Buddhism and Other Ways of Thinking


Christian love, Buddhist compassion

Buddhist Forum
July 31, 1991

Jan of Holland asked the following question:
In discussions on comparison of Christianity with other religions, I've sometimes heard mentioning that one, if not THE important difference is the central importance of love in Christianity, which the other religions fail. My question: what is true about this ? I find it hard to believe, because I like the idea that all religions share the essentials of life.

First, let's look at the matter historically. The early Christian fathers made a distinction between what were eventually called the philosophical (or Socratic) virtues and the theological virtues. The philosophical virtues were those that human beings could develop by themselves without divine help; the principal philosophical virtues were the primary virtues discussed by Socrates and other Greek moralists: wisdom, justice, moderation and patience. The theological virtues, said the Christians, were those that human beings could acquire only as a gift (charisma) from God. These theological virtues were those discussed by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: faith, hope and love.

The definitions of the theological virtues vary from one theologian to another, but essentially faith is the ability to believe what has not been proved, hope is the ability to yearn for salvation in the afterlife, and love is the ability to care for everyone regardless of whether they seem to deserve to be cared for.

The distinction between theological virtues and philosophical virtues was an important one for early Christian apologists, because it enabled them to acknowledge the value of the Greek and Jewish philosophical traditions while claiming that Christianity was ultimately superior to these other traditions. The basis of the claim to Christian superiority lay in the belief that faith, hope and love were virtues that could be cultivated only by those who accepted that Christ had sacrificed himself to atone for the sinfulness to which the descendants of Adam were heir.

If the early Christians had known about Buddhism, they would surely have regarded it as a tradition very much like that of the Greek philosophers: valuable for this world but ultimately deficient as a means of entering the next world. Buddhism, like most Greek philosophies, placed an emphasis on wisdom, a virtue (dharma) to be cultivated in this very life and not in a future life. A person who cultivated wisdom, said the Buddhists, would naturally live a life of moderation and patience and (most importantly) harmlessness (ahiṃsā). So from a Christian perspective, the theory and practice of Buddhists would appear very similar to the theory and practice of the Skeptics, the Stoics and any number of other philosophical guilds.

The early Buddhists denied the existence of a creator god, and even ridiculed those who believed in a supreme being, so they would clearly have had as little respect for Christians as Christians would have had for them.

In modern times it has become unfashionable for members of one religion to think that other religions are inferior in any way, so both Buddhists and Christians have attempted to disguise their lack of mutual admiration. Buddhists and Christians engaged in interfaith dialog have pointed out that the Christian concept of Love is not very different from the Buddhist concept of Compassion. When people do interfaith dialog, everyone pretends to be very mature and civilized. So some Christians are willing to forgive Buddhists for the sin of not believing in God, and some Buddhists are willing to stop laughing at Christians for their ridiculous belief in salvation through a savior who is both fully human and fully divine.

Most Buddhist traditions have a meditation practice through which one tries to cultivate four divine mental states (brahma-vihāra): friendship (mettā) for all beings, compassion (karuṇā) for all beings, sympathetic joy or delight (muditā) in the welfare of all beings, and impartiality or fairness (upekkhā). The purpose of these practices is to learn to care for all living beings, whether human or not, as much as one cares for oneself.

In most forms of Buddhism, friendship, compassion and fairness are regarded as skills. One can cultivate them only through constant and deliberate practice. As with all skills, if one fails to use them, one eventually loses them. Therefore, the practice of friendship, compassion, joy and fairness must become a part of one's daily routine. For this reason, many Buddhists, even if they do no other Buddhist practice at all, try to cultivate the feeling of friendship towards every living thing.

Richard Hayes

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A question of love

Buddhist Forum
August 6, 1991

Jan of Holland asked the following personal question:
Forgetting all the texts, philosophies, theories etc. you dealt with as a professional, but as a Buddhist person: do you feel love is as important an element in life as you (may) remember from your early Christian life (if you had a Christian background)?

Unfortunately, Jan, I have spent a little over forty-six years on this dreary wheel. During that time I have kept my eyes and ears open to so many different ways of looking at the important questions of life that I can no longer say with confidence what the exact sources were of any of the ways that I now think and feel. So (with due respects to Ramakrishna, who claims to have practiced several religions and found them all basically the same) I don't think that introspection is a very reliable method of comparing religions or philosophies.

