Society and morality


A Buddhist friend of mine recently pointed out that the Buddha had never watched television and therefore had no idea what effect it has on one's mentality to watch it for several hours a day. Therefore, he argued, while one can certainly get valuable advice from ancient and medieval Buddhist texts, one must turn to modern sources if one wishes concrete and particular advice on such current issues as addiction to television or substance abuse, not to mention the plethora of ethical issues that advanced technology raises at a pace that often feels alarming. While I find myself in complete agreement with my friend on this matter, I also think (as I believe he does also) that it is important to reflect on all the human wisdom that has come down to us through various religious and philosophical traditions. It is, in other words, interesting, perhaps even important, to ask oneself what the Buddha or Socrates or Dōgen or Thomas Aquinas or Tsong kha pa might have had to say about such things as genetic engineering, organ transplanting, the exploration of space, global warming, consumerism, the globalization of the economy and the rise and fall of economic and political empires.

Although the earliest Buddhists were advised to “go forth” from the life of domestic entanglements into a life of wandering mendicancy, most Buddhists living in the West have chosen to remain more or less in the world, either as householders with or without parental responsibilities or as members of non-monastic communities. Only a few live as monastics or as hermits or wandering mendicants. Owing in part to the relative secularity of most Western Buddhists and in part to the influence of both Jewish and Christian movements that lay emphasis on healing the ailing world, Western Buddhists tend to find themselves grappling with a wide range of social and political issues. Some people have used the term “engaged Buddhism.” Others have suggested that the kind of Buddhism evolving in the West is entirely new and therefore deserves to be called a new vehicle or navayāna. Whether one agrees that Western Buddhism is a new kind of Buddhism, most would probably agree with the following characterization by James William Coleman:

Monastic renunciates were the heart and soul of the Buddhist movement in ancient India and for that matter in the rest of Asia. In the new Buddhism, the battleground in the struggle for liberation has shifted away from the monastery. Although Western Buddhists may withdraw from worldly activities for a few weeks for intensive retreats, and a few may even live in a practice center for a period years, enlightenment is seen as something that must ultimately be realized right in the heart of the suffering and joy of daily life. (Coleman, 2001, p. 219)

For most people living in the modern West, the suffering and joy of daily life involves figuring out how to cope with various kinds of systematic injustice in the form of discrimination based on gender, race, religion and age; making decisions about almost every aspect of life such as what to eat, how and whether to travel, what products to buy and which to avoid, what kinds of entertainment and recreations are conducive to the well-being of self and family, and what kinds of livelihood are in keeping with the ethical guidelines of Buddhism; and what kinds of political movements to endorse and what kinds to resist. The common perception, I think, is that Western Buddhists, in doing all this coping and making all these decisions, are predominately liberal. Aside from a limited study made by Coleman, I know of no systematic and empirical examination of this common perception. Coleman's study led him to conclude that North American Buddhists are on the whole “far more educated than the average American.” He goes on to say

they are far more liberal as well. Almost 60 percent of the respondents said they were Democrats, while only 2.6 reported a Republican affiliation. Surprisingly, the Republicans were outnumbered by members of the tiny Green Party by more than three to one (the Greens were 9.9 percent of the total sample). A self-ranking on a left-to-right political scale also produced a distribution heavily skewed to the left. On a one to ten scale with one being the furthest right and ten the furthest left, the average respondent ranked him- or herself as an eight. (Coleman, 2001, p. 193)

There may be another reason for believing that most modern Buddhists would qualify as liberals according to some definitions of that term, such as the following one nicely articulated by George McGovern:

I believe that many, if not most, Americans are liberals, too, or at least have some liberal impulses. There are, of course, those among us who are prepared to condemn without reservation liberalism and all of its works, but few of these people seem to grasp what liberalism actually is. Webster's dictionary defines it as “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.” From the beginning, Americans have believed that the conditions of their lives could and would be improved; that is, they have believed in progress. One cannot conceive of a nation dedicated to democracy that does not rest on faith in “the essential goodness of man.” It would seem even more likely that in a democratic society most of the citizenry would accept the importance of personal freedom—“the autonomy of the individual”—as well as the need to protect that freedom.

