Lotus Sutra Musings

So I read a commentary on the Expedient Means and Long Life chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

These chapters explain the motivation for Mahayana’s initial existence when early Buddhism already existed. Early Buddhism assumed:

The people who heard directly the teaching of the historical Buddha were able to become enlightened. (But few, or no other people since)
The historical Buddha is essentially dead, extinct or in Nirvana.
Another Buddha might come along. In a loooong time.

So a monk from that time could be unhappy that he just missed the Buddha and thus would fail or at least never be successful as those who could hear the Buddha preach in person.

Expedient Means says, the Buddha essentially lied. He faked his death. Why? Because in the days before writing the Lotus Sutra, people needed to think the Buddha was dead and it was grief that was motivating Buddhist practice. Now what has changed about people now adays, I don’t know. I’m not even convinced about this “grief motivates practice (or faith)” theory.

Long Life essentially says the Buddha is so long lived that for practical purposes, he’s immortal. He’s been alive nearly forever, and will be alive nearly forever and is still in this world. This has implications for us mortals because if we can become Buddha’s then we too will be immortal. And have super powers.  And that sounds better than nirvana too, because that bit about all four : extinct, not extinct, not both, not neither is gobbledygook and “I want to live forever” is at least clear, even if the means for making it happen is not.  This also implies that in the Lotus Sutra, the fundamental problem is not *suffering* and not *immortality in the rounds of rebirth in crappy realms* but the problem is mortality– that we die at all.

Next, there are the ideas heaped upon the Lotus Sutra:

Individual practice is ineffective (Mappo), but the comparatively effortless practice of reciting the title of the sutra is, because either the mystic law will do the hard work, or the Buddha who is still in the world will do the hard work. If the mystic law does the hard work, why bother with belief or saying the title? Wouldn’t simply doing nothing be simpler and then letting the mystic law do the work? How does the mystic law know, or care if you are a member in good standing with the group? Why would an insentient law be offended if we didn’t believe it or even slandered it? If it is the sentient Buddha who is doing the work for us, wouldn’t he be compassionate and save us all from death regardless, or he’s he a thin skinned, fragile ego jerk like the Christian god?

Morality is not so much about conventional morality, but “faith”, which is something like obedience. So if we are to have faith in something, why the Lotus Sutra in particular, why, not, oh I don’t know, L Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith or Dawkins? They can’t all be right.  I sort of get faith as a sort of optimism (that Buddhist practice leads to something better than not practicing), but I have no use for this faith on so and so authority. In Zen the authority is derived from a fictional story about the Buddha transmitting the dharma from one monk to another until it gets to us, unmodified. But we don’t have to look far to see breaks in the chain and obvious points of doctrinal innovation. Besides, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what the historical Buddha taught, I only care about which of the many dharmas that exist today, which is the most useful, cogent and in line with *testable* reality.

I have no idea if elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra if it talks about original enlightenment (tathagatagharba) Mixed into the commentary was the idea of original enlightenment, that you already are enlightened, and you just need to notice it and then you won’t feel like you need to seek immortality, you already got it.  This feels like assuming the conclusion. You want to know how to become enlightened? Well, first assume you are already enlightened, and problem solved!

Alternatively this original enlightenment is some *thing* or *quality* about you that exists, but is covered with goop and needs to be cleaned up, sort of an original sin that needs to be magically scrubbed and then poof, you were enlightened, and now the fundamental problem of all the karmic gunk has been scrubbed off.

I did like the idea of three thousand realms in a single instant. Essentially this says that the realms are metaphors and there is a little bit of heaven and hell in every instant. This is actually, in my opinion, a radical, secularizing idea. It salvages the texts that talk about heaven and hell while dispensing with any need to believe in a heaven or hell or reincarnation as a real (not fictional) cosmology.

Anyhow, I think I will end up liking the ideas of the ancient Chinese commentators more than the Sutra itself, the same experience I had with the Avatamsaka. The Huayen philosophers had some keen & interesting ideas, while the Avatamsaka itself is a tedious read.

Enlightenment, Draft 42

We assume everyone has a naive idea about who they are– some part of you is you and always was and always will be. It might be safe to say, many have never thought much about it– they are just innately afraid of death.
We assume that it is obvious that unhappiness is rampant, it’s a worthy project to seek replacing it with happiness, or at least peace. If this isn’t true– then we are enlightend– and this project is a no longer needed raft and should be ditched.