I can tell you that officially being a Buddhist has changed remarkably little in my life. I like the phrase used by the English Buddhist Bhikkhu Sangharakshita. He does not say that he “converted” to Buddhism but rather that he “discovered” that he was a Buddhist. Conversion implies a change of orientation of some kind; discovery implies a recognition of a reality that was there all along. In my own case, I simply discovered that there was a name for a way of being in the world that was very similar to the way I was trained by my parents (who describe themselves simply as humanists) to be in the world.

Let's get down to important issues. I share with you a deep concern with the political, social and environmental problems that human beings have created on this planet. Like you, I believe that these problems are unlikely to be solved unless there is a radical change in perspective among human beings—a change from an essentially self-centred materialistic persective to a perspective in which humanity is seen in correct proportions with the surrounding web of life.

Buddhists talk of a phenomenon known as a revolution in one's thinking (citta-parāvṛtti). What the expression refers to is a change from a wordly outlook to an improved outlook. The worldy outlook is one in which a person is concerned mostly with possessions, comfort, prestige and celebrity. These are all private, individualistic concerns. According to the Buddha, every political and social mess can be traced to people seeking more material possessions, more personal comfort, higher social status prestige and more fame. Things will not improve much until enough people begin to adopt an improved outlook. This improved outlook is based on a feeling of universal friendship, which in practice means learning to have as much concern for every living being as one has for oneself.

As I recall from my studies of Christianity (sorry, but I have never been a Christian), Jesus said that the whole of the law could be expressed in these two statements from the Old Testament: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul. And love your neighbour as yourself.” (Or words to that effect) I have a hard time relating to the first of those statements, because I really don't know understand what God is, but I firmly endorse the statement about loving one's neighbour as oneself, provided that by “neighbour” you mean crickets, sparrows, centipedes and rats along with human friends and enemies. I don't much care whether you call that sentiment love or compassion.

As a human being, I am intellectually convinced that I must learn to regard the cares of every living being as equal to my own cares, but frankly I sometimes find it difficult to be as concerned with the ants in my kitchen as I am with my own stupid little worries. And sometimes I get very irritated at human beings, such as those who drop bombs on other human beings. As a practitioner of Buddhism, therefore, my main practice is a standard exercise in cultivating a feeling of universal friendship. I know many versions of the exercise, but the one I personally find most effective is one that I learned from a Thai Buddhist monk. The cultivation of universal friendship (some call it loving kindness) is a meditation I do daily. If I do no other practice, I do this one.

I think the loving-kindness meditation is effective. I haven't owned a fly-swatter or eaten the flesh of an animate being for years, and sometimes I can even go for two or three minutes at a time without having a fantasy of ripping President Bush's lungs out of his chest.

I can't answer your question of whether I feel that love is an important element in my life. But perhaps you can now answer your own question on the basis of what I have said. I hope it was unscholarly enough for you.

Richard Hayes

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Only in Buddhism, you say?

Buddhist Forum
August 16, 1991

After meeting Robin this summer and finding out what a thoroughly pleasant and intelligent man he is, I find it difficult to continue answering his messages in my normal gruff and acerbic tone. But honestly, Robin! You didn't think I'd let you get away with this outlandish claim in your message of Wed, 14 Aug 1991:
Unbiasedness would be, to me, the essence of a Buddhist ethic and the thing we have to contribute to the future. Right now the world is poised on the edge of a Hell of Balkanization. Every political and ethical and ethnic and philosophical group thinks that aggression in the service of the right is okay. Gandhi stood against the fundamental concept of aggression as an acceptable emotion and he was very effective in this way. Let's face it: we're the only religion around right now that is really pushing that idea. We should emphasize it for the future of the planet.

This statement reminds me of one that a Mexican friend of mine used to make about his mother tongue. Spanish, he pointed out to me, has such a rich vocabulary that it can express every possible nuance, whereas English just has a small vocabulary in which subtleties of meaning are totally lost. Who doesn't feel that way about one's first language? It is really only the language that one knows best that seems to have “des milliers de mots pour le dire comment je vis, qui je suis,” and all other languages feel a bit stiff on the tongue and wooden in the mind. But those who undertake to learn other languages usually figure out pretty quickly that the deficiency of expression lies not in the other languages themselves but in one's own knowledge of those langages.