Thus, except for the most confirmed standpatter or unswerving cynic, nearly all Americans have some identification with liberalism, whether they know it or not. Just about every educated person I encounter around the world is a liberal. Almost every working journalist, nurse, and flight attendant leans toward liberalism; nearly every teacher, scientist, clergyman, and child-care worker is a liberal. I can't remember the last time I met an illiberal professor of history, my old profession. How could anybody read history and not be a liberal? (McGovern, 2002, p. 38)

Although if Professor Coleman had asked me where on a scale of ten I would estimate my own liberalism, I would probably tell him that ten is not high enough for me, I also have a fondness for questioning the apparently unexamined assumptions that lie hidden in the views of all people—including liberals. For that reason I have occasionally written things that have taken some of my fellow Buddhist liberals by surprise. With that warning in mind, I invite you to read the squibs below and, if you are a fellow liberal, to be either comforted or surprised thereby, and, if you see yourself as something other than a liberal, to gnash your teeth forthwith.

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Some questions about justice

25 February 1993

A couple of nights ago there was a very interesting program on the CBC radio series called Ideas. The broadcast dealt with affirmative action programs and various other institutional changes that have been brought about through special interest lobbies in Ottawa. As is usually the case with CBC broadcasts, this one was balanced and thought-provoking. It chronicled the full range of AA programs, ranging from voluntaristic guidelines to more Draconian measures, the most extreme case being a college in Ontario that passed a rule in 1990 that it will not hire another male until the year 2000 (by which time it is estimated that 75% of the faculty will be female).

Another aspect of the broadcast was the effect of pressure on academic institutions to modify course content to avoid offending certain segments of society. A professor at one of Canada's top faculties of law, for example, said that his faculty had finally decided to discontinue teaching some sections of a course on the history of Canadian law, because women students complained that it was demeaning to women to have to hear what the status of women had been under the law in the nineteenth century. Now that same faculty is experiencing pressure to discontinue the sections dealing with the history of laws on rape and sexual harassment.

The Dean of the Faculty of Law at that same law school and the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union said that Canada seems to have entered an era rather like the McCarthy era that the US went through a few years ago—a time of such intolerance that those who speak out against certain social policies do so at considerable risk to themselves.

Tangent: One of my childhood memories is of a bunch of adults, all employees of the US federal government, lying around on the floor of our living room in Albuquerque with their ears up to the speaker of the phonograph on which the volume had been turned down so low as to be barely audible. They were listening to a recording of a satirical CBC broadcast called “The Inquisition,” a spoof on McCarthyism that some brave soul had smuggled in from Canada. On seeing that ridiculous scene, I concluded that adults are very spooky creatures, and nothing that I have seen since has given me cause to modify that view.

One thesis that emerged towards the end of the Ideas broadcast was articulated by a law professor named Ian Hunter. It was his view that the current obsession (his word) with social equality has filled a vacuum left by the gradual disappearance of religion as a major force in Canadian society. Fifty years ago, 90% of the population believed in God and in an afterlife, and these beliefs shaped people's expectations of life in this world. In 1940, for example, the Canadian Supreme court ruled against a black man who tried to sue an innkeeper for refusing to serve him; in their decision, the judges said that life is intrinsically unfair and will always be so, and there is nothing that human laws can do to alter that situation. We must, therefore, all learn to deal with whatever forms of unfairness life deals out to us. Such a decision, Hunter argues, was acceptable to a society that believed in a better life beyond the grave. But in a predominantly atheistic society in which most people do not believe in an afterlife in which the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, the dream of social justice is perceived as one that must be realized here and now. And all the hatred that people used to reserve for the devil is now directed towards those who are perceived as being obstacles to the just society.

