Secular dharma and ethics

August 23, 2022

This is the first of a series of three articles by Carmel Shalev on the topic of Uncertainty, Care and Responsibility

Secular dharma in changing times

The times we live in are ones of rapid change and mobility. The age of science has brought humankind many material and technological benefits. People all over the world have access to education and health services and live longer lives than ever before, and the conditions of our lives are unprecedented in terms of material comfort. Thanks to trains, motorcars, and airplanes the boundaries of our existence have expanded immeasurably, and we encounter a rich diversity of what were once foreign cultures far beyond the horizons of the small world of home. Among many other aspects of this globalization were the young backpackers from the west who traveled eastward. Some met Buddhist teachers in monasteries, in countries such as India and Thailand, and stayed on there as monks and nuns before returning to the west and disrobing. Here they shared as lay teachers what they had learned from the different traditions they met.

These are also times of widespread malaise due to many factors, such as growing social injustice and economic gaps between rich and poor in a global capitalist economy; trends of migration and refugees from political oppression, terrorism and military conflict; a hi-tech revolution of computerization and artificial intelligence as well as bioinformatics, new forms of embryonic life and genetic engineering; and last but not least climate change. So, what might we learn from the teachings of Gautama, the Buddha, that meets the needs of our time?

Wherever the dharma spread it merged with the indigenous culture taking on some of its features – for example, Confucianism and Daoism in China or the Bon in Tibet – which led to variations on its wisdom teachings and forms of practice. Now the dharma has arrived in the west, where post-enlightenment philosophy and post-modern social thinking are secular and dharma practitioners are mostly lay people dealing with practical challenges of livelihood, family, and career, rather than monks and nuns who have removed themselves from society as ascetic recluses. We are also likely the first generation to have had the good fortune of meeting more than one teacher and more than one school of Buddhism. What can the dharma  teach that is relevant to the secular culture and conditions of our lives in the 21st century?

A secular dharma regards the Buddha not as a deity, but as a wise and gifted person who went by the name of Gautama and lived in northern India 2,500 years ago. A secular dharma lets go of belief in the metaphysical notion of rebirth into a repetitive cycle of suffering by the force of one’s previous actions (karma), as well as in the goal of its transcendence (nirvana). It opts out of a gendered hierarchy of monasticism and of religious or ceremonial rituals. It is non-metaphysical, non-authoritarian and non-ritualistic, leaving the individual room for creativity in living their lives. It seeks to give a new reading of the earliest texts that came down to us from Gautama in the socio-political context of his times, and to find ways of talking about his teachings, the dharma, in a language that fits our own cultural conditions.

A secular dharma suggests that Gautama was concerned with an ethical way of life that is responsive to the malaise (dukkha) of human life on earth, rather than with the transcendent or the ultimate nature of reality or mind. ‘Comprehending dukkha,’ wrote Stephen Batchelor, ‘is about coping and engaging with life and others, rather than acquiring knowledge of the nature of the mind or reality’ (Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism, 2015, p. 72). From this perspective, neither the wisdom nor the practice of the dharma is purely introspective. Instead, they bring awareness to our lived experience of the world, our relationship with other beings, and our engagement in the day to day, and they point to ways in which we can live a good life.

Ethics and individuals in relationship

We live in an age of individualism, with unprecedented personal freedom. Ever since Descartes, a central trend in modern western philosophy has been to see the individual as the starting point for reflection, dispensing with theological doctrines for a radical questioning of everything. Kant found in what he called pure reason a categorical moral imperative to treat others as ends in themselves rather than a means or instrument to improve our own objectives and designs. He suggested that what confers moral worth is our capacity to rise above self-interest and act as autonomous agents, not because some external authority commands it.

I use the term morality in the same sense as ethics and interchangeably. Both lie outside the realm of binding law and in common usage they signify a realm of self-rule of an individual. (In a collective too, such as a church or professional organization, ethics are codes of conduct undertaken voluntarily, although collectives have power over individuals who do not conform with their rules.) At the personal level, both morality and ethics are concerned with the good, the just, the fair, the virtuous. We do not need to define what that means. We all intuit it from the heart.

Ethics comes from the Greek ethos, which is one of three modes of rhetoric together with logos (reason) and pathos (emotion). In ancient Greece it referred to the character of the speaker or writer. They are one in word and heart, speaking their mind and acting as they speak. This is similar to ‘the true person’ (tathāgata) in the dharma, one of many interpretations of the term Gautama used when referring to himself in the Pali canon, rather than Buddha. An ethical or true person is a person of integrity, one whose words and deeds accord, who has nothing to hide.

Above all, ethics are about our relationship with the ‘other’. We are indeed individual autonomous beings, but we are existentially alone with others. Whether we like it or not we exist in a relationship of interconnectedness and interdependence with other people and creatures in our lives, including invisible ones such as the coronavirus or the manufacturer of the computer I’m writing on right now. Ethics is about how we conduct ourselves in relation to multiple things that are not self, and how we interact with the dynamic environment which we inhabit. It implies empathy beyond one’s narrow self-interests.

‘Morality is born when I focus on you, not me,’ wrote Jonathan Sacks, ‘when I discover that you, too, have emotions, desires, aspirations and fears. … We develop empathy and sympathy. … I learn to be moral when I develop the capacity to put myself into your place’ (Jonathan Sacks, Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, 2021, p. 59). Our actions and even our attitudes can affect others. Over and beyond our self-interest we are essentially free to choose as moral agents to do good.