Everything changes, nothing stays the same. Except maybe abstractions like math.
The constant change is a source of unhappiness.
You can disassemble anything and any person and find out that it is made up of parts, none of which are unchanging or can represent the whole. (But, when you disassemble the wagon, when you get to the last part, don’t imagine that wagons don’t exist– look around you at the big heap of parts, which were created by an endless chain of cause and effect extending in all directions– that is *all* we are, that is *all* anything is– a big temporary pile of parts.)

What we are is like a eddie in a stream. Everyone is an eddie in the stream. From what do these eddies arise? From the influence of everyone else. So in postmodern jargon, we are socially constructed.  In Chinese terms, cause and effect interpenetrates, so who you are is the sum of all the chains of cause and effect stretching back to our Ethiopian proto-human ancestors and across contemporary space to everyone on the planet.

The project of enlightenment must be re-framed to be meaningful. The relevant unit of enlightenment is everyone.
The sum total of all the sentient beings in the world is the relevant alternative to the self. That collective consciousness

Normative Consequences for Practice
We should work towards the enlightenment of the collective mind. To use a traditional framework, it has consequences for body speech and mind:

Body– Omnivory is autophagy. Corruption of the mind of one node of the collective consciousness affects all nodes (i.e. your drunkness degrades the state of collective mind)
Mind. Politics matter. Altruism matters. Opinions of one node can move the collective mind. (i.e. what you think about global warming matters still when the nodes with power finally decide what to do)
Speech. Low quality communication among nodes of the collective mind degrades the ability of the collective mind to function. (Knock it off with the petty bickering, lies and so on)

Speculative Consequences
Where are the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? I always wondered why people felt the presence of imaginary people (gods, dieties, etc)– is it because our brain is optimized to reason about personified things? The story of King Yama holds the attention better than a treatise on a impersonal law of Karma.  Or is it like the Sci-Fi trope, where in hypothetical distributed computers, from time to time autonomous sentient consciousness arise in the network, and in their alien way are able to act like, well Bodhisattvas. Wikipedia is, in a sense, Manjusri. The collective project of modern and ancient medicine is in a sense, the medicine Buddha.  They take messages, process them and move the collective to solve problems. They still can’t cure your cancer– there isn’t any magic.

We bear the Karma of all the actions of people who lived before us– they constructed us.
All the people who live after us bear the weight of our Karma– we are constructing them.

The only sense in which we ever were immortal was as a part of the collective consciousness, and to borrow a Buddhist trope, this was always true, we just didn’t realize it.

Unsolved Problems
What happens to hermits? Can they reach enlightenment as pratekyabuddhas?
What happens if you don’t sometimes unplug from the collective consciousness? Some nodes of the collective consciousness would like very much to corrupt the whole system to favor some nodes over the others– make some nodes happy at the expense of others. We have to act collectively to collectively reach enlightenment, but if we join the club (and get our Buddhist Club membership card) we become part of institutions that have been corrupted over and over. But without institutions, no single node in a network can exert much influence on any other. What to do?
What’s up with the urge to create separate collective minds intent on destroying the others? (Nationalism, patriotism and the collective fault of seeing an atman in the collective– i.e. Russian or US essentialism)

Collective Minds

The central theme in Buddhism is the attempt to achieve enlightenment through a metaphysical realization, then finding peace and meaning in the implications of that metaphysical realization. So I’m working on groking Tom Pepper’s postmodern influenced interpretation of anatman, and if we aren’t an immortal soul, what are we then– maybe a naturalized collective consciousness. So I compiled this set of snippets removed from their context back at his blog.

“…the mind is both social and collectively produced, and that to live in nirvana is to live as an “absolute community,” one which collectively chooses to undertake social projects and in which each individual is part of, and receives the recognition of, the community.  It does take a sangha, then, to produce an enlightened subject…” (Pepper)
Since collectively, we the people, are tribes and governments, politics seems to play a role:

“… Until we can begin to grapple with the possibility that the mind is a collective symbolic/imaginary system, until we abandon atomistic and empiricist models of the subject, we will not be able to conceive of a world not structured by capitalist social relations. …” (Pepper)
And how Buddhist is this idea, who else has had this idea before?

“…In Islamic thought, the twelfth-century philosopher Averroes, who was influential in bringing Aristotle to the attention of Western Europe, explained that following Aristotelian thought we must arrive at the conclusion that the mind is a collective process, not located in the body, but making use of individual bodies (see Fakhry, 70-73)—his thought horrified Aquinas, who set out to recover Aristotle for the Catholic notion of individual immortal souls…..Hegel, as well, becomes much less opaque when we understand that he is arguing for a kind of collective mind existing in social practices” (Pepper)

Again, the implication of this metaphysical realization is engaged political action

“…Many Western Buddhists would say that the investigation of the social construction of our collective mind is not “real Buddhism,” because it is intellectual, and will lead not to passive states of bliss but to the sense of obligation to make endless efforts to change the world…” (All quotes are T Pepper, okay?)

More open ended pointers on the consequences of a collectively constructed self & collective mind:

“…Or are we perhaps better off avoiding the negative critique altogether, and attempting some positive practice?  Perhaps engage in some new kind of collective creative endeavor instead of endlessly deconstructing those that exist?  What might this creative activity look like?  Organized protests?  Community theatre?  Independent film making collective? Journal for radical literature?  Where can we produce ideology, instead of only critiquing it?…”

I’m scanning here, couldn’t grok “bad subject”– but here is again the core theme

“…In effect, the solution to being a bad subject, suffering unto death, is to recognize that one’s “deepest self” is socially constructed all along, and if it is poorly constructed, the fault lies not “deep within,” but in the social formation, which we can change, but only once we, collectively, as a community, realize how it constructs us….”

The metaphysical realization needs to be realized collectively? This will make the task rather difficult, pragmatically speaking. Less than 1% of the US are Buddhists and of those, most are so-called x-Buddhists, who may have missed the point of the historical Buddha (or missed the worthy points of people in between) and practice it as quietist, devotional religion.

“…If we want to live as agents in the world, without suffering, and able to act, we need to abandon the delusion of the atman, and root it out in every appearance.  That is the practice, and it needs to be done collectively, because, as Hegel reminds us, what we do is always social, and our practices can free us only if we choose them consciously and collectively…”

An example of enlightened collective action:

“…We can change these practices only collectively.  Just as any language requires multiple individuals, any social practice requires a collective to participate in it.  We can only produce better social practices collectively; they can never be prescribed in advance by some individual who plans them out, because the thinking involved in such planning would necessarily occur in the current socially form of reasoning, and so would of necessity be limited.  As a result, any such collective practice would always be a “work in progress,” not a dogma.  Think, for instance, of the stories of the earliest Buddhist sangha and the Buddha’s gradual changing of rules (such as the acceptance of women into the community).  Such changes would not be a sign that the Buddha’s original “awakening” was incomplete; rather, the ability to make such changes would be a sign that the sangha as social practice was enlightened….”

And a hyper translation, which sums up the self (we are created by our society), we by default just imagine that things are as they always been and must be (sort of like an immortal soul), but we can and should instead collectively evolve ourselves and society.  Departing from Pepper, it seems like this could be done in the context of many political environments. Whatever the answer, it seems we have to start where we are and work with what is possible.

Samyutta Nikaya

Part II: The Book of Causation

Chapter 1: Connected Discourses on Causation

38: Cetana Sutta


When he was in the capital, teaching those who were good subjects of the city, Buddha explained the nature of ideology and the subject in this way:

Our choices, our plans, and the structures of our social formations, all of these together make up our ideologies, and give rise to subject positions.  When all of these work together, we have ideological “consciousness,” that state in which we take our desires to be naturally determined, our plans to be thoroughly rational and covering all consequences, and we mistake our social formations for the natural order of things.  When we have this state of consciousness, we are completely interpellated, we are “good subjects” of a social system, and our consciousness exists only to reproduce that social system, mistaking it for natural, forgetting that it is a structure made by humans to achieve some end, to accomplish some human project.  When this occurs, our ideology is reified, stagnation occurs, and then suffering and deterioration and dissatisfaction occur.

Now, it is easy enough to become aware that our choices and our plans are not part of the mind-independent reality, that they are constructed by our social formations, that we choose what we are taught to choose and plan in the ways we have learned.  And then we think we are liberated, because we are aware of the social-constructedness of our desires and forms of thought, of our cravings and our language and our construal of the world.

But at this point, we are still not liberated, because we are still reproducing the social formations which give rise to those desires and those forms of thought.  So long as we continue to act within these social formations, we can at best have a negative freedom, resisting the desires we still have, questioning the forms of our own thought; we continue to produce stagnation and deterioration and dissatisfaction, because we do not yet see that our desires and thoughts are thoroughly and radically immanent, the production of the very structures in which we live and move.

To be liberated, we must produce new social formations, new collective practices in which we can participate, because the individual is nothing but an effect of such structures.  This must be a collective action, an attempt to increase the collective capacity to interact with mind-independent reality; no individual can be free in an unfree social system, except in a kind of negative freedom.

Once we have begun to produce new collective social practices, then we can be free of the reified ideological “consciousness” that is the cyclical world of suffering.  Such consciousness then comes to an end, and we begin to have a new and liberated kind of consciousness, in an ideological practice that refuses reification, that never pretends to be natural or universal, and keeps us always aware of its ideological status, open to change with the production of new social practices.”

And another hypertranslation:

“…Because the self is constructed, and this constructed self is all there is, is the only one there is, we must be all the more concerned with how it is constructed.  And we cannot fool ourselves that we can simply reconstruct it on a whim, that it is unsubstantial and has no causal power, no inertial momentum of its own.  The self can only be constructed with great effort, and by changing the social practices in which it lives, not on a whim. …”

Notes on Shingon

I’m a secular Buddhist. All of the forms of Buddhism have things that just don’t fit with the modern mindset. Some make better starting points than others– many secular Buddhist like SE Asian Therevada. At the moment, I like Chinese Buddhism (Chan and others) and Japanese Shingon.

Things I like

It’s a grab bag. Everyone has projected their idea of what Buddhism should be, could be for so long that Shingon now has a bit of Shinto, Hinduism, Vedantism, which can be discarded, along with a lot of good innovations. And it’s still “recognizable Buddhism”

Bodhisattvas. These are the hardest to incorporate into a secular practice. They are imaginary role models, they exist–weakly– in the collective mind. They are really cool and give a young boy a reason to give a rats ass about Buddhism.

Enlightenment in this life
I know it is a bit of marketing, but it is also a goal and an assumption with consequences. If you can attain enlightenment, then it is “easy” compared to “hard” enlightenment, which takes Kalpas.

Using desire for good
This is a Tantra idea. Taking the advice about giving up attachments at face value implies a certain sort of pathological depression where you don’t want anything.

It isn’t puritan about sex
I’m not talking about how monks can marry, I’m talking about how they incorporated Tantric ideas about sex– use what ever has psychological power as a means for powering yourself towards enlightenment.

The inclusion of ritual as a practice.
This is also difficult to rehab as a secular practice. It’s kind of like an atheist going to get his morning coffee. Is it meaningless, useless and more importantly contemptible? Or is ritual just how people roll, and maybe we should just give into the urge.  But the traditional rituals should be starting points, people should modify and make up their own as they see fit. Shingon is still copying the “summoning the gods as guests, burning gifts for the gods in return for something in reward” pattern which in turn copied from pre-Buddhist rituals. I would have thought that by now, thoroughly Buddhist rituals would be imagined

Esoteric Methodology
This is a methodology of re-interpretation. Old texts are read and an entirely new meaning is layered over the top, often such a radical new meaning you wonder if anyone really believes that the layered, esoteric meaning was intended by the original author. Like all re-interpretation, results will vary, but the methodology, such promising possibilities for living tradition!

Things I still don’t like
Self mummification is assisted suicide via slow self torture for someone who thinks they are gaining immortality.
Vairocana as a sentient Abrahamic-like god, obsurantism wrapped around an eternal soul– these are the very things that keep us unenligtened. I may not have an enlighted grip on what really is, but I can call wishful thinking-devotionalism when I see it.
The deification and veneration of Kukai as some sort of ultra-nationalist Japanese man-god.
Esoteric meaning secret as in “you are allowed to know, you gotta get permission”. Vajrayana guru veneration,
Fixed, unevolving rituals.
And rituals as frickin’ magic– summoning rain and expecting rain is a waste of time.

What is The Brahma Net Sutra Project?

What would it be like to try to live the precepts as a modern, independent lay person?

If you are an ordained monk or nun, the answer is simple. Practice as your teacher or abbot instructs. Independents have no choice but to reason over if and how to follow precepts.

It isn’t 600AD anymore, times have changed. Precepts that may have been good advice then might be downright silly or unhelpful today. The rest are wisdom and the path to liberation. Which precepts are which?

Lay Practice (Being an Upasaka)
Full time practice isn’t available to everyone– at many points in Buddhist history Buddhists have believed that liberation can be achieved while continuing to handle money, farm, do business, and take care of family.  The famous Brahma Net Sutra hints at this and the lesser known Upasaka Precepts Sutra makes this explicit.

