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Thinking in Ethical Terms

One of the most difficult hurdles for someone starting out on this path is to master thinking in terms of a set of Ethical Principles that is different than that under which one has been raised, or, for those raised with no ethical principles, restricts behavior where previously there were no constraints — "If it feels good, it's alright".

On the surface (and one of the reasons Buddhism is usually regarded as 'benign' by other religions and cultures) Buddhist ethics appear the same as most other religions:
"Abstain from harm to living beings" is automatically translated into "Thou shalt not kill." (And that is usually further distorted to mean thou shalt not kill human beings, except ... .)
"Abstain from taking what is not given" becomes "Do not covet thy neighbors goods" or "Do not steal."
"Abstain from intentional untrue speech" becomes "Thou shalt not lie ... unless you are a police officer or politician or businessman... etc."
and so forth.

Right from the start, however, someone practicing this system should understand that in this system these "precepts" are distinguished from those of other religions:

1. These are not "commandments." These are in the form of advice, directed at one's own best interests as dictated by the law of kamma. Here "Do unto others as ye would be done by," is not a matter of kindly behavior nor a threat of punishment or offer of reward, but is a matter of practical advice.

2. Understanding that these precepts are advice and not commandments, they are absolutes; permitting of no exception. There is in this system no allowance for "white lies," "justifiable homicide" and the like. Nobody is telling you you must obey the rules, but the rules have no exceptions: the smallest fault will have reprocussions in terms of kamma.

Even these characteristics, which make the Buddhist system of Ethics unique, look simple enough until one begins to put them into practice. Putting them into practice is going to be one of the most difficult things you will ever have undertaken and will completely revolutionize your life. But the real challenge comes in when you begin to think in ethical terms.

This was a homework assignment which probably is no longer available; but a reasonable substitute is likely out there in television land. Another possible substitute is to obtain one of Dr. Phil's books:

Watch Dr. Phil on TV. Make no mistake, Dr. Phil is probably the first true voice of an Uniquely American Ethics; and in so far as the US is a melting pot, he is also probably the first voice of a World Wide US-based Pop Ethics. For Buddhists, however, this is just the slick voice of Mara. (No offence to Dr. Phil, he is clearly a brilliant, well-motivated man who has probably had no contact with the ethics proposed here. And the least that can be said for him is that he is a master of his subject matter.)

How is he the slick voice of Mara?

Because his system is based at its deepest root on the idea that "This is," and "I am," his orientation is towards attaining goals based on "becoming in the World."[1] His intent is to provide tools for living optimally in the world (do not misunderstand, even here I am not saying that the system he has devised is actually better than the Buddhist system at creating an optimal worldly lifestyle; I am saying that this is Dr. Phil's intent — the difference is that the Buddhist system is oriented towards attaining the abandoning of the world, and that in the process, as a bye-bye-product, the worldly lifestyle of one so practicing is improved; the Buddhist system allows for the abandoning of the idea of "I am" and "This is" where Dr. Phil's system, because it is based on these ideas, makes them impossible to abandon, and in this way, he is taking Mara's part).

This is the homework assignment: Watch the program and Think About the stance that is being taken with regard to that program's theme and think about the full scope of results for all sides that will result from adopting his advice From The Perspective of the Ethics of This System.

When he tells someone: "Do you think this is a good idea?" Ask yourself: "Is this a good idea in terms of Kamma? Will this person, doing this, violate any precept to even the smallest degree?"

Remember: Kamma (another word for "This world" and "I am") is the act and it's consequences; without action there is no consequence. There is no "sin of omission" in terms of kamma; one is not required to act; one is only required to not act wrongly (which is sometimes described as an act of not-doing, which produces a special sort of resultless kamma and has the effect of resolving a kammic result into non-existence, but that is a different thing). If there were, in any way, a requirement to act, there could be no escaping kamma. So pay special attention to where Dr. Phil is saying: "Do such and such."

This is an unusual opportunity and should be taken advantage of because it is not often that the straight-up topic of an hour or so of public discussion is aimed so directly at the topic of ethics. It is a great chance to sharpen your wits.

At this time [Saturday, September 09, 2006 10:15 AM] I have for quite some time not watched television. I have no idea if Dr. Phil is even still on. If the reader is seriously interested in seeing this idea as it was presented, I believe CDs of the show are available from video stores and



Cure the Symptom or the Disease?

Last night I again revisited Dr. Phil. Again, please note that I am not coming down on this man as a person — my perception is that he is at least as strongly motivated by the desire to help people as he is for fame and fortune — but, for Buddhists, he represents a vehicle for a point of view that is contrary to Dhamma.

Case in point: One of last nights themes was how to deal with long-standing guilt and remorse.

Dr. Phil does not deal with the causes of the initial events.

Dr. Phil's perception is that individuals hold on to the reliving in memory of key events involving guilty acts as a means for self-punishment which is, itself, a means these individuals use to free themselves from guilt — The mechanism of action as he sees it is two-fold: (fear) "If I don't punish myself in this way, some really bad punishment will be visited on me by higher powers." and (the payoff: reward for punishing wrongdoing) "I am constantly being punished for this act, therefore I can go about doing what I want to do in other areas because that area is being taken care of."

Dr. Phil's solution in these cases is:

a. for the individual to accept the reality of the situation (the old bad act can't be undone);

b. decide for one's self that sufficient punishment has been meeted out;

c. and to choose to put it behind one's self for the sake of all concerned — the individual themselves and those who are being affected by the guilty behavior.

In other words to achieve liberation from the punishment/reward cycle by elimination of the punishment. — Wouldn't it be loverly!

The Buddhist proposition is that harmful (guilt and remorse causing) acts are initially motivated by wanting, often of the nature of wanting to avoid the unpleasant. The indulgence in guilt, self-recrimination and remorse, having nothing to do with the actual consequences of the original act, is motivated primarily by the desire to experience heightened emotions (i.e., to feel, i.e., to live; bhava — at best one might say that the mind is exploring the details of the action-complex (a little mind-drama we see being played out in front of us in the form of Dr. Phil and his subjects) in order to understand it; in either case this is a set of actions which needs to be separated from the initial harmful act).

The solution for Buddhists is to see the situation as it really is:

a. to accept the reality of the situation (it can't be undone);

b. understand that the consequences will take care of themselves (are not under one's control) and that indulging in guilt and remorse is indulging in additional acts which if they involve inflicting pain on self or others carry further kammic results of a painful nature;

c. understand that the results cannot be escaped. Kamma as a whole can be escaped — in which case the individual is deemed by his success in his effort to escape to have endured the consequences in terms of that effort — ; or the subjective consequences can be mitagated by strengthening the ability of the individual to endure them such as by over-balancing with good deeds...remember the simile of the small amount of salt in the large barrel of water (the salt does not just go away)[2].

d. by making the type of harmful behavior (and it's causes in wanting/desire and its end in ending that desire, and the way to the end in the 8-Fold Way) conscious, if necessary by apology or confession,

d. and to choose to make an effort to train one's self to abstain from such harmful behavior in the future.

Dr. Phil's solution is directed at making the individual and others happy in this world (even though this may be phrased as in the desire to eliminate painful behavior, it is with the idea of eliminating painful behavior to allow the experience of happiness in the world).
The Buddha's solution is directed at ending behavior that binds one to this world where pain is an unavoidable feature.

Dr. Phil's solution may or may not work in treating the symptom of the disease (indulging in guilt and remorse); The Buddha's solution treats the disease itself (the harmful behavior).

Pursued to it's ultimate conclusion, Dr. Phil's solution will result in psychopathic behavior: guiltless self-indulgence — it is the nature of downbound-confounded rebounding conjuration (paticca samuppada) that until such time as the disease (blindness to the nature, cause, ending and way) is cured, the individual will go on performing the behavior that causes the symptoms. Pursued to it's ultimate conclusion the Buddha's solution will result in the ending of behavior that results in pain.



Anguttara Nikaya, The Book of the Threes #99

Analyzing the idea of the Escape from Kamma[3]

The difficult concept to understand is found in the first two paragraphs of this sutta:


"O priests, if any one says that a man must reap according to his deeds, in that case, O priests, there is no religious life, nor is any opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of misery.

But if any one says, O priests, that the reward a man reaps accords with his deeds, in that case, O priests, there is a religious life, and opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of misery.


"Monks, if anyone should say: "Just as this man does a deed, so does he experience it," — this being so there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity manifested for the utter destruction of Ill.

But if one should say: "Just as this man does a deed that is to be experienced, so does he experience its fulfilment," — this being so, monks, there is living of the holy life, there is opportunity manifested for the utter ending of Ill.