Part of Hunter's hypothesis, as I understand it, is that when a religion that promises deferred justice beyond the grave is displaced, the old yearning for promised justice is transferred to a new time and place, the here and now, where it is pursued with religious zeal. This religious zeal for a perfectible world is seen not only in the struggles for social equality but in the secular dream of gaining definitive control over the physical environment by such measures as eliminating famine through improved food production, eliminating economic depressions by wise fiscal policies, eliminating discomfort and the necessity of hard work, and eliminating disease—think of the fervor of the crusade against AIDS and various forms of cancer. Hunter's hypothesis can be seen as a version of the old view that science has become the religion of the secular age.

If Hunter's hypothesis is worthy of consideration, it seems that one should be able to test it to some extent by comparing Christian and post-Christian societies with other cultural situations in the modern world. How does his hypothesis fare if the subject is turned to Buddhist and post-Buddhist societies?

Consider the widespread replacement of institutionalized Buddhism in much of Asia by various forms of Marxism; was this the replacement of a religion that promised deferred justice beyond the grave by a religion that promises justice here and now? What about the phenomenon of “new religions” in Japan and Korea? Do they affirm Hunter's hypothesis, or are they counterexamples?

Where would American Buddhism fit into this whole equation? Does it partake more of the spirit of post-Christian secularism, or is it taking shape as a reaction to the secular dreams of worldly perfectibility, a return to the view that life is intrinsically unfair and all we can do is to learn to bear the unfairness with as much dignity as circumstances allow?

Richard P. Hayes

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Who is religious?

2 March 1993

Jim V. writes:

I can't believe that the answers people give to pollsters really tell us very much about important changes in society over the last few decades. How many people actually go to church? How many actually think of their pastors, priests, and rabbis as sources of important information? (How many turn, instead, to therapists?)

Mark Parent, who wrote a PhD thesis at McGill on the thundering Toronto Fundamentalist preacher T.T. Shields (active from 1911 to 1950s), noted a study based on the number of people in Canada who actually attend church and make charitable donations to religious institutions. The figure he cited was around 2,000,000 (less than 10% of the Canadian population). Of those, 1,000,000 support churches that define themselves as Fundamentalist. There are several criteria of Fundamentalism, and the term as Christian Fundamentalists uses it is much more narrow than the term as journalists and non-specialists use it.

I have seen studies indicating that some 70–90% of people claim some kind of belief in some kind of life after death. (I never would have believed that so many people are that pessimistic.) So clearly if being a dues-paying member of an organized religious institution is what makes one religious, then Canadians are not very religious on the whole. But if the criterion of being religious is believing in spooks, then it looks as if Canadians are about as religious as everyone else.

But of course neither being a church-goer nor believing in God or ghosts has any bearing at all on being secular. As I understand the term, it means being concerned with issues in the present age, in contrast to being interested in what goes on beyond the grave. All kinds of people who may believe in an afterlife are nevertheless quite willing to wait until they die until they start pushing for social reforms in the next world; in the meantime, they use most of their energy to improve the present world. These people, as I understand the term, are secular, and the class of secular religious people would include Catholic liberation theologians, many Protestant theologians, all kinds of Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationalists and so forth, many kinds of Buddhist, many branches of Islam, and many strains within Judaism.

What I find weakest about Ian Hunter's hypothesis is simply that it's trivially true. In saying that the current obsession with social equality is a feature of a secular society, he's stating a truism. In linking secularism to a decline in belief in God and an afterlife, he may simply be wrong.

Richard P. Hayes

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On being ritually damaged

7 March 1993

What surprises me a little in discussions of rituals sacred and secular is the absence of discussion of the half-religious and half-secular rituals that were certainly part of my own youth and may still be part of people who are young (however temporarily) today.

It may help to understand my perspective on these matters to know that I was brought up in a Unitarian family. Unitarians, for those who are not familiar with them, got their start by rejecting the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The simple Unitarian creed is that there is only one god. My parents belonged to a branch of Unitarians whose creed was somewhat more elaborate: “There is but one god and he or she does not exist.”

The Unitarian Church to which my parents belonged had close ties with the local Jewish synagogue and with the local Buddhist church, whose creed was “There is one god and he does not exist and his name is not Buddha.” One day I got a little confused at a combined Unitarian-Jewish-Buddhist non-Easter service and came home a Buddhist. Since changing religions more than once per lifetime is tedious, I have never bothered to make another switch. So I still carry a Buddhist passport.

Now the point is that as a young Unitarian well on the road to becoming a Buddhist, I used to find it terribly upsetting to have to perform religious rituals in school every day. In the school where I went as a young pup, we began each day with about half an hour's worth of flag worship. First we all stood up and pledged allegiance to the flag of a nation that was said to be under God and who proudly stamped “In God We Trust” all over its paper money and coins, so that it was pretty hard even to buy a five-cent Coke without being reminded that we all trusted in God. The only thing that has changed in the past forty years is that it now takes a hell of a lot more nickels to buy a Coke; inflation has therefore had the unexpected result of increasing the number of times that people are reminded that they trust in God.

After worshiping the flag every morning, we used to sing religious hymns in which God was asked to bless our nation. Every morning we sang a song all about how the brave missionaries had tamed the savage natives and taught them how to kneel and pray. The morning's religious service ended with a few rousing choruses from the anthem of one of the branches of my country's military, which in those days was busy making the god-fearing capitalists safe from godless communists. Sad to say, I am not making any of this up.

As a result of all this religious patriotism (or was it merely patriotic religiosity?), I grew up with severe psychological scars and have never been able to lead a normal life. Even to this day, the very thought of touching money with all that God-talk written on it makes me hyperventilate; you can imagine what an impediment my allergy to money has been in the pursuit of a normal life in this society. To make matters worse, to this day I cannot bear to watch sporting events, because they always begin with somebody singing religio-patriotic hymns and anthems. You can imagine how difficult it is to be a male in this society and to hate sports; I live in constant fear that somebody will discover that I don't know who won the World Series, the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup last year—in fact, I don't even know who played.

So with those of you who think that a little secular ritualism can't possibly hurt anyone, I respectfully but profoundly disagree. Such rituals may not hurt the people who feel comfortable participating in them, but there is a fairly substantial segment of the population for whom coerced participation is extremely unpleasant and disturbing.

For that reason, I gratefully applaud those of you who have voiced opposition to prayers in the schools; I hope that some of you are also voicing equally strong opposition to patriotic rituals in the schools. It's about time that we let our children grow up without being subjected to a dozen years of ritualized religio-nationalistic superstition.

Traumatically yours,

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African-American Buddhism

11 August 1993

Owing to circumstances beyond my control, I was born a human being. To make matters even worse, I was born in the United States of America, just before the end of the Second World War. The War was an episode that had filled the other human beings around me with an unfortunate sense of self-importance. When I was about six years of age, I was kidnapped by the public school system and subjected to twelve years of complacent, patriotic, self-congratulatory hyperbolic mythology about my national heritage. During those years of indoctrination, my captors spared no effort to prepare all young men to become soldiers and all young women to become widows.

Life was very hard in the United States in the years of my childhood. The country was between wars and was therefore in grave danger of losing its sense of purpose. Fortunately, the peace did not last for too long. All the young men were finally given the opportunity to become soldiers, and all the young women to become widows. Myself, I availed myself of the opportunity to become an expatriate and dedicated the next twenty years or so to trying to unwash by brain.

Unfortunately, I discovered that my brain had shrunk in the wash. So it took a lot longer to become an un-American than it had taken to be made into one. It was a long and painful process. Even now, I am not sure I am cured of the disease; it may only be in remission. But for the time being at least, I feel that I have managed to shed the urge to see myself as an American or an Anglo or a white person or a human being and to see myself instead as a raw sentient being, not much different from the rodents scurrying around the hayloft or the maggots feasting on the dead rooster in the barnyard.

