preferences

Am I humanist? Am I liberal?

Homo Deus coverHumanist? Liberal?

I’m in the middle of reading Homo Deus, Yuval Harari’s follow-up to his excellent Sapiens. It is so fluently and clearly explained, that it easy to forget that it’s possible that he’s not right in some of the things he says, but I suspect he generally is! His theme is understanding humanity and it’s trajectory, especially the drives for human bliss, human power, and an unlimited human lifespan.

I was particularly interested in what he says about humanism, the doctrine that glorifies those three aims. What follows may not do justice to his arguments…

He points out that humanist ideas have replaced the old European reliance on forms of religious authority to such an extent that humanist assumptions tend to be invisible to us. Particularly liberal ones. And as he went through them, I had to acknowledge that I felt a shudder of horror at the sense that they are assumptions. So in Buddhist terminology they are they are ditthis, views, and ditthis at best need to be taken as provisional conceptualisations, and at worst may be wrong views. He describes three basic forms of humanism – evolutionary, socialist, and liberal.

The evolutionary form says that some people are superior to others, and the species will progress if the superior ones are allowed to dominate. This may be comparatively benign, in the sense of recognising genuine artistic or scientific genius, or in the sense of recognising the possibility of genuine spiritual progress. But we particularly observe it in the horrors of eugenics and Nazism. Like all forms of humanism, socialist humanism values humanity above everything else, but it does so in the mass rather than in the form of individuals, initially overthrowing the privileged few through class conflict, and dreaming of an egalitarian utopian society in the future.

Liberal humanism is probably the one most taken for granted, it started earlier than the other two, as the value of each individual was recognised. It led to a sense that one’s own wishes and preferences are paramount, the more choice the better, and perhaps “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, leading to consumerism, valuing immediate personal desires and so on. You need to think for yourself, and come up with your own set of values. The interior world of personal experience is far richer and more important than the exterior or shared worlds. All meaning is to be drawn from personal inner experiences. Human life is sacred, people must be kept alive at all costs. Free will and free choice are the highest authority. Be true to yourself: once you’ve clarified your feelings, they will tell you how to behave, and what is right. Something is bad only if it makes you feel bad, and as well as amplifying our own feelings, we should respect the feelings and sensitivities of others.

So our personal experience is prioritised – a combination of sensations, emotions, and thoughts – and we need to become increasingly sensitive to the flowing variety of our experiences. Thus we specialise like gourmets in our favourite range of sensations, sharpening our aesthetic sense, and also developing our ethical sense about what is right.

Now it seems to me that the basics of humanism have a lot going for them, and that basic Buddhism does include a humanist message, particularly the message of cultivating the psyche and its sensitivity. But it is salutary to me to notice how much I take the liberal humanist message for granted, and reinterpret the grand sweep of Buddhism almost entirely within that framework, though sometimes I use the evolutionary or socialist humanist frameworks. But is Buddhism really a framework that puts the individual human being, especially me, at the centre of all things?

I’ve long felt oppressed by the tyranny of my own preferences. And my impression is that most practising Buddhists I know are not very different from the mass of Western consumers in how strongly their decisions are based on what they happen to want at the time, whether it’s snacks, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the seat, the retreat or holiday destination, or even their moral judgements and political opinions… If you arrive at a retreat, are you eager to choose your own room and bed, hoping most are still free? If your bed is allocated before you arrive, do you find yourself complaining, at least tacitly, that it does not fully suit your needs?

Being governed by immediate preferences is giving priority to vedana. Vedana means the sensation, usually pleasant or unpleasant, that is an aspect of every moment of experience, and impels us to welcome and repeat the experience — or not. But my understanding of the Dharma is that vedana is, in a sense, given. I don’t need to pay very much attention to it, what’s important is karma, that is basing my decisions to act on whether it is skilful or unskilful, rather than on whether I feel like doing it or not. (Fortunately, the skilful is often quite pleasant!) In any case, is there really a unitary me with a deciding will?

Like a good liberal I aspire to improve my sensitivity; sometimes I am pleased to say it is my karmic sensitivity that I value. But how often do I prioritise broader issues of welfare and integrity over the ‘me’ and its petulant demands?

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Karma in Buddhism: why stop acting from preference?

kindnessKarma: acting by skill instead of likes and dislikes

A karma means a deed: anything we initiate, whether a deliberate thought, a few casual words to someone, or a physical action. All actions have their effects, and the intentional ones change our character and thus our future most powerfully of all.

There is a choice between what the Buddha called dark deeds and bright deeds. With mindfulness you can put energy into certain mental impulses and withdraw it from others; you can let some impulses express themselves in action, and restrain yourself from acting on others. This is Buddhist ethics, an ethics based in your knowledge of mental states, which offers the choice between skilful actions, the bright deeds, which genuinely benefit one’s self and others, and unskilful, dark deeds, which cause harm and distress.

The consequence of the basic negative impulses of craving and aversion is that things go wrong, and life becomes unsatisfactory because the world does not match your wants. This is how unskilfulness is defined in Buddhism: it comes from craving or aversion, and it leads to frustration and misery. By definition, unskilful actions harm yourself and others. Skilful actions in contrast come from open and loving states, and lead to benefit and happiness.

The first stage of a Buddhist life is to move the seat of government from the likes-and-dislikes polarity to that of skilful and unskilful, the criteria of Buddhist ethics. You restrain the craving, the clinging, and the other self-protective responses, and you see whether you can stop yourself turning those mental responses into harmful words and deeds. Instead, you practise friendliness, compassion, stillness, awareness and so on.

This does not mean a swap to not doing what you want to do and doing what you dislike. Skilful/unskilful are categories of a different nature from like/dislike. You are choosing on the basis of skilfulness instead of giving in to the habits of protecting a precarious identity, and a skilful choice can be tough, but it is often delightful. It can be very skilful to do what you like, and pleasant experiences are often the consequences of previous skilfulness. Ruling your life by always choosing what you like, hedonism, leads to disappointment and selfishness. But ruling your life by what you don’t like is religious asceticism, a practice the Buddha tried before his awakening, and emphatically found did not help. He reflected: ‘Why am I afraid of such pleasure?’ Then he explored the delights to be found in a clarified human mind – a skilful mind.

Karma, action, has tangible consequences, according to Buddhism. Why is it that one notices some things and not others? And why is it that some things are liked and some disliked? The reason is said to be past karma: the decisions we have made, the habits we have entrenched, perhaps in previous lives, in short all our seeds of ethical and unethical actions; these give significance to our current world, and determine what we notice and what we do about it.

Extracted from Finding the Mind by Robin Cooper (Ratnaprabha), Windhorse Publications, 2012.