it is my duty as a Canadian to ridicule the parochial pretensions of Americans. After all, they do tend to get swept away by patriotic sentimentality on or near July 4.)

To assume a condescending posture is to practice egotism.

Is it necessarily condescending to recognize that one is less wise than another? Or that one is more wise than another? Surely it is just a matter of fact that, say, I am taller than my daughter and that I am better at reading Sanskrit than my undergraduate students. This is a matter of observation. Why can it not be a matter of observation that, say, Thich Nhat Hanh is much wiser than I am? If Thich Nhat Hanh did not recognize that he is wiser than I, then I would think him very foolish indeed.

Finally, about my fourth thesis, Mark observes (once again):

Fascism at work.

My goodness, those 1930s Italian politicians do get around! But let me give Mark the benefit of the doubt and assume that his use of the term “Fascism” is merely a specimen of shallow and vacuous rhetoric, intended only to discredit my thesis with language that carries negative emotional valence in America (the country that won the Second World War against Italy).

Mark goes on to ask:

Who am I to claim the “wisdom” to determine the worth of someone because I am claiming the egotism to judge their level of spiritual attainment?

I should hope that you are Mark and that you have developed enough mindfulness and discriminating awareness to recognize greed, hatred, delusion, carelessness, non-attachment, love and wisdom when you see them. And I should hope that you recognize those dharmas no matter where they occur, whether in yourself or in others. Moreover, I should hope that your practice is based on making such discriminations and acting on them. I should hope that if you bow to a Buddha statue (you did say you believed in Buddhas and bodhisattvas), you do so because you take the statue as a reminder of the virtues embodied in the Buddha's teaching and that you recognize that his wisdom surpasses your own or that of your neighborhood butcher.

Mark concludes by saying:

Attaining great skills without using them to benefit one's fellow suffering beings is spiritual masturbation.

I agree completely. My way of saying the same thing is: The highest expression of wisdom is a life in perfect conformity with the precepts (my Thesis One).

Flame on, anyone?

Not just yet. There is more to be gained through careful discussion.


When words raise hackles

3 July 1994

Among the four foundations of mindfulness in classical Buddhist practice is the mindfulness of thoughts and ideas. Being mindful of ideas is closely connected to being mindful of words and of the effects they have on us, and why they have the effects they have.

For some time now I have noticed that the word “hierarchy” often provokes an emotional response, mostly one of hostility. When I said that I thought my theses might raise some hackles, I was supposing that my use of the word “hierarchy” might be one of the things that brought an unfavorable response from some quarters.

My reason for supposing that any mention of hierarchy might be a red flag for some subscribers to this forum is that I have been present at academic conferences and meetings at which the word caused as much agitated excitement as a wasp in crowded bus. All one has to do is to breathe the word “hierarchy” in some corners of the humanities, and at least a few colleagues will begin to hiss like vipers. Every year I also encounter at least a few students (evidently indoctrinated by my hissing colleagues) who object most strenuously to some Buddhist doctrines that sound “hierarchical” or (if I may be forgiven for using another really dirty word) “elitist” to their ear. No small amount of my time is devoted to helping students realize that there is really nothing to be afraid of in hierarchy, and demonstrating to them that they in fact approve of all kinds of hierarchies (and even of elites), if only they would stop and reflect for a moment. I do this because my job is to teach Buddhism, and I cannot even imagine how one could say anything about Buddhism without talking about the the hierarchical structure of the Buddhist system of values.

From what little I have been able to glean by observing the linguistic behaviour of people around me, I gather that part of the resistance to hierarchy stems from a recognition that a hierarchy can be misused. A rigid bureaucratic hierarchy, for example, can stifle creativity at the lower end and bestow undeserved influence at the higher end. But not all hierarchies are necessarily pernicious.

The fear of hierarchy (and the corollary adoration of equality), it occurs to me, is an example of what Buddhists called the extreme of eternalism. The eternalist fallacy (according to classical Buddhism) is the view that people (and other things) have an essence, a fixed core of characteristics that are permanent and cannot be lost and that prevent the acquisition of incompatible characteristics. If one holds the view that a person's character is an essential part of the person himself, then the very idea of attaching any notion of value to character becomes very threatening (unless, of course, everyone is deemed to have exactly the same value).

Suppose, for example, I were to hold the view that wisdom is an innate part of my character rather than something I acquire through effort (or even by sheer luck or through the grace of God or whatever). If that is my view, then the notion that one person is wiser than another, combined with the judgment that wisdom is a thing of value, implies the view that one person is innately, intrinsically and permanently more valuable than another. It is only when I abandon the eternalist (or essentialist) fallacy that I can easily face the idea that one person may have more value, in virtue of having more wisdom, than another. I can recognize, quite without vanity or arrogance, that I am wiser than another person; I could even (as Socrates did) claim to be wiser than all other people I have ever met. As long as I realize that I could lose my wisdom, or that others might eventually surpass me in theirs, I cannot be anything but humble, for my supremacy in wisdom is bound to be a temporary event.

Once one gives up eternalism, then one can fully appreciate the words that the poet Aśvaghosa put into the Buddha's mouth.

Knowing that I will get old, how can I be proud of my youth? Knowing that I can get sick, how can I be proud of my health? Knowing that I will die, how can I be proud of life? Knowing that I am liable to old age, sickness and death, how can I ever look down on another who is subject to exactly the same things?

The eternalist fallacy does have many manifestations in our society. It is the basis of racism and sexism (both of which are based on the assumption that one's character is permanently forged by the conditions of one's birth). It is, as Mark rightly observed, at the root of aristocratic pretensions (which are also based on the assumption that one's social worth is fixed by the conditions of birth). These false views can never be eradicated by another false view that is also based on the eternalist fallacy. The egalitarian fallacy (based on the false assumption that our worth is fixed, combined with another false assumption that every person must ultimately have the same value) is therefore a poor remedy for the ill it is supposed to cure.

A much more effective cure to racism and other social ills is the radical break with eternalism, which entails accepting that one has no enduring self, no permanence and no ultimate and fixed nature. But accepting this takes a certain amount of courage. For those who temporarily lack the courage, it may be easier for the time being to stand on the sidelines and call other people Fascists.

Once someone called the Buddha a series of derogatory names. The Buddha went to see him and discovered he was a wealthy merchant. The Buddha said “What would you do if you threw a big party and prepared a lot of food and your guests were not able to eat all you had prepared for them? What would you do with the food your guests could not accept?” The merchant said “I would eat it myself.” The Buddha then said “I thank you kindly for the insults you offered me, but I cannot accept them. You'll have to eat them yourself.”

“There is no beginning of enlightenment.
There is no end of practice” (Dōgen)


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.00 on 8 Mar 2006, 15:38. Valid CSS!