Owing to my own experiences of coping with the psychological horrors of trying to overcome the effects of being fed a steady diet of myth about my ancestors and their flight from persecution in England and their noble but paradoxical attempts to find a life close to God in the god-forsaken bad lands of Maine and New Hampshire, I have grown wary of indoctrination in general. Sooner or later, illusion confronts truth, and no matter which side ultimately wins, the confrontation is devastating for the person who happens to be the battleground.

Because of my own experiences with truth and illusion, it saddens me to see so many people these days fleeing into new ethnic mythologies, whether it's the romantic myth of the pre-Columbian autochthones living in harmony with each other on Turtle Island in a natural world of reciprocal nurturing, or the new fantasies that sustain the essentially racist mythology of African-American separatists. Sooner or later, these myths are bound to crash. And when they do, I fear there will little left but pain.

For this reason, I found a recent comment by a Japanese-American friend both intriguing and disturbing. My friend spoke of African-Americans who feel that they can no longer relate to the teachings of Jesus, because he was a white man, and because Christianity was the religion of slave-owners. Is there any world religion that has not been the creed of slave-owners?

I admire my friend's courage in trying to make such people, whose ability to think clearly is evidently so deeply impaired, even dimly aware of the teachings of the buddhas, which are based on the notion that peace is possible only with the absence of notions of self-identity. As I understand this teaching (perhaps wrongly), the sense of self-identity that one must shed is not only the idiotic sense of individual identity to which we attach personal names and social security numbers, but also the barbed and prickly sense of collective identity on the basis of which we attach meaningless labels to ourselves, such as African-American, Ashkenazi Jew, Jicarilla Apache, and French Canadian.

If the exercise of exploring affinities between African religions and Buddhism ends in helping African-Americans stop thinking of themselves as African-Americans, then it will have been a useful exercise. (I have taught several students from Africa who found both Buddhism and Confucianism quite fascinatingly familiar to their own ways of being in the world.) But if the African-American flirtation with Asian-American Buddhism culminates in nothing more than a reaffirmation of ethnic pride and alienation, it will have been a dismal failure. Like so many other things on this continent.

Yours in wild anticipation of things to come,
A (barely) sentient Coyote

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Ethnicity, gender, self and dharma

14 August 1993

There is a fast growing philosophical literature on the issues of self and self-definition. Harry Frankfurt, Derek Parfit, Charles Taylor, Amelie Rorty, and Joel Kupperman are some names that come immediately to mind. There is also, I gather, a psychological literature on this issue, but since philosophers and psychologists tend to ask somewhat different questions for different purposes, philosophers and psychologists often ignore one another's work. (They tend to have different self-definitions.)

Here is a view of self-definition that strikes me as being fairly close to what classical Buddhists would accept. It has been cobbled together from the writings and lectures of the people named above but is much less nuanced than any of their presentations. (So don't blame them. Blame me.)

In order to explain this view of self-definition, let me use the analogy of a radio (as the Buddha himself would surely have done, had he lived after Marconi's time). A radio, like the rest of us, sits in an environment that is constantly bombarded with electromagnetic waves of all frequencies. If it simultaneously transmitted and amplified every frequency it received, it would produce a horrible cacophony (or perhaps simply so-called white noise). A tuner enables the radio to select a particular frequency, amplify it and transmit it at a volume audible to the human ear. A person can control the tuner to make the radio transmit a signal that she finds pleasing.

According to one view of human character, character is somewhat like the station that someone tunes into. Character, in other words, is largely a matter of selecting a certain small group of signals from among the huge number with which we are all constantly bombarded and amplifying them and transmitting them. This implies that we all have an element of choice in deciding which signals we are going to transmit. So although we are all exposed, to at least some extent, to a vast array of commercial advertising, political slogans, religious dogmas, moral guidelines and personal opinions, we choose to repeat and act upon only some of them. Those that we choose to act upon can be called our character, or indeed our self (provided that we accept the Buddhist notion of self as a constructed complex).