The golden rule of non-harm

In the Pali language, sila is the word for morality or ethics. It refers to one of three divisions of the eightfold path alongside wisdom or study and understanding (panna) and meditative practice or contemplation (bhavana), and it consists in right or appropriate speech, action and livelihood considering the circumstances. For lay people sila also connotes a basic ethical code of five precepts, while those who enter a monastic order vow to follow 227 such rules of conduct. The underlying principle is to not cause harm.

This principle of non-maleficence is a universal golden rule, one that is key in the liberal political theories of modern philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. In his seminal essay On Liberty (1859),  Mill called it ‘the harm principle,’ which means we are free to act as we wish so long as we do not harm others. And preventing harm to others is ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will.’ Rawls’ equally important treatise on distributive justice addressed the suffering of the most vulnerable and proposed an ethics of responsibility so that the worst off would be better off. (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971.)

In the Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder said, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow’ (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a). Matthew expressed this in a positive form of beneficence: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Matthew 7:12). The source in the Old Testament is also positive: ‘Love thy neighbor (or friend) as thy self’ (Leviticus 19:18). Martin Buber noted that this is the only place in the Old Testament where the verb ‘to love’ comes with a preposition of subject rather than object. Seeing the other as a subject in their own right equalizes self with other in a vein that reverberates with Shantideva’s meditations on equalization and exchange of self and other, in his teaching on altruism as the way of the bodhisattva on the path of awakening for the benefit of others. (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva [Shambhala 1999] 180-192)

In the dharma the five basic sila precepts are to refrain from killing living beings, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, telling lies, and getting intoxicated to the point of carelessness. They are not strict rules or commandments as in the Jewish tradition but rules of training to refrain from harming others or myself. They are undertakings or commitments to exercise self-restraint and to care for others as well as oneself. These require us to reflect on the ways we do harm in everyday life, bring awareness to our relationships with others, and cultivate positive qualities of empathetic good will in the circumstances we find ourselves in. Ethics is about taking others into consideration and exercising self-restraint so as not to hurt them, because we know they are no different from us and can imagine how they would feel if we hurt them, much as we would feel if they hurt us.

Traditionally the three divisions of the eightfold path are ordered so that meditation comes at the end, after study and ethics, which implies that it is the goal on the way to nirvana. But the causality is not necessarily linear, and all components are interconnected and interactive. In secular dharma the essence of dharma practice is to live ethically in this material world rather than transcend it spiritually, and it makes sense to change the order so that wisdom and meditation provide understanding and skills for becoming the kind of person we would like to be. Given the contingency of circumstances, we observe the situation at hand, bring mindfulness to our inner thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations, and then act according to the best of our intentions.

Uncertainty and ambivalence

In actual reality, the issue of ethics arises in situations where the right choice to make is not clearcut, either because the facts are ambiguous or because we have conflicting values and there is no right answer. Our life situations are riddled with uncertainty. We have little control over the impact of our actions once taken, so we cannot foresee for sure the consequences of our choices.

Often, we are caught in a dilemma between the lesser of two risks or evils or harms. I remember one dramatic example from Thich Nhat Hanh, of a mother who witnesses in wartime the violent rape of her daughter by a soldier and sees an opportunity to attack him in her defense. What should she do? Who knows? There are many occasions where all we can do is exercise our better intuition, ability, and judgment, knowing all along that the outcome is not entirely in our hands.

In traditional Buddhism, the Buddha is understood as one who is omniscient, perfect, and infallible, who understands how karma works and knows both conventional and ultimate truths. He thereby becomes the moral authority who prescribes rules by which his followers are expected to lead their lives. But if we as individuals become moral agents, we are the ones who assume authority as well as responsibility for our choices. The practice of dharma ceases to be a quest for a transcendental or religious kind of experience and becomes one of living from moment to moment in daily life as self-aware, autonomous and responsible beings in relationship.

In his recent work, for example, Stephen Batchelor suggests a reading of the three branches of sila – right speech, right action, and right livelihood – in a way that encourages autonomy and responsibility. Traditionally, right speech means to abstain from lying, divisive speech, abusive speech and idle chatter; right action is to abstain from destroying life, stealing, cheating and improper sexual conduct; and right livelihood is to abstain from making a living out of harmful activities such as trading in weapons, living beings, addictive substances or poisons. (Walpola Rahula, Tricycle Magazine, The Noble Eightfold Path)

While the traditional understanding tells us what not to do in the spirit of non-harming, Stephen offers a positive reading of what to do. Right speech might be a call to find a voice of one’s own, true to one’s conscience and better judgment. Right action may be a call to act in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling and with the best of intentions at any given moment. And right livelihood, under the conditions of our times, becomes a call of survival to build a culture that cares for the basic needs and fundamental rights of all human beings, aims to minimize global injustice and seeks to preserve the precious forms of life on our planet.

Morality or ethics is about taking others into consideration and exercising self-restraint so as not to hurt them, because we know they are no different from us and can imagine how they would feel if we hurt them, much as we would feel if they hurt us. There are many occasions where we’re not sure how to respond and all we can do is exercise our better judgment, intuition and ability knowing all the time that the final outcome is never entirely in our hands. Our key task as ethical beings endowed with moral agency is not to obey a set of laws but to observe the situation at hand, bring mindfulness to our inner thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations, and then act according to the best of our intentions to minimize harm and promote the wellbeing of ourselves, others and all forms of life on our planet.

Carmel Shalev is a now retired academic public interest lawyer who specialized in human rights, health policy and bioethics. Her latest book is In Praise of Ageing: Awakening to Old Age with Wisdom and Compassion (2020). These essays are part of a work in progress on the ethics of uncertainty, care and responsibility from a secular dharma view.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *