Tag Archives: ethics

august 2010 buddhist carnival: right action

every month i delve into the buddhasphere to come up with interesting tidbits in buddhist writing. this time around i was interested in the concept of right action.

the poem we start out with today is the famous shin jin mei poem

the perfect way knows no difficulties
except that it refuses to make preferences;
only when freed from hate and love,
it reveals itself fully and without disguise;
a tenth of an inch’s difference,
and heaven and earth are set apart;
if you wish to see it before your own eyes,
have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
to set up what you like against what you dislike –
this is the disease of the mind:
when the deep meaning of the way is not understood
peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.

thanks, tricycle!

right action and the death penalty

i’m including this one because the writer draws a (perhaps tentative) conclusion that is different from my own; it’s important to me look at a diversity of points of view. also, it’s fitting to start with this one because “do not kill” is almost always cited as the first exhortation in the teachings about right action. i like the simplicity of it, similar to hippocrates’ basic idea, “first do no harm”. here is an excerpt of the post dying for killing:

one of the most important things the buddha taught was “do not kill.” it’s commonly accepted as the first precept. so, buddhists clearly do not believe that it’s right to kill, to take life. as the buddha did not teach, “do not kill except in the following cases…”, it’s commonly accepted that all killing is wrong. this is why many buddhists are vegetarians, peace activists and conscientious objectors.

isn’t it amazing how something so straightforward can be treated with such confusion? because here’s where i start wavering.

right action and the body

here, in fact, is a translation offered by a buddhist from malaysia about the buddha’s teaching. it is interesting how in the west, the idea of right action is usually linked closely to ethics whereas this section clearly is concerned with what one does with one’s body:

and which, friends, are the 3 kinds of bodily moral behaviour in harmony with the dhamma? here someone, stop all killing of living beings, abstains from injuring living beings; with rod & weapon laid aside, gentle and kind, such one dwells sympathetic towards all living beings.

avoiding the taking of what is not given, one refrains from stealing,what is not freely give. one does not take by way of theft the wealth and property of others, neither in the village nor in the forest. abandoning abuse of sensual pleasures, such one gives up misuse in sensual pleasures. one does not have intercourse with partners, who are protected by their mother, or father, or mother and father, or brother, or sister, or relatives, who is married, betrothed to another, who are protected by law, in prison, or who are engaged to other side.

that is how there are three kinds of bodily moral behaviour in harmony with the dhamma… such is right action!

right action, teaching and fun
this excerpt here from back to buddhism illustrates why it can sometimes be difficult to find interesting posts about buddhism – many buddhists just don’t bother to stick the label “buddhism” onto all they write.

i really don’t think it’s necessary to categorize something as buddhism or not-buddhism; after all, there is really not much difference between the two. when i write about racism, i am writing about right mind. when i write about teaching, i am writing about right action.

so let’s see what he says about teaching.

in all my classes, whether they are english or computer science or meditation, i make a concerted effort to make sure it is fun. in fact, i try to make class silly. the class has to be fun for me and it has to be fun for my students. if we are not having fun, we are not learning.

… after lunch is the most difficult time to teach. to counteract the drowsiness of my students, i knew i would have to really knock the lesson out of the park.

it’s relatively easy to act out the verbs – walk, shout, am. it’s also not so hard to point to nouns and dress them up with adjectives. even adverbs are not so hard to impersonate

however, acting out through and at and with is a bit more of a challenge; toward was nearly impossible.
we made it through prepositions i had planned. salt played a big role in the lesson. the salt is on the table, above the table, under the table, with the glass, behind the glass. there was a combination of horror and laughter when the salt went in the glass.

right action, software and the mundane. oh, and green living

at first glance, this post on buddhism and software selection (first found on another malay buddhist blog, buddhist bugs) seemed a little lightweight. well, it is, just like the book they suggest, what would buddha do? nevertheless, there is something intriguing to seeing buddhist teachings applied to something so seemingly mundane (and yet very important for businesses, just like not stealing and not cheating). after all, if we don’t apply the teachings to the mundane, what’s the point?

and if you’re in the mood for more lightweight reading, go to mother nature news and read about the book what would the buddha recycle? once again, it’s easy to raise our highbrow eyebrows but let’s be honest – isn’t light and fluffy material like this that sometimes provides the entrance to more profound learnings?

right action and inaction
buddha’s pillow has a number of posts on right action, like this one on responsibility:

many of us choose inaction in stressful or frightening situations. this is not practice. inaction in the presence of conscious choices of right vs. wrong actions is irresponsible to oneself and one’s world.

right action and social responsibility
more on responsibility.  here`s an interview at shambala sun about social action:
goodman: kittisaro often quotes ajahn chah as saying, “if it shouldn’t be this way, it wouldn’t be this way.” yet we live in a world of great suffering. how do you reconcile ajahn chah’s teaching with the buddhist precepts of “right speech” and “right action”?

thanissara: at some level it’s obviously true”it can be no way other than it is right now. however our actions in the present condition the future.

buddha didn’t just sit there and say, “oh well, the world is at it is.” he acted. in fact he tried three times to prevent a war between those in his home country of kapilavastu and the king of kosala. yet he wasn’t able to stop the bloodshed. he had to accept that this was a karma he couldn’t alter, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t try. on leaving the area, it is recorded that his beloved attendant ananda asked him why he was so sad, to which the buddha replied that his people would be massacred within the week.

right action, therapy, living in the now and values

the smart buddhist, written by a therapist, has all kinds of choice morsels on offer. here he touches on a sensitive point for me, the idea of being value neutral as a therapist:

the experience of living in the present, paradoxically, can tempt us into experiential avoidance all over again, just in a new form. it’s quite possible to trade escape from the now for escape into the now. the recent enthusiasm for mindfulness and acceptance in the west needs to be channeled properly or we risk creating just another form of western self-indulgence. by themselves, mindfulness methods as they’re often used in western psychotherapy don’t give sufficient attention to the organizing influence of purpose in human life. in the spiritual traditions from which such practices were drawn, “right action” is specified through ethical principles. but western therapists are encouraged to take a value-neutral professional stance, and not direct our clients to any particular belief or “right action” enjoined by a religious or spiritual tradition. nevertheless, we still can help our clients gain access to their deepest aspirations and turn a life lived in the present moment into a life worth living.

right action and rightness

in the last little while, i’ve come across a number of situations where people understandably got a little itchy at the idea of rightness, for example in the comments on my post about trying to come up with a definition of mental health. what’s with this right action, right thought, etc.? part of this comes precisely from the doctrine of value neutrality that many of us been exposed to – in therapy for some of us, but definitely in science. historically, this is also (paradoxically) connected to the very fabric of democracy and human rights, for example when it comes to religious freedom. it is useful, then, to look at this idea of rightness. dogen sangha gives a bit of insight here:

there is none among the many kinds of right that fails to appear at the very moment of doing right. the myriad kinds of right have no set shape, but they converge on the place of doing right faster than iron to a magnet, and with a force stronger than the vairambhaka winds.

(even though each of milliaeds rights do never have any kinds of decisive form beforehand, and so there is no right, which exists before at the present moment, and at the same time there is no right, which continues its existence to the next moment. right is always exists just at the present moment, and such a present moment continue at every moment.)

right is a simple fact, which occurs just when it is done at the present moment, therefore it is perfectly impossible for right to exist at a different moment other than at the present moment at all.

right action and musicianship

we started with the art of poetry, let’s end with the art of trumpetry. here is a beautiful piece at macfune about musicians and right action

what, then, of the moral commitment of the musician? what is it to be a trumpet player? certainly we can differentiate between the hack who puts some plumbing to his lips every once in a while and the truest artist whose spiritual being is not separate from the physical processes inherent in performance. the difference is morality. the difference is how one lives one’s life, not how one thinks idly about right and wrong but how one acts.

(side note: nothing is still, nothing is constant, nothing exists from one instant to the next: all we are is action. there are no nouns in this universe, only verbs. all nouns are categorical statements that limit and defy the constantly changing nature of phenomenal existence. “i” should be understood as a verb, not a noun.)

right. so the musician is, like all artists, exploring the fundamental question of human existence: the moral question. when we listen to miles, coltrane, glenn gould, to the cleveland orchestra playing beethoven (!), or to any other great musician, if we pay attention we can hear a profound moral question posed.

i remember reading somewhere or other that the key to understanding jazz is to hear the hidden social message: in the softest, most intimate ballad are the seeds of a profound sadness, and in the most joyous, swinging celebratory bop number is wild rebellion, lurking just beneath the surface.

if you’ve made it this far, thank you! come again next month, on september 15, or read some of the other buddhist carnivals.

the meta of twitter

raul started, or continued, a conversation on his blog that i think we should all take seriously (or let’s say, play with). he states there is a

need for higher-level, more philosophical/ethical/larger scale discussions in the social media world, and about topics on internet and society.

frequent readers of my blog know that i totally agree, and i’ve written a number of musings about it myself (see the list below)

raul asks some questions:

  • what are the ethics behind social media?
  • where are the ethical boundaries drawn?
  • what type of best practices are taking place and how can we avoid faux pas?
  • what is the impact of twitter and other social media on society?
  • who is benefiting from early adoption of social media?

let me ask a few more and then hand it over to you:

  • is twitter changing language? and if yes, how do we react to it?
  • does social media take away from face-to-face relationships? and is this question answered differently depending on how deeply a person is involved with social media?
  • as information races towards us increasingly fast and in increasing amounts – are our ideas of what it means to know something changing?
  • and a question that i’ve been wondering about for a while – how do our brain’s neuronal connections mirror the interwebs (the webs cast by the internet and by social media), and do these changed connections result in permanently changed brains (hindbrain, limbic system, neocortex and web brain, perhaps?)

what questions do you ask?

these are earlier posts on related topics:

why we blog and other intelligent waxings on self-expression

blogging yourself home

MentalHealthCamp – the power of social media

social media etiquette

simplicity and the internet

blogathon: internet, the great procrastination enabler drug

quickie: what’s a friend?

comment aspirations

bloggers – who are they?

compassion and social media

on blogging and research

metta. and that includes the internet.

designing the web

the psychology of cyberspace

guilt, cheney and guantanamo bay

junebugkitty, one of my stumbleupon friends, had some interesting comments on the topic of guilt that we started discussing here a few days ago.

he mentioned the famous milgram experiment, where subjects in a psychological experiment were required to administer electrical shocks to their fellows when told so by an authority. over 50% followed those instructions, even when informed that the shocks could be lethal. (a re-enactment of this was staged recently, with the same results).

he then says,

this all leads to the conclusion that the world is headed by a small amount of people that are emotionally different, and don’t have that guilt factor, and aren’t ashamed of what they do, so they have the physical capabilities of committing atrocious acts to protect their image.

the nerve it takes to order people to be tortured, to know that one is responsible indirectly for the deaths of hundreds of thousands cannot be ignored by a lot of people, yet the public still votes in wars, the government keeps guantanamo going, the torturing of people ruins somebody, that’s where post traumatic stress comes in.

but why? how is humanity able to commit acts such as this? i do not understand what makes those people different from me, and it scares me to think that i would do the same as they if presented with the opportunity. not because i am evil, or different from others, but just because the military uses basic instincts to teach to kill, fight, and not to act before you think …

how do they do it? and how do they get into the positions they are in, once fighting? the urge to kill is stronger than the urge to save.

i’m definitely confused on the concept of war and the events that take place there, and what inside a person makes them act like that. do you know what it is?

i don’t know if anyone knows for sure – but let’s think about this for a moment.

nancy defines guilt as an “internal sense of culpability, being responsible for the impact my actions have if they impact others injuriously.”

others associate guilt with shame and/or regret; others yet with remorse.

in the re-enactment of the milgram experiment, those who administered the shocks showed signs that they felt the injurious impact their actions had on others. that did not prevent the majority of them from acting on it and breaking off the experiment.

similarly, shame, regret and remorse are feelings, and usually feelings that are played very close to the chest.

the question is, is guilt, in these situations, a motivator  for action? or could one break off the experiment without feeling guilty?

one scenario might be where a person says right from the beginning that they will not hurt a person at all, or that they will only go so far with hurting a person, and then follows through on it. then the conviction takes the place of the guilt (and is probably much more motivating).

more likely, however, is a situation where a person slowly starts to feel uncomfortable until guilt and/or remorse get so high that they cannot take it anymore, and then they stop.

when i was watching the re-enactment video, i was also wondering what might be happening with the subjects after the experiment. were they lying awake at night wandering, “how could i have gone so far?” thoughts of remorse and regret. the same as guilt?

what junebugkitty seems to be wondering about are people who apparently do not experience such uncomfortable tension that they break off whatever injurious activities they are engaged in.

is it because the external pressure of authority is greater than the internal pressure of guilt?

is it because they find themselves in a physical or cultural environment similar to the one in the milgram experiment, where harming another is expected and sanctioned? (i.e. they are pressured by a faceless and nameless authority)

is it because they are inured to guilt?

the latter question could lead us back to what some of the commenters on this series of guilt talked about: guilt as manipulation. if, just for the sake of argument, dick cheney was brought up in an environment where he was constantly “guilted”, he has a number of choices. for example, he could

  • be spooked by guilt wherever he goes, never taking risks, always afraid of the guilt monster.
  • become hyper responsible.
  • deal with it in therapy or other self-reflective, self-changing processes.
  • become immune to the discomfort of guilt and simply disregard it.

if we have a number of people at the helm who have chosen to disregard guilt, who command an army of people who do not have the energy/will/courage to react to guilt, then it’s easy to imagine how we can have a nation that is not 100% up in arms against what’s happening in guantanamo.