Note that while this view claims that a person has a choice in which signals to transmit, it does not necessarily have a choice in which signals are available to it in the first place. The signals from which choices can be made are determined by where the person lives and all sorts of other conditions that are influenced by financial resources, social mobility and so on. It is and always has been obvious to at least some people that not everyone has the same opportunities. This is not always obvious to everyone. Politicians like Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney seem to think that everyone receives the same rich array of signals to begin with, and that what one does with one's life is purely a matter of choosing; tragically for all of us who have to live in the aftermath of a world they helped to create, they seem never to have caught on that some radios will never be able to transmit pleasing signals unless stronger and better qualitied signals are given to them.

When I made my opening remarks about race and ethnicity, the point I was making was that everyone who belongs to an ethnic group (which is everyone) and everyone who has biological gender (which is everyone of us except some of the mushrooms in our midst) receives quite a range of signals even from his or her own ethnic group and gender group, not to mention all the signals that come in more randomly from various other groups. Typical Buddhist advice (I was trying to suggest) is: of all the signals you are receiving, transmit only those that are most noble, and mute the rest.

Reactions to my earlier message assumed (quite falsely, by the way) that I was overlooking the rather obvious fact that not all radios are in the same situation, not all are in range of the same signals, and (though it is not fashionable to admit this) not all radios are of the same quality to begin with. This last point is analogous to individual genetic inheritance, over which one has no control and can therefore take no credit, (unless one wishes to subscribe to some of the more bizarre Buddhist theories of rebirth, whereby the disembodied spirits of deceased sentient beings roam around looking for copulating couples so that they can jump in at an opportune moment to give the fertilized egg a consciousness and themselves a new body), but which is nevertheless of considerable importance for what kinds of self we are in a position to construct.

The Buddha's advice seems to me to have been something like this: when you make a self out of whatever materials happen to be available to you at the moment, choose the best materials and make a good self. (The metaphor changes, because the radio analogy is growing stale. But I hope the point is clear enough.) And the Buddha was not shy about making it clear in virtually every sūtra attributed to him which materials he found good and noble and which he found bad and mean.

As I understand the Buddha, his message was clearly that in the most important matters, such as those of character and virtue, ethnicity and gender are not a factor. This is a message with a double implication. First, it implies that one's virtue is not a function of ethnicity or gender. One is not virtuous merely by being black or autochthonous or female; and one is not vicious merely in virtue of being white or male. One is not virtuous because of what one's parents or grandparents accomplished, or because of what one's fellow citizens have achieved or because the hockey team based in one's city won the Stanley Cup (gads, what courage to say such a thing in Montreal!) or because one has a lot of money or because one has no money at all. One is virtuous (or vicious) purely and simply because of what one deliberately chooses to say or do.

The second implication of the Buddha's message that ethnicity and gender are not factors in important matters is this: if one decides to make ethnicity and gender the very foundation of one's self-definition, one may very well be unable to build the most noble possible self.


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Elites, hierarchies, democrats and buddhas

16 August 1993

Charmaine White Face, an Oglala Sioux, says: “In our Lakota beliefs and ways, medicine people are chosen by the spirits. I can't just say ‘I'm going to be a medicine woman.’ I would have to be chosen at birth. Different signs would be shown to the elderly and to the people as to who would be a medicine person, or even a teacher” (Farley, 1993, p. 22).

It is to the social system of the Lakota (or of the traditional Mohawk long-house government, whose leadership is restricted to certain women of a few aristocratic families) that the word “elitist” properly applies. Any system in which people cannot choose their place but are chosen from birth may be called elitist. The word `elite' derives from the past participle of the Latin verb meaning to choose. Among native peoples, it is said, there is often a great conflict of competing mythologies. On the one hand, many of them wish to preserve their traditional cultures and the myths upon which those cultures rest; but on the other hand, they are often strongly attracted by the mythology of individual rights and freedoms that surrounds them. And these differing mythologies often simply cannot be reconciled. The earth spirits and the democratic spirits are too often at loggerheads.

