Finding Integrity and Authority

I'm going to start off this blog with some thoughts I had talking with a friend who's a relatively new meditator. She'd got into a classic discussion, on the subject of whether one can practice only a part of the Buddhist path. She thought if what she did improved her life, that was fine; and a more experienced meditation practitioner didn't agree.

I don't know the points that were made so I'm not going into that, as I don't want to mischaracterize anyone, even if I'm using such a generic example. I think I can interpret it though because I've been on both sides of the debate.

For some years I described myself as a Theravadin Buddhist. Before that, I'd been more generically Buddhist, and even before that, and occultist, Gnostic, and various other more outre identities. In all of this I've been looking for something authentic, to myself, and most importantly, to what's real. I think the reason I've historically got my back up when hearing the satsified-sounding person pleased with their meditation practice is that I've also seen that report associated with what I would then have called hypocrisy--"oh, I meditate and it's great, I feel so at peace," followed by further dialogue that demonstrates that this person is a mess who clearly isn't getting much from meditation becuase they've paid no attention to ethics, except as it's convenient and makes them look good.

I resented that; I'd worked hard (or at least, some) to align my behaviour with the Five Precepts of not killing, not stealing, avoiding misusing sexuality, not lying, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. What business did these quasi-Buddhists have claiming success after a retreat and lacking the serious commitments I'd made?

Leaving aside the judgment that motivated me too often, I do think there's truth in the complaint of the serious practitioner. When most people pick and choose, quite naturally they're going to go for what is appealing to them. And the appeal that we in the developed world learn the most about is convenience. What's hard is often praised, but little pursued. Looking to the future for long-term benefits is not a mainstream activity when quick gratification is so readily available, and if one teacher holds to an authentic way, there will be a whole range of others offering everything from small and reasonable compromises down to the most outrageously bowdlerized flattery. I like to think about publishing a New Age book titled How to Completely Change Your Life Without Actually Doing Anything Differently. I've decided to name this problematic path "consumerist Buddhism". Of course it's not really a thing in itself, but a trend.

Now on the other hand, these days I would not call myself a Theravadin Buddhist. I still meditate, and still have an interest in the earliest writings in Buddhism that are available, as an authentic source of teaching. Does that make the later developments in Buddhism "inauthentic"? No, I don't mean to imply that; rather it's more about a particular kind of laziness. Evaluating texts is something my culture has gotten better and better at over time. I await with joyful anticipation when a fully scholarly textual analysis of Buddhist scriptures can be accomplished, to bring its understanding to level that has been afforded the Bible and other Christian writing for decades now. On the other hand, unless you accept the fanciful stories about the origins of later Buddhist texts (being discovered in dreams, written on rocks, and other tales about as credible as Joseph Smith's golden plates), you are stuck with evaluating people. A Mahayana lineage takes its authority from transmission from teacher to student over time. Modern times allow an awful lot of visibility around teachers' misbehaviours, making finding an enlightened, or even reasonably admirable teacher surprisingly difficult. So for me, geek that I am, textual authority it was.

But stuff kept nagging at me and eventually I succumbed, so to speak, to skepticism's uncompromising search for reasons supported by evidence. I concluded that the notion of karma, and the ideas of rebirth and ethics that surround it, not only do not make sense, but actively make things worse. I'd guess that the great majority of Buddhists outside traditionally Buddhist countries stuff karma and rebirth into a comforting box of varyingly metaphorical dimensions, but the language you find in the original texts is pretty plain. Buddhism's texts and institutions also have a record on women's equality that might be better than others', but it's still embarrassingly out of date compared to the advances made by secular law and activism.

I'm sure at least a few people will want to retort that my scientific, skeptical frame of mind in fact is just another type of ego gratification, and that the reason I reject the truth of karma is because it is uncomfortable. Lined up behind that charge is another, that without this universal law of cause and effect, there is no reason for good behaviour, as there's no need to fear its consequences. I don't say everyone makes both charges explicitly, but the pair are usually found together, if only implicitly. I can only say that I don't see what's very flattering to me about just being dead when I die, and it's certainly uncomfortable to know that the only way to see justice in this world is to use my best judgment to try to help make it happen. I can't comfort myself imagining some painful hell for wrongdoers, and the only satisfaction I take for my life-supporting deeds comes from their inherent enjoyment and contemplating a happier future after I am gone.

Through all this, the question I think it's useful to check on when one is looking for what's good in a doctrine is "where do I find my integrity with this?" I don't think authority is all that useful, except where my trust in it comes from how well authorities perform in keeping up with ordinary, empirical evidence, as well as more sophisticated scientifically minded investigation. And if I care mainly about the evidence, I can accept the authority of flawed human beings in areas where they're expert, while ignoring them on matters where they hold forth without understanding (or demonstrating that they don't hold their own values well). As my authorities are neither saints nor fully enlightened beings, there's no embarrassment to me in revising my esteem for them when they misbehave, or past misbehaviour comes to light. (If I hold out past reason defending a cad, well, my ego is attached then. This is why it's so important to surround myself with friends who have integrity themselves, as well as I can manage.)

The way this view is different from a "consumerist" one is that it doesn't rely on more superficial ideas of satisfaction. The most grating talk about ethics and spirituality I tend to hear centers around the "evidence" that something is true because it feels good. "If I'm happy, who cares?" Well, just everyone else in the world. Or, alternatively, there is the idea that the experience had from some practice defines its truth. Not necesarily a feeling of happiness, but a sense of overwhelming depth and interiorly sensory richness is often cited as a standard of truth. This is actually one of the worst pitfalls for a seeker. There are many ways, including without using drugs, to flood our brains with amazing chemicals that produce feelings of connectedness, awe, transcendence, and so on. (Also terror, grief, helplessness, and such. Some people are more predisposed than others to these kinds of experiences, and plenty of atheists report them too. There's nothing wrong with transcendent experiences, and they may provide valuable insight, inspiration, and connection, but they don't create truths on their own. If they did, schizophrenics would be the arbiters of our reality. When I make this point, advocates of spiritual truth quickly revert to good old empiricism: do someone's claims match up with what can be understood and reliably replicated by others?

And this I think is what might be called a humanist view of integrity. There is a system of checks and balances on the ego's propensity for self-flattery, delusion, grasping, and hate. Sober self-investigation is a hard thing to do with full double-blind protocols, so we rely on philosophy's rich history and, where possible, rigourous examination across many subjects--something that is occurring more and more in our time. These systems are more complex than religious codes of behaviour, but they seem to me to converge on standards that support a more kind, nonviolent, inclusive, and happier way of life.

Edit: fixed the date at the top, which said 2010. Man, New Year's mistakes are bad enough, but being off by three years?