We’re all basically milling about inside an illusory, yet amazingly realistic cosmic casino. There are many games being played here and some are so compelling that we are willing to sacrifice our very souls in order to stay in the game. In addition to the house games, there are as well innumerable side-games being run by the guests themselves on each other. In a Vegas casino you can monitor your Keno game while at the same time be actively playing Roulette. Likewise, the universal games routinely overlap and manifest a multi-layered veil of unreal stakes. Among the big games are: The Is/Isn’t Game (with its abbreviated version, The True/False Game) and The Good/Bad Game (with its abbreviated version, The Right/Wrong Game).
This discussion concerns the Right/Wrong Game, in general, and how this game plays out in terms of what we commonly think of as morality, in particular. By the way, some might argue effectively that this whole discourse, coming to you as is does in English, is due to the clarity and influence of David Hume, who was born three hundred years ago today. By attending Hume’s cardinal idea that (matters of) fact and (matters of) value warrant careful differentiation, we find a concept-specific toolkit for this very issue. It is well documented that Hume concluded that value-concepts (sentiments and passions), not facts, are the true venue of morality. What would Buddha say?
Our endeavor is to communicate well – because of what we say and not only in spite of what we say. So, vigilance of and tenderness toward the distinctions between denotation and connotation remain our intended discipline. Lao Zi is credited as saying, “Governing a large country is like frying a small fish.” In the time of Lao Zi, whoever would have had the opportunity to read or hear those words would also have often had the opportunity to actually fry a small fish. This is precisely what makes his aphorism meaningful. If we consider that even the poorest citizens of the USA are in the upper echelons of affluence from a global perspective, we can also understand that in 600 BCE China, the divide between poverty and wealth was even more extreme. It is much easier to catch a small fish than a large one because it can be done without bait or hook or net – tools that require some disposable wealth. You can catch a small fish the same way a raccoon can. The ancient way of frying should also be understood as involving actual fire and not involving non-stick cookware. So, in the low-tech manner of frying small fish, finesse is required. Our multi-leveled, inter-departmental system of body, energy and mentality (inhabited with so many ideas, feelings and conflicting emotions) is no less complex and no less corruptible than any large country. The work associated with genuine spiritual cultivation and development is something akin to governing that country that is oneself. Most serious spiritual practitioners will also report that spiritual work is also like being fried. This ultimately leads to the subject of recipes, heat sources, under-cooking, over-cooking and finesse in the context of spiritual work. For this installment we will try to gain an objective view of Buddhist recipes.
First of all, let us consider the present state human behavior, averaging out everyone from savages to saints. Does anyone really think that the only thing preventing us all from behaving like hyenas is a fine set of moral beliefs? Nevertheless, moral belief systems are ubiquitous and passionately defended by their adherents because although most moral systems start out simple with some version of the golden rule, they routinely become complicated with group-specific aspects about which non-group members can inevitably find a way to take issue. The Buddhist moral code has many aspects and many levels. There are precepts for ordained monks and precepts for laity, with further nuances according to Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana perspectives. The question here is whether any of these moral perspectives have any factual truth to them, or, as Hume asserted, have only a value/sentiment basis.
Buddha is famous for teaching a doctrine of non-existence. But there is a sutra that documents Buddha retracting this. In the sutra, Buddha explains that because the disciples had a strong habitual attachment to believing in existence, he therefore taught non-existence to offset their erroneous thinking. Buddha then goes on to give an analogy of a mother who swabs her breasts with ox bile in order to discourage her weaning toddler from the no-longer-appropriate habit of nursing. The “real condition”, Buddha continues, is actually neither existence or non-existence, nor both, nor neither. So, when Buddha taught non-existence, was he lying? It doesn’t seem reasonable to say so, under the circumstances. Some might say that Buddha was a moral error theory perfectionist because, in spite of his totally enlightened knowledge of the real condition, he always acted in good faith (aka: compassion) even when, or no less when, he was subjecting his own toddler-disciples to ox bile.
The impact of competing moral theories over the past two and a half millennia has not seemingly produced any remarkable advances in the state of human behavior. This is perhaps because most humans have been held hostage during this period by religions that assert an objective/absolute morality. But this is not the only moral problem we have to endure. Moral relativism can be just as annoying because then, regardless of your own moral view, you have to accept the fact that for an Aghori Shivite it is immoral to not eat human flesh, and for some Jihadists it is moral to blow up a school bus, etc. Once again, Buddhism offers a pragmatic solution that remains untainted by any ego-centric agenda: “Understanding that life is like a dream, relax, be mindful and do your best, fearless of any conflict.” There need be no “Ought” deriving from any “Is”.
Aside: On my twenty-first birthday, I found myself in a room alone with Dudjom Rinpoche. I had been considering the current fashion of vegetarianism and decided to ask Rinpoche’s advice on the matter. “Should I become a vegetarian?” I asked. “Are you more of a tiger or more of a monkey?” He inquired. Being prejudiced against monkeys because the derogatory metaphor of monkey-mind had so often been applied to me, I quickly proclaimed, “Tiger. I’m more of a tiger, sir.” Rinpoche smiled and said, “Very good. Be a vegetarian!” Seeing that I was puzzled, Rinpoche then explained that if I were more of a monkey, being a vegetarian would not earn much merit since monkeys are habitually already thus. For a tiger to be a vegetarian, on the other hand, would be meritorious indeed. “Relaxing in the purity of no-hunger-in-the-first-place is even better”, he concluded.
Things are not the way they seem, nor are they otherwise. So, regarding ethical behavior, though we may be inclined to think of ourselves as moral error theorists, careful self-observation of our motivations may reveal a meta-ethical glitch or two. Though merely having an intellectual understanding of Dzogchen in no way ensures that our behavior is enlightened, meta-ethics finds its vanishing point in the genuine Dzogchen view.