Which Precepts?
There are many forumulations– BNS, Upaska, the various paths to liberation (the 10 of this and 40 of that)– some are vague, some are rather specific, some require some interpretation do make them into valuable practices. So the project is not only to try to follow the precepts but to develop the precepts.

The Brahma Net Sutra Project

I seem to like forums.
Like a moth to candles, I keep getting involved. But the flame wars, heated discussions, and polite but pointless discussions… there is no way that that is helping anyone. So maybe I should create a new forum.

Blogs should be single topic, or nearly so.
This particular blog is my “everything else blog”, but I think I now have enough Buddhist content that it should be branched off into a separate blog. Sorry to everyone who’s been bored by this burst of religious content.

Forums are cheap, so maybe instead of comments (which just get overrun by spam) I’ll instead set up a forum for commenting.

The Brahma Net Sutra Project
The Brahma Net Sutra is a Chinese sutra written shortly after Buddhism arrived in China and needed to adapt to local conditions. It is one of the few formulations of Buddhism that

* Takes vegetarianism and animal liberation seriously
* Takes the ideal of gun control seriously (and weapon control in general)
* Takes precepts as a means to liberation seriously.
* Specifically mentions independent Buddhism (i.e. Buddhism practiced outside of an institution, without monks, priests, without a temple, meditation class and driving to Sunday service)

It also has rules that are incoherent outside of an institutional monestary, outside of China, or in a world that has learned a lot since this sutra was written.  We are now pretty sure that onions are not aphrodisiacs, but viagra, testosterone, estrogen are aphrodisiacs and things like alcohol and bad-social skills do lead to unskillful interactions with the opposite sex.

In the book, “A Year of Living Biblically” The author makes the point that mindlessly following all the rules is more comedy gold than liberation. But there are 84,000 gates to the Dharma, some include following recipe-like precepts. For those people for whom the Brahma Net Sutra speaks to them, there isn’t really a place to discuss it without getting bogged down in angry and irrational arguments against vegetarianism, in favor of widespread ownership and use of deadly force and against the very idea of using precepts as a means to liberation.


I keep coming across these words in my readings about Buddhism

- subtle: so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe.
- ineffable: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words
- transcendent: beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience

A better word, albeit with some normative connotations would be “nonsense” at best, an attempt to manipulate someone’s behavior for nefarious goals at worst.

What can be said about the things we can’t describe and don’t know? Nothing. Seeing something in nothing is delusion.

If you can’t explain the soul, or prove it or disprove it, all you can say about it is that you don’t know anything. And this should have no impact on any decision what so ever.

So on topic X, we know nothing, therefore … what? We can derive no interesting conclusions. Not Pascals wager, nothing.

If we try something and it works for us, that is something. If we try something and it doesn’t work, it works for you, that is something.

It is time we start telling the ineffable to f-off.

Rules, rules, rules. Roll your own Bodhisatva Vows

Quick recap. Ethics are good, it’s hard to express ethics strictly as themes and complicated algorithms. A short list of rules can be instructive. Traditional rules are good starting point, but the have mixed into them repugnant rules, silly rules and so on. (For example rules about touching flowers, plain misogynist rules from ancient times, rules condoning slavery, rules to support some alien power structure, such as an ancient abbot or an ancient Emperor)

Also, there are may ways for ethics to go wrong, much in the same way that there are many ways for secular legal systems to go wrong.
- Power. Subscribing to an ethical system not so much for one’s own goals, but as a means of controlling others. (I.e. not only do I follow the rules, but you need to follow the rules, too. What a fine coincidence that when you follow the rules, I accrue benefits!)
- Rank. Rejecting ethical systems because you think someone is trying to re-arrange the social hierarchy. For example, I practice virtue & accrue merit. For anyone to recognize that merit, would be to raise that person in rank. If it is important to maintain the social order as-is, then it is important to go on the offensive and attack the do-gooder and the ethical system they subscribe to.
- Complacency. Your desire for inertia encourages your mind to do everything possible to fight any ethical system that requires actually changing anything.
- Antinomianism. The rules prohibit doing what you want to do, but with great mental gymnastics, you’re able to come up with a reason to break any rule, sort of making ethics either unnecessary or at least a sham. These mental gymnastics can be sophisticate or primitive– the brain tolerates cognitive dissonance (thinking contradictory thoughts) better than it tolerates not getting what it wants.
- Rules as magic. You follow the rules because… they’re rules. And why? Because. And why? Because someone made the rules. And why? Because they did. And so on. This sort of reasoning would made anyone get fed up with ethical systems altogether. Where the rules are unmotivated, unexplained, detached from any benefit, then they’re magic rules.

Not addressing the ways that ethical systems can fail is the heart of antinomian thinking. For example, lets take two ethical rules, one controversial and one less so.

“You can’t force me to change my diet! You think you are better than me for being a vegetarian? I’ve always eaten turkey, it’s history and I can’t give up history. Kill animals? No, you vegans are the real violent ones that kill animals and your ethical rules are the way you show your true evil face.”(phew, cognitive dissonance solved!) Reasoning away an uncomfortable ethical rule doesn’t even require an airtight logical thought, it just has to be strongly emotionally felt.

“You can’t force me to stop microwaving babies! You think you are better than me for never having microwaved a baby? I’ve always eaten microwaved live babies, it’s history and I can’t give up history. Kill babies? No, you baby coddlers are the real violent killers and your ethical rules are the way you show your true evil face (phew, cognitive dissonance solved!).”

If you substitute in something neutral like “water drinking”, the example doesn’t work– because there is no cognitive dissonance, no part of you that thinks that drinking water is problematic for anyone (oddities like dypsomania excluded).

So here is an idea. Make your own set of rules, use the traditional set of rules as a starting point. We follow other peoples rules that way anyhow, accepting or discarding rules that are unpleasant or simply wrong. Each rule also has at least two forms in Buddhism, householder style and “professional”  Personal rules can be more like guidelines- if you break them, it’s your conscious that suffers and that’s it. If you are a professional, ie. a monk or a nun, when you break the rules the institution gets to deal with it– so those rules are going to be nit picky precise and influenced by the fact the act happened in an institution that has goals of its own.

“Get your house in order rules”
Metarule—> Keep it simple, simplify your life until it is easy to practice
Metarule—> Try to work within existing secular law.
> Economics, aka, don’t steal/be generous.
> Family, aka, no sex/no sex (ha!). Buddhism has little to offer in this area if we are to look at the traditional rules. You’ll have to generate specific rules from themes, such as compassion.
> Mental Health. Drinking, smoking, over (under)eating, and other health activities that mess with your mind.
> Skillful Communication, aka no lying/be honest. The Buddhist tradition is sort of conflicted about this. Per the Lotus Suttra white lies are okay, variances among sects is “skillful means” (different versions of the Dharma for different folks, not lies for you and truth for me) and everyone older than a child knows that managing information in a socially acceptable way is more difficult that just a policy to always tell the painful truth.
> Death and Suffering. Don’t exacerbate the situation, minimize death and suffering of all sentient beings.

“Take care of others rules”
> Boddhichitta – Sincerely wish that others can find peace.
> Engagement – Actually do something about helping others find peace. In the Buddhist informed view, this isn’t just enabling people to be more materially successful. This is enabling people to achieve Buddhist goals, regardless to if they follow through. If someone is sick, impoverished to the point where they are time starved (or rich in a way that makes them time starved), or wandering and uninformed, then we ought to be obliged to do something about it.

Buddhist Criticism and Apologia

What a big topic and it is so easy to discuss it poorly. I take the position that criticism needs to be done taking into account the likely performance of people under the secular default institutions of atheism (and anti-theism/anti-religion… the nomenclature gets complicated with Buddhism, which doesn’t believe in an Abrahamic God)– namely, civil government, psychologists, bars and bridge clubs. That covers ethics, what to do when the going gets tough, and socializing.

Criticism of religion seems to be of the following sorts:
Failures of individuals. The monk screwed someone.
Failures of institutions. The monastery didn’t have any means to prevent it or to fix it afterwards.
Failures of doctrine. The monk was doing his job (i.e. there was a doctrinal basis for the bad behavior, or doctrine encouraged it)
(And maybe others, but these are the biggies)

But secular individuals institutions have the same problem. The soldier screwed someone. The army didn’t prosecute. It was part of the campaign to terrorize the enemy. (Failures of individuals, institutions and doctrine again)

Of these 3, failures of doctrine are the most problematic. When someone says, “Joe is a bad Buddhist, a real sociopath”, then well, maybe he is. Ditto for the institution. Both of those can be fixed by following the doctrine. But if the doctrine is broken, the institutions can’t be fix, nor can the individuals.