A similar observation can be made about religions. It is true that Buddhism promotes unbiasedness. But to claim that Buddhism is the “only religion around right now that is really pushing that idea” is a splendid example of just the kind of biasedness that Buddhism is supposed to teach one to leave behind.

As most people quickly learn who get involved in any way in the peace movement or in any number of other socially engaged movements, there are very strong contributions being made by representatives of every one of the major religions of the world, as well as by many of the relatively new religious movements, such as the Bahai faith, as well as by self-proclaimed atheists, humanists and rationalists.

Even Buddhists are now beginning to get involved in these movements for peace and justice, but I must say that my experience in talking to several Buddhist groups about social issues has been that hardly any Asian Buddhists that I have met give a damn about global issues. Sri Lankan Buddhists would be happy to rid their land of troublesome Tamils, Tibetan Buddhists yearn for an autonomous Tibet free of obnoxious Chinese, Cambodian Buddhists want to be rid of the Vietnamese and so on; but precious few of the Buddhists I have met are terribly concerned with events even in other Buddhist countries, let alone in Panama or Yugoslavia or Botswana.

Most of the people I have met who get really actively, effectively and unprejudically involved in truly global movements of peace, justice, and ecological balance are in fact Unitarian-Universalists, Quakers, Mennonites, members of the United Church of Canada, Roman Catholics, Ismailis and Baha'is. Most Buddhists I know are still sitting around on their asses and chanting dharanis, which is why in East Asian countries Buddhists tended to have such a poor reputation among the socially engaged neo-Confucians: Buddhists struck most Confucians as being all talk (or at least all chant) and no action.

So come on, Robin, get real!

Richard Hayes

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Neo-Confucian critique of Buddhism

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
August 20, 1991

Robin writes:

I can't believe Richard Hayes would cite the neo-Confucians in order to attack Buddhist ethical positions. The Confucian attacks on Buddhism, famous through translations of anti-Buddhist memorials to various Chinese emperors are so politically oriented and their arguments are so specious. As an instance of the sick bias they express, note the recurrent criticism of Buddhists as foreigners which appears in those documents.

I believe the documents Robin is referring to in the above proclamation of disbelief are those of the later Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE), when Buddhism was indeed dismissed as a foreign religion. Even in the anti-Buddhist literature of the Sui period (581-618), the main criticism of Buddhists was that they shaved their heads (thereby showing disrespect for their bodies and therefore dishonouring their parents), renounced the household life (thereby discontinuing family lines and therefore dishonouring their parents again), and followed such Indian medical practices as drinking urine (thereby disgusting the Chinese, who prefered to drink more palatable and wholesome things like snake blood and mercury). So it's true that some early Chinese anti-Buddhist propaganda was not much more sophisticated than the kind of ill-informed propaganda that some modern fundamentalists level against the Krishna Consciousness Society and other so-called “cults.“

The documents I was referring to, however, were from the Song period (960-1269), which is why I specified the neo-Confucians. I am thinking in particular of the neo-Confucian philosopher Zhuxi (Or Chu Hsi if you prefer that romanization), who lived 1130-1200. Like many of his predecessors in the Confucian revival, Zhuxi had originally been a Buddhist but had grown disenchanted with the state of Buddhism in his day, which had by most accounts lost much of the vitality of earlier days, especially during the Tang. His criticisms of Buddhism are fairly balanced, I think, but I may be wrong. You can judge for yourself by reading the short excerpt in Wing-tsit Chan's Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, pp. 646-653. (Note Chan's comment at the end that Chu's knowledge of Buddhism was “very superficial” but that his criticisms were quite comprehensive in that they covered a wide range of topics.)

The neo-Confucians are an interesting bunch. They tried to absorb some of the best aspects of Buddhism, such as some of the meditation exercises, while discarding most of the incomprehensible cosmic gibberish that Chinese Buddhists produced in quantities almost as copious as followers of today's enthusiasts of New Age religion (better known among professional scholars of religious studies as California Cool-aid). The neo-Confucians combined what they saw as the best aspects of Buddhism with the social and political consciousness of Confucianism. This is not such a different thing from what today's “engaged Buddhists” (to use Thich Nhat Hanh's phrase) are doing. Nor is it much different from what Gandhi and Martin Luther King (cited with approval by Robin) tried to do. At least one modern Japanese Buddhist movement, which as I recall is called Kodo Koshan or something like that (I need help from an expert in modern Japanese Buddhism), has explicitly combined Confuican teachings with Buddhism by saying that Confucian ethics is the perfect practical implementation of the Buddhist theory of compassion.

