The Social-Self: Ethics Without A Creed

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we speak about the Buddhist principle of non-self (anatman) we attempt to envision the notion of a self as expressing Universal realities without making the distinction that we are independent of all other Universal expressions.  Never an easy exercise.  One example of this would be that our human expression is only different from other animals simply by the complexity of our behavior — not just behavior, but our ability to reason.  Our ability to learn, gain knowledge that promotes wisdom, and thus act with reasoned intent, is what advanced human specie development.   In general, most individuals work to understand knowing something by penetrating what lies behind the appearance of things.  This approach is good enough most of the time perhaps, but considering how our mutual causal Universe expresses itself, we need to work hard to find the change that is presented in each moment’s situation in order to awaken to truthful-realities that consistently challenge the view we have of the world around us as having some kind of permanence.  Our quest for “truth” can never be fully realized when we ignore that change is always a factor in everything we encounter, so “truths” are only momentary, and a state of permanence is only an illusionary concept.

This brings to my mind several questions.  Is our knowledge of things sufficient to understand how they really are?  Is the language we use to describe how we are interconnected to things capable of fulfilling our needs as realistic as how they actually can?  Is our Buddhist practice, as manifest in our intentional actions, able to help us realize a better future for ourselves and others?   Is there such a thing as unconditional obligations in a Buddhist practice?   When considering ethics pragmatically, I have great doubt about the suggestion that anything is unconditional as the driving force of self-interest is a natural aspect of the human condition.  When we introduce the element of social relationships weighted against the distinction between routine and non-routine civil behavior as judged by cultural norms, we encounter possible inhibitors when we act from a feeling of what is natural to “us”,  but interpreted as unrealistic to others, even when we are both using the same set of ethical expectations.  These inhibitors come into play when our personal needs begin to clash with those of others.

In addition to these considerations we move on to the distinction between reason and sentiment, thinking, personal preferences and dispositions.  When we turn to our ancient philosophical voices and pre-Socratic Greeks which were free from the fear of having to make hard choices, which led Plato to search for immutable ethical truths, we find them siding with the temporal circumstances of human life using unconditional obligations to the mix of ethical standards that ought to have us conform to a specific creed of conduct.  Buddhist thought, however, developed a unique Eastern worldview that highlights the central flaw in Western traditional ethical philosophy which developed the myth of a permanent self having no relational connection capable of existing independently of any obliged concern for others.  This myth saw the self as expressing it’s nature in terms of the division between reason and acts of passion.  I often speak of this type of conflict as “when the ideal meets the real.”  However, we need to set aside this notion of an uncaring and cold self or the question of “Why should we act ethically?” would never have an answer outside the static one represented in a set of blind obligations.  When we internalize how the Buddhist principle of interdependence or interconnectiveness are a natural element of a mutually causal Universe, we awaken to the fallacy of living a life always focused on the self.  We awaken to the natural significance of this Buddhist principle without having to be forced into corrective behavior driven by a specific ethical and moral creed.   The principle of anatman allows us to put such notions of permanence and completeness aside, as we come to understand that our unique human expression is a process-of-becoming, and that includes a number of inconsistent “selves” of un-harmonized personal dispositions, which is still mutually connected with all other Universal expressions that is only momentarily unique.  Ethical and moral social development in individuals, and ethical and moral cultural development in the human species, is a matter of re-defining the notion of self in a larger context that defines social relationships making each of us agents for change as social-selves.  No creed of ethical and moral behavior is necessary when we awaken to the social justice inherent in our (human) compassionate action that comes naturally to us form a cultivated internal space of calm abiding.  This is why so much importance is placed on the notion of generosity know as dana in a Buddhist practice.  All the Buddhist precepts and the Six Perfections are based on acts of generosity.  This ideal view of what it means to be human is pragmatic as our social actions are a culmination of a process of adjustments which is also a process of redefining human suchness.  This is why the Three Pure Precepts are not only rational but also promotes useful and positive causal outcomes (karma).  But remember it is not the precepts themselves that brings about these realities, but individual and group actions.  Precepts are just words, actions validate their meaning.   It is in our validating our experiences that we live-our-vows as monastic community leaders.

This point of view of ethical and moral progress is not a matter of society’s increased social responsibility, or a gradual reduction of the influence of prejudice and superstition that permits us to envision our social duty more clearly.   Nor is it an increase in intelligence as one  can be very smart and not have any feelings/thoughts of empathy and generosity.  So it is wise to understand ethical progress and cultural awareness as a matter of increasing sensitivity and responsiveness as a result of the practice of mindfulness.  Awareness is something that can and must be cultivated if we are to progress away from uncultured worldviews.  In this way, humankind increases its ability to respond to the social needs and justice of ever larger groups of individuals, especially those of us awakened to our social natures that promotes happiness, health, and harmony.  In this way we move away from the notion of unconditional ethical obligation being necessary for development of a just society, and toward a world society guided by humans acting out of natural goodness.  The ultimate form of dana.

I have given you some ideas on how to think about creating new ways of being, thinking about what it is to be human in the centuries to come.  This new order will foster social behaviors in a world for these new humans to inhabit working as socially aware agents to bring about stability, fairness and  inclusiveness.  Where positive action is done from the innate sense of ethical correctness, rather then from following a set of principles or creeds that by their very nature struggle to find language that translates well in a new world order, we move toward the human recognition of the meaning of anatman.  Siddhartha Gautama worked continuously to bring this reality into being.  His legacy is still with us today as we now work together to reflect on this ancient meaning and bring change into modern reality.  It is not the language of the past, or even the present that matters as much as it is our actions when we get the self out of the way, and let our ethical and moral conduct shine through just as it identified in our moment to moment actions.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Social-Self: Ethics Without A Creed

  1. Very nice write-up. I definitely appreciate this website.

    Continue the good work!

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