(The remainder of Woodward's translation agrees in substance with that of Warren and illustrates with the much used by me and little cited simile of the lump of salt, and also the simile contrasting the punishments of the rich man and the poor man[4].

Bhikkhu Thanissaro:

"Monks, for anyone who says, 'In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced,' there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress.

But for anyone who says, 'When a person makes kamma to be felt in such and such a way, that is how its result is experienced,' there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress.

This is the Pali:

Yo bhikkhave evaṃ vadeyya — yathā yathāyaṃ puriso kammaṃ karoti tathā tathā taṃ paṭisaṃvediyatī ti — evaṃ santaṃ bhikkhave brahmacariyavāso na hoti okāso na paññāyati sammā dukkhassa antakiriyāya.

Yo ca kho bhikkhave evaṃ vadeyya — yathā yathā vedanīyaṃ ayaṃ puriso kammaṃ karoti tathā tathāssa vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvediyatī ti — evaṃ santaṃ bhikkhave brahmacariyavāso hoti okāso paññāyati sammā dukkhassa antakiriyāya.

Which I hear this way:

If, bhikkhus it is said thus: — suchas suchis the kamma made by a man thus and thus it rebounds — in this case, bhikkhus, the real living of the Brahma life, the clearly encompassed perceiving of the utter termination of dukkha, could not be had.

But if, beggars, what is said is thus: — suchas such sensation is created by a man's kamma thus and thusly will be the resultant rebound — in this case, bhikkhus, the real living of the Brahma life, the clearly encompassed perceiving of the utter termination of dukkha, is able to be had.

Warren, Thanissaro and Woodward's translations all sound as though the first and second statements are the same. Bhk.Thanissaro comes closest to the meaning.

The idea is that when someone says that when you hit someone, you will be hit back, then there is no way to escape kamma because there is no way to change the form of the rebound of unknown past deeds. You're stuck and time may run out before you are able to ware out the old kamma (you will have no room for strategizing escape, etc), and everything you do in the meantime will have rebounds, etc.

But if a person says when you hit someone with the intention of inflicting pain, that is, create a kammic deed to be experienced as painful, then the rebound to be expected is that of the experience of pain, then there is escape from kamma because the form in which the rebound occurs can be changed. The pain does not have to be experienced as the consequence of being hit back, but it can be experienced in some other form that has what we might call an equal measure of the pain to be experienced. In this way, for example, one who is going from an ordinary individual to Arahant in one lifetime can burn off all their old bad kamma by contriving by way of getting high or what we might describe as being open to the experience, to just sit there and take the experience of intense pain (or whatever) and get it over with.

What we might call kamma to be experienced as physical pain can be transmuted to kamma to be experienced as mental pain, kamma to be experienced as mental pain can be condensed and reclassified to the point where the pain is experience as merely a passing thought...sometimes, because we begin ignorant and do not often understand our own intentions, the painful deed may actually be experienced as pleasant sensation from a different perspective.

We rebel against the idea that someone could "get off" so easily because we do not really believe. We show our disbelief by our lack of understanding that this individual who has escaped the kamma of endless previous time in a shrug has done so by letting go of the endless future to which we so desperately cling and cannot imagine ever giving up — and cannot as a consequence, imagine the karmic weight such renunciation carries.

The burning off of old kamma can be so contrived (reference the end of the Satipatthana Sutta) that the whole process start to finish could be over with in a matter of a half a day.



Mara's Daughters

Here's one I hope nobody else has to face:

Somebody dumped three calico kittens on my property. What do I do?

Facts and Groundrules:

Calico cats are always female.

Cats eat birds, and these kittens are no exception; one bird a day at the least is being well as some rodents I am sure...but there is the king-snake for that as well.

I am looking ahead to the time when I can find a location where there is absolutely no "upkeep" required with regard to property...not the case in my current location (where there are neighbour's opinions and fire considerations to deal with at the bottom line); and I am, and have been, with regard to the present time reducing that upkeep that is necessary here to the absolute minimum.

I like cats. I have had quite a few cats as pets in my life, and these cats are very "cute."

The law states that if you (presumably intentionally) feed a homeless cat for five consecutive days you are considered the owner; and as the owner of a menagerie of cats you must get a licence, meet certain standards, and get the cats nutered and checked for certain diseases. If you do not feed them there is no responsibility.