(this post was mentioned in the carnival of political punditry)

more on guilt and responsibility

i’d like to thank alex for his reply to my last post about guilt and for initiating an interesting discussion.

alex asks, “why she has to feel sad or bad if joe forgets their wedding anniversary? she has to be confident and sure enough to know that he cares about their marriage even if he has a loss of memory or whatever.”

here are my thoughts on this.

of course this was just an example.

i don’t think she “has to” anything. but feeling hurt when a husband forgets an anniversary is pretty common and understandable (at least here in north america – to some degree this is a cultural thing).

now if they have both agreed that remembering such dates are not important, it would be a different situation.

alex also says, “guilt is more related to self-image and illusions regarding that than to actual facts or acts related to others. is the intention that counts. if you had no intentions of hurting someone but someone does, that does not necessarily imply that you commit a wrongdoing.”

i think the word “necessarily” is important here.

guilt can be related to self-image and illusions but it doesn’t have to. again, it’s useful to separate out responsibility for from the feelings about a particular event.

if jill causes an accident while driving a car, her intentions may be very good but she might still hurt someone. that’s her responsibility, and ideally her actions following that will be driven by compassion and a resolve to repair the harm she has caused.

however, if she lays awake at night for the next two weeks beating herself up over what has happened (i.e. “feels guilty”), nobody is served except that perhaps the desire to avoid feeling like this will cause her to drive more carefully.

alex then points out, “what if the other person is too susceptible and has low self esteem? do you have to charge with that on your back so that person feels better? i don’t see that as a way of helping others to grow emotionally.”

i talked a bit about that in a previous series of posts (“you made me do it“). again, it helps to separate things out – this time, what your feelings and actions are and what the other person’s feelings and actions are.

you may or may not have a lot of impact on what another person feels and does but you have zero control over it. the only person you have any semblance of control over is yourself.

that means that

a) you are proportionately responsible for your actions’ impact on others. every action has consequences. how these consequences play out is out of your hands. but you need to be aware of and prepared for the fact that there will be consequences.
b) you are wholly responsible for how your actions impact on yourself.
c) you are wholly responsible for your own feelings.

thus, to come back to joe who forgot the wedding anniversary (an event that we’ll assume he and his wife agreed would be important in their relationship), he is proportionately responsible for the impact this has on his wife. how she reacts to that is up to her. but he can’t say, “what, you’re upset? that’s not my problem.”

what that proportion looks like depends in part on their relationship. if, say, she is grumpy for an evening, that’s something that he might want to help alleviate. if she can’t stop talking about it for the next month, then that’s clearly out of proportion, and there is no reason for him to feel responsible for such obsessive behaviour. (although if she does act like that, i would wonder what else is or isn’t going on in that relationship!)

as i discussed in another post, as children, we are dependent, as teenagers we discover independence and as adults, we need to negotiate interdependence. anything we do and say has consequences, has impact, and it falls on us to figure out which part of the consequences we are responsible for. but spending lots of time feeling guilty probably won’t help much.

understanding guilt: is it useful?

what is guilt? we usually think that guilt is a feeling. however, it is not a primary emotion like fear or happiness, sadness or even shame. it is more complex. when joe feels guilt over having forgotten his and mary’s wedding anniversary, a number of things happen.

  • he needs to have a basic concept of right and wrong. e.g., hurting people is wrong.
  • he becomes aware that he has done something that hurt someone (i.e. forgetting the anniversary hurts mary’s feelings; it makes her wonder whether their marriage is all that important to him)
  • at that point an almost physical shock can set in, which is probably the reason why we call guilt a feeling. this is because
  • the awareness of having hurt someone brings shame (“i shouldn’t have done that; it is unacceptable in my community/culture) and/or compassion (“i don’t’ want her to hurt”)

now the question is, where does all of this lead? there are numerous possibilities. among the more ideal scenarios are

  • apologizing
  • promises of restitution or restoration (“i’ll make it up to you; let’s go to whistler next weekend and celebrate”)
  • resolve (“this won’t happen again”)
  • action – they actually do go to whistler, and/or he puts the event into his day timer for next year, in big red letters

these are all ways that show responsibility. but sometimes guilt also leads to

  • procrastination – “i feel awful right now, let’s wait until i feel better”
  • aggression and isolation – research has shown people can turn against or drop people towards whom they feel beholden or guilty. somehow we see them as a source of our guilty discomfort, so there can be a subconscious drive to fight or flee them
  • a mistaken idea of absolution. by receiving the “punishment” of feeling guilty, it seems as if we’ve already done our part.

where does that all leave us? it seems to me that “feeling guilty” is really not such a useful activity because even in the positive scenario we can re-script it. next time you feel guilty, why don’t you imagine you can throw out most of it and just keep these:

  • your values of what’s right and what’s wrong
  • an awareness of how your actions and omissions impact others
  • compassion for anyone you might have impacted negatively
  • ask for forgiveness where possible (including from yourself!)
  • make restoration
  • do what you can to prevent a similar occurrence from repeating

isn’t that much cleaner and simpler?

(please continue on to part 2 of this reflection on guilt, inspired by the comment below)