Friday, March 29, 2013

Never Let a Sense of Morals Prevent Me from Doing What is Right

Ruairí:

If tomorrow, miraculously, everyone on planet Earth achieved enlightenment / nirvana / liberation / Buddha-hood, how would we then go about our lives? Remember, this would be the real deal – the reordering of consciousness, not a Hollywood transformation wherein we would all vanish in a flash of light. Despite realising our true Buddha nature, we would still need to live, society would still need to function. But how would a society of Buddhas organize itself?

...I posit that the society that emerges would look very similar to what is commonly described as Communist (and real Communism at that, not the cartoonish scare story paraded by the right).  I can’t for the life of me think of any other possibility, can you?

That depends. Is enlightenment a path or a destination?

Let me put it this way. When I started reading books about Buddhism in my adolescence, I quickly began to notice that there were two main types of them. One type was what I started to think of as "religious" Buddhism. There was a lot of recitation, in a more formal way, of the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc., a lot more emphasis on correct ritual behavior. The other type, which I greatly preferred, was what I thought of as "philosophical" Buddhism, exemplified in my eyes by people like Alan Watts, Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, Sam Hamill and Owen Flanagan.

If I may generalize here for brevity's sake, the religious form is primarily concerned with ethics, with ending suffering in all its guises. This is how enlightened people should behave. Follow these rules to achieve these goals. The philosophical form, though, is more of a radical method of inquiry. It marries Buddhist insights and techniques to Western empirical reasoning. The goal of one's practice is to see reality as clearly as possible, whatever that may entail, and to avoid reifying abstract concepts. No action, however well-intentioned, will be of any real use if rooted in ignorance and hazy vision.

The religious form is a form of motivated reasoning. It takes for granted that the purpose of people's discipline and ritual practice is to bring them to the point where they accept the preordained conclusion. The philosophical form holds out the possibility that truth-seeking and ethical harmony may not be perfectly compatible. Sometimes truth and honesty can create conflicts. Sometimes lies and illusions can maintain peace and stability. Where is the perspective from which we can judge when one or the other is called for?

Nowadays, I find it gets closer to what I feel is the heart of the matter to think of this as a division between rationalism and empiricism, especially since the same division presents itself in many other contexts besides Buddhism (this is largely the reason why I'm curious to read Michael Oakeshott and see what his take on this was all about). Rationalism concerns itself more with internal consistency between principles, whereas empiricism is more content to accept contradictions or incoherence on an intellectual level as long as a situation "works" somehow. We can never have all the relevant information necessary in order to make a fully informed decision, and yet our imperfect decisions nonetheless create new ripples of causation in the world which multiply exponentially. We can never devise the perfect system which, when implemented properly and administered diligently, will eliminate conflict and inefficiency. We just muddle through the best we can, teetering and tottering in an attempt to keep our balance.

So I agree that universal Buddhist enlightenment and "pure" Communism would be very similar. However, I think that's because both of them are rationalist abstractions. They both dream of a grand synthesis in which all the conflicts of human society are resolved. They believe in the existence of an ultimate perspective which, when obtained, will reconcile dramatically different human desires, with each individual recognizing exactly what needs to be done in their own lives toward that shared goal. In their own ways, both views see life as a problem to be solved.

Sam Harris, while promoting his book The Moral Landscape, used an example to illustrate the difference between questions that are answerable in theory vs. answerable in practice. How many birds are in flight above the Earth at this moment? The answer, whatever it is, does indeed exist, even if we don't know it. There are a finite number of birds on Earth, and if we had the means to monitor every inch of the planet and its atmosphere, we could conceivably find a true answer to that question. Obviously, though, the practical obstacles to doing so are insurmountable.

And that's a situation which would only require the relatively straightforward actions of observing and counting. Imagine, then, the infinitely more complicated scenario of trying to anticipate every single situation that could bring individuals or groups of people into conflict and trying to enact preventive measures. Even if it is conceivable in theory, it doesn't seem remotely possible in practice.

Ruairí's original question implied that enlightenment was a state of being that, when authentically realized, necessarily resulted in harmoniously integrated human interactions. But what if enlightenment is simply the realization that conflict and suffering are ineradicable ingredients in life, which can only at best be contained, never overcome completely? What if, instead of ironclad logical necessity, enlightenment reveals neverending Sisyphean struggle?