Robin says:

We've got the discourse, man! There have been good guys in the past who taught beautifully non-bias: Gandhi and King. But now the only well-known figure is the Dalai Lama.

At the risk of causing Robin to have a coronary, I must say that I find much of what the Dalai Lama says about peace rather superficial and naive. And since he is a man who knows his Buddhism (at least his Mahayana Buddhism), I suppose it follows that I find something superficial and naive in (Mahayana) Buddhist theory itself. This may lead to some further discussion, so I'll be uncharacteristically brief in my opening explanation:

Buddhism, it seems to me, does not have a very robust appreciation of the fact that the individual doesn't have much of a chance to improve his or her character without the reinforcement of social structures and that therefore the best way to help individuals is to help them develop good character, and the best way to help them develop good character is to have good social institutions in place, which can best be achieved through reforms in social, educational and political structures in such a way that there is genuine political and economic justice throughout the world. (For me that's brief.)

Richard Hayes

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Down and out in Lotus Land

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
August 21, 1991

Ravi writes:

Mention was made by Hayes about Buddhists not being “deeply involved in global issues,” in comparison with establishments such as the Mennonites, the Catholic Church, etc. This betrays Hayes' ignorance about conditions that the vast majority of practicing Buddhists face. Most people in Tibet or Southeast Asia who call themselves Buddhists have a tough time obtaining basic needs, such as food and shelter. There is no reason why they should be expected to concern themselves about global issues, whatever that may mean.

Unfortunately, Ravi, I am not ignorant about the conditions that the vast majority of practicing Buddhists face. Nor am I ignorant about the root causes of much of the poverty about which you speak: the obscenely luxurious lifestyle that most people in Northern countries have come to assume it is their right to enjoy, regardless the consequences for the majority of human beings, animals and plants that live elsewhere.

What I mean by global concerns is partly this: reminding people in my part of the world about what their patterns of consumption, their constant search for inexpensive labour, and their insatiable need to expand markets by creating unrealistic material expectations are doing to people in other parts of the world. It should go without saying that I do not expect Buddhist leaders who live in countries that are victims of the northern lifestyle to do more than help their people cope with the damage that is being done on an increasingly monstrous scale every year. But I do expect a bit more global concern from Buddhist leaders in Japan, and from Asian Buddhists who have migrated to North America (many of whom are, believe me, decidedly not anywhere nearly as poor as a good many homeless and unemployable Americans).

Political activism on the part of religious establishments like the Catholic church happens to be a trade in many areas of the world: become a member of sect X and get in exchange food, shelter, and best of all, salvation. Is this global concern? No, its barter.

You are right, Ravi, in saying that such “bartering” occurs, although I have not heard of much of it being done recently by Roman Catholics as much as by various fundamentalist Christian groups. In refugee camps in Thailand, for example, there are frequent reports of Christians telling refugees that they will have a better chance of migrating to the United States if they convert to Christianity. Or they are told that they must learn English if they hope to prosper in the West, and they are then given English Bibles and told that there is no better way to learn English than by reading the Bible. Such practices are indeed deplorable. But what are you suggesting: that every Christian who offers help is hypocritical and opportunistic? If that is what you are suggesting, my friend, then it is you who are showing your ignorance.

I must state my case a little more clearly than I did earlier. I do not hold the view that if peace and economic justice is provided, then people will automatically develop good character. Rather, I hold that people will not in general have a chance to develop good character unless they live in an environment of peace and economic justice. Given that the principal preoccupation of much of Buddhism is the cultivation of good character, I find it strange that not more attention is paid to discussing the conditions necessary for this to come about.

The Buddhist literature is not entirely devoid of material along the lines I am suggesting. The Cakkavatti-sīhanāda Sutta and Aggañña Sutta, both in the Dīgha-nikāya (See Maurice Walshe's, translation, called Thus Have I Heard), are quite promising—and are often cited by engaged Buddhists such as Joanna Macy and her followers. So far I have not found very much of anything quite like that in Mahayana Sutras, which seem to be much more concerned with making vituperative comments about the so-called debased (hīnayāna) Buddhists than about anything else. But maybe I have been reading the wrong Mahayana Sutras. I'd welcome concrete references to passages that would remove some of my ignorance in this area.