A very similar clash of mythology occurs in the hearts and minds of nearly every North American who takes up the study of Buddhism. As North Americans we often operate under a `nobody here but us democratic egalitarians' rhetoric. This may do service to the mythologies by which hordes of rapacious Europeans justified their march across the Americas, but it does not serve very well to portray the spirit of most Buddhist teachings. Despite all the efforts of postmodern interpreters of Buddhism to show otherwise, Buddhist doctrine is shot through with talk of hierarchies. There is rarely any hesitation to make it clear that the Buddha-dharma is lokottara, superior (uttara) to the beliefs and practices of the ordinary folk (loka). The cosmos of living beings is arranged in a hierarchy with the hells clearly at the bottom and the heavenly paradises clearly at the top. To make it even more hair-raisingly non-egalitarian, it is usually said that those in the highest realms deserve to be there, because they are morally superior beings. Selling such a message to an adolescent in an American urban ghetto would be about like selling the social beliefs of Mormonism to a black woman.

The noble path is nearly always portrayed as having different levels of attainment: the four grades of noble person (ariya-puggala) in Theravāda and other Inferior (no hierarchies here!) Vehicle literature; the ten or fifty-two levels through which a bodhisattva goes on his (sic) climb to the pinnacle in his capacious Great Vehicle; the five ranks of Zen; etc. There is very little to be found in any traditional Buddhist teachings that suggests that we are all at the same level of attainment, and there is very little to be found suggesting that those at the lowest levels of attainment are or ought to be worthy of the same respect and the same privileges as those at the highest levels.

I say all this, not because I wish to pick a quarrel with anyone. Rather I say it because it is these ideological storms that make the study of Buddhist philosophy most exciting to me. What a pity it would be just to wake up and have a nice day every day. What makes it worth opening one's eyelids every morning is the prospect of having one's system of values shaken to the very core by studying things that challenge all the ways one has been socialized to think. I must confess that a thoroughly up-to-date Nāgājuna, who could easily get tenure at Duke University and fit in with his postmodern colleagues there and maybe get a following by appearing on late night television talk shows, is not a very interesting challenge. If I want to talk to that Nāgārjuna, I could just walk over to the Faculty Club and exchange pleasantly egalitarian rhetoric with my English-speaking colleagues while French Canadian and Haitian servants dressed in little red jackets scurried around bringing us glasses of Perrier or Pilzner Urquell. (Actually, I'd have to join the Faculty Club first.)

For me the teaching of Buddhist philosophy consists of two stages. The first stage is to get people to realize that this material is not simply a presentation of all their own ways of thinking, neatly packaged in somewhat exotic wrappings. We are not looking at Marxism or feminism or deconstructionism or logical positivism or social Darwinism or National Socialism in saffron drag. We are looking at Buddhism. (Usually it takes more than one or two courses to achieve this first stage. It takes time for some students to accept that an apparently nice guy like the Buddha would teach something that they regard as false.)

After people finally realize that there really is a difference between what they believe and what the Buddha and his cohorts taught, the second stage is to get them to decide which belief is true. No fair dodging this task by falling back into “This is true for me, that is true for you” nonsense. I want them to try to decide what is true. Period.

Actually, I don't much care which way students decide in this conflict. But I do want them to be damned uncomfortable while they are thinking about it. (“If you're not in pain, you're not thinking yet.”) And then, after they have decided which is true, I expect them to continue listening to the position they rejected as false.

Have a difficult day,

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[Coleman 2001]
Coleman, James William. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
[Farley 1993]
Farley, Ronnie. “Women of the Native Struggle.” Native Peoples (Summer 1993).
[McGovern 2002]
McGovern, George. “The case for liberalism: a defense of the future against the past.” Harper's Magazine 305 (December 2002): 37–42.