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Buddhism and Morality


I've written before about the proliferation of endless reinterpretations of Buddhist teachings. A search on Amazon yields 5754 books about Buddhism. I don't plan on reading all of them during this lifetime. I've probably read fewer than one percent of these books. Who can read them all? Should I even try? I would like to read about other topics once in a while.

What are the essentials of Buddhism, anyway? I've written about that before also, though I've probably changed my mind since then.

Can I summarize Buddhism in just one sentence? Sure! Seeing things as they are, not as you desire them to be.

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Is there any room for morality inside such a summary?

Perhaps not.

When I see the world as it is, without judgment, realizing that good and evil arise only inside the mind ... I realize that any attempt to create a system of morality is inherently biased and incomplete. The morality of the butcher is incompatible with the morality of the farm animal. Each living creature has the same basic needs, desires, and aversions. Each living creature uses resources that another could use. Competition is inherent; without the pressures of competition (conflict, death, and even extinction) evolution could not have created the wild variety of life we see today (including our human selves).

When I see the world as it is, I am aware of extensive, seemingly infinite pain and suffering. I could not stop all of this pain and suffering even if I devoted the rest of my life to this goal. Too much empathy hurts my own will to live, and increases my own pain and suffering. What good does it do for me to feel your pain? Won't I have enough of my own, from time to time?

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Many Buddhists do subscribe to a set of morals that are more or less based on the idea of karma. Having seen the pain and suffering in the world, having seen how we are all interconnected, Buddhists try to reduce the world's pain and suffering by seeing their own negative interconnections and modifying their behaviors appropriately. That only takes us so far. There is a lot of pain and suffering that I'm not at all responsible for. And sometimes reducing my own negative effects on other people will create negative effects on myself.

And sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, we can't really know the ultimate outcome of our actions. Sometimes our kindness keeps a person from necessary opportunities for growth. Sometimes "tough love" is the best option -- telling a person painful truths and letting her sink or swim.

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We only act within the present moment, yet our actions ripple outward into the future in unpredictable directions. No system of morality can prepare us for all the circumstances of every moment we will face.

Yet, many of us still struggle to be good to ourselves and to others. The struggle is the reality, the "good" is a mirage. We struggle, or we don't. That is all. Either way our actions ripple outward in ways we can not predict, merging with the ripples of billions of other intentional acts, combining in ways that no single consciousness can grasp.

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Morality is always a system of control. If a particular system of morality were universally useful to all, then human social interactions would be much more peaceful than they are. Instead, people's needs, desires, and aversions collide. Conflicts are resolved via dominance, submission, violence, cooperation, mutual retreat, agreement, arbitration, and/or law. Who should win? The stronger one? The smarter one? The needier one? Which principles are the most important? Should these principles be more important than the actual outcome?

Buddhism does suggest that many, if not most, of our conflicts are illusory, fought over advantages that are not necessary for survival or even for happiness. Many conflicts are fought between people who believe that more of something will make them happier, so they each want more of the same thing, and there are not unlimited supplies of desirable things in this universe.

And getting more does not satisfy the desire for more, not for long.


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