Richard Hayes

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Good news! Poverty old hat!

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
August 23, 1991

Robin makes the following observation about my claim that modern Buddhism is not on a whole taking social issues into account.
Twenty years from now the issues Hayes mentioned will be hopelessly out of date and it will seem narrow-minded to be concerned about them.

Hot ziggetty, Robin, that is the best news I have heard all week! Just think! All the issues that have been of so much concern to so many people for the past several millennia will no longer be relevant in twenty years. There will be no more subjugation of the weak by the strong, no more exploitation of the poor by the rich, no more wasteful use of human and material resources, no more injustice, no more cruelty to living beings, and I am sure there will no longer be any greed, hatred or delusion. Maitreya will have come by then, I guess, along with the second coming of Christ and Walt Disney, and you and I and a handful of Jehovah's Witnesses and greying Mousketeers can sit around on our lapus lazuli thrones and suck lotus-flavoured lollipops all day long, with never a worry of tooth decay. I believe, brother, I believe!

Br'er Coyote

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Ancient concern for the poor

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies

Robin questions some of my claims, saying:
“Subjugation of the weak by the strong”—is this an ancient concern? “Exploitaton of the poor by the rich”—is this a thing early Judaism cared about? Is it in the Nicomachean ethics of Aristotle? Does Socrates speak out for the poor? Where does Cicero deal with this problem? Where does Confucius stand up for the poor? Where the heck does Abraham or Jehovah for that matter show a regard for the poor?

Both these themes, exploitation of the poor and subjugation of the weak, come up repeatedly in the writings of such early Chinese thinkers as Mencius (Mengzi), Mo Tzu (Mozi) and Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi). These people had their opponents, of course. Hsün Tzu (Xunzi) and Han Fei Tzu (Hanfeizi) argued strongly for completely unrestrained free trade and the abolition of tariffs, largely on the grounds that such things impeded the incentives of people to seek wealth. Hsün and Han Fei also argued that the poor deserved to be poor, because they were lazy, and they advocated the use of very strong military forces to protect the wealthy against the nasty habits of the poor. They advocated the death penalty for theft. But these ancient antecedents of Reagan, Bush, Thatcher and Mulroney and other modern exponents of ultraliberalism (as it is called in Europe) or ultraconservatism (as it is called in North America) wrote these ideas down in conscious and deliberate opposition to Confucians and other early philosophers who held very different ideas, among them being the view that the primary function of a government ought to be not to serve the rich but to ensure an equitable distribution of resources throughout the population.

In ancient India we also find the view that the principal duty (dharma) of a King is to ensure that the poor are adequately fed and clothed and sheltered. Failure to perform this duty is said to lead to the poor having to resort to theft, which in turn results in the wealthy hiring armies to protect their wealth, which results in even greater suffering for the poor. This view was outlined in several places by Gotama Buddha, who had a collective social theory of dependent origination along with his more famous Individual theory. The Cakkavatti and Aggañña Suttas of the Dīgha-nikāya have the fullest expositions of this view, but it also occurs in parts of the Sutta-nipāta. Such themes can also be found in Brahmanical works on statecraft.

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Magna Moralia both discuss the allegedly common view that wealth is good and therefore ought to be pursued. At best, says Aristotle, one can say that wealth is a means by which some other goods can be achieved, but it is not a good in itself. He also discusses several kinds of friendship, among them being friendships motivated by the search for material profit, and characterizes them as cruel and exploitative. It is true that Aristotle's concern was more for the corrosive power that wealth had on virtue than for anything like a socialist ideal; but Aristotle was equally aware of the fact that poverty also corrodes a person's virtue. So he too argued that a principal duty of government is to help the population as a whole establish a mean, whereby no one became excessively rich and no one became excessively poor. Aristotle was not at all far from contemporary Indian Buddhist and Chinese views.

Contrary to what Robin suggests, the themes of explotation of the poor and weak by the wealthy and strong are not confined to 19th century socialist theory. These themes, as I originally suggested, have been around for as long as human beings have used writing to record their thoughts. Contrary to what Robin suggests, poverty and other consequences of systematic exploitation are a little more than simply “something else to bitch about.”

Richard Hayes

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