The various humane societies and animal control centers will do nothing about the situation unless somebody traps the animal and brings it to them.

So again, what do I do? (Make no mistake I know Mara is just figuring out how to give me grief here. I see his three daughters in those kittens, no doubt about it!)

If I feed the cats they will immediately become dependant on me, (this distinguishes the situation from that of feeding a hungry human) and I will need to figure out what to do with them, when I have become much more attached, should the time come when I move on, or it will, given my age, delay for this life any effort at complete detachment. They will not stop killing birds.

If I trap the cats and take them to the "humane" society, they will be spade and then put up for adoption. The likelihood is that they will be adopted because they are attractive kittens (that is if I act fast...something Mara, Spammers, and Telephone Marketers all have in common in their pitches), but if they are not adopted they will be euthanized.

This would absolutely amount to doing to another what I would not want done to myself.

If I ignore them (not easy, as they learned early on that I was throwing out old bread for the birds and they were able to eat bread and birds as a consequence of me so when I stopped putting out bread when I figured this out, they started hanging out ... just looking at me...waiting...yaaag!) the likelihood is two will die of starvation, the strongest may survive but will have kittens of her own in a year. Start over from the beginning.




Answer: This is not my problem and my problem is my kamma if I should do to another being what I would not want done to myself. If it came to me starving and someone else facing the alternatives of watching me starve to death or trapping, incarcerating, castrating, putting me out for slavery (being owned by another, however benign or free of work) or being euthanized, I would understand the decision to allow me to starve...or at least I would hope that I would understand that decision. Their kamma is their own. I will ignore the kittens plight, thinking of them as wild animals about which I have no concerns to speak of. The consequences in terms of dessimation of the bird population and the increase in the cat population I will have to live with until such time as I can put a wall around this place in some kind of attempt to control what populations occupy it (or at least stop my neighbours from dumping their cat problems on me). If their kamma is such that they have the power to live some one of my neighbours may intervene.)

It's 5:58 in the morning. I have not gone outside yet. I'll go outside soon. Maybe. Maybe there is more work I need to do inside..."





It's been a while. I stuck to my guns and did not feed the cats deliberately at all. The two weaker calicos died off. The stronger lived on and produced her first litter within six months. One kitten survived. A male that she brought to my front door and who told me in no uncertain terms that I was to feed him. I did not fed him more than 4 days in a row. A second litter produced a second surviver, also a male. The first male, in a very uncharacteristic way for male cats, introduced his little brother as another I was to serve. Spring came and the first male left for the hills. (He was the smartest cat I have ever known!) His younger brother hung out for a while and was killed by a car crossing the street. The next litter was one giant black and white longhair and one tiny all black nearly dying placed on the back porch while the next litter was brewing up. Interesting family. The giant black and white would always wait to eat until after the all-black had eaten. The all-black was killed when he licked up the freon that was spilled from a radiator in an accident that occurred on the street in front of the house. My neighbour trapped the calico and took her to the humane society where the predictable occurred. Somehow a generation was skipped by me. A big brother appeared. A real tough. He chased off the big black and white. Spring came and he left for the hills. No more cats.

Still Later:
Well the big brother had not really left, nor had the big black and white. The big brother hung out and dominated the area for a time, got feline aids and died and the territory was taken over by the black and white who has been hanging out to this time [Thursday, December 24, 2009 4:43 AM]. Male cats don't have litters.



[1] While one would think that a system based on "This is" and "I am" would result in an ethical standard that served the best interests of "the being," in fact the result is precisely the opposite when seen from the perspective of the Buddhist proposition that it is, in fact the idea of "I am" and "mine" that is at the root of "dukkha." The standard based on the idea that "it is" does not take into consideration the implications of ending. Consequently the restraint of individual's impulses to self-indulgence, rather than being a matter of self-interest, becomes a matter of control by society. Society, for it's part, extracts it's payment for this service in the imposition of values which serve it's ends over those of the individual. We can see the results of this very clearly in our society today, and in acute focus in the unjustified asumptions about what is wrong and right made by the lawmakers of the land and such pace-setters as Dr. Phil.

[2] ATI: The Salt Crystal and note #4 below

[3] See also on this topic: Dhamma Talk: The Knack of Burning Off Old Kamma

[4] See Warren, §40, and note #2 above




[AN 3 99]

ATI: (Discussion) Kamma and the Ending of Kamma, and
Getting the Message

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