How bad is it?
To know for sure, we need a natural experiment. Which economist will remind you are hard to find– for example, three similar cities one with just atheists who drink beer and visit psychologists when they are sad, one with Christians who go to Church and pray when they are sad, and one with Buddhists who meditate and read suttras when they’re sad. And observe for a few generations and count how many instances of psychologists we have sexually abusing their clients (how many alcoholics), ditto for how many priests screw their flock, ditto for the monks and meditation teachers. Without that, it’s just people picking a doctrine they like and assuming the people unlike themselves are a bunch of alcoholic, rapists murderers.

How to react- options
Destroy them all! This only works if the person, institution or doctrine didn’t have a good reason to exist in the first place. Otherwise, a new person will be put into an easy to abuse job, a new company will arise to replace the old corrupt one & in turn become corrupt, etc. This is what atheists and self flagellating bloggers would like do to respond to failures of individuals and insitutions. If we shut down all the churches, meditation centers, and so on, where would the unhappy people go? Bars and psychologists for quack nostrums, euphorics and other drugs. (I’m not anti-psychologist like the Scientologists, I just want to remind people about how little science has to offer for unhappiness at the moment & what is does have to offer, is just as likely to go the way of cold baths, Freudian hogwash, and many other scientific cures for unhappiness that didn’t pan out)
Ignore it. This is what institutions usually do and what people who can’t bear any cognitive dissonance do. 7th Day Adventists have better health and Mormons probably commit less crime– things Atheists would like to ignore. Vajrayana seems to actively encourage ignoring defects in teachers.
Call for specific reform. As for sex, I think a good deal of the bad behavior would go away if monks & priests married like everyone else. There would be a new sort of bad behavior to replace it for sure, its never pretty when relationships end, but the shocking and bizzare would probably go away.

What seems unlikely to work
“Don’t overpraise Buddhism!” This appears on Justin Witaker’s blog a lot. A complement to Buddhism can not be left alone until it is complemented with reminders of every failure of an individual or institution in history of Buddhism.
“We are so bad! We are so bad!” Self flagellation is a Christian virtue. I’m not sure where it fits in in Buddhism. Medieval monks beat themselves for others sins. I subscribe to Buddhist doctrine, but I’m not a member of all institutions.
“It all the same, bad, bad, bad” Oddly, normally seeing things all as one would be a Buddhist virtue, but monism works poorly with abstractions. There are different varieties of Buddhism. Some Zen institutions aligned with the nationalist government. SGI didn’t and went to jail. Nyingma priests can have families & I assume are less likely to get involved in sex scandals. I’m a Buddhist and I don’t even participate in an institution. Buddhism plays no role in the US gov’t and it plays a role in the Thai gov’t on account of nearly everyone being Buddhist there.

How to deal with the “No True Buddhist”/”No True Scotsman” Fallacy
When I say, no true Buddhist rapes, pillages and plunders, I mean, Buddhist doctrine (of *my* sort) doesn’t support that. When you counter with “Oh, that’s a no true Scotsman fallacy”, you are attacking the individuals and the institutions and violating a gricing maxim (of listening to the message, not some pedantic obtuseness that seems to advance your case). This is a matter of colloquial English, when I say, No True Buddhist, I mean the doctrine (and when we say no true Kantian, are we not talking about Kant’s obsurantism?). When you counter with the Scotsman Fallacy, you knew I meant doctrine, but want to express your distaste for the individuals, institutions and doctrine. Which would be better served by addressing what part of doctrine you don’t like and what you’d rather have in its place.

And finally, what would Buddha do?
No one knows. He died and didn’t tell Ananda. We do have a bunch of rules lists, among them are “don’t disparage the Dharma, don’t disparage the Sangha, don’t criticize other members of the Sangha” What a nasty self serving set of rules, huh? On the otherhand, what institution can survive ordinary sabotage?

I for one, shall implement this rule as “Don’t disparage the Dharma, sangha or other Buddhists unless you have a specific solution in mind”

Don’t like how ultranationalist-Buddhists in Burma treat minorities there? What is your solution? To disparage the way that westerners have an overly positive image of Buddhism? What a stupid solution. Better to encourage people to write their congressman instead of tweaking their rhetoric about how much they like Buddhism.

Don’t like how mean and nasty people were to each other in Tibet before the communist invaded (and in turn proceeded to be mean an nasty?)? How to fix that? Shall we disparage the way westerners have an overly positive image of Tibetan Buddhism? What is the goal there? Are you afraid that the tibetan meditation center up the road will implement feudalism and haul you off to be a slave at a monestary?

Some controversial thoughts about the 5 Precepts

The 5 precepts are similar to the Christian 10 commandments. They are an ethical system. There are many things that can go wrong with an ethical system. These failures can make the idea of any ethical system unpopular on one hand. On the other hand, every time I point out any problem with the 5 lay precepts, people seem to think I’m advocating alcoholism, rape, lying, murder and theft. Let’s see if I can clarify anything.

What could go wrong with an ethical system? For example, someone might be smug that they follow the rules. Someone might be a jerk in enforcing the rules. Someone might miss the point of the rules and be a jerk whilst following the letter of the law. The alternative to ethical systems include things like internalized ethics– i.e. you do good because doing otherwise doesn’t occur to you, it just happens naturally. Another alternative is guiding themes, which are vague, diffuse rules making strategies where you kind of make it up as you go along using themes and discretion.

Internalized ethics are difficult to teach. So we get instead, long lists of rules. In the Buddhist tradition, we have the 5 precepts: no alcohol, no (harmful) sex, no lies, no theft, no killing. For lay followers, this mostly means, no alcoholism, no rape, no lies that make matters worse, respect property rights and don’t kill other people unless sanctioned by civil government. For monks, it means something more specific depending on the particular traditional rule list. I in particular have a problem with the lay rules, not so much with the monastic ones.

These particular rules are often the ones that monks say lay followers should follow. I cynically believe it is because these rules ask the least of anyone, at in how they are suggested to be followed, namely, no more strictly than the Ohio Revised Code (i.e. secular law) would require.

Furthermore, imagine a person who is inclined to drunkenness, rape, lying for gain, murder and theft. Are they doing this *solely* because they don’t know the rules? Unlikely. These are exactly the sort of rules (for this level of stringency) that people already are following– there already are merely rational reasons why you wouldn’t want to engage in these behaviors– alcoholism has it’s own punishments, secular governments punish the rest of the crimes just fine. Following these rules asks very little of you. There are two main defects of ethical systems that bother me: antinomianism and complacency. The lay 5 precepts (when taken to mean follow civil law in these 5 areas) is antinomianism and complacency. The former because the rules are limited to things you weren’t going to do anyhow– the rules don’t constraint you, they don’t matter. Complacency because your behavior before and after subscribing to the set of rules has no effect on your behavior. It’s like a fad diet where you eat what ever you want.

Every time booze, family (aka sex), and dare I say it, eating meat, owning guns come up, everyone creates a huge dog pile until everyone concludes, it’s just ordained monks that have to teetotal, abstain from sex, skip the meat (well, just in China), and that owning guns, drinking beer (in moderation), etc is fine for a lay follower. In otherwords, following the Ohio Revised Code, the ordinary secular law of the land is lay Buddhism. (If I were to believe the average sentiment on many popular Buddhist forums)

So by the Ohio Revised Code, as I have never, never, never been convicted of a crime in Ohio, I am a lay 5 precepts grandmaster. The rest of Ohio is packed with similarly enlightened beings.

Should we build a new ethical system from scratch?
Again, as a *new* lay practitioner, I have no choice in the matter but to either roll my own or pick an ethical platform. Buddhisms present themselves a bunch of different orthodoxies, not one orthodoxy. If I like my beer, Shambhala seems to tolerate that. If I like sex, extinct varieties of Shingon seem to tolerate that, ditto for post-Meiji Japanese Buddhism. If I like lies– sorry, expedient means– Lotus Sutra has me covered so long as it is a lie for a good cause. If I like killing, I got the Jataka tales, where killing is okay as long as its pirates and we get a utilitarian outcome (potential # of pirate victims < # pirates killed) and the vinaya where as long as butchering is by proxy, its fine.

Am I twisting the teaching? I don’t need to twist, all I need to do is choose, and I can’t avoid choosing, I wasn’t born into this.

I’m convinced that ethical systems are engines of antinomianism and complacency, but they’re handy means for reminding oneself of goals and they are handy ways to instruct kids & peasants while waiting for them to develop some internalized ethics.

As such, a lay precepts list must go beyond obeying the secular law (which may or may not be ethical), but short of renunciation, (i.e. the ethical system of one who owns nothing isn’t going to be the same as someone with a family, job and